Today was one of those inch spring days the whole town took for a ell. It was sunny with blue skies, and the temperature was in the high fifties, so dozens of students spread their blankets on the university greens to soak in the warmth through their sweatshirts. I was enjoying the sun when my friend Faheem found me under a tree, and we began talking about religion. Faheem graduated with a bachelor’s degree in theology. He still identifies as a Seventh-day Adventist and is one of the most skeptical, critically thinking individuals I know.
“I don’t get it!” Faheem huffed, recalling an internet spat that kicked off when he told an online friend he ‘had problems’ with the social implications of certain Bible verses. She responded by lamenting Faheem’s inability to ‘just accept what the Bible says’ (to her ‘acceptance’ is the only path to internal peace and happiness). The debate eventually fizzled out as Faheem gave up on explaining his position, and the woman he was chatting with pledged her tearful prayers. “I don’t get how people can just accept stuff without ever questioning it,” he told me. I share his frustration.
Growing up I was taught ultimate peace is complete surrender to god’s word and will. The notion of spiritual surrender is nuanced, but within the cliff-notes theology of church culture, it often distills to a willful rejection of skepticism and critical thinking. In high church our parents sang hymns of surrender:
“Teach me as the days go by,
Teach me not to reason why,
Teach me that to do and die,
Is to be like Jesus.”
Meanwhile, in the Earliteen Sabbath School we sang, “Take my mind, transform it… Take my will, conform it…to yours, to yours, oh Lord.” (Is the spelling of ‘early teen’ as ‘earliteen’ an Adventist thing?) We were reminded that Jesus told us to be like little children. But I’m not a child. The characteristic of childlike trust in an adult isn’t admirable, it’s infantile, and it seems irresponsible, even dangerous to accept direction without first evaluating the source. How can I conclude my final authority—be it theistic or secular—is a worthwhile moral guide without first applying some external value metric? How can I decide whether a particular a moral authority is a good one, unless I have some way of measuring its worth?
In the case of cable television channels, I appeal to many sources for U.S. congressional news, but if these sources disagree I will accept the claims of C-SPAN above any other. The principles of journalism and academic research are my external value metric for the reliability of news sources. Thus, I’ve come to respect C-SPAN as my ultimate congressional news authority because when measured by journalistic standards it is shown to be accurate and reliable. It satisfies my value metric.
The authorities I choose indicate the values I already hold. I defer to C-SPAN because I hold journalistic standards in high esteem. If my value metric for a reliable news source were wittiness and humor I might instead appeal to Jon Stewart. Thus, it is not the authorities to whom we submit ourselves which dictate our values, but our values which dictate the authorities to whom we submit. This is why we vote for candidates which whom we already agree, or why rebel forces strip authority from rulers who don’t support their values. The same principles which lead me to choose one cable network over another, guides me in my worldview development. If I’m to follow ‘god,’ I should first know what makes ‘god’ so great. Furthermore, I should have a somewhat systematic and practical means of determining and measuring the qualities of ‘greatness.’
When I see Christians, I see people who’ve submitted themselves to spiritual leaders, Biblical canon, or a particular image of the divine; but how did they measure the worth of these guides? I may know who or what Christians follow, but I don’t know what their core values really are.
When speaking to Faheem, he told me his value metric was the subjective corroboration of his own experience. Ironically, Janet and Jodi (both atheists) have told me the same thing.