May 26, 2012

Some Thoughts on Faith and Doubt

Claude Monet (The Reader), Pierre-Auguste Renoir

''Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!''

These words were spoken more than two millenia ago by a father to Jesus. Here is an exerpt from the full story found in Mark 9:14-27.
''[Father:] But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.''
Jesus said to him, ''If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes''
Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, ''Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!'' 
This father who lived in a different time, in a different culture and in a different place spoke words that illustrate a struggle 21st-century people experience. At times, part of me believes, and part of me doubts.

There is an interesting tension between faith and doubt.

The French philosopher René Descartes has been remembered for his Method of Doubt, among other things. Descartes highlighted the importance of questioning every thing and every belief. He is also known for saying ''Doubt is the origin of wisdom.''

Doubt is defined as ''uncertainty of belief or opinion that often interferes with decision-making, [...] a lack of confidence, an inclination not to believe or accept'' (Merriam-Webster).

Faith, however, is ''complete trust and confidence in someone or something, strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof'' (Oxford).

In Hebrews, Paul writes: ''faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.''

Questioning and examining what we believe is definitely healthy. Beliefs, like houses, are strong and reliable when they have a firm foundation.

Doubt makes us examine why we believe certain things, and makes us inquire for evidence to support their truth, or show they are erroneous.

Some discredit the element of faith in Christianity on the basis that it seems irrational to firmly believe something that can't be proved.

But we ''have faith'' in people and things that ''can't absolutely be proven'' all the time. We trust that our friends will not betray us, we have faith in the positive influence of literacy in developing countries, and we believe that the sun will rise again tomorrow.

The purpose of doubt is to question and inquire in order to eventually reach certitude. Sometimes, however, doubt is used as a weapon for one to discredit any opinion, while not having any opinion to defend oneself. In such a case, doubt becomes a comfortable place.

Questioning everything (without really searching for an answer) can become comfortable because one never has to take a stand, and never has to defend any idea.

I find Soren Kierkegaard's thoughts on faith and doubt very interesting.
He wrote;''it is so hard to believe because it is so hard to obey.''

In my experience, this statement is very accurate!
Sincere belief yields to action. If I truly believe it is unfair that some people live in poverty, then I will do something about it.

So back to faith and doubt. Faith is a central element when it comes to believing in God, Jesus and the Bible.
There are things we can understand, and things we cannot understand. But it seems to me that it was meant to be that way. There is something beautiful about believing without seeing completely.  It requires trust and effort!

C.S. Lewis said, ''faith is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted in spite of your changing moods.''

So faith is not about being completely irrational, as some would say. Lewis points out that there is an element of rationality in faith--it's not all about foolish and empty beliefs.
 If I have read about God's goodness in the Scriptures and have experienced it, faith means that I trust him and still believe he is good even though I am feeling unhappy one day.

I would say that faith is not always the easy way. As I wrote earlier, it requires trust and effort, but it is also rewarded.

To conclude, here's one of the key Bible passages about faith and doubt. It takes place after Jesus died, and has to do with the news of his resurrection:

 ''Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” 
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” 
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” 
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”Then Jesus told him, Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  John 20:24-29

May 18, 2012

Six Books On My Bedside Table, or Books I Am Planning to Read This Summer

First of all, I have to make this clear: I have not pre-arranged those six books on my bedside table in order to write a blog post. In fact, I had no clue what to write about this week. I turned around, I saw my bedside table, and I got the idea to write this article! 
Also, I took an amateur photograph of each of the books, because I think amateur shots are cool. Also, I'm not the best photographer in the world.

Charles Dickens - David Copperfield

I know... I haven't read it yet... It just seems so lengthy and intimidating! I love Dickens but he scares me with his dictionary-long novels. ''A Christmas Carol'' is short and much more accessible!!! But I can't wait to rediscover David Copperfield. I think I read an abridged, translated version of it (not the good stuff) when I was a kid, but I can't remember ever reading the original.

Blaise Pascal - Les Provinciales (Provincial Letters)

This (very old) book was given to me by my late grandfather, who had the largest and nicest personal library I've ever seen (besides that of Thomas Jefferson at the Library of Congress). To be honest, I have no idea what this book is about, but I do love Blaise Pascal's writings. Pascal was an outstanding scientific, philosopher, author, genius,  etc., etc.  My favourite of his quotes (and don't ask me why) : ''Cleopatra's nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.'' 

Countess of Ségur - Après la pluie, le beau temps (After the rain comes the sun)

It's a shame that the Countess of Ségur is relatively unknown in the English-Speaking world. I read almost all of her books when I was a child. Sophie de Ségur was a 19th century French author of Russian origin. She wrote dozens of books with strong moral values and life principles to her grandchildren. I've read Après la pluie, le beau temps a number of times, and I love it every time. It's about the lives of Georges and Geneviève, two cousins. George is the bad boy, and Geneviève is the good girl.  Believe me, you have to read the book!!!

Peter Leithart - Fyodor Dostoevsky 

This book is a biography of one of the greatest writers of all time, Dostoevsky (also translated Dostoyevsky). Ok, to be really honest, I started reading Crime and Punishment last summer, and 150 pages in, I still wasn't hooked. But I'll try again this summer, I hate to half-read books. 
Here's what the back of this book says: ''To absorb Dostoevsky's remarkable life in these pages is to encounter a man who not only examined the quest for God, the problem of evil, and the suffering of innocents in his writing but also drew inspiration from his own deep Christian faith in giving voice to the common people of his nation... and ultimately the world.''

Rick James - Jesus Without Religion
This book is an informal summary of Jesus' life, what he said and what the Bible says about him. The back of the book expresses well what the book is about:
Rick James begins by clearing his throat. Free of creeds, quarrels and specialized theologies, he speaks of Jesus. No dogma, no politics, no moral at the end.
Jesus. What he said. What he did. And what, exactly, was the point.

I've read the first chapter and it's refreshingly unconventional. I still can't give my opinion on the book as a whole, but I agree that we  need to be reminded of the basics when it comes to Jesus and Christianity. Although James' book might be helpful, if we want first-hand information on Jesus and God and what this is all about, we should go to the Bible directly.

Chrétien de Troyes - Lancelot ou le Chevalier de la Charette (Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart)

As I was wandering and dreaming in the bookstores of Paris last summer, I wanted to buy typical, even stereotypical French books. I thought nothing could be more French than medieval French, and so I bought Lancelot, a very long poem written in the 12th century. It's about Middle Ages stuff. And some love story between Lancelot and Guinevere. Lancelot was one of the Knights of the Round Table (King Arthur and friends)

So that's what I told myself I would read this summer. What will you read this summer?
I might have used the word ''book'' a lot, but you'll agree that this word doesn't have many synonyms.

May 11, 2012

Five (Relatively Unknown) Songs I Love

Metronomy - ''Everything Goes My Way''
Metronomy is an English band I've known for a few years. A month ago, I had the privilege to see them live in Edmonton (they were opening for Coldplay), and I just loved their performance! This song has something exotic to it, but I don't know what exactly. I love how the video is so innocent and beautiful.

Sufjan Stevens - ''Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing''
Oh, Sufjan. Sufjan Stevens is one of my favourite artists. I love his early albums (his Christmas album is just  wonderful!). This song is an old spiritual hymn: Sufjan didn't actually write it. His interpretation of it is exquisite (love the banjo!!). The music is remarkable, but I think the reason I appreciate this song so much is that the lyrics often reflect the way I feel about God.

Philipp Poisel - ''Durch die Nacht''
Philipp Poisel is a young musician from Germany. I was introduced to his music by one of my German friends last summer. We were driving a convertible, it was raining, and this song was playing. The moment was perfect! Listen to the guitar. It's so delicate and emotional!

Josh Garrels - ''Rise''
Ok, this song is very strange and unique. It is very heavy and solemn, and I think it was meant to be that way. You can get Josh Garrels' latest album, Love & War & The Sea In Between for free here (I know!! It's so cool that he's letting people download it for free!!). Many of Garrels' songs are spiritually-oriented. ''Rise'' is an apocalyptic, almost prophetic song. It's about the Christian journey, persecution, perseverance, and restoration. The chorus makes me shiver. This song is a masterpiece.

Two Door Cinema Club - ''Something Good Can Work''
This is probably one of my favourite songs. Ever. I love it so much, especially the chorus. It make me happy. Two Door Cinema Club is a band from Northern Ireland. Their debut album, Tourist History, is very, very good. I also really like ''What You Know.'' 

May 8, 2012

''Follow Your Heart,'' or ''Bad Advice Well-Intentioned People Give You''

The Thinker, Auguste Rodin

Once again, it was the title that gave me the inspiration to write the actual article.

I am very, very annoyed at the saying that goes ''Follow your heart,'' or ''Listen to your heart.'' It seems like I could elaborate a lot on how this sentence does not make any sense.

What does it mean to follow one's heart, in the first place? What exactly is ''heart'' referring to? I am assuming it is used as a synonym for ''emotion'' or ''feeling'', two other very vague terms.

Those who read my blog regularly probably know that I like to have a definition for the concepts I talk about! 
Merriam-Webster gives interesting 4th and 5th definitions of heart, respectively "the emotional or moral as distinguished from the intellectual nature," and "one's innermost character, feelings, or inclinations."
I really like how one definition defines the heart as the "emotional distinguished from the intellectual nature." 

So I will go with that definition. (Yes, I do make subjective decisions at times, which is very ironic considering the topic of this article!)

There definitely seems to be a dichotomy between what the heart and what the head say. In other words, reason and emotions are often at odds.

Maybe that’s too much of an overstatement. Reason and emotions are sometimes in harmony; you may, for example, want to go on a vacation because you have worked hard and have diligently saved money over the past year. But reason and emotions are at odds when you go on a vacation just on a whim, while you are behind at work and already have a heavy debt and bills to pay.

I wonder why, in 21st century Western society, it is fashionable and encouraged to "follow one’s heart." Let us take a look at the message transmitted by popular culture.

Everyone knows Cascada’s  hit single "Listen to Your Heart." You can listen to the song here.

Here’s how the chorus goes:
Listen to your heart
When he’s calling for you
Listen to your heart
There’s nothing else you can do
I don’t know where you’re going
And I don’t know why
But listen to your heart
Before you tell him goodbye.

Let us analyze some of the lyrics for a second.

The song is called "Listen To Your Heart," so obviously that’s the key message. The song seems to be about some kind of romantic relationship. But really, the content of the song does not make any sense to me.

"I don’t know where you’re going / And I don’t know why."
(BTW, I will not analyze these lyrics in light of the context of the song, but more as general statements having to do with the Follow-Your-Heart philosophy.)

That’s very typical of a heart-centric worldview. We don’t know why our heart is inclined in one direction (Blaise Pascal: "The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing"), and we don’t know where it goes… But we must follow it nonetheless? Doesn’t look like a wise plan.

Where does the notion that subjectivity > objectivity come from? It goes against the simplest logic.

Our friends, the Greeks, had a radically different worldview. In Ancient Greece, the pursuit of "reason" was a very popular occupation among philosophers. To this effect, the Greeks have developed the art of reasoning by establishing different types of argumentation dealing with the relationship between premises, inferences and conclusions, so as to "attain the truth".

René Descartes

Ice-cold reason and logic were also highly valued by some Enlightenment philosophers. René Descartes said, "The senses deceive from time to time, and it is prudent never to trust wholly those who have deceived us even once."

It seems to me that wisdom lies in holding fast to solid values and principles (which do not change), rather than trusting our feelings and emotions (ever-changing) for direction and guidance. A life entirely directed by "following one’s heart" can lead to many mistakes.

We can’t always indulge in what we want. We all love chocolate, but eating only chocolate every day would be a poor decision. 

In an ideal world, what we feel should be measured against what is right.

Following our heart is thus not a wise way to go about life.

The Book of Proverbs encourages us to seek the wisdom that comes from the knowledge of God and a relationship with him:
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