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?
While the task of choosing a faith system is, for several reasons, far more important, I don't believe that the process is all that different from buying a high-price item like a house or a car. This may seem a bit of a strange analogy, but stick with me for a moment.
Let's say you're in the market for a new car. There are literally thousands of options for you. Not only do you have dozens of manufacturers from Alfa Romeo to Volkswagen, but each of those has – in general – a half dozen to as many as twenty different models to choose from. Each of those models comes in five or six different colors and usually a variety of three or four different packages. Stick or automatic? Leather or cloth? Furthermore, as quality has increased over the last few decades, used cars are not the money pits and death traps that they once were. A four-year-old Honda Accord with a hundred thousand miles on it still has another ten years left in it (or longer) with basic maintenance and is a respectable option. So you not only have every new car option available, but you also have hundreds or thousands of used car options available. With such a massive range of options to choose from, where do you start?
Of course, everyone is familiar with this process. You start by narrowing it down by asking a few simple questions. First, how much can you afford? New cars are not only higher quality than they used to be, but they're also more expensive and, if you can only spare three or four thousand dollars, it's going to severely limit your options. Even if you make decent money and can afford something in the fifty to sixty thousand range, you're still going to be passing on the McLaren's, Ferrari's and Maybach's. Second, what do you need? If you have four kids and an elderly parent living under your roof, chances are that you're not going to be looking at sports cars or subcompacts. On the other hand, if you work in the city and regularly have to navigate congested streets and wedge yourself into tight parking spots, it would be silly to buy a full-size truck. Next, you're probably going to want to narrow it down to a specific brand. If you're going to be making payments on something for the next three or four years, you certainly don't want to also be paying regular mechanic fees because it's always breaking down on you so you're going to want something dependable and you may have had bad experiences with certain manufacturers in the past. Or, like my parents, perhaps you're just fiercely loyal to one specific company. Or, like most millennials, you're only interested in what will get you laid.
This is how it works when you're browsing Auto Trader or some other sort of car buying website. You start with thousands of options and then narrow it down to a handful and then you make your decision from there.
I believe a similar approach can be used when investigating faith systems. There are hundreds of religions to choose from, not just the five major world religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism) and, as I've hopefully convinced you already, this is not a question to take lightly. Just as we don't just head down to the closest car dealership and buy the first car we see, we also cannot simply grab onto the first faith system we come across just because it's there. You do your research on warranties, options, gas mileage, financing, etc. until you come to decide on the best option. How much more should we research and investigate something that has potentially eternal consequences?
Now, the analogy only goes so far as most analogies do. Car buying tends to be a highly personalized process due to the wide range of factors that can influence it, so the right car for one person may not be the right car for someone else. I have friends with eight children who would never even consider buying a sports car over a twelve-passenger van. However, since we only have two kids of our own and my wife drives an SUV, I'm perfectly free to get that V8 Camaro I've wanted since high school, something that would be just plain stupid for someone who works in construction and regularly hauls tools and equipment in his truck bed. I don’t believe that the same applies to religion, and here's why.
Instead of car shopping that is highly personalized and situational, faith systems are understood to be universal. They can give guidance in specific areas and situations, but they are primarily intended to address the deepest needs of the human condition that all men face regardless of their geographical locations, economic status or place in history. If Jesus is God, then he is God regardless of whether you are black, white, gay, straight, rich, poor, male, female, short, tall, fat, thin, smart or stupid. If Muhammad was a prophet, the same applies. This means that what religion "works for you" or what "you like" is ultimately irrelevant. Rather, we should be seeking for which religion is objectively true, whether we like it or not.
So, all of that said, I would like to suggest a handful of criteria that I think can help us to begin to narrow down the hundreds to a few.
In addition to that, I would like to suggest two secondary criteria that are certainly important and can serve as supporting evidence but cannot be used as a basis for choice of religion on their own.
If this sounds difficult or overly elaborate, I hope to show in the next few posts that it's really not. In fact, I believe that if these issues are approached correctly (and with a little effort) a sincere and clear thinking individual can find their way to truth regardless of their education level - despite the fancy terminology. Certainly, there are bars one must hurdle before he's ready to tackle The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology or other academic works intended for people with PhD's, but my own experience has shown that even children still learning to tie their shoes can understand the evidence and arguments for the existence of God if you approach it right.
Coming up, I plan to clarify each of these points and give some examples before we jump into the actual work of narrowing things down.
Writer, artist, lay theologian, student of comparative religion.