There have been a series of popular bumper stickers in recent times with the words “coexist,” or “tolerance” or “believe” written with the various symbols of world religions. Much like the “Darwin fish” that have arisen to mock the once popular automobile Christian fish symbol, there has now arisen and interesting mockery of this series of bumper stickers. It uses the same religious symbols of the world but to spell something rather different: “fiction.”
Now I must say that this fits my sense of humor to a tee, and, although I am a believer, the first time I saw this bumper sticker I laughed out loud. How delightful!
Human beings are designed to recognize and project patterns. We are so programmed to find patterns that we will find patterns whether there is any pattern there or not. In fact, many psychological problems stem from this innate ability. Finding patterns where there aren’t any can lead to neurosis or even insanity! But without this capacity, we would not be able to know anything at all or interpret our surroundings. We would therefore not be able to set up projects of our own or get anything done.
Schweitzer famously said of the “Search for the Historical Jesus,” that it is like a man looking down a deep well and seeing his own reflection. Wonderful! The point being: we find what we are looking for, we filter out what we are not interested in noticing, and what we concentrate on gets bigger.
So, if we care about reality at all, we are faced, daily, with the question: is this pattern I am seeing real, or is it merely a projection? And this is what the agnostic or atheist is pointing out. Perhaps all this religion stuff is mere projection. How could we possibility know? Is our faith mere projection? Or is faith the name we give for the gift of being able to discern transcendent patterns in our daily lives?
Perhaps we should “follow our passions,” as our culture encourages. But our Prayer Book reminds us that we have “followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.” The Prayer Book reminds us that we are often far better at projecting ourselves onto the world than in recognizing the realities the God has actually set up for us to live in. Again, then, how could we know? Are we projecting, or recognizing a real pattern?
Well, it helps greatly not only when we recognize the need for a concrete revelation of God, but actually adopt a particular revelation, such as Jesus Christ. Recognizing that we can know God when he looks like the one revealed in Jesus Christ is a big aid to such reflection. A community of discernment helps. So, it turns out, regular church attendance is a part of the mix. We are not designed to be spiritual all by ourselves. Another thing that helps is ritual action that consistently points beyond the participants. Liturgy reveals the pattern. Spiritual direction at its best ensures that we are not just making up things in our hearts and calling them God’s will for us. We cannot know the truth about things all by ourselves.
So, today, which is it? Fiction? Or Faith? Mere projection? Revelation by wishful thinking? Or is it pattern recognition? The faith to see God in the everyday and the simple? Perhaps a little of both? What are we going to do about it, today?
Nathan Jennings is the J. Milton Richardson Associate Professor of Liturgics and Anglican Studies. Nathan attended University of Texas, Yale Divinity School, and The University of Virginia and has served at Seminary of the Southwest for 10 years.