The Flying Spagetti Monster

Guest Post by Dr David Matcham

The Risky Leap of Faith into the Unknown

One of the common arguments wheeled out against religious belief by those of the scientific positivist mould is that religious belief is opposed to scientific evidence, that, indeed, “faith” is an essentially anti-rational adherence to that which is believed in the teeth of evidence to the contrary.  I don’t want to tread old ground here and wade in with my own arguments against this or that, or for this, or for the other.  Rather, what I find interesting here is not the argument but the way in which faith as a way of knowing, as a way of being even, is much misused by its rationalist critics.  That is, obviously if one wants to reduce faith to the simple capacity to cling to certain ideas or propositions in the absence of evidence, or even in the face of contrary evidence, then “faith” so understood is highly questionable.  But is this equivalent to that which is being proposed by those who place life-giving value on the fact of their faith?  Also, is “evidence” the only way, or even the best way through which we can come to know something?

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I want to suggest that, in essence scientific positivists are not opposed so much to the form of faith-based knowing so much as they are opposed to the uncertain nature of what threatens to break through from such an epistemological position: fairies, ghosts, flying spaghetti monsters, etc.  This is hardly an unreasonable position to have; (though I personally have my doubts that superstitious belief isn’t actually “evidence-based” in one form or another).  Likewise, faith-based “knowers” are not opposed to the call for evidence from scientific positivists, it is just that they are conscious that to know something through an essential leap of faith in which neither the form of knowing, nor the object of such knowing is certain is not one which can be upheld if the guarantees of evidence are also sought to bolster one’s knowledge.  That is, to know an object as an object of faith is implicitly not to base such knowledge on that which can be objectively verified.  This does not exclude such objective knowing, it simply is not central to it.

There are two forms of knowledge at work here, and two ways in which knowledge is known by the knower.  The problem is that both are making truth-claims, but truth-claims of radically different orders of knowledge; and this to such an extent that the claims of the other are not recognised as legitimate, because outside of their respective realms they are not legitimate.  So, to know something through a long established peer-review process of evidence gathering and scholarly research is qualitatively different than it is to know something through a leap of faith.  The key difference resides in the extent to which knowledge requires the stamp of evidence as a guarantee, and the degree to which one is personally involved in the given knowledge-based position; the greater the personal involvement/risk in a given knowledge position, the greater the chance will be that such knowledge will not (and cannot) be evidence based: to believe in Atlantis is not the same as to believe in the faithfulness of one’s wife.  The one involves the knower at a great personal distance, whereas the other involves the knower at the most intimate level of his being.  To base one’s knowledge of a wife’s faithfulness on objective grounds is to remove the personal from that which is explicitly personal, rendering such knowledge safe for the knower.  To believe in Atlantis objectively or otherwise is to indulge in essentially safe speculation the truth of which effects the knower not one jot.  On this level to believe in Atlantis or String Theory is equivalent in terms of existential involvement: one is true, the other not, but neither require the knower to place his or her subjectivity on the line because neither make any personal demands on the knower.

destruction-of-atlantisSo, what is happening in this leap of faith, and why is it a valid form of knowledge?  Essentially, the leap of faith is literally a leap into the darkness of not-knowing, in which one does not trust to one’s cognitive capacity or ability to master an object of knowledge.  Indeed, the object of knowledge may not even exist, at least, not in a form recognisable to the potential knower.  The leap of faith is the openness to the possibility that the leap of faith may actually fail or prove otherwise false; as such it is an inherently risky business.  Insofar as faith leads to a form of certainty it is a constitutionally unstable certainty because the knower cannot refer back to any evidence as a form of guarantee.  This does not invalidate the certainty, it merely means that it cannot take the form of a guaranteed certainty, for which one has one’s scholarly, peer-reviewed existential receipt.

Faith, then, is not so much constituted by the content of the knowledge which results from it, but rather by the readiness of the faith-full one to not master in advance that which appears as an object of knowledge – or even the appearance of an object of knowledge at all.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that the relational format of subjective knower over and above the objective known is deconstructed.  In faith one has to risk the possibility that one’s usual stance as a subject opposite an object of knowledge is itself unstable; that one does not so much know as much as one is known.

Faith cannot be constituted as a blank cheque to believe anything one likes.  To be sure, faith is always orientated towards the object of faith: it is never blind, but sees its object through eyes of faith.  It is always a faith-in-something.  In its approach to the object faith seeks a form of engagement, of knowing and of being known, that does not demand a receipt in exchange for its trust.  In this it could be severely mistaken; the object of its faith may be non-existent, malignant, or even unknowable.  This cannot be known in advance according to the logic of faith.  Of course, it could be argued that such form of knowing is not worth the risk; except that, if one waits for evidence to give a cast-iron guarantee to your faith then you can be sure that what is known through evidence is not the same as that which can only be known through the open riskiness of faith.  This is because the certain knowing that comes from prior evidence (scientific knowing) is not the same as the knowing that comes from eschewing evidence as a form of guaranteed security.  To know without the possibility of doubt, or failure, or risk is qualitatively different from knowing with the constant possibility of not-knowing or of remaining ignorant.  This is why belief in fairies or sea-monsters is not the same as faith in Christ, because such belief places these spectres of fantasy in the world as (invisible) objects of certain knowledge.  It is as easy to believe in fairies as it is to “believe” in red tea pots, there is no leap of faith required for either, just a more or less sloppy relationship with apparent evidence; thus belief in fairies actually fits in with the form of knowing laid out by scientific positivism.  Belief in fairies does not involve the believer within a form of knowing in which their whole self is put on the line; which means that superstitious beliefs are not the same as the leaps of faith I am describing.

On the contrary, to have in Christ cannot be reduced to the position of believing specific propositions about him as being factually true; believing he rose from the dead is not the same as believing that he had brownish hair and grey eyes.  The former fact makes certain claims on the one who believes it that the latter does not.  To believe that Christ rose from the dead is to give of your self in a way that believing in a certain messianic hair colour does not require.  Whatever evidence (philosophical, archaeological, textual, etc) that may exist for or against the resurrection is not of particular importance to the one who knows through a leap of faith; such evidence more or less places the one who stayed dead or was resurrected within the frame of guaranteed objects of knowledge.  Knowing Christ through quality-assured evidence based forms of knowing is not the same as throwing oneself into the unknown not-knowing of faith-full knowledge.  This is not, again, to say that faith cannot be certain; just that this certainty does not reveal itself as something that requires a guarantee to operate.  The certainty that comes from faith comes through the appearing of that which can only be known through faith.  Of course this may never happen; the faith may prove to be objectless in the sense that Christ is dead, or that God doesn’t exist.  There is the possibility that God does not exist, in which case any imagined certainty of faith would be misplaced; but that is the point of faith: one cannot know in advance what will be encountered, or even if anything at all will be met with.  The absence of certainty is here the opposite of a blank cheque of belief, because the faith-full one is not in a position to dictate what form the object of his faith will take before him; and, of course, no one would place this sort of faith in random fantasies of the imagination.

The main point to be made regarding faith and knowledge is that there are some things that can only be known through a leap of faith.  For example, it can only be known that a supposedly reformed thief will become honest by trusting him.  Based on the evidence alone no sensible man or woman would ever make that leap into the unknown: he might now be honest, he might not, but that is none of the sensible person’s concern, and so remains forever out of reach as a possibility.  In this sense, though, actually trusting a thief has the creative potential to make him honest, might give him the incentive to become honest: faith here is creative in what it knows, or allows to be made known as a possibility.  It is only through faith that faith is justified, not through choices based entirely on evidence.  Without that faith one would never know; with faith a situation is opened up as a possibility that would otherwise (especially if left to the guaranteed certainties of evidence).  Likewise, belief in God based on evidence is inherently unstable, because the evidence is uncertain, and in any case, a God in whom one can be evidentially secure is no different from any other equally “known” object in the universe, be it an apple, a planet, an alien or water-fairies.  Trusting a thief against all odds does not require a leap of faith that the thief actually exists (that is as certain as any other object of knowledge); what is at stake is the possibility that the thief may be able to become honest – at present it requires a leap into the unknown, a risk, an imaginative stance towards a possibility that may prove expensively false to the knower.  Likewise, with God, an uncertain evidential basis requires that the only way to know him is to make a leap into the unknown.  This is the choice.  To not make the leap, to stay on the side of safely weighing up the evidence for or against and remaining undecided is to never know; faith opens the possibility up for the individual that God may exist, and if he does, to be known.  Without faith it is impossible to know, just as without trusting a thief it is impossible to know if he can become honest.  Thus, it can be seen here that evidence can only go so far in terms of the choices we make; some things can only be known through making a leap into the unknown, where the only thing that is certain is uncertainty.  Faith then is stupid, is risky, is as open to failure as it is to success, and cannot be accessed through guarantees; but without it some things will remain forever unknown.  To trust an already trusted honest man with a till of money is not a leap of faith, is not a risk to the person doing the trusting.  Without that gap between the known, the certain, and the unknown, important modes of knowledge remain forever out of reach.

Captured by Love

Captured by Love

This wonderful “Confession of Faith” can be found here at Michael Hardin’s ‘Preaching Peace’ website.

We confess we have been captured by love –
the constant source of the universe,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit

Jesus has captured us for freedom.
In his truly human life
he was God among us, crucified by us.
God raised him from death
for the forgiveness of our sin
and the re-creation of our life.

His Father is our Father –
The source of his life and ours,
the God of Israel,
in whose gracious purposes
all creation is drawn to fulfillment.

His Spirit gives life to all
transforming our life from the inside out
by worship, scripture and sacrament
into the community of Christ and of the future
for the sake of the world.

In this triune God we bear witness
to the love which has captured us.
Our vocation lies in God’s mission –
to communicate it here in Aotearoa New Zealand,
to embody it socially
and to care for God’s glorious creation.

In this new-given unity
we live in confidence and hope;
anticipating the healing of creation
and the final flourishing of peace
in Christ.

Rev. Dr. Bruce Hamill
Coastal Unity Presbyterian Parish
Dunedin, New Zealand

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Near Redgate Beach, Torquay (c) Gralefrit 2016

Abraham’s Faith?

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Whilst considering grace for a sermon, and I just cannot get my head or heart round this exquisite reality in the Christian faith, I came across that old wily character that for too long I have read as some what of a hero.  Yes, at times a scoundrel (who isn’t?), but essentially a man of faith tested and proven.  But I was shocked, when I had my presupposition challenged.

(The 1635 Rembrandt (left) is a favourite of mine, ‘Sacrifice of Isaac’).

Abraham in fact models a kind of ruthless self-seeking at the expense of others by taking those around him and dragging them through the bush backwards (for wont of a better metaphor)!  He deceives Pharaoh, Abimelech and seriously hurts his own wife.  He allows Hagar to be mistreated (including by having his wicked way with the poor women), and then we come to the most famous story of all (GEnesis 22).  A story of faith I thought.  Read on….

“Suppose, however, that God is well aware of Abraham’s tendency to forfeit his family to danger and uncertainty?  What if the test is really designed to see just how far Abraham will go? . . .

. . . Perhaps God needs to see if there is ever a point where Abraham is willing to sacrifice himself rather than his family.  He has sacrificed the other members of his household; will he go so far as to sacrifice this son of promise? . . .

What might we have heard from an exemplary Abraham?  “Take me!  I am old.  The boy has his whole life in front of him.”  Or might we even have heard the Abraham of old (cf. Gen 18:25):  “Far be it from you to expect such a thing. . . . ”  But . . . . this Abraham risks nothing but silent obedience. . . . Abraham makes every effort to go through with the sacrifice of his son.  Only God’s intervention keeps him from murder. . . .

Abraham, ironically, names the place “YHWH will see.” . . . . But what has YHWH actually seen?  On the mountain, YHWH sees a man who fears, a man in need of grace. . . .

Whether or not Abraham has passed the test, we do not know.  We fear not.”

Gunn and Fewell in Narrative in the Hebrew Bible, p.98-100

I suspect Abraham was a failure because we are failures.  We try to save our own skin every single time.  He’s like us, and that is why for Abraham, God provided a lamb, and for all of us, God provided a Lamb.  We didn’t and can’t pass the test, but Jesus can and does.

We don’t do grace too well

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We are in a bind are we not?  I mean, a church is a community of mixed people, at every conceivable stage of life and experience, but together never-the-les.  The bind though, is that we are in this community as individuals gathered to love and serve the Lord and each other – and by-and-large, we want to do that, yet not without the occasional burp of dysfunction.

It would be fair I think, to take the hit on the proverbial chin, that the church is where one finds more hypocrites than anywhere else on the planet.  I know I am a hypocrite and I’m the minister!  But that is also the very reason why I am a Christian.  I am a sinner, I do sinful things, I think sinful things, I desire sinful things.  But thanks be to God there is a cure for sin, and that is salvation, a Christ-won salvation!

Salvation of sinners, hypocrites, liars, murderers, God-deniers, and the like, is God’s direct and effective self-revelation….in Christ….always and only in Christ……that opens the eyes of sinners, that they see him as a loving Father who has invited them into the joy and fellowship of His own self, the God-head of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And this should, I say should, set us free.

Most of the time, for many people, we respond to grace as we respond to a generous gift from a friend, “Oh you shouldn’t have.”  We take the gift and immediately the plotting starts on how we are to pay the person back for their gift.  That’s because we don’t do grace too well at all.  And this then leads to a fruit, a product, a worldview, a consequence of thinking about grace wrongly:  we become workers, doers, activists, organised, efficient.  In theological language we become nomians, law makers and law keepers and often law-seekers, the more laws the more po-faced we become, and the more po-faced the more righteous and religious -right?  It’s as if the whole book of Galatians was written for us, and we simply deflect verses such as 5:1 as being for others, them…out there….and certainly not us!!

When there is a law, what need of grace?  Grace language becomes a part of our religious discourse for sure, but its power, its truth, its vitality is simply not grasped.  Oh how we must nod sagely as we read in Ephesians 2 “…by grace you have been saved…” but inwardly shudder, maybe even mumbling something about the book of James balancing out all this nonsense about grace language with a works language.  After all, isn’t activism, busyness, practical-ness a contemporary virtue of our present day?  Now a works language we get, “Tell me what to do?”  It’s all a bit mixed up.  We don’t know what to do with Jesus’ own words about works:  “The work of God is this: believe the One He has sent…”  (John 6:29).

When we truly do get this kind of work, believing the God-man Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, the Word of God with skin on, the eternally begotten, the One who holds the universe in the palm of His hands and sustains it with the word of His power, this Jesus, is the One who offers salvation by grace to wayward sinners.  How on earth can that salvation offered by such a God ever be skewed to the degree that we think we’ve got to add to it or earn more favour (like what? What could we possibly add to that?).  Jesus died for you.  Your sins curse has been trumped and trashed by God’s salvation cure!  “Oh you shouldn’t have!  For me….really…..Oh I must pay you back….”

I’d like to end with a personal account from the 17th century of what I’m trying to say.  It’s about 1653 and a man named Humphrey Mills, who believed Christ – but under law, until one day he heard the sweet gospel preaching of the great Puritan Richard Sibbes.  Humphrey writes,

“I was for three years together wounded for sins, and under a sense of my corruptions, which were many; and I followed sermons, pursuing the means, and was constant in duties and doing; looking for Heaven that way.  And then I was so precise with outward formalities, that I censured all to be reprobates, that wore their hair anything long, and not short above their ears; or that wore great ruffs, and gorgets, or fashions, and follies.  But yet I was distracted in my mind, wounded in conscience, and wept often and bitterly, and prayed earnestly, but yet had no comfort, till I heard that sweet saint….Dr Sibbes, by whose means and ministry I was brought to peace and joy in my spirit.  His sweet soul melting gospel sermons won my heart and refreshed me much, for by him I saw and had much of God and was confident in Christ, and could overlook the world….and my heart held firm and resolved and my desires all heaven-ward.”

That’s what salvation does because salvation is from Jesus, the Saviour of the world.

Science and Faith, not Science or Faith!

John Lennox is a British mathematician, philosopher of science and Christian apologist who is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford.

At the BMS ‘Mission of the Mind’ event held in Reading on the 28th November, I had the privilege of listening to the brilliant lecture he delivered (see below).

http://vimeo.com/80878189

The Cross of Christ: WHY?

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In this talk, Richard Cunningham considers why Jesus had to die on the cross. He refers to Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, and covers six misconceptions about the Cross while explaining its real significance for our lives.

Six misconceptions about the Cross:

1. The Cross is something sentimental
2. Jesus chose to die to start a new religion
3. The life and teaching of Jesus are separate from his death
4. We don’t see the danger posed by God’s holiness and our sin
5. There must be another way to be forgiven apart from the Cross
6. I’m not bad enough to need the Cross

While clarifying these misconceptions, Richard explains the true significance of the Cross for our lives.

“Nothing but the resurrection can explain the birth of Christianity.”
“It is still the Cross, not the tomb, that the Church had chosen to be the primary symbol of faith.”

http://www.bethinking.org/bible-jesus/introductory/why-did-jesus-have-to-die-on-the-cross.htm

The painting is by:

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) Italian 1490-1576

It has nothing to do with Richard Cunningham or the UCCF.  He may well have chosen a completely different portrayal of the Crucifixion, and who could blame him?  Not me.

God is for us

BARTH

“If we fix our eyes upon the place where the course of the world reaches its lowest point, where its vanity is unmistakable, where its groanings are most bitter and the divine incognito most impenetrable, we shall encounter there – Jesus Christ. . . The transformation of all things occurs where the riddle of human life reaches its culminating point.  The hope of his glory emerges for when nothing but the existentiality of God remains, and he becomes to us the veritable and living God.  He, whom we can apprehend only as against , stands there, for us.”

Karl Barth