Friday, March 26, 2010

Seeking “Proof” Vs. Progressive Revelation

This is DAY 3 in a 7-day discussion of claims that non-theists made when I posted a quote about faith on my Facebook wall.

When asked what it would take for him to believe, one of my friends responded that he would have to see God do a specific miracle. He mentioned a specific type of miracle (seeing a severed limb magically reattached), but I assume that any one of a number of other sufficiently dramatic miracles (such as raising someone from the dead) would also suffice.

This reminded me a little bit of Christ’s story about the beggar Lazarus and the rich man, in Luke 16. I’m sure you know the story. In life the beggar suffers, while the rich man enjoys easy street. After death, the tables are turned. The rich man realizes that it was all true, there is justice and judgment after all, so he appeals to Abraham to raise the beggar from the dead and send him to his five brothers to warn them. Abraham replies: Why? God has already spoken his warning through trustworthy individuals, Moses and the prophets.

“But no,” the rich man pleads, “if one rises from the dead, then they will believe.” Abraham says with finality: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

The irony in this passage, of course, is that it was Christ himself who was raised from the dead and sent back to us. So, are we convinced? Do we now believe?

For better or worse, I think the nature of biblical faith is the opposite of what we would like it to be. We would like to see “irrefutable proof” and we claim if we see it, then we will believe. At some point, in this life or hereafter, my faith tells me that we will get our proof. But Christ said that true faith was like a mustard seed. Even if it’s small, you invest it. You stake yourself on it. Then it grows larger. God proves himself to be what he is: trustworthy. After such an investment, your faith gets a little stronger. You say, “Lord I believe; help thou my unbelief.” The journey is two steps forward, one step back. True faith starts small, is an investment of trust based on what we know, and grows from there.

As a dad, I can think of a good analogy here. I love my daughter dearly. I’m sure there have been times when my daughter doubts this. Let’s say, in a moment of doubt, my daughter came to me and said, “Dad, if you really love me, please buy me a Corvette.”

Now, could I buy her a Corvette? Yes, though I would probably have to mortgage my house. But I could do it. Is my love for my daughter worth a Corvette? Absolutely, it is worth more than all the Corvettes on the planet.

But would I accede to her request and buy her one? Of course not. Why not?

Because I know a Corvette would not be good for my daughter. It’s not what she really needs. Love is about doing what is best for a person. She needs to trust in the truth of my love for her. As her dad I am going to continue loving her and investing my life in demonstrating that love in real and healthy ways. But it’s a two-way street. In order for her to benefit from that love relationship, she needs to trust me. She can choose to walk away at any time. And I know quite well that even if I yield to her demands and buy her a Corvette, chances are that’s not really going to say “I love you.” In fact, it may say the opposite. She is probably going to walk away anyway, and when she does, the Corvette will actually end up being an albatross around her neck.

Does that make any sense? I’m sure you see that it does, although you may not think it’s a suitable analogy. I don’t know, exactly, why God provides more “proof” in one circumstance and why he requires more trust in another, but I do know something about the nature of faith, and I do know that it is good for us.

The fact is, God may or may not respond to demands for proof. Let’s assume for a moment that he did a miracle like what you are asking about. You say you would believe. But WHAT would you believe? That he exists? Big deal, there are a lot of people who believe that and do nothing with it. (The Bible says the even the demons believe … and tremble.) Would you then feel duty bound to “follow God?”

If so, I think you can understand that your motive in doing so would not be entirely pleasing to God. Sort of like my daughter agreeing to tell me she loves me only if I buy her a Corvette. Hmm.

If God’s desire really is what he says it is (reconciliation and intimate fellowship), then it remains unclear how him doing this amazing miracle upon your demand would actually achieve that goal.

The fact is, God is God and nowhere does he lead us to believe he is in the business of pulling rabbits out of a hat just to satisfy our curiosity. If it’s “proof” you’re looking for, I think you’d be wiser to take seriously the extremely compelling arguments that are influencing skeptics like C.S. Lewis. Cosmological and teleological arguments in particular are gaining traction with recent advances in scientific knowledge, such as Big Bang theory and the complexities of the human cell.

One career atheist (Antony Flew) repudiated a lifetime of writings and reputation to admit that he had changed his mind. He was considered at one time to be one of the two most prominent philosophical atheists of the twentieth century. But at the age of 81, Flew shocked the world when he renounced his atheism because “the argument for Intelligent Design is enormously stronger than it was when I first met it." In his same 2004 interview, Flew shared, "It seems to me that the case for an Aristotelian God who has the characteristics of power and also intelligence, is now much stronger than it ever was before."

What I do know is that God will respond only in his timing. He is God, we are not. Personally I think that we will be better off listening for a still, small voice, than we will be for waiting for the overwhelming roar that thunders in the midst of the storm.

I can only share from my own life experience, and from what I believe to be true because I have received it from trustworthy sources. I realize full well that telling you about my experiences introduces the same dilemma that you have when considering whether or not to trust the Bible. You would have to trust me, or else my experience would be meaningless to you. Am I trustworthy? You know far less about me than you do (already) about God.

For what it’s worth, I have seen a small handful (a half dozen) of what I consider “medium-sized” miracles. Situations which demonstrated to me the evidence of God’s very real presence in a divine way. I am discounting both “large” miracles (limbs reattached or people raised from the dead … although I have met someone I trust who accounted such a story), which I have not seen personally (yet); and “small” miracles, like the joy of a flower unfolding in the morning sun, which I see nearly every day.

Well, given the general absence of sunlight in the Pacific Northwest, I take that back about the flower unfolding every day. But you get my point.

To tell the truth, in God’s economy, I’m not sure he makes any such distinction in between miracles or various sizes … these are for my own purposes only. I won’t bore you with the details of my half dozen miracle experiences, unless you are really interested. Suffice it to say, each entailed prayer, and what seemed to be very clear and unmistakable answers to prayer. Any one of these answers certainly could have been deemed a “coincidence” by a skeptic.

I think that’s the nature of faith; if I choose not to believe a report, or that God is behind something that I have witnessed personally, I can say, “Oh, that was just a remarkable coincidence.” A true skeptic can discount any degree of coincidence, even if it’s Lazarus emerging from a tomb in grave clothes after a few days. (He must not have really been dead, eh?)

Each of my “moderate miracles” therefore required some degree of trust. I prayed; it sure seemed like that prayer was answered. Am I going to trust that it was so?

I think that’s how (on this side of heaven) God usually works. The reattached severed limbs are few and far between. People are (occasionally) raised from the dead; trustworthy witnesses tell us so, while others shake their heads in disbelief. We can’t all see this for ourselves, that just doesn’t make sense. (For one thing, it would require too many dead people!)

So, are we going to believe the trustworthy witnesses’ accounts of the big miracles? Are we going to believe the medium-sized miracles aren’t mere coincidences? Are we going to look for and appreciate the small miracles? All these things constitute our test of faith. That’s the way things are.

In the meantime, God makes unconditional promises that you can test for yourself. Here’s one: “If we seek him with our whole heart, we will find him.” I am claiming that promise, seeking him (to the best of my ability) with my whole heart. As a result, my life so far has been a process of him revealing himself to me, little by little each day. This may sound mystical, but the reality is that it is far more practical than mystical. It didn’t start with seeing a severed limb restored, and I’m really kind of glad it didn’t. Jesus told doubting Thomas, “You believe because you have seen. Blessed are those who have not yet seen, but still believe.” Was Jesus just trying to trick us into submission? I don’t think so, it doesn’t seem to be the kind of guy he was. (Is.) I trust that he said this simply because it’s true.

Wait … wasn’t Jesus asking for “blind faith” here? No, I don’t believe so. Rather, he was simply suggesting we exercise faith based on what has already been revealed to us. Job said (near the end of his excruciating trial), “My ears had heard of you before … but now my eyes have seen you.” Please realize that at the beginning of the book of Job, God had commended him as one of the most God-fearing men of his day … and this was only on the basis of hearing (listening to the reports of trustworthy witnesses), before his eyes had ever seen God.

The biblical principle here is that our faith is blessed with progressive revelation. The mustard seed grows when planted.

Without apology, I want to be in the group of the blessed.

Tomorrow: Isn’t it the height of arrogance for one specific religion to claim it has the corner on truth?

7 comments:

Dave Eagle said...

Thanks Larry for opening up and telling me, and others, what is on your heart. The original question was about belief and not worship so I can tell you that if I saw a severed limb magically reappear fully functional onto the stump I would believe that a supernatural force had done it, would I follow God? Maybe, maybe not. I do not think the test is inappropriate either because I am not praying for something for myself like a car or money. I am praying for divine healing of someone else, if that is inappropriate then I would say that any Christian praying for the healing of another person would fall into the same category.

As far a following God at this point I probably would but not for the reason most Christians say they follow God. At this point if I did follow him it would be out of fear and not love. As I said before I have read the bible from cover to cover and if you read my notes you will know it was because I wanted to prove to myself that I was not blind like the people I was taught were in cults. When I pointed out specific discrepancies in their particular scripture their ultimate response was that no matter what evidence I or anyone else produced they would not believe it and continue to believe they knew the one true way to God. What I found was that the God of the bible was not the caring loving God that I had been told. He was a jealous mean spirited person who would kill men women and children anytime his so called children disobeyed him.

Your example of the loving father not giving a corvette to his child is a good one about the father knowing what is best, but lets change it a little, what if it meant life and death. The same father, knowing that his daughter should not play in the street because she might get hit by a car would, in my opinion, do everything in his power to prevent it. But if we take the biblical example it would look like this; a father tells his daughter not to play in the street by writing a letter to her, hoping that she reads it and then watching from a distance as the child wanders out into the street. The inevitability is that some children will wander out an be struck by a car. Now lets multiply this by the number of people who, if the bible is to be believed, will end up in hell.

As of recently the total population of the world that claimed to be Christian was around 33%, but this includes all of the so called Christian sects, so besides Pentecostals, Catholics and non denominational faiths, they lumped in the 7th day Adventist, Mormons, Quakers and any religious group that claimed to worship Jesus. And we know that many of these groups are mutually exclusive and claim that their way is the only way, so that amount of people who actually get it right will be very small indeed. Current statistics have the population of the world at 6,793,912,814 or pretty close to 7 billion. And that is not counting all the people who have ever lived and never made the right choice. So even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that all of the Christian sects get to go to heaven that means that at the very least 4,700,000,000 people alive right now are going to be thrown into hell to be tortured for eternity.

Fear yes.

Elizabeth Grattan said...

David:

It would be correct to worship any god out of fear, or they would not be worthy of worship. That's common sense. I mean, a god trumps man by default.

But again, requesting such a "miracle" is nonsense.

It's like saying you'll believe in Santa if you get presents this Christmas.

silly.

Elizabeth Grattan said...

Larry:

It is concerning that you weight testimony so heavily. Testimony is not a trustworthy, reliable source.

Larry Short said...

Elizabeth:

I only weight testimony when it comes from a trustworthy, reliable source.

Larry Short said...

David:

I apologize for taking this long to respond to your comment. The sun has been shining here in the Northwest (a rare occurrence), so I have spent a lot of time outdoors, trying to revive my lawn!

But I changed course slightly and just posted a blog that I had originally intended to post a little later, dealing specifically with the topic of hell. I think it addresses the issues you raised in your post above.

Please let me know what you think.

Elizabeth Grattan said...

Testimony is still the worst kind of evidence. The way the brain sees and remembers... can't be trusted as totally reliable, especially in story telling...

Joe Hendricks said...

A "miracle" would always have alternate explanations.

More research trials have been done on the impact of faith/prayer on health since 2000, than in the entire past before 2000. Presented by a professor from Duke, the majority showed a statistically significant improvement in measured outcome. But that proves nothing. To the Christian, it reinforces faith in a loving God. To the scientific atheist, it is either discounted as the power of suggestion or deemed interesting enough to initiate some neurological hypotheses to test & explain the phenomena.