Why I Believe

This is the final paper I wrote for my Philosophy of Religion class, in which we were asked to explain our beliefs and the reasons for them. I put a lot of thought into this paper, so I hope you can gain something from it. It references some arguments with which my class was familiar, but that may be unfamiliar to you. Feel free to talk to me about anything you don’t understand, or you disagree with, or anything!

I, Jason MacAllister, am a Christian, a follower of Christ. I am a Methodist by Confirmation, but I haven’t found that distinction to be particularly relevant. I am a Protestant, in that I am against particular teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. This distinction I do find to be important. I am extremely wary of beliefs attributed to tradition. Over the years I’ve learned that some practices of the Church have been established for unsavory reasons. For this reason I trust only that which is supported by Biblical writing, and interpretations which are directly supported by those writings (for I have found that, as informative as the Bible is, interpretation is sometimes needed to understand its application). I don’t know if I believe in Hell, because of the lack of support for it in the Bible. I suppose I hope that it doesn’t exist, both for the sake of non-believers and to resolve the problem of an all-good God who would allow people to be eternally punished. I believe in Heaven, and that anyone who accepts Jesus Christ as their savior will go there. But more importantly, I believe that the faithful will be resurrected to live in the New Jerusalem (Earth), a fact that is often overlooked by Christians but clearly stated in the Bible. These are the core beliefs of my faith, and are a central part of who I am.

The reasons for my beliefs are difficult to identify. I first accepted Christ into my heart (a practice that signifies the acceptance of Salvation) at my grandmother’s house around the age of twelve. I’m not sure if I remember this event or not. I have a vague memory of lying in bed praying, with my grandma kneeling at my side. It might be an artificial memory, one of those that you fabricate from stories people tell you until you think you remember, but I don’t think this is. It’s too vague and difficult to center on. At any rate, my grandmother tells me that this was a turning point for me. It’s not clear to me whether this was truly a life-changing event, but I know that I was a believer and follower from that point onward, if not earlier.

So why do I believe what I do? In terms of history, Christianity seems to be the easiest religion to prove or disprove. It’s the only religion based on a single man who claimed to be God, so if Jesus’ claims can be resolved one way or the other, the entire faith should follow suit. However, I also believe that any religion is based on faith, and that a religion that can be proven is no religion at all. Douglas Adams put it best with his tale of the Babel fish. In the world of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Babel fish was an organism that allowed one to understand any spoken language simply by putting it in one’s ear. It was such an amazingly useful and illogical creation that its usefulness proved the existence of God. The exchange goes as follows:

“I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”
“But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves that You exist, and so therefore, by Your own arguments, You don’t. Q.E.D.”
“Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

As absurd as this argument is, I find it to be very relevant to my faith. I am a trusting person in general, not necessarily naive but certainly generous in my trust of other people. In terms of religious faith, I am in some senses a ‘passive believer,’ one who believes simply because I have no reason to disbelieve. For this reason I expect that I will never have a truly ‘religious experience’ or anything else that would prove for me the existence of God. God has reasons to challenge everyone in their faith, and there would no longer be a challenge for me to face if I had hard evidence of what I believe. I suppose this is similar to Pascal’s belief that “direct arguments for the existence of God [are] futile” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fideism).

So if the existence of God cannot (or will not) be proven for me, why do I believe? During the past summer I read A Case for Christ. This book is written by a lawyer who goes about proving the divinity of Jesus as one would argue a case in the judicial system. I was disappointed by the author’s one-sidedness (he frequently interviewed “witnesses” who would support his arguments, but never directly questioned anyone who disagreed with Christianity), but the book was still incredibly convincing. While the book really helped to solidify my beliefs, my faith was already established by then. So where did it come from? I was raised in an all-Christian family, but I would like to think that I am too critical (even in my naiveté) to blindly follow what others tell me. I reasoned from an early age along the same lines that Pascal argues, that one should believe in God because being wrong is harmless and being right is infinitely beneficial. Faith in God is win/win for almost everyone involved, so it follows that it is the ‘right’ choice. However, I don’t believe I would’ve been so enthusiastic about my service to God had this been the only reason for my doing so.

Ultimately I think that personal experiences have had the most profound effect on my life, despite my earlier statement that I’ve never had an experience I deem ‘religious.’ This is because the experiences I refer to are in general insignificant, but examined as a whole, point to a higher causality than random occurrences. My life is filled with answered prayers. A valuable lesson I’ve learned is to not expect God to answer prayers on my own terms, and this has been instrumental in my ability to identify answers when they are provided. Often these answers are in the form of opportunities that arise from no action of my own. When I look at my employment history, for example, each internship or summer job seems to be uniquely tailored toward providing me with key lessons and experiences, even though they were by no means intended by me for that purpose. My marriage at the age of nineteen is another example of an opportunity I had not looked for, but that has clearly reshaped my life and the way I live it. There is too much reason in supposedly random events for me not to believe that a higher power is directing them.

Despite my strong faith in God’s teachings, the values to which I hold seem to stem from who I am, and not just a desire to adhere to arbitrary commands. When I look deep enough, I find that I want to live the way I do, serving people as much as I can, regardless of whether God truly exists. This in itself seems to be evidence for God’s existence. For why would a person like me ‘evolve’ to desire happiness for others as much as for himself? I have no intention of building myself up, so I will readily admit that I have times of selfishness just like anyone else. But I know in my heart that service to others will make me happier than doing things for myself.

Christianity meshes well with my values and my understanding of life. It seems to me that much of life involves improving oneself in every aspect – learning from mistakes, increasing your knowledge of the world, and building moral frameworks. This idea of striving for perfection is reflected in many religions, and I find it to be very important for understanding the Great Mystery. The Old Testament doesn’t seem to deal with this very much; it usually emphasizes pleasing God over improving oneself for the sake of improvement. I take it then that personal development is not very important to Judaism. Christianity, on the other hand, emphasizes that we are all sinners – that we all fall short of the expectations of God (perfection) – and that all we can hope for is to improve in our obedience and knowledge more every day. This idea seems to be encapsulated in so much I’ve seen in the world, that it makes sense to me that it would be a central part of our existence.

One aspect that challenges my faith on a regular basis is the difficulty I have in praying. The Bible teaches us that we are free to commune with God at any time, and that we should strive to build an intimate relationship with our creator. This belief makes a lot of sense to me, because I feel it supports a likely paradigm for our existence. God’s creation of us is analogous to a couple’s choice to have children in order to share their knowledge and their love. If this analogy holds, as the church teaches us that it does, then God must desire communication with us to build this bond. But prayer is the one aspect of my religion that feels unnatural to me. Not unnatural in concept, but in practice. It is my goal to speak to God as a regular reaction to the events of the world, so that it may be as natural as thinking to myself. But I frequently go days at a time without giving a thought towards God.

It has been my experience that most Americans face the same problem. Some have trained themselves, through years of work, to speak with God as a natural part of their day. But many others struggle daily with building a personal relationship with God. From my experience, this problem is not so much a core human response, but a consequence of particular situations, especially success. I have been on several mission trips, ranging from local fields like Pittsburgh and Erie to entirely different cultures, such as Jamaica and Honduras. Wherever I have gone, the people who faced difficult times financially or emotionally were those who were most easily able to interact with God on a regular basis. It is human nature to credit ourselves with our successes and blame others or seek for assistance when we fail. My life has been free of any serious afflictions, and I believe it is for this reason that I have trouble remembering God in my daily walk.

Another problem that is still very real for my faith is the Problem of Evil. I agree that as the problem is presented, the three primary premises (God exists, God is omnipotent, God is all-good) are mutually exclusive of one another, and that only two of the three can be true. I obviously believe that God exists, so it must follow that one of the other two premises is false. I believe in God’s omnipotence. I believe that God can do anything that is logically possible, since God created everything, and anything that is logically possible is tied to the created universe. I don’t know whether I believe God can do illogical things, such as creating a stone that he can’t lift, but this is irrelevant to the problem of God being able to prevent evil. That leaves the premise that God is all-good. It seems to me that this is a very arbitrary statement. As we discussed in class, many of the major faiths make this claim, but its meaning is hard to discern. If we are using the definition presented on the handout that something all-good prevents all the evil it can, it follows that God does not fit this definition from the obvious evidence that evil exists. Again the analogy of the loving parent could hold, in that sometimes parents choose not to protect their child from a negative experience in order that that child may learn from it. But then if the discussion is continued, we ask ‘why must we learn lessons, if God could prevent everything bad from happening to us?’ A parent only teaches her child because there will be a time when the parent will no longer be there to guide him. But God will never leave, so it seems that the lesson is unnecessary. Perhaps there is something about our search for improvement, as I discussed earlier, that God values and desires for all of us. It is hard to determine God’s will, but it seems that our learning and growing is closely linked to the purpose of our lives, and therefore in some way important to our very existence.

Although I have most of my beliefs and values fairly well charted, I still have much left to come to conclusions on (otherwise my time would probably be up!) The purpose of human life is a difficult concept to grasp for me. From what I have seen, Christianity in general doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp on the problem. We speak of God having a purpose for each of us, but this purpose is largely undefined. Is it intended to be a single event, such as is suggested in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs? If this is the case, it seems that life is pointless once you’ve completed your ‘purpose.’ Perhaps that is the case, and God simply takes anyone as soon as their purpose is complete. But this would imply that everyone fulfills their purpose through their own death, which is a silly idea (except, I suppose, for those who die as martyrs or warnings).

If a person’s purpose is not a single event, then how can it be defined? Is it a role they are intended to play throughout life, such as a good father, a loving wife, a successful missionary, a friendly business partner? Then what of those who die at an early age? Christianity says that we are created to be God’s children, but most regard a person who is close with God but not in touch with the real world as being blind and hypocritical. I guess we have several purposes; to bring joy to God through our respect and praise, to be the needed support for those we meet in our lives, and to be involved in particular events where we can make a difference. This is a nice definition, but it doesn’t exactly tell one how to go about fulfilling his purpose, and this is one area I need to investigate further.

Another problem that I face with my faith is that in my expectation to never witness direct evidence of the supernatural, my beliefs are self-supporting. If I expect no evidence of what I believe, I will never have reason to doubt when that evidence is not perceived. I suppose it’s like saying there’s a dragon who lives in my house and disappears anytime someone is about to look at it. No one can ever prove me wrong, so I am free to believe this fallacy as long as I like. This is something I’ve come to terms with, and as I said before, my evidence for my beliefs lies not in overwhelming sensations of peace or visions of the Virgin Mary, but in the logical and physical confirmations of the everyday. I would like to end with a lengthy quotation from an e-mail I sent to a friend which discusses this evidence. My friend is a searching agnostic who enjoys poetry, so I tried to appeal to her artistic sensibilities:

One thing I still struggle with sometimes though, just like anyone else, is believing that God exists. That’s just one of those things where your mind keeps wanting to reject it, even if your heart knows it’s true (the same thing happened to me when I knew in my heart that I wasn’t in love with my ex-girlfriend, but I wanted to believe it so much that I convinced my mind that it was true). On one hand it’s so easy to believe just in science, and that there is no reason for anything. But so many things foil that thinking. Like beauty. I was looking at a vast open blue sky (over Oakland, no less) and thinking about beauty. Beauty makes no sense if everything wasn’t created by something that loves us. Because what natural purpose does it serve? Sure, we prefer a blue sky to a rainy one, or we are more attracted to attractive people because they have less physical defects (thus ‘survival of the fittest’ and all that), but what makes those feelings actually produce joy in our hearts? Why does art exist, art which is just an abstract means of producing emotion through beauty, revulsion, and awe? There’s no natural reason for art. It does nothing to further our survival as a species. It expands our experience as human beings, and ultimately makes us more joyful. But nobody needs to be joyful to want to stay alive, that’s already a natural instinct. And love. Love I think is the ultimate question. Why love? Why does there need to be this connection between people that draws people together? I’m talking love as in the emotional and physical connection between a man and a woman, or the deep caring love that friends and family feel for one another. The Bible says that God is Love, and it makes sense to me that all of this world was created by Love, and for Love.

That evidence, the beauty and joy and love, is why I believe what I believe.

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