Faith -v- humility

May 26th, 2015
by Chris

A couple of weeks ago, my church had a sermon and a small group session revolving round humility. I have a problem with humility (and no, that isn’t the set up for a joke like “When you’re this near perfect, it’s hard to be humble” or “Humility is my greatest virtue”). I have a particular problem being humble about things I have faith in.

It seems to me that the church generally has a lot of difficulty with this too. My link is to an article which criticises fundamentalists for too rigid an attitude and for being unwilling to consider even for a moment that they are wrong, but liberals and progressives are also guilty of this – the “Malleus Progressivorum” series on Unsettled Christianity starts with a complaint that progressives in that church aren’t prepared to consider other points of view, and much as I dislike the current move by eight “Biblical” churches in Fountain Hills to criticise the one church in town which is progressive, a close reading of the background does show that a conservative, literalist viewpoint is one which would probably feel excluded at the Fountains UMC.

And I write that despite wanting to say “And the UMC are absolutely right there, and the eight conservative churches should be excoriated”. Because liberal and progressive are so much closer to my own beliefs than is any form of biblical literalism. More “my tribe”.

My ultimate reason for wanting to criticise, though, is the thesis they are putting forward that progressive Christianity is wrong, something which you cannot espouse and still be a Christian (with “saved” and “not destined for the everlasting bonfire” close behind in the case of the conservatives). I try very hard to consider that there can be other ways of thinking about things – in fact, my last blog post considered a theological point of view which my experience tells me forcibly is wrong (namely that God might be depressed); it’s a thought experiment, suspending disbelief for a while in order to explore a set of concepts.

Note here that while I said “faith” to start off with, I’m now using the term “belief”. That’s important. To me, faith is largely an emotional commitment (involving, for example, love and trust) which has relatively little to do with logical argument; belief is something which I arrive at by considering things rationally and deciding what, on balance, I think is most likely to be the position. I try to hold my beliefs lightly (hence thought experiments involving another set of beliefs) and, as I’m a scientist by training, my root position is that any belief I have can be challenged by contrary evidence, and that what I believe for the time being should be whatever is, on my rational estimation, the most likely concept to coincide with what a situation really is. This is, of course, why I have difficulty with any belief system which starts out by saying that I need to believe in supernatural events.

That said, an insistence that I believe in the supernatural is merely an insult to my rationality, and does not affect my faith. I can, for the sake of argument, adopt the position that supernatural events may occasionally occur – and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest that someone else feels that, for them, it is essential that they do. I am interested in why they may feel that way, and open to thinking, at least for a while, as if that position were correct. I like to think that, were I to be provided with some very good reasons for doing so, I might change my mind about the absence of supernatural factors in the world. In addition, when treated as a way of talking about things rather than a statement of truth, I’m fairly happy to talk supernaturalist – let’s face it, I sometimes talk about my computer as if (in animistic fashion) it had consciousness of its own (a mischievous and malevolent one, on the whole). It may even be that some part of my subconscious actually believes that it has – but, it seems, that doesn’t apply to supernatural causes more generally.

I have not always been so epistemically humble. The 9 year old Chris who had worked out to his satisfaction that there were no supernatural entities and that scripture was on the same level as fables by Hans Christian Andersen (and somewhat less entertaining) was keen to share this indupitable truth with all and sundry, and to persuade them of the true state of affairs. Had he not, at 15, had a peak mystical experience which failed utterly to fit within a scientific-rationalist-materialist-reductionist framework, he might well have gone on to produce an adult in the mould of (say) Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens.

That, however, was largely just intellectual arrogance; it went to belief but not really to faith. If there was faith there, it was unfounded faith in my own powers of reasoning.

Then came the “zap” which changed everything, and for those who have not had a peak mystical experience or some other religious experience of similar intensity, these come with a massive quantity of self-verification. Not only do you suddenly see the world in a radically different way, but you are automatically convinced of the rightness of that experience. Incidentally, I include “some other religious experience of similar intensity” not because I have ever experienced such, but because I now hold open the possibility that (for instance) the ecstatic group-based experience may have similar force and validity. I have in the past tried quite hard to find a way to various alternative expressions of peak religious experience, but have failed; I now suspect that this is a function in part of my own psychology (I am seriously introverted and have a tendency to social anxiety) and of the fact that the original experience has created or accentuated extremely well-defined mental pathways which are now my default.

As a result, for many years I was inclined to say, when pushed, that I didn’t need to “believe in” God or “have faith in” God, because I experienced God. I might have said (and probably did on occasion) that in the same way I didn’t need to believe in air, or have faith in it, because I breathed it and knew it to exist. This self-verification tends to extend to parts of my interpretation of the experience, and for many years I would have said that these were equally self-verified by the experience itself. For instance, once I found a description of this type of experience as being of a panentheistic God, it was immediately clear to me with massive force that that was the way God is. When I read passages by (for instance) Baba Kuhi of Shiraz or Meister Eckhart, or from the Oxyrhyncus papyrii (part of the Gospel of Thomas) it was immediately clear to me (with massive force) that they were talking of the same kind of root experience.

There is a potential problem there. Although in my memory the descriptions have referred themselves back to the experience, I can recall that my initial reaction was that while something massively significant and full of meaning had happened, I lacked language to express it. I have to enquire whether, had I found some other descriptive language, whether I would have seized on that instead.

I can therefore now entertain the possibility that some of what I feel  is certain due to these experiences is stretching beyond what was actually self-verified in them, although it certainly feels to me as if it was, and continues to feel that way despite a substantial amount of self-interrogation. You will not, for instance, now find me saying in response to “Why do you think that?” the blunt “Because that’s how God tells me it is”. Apart from anything else, I have found that that is a complete conversation-stopper (which, actually, was one of the attractions – I have in the past shut up more than one doorstep evangelist that way). I might like to hear the same reticence from some who feel that “this is what the Holy Spirit inspires me to say”, which I anticipate may have something of the same force for them. I recognise the look in their eyes, but wonder if they may have stretched beyond what is basic to the experience.

Let’s face it, this was an issue which confronted Paul at an early stage in his ministry. In 1 Thess. 5:19-21 he talks about prophecy, and warns “Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good.” Thus, I will always try to find confirmation elsewhere, in scripture or in the writings of mystics or other thinkers, of anything which arrives with me with this self-verifying force, and in general if I’m trying to convince someone of the reasonableness of my position, it will be by quoting these sources.

But that isn’t necessarily how I reached the conclusion… and there’s the rub. I may be acting humbly but not feeling humble. However, as the only way I know to adjust my feelings is to use the “Act as If” principle, I think this is as good as I can get at the moment. Scientific Rationalist Chris can do humility these days (it was not always so), but Emotional Chris lags behind.

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