People Design Their Lives Around Unverifiable Ideas Masquerading as Absolute Truth
The title of this post comes from my youngest daughter, Katie, who is a pretty good scribbler in her own right, being the only person I know who actually makes pretty decent money writing stuff for other people. With a masters degree in English (rhetoric) and a job as an editor, now ten years on – she’s built up some credentials, particularly with her proud dad, so this line hit me like a ton of bricks, because even though I changed it a little, it still reflects an insight I have never been sure that we shared.
Combined with my recent reading, listening and re-reading a book called Zealot by Reza Aslan, an American of Middle Eastern descent who was raised as a casual Muslim, converted to Christianity in his teens, later began to question the details of scriptures of the ancient faiths, and returned to his Muslim roots, and my own skepticism, her statement was timely. For those of you who don’t know all of the gory details of my upbringing, I was raised in a home where conflict was the centerpiece, and religion was a good part of that conflict. My mother was a converted Catholic, converted only by virtue of the fact that she married my dad, and the only way she would have been accepted into my paternal grandparents orbit was to convert to something Protestant. My dad was pretty ambivalent about religion – he had opinions, but pretty much kept to himself. His father was a respected preacher and teacher and Bible scholar in an obscure Adventist sect called the Church of God of the Abrahamic Faith, now based in Morrow, GA.
Armed with an undergraduate degree in History and a burning curiosity for family history and research, I know the inaccuracies of transcribed, translated and oral histories even after a generation, let alone centuries – when compared to the factual, documented records set down at the time. Let me provide an example: My work-study job at WSU-Oshkosh was as a research assistant for Dr. Robert Chaffin, who was writing a thesis on the trans-Appalachian migration in North America after the American Revolution. This was prior to the age of the Personal Computer and the internet, so research was laborious, and slow, because it was dependent on inter-library transfers of books, documents and manuscripts. When, a few years later I began researching my family’s history, the short answers from my dad’s sisters was that their great grandfather had gone west on the Oregon Trail and was never heard from again. In other words, “Shut up, kid.” “Leave it alone, kid”.
From my research, I knew that over 98% of adult pioneers who struck out on the trail west reached there destinations, and of those who died, a high percentage were mothers who died in childbirth. Old John B. didn’t qualify, so I knew there was a very good chance that he was out there. When I finally did find him in the records of the State of Washington, and was able to contact another family member who was also researching his line, he told me that all of John B.’s children back east had died along with their mother during the potato famine in Iowa. When I carefully pointed out that if that had been the case, my great grandfather, Thomas Hamilton Lindsay would have been among that group and we would not be having this conversation. He mumbled something and hung up – I assume he hung up because the facts required him to change his view of an unverified idea masquerading as absolute truth. (Truth was that the potato famine about that time was in Ireland, and the disease that killed Margaret Norman Lindsay was cholera, which was epidemic anywhere there was standing water). His published records on the internet remain unchanged 20 years later, even though I am in regular contact with other family members from his second family that he raised after his first wife died in Iowa. Soooo… when we are sitting around 60-70 years later writing an account of the “facts” surrounding Jesus death, crucifixion and supposed resurrection, is it reasonable to claim divine inspiration to make it factually true, or at least believable?
There are hundreds of Christian denominations, sects, and even cults thundering that they have the answer, or that they are right – all people of good will, honest in their intentions, but some or all of them MUST be wrong! I know alot of people (in the unlikely event they would read this) whose heads would explode because I am skeptical. I am not a non-believer, but I am skeptical of what quite possibly are man-made “facts” which we are asked to take on “faith”. Every time I’ve tried to swallow something whole, it hasn’t turned out well. Multiple conferences of less than pious men over hundreds of years conferencing about what is “in” and what “isn’t” like fifth graders trading baseball cards is a little dubious. Most of our images were painted on walls and ceilings of churches and convents and abbeys in the middle ages by guys who weren’t necessarily the church’s favorite sons.
Everybody believes what they feel they want to based on what they need. I’m good with that. But I’m trying to figure this out for the last sixty years because I’m honestly curious, and I have a problem with concentration anyway. So don’t confuse me with what you believe to be undisputed (if unverified) truth when the guy sitting next to you thinks you’re nuts. Not everybody can be, or is “right”. A man whom I consider pretty smart once said to me, “It may be a truth, but “the” truth is another matter.” I spent thirty five years in the insurance business, and all you have to do to learn about different versions of the truth is read depositions in a civil case, or interviews from an accident report. My Catholic friend Fred says the hottest fires in hell are reserved for the skeptics and the unsure. I hope he’s wrong, but I respect him for who he is, and that he can accept and be disciplined in his beliefs.
So these are my terms. Believe what you believe based on what you need. I might well ask you some questions – but I might not. If I do, it will have to be an honest discussion. I’m really curious. It seems like there should be something more, but like someone else said to me, no one wonders where we were before we were born, why is it so hard to believe that we just go to dust when we are done living. Can we just not humble ourselves sufficiently to believe it is just, well… over? Conversing with my dad a few weeks before he died, I was curious how he, a preacher’s kid, the son of a man who by all accounts could bring down thunder when he was preaching a sermon, viewed what came next, knowing full well he was at or near the end. “Well, Johnny, I’m not sure, but I have a great curiosity for what comes next. I’m pretty sure we just go to sleep. Like everyone else, I’m not afraid of dying, it’s the process.”
I enjoyed reading this, John. I wish more people approached these matters with such civility and curiosity. Your observations are real and generous and down-to-earth and full of good questions. And humor. And how I wish I’d known your dad.