Does Your Faith Fit the Facts?
Matters of faith and matters of fact have an often-strained relationship. For most of its history, Christianity has claimed to be a faith based on facts—on historical events. The implications of this are enormous. Christians or others who do not subscribe to the claim often find themselves aggressively opposed by those who do. Christianity’s identity crisis seems to be intensifying. Where it will lead the faith (and the faithful) is uncertain. Here are 10 tips toward lining up your own faith as closely as possible with the facts.
1. Pay careful attention to that man behind the collar. Do you think you can believe everything your minister or priest says? Some of it? How are you going to sort it out? You’ve got to do your homework, along the lines of the rest of this article. Find out exactly what education your church or other religious leaders have had. Theology is an extremely broad field and it’s common to get a college or even a graduate degree without much exposure beyond a narrow slice of the whole. Leaders also have biases and vested interests the same as the rest of us, and usually more intensely.
2. Understand that religion and science can and should work together. The two fields have only gone separate ways for a few centuries and are increasingly being reunited today, though largely below the media radar. The more precise measurements and tools of current science are confirming more and more of what people of faith have long believed. Still, mystery remains and probably always will. Plenty of room for faith.
3. Learn to focus on function rather than form. Most religious leaders in America say that certain things that happened 2000 years ago can save you–as long as you believe they happened. To them, the specific content or form of your beliefs is critical. They miss the fact that the theology growing out of these beliefs doesn’t function well for many people despite their efforts to quell doubts and live according to the beliefs. Additionally, it’s easy to miss the observation that widely varying forms of faith in God function much alike, often in positive ways.
4. Realize that prominent myths are true. Myths get created and carried forward because they contain important truths. They are specifically created for their time, just as are all stories and literature. Yet, they often are timeless. Applying #3, the function of a myth is more important than its form.
5. Accept that myths are not facts. While Christianity’s main myths are true, the stories that contain them are not necessarily facts. The Jesus story worked (functioned) very well–served an important purpose in its early days, and still does. This is what really matters, rather than whether or not it corresponds to literal history or if it arose from God’s intervention in human history. Additionally, mystery can and should be acceptable as to just what the accomplishments of Jesus were. For example, while “substitutionary atonement” is suspiciously abstract and highly debatable even from a standpoint of the theology within the Bible, I will not presume to deny that Jesus’ role seems to have created or moved along humanity’s connection with God.
6. Become a student of history. The only way you’ll ever get some sense of what did historically happen in the writing of the New Testament and what stimulated the growth of early Christianity is to read the history and various literature of the period. (Forget, however, about figuring out exactly what is and isn’t truly biographical about Jesus–the best of scholars can’t agree.)
7. View the world periodically from another window. We each see the world in the way we’ve been trained to. It’s hard to get another view. But if we either spend substantial time in a very different culture or make a point to read those who see things quite differently from us, our view will include much more than we could see before. .
8. Watch out for the several thinking errors that often make religious beliefs untenable. There is a saying in sales work that is just as true in religion. “People buy emotionally and justify rationally.” But by the time a belief system is “bought,” it is usually not feasible to “return” it, so justification takes on a number of distortions seen also in other situations: generalizing from too small a sample, reasoning in a circle, confusing mere corelation with causation, creating straw men, etc.
9. In terms of how we got our traditional Christian beliefs, realize that there is continuity of New Testament teachings with Jewish and other Middle Eastern beliefs of the time. In other words, there is no need to think God revealed truths suddenly through Jesus and his apostles, these then being written in authoritative documents easily recognized as such by the early Church. The first century was, in fact, a time of “paradigm” revolution, but still with the kind of continuity and natural building we see with all types of paradigms.
10. Look for points of common ground among the various forms of Christian faith and also other major religions and spiritual expressions. These are not readily categorized as “facts,” as they may not be as verifiable on a scientific basis. But for practical effects, which is the major concern of many of us, finding agreement on at least broad principles indicates the likelihood of their being “(f)actual.” If measured like this, agreement at least indicates benefit, one aspect of truth. A key example: the primacy of self-sacrificial love–love that emanates from high respect and care for oneself, while also giving of oneself for others.
Having a faith that is not in conflict with clear facts is important. If a form of faith seems to require certainty of “fact” where doubt is a reasonable thing, you might want to keep searching, refining. And since what is factual or not is often open to serious debate, a lot of latitude and graciousness toward others is in order. When the emphasis is put on the benefits (part of function) of various forms of religious faith, one sees that the supposed facts about a given religion’s origin and divine authority become close to irrelevant.
In “fact,” one of the important “facts” about religious beliefs is that they serve us all better when the emphasis is strongest on the up-building principles shared with other systems of belief. This in itself might be considered “faith that fits the facts.”