I recently had a conversation on the Mockingcast with evangelist-turned-humanist-chaplain Bart Campolo. Those who’ve listened know it was a provocative exchange, yet one that was really stimulating for me. To follow up, I thought I’d write a few posts on the nature of Christian faith in the modern world. These are not meant as a rejoinder or refutation of anything Bart (who I count as a friend) said, per se. They are just thoughts that don’t quite fit with my role as interviewer and are probably too long and dense (and maybe boring?) for the roundtable segment of our podcast.
Before he was Frank Underwood, but after he was John Doe or Lester Burnham, Kevin Spacey was Prot, and he may always be Prot to me.
Prot is the protagonist of the 2001 film K-PAX. K-PAX is a film that takes up the question: what would happen if an enlightened alien visited our planet with keen insights and seemingly preternatural capacities that stopped just short of super powers? There’s a pretty good chance that the alien in question would find himself committed, in the objective sense. Prot quickly finds himself safely secured within the walls of the Psychiatric Institute of Manhattan. His psychiatrist seems torn on whether or not he belongs institutionalized. At one point Dr. Mark Powell (played by Jeff Bridges), confesses that “This is the most convincing delusional I’ve ever come across”.
Over the course of the film Prot describes his intergalactic travels, critiques Einstein’s theory of relativity where it concerns the speed of light and dazzles a group of astronomers as he describes the orbit of his planet with astonishing detail. Despite doing all the aforementioned quite convincingly, there are also moments in the film where any observer, all sympathies aside, has to give credence to the theory that Prot is clinically insane.
The best parts of the film are dialogue scenes between Prot and Dr. Powell. Transference abounds, boundaries are crossed, and therapy gives way to authentic conversation. If anything, Prot seems more the healer than his shrink, offering earthy and insightful advice to a workaholic New York City professional. The film doesn’t force a Christological parallel (Prot could just as much be Socrates), but Prot seems quite at home with the other patients in the hospital. In an unassuming way he goes about trying to heal them, and in many cases he seems to succeed.
The most remarkable thing about the film is its conclusion. It avoids sentimentality, inviting critical inquiry and speculation instead. We are left with a set of facts on the ground that require interpretation. They simply don’t interpret themselves. When one considers Prot’s unique visual sensitivity, which seems to make sense given the description of his homeworld, his unique variant blood pressure, and his uncanny astronomical insights, the case seems all but closed. But over against all this there are Dr. Powell’s sound clinical insights, bolstered by a trip to New Mexico that seems to tip the scales in the empiricist direction. Ultimately the viewer is left in the same position as the characters in the film. To doubt Prot’s story or to believe it requires a leap of faith that goes beyond the evidence itself.
One could read K-Pax as a midrash of Mark’s Gospel, which certainly ended originally at verse 8:
And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.
The empty tomb and an angelic announcement and commission were not enough to assuage the fears of the first apostles. These women needed faith to overcome fear. Christian faith is not created by evidence, insight or even angels. It is always a gift, and a miraculous one at that. Take for instance Jesus’ reaction to Peter’s confession in Matthew 16. After Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, one almost expects Jesus to say, “Finally, a right answer from one of the slowest students in what has to be the worst adult Sunday School class that ever lived.” But this is not Jesus’ response. Quite the contrary, he seems astonished:
And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:7-8)
Christian faith is the God-given revelation that reconciles the sinner to the Revealer. Its character is always gratuitous. God’s reconciliation in Christ is always a shocking revelation to the sinner, whether it happens all at once in a singular moment or over a long narrative arc where beginning and end are indistinguishable. Becoming a Christian is less like receiving a set of spectacles which correct faulty vision and more like invasive surgery that yields a new set of eyes to replace ones that are irreparably broken; eyes that could not and would not render any sort of real vision of the world.
But Christian faith is not the only kind of faith that inhabits our world. Often times we hear the phrase “people of faith” used in public discourse. It’s used to describe people that do things like gather, pray, and worship in spaces that are generally designated tax exempt. But we’re all people of faith. Rene Descartes made this plain in the 16th century, The Matrix made it plain in the last one.
We exercise faith when as children we read about a place called Tokyo in a book that’s not a fairy tale, and we trust it really exists (and vice versa for kids in Tokyo that read about Los Angeles, although its absurdity might strain credulity a bit more when the shoe is on the other foot). We exercise faith when we walk into chemistry class in high school and trust that the textbook tells us what we need to learn to understand the strange and beautiful composition of our world. We exercise it when the one we’re betrothed to says they love us before our nuptial vows. And we exercise it after the vows are exchanged. We continue to exercise faith when we forgive our spouse after they hurt us in a way that they might hurt us again, and we exercise it when we promise to try to convince our spouse that we won’t hurt them in the same way again.
Michael Polanyi, the great 20th century philosopher of science, tells the story of the disenchantment of the world which also reveals the universality of faith:
In the beginning many words were held to be sacred. The law was respected as divine, and religious texts were revered as revealed by God. Christians worshipped the word made flesh. What the Church taught required no verification by man. When accepting its doctrine man was not speaking to himself, and in his prayers he could address the very source of the doctrine.
Later, when the supernatural authority of laws, churches and sacred texts had waned or collapsed, man tried to avoid the emptiness of mere self-assertion by establishing over himself the authority of experience and reason. But it has now turned out that modern scientism fetters thought as cruelly as ever the churches had done. It offers no scope for our most vital beliefs and it forces us to disguise them in farcically inadequate terms. Ideologies framed in these terms have enlisted man’s highest aspirations in the service of soul-destroying tyrannies.
What then can we do? I believe that to make this challenge is to answer it. For it voices our self-reliance in rejecting the credentials both of medieval dogmatism and modern positivism, and it asks our own intellectual powers, lacking any fixed external criteria, to say on what grounds truth can be asserted in the absence of such criteria. To the question, ‘Who convinces whom here?’ it answers simply, ‘I am trying to convince myself.’…
…We must now recognize belief once more as the source of all knowledge. Tacit assent and intellectual passions, the sharing of an idiom and of a cultural heritage, affiliation to a like-minded community: such are the impulses which shape our vision of the nature of things on which we rely for our mastery of things. No intelligence, however critical or original, can operate outside such a fiduciary framework.
People of faith are sometimes characterized in modern culture as dogmatic. Dogmatic…it seems like a synonym of dumb or derisive. But what if dogmas are just beliefs, justified by faith, that we’re not currently doubting? Can a concert pianist think about the keys on a piano and play a concerto with breathtaking élan at the same time? Can a golf professional think about the club she’s swinging or her swing at the same time she hits a ball? Can a lover profess love and question a lover’s fidelity at the same time?
We can doubt any of our dogmas at any given time, but dogmas are what allow doubt’s possibility in the first place. It’s the gift of faith that allows us to doubt. When we won’t entertain the idea that different races are unequal, or that female circumcision ought not to ever be permitted, we use our dogmas. We don’t entertain the arguments of racists or religious extremists and carefully weigh the evidence. Our dogmas save us that kind of work. And sometimes our dogmas are exercised to our own peril, as can be seen in the story of our primeval parents’ culinary choices in the Garden of God, choices that leave us all asking such questions East of Eden.
The only way to know is to believe, whether you think there’s a God or not. The difference between the atheist, the Christian and the devotee of Aphrodite is the object of faith, what is believed in, not whether or not any of them believe. Subjectively speaking, I believe, George Michael said it best….