Monday, May 5, 2008

The Man Behind the Curtain

Last week I wrote about the Christian philosophy I had. The basic conclusion was that if someone has sufficiently strong reason to believe in a religion, nothing external from that religion can ever make them lose faith. Rather you will see them modify the fringes of their beliefs to fit whatever counter-evidence they encounter, without changing the core beliefs.

For example, a Christian may start claiming that God created the world in seven days. When presented with scientific data demonstrating the world is older than 6000 years, they might claim Satan just planted the dinosaur bones so deceive people into believing God doesn't exist. (Yes, I've heard someone present argument in all seriousness.) The more rational believers can apply Occam's Razor to this situation and conclude that maybe "day" isn't the right translation, and perhaps end at the conclusion that God used evolution to create humans. But no amount of external (scientific) evidence will convince a believer that their religion is wrong. I was familiar with all of those arguments and they didn't make me lose my faith in God. Only an internal inconsistency could fracture my faith.

I moved to California in the middle of 2000, a year and a half before I started work on BrainWorks. I started the project by programming on evenings and weekends, but after almost a year I realized that writing truly good AI would take more time than that. My wife and I talked about the options, and after a lot of time spent in prayer, we came to a rather dangerous conclusion. I decided to quit my day job and work on BrainWorks full time as a way of building my portfolio, live off savings, and then look for a job in the game industry. Even though this was a crazy idea, we felt assured by God in our prayers of four things:
  • God would provide for us
  • God would vindicate this audacious decision to others upon completion
  • I would truly meet God through the work I did
  • I would finish the project before we left the state of California
In the years following, we would return in prayer during difficult times, and also ask for the prayers from others, and we were continually encouraged when we heard these promises repeated, both in our minds and from the words of others.

Concurrently, there were other issues we had lifted up in prayer. Most notably I had back problems for over a decade. Having tried multiple chiropractors, doctors, physical therapists, exercises, and received countless prayer on the issue, I was at a loss. Nothing seemed to work. But I believed in a God that could do real miracles, and healing my back was certainly not the hardest of them. After years of prayer, I kept hearing that God really was going to heal my back, at the proper time, and that receiving healing was about more than just freedom from physical pain. It was about encountering God in a deeper way, which is why the timing mattered and why God didn't just heal me immediately. We felt like God spoke to us that he would give me full healing for my back before we left California. In some sense, our sojourn in California was an opportunity to witness the miraculous works of God, in my work and in my life, and to encounter God.

So what happened? In case there is any doubt about the story's outcome, let me set the record straight. While we did have enough to live while I was unemployed, I did not "encounter God" through the work. I received a job offer in Boston in January of 2007, which my wife and I prayed about and decided I should take. I did not complete BrainWorks before I left California, nor were my back problems healed. In our cross country drive from Los Angeles to Boston, the two of us were faced with a rather uncomfortable situation. Several things we thought we heard from God, including the prayers of others, all agreed with each other, but they were all wrong. That's really not supposed to happen. At the end of that drive, we came to one undeniable conclusion:

We are not very good at hearing from God.

Maybe the reason is that there is no God, or maybe just no Christian God. Or maybe the Christian God exists, and the problem is with us. When we arrived in Boston, we set aside one month for God, each day praying, "God, if you're real, undeniably reveal yourself to us." Since we are very bad at hearing from God, if we are to have a relationship with God, the effort must be his. After one last month, we still experienced nothing. And at that point I came across one truth, written in the Bible, that forever shattered my faith.

If you're not familiar with the Old Testament, one of the most common themes is the warning against idolatry, the worship of false gods through graven images rather than the one, true God, the "I am". The Hebrew scriptures are littered with hundreds of these warnings, but the best story is from 1 Kings 18, where Elijah confronts the prophets if Baal. Here is an excerpt:
Elijah went before the people and said, "How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him." But the people said nothing. Then Elijah said to them, "I am the only one of the Lord's prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. Get two bulls for us. Let them choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God."
Naturally the prophets of the false god Baal have no success, but Elijah has success:
At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: "O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again." Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.
The basic argument is always the same. What separates idols from God was the success rate. You should worship God because God is real and will provide for you. A true God produces results and a false God does not. After all, what purpose does God have if he can't make an impact on you? When I remembered this, I could not escape its conclusion in my life:

God is my idol.

I could not deny the promises that hadn't come to pass, and those promises that had were easily explained by things other than God. At the very least, the Bible I believed in condemned my God as an idol, since it also did not produce results. I had peeked behind the curtain, expecting to see the magnificence of God, and instead encountered a mirror. All this time, I was the man behind the curtain. The things I thought I heard from God in prayers were just my own desires and fears. I am not good at being God.

To continue worshiping this God would be worshiping an idol, something the religion condemns as an obviously pointless and worthless activity, but it was the only God I had ever known. From that point on, I knew I could no longer be a Christian. I realized Christianity did not have practical applications in my life. But that's different from saying Christianity is ideologically false. Next week I'll explain how I concluded the core ideology of Christianity was flawed, and how I went from an outcast of Christianity to living in the freedom of heathenism.


Anonymous said...

I look forward to the conclusion. Hits home for me.

Ted Vessenes said...

Just to clarify, some people have commented that they interpret my argument as:

- I asked God for stuff
- God didn't give me stuff
- Therefore, Christianity is false

That's not the argument I'm making. Here is my argument summarized, which seems similar but is fundamentally different:

- I felt like God told me he would give me stuff before a certain event
- And other people told me that God told them the same thing I heard
- That didn't happen
- Therefore, that stuff could not be from God
- Therefore I wasn't actually hearing from God
- Everything else I've heard that felt like it's from God is also suspect
- Because my prayer wasn't really connecting with God, I don't actually have a relationship with God
- Without a relationship with God, you are not a Christian

In other words, the core issue wasn't so much that I didn't get the stuff I asked for, but that I thought it was promised to me and it wasn't. I have empirically tested whether or not I'm hearing from God, and I am definitely NOT.

Anonymous said...

It is certainly true that you cannot turn the true believer. Yet I commend you on giving a reason for why you are no longer religiously based in life.
I personally do not care much for religion, nor for the facet of people having a certain religion or none at all in all my social relations.
What I think is important in understanding a person is the reason they give for doing the things they do. And what shows up is that you cannot put people into labeled boxes, unless it is a single box marked human.

Ojalanpoika said...

Ever saw these figures of Dinoglyfs & Dinolits documented by man in the historical era:

Evidence silenced to death that demands a verdict.
Biochemist, drop-out (M.Sci. Master of Sciing)