A Doubting Believer’s Dilemma
(An open letter to the Christian establishment)
What’s the secret of believing in something when evidence supporting that belief is missing? Irrationality? No, would say the Church, it is faith.
Faith is confidence or trust in someone or something that isn’t based upon proof. Is such “confidence or trust” in the Church’s teaching warranted? Yes, says the Church. Why, asks both believers and skeptics? Because the Bible tells us so. But, skeptics—and perhaps many believers—would reply, the Bible itself is a questionable source of evidence, let alone “proof”. No, the Church replies, the Bible is the revelation of God, from God. Questionably, many would retort.
From our accumulated study and knowledge of it, the Bible is more a slanted history book, the product of human cultural recollection (historically verifiable, in many cases), imagination, preference, desire or even of ancient human lobbying. While some interpretation of what the Bible says might be “suggestive”, it seems increasingly insufficient for many in a modern, or as some tend to put it, a post-modern Western society. That’s perhaps a shame, but, if so, it’s a shame the Church ignores at its peril.
In her recent article in the Christian Century, WHY DOES GOD HIDE?, Reverend Fleming Rutledge focuses heavily on the Old Testament Book of Isaiah: “Truly thou art a God who hidest thyself” (Is. 45:15). “The silence of God, the absence of God, is a major theme of scripture and a common struggle in the Christian life”, she writes. She continues, “If God is hidden, it is because he hides himself. He means to be hidden. It is God’s nature to be out of the reach of our senses. There is a distance between God and ourselves that cannot be bridged from our side. God is outside and beyond our ideas of God, so we can’t see God from a human point of view at all.”
Reverend Rutledge then asks the obvious question: “How do we know that God is gracious and almighty and so forth if God is hidden and inaccessible?” Her response, read the Bible. ”The only way to respond to questions like these is to learn what God has told us about himself—that is to immerse ourselves in the holy scriptures.” While I respect her devotion to scripture, as well as fidelity to her faith, I find her case pleaded in this article somewhat exhausted, played out, even contradictory. But then of course, I’m just a layman.
Still, why would anyone today chose to praise and worship a deity which, it is claimed, chooses to hide from those who seek it? To be “beyond our ideas of God, so we can’t see God from a human point of view at all”? We are, after all, humans. How can we, as such, worship, even comprehend, a deity that is in the end a nothing to us; which is inaccessible to us (and therefore to our prayers)? Apparently, if you follow recent Christian religious trends, we can’t and increasingly we don’t.
Religious Christian authors favor writing about the Old Testament Book of Isaiah where according to them Isaiah, son of Amoz, prophesized the coming of Jesus 700 or so years before the fact, and the New Testament Gospel of John which is about Jesus as God, not about Jesus and God as in the Synoptics. Reverend Rutledge highlights the fact (?) Isaiah prophesized the exile and the restoration, some 150 to 200 years after his time. Miraculous, she writes. But it’s fairly easy to “prophesize” about events, if you are writing after the fact. Today, it is almost universally recognized by biblical scholars that the Book of Isaiah is the product of not one, but two, possibly even three, or more authors, the latter writing after the return of the captives from Babylon where much of Isaiah 40 – 55 is believed to have been drafted. So in this context, Rev. Rutledge’s scenario could be said to be on unstable grounds.
Despite the claim that “there is a distance between God and ourselves that cannot be bridged from our side, and that God is outside and beyond our ideas of God, so we can’t see God from a human point of view at all,” our Western Christian clergy none the less seem able to provide us with a great deal of information and humanistic detail concerning this “hidden” deity: it has a differentiated sex (Male). It is immortal. God dwells in inaccessible light—emanating from God’s very being. God means to hide; it is God’s nature to be out of the reach of our senses. God is the father of Jesus Christ. God does mighty deeds of salvation “for his people.” God is gracious and almighty. God loves us (Christians). God has a plan for us, for our salvation. God is not dependent upon circumstances. Its power and promises encompass the entire created order. That’s the short list.
Historically God seems more often than not absent when tragedy strikes humanity. But when we mourn about it after the fact, our Christian religious providers assure us that God is present in the coming together of our grief. Why just after the fact, if this God is all powerful, all knowing, almighty, loving and a God of justice, why did the tragedy occur in the first place? It seems hard to reconcile the attributes attributed to this “hidden” deity with Its historical record, from humanity’s point of view. But, according to Reverend Rutledge, that’s the nature of this out-of-reach God: it’s a mystery. Oh my!
Faith, as I say, is religion’s answer to doubt. Faith, lacking evidence (beyond a 2,000+ year old book compiled by men, the Bible), is their only answer to everything theological. In the face of personal or communal calamity having faith in God can be and often is supportive; it may even appear to resolve such calamity in some cases, strengthening one’s faith. After all, you prayed to God, and God must have heard you and resolved your problem. Still, that’s questionably possible, according to Reverend Rutledge. But still, anything is supposed to be possible while in most situations it is the case, improbable. None the less most of us want to believe, to have faith. I would describe this need to believe as human nature; a learned trait, but one that is becoming less effective in sustaining the Christian faith.
I don’t know (none of us know) if the Christian God is a reality, as we understand this concept. I would hope so. But as a product of my time in history, my ability to believe based exclusively on faith as opposed to rational demonstration—which as Reverend Rutledge points out is impossible—is constrained. It’s difficult to believe in the unbelievable, but still many of us do to a greater or lesser degree. Why is this so?
A reasonable, rational conclusion why, considering years of church attendance, much soul-searching, considerable research and writing a book about it, is that what we humans grasp, understand and depend on to get us through the adversities and uncertainties of our lives is the idea of god. It’s an idea as old as the history of man. This idea of god is rationally provable, or at least broadly (if not universally) demonstrable, whereas the objective truth regarding the existence of God remains, at best, elusive, “hidden”, “out of reach of our senses”.
The fact here is that divinity is what we think; faith is what we experience. The reality of this relationship seems a major cause of an apparent decline of faith (what we experience) in religion. In times past, most were instructed by religious authority what to think, and lacking other sources of information, they complied. The Church and its faith prospered. Times have changed; some call it progress, and peoples’ need for authoritarian direction is receding. Increasingly available sources of information and a resulting increase in literacy and media communication—world-wide—have eroded the Church’s monopoly on information and/or education/instruction. People today have multiple sources of input as to what they conclude; what they think; what or how they believe.
Should the Church have to compete in the open market of information and persuasion? It declines to this day to do so. The Church, it holds, proclaims the truth. Truth, it also holds is unchangeable, and in a sense this is, or should be, true. But truth is also subject to context, and if/when/as context changes, truth must be so understood. In this approach, this “context”, either I’m wrong, or the Church is. I would much prefer to be proven wrong, but if you believe the numbers, the Church certainly looks culpable.
Unfortunately, as I read Reverend Rutledge’s orthodox presentation, her rational behind it, it offers little sign to suggest the Church is ready to even consider, publically, that divinity is what we think, and faith what we experience, and that the Church no longer enjoys that monopoly on directing people what to think.
I hope I’m wrong, but if I am, it’s the Church’s responsibility to so demonstrate.
Thomas Richard Harry
December 2018 d