In the 13th chapter of the book of Judges we read about a man, who is an angel, who is God. Scholars who study this kind thing call it a theophany or a Christophany — a tangible manifestation of God or of the pre-incarnate Christ. When Manoah (Samson’s father-to-be) asks the angel of the LORD what his name is, he replies, “Why do you ask my name? It is wonderful” (or beyond understanding), and returns to heaven by going up in the flames of the altar. This type of event, taken on faith by Bible believers, is considered fantasy to the skeptics. So, while believers accept, as part of their faith, fantastic Bible stories that cannot be naturally explained, skeptics accuse them of “magical thinking” and dismiss their beliefs as not rising to the level of rational debate.
Those who believe that a man can be an angel who can be God have concluded that supernatural reality is beyond their ability to comprehend. Those who declare such things “unreal” have concluded they don’t have to accept the existence of anything that isn’t proven to their satisfaction. The first position assumes there is an infinitely higher and perfect authority over the self. The second position allows the self to be its highest authority (that is, in personal matters — only anarchists refuse to accept civil authorities.). Individuals not prone to a close scrutiny of their beliefs may attempt to take a position of pragmatic compromise between faith and skepticism. Debate between those extremes is avoided in a pick-and-choose manner. For instance, among the ranks of the religious there are those who because they consider themselves enlightened, don’t think stories like Noah’s ark or Moses parting the Red Sea represent literal events. Yet by use of analogy and symbolism, they see those stories as useful for teaching, especially children.
In the end, when it comes to Bible stories, one either believes or doesn’t believe. A person’s belief system is part and parcel of his view of reality. Reality has been explored in countless ways. Theology, philosophy, science — It’s hard to think of any discipline that doesn’t reflect, at some level, Man’s struggle to define reality. Without a firm grasp on that “reality” — however one defines it — life can only offer chaos. So, in order to establish order and maintain some control in our lives, we all make basic assumptions about reality. We decide what to believe in at a deep, primal, reactive level. Our inner sense of self grows out of these basic assumptions.
How we conduct our lives and choose the particulars of what to believe and what not to believe is accomplished by remaining consistent with our world view or staying true to our basic assumptions. The deepest, most basic assumptions are at the root of our sense of identity. They are so central to who we are that we don’t question them, or we do so with extreme difficulty. Unlike opinions that can readily change as a result of new information or other exterior influences, our deepest beliefs are firmly embedded in our psyches, resisting the threat of change.
In that sense, everyone believes in something. Even though a person decides not to believe in God, he will believe in something else, such as science or reason or skepticism. Belief is at the core of human existence. It is what motivates our behavior and inspires our trust. Before anyone begins to process any information for the purpose of coming to a meaningful conclusion about what to believe in, they need to realize that the very process of reasoning begins with the establishment of subjective assumptions, for which there is never any “proof”.
The point that I want to make is that those who accuse Bible believers of “magical thinking” are doing a bit of magical thinking themselves. They too are basing what they think on beliefs as well as logic. Logic can only prove a conclusion to be true if all parties agree on the basic assumptions. As long as there are different sets of basic assumptions, there will be disagreements that can never be settled. There will be those of us who believe that God exists and others who believe we are crazy. There will be those who believe the angel of God appeared as a man, then returned to heaven by going up in flames, and there will be those who think it’s childish to be so literal.
In my opinion, exchanges between believers and non-believers would be much more productive if everyone were to become aware of his own basic assumptions, identifying the differences that separate us. But that may not be as easy as you’d think. Basic assumptions are so close to our egos that often we can’t see the forest for the trees. When something is so basic that it’s a part of us, we often are unaware of it. Or, it’s so natural to us that we assume everyone is like us in that regard. That’s probably why arguments often end with people screaming at each other. If both parties assume they share their basic assumptions, yet they are unable to agree, it can only mean the other person is just stupid, hateful, unreasonable or crazy. Why else would they be screaming?
And while we’re trying to become aware of our own basic assumptions, it is also good for everyone to be a little bit more forgiving of those “less aware” persons who offend us. They could be us. Be a little bit more tolerant. A little bit more patient. A little bit more loving, in the way we deal with one another, when we don’t see eye to eye. A wise person once pointed out the fact that we’re all in the same boat. That’s true regardless of our beliefs. The next time you talk to someone you don’t agree with, try a little tenderness. It can’t hurt.
“For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of Jesus Christ.”
2 Peter 1:5-8