Francisco Contreras – Unabashedly Skeptical

"The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks." –Christopher Hitchens

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Seduced by Heresy? : My Spiritual Journey

The following short lecture was delivered to the high school Apologetics class on May, 13, 2016 at Puebla Christian School, after being invited to give a short speech and answer some questions about my personal spiritual journey.

 


 

When Mr. Miranda asked me to speak before you today to talk about my spiritual journey, I had a big fear that I would come off as “preachy”, as people often do when talking in front of a group. The truth is, I have nothing to preach to you. I do have personal beliefs about God, truth, beauty and goodness that I wouldn’t mind sharing with you if you’re interested, but I wouldn’t want to preach about any of these things. The reason I say this is that the beliefs that I have are  provisional; they are my best attempt to understand the world so far. I expect them to change. If I am going to change and mature, then my ideas about life and God should change and mature too. In fact, if previous experience is a good way to predict the future, some of these ideas are going to change a lot. Some of them might even change completely. But what I do want to talk to you about is the process by which my beliefs have changed and evolved over the years.

As some of you know, I was raised in and graduated from PCS. I went to camp as I’m sure all of you have, I sang the songs in chapel, closed my eyes during prayer, and at times felt very real and intimate spiritual experiences during Bible class and school outings. Most importantly, I felt like I had a pretty good idea of who God was.  Of course I knew that I had a lot to learn and to read, but in my mind there were a few things that seemed pretty clear about the nature of God, which were for the most part reinforced by my peers and teachers.  I knew that God created the world in seven days (I even knew the order), that God cares about what we do and what we think, that He loves us and sometimes has to punish us, and that He resides in Heaven and sent His Son (who was also God himself) to save us from our sins.  I bet some of you have a very similar list to mine.

But then I started reading.  I read science, philosophy, literature, theology and encountered some very interesting ideas.  I read that science was something more that just a list of boring facts that I had to memorize to pass Mr. Keech’s class. Science was actually a pretty cool way to ask and answer questions about the world and  has been pretty effective in giving us medicine, electricity, iphones, and guitars. I learned that most scientists have deduced –through their highly effective way of asking and answering questions–  that the world was probably not created in seven literal days, but rather that it has evolved in  billions of years from  the interaction of these things called “fundamental particles” . Not only that, but that there were Christians who believed that this scientific explanation about the origin of the universe did not conflict at all with their relationship with God. For example, Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project and one of the world’s most important living scientists, is a very devout Christian who uses evolutionary theory in his work every day. Or  Stephen Jay Gould, one of the most influential science writers of his generation, who believed that science and faith are two different things that should not overlap. He thought it was just as ridiculous to open up the book of Genesis to explain biology and cosmology as opening up a physics textbook to understand the nature of God.

And then I started reading theology and discovered some more interesting ideas. For example, I encountered a theologian and philosopher named Thomas Aquinas –who Mr. Miranda very much admires, by the way– who didn’t really think that God was an involved, personal intercessor that cares about what we do and what we think, but more like a bodiless entity outside our universe  through which all existence is sustained (in his words the “First Efficient Cause of Things”). I also read about a Jewish philosopher named Maimonides, who believed that talking about God being “good” or “getting angry” was rather silly because those are terms that we use to describe people. He believed that since God was so much beyond our understanding, the best way to talk about God was not to assign any human attributes to Him at all and instead remain silent, often quoting “Silence is Praise to Thee” from Psalm 95.  I even read about a group of thinkers that called themselves “Marxist Christians”, who believed that Jesus was not God made flesh, but rather an archetypal example of a perfect Marxist.

Reading about all of these captivating ideas was as exhilarating as it was scary.  I had been taught to believe that evolution was incompatible with Christianity, that Marxism was “evil”, and that questioning God’s personal attributes was borderline heretical. I had certainly heard from many people that “you should question your beliefs” and “make your faith your own”, but implicit within their injunctions was the assumption that the questioning should always lead you back where you started, which didn’t seem right to me. I needed to have these questions answered and these ideas examined.  I decided that what I was going to do was seek Truth — note that that is Truth with a capital “T”– no matter where it lead.  I resolved that if an idea could be questioned, then it should be. That my daily morning prayer was going to be the following:

If the sky is blue, then I desire to believe that the sky is blue.

If the sky is not blue, then I desire to believe the sky is not blue.

Let me not become attached to beliefs that are not True.

–Litany of Tarski (paraphrased)

What I want you to take away from today is that there are ways of thinking about God and life that are different from what you’ve heard  from your family, your church and even  PCS (what William James called the “varieties of religious experience”). And  some of these ideas may actually be True.  The different categories that you have learned in your class (Marxism, Humanism, Buddhism and the rest of the “isms”) are a good way to begin to understand a group of similar ideas, but  remember that Truth doesn’t really work that way. Truth doesn’t seem to present itself in neat little categories, but it is rather messy and only shows itself when you treat ideas with the respect they deserve.

I am not suggesting that you should discard the beliefs that you’ve had your whole life. I am, however, inviting you to seek new ideas and ask yourself some important questions. What am I going to do with all these interesting ideas? Am I going to try to take these ideas seriously and test them for my own, or am I just going to come up with ways to rationalize them and avoid having an honest conversation with myself?

If you do have this conversation, maybe you will find out that there is more to Christianity than the Evangelical, literalist model.

Maybe you will find out out that there is more to religion than Christianity.

Maybe you will find out that there is more to life than religion.

Or maybe you will just find out that what you had already believed was pretty spot on.
Whatever be the case; if you are honest with yourself,  you will adopt these new beliefs after a process of a genuine quest for Truth, and that makes all the difference.

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