Sunday, December 2, 2012

Advent One: How Do I Know?

This is the season when our secular script calls us to account. Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday: consumer capitalism is taking attendance and counting the collection. Get your money in motion. It’s your patriotic duty.

I find myself agnostic on free market fundamentalism, and non-compliant on the call to dutiful consumption. I don’t believe our future depends on ever-increasing production. Instead, I’m intrigued by thinkers like EF ShumacherHerman Daly, Gar Alperovitz, Marjorie Kelly, and their exploration of a commons-based economy less dependent on measures like market shares and GDP and more open to alternative systems of value.

Every year, as Advent collides with our annual consumer celebrations, I find myself thinking about belief systems, identity issues, where we put our hope for the future. Am I of value because I spend? Is my contribution dependent on the size of my paycheck? Is my hope for the future tied to the health of my pension? If I question our economic model, will I be tried for heresy?

We all have beliefs we hold firmly, creeds we confess. Some of those are so deeply embedded we no longer see them for what they are, some so foundational to who we are we’re surprised when someone calls them into question. We hold narratives we assume are normative: Treat the world well. Watch out for your own. Go to a good school, get a good job, make as much as you can.

Somehow we believe our own constructs are the right ones, while simultaneously endorsing the idea that all faiths are equal and your truth is as good as mine.  If everything is equal, then Romney’s version of reality is equivalent to Obama’s, Rush Limbaugh’s rants as reasonable as Jon Stewart’s sly reflections. Are some things true, and others false? Are some valuations right, and others wrong?

Here’s a simple one: do you believe that what we see is what we get? That the material world is the measure of value, that life proceeds according to easily duplicated models, that there are natural laws that nothing can change?

Or are there realities beyond the physical realm? Does my value rest in something you can’t count? Are there times when natural laws are set aside by forces we can’t see?

Maybe not so simple.

Ideas have premises as well as consequences, and each plank in our platforms, each item of our creeds, rests on others, some explicitly affirmed, some studiously suppressed. For most of us, if we make the effort to clarify, we find contradictions, confusions, items of faith held in unacknowledged tension.

My goal in this blog has been to dig around in what I believe, to examine premises as well as consequences, to try to hear the half-heard words that form and inform who I am, what I do.

Advent lands me back at the foundation of that, as the narrative of a baby born two thousand years ago collides with the narrative of power, profit, personal value playing out in the stress and strain of an American December.

So I’ll start here: why would anyone care about the story of that provincial baby, nobody child of nobody, born in an occupied country, in a dusty nowhere town, in a stinking animal stall?

And what halfway intelligent modern person would believe, for even a millisecond, that that baby was the product of a deity’s word, spoken to an unmarried teenage girl, or that mythical creatures no one can document showed up in force to sing to some smelly shepherds?

Approach this as a scientist, and the narrative crumbles quickly.  No one can “prove” the facts of an individual’s conception, immaculate or otherwise, and what scientific evidence would support the songs of angels: undoctored photographs? Phonograph recordings?

The story of Jesus, like many stories of scripture, sits outside the realm of science, which is not to say that scientists can’t be Christians; many are.  But for those who insist on scientific naturalism, on a reality that conforms, is explained, can be proved, by the laws of science, the Christmas narrative is a fairy tale, a silly myth, of no more weight, and maybe less interest, than Seuss’s Grinch, or Charlie Brown’s Great Pumpkin.

But if science is the measure of meaning – we live in a very flat world indeed.

Philosopher Peter Kreeft speaks of “the radical insufficiency of what is finite and limited”, the “cramped and constricted horizon” encountered when “our best and most honest reflection on the nature of things led us to see the material universe as self-sufficient and uncaused; to see its form as the result of random motions, devoid of any plan or purpose.”

Advent is a reminder that we all, whatever we profess to believe, find ourselves constrained by the constricted horizon of "what is." Surrounded by broken systems, broken institutions, broken people, we surrender to the self-protective stance so deeply encouraged by an impatient, uncaring world. Even those of us who say we believe in an active God surrender to the finite, limited vision of reality, measuring our worth in taxable dollars. We fall into compliance with superficial valuations. We become complicit in the competitive enterprise. Our voices are silenced. Our hope for change is dulled.

At first, (as young adults, or willful dreamers) we rebel at the “radical insufficiency” of the current regime: we try to be generous, even though generosity looks foolish. We try to be honest, even when honesty is rarely rewarded. But slowly we cave. We blend. We realize that those ideals we held have no place in a material world.

Then God grabs our world and shakes it – like a child shaking a snow globe – and the scenery changes.

Yesterday I started rereading the gospel of Luke. Luke, the only Gentile writer represented in the Bible, was also one of the most educated: an upper-class Greek doctor, Paul’s “beloved physician”, and a careful historian.

He starts his account of Christ’s life with a promise to share only what he's researched himself and is convinced is true:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us . .  With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account . . .  so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
After his quick introduction, Luke plunges headlong into the story of Zechariah, John the Baptist's father: names, dates, simple history. But in verse eleven, the narrative takes a turn: "Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear."

I love the detail. Not just an angel, but “standing on the right side of the altar.”

The angel explains what is about to happen:  Zechariah’s aging wife will become pregnant with a longed for baby. The child, a son, will be part of God’s plan of intervention for his people, and the world.

I identify deeply with Zechariah’s response: “How do I know this is true?” Religious leader though he is, he's asking for proof: Will you give me some kind of unassailable documentation? Will you come tell my neighbors, so they know I’m not crazy? Could you make this announcement in church next Sunday? So everyone else hears you too?

How do I know?

I love the angel’s response. Polite, but sharp. Let me paraphrase: “Seriously? You’re a priest, here we are in the inner sanctum of the temple, I’m standing here in front of you, straight from God’s throne, me, Gabriel, still God's messenger, the same one who spoke to Daniel, centuries ago. I'm here telling you what God has planned, and you’re wondering if you can believe me, even while you're shaking with fear. You still need proof? Really?”

I’ve never had an encounter with Gabriel, but I’ve seen God intervene in my life. And in the lives of others. I’ve seen the intervention that brings forgiveness, freedom, joy, healing, laughter in the place of pain, a deep sense of belonging for those who felt abandoned.

And still, five minutes later, or five weeks later, five years later, we ask: “How do I know that was true?” “Why should I believe in miracles?” "Where's the proof?"

There are some great discussions of miracles available: a quick overview by Peter Kreeft, CS Lewis’ book “Miracles,” chapter seven of Tim Keller’s Reasons for God, Two interesting websites, Christians in Science in the UK, and American Science Affiliation in the US, offer extensive resources on the compatability of  science and faith. The Biologos Foundation, founded by Human Genome Project geneticist and physician Francis Collins, offers a helpful mix of articles about miracles and science, and a new book by Collins and Karl Giberson, The Language of Science and Faith.

But, for most of us, questions of miracles aren't really the point. We have other things on our minds. We have our own un-examined premises, and that's good enough for now.

In those dark days of the Roman occupation, some of God’s people, like Simeon and Anna in the temple, waited for God’s intervention, and celebrated at the first hint of his appearance. Some, like Zechariah, went about the motions of religion, no longer convinced that God might show up.

My guess is that then, like now, most didn't give it much thought. Life is far too busy. There are Christmas presents to buy.

Earlier Advent posts:

Advent Two: John the Baptist,  Dec. 12, 2010 
Marys' Song,  Dec. 19, 2010 
Christmas Hope,  Dec. 24, 2010 
Metanoia,  Dec 4, 2011 
Voice in the Wilderness,  Dec. 11, 2011 
Common Miracles,  Dec. 18, 2011 
The Christmas Miracle, Dec. 24, 2011