Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Faith, Part II

And in full awareness of the fact that probably no one cares what I think about this book, especially in light of yesterday's post, which I have now deleted because I'm a fickle, fickle beast and I just...I don't even know. I need to actually sort myself out here because I'm doing things that are going in opposite directions. Let's just call me confused and still looking, okay? Anyway, back to the book!

This is the end of the section of Morals. Aren't you all glad?

Here's how Lewis starts out the chapter:

"I want to start by saying something that I would like every one to notice carefully. It is this. If this chapter means nothing to you, if it seems to be trying to answer questions you never asked, drop it at once. Do not bother about it at all. There are certain things in Christianity that can be understood from the outside, before you have become a Christian. But there area great many things that cannot be understood until after you have gone a certain distance along the Christian road. These things are purely practical, though they do not look as if they were. They are directions for dealing with particular cross-roads and obstacles on the journey and they do not make sense until a man has reached those places. Whenever you find any statement in Christian writings which you can make nothing of, do not worry. Leave it alone. There will come a day, perhaps years later, when you suddenly see what it meant. If one could understand it now, it would only do one harm."

I am torn on my reaction to this statement. On the one hand, it's true that there are some things in every religion that people outside of the religion cannot make sense of. I tend to think that it's a lack of proper building blocks of knowledge in many cases, a lack of the understanding of the foundation of the belief. For instance, the Trinity. It makes absolutely no sense to many people who are non-Trinitarian, whether those are non-Trinitarian Christians or members of other monotheistic faiths. I think the Trinity probably makes a bit more sense to polytheists of certain stripes since they're used to thinking of a single divine entity that presents in different aspects or forms. And for other polytheists, it doesn't make as much sense because they're used to discrete gods. So yes, there is some truth to the fact that certain aspects of a religion don't make sense to those outside of it and might confuse them. My problem is the idea that people studying the faith or converting should 'just leave' the parts that confuse them in the hopes that it will some day make sense.

There are some things that I think you need to understand before you commit to a faith! And if you don't understand them then you shouldn't join the religion. Yes, some things are 'minor' or 'not salvation issues' according to some opinions. But those are just opinions and other people may believe that those same issues are a part of the heart of the faith. So if you don't understand them to your satisfaction, because I'm not saying that you have to be able to grasp every mystery of your chosen faith perfectly of course, are you really 'saved'? Are you truly a member of that religion?

Then again, this may be part of my own personal problem. I want to understand and the not understanding drives me crazy. I do know that divinity is so different from us that we can't understand it through our filter of limited senses and I'm okay with that. But the things that we do know, I want to understand. I want it to make sense to me. If I can't grasp even that much, how can I have faith in it?

"the question of Faith in this (second) sense arises after a man has tried his level best to practise the Christian virtues, and found that he fails, and seen that even if he could he would only be giving back to God what was already God's own. In other words, he discovers his bankruptcy."

I have issues with the concept of moral bankruptcy as the default human condition! I always have. I don't see where people get that. In the Bible, does God create man? Yes. Is God the author of anything evil or wrong? No. That's one of the basic tenets at the heart of monotheism. God = good. End of story. He only contains good, so He can only create good. So if both of these statements are true, then man is inherently, morally good. I do know that this is a simple view of reality, really I do. But boiled down, this is what it comes to in my mind. If God created everything, then everything is at it's core good. That does not take away the fact that people do bad things. We make mistakes. Free will is a bitch, remember? But this whole idea that people are born morally corrupt and dirty just doesn't make sense to me. I much prefer and better understand the Orthodox position that the Fall didn't corrupt the core of human beings but more...smudged them up. So it's like having an incredible work of art covered by a layer of dirt and grime. The art is still there, still beautiful as the day it was created, you just have to get to it.

Since the next several paragraphs are all about the moral bankruptcy of humans and how we cannot understand our relation to God until we understand that we are scum...I just have to go, 'no' at Lewis and shake my head. I disagree. There are morally good people who don't believe in God at all. There are morally good people who believe in different gods. Believing that you are scum and inherently flawed does not necessarily lead you to being a better person or in a 'right' relationship with deity. It seems so very self-destructive to me, like being raised in a household where you're told the entire time that your every impulse is wrong, that your opinions are wrong, that you shouldn't think for yourself in some areas but leave the judgment to those who are your 'moral superiors'. This is a pattern of behavior that leads people to depression and no sense of self-worth when it occurs between human beings. How much worse is it when you believe that the creator of all things thinks that you're so bad He can't even look at you?

So...blah, blah, handwave, 'humans are morally bankrupt'. :p

"Christians have often disputed as to whether what leads the Christian home is good actions, or Faith in Christ. I have no right really to speak on such a difficult question, but it does seem to me like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most necessary. A serious moral effort is the only thing that will bring you to the point where you throw up the sponge. Faith in Christ is the only thing to save you from despair at that point: and out of that Faith in Him good actions must inevitably come."

This part I like, in a way. I view the whole faith vs. actions thing as a sort of chicken vs. egg thing. You can't have one without the other. Or, well, you can, but in the salvation economy of Christianity it doesn't work. You have to have faith *and* do good works. I'm not denying that there are arguments as to whether or not the good works are motivated by the fact that you have faith or not, but I'm not aware of any branch of Christianity (which doesn't mean that there isn't one, just that I don't know about it. My knowledge base isn't all inclusive) that says that you can earn your way into God's good graces. I know that some branches have been mis-characterised in that fashion, but it's simply not true. Even Islam, which is accused very often of being a works based religion, doesn't work without faith. I could pray salat five times a day for the rest of my life, give charity, make Hajj, do all the things that are outward signs of a good and faithful Muslim and it wouldn't mean anything if I didn't believe in the message of Islam.


  1. Oh! That's why Blogger keeps eating my comments! I'm trying to comment on non-existent entries! :D Ok, now I'll go back and actually read this one and then write a new comment under this.

    (Also, I wouldn't say no one cares what you have to say because of that post. I still plan to do Bible posts, and reviews of Christian books. I try to do it respectfully and not judge them by what I believe, but I think I can still share my thoughts on them without stepping on toes.)

    1. Ok, finished! :)

      A group of friends at school had some interesting thoughts on the whole faith vs. works question. I remember one of them stating that having to believe the right things is still works-righteousness. It's still people earning their salvation, it just warps it in a way that you don't have to actually do anything good for the world, you just have to accept what you're told and believe you're doing right. So he would take it a step further and say that there's more of a conversation going on, and belief might not come first or even be all that important (at least not more than anything else). Belief is one response to an experience of God, but being doubtful that the experience was actually God while still responding by helping the world is also a faithful, saving response. It's the give and take between God and man, whatever form that takes. (It's probably worth noting that salvation in this sense has nothing to do with "accepting Christ" in the way I was taught as a kid, believing and praying the right things. Rather, it's a process of redeeming the world through the combined effort of God and humanity. Or for panentheists, God's influence bringing all parts of creation into harmony.)

      It didn't seem to me like Lewis was saying that if you don't understand it, you shouldn't read it. Granted I didn't read the chapter so I don't know where he goes from there. But it sounds like he's more saying that if you're new and you're still dealing with the surface stuff so none of this has even occurred to you, it's not that important yet. Don't get overwhelmed and think you have to get all of this, just go at your own pace and answer the questions that are on your mind right now.

    2. That's an interesting take, that believing itself is a work.

      But, generally, isn't the theory that doing good works on their own isn't salvific? So I could save a hundred people by donating clothing or food or what have you because I have the ability and the means and believe that it is our duty as human beings to help others when we are able, all the while having historically had an experience of the divine but doubting it so that my actions are not related to this experience and therefore my works wouldn't be an act of salvation because they're not being done in the proper frame of mind and soul? Right? I mean, that's the mainstream thought process as I understand it. But your friend is saying that doing the good things, regardless of the motivation or the persons religious stance, is work that can 'save' them? I'm just trying to see if I've got this straight in my head! If so, very interesting. *steeples fingers in thought*

      I don't think that Lewis was saying you should ignore it altogether either, but his advice was to read it, set it down and walk away, continuing to carry on your life. That some day it will just *click* and mean something to you. I have a problem with that, but I admit that it's probably a character/personality issue with me. I don't like walking away from something until I understand it, dammit! Probably Lewis meant not to keep worrying at the issue, the way I do, and to let it percolate in the back of your brain while you're learning other things. In other words, gaining the foundational knowledge in order to comprehend. *sighs* Fine, Lewis can be reasonable here and I can't. :p

    3. Well, doubting the experience is God doesn't mean it didn't change your behavior. Lewis believes (and I think many Christians agree with him) that every good thought comes from God. A more universalist friend of mine says that everything good is God, so that as a polytheist worshiping my gods, I'm really worshiping the one God. And so from that perspective even an atheist is honoring God by doing good things. From a monotheist perspective where there is only one God who is the beginning of all creation, and realizing that as you said in your deleted entry all (or at least, many) religions have about equal likelihood of being right, it makes sense that all those other religions are expressions of the same experience, interpreted differently through different cultures. And moving on from there, an atheist might not be able to get behind the idea of a personal god, but the same experience might lead them to think that there's still something good and meaningful about life, so there is reason to try to change things for the better rather than to simply exist.

      The salvific work isn't just doing something good. (After all, you could easily do good by accident, or because it helps you and it just happens to also help others.) Intention matters, a specific understanding of the divine doesn't. It's in the combined work of God and man, however that's understood. Responding to your own evolved altruistic ideals could be seen from a panentheist's point of view to be responding to the prompting of God. It's a step of faith (the way you explained faith in a previous entry), just not a step towards a certain orthodoxy.

    4. And then I went back and restored the post (yay Google Reader!) because what the hell.

    5. But, let's say that you have an experience that may or may not have been divine. You don't know for sure, you have doubts. Your behavior changes afterward, but it's not because of the experience. You lack the intent behind the action. For some theologies, that would mean that those good deeds don't 'count' for you in the salvation process. Right?

      Christians may believe that every good act or thing that happens is an expression of God, but that doesn't mean that random acts of goodness are going to save people, which is the point of Christianity. So God choosing to act out through people who don't believe in Him doesn't necessarily 'save' those people.

      I'm not saying that point of view is right, just that that's my understanding of the mainstream Christian point of view on these things. And my understanding could very well be wrong. :)

    6. Ah, I see the problem. I think.

      You're talking about mainstream Christianity, by which you probably mean the more common evangelical interpretation, whereas I'm talking about a more liberal/universalist interpretation within Christianity. It's not as common, but it's there. Salvation doesn't mean the same thing to all Christians. So yes, for some theologies and for much of mainstream Christianity, what matters is belief.

      Salvation in the sense that I was describing isn't the same thing as becoming a Christian or getting into Heaven or whatever. The people I am talking about tend to be more universalist and don't believe anyone is going to Hell, so obviously salvation is not the same thing. They tend to talk about it more as redeeming the world. Everything we do and everything God does to restore the world and help us all heal is a step toward salvation. It's not salvation from being cut off from God or punished, it's salvation from our own brokenness, which comes when we help each other and act with compassion towards the rest of creation. That's why forgiving our enemies is so important, it undoes the damage of hate and allows us to heal and build something better.

    7. Ah. Yes, I was thinking more along the mainstream evangelical lines then. It's what I've encountered so it's what sticks in my mind. :)

  2. wow, those are some wordy comments. and mine will be more about me and my thoughts in general, so will seem extremely simplistic compared to yours. so please ignore if required.

    all religions are based and taught on a level of goodness. and general knowledge of the time. The ten commandments etc. then they have been expanded on by man, bent and twisted.

    faith is something extremely personal and as mentioned earlier, one size does not fit all.

    to quote the film stigmata

    Jesus said... "the Kingdom of God is inside you, and all around you, not in mansions of wood and stone. Split a piece of wood... and I am there, lift a stone... and you will find me." Obviously this is a film but I so get what it is trying to convey.

    you can have your own faith, religion etc, you dont need a building, a church or someone else to tell you or give you rules. you can worship in your own way...

    And then to further quote my 4 year old great niece, when looking at a dandelion weed in the garden. Just as I was about to spray it "Dont Rah Rah (that is what she calls me), its pretty and God made it."

    I think we all forget the miracles that surround us.

    Completely off all over the place and not very academic. rambling...

    1. Your comments are always welcome and valued, no matter what wordy rabbit trails myself and some other commenters may go off on!

      I agree that all religions are the same experience, the experience of the divine, filtered through different cultures and time periods.

      I think that we've become so used to an institutional idea of religion that the simpler, more natural things can slip right on past us without us even noticing much of the time. That appears to be changing, the barriers breaking down in many people, but like all processes it's a slow one.

  3. I enjoy reading your thoughts no matter what you believe. Same with Sanil. She does some great commentary on the Bible often giving me new perspectives to consider and helping me learn. :)

    Really interesting things here and I enjoyed the comments. I can see why you don't like the morally depraved aspect of some Christians' thinking. What you said makes a lot of sense re: God creating good. I'll have to ponder that some more. Thanks for making me think! And please keep reviewing theological books (or whatever you consider this Mere Christianity type) even if they aren't your chosen faith.

    1. *laughs* It's always bugged me, really, that so many people think humans are so *bad* at their core. It makes no sense given the thought process I outlined.

      I think Mere Christianity is like...theology lite. It's meant to sort of introduce some theological concepts to people who may not be familiar with them or may just be learning but it doesn't go into very heavy details on a lot of things. Since it is just the written version of radio talks, that makes sense. There's no real chance for the give and take kind of discussion that would lead to more details coming out.


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