Saturday, October 19, 2019

Are we Slaves to our Beliefs?

Recently I wrote an article reflecting on how the concept of Trinity might have originated, and a reader responded saying that it is a mystery which our church fathers have presented to us, and all that we need to do is to accept it as such blindly without even thinking about it. This reader thought that my attempt to understand the concept of Trinity was similar to reinventing the wheel. It has already been explored and explained well enough by the fathers, and so we don’t need to waste our time and energy to do so. This reader believes that the beliefs we have inherited from our fathers need to be blindly believed, and any thinking on them is not only futile but also harmful, for there is a possibility that we arrive at different discoveries and conclusions, which is a disservice to the fathers.
The general understanding among Christians is that a Christian is someone who holds certain beliefs, which are believed to be true facts. However, the various Christian churches cannot agree on which are those beliefs. That is why we have hundreds of divisions within Christianity. What some Christians believe as true beliefs are not so for others.
Beliefs are jealously protected by the priestly class in each community. If you cannot blindly believe a certain belief of your community, and you openly express your disagreement, then you will be excommunicated. Sins like murder and rape are pardonable, but a deviation from the established beliefs is unpardonable. Beliefs, elevated to unchanging doctrines and dogmas, are believed to be inherited from the very apostles of Christ, and questioning a belief is the worst crime someone can commit. If beliefs are to be blindly accepted, there should not be any thinking at all, and so thinking is discouraged and even prohibited in the Christian communities. I have yet to find a Christian church that is an exception to this.
This situation seems to be as old as Christianity although we don’t see it in the teachings of Jesus Christ. Jesus did not teach to hold on to a set of beliefs, but soon after his time, there slowly developed a set of beliefs which were transferred from generation to generation. In the fourth century, Constantine made Christianity the imperial religion, but soon the emperor had a headache facing the fights within Christianity on which was the right belief about Trinity and about the divinity of Jesus. Fearing that the empire may not stay united because of this fight, he called a meeting of bishops to decide upon which was the true belief. Of the two separate beliefs, one belief was declared right, and those who held the other belief were excommunicated. As this was not the right solution to the fight of beliefs, the fights continued creating headache to the successors of Constantine. This fight of beliefs continue to this day all over the world, and Christianity continue to split into hundreds and thousands of pieces, each piece claiming to have the right belief on various matters.
We human beings are supposed to be free, but in Christianity, we have allowed some beliefs to rule over us. We have made ourselves the slaves of some beliefs. We die and kill for our beliefs. During Jesus’ time the members of his community had made themselves the slaves of certain rules such as Sabbath and purification, and Jesus asked people to get out of such slavery. He declared that Sabbath is for Man, and not Man for Sabbath. If Jesus lived among us today, he would declare that Beliefs are for Man, not Man for Beliefs.   
So let us make an attempt to understand beliefs. What exactly are they? Once we understand the truth of beliefs, we can make use of them rather than be slaves to them.
What are Beliefs?
We understand the world around us with our mind and with the senses. As we get to know little by little, the area we know advances, and the unknown area recedes. In spite of how much we advance, there will always be the distinction of known area and unknown area. We can speak of what we know using facts, but about the unknown area we use our beliefs or opinions.  
 A piece of information can be either a fact or a belief. A fact is supported by evidences, but a belief is supported by the people who believe it. A belief does not exist if there is no one to believe it. A belief is expressed by an opinion.
This does not mean that a fact is true, and a belief is false. A belief is also believed to be true although it lacks evidences. A lot of information come to us in the form of beliefs or opinions. Later, when they are supported by evidences, they get promoted to facts.
Let us see some examples from the well known story of Jesus healing a blind man. The Pharisees questioned him about the healing. (John 9 : 24-25) They said about Jesus:
Give glory to God, we know that he is a sinner!
The one who was blind replied:
I do not know whether he is a sinner! One thing I do know, I was blind, but now I see.
The one who was blind honestly makes a clear distinction between what he knows and what he does not know. Such a distinction comes out of honesty, and any honest person will make such a distinction. “I was blind, but now I see” is what he knows for sure. But he honestly admits his ignorance of whether Jesus was a sinner or not. He had no way of knowing that.
The Pharisees are not honest though. They claim “We know that he is a sinner”. Do they really know? If they were honest, they would have said “We think that he is a sinner”. They thought Jesus was a sinner because Jesus healed sick people on Sabbath. According to them, Sabbath was to be observed by total rest, and so any activity on Sabbath was a sin.
Whatever we know for sure can be expressed as a fact, but whatever we are not sure can be expressed only as a belief or opinion. There are always areas more unknown than known to us. So we always make use of beliefs and opinions than facts.
Although we speak a lot about God, we must honestly admit that no facts are available about God. So we always use our beliefs.
Also when we speak of the unknown, we speak of it relating it to what is known to us. Although we know that God is unlike anything in the world, we speak of God relating to things in the world just because we have no other way.  
Beliefs vary from person to person, and also from time to time. I had certain beliefs of God in childhood. As I grew older, my beliefs kept changing. I do not think anyone else shares the exact same beliefs as mine. Although we all use the word God, we all mean different things by that word.
Before going further, let me summarize what I have said so far. Always we have known and unknown areas before us. We use facts to speak of known areas, but beliefs to speak of unknown areas. Beliefs vary from person to person and from time to time. To speak of God, purpose of our life, etc. mostly we use beliefs because facts are not available.

What is Faith?
Jesus advised his disciples to have faith at least as little as mustard seed. St. Paul included faith in the three things that last, the others being hope and love. He also claimed that we live not by sight but by faith. He devoted an entire chapter to talk about people who lived their life by faith (Heb 11). Now the question we ask here is this: What exactly is faith? Is it the same as belief?
Faith seems to be a wider view of life, for it takes into consideration what the inner eye sees as well. With the outer eye, we don’t see God, we don’t see how we are related, and we tend to live in fear, anxiety, and depression. But with the inner eye, our vision gets wider and deeper. We see God, we see how we are related to one another, and the purpose of our life, which helps us to live a meaningful life.
Paul claimed that we get saved not by good works to please God, but by faith. By this he probably meant what Jesus meant in his story of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying. According to the Pharisee’s evaluation, he deserved to be rewarded and the tax collector deserved to be punished by God, for he lived following the moral code of his community. But Jesus asserted that in God’s sight, the tax collector was to be rewarded, and not the Pharisee. God used a different standard to evaluate them. God saw their understanding that lay deep down within their hearts. The Pharisee believed that there were two kinds of people in the world -- righteous and unrighteous, but the tax collector believed that God alone was righteous, and all human beings belong to the same category-- unrighteous. This understanding of the tax collector helped him to come to God’s presence with repentance, and also to live in peace with his fellow beings.
Thus faith is the understanding that lies deep down within us, and it is a set of beliefs which provides a foundation for our life. Faith exists at the very foundation of our life, and our life depends very much upon it. Jesus advised people to have a life with a firm rock-like foundation, not a sand-like one. It is very important to have a very good understanding of our life as the basis upon which we can build up a fruitful life. If our faith is firm and positive, our life also will be so. Jesus advised people to critically evaluate what kind of beliefs they had as the foundation of their life.  
The quality of our faith will be exhibited in our deeds, words, and attitude, just as a tree will be identified by its fruit. One doesn’t have to verbalize what he/she believes. This is what Jesus taught. But, later, faith couldn’t be exhibited in their deeds and words. James deals with this problem in his epistle. He went to the extent of saying that faith without corresponding deeds is dead. When faith couldn’t be seen in deeds, they started verbalizing what they believed. That is when all the fights based on beliefs started in Christianity, which still continues.  

 How may we deal with beliefs?
So what should be our attitude toward beliefs? Imagine that you are like a gatekeeper letting in people identifying them. Facts and beliefs approach you. Facts are on their own, and you cannot stop them. How about beliefs? Beliefs are of three kinds:
1. Beneficial
2. Destructive
3. Neither beneficial not destructive
4. Not sure which of the above group they belong to
So what will you do with them? Accept the beneficial ones, reject the destructive ones, and ignore the ones that are neither beneficial nor destructive.
We need to be extra careful with the fourth category. Most of the beliefs we inherit from our parent-generation may belong to this group. We just have to patiently make an effort to understand them. We are not supposed to discard them even if we do not understand them.
Many of the beliefs spread by the Pharisees were destructive, and so Jesus advised to reject them. Pharisees believed that Sabbath should be observed by doing nothing, and this rule was a burden for the common people. Jesus substituted it by a beneficial belief -- Sabbath should be observed by doing good deeds. Pharisees held the destructive belief that God favors good people, but Jesus substituted it with the beneficial belief that God loves all people in the same way.
I think we need to follow the example of Jesus, and weigh and measure every belief we come across. If Constantine had known this in the fourth century, the history of Christianity would have been different.
  We defined faith as a set of beliefs that exist at the foundation of our life. We have inherited faith from our parents and from the community we belong to. As children, we blindly accept them, but as we grow older, we need to critically evaluate our faith to see if they consist of beneficial beliefs, destructive beliefs, or beliefs we can ignore.
 I think we should not allow our difference in beliefs affect our relationship. A belief that disrupts our relationships is destructive. In spite of whatever we believe, still we are brothers and sisters. We are all children of the same heavenly father. Constantine couldn’t think in this way.
That God alone is omniscient is common knowledge. No human being has all knowledge. Whatever we know, still our knowledge has limit. Whatever we think right can be proved wrong later. If all people can agree on this one point, we will not fight and divide based on our knowledge and beliefs.
I think we need to feel sorry for all the divisions we caused by placing too much stress on our beliefs. If our heavenly father loves all people in the world as children, we should be able to treat all people as our brothers and sisters regardless of whatever they believe. 

We examined the role of beliefs in our life, especially in the history of Christianity. We allowed beliefs to enslave us, and as a result, we get divided into hundreds of pieces based on our beliefs. It is high-time we realize our foolishness and examine our beliefs critically instead of blindly accepting them all. Let us all realize that God alone is omniscient, and humbly admit our ignorance. Let us not sacrifice our precious relationships for keeping our beliefs.      

John D. Kunnathu

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Popular Assumptions about God-- An Evaluation

People of all times and places, regardless of their religious affiliations, seem to have certain common assumptions of God, which is a part of their view of life. Other than such assumptions, we don’t have any objective knowledge of God. All our knowledge enters through our senses, and no human being has ever experienced God with any of the five senses. Let us see these assumptions under three headings:

1. Based on our awareness of our limitations
2. Based on our awareness of the limitations of the world
3. Based on our suffering in facing the challenges of our everyday life
Now let us see them one by one. 

1. Our limitations
Growing up as children, we realize that we lack so much essential knowledge, and we depend upon the adults for such knowledge. Soon we realize that the adults also have a limit to their knowledge. This reminds me of the beautiful poem by Kumaran Asan in Malayalam with the title “Mother and Child”. In this short poem a mother and child are having a conversation over the butterflies. The child mistakes them to be flying flowers, but the mother corrects the child. As their conversation progresses, the child asks why she can’t fly like the butterfly, and why the various living beings are endowed with varying abilities? At this question, the mother admits her limit of knowledge, and claims that God alone has an answer to that question.
I think this is the most primary awareness of all people about God. We become aware of our limitation in knowledge, and then we assume that someone must have all knowledge. That we have only limited knowledge is a fact, from which we derive an assumption that someone knows everything-- omniscient.  
Whenever someone asks a question which we can’t answer, we instinctively say “God knows”. For example, if someone asks how many stars are there in the sky, immediately we answer, God knows. This answer simply means that nobody knows the answer to that question. “Nobody knows” is a negative statement, but “God knows” is a positive statement with the same meaning.   
This is like a mathematical problem that deals with an unknown element in an equation using a place-filler like X. For example, 8 + X = 10. In this equation, X stands for an unknown number, and we can find its value with the other numbers. We use the word God like this X, as a place-filler. We know it is there, but we don’t know its value. We attempt to understand its value from the other known elements.
Next to our limitation of knowledge, we become aware of our limitation of abilities. Growing up as babies, we assume that our parents can do everything, but soon we realize that their abilities also have a limit. This leads us to assume the presence of someone who has all the possible abilities-- omnipotent.
Imagine someone asks a question such as who can jump across the Red Sea. Instinctively you answer, only God can, which is the same as nobody can.
Next to our our awareness of our limitation of knowledge and abilities, we become aware of our limitation of being and doing right all the time. Growing up as children we assume that the adults are always right. But soon we realize that it is human to err. Because our knowledge is limited, whatever we do can be wrong. From this we derive the assumption that God alone is always right, always good, always just and always holy-- these adjectives are ascribed more or less the same meaning.
We also become aware of our limited lifespan, and we assume that God has no such limit -- has neither birth nor death. We call God immortal to speak about this.
As we realize that we can be present only in one place at a time, we assume that God can be everywhere at the same time -- omnipresent

2. Limitations of the World
We become aware of two of the primary limitations of the world -- of time and space. The entire world exists within space, and it changes according to time. From this we assume that God is beyond these limits. Instead of the world existing within time and space, we assume that the world, time and space exist within God. Hence we use adjectives like eternal, infinite, transcendent, and unchanging to speak of God.  

3. Our Suffering
Other than such limitation-derived assumptions, we have another kind of assumption about God. Living our life is a challenge. It is a risky adventure. Anything can happen any time. When we suffer, we assume God’s role in our suffering in various ways.
A. God makes us suffer justly or unjustly. God punishes us for our wrong deeds like a king/judge/parent
B. Even if God does not make us suffer, God is aware of our suffering. God either helps us or does not help us to get out of suffering.
So what is God’s attitude to us. We have various assumptions:
A. God does not care for us.
B. God hates us for some unknown reason.
C. God likes us if we obey God, but dislikes us if we disobey God

Destructive Assumptions about God 
These assumptions about God’s attitude toward us makes our life even more miserable. Let us say we assume that God hates us for some reason and makes us suffer, or that God is like a king who imposes rules on us. Then we will devote a lot of our time and energy to change the attitude of God toward us. We will try to please God by saying nice things, by giving good gifts, by trying to live a life according to God’s will etc. However, none of these work, and we get even more frustrated. Moreover, whatever we assume about God, our character slowly becomes like that. If I assume that God is like an authoritarian parent or ruler, I will also become authoritarian.
Religions are often based on such destructive assumptions. People spend their time and energy to please God, which over time gets translated to large establishments that include property, buildings, people, rituals, literature, doctrines etc. Such establishments depend upon the destructive assumptions of God, and so the people who make a living out of such establishments keep feeding such destructive assumptions. 

So what is the solution? One of the following two solutions has been tried:
1. Denying God’s existence
2. Affirming that God loves us unconditionally  
Denying the existence of an authoritarian God can be a temporary solution to get out of our misery and out of the clutches of a destructive religion. However, it can’t be permanent. If we deny the existence of the one who knows everything, the one who is all powerful, the one who does everything right, then how do we deal with our own limitations? How do we conceptualize the ever-changing world in the absence of a never-changing God? 

On the other hand, if we choose the other solution, that would be a lasting one. If we assume that God loves us unconditionally, we will not waste our time and energy to change God’s attitude. But we will turn our attention to changing our own life and attitude. Also with such a role model, we will also learn to love unconditionally. We can make our life more meaningful and more productive.  

John D. Kunnathu