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More on the intellectual basis for faith

In this article I will draw upon the book, Mere Christianity by English author C. S. Lewis. He never considered himself a theologian, and was prone to describe his beliefs as those of "an ordinary layman in the Church of England." However, today he is considered to have written something of the basic primer on the Christian faith. If you have not read Mere Christianity, you ought to.

Lewis begins, as we all do, with observation. When we are children we watch and listen to the world around us, beginning with our parents. And when we notice something odd, we begin to try to figure it out. Lewis began his book with observations on the natural world. For example, when you observe inanimate, non-sentient objects like rocks, you notice that they are, in fact, subject to some laws. One of them is the Law of Gravity. Another way of describing the rocks' "obedience" to the Law of Gravity is to say it like this: what stones do. You drop them and they fall to the ground. That is what stones, in fact, do.

Good enough. Now, when we begin to observe sentient beings, such as plants and animals, we find that they, too, obey certain laws. Predatory animals such as dogs will hunt prey animals, like rabbits, in the wild. Prey animals, like sheep, will flee from predators if given the opportunity. That is why we can domesticate dogs for herding (if they have the instinct). The obedience to the laws of their nature prompts the dog to pursue the sheep, although it can be restrained from attacking them through training. The nature of the sheep prompts them to flee from the dogs, although they can learn to obey the dogs and consider them friends.

Fine. Now we will begin to observe human beings. In the case of humans, we have inside knowledge in that we know what it is like to be a human. We don’t know what it is like to be a dog, but we are privy to the unknown in our own case. And what we discover is that there seems to be a set of Rules that we are called to obey. We may call our code the Golden Rule, or the Tao, or Doing The Right Thing. But over and through all human cultures, we know that we learn the Rules from our parents and elders.

This is where a whole bunch of people will stand up and say, "You're kidding, right? Where did you get the idea that people follow these codes of conduct? Human beings exploit each other at every opportunity! We make war, we rape and murder, we steal, we hate. How does that square with your Golden Rule?"

Don't you consider that puzzling? It is true—none of this squares with the Law of Human Nature, if there is such a thing! People seem to know the Rules but they don't obey them! What does that mean?

Well, if you go back to the Book of Genesis, you can read the story of how human beings "fell" shortly after they were created, both in the story of Adam and Eve and also in the story of Cain and Abel. There is no point in discussing whether a man named Adam and a woman named Eve ever lived in a Garden of Paradise; the story is as true as it can be if you look at it as an allegory of human nature. Spit it out: there is something wrong with human nature.

We know what we should be doing, but we don't do it. I reply to dozens of Comments on the Huffington Post every year: comments in which the writers ask the question, "Why does God let these bad things happen?" They write about good people getting sick or experiencing violence; about wars and their victims; about natural catastrophes like the tornadoes in the American Midwest. Why do bad things happen to good people, and why doesn't God, or society do something about them?

That is the fix we are in. On top of the Jewish existential predicament, in which we believe in a perfect, righteous God, we have arrived at Christianity, which tells us that God is also loving and compassionate. Where does that leave us? We are trapped in sin and removed from a perfect God by an unbridgeable gulf! Only Christians claim that Jesus built that bridge, through consciousness that God is not punishing and judgmental but loving and understanding. Christians claim that God is not “out there,” raining down judgment, but “in here,” offering us his love, compassion and strength.

That does not let us off the complaint that this loving and understanding God is supposed to be allowing hurricanes to batter New Orleans because the people there are too tolerant of the LGBT community, as Preacher Pat Robertson said. It does not excuse us from considering that preachers keep telling us that we had better go to their churches or their loving God will throw us into torment for an eternity, as punishment for perhaps ninety years of human life. It does not allow us not to consider that the loving God is supposed to hate certain people who, coincidentally perhaps, are also disliked by the preacher.

There is no coincidence, though--none--that people of good moral character are rejecting this concept of Christianity in no uncertain terms. I reject it myself. But the reality of the situation is frustrating to liberal Christians who would like to get the word out that there are churches that offer love and acceptance to whose theologians are full of learning and reason--who consider it a Christian duty to extend God's love to everyone.

Want an example? There are orders of Catholic brothers whose only work is to run hospices that care only for clients that are both penniless and terminally ill. There are sisters and brothers in the Catholic Church whose only work is education or hospital care. Mother Theresa, who founded her own order of missionaries of charity, was a devout Catholic.

The World Vision organization, an evangelical group, sponsors adoption of children all over the world who can be educated and cared for in their shelters without being separated from their families or community. There are the Child Fund, UNICEF and uncounted other organizations whose work is meant to alleviate human suffering.

So I asked myself: when was the last time I heard a conservative politician or talking head speak of the good that is being done--and the answer came back to me: never. There is a class of paid nay-sayers who are all over television and radio, and another class of liberal commentators who spend most of their time refuting whatever the whiners are whining about.

The conservative politicians--and the evangelicals who are in bed with them--spend five years making more and more outlandish claims that our President is not an American citizen, something that is preposterous on its face. Liberal commentators spend five years refuting it. This does not provide an intellectual basis for anything; we can learn nothing more about faith and society from this bickering and it is time we turned away from it.

To confront the question of faith, we need to look at the real theology out there, the one that is not based on justifying the offensive stories about Floods and God raining fire and brimstone from the sky. We need to forget everything but what we consider the nature of God, and go from there. "Going from there" took me back (in my case) to liberal Christianity and the works of Lewis, W. H. Vanstone, Father Leo Booth (an Episcopal priest) and Rabbi David Kushner. Where it will take you I do not claim to predict, but if you never make this spiritual journey your spiritual growth will be as stunted as if you had not developed the habit of exercising your body. And exercising your soul just might turn out to be important.

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