Tag Archives: believe

Why All Our Arguments Will Never Whisper To The Soul

faithIn the comments section of my previous meditation, a number of people debated over their various theological beliefs and offered a number of “proofs” to support their points of view. At about the same time, I read an article called “Why is there no evidence of G-d” at Chabad.org. This inspired a few thoughts about the nature of “truth” and why (probably) no one person or religious organization has the complete corner market on truth. But in the sidebar of the aforementioned article was a series of links to related articles. I clicked the one that said What Does it Mean to “Believe in G-d”?.

The statement, “I believe there is a G‑d” is meaningless. Faith is not the ability to imagine that which does not exist. Faith is finding relevance in that which is transcendent. To believe in G‑d, then, means not that you’re of the opinion that He exists, but that you have found relevance in Him. When a person says “I believe in G‑d” what s/he really means is “G‑d is significant in my life”.

In discussing our relationship with G‑d, the question we first need to ask, is, Who cares? In what way is He relevant?

For some people, G‑d is relevant because they are concerned with the origins of existence. For others, G‑d is relevant because they are concerned with the afterlife, and faith is a prerequisite for getting to heaven. Finally, for others, G‑d is relevant because they believe that life has purpose.

Certainly Christians convince others to come to faith because of the promise of the afterlife (“If you died tonight, do you know what would happen to your soul?”). The Church convinces “sinners” to convert to Christianity based, at least initially, on the fear of going to Hell and suffering for all eternity, and that by being “saved,” they are promised they’ll avoid Hell and ascend to Heaven when they die to be with Jesus.

That seems kind of cheesy. It’s like we have faith in God because it’s all about us and our salvation. Even coming to faith so we have some “grounding” in the origins of the universe, people, and the existence of everything still seems kind of self-centered.

But what about believing because we want life to actually mean something?

In Judaism, particularly in Chassidism, the interest in G‑d comes from the conviction that life has meaning. The recurring question in Chassidic thought is: Why is a soul sent into the world to suffer in a physical body, for 80, 90 years? We know there is a purpose, that G‑d is the author of that purpose, and we want to know and understand it.

One who lives by his heart exclusively, trusts only what he feels. One who lives by his mind exclusively, trusts only what fits. But neither of these tells you the truth. The mind demands that logic be trusted, the heart demands that the emotions be trusted. Yet both can be mistaken. They do not reveal inherent truth. For that, we turn to the soul, the neshamah. Because the soul is a part of the Divine — and that is truth. When we have faith, when we find relevance in G‑d, we are trusting that instinct in the soul that tells us that G‑d is the purpose of life.

In pragmatic terms, the mind, the heart and the soul must each fulfill their function: when we know all that can be known, when we come to the edge of knowledge and logic itself tells us that we have reached its outer limits and it cannot handle what lay beyond this point, faith enters. Where the mind is no longer adequate, the soul responds to truth. This is faith.

Let’s look at the central message:

The mind demands that logic be trusted, the heart demands that the emotions be trusted. Yet both can be mistaken. They do not reveal inherent truth. For that, we turn to the soul, the neshamah.

soulIn an ultimate sense, we can use evidence to support facts but not the truth. Being nice or being smart don’t really lead us to truth, but then we have a problem. How can you or I convince another person of “the truth” since that exists only in the purview of the soul?

This is why in Chabad-Lubavitch it is our approach to invite a Jew — even one who claims not to believe — to do a mitzvah, before we engage them in a discussion on faith. Because in consideration of the existence of the soul, we can assume that we don’t have to convince people of life’s Divine purpose. We just have to get them started, and with each mitzvah they do, their neshama asserts itself more, and questions become answered of themselves. By way of analogy, if a woman’s maternal instinct appears to be absent, you don’t argue the philosophy of motherhood with her. Just put the baby in her lap and her maternal response will emerge.

I can’t even imagine how a Christian would evangelize using this method. In Christianity, doing only matters after believing and is only a reflection of believing. Granted, the Church has a strong practice of charity and service to others, but it’s not the driving force that causes a person to convert to Christianity in the first place (could you imagine being a Christian and approaching a “sinner,” inducing them to join the Church with the promise of a lifetime of service to God and humanity?).

However, that’s more or less what Rabbi Manis Friedman is suggesting in his article. That’s why the Chabad will ask a Jew who is not at all religious to perform at least one mitzvah. Because the mitzvot are what connects a Jew to God.

To encounter God is a transcendent experience that goes beyond thought or emotion, but in order to “operationalize” that encounter, a Jewish person “does”. That is, he or she connects the soul to the author of the soul by performing mitzvot. This isn’t to say that prayer and worship don’t connect Jewish people to God, but at least from the Chabad’s perspective, it all starts with performing a single mitzvah, and then another, and then another, until they are living an increasingly Jewish life.

Christianity has the opposite approach in that reading the Bible, praying, and worshiping come first, and then eventually as the believer’s life is transformed by their faith, they come to the place where they are “doing” Christianity by helping other people.

argumentWhen we argue with each other for the supposed purpose of correcting what we believe others have gotten wrong about the Bible, about God, and about Messiah, and we say we are doing so because we care about those people, we are missing a vital element. We can’t reach their soul, at least not directly, with logical arguments or by appealing to their emotions.

Whether it’s by a Christian having a person they’re evangelizing praying to be saved, or by a Chabad representative having a Jew lay tefillin, the appeal is to the soul, and although we have different actions we put people through to make this happen, it’s really God who is speaking to the neshamah. That’s why, except in very rare instances, our blog conversations will never really be able to convince someone to admit that their theology is wrong, to change their minds, and to adopt a different religious discipline.

Speaking of changing religions, I found this article and it seemed relevant.

Randomly Covering Territory

Do you only believe when you can see with your eyes? When your prayers are answered and miracles carry you on their wings? Or do you also believe when circumstances fly in your face?

If it touches you to the core, if it is a belief you truly own, if it is as real to you as life itself, then it does not change.

And if it does not change, then you are bound up with the true essence of the One who does not change.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Faith in the Dark”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

I’ve said before that I don’t consider myself the “sharpest knife in the drawer.” In the world of faith, I think I have plenty of company, though. For instance, I don’t think most Christians consider the idea that there are two basic levels of knowledge in our religion (or probably most religions): the common worshiper’s view and the scholar’s view. For instance, New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado recently posted on his blog an article called An “Early High Christology”. I mean really. What in the world is high Christology and what’s the difference between high vs. low Christology?

I’ll let you click the links I provided since my discussion today isn’t focused on those topics. I’m just including them to illustrate that most people in the church don’t have the same view of God, Jesus, and the Bible as do theologians and Bible scholars. These people talk a different language than we do and conceptualize the Word of God in ways most of us can’t even imagine. I’m not even sure most of them could communicate their ideas and perspectives to a crowd of “regular Christians” at their local neighborhood church in any successful way.

Which is kind of a shame, because the information these people work with would almost assuredly challenge and perhaps even change the viewpoint and direction of most believers in most churches if we had access to it in a comprehensible way.

Well, they do publish popular books, some of them anyway, but most Christians don’t take advantage of that material (let alone anything more scholarly, such as a Ph.D Thesis). Most people who sit in the pew on Sunday are content to believe that they are being adequately “fed” by their local Pastor, who no doubt is doing a good job, but may feel constrained to offer only the “food” he or she believes the audience will comfortably tolerate.

I occasionally get “dinged” for including non-Biblical sources in my writings since they are, after all, non-Biblical and thus cannot carry the same weight of authority as the scriptures in the Bible. But I’m no Bible scholar and I do love a good metaphor, so I include things like Rabbinic midrash, Chassidic tales, and commentary about Kabbalah, largely for their cultural, metaphorical and symbolic meaning. I certainly can’t discuss them from the perspective of a Pastor, Rabbi, or someone else with an advanced education in Theology or Divinity.

That doesn’t keep me from being curious though, and curiosity often leads me down interesting if troublesome paths.

Here’s one such path:

Numbers 22-24: While the Numbers text itself is inconclusive, both rabbinic legend and the Apostolic Scriptures clearly paint Balaam as wicked through and through.

“The Error of Balaam”
Commentary on Torah Portion Balak
First Fruits of Zion

Um, what was that? The Torah was inconclusive about the nature and character of the “wizard” Balaam, but both the New Testament and midrashim agreed that he was evil? That seems like an odd combination. Of course, it’s not that the New Testament writers and the authors of midrash expected to agree with each other, but in this case, strangely enough, they did. Here’s the New Testament commentary on Balaam.

Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness. –2 Peter 2:15-16 (ESV)

But these people blaspheme all that they do not understand, and they are destroyed by all that they, like unreasoning animals, understand instinctively. Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion. –Jude 1:10-11 (ESV)

Admittedly, the opinions being rendered about Balaam in the New Testament text are rather brief. But what about the midrash?

Some say Balaam of Pethor (פתור) was called a money-changer (petor, פתור) because the kings of the nations rushed to him for counsel in the same way that people rush to a money-changer to change their currency. –Numbers Rabbah 20:7

This may not be the only Rabbinic commentary on Balaam, but it’s the only one I have access to due to my limited knowledge in this area.

Am I saying that we can compare the New Testament and Talmud, for example? Probably not, or at least, only very, very carefully, with lots of caveats attached (as a side note, can the New Testament and the later Rabbinic commentaries both be considered midrash?). On the other hand, there is just so much we don’t truly understand about the Bible, and there are so many other sources of information that we have access to that may provide additional perspective. We just need to be able to clearly delineate between the Bible and other information sources. We also need to remember that we don’t have to be so binary in our thinking that we always have to say, “Bible good! Everything else, bad!”

After pursuing my personal faith issues for the past few years, I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that the Bible doesn’t always tell us the “whole story.” Both Christian and Jewish scholars and sages have spent the past several thousand years trying to understand the mind of God by delving into the Word of God. They’ve produced an untold amount of commentary that their audiences judge to be of greater or lesser value in defining the faith. The fact that gentlemen like Larry Hurtado even exist as New Testament scholars tells us there is more to be learned about the New Testament than we already know or think we know. I’m sure the same is true for the rest of the Bible.

I’ve previously mentioned last Thursday’s conversation between me, my son, and two other believers that lead to quite an interesting theological discussion. One of the things I didn’t mention was that David asked me what the minimum amount of knowledge was that would still qualify a person as a believer in God and a disciple of the Master. I don’t recall the details of my answer, but I don’t doubt it’s a good deal less than what the scholars, sages, and experts possess.

I suppose we could limit ourselves to knowing just the basics.

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” –Mark 12:28-31 (ESV)

But people are curious creatures. We very rarely hold ourselves back to the basics, well, some of us, anyway. We want to know more and we push our limits. We push the limits of religious propriety, asking questions the church doesn’t want to answer. We push our intellectual limits, asking questions that have answers we may not have the ability to understand. We push the limits of what are considered viable information sources and methods of study and what are not, at least by those folks who are “in the know,” such as Hurtado or Timothy George.

But the alternative is to shut up, don’t ask questions, and do as we’re told. For some people, that’s the entire scope of their faith. For others, for people like me, that would be the end of my faith. It would die for lack of nourishment.

So I’ll probably keep asking questions, being rebuffed, offending people, entering areas that are “off limits” to mere mortals and those of us with a limited religious education (and IQ), and generally stubbing my toe every other step.

I feel like a person who is trapped in an endless, man-sized maze looking for the cheese. Problem is, the maze is completely blacked out. I can’t see a thing. So the only way to discover my path is to bump into a lot of walls as if I were a human Roomba. My path seems completely random. Hopefully, I’ll cover the necessary territory.

What else can I do?

You don’t need to move mountains.
You just need to know where to aim.
You can transform an entire family forever with one flickering Shabbat candle of one little girl.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“A Small Candle”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

I recently read a very interesting blog post written by Jacob Fronczak called Every man is not a theologian which seems to give me a sort of “permission” not to pretend I know what a theologian knows. You might want to have a look and see what you think.