Last week, I missed the course because I had to work late. I got a voice mail from my small group discussion leader, who expressed a sincere desire for me to come back. I think he might’ve been afraid that the wee bit of confrontation we had in week 2 scared me off. I’m made of sterner stuff than that, of course.
This week (again because my job is keeping me very busy these days) I also arrived late – just as dinner was about to end. The others were happy to see me, and convinced me to give the food a try even though I’d already had dinner on the way over. (I’m glad I did; the meatloaf tasted just like my mom’s. Remind me to get her recipe.)
During the group singalong portion of the evening, before the video, I noticed my group leader in the pew across the aisle from me, a pained look on his face and his arms crossed across his chest. A few others noticed also, and we stopped over to make sure he was all right. Apparently, he was reacting to severe chest pains related to heart disease – not a heart attack, but it sure looked like he was having one. He reassured us that it didn’t bother him overly much, saying that the one thing we’re guaranteed to do when we’re born on earth is die and he wasn’t worried about what would happen after that; and as a result of this mindset, he wasn’t worried about getting surgery or work done to clear up a massive plaque buildup in his veins.
I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised about the fact that this man wasn’t afraid to die, considering what he believes, but the fact that he refuses to get the medical help he needs seems to me to like he’s eager to die. Forgive me if I’m a bit more wary of death because I don’t think there’s anything after it. The whole scene creeped me out; people praised him for being positive about dying sooner than he needs to. One woman did mention that she couldn’t let him help her move if he was under doctor’s orders not to do any heavy lifting, but he insisted that he’d do it anyway. Hoo boy.
The video was actually the same one I talked about during my first entry for the last Alpha Course I took. That was week #3 last time, so it looks like the schedule for that series might’ve been accelerated a bit. My notes this time around captured many of the same thought processes, though I did manage to catch a few more interesting bits. It was titled “How can we have faith?” Oddly enough, I never quite got an answer to this question; it was really about how you know you’re a Christian. Nicky said that Christians’ confidence in their faith could be likened to the trinity, and that it was based on:
- The word of God (the promises in the Bible) – facts, not feelings. Sure, if you assume the book is true, you’ve got facts. But since I know it’s mostly a book of cultural folklore and hero myths, I don’t.
- The work of Christ – I’m still not entirely sure what he meant by this, because it was basically saying that since we can be sure of Jesus’ resurrection (really?) we can be sure that we can be resurrected, too. How this differs from #1 in any significant way I don’t know.
- The witness of the Holy Spirit – the experience of being a Christian, the way your life changes, and the development of “the fruit of the Spirit” (a la Galatians 5:22-23). Weirdly enough, I find that the attributes he mentioned are just as present in non-Christians as in Christians. What, exactly, is the Spirit doing?
There’s an interesting moment in the video before he starts in on this list that almost seems like an afterthought, but is actually rather telling. He introduces the concept of the trinity of confidence by saying “Our confidence, our knowledge is based on…”. Confidence and knowledge aren’t at all the same thing, of course. You can be confident in any manner of things that aren’t the least bit based in reality. If confidence is the same as knowledge, you can “know” that any religion is true. But don’t let that stop you, Nicky! Go ahead and believe that your confidence based on subjective experience is a reliable means of determining truth. Feel free to redefine what it means to “know” in a way that allows for faith to be a path to “knowledge.”
Like I mentioned before, there was a lot of equivocation between different kinds of faith, and Nicky was happy to say that since we have some kind of faith (we have faith that the chairs we’re sitting in will hold our weight!), that means all kinds of faith can be trusted equally. He gave an example of a court case where a man was accused of being a jewelry thief. The jury weighed the evidence for and against, and found him guilty, but had some serious about his guilt. After the conviction, a policeman brought forward the man’s criminal record, showing he had a long history of jewelry thefts. Nicky said that the jurors acted on faith, and that their faith was justified to them by the policeman. He said that this was like Christians taking a step of faith (not a leap, he stressed!), then having their faith justified by the Holy Spirit presenting evidence to them.
This is really a terrible analogy. First of all, the jurors acted poorly. In American courts of law, at least, a guilty verdict should only be given out after the case is proved beyond all reasonable doubt. Jurors who would convict a man when they have severe doubts about his guilt have made a stupid decision. Second, in an actual court of law, there’s no way in hell someone’s criminal record wouldn’t be presented as evidence. Third, the criminal record is objective evidence. None of the jurors had a subjective experience that proved the man’s guilt to them; they saw hard facts and figures and made a rational decision to believe he was guilty. This is the sort of thing Nicky thought was a justification for having faith in a deity? Really? There’s absolutely no valid comparison between this and the number and kind of leaps of faith you have to take to believe in even the most basic Christian dogmas.
At one point, while talking about the assurance of eternal life, he said “all [of history] is moving toward a glorious climax”, and cited part of a C. S. Lewis quote from the end of The Chronicles of Narnia:
[Aslan said,] “The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.” And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all stories, and we can most truly say they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
In other words: Your life before you die is a dream. Your life before you die isn’t the “real” story. Your life before you die is the most meaningless part of the book. Your life before you die is the worst part of your entire existence. If I believed any of this – if I truly believed I’d live forever after I died – I’m sure I’d probably feel the same way. But since I don’t, I think this is the most disgusting, demeaning view that anyone could have of the only life we know we have.
Nicky stressed that the gift of Jesus’ death, which we can be sure paid the debt we owe for our sins (“God made sinless Jesus into sin for us; in Him we can come into the righteousness of God” – whatever that means), was a free gift of God, and that even though we usually think there must be a catch when offered a free gift, this one really didn’t have a catch. Oddly enough, the example he presented of a free gift that did come with a catch – a purported entry into a million-pound giveaway that required you to subscribe to a magazine – also insisted that there was no catch. Someone should tell Nicky that if you want your sales pitch to sound better than another scam, you shouldn’t try to contrast it against something that makes the same claim of trustworthiness…
To sum up his talk, Nicky said that you can know you’re a Christian because when you put your faith in Jesus, the Holy Spirit will testify to you, and that’s how you know. So… basically… once you believe, you’ll know that you’re right because you’ll get a subjective feeling that tells you so. Nope. Not questionable at all.
The discussion this week wasn’t all that spectacular, really. We veered way off course early on with a discussion of the high and lowlights of the past week, and wound up spending a good deal of time talking about our personal lives. There were only a couple of highlights – first, when one man included “Arabs” in a list of religious groups alongside Christians, Jews, and Buddhists (which apparently only I found funny), and second, when the same man asked if there were any Christian terrorists, only to be told that you couldn’t be both. (Unsurprisingly, nobody asked him whether he thought you could be Muslim and a terrorist.)
We did have a brief discussion of what we thought it meant to have a personal relationship with Jesus, and I talked a little bit about what I thought it meant back when I was a believer. This discussion dissolved into even more tangents, primarily because of a young man who dominated the conversation by talking about his personal life – how he’d been on drugs but the Holy Spirit was the best high he’d ever had, how he witnessed to his friends, how he rid himself of “dark” influences like bad movies and video games, and so on. At least half of the conversation from the whole group of eight people came entirely from him, which made it hard to get a word in edgewise or circle things back around to our thoughts on the video. By the time the evening ended, we hadn’t really even covered the topics for discussion outlined in the course guide, which was disappointing.
Tune in again next week as the (mis)adventures continue!