Thursday, November 10, 2005

A bit about Belief

As evangelical Christians continue to gain influence and political power in America, I'm increasingly aware of the fact that my beliefs differ—to varying degrees—from those in the “mainstream” of modern Christianity. Because of this, I’m reluctant to refer to myself as a Christian, opting instead to self-identify as a theist. It is the case, however, that I’m fairly well-versed in the Bible and do, in fact, believe that Jesus is God. Furthermore, I believe that God is triune and that each member of the Trinity is equally and fully God (one deity, three distinct persons).

Despite the depth of my convictions, I do not associate with any sect; whether Protestant, Catholic or other. In short: I’m non-religious, in that I don’t engage in any of the trappings and rituals that have become part and parcel of Christianity. But more importantly, I think that the theological understanding of the major sects has—over time—perverted the original meaning of the immutable Truths of the Bible. A parallel can be drawn between a misinterpretation of the US Constitution and a misinterpretation of the Bible (more on that later). Regardless, I’m convinced that Protestant teaching in general, and Reformed Theology in particular, is less wrong than Catholic dogma, so I’ll focus on the former instead of the latter.

Presently, Protestantism can be crudely divided into two camps: Calvinists and Arminians. Calvinists, generally speaking, believe in predestination, which means that, since God is sovereign (i.e. omniscient, omnipotent, etc.), He reserves the right of “election” with respect to salvation. That is to say that one’s eternal destination is predetermined by God, rather than by human “free will”. Arminians, conversely, cling vociferously to the notion that “free will” is ultimately determinative of an individual’s destiny.

Obviously, the vast majority—believers and non-believers alike—hold that free will is true, prima facie. But what is interesting about Arminians is that they don’t dispute God’s sovereignty, nor do they deny that God ostensibly “knows the future”. If so, then God is well aware of the present and future inhabitants of Heaven, in addition to those who will not be there. Therefore, either free will is fact, which means that God is ignorant of the multitude of future free choices, or God indeed has “foreknowledge”, which negates free will, in that its primary constituent: the option to do otherwise is rendered moot by the foregone conclusion that is necessitated by God’s omniscience. It is with this very paradox that, as a teenager, I vexed my Arminian parents and ultimately disassociated myself with their religion after being dissatisfied with their rationalizing.

After years of independent and informal study of theology, I tend to dismiss (rightly or wrongly) those for whom regular church attendance and their pastor’s sermons, rather than critical thinking and introspection, forms the basis of their beliefs and/or faith. I simply failed to understand how otherwise intelligent people could so casually entertain a paradox of that sort. That is, until I read a paper that examines the so-called Moore’s Paradox (beware, it’s really long). Moore’s Paradox distinguishes between paradoxes and contradictions. For example, the proposition: ”It is raining and I do not believe that it is raining.” is paradoxical, whereas the proposition: ”It is raining and it is not raining.” is contradictory.
[…] if p and q are highly complex propositions, a child may be able to understand them separately but unable to wrap her mind around their conjunction, and consequently she will believe that p and that q but not that p&q, since it is impossible to believe a proposition one does not understand. Second, x might come across independent evidence both in support of (p) and in support of (~p), and therefore believe both separately, but only a madman would believe them conjointly, that is, as (p&~p). Propositions (p) and (~p) cannot be both true, of course, and so whatever evidence there is in favor of the falsehood among them, there must be greater counter-evidence against it. But x may be simply unaware of that counter-evidence.

The crucial factors, then, are the facts, assertions and propositions that one has endeavored to apprehend. Such is especially true for historical texts (e.g. the Bible and the Constitution), as I’ve discussed before. With respect to the Bible, it is my contention that most of the leaders and teachers (and by extension, the laymen) in the various Christian sects are simply unfamiliar with the more thorny portions of the text. To be sure, there is a wide consensus concerning the “main and plain” doctrines, such as: Christ’s divinity, man’s need of salvation and so on; but, there is hardly agreement about more nuanced doctrines, such as: the origin of salvation (free will versus determinism), the role of grace (as opposed to “works”) and the nature of faith (i.e. whether it is mere assent or spiritual enlightenment). The prevailing commonality between the disparate sects is, in my view, a misunderstanding of what the Bible actually asserts, due to centuries of piling error upon error. For not unlike the Constitution, the Bible is fixed, and thereby has an objective meaning. In fact, I would argue that both texts are often misrepresented for the same reasons—namely: (a) an attempt to avoid the implications of that which is written and (b) to manipulate unsuspecting individuals for personal gain. In any event, it is incumbent upon everyone to be a critical thinker, as well as being self-critical, while maintaining a healthy skepticism. One ought to know what one believes, but perhaps more importantly, one should know why one believes it.