Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Faith and Reality

Rose

Ron Suskind's article in the NY Times Magazine, Without a Doubt, addressing the issue of the faith of George W. Bush, begins as follows:


Bruce Bartlett, a domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and a treasury official for the first President Bush, told me recently that ''if Bush wins, there will be a civil war in the Republican Party starting on Nov. 3.'' The nature of that conflict, as Bartlett sees it? Essentially, the same as the one raging across much of the world: a battle between modernists and fundamentalists, pragmatists and true believers, reason and religion.

''Just in the past few months,'' Bartlett said, ''I think a light has gone off for people who've spent time up close to Bush: that this instinct he's always talking about is this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do.'' Bartlett, a 53-year-old columnist and self-described libertarian Republican who has lately been a champion for traditional Republicans concerned about Bush's governance, went on to say: ''This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can't be persuaded, that they're extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he's just like them. . . .

''This is why he dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts,'' Bartlett went on to say. ''He truly believes he's on a mission from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence.'' Bartlett paused, then said, ''But you can't run the world on faith.''

There is much to address and analyze in this lengthy article, and no doubt others better versed on the credibility of its sources, the speciousness of its evidence, and its use of unconfirmed hearsay and biased sources will rise to the debate. But I was particularly struck by one line which I believe embodies the heart of the article's core thesis:
He truly believes he's on a mission from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence.

Listening to the secular fundamentalists at the NY Times expound on the mind and heart of a man of the Christian faith is akin to a man blind from birth describing a rose: you are far more likely to hear about the thorns than the subtle coloration and beauty of its petals.

"The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence."

Really??

The tension between faith and reason (or "reality", as Suskind calls it) is hardly a new issue, reaching back centuries to such philosophers and theologians as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and even Plato and Aristotle. Aquinas has the most fully developed exposition on the seeming dichotomy between that which is discernible to the senses or by logical deduction, and that which is revelation and mystery. Far greater minds than ours have taken - and mastered - this challenge.

There is a name for someone who believes things for which there is no discernible evidence: a fool. And I suspect most journalists for the NY Times would find this an apt assessment of President Bush - and by inference, his religious supporters, lumped together under the tattered banner of the "religious right". As a believing Christian, therefore, I am a proxy target for this accusation. And as a blogger, it is my sworn duty to reply.

So, is this thing I call faith really a fantasy, a trust and hope in some unseen, unprovable philosophy or myth? Most definitely not. There are, from my perspective, quite a few objective reality-based foundations for that which I believe. Among these are:

bulletHistorical: The Christian faith is a historical faith. It is based on an individual, Jesus Christ, who lived in history, verified as real not only by His followers (and enemies) but by detached historians with no agenda to promote. The core convictions of this faith are easily demonstrable, not only in its sacred texts, the Scripture, but in writings and teachings of men from many cultures and times, from the earliest years following the death of Christ continuously to the present. The accuracy of its ancient sacred texts is nothing short of stunning, supported by an exponentially greater volume of manuscripts and archeological evidence than any other ancient writings. If the Old and New Testament were not religious texts, there would be no academic dispute about their veracity and reliability. They are challenged because they shine a light on the darkness of the human heart, and make uncomfortable demands on human behavior and belief. If you can prove the judge is a corrupt impersonator, you dodge the sentence for your crimes; if he is unimpeachable, you're busted.

bulletRelational: There are several aspects to the relational nature of Christianity which serve as evidence for its reality. People do not arrive at Christian conviction by lightning bolt or holy vision, but rather by their relationship with others who hold the faith. We witness the effects of Christianity on the lives of others, and are led to consider it not only because of what they say, but far more by what we observe. Few of us would buy a car without talking to other car owners, reading reviews, and taking it for a drive. While not a guarantee of a good car, we consider such information valuable evidence in making our decision. While such evidence can be misleading - people are often seduced into cults by an appealing but deceptive attractiveness, for example - it is nevertheless evidence of the veracity of faith when carefully considered and weighed against other facts and observations.

The evidence of Christianity is also revealed in its ability to transform relationships. Many Christians can testify to the healing and restoration of relationships with spouses, children, employers, between races, class and ethnic groups. Are all Christians so transformed? Not by any means, unfortunately. But the evidence of those who have been - often resolving seemingly hopeless situations and personal divisions - should not be dismissed outright because of the incompleteness of its scope. Do we do abandon chemotherapy because not all survive?

bulletExperiential: Christianity is both doctrinal and experiential: it is comprised of a series of assertions to truth, but is not simply a belief system; it affects - often profoundly - the lives, convictions and experiences of those who follow it. While this is easy to challenge with claims of a purely emotional or psychological basis for such experience, in reality it is not so lightly dismissed. While short-term behavioral change can occur as a result of emotional experiences, and delusional thinking in mental illness can result in bizarre behavior, the vast majority of practicing Christians do not fit this mold. When people from all walks of life - responsible, sane citizens whose behavior is ordinary in every other way - profess their ability to overcome profound personal shortcomings, relationship disasters, personal tragedy or devastating misfortune with a peace and inner strength not available to them apart from their faith, is it not reasonable to conclude that something profound has happened, not attributable to the impotency of pop psychology? Might there not be a plausible explanation involving a Being greater, wiser, and more gracious and loving than ourselves from which such resources come? Scientific proof, no, but certainly evidence not to be dismissed out of hand.

John Edwards is right: there are two Americas - just not the two he imagines. The divide places secular and liberal religious (often no more than thinly-guised socialism, with little connection to historical Judeo-Christian belief) on one side, and people of faith on the other, with lives quietly transformed by God and a vision expanded beyond the tight constraints of materialistic or political thinking. For the secular, religion is like borrowing a sports coat at a fancy restaurant when you've forgotten yours: you use it to get your meal and drink wine with your friends, then shed the ill-fitting garment at the earliest possible time. There is a deep discomfort with and mistrust among the secular of anyone who claims such superficial window dressing could actually guide, direct or empower the lives of others.

I cannot presume to speak for the mind or spirit of President Bush. But many of us who have experienced the inner transformation which faith alone brings, sense in the man a like mind and heart, which despite sometimes strong differences in policy or politics gives us confidence in his inner compass and core principles. Such conviction in our experience leads to discernment, rejecting well-intentioned but misguided advice, and pursuing goals judged to be noble and right despite the high costs of doing so. Faith does not overwhelm analysis; it sharpens and directs it. This is something that political speeches in churches or talk of boyhood alter boy service can imitate, but cannot replicate. The jacket just doesn't fit the man.