Zero Sum Faith

The Christmas season often heightens the already fractious conversation between people of various faith persuasions. In the pop-media this fractured dialogue is manifested in the debate over whether to use the greeting “happy holidays” or the presumably Christian greeting “merry Christmas.” Which greeting you choose supposedly indicates your degree of cross cultural/religious sensitivity. Conventional wisdom suggests that a Christian greeting a Jew or Muslim should either guess the other’s religious preference and greet them with an appropriate greeting based on what holiday that person might celebrate, or take the safe path and offer the innocuous “happy holidays.”

God forbid you encounter an atheist. The term “holiday” derives from the combination of holy and day. Imagine the faux pas of rendering said atheist offended by the accidental utterance of such a God centric word.

This whole conversation is based on a flawed conception of faith. The other day i engaged in a twitter fit with someone who was offended by the fact that Flickr (the photo sharing service) had adorned his home page on the site with Christmas lights. He was offended by this obviously “Christian” symbol. I tweeted that I thought it was absurd to call Christmas lights a Christian symbol. In subsequent tweets we battled over the issue which ended with the other person blocking me from following him. For the next couple of days I’ve grappled with that conversation and I realize it centers on the idea that in our society we have come to treat faith as a zero sum game. It’s a battle over who is right and who is wrong. This is a flawed understanding of faith, and I was wrong to jump on this guy about his feelings about lights. Instead I should have understood his struggle and nurtured his curiosity.

This tweeter with whom I had engaged was upset because he lives in what he perceives as a “Christian country.” He said that Christians had “won,” and lamented that he wasn’t even free to complain about that cultural dominance without being challenged. By casting the question of faith as win or lose he is caving to this zero sum mentality. He can only be right about his beliefs if I’m wrong and vice versa.

When Christopher Hitchens died a few days ago the tortured dialogue between Atheists and Christians as to what they perceive as the fundamental strengths and weaknesses of Christianity and Atheism re-erupted. Again we were treated to self righteousness on both sides of the debate, with Atheists and those of the religious persuasion insisting that the other’s view is wrong.

These zero sum positions that we stake out in the public conversation on faith are doing little to shed light on the concept of our common human experience. Much has already been written about the commonality of the three Abrahamic faiths. That Muslims, Christians and Jews all trace their mythological heritage to the same character in the same ancient mythological text is widely discussed and I haven’t anything new to offer to that conversation. Except to say that our different experiences, perceptions, and points of view of human cultural development do not negate contrasting points of view, perceptions and experiences. Taken as a whole, these differences can enrich the conversation and our understanding of faith in a life giving power.

What interests me is the conversation between Theists and Atheists. Where the zero sum solution falls short is in its failure to acknowledge the necessity of both points of view to make the other perspective possible. I can’t accept on faith the idea of a supreme, life-giving power — God, if you need a name — if the presence of that power could be proved. Neither, though could an atheist hold the position that there is no such power without a degree of faith. Many Atheists want to point to science as a method for proving that God does not exist. Again, the zero sum problem.

At this time of year I always feel challenged to grapple with my own personal way of understanding life and the human experience, and how to reconcile those views with the great allegorical explanation of life with which I was raised. I cherish many of the traditions that spring from my faith heritage. But I can’t prove that God exists. And, frankly, I don’t want to — if I could prove that God exists, I wouldn’t need faith. And keep in mind that by God I don’t mean some being who helps Tim Tebow and the Broncos win football games. By “God” I mean “why.” Science is a perfectly able to explain the who, what, where, how, and when of our existence. It can’t give an definitive answer though, to the why of things. I need some way of naming that incessant quest to understand and give expression to my belief that some essence of divine beauty and wisdom is at the core of why we were given the hearts and minds and ability to love one another and make music and art, and celebrate our shared happiness. I call that quest “faith” and the object of my faith, “God.”

Call it what you will, but I think most of us have more in common than we want to admit. Just as I can’t (and won’t) prove that God exists, my Atheist friends cannot prove that God doesn’t exist. Atheists must accept on faith the non-existence of God. (Every logician knows you can’t prove the non-existence of something.)

As anyone who has raised kids will understand, the incessant pursuit of the “why” is at the core of human curiosity. And I believe if we keep pressing for that answer to the big question of why life takes shape as it does, we are on a common journey. All of us, Atheists and theists alike. Our various ways of expressing what is at the center of our examination of life are nuanced ways of sharing a common humanity.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday December 24, 2011 — Mark —