Response #1 to Philosophy for Believers.
I very much appreciated the way in which Dr. Vick begins what I think is a wonderful book. With the simple statement, ‘We all have many and varied beliefs’, he opens up for us an in-depth philosophical exploration of the nature and dynamics of faith and belief. In my view, he leads us into a process of serious self examination on both the intellectual and the spiritual levels.
The statement itself expresses a simple reality. Whether one looks at the wider world around us or at our local communities, one cannot help but recognize that there is a pluralism of belief systems that coexist with one another. Some might be inclined to bemoan this reality and would prefer to help lead people to the ‘truth’ as they understand it, usually posited by them as objective reality from a source outside of themselves.
In my view, the simple fact is that when we are born, we are thrust into a world which is mysterious to us. As we grow and develop, the specifics of that mystery unfold. Simply because we are human and are capable of thinking, many questions come into our minds as we experience life. We wonder about how life began and who or what might have been there at its beginning. Facing the simple fact that such a thing as death exists, we ask questions about what happens to us individually and collectively after we die. Recognizing the fact of our finite limitedness, we wonder about the inherent meaning to be found in how we live our days.
As I see it, that which we call RELIGION is our personal response to the mysteries of life as set within the wider context of the MYSTERY that is life itself. Within the world as we know it, there exist many and varied responses to these mysteries of ORIGIN (Where did I and we come from?), DESTINY (where am/are I/we going?), and MEANING (what is the purpose of it all while we are here?).
The different approaches to this mystery are evidenced in a variety of different ways. They certainly shape the theologies that are part and parcel of the multiplicity of world religions. They also emerge in the various creative processes in which human beings engage. Profound philosophical positions on life’s greatest mysteries are to be found in literary works, dramatic performances and the art work and music of different cultures. Whether one explores Shakespeare’s great soliloquies, the absurdist dialogue in Beckett or Ionesco, or the lyrics of a Bob Dylan, one sees human beings responding to life’s mysteries in many and varied ways.
Writing as a believing Christian and as a pastor in the church, I find myself observing this multiplicity of responses within the Christian community as well. The fact that there is some diversity of approaches within Christianity is troublesome to those who are convinced that the objective answers are clear and that the work of the church involves presenting that objective truth to others so that they accept it for their own well being and salvation. Sadly, there are some in the churches who dismiss honest intellectual inquiry and the value of raising serious questions. They see this as antithetical to the the practice of religion and even to faith itself.
Over the course of church history, some church communities have focused on the church itself as the definer of objective truth. They have encouraged their adherents to look to the church for the specific answers to the great mysteries of life and thus to the important decisions they must make in their own personal lives.
In reaction to this, other church communities, concerned that the institutional church had strayed too far from the Word of God as found in Scripture, have focused on turning to the Bible as the source of objective reality and truth.
Thus historically, within the Christian church, there has been tension between those who have advocated that truth may be found in turning to the Bible without benefit of church teaching and others who have argued that Scripture must be interpreted in light of ongoing tradition.
Simply put, some Christians believe that one can find objective truth by turning to specific interpretations of faith by the church. Others believe that truth is found by simply looking inside the Bible. Both positions emerge from the deeper position that God has intended either the church or the Bible to be the vehicle by which objective truth is conveyed.
As I see it, both views assume that mystery can be defined clearly either through interaction with the sacred text or by adherence to the rules and doctrine of the community. Ongoing tensions exist within the Christian community between these adherents and those who see these issues and questions as far more complex, involving the use of intellect (God given, I would contend) and the exercise of human conscience.
These brief comments are not intended as a fully developed commentary on the place of Scripture and tradition in the life of the individual believer. Instead I am attempting to state how Dr. Vick’s simple assertion that there exists in our world a diversity and multiplicity of beliefs resonates with the core reality of human experience- that we are thrust into the world and, as we grow, we ask questions, questions about the BIG QUESTIONS- life, death, the meaning of it all…..
As a result of people coming up with different answers to these questions, there has emerged a wide variety of philosophical approaches and systems throughout the course of human history. We have seen the work of an Aquinas who has spelled out specific proofs for the existence of God and the actual qualities of that deity. On the other end, we note the work of those existentialists for whom the presence of the divine has essentially been dismissed.
These differing philosophical positions have led to diverse theologies as there is a fine line between the two disciplines. Within the rather large continuum of positions, we each take our stands, philosophically and theologically.
In essence, Dr. Vick’s opening remarks state the obvious. In my view, there is a relationship between the fact that there are different beliefs and that life itself is a mystery. Having said that, I can gladly claim that in honest response to that mystery, faith emerges, faith in the One whose greatness cannot be fully grasped or explained over the course of our mortal existence.
Dr. Bob LaRochelle is a pastor, educator and an author. His Energion titles are Crossing the Street, So Much Older Then …, and the forthcoming What Protestants Need to Know about Roman Catholics. Early next year, there will be a companion volume to the last book, What Roman Catholics Need to Know about Protestants.