Home > Uncategorized > Faith is irrelevant? Not so fast….

Faith is irrelevant? Not so fast….

This might be a strange title for most of you to read. I can imagine some of you might be turned off already and I could definitely understand how you could feel this way. This is not an apologetic piece, meaning I am not defending my faith with what I write, it’s just a deeper glimpse into what I think about my faith. Thus I hope  no one reads this as some sort of proof about why non-believers should believe, because that is impossible. Whatever I write I doubt will convince anyone to change their worldview. At the same time, the success of writers like Christopher Hitchens/Richard Dawkins etc. and their critiques on faith are largely based on the assumption that  faith is a totally irrational exercise. I beg to differ.

Most of my popular posts have involved pictures, videos or charts of some sort, (which I think says something about my writing) so I’ll be smart and start with one of my own. (another side note: one thing I learned in banking is the skill of charting tautology when you don’t have something profound to say)

(Source: Wikipedia)

Some of you might know what this is and wonder where I am going with this. Before I get too wonkish here and bore you to death, this chart is simply an imperfect but useful tool in describing human preferences.  There are a few assumptions with this chart.

  1. We like stuff: Two goods X and Y measured in terms of quantity (in real life our choices are immeasurable, but for now lets work with what we have.)

    I could call X an Y corn and wheat like traditional economists do or perhaps even something zany like McNuggets and Frosties. In this case, I am going to stick with Money and Fame. X is money; as you move more to the right this represents more money that you have. Y is fame; as you move more and more “north” this represents a person getting more famous.

  2. Indifference: Each point on a curve represents a set of goods that one would be indifferent to possessing. (hence the name)

    Each curved line represents a point where our “utility” would be the same; each curve shows if you take a little money away (X) you’ll only be just as satisfied if you add a little bit more fame (Y)

  3. More is better: I3 is preferred to I2 which is preferred to I1 (Draw a line from the origin to the top right, following this line means you are increasing your “utility”)

    If we have a fixed amount of money and fame that extra buck or extra TV spot will always give us more utility.

  4. Convex: Curves are curved outward (as you start running lower on Good X, it takes an increasing amount of Good Y to leave you indifferent)

    The loss of utility in losing a significant amount of money can only be replaced by a larger sum of fame. Perhaps a person goes from a 7 figure job to a 5-6 figure job. This happens all the time, some rich dude decides he’ll become Senator or President.

  5. Differing Preferences: We don’t all have to want the same things, thus each graph is a representation of an individual’s wants.

    Some of us prefer money while other of us prefer fame, graphs can demonstrate individual preferences accordingly. A person who cares only about money might have his indifference curves lean towards the right and vice-versa.

  6. Insatiability: We can never reach a bliss point

    WE ALWAYS WANT MORE POWER AND FAME, NO MATTER HOW MUCH WE HAVE.

As an econ guy (a rather mediocre B student), I think this model speaks well of our human nature: man, the animal with an inclination to “maximize his utility”. He faces a tough world where his resources are limited but his desires are infinite. Some people say this model stinks; as it does a poor job of reflecting the actual world. My problem is not that,  I am more concerned with how we apply this model as well as how we use it to address the dilemma: infinite desire but limited resources.

Individualist Critique

The problem is the “limited resources”. The answer: Let’s crank out more goods, better goods, faster goods, cheaper goods etc. and eventually we will find ourselves satisfied. Not that material possessions are the only things we could talk about here. Maybe we think about a prettier girl, a smarter guy, or a career that makes us feel worthy.  We better ourselves in every manageable way, life will undoubtedly improve. But does it?

For one, I think economists can “overrate” the idea of utility, or at least conflate it with the notion of satisfaction. Individualists tend to fall in this boat.  As long as we keep cranking out the goods (making more of them, making them cheaper, making them better) we will be in a better place than we were before. They say, let’s raise living standards for greater satisfaction.

This idea has its merits; most of us don’t want to return to the arduous 100 hour weeks with no one to thank us working with an ass that refuses to listen to anything you say. If you banking guys think I am talking about you: I actually meant try waking up at 5 AM in the morning in order to toil and plow with a stubborn donkey that refuses to carry any of your burdens. You screw up in banking, you get a “small” (meaning, still more than 99% of society) bonus. You screw up on your personal harvest, you, your wife and your kids probably suffer from malnutrition and possibly die. Shooting oxen while playing the Oregon trail was fun but nobody wants to literally live out those moments. Nonetheless, why do most people speak of work as if it were similar to navigating the Oregon trail??

In one way, we could see how the “standard of living” criteria is important, but it’s certainly not sufficient. For instance, I bring up banking not only to make a bad joke but also to demonstrate the idea that our “maximizing utility” is overrated. While we can certainly say many investment bankers are closer to the top right in terms of “utility”, its pretty clear having worked in the industry, coupled with all the comments saying how people hated their jobs, that perhaps this was by no means a path towards satisfaction. I would argue this applies analogously to other measures of worldly success.

Communitarians

“A just peace includes not only civil and political rights — it must encompass economic security and opportunity.  For true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want.” – Barack Obama at his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

I agree wholeheartedly with his contention that this is what the world needs. Unfortunately, we go back to the issue of human insatiability. While Obama’s point is fair, that a certain standard of living can bring about an increased amount of happiness. I am not going to pretend worldly circumstances are insignificant; I am grateful I can prattle on and write this convoluted piece because of my material wealth. (or perhaps that of my parents) Regardless, when Obama stresses, “freedom from want”, I think he’s stretching the bounds of what is possible by mere economic means.

What’s the problem? It’s the “insatiable desires”.  Let’s live a life that acknowledges these circumstance and curtails our consumption, whether it’d be through governmental intervention or through some sort of self-withholding life philosophy. I am sure most of you would agree that this point has its merits. Tempering our desires and wants is a good thing and is something that is sorely missing in this consumer-based culture. Unfortunately, I think all we are really doing here is attacking the symptoms of the real problem. Merely forcing ourselves to consume less does little to address this issue of insatiability. We acknowledge the tendency but don’t attack the root cause.

Top-Dog Syndrome and a thought exercise

There’s a bunch of studies that show our human tendency to value relative success over absolute success. To put it in simpler terms:

If you could make $100,000 while everyone around you made $80,000 a year, it’d be a bit cooler especially since you knew you made a little bit more than the next guy.

You Other people
Relatively Wealthier $100,000 $80,000
Objectively Wealthier but… $110,000 $120,000

Now, what if I asked you if you could make $110,000 but everyone around you made $120,000. Objectively, you make more in this second scenario, yet most would choose the first scenario. It’s not so much how objectively good we are, but whether we are better than others. It’s strange because that last scenario is a tough one to swallow. Even if you think that you are one of those that would take the second scenario, there is something in us that tells us we need to be Top Dog in something. Our penchant for certain brands is indicative not just of our obsession with quality but also of our inclination towards goods that demonstrate where we sit on the totem pole.  Likewise, we are all familiar with athletes/celebrities who can’t seem to let go of their past glories.

The Great One

I actually don’t have a problem with our human condition of insatiability. At first glance, it may appear to be one of our weakest traits, a voracious appetite. In this existential dilemma called life, where we all question our place in this world and our eventual legacies,  the human condition put tons of weight on accomplishment, especially if it is something we do better than someone else. I will argue most of us will objectively do something that is quite unspectacular. We all want to be the Great one, yet inevitably our failings catch up with us, so we instead proximate our worth by comparison.

You might even find some Christians who answer that this insatiability is a flaw that needs to be fixed.  They are correct in one aspect of thinking, but I think they are selling our goals a little bit too short. I will take a C.S. Lewis stance on this and say: Perhaps there are things in this world that do not completely satisfy us; yet maybe this is a clue that tells us there is something that does.  Insatiable desires can be met by something, only if that something is infinite.

You see, it is not necessarily our appetite, it’s the way we are pursuing things that is so flawed.  When we are hungry its not like we turn to the Bible to meet our caloric-needs.  Yet when we are spiritually starved we seem to focus on the physical ways we can address this issue. I suppose this is where I have the biggest issue with these economic models or even Hitchens/Dawkins. The first acknowledges our desires but then remains agnostic as to how we solve our insatiable desire. Instead it offers up a model that demonstrates our inability to reach that point.  The second regards any sort of spiritual fulfillment as poppycock, offering rationality as the escape. Unfortunately, this leave us to acknowledge a deep existential dilemma: We all die soon? What’s the point?

Thus I find the Christian narrative the most relevant and fitting.

Redemption

The modern atheists are correct in some respects, in that Christians probably need to think through their faith a little bit more. But a man-centered philosophy still reminds me of what I can’t accomplish, what I don’t know and death that I cannot overcome. I think that is also the point.

Christ turns this framework upside-down and inside-out. The message of the cross is simple; one that tells me I am incapable of doing good work on my own. It tells me my heart is restless and weary, and acknowledges a broken world tainted by imperfection.

You should probably ask,  “Well, how is this supposed to change me? What does this have to do with anything?” Insatiable desires are problematic insofar as our inability to find anything to satisfy our own craving. One of the biggest problems of this economic model is that it is one based on consumption. In this advertising day and age where everything is geared towards “What can you do for me”, we carry this attitude in everything that we do. Products are designed to fill certain voids or insecurities in our lives, but are insubstantial in leaving any sort of permanent mark.  Relationships sour easily because they become based on the question of, “What are the things that he/she can provide me?” When inevitably a person fails at one of these standards it becomes all the more simple to move on, regardless of the hurt or consequences from the lack of commitment.

Christ gives us a new model. The cross is not just an answer to our void and to our sin, it also gives us a new way of looking how we should live. We are used to the idea of fulfilling our own needs and our own desires, telling ourselves, “If I only had that lover, that car or that home this deep, existential despair will disappear.” Instead we begin to understand what it means to “take up the cross daily”. This new model show us one of our biggest problems is our own love of self. Our nature and instincts fight against what God tells us we should be: outwardly focused in our lives.  Yet the message is not merely one of self-flagellating asceticism.

When we see that God tells us our own accomplishments don’t matter according to his grace,  we don’t have that infinite ladder to climb on our own. You say faith is irrelevant and ignores everyday issues, but I beg to differ. Christ tackles this consumption problem head-on, by telling us the things of this world can’t satisfy us, but that He can. When we read, “What can man profit, if he gains the whole world, but loses his own soul”, this issue is acknowledged. He becomes the infinite resource. God tells us he did all the work, we need to trust in him to carry this work in our own lives. Don’t fall into existential despair. We were designed to be perfectly satisfied; it starts when we realize we can never be the Great One.

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  1. July 14, 2010 at 10:45 pm

    A fantastic post, as always, Kane. One thing (not a critique per se, just a response). You say that “This new model [of Christ] show[s] us one of our biggest problems is our own love of self.” Fair enough.

    Again, I look at religion as just another manifestation of man’s attempt to make sense of the randomness, whims, and injustices of the world. Think of all the crappy unexplainable phenomena as the “uncertainty residual.” Christians are quick to explain away all bad things – like self-centeredness, etc. – as correctable with faith. But do you need Christ to see the idiocy of an exalted love of self?

    I guess where you and I differ is that I don’t look at faith, particularly Christianity, as an exhaustive option for this. I think plenty of people can swear off mindless material accumulation and not accept Christ. To me, my thirst for seeking the empirical truth in this world is the most important aspect of my being – that’s what I’ve tailored my whole life around. Maybe this search for the truth is just as futile as the search for material well-being. Fair enough. But what rubs me the wrong way with this type of analysis is the exalted status that your own minute interpretation of faith – your particular type of Christianity – has in your narrative. Why not just say faith can be the answer to these insatiable desires? Or why not say that we can fill this void with sports? Why can’t I go to a church of capitalism every Sunday?

    I know this is beginning to border on absurd, but I think that’s my point. Lots of people the world over see the utility maximizing rational choice approach to choice and one’s life as inherently underwhelming. I agree with your solution. I just think that for this problem, like many in the world, there is indeed more than one answer.

    • orijinalbrand
      July 15, 2010 at 9:11 am

      To reply to Neil, I don’t necessarily think Kane is arguing that Christianity is the answer for all to the problem of satisfaction.

      Regarding your point that “Christians are quick to explain away all bad things – like self-centeredness, etc. – as correctable with faith.” I will agree that I have heard many Christians explaining it this way, but i believe that the Christian faith I follow, shows that so called bad things like ‘self-centeredness’ are NOT explained away. It’s also not simply ‘correctable with faith’ as if one can just simply choose to believe their self-centeredness is ‘fixable.’ I think there is a deeper rooted point to this. Once again, it’s really hard to make a statement for all individuals as a whole. Yes, you ask “But do you need Christ to see the idiocy of an exalted love of self?” Of course not. I saw the idiocy of my exalted love of my self prior to my coming to faith, and i see it even still.

      Flannery O’Connor stated: “To know oneself, is above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against the Truth, and not the other way around.”

      The point is not that my belief in Christ allows me to ‘fix’ this view or transform myself but rather, my beliefs and faith allow me to better understand myself(and in turn, understand what I lack), and measure myself against the Truth I believe. There is no use just saying you are Christian or saying you believe Jesus, unless you let that change your life and affect your view of everything. I suppose it’s kind of like what you say about having a thirst for seeking the empirical truth in this world as being the most important aspect of your being. What’s the point of seeking this empirical truth, if it doesn’t continue to change you and your life, and affect your view of everything around you. I respect your stance and understand it. I also respect Kane’s viewpoint because it makes sense to me. I’ve tried to find satisfaction in all aspects of my life and a longing and thirst for something more is what led me eventually to come to faith. At the end of it all, as long as you are moving toward ‘truth’, whatever that may be for you, then I feel strongly that you’re making progress toward doing what you were meant to do and being who you were made to be.

  2. July 15, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    Excellent post. Neil is definitely justified in recognizing that there are other avenues for redirecting our focus from material self-satisfaction. You both also recognize that the way you’re framing Christ’s service (or the pursuit of empirical truth) to you as an “infinite resouce” in itself is serving to satisfy an infinite desire in a finite world. My point of disagreement with you lies in my definition of the “root problem” as you say. I know you don’t feel this way, but a casual reader might be inclined to think that you’re into Christianity solely for that purpose- to satisfy your unmet wants and needs. Indeed, many religious narratives offer a path to infinite reward, in conjunction with satisfaction during life as you describe. Your point is actually used consistently by Dawkins and other athiests to describe precisely why religion exists. Rather than purporting faith to be irrational, they often claim that faith is the most rational and natural mechanism for human beings cope with their mortality and otherwise subpar standing in life. While they do argue that specific tenets of faith are often irrational and contrary to empirical science, they often use your point to explain the existence of religion in evolutionary models of human development.

    Rather than focusing on how we can satisfy this desire through faith, I argue that it is possible to be faithful without this mindset. I do believe there are religious people out there who aren’t in it for the infinite rewards of heaven or for any definition of self-satisfaction. Personally, even though I would qualify myself as an observant Muslim, I cannot claim that. I often ask God for material success on this earth, for the health and well-being of my family and friends, and for my own religious self-improvement. Those things can all be construed as “self-satisfaction,” even the latter one. I do believe that a superlative level of faith exists, however, in which personal considerations actually no longer matter. Buddhists speak of relinquishing desire as a central tenet, and I actually agree with this aspect of their faith. However, I really think that true selflessness (and a type of selflessness that is not in place to have us cope with voids in our material world) is achievable. It is a lofty personal goal for me to be able to reach this state.

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