Recently several people have come to me asking about the existence of God. They want to know if there are any arguments that are convincing enough to make them believe. They want me to demonstrate to their satisfaction that the Bible must be true. While I am capable of taking them through detailed discussions of epistemology (that is, how we know truth), I usually find that this is not what they are really asking. [If you want to read about the question “How do we know what is true?” please consider my article called What Makes Sense]. What they are usually asking is much more personal. Unless we understand the emotional mind, we can easily be distracted into interesting and thought-provoking discussions that never get us to what is most important – what does this mean to me?
Most questions about God really have nothing to do with God’s existence. There are a few people who seriously question God’s existence, but they are actually rather rare. Most people claim to believe in God. Whether that is a result of cultural bias or the history of civilization is not an issue here. How they came to hold this belief doesn’t really matter. What matters is that once people begin to question what believing in God really means in their personal lives, they begin to struggle with some of the implications. That’s usually when they start the arguments. But oddly enough, they don’t usually doubt God’s existence. Instead, they begin to doubt the implications of God’s existence for their current lifestyle. At that point, the real issue is not whether God exists; it is whether God has any claim on me.
This immediately presents another problem. Just believing that God exists is relatively unproblematic. As long as God stays in His heaven and leaves me alone, I really don’t have to care if He exists or not. The problem shows up when the God who is up there in heaven shows up down here and starts telling me how I should live. God’s existence rarely bothers anyone (as we can plainly see from the fact that the majority of the Western world espouses a belief in God’s existence but apparently this makes very little difference to the crime statistics). The real rub is when God tells me what to do, how to behave and how to treat Him. As long as God makes no claims on me, there is no problem. Unfortunately, life seems to bring us to places where we have to confront these claims of God. So, the debate begins.
We have at least two different ways of handling this kind of crisis. We can retreat, either intellectually or emotionally. Or we can press forward and accept the risk of change. Retreating usually means that we will do our best to ignore the pressure. We may comply if the community requires it, or we may opt out of the community and set our own standards. Intellectually we can retreat as well. We can become part of the “questioning” society. After all, it is always possible to ask another question, to put off a decision because there is one more item to discuss. We can avoid commitment or confirmation by traveling the pathway of “enlightenment”, always seeking, never arriving. Any form of retreat reduces risk. No change is necessary. No beliefs are challenged. No behavior is altered.
This is the plateau of the emotional mind.
Let me explain.
Most people who are confronted with questions about God are disturbed because the questions that they face make demands on them that they are not willing to accept. If there really is a God, and He really is the creator of everything, then there are implications about His relationship to everything that intellectually cannot be avoided. But emotionally they can be avoided. I can compartmentalize God. God belongs in my “religious” life, not in my business life, my social life, my relationship life. When I go to church or when I am in real trouble and need His assistance or when I observe religious holidays, God shows up for the event. Whether is it Yom Kippur or Easter, a wedding or a funeral doesn’t matter. God is a functionary in those areas of my life that are “religious”. The rest of the time, it’s up to me. No more poignant example of compartmentalization can be found than the baptism from The Godfather Part I. The scene vacillates between Michael Corleone fulfilling the Catholic ritual of becoming godfather, espousing his belief in Christ and denying the works of the devil and the execution of members of rival families. This is Mafia Christianity, nothing personal – strictly business. The graphic portrayal of this hypocrisy is intentional, but no less alarming than the ratiocinations and manipulations that each of us go through as we try to justify our own deliberate separation of God from every aspect of our lives. If God is really God, there is nothing that isn’t personal. We just want to pretend that He is not involved.
A truly intellectual commitment would immediately recognize that once God’s existence is accepted, everything about life changes. If there is a God, what God has to say about life must be understood and acknowledged. There can never be a middle ground. The pursuit of truth demands that truth be enacted as it is discovered. Truth cannot be set on the shelf while life goes on without incorporating it into the process of living. That would be tantamount to living a known lie. Unfortunately, even though most of us agree intellectually that there are immediate, undeniable consequences for our personal lives if we acknowledge God’s existence, we go right on acting as though none of this matters. That’s because we are not true seekers. We are letting the emotional mind dominate our choices.
Is it any wonder that there are so few people who really search for Truth? Finding it can present incredible risks. Life can become completely unstable. Options that were heretofore only seen as possibilities suddenly become demands. No truly intellectual pursuit can suspend moral conduct once the Truth is revealed. If it is really True, it must be upheld, no matter what the costs. No wonder most of us take a different road when we are faced with these sorts of questions.
In opposition to the intellectual mind, the emotional mind seeks a different goal. The emotional mind seeks justification. Seeking justification presupposes that we come to the data (for example, the Biblical record) with the motivation of matching it up with something that we already believe. For example, if I believe that miracles are scientifically impossible (if I believe that the law of cause and effect is inviolable), then the examples of miracles that I find scattered throughout the text of the Bible will have to be re-interpreted into the categories of my system of beliefs. So, miracles will become “illusions”, “misunderstandings”, “religious frenzy”, “redactions” or some other explanation. Since miracles cannot exist, no account of the miraculous can be true no matter what “evidence” might be presented.
Let’s consider another example, perhaps a little less contentious. The Bible claims that everyone is estranged from God because of sin. As a consequence of this estrangement, every human being who has ever sinned is subject to God’s final judgment and punishment. If I am looking for justification of my belief that there is more than one pathway to God, that God would never send millions of human beings to Hell, or that Hell itself is an outmoded concept, then I will have to re-interpret the text of the Bible so that these statements are seen as the misguided statements of unenlightened past ages or the mistakes of prior church extrapolations or the false beliefs of an ancient nomadic people. I will not try to understand the claims about sin from the perspective of the interpretive scheme of the Bible itself because the very idea of sin, guilt and punishment is not in my belief system. I don’t like the thought that I might be under God’s judgment for my behavior, so I choose to re-interpret the claims to match my desires.
One more example will bring the inquiry to a personal level (where it usually begins anyway). Suppose that I like the way that I live now. I enjoy the freedom of doing what I want, when I want. I subscribe to the moral code, “If it doesn’t hurt anyone, it’s OK”. Then I read in the Bible that immorality, sensuality, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, envyings, drunkenness and carousings are actions that are unacceptable to God. God’s message to me through the Bible is that my particular moral code is deficient, and ultimately punishable. I am confronted at the personal level. If I seek to justify my life style, I will have to look for ways to show that these words were written to earlier churches in situations where civil unrest, cultural conflict and religious battles made people think differently than we do today. Those people lived 2000 years ago. Things have changed. We are much more pluralistic today. We live in a global village. The rigidity of those old beliefs must be replaced with more cosmopolitan views. The God that I want to believe in is much more tolerant than that angry God of the Old Testament. My modern God is a God of love and understanding so those old ideas no longer apply.
Justification fails to find any answers to serious questions because justification is not interested in any answers except those that support the emotional mind. Justification is concerned with hidden agendas. Almost every person I have ever talked with about God has eventually confessed that the motivation behind the sophistry is a deeply personal one. There is something that is being challenged; something that they do not want to give up. These personal issues outweigh feigned commitment to the Truth.
I believe that I can hold my own in intellectual discussions. With many degrees and years of education, I can usually find points of common ground. I can almost always move the argument forward at some level. I am not the most intellectual person I know (thank God), but I am also no intellectual slouch. What I have learned over the years is that the most important opening question in such debates has nothing to do with evidence, historicity, textual criticism, logical problems or hermeneutics. The most important opening question has to do with motivation: “Why do you want to know the answer to this question?” “Why is this question troubling you?” “Why do you think that this question is important for your life?” Motivation is the key. It separates those who seek justification from those who seek understanding. If the real motivation is justifying a prior commitment to a web of beliefs or a lifestyle or a particular behavior, the remaining debate will be fruitless no matter what the outcome. This is especially true when it comes to questions about the God of the Bible. That is because the God of the Bible is basically interested in only one thing – His claim on our lives. To ignore the moral element of this God is to ignore the central tenant of the entire spiritual environment presented in this text. If I am only interested in justifying my commitment to self-serving beliefs, I cannot follow the message of the text wherever it will lead because to do so will contradict my right to myself. According to the Bible, God is interested in me for His purposes, not mine. I cannot approach this material without giving that claim its proper place. That means I will be confronted not only intellectually but also morally. God will demand certain changes from me; changes that I may find very uncomfortable. There is great risk associated with approaching this text. My life might have to be re-written. Or I can refuse this demand and simply use the words of the text to provide justification for my a priori beliefs.
Let me give a very “politically incorrect” example. There has been a great deal of debate in society about the authenticity of the gay lifestyle. All sorts of arguments have been presented to explain its origins, its virtues and its benefits. Laws have been passed to prevent abuse against those who practice such a lifestyle. It is definitely on the political hot list. Movies, television and media all show deference to this issue. No one wants to be called a “bigot”. Even within the Christian church, great efforts have been made to try to find Scriptural sanctions of this behavior. The commotion caused by all of this is just an indicator of the depth of the problem.
The problem is fairly straightforward. In the letter to the Romans, Paul states that behavior associated with homosexuality is morally illegitimate and subject to God’s wrath (Romans 1:26-27). The same idea is repeated in several other passages. Homosexuality is considered a sin. This has been the interpretation of the text for nearly 1900 years. But now society has adopted pluralistic values. It is no longer correct to say that another lifestyle is “wrong” or “sinful”. Modern man must accommodate all the varieties of sexual preference as long as the actions are between consenting adults (or some such qualification). For the person who seeks understanding rather than justification, these verses present a serious issue. I cannot skirt their implications. I cannot perform textual or cultural surgery in order to relegate them to the irrelevant. I am faced with a decision. The Bible does not care, or comment, on how a person comes to practice this lifestyle. It does not care what genetic code, childhood trauma, cultural inclinations or personal decisions prompted this behavior. It cares only about one thing: that God finds this behavior reprehensible. You can either make a choice to understand why the Bible says this, regardless of what that may mean for changes in how you behave, or you can decide that you know better than the claims made on behalf of God and ignore the text. There really is no middle ground. Your approach really comes down to motivation. In the final analysis, the truth will still be the Truth whether we like it or not. We are either motivated to know the Truth, no matter what it says, or we are motivated to maintain our beliefs no matter what they are. This motivation is no different for scientific claims than religious claims. If we seek Truth, we must be ready to risk our present beliefs.
If we are to understand rather than justify, we will have to take a different approach. We will have to begin by trying to put ourselves as much as possible into the framework of the authors of the books of the Bible. We will have to work hard at opening our minds to allow their view of the universe to reformulate our preconceived categories. No other inquiry will suffice for any other method will ultimately be self-serving. Without a serious attempt to place ourselves in the interpretive scheme of the text, we will find only those answers that we want to find.
Therefore, the first task in understanding is to reflect on motivation. Our motivation must be to seek the pure truth, as best as we are able to, no matter where it leads or what current beliefs we may have to jettison along the way. Otherwise the entire effort is doomed. Otherwise we will end up at the beginning – knowing nothing more than we already believe to be the case. To proceed, we must incorporate a simple heuristic device (a device that we neither hold to be true or false but simply pragmatic – it gets the job done). That device is: whenever we encounter a statement that seems counter to one of our current beliefs, we must ask the hard question about our motivation before we pass judgment on the belief. If we don’t like the sound of it, if we hesitate about the implications, if we are challenged or confronted, we will not dismiss the claim until we have first examined why we are reacting. Our reactions are indications of interpretive scheme conflict. After all, men and women who were players within the interpretive scheme of the Bible, whose lives are written within the pages of the story, did not seem to have major intellectual problems accepting the claims of the text. The data they encounter was integrated into their interpretive schemes without much difficulty. They had lots of problems, but they were not intellectual or rational ones. And they were just as human as we are. So, when we encounter something in this long story that seems difficult for us, we need to examine our thinking to make sure that we are not excluding the idea simply because it does not fit our current set of presuppositions. We need to be sure that we are not dismissing the claim because we don’t like what it says.
In summary, first comes an examination of motivation. Why are we seeking answers? The motive will illuminate our presuppositions. If we are going to look for truth, we better understand what is pushing us. Secondly, we need to pay attention to our own internal alarms. Yes, we will always be subject to an interpretive scheme. That can’t be avoided. But as we approach the text, looking for truth, we must pay special attention to those concepts and ideas that disturb us the most. They are likely to reveal our own hidden biases. If we ignore these alarms, we are likely to find no more than what we wanted to. Thirdly, we must make every effort to read the text as though we are part of the interpretive scheme of the original audience. Not an easy task. But not impossible. The methodology is fairly straightforward. Start with the words. Find their etymological roots. See how they develop. Dig into the cultural influences. Then assume that the choice of word is not accidental. Ask why this particular word was used in this particular place. How does it fit into the larger interpretive scheme? After a little practice, it won’t be so difficult, although it will undoubtedly challenge some of our modern ways of looking at things
If we are going to understand what the Bible says, we must take extra caution to detect the influence of the emotional mind. We need to develop the skill of hearing our own internal alarms. Read the words. How do they make you feel? Sad, angry, upset, confused, guilty, ashamed, joyful, serene – the emotional list is long. Examine those feelings with care. They are clues to your own web of beliefs, the very ones that may prevent you from hearing what the text is really saying. Intellectual understanding can come only after these biases are clarified and admitted.
The Bible is a very curious book. It is not a philosophical text, a theological treatise or a moral codebook. It is a love story. It is the story about a God who is intimately involved with each and every part of His creation. It is very personal. It involves emotions in the deepest way. It is a story filled with hate, anger, revenge, jealousy, fear, guilt, shame – and also peace, mercy, joy, laughter, desire, comfort and love. Without recognizing the essential emotional element of this story we will have nothing but dry old manuscripts. We will miss the Truth in the scrolls. Emotional involvement with this story is anticipated, expected, even necessary if we are going to understand it. Let yourself feel what it is saying. Ask yourself why you feel this way? Use those answers to come to terms with the story itself. You may be surprised at what you discover.