It’s not at all controversial to suggest that, if you’re going to create something, it should achieve the purpose for which it is intended when you set out to create it. This holds true whether you’re talking about airplanes, software, bowling balls or chairs. A chair needs to hold your weight, or else it isn’t worth sitting on. If software doesn’t provide the functionality you’re looking for, it gets uninstalled. No one is going to buy a ticket to get on a plane that doesn’t fly. The principle also holds true for faith systems. A true faith system should work in a way that significantly outshines all of the other options because it is true; it reflects and coincides with reality in a way that none of the alternatives do. It should do everything it claims to do. It should answer the important questions in a satisfactory manner. It should provide what it claims to provide. If it doesn’t do that, then it should be thrown out like a square bowling ball.
So what then does a faith system need to do? What answers does it need to provide?
What are you thankful for?
There's no question that in the modern West, we have much to be thankful for. In the United States where food is so plentiful and easily accessible that obesity is a health epidemic, we forget that many people in the world don't know when their next meal is coming, if it is coming at all. When people are rioting and protesting in the streets because they're upset about Donald Trump being elected president, we forget that we live in a country that doesn't mow its people down with tanks whenever we criticize the government. Ask people what they're thankful for and you get a vague, somewhat predictable list of pleasantries. Friends, family, a job, a roof over your head, health.
Certainly, these are all good things to be thankful for. We should be thankful for freedom and feasts, cars and computers, music and movies. But what happens when we no longer have those things? What happened when the car gets stolen, your wife leaves you for the pool boy, your daughter dies of cancer at twelve years old, you lose your job and get diagnosed with a fatal illness? In one of my favorite movies, the 2002 version of The Count of Monte Cristo starring Jim Caviezel, young Edmund Dantes is given an offer of something "priceless":
Certain phrases and slogans have become increasingly popular in our culture in recent years. People thrown them around with a general idea of what they mean, but rarely are they examined in any depth. For example, and I just heard this one today, “You shouldn’t impose your beliefs on others”. On the surface something like this sounds good. Naturally, in a pluralistic culture where tolerance is considered a virtue and in a country where freedom of religion is a fundamental right, the sentiment such a phrase is trying to convey – that everyone has a right to believe what seems correct to them without coercion or threat – is a noble one. However, the statement itself is self-refuting. To tell someone “you shouldn’t” do something is in fact an example of imposing your beliefs on that person, so “you shouldn’t impose your beliefs on others” becomes an example of the exact action that the phrase is intended to repudiate. The statement becomes cannibalistic, devouring itself.
A faith system is intended to answer certain questions. These may be questions about the temporal life and the human condition, or they may be about things pertaining to the non-physical, the afterlife or alternate realities. As we’ve discussed before, each of these systems vary wildly and blatantly contradict each other in what they teach about the afterlife, not only in the rewards they promise, but even the essential nature of such an afterlife and the way we get there. So how do we know which is true?
If we are simply to examine the mystical claims of a faith system, there is much that we just can’t know. It’s not as if we can find Heaven with a telescope (despite what silly tabloids tell you) or test for a God residue when someone claims to have a near-death experience. The world beyond – at least for the time being – is precisely that: beyond. It is beyond the reach of our eyes and ears, our microscopes and simulations.
However, faith systems don’t just make claims about the spiritual or the ethereal. Very often they will also make claims about the physical world we live in. This is not too surprising. Humans have been inventing deities or explanations to the questions we have about how weather works, how the stars move or what makes for a good harvest since the dawn of the human race. Since faith systems typically require that you take them in an all-or-nothing format, then we have to weigh these claims about the physical world in tandem with the claims about the supernatural world. This is particularly true in religions that claim divine revelation such as Mormonism or the great Abrahamic faiths. Given that, it seems accurate to say that, if a faith system can’t get the world around it right then we have good reason to reject what it says about the world beyond. I suppose an analogy might be: If we can’t trust you to do basic math, you sure aren’t going to be doing my taxes.
I was going to begin my series looking at the points of evaluation for the sufficiency and reliability of a faith system, but before we get into all of that, I want to suggest something. Start with Jesus, that is, with biblical Christianity.
Why is that?
First, everyone wants a piece of Jesus. To the Buddhist, Jesus was a guru, or an enlightened one. To the Muslim, Jesus was a great prophet. To the secularist, Jesus was a great moral teacher. To the Jehovah’s Witness, Jesus is the archangel Michael. To the Mormon, Jesus is the literal son of Heavenly Father, the firstborn and greatest of all his brothers and sisters (us). To Christians, Jesus is God.
Personally, when I buy something online – particularly when I’m not buying directly from the dealer or manufacturer, such as shopping on Amazon or some other retailer – I have to occasionally be careful to check the reviews and user pictures to make sure that what I’m ordering is actually what the picture shows. There are many cases when people will sell knockoff products on Amazon using marketing pictures taken from the actual manufacturer’s website, so what you get in the mail looks nothing like what you thought you were buying and – surprise surprise – they don’t allow returns. We want to know that what we’re getting is the real thing. We want something authentic and genuine.
First, I want to apologize for the inactivity here. It was always my goal to post something no less than once a week. After finishing up the look at pluralism, why it's false and why it matters, it seemed to me that the obvious next step would be the criteria we should use when deciding which faith to follow. Unfortunately, it was as I began to lay down my thoughts on this issue that I realized I was creating a double standard – at least as far as I was currently articulating those thoughts – and I needed to rethink them. Life happened and it took me a few days longer than I had anticipated.
So then, let's get started.
Imagine for a moment that you are someone who has never really looked into any particular religion. You consider yourself open to the idea of God, but you're not sure which direction to go when choosing. After all, with so many options, where do you start?
Or perhaps you're someone who has always been a faithful adherent to a certain religion, but you've realized that you never really "chose" that religion. It was just something you were taught when you were growing up and have since started to have some doubts. How do you know if what you've always believed is actually true?
Writer, artist, lay theologian, student of comparative religion.