You are here‘God of the gaps’ did my dead faith in
‘God of the gaps’ did my dead faith in
by Virgil Vaduva
An article by my dear friend Jared Coleman was posted here recently and I promised a response in the spirit of generosity rather than criticism and debate. Jared’s article was more a description of his journey and the place where he is now, which is a place where he has become not only disenchanted with Christianity but has become convinced that God may not even exist at all. And while Jared’s article was not meant to be scholarly or not even an attempt by him to convince anyone of his position, I wanted to answer some of his concerns and issues he brought up in the hope that I can touch his heart and perhaps simply let him know that he is not the first or the only one to struggle with the problems he mentioned. Writing this article was a strange experience, mostly because for the past few days I continuously ran across atheism-related issues, something which never happens to me, but it’s another link in the strange chain of events I’ve experienced lately. This (hopefully) wraps up a “twilight-year” for our family. A year ago I was in a major car accident and I have been in constant back pain since; then I find out that someone I really respect is leaving his wife and his family for another woman, and then someone else I know is seemingly on the brink of doing the same thing; for whatever reason I got passed over for a major promotion at work, after which our three month old unborn baby was lost; then to top it all off, I hear that a very good friend of mine has turned to atheism.
As incredulous as it may sound, perhaps the God of the gaps is speaking somehow? But what the heck is he saying, because I can’t make anything out; if anything, it sounds like “stop moving you bug, you are messing up my maniacal magnifying glass game!”
First, I admire Jared for being willing to share his article with all the folks reading this website. It takes a lot of courage to open up as he did before a bunch of people like us, knowing that we will rip everything he wrote apart in order to find something wrong with what he said, mock him or opportunistically use his words to prove each other wrong.
Secondly, while I am not trying to slam Jared for being wrong, I do want to hold his feet to the fire for some statements he is making, otherwise his approach would be a hit-and-run, and nobody likes dealing with that kind of stuff.
The third point is that this article is not for Jared alone; it is for everyone who struggles with those issues. I am not arrogant enough to pretend I have all the answers but I hope I have some. Admitting to have doubts and struggles is the first step towards getting help, and we all need it.
Recently I was browsing through the unending list of TV channels and I stopped for a few minutes to watch the legendary Braveheart, starring Mel Gibson. I have seen this film a couple of times and I just happened to tune in when Isabella, the French princess of England was discussing the Wallace rebellion with her aide Nicolette, when she was being told that Scotland was in chaos because a Scot wanted to avenge the death of his lover:
Nicolette: Et cacha le cadavre de sa bien-aimé dans un endroit secret. Ça c'est l'amour non? (He fought his way through the trap and carried her body to a secret place. Now that's love, no?)
Isabella (resting her head against a column and looking at the skies): De l'amour? J'en sais rien. (Love? I wouldn't know)
The princess of England, one of the most powerful women in the world was enchanted by Wallace’s story of love; a man pursuing the impossible to fight for his dead lover. She did not have the love of Wallace as a princess, because she did not know love, in that nobody loved her passionately as Wallace loved his fiancée. What a mystery to be charmed by! And of course, it’s by no accident that a discussion about amour it taking place in French, the language of love and lovers! But I’ll get back to this later.
In his article, Jared justifies his slide into atheism with a mixture of self-realization, lack of progress, materialized doubts, and empirical observations about Bonhoeffer’s God of the gaps (which is not really Bonhoeffer’s) that is slowly shrinking into nothingness as a result of scientific progress. When labeling himself, Jared even borrows from Derrida saying that “he rightly passes for an atheist.” But Jared is only focusing on one side of the argument, namely the unknown. People like Henry Drummond and Dietrich Bonhoeffer himself already dealt with this well enough, although defensively. Bonhoeffer wrote: “How wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don't know; God wants us to realize his presence, not in unsolved problems but in those that are solved”
But even if I grant Jared the “gaps theory” I cannot see a problem; as I already mentioned to him in a previous comment, the gaps we face are in a very real sense the same doubts and mysteries which we have faced as humans from the beginning of our existence. Relegating God to the mysterious or even to the “doubtful” is not something new or something to lose faith over. The doubts and mystery therefore are nothing to fear, but are what we need to embrace, whether or not we find God in them. This compliments Bonhoeffer’s position well giving us a comprehensive perspective of the contemporary, whenever the contemporary may be, so paradoxically there are answers in the unknown, not necessarily religion. Famed philosopher Petre Tutea also dealt with this effectively: “Mystery represents the only form which frees me from the personal struggles, the cosmic perspective of the infinite and of death…In another context I affirmed that dogma is a revealed mystery (Lalande)” Jared should not be surprised that I eagerly embrace both the known and the unknown and find great comfort and fulfillment in both; I feel no need to defend either one because I have no stake in modernism.
The problem therefore is not necessarily an empirical one, but a dogmatic, personal one: a personification of our individual and eternal struggles between certainty and doubt, between the individual and the group. And this is where I feel like I failed Jared, and in fact I feel responsible for his slide to some extent. I encouraged Jared to explore his doubts, confront certainty and question the status quo. The problem is that I left him there. Doubts, just as faith, should be expressed and confronted as a community, not as individuals. I don’t want to be arrogant enough to imagine that I have that much influence on one’s thinking, but I am hoping that at least now Jared is listening. Operating under the unconscious herding behavior, modern Christianity has epitomized the condemnation of doubting and of doubters. Commenting on this, Robert Prechter says, “Falling into line with others for self-preservation involves not only the pursuit of positive values but also the avoidance of negative values, in which case the emotions reinforcing herding behavior are even stronger. Reptiles and birds harass strangers. A flock of poultry will peck to death any individual bird that has wounds or blemishes. Likewise, humans can be a threat to each other if there are perceived differences between them.” Psychology professor Irving Janis from Yale University also studied the methodology of decision making in modern political settings and concluded, “In general, the greater the number of those in the decision maker’s social network who are aware of the decision, the more powerful the incentive to avoid the social disapproval that might result from a reversal…the greater the commitment to a prior decision, the greater the anticipated utilitarian losses, social disapproval and self-disapproval from failing to continue the present course of action and hence a greater degree of stress.”
This kind of behavior has prompted a vast majority of believers to internalize doubt for fear of being castigated, therefore allowing them to fall victims to their very own Sunday-morning-manifestations of Descartian propositional knowledge statements: I know, therefore I believe! i.e. When we all know, we believe! It is therefore no surprise that Jared wakes up one morning proclaiming: I do not know, therefore I do not believe! If that is the Christianity Jared would be rejecting, then I join him saying: that is bullshit-religion and I do not want a part of it or of its god. But he is not; Jared is rejecting the known mysterious gaps or the “known unknowable” under the label of ignorance, so in essence no level of not-knowing will ever be acceptable in that context; at least that is the consistent consequence of his position.
Not surprisingly therefore, it is uncertainty, which Jared rejects empirically as the un-knowable, while certainty and the knowable become the de-facto philosophical litmus test for an existence of God. But is there that much value in the knowable or is Jared exchanging one prison for another? Even Bertrand Russell agrees that this approach is not workable: “The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse to questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected.”
And if I can take this line of thinking to its consistent end, should Jared continue to invoke empiricism as his reason for rejecting God, he should consistently also reject his-self as a result; it is a necessary and natural conclusion. Hardcore empiricist David Hume argued – quite effectively in my opinion – that the self is elusive and not-evident through our number of sense perceptions: “When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perceptions.”
Anyone using empiricism as a basis to leave faith needs to explore all the implications of this kind of approach and explore further even the more contemporary studies of self identity, like the work of Derek Parfit which stands in opposition to Descartes’ rationalization of self-doubting as proof of self-existence: I think does not necessarily mean that I am. In essence, Jared first needs to convince himself that he exists before he becomes convinced that God does not.
In addition, as I already hinted above, Jared has created a false dichotomy between empiricism and faith, which is readily apparent to anyone reading his article and comments. I would agree with the supposition that “empiricism is detrimental to faith” if no additional reference points were available to us. But we do not exist in a vacuum; therefore the claim is neither analytic nor demonstrable. Jared’s statement “empiricism is detrimental to faith” fails itself on empirical, experimental grounds! His empirical experiences are his own only, not mine or yours, otherwise “frogs are detrimental to faith” would also stand. His personal incredulity argument fails fallaciously: empiricism was detrimental to my faith; therefore it is mutually exclusive to faith. In this same context, Jared also mentioned something to the effect of “God never answered my prayers, thus God does not exist.” This argumentum is ad ignorantiam and cannot stand. And Leonard Sweet said, “Belief is Plato; faith is Jesus.” So where does mystery stand or fall?
The suggestion is that the weakness of religion in general and Christianity in particular is to be found in its mystery (also referred to as “ignorance” by Jared) and its propositional truth, but I should point out that the power of Christianity (at least postmodern Christianity) is found not in the propositional truth of the religion itself or even the religious writings themselves, but since “there is nothing outside of the text,” in the power of the story, or the narrative. After all, even Lyotard acknowledged the narrative power and characteristic of Christianity, as James K. A. Smith recognized and wrote in this context: “Christian faith – unlike almost any other world religion (with the exception of Judaism) – is not a religion simply of ideas that have been collected. The faith is inextricably linked to the events and story of God’s redemptive action in the world: Christian faith rests on the work of the Word, who ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate,’ and that work can only be properly proclaimed by being narrated, by telling a story. The notion of reducing Christian faith to four spiritual laws signals a deep capitulation to scientific knowledge, whereas postmodernism signals the recovery of a narrative knowledge and should entail a more robust, unapologetic proclamation of the story of God in Christ. This is why the Scriptures must remain central for the postmodern church, for it is precisely the story of the canon of Scripture that narrates our faith.”
The intriguing thing about this interaction with Jared is the fact that Jared on one hand claims that empiricism, the unknown, the gaps, did his faith in while on the other hand he readily accepts that there will always be things we will be unable to know empirically. I know that Jared does not mean to come across as disingenuous, but such position is philosophically unassailable and seemingly disingenuous. One cannot simply make empirical demands and shrug-off the failure to deliver answers. If the existence of God fails because of a lack of empirical evidence, then no number of gaps should be acceptable. In fact, what is the line where one can say: that is an acceptable level of ignorance or mystery? When and where is Jared willing to draw that line, and on what basis will be line be drawn?
For me, the power of faith is in its mystery, so paradoxically the gaps are there to balance out my inherent thirst and desire for cold certainty. The tension has always been there and it will always be there; it is seemingly an essential part of our existence. It is the unending ocean and its mystery which motivates us to build ships to sail; it is the mystery of the space which motivates us to build rockets to soar into space and it is the mystery of faith which motivates us to kneel down in prayer before an unseen God. Derrida himself recognized that “believing implies some atheism, however paradoxically it may sound.” We can then reason that Derrida would lend credence to the idea that “atheism implies some belief, however paradoxically it may sound.” So Jared can rightly pass for a true believer still, however paradoxically it may sound, especially when “all true belief needs to be exposed to absolute atheism.”
In relation to the assessment that his life would be no different if he did not believe in God, there is little new to this disconnect between faith and life that he is experiencing. The modern Christian understanding of justification as being “by grace alone” is almost always implying that one’s faith has nothing to do with what kind of person he is and how he lives his life. This is what Dallas Willard calls “the gospel of sin management” – the idea that essentially, the message of Christianity is concerned only with how to deal with sin. “Life, our actual existence, is not included in what is now presented as the heart of the Christian message, or it is included only marginally.” Again, it is this version of Christianity that Jared is railing against. But this version is wrong, impotent, and irrelevant; the narrative of the Kingdom is not about sin management or about waking up on the correct side of the bed every morning. It rather is about emulating a Creator within our own realms of influence, namely our homes and families. Being unable to observe a change in one’s life as a result of being a follower of Christ has a lot less to do with one’s religiosity or faith and a lot more to do with one’s willingness to exert a Creator’s influence in the lives of his family members, as a Husband, Wife, Father or Mother. The story is not about me as a closed-system ego; the story is about me as a Creator-Father. The results of “belief in God” may not be readily apparent from the sin-management perspective; but how is Jared doing as a husband and father? Perhaps Jared is closer to God than he realizes; his relationship with his wife, his love for her is (whether he likes it or not) a manifested difference in his life of his “belief in God.” So yes, God is speaking French (I am speaking figuratively here of course), the language of love, and many of us are getting pretty good at learning it; we may consult a lexicon or grammar book once in a great while, have a hard time conjugating verbs, but that does not change the story: we still are Lovers, Fathers, Husbands, all fighting for love. Nothing short of emulating the Divine story: Cet amour? Je le sais tellement bien! (That love? I know it so well!) And Jared does too; he just doesn’t see the progress he wants and expects!
But Jared’s demand of progress from faith is not unreasonable at all, at least outside of the sin-management framework; it is not unreasonable to ask “what do I get in exchange?” It is in fact what Jesus taught: Have faith and you will grow and progress in your understanding, your relationships and your lives…your entire world and existence will improve – faith, just as doubt, is a mass human activity as I already pointed out above. But progress, for lack of a better word, is never steady, it is rather punctuated. To again quote socionomist Robert R. Prechter, Jr., “...were there no fluctuation, there would be no progress...progress must include setbacks and net change over time. From the point of view of a participant, punctuated progress is the only kind of progress that is possible to perceive.” While Prechter is writing in the context of stock markets theory and prediction, the principle applies to all facets of our lives. Using the Ralph Nelson Elliott’s wave principle, it becomes evident that progress can only take place at a minimum pace of “three steps forward and two steps back,” giving us a net progress that many may not be satisfied with. The repeating 5-3 wave sequence is everywhere around us and it reflects the Fibonacci sequence, so there you have it: sound empiricism at work all around us, empiricism which Jared can use to justify both, his faith progress or lack thereof; unfortunately Jared chose the latter.
Despite what the God of the gaps idea is implying, and despite what Jared is getting out of it, the paradoxical quest for knowledge is always confounding: the more we know, the less we understand. I want to be the last to speculate on reasons for this, but when I look at Jared’s journey I do not see him sliding back into atheism at all. I rather see Jared sliding back into modernism, demanding certainty, demanding linear progress, demanding absolutes he ultimately knows none of us can ever deliver—he set us, and himself up to fail, not maliciously, but perhaps unknowingly (how ironic that I have to use that word now). Jared – I am saying in jest of course – is a backsliding postmodern, not a backsliding Christian. He is rejecting a modern god who is dead, and belief system that is bankrupt. Just as I do, he is rejecting a modern, apologetic Christianity that has become a set of statements which are intellectually assailable or intellectually defensible, thus intellectually fallible.
To subtly restate something I already said, God was dead, and Christian modern-intellectualism killed him; the good news is that the mystery brought my dead faith back to life. I hope the same will be the case for my dear friend Jared Coleman.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison
 Petre Tutea, Intre Dumnezeu si Neamul Meu (Between God and my Nation), p. 54
 Robert R. Prechter, Jr., The Wave Principle of Human Social Behavior and the New Science of Socionomics, p. 156
 Irving Janis (1972), Victims of groupthink
 Betrand Russell, The Value of Philosophy
 David Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature, Vol. 1, p. 534
 James K. A. Smith, Who is Afraid of Postmodernism, p. 75
 Jacques Derrida, Atheism and Belief, 2002 Toronto “Other Testaments Conference”
 Jacques Derrida, Atheism and Belief, 2002 Toronto “Other Testaments Conference”
 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p. 41
 Robert R. Prechter, Jr., The Wave Principle of Human Social Behavior and the New Science of Socionomics, p. 28