Thoughts of a geek

20 September 2009

Faith, God and all that jazz

Filed under: Christianity, Me — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , — qwandor @ 11:10 pm

I have been meaning to write this post for quite some time now, a couple of months I guess, following a few conversations with a couple of people.

I guess I will start off with where I stand. I consider myself a Christian. Certainly I have all the obvious trappings: I go to church every Sunday, read the bible daily, go to a bible study with people from church most weeks, try to pray. I try to live my life, make decisions, from a Christian worldview. I try to be open to discussing my beliefs, ‘faith’ if you will, with others, as this is interesting, worthwhile and indeed a vital part of a Christian life (I Peter 3:15, Mark 16:15).

However, I do find it difficult to explain, and I think this largely comes down to not having a very clear idea in my own mind. On that note I would like to post a few questions, and list (my interpretations of) some people’s answers to them so far. I also include my own in some cases.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts (different answers to the questions, comments on the existing answers) and discuss further, either here or — better — in person. I have been particularly frustrated over these things over the last two or three months, and have found it difficult to talk to people, so this is an attempt to get some of my thoughts out in the hope of being able discuss them further. This is mainly aimed at Christians, but extends to anyone.

What is faith?

  • Blind belief, in the absence of evidence — obviously, I find this an unsatisfactory definition. There needs to be some way to discriminate between things in which you should have faith and things in which you should not.
  • Belief that something is a certain way, or that something will happen, based on past experience and testimony (direct or indirect) of people whom I trust. ‘Faith’ then is very closely related to ‘trust’, perhaps even the same thing. This is my current working definition, but some people I have talked to find it unsatisfactory. I do not really understand why; apparently it is insufficient in some way?

What is the basis of Christian faith?

  • The Bible — this requires first an argument for the historical accuracy of the bible, and then trust in the people whose witness is recorded in it (for example in the gospels). This is difficult due to the lack of a personal relationship, so it becomes a rather indirect thing.
  • Other people’s testimony — friends, family. Again this comes down to accepting what people say based on personal trust in them, which in turn comes from knowing them, observing their words and actions and judging their trustworthiness from that.
  • Supernatural experience — some sort of experience beyond the usual which provokes or confirms a belief in the God conceived by Christianity and described in the Bible. Some people certainly describe such an experience, to greater or lesser extent, or even it being a regular thing.

How does God talk to you?

  • The written word of the Bible is God talking to you — but, it is hardly personal then.
  • While reading the Bible — how?
  • Through other people — He sends people to say things to you, and so what they say is in a sense God talking to you. But then, how does He tell them what to say?
  • Just talking directly to you — again, how? What does this mean, how is it experienced?

How do you know that God is talking to you, and how do you know what He is saying?

  • You hear distinct words
  • It is more of a general feeling of some sort — but then how do you know that it is from God?
  • A ‘prompting’, you just think of doing something — but we often think of doing things. How is this ‘prompt’ different? ‘Prompting’ is a vague term. Perhaps this is the same as or similar to the previous answer.

What does it mean to ‘believe’?

  • A belief is a theorem (in the sense used in mathematics). That is, a statement is ‘believed’ if it there is a proof for it. I know that Peirce’s law holds in classical logic because I can write a proof using only the axioms of that logic, so I can say “I believe that Peirce’s law holds in classical logic”. Nothing can be believed beyond what can be proven, so belief is limited to the formalisms of mathematics. This does not include any of the sciences, as even physics is just a matter of attempting to find a consistent model which fits observed phenomena; no proof is possible as physical laws are only guesses which happen to match reality in a few observations.
  • A belief is a working assumption. I ‘believe’ that the sun will rise tomorrow insofar as I assume it will based on past experience, and so I base my decisions and plans on that assumption. Beliefs then are not certain, cannot be proven, but are necessary for decision-making and, well, life.

Note that the first and last questions are of definition, so it is more a matter of how you choose to define faith and belief than any intrinsic reality. Consistent and agreed-upon definitions are, however, vital to any meaningful communication.

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7 Comments »

  1. Faith? Could just be your best guess, given you have no way to prove one way or another. I don’t know if faith has to be an absolute belief.

    Why do you want to be a Christian? Do you like what the bible teaches? Do you like being part of the Christian community? DO you love God? Why?

    Do you think God has ever spoken to you? In any of the ways described above? Even if it is just a feeling? How do you know it’s God…? I say, does it matter whether it’s God or not? You know whether you approve of whatever message you may have received. You also know whether God would approve of this message. Isn’t that enough? Does it matter whether this feeling came from you or God?
    Or are you asking God to speak to you? For confirmation of his existance maybe?

    hmmm… I don’t know, seems I have as many questions as you do. Maybe more.

    I have faith that I have prayed to God asking for more faith, and if I needed more, God would have given it to me.

    Comment by Katie — 2 October 2009 @ 7:26 pm

    • Well! Thanks for your comments Katie.

      Faith as a best guess? Yeah, that is not far off what I am thinking. Some people disagree though.

      Why do I want to be a Christian? That seems a bit of an odd question to ask. Either I am a Christian or I am not, and (more to the point) either Christianity (whatever version of it I follow, but that is another story) is true or it is not. Whether I like what the bible teaches or not does not affect whether it is true. To reduce it to a single question: was there in a fact a man born 2000-odd years ago, by the name of Jesus, who was not just prophet or a leader, a man with good ideas, but the son of God, in fact God himself? That is the core of what I must believe. If that is not true, then yeah, maybe the bible does teach some useful things, maybe the Christian community is nice, but it is all for nothing in the end. And do I love God? I am really not sure how to even begin to answer that question. Love — people use that word to mean different things.

      Has God ever spoken to me? I cannot say. If I were certain of this I would be rather more certain of several other things in the list and otherwise. Does it matter whether it is God? Well, yes, I think there is rather a difference between a good idea and God telling me something. And perhaps there is a fair chance that I would not approve of whatever God might say — after all, if I already agreed with whatever He would have to say to me then He would hardly need say it. Certainly I can test it against the bible; that seems a better test than my own opinion, though a lot more difficult. And yes, I certainly have asked God to speak to me.

      Questions — well, questions are good to ask. It would not do to stop thinking. I do wish I had a few more answers though.

      Comment by qwandor — 2 October 2009 @ 11:20 pm

    • Oh, and if you want to read a number of comments from other people (which I recommend, even though I find some confusing), check out the corresponding post on Facebook.

      Comment by qwandor — 2 October 2009 @ 11:22 pm

  2. Hi Andrew,

    Not sure if you remember me, but I check in now and again to find out what you are up to. During university I considered you very intelligent and as your writings on this blog suggest, you have a great grasp of critical thinking and apply it well to areas of your life.

    I love it how you are willing to question things. I believe that an important thing people should consider in life is to not hold ideas too close to our heart. If there is somebody you see that has a particular belief that you don’t agree with, I believe the attributes that you would be happiest to find in that person is the ability to question without too much emotional attachment.

    I see these questions you have and I see rationality. I can see that you want evidence for your beliefs and perhaps you don’t currently have that evidence. I really think that the answer to a lot of your questions can come from reading. People in the past and people living today have wrestled with these questions time and time again. And their experiences are all just waiting there to be read.

    >This is mainly aimed at Christians, but extends to anyone.

    I really appreciate this.

    >What is faith?

    It is different by who is defining it.
    If I define faith I would define it something like the expectation of something happening in the future and the belief that it will happen as expected.

    To give an example of how I might use the word faith could be as follows:
    I have faith that upon dropping a ball from 1 metre above the earths surface that the ball will take ~0.45s to hit the ground

    In terms of the christian views on the definition of faith I’m not sure.
    Paul in his undisputed epistles gives us a clear idea that faith is a relational term meaning the faith in Jesus as salvation. Whereas in the more disputed works of Paul such as the Pastoral Epistles (Titus 1:12-15) faith isn’t a relational term like it is when used in Pauls other writings, it seems more to be used as a term that indicates a set of teachings.

    Don’t know if this helps but it seems that if Paul did write Titus (which is doubtful) then he was himself a little conflicted.

    >What is the basis of Christian faith?

    I really think that your first point is the key one and here is why.
    The second and third rely on something which often can’t really be put to test and requires the trust or faith that you talk about. We have plenty of evidence that information from personal testimony is unreliable. A person like Sathya Sai Baba is a good example of this (there are plenty to choose from) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sathya_Sai_Baba

    People will really see and report on what they want to. This is demonstrable and is a unusual feature of the Human brain. This is why in law eyewitness testimony is not as valued as say video footage. You can find plenty of articles on this. It is not that people are lying. People really believe they have seen what they say. This really applies to people of all religions, each have stories that support the doctrine they have. Muslims aren’t lying when they give testimony of the works of god in their lives and the experiences of interaction with their god.

    I really believe that if you want to be sure of your beliefs that a critical approach to the bible is what is required. The bible is there to be read. Read it. Read it in different ways, traditionally people will read it vertically. This serves a great purpose from a devotional perspective but unfortunately it doesn’t serve you when trying to understand what each author is saying, because each says something different and has good reasons for saying something different also.

    When one reads in this vertical fashion one creates a story of blended accounts. Say if I ask the question did Mary Magdeline see an angel remove the stone from the tomb? Yes or no? Without comparing each gospel horizontally you may remember and answer from the one where the most neural connections were formed, perhaps because that story triggered more emotion. But if you read the gospels horizontally comparing each account you may have trouble answering.

    >How does God talk to you?

    If you want my blunt answer… He doesn’t.

    Take three pastors and ask them to pray about a particular topic, such as whether the soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception. Maybe they will all tell you the same thing. Does this mean that they have received this from God? Or more pertinently what if their answers differ? What when each claims their information is from God?

    I really see it time and time again with my wife and friends where they make the assertion that they have received information or guidance from God. I just never find it very convincing when from outside appearances the information is nothing other then what the person could have thought up themselves.

    Which has always lead me to make the question: Is there any information in the bible that could not have been created by man? If it was divinely inspired why does it not any contain information which you would not expect in it’s historical context?

    Do you think before moses received the ten commandments people were commonly killing the people the depended on? I’m sure the moral of not killing people existed prior to god authoring the tablets. In fact interestingly enough we are not so unique in our morality as we often think we are. Dolphins, Primates, and plenty of other creatures illustrate clear principles of game theory and morality. Even the famous golden rule did not have it’s birth from christianity.

    >What does it mean to ‘believe’?

    >Consistent and agreed-upon definitions are, however, vital to any meaningful communication.
    I love this little gem.

    I think belief it is merely a decision or rating of quality that one particular idea is worth holding on to. The quality of the evidence required however depends on the bearer of the decision. Some will decide at nothing to hold this idea or meme, others will stop at nothing to question an idea.

    But to what it means to believe, maybe it is the effect on the world you have in response to your beliefs. I think it is important to differentiate the behaviors which are commonly found in humans regardless of their beliefs and the ones which stem directly from the belief.

    For example I have a great desire and do my best to be philanthropic, if you hold this view and are a christian you might be tempted to associate your philanthropy with your belief in christianity, but we need to consider that this human behavior does not solely come from christianity. It is not uncommon for people of religions to say things like “I have such a love for other people because we are all gods people” or something along those lines. If I as a non-believer agree and say that I feel such a love as well, it is very easy for someone to assert that I don’t feel it in the same way they do, this may be true but how do I or they quantify this.

    Interestingly enough we can somewhat measure these things and there were some experiments done with some buddhist monks which showed from MRI scans that they had a larger response in the certain areas of the brain that indicate empathy when shown images of human suffering when compared to non-buddist monks.

    Anyways lots of well wishes to you and your friends, I hope that I have helped in some way.

    If you are interested in reading some books on the bible I recommend http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Interrupted-ebook/dp/B001TKD4XA

    Sorry if I have been offensive in anyway, but it is not often that someone gives an invitation for this kind of open talk, for that I think you are awesome.

    Keep well 🙂

    Cam

    Comment by Cam Spiers — 21 February 2010 @ 12:46 am

  3. Hi,

    Jesus did existed and there are evidence from non-christian historian regarding him. You have to have absolute belief in Jesus if you are going to trust him with your life and follow him. We are not perfect but he is. if he did exist then we can use the bible as the absolute truth of his existence (as man/god) and teaching. I hope this helps…

    http://www.gotquestions.org/did-Jesus-exist.html

    Question: “Did Jesus really exist? Is there any historical evidence of Jesus Christ?”

    Answer: Typically, when this question is asked, the person asking qualifies the question with “outside of the Bible.” We do not grant this idea that the Bible cannot be considered a source of evidence for the existence of Jesus. The New Testament contains hundreds of references to Jesus Christ. There are those who date the writing of the Gospels to the second century A.D., more than 100 years after Jesus’ death. Even if this were the case (which we strongly dispute), in terms of ancient evidences, writings less than 200 years after events took place are considered very reliable evidences. Further, the vast majority of scholars (Christian and non-Christian) will grant that the Epistles of Paul (at least some of them) were in fact written by Paul in the middle of the first century A.D., less than 40 years after Jesus’ death. In terms of ancient manuscript evidence, this is extraordinarily strong proof of the existence of a man named Jesus in Israel in the early first century A.D.

    It is also important to recognize that in A.D. 70, the Romans invaded and destroyed Jerusalem and most of Israel, slaughtering its inhabitants. Entire cities were literally burned to the ground. We should not be surprised, then, if much evidence of Jesus’ existence was destroyed. Many of the eyewitnesses of Jesus would have been killed. These facts likely limited the amount of surviving eyewitness testimony of Jesus.

    Considering that Jesus’ ministry was largely confined to a relatively unimportant area in a small corner of the Roman Empire, a surprising amount of information about Jesus can be drawn from secular historical sources. Some of the more important historical evidences of Jesus include the following:

    The first-century Roman Tacitus, who is considered one of the more accurate historians of the ancient world, mentioned superstitious “Christians” (from Christus, which is Latin for Christ), who suffered under Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius. Suetonius, chief secretary to Emperor Hadrian, wrote that there was a man named Chrestus (or Christ) who lived during the first century (Annals 15.44).

    Flavius Josephus is the most famous Jewish historian. In his Antiquities he refers to James, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.” There is a controversial verse (18:3) that says, “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats….He was [the] Christ…he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him.” One version reads, “At this time there was a wise man named Jesus. His conduct was good and [he] was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who became his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.”

    Julius Africanus quotes the historian Thallus in a discussion of the darkness which followed the crucifixion of Christ (Extant Writings, 18).

    Pliny the Younger, in Letters 10:96, recorded early Christian worship practices including the fact that Christians worshiped Jesus as God and were very ethical, and he includes a reference to the love feast and Lord’s Supper.

    The Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 43a) confirms Jesus’ crucifixion on the eve of Passover and the accusations against Christ of practicing sorcery and encouraging Jewish apostasy.

    Lucian of Samosata was a second-century Greek writer who admits that Jesus was worshiped by Christians, introduced new teachings, and was crucified for them. He said that Jesus’ teachings included the brotherhood of believers, the importance of conversion, and the importance of denying other gods. Christians lived according to Jesus’ laws, believed themselves to be immortal, and were characterized by contempt for death, voluntary self-devotion, and renunciation of material goods.

    Mara Bar-Serapion confirms that Jesus was thought to be a wise and virtuous man, was considered by many to be the king of Israel, was put to death by the Jews, and lived on in the teachings of His followers.

    Then we have all the Gnostic writings (The Gospel of Truth, The Apocryphon of John, The Gospel of Thomas, The Treatise on Resurrection, etc.) that all mention Jesus.

    In fact, we can almost reconstruct the gospel just from early non-Christian sources: Jesus was called the Christ (Josephus), did “magic,” led Israel into new teachings, and was hanged on Passover for them (Babylonian Talmud) in Judea (Tacitus), but claimed to be God and would return (Eliezar), which his followers believed, worshipping Him as God (Pliny the Younger).

    There is overwhelming evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ, both in secular and biblical history. Perhaps the greatest evidence that Jesus did exist is the fact that literally thousands of Christians in the first century A.D., including the twelve apostles, were willing to give their lives as martyrs for Jesus Christ. People will die for what they believe to be true, but no one will die for what they know to be a lie.

    Comment by Kelvin — 14 March 2010 @ 6:39 pm

  4. There’s so much in here that I could address, but I don’t know how helpful it would actually be to receive yet another post with a different answer.

    I did just want to say that the basis of our faith is Jesus, himself. Not singularly ‘the Bible’, ‘supernatural experience’ or ‘others’ testimonies’, because those are all ways that we encounter Jesus, and they’re all important.

    Comment by Melanie — 12 February 2011 @ 3:55 pm

    • That is not quite what I meant by basis for faith. The question is more: how can you know that Jesus is who Christianity claims Him to be? So it is a matter of what the basis you have for faith in Jesus and the gospel, what your primary source of evidence is.

      Comment by qwandor — 12 February 2011 @ 9:43 pm


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