“The Customs of Heaven” Quote of James Martineau

“The universe, open to the eye to-day, looks as it did a

James Martineau, 1805-1900

thousand years ago: and the morning hymn of Milton does but tell the beauty with which our own familiar sun dressed the earliest fields and gardens of the world. We see what all our fathers saw. And if we cannot find God in your house or in mine, upon the roadside or the margin of the sea; in the bursting seed or opening flower; in the day duty or the night musing; in the general laugh and the secret grief; in the procession of life, ever entering afresh, and solemnly passing by and dropping off; I do not think we should discern him any more on the grass of Eden, or beneath the moonlight of Gethsemane. Depend upon it, it is not the want of greater miracles, but of the soul to perceive such as are allowed us still, that makes us push all the sanctities into the far spaces we cannot reach. The devout feel that wherever God’s hand is, there is miracle: and it is simply an indevoutness which imagines that only where miracle is, can there be the real hand of God. The customs of Heaven ought surely to be more sacred in our eyes than its anomalies; the dear old ways, of which the Most High is never tired, than the strange things which he does not love well enough ever to repeat. And he who will but discern beneath the sun, as he rises any morning, the supporting finger of the Almighty, may recover the sweet and reverent surprise with which Adam gazed on the first dawn in Paradise. It is no outward change, no shifting in time or place; but only the loving meditation of the pure in heart, that can reawaken the Eternal from the sleep within our souls: that can render him a reality again, and reassert for him once more his ancient name of ‘the Living God.'”

<From his sermon “Help Thou My Unbelief. ” Quoted by William James in “The Varieties of Religious Experience.”>

Quote of William James, and the Search for the Divine

“‘Love your enemies!’ Mark you, not simply those who happen not to be your friends, but your enemies, your positive and active enemies. Either this is a mere Oriental hyperbole, a bit of verbal extravagance meaning only that we should, as far as we can, abate our animosities, or else it is sincere and literal. Outside of certain cases of intimate individual relation, it seldom has been taken literally. Yet it makes one ask the question: Can there in general be a level of emotion so unifying, so obliterative of differences between man and man, that even enmity may come to an irrelevant circumstance and fail to inhibit the friendlier interests aroused?  …

Psychologically and in principle, the precept ‘Love your enemies’ is not self-contradictory. It is merely the extreme limit of a kind of magnanimity with which, in the shape of pitying tolerance of our oppressors, we are fairly familiar. Yet, if radically followed, it would involve such a breach with our instinctive springs of action as a whole, and with the present world’s arrangements, that a critical point would practically be passed, and we should be born into another kingdom of being. Religious emotion makes us feel that other kingdom to be close at hand, within our reach.”                   

  –William James, “The Varieties of Religious Experience“, under “Saintliness”

Cover of "The Varieties of Religious Expe...
Cover of The Varieties of Religious Experience

I put an blogpost on a couple of days ago about some prophecies regarding the Philippines… prophecies that allegedly predicted Typhoon Yolanda (although the predictions vary wildly from the actual calamity) and allegedly predicted flesh-eating bacteria plague from Pangasinan (although nothing like a plague (yet?) exists).

I was surprised at how many read this blogpost. Looking at the search terms, it was clear that this was no accident. So many wanted to read about these alleged prophecies.

It led me to wonder why. Why would people be desperately searching these alleged prophecies… many apparently in hopes that they are true? Do we really want God to be cursing a country with floods and plagues because they did not accept a blessing (another alleged thing that they apparently haven’t even been given yet)?

I suppose some people were curious but do not want to believe… but looking at some of the other blogposts, there definitely are a large number of people that have unwarranted (and uncritical) exuberance with regards to the prophecies. They want them to be true it appears.

Maybe I have a guess why. People want to feel… to touch… to experience the Divine. They go to practitioners of “divine magic” (some clearly charlatans… some, who knows?) in hopes of a visceral experience of God. The desperation is so great that people will even seek out a fairly hateful prophecy. After all, if it can be said to have come true, perhaps that is a bit of divinity that one can build one’s faith upon.

I guess I would go back to the quote from William James. Love, as Jesus directed, is a bit of the Divine worth seeking out and living out. Better than trying to make some “prophecies” seem real. Divine love is certainly truer evidence of God than predicting bad weather in the typhoon belt, or diseases in a  tropical country.

Instead of looking for the evidence of the divine… why don’t we seek to BE the evidence of the Divine.

Pascal’s Wager in Pluralistic Cultural Context

Blaise PascalBlaise Pascal developed “Pascal’s Wager“, drawn from Thoughts (Pensees) that argues for faith in God over and against doubt or rejection (translated):

Yes, but you must wager. There is no choice, you are already committed. Which will you choose then? Let us see: since a choice must be made, let us see which offers you the least interest. You have two things to lose: the true and the good; and two things to stake: your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to avoid: error and wretchedness. Since you must necessarily choose, your reason is no more affronted by choosing one rather than the other. That is one point cleared up. But your happiness? Let us weight up the gain and the loss involved in calling heads that God exists. Let us assess the two cases: if you win you win everything, if you lose you lose nothing. Do not hesitate then; wager that he does exist.”

The basic argument is essentially game theory. The way to minimize risk is belief as opposed to unbelief (in God). However, William James in his essay “The Will to Believe” quotes Mahdi (not sure which one… “Mahdi” is a title from Islamic Tradition… perhaps he was referring to the one who was part of the 19th century Mahdist revolt in British Sudan.)

“I am the Expected One who God has created in his effulgence. You shall be infinitely happy if you confess me; otherwise you shall be cut off from the light of the sun. Weigh, then your infinite gain if I am genuine against your finite sacrifice if I am not!”

The argument is essentially the same. However, at least from a Christian standpoint, the argument seems much weaker. The idea that god (as described within the Islamic system) and his messenger should be believed since the gain is much greater than the loss, only makes sense if there is no competing system.

Pascal’s Wager essentially works in a setting where there are two essential positions: Unbelief (or nominalism) in a religious system versus Belief in that same religious system. Things fall apart in a pluralistic culture.

Does that mean that nothing can be said? To me, it might be a solid wager in the broadest sense. There is a basic soundness that believing in God if God exists is of greater benefit then the loss associated with believing in God if God does not exist.

Still I am not sure that Pascal’s Wager is all that useful in missions. Nearly everywhere now, cultures are either pluralistic or are dualistic where Christianity is an outsider sytem. The idea that having religious faith “makes sense” on some level may be comforting to some. However, in a pluralistic society, there are too many options.

Still, we live in a time when the vestiges of logical positivism remain (at least for the moment) so there are still some that feel that faith and truth are at war. Works such as that by Pascal and William James (and the various challenges to naivety of scientific exuberance, “Popperism,” and positivism) help some realize that the realm of faith can be an intellectually safe place to dwell.

It seems to me that Christians should avoid the extremes of placing faith in stark contrast to logic (faith against cognition) on one side and “scientifically proving” faith on the other side.

With the growth of post-modernism, faith is given more respect (as long as it is tinged by doubt). Faith is necessary (even unbelief takes a certain amount of faith of one sort). The growing challenge is that faith communities must learn to welcome both “thinkers” and “feelers.” Both are made by God and both have a place in His church.