February 11, 2007

10 Questions for the Seeker

There is much talk about the proverbial "spiritual seeker," which many religions zealously court and who is alleged to be on a journey toward truth. But who are these seekers? What are they looking for and what are they willing to accept as truth? And what roadmap are they willing to use to guide their paths? Here are some questions designed to stir the mind of the seeker, and to give touchstones for dialog to Christians seeking to reach them.

  1. What is it that you are searching for? Are you looking for Truth with a capital "T" — an objective truth — or are you just looking for something that "works" for you? Will any old path do so long as it suits your taste? Are you just enjoying the "journey" or are you looking to a destination?
     
  2. Are you prepared to accept a truth that causes you inconvenience, or that asserts that you are in the wrong on some of your ideas and behaviors? Do you think that it is possible to enjoy doing things that are actually wrong?
     
  3. Is the truth something that can be contradicted? Do you think that other seekers who have settled on different and conflicting truths could be wrong, or that you may be wrong and they right? What role do you think reason, logic, and evidence play in determining truth? Do feelings trump these? If so, what do you do with people who believe contradictory things but "feel" the same as you about their beliefs?
     
  4. If there is a true religion, do you think that it would be possible for any of its followers to be pretenders and hypocrites? Must truth be perfectly practiced in order to qualify as truth? Do we judge a religion by those who most consistently follow it or by those who violate its principles?
     
  5. Do you see problems in this world? Do you think people do bad things and have bad motives? Is it possible that many people are not really looking to surrender to a higher truth?
     
  6. How do you think morality and your conscience fits into this? Do your moral intuitions tell you anything about truth and the maker of this cosmos? Do you think you've ever committed any moral crimes? What is to be done with these and what do you do with your guilt?
     
  7. Do you just prefer to be "spiritual" and not "religious?" Do you dislike "organized religion?" If there really is an objective truth, and others can come to know it too, is it sensible that common followers of that truth would seek out each other's company, deliberately organize, and even have spiritual elders and administrative leaders where the numbers warranted?
     
  8. Have you considered that this truth could have intruded upon history? Do you think that if Truth is personal that it might have spoken and you can look for evidence of that revelation? Do you think that such a revelation would be authoritative and trustworthy, or do you suppose that it could be hopelessly muddled by human involvement?
     
  9. The Judeo-Christian tradition is one of the most well-documented, historical, and ancient. Have you considered that this could be the actual point at which God has intervened in this world — is it not a prime candidate? Have you actually read the Bible (perhaps the New Testament, or just the Gospels), or even just heard an exposition of the core beliefs of historic Christianity (rather than having a narrow church experience or taking the secular stereotypes at face-value)? Have you honestly sought to have your questions or objections addressed by Christians who are best equipped to do so, such as theologians and apologists? Have you read anything near the number of books on Christianity that you have on other beliefs that you are entertaining? Did you know that there is a whole historical body of literature devoted to explaining Christianity and answering the tough questions?
     
  10. Are you serious about your search or is it more of a hobby? Would you be willing to pray to this divine entity that you are seeking to help you come to the truth, whatever the cost?

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20 Comments:

At 2/12/2007 4:13 AM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Paul,
Although I suspect that these questions are rhetorical, I thought I'd have a go at answering them.

1)I'm looking for Truth. I care about what is true and how we can know what we know. I know that there are limits to human knowledge and therefore to our access to Truth.

2)I am prepared to accept the truth even if it is inconvenient. If it were impossible to enjoy doing things that are actully wrong the world would be very different. In fact, I would not consider that to be an infringement of my free will at all, so I wonder why it is not so.

3)There may be multiple viewpoints and multiple truths in the sense that what is true for one observer is not true for another. Relativity shows us this. On the other hand if there is a reality, (I think it is rational to assume so) then some truth claims are mutually contradictory. So I don't think it can be the case that, for example, both Christianity and Islam are true.
Reason and logic are tools that we use to find out about the world. Whether or not feelings trump these depends on the context. There is very little to be done when people feel strongly that their beliefs are right.

4) It would be possible that followers of the true religion were pretenders or hypocrites. A follower of a truth is not the same as a true follower. The remaining answers are no and no.

5)I do see problems in the world. Some of them are caused in part precisely because people have surrendered to what they think is a higher truth.

6)I think morality is a cultural development of innate predispositions. My crimes should be punished and I should learn and move on.

7)I think I am what some would call spiritual but as an agnostic atheist I would probably welcome a different label. I don't think I need a heirarchy of spiritual elders.

8)I have considered whether truth has intruded on history. The evidence for this in terms of the truth of religions is poor in my view.

9)I have considered whether or not the Bible is a reliable historical source. I don't think it is. I have read things on different sides of the argument and talked to intelligent well educated believers.

10)I am serious about my search and I have prayed and asked Jesus to come into my life. He didn't.

 
At 2/12/2007 12:51 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Psio,

Thanks for your answers. I find them quite reasonable. In fact, in my experience atheists tend to be more rational (in a sense) than liberal Christians or those of other spiritual frameworks. It is probably why I enjoy dialoging with them so much.

Tell me, would you be at least willing to concede that Christianity is the big dog in the kennel? That is to say, that if any religion is likely to be true, that on rational and historical grounds it would probably be Christianity.

Two comments about what you wrote:

You say that you are prepared to accept inconvenient truths. You also say that you presently see people making "wrong" choices. I'm taking this to mean that you could accept that you might have behavior and lifestyle issues that could be considered "sinful" (by religious standards) for which you would need to "repent" and dispense with, no matter how great the compulsion you may find in yourself to do such things. Making such a concession would show admirable moral honesty, but can you see that the temptation to disqualify one's own behaviors as "sin" would act as a huge bias against any religion that taught otherwise?

You say that you asked Jesus to come into your life. I don't want to psychologize or minimize that claim, but I think this is important to address. I'm sure you can appreciate that such an act would be meaningless unless accompanied by a sincere (and some would say impassioned) desire for consummation. I don't know where you were in your life, but there are many who make spiritual commitments in the heat of the moment. Some even "feel" as though something has happened to them. But what follows down the road proves out the sincerity. If God knows where one will land, what obligation does He have to respond until and unless the time is truly ripe? You are not now a Christian. Tell me, was that simply because you did not acquire some expected response from God? You claim to have rational objections to Christianity. If God had given you whatever it was that you had expected from Him, what would you do with all your rational objections to Christianity then or now? How can you receive what you do not or will ultimately not believe?

The reason my question 10 did not say something like, "have you prayed to let Jesus into your heart," is because I believe that this is of no value until and unless you can have the requisite knowledge and faith in that Jesus. Perhaps the best that a "seeker" can hope for in their stage is to ask this unknown God for honest guidance. But guidance can be a road of unknown length and twists. God makes Himself known in His own good time, and belief in Him is warranted regardless of how He meets our perceived needs and desires. I know my own journey was a rather long one, and understanding my own character I can see why God allowed some of the detours. Not to be presumptuous, but perhaps folks like Sam and I were set in your path to help you get over some of your rational road-blocks to a true faith.

 
At 2/13/2007 9:22 AM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Paul,
Thanks for that.
Tell me, would you be at least willing to concede that Christianity is the big dog in the kennel? That is to say, that if any religion is likely to be true, that on rational and historical grounds it would probably be Christianity.
I'm afraid not. I think the major world religions are competing to be top dog but I don't see a clear winner. Would you concede that your perception in this is in part a product of having gone into Christianity into more depth than other religions?

I take your point about a potential bias against a religion that teaches that things we already do and enjoy are sinful. I am sure, as a meat eater, that I would scrutinise any evidence about animal consciousness with great care if it suggested that, say, lambs had a rich inner life that should be preserved. I hope that I am principled enough to notice and compensate for any potential bias though.

Regarding your comments about my non encounter with Jesus, I can see that what you have said is consistent with your beliefs and makes sense. You can see that from my perspective, this approach can be used to explain away the failure of any attempt: "gee I guess you just weren't sincere enough" or "perhaps it wasn't the right time". Another explanation that fits is that god does not exist.

 
At 2/13/2007 10:34 AM, Blogger ephphatha said...

psiomniac, when you say that you prayed and asked Jesus to come into your life and he didn't, what do you mean by that? I mean what did you expect to happen that didn't happen? Why do you think Jesus didn't come into your life? What would it have meant for Jesus to have come into your life?

 
At 2/13/2007 8:35 PM, Blogger Paul said...

I'm afraid not. I think the major world religions are competing to be top dog but I don't see a clear winner. Would you concede that your perception in this is in part a product of having gone into Christianity into more depth than other religions?

I don't mean "big dog" in the sense of size and dominance in world religions; I'm simply thinking rationally and historically. For example, the Judeo-Christian documents correlate to very specific times, people, and places and have a very decent documentary pedigree. Compare this against the Eastern religions, which have texts that speak of people and places that are difficult to pin down in history even if we accept the veracity of the texts. Additionally, Eastern religions seem to be built upon the denial of the material world. I would think you would find that an eminently irrational position. If we must deny everything plain and obvious to us then what hope do we have of discriminating the truthfulness of any given belief system?

A religion like Islam might be a contender, but this (and something like Mormonism) is something of a parasite or cult of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which is required to undercut its own root in order to support its own branch. Additionally, the more one learns about Islam, its founder, and its most ardent adherents, the more one find to dislike. Perhaps it is true, but God help us all if it is!

Of course I would find the religion I've settled on to be the most reasonable, but my original preference was something more Eastern in nature. My disillusionment with that was one factor that led me to grant Christianity a better hearing, and since I have accepted Christianity I have only continued to learn about other religions more deeply.

Regarding your final comments, I would like to see your response to Sam. I am curious if your failed expectation was instrumental in your rejection of Christianity.

 
At 2/13/2007 9:10 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

If we must deny everything plain and obvious to us then what hope do we have of discriminating the truthfulness of any given belief system?

I completely agree with this. It's my major reason for rejecting eastern religions in general and for preferring western religions.

A religion like Islam might be a contender, but this (and something like Mormonism) is something of a parasite or cult of the Judeo-Christian tradition

Of course Jews might say Christianity is a cult of the Jewish tradition. If I were not a Christian, I think I would be a Jew. Of course that depends on my reason for not being a Christian, but I just mean that in general, Judaism would be my second choice.

Islam is only slightly more credible than Mormonism in my opinion, but I do sort of view them both the same.

Paul, what would your second choice be? What do you think is the second most likely religion to be true?

Psiomniac, if you had to choose a religion, what religion would you choose? I mean suppose for some reason you decided that one of these religions is true even though you weren't absolutely sure which one it was. What would be your best guess?

 
At 2/14/2007 1:42 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

ephphatha,
when you say that you prayed and asked Jesus to come into your life and he didn't, what do you mean by that? I mean what did you expect to happen that didn't happen? Why do you think Jesus didn't come into your life? What would it have meant for Jesus to have come into your life?

I don't really know the answer because I did not know what to expect. So it is logically possible that Jesus did come into my life but I don't know about it. I think the best fit for all the available evidence is that Jesus does not exist, which probably answers some of the above questions.

Paul,
I don't mean "big dog" in the sense of size and dominance in world religions;
I know, I'm sorry I did not make this clear in my answer, I mean that I don't think Christianity is top dog in the historically validated stakes. That is why I wonder if you think it is because you have spent more time on it than other religions. I say this because it seems to me that apologists for any of the religions seem to give a much better account of theirs than all the others. I don't think the Mormons are in the big league, Islam certainly is.
In terms of eastern religions denying the material world, I think that there is more to this than meets the eye. Western Philosophy has come to positions which I see as compatible with the Bhuddist view of the material world as an illusion. The position of Bishop Berkley and Kant's distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal spring to mind. So, knowing that there are limits to knowledge and that we cannot have access to things-in-themselves is a rationally defensible position and not as perhaps you both are thinking, a self refuting one.

ephphatha,
Psiomniac, if you had to choose a religion, what religion would you choose?
Probably a non theistic version of Bhuddism

 
At 2/14/2007 9:31 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Of course Jews might say Christianity is a cult of the Jewish tradition. If I were not a Christian, I think I would be a Jew. Of course that depends on my reason for not being a Christian, but I just mean that in general, Judaism would be my second choice.

I agree that Judaism has much going for it (like surviving all these millennia and having such documentary materials), but of course as a Christian I already have a stake in their tradition. You are right that we are something of a "cult" of Judaism, and that is the charge the early Christian faced. However, we are a cult very unlike other kinds of cults in that we affirm all of the Jewish Scriptures down to the letter and most of the meaning, e.g., we are even interested in what their ancient theologians had to say about difficult passages. The difference is that we believe something to have already happened that they either believe has not yet happened or have simply given up on: the Messiah has come. Most other cults, like Mormonism from Christianity, depend on downplaying the authority and integrity of the manuscripts and understandings of the parent religion. This is why I earlier proposed that the most important area of study for cult apologists is in the area of the origins of the scriptures and the making of the canon.

Paul, what would your second choice be? What do you think is the second most likely religion to be true?

That is a bit like asking what kind of animal would you be if you were not human. It is hard to speculate on what you are not. All I can say is what I was leaning toward before I committed to classical Christianity. I liked certain things about Eastern mysticism, but I wanted a very americanized, individualistic version of it. I didn't want to dissolve into nothing like Buddhism, or lose my identity like a drop of water in the ocean as Hindus teach. I liked the New Age idea of become god, kind of a Gnostic divine spark concept. I also liked the idea of putting all the credit and blame for my life upon my own shoulders, meaning reincarnation. Unfortunately, I was left wanting for any authoritative support for my ideas, even though I heard them expressed often enough. It was all a nice metaphysical conception but I had no good reason to suppose that any detail was actually true. It would have helped if there were someone even rumored to have the credentials of Jesus to offer it intellectual capital. As it was there were only the endless books by persons who had supposed knowledge from beyond. It did not help that each had his or her own unique ideas about the pesky details. You'd think the spirits could get their story straight.

As far as other organized religions, for me it is either Christianity or agnosticism. My problems with the other religions are just too insurmountable.

 
At 2/14/2007 9:35 PM, Blogger Paul said...

John,

I'll try to get your post read by the weekend.

Feel free to do any necessary deletes of your comments anytime you need to. I'll get them cleaned up if you ever choose to do that. Be sure to use that preview feature, and if you've got any links in your text then use the Shift-Click to test them out (that will cause the link to open in a new window so as not to mess up your preview).

 
At 2/15/2007 1:49 AM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Paul,

Much appreciated. For some unfathomable reason the trash can icon is refusing to show up on my browser. If you wish (and I'd be obliged), feel free to delete the previous comments I posted on this thread.

As I mentioned previously, the following on my blog may be of some interest:

The Prophet Muhammad's Genius for Peace

(This serves to replace previous faulty links.)

 
At 2/15/2007 9:45 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Okay, I've got 'em cleaned up.

For the trash icon to appear it has to be able to recognize that the comments belong to you. Normally, if you're logged in to blogger it will do so. You'll be logged in if you either post a comment, which requires you to enter the id/password, or if you click on the blogger icon at the top of the page and go through the loggin routine. After you're logged in you can come back to the comment page and refresh your browser to see the trash icons.

BTW, if I've got comments to make about your article would you rather I do that here or at your blog?

 
At 2/15/2007 1:17 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Psio,

I'm not sure I could deny potential bias, but please keep in mind that I used to be on the outside too. Also, I think some of the criteria I would use to assess the other religions are fairly objectively measurable. Perhaps the best question is whether such criteria are really relevant.

For example, if you're looking for historical support we could look at the manuscripts from each religion. Buddhists, for instance, will themselves admit that the sayings of Buddha were not even written down for 3 to 5 hundred years after his death, and there is much dispute over what he actually said. The Qur'an has a decent documentary tradition, but it's just a jumble of independent saying and its historical treatment of its ancient roots (it claims the O.T. history for itself) looks like nothing more than a selective and sketchy retelling of the more detailed O.T. histories (and if you've got issues with Judaism I'd think you've have issues with a plagiarism of it). As Antony Flew said about it, "to read the Qur’an is a penance rather than a pleasure." By contrast he said this: "The Bible is a work which someone who had not the slightest concern about the question of the truth or falsity of the Christian religion could read as people read the novels of the best novelists. It is an eminently readable book."

Perhaps documentary support is of no concern, but then I could argue based on philosophical coherence, the divine signature of the spokesmen, or the consequences of the religion.

Regarding Eastern mysticism, there is a difference between claiming, ala Kant, that we cannot know of a certainty the nature of the external world and claiming with certainty that the external world is not a real thing to be known! There is some philosophical coherence to the former, though we all in reality live as though it is a non-issue. The latter would suggest that you and I are part of that illusion, and I would think it a meaningless task to attempt to convince me that you do not actually exist (and if I do not exist then you have no one but yourself to convince).

Regarding Buddhism, from what I can tell the most ancient form of Buddhism (Theravada) is essentially non-theistic. I find it incoherent, but that's okay, because rational coherence is simply another thing from which one must seek to be released. (I'd like to see a Buddhist rationally convince me of that truth!) Not sure why you'd be partial to this belief system being the rational guy you are.

 
At 2/15/2007 7:04 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Paul,
You have been on the outside of all and fully inside one religion, if I read you correctly. There is potential for bias there.

From where I stand the whole enterprise of validation of religious texts with respect to objectively measurable criteria yields the conclusion that none of them are relable enough to give credence to their claims. You have cited some secondary source criticism of Islamic texts but to me they read just like criticisms I have read of the Bible. My son has read the Bible cover to cover twice, so I guess it must be quite readable. Maybe I should find a good translation of the Qur'an and see what he thinks about the comparitive readability. Not that this is really a good guide to divine inspiration or authorship.

I think there is more still in the similarity between Kant's view and Bhuddist ideas than you might think.
Suppose you say that you believe in zebras. Fine but then somebody proves to you that all zebras are in fact cybernetic artifacts. You still see zebras and can point to them and other people see them too. But there is a sense in which you no longer believe in zebras. Kant's position is not that the external world is not real, rather he thinks that we cannot have access to it. So, if people think that the phenomenal world, what we experience as reality, is reality in itself, they are in the position of those in my imaginary scenario who believe in old style zebras.
Mind you, although I think Bhuddism contains truths that humans can benefit from (as does Christianity and Islam and the others), I think that it is not likely to be the Truth. It was just that I was asked to pick and it was a minimal solution.

 
At 2/16/2007 12:42 AM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Paul,

Thanks for clearing up behind me. I suspect that my log-in doesn't register on your pages, perhaps due to my using a google identity rather than a blogger identity. I notice, after experimenting, that some blogger blogs recognize my login and others don't.

If you happen to have comments on anything I've written on my blog, it would be fine to respond there or here. I think it would depend on where you think a particular comment is most relevant. For instance, depending if it fits in with the discussion you're having here with Psi, or is tangential to it.

 
At 2/16/2007 1:48 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Psio,

You have been on the outside of all and fully inside one religion, if I read you correctly.

Outside of all formal religions, pretty deeply into western spirituality (called New Age back then, though I wasn't much for crystals and meditation). The interesting thing is that one of the main things that changed my thinking was the idea that God was personal and transcendent (through application of the Cosmological and Teleological Arguments). Once the pantheistic spell was broken I pretty much knew that Christianity was the only serious thing I had to wrestle with.

From where I stand the whole enterprise of validation of religious texts with respect to objectively measurable criteria yields the conclusion that none of them are reliable enough to give credence to their claims.

I understand that you ultimately reject the authenticity of my scriptures, but I still think it can be admitted that they are in a different class than other sacred texts, analogous to Plato's Republic vs Homer's Odyssey.

Kant's position is not that the external world is not real, rather he thinks that we cannot have access to it. So, if people think that the phenomenal world, what we experience as reality, is reality in itself, they are in the position of those in my imaginary scenario who believe in old style zebras.

I understand, but I do not take him to deny the reality of reality, just our ability to know it truly. Buddhism seems to be in denial of both the phenomenal and the noumenal, and the sooner we release our grip on that the sooner we can drift off into the great spiritual void. I just never could get too excited about soul extinction as a metaphysical system — a doctrine that would seem to speak only to the very miserable. Although, come to think of it, Antony Flew's main objection these days to a more classical theism seems to be his desire that there not be an afterlife. His reasons would make interesting fodder for a blog post (I wish I had more time, I am getting constipated with ideas).

I think that [Buddhism] is not likely to be the Truth. It was just that I was asked to pick and it was a minimal solution.

Understood.

 
At 2/23/2007 6:55 AM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Buddhism seems to be in denial of both the phenomenal and the noumenal,
I think this is a matter of interpretation. What most people take to be reality is the phenomenal world. So you could interpret the Bhuddist view as pointing out that what we see as reality is not. When we release our grip on this, we can be absorbed into the noumenal. This would entail extinction as an individual, since differentiation into objects, time, causality and extension in space are properties of the phenomenal world.

 
At 2/23/2007 10:32 AM, Blogger Paul said...

But isn't the noumenal nothingness? So, once you release your desire for the phenomenal, which is illusion (and suffering), then you are free to evaporate. Hinduism appears to be a bit different in that the noumenal is actually something tangible with which you merge -- your existence continues, but not as an individual "self."

 
At 2/24/2007 5:23 AM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Paul,
Well, as you know, in philosophy the noumenal world is the realm of things-in-themselves to which we have no access. Whether I can really shoehorn Bhuddist or Hindu theology into this conceptual framework is doubtful but entertaining (for me at least).

 
At 2/24/2007 10:33 AM, Blogger Paul said...

I think the distinction you make is probably more consistent with a Christian worldview, which believes in reality but affirms a flawed human nature in coming to terms with it. However, the idea that there is a creator of both that reality and creatures designed to live in it makes Kant's distinction somewhat superfluous (it is more a concern for the atheist). For this reason, we are more sympathetic to the scientists who believe they are making real progress rather than the postmoderns who despair of ever knowing the truth.

 
At 2/24/2007 7:08 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Although Kant was a believer he is renowned for having simultaneously destroyed the foundations of natural theology and atheism, so I think the distinction is important for theists too.
I think the postmoderns just threw the baby out with the bath water but we should be mindful of our limitations all the same.

 

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