Faith, hope, love – and philosophy

I spoke about this last Sunday night at church, and also posted a slightly earlier draft of this on the ESST blog a while back. But I wanted to post it here too, partly because my talk wasn’t recorded due to a technical glitch, and partly because I want my writings in this blog to reflect my whole life, of which my faith is a huge part, and not just talk about Empire Biscuits.

Although, Empire Biscuits.. mmm…

“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;
but the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13

A man walks into a pet shop and asks to see the parrots. The shop owner shows him two beautiful ones out on the floor. “This one is £5,000 and the other one is £10,000,” he says.

“Wow!” says the man. “What does the £5,000 one do?”

“This parrot can sing every aria Mozart wrote,” says the shop owner.

“And the other?”

“He sings Wagner’s entire Ring cycle. There’s another parrot out back for £30,000.”

“Holy moley! What does he do?”

“Nothing that I’ve heard, but the other two call him ‘Maestro’.”

I recently finished a book called Plato and a platypus walk into a bar by Daniel Klein and Thomas Cathcart. These two studied philosophy at Harvard, and the book uses jokes like the one above to illustrate some lofty philosophical concepts.

This joke tickled me, and also apparently illustrates the Argumentum ad Verecundiam Fallacy – using respect for authority as the sole confirmation of your position, despite convincing evidence to the contrary. Reminds me of one of my P7 classmates back in 1984, who doggedly refused to abandon his belief in Santa, presumably because of his respect for his parents’ authority on the matter, in spite of the overwhelming practical obstacles to Santa’s existence, and, as I recall, the ridicule of his primary school peers. (I apologise if we were unkind, Richard.)

It’s an extremely readable book, very funny, and I learned some things about philosophy in the process, being left with the overall impression that the goal of a philosopher seems to be to question everything. Philosophers appear to be on an eternal quest for truth, but it strikes me that their goal is the quest, rather than the truth. One suspects that if they discovered something to be absolutely true, they would be slightly disappointed, having lost the thrill of the pursuit, as it were.

The contemplation of a Creator God is wonderful for a philosopher, because it can’t really be proven or disproven. Some may consider the existence of God to have been disproven, via the notion of infinite regress, the claim being that something or someone must have created the Creator, but that’s just trying to confine the infinite dimensions of God into the parameters of our finite understanding and logic, and is therefore fundamentally flawed.

Questioning things isn’t wrong. United Pursuit’s recent song Awake my Soul identifies God as the originator of those questions:

“Father of the mountains // Shepherd of the sea // Author of the questions that are hidden in me”

UP are suggesting that God hid those questions in the hearts of philosophers (and you and me) in the first place. Philosophers have just been unusually good at finding and articulating the questions, and unusually bad at accepting the answers to those questions. Descartes, with his famous assertion “Cognito ergo sum” questioned everything including his own existence, and finally concluded that he could be confident that he existed based on the fact that he was doubting his existence, and so there had to be a doubter.

As they point out in the book, “Dubito ergo sum” would have, er, summed up his thoughts much better.

As a Christian believer I am called to a life of faith, hope and love. The greatest of these, and my personal favourite, is love. But consider faith and hope for a moment.

“Without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him.” Hebrews 11:6

Faith is the gateway to God. Logic and reason can take you so far, but not through the gateway.

Hope comes through faith. If we have not faith, then we have no hope. If we are not prepared to have faith, then we must prove everything, or have everything proven to us. Faith is the opposite of doubt, which is the province of philosophers.

And what philosophy proves, to my mind, is that we can prove almost nothing. Any answer to the BIG questions: “how did the world come into being?” or “why are we here?” requires faith, because none of us were around to see it, and no scientific data is available to overwhelmingly support the case of either creation by God, or a random explosion followed by evolution.

For me personally, the intricacy of the world, animals and humans, the vastness and complexity of the universe and planet earth continuing to exist and function as a habitable place for humans, not to mention the more down-to-earth daily reality of my ability to love and experience emotion, are all sure-fire indicators of a Creator God.

But of course it requires faith to believe in a Creator who has been around since eternity past and didn’t require creating himself.

However, without that faith, there is no hope. All these philosophers’ musings that I’ve been reading have one thing in common: they are without hope. They are without hope because rather than allowing their questioning to point them in the direction of the One who holds the answers, they get stuck on the questions, and find themselves in an interminable loop of questioning and doubt. The only way to break the cycle is to make a leap of faith.

As for love, well, if there’s no love, then what kind of hope do we have? If God is a God who (as I believed for a long time) requires us to measure up to a certain (unattainable) standard, and is disappointed or angry with us when we fail, then our hope, as Christians, of spending eternity in His presence doesn’t strike me as all that attractive! If God is not love, then the hope that we have is a pitiable one, and eternity will be miserable.

And so love defines our hope. And hope is inaccessible except through faith.

I know God to be a God of love because I have – through faith – encountered Him: heard His voice, experienced His presence. I knew God to be a God of love even before I encountered Him in this way, because the Bible teaches that quite clearly, but for various reasons my faith was in a more judgmental God who was disappointed in me and how I was performing as a Christian. And so my initial experience of God was not of His love, because I didn’t have faith for that.

God, and His nature, is not restricted by our faith, but our experience of Him is. In the same way that a person can say a particular thing in a room, and two other people in the room can hear what’s been said differently (either the tone in which it is said, or sometimes even the content!), so Christians can perceive God differently based on their upbringing and many other factors.

My faith is in a God of love, indeed, that God IS love, and therein lies my hope.

This kind of hope is not a disappointment, as opposed to the hope experienced by John Cleese’s character in Clockwise and most Scotland rugby fans at some point or other 🙂

“It’s not the despair – I can stand the despair. It’s the HOPE!”

Or the kind of hope that Foy Vance sings about on his 2007 album of the same name

“But not that despair is the all-time low // Baby, hope deals the hardest blows”

This hope is not like that.

“And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” Romans 5:5 NKJV

In other words, our hope is not just one that has its fulfilment in eternity. Yes – our hope – our confident expectation – is that one day we will see Jesus face to face and experience His undiluted presence without any filter or impediment, but it also finds a measure of realisation here and now in God’s love – as it’s tangibly poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. We can experience His love – it’s a real thing, and we don’t have to wait until eternity!

In 1 Peter 3:15 Peter advises us “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

The reason why I have hope is because my faith is in a God of love, and, more than that, I experience His love in my heart daily.

That is the reason for the hope that I have.