belief … the modern case (RJS)

Francis Collins, in the brief stretch between stints as head of the Human Genome Project at NIH and, now, Director of NIH, put together a book, Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith, an anthology of readings he finds helpful in discussing rational reasons for belief in God. The anthology is, in some sense, a supplement to his book The Language of God. The essays  and excerpts in this book will not provide a proof for the existence of God – no such proof is possible. But they do provide arguments and reasons for belief.

The first essay in this anthology is by Tom Wright, an excerpt from his book Simply Christian. Wright sketches a view of human longing and what this should teach us about God and about the nature of the world in which we live. He concentrates on two universal features of human experience across cultures and throughout time – the longing for justice and the depth of spirituality. These two features, elaborated below, are signposts pointing toward God.

What features of human experience point to God?

Is human experience a reliable signpost?

First, there is a human longing for justice … yet we cannot fix injustice. Not only that but we find ourselves complicit in injustice.

And yet we have a sense that justice itself slips through our fingers. Sometimes it works; often it doesn’t. Innocent people get convicted; guilty people are let off. The bullies, and those who can bribe their way out of trouble, get away with wrongdoing – not always, but often enough for us to notice, and to wonder why. (p. 4-5)

We want, many of us at least, to set the world to rights … yet we can’t. Racism, war, genocide, greed, gluttony, pride. We can’t make a dent. The world is unfair. Some things we can do nothing about, and can’t even attribute to human evil. A tsunami can kill more than 200,000 people and we realize …

There are some things in our world, on our planet, which make us say, “That’s not right!” even when there’s nobody to blame. A tectonic plate’s got to do what a tectonic plate’s got to do. The earthquake wasn’t caused by some wicked global capitalist, by a late-blossoming Marxist, or by a fundamentalist with a bomb. It just happened. And in that happening we see a world in pain, a world out of joint, a world where things occur that we seem powerless to make right. (p. 5)

Is our yearning for justice a pipe dream? Is it a “projection of childish fantasies”?  Perhaps the yearning for justice is an idealism we outgrow as we learn to live, and perhaps to flourish, in the world as it is, where we grab what we can get and then we die. Wright suggests that it is more than a childish fantasy. We know something is wrong, and this knowledge points us to something beyond our current experience.

Or we can say, if we like, that the reason we have these dreams, the reason we have a sense of memory of the echo of a voice, is that there is someone speaking to us, whispering in our inner ear – someone who cares very much about this present world and our present selves, and who has made us and the world for a purpose that will indeed involve justice, things being put to rights, ourselves being put to rights, the world being rescued at last. (p. 8-9)

This yearning for justice, Wright claims, points to God.

The yearning for spirituality is another signpost in our collective human experience. There is a universal experience of something profound and deep, something beyond the merely material day-to-day life. A spiritual reality is a feature of human existence. The Western world of thought – enlightenment intellectualism – has tried to suppress this aspect of human existence.  Wright presents a parable – a parable of a benevolent dictator who paved a country to control the availability of water, to ensure that there would be no floods and all water would be pure and wholesome. Yet the water could not, ultimately be contained and burst through the layer of concrete.

We in the Western world are citizens of that country. The dictator is the philosophy that has shaped our world for the past two or more centuries, making most people materialist by default. And the water is what we today call “spirituality,” the hidden spring that bubbles up within human hearts and human societies. (p. 10)

Many millions have bought into the materialism, many millions, aware of the yearnings, have tapped into it in controlled and allowed ways, many more have thirsted after something they did not understand.  Wright notes that this transformation was more complete in Western Europe than in North America. Yet it is also at play in North America, and most completely in our secular Universities and intellectual, academic, societies. The pressures to cap the hidden spring is at work here as it is in Western Europe.  But this is not true of the entire world – Africa, South America, Asia. The growth of the church in the rest of the world is a contrast to the “concrete covered” intellectual landscape of the West.

Wright suggests that the deep spiritual experiences, common to mankind, are significant and cannot be suppressed. He points to the renewed interest in Celtic spiritualism in his part of the world. The pull of Celtic Christianity is the deep spirituality and connection with God and with the world.

It seems to speak of a haunting possibility of another world, a world in which God (whoever he may be) is more directly present, a world in which humans get along better with their natural environment, a world with roots far deeper, and a hidden music far richer, than the shrill and shallow world of modern technology, soap operas, and football managers. (p. 14-15)

The contemporary quest for spirituality is either a dangerous and counterproductive search, a necessary delusion to make meaningless material life bearable to promote effective self-reproduction, or a signpost to the fact that there is someone or something out there that transcends our mundane material existence. It is interesting in this context to refer back to Elaine Ecklund’s study of American scientists, professors at “elite” institutions (see this post in particular). Ecklund found that of those who do not belong to a faith tradition a substantial percentage (20% or so of the total cohort of scientists surveyed) are spiritual at some level, and this includes atheists and agnostics. Spirituality is not going away.

Wright sums up:

… we return to the possibility that the widespread hunger for spirituality, which has been reported in various ways across the whole of human experience, is a genuine signpost to something that remains just around the corner, out of sight. It may be the echo of a voice – a voice that is calling, not so loudly as to compel us to listen whether we choose to or not, but not so quietly as to be drowned out altogether by the noises going on in our heads and our world. (p. 18)

A passion for justice and  a deep hunger for spirituality … Wright sees these as signposts, universal in human experience, pointing us to God, setting up a reason for a continued search for his truth and purpose. It is worth, he suggests, listening for further echoes of the same voice, searching for the deeper reality and mission hinted at by the voice of these desires.

What do you think – Is Wright on to something here?

Does our passion for justice and hunger for spirituality point us to God?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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  • tscott

    What features of human existence point to God? Just as natural selection is the principle which explains the immense diversity of life forms, mimetic desire is the principle that explains diversity of culture. Mimetic desire is largely hidden, because it contradicts our beliefs. That our desires and violence are autonomous is a lie. No one feature of human existence points to the truth like the Cross.

  • Pamela

    good morning,
    Since my beleif that our mind, bodies, soul and spirit are made in the Image of God and that God has written His law on our hearts, you question makes me wonder if indeed this “longing” is placed in us by God in the first place? The waters get muddled for me (an evangelical born again christian) when I see the same longing in my Muslim and other faith friends. I struggle with those friends who outrightly reject Jesus yet behaves, socially speaking, as the good samaritan and who offers “water” to those in need. I suppose I am questioning how far humanism is pushed in regard to longing and when does the Spirit of Jesus come into play? Is there such a thing as Jesus longing compared to that of humanism longing? I am not sure. Making me ponder again this morning Scott-thanks

  • http://theeagleandchild.com Marc

    Pamela (#2) — I wonder if there needs to be a difference. Wright’s argument seems to suggest that *all* humans have these longings, Christian or otherwise. That doesn’t mean, however, that every expression or “fulfillment” of that longing is good or accurate.

    One might say that we live life in pursuit the things that will fulfill our innate longings, but often we take wrong turns in that pursuit. That doesn’t negate the longing or make it questionable; it just means we are capable of making poor choices.

  • Susan N.

    “Does our passion for justice and hunger for spirituality point us to God?”

    Yes, I believe that we are ALL created by God, in His image. The impulse for justice and a spiritual connection with our Maker is universal.

    I also tend to believe that religions other than Christianity often reflect part of the Truth.

    At the end of the day, I am strongly particular as to Whom I find the fullness of truth and life. Jesus Christ is the Person who brings everything to light, causes everything “spiritual” to make sense.

    I read a wonderful book many years ago that helped me put these ideas into perspective — ‘Who Do You Say That I Am: Christians Encounter Other Religions’ by Calvin E. Shenk. I recently re-read it, and found that my beliefs had not changed over a decade from when I first read it. It is an excellent book!

    This idea from the post stood out in my mind: “The growth of the church in the rest of the world is a contrast to the ‘concrete covered’ intellectual landscape of the West.”

    Which caused me to think of this: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ez. 36:25-27, NIV)

    Sadly, in the West, a pervasive hard-hearted condition has stunted our growth? As Solomon once said, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

    I have not been keeping up in reading this series, feeling that much of the creation/evolution debate is over my head, theologically and scientifically. This one I happened to read, and felt able to contribute a bit!

  • Darryl

    My daughter heard atheist Dr. Darrell Ray (The God Virus) speak at her university a couple of weeks ago. She recommended I buy and read his book, so I did. It was disturbing to say the least and I felt stretched and challenged. It was a good exercise of mind and faith for me. I think this is something Ray (a psychologist) misses. I think he would qualify as a logical positivist. He wants to demand that truth be able to be verified through scientific-materialistic reasoning–and yet concepts like justice, love, and spirituality cannot be verified through science. Even his own discipline is not science in that regard. I believe Wright is on target here.

    Funny thing though. My daughter said Ray sounded like a 1980s style preacher. Even told the same jokes. :)

  • Darryl

    Pam and Mark #2 & 3: I think the point is quite simply that the longing is inherent in all humans. Just as hunger and thirst points toward the existence of food so does the longing for justice and spirituality point toward the existence of objective justice, objective spirituality–and the source of these things: God.

    That we long is the point. Whether that longing is correctly filled is not the issue that points to or from belief in God. It is the longing itself that points to something transcendent.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Darryl –

    …concepts like justice, love, and spirituality cannot be verified through science.

    Are you sure?

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    The contemporary quest for spirituality is either a dangerous and counterproductive search, a necessary delusion to make meaningless material life bearable to promote effective self-reproduction, or a signpost to the fact that there is someone or something out there that transcends our mundane material existence.

    You sure those are the only possibilities?

  • Steve Billingsley

    OK, Ray

    Care to offer some sort of answer to your cryptic questions or are you just trying to look profound?

    rjs asked for responses to a couple of questions, do you want to take a crack?

    FWIW, I do think Wright is on to something. I think these sentiments (passion for justice and quest for spirituality) can point us toward God.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I wish I could say that that all conclusively points to God, but then I start looking at the complex behaviors built into creatures from the animal realm and that provides a signpost to the depth available to evolved forms.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    …and my two two feet or so of Jungs works also point to the depth of the psyche without concluding God….

  • http://virtuphill.blogspot.com/ phil_style

    I agree with DRT, having these longings doesn’t work against the idea that there is a loving God who desires relationship… but it does little as positive evidence to suggets that God’s existence.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    To answer one of the other questions “What features of human experience point to God?”, I contend that there are less common features of human experience that point to God. I have had some less than explainable experiences that could, with a stretch, be explainable with common explanation. But it still requires some prior position of belief to attribute them to my God, which I do.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Steve Billingsley –

    Care to offer some sort of answer to your cryptic questions or are you just trying to look profound?

    Well, I linked to an answer to the first one.

    As to the second… I think a ‘hunger for spirituality’ isn’t necessarily “dangerous and counterproductive” nor “a necessary delusion”. It’s an aspect of the search for meaning people necessarily undergo. (Of course, that doesn’t depend on the supernatural, either: http://badidea.wordpress.com/2007/09/27/the-meaning-of-meaning-why-theism-cant-make-life-matter/ )

  • http://virtuphill.blogspot.com/ phil_style

    Ray, I liked your formula, it’s a rather fun and novel way of looking at the issue. Provided we assing NO meaning to termporal events then no matter how much eternity we experience the events still mean.. well zero.

    Although the formula kind-of breaks down when we assign any kind of value to the events. Those that are temporal end up with a finite value. Those that are remembered or kept eternally are suddenly values at… well.. innfinity. And compary the finite values to the infinite values we might as well value the temporal ones at zero, comparatively speaking, which leaves us back at the starting point of “temporal events have no value”.

    Still, a fun litte formula, nice one.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Phil – BTW, it’s not “my” formula, I just linked to it because the essay is very perceptive. But anyway…

    Those that are remembered or kept eternally are suddenly values at… well.. innfinity.

    Why?

  • http://virtuphill.blogspot.com/ phil_style

    Change the value of “life on it’s own” (or whatever thing is being discussed) to anything more than zero, then multiply by infinity.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Phil –

    Change the value of “life on it’s own” (or whatever thing is being discussed) to anything more than zero, then multiply by infinity.

    Nope, bad math to use with the metaphor. We’re talking “area under the curve” here.

    As the blog author points out, if you add up a whole bunch of zeros, you get zero. Picture a graph where x is time and y is value, and y is everywhere zero. Integrate that, you get… zero.

    But if y is above zero – if a moment has some meaning at that moment – then you can add up infinitesimal moments and get a positive sum.

    Now, you’re talking about moments that are “remembered or kept eternally”. How does that work in this metaphor? Why are you multiplying by infinity?


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