Saturday, February 21, 2009

Theological Triad: Part I

The results of a 2006 survey suggest that, “while most U.S. adults believe in God, only 58 percent are "absolutely certain". However, in an identical survey conducted just three years earlier, “79 percent of adults said they believed in God and 66 percent said they were absolutely certain that there is a God. In this new survey, those numbers have declined to 73 percent and 58 percent respectively.”

Now, I’m a believer, a Christian in fact, but I increasingly refer to myself as a theist instead. This is primarily because, when discussing my faith, I typically need to a qualify my Christian identity (i.e., I feel the need to disassociate myself from the innumerable accretions that have somewhat distorted the meaning of the Bible, not unlike the way that the US Constitution has been…reimagined over time).

Anyone can read the Bible, but an understanding of what that text is actually communicating is more allusive than one might think. In fact, I would argue that there’s more to belief in God than mere assent to a set of propositions; it’s not simply taking the Bible at face value. So, what does it mean to ‘believe in God’?

To answer this question we’ll need to go to the source, the text of the Bible. But first, let’s stipulate that there’s a distinction to be drawn between the implication of the text itself (its content, what it actually communicates) on the one hand, and its veracity (its credibility) on the other. In other words, one must apprehend what the text actually conveys before one can objectively assess it. And this applies most strongly to self-identified believers, for if one claims to ‘believe in God’…one ought to ask oneself if it’s what philosophers call a ‘justified belief’ (more on that in Part II).

First of all, let’s look at the ostensible source of a belief in (the Christian) God—the Bible. Take John 3:16 for instance, arguably one of the most recognizable of all Bible verses (you’ve probably seen someone at a televised sports event holding up a sign with ‘John 3:16’ on it). It’s the one that reads: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Sounds fairly strait forward, right? God exists, Jesus is His Son, and one only needs to believe…to get into Heaven; salvation was offered and simple belief is de facto acceptance of salvation. Well, not exactly. The fact is that the Bible—like any other text—is subject to the rules of language: grammar, intent of the author, and...context.

The immediate context in which John 3:16 rests starts at the beginning of chapter 3 and continues through verse 21 of the same chapter. I’ll try to be brief. So, one day Nicodemus, “a ruler of the Jews” approached Jesus (secretly, for obvious reasons) and intimated that he believed that Jesus was “from God”. Interestingly, Jesus anticipated his next move and immediately got down to brass tacks: Jesus said, “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (no, ‘born again’ is not synonymous with ‘fringe fundamentalist’). When Nicodemus misunderstood, taking re-birth literally (i.e. physically), Jesus sharpened his statement a bit: He said, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter…”, adding “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”. Jesus then pointed out the irony in the fact that Nicodemus was a “teacher of Israel”, yet he did “not know these things.” Thus, the requisite belief that’s mentioned in 3:16 is only made possible by spiritual re-birth, or regeneration. Incidentally, Jesus didn’t tell Nicodemus how to achieve this new spiritual state; instead, He rather obliquely said that “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (3:3-10). That is, unless and until one is regenerated (spiritually enlightened), one simply cannot believe in a meaningful way. According to Jesus, the unaided human mind simply lacks the ability to come to an authentic belief in God, because this type of belief is not solely an intellectual exercise, hence Nicodemus’ perplexity.

Take another, similar encounter. This time, several of the five thousand people that were miraculously fed with “five barley loaves and two small fish” (John 5:9) pressed Jesus for answers, not unlike Nicodemus had. But, again, Jesus used this as an opportunity to go to the heart of the matter. He said, “you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate and were filled”. He went on to explain that He is “the bread of Life” and that those who believe “shall never hunger”. But consider what Jesus said next: “you have seen Me and yet do not believe”. Why not? Jesus' answer is that “All that My Father gives Me will come to Me…” In other words, authentic ‘belief in God’ is given by God; it’s not mere assent.

Need more? Well, moments later in the same conversation, Jesus escalates the food metaphor: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life…for my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.” (John 6:54-55) It served its purpose, which was to demonstrate the feebleness of the crowd’s so-called belief; even his disciples were confused. Jesus then explains, to his inner circle, that “The words that I speak are spirit and they are life. But some of you do not believe.” (e.g., Judas). He went on to reiterate the fact that “no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.” (John 6:65)

There are several, similar examples, but I’ll mention just one more. So, on one of the many occasions that members of the religious establishment questioned his divinity, Jesus strode in the temple and they said “If you’re the Christ, tell us plainly”, to which Jesus responded by saying:
“I told you and you do not believe…because you are not of My sheep, as I told you. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish (see John 3:16); neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My hand. I and My Father are one.” (John 10: 22-30)

So, it’s clear that an authentic belief in God—according to the Bible—is divinely imparted and spiritual in nature, as opposed to a naturalistic, free will decision of the mind. Again, the Bible’s credibility is in a separate category from its claims…about what constitutes a meaningful belief in God. Therefore, the latter must be ascertained before the former can be assessed.

The next installment will deal primarily with the epistemological (theory of knowledge) aspects of belief—specifically, in light of Jesus’ characterization of it.