Thursday, August 29, 2019

The moods of faith

1. Sometimes the question is asked, How sure are you that Christianity is true? Are you 100% certain? 90%? Above 50%? Below 50%?

i) That's not altogether wrong. There are lifelong churchgoers, yet the message never takes.

Or consider the cliche question of the revivalist: "If you died tonight, are you absolutely sure that you'd go straight to heaven?"

Although that suffers from a mechanical view of conversion (the altar call), it poses the question: are you ready to die? And there's no more important question than that.

ii) There's also a sense in which there are degrees of certainty. We are more confident about some beliefs than others. I'm 100% certain that I exist. I suppose it's possible to doubt your own existence if you're mentally ill. But insanity is a poor yardstick.

For that matter, I'm 100% certain that my late grandmother existed. Yes, we can float thought-experiments about how that might be a simulated experience, but imaginary conjectures like that don't lower my confidence in the slightest.

2. Having said all that, we might question whether assigning percentiles is the best framework to understand faith. Is a quantitative model the best model?

Isn't it artificial to assign numbers to faith? Why suppose a mathematical model is the right way to model faith? Where does that even come from?

I wonder if it doesn't go back to gambling. What are the odds that the next card dealt will give the player a full-house? And laying odds in gambling is then extended to other things. What are the odds that a particular candidate will win? And by how many percentage points? What are the odds that it will rain tomorrow? What are the odds that a hurricane will make landfall at a particular location? What are the odds that it will be a category 4 (or whatever)? What are the odds that if you undergo cancer treatment, you will be cured? What are the odds that if you undergo cancer treatment, you will live another 5 years?

What these examples share in common is the attempt to quantify future outcomes. But is that the right way to model faith?

3. The basic challenge to Christian faith is twofold:

i) As a rule, God is distant. Normally, we don't experience God directly in our lives. We don't normally have two-way conversations with God. Jesus doesn't appear to us once a week. Faith is about not seeing.

ii) Combine that with the aggravations of life. The frustrations, disappointments, setbacks, betrayals, and failures. The daily grind. Dashed hopes. Tedium.

4. A danger of the mathematical model is how the model in itself can be a source of doubt. If you use the wrong model, if you think faith should be quantified, then that may lead to uncertainty or doubt if faith can't hit 100%. But is that due to inadequate faith, or to filtering faith through the wrong kind of grid?

5. Instead of viewing faith in mathematical terms, suppose we view it in qualitative terms. But what does that mean?

i) Take the metaphor of seasons, and apply it to friendship. There's springtime friendship and summertime friendship.

But sometimes friends, even best friends, having a falling out. That's the wintertide of friendship. It seems to be dead. Like denuded trees. The warmth is gone. The color is gone.

Yet they may renew the friendship later on. But at that stage of life it's too late to revert to the springtime or summertime friendship. Instead, it's autumnal friendship. Maturer. More self-conscious. An undertone of sadness-along with gratitude for small blessings.

Sometimes, at the end of summer, you can go outside and just feel the season turning. There's something in the air. A certain kind of breeze. A hint of rain. Different from a summer breeze or summer rain. You can physically sense that summer is behind you. That won't come around again until the next cycle. Not until next year.

Or take the related metaphor of a dry season. Friendships may pass through dry seasons. So faith is akin to the seasons of friendship.

ii) Consider a different metaphor: faith is like music. Faith in a major key. Faith in a minor key. Fast music and slow music. Dance music or a dirge.

We generally like fast music, but sometimes we're just not in the mood for fast music. Sometimes we want to hear music that changes our mood, and sometimes we want to hear music that matches our mood. Sometimes faith is like hearing the patter of light raindrops on a window. Or trees twisting in the wind. Faith has musical variations.

iii) Or we might compare faith to light and color. Sometimes faith is bright, like golden sunshine. Sometimes faith is like a gray day. Sometimes faith is like sunrise. Sometimes faith is like sunset or dusk. Sometimes faith is like nightfall. Pitch black. Clouds curtain the stars. The moon lies hidden below the horizon.

Sometimes fine weather mocks our mood. There's a mismatch between how we feel in the inside and what we see on the outside.

6. We can foster artificial doubt by simplistic, abstract models of faith. Reducing it to percentiles, as if faith ranges along a mathematical continuum. But faith is a living thing that expands and contacts. We should enrich and replenish our concept of faith with suitable analogies.

7. Finally, it's quite possible to exaggerate the importance of certainty or certitude. Take a grown child who's the caregiver for an elderly parent. The parent is becoming feebleminded. Suppose paranoia is a symptom of the parent's dementia. The parent is suspicious of the caregiver's benevolence.

But while that may make it harder to care for the parent, because the parent is uncooperative, what's ultimately important is not whether the parent trusts the caregiver, but whether the caregiver is trustworthy, regardless of the parent's misgivings. The child continues to care for the parent, acting in their best interests, despite the parent's paranoia. It's because the parent is growing senile that he (or she) requires the caregiver to protect and look out for an increasingly helpless father or mother. By the same token, what ultimately matters is not how much we trust God, but whether God is trustworthy.

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