Believing is Seeing

Posted by on 01.13.08 | 4 Comments
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Once upon a time I imagined that I was a rational person who formed opinions on the basis of the available evidence. I suppose most of us go through a period in our lives when we believe that. In some small ways life even works that way once in a while. But now I realize that the vast majority of the time I don’t decide what to think on the basis of where the evidence points, I decide where the evidence points on the basis of what I think. I didn’t meet my wife Beth and figure out, through the application of some sort of objective criteria, that she was a good person and then fall in love with her; I met Beth, fell in love with her, and then decided she was a good person. I am quite convinced this is true even with things that feel quite objective and rational to us, like the rise of the scientific method. The history of the whole thing actually illustrates that we didn’t stop what we now call superstitious behavior because we invented science. Rather, we invented science because we lost faith in superstitious behavior.

I have seen that this is most clearly true in my spiritual life. I amuse myself now and again with the fiction that the reason I rejected the idea of the bible as literal history, Christianity as the only path to relationship with God, and a host of other things that I don’t believe is because I got better educated, which is quite a lot of nonsense, and is, by the way, the exact same argument given by people who do believe that the bible is literal history and Christianity is the only path to God.

But none of us get the truth that way. I believe what I believe because my thought processes, for reasons that are quite obscure to me, are quite naturally tuned into ambiguity and mystery, metaphor and analogy. I didn’t decide to become that way, I just am. And because I look at the world through that kind of thinking process, I draw conclusions which are consistent with it, and fit into it, which is all any of us ever do. In this sense the red queen is right, it is always “verdict first” and then the trial. Faith precedes the evidence and we look at the evidence through the lens of our faith. In the case of my own faith, Christianity, for example, the first Christians didn’t come to faith because someone told them the stories, they told the stories – and even invented several -because they had already come to faith, and that is how the gospels got written. With modern Christians, the process is the same; it is that we come to believe and so are able to make sense of the stories, not that we make sense of the stories and then decide to believe. We lose that faith when it no longer provides an adequate way to make sense of the stories.

Certainly spiritual life changes over time. I now believe that happens because the lens through which we look at life sometimes gets shattered and then we have to change. But that change doesn’t happen because we examine the evidence with new objectivity. It happens because sometimes life patterns break down, and so we begin to look at the old evidence with a new kind of faith. Once I began to think this way I realized I had no choice but to look upon everyone with a maximum of compassion. After all, I didn’t decide how I was going to look at life, and those who look at life quite differently than I didn’t either. We are all living out of the best faith we have right now, and looking at life and interpreting the evidence through the lens of that faith. If I want compassion for myself, then how can I do anything else than have compassion for others who are doing exactly the same thing?

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