Faith, Reason, and Debating the Existential “Big Questions”

I’m past college, and with those years has passed the incidence of earnest debate about things like religion and the meaning of life. That I attended a Catholic university and majored in a “Great Books” meant that I fielded my share of challenges from those who believed something different than I did, and one of the most pressing questions that came up at that time was why.

Why do you believe?

There is something fantastic and mythological, certainly, about the story of a God coming to earth in order to offer Himself up as a perfect, spotless sacrifice in order to atone for every human sin, past and future, and reconcile the human race to Himself as God. The particulars of the story are indeed quaint and uncomfortably sentimental: a sweet young woman chosen to miraculously conceive God’s child; archetypal authority figures hatching dastardly plots and darkly scheming to stop this bright young hero; a set of bumbling accomplices; an impossibly evil death; and the most mythical and unbelievable thing of all: that he was killed and then came back to life.

To my friends, well-educated and mostly liberal humanists, the tale of Christ bears too many similarities to the quaint myths of many other cultures, and is only the biggest myth in a child-like narrative of the world with a stylized creation story and a lot of horrible barbarities. Compared to sophisticated promise of modern disciplines like sociology, psychology, and specialized sciences, a primitive culture’s myth seems plainly archaic. How could anyone believe this, much less someone college-educated?

The challenge about answering this question is that it is ideological rather than academic. Those who ask it have a certain perspective which I don’t understand, but which seems to preclude the idea of a supernatural. Some profess to be humanists, who believe that continued enlightenment in sciences will eventually conquer our social and personal afflictions. Others profess to be rationalists, believing only in those things that science has proved or theorized.

Such alternative belief systems are not, in and of themselves, ideological. They fall more truly into the existential category, defining who we are and why we exist. But they seem to come with a lot of ideological baggage these days. After all, elements of our society today are unabashed and even aggressive apologists for faith (professing the Christian doctrine of sola scriptura) and many of them speak in terms of condemnation, specifically condemnation of those who disagree with them, to hell. They often stand for uncomfortably traditional values as well, like maintaining traditional gender and socio-economic roles. Now all of a sudden we aren’t talking about a different moral and existential perspective, we’re talking about an ideological opponent. And, to be fair, there are fundamentalist Christians who are offensive and judgmental in proselytizing their beliefs.

But to turn the tables, many so-called rationalists and/or humanists can be just as aggressive, and I am skeptical that their explanations of the world are actually more ‘rational’ than a faith-based one. It’s easy to talk about gravity or astronomical relations and say that we can “prove” real science empirically, but I doubt that many of us have empirically viewed the behavior of a virus, or the release of certain brain hormones causing affection or depression. We accept that viruses and brain hormones work a certain way because we have studied the effect of those things and measured them in actual humans, so we know they exist and they affect, somehow, our health or mental state. We also believe people called “scientists” when those people tell us about viruses and brain hormones (and the behavior of chemical elements, and many other things), because we have faith that their education and certification makes them intrinsically trustworthy on certain issues.

Whether or not you trust a scientist or a theologian (or a priest) is really the question, unless on. An Op-Ed in the Washington Post recently pointed out very thoroughly that the two sides are not mutually exclusive. I have little to add to the writer’s argument because I agree with him — I believe in the story of the Christ and yet also pursue understanding of scientific matters, because I want to know more about us and this world we inhabit. He ends with a marvelous paragraph worth quoting in full:

The problem comes when materialism, claiming the authority of science, denies the possibility of all other types of knowledge — reducing human beings to a bag of chemicals and all their hopes and loves to the firing of neurons. Or when religion exceeds its bounds and declares the Earth to be 6,000 years old. In both cases, the besetting sin is the same: the arrogant exclusive claim to know reality.

The answer to the question of why I believe the entirety of the Christian story, with it’s quaint mythological narratives about paradisiacal gardens and apples of knowledge of good and evil and floods and prophets and whales and the Son of God is that I find it more plausible than any of the alternatives. It really makes more sense to me. Not necessarily in they physical particulars (“do you really believe that some prophet actually parted water to create a passage?”), but in the tale it tells of how humanity became prone to doing bad things and how God then came Himself to redeem humanity from its sinful nature.

The Christian tale is plausible to me mostly because of my own experiences in sin and redemption. The vast majority of these experiences are with my own sins and redemptions in my life so far, and a few of them are observations of other peoples’ sins and redemptions. On a precious few occasions I recall witnessing a miracle, or experiencing a beatific presence I attribute to the Christian God. These things are open to interpretation in an academic sense, of course. Rationalists might argue that my experiences of good and bad in myself and others are filtered through a strong inculcated Catholic belief system. They might doubt that I, in fact, saw or experienced so-called “supernatural” things, and point to the demonstrated phenomenon of humans to manufacture memories that suit their subconscious perspectives. And as far as that goes, they may be right. I can’t transmit my experiences to others, so therefore I can’t expect anyone else to believe my conclusions. And yet I can no more forget them than an astronaut could forget his view of a round earth from space, or an astronomer could forget the sightings and calculations that the earth and nearer bodies revolved around the sun in elliptical trajectories.

My point here is not to convince anyone in my beliefs. I don’t think that’s possible — neither a rationalist nor a faith-based belief system can be truly transmitted via dialectic. Any belief system has to be experienced to be believed, personally and deeply experienced. And for a human, that means engaging both the intellect and whatever part of the brain controls belief.

Someone who believes that human emotions like love and depression are a combination of neuron activity and chemical activity in the brain has probably actively engaged the subject: he or she likely wondered why people experience love and other emotions, and pursued the answer until they found an explanation. That’s the activity of his or her intellect. He or she also had to exclude other explanations for emotions (presuming they found others), such as activity of a metaphysical soul, or instinctual behavior bred in by evolution, which is primarily a decision of faith. Does he or she trust neurologists who measure neuron activity and brain chemicals? Priests, philosophers, and/or wise men and women, who have reached a supernatural explanation due to their long experience in considering and/or observing human behavior? What about sociologists and/or biologists who study behavioral patterns and instinct activity?

Personally, I don’t believe that a scientist is intrinsically a better person than a priest or a philosopher. All three are human, which means they are subject to the same ideological myopia and vices, as well as the same inspiration and virtue, as the rest of us. No single person knows everything, and experience teaches that even if a person did, he or she would forget part of it, or hide part of it, or even use it to his/her advantage. Positing that it’s possible to know everything, and use that knowledge correctly, is coming dangerously close to positing God. Whether we follow to that conclusion, or stop short — and who/what we decide to trust and therefore believe — well, that’s just our obligation as rational beings. We each must individually decide what to believe.

It’s natural that each of us would seek like-minded friends in the world, and so it’s easy to see how we would gravitate towards those who believe the same things. So begins ideology, or the pursuit of actualizing an ideal, which carried to the extreme ends up forgetting that ideas are not more important than people — or so I argue as a Christian: that individuals have the highest intrinsic value; ideas may be valuable but they’re not worth more than life itself.

I plead that we don’t let this social instinct push us into prejudice. I and many people I know believe in the teachings of Christianity and yet also follow the progress of scientific knowledge. Many of these people are scientists or doctors themselves. And likewise, I know that people who religious faith (Christian or other) is irrational do not reduce the human experience to the peculiar behavior of a peculiar animal, enslaved to instinct and evolutionary imperative.

So let’s not discuss these existential issues of faith, science, reason, and belief with a desire to win, especially to win by painting other belief systems in pejorative colors. Rather let’s do it to better understand ourselves and each other.

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