A plea for honest religion

by Elias Blum

I don’t like deceit in matters of religion. One cannot claim ‘facts’ on the basis of ‘faith’. If the facts are not clear – if claims are unsubstantiated and subject to reasonable challenge, then this should be admitted. Fact claims that concern what we do not know must be advanced agnostically and hypothetically. Fact claims that contradict what we do know are inadmissible.

We can however make value claims, provided we are willing to engage in a reasonable normative argument about what is ‘good’, and provided we can agree on a few basic ethical axioms (and that is probably a feasible project because such axioms, stemming from the social nature of our species, are quite universal).

We can also talk subjectively about our experience, and about the narrative and cultural frameworks through which we interpret that experience.

It is important to recognise this distinction between fact and truth, and how they relate to the interpretation of experience. A story does not have to be materially factual to have some truth value: if you think that the Fox really did try to eat the grapes, or that an ugly duckling really did turn into a swan, that I cannot help thinking you’ve missed the point of the story. Our interpretation of experience might be profoundly true, but that doesn’t mean we know all the facts.

So, when anyone tries to tell me about God, as if they have it all figured out, just because they’ve read one Book (or worse, read one Book, interpreted though the grim doctrines of the Westminster Confession, or the shlock smiles of Sticky Fumble), they shouldn’t be surprised when I turn around and object.

This doesn’t mean religion is all wrong, that God does not exist, that Jesus was not a prophet, that his Way is not excellent, or that the Bible is nothing but an irrelevant old book. It simply means that theology is an on-going process, an unfolding discovery, not a once-and-for-all revelation: ultimately, theology is the point at which our lived experience, cosmology, anthropology, psychology, ethics and literary criticism meet, and we should use the disciplines proper to these fields to better understand it. We should be honest in our search and humble about both our answers and our lack thereof.

(Well, that’s how I read 1 Peter 3:15, anyhow.)