Tag Archives: facts

Facts, Truth, and How to Understand God and the Universe (an imperfect commentary)

flat earth
© Elena Schweitzer/Shutterstock

I don’t write here much anymore. Back in the day, I was practically fanatical in my rapid pace of authoring some sort of missive, sharing my perspectives on faith, Messiah, Judaism, and the people of the nations of the world.

What happened?

Well, it got to the point where I felt I said everything I had to say. After all, I’m not a professional theologian. I haven’t been to school for this sort of thing, and have no special training beyond what any layperson in a faith community would have access to. I’m just a guy with an opinion, and believe me, there are far too many of us in the blogosphere, religious or otherwise, as it is.

However, yesterday, I had an interesting conversation with my friend Tom. I see Tom on Sunday afternoons every other week unless one or the other of us has another commitment. Tom suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS, sometimes called “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” He is a man of great faith who, at least when I’m present, faces his ailment with remarkable courage.

We visit in the back bedroom of his home which has been converted to a small den or office. Topics of conversation run from science fiction, comic books, movies, the possibilities and problems with colonization of the Moon, Mars, and even Venus, and just about anything else. We also talk about our faith and what is called “Messianic Judaism” and “Hebrew Roots.”

Many years ago, I ceased attending my local Messianic community (which subsequently disbanded) because I was in a position of leadership and teaching, and as my understanding of my faith and its Biblical foundations evolved, I came to realize that what I had been teaching was pretty much dead wrong. I also realized I had no business teaching anyone anything because I was totally unqualified.

The people I worshiped with didn’t seem to mind one bit and said they enjoyed what I was teaching, but as a matter of conscience, I couldn’t continue.

For a lot of reasons I won’t mention here, I eventually started attending a small, local Baptist church. Just about everyone was nice, and the head Pastor took a liking to me, even to the point of having one-to-one meetings with me almost every Wednesday evening. But in the end, he was trying to convince me to become a good Baptist, and I was trying to convince him of the centrality of corporate Israel in God’s plan of redemption, that the Jewish people remain under the Sinai Covenant, and that the New Covenant, which for the past twenty centuries, has just been peeking through the door at the faithful, so to speak, is merely the writing of Torah on the hearts of Israel, rather than throwing the Five Books of Moses and the writings of the Prophets out the window.

We parted company, and in the years since, I haven’t heard anything from him or anyone else at church.

I’m pretty much a lone wolf these days, reading, studying, and worshiping privately.

So when my friend Tom, who does keep in touch with local, long-term members of the Messianic community, told me there were currently a total of seven “Hebraic” faith groups in our area, I was intrigued. Not enough to sample them, which would complicate matters, including my home life, but I was interested in hearing more.

kjv
© James Pyles – The KJV Bible my Grandma gave me when I was eleven years old

He mentioned a couple who I’d met years ago, and how they had formed their own group. He also mentioned a schism in that group, which happens with some regularity in many of these collectives, but this one was interesting. I guess the problem started with a woman, who is a very intelligent and well-educated mathematician, and who also became a very strict Bible-literalist, as well as a King James Bible only proponent, believing all other translations of the Bible from the original languages into English are bogus.

The most startling revelation was that she also is a Flat Earther. I was stunned.

Supposedly, she dismisses all of the evidence that we live on a globe as conspiracy theories, fake news, faked photographs, and such. This is quite surprising coming from a mathematician, but there are generally two areas of human understanding where dogma and belief seem to outweigh facts in most cases: politics and religion. When you enter those realms, faith and devotion to a set of beliefs, and in many cases, a charismatic leader figure (political or religious) trumps the facts (no pun intended).

The head Pastor at the church I once attended was something of a Bible literalist but not to such an outrageous degree. We live in an observable universe which, to the best of our techniques and our technology, we can objectively examine and re-examine using the scientific method.

Unlike some people I experience in the secular world, I believe science is NOT an object of absolute devotion, and it certainly doesn’t yield accurate results one hundred percent of the time, which is why science is never “settled.” It is a logical, fact-based process of asking questions about some observation, doing research, constructing a hypothesis, testing it, and so on. It is not merely a set of definitive pronouncements by people in lab coats who some treat as their “High Priests.”

All that said, as a person of faith and a rational, (hopefully) intelligent, and educated human being, I believe that the objective universe and the Bible cannot conflict, because in the former case, the universe was created by God, and in the latter case, our Holy writings were inspired by the same God (inspired, but not authored…it’s complicated).

I know atheists who would jump all over me at this point, citing multiple inconsistencies between Biblical text (which they read in English and with little or no background in solid hermeneutics) and what we know about the universe around us.

As far as how we understand scientific knowledge about some phenomenon, let’s consider black holes which are the end products of stars over a certain mass (our sun doesn’t quality and will eventually become a white dwarf star). Albert Einstein first predicted the existence of black holes in 1915, and when I was taking astronomy classes in the mid-1970s, I was taught a certain set of (then-known) “facts” about black holes. The late Stephen Hawking revolutionized our current understanding of black holes, and even more recent studies indicate that perhaps he didn’t get it quite right.

black hole
Credit: Shutterstock

No, science is never “settled.”

However, if studies and experiments are unbiased (and remember, federal government grants fund an awful lot of scientific studies), the results, given the limitations of our tools and our understanding, should be taken as fairly reliable, which is why I believe the Earth is a sphere and not a flat dinner plate.

My understanding of the history of God’s interactions with human beings tells me that He encounters them/us in all manner of circumstances including worship contexts, which means that the Catholic Church, Seventh Day Adventists, or any other body of worshipers is NOT the one and only “true church” rendering every other congregations of believers invalid. Just look at how much the early worshipers of Christ during the lifetime of the apostles gathered, their praxis, and their prayers differ from most if not all church communities today.

But as I said before, politics and religion are areas where people seem to feel free to leave their brains at the door and rigidly adopt perspectives that are sometimes wildly outside of reality (to the best of our ability to understand said-reality).

The Earth is not flat, the KJV Bible is merely the first biblical text that was translated from ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek into (now archaic) English and widely disseminated, and science does not disprove God.

Surprised at that last one? How can I say that? There are entire volumes published on trying to answer that question, but let’s briefly consider the nature of God. God creating all of timespace, everything we can observe about the universe and everything we can’t, is like me writing this blog post or drawing a sketch. The creator, by definition, cannot be dependent upon the creation.

Sure, I can write a story about myself, or make a self-portrait, but objectively, I still exist outside of those products. If I delete the blog post or burn the drawing in my fireplace, I don’t cease to exist. I’m still outside of those “universes.”

So is God.

Of course, God can choose to interact with human beings, and His “interaction” with Mount Sinai in Exodus 19 attests that He can physically affect geography, in this case burning the top of the mountain to ashes.

How He does this no one knows, which is why we call it a miracle.

We can observe, again to the best of technology and methodology, everything inside of the universe, but God is not in the universe, which is why whenever people attempt to experience God outside the context of prayer, they turn to arcane mysticism, which is a topic all its own.

In a nutshell, this is why I believe the Earth is a globe, we’ve put men on the Moon, we have populated Mars with human-made robots, and that God is real.

Understanding God, the Bible, and coming to faith isn’t something that happens in an instant and then the religion is “settled.” Yes, people can come to faith in a single moment, but for most of us, it’s a sometimes long process of exploration. It’s one that I haven’t finished yet, and I probably won’t until the day I die. Just like scientific study, the study of the Bible, and evolving in a life of faith is ongoing, and just like science, it is a never ending process. In both circumstances, we largely accept many things about reality because we have to live and interact in the world without constantly confusing ourselves. We have “faith” in the conclusions by which we operate in a day-by-day life, both scientific conclusions and Biblical conclusions.

But none of that means we know it all. The minute we stop asking questions is the minute we become ignorant, uninformed, dogmatic, rigid, and out of touch with the realities of the universe and the Bible.

In the case of the “Flat Earth” lady, she believes in a certain, rigid understanding of the Bible that contradicts observable reality. In some other person’s case, they believe in a certain, sometimes rigid understanding of science, and that all of its conclusions are absolute and final, without considering realities that exist beyond the timespace continuum, and that can only be realized metaphysically.

No human being can know the mind of God, so, as the Apostle Paul quipped in 1 Corinthians 13:12:

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. (emph mine)

The best we can do in understanding both an infinite God and a finite universe is by looking “in a mirror dimly,” a highly distorted and limited set of lenses, because we ourselves and all of our tools and understanding are limited by design.

mirror
Photo credit unknown after search

But it’s not always going to be that way. A day is coming when we will see clearly and everything that we puzzle over now or even downright deny will suddenly make sense. It will be like the day a resurrected Jesus (Yeshua) encountered two men on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), and his explanation of key portions of scripture opened their eyes to the truth of the Messiah (and I wish what he said had been recorded by Luke, because I’d like to hear it, too). Someday it will be like that for all of us, but until then, we need to keep asking questions. Don’t take anything for granted, because if you do, if you stop asking questions, stop seeking a better understanding, whether you are religious or secular, you will become the moral equivalent of a “flat earther.”

I’m very grateful for my relationship with Tom and our regular conversations. He has a brilliant mind and a compassionate heart. He is a good friend and an excellent role model for a man of faith. As David wrote in Psalm 23:3, I think God uses him to restore my soul.

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The Difference Between Night and Day

In creating the whole of existence, G-d made forces that reveal Him and forces that oppose Him –He made light and He made darkness. One who does good brings in more light. One who fails, feeds the darkness.

But the one who fails and then returns transcends that entire scheme. He reaches out directly to the Essential Creator. Beyond darkness and light.

And so, his darkness becomes light.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Returning Light”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

How do you tell the difference between night and day? In a literal sense, all you have to do is look outside to see if it is light or dark. You can also check any of the devices that tell us what time it is on a 24-hour clock, usually available through the Internet, so that you know not only whether it is day or night, but the precise time as well.

How do you tell the difference between fact and fiction? Well, we know that the things we see on TV shows and movies such as Star Trek are pretty much fiction. No one can really visit other planets, “beam” to destination from tens of thousands of miles away, or diagnose complex medical ailments with a wave of a “tricorder”. We do know that we can only barely visit the moon, which we haven’t done in manned-exploration in decades, launch rockets to an orbiting space station on a semi-regular basis, and that while modern medical technology can diagnose many illnesses, much of what people suffer from remains a mystery.

How do you tell the difference between truth and falsehood? I don’t mean whether or not a used car salesman is trying to cheat you by lying about the condition of a car you are thinking of purchasing, but what about God’s truth? How do you know what is true about God and what is not? You may think you know the answer to that question in some canned way (“the truth is in the Bible”) but it’s not that easy.

Yesterday, Messianic blogger Derek Leman published a missive called Mainstream vs. Crackpot Scholarship, and I enthusiastically congratulate him on this effort. In virtually every established religious tradition, there is solid, well-researched information that acts as the basis for the beliefs and faith of the adherents of said-religious traditions. There is also a bunch of “junk scholarship” which is based on bad interpretation of holy writings, wishful thinking, and outright lies. Before continuing here, please visit Derek’s blog via the link above and see what he has to say in detail.

Learning in the “information age” has become exponentially confusing. Anyone can create a website, blog, or YouTube video in minutes spouting off their particular brand of theology, philosophy, or teaching on “truth”. The proponents of “black helicopters” are no longer confined to “fringie” TV or radio broadcasts. Now they are available via Google and for the many who lack formal training in Biblical scholarship, it can be very difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.

How does one tell the difference between junk and quality teaching? Besides consulting reliable sources, which Derek has offered to provide, you might want to start by examining your “wishful thinking”. We all have a “theological ax to grind” so to speak. We all have our sacred cows that we are unwilling to slaughter on the altar of established Biblical reality. There are things that we don’t want to give up in our belief system, not necessarily because they are solid religious truth, but because they make us feel better and they sound just so “cool”.

However “cool” is not necessarily “truth”.

In an absolute sense, we search for truth all of our lives. This isn’t just a statement applied to religious people but to all people. We want to find the meaning and purpose of our lives so that we have some sort of context for our existence and our actions. We want a direction. We want a moral and ethical compass. Where do we find it? Some find their reality in secular humanism and the established scientific facts (and I remind you that facts and truth are not the same thing). Some find it among the plethora of religious disciples that exist in the world today. Some find it in sex, drugs, booze, entertainment venues, or whatever distractions and pleasures we find in the society around us. In the latter case, they don’t concern themselves with a “truth” outside of their personal existence, they just hide in a cocoon of unreality and hope for the best.

Some, as Derek pointed out, seek their truth in the fantastic, the amazing, the “gee whiz” junk scholarship that exists at the far edges of more legitimate religions, as if a faith in the One, Supreme, Creative, God were not “fantastic” enough for their imaginations.

What are we looking for? Truth? Not exactly.

We’re looking for a truth that fits who we think we are. We want a truth that we can easily accept without having to turn ourselves inside out and anguish over having possibly been wrong about our existence and about God for all of our lives up to this point. We want a truth that we have control over. To do that, we have to take truth away from God.

OK, to be fair, there is no one person or one denomination or sect that can say they have absolute ownership of total and untainted truth from God. There are plenty of traditions that make this claim, but none of those claims can be established without question. Within Judaism and within Christianity, there are many different traditions and ways to understand truth but they are not truth in and of themselves. We cannot access “pure truth” from God. Perhaps no person has, not even Abraham or Moses, though they certainly came closer than we have today. I would say that Jesus knew that truth first hand, but the Messiah is unique and though we Christians aspire to be like him, we can only travel up the path but not fully achieve the destination, at least not this side of paradise.

Some people just settle for less and after a time, they pretend that they have discovered what they want. Then they truly believe the illusion is real. Here’s what I mean.

The Midrash Tanchuma in Shemini tells a very striking story about how overindulgence in wine can warp one’s understanding: “When a drunk is inebriated he sits joyfully as though in Gan Eden. There was a pious man whose father drank publicly, much to the humiliation of his son. The pious man said, ‘Father, I will purchase fine wine and bring it to your house if you will only stop frequenting taverns. When you go to such places you shame me and yourself.’ Each day he would bring his father spirits to drink in the morning and the evening. When his father would pass out, the son would place him in bed to sleep it off.

‘One rainy day, as the upstanding man walked through the market on his way to shul, he noticed a drunk lying in the middle of the marketplace. Water was streaming over him as children hit him and threw dirt in his face and stuffed it in his mouth. The son thought, ‘I will bring my father here. Seeing the shame of this drunk will finally cure him of his obsession to drink wine.’ When his elderly father witnessed this spectacle, he bent down to the drunk and whispered in his ear. His son was horrified to over hear his father ask, ‘Tell me, my friend. In which pub did you procure such potent liquor?’ The mortified son cried, ‘Father is that what I brought you here for? Do you not see the incredible embarrassment this man suffers because of his habit?’

“The elderly father replied, ‘My son, I have no pleasure in life besides drinking. This is my Gan Eden!’”

Mishnah Berura Yomi Digest
Stories to Share
“The Drunkenness of Lot”
Siman 128 Seif 37-38

I know a secular person could read what I’ve written so far and say to me that by accepting my religious convictions as truth, I have given up and am pretending that my “fiction” is real. I don’t blame that secular individual, because what any person who has faith and trust in God believes certainly seems fictional to one who is not so oriented. Paul even spoke to this person.

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. –1 Corinthians 2:14 (ESV)

Unfortunately, a person that subscribes to what I consider beliefs based on junk scholarship may also say that the “spirit” revealed these “truths” to him. Some months ago, I wrote a blog post called The Irrelevant Drunkard which addressed many of the issues I bring up today. In that “meditation”, I urged my readers not to judge other variants of our faith too harshly, for how indeed to we know in absolute terms that they are always wrong and we are always right? How do we know that there is only one way to pray and it is the way that we pray? How do we know that there is only one way to conduct a worship service and it is the way we conduct a worship service? How do we know that we have our facts and particularly our truth lined up with God and that only we have the inside scoop to those facts and that truth?

We don’t. But we have a place to start.

We have a way to tell the difference between night and day, but to use it, we have to do something we don’t want to do. We have to temporarily suspend our beliefs and our assumptions, then access established and reliable sources of information about our faith. That means, no matter how attractive and fanciful a source may seem, we have to discard it, if it is on the list marked “junk scholarship”. I said before that no person or tradition has unfettered and unfiltered access to God’s truth and the same goes for God’s Bible. It is interpreted. In Judaism, it is impossible to understand the Bible apart from established tradition. You don’t just get to shoot from the hip and call it “spiritual exegesis”.

When you pray to God for wisdom and truth, try very hard not to imagine how God will answer that prayer. In fact, expect God to answer you in a way that you totally didn’t anticipate. If God responds to you in exactly the manner in which you envisioned, perhaps it’s not the Spirit of God speaking but the “spirit” of your own wants, needs, and desires. God rarely gives us what we want in exactly the way we want it, only speaking to confirm that our human imagination was “right” all along.

What is the difference between day and night? In a way, we spend all of our time looking out the window, going outside, moistening our finger and testing the wind, just to try to find out. There is truth. God is truth. I believe that. I trust that very much. But it is not something that once established, can be safely locked inside a drawer in a cabinet after being filed under “T” for truth. It is something that we examine and pour over every minute of every day, like trying to decipher a code written by men separated from us by thousands of miles and tens of centuries. It’s like attempting to loosen an infinite knot looped and tied within the fabric of an endless and inscrutable reality.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein once wrote:

As a Jew, I believe that the coming of the Messiah does not depend on my belief that he will come, nor does it rest solely in God’s hands. I believe it remains our task to bring the Messiah — that he will arrive only when we are in a state of readiness to bring him, to welcome him, to appreciate him. Salvation must be earned. And thus it is what we do, as Jews, that will determine the time of the Messianic arrival.

Rabbi Epstein’s belief is based partly on the fact that he is a Jew. It’s not as if all Jews believe as he does, but he allows his Jewish identity to define his truth. It is not the same truth as other Jews have and certainly not the same truth people who are not Jewish have. A Christian would not typically accept this truth because the Rabbi says that “salvation must be earned” which goes against the church’s belief that salvation through Jesus Christ is a free gift, as if our relationship with God were a completely passive experience for us.

Truth is something of an active choice. I believe there is an absolute truth in God, but no man can access it. We use our religion and our holy books as a kind of “interface” to allow us access to God, but that interface is somewhat symbolic. It’s like the operating system on your computer provides a “graphical user interface” that allows you come control over the hardware and software of your machine, but not direct and complete access. There are interfaces that are better than others. There are interfaces where the code is better written and that perform better and with fewer errors. Like the wise consumer looking for the best computer with the most useful interface, we go shopping. Pursuing the truth is the same. Even once we have “purchased”, we continue to explore our device by accessing and exploring the interface. We discover errors in the user’s manual on occasion. We locate a bug or two. Most of all, if we’re honest, we differentiate between a bug in the program and our own misunderstanding. We admit that how we thought the interface would work wasn’t actually how is actually supposed to work, according to the manufacturer.

The problem isn’t with the interfaces or the truths or the Bibles or the religions, the problem is with our choices; which ones we make and why we make them. The problem is that, having once made a choice, we stop checking in on the purchase. We stop making sure we understand how it works and what our part is in investigating new “truths” about the interface and what lies beneath. We cannot settle. We cannot arrive at the belief that lying drunk in a gutter is Gan Eden. We have to keep searching for God everyday along our path and we have to choose reliable markers on that path rather than fog and illusion. We have not yet arrived at total truth and we will never arrive until the say of the blowing of the great Shofar that announces the Messiah’s return.

But we have a traveling companion along the path and he urges us everyday to be honest with ourselves. The path to truth begins with sometimes brutal honesty, not in satisfying our dreams and wants. God is truth. We just have to want to listen to Him more than we listen to ourselves.

Then our eyes will be able to see when it is day and when it is night, at least as through a mirror dimly (1 Corinthians 13:12).