Thursday, September 24, 2009

Religious Arrogance

One of the cardinal sins in Western culture today is arrogance. Not the kind of arrogance that boasts of financial, material, or other type of success, but the so-called arrogance associated with truth claims, especially regarding religion (the other is ethics, and of course, the two are interrelated). "I'm right," says someone regarding their religious views, and upward looks with rolling eyes fill the room. Afterward, an odd silence envelops the room. Someone's just spoiled the party!

For the most part, the religious landscape in the west and in America is wide open. In America, and especially in university settings and among the more educated in cities around the country, the idea that someone could know the truth as an exclusive item makes onlookers upset, and even angry. Why is that?

We'll have to veer off the path a bit, and take a look at some philosophy. Renee Descartes tried to obtain epistemological certainty with his cogito ergo sum, "I think, therefore I am," and built a whole system of knowledge from mathematics to the existence of God with it. Subsequent philosophers like David Hume denied any kind of certainty however, noting that since one has seen neither the past nor the future (the past could just be a false memory), then on strict observation alone, no one could know anything for certain. Immanuel Kant tried to solve Hume's dilemma, known as the problem of induction, by producing a dichotomy between that which is available to the five senses, and that which is not. Hence, his phenomenal realm and noumenal realm sought to bridge science and faith. And, although Huxley coined the term "agnostic," it is Kant who produced it.

Today we live without epistemological certainty regarding religious affairs, but we live with certainty regarding the hard sciences. We know that photosynthesis stores light energy into chemical energy, storing it in the bonds of sugar. We know that apples fall from trees because of the law of gravity. But the existence of God? That God has revealed himself (or herself, or itself) to us? Hardly.

But this is exactly what religions say about themselves. Hinduism asserts the fact that Brahman is the one true God, and although unknowable, has created over 300 million deities who run the world. Similarly, Islam asserts "There is one God (Allah) and Muhammad is his prophet." The argument from the modern western person is that while we have certainty that the hammer will drive the nail into the board, there is no certainty whatever of these various religious claims. Kant's dichotomy still lives on in our minds: only that which is subject to observation, repetition, and testing should be believed. Certainly this is true!

But hold on. How do you know for certain that the hammer will drive the nail into the board (barring no obstacles)? "Well," you say, "because I've done it in the past. I mean, I've seen it happen. Shoot, I've even done it!" Ah ha! So--you believe the future is like the past? says Hume. But this is precisely what he countered: that we have no certain reason to suppose that the nail, for example, will be driven into the board by the hammer. Why? Because the past, as an epistemological ground, is not reliable. You haven't actually observed the past. You only have a memory of it. Can you really prove that you hammered a nail three hours ago? Hume would tell you therefore, that you have no other choice but to be skeptical about knowing things. He says that we have come to expect the future to be like the past because it helps us live our lives, but we have no rational reason to do so. After all, your memory could in fact be false. Couldn't it? Yes, it could. Our memories deceive us all the time. Especially if we did drugs in college.

Where does that leave us? Do we carry on with life, using can openers, driving nails, flipping lights on and off, having no real certainty that we can expect results from our actions, but doing so anyway in some nebulous, irrational way? Not only do we not know things about God and religion, but about cars, molecules, and nails, too? Perhaps there is a better way...

We still believe in truth. Everyone believes in some kind of truth. Whenever someone uses the word "is" they are making a truth statement. Even the catch-phrase "There is no such thing as absolute truth" is a statement of truth. The word "is" from the "to be" verb group, is a grammatical term used in what is called predication. "The sky is blue," is predication at work. We live with predication all the time. We couldn't function without it. And we couldn't function not knowing if the stove was really turned off (then we'd all be OCD), or if the hammer was really going to force the nail into the board. I would dare to say that we live by faith. We live by faith that our experience of the world is real, and we live by faith that the future is like the past. Faith is not irrational, then--it is essential.

Faith is unseen, and comes from within us as we observe the world and life. We have faith. Faith is necessary for daily living. The idea that faith is essential opens the door for a divine foot to enter our rooms. If that is the case, then we should be able to know the truth as well. When Paul said, "We live by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7), perhaps this statement bears weight upon our discussion. So too, when Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth and the life," he was making a categorical statement of truth (Ravi Zacharias). For Jesus, the truth is real, and the truth is a person. Jesus said he and the truth were one and the same. That's odd, why would a person say that about himself? Isn't that a bit arrogant?

Of course, I wouldn't say Jesus is arrogant. The point here is that those who use the "arrogance" argument against exclusive claims of religion are just as guilty at making truth claims as anyone else when they make use of predication. Since truth does in fact exist, and since we do in fact live by faith, we should pay very real attention to Jesus and what he says about God, himself, us, the world, the forgiveness of sins, the end of empires, and on and on. If truth exists, and if Jesus is right that he is the truth, then all of history hinges upon the man from Galilee.

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