Monday, December 5, 2011

The Right to Say No; Even to God.

Psalm 19 says, "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands." This, and similar scripture lines are often used by Christian Fundamentalists when arguing that it is not reasonable to allow folks to believe in a view of creation other than theirs, or when refuting scientific discoveries and observations they feel conflict with what they “know” about the world. I think it will not surprise my readers to know that I do not hold to this view, and indeed strongly reject it. To me, one of God’s gifts, and a cornerstone of the human condition, is the fact that we have free will, and as such have the freedom to say No.

I will begin with my counter to the exegesis of the fundamentalists, citing Matthew 13, “Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand,” among many possible citations. The whole of creation may indeed testify to the glory of God and to the wonder of His work, but a witness may also testify to a murder and yet a jury vote not to convict. We have the testimony of the scriptures and of creation to guide us, and the experiences of our own life, including the rewards of faith. If we had the privilege and right to elect to accept the Savior and receive the grace of God, that very fact carries with it the possibility that we may have elected otherwise, we may have chosen to doubt or deny the compelling nature of the testimonies we have seen and held on to a reasonable doubt. If we have faith, we know that this doubt is in error, but to deny that man can elect to act in error seems to rather undermine many of the core tenants of Christian Faith.

I want to hold on to the analogy of a witness giving testimony for a moment to bring up another point. When we listen to a witness, one angle which any good lawyer will press is their credibility. If a man who has a history of perjury and a known grudge against a defendant says that he saw him commit a crime, we may be inclined to doubt what he says. So too must it be with creation, if it proclaims the glory of God, and we are to accept its testimony, we only do ourselves a disservice to claim that it may be misleading us or causing us confusion in what it testifies. If it lies about the distance of other galaxies, if it lies about the age of the sun, why would we think it could possibly be a trustworthy witness to the Creator? If God wants us to have the freedom to choose to accept Christ Jesus, doesn’t it diminish both him and the glory of creation to claim he has to stack the deck?

I will take a moment to swing my lens around in the other direction, lest this essay seem to be a defense of atheist attacks on the faithful. A common exchange when I see a Christian and an Atheist engage in a dispute runs along the lines of

Christian: “God will help with this issue.”

Atheist: “I don’t believe in God.”

C: “God is real.”

A: “Prove it.”

C: “You prove he isn’t.”

A: “I don’t have to; the burden of proof is on you for making the positive assertion.”

At this point the conversation either devolves into “No you!” “No, you!” or the Christian attempts to parade facts from some Creationist pamphlet that just make the Atheist laugh. I think these are both wrong, because the question is not correct. The Atheist is actually correct… IF he is taking the position “I don’t believe in God.” As soon as he takes the position “There is No God,” both sides are making positive assertions which are likely improvable.

The core issue here is that what is being tossed about here is rhetoric, the pure logic of debate. One may admire a well crafted argument, and applaud deft use of logic, but even a cursory study of debate will show it is possible to win a debate with flawless logic while being fundamentally wrong. The Atheist may well be correct that an expression of belief in the Trinity as revealed by Scripture would be soundly defeated in a logical argument in which rules of rhetoric were strictly followed and a judgment framework of modern scientific knowledge was used, but that is not the question, and anyone with intellectual honesty knows that, the “positive assertion” dodge is usually simply an attempt to goad the Christian into a mistake so that the Atheist can score what to them is a victory. This is not a total aside from my main point. If we accept that God has given us freewill and an honest ability to choose not to worship him, it would make sense that one could logically defend a position of doubt in God, having to be willing to take that leap of faith to know him personally.

Let me now expand upon the implications of my claim of the power of choice. This runs throughout our lives, touching on far more than the elementary but vital choice of belief or non-belief. In every event that transpires in our lives, we have a choice. “Do I sanctify this moment to God, or not?” When we do well at school as a child, do we preen like peacocks, or thank God for his gifts and guidance that help us? When we see an amazing view of natural beauty, do we thank God for His creation, or do we declare that this is a treasure of man to be saved or cast aside by our whim? When we fall ill, do we lean on God for his love and ask him to help us learn compassion and endurance in our suffering, or do we simply begrudge a time of having to act at less than our peak? When we loose a loved one, do we ask God for His support and thank him for the release of one we love from the suffering of this world, or do we simply mourn the passing of a loved one and wish we had more time? God’s will is awesome, and will at many times be a mystery to us, but we cannot forget that we always have an active role to play. We can always say “No, I will not suffer this cross.” We know that even Jesus had this choice, and would have preferred to go another way, but he said Yes… “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me, yet not My will but Thine be done.” (Matthew 26) Sometimes the choices in our life may be very harsh, and what we can learn from them may be hard for us to know, but we still have the choice to say yes or to say no. If I were to get cancer again, I could ask God for the strength and courage to fight, and the clarity to use my time wisely, or I could say no and simply let myself be resigned to the cruel randomness of the universe.

In the end, we always as self aware beings have the final ability to say No, and I think this is why it is so often focused on as a sin. If we ever feel that something we are made to suffer or asked to bear is too much, we can say “No, I won’t live in this world,” and commit suicide, either in flesh or in spirit. The final negation, the refusal to accept that anything God may have in store for us yet to come could possibly be worth suffering what we must endure now. The martyr allows his life to be ended by saying Yes; I will suffer even what I do not think I can bear, while the suicide refuses to listen with the loudest No of all. This is an awesome power, and it speaks to the love that God has for each of us. We have all been made co-authors of the story of our lives and the world we live in. Every time there is a plot development or a new revelation, God lets us provide feedback, even if that feedback is to deny him. Ultimately, the cost of having the freedom to choose to follow Jesus is that others must have the freedom to choose not to, and that God will make a world in which that choice may seem reasonable and correct. To those who are not willing to say “Yes, I believe, help though my unbelief.” God must accept their insistence on saying “No, I will not accept you,” even when he offers them love and salvation.

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