Recognizing Jesus: Some Thoughts on Faith and Reason

I recently heard a distinguished professor of religion and ethics discuss some of the more complicated elements of the New Testament. He was a fantastic speaker and knew his material so well he needed no notes and spoke almost nonstop for two hours, holding his audience of students spellbound with both his knowledge and humor.

My favorite moment was when he spoke about the body after resurrection.

“And then there’s the question, what is going on with the body after resurrection?   Jesus has a body.  But he seems to walk through walls.   Then he sits down to eat a meal with his disciples.   I guess the food is disappearing and going somewhere….and then he apparently meets up with people who know him and they don’t recognize him.   They don’t recognize him? Hello?  Why not?  Is he wearing Groucho glasses?”

The class fell out laughing, but it’s a serious question.  What does this mean anyway?

Our professor suggested this: “Maybe when you read something in ancient texts, and it doesn’t make any sense, maybe just maybe you’re not focused on what the writer is really trying to tell you.”  Of course, his big maybe was a polite and gentle way of saying that people get into all kinds of arguments about things that are not really the point.

I get nervous sometimes writing about my personal beliefs about God, in part because we do tend to focus on the wrong things. I worry that if express my questions and doubts in a public way that I will be judged, excluded, and distrusted.   I just read about someone I consider to be a very interesting thinker (John Dominic Crossan, link updated April 2021)) who gets a lot of blowback for questioning some “unquestionable” tenets of the Christian belief system.

I don’t know that I am with Crossan or not, as I have not read his work; but I know myself, and from what I have read I am fascinated.  I also want him and anyone else to ask these questions, to talk about history and scholarship, and to facilitate an open conversation.   I think our understanding of history, of ancient cultures and people, of spirituality and religion, and of the human experience is only enriched by our ability to have respectful dialogue about the most mysterious questions.

Mother Theresa had doubts. It’s rational to admit that if she felt this way and struggled, then there is no one who doesn’t hit the wall.  To some extent I think the closer to the teachings of Jesus one tries to live, the more logical it is that doubts and questions will arise.  Is this really how I’m supposed to do it, because this is very often not one bit of fun, and I’m not sure anything is getting better for anyone as a result.  Do I understand this right?  I really, really don’t want to be doing this the wrong way, or it’s all for nothing.  (I think JC had that moment himself, as I recall…..hmmmm…….)

I like the idea from the lecture I attended, and from Crossnan. If it doesn’t make sense, the answer may not be I need to “have more faith.”   Maybe, just maybe, I’m not paying attention to the right thing.  More egos in the religious community need to allow for that very real possibility.

This Easter I’ll be on the lookout for my best understanding of the man we call Jesus of Nazareth.  Note to self:  If I don’t see him, it’s probably not because he’s wearing Groucho glasses.

Image credit: 3oneseven

Proving It – The Soul of Science

A major personal challenge I’ve encountered in the past decade is the pressure to support the idea that positive thinking, or the “right” thinking, will create a person’s reality.  Any skepticism or even gentle questioning of true believers usually leads to vehement assertions that I just don’t want to be happy, or a winner (that’s a whole different post unto itself), or that I’m afraid to be successful (as if there is one way). 

The thing is, these assertions are often followed with opportunities to pay money to a cult figure via DVDs or books or speaking fees to become a happy, successful, wealthy winner.

The whole dynamic frustrates me to no end, but I usually don’t actually care enough to argue about it.  I also don’t argue because I don’t really know what to say beyond, “I disagree.”  But last week’s NYT essay Fight ‘The Power’ has freed me from my hesitancy. The essay breaks down the actual science behind why the human mind is so susceptible to believing that our thoughts control our reality. At last, even if I have to just read it to myself, I have in black and white why I can’t support books like The Secret and The Power.  I’m simply too much of a scientist in my soul.

Christopher Chabris is a psychology professor at Union College. Daniel Simons is a psychology professor at the University of Illinois.  Chabris and Simons, authors of the Fight ‘The Power’ essay, warn, “Whenever you hear someone appeal to impenetrable physics to explain the workings of the mind, run away — we already have disciplines called ‘psychology’ and ‘neuroscience’ to deal with those questions.”  They go on to explain what they see as the fundamental hook of the pseudoscience behind some of the most popular publications that use this line of thinking:

The message of “The Power” and “The Secret” might best be understood as an advanced meme — a sort of intellectual virus — whose structure has evolved throughout history to optimally exploit a suite of weaknesses in the design of the human mind.

It does seem that we are not too hard to fool, we humans; and a fool and his money are soon parted.  We tend to do things like assume sequential events are cause-and-effect; to think that the more people who say something the more likely it is to be true; and to assume we understand things that when pressed we can’t explain in even the simplest terms.   There is also a human susceptibility to voices of “authority” and what is called the “illusion of potential.”  Who doesn’t want to believe we could all do and have anything at any time, that we are just holding ourselves back?

All of this said, it is fine line for me to explain that ultimately I do think it is important to manage what one runs through his or her mind.  It’s not that I think we are creating “particles” of energy that are shaping the universe — poppycock.  I do think, however, that how things seem on a day-to-day basis has value that is real beyond what may actually be scientifically demonstrable.  I remember specifically talking with a physician once about symptoms that were bothering me from a chronic health condition.  I asked about a medicine and he said, “That won’t fix the underlying problem.  It will just make you feel better.”  Right, Dr. Genius. That is why I’m here, to feel better.  If I can’t get better, feeling better is an excellent second choice.  Feeling better is its own kind of reality.

It is important to keep what one thinks and believes about managing life as something that ultimately belongs to the individual.  In the movie Contact (based on Carl Sagan’s novel of the same name), Ellie (Jodie Foster) and Palmer (Matthew McConaughey) represent the ongoing debates of science and religion.  Ellie simply cannot comprehend Palmer’s way of thinking, with its relative nonchalance toward the hard proofs of science.  He is dialed in to a spiritual approach to life that is sometimes compatible with science but entirely independent of it.  Ellie likes Palmer, and does her best to not disrespect him in their conversations, but she finally conveys to him that she thinks he’s just not using his mind.

Palmer asks her one question.  “Did you love your father?”

“Wh….What?” Ellie responds, stunned and knocked off guard.

“Did you love your father?  Yes or no?”

“Yes,” she says softly.  “Very much.”

Palmer has one request.  “Prove it.”

Probably there will always be things that science can’t explain, and I would venture to say most of those things involve bursts of human greatness more than our frailties.  The sins, the crimes, the failures – these seem graph-able and biologically understandable.  But what of the redemptions, the victories, the forgiveness and yes the love that make no sense around the dinner table, much less the laboratory?

I’m just a scientist in my soul.  I can’t prove any of this.  But because I truly believe it, I will wake up tomorrow and be someone who does things that make the world a better place, and that is reality.

Photo credit: Warping History: Analytical Methods in Historical Cartography