I was born into an Evangelical Christian home. It was a wonderful, loving, and very large family where God was front and center, and the Bible represented his inerrant instruction. I carried this view well into my thirties. It was a view similar to the one expressed by this guy, and one familiar to Evangelical Christians across the U.S. This is the story of my own little quest for personal truth.
My wife and I were were sitting in the upper tier of the fairly large Protestant church that we attended in southern New Jersey. It was a clear, frigid Sunday morning in February of 2011. In passing, the pastor referred to the congregation’s believers as “God’s chosen ones”. It struck me that morning: “chosen” suggests predestination. We had attended the church for over two years and no doubt many similar comments had gone unnoticed during that stretch. But, for whatever reason, this time it caught my attention. I had never liked the thought of predestination. Why didn’t I believe in predestination? My father, a former pastor, had always seemed to support the idea of free will, but I didn’t know exactly what the Bible taught about it. Was my dislike for predestination just a personal belief or a Biblical one? And so it was that a single fleeting remark sparked in me a rekindling of spiritual, theological and philosophical thought that had been absent for over a decade (though no doubt brewing in my unconscious for quite a while). Not since I was in my early twenties had I seriously concerned myself with questions of philosophy and theology. The answers to those basic questions of life philosophy and Christian theology would have far reaching consequences if I let them. I knew of many Christians who had uprooted their lives to follow what they believed to be God’s call on their lives. I myself had wrestled with feeling of guilt regarding whether I was doing God’s will. Did God create us for a specific purpose? Was life an amalgamation of decisions made of my own free will? Was there logically plausible middle ground? Could these ideas co-exist?
These were the questions I started with. As I write now, years later, my studies have taken me in a lot of different directions, down many rabbit holes, many unexpected pathways, and to some conclusions that I did not think possible when I started. I think the search for truth, understanding, and meaning is a part of life’s process that is never complete. Isaac Newton once said, “I was like a boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself, now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” That quote sums up my view of truth, and my relationship to it as a human. I am aware that my understanding of existence can never extend beyond the primitive. That doesn’t stop me from striving for more advanced illumination.
As noted above, the first faltering steps of my current exploration were prompted by the realization that the church we attended believed and taught some form of predestination (“Reformed” theology). I had never properly considered what the Bible taught on the subject, or what I believed. I knew I intuitively believed in “free will”, not destiny, but wasn’t sure upon what grounds I believed that. I spent many months investigating that rabbit hole and many other largely esoteric theological questions that arose, concluding with a personal rejection of “reformed” theology in its entirety (and all “5 points of Calvinism” that undergird the “reformed” theology) on strictly Biblical grounds. I had verses I could point to for support of my position (2 Timothy 2:20, John 3:16, John 6;40, 1 Timothy 4:10, etc), but there were just as many that painted a picture of predestination (1 Peter 2:9, John 6:37, Acts 13:48, Romans 8:29, etc). These ideas seemed irreconcilable to me. There were verses that clearly supported each side. In orthodox Christian circles, the answer to this kind of dilemma is often to simply throw up hands and say, “God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts. It’s a divine mystery.” And so it may be. But I was not yet satisfied with that answer.
I spent a year earnestly studying the New Testament again. I had read it a few times before, but this time pasted verses into dozens of documents organized by subject theme. I was fully convinced that with enough prayer, study and contemplation, I could find satisfying answers to all of my questions and reconcile any apparent discrepancies. I chased down various theological rabbit holes. What did the Bible teach about church administration? Was there evidence of hierachy in the early church? Should every believer be a teacher? Was faith or action more primary to salvation? What was the Kingdom of God? So forth. I landed upon various beliefs through this process but also came to realize that the Bible could be parsed to support any variety of competing ideas. I also grew increasingly aware of my own growing sense of cognitive dissonance, as reconciling various competing theological concepts grew increasingly troublesome. There was no clear-cut truth. It was no wonder the Christian church had broken into more than a dozen denominations.
About a year after I started this process, my father passed away. He had been battling cancer for years, so it was not entirely surprising. Still, he was a man of incredible faith. When I was a young Christian, my father was a Pastor in a non-denominational Evangelical Christian church. He held that position for about a decade and considered us, his children, perhaps his most important parishioners. He explained in great detail what he believed and why he believed it. He answered questions willingly and thoroughly. There wasn’t a doctrinal question that he wouldn’t quickly and happily answer, and always in a manner that left me thoroughly convinced and fully satisfied. Most importantly, he genuinely practiced what he preached. He was a model of the spirit-filled Christian man. The inerrancy of the Bible, and the simplicity of its truth, seemed self-evident to me. At the center of my conviction was a sense that reality was indeed Objective, and God was the source of that Objective Truth. God was the Moral Absolute that anchored white (good) and black (evil), allowing humans to experience morality as shades of gray. This premise assured that physical reality was objective and absolute. It was external to my body, my consciousness, and my perspective. Mine was a view that maintained a clear delineation between me, the subject(ive), and external reality, the object(ive), with a clear, firm line of distinction between the two.
My exploration of beliefs had started with examining my own theology, but it detoured into more foundational philosophy after my father passed away. I had investigated and explored philosophy to some extent, along with a cursory glance into other religions, when I was in my early twenties. In hindsight, I believe my search for “truth” was rigged at that point – an intellectually dishonest exercise. I read some Neitschze, and realized that if I weren’t a Christian I would probably be a Nihililst, but could not accept the idea of a physical or moral reality void of absolutes – and for a Nihilist to assert any truth at all was, to me, the height of hypocrisy. I never doubted Christianity, and was perhaps caught in a cycle of confirmation bias, nibbling at the edges of oppositional views, but always finding material to re-confirm my own beliefs. I held my father in exceptionally high regard, and did not wish to disappoint him by rejecting the life truths that were the foundation of his life (and, it seemed to me, his happiness). I was not examining philosophy in a vacuum. I knew that my beliefs were very important to him. He had stated repeatedly that ‘to see his children know and love Jesus Christ as savior’ was a very important thing in his life. How could I not grant him that wish? After all, he was a wonderful father. But as time passed after his death, I felt increasing freedom to believe as I saw fit. It was, in fact, a responsibility. This feeling came slowly and unexpectedly. My initial emotional response after his passing was just the opposite – to cling more earnestly than ever to what I’d been taught, as though holding those beliefs would keep my father closer to my heart. However, over time, an unexpected sense of intellectual and spiritual freedom came over me. I felt free to pursue truth without feeling beholden to expectations. For better or worse, rightly or wrongly, I felt my mother’s love for me was stronger than her love for her theology (which, in retrospect, may be different than how I viewed my father’s priorities), and I felt I could either tolerate or smooth over rejection from my siblings. I have always thought of my wife as exceptionally intelligent, and a proficient user of logic. I believed that upon understanding my perspective (whatever it would be), she would be tolerant, because I felt certain I could find a worldview that was grounded in both faith and studied reason. And so I moved forward, determined to find a value and belief system that I could wholly understand and appreciate without experiencing cognitive dissonance.
It is sometimes said that faith and reason are opposite; even that they cannot coexist, that they are contrary to one another and mutually exclusive. I believe just the opposite: that they mutually assure one another. All faith is supported by a reason, and all reason relies upon faith. They are never apart. Reason relies upon faith in sensory perception, faith in logic, faith in intellectual processing. Faith is always directed by the mind, the human center for rationality, in determining what beliefs and concepts deserve faith. I believe both concepts are so foundational to conscious existence that a worldview cannot exist without having both faith and reason. It is a question of what one believes, not whether one believes; everyone believes something(s).
And so, with great vigor, I returned to philosophical basics. What did I believe was real? What did I believe was true? Was there anything that I could be certain of? From the start I recognized the fallibility of my own conclusions, whatever they would be. I was not concerned with whether they would be universally applicable. They would be for me; for my benefit alone. I recognized that I exist in a tiny micro-sliver of spacetime, with extremely limited perception and imperfect logic. My conclusions would be incomplete at best, and deeply flawed at worst. But not for a lack of effort. I had to check premises. Re-check them. Re-examine the foundations of my beliefs. Questions of ontology (how we understand reality) and epistemology (how we acquire knowledge), returned to the fore. They were questions had that had intrigued me in my twenties, and now they returned with a vengeance. One passing remark had led me to reinvestigate all of my conscious and unconscious philosophical underpinnings, and the entire value and belief system built thereon. And so I entered the rabbit hole, not knowing where it would lead.