Thursday Reflection: Self-Evident?

Politicians like to use “God” as the footer on their campaign stump speeches. And the people nod their collective civic “Amen” to what they have heard, so long as it aligns with their own personal political opinions. When it comes to politics in America, God is a “self-evident truth”.

When I revisit the history of events leading up to the American Colony’s declaration that they “are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states,” I can’t help but be amazed that such a declaration was inspired by “self-evident truths“.

Karen Armstrong writes: People of faith admit in theory that God is utterly transcendent, but they seem sometimes to assume that they know exactly who “he” is and what he thinks, loves, and expects.[1] What is the evidence for the existence of God? Assuming God’s existence, how could human beings presume to know what God thinks, loves and expects?

Armstrong goes on to make an essential distinction between Logos and Mythos, both emanating out of the ancient Greek world view. Logos is “reason”. It enables people to “function effectively and correspond accurately to external reality.” But Logos has its limitations. It does not assuage grief or help us find meaning in life’s struggles. We have Mythos to serve that end. Mythos helped the ancients navigate life’s emotional and ethical ambiguities. These were stories that were not meant to be taken as literally true; nonetheless, there was truth in them. Both Freud and Jung turned to myths as they “began to chart their scientific search for the soul”. The meaning of the myths are intensified when people acted them out ritually. In fact, Karen Armstrong notes that scholars still debate which came first – the myth or the ritual. This much is agreed on: Mythos was less a belief-system and more a guide for action – a liturgy that people performed or participated in.

Where do we come down today – on the side of Logos, or Mythos? Whether debating how to understand the experimental results at CERN or discussing how to interpret the internal nudges that guide our moral choices, are we confined to circumstantial evidence? Is it self-evident that we are created equal, endowed with the “right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? Or is that “evidence” determined by a context of intense political frustration?

Carl Sagan defines “superstition” as belief without evidence.[2] I challenge that definition. I think trust without evidence is superstitious – and even foolish. Where belief, at least in a religious sense, is played out is in the arena of meaning. That my life has meaning is a statement of faith. And faith does not emerge from evidence. The life we live, the actions we take and the commitments we make are the evidence of our faith. This is why religion is so vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy. Truth from a scientific perspective is dependent on evidence whose meaning is arrived at and agreed upon by consensus. When someone says to a scientist: “I don’t believe you,” what they are really saying is they don’t trust what the scientist is telling them is true.

Truth from a religious perspective begins with a story – Mythos – and that story merges with the story of one’s personal experience to give hope, comfort, and courage in the midst of adversity. The life a religious person lives is the evidence of their beliefs. This may explain at least in part why what a person believes often overrides what a person is told is true.

Riding a rocket requires trust in the consensus of those who have observed and interpreted facts as best they can be known in the moment. Believing in God requires faith that a story writ large is also the story of your life. Not every rocket will fly right; we have learned this amidst tragedy. Not every religious conviction serves humanity well; we have experienced that in crusades and various forms of jihad. But that doesn’t mean that science should not be trusted and that God should not be believed in. Evidence is no guarantor that all will work out as we hope. That’s why it’s called “Trust” and “Faith”; and we are doing both … all the time.

———-

[1] See Armstrong’s The Case for God, published by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc. © 2009. P. ix.

[2] Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Existence of God. Published by Penguin Group, 375 Hudson Street, New York, NY  10014. Kindle location 182-196.

Mark Demers

Want to talk about sex, politics, spirituality? So do I. I grew up in a religious home in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Our country was reeling from assassinations and the devastation of the Viet Nam War. Looking for something beautiful, I got a degree in music, married the love of my life and had children. Looking for God, I then went to seminary. Looking for something that might transform the world, I became a local church pastor. Now, I’m always looking for people who want to talk about important things. I cherish conversations with emerging leaders, people who are antsy to try an idea they believe would change the world for the better. I’d would love to hear from you.