Thursday, November 3, 2011

Why I am a Christian Part 2: Finding the Good

"Moral habits, induced by public practices, are far quicker in making their way into men's private lives, than the failings and faults of individuals are in infecting the city at large." 
-Plutarch 

Having discussed objections that seek to end the discussion before it begins in Part 1, in this part I'll start really answering the question. To put it simply, I am a Christian because the totality of my experience leads me to believe that the claims made by Jesus of Nazareth are true. I believe those claims because I know and trust the one making the claims and because I live in a world which corroborates those claims. Now I understand that "knowing Him" is unconvincing to many so rather than elaborate on it I want to discuss how the world corroborates Jesus' claims on a couple levels. First on the level of human nature with reference to my own experience and to history (in Part 2 here), second on the level of nature as accessed by humans with emphasis on Christianity's relationship with science and philosophy (in Part 3).

Human nature is important, it is the lens through which we view the world and it is, I think, a leading candidate for being the most important variable in the equation that determines the level of success/failure that humanity experiences. I think everyone recognizes the deep importance of human nature, but is it possible for human nature to support the claims of Jesus? I think it is, while admittedly this section is a bit subjective, I think it still provides significant evidence for the truth of Christianity, or at least for the truth of something very like Christianity. 

Before making the case that human nature supports the claims of Jesus, we must know (or at least have a good idea of) what human nature is and we must know the mechanics of how human nature interacts with human actions. Neither of these questions can be answered with mathematical completeness but the second question is, in my opinion, much more difficult to answer than the first. The first question of what human nature is, is something that I think many readers will intuitively understand but is nonetheless difficult to articulate. I define human nature here as the default set of motives that interact through human consciousness with the environment to produce everyday (or not so everyday) actions. Now this set of motives is itself shaped by the environment to some degree and over the lifetime of "a person" can evolve very significantly. But when speaking of "a person" I don't call this set of motives "human nature" but rather character. Character may differ significantly from human nature but in general it does not, hence the use of the word "default." and I think there are good reasons for believing that a default character exists, I discuss them here.
To answer how that character is shaped I'm going to refer to what is somewhat of a consensus stretching back to the book of Proverbs and to the ancient Greeks. Proverbs 23:7a states "As he thinketh in his heart, so is he" (KJV) the pre-Socratic ancient Greek, Heraclitus, in Diels-Kranz fragment 119 of his writings states that "character is destiny." These ideas have been expanded on and quoted over the millenia by such notables as Seneca, Augustine, Erasmus, Tyron Edwards, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Woodrow Wilson, Ronald Reagan and many others and have emerged generally as this consensus.
Thoughts lead to actions, actions lead to habits, habits lead to character, character produces a destiny. This represents, generally, the mechanics of how human nature interacts with human actions. I was very skeptical of the last connection in this chain when I first heard it but I now believe it to be very sound. In any case, this last connection (from character to destiny) is not required for me to make my point in this post. 
It may occur to readers that the above process is not closed and that these relationships can go both ways, for instance, habits obviously produce actions and character obviously produces thoughts. But we need to keep in mind that these are only true once habits and character have already been established, and that they are established by actions and habits (respectively) in the first place. This sequence also provides a framework for how to change actions, habits etc. By consciously choosing to think and act in certain ways, habits and character can be changed even if they have already been established.
The question then is what, if anything, should we want our habits and character to be? What should we want our destiny to be? How do we recognize it when they're something they shouldn't be? I'll come back to these questions later.

It's common wisdom that the more personally involved you are with something, the more difficult it is to see that thing objectively, and what could humans possibly be more personally involved with than our own nature? The heuristic bias clouds our vision but it opens up the door for Jesus, because if He truly was God, then He would be able to discard the colored lenses of humanity and offer an unbiased diagnosis of our condition. How could we recognize such a diagnosis? What would we expect it to look like? Again I think the first question here is more difficult to answer than the second. For the second I think most people would agree that we would expect it to look different, that we would expect a treatment of the conditions diagnosed to be of significant benefit, and that we would expect it to be somewhat embarrassing. Embarrassment should be expected because while people naturally avoid embarrassment, there's bound to be some embarrassing things in the nature of a species whose history books are defined primarily by records of of us killing each other for stupid reasons.

So lets take a look at what Jesus actually had to say. Here I'm going to quote just the first two verses of Jesus' first public sermon

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they shall be comforted.
-Matt 5:3

Now I don't think it will be much disputed that these words, if true, are revolutionary. If I was writing this it would have read something like: 

Blessed are the strong, 
for no one will mess with them. 
Blessed are the intelligent, 
for they will find a way to get what they want. 
Most of all, blessed is Batman, 
for he is intelligent, strong, and a billionaire.

Joking aside, the first instinct of pretty much everyone is not to think of people that are "poor in spirit" as being blessed, our first instinct is just the opposite. But what if it is true that the poor in spirit are blessed and how could this be possible? before we discuss that idea, I think a definition of "poor in spirit" would be helpful, exactly what does that mean? A little surprisingly,  there is a fair amount of text on this subject but I think a fair summary is to say that being poor in spirit means to not have any hope left that you are independently sufficient. Which sounds to me a bit like clinical depression, how could this be good? To see how such people are blessed I think we need a lens wide enough to see beyond the individual, after-all, contrary to Simon and Garfunkel no one is an island (they did sing that song as a duet right?) and so to encompass the good of an individual we must look beyond the individual to a group, likewise, no statistically significant group is an island in this era of globalization so to really encompass the good of an individual we must have a lens that sees even beyond the group to all of humanity. From this perspective I think we can begin to see how an attitude of self-sufficiency and self-reliance will inevitably produce destructive interference. For instance, if I want situation A to end up producing B, but Joe wants situation A to produce C... then we have a conflict. In this situation energy will be lost by Joe and I combating each other that could otherwise have been used to do something useful. This is especially true if we both think that we are independently sufficient and need nothing from the other person. On the other hand what if all these people have zero hope that they are independently sufficient? Or more remarkable, what if they have zero hope of being independently sufficient and do believe that part of their hope lies in "considering others better than yourself"? In this situation the two  people in hypothetical conflict are far less likely to waste time working against each other and are much more likely to come to an optimal solution. Being poor in spirit is a prerequisite for this approach to always be achievable, it is possible for such efficient decision making to occur between two people that are "boisterous in spirit" but only in specific circumstances, not in all circumstances. This sort of genuine humility greases the cogs of decision making on every level like nothing else can and is, I think, only part of the benefit of being poor in spirit. Other benefits include a healthy resetting of expectations, increased general gratefulness and decreased self-focus.
The next line here is "blessed are those who mourn" which is, I think, an even more profound insight than the previous and again is a complete reversal of conventional wisdom. Why are they blessed? well apparently because "they will be comforted." While I think that the probability of those who are mourning eventually being comforted is high I think the statement goes deeper than a momentary feeling of comfort. The comfort that comes to those who mourn is more than the momentary kind, it is also the kind that comes from having your character bettered, the kind that does not easily fade and remains a rock of comfort in good times and bad. Mourning is produced by a deep sense of loss or remorse or some other strong emotion; almost invariably, it is the result of someone finding themselves in very difficult circumstances. Finding yourself in very difficult circumstances is not bad. There is nothing intrinsically bad about difficulty, in fact I would say that there is something intrinsically good about difficulty. Difficulty produces excellence and progress, whereas easiness produces patheticness and decay. If your life is physically or mentally easy, you will become correspondingly physically or mentally pathetic. If your life is physically or mentally difficult, you will become correspondingly physically or mentally capable. This principle can be applied to almost any dimension of life so I think that the way many people make personal comfort and ease a priority is deeply counterproductive. The pursuit of ease, when taken to it's farthest extreme, is actually the pursuit of death. On the other hand, the pursuit of a character that conforms to that of Christ, the most difficult thing I've ever pursued and something I've shed more tears over than anything else, is actually the pursuit of life. And in the context of this pursuit of life, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who don't shrink from the challenge of crossing the bright mountain tops and dark valley floors that lie on the path from cradle to grave.
But there's a price to be paid for the belief that you belong somewhere. Belonging somewhere means that you should not go just anywhere. The idea of there being places that one should not go and things that one should not do evokes a curiously strong response from people. There is something about human nature that is intolerant of such a reality, Christopher Hitchens expresses this idea well in a tirade against divine authority when he describes a world with God as: A celestial North Korea. Who wants this to be true? Who but a slave desires such a ghastly fate? I've been to North Korea. It has a dead man as its president... It is the most revolting and utter and absolute and heartless tyranny the human species has ever evolved. But at least you can f***ing DIE and leave North Korea! 

Of course the "ghastly... revolting... heartless tyranny" is only as bad as the person wielding authority. As a child growing up I could have uttered Hitchen’s words against my parents as they wielded ultimate control over me, but it turns out this was actually not a bad thing; it turns out that this was a good thing because the people wielding the authority were good. Another great example of the instinctual backlash against the possibility of divine authority comes from atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel who wrote: 
I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that.
Being held accountable is uncomfortable, but humans by default run wildly amok without accountability, if you have any doubts about this pick up a history book. USC professor of philosophy Dallas Willard states "What has happened in recent decades in Rwanda, Bosnia and Sudan is not a fluke or some strange thing. It is a natural outcome of what is in the human heart."
I think the less we acknowledge our potential for evil the more likely it is that evil will find a way into our actions. I think a good example of this is the great atheist experiment of the twentieth century, Marxism looks great on paper but it assumes we're basically good, and that assumption removed the imperative to acknowledge your own potential for evil. The success of Marxism, and today the success of humanism, hints at a very deep problem with human nature. We desperately want to be good, we know we're not good but we desperately want to be so, it is our deepest fantasy. Ironically the philosophy that asserted our basic goodness produced badness on an unprecedented scale, Marxism became the father of a number of atheistic ideologies that resulted in a death toll never before seen. Of course many atrocities have been perpetrated in the name of Jesus (though the two thousand year death count does not approach the one hundred year death count of Marx-inspired atheistic regimes) but we enjoy a defense not available to anyone else. Jesus taught specifically to die rather than to kill, to actually love your enemies. Just as I won't take someone in McDonald's seriously who claims to be a vegetarian as they eat a Big Mac, I don't take people who claim to be followers of Jesus seriously while they're doing things that are specifically against the teachings of the Man in question. And Christianity is unique in having this defense, Islam, atheism, agnosticism and all other major groups cannot claim this. Furthermore, a self consistency is demonstrated by Jesus in that he actually set the example, he actually was killed without attempt to strike back despite having the power to do so.

Now back to that famous causation chain, I previously stated that the question: "what, if anything, should we want our habits and character to be?" The answer to this question under Christianity is clear. The standard towards which we are to push our character is the character displayed and taught by Jesus Christ during his lifetime. This is a standard that is almost universally recognized as good even by those who are otherwise critical of, or indifferent to Christianity. For example Mahatma Gandhi famously stated: "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." And Albert Einstein said "I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene." 
To me the rightness of the concepts Jesus taught and the character he lived is obvious. It is, I think, common sense that if we were all filled with sacrificial love, joy, peace, patience, etc. that the world would be a much better place. But on top of being right, Jesus teachings had and have a remarkable power to motivate people to follow them. Indian philosopher and Christian Ravi Zacharias sums this up well in saying: 
The character of Jesus has not only been the highest pattern of virtue, but the strongest incentive in its practice, and has exerted so deep an influence, that it may be truly said that the simple record of three years of active life has done more to regenerate and to soften mankind than all the disquisitions of philosophers and all the exhortations of moralists.
Furthermore if men have a default character which is sinful, and I think three thousand years of uninterrupted warfare establishes this quite solidly, and there is a standard of rightness to which we should conform our character in order to escape that default character, then God should provide a mechanism to help those who endeavor to transform their character. And He does. People know that to truly solve a problem the cause needs to be addressed and not just the symptoms, referring back to that causation chain (thoughts>actions>habits>character>destiny) you will note that the top of this chain is thoughts. As [a man] thinketh in his heart, so is he. Now as Marxism's failure demonstrates, people need to be held accountable. But people cannot directly hold each-other accountable for their thoughts and this leaves us with a problem because accountability at any other level addresses only symptoms. Without addressing the cause we become the unhappy, divided kind of people who's parents/boss/spouse are trying to hold them accountable for actions which their thoughts do not support. And because accountability does occur at the level of actions, a society that lacks accountability of thought tends to generate the kind of people that are so common today (and I don’t exclude myself) who present a veneer of themselves through their actions without divulging their true opinions or thoughts. God can hold us accountable for our thoughts and in doing so provides the basis for real change. He does not force this accountability on us, He leaves room for plausible deniability, but nonetheless it is there, a standing offer of help. But does divine accountability work? Are there results or is this empty theorizing? There are results. Most convincing to me are the results observed in my own life and in the lives of some close friends but on a broader scale, there are measurable effects. For example the National Science Foundation's General Social Survey, the most comprehensive database of it's kind, shows conclusively that religious Americans are more likely to donate to religious and secular charities, to donate blood, to help homeless people and even to return incorrect change. Other recent research conducted jointly by the University of Minnesota and the University of British Columbia shows that determinists (see Part 1, Christianity opposes determinism) are more likely to act immorally than those who believe in free will. The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Health 2nd ed. which anthologizes over 3,000 secular, peer reviewed studies states that religious Americans give more to charity, volunteer more, participate in civic processes more, are more likely to vote, are more optimistic, are more involved in the community, are less likely to drink, divorce, do drugs, become depressed or commit suicide. The positive effects of the message of Christ have not gone unnoticed outside North America either. In his latest book, Harvard professor of history Niall Ferguson cites a powerful quote from a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences: 
One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world. We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realised that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.
So I think we can conclude that what Jesus taught is very different, that the teachings of Jesus do provide significant benefit, and that the state of human nature is not as pretty as we might like to think. Now I freely admit that none of this proves that God exists or that Christianity is true, but it does show that what Jesus taught contains an accurate description of, and effective prescription for, human nature. And that's what we'd expect if His claims were true.