Monday, April 26, 2010

Faith and straight thinking

It's usual to think of faith as an unreasonable thing, what Mark Twain called believing what you know isn't so. Lots of religious folks resent Twain for this remark and many others like them, especially if they read his Letters from the Earth, but since they agree with him that faith obeys God by defying reason, they shouldn't complain about Twain's assessment. Don't they commonly meet doubts and objections with such great advice as, "Just believe, brother!" (never mind such small details as whether or not you know it's true)?

As Abraham Joshua Heschel pointed out, the notion that faith is irrational comes to us from the ancient Greeks, who held that poetry and other divine revelation came to people in a state of madness. Straight thinking and divine revelation are in different realms. But the prophets knew nothing of such nonsense, and neither did Jesus or the apostles. Faith for them is believing what is true in the spirit of a sound mind. The problem people had with Jesus is that he made sense and they couldn't refute him. You never catch Jesus, like today's Christoids, telling people what a virtue it is to believe in contrast to getting good answers. With Jesus, they'd shut up because he had good answers, so that they became afraid to even ask him a question. And faith, of course, is to ask him more questions right at that point where the religious people shut up, knowing that our irrationality is about to get challenged.

What got me thinking about this tonight was reading King Hubbert's paper on peak oil, presented to the American Petroleum Institute in 1956, in which he predicted that American production would peak about 1970, which he called just right, and in the world as a whole in 2000. He was wrong about that by about 5 years or so, due to the demand collapses caused by economic recession in the 1980's. We now seem to have peaked at 83 million barrels a day.

I was at a school board meeting in the Antelope Valley at which the Davis Demographics company presented a report on what the school district could expect over the next few years, and even 30 or more years ahead. They were figuring that eventually the population in this desert, far from Los Angeles or any other big city, could be expected to reach the limits of municipal zoning! I thought to point out that this was all based on the assumption that cheap and abundant petroleum and water would be there for ever, which is a fairy tale. Did the district actually pay money to be told such nonsense? Indeed, the US Dept of Energy's projections of supply and demand state that supply will fall short of demand in 2012 and be 10 million barrels a day short by 2015 - and the US Joint Forces Command agrees. The oil companies know they won't be pumping any more, which is why none of them are bothering to add refining capacity.

There's nothing controversial, really, about the train wreck the world economy is heading for, quite apart from what the Dow Jones averages may do this week. The remarkable thing to me is how professing Christians often greet this news.

On the one hand, they're excited about how Jesus will be returning any moment, which in fact our Bibles tell us is certainly not yet the case, just as Paul warned people not to expect right away in his own day. But faced with evidence of the sort of thing that the Bible tells us to expect before Jesus returns, they rely on the authority of people like Rush Limbaugh to blow it off. If they really think Jesus will show up any moment, why are they so sure that the "beginning of birth pangs" that Jesus spoke of won't be happening first?

That's what it looks like to be devoid of real faith. You can irrationally hold totally conflicting notions in your head at the same time, and nobody can, by patiently counting the objects in front of your face, persuade you that these 2, plus those 2, really do add up to 4 and not 5. But as James writes, the wisdom from above is pure and reasonable - or as Paul puts it, it's the spirit of a sound mind. That's what biblical faith looks like.

The high places and the low

I was reading Micah yesterday and noted in Chapter 1 that God will come down to judge the high places of the earth. God is humble and comes down, and this can be a problem for us if we're pushing up, because the high places get trodden on. As James wrote, God resists the proud. I've noticed that it really sucks to encounter the resistance of God, and with pride, that encounter is guaranteed.

Micah cites two examples: Samaria, the capital city of the northern kingdom built by Omri on a high and defensible hill, and Jerusalem, the capital of Judah. Being high and trusted in by their inhabitants has turned out in history to be bad for both.

Psalm 40:4 says, "Blessed is that man who makes the Lord his trust, and does not respect the proud, nor such as turn aside to lies." It is indeed a blessing to escape the bewitchment of the proud. People admire pride, seeing it as courage, and they are drawn to the audacity and insolence of the proud doer, so long as his pride is not directed against them. In fact, I've defiled myself with that kind of admiration from people, and that's an economy I'd best drop out of!