“If I didn’t believe the resurrection, I’d be at a strip club right now.”
“If the Bible’s not true, living a life of self-sacrificial service is pointless.” “If God does not exist, life is meaningless.” I’ve heard a lot of this sort of talk over the years, and I’ve personally been guilty of the last of these three sentiments. I now see them as the result of a dangerous distortion of faith, one that keeps people clinging to religious beliefs by way of fear rather than honesty, and forces those who can’t stand the tension to give up their beliefs, often in a state of utter despair (or, at least in a state of hanging out at the local strip club).
This issue was raised for me again recently while viewing a video a friend sent me on why he places unconditional trust in the Bible (The relevant action begins @ 22:30). Here we have John Piper (essentially the patriarch of the neo-refomed, or new Calvinist movement) lay out a version of our offending statements:
Building our lives on sacrificial service”, he says, “when it’s all a mistake would be very pitiable. In other words, if you construct your life around what you see in the Bible and discover in the end that it’s not true, that would be tragic. And that’s exactly what Paul says, isn’t it. 1 Cor 15:19 ‘If we have hoped in Christ in this life only we are of all men the most to be pitied.’ In other words, if the gospel proves false—Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, he’s not the Lord of the universe, he’s not coming again, he’s not taking us into his fellowship forever and ever—we really blew it, and are first class fools for the way we spent our lives.
Really? We blew it? So one who gives of themselves under the inspiration of the sacrifice of Jesus (or under whatever inspiration) and in so doing mediates healing life to those around them, freeing them from from the negativities of life (be they physical, psychological, or whatever), such a person would be a fool if the mythic story Piper relates is not fact? Such a person would have “blown it?” I hope your intuitions are sensing a problem here.
The common thread in all these assertions is the assumption that goodness needs a sort of guarantee. In other words, it is assumed that for goodness to be good, something else must ultimately hold true other than itself. A highest existing being with an ultimate opinion must be “out there,” a book must give us this opinion, a miraculous story from our past must be fact. This, I think, is highly problematic and leads to both dishonesty and great anxiety of conscience.
Why? Because the theology advocated above separates value from being and then demands that to secure the former, one must submit to a particular theory of what remains in the latter, namely, facts. This is the famous fact value split and the theology we are examining makes the validity of our values absolutely dependent upon a particular set of facts. It makes God one more fact in the world of facts, and thus requires a theory of revelation in which moral, historical (and in some cases) scientific facts are communicated to humanity through Scripture.
A religious person who is operating under this scheme could look at the life of anyone who does not accept their interpretation of the facts (e.g., a Muslim, an atheist, etc.), but who exemplifies an excellence of life that surpasses their own and yet be compelled to feel that such excellence counts for nothing, and that what is truly needed is to convince them of their own view of reality, their own particular interpretation of the facts. They could look at a gay couple whose fidelity and love surpasses that of any heterosexual couple they have known, yet still feel that since that mode of sexuality doesn’t mesh with their interpretation of the facts, it must be condemned. In effect, the self-sacrificial love of Jesus could be lived out before their very eyes, but if it was embodied in one who did not accept their own version of the facts, they would be compelled to call it a lie. Why? Because for them, values don’t tell us anything about what is ultimately real, facts do. The exemplification of goodness is not what is important, a good argument about the facts is.
But it is not only the actions of others that get condemned by those work from within this view, it is their own honestly as well. Under the influence of a specific unconditional interpretation of the facts, one has great motivation to not ask too many questions, for the worry is that if the interpretation of the facts were to fail, our own values would as well. This is perhaps the deepest anxiety such a view creates. The judgements on others are often just the external manifestations of this deep worry. The vehemence with which such a person attacks those who love well in spite of their divergent factual world-view is evidence of the threat they pose to the stability of the anxious soul I’ve been describing (see 3:59 of Piper’s talk. It’s not self-critical honesty that leads people to question the Bible, it’s: the Devil). Calling good evil is hard work and creates a conflicted, angry conscience.
The solution to this situation is the reunion of being and value. Being and value ought not be thought of as separate concepts; rather, value is a form of being. If this move is made, one can seek to develop an understanding of being-itself holistically. Our senses, emotions, intellect, the whole of our very being, because it participates in being-itself, have the potential to tell us something about being-itself, about God. Certainly, one must remember that we are finite and that all our judgements are fragmentary and fallible (even intuitions about value), but as Robert Adams put it so well, “…if we are not prepared to let our vision of value control in some ways our vision of reality, then we had better not be theists.” By which he means that those who silence their value intuitions to some authoritative view of the world, are easily lead into heartless fanaticism.
Theologically this all cashes out in a way that may seem foreign to most moderns. It is a way that has ancient roots, one that, though having Greek antecedents, was once within the Christian tradition, yet has been largely lost. This way suggests that we mean by “God” is not an external being who guarantees goodness, either by will or intellect; rather, by “God” it understands that we mean “that which is ultimate.” In the vocabulary I have developed above, this affirmation would be conceptualized in the proposition “God is Being-itself.” God is the ultimate fact and value, and the truth of all contingent facts and values subsists in God. On this view, to participate in the fulfillment of being (which we call goodness and truth) is to participate in God. For Christians, Christ displays for us the paradoxical fulfillment of being in suffering self-sacrifice—in radical, unconditional love. We needn’t believe anything, or “submit” to what the preachers of the world tell us Jesus means for us; rather, all that is needed is to be open to the fulfillment of being displayed in the story of the man broken on the cross, for us. If we hold value and reality together in the one concept of being, then the truth of the cross is not relegated to the revelation of a theory of the facts of reality; the truth of the cross is the revelation of the truth of being, and truth of being is inclusive of value—it is inclusive of our very selves.
To “believe in the resurrection” for such a person is to believe in a very different sense than the one tempted to run off to the strip joint. To believe in Christ and in Christ’s resurrection is not an unconditional affirmation of a conditioned theory of history. One may doubt optimistic appraisals of the historical value of the gospels, and yet believe—that is, to place one’s faith—in the revelation of God, of being-itself, in the story of Jesus as the Christ.
Sadly, for many in our age, this insight is not on the radar. As such, we are a people whose center of meaning and value is not informed by a principle of fulfillment through self-sacrificial love. It is my hope that as Luther was liberated from the work of loving God with his whole heart by his own volition, those who doubt might be liberated from the “work” of believing in-spite of their honesty through the unification of fact and value in being-itself, God who is.
Back 1 “myth” here is used in a technical sense. It does not mean, as in popular parlance, simply “untrue story;” rather, a narrative is a myth if it seeks to express deep truths of the ultimate origins, ends and meanings of existence. In this sense, all religious stories are myths. It matters little if one takes them also to be historically factual.
Back 2 If perhaps someone of Piper’s persuasion would grant that goodness may indeed be good without its guarantee, but then argue that in their view it simply wouldn’t matter ultimately. I would respond that this would be the same as goodness itself not being true and therefore, not good.
Back 3 I am defining “facts” here as “actual states of finite affairs.” I agree that for Christianity to be true in the sense I believe, it must “reveal” what is ultimately real. It must reveal a sort of “ultimate fact,” but now we are speaking about ultimacy, and therefore, symbolically.
Back 4 Robert M. Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods, 366.
Back 5 If by God one does not mean that which is ultimate, then we are not dealing God but an idol in the deepest and most proper sense: the elevation of something conditioned to the level of unconditionality.