Reasonable Faith and Its Use
by Maarten van den Driest
“The Remonstrant Fraternity is a faith community that, rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, true to its principle of freedom and tolerance, wants to honour and serve God.”(footnote 1)
The above is more a declaration of principles than a full confession and it is the standard text that all members of my church undersign. Why do I start my Meditation by quoting it? For several reasons: one is to show that no spirituality is ever entirely the doing of one person, another is to show that in all discussions one should have a baseline, a start-off point.
I am a Christian: I believe in God, in Jesus’ words and in His divine purpose for our world.
I can already see two points: 1) prove it! and 2) what the ##% is he doing here? Both are good points and I will address them both. The first one is easy: I said that I believe, not that everyone else has to do the same. Therefore, I need not prove but merely show plausibility and functionality and that only for myself. The second will take some more doing.
This website was created by an agnostic for other agnostics and, I assume, for the benefit of the public at large. It receives responses from other agnostics and from others, sadly enough mostly fundamentalist Christians. These people really are quite vocal. In order to counter their constant illogical bickering, I thought I’d write a little something to tell others about my faith and why I experience absolutely no trouble whatsoever living together with others and talking science.
What does that word mean?
Earlier, I talked about the need of having a baseline, a common point to start from when discussing things. Obviously, we will get nowhere redecorating the house if we do not agree on the exact meaning of words like chair, colour and lamp. When talking spiritual matters, this is no different. However, I constantly see people getting into fights about the god, the bible, angels and whatnot because they don’t actually agree on words like ‘god’ and even ‘is’. It should be clear to everyone that definitions are of supreme importance when discussing complicated matters.
When people say ‘God is love.’ they sound terribly devout and I’m for it but what does it mean? Already in the Middle Ages, the Jewish philosopher Maimonides wrote that definite declarations about God can only be poised in the negative sense: we can only be sure when we say what God is not. God is not a carthorse, God is not.. etc. The sentence above is really about love, in my opinion. What we mean to say is that love is godly. This way anyone can understand it, even if you don’t actually believe in a god.
An important statement about God is that ‘God is One’. What does a Christian or a Jew mean? That if we could go up to heaven and count the gods, we’d get to one and not more? Surely not, that would be too simple. And so on, ad infinitum.
A grown-up faith
It is clear that to understand spiritual questions is complicated enough. Answering them is usually possible at least but also very difficult. As soon as one accepts this, strangely enough a whole lot of problems disappear. Once rid of the ridiculous idea that your faith must the absolute truth and the end-all of all discussions, we gain the freedom to interpret and, through that, answer some of the big questions. These answers are a bit like science because they represent what we know now and can understand with what we have at our disposal: they aren’t fixed for all time. They are not like science in that they address questions that science can’t ask.
Is God male? Grammatically, yes but is this question meaningful? Maybe God has certain characteristics that we could call male but surely he is not male in the sense that I am male. A whole lot of statements that some people proudly make have to be rethought in this way. It sounds devout but does it mean anything?
Is god a person? Then what is He?
A reasonable faith is the result a reasonable person deciding to stand in a certain tradition. Although the churches have done much that is objectionable and have espoused philosophies that are reprehensible, they have also done much good. Thousands have thought and believed, done their utmost to understand and give meaning to life and what we see around us. This cannot be ignored.
When I found a church that worded the traditions in a modern, critical way that resonated well with my own thoughts and feelings, I decided, after much deliberation, to join and stand in the ongoing tradition of that one organisation. This means that I do not have to discover the wheel all for myself but can make use of what those before me have found out. Of course this is not a tower of facts but more a mass of experience and philosophy but it would be ludicrous to ask for more.
I realise that others have chosen for different organisations or for not joining an organisation at all and I respect all those choices. However, I still think a sense of community is essential to human dealings: there is no sense in learning about how to deal with others when you’re alone. This is the reason, incidentally, why I’ve never understood hermits.
Why we need more than logic.
The writings on this site mainly concentrate on debunking others’ views and an inordinate amount of text is devoted to explaining again and again how science works and doesn’t work and where it is applicable and where it is not and, most importantly, why it is so much better than other methods around. Well, I beg to differ on that last point and would also like to point out a danger.
As a matter of course the various scientific methods are infinitely superior to spirituality and faith-based systems when we meet problems like “What is the circumference of the Earth?”, “How does the Sun shine so brightly?” and “What is the air-speed velocity of a unladen swallow?” (Footnote 2) Logic will lead us towards meaningful answers time and again, even for pretty complicated social matters, simply by clarifying seemingly convoluted thought.
However, there is a category of questions with which man has wrestled ever since the first hominid looked up to the stars and trembled in fear. It may have simply been the cold for them, of course, but I mean the questions of the purpose, meaning, right and wrong, where to go with your life. Logic, if seen as an extremely good set of traffic laws, will not get you to your destination since in a sense you only get out of it what you put in. Inevitably, all of us who have the luxury of being able to support our basic needs will reach the point where we need answers to those questions.
To whom will we turn? Logic? No, a mere methodology cannot infuse meaning into our lives. For this same reason, fundamentalism is inherently barren. To sum it all up: writing down answers is a bad idea. Those of you who actually read a bit of the Bible know that there are preciously little answers to be found. The important stuff is not in the actual law per se, nor in historical accounts. The meaning is in the ongoing narratives, in the striving as in the stumbling of the characters for all of Scripture is a stage on which men and women are merely players. Not by demanding but only by not demanding answers do we gain anything of use. Not by holding desperately on to the views of our fathers but by being strong enough to cut through the time-crusted ideas and to listen again for new inspiration do we find the answers to our questions. How much more grown-up is a faith that trusts itself on the terrible currents and maelstroms of our day than one that anchors itself securely by ignoring the waves.
We often do need a guide. I believe a community of more-or-less like-minded people can do exceedingly well for it is inherently alive and the sum of a wealth of experience and knowledge. A reasonable, grown-up faith can be a force for good as well as evil but it offers also something we can get almost nowhere else in today’s society: honest search for meaning for its own sake.
In days of old, we had no scientific method, no reliable storage of information and experience. Religion had to keep the thread of cultural evolution going, it was the only factor binding people, often enough, a source of community, a focal point of effort and only hope and comfort in dark times. Whatever the faults of people now and then, this cannot and must not be forgotten.
Maarten van den Driest
Footnote1: The Remonstrantse Broederschap is a small Dutch church that is only active within The Netherlands, except for one community in Germany. The above statement is my translation of the original text: “De Remonstrantse Broederschap is een geloofsgemeenschap die, geworteld in het evangelie van Jezus Christus en getrouw aan haar beginsel van vrijheid en verdraagzaamheid, God wil eren en dienen.” Those of you who read Dutch might be interested in visiting http://www.remonstranten.org
Footnote 2: It depends. Is it an African or European swallow?