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Jesus, Lover of my Soul

An old friend and spiritual mentor of mine left a comment on my last "Religious Conversation" Post. It provoked so much thought that I wanted to share it with everybody, because I know quite a few of my religious friends are reading this, and I know quite a few of you who would make a similar statement. Here it is:



There is an element in this conversation that is being overlooked (at least, I presume). There is an aesthetic beauty and, more, an affection, which Steven appears to have for God. This is not illogical; in fact, all human beings exhibit it for something. It may be subjective, and it is not conclusive, but it is completely logical. And I can't imagine an argument that would refute it.
It is something like a man saying, "I love my wife. I appreciate her many virtues and charms; I believe her to be the woman most worthy of my affection and lifelong commitment." If I say this and someone were to say to me, "But EVERY man says that of his bride! Wouldn't you at least consider the possibility that she is unfaithful, lude, stupid and ugly, and that there may be another woman more worthy than she?", I would reply, "She has proven herself to me time and again; what reason do I have to do that? Besides, I love her!"
If that doesn't fit, perhaps another similar analogy might be for someone to state to an art lover, "Wouldn't you at least consider the possibility that Rembrandt is a lousy painter?" The man would laugh in the face of such a suggestion.
To understand this line of thought, one must realize that the Christian faith is more than set of theological propositions (although it is at least that). Therefore, to prove to someone (or to everyone) that Christianity is "untrue" or that Jesus is not the Son of God and Savior of the world, it would have to be engaged on a far greater spectrum of levels than just "Christianity is irrational." Perhaps one does think that my marriage to my wife is irrational; but one will have to get past her obvious loveliness in order to convince me of it.
Again, this is not the whole issue, but it is certainly an important part of it; anyone who loves and delights in something beautiful and good is not behaving irrationally. This is basic aesthetics (and I daresay basic human nature).

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And my response:
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I'm afraid your analogy isn't sound, Jeremy.


But before I tell you why, I want to address the last part of your message, because it makes a truth claim about others' capacity for understanding your analogies in the first place.

To understand this line of thought, one must realize that the Christian faith is more than set of theological propositions (although it is at least that). Therefore, to prove to someone (or to everyone) that Christianity is "untrue" or that Jesus is not the Son of God and Savior of the world, it would have to be engaged on a far greater spectrum of levels than just "Christianity is irrational."


I'm not really sure where you are coming from by saying this, Jeremy, so I hope you'll clarify it for me if I have it wrong.


On the one hand, you are completely right about needing to engage believers on more than just a "cold logic" level. Christian devotion encompasses an immense, complicated tangle of emotions - love and guilt, fear and hope, among others. To effectively engage with a devout individual, I should appeal to these feelings, as well as feelings of what some some might call "spirituality," although they can and do exist in a secular context - things like a yearning for purpose, a fascination with finding our place in the world, the desire to believe in some overarching force that guides our lives. I would love to engage Stephan on these levels as well, and I hope the conversation gets that far.


To fail in understanding these things is to fail in understanding why Christianity is so appealing to Christians. If that is what you mean to say, I completely agree with you.


On the other hand, you could be trying to say something else, something that is dangerous to clear thinking. Something along these lines: 


"No amount of rational argumentation can convince me that God isn't real. The reality of God is beyond rational thought. It's bigger than rational thought." 


To non-Christians, this reads as: 


"Clearly, I don't have any rational reasons to continue believing in light of all that's been discussed. But I don't want to stop believing."


I have seen many a Christian abuse this line and many a conversation end frustratingly with the Christian shaking his head in pity, saying, "I don't know why God hasn't revealed his truth to you, Deric. But when he does, I think you'll understand."


This kind of argumentation, besides being extremely condescending, is simply dodging the responsibility to provide solid ground on which to adopt your religion's teachings. 


And when you are making truth claims about the universe, it is completely fair for others to demand that solid ground.


In fact, for those who consider themselves "lovers of truth," this demand is not only fair, but an intellectual responsibility.


Let's say you and I were to go for a walk in a public park, and we encounter a stranger. He walks up to us and says, "Sirs, did you know that Canada is secretly amassing an army, and that they plan to invade our country soon?" I ask, "Why do you believe this?" And you would think it perfectly normal that I asked him to justify his claim.


If, at this point, the stranger becomes defensive and says, "Look pal, I just know. I can feel that it's true. My emotions are all tied up into it. I come out here every day telling these people passing through here these same things. Won't you join me?"


This man is behaving irrationally. You and I both recognize it, and we know that if we decided to just join him because it "felt right," an outside observer would conclude that we were also behaving irrationally, and that their reasons for joining the man in the park were ill-founded. And she would be right.


Therefore, I hope you aren't trying to duck your way under a standard of evidence that is demanded of our doctors, engineers, technicians, politicians, scientists, and others. Clergy don't get a free pass. I hope you are wiser than that, and that I misinterpreted your statement. So please tell me what you meant if I am wrong.


Now, about those analogies. They really are bad analogies, and I can show you why.


The analogy about a man loving his wife, for instance, would be relevant only if I were calling into question Stephan's purported attitude toward God. I do not doubt that his feelings are sincere. When Stephan says "I love God," he is making a truth claim ("I have certain feelings towards this thing that I call God") that I would agree with.


Forgive me for a clumsy attempt at turning your analogy into a more relevant one for our conversation:


It is something like a man saying, "I love my wife. I appreciate her virtues and charms.  Also, she is the only wife in the world with the ability to read minds, interpret dreams, and predict the future." If I say this, and someone were to say to me, "But there are all sorts of wives out there claiming to do just these things. And as far as I know, they're all full of crap! Would you consider that your wife really isn't a clairvoyant?" 


You can see where this is going. The man is behaving irrationally. He is letting the emotions he has formed for his wife to cloud his judgement when it comes to factual claims about his wife's abilities.


No clear-thinking individual should accept emotional attachment as a sign of validity of any truth claim (unless of course the claim is, "I have an emotional attachment to something"). This is obvious and should be uncontroversial. 


Quickly, let me add that the second analogy is faulty for the same reasons. Here is a more apt version than yours:


Let us say you approach a man looking at a painting in a gallery. You say to the man, "Wouldn't you at least consider the possibility that this isn't a  genuine Rembrandt, but rather a fake?" Please do, for it might very well be a fake. But if the art aficionado defensively cried out, "I know it is genuine! I felt its beauty inside my soul!" Then I would say that his reasons for believing are irrational, ill-founded, and not to be copied.


Do not conflate claims like, "I am devoted to God, and I love him," with claims like, "A supernatural, all-powerful being called God exists and interacts with our universe in various ways." The former is a claim about attitude and the latter is a claim about how the universe works. They are not the same.


Jeremy, I knew you as a lover of truth and a respecter of sound reasoning. The truth is so beautiful, and it requires no deception in order to stand on its own. As long as you stay intellectually honest, you will find it. And nobody, not even God, can blame you for being intellectually honest. Even if it leads you to doubt.
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