Our Beliefs Based on our Assumptions
Written by: Robert D. Brinsmead
The thing that I have had to learn in my intellectual and faith journey is that my reasoning and conclusions may appear to be sound, but only according to the assumptions they are based on. For instance, I once started out on some historical Adventist assumptions about the final generation’s need to reach a certain level of character perfection in order to be ready “to live in the sight of a holy God without a Mediator.” (I don’t need to spell that out, because you know it well). If those assumptions were correct, I would still say that the old Awakening conclusions were basically correct. I have learned that I should always question the assumptions on which my reasoning and conclusions are based. I have gone on to examine other assumptions too.
An example from history is Galileo. Galileo did not just question the assumption that the sun traveled around the earth. The Church threatened to burn him at the stake as a heretic, and the Protestant divines such as Luther and Calvin would not have objected because they thought he was guilty of serious heresy too. The argument of Galileo was not just an issue of cosmic geography, but it went to the heart of the Church’s grand narrative that this earth was the centre of the universe and the focal point of God’s redemptive plan.
When Galileo reported there were black spots on the face of the sun, the Pope was outraged. If we are to understand the significance of this scientific challenge to the Church, we need to understand why this discovery mightily disturbed the Church – Protestants too as well as Catholics. The Pope responded to Galileo by saying that since God’s creation was perfect, the face of the sun would necessarily reflect the perfection of God’s creation. This earth, reasoned the Pope, was the only place where God’s perfect creation was marred by imperfection, all as a result of the Fall of man/human sin. The Protestants sided with the Pope against Galileo. This briefly explains why Galileo was regarded as a heretic.
Given the great advances made in astronomy, the theory of Relativity, what is known about space/time as being essentially one, the Hubble telescope and space probes, we know the planets of our solar system, not excepting our earth and its moon, show unmistakable evidence of being hit and scarred with debris from space. But these destructive collisions have been small compared with the disintegration of great stars thousands of times bigger than our sun (supernovae) and great systems out there being swallowed up in Black Holes that are vast beyond our imagination. So far from this earth being the most hazardous place in the universe, this little blue planet seems to be the place which is the safest and most conducive to life that we know about. It is not perfect, of course, but neither is the rest of the universe out there. This is now beyond dispute. The evidence for this is as clear as the evidence that the earth travels around the sun. From the convulsions and disturbances out there like supernovae, we get the “debris” of the energy in the form of cosmic rays. If the sun is strong with lots of sun spots it provides a more effective cosmic shield from many of these cosmic rays, but never all of them. They affect our weather, our well-being. Then the path of the earth around the sun is not regular, the tilt of the earth on its axis can sometimes wobble or get out of kilter, and in response to these random variations, the climate of the earth can change alarmingly. Of course, some of these major outer space collisions and explosions (supernovae) which we can see happening through great telescopes, did not happen yesterday because what we see today may be measured as a billion or so light years away, meaning that what we see happening a billion light years away happened a billion years ago – time and space being the two sides of one reality.
Recent findings show that the universe is still expanding, meaning that creation is not yet finished. The universe that we see through space probes and the Hubble telescope is not yet finished – and it is not yet perfect. So was right – there are sun spots which can affect us in both damaging and beneficial ways. There is nothing completely regular about either the radiative or magnetic energy of the sun. Climate is a complex chaotic system, more difficult to predict than the Stock Market. So then, the earth with the rest of the universe shares in this unfinished process. The universe has never been perfect and neither has the earth. Of course people can quote the Bible to prove that this is not true just as they quoted the Bible to prove what Galileo said was untrue. Luther fumed about “the great fool Copernicus” for saying things contrary to the Bible’s story of Joshua commanding the sun to stand still. But time has proved that on this matter at least, Luther was “the great fool” rather than Copernicus.
When God gave Israel the Promised Land it was a rocky old piece of real estate with an unreliable rainfall, and overall it looked quite impoverished compared with the fertile lands watered by the great river systems of the Euphrates and Tigris to the North and the Nile to the South. It was the glorious Promised Land only in potential, a place where eventually no one would be hungry, the inhabitant would not say “I am sick,” and where neither war or invasion would disturb the peace. The Promised Land was not given to Israel as a realized goal on a platter. Israel was invited to be a co-creator in making Palestine what it could be. The people of Israel were given this Land in its imperfect state for their own sake. There were lessons and blessings to be gained by starting out with a challenging piece of real estate and a people to inhabit it who in many ways were raw and uncultured. There was certainly a potential for a lot of growing among the people.
Long before humans arrived on this earth there were great Ice Ages; there was a Jurassic Period when dinosaurs roamed the earth (not good for humans to be around then); and before that there was the Cambrian Age when life in great diversity exploded on this earth, and before that other periods all playing their part of forming an earth ready for human habitation. There never was a time when the fish of the sea did not live to be dinner for some other species. Predatory animals had teeth and claws suited to tear and eat flesh. All that was going on before humans arrived. And when human life appeared on this planet, it confronted a very challenging environment – a Promised Land only in potential rather than given to humanity on a platter. That at least is the evidence that confronts me. That is how I see the human story according to the evidence.
I cannot begin with the assumptions of the grand narrative about the creation of a perfect world at the beginnings of human history. The challenge to this very old religious assumption was implicit in the findings of Galileo’s telescope – and lots have been discovered since to confirm his findings about the universe. I cannot adjust these facts to fit my faith; I have to adjust my faith to fit the facts.
The old Awakening has been lampooned for its theology of perfectionism. But that perfectionism is found in the doctrine of the Reformers too. They used what Paul said to show how fallen man could, despite his imperfection, stand perfect in the sight of God. The soteriology here was all about meeting God’s uncompromising demand for perfection. No one ever spelled this out better than John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. This Reformation theology, of course, was based on the grand narrative about a God of perfection who created everything perfect and will never accept anything short of perfection. But what if this grand narrative, hoary with religious age ( first propounded by the Persian prophet Zarathustra several hundred years before Moses) is an unsustainable assumption? What if such a story is contrary to the historical and scientific facts?
Let me suggest this opens up the possibility of thinking about human history and experience in a new way, no longer focused on human guilt and a sense of shame, but one focused on human development, on improving the human condition. This is not just the task of settling and improving the land as in the case of the settlement of Israel in Palestine – or the settlement that took place in USA, Australia or New Zealand – but more importantly it is a matter of developing the nobler aspects of the human spirit — like forgiveness, empathy for others, compassion and a Love (agape) which keeps no score of wrongs and sees the best in every person. What I am suggesting is that the main focus should be on human growth, not human guilt. I would suggest that God gave us an unfinished, imperfect world by a divine providence as being the best place to learn, to cherish and to develop a truly human spirit. It is no longer a matter of lamenting an imperfect world and our imperfect state, much less to feel guilt and shame because of this, but it is a matter of seizing this as God’s opportunity to grow and develop our humanity.