Why I Am a Christian Deist
I grew up as a Lutheran, and as an adolescent I developed the same doubts about God that have always plagued people of faith (and that need no embellishment here). I spent years as an atheist, being drawn to the more nihilistic strands of unbelief because their intellectual honesty attracted me. The new atheists’ belief that the death of God does not invalidate morality’s claims on us was never serious enough for me.
The freedom to do whatever I pleased began to frighten me, and I will honestly say that I did not want this moral freedom anymore. I realize that by saying this I am playing directly into the hands of any freethinking libertines who would criticize me, but I think that if they honestly investigated their own hearts, they would find the same fear. I was drawn to a Buddhism that imposed constraints on behavior but still seemed compatible with progressive, scientific thought. I was (and I remain) unwilling to turn off the doubting, rational part of my brain in order to pursue a higher truth, as this kind of split seems to lead to a kind of “spiritual schizophrenia” and a lack of wholeness. We may think that we can turn away from our doubts and “take a leap of faith” into a super-rational awareness of higher truths, but my attempts to do this have always failed. I have never successfully turned off any part of my brain, and I don’t think I’ve met anyone who has. Everything stays with you, and blocked thoughts and feelings just return in different forms. If you know about evolution, the problem of evil and neurological disorders, you will never be able to make yourself “un-know” them. So I was pretty sure at the time that Christianity was out.
Buddhism was initially exciting, but I soon saw the truth the Dalai Lama perceived when he advised that Westerners do not become Buddhists. We cannot follow these ideas with our whole hearts when they become “non-Western”, so we are left half-committed and spiritually homeless. In my experience, most Western Buddhists drift into a kind of lukewarm humanism after a couple of years, a fate that did not appeal to me. At around this time, I realized that in addition to the obvious fear and sadness that had driven me out of atheism, there was an underlying, “positive” desire for a relationship with the “author of it all”, even if this relationship did not make me happy. I suddenly realized that even during my years of atheism, I had been holding a constant, silent conversation with a God that I could not admit that I believed in. I tried to convince myself that this was just a result of childhood conditioning, but this did not stop the conversation or give me peace of mind. Whether I desired something real or fictional, the desire was there, and it would not go away. I decided that in order to be truly honest with myself, I had to pursue this relationship, even if it meant emotional distress and social stigma.
The problem of “a god” (uncapitalized) stopped being a problem for me when I read Haught’s Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation. He explains that there are usually multiple, equally true explanations for the things in our world. For example, if you heat up a pot of water on your stove, the scientific explanation is that water molecules are being affected by heat and undergoing certain reactions. The “physical world” explanation is that a person used their hand to operate a machine to heat up water, and the human explanation is that you wanted some tea. All of these are equally true. They do not contradict each other, but from a scientific perspective, the human explanation is unprovable, sentimental nonsense. The reader can see where I’m going with this. The random permutations of evolution are not incompatible with the idea of A god. The cruelty of nature, like the problem of evil, poses problems for the idea of a GOOD god, but not the “god idea” in and of itself.
The religions of most cultures have independently developed the idea that there is a transcendent reality above this world of form, and have concluded that it is our highest calling to realize this reality. We’ve been stealing ideas from others’ religions for millennia, but this idea always seems to show up independent of whatever else is being taught. And everyone seems to agree that quieting our noisy, personal selves is the way to see this reality. In other words, it’s not something we break into heaven to get: it must be here already, available to anyone willing to shut up long enough to feel it. And all of these cultures seem to agree that this is an inherently good thing. If you believe in transcendent realities and inherently good things, then you must believe in inherently bad things, too. And deep down, I think that every human being does, even if they try to deny it. I have not yet met a person who doesn’t. Our attempts to view all cultures, thoughts, morals and behaviors as inherently equal are an attempt to align ourselves with the capriciousness of nature. But we’re not supposed to be like nature. We are something different, a species apart.
The study of evolution paints a picture of a continuous flux of growth, change, fear, struggle, thrill and uncertainty, and since that is what we grew out of, we are certain that that must be our purpose as well! And yet, it does not seem to be. For some reason, humans are apparently different. This is a truth so obvious that we sometimes forget to see it. When we talk about how chimpanzees show behavior that is strangely similar to ours, we are drowning out the terrifying sense of our own strangeness. Human beings are willing to sacrifice our own instincts, safety and evolutionary fitness for the sake of abstract ideas. There is a case to be made that this is just a strange outgrowth of our language capacity, and I agree that it is that. But I can’t help but think that it is more than that, as well. Remembering Haught’s idea of multiple true explanations, I think it’s most likely that millennia of random evolutionary permutations somehow made a species that could think about abstract ideas because some of those abstract ideas had value, and needed to be found. It is just too strange for me to imagine that a Godless universe developed a species that has spent massive resources fighting, thinking and talking about God. Even a die-hard atheist is forced to confront the uniqueness of humans here: within the atheist worldview, no other species would ever be so stupid, or do something so worthless!
If we developed the ability to think about abstract ideas because some ideas needed to be thought about, then to me this implies that some conscious being wanted us to think about them. I don’t think that ideas would exist in a universe that exists in a “pre-conscious” state. And I think that atheists are dishonest when they say that consciousness is just a strange kind of order that sometimes arises out of chaotic matter. Consciousness is not a difference of degree, it is a difference of kind. It is different from every other kind of thing in the universe. Things that feel pleasure and pain are different from things that don’t. Even if random chance generated a being that seemed to show all signs of thinking and organizing itself, the ability to feel pain and pleasure is not just a one in a trillion shot. It’s inconceivably different from the rest of the stuff in the universe. And if there is a conscious being out there who wants us to think about some idea or another, I think the “transcendent reality” idea that all of these separate cultures were somehow struck by is our best bet.
(I understand that Buddhists do not view enlightenment as an “idea”, they view it as a state, and this does not necessarily imply consciousness in the universe. However, even Buddhists think humans are different: only we have the ability to think about and understand the dharma. No matter where we look, we can’t escape the idea that humans are uniquely capable of seeking out this state purposefully.)
Given the strangeness of humanity and the universality of the “transcendent reality” idea, I think that this conscious being wants us to realize this reality. I think that is our purpose. And yet, so many people do not do this. MOST people do not do this. Many people that I have met are dimly aware that there is some truth to spiritual ideas, but they do not pursue them due to a hatred of organized religion. And if this is true, then Jesus’s message is strikingly relevant to our times. Jesus constantly raged at how the religious authorities of his day ignored spiritual truths in favor of self-righteousness, greed and legalistic theories. His goal was to bring truth and peace to people who had been denied these things because of religion. And this truth was not to be found after years of meditation or navel-gazing rituals: it was available right now to anyone who would repent of their sins and forgive others’. He was, of course, killed for this radical idea.
If this forgiveness (or transcendent reality, or enlightenment, or whatever you prefer) is available to everyone, and if it is our purpose as human beings to find it (and almost every culture has decided that it is), then one would think that everyone would have it by now! And yet, most people do not. I am forced to believe that we have a choice in the matter. I spent years as an atheist developing airtight philosophical theories about why we do not have free will, and I never saw any reason to doubt them until I started studying religion. We have a real purpose in our lives, and most of us choose not to pursue it. All of us FEEL like we have free will, and I always thought that that feeling was a clever trick we played on ourselves. But now I can’t help but see it differently. Humans are different because we are able to overcome our instincts and choose to pursue things that may not be comfortable or natural for us. That is the best way I can describe what makes us separate from the rest of nature. I agree with the major world religions that there is a transcendent reality that people are supposed to attain, and I agree with Jesus of Nazareth that it is available to everyone, not just self-disciplined yoga masters or people with good karma. Anyone willing to be vulnerable enough to confess their sins, ask forgiveness and then forgive others (about as far from our natural instincts as a practice can get!) can enter the kingdom of heaven. And yet, so few people do this with any sincerity. Even though I can’t explain it, I can only assume that it is because we have a choice in the matter. Perhaps the state isn’t valuable unless it is chosen and earned. For whatever reason, “Many are called but few are chosen.”
So if we have free will (an uncomfortable idea that I am no closer to understanding, but find myself ironically compelled to accept), then the Catholics are right about why there is evil in the world. Evil happens because humans can choose do evil instead of good, and doing what is evil appeals to us. I can’t define any of these terms, but I’d be very dishonest to claim that I don’t believe in them. Just because they are concepts that don’t apply to the world of molecules and chimpanzees doesn’t mean that they don’t apply to us. I don’t believe in 95% of the Bible, I don’t think Jesus was born of a virgin and I’m not even sure whether he died for our sins or was just killed for telling the truth. But I think he showed us how to live out our purpose as human beings, and how to get right with God, and how to get to Heaven. I don’t know what Heaven is, and I don’t really think I’m supposed to. It’s scary to be called to something stranger and higher than ourselves, but I’m pretty sure that human beings would be disappointed with any other destiny. We’re obviously unsatisfied with anything less than contact with ultimate reality.
copyright 2013 Robert Brudos