Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Does God Lie?

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him. - Leo Tolstoy

The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text
2 Nephi 9
27 But woe unto him that hath the law given,
yea, that hath all the commandments of God, like unto us,
and that transgresseth them and that wasteth the days of his probation,
for awful is his state.

28 O that cunning plan of the evil one!
O the vainness and the frailties and the foolishness of men!
When they are learned they think they are wise,
and they hearken not unto the counsel of God,
for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves.
Wherefore their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not;
wherefore they shall perish.
29 But to be learned is good
if it so be that they hearken unto the counsels of God.

One who has attained learning hearkening unto the counsels of God doesn't happen very often, which is why what came before and what comes after is uniformly negative towards worldly learning. After all, those who think they already know stuff can't be instructed.

42 ... [T]he wise and the learned and they that are rich
which are puffed up because of their learning and their wisdom and their riches,
yea, they are they whom he despiseth.
And save they shall cast these things away
and consider themselves fools before God
and come down in the depths of humility,
he will not open unto them.
43 But the things of the wise and the prudent shall be hid from them forever,
yea, that happiness which is prepared for the saints.

One of the major tasks typically undertaken through apologetics is persuading the world that the religious moderate also disbelieves in and disapproves of the naive and literalistic faith of his fundamentalist brethren, while simultaneously pointing the finger of scorn at the literalists with greater ferocity than even the unbelievers, thus signalling his virtue (and wisdom and learning and enlightenment). That's an exercise in status-seeking.

Thus we see staunch defenses of evolutionary theory, weak references to intelligent design, and condescending derision aimed at literalistic readings of the scriptures in apologetic venues. Yet if the scriptures are literally false on any substantial claim, then on what consistent principle do we accept any of it as literally true? Is a literally resurrected Christ any more acceptable to naturalism, the reigning philosophy of our age, than a literally 6000-year-old Earth, or a literal worldwide flood?

But here's a more interesting question: does God lie? If God has never lied to you, and if you believe the scriptures are, indeed, inspired of God, then why not believe him? What changes in your life, functionally, if you should choose to believe the Earth entered temporality around 6000 years ago, or that Jonah was really swallowed by a whale and was vomited out three days later? It's not like what you believe alters reality, even if it does alter your perception of your proper relationship to others.

The narratives we spin to explain the current state of affairs are necessarily distinct from the current state of affairs. These stories do, however, make a difference in how we perceive our relationships with others and the world around us, and what course we ought to take into the future. Most claims to rule begin with "I know the way things really are!" After all, who would knowingly follow a fool or an ignoramus?

But what can we really know? Strictly speaking, one only knows what one is directly experiencing, and nothing else - that's a definition. For ease of communication, we may also extend the label of "knowledge" to one's memories of one's experiences, though memories may be flawed in several respects, both in forgetting, embellishing, or perhaps even invention. Interpretation of experience, however, constitutes a narrative - a story we tell to explain the meaning of our experiences, constructed using philosophical assumptions about the way things really are, applied to our experiences. Interpretation of knowledge is not properly knowledge because of those assumptions, which can't be known to be true (if experienced, then they'd be knowledge and not assumptions). An example of a narrative is "I am rich because I worked hard." The assumption is that the hard work resulted in becoming rich; the knowledge is that one worked hard and that one is rich. Everything else we think we know consists of reports of knowledge - claims to experience - made by others, intermingled with their assumptions and narratives, which claims, assumptions, or narratives we have assumed are true or false. Needless to say, people have been known to lie or be mistaken.

Assuming there exists no human alive whose age currently exceeds 150 years, there is nobody with knowledge of a 4.5 billion year-old earth. The claim is actually a narrative intended to explain a certain set of experiences in conjunction with some philosophical assumptions about the way things really are. Those assumptions are not value-neutral. Without guiding assumptions, one does not arrive at the ancient-earth narrative from the experiences.

So, you face a real and consequential choice as to whom to believe, and what assumptions you will make. You can choose the world's assumptions, accept the world's narrative, and play the world's game, or you can assume God is telling the truth, choose God's story, and play his game. Which game pays off? After all, in both scenarios, you're dead at the end. In the world's version, that's the end of the game and your story, forever. In God's version, your story never ends.

Imagine a God so gentle and protective of your freedom to choose your own path, according to your desires, that he provides the bare bones, if you will, that can be interpreted to support a plausible alternative narrative that you can choose to believe instead of the story he tells you. Has he ever lied to you?