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And Now For A Liberal Christian View...

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Posted by Harvey on April 29, 2004 15:40:20 UTC

God. An atheist once asked "what exactly is a god?" I'm sure that atheist was being intentionally naive, but let's pretend that we were born yesterday and only knew of the things that we can directly see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. In such a world, the word 'God' might have little meaning since few have claimed such an experience, and certainly it is not a phenomena that Channel 2 News could be sent out to interview.

So, how do you get from being completely 'dumb' about such things as God to the point of not even having any notion of such, to the point to where you believe in the resurrection and divinity of a human being who lived in a primitive region 2,000 years ago? First the God question.

When you think about it, there is no solid separation between the things we see (etc) 'directly' and the things we 'indirectly'. Every object we experience doesn't actually zoom itself into our heads. We rely on our perceptions to guide us, but we already have pre-conceived ideas as to how to interpret those perceptions. Our experience of paper is such an such, only because we already have a conception of paper. If we had no previous experience with paper, we would immediately try to associate with something we already knew. For example, e-paper is a new invention that some of us are starting to hear about, but I think few of us have seen e-paper directly. Most of us who know about it, have read about it. By reading about it, we hear about some of those properties of this new paper, and we soon realize that isn't paper at all. It is closer to a computer display technology that uses some kind of polymer substrate to create the appearance of paper. The term 'paper' is used mainly to associate what we know (that is, our pre-conceptions) with what we don't know (a new display technology). Once e-paper hits the market, and we use it daily, we might even stop using paper. Maybe someday kids will learn about paper and they will be told "like e-paper but without the electronic storage, etc".

Such it is with the way things are in our world. The things we think we 'know' are a lot like e-paper. We've only become so accustomed to the exposure of concepts like e-paper that we no longer are aware that when we see (etc)something 'directly', that in fact we are just interpreting our perceptions in light of pre-existing conceptions of the world.

This answers part of the naive question by the atheist. The atheist asked "what exactly is a god?". Well, this question assumes that in order for something to be treated as knowledge, it must be referenced to something that we can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. If this reference is missing, the assumption is, that we really have no way of referencing the object of discussion, and therefore it doesn't really exist. But, as we learn from new concepts e.g. e-paper, all concepts and perceptions ultimately fall in this category, and the basis for all knowledge is a web of references that go back for no telling how long in human history. The partial answer then is that God is a historical reference of concepts that requires a historical study as to how that particular concept has been used throughout human history.

But, of course, this is only a partial answer since history is never so neat as to clearly provide a consistent interpretation of meaning for every human concept. The more abstract the concept, it seems, the even more difficult it is to summarize on an exact meaning of that concept. In the case of the concept God, the meaning is multiple meanings depending on context, culture, religion, denomination, family, etc.

Hence we have to make certain decisions on how to treat these kinds of concepts. We have to decide on what you mean by God when you ask "what is a god?". On top of that, we should frame our answer in terms of that meaning. In other words, if an atheist asks "what is a god?" to a Christian, then it is not appropriate for the Christian to answer in the sole context of their Christian belief, since the atheist has a different conception of reality, and any such kind of answer will be misinterpreted by the atheist. Instead, the Christian must answer at least partially in an atheist conception in order for a similar kind of meaning to be conceived by the atheist.

Think of my e-paper analogy. The e-paper is referred to as 'paper' to those unfamiliar with e-paper, but what if the person is from some primitive region of the Amazon basin and has no knowledge of paper, would it make sense to describe e-paper to such a person by referring to paper? Likewise, it makes little sense to refer to concepts outside of things that the atheist either is unfamiliar or simply doesn't believe. The same could be said for a Buddhist, or Hindu, etc. The question "what is a god?" applies not only to the beliefs of the questionee, it also refers to the beliefs of the questioner.

For the atheist the question "what is a god?", has to be answered in the language of the atheist - namely a materialistic language. For the Buddhist, the question "what is a god?" has to be answered in their language, and so on.

But, remember, I asked: "so, how do you get from being completely 'dumb' about such things as God to the point of not even having any notion of such, to the point to where you believe in the resurrection and divinity of a human being who lived in a primitive region 2,000 years ago?"

This question itself must depend on who I am trying to explain such notions. Since the question assumes that I am answering an atheist, then the language to answer is a language that a materialist might utilize.

Unfortunately, as great as language is, it has some imperfections. One of the great imperfections of language is that it not only restricts how we can understand the world, but it also restricts what questions are sensible in the first place. Here is where the problem begins for any religious answer to an atheist (or Buddhist, etc). How can I answer a question in a language which already assumes the question is ridiculous in the first place?

To move over that hurdle, one should show that the language that they are attempting to answer this question, is somewhat inadequate. In other words, first you must try to understand the question in terms of that person's language, and then you must show why their language does not possess enough vocabulary to best understand the answer.

Even though this is difficult, breaking down language is not all that difficult. Language is mostly pragmatic in its development, and it isn't all that difficult to demonstrate how a language is missing necessary concepts. Take for example any well-known paradox, eg Liar's Paradox, and immediately one can realize that their language is not problem free.

The real problem is not so much showing the language is inadequate, but convincing them that their language is so inadequate, that they should just dump it altogether. This is difficult because most educated people are knowledgable enough to know they possess inadequacies in terms of their use of language, but they do not necessarily believe that anyone else has a better language by which to refer to concepts in the world. For example, evolutionary theory is certainly a very successful theory, but few evolutionists are convinced that we have a sufficient language to describe evolutionary change, but this doesn't mean that they are about to speak in terms of creationism merely because of inadequacies in evolutionary speak. Rather, people are often comfortable in speaking of the world in the language they are comfortable, and just assuming that this language will improve over time, and that at some time later, we will all see how their language was suitable for the task.

Of course, it rarely ends up this way as history demonstrates. Language evolves, sometimes quite unexpectantly, and the evolved language is so different from the ancestor language, that they do not look like they are talking about the same things any more. The materialist language of the 19th century is so different from the 20th century materialist (e.g., quarks, leptons, etc), that it is no longer suitable to use the same classification in referring to the materialists of the two different time periods. We should probably mention, for example, that the 19th century materialist is a dilectic materialist, and the materialist in the 20th century is a Armstrongian materialist, etc.

So, what is a Christian to do to answer the atheist? Or to answer the Buddhist? The language of all three are insufficient and will evolve to something different than today. The people who accept their language usually do so because it is the best available, and they are unlikely to change for something they see as inferior.

The truth is, there is no answer other than if someone has had enough of their language, concepts, and meaning obtained from the world in which they are stuck. If in order for a person to believe in God they need to be answered in their own tongue, and that tongue is insufficient but they believe it to be the best possible available, then the conversation is over. There is nothing more that can be said which will convince them, nothing that can be said which will make them a believer. They are already satisfied with their beliefs because they are satisfied with their language.

But, if someone is not satisfied with their conceptual scheme, and they long for a belief system that is satisfying. Then the answer can be many things, but if they are open to the Christian answer, then the answer is very satisfying - at least to those who believe in the Christian conceptual scheme. That satisfaction comes in the belief and testimony of Jesus as the savior of all humanity.

That is a Christian answer in a Christian language. And, because it is outside of those who are not part of that faith and do not speak the language, the answers will not be accepted or understood. It can only be understood and accepted by first laying aside your language of the world, and instead a quest to find joy and freedom in your life that comes by accepting Jesus in your life.

This is why I more or less stopped debating. I came to realize that everyone's language has restricted themselves so much, that even though some were clever enough to see the fraility of their language, most were not willing to disabandon their use of that language (including me). Once I realized that it's the language we accept and the one that provided the things that meant the most in life, I understood that as a Christian I no longer need to feel to justify it (at this point, can't speak about tomorrow). It's all a matter of choice on how you want to be in life - not what you must prove wrong. Of course, life must be based on rationality, but if your language can effectively deal with modern knowledge (e.g., big bang, evolutionary theory, etc), then you are where you need to be just as long as your beliefs provide you with deep satisfaction in life. The only experience that really satisfies me is the Christian experience, and so I have returned to attending Church and no longer feel a deep 'But' inside the beliefs that I held.

So, how do you get from being completely 'dumb' about such things as God to the point of not even having any notion of such, to the point to where you believe in the resurrection and divinity of a human being who lived in a primitive region 2,000 years ago? Because the joy that comes from that experience is the best religious experience I have ever felt, and it leaves me feeling whole inside. No other reason.

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