Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On Belief

I've been meaning to write about this for a long time, which means it isn't timely anymore, but oh well. I can't remember the last time I saw a convincing character of faith in science fiction. I suppose there aren't that many of them, but now that I think of it, I can't think of one. The first one I can remember is a Christian monk in Babylon 5who explains to a Minbari that the emotional heart of his religion is Jesus deciding not to run away in Gethsemane. Maybe that's the best one; I suppose his statement could be true for a person who takes his Christianity seriously. Shepard Book is a great character, but he feels to me like he's written by a man who doesn't understand Christianity. Maybe that's unfair of me. His remarks on faith in Serenity tweak a pet peeve that I have about belief, better illustrated by Elizabeth Shaw from Prometheus. "Because that's what I choose to believe," her father tells her when asked how he knows that people go some place beautiful when they die. The idea clearly resonated with Shaw, who repeats the sentiment in environments that are certain to be hostile to it. She plants it like a standard, an iconoclastic banner ready to blow the mind of anybody with the guts to self-examine themselves. She states it as if it is brave. But it's not brave to believe something because one chooses to believe it. It's either craven or perfectly normal. It can be craven, because intellectually honest people don't choose to believe anything without reasons that support their choice, and intellectual dishonesty is cowardly almost by definition. It can be perfectly normal because the reasons we have to support our beliefs are never good enough to satisfy every critic. In the end, we all choose a standard of proof that we demand our reasons meet, but that standard is never high enough to answer every conceivable objection. The world does not admit of airtight proof. Either way - both ways - choosing to believe is not a salient feature of religion. I'm being guilty of projecting my own version of Christianity on everybody's version of religion here, but I'm pretty sure that statement holds up. Religion is not about the act of believing in itself, nor the act of choosing to believe. I can see how it seems that way to outsiders - if a person holds a belief that is surprising to you, one that seems inadequately supported, it's natural to look for reasons other than evidence to support their belief, and naked will is an attractive possibility. But that's not what it looks like from the inside. Real religious people don't go around telling each other that they hold their beliefs because they choose to. They don't evangelize by telling non-believers that they have to choose to believe. Real religious people think they have good reasons to believe their religions are accurate, the same way that they think they have good reasons to believe in anything else they believe. (I'm going to narrow the scope of my statements to Christianity now, because I'm beginning to tread in waters I feel less sure of - though I don't mean to imply that what follows isn't true of other religions.) Nevertheless, the idea of believing something based on will alone is an attractive one. Human beings love will; the notion that our own will can stand defiant against all forces that would change it is a romantic one. And religion - at least, Christianity - does promote such a scenario. But it isn't belief. Christianity never says that one should simply choose to believe. What it does say is that one should simply choose to love. All people have character traits, and commit actions, that make them unworthy of love. Christianity says not to care. It doesn't say that those things aren't true - people really are unworthy of love. It doesn't say to focus on people's good traits rather than their bad traits. That's just lowering the standard of worthiness, and Christianity assiduously avoids that. It never says, "Well, if you just focus on these characteristics, this person is worth loving." It only ever says, "This person, taken as a whole, does not give you adequate reason to love them. Love them anyway." I hate to adduce John 3:16 when it can be avoided (I don't want to sound like a tone-deaf placard-waving idiot), but this is one of those times when that verse is important. The great triumph of the will in Christianity is to say, "I love you." Not "I love you even though ..." or "I love you because of your ..." but just "I love you." God did not love us because we were worth it. He did not love us by ignoring our bad parts and loving our good parts. He just did, because that's the kind of entity he is. The nature of God, in essence, was more compelling than the extrinsic evidence. That is what this fantasy of choosing is really about - reaching inside ourselves and finding a motivation that does not change the evidence, but overrides it. When life gives us reasons to doubt our faith, Christianity does not tell us to choose to believe anyway. We're told to deal with them, and see whether they warrant our unbelief or not. But when people give us reasons not to love them, Christianity does tell us to choose to love them anyway. Not because they're worth it. Because that's what we choose to do.