I recently read a review of a book entitled, Heaven is For Real, which I had not heard of before but has apparently made the New York Times Bestseller List. The review was written by Dr. Lloyd Sederer, who is the Medical Director of the New York State Office of Mental Health. He wasn’t very impressed with the book, which purports to recount a journey into heaven made by a little boy while he was undergoing surgery. It does seem problematic: the boy has shared the details of this over a long period of time, providing plenty of space for it to become more elaborated. His account also seems to have almost nothing in common with the many recorded accounts of other near death experiences, and is filled with imagery that seems to be sourced from the religious imagery with which the boy has grown up. What I really want to focus on here, however, is not the boy’s story, but an almost off-hand comment made by Dr. Sederer toward the end of his review: “I have no quarrel with the success of this book. It has touched the hearts of many people. But it asks us to suspend our critical thinking. That is what faith is about” (the review appears on The Huffington Post religion page).
It troubles me greatly – though it doesn’t really surprise me – that Dr. Sederer defines faith as being a suspension of critical thinking. It is a sign of the way in which so many religious people, aided by public media, have distorted the meaning of faith to such a degree that it is seen by increasing numbers of people as being incompatible with critical thought. This is not the way faith has been understood or defined for most of religious history; this is a relatively new idea, but it is one which has become dominant in our time.
The same week I read this review, I also happened to finish reading a book by Marcus Borg entitled, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – And How They Can Be Restored. It is an excellent book that speaks powerfully to just this problem: the way in which Christian ideas and language are increasingly losing their credibility with so many people because they have come to be defined in ways that simply don’t make sense to people. Borg suggests that there are really two things that lie at the root of this problem: the fact that so much of Christianity is understood from a “heaven-and-hell” perspective and that the Bible is seen by so many from a “historical-factual” perspective.
There isn’t space here to present all of what Borg has to say (read his book!). He does argue that Christianity is not primarily about getting to heaven in the afterlife, and presents persuasive arguments based on the Bible to support that assertion. Christianity, he argues, is really about a personal transformation that begins in this life. He also argues that the Bible should be approached from a “historical-metaphorical” perspective, which gets away from trying to see it as a collection of facts and instead tries to get at its deeper meaning, conveyed largely through metaphorical language and involving an appreciation of the historical contexts in which the biblical books were originally written.
When it comes to the matter of faith, Borg points out that historically, faith has not been understood as subscribing to a set of beliefs (and holding to them despite all available evidence!) but that the word really indicates deep trust and allegiance. He writes, “Faith is a much deeper movement of the heart, of the self at its deepest level. Christian faith is allegiance to and trust in God as known in Jesus” (p. 124). This understanding of faith does not make it incompatible with critical thinking. Rather, it functions in partnership with critical thinking to bring us into connection with a deeper meaning that critical thinking alone cannot achieve. Humanity has “grown up” with both of these ways of knowing, and we reach the fullness of our humanity only when we can continue to hold onto both. Religion-oriented people need to stop trying to assert things as “matters of faith” that are plainly incompatible with what science shows us about the world and the universe, and science-oriented people need to stop seeing religion as little more than superstition. Both have important, profound things to teach us about ourselves, our universe and the Source of each.