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WHAT YOU DIDN'T KNOW YOU KNEW
The Wrong Approach
THE PRIMARY OBSTACLE TO faith in God is not what we don't know. It's what we don't know that we know.
The effort of prominent modern defenders of the Christian faith has been to secure credentials that they don't need in order to prove to people something that they already know. These apologists have acquiesced to and are reinforcing the idea that only certain, qualified people can have meaningful conversations on crucial issues in the public arena. Their rolls now include the names of scientists, professors, and scholars who want to present an overwhelming rational and academic case for faith that proves that people should believe in God. For instance, Lee Strobel's popular The Case for Christ is written from the perspective of a reporter who flies across the country interviewing experts in various fields to assess whether or not there is reason to believe. The implication is that the public is awfully lucky to have researchers capable of doing the necessary legwork, because otherwise they might not be able to make an informed decision. These contemporary Christian leaders are hiding their clergy robes under lab coats and power suits. Intending to best the secular, academic opposition at their own game, they've declared a calculated frontal assault on the frontal lobe.
It isn't going to work.
The whole enterprise is based on the assumption that the evidence of God must be found, investigated, and tested. The investigator must be objective, inquisitive, and educated. The result has not been a vast audience of convinced believers. The result has been an audience that is shrinking.
I remember seeing the results of this method plainly one night.
As the millennium came to a close, in a bustling lecture hall filled with hundreds of fidgeting spectators, a sweaty, suit-clad panel of six debaters squared off over the rationale for intelligent design, evolution, science, religion, and the decision-making prowess of the board of education. A cone of light shone down over them from above so as to suggest that God had paused to pay attention.
They debated, argued, pleaded, cajoled, and concluded with complete confidence on either side of the line.
At the end of the debate, the moderator whimsically turned over his shoulder and called out into the densely packed crowd, "How many of you have actually changed your minds on the subject tonight?" He shielded his eyes from the overhead spotlights and peered into the throng. "Six," he reported. Given that both sides had presented competently, it may have been a net of zero conversions.
The failure is based on two misunderstandings.
First, the most prominent contemporary defenders of the Christian faith have lost touch with human experience. The problem with their method is that they don't take into account the way that faith actually takes root in the human heart. Most people who believe in anything, religious or otherwise, did not get there by listening to a debate, and meaningful beliefs do not often rest on academic research. That isn't to suggest that faith and reason are unrelated. There are those who think God gave reason to humanity the way a father gives a BB gun to his son, telling him, "You can play with that thing all you want. Just don't point it at me." To the contrary. In fact, the Scriptures say that God intends for people to come looking for him (Matthew 7:7-12). He isn't afraid of our reasoning. Rather, I mean only to say that modern apologists, bearing PhDs and trained in professional oratory, require the curious to acquire difficult educational credentials just to understand conversations about the existence of God. They imply that the casual observer doesn't have the mental faculties necessary to consider the question. The only hope for uncertain investigators is that they might rely upon a qualified biblical scholar, academic, or rhetorician who can assure them that the proofs of God's existence are in fact satisfactory. Unless they have time to go to seminary, they're just going to have to pray someone else will figure out the right answers for them. In fact, belief is not a graduation gift. You don't have to buy a telescope to look for what the naked eye can see.
If the first failure of modern defenders of Christianity is to require excessive credentials, the second is to assume that their listeners are a blank slate. It's the idea that the person to whom Christianity is presented is either neutral and can make an objective decision for or against Christianity, or worse yet, justifiably skeptical and must be convinced. The pressure is then entirely on the presenter to be sufficiently persuasive. The listener remains safely unobligated.
In fact, the Bible starts in a radically different place, stating outright that everyone already has enough evidence to believe and in fact has no excuse for not believing. The Scriptures mean for this to be every bit as brash as it sounds, and its authors offer no apology. Scriptures claim that God's work can be seen in nature (Psalm 19:1-6), that humanity itself bears the irrevocable image of God (Genesis 1:27), that people's intuitions for God may actually be pointing them in the right direction (Acts 17:16-34), and that people are obligated to believe in God (Romans 1:20).
Far from being a blank slate, human beings come with things written on them in large letters.
The aim of this book is to empower the rest of us to discover that we already sense that God exists and in fact depend on God's existence. Without any technical expertise, the open-hearted and level-headed observer already has enough information to find God (Romans 1:20), because in fact God isn't far from any one of us (Acts 17:27). This is a new approach to considering faith that is far less a matter of exploring data and argumentation and more a matter of exposing the knowledge that we already carry around with us, albeit sometimes unknowingly.
You're about to find out how much you didn't know you knew.
BRAINS DON'T WORK LIKE a blank marker board that someone comes along to write on. Sometimes things get "written" on the brain inadvertently, and then the brain itself moves around the letters. We're not entirely conscious of what we are learning or what our brains are doing with the knowledge. Our brains can distort knowledge. Sometimes our brains hide knowledge.
Sometimes we don't know what we know.
When a person remembers where he left his car keys or the remote, that memory was knowledge that he already possessed but that was somehow momentarily veiled. After all, it was he who left the keys on the roof of the car, and that memory was somewhere in his head. Perhaps he couldn't remember because he was trolling around in the frontal cortex of his brain looking for something that he was actually keeping in his hippocampus (which is also a strange place to leave keys). Sometimes people recover memories by retracing the chain of events leading up to the moment that is now veiled. They talk themselves chronologically through their memories: "Let's see. I parked; I got out; there were groceries in the back, so I had to get them ..." And then in a moment as crisp as the striking of a match, they recall knowledge that they already possessed but somehow couldn't access. This is called latent knowledge. Latent knowledge exists somewhere in that person's brain, but it is as though there were a flashlight shining around in the attic whose beam of light simply hasn't yet come to rest on the object of interest.
Latent knowledge includes more than just something that has been forgotten. It can also be information that a person picks up in the course of normal, daily experiences without consciously reflecting on what is being learned. Athletes may have an intuitive sense for physics without being able to explain vectors. They have picked up latent understandings without stopping to identify them. They've learned velocity, trajectory, and kinetic energy while their minds were focused on hitting the ball and getting on base. There are now some ideas in the mind, secret even to them, that they picked up between first and second.
The pursuit of God in this day and age has wrongly taken a turn in the direction of looking for a God who is "out there," whose existence can be substantiated only through paleontology, astronomy, and cosmology.
Perhaps God is just in the attic.
Perhaps we have unknowingly picked up a latent knowledge of God in the normal course of our experiences and simply never stopped to notice it.
God is nearby, and closer than many people suspect. What if all of humanity unilaterally possesses latent knowledge, which, if exposed, would lead to confident belief in God? This is, as we will see, what the Bible promises and what intuition demands.
However, discovering what we already know about God requires a second kind of knowledge.
THERE IS ANOTHER KIND of knowledge that is similar to latent knowledge, because it's made up of ideas that a person already possesses. It's a knowledge we don't have to go find. It requires no encyclopedia or search engine. We just have to realize we've already found it.
However, unlike the car keys, it's not necessarily a something that a person has seen before and needs to remember. Instead, it's a kind of idea that one discovers by assembling other ideas we already have. It's a type of knowledge we attain by inference and deduction. It's a kind of secondary knowledge that exists in pieces yet to be assembled. Someone who has a 1 and a 1 in his head also has a 2 waiting to appear.
For instance, finding a favorite author within the pages of his or her pseudonymous novel isn't difficult. The story might not bear the author's name, but the reader recognizes the vocabulary, the favorite stories, the tone, and the most common subjects of interest. Sometimes one can read a work and know instantly who wrote it because the style is such a signature of the author. That's why there are Hemingway and Faulkner writing contests in which parodies are such clear imitations.
If God is indeed the Maker, humanity can see a characteristic style and tone that runs throughout the universe God made, including the human intuition itself. If God is indeed the Maker, creation should have a consistent and recognizable authorship. In the lines of our lives, we should hear the familiar tone of voice of an author we've read before, even without the author's signature. Akin to latent knowledge, this is deductive knowledge. It's another element of what you didn't know you knew.
The pages that follow will explore how the combination of latent knowledge that we pick up through daily experience and the deductions that can be made from it are sufficient to assure us not only that we have reason to believe in but also that we in fact already depend on God.
The Missing Piece
LOOKING FOR GOD IS LIKE the painful experience that a person may have when she puts together a jigsaw puzzle. Splashed out in an avalanche across the table, colored cardboard pieces slowly come together in a coherent image. She has a feeling of growing satisfaction as the mess becomes a ring of sense and structure and then slowly works its way toward an increasingly obvious conclusion. But at the last minute, something goes wrong. Neither the box, nor the floor, nor anyone's recollection can account for the location of the last piece. There is a gaping hole right in the middle of the picture of the sailboat or the flower or the Italian villa that stays open like a bully's laughing mouth. Now the puzzle is a disappointment.
I want to hone in on that hole.
There are two things that can be said for it. First, no one would dispute that something is missing, even if the puzzle came out of the box incomplete. Every element of that puzzle sitting on the table points toward the part that is elsewhere. The nothingness implies being. It would be absurd if the woman came to this point and concluded that the puzzle makers had decided to invent a picture with an intentional hole in it. She presumes that it is supposed to be a complete picture. She has a latent idea of how the thing is supposed to work, though the puzzle comes with no instructions.
Second, an observer would have a really good sense of what that missing piece would look like if she had it. She can deduce the colors, the contour, and the image that she's looking for. She can mentally complete the puzzle without actually having the last piece.
This is how belief works.
Holes in Our Reasoning
OUR WORLDVIEWS, which develop throughout the course of our lives, are like a puzzle that slowly comes together. An eighty year old has a panoramic viewpoint of which a sixteen year old is just beginning to catch a glimpse. Over time, we learn how to relate to one another, how to provide for ourselves and our families, how to adventure. We learn complex rules of social adaptation. We learn codes of ethics and means of coping. However, even at eighty, there are gaps in the puzzle. These holes are our missing pieces, and they're filled with implications.
Daily living requires that we accept a vast network of assumptions and presuppositions that we cannot help but take for granted:
We accept that our perceptions of the world around us are accurate and that our senses aren't playing tricks on us.
We assume that there are real moral rights and wrongs to which people should be obligated.
We assume that life has a purpose and that we play a part in that purpose.
We assume that there can be meaningful communication in which two people accurately share what they are thinking.
There are fundamental beliefs on which we depend without much reflection. When a three year old asks a string of "why" questions, the parent takes a stab at the first few. Eventually, the parent is reduced to some sort of final, unquestionable foundation. The parent settles for "Because God made it that way" or "That's just the way it is." (I always preferred "Go ask your mother.") That last answer to the string of questions is a foundation, something that we assume without further explanation. Philosophers have given these kinds of ideas various names, such as "properly basic beliefs" or "foundational beliefs." For simplicity's sake, let's call them assumptions.
When we take a good hard look at those assumptions, we realize that they depend on something to ground them. Those are just holes in our experience, and we are mentally filling in the piece we think should go there or assuming that piece can be found.
What I mean to suggest is that some sense of foundation has to exist or else much of existence starts to unravel. And that foundation is not simply a question mark. We shouldn't treat ourselves like children and settle for a dismissive answer. Our foundational assumptions tell us a lot about what the foundation can and can't be. Not just any puzzle piece will fit in that space. The parent may settle for a God of the gaps when they are tired of answering. In this book, we'll see that the foundation for our most profound assumptions is no more a God of gaps than the resolution to this pattern: 1, 2, 3, 4 ... is a "5 of the gaps."
A Couple of Holes
A COUPLE ELEMENTS of human experience draw us to ask some hard questions. They are both common and piercing. Few of us can escape the questions, "How should I live?" and "What happens when I die?"
For instance, every culture in human history has taken some kind of guess at the nature of life after death. This, at a simple glance, is strange. There is no reason why humanity should be inclined to the assumption that life doesn't end. There's no reason why biological life should ever develop a survival instinct, much less a survival instinct with a religious imagination. The most dogmatic evolutionary biologist would be desperate to explain how a single-celled organism one day mutated itself into a longing for eternity. And yet, consistently across borders and ethnicities, humanity has cried out in unison, "That's a hole and something goes there!"
Consequently, cultures have come up with a vast postmortem architecture for what the afterlife or the underworld should look like. Furthermore, they have then developed ethical systems based on those fantasies. "Because we are going there, we should behave here." Life is filled with a feeling of direction. We may disagree on what that missing piece is going to look like, but consistently over cultures and centuries, we seem to agree there's a hole right there.
If we step back from our assumptions and consider them in the light of day, we would have to admit that we have little basis for our beliefs about eternity or for the decisions we make about the purpose of life or even for the sense that life shouldn't just end. Those assumptions indicate a missing piece in our worldviews, something we casually and without thought fill in. Even confident atheists have a disquiet about their future forecast. They may well accept that they will return to the dust, but we rarely see them throwing parties to celebrate the fact. Human happiness is robbed by an unavoidable death, a reality of which we are all latently aware, though it rarely makes for pleasant dinner table conversation.
Excerpted from HARDWIRED by James W. Miller. Copyright © 2013 James W. Miller. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Posted September 12, 2013
Cutting edge theology laced with humor. Very readable with innovative premises and refreshing ideas.
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