Of Furniture and Faith

Normally I begin with a link to some interesting news story. Not today. Below is a video that caught my attention as I was searching for videos to help explain philosophical concepts. The video is only 8 minutes long but it has a strong message that I think Christians need to hear.

This is the most poignant and compelling presentation of the argument for religious syncretism I have ever seen. If you are saddened, frustrated, or angered by religious abuse and violence, then this video resonates. It just might make you want to adopt the animator’s worldview that worldviews are like cupboards. Some people build them differently but no one is really building them wrong. Wikipedia gives a great summary of Syncretism.  “Syncretism may involve attempts to merge and analogize several originally discrete traditions especially in the theology and mythology of religion, and thus assert an underlying unity allowing for an inclusive approach to other faiths.” Wouldn’t the world be a less violent place if we all just recognized that my cupboard is just different than your cupboard?

There is only one problem. There is an implied premise in the argument that makes this video so compelling. It’s the claim that adopting a worldview is analogous building a cupboard. If it is, then there is no reason to act like the boy’s parents did. If worldviews are like this, there is no reason to condemn his cupboard. But what if it isn’t. What if adopting a worldview is something else, something less creative like learning to take out an appendix, then we wouldn’t want that kind of leeway.

It reminds me of a story Ravi Zacharias likes to tell about his first visit to an art center in Columbus Ohio:

I was minutes away from beginning my lecture, and my host was driving me past a new building called the Wexner Center for the Performing Arts. He said, “This is America’s first postmodern building.” I was startled for a moment and I said, “What is a postmodern building?” He said, “Well, the architect said that he designed this building with no design in mind. When the architect was asked, ‘Why?’ he said, ‘If life itself is capricious, why should our buildings have any design and any meaning?’ So he has pillars that have no purpose. He has stairways that go nowhere. He has a senseless building built and somebody has paid for it.” I said, “So his argument was that if life has no purpose and design, why should the building have any design?” He said, “That is correct.” I said, “Did he do the same with the foundation?” All of a sudden there was silence.

Perhaps adopting a worldview is perhaps more like designing a foundation than designing the furniture. If so, a certain amount of dogmatism is called for.

Is there any reason to think that this is true however? I cannot be certain but I have the suspicion that the target of this animation is the adopting of a religious worldview. At least the imagery of meetings and group reading of the “manual” seem to imply it. If that is true, then I think there is good reason to reject the “cupboard” analogy. Adopting a religious worldview is not like building a cupboard. If it were, I too would be outraged at anyone trying to tell me my cupboard was the wrong design. IKEA would be my holy sanctuary and I would revel in designing the perfect cupboard for me. Of course, since its IKEA I would still have to take it home and put it together using the Swedish equivalent of a wrench made for Keebler Elves!

But the thing is, adopting a religious worldview isn’t like that. Religions don’t just tell you how to live, they make claims about the nature of reality. I have said it before but if the primary value of Christianity is to instruct people how to live good lives, then Christianity isn’t very special. Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves and so do a whole host of ethical theories. Paul tells us to imitate Christ and so does Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey. Christian ethics are just not that original. But what are original are the claims of Jesus. “I am the way, the Truth, and the Life and no one comes to the Father except through Me.” and “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” are not advice for living well; they are claims about the way things empirically are and a call to accept it.

I’ve been struggling all day to find a good analogy to replace the cupboard one in this video. Here’s the best I’ve come up with. Adopting a worldview isn’t like building a cupboard but more like answering an internet dating profile. You search through a lot of profiles and each of them makes claims about the way things are. But suppose you read an ad, purporting to be from a 33 year old Jewish male carpenter who is into fishing, long walks (preferably by the sea, on the sea or in a garden), meals of bread and wine etc. But when you go to meet him, you find a 60 year old Hispanic woman with a wooden leg (I apologize if this is actually your profile) you might be confused about a mix up or annoyed about a deception but one thing you wouldn’t be is syncretistic. You would not be willing to except that this woman’s appearance is merely superficially different from her claims. And if anyone tried to explain to you that your insistence on an accurate portrayal of your date was unnecessarily dogmatic, you would think them slightly daft. In other words, specific claims imply essential facts. And unlike the creative design of furniture, those claims make for either a strong or weak foundation from which to build a life.

If you can think of any other analogies that might work better than my dating analogy I would love to hear them.


Comments

Of Furniture and Faith — 8 Comments

  1. I saw another link to this and the person said all they could think of was those IKEA cabinets they built over the years. I asked, “Did you use the IKEA instructions to build them?” and also “Did you build them out of jello?”

  2. I just wanted to thank you immensely for this article. I have been struggling with a friend of mine who is rejecting me for not embracing this very thing you are explaining. I am very grateful for your ministry! I think that your analogy is very good, because it is personal. God is personal and therefore it would be like being asked to accept in imposter as the one that you were expecting. No one in their right mind would just accept the 60 year old woman in place of a 33 year old Jewish male if that is what they were looking for.

    Of course, I am not the brightest fish in the pond so you better get some other opinions! Lol.

    God bless you in Jesus.

  3. Let’s go first with the dating site analogy. You are dissatisfied with your date – you wanted the Jewish fisherfellow, not the Hispanic lady peg-leg… But when is that disappointment manifest? It is when you show up at the door with flowers and find your date is not what you expected. At that point, syncretism plays little role.

    But, while you are still browsing the dating site, you do not yet possess much information about your future disappointment. You probably only know that not every ad is honest… you may have a heuristic for picking out obvious spam-profiles that are just trying to get you to click on a porn site. But, you know only that there is some chance of disappointment and some chance of happiness. Sure, you want to use what heuristics you can reasonably apply. And sure, you want to avoid profiles that advertise traits you are sure you don’t want.

    But among those profiles with traits you do want, and without reliable indicators of the profiles’ accuracy, you probably want to choose for yourself without taking too much guff from the fellow looking over your shoulder telling you to choose a profile that doesn’t sit as well with you.

    And, if you don’t wish to be rude, you probably should offer advice about profiles to another browser gently and without being too pushy. Having not actually arrived at the door with flowers in your hand for your own date yet, you should probably not pretend to more certainty than you can reasonably hold about the quality of the profiles. Should the other fellow choose a profile that they are happy with, but doesn’t suit you, then you can at least acknowledge the real syncretic quality of the situation. Where it concerns real objective knowledge of the outcome of those choices, you are not likely in much better position to predict it than the other fellow, so each of your choices are very nearly as valid as one another, pending more information.

    I like the cupboard analogy. the problem with it is that it is hard to model current uncertainty with it. But it is easier to model the place for syncretism in other ways:

    A good cupboard, like a good world view, must be designed with a number of outcomes in mind. It must hold some contents. It should allow you ready access to its contents without too much bending or reaching. It should allow you to organize the contents so that you can find the one you need. It should be appealing to the eye. It should match your kitchen decor. Its hinges should open smoothly without squeaking.

    Worldviews are like this. They must guide you in making everyday decisions. They should make sense to you. They should keep you from being surprised too often. Where they make claims about facts, they should make true claims. They should give you a sense of identity: a place where you belong in the world and in your community. They should give you a sense of purpose: a set of goals to pursue.

    The cupboard can fail calamitously: it can be too small to hold the contents. It can be built so shoddy that it falls and spills its contents on the floor.

    There is a way that a world-view can fail calamitously: If they are (shoddily) built uniquely upon factual claims such that if those claims are untrue, then they fail in all respects , then they will fail calamitously if those claims prove untrue. There are other ways, too, but we need not go into every possibility.

    There is a certain type of catastrophic failure that is difficult to model here. While certain designs will fail predictably, and certain ones will succeed predictably in mundane cupboard circumstances, it is difficult to model unpredictable failure with cupboards.

    According to proponents of certain world-views, the most catastrophic failure of all in world-view design does not become apparent until after one is dead – and only their own world-view design avoids this catastrophe. So, for this uncertain pitfall, I will refer back to the dating site analogy…

    It is unfortunate if there is a real possibility of such uncontrollable catastrophic failure in the real world… but if such a possibility really exists in the future, there is no accounting for it in the present. You don’t get to find out what’s hiding behind door #2 until long after you have walked through it … in fact you don’t get to find out what’s hiding there until you are dead, and can no longer assist others in avoiding it. You can read accounts from people who claim to have insider knowledge – even those who claim to know of someone who has reported back from the dead. In fact, you have an array of such reports. But, unfortunately, you lack any reliable tools for evaluating the quality of those reports. You either believe them or you don’t. You have to pick which set of mutually contradictory reports, if any, to believe without any tools known to be reliable for judging between them. As such, a syncretic attitude remains appropriate for the choice of design where it concerns potential flaws that cannot be evaulated until you are dead… at least until you are dead.

    Only where observed design flaws will bring predictable harm should one abandon syncretism in cupboards, and really do one’s best to persuade someone else to reconsider their cabinet design. And the same generally holds true for world-views.

    Fact is the day-to-day utility of most commonly used cupboards and most commonly held world-views is readily apparent and satisfactory to the users of those cupboards and world-views. In that respect, the cupboards do make a fine analogy.

  4. Thank you Allison. Please let me know how your conversation with your friend goes and if there is any way MCO can help you as you formulate your arguments.

  5. Don,
    This is a very interesting video.

    I think that it is the un-religious world view of religions.

    Just take the most basic concept.

    God.

    It not a matter of someone having one more drawer, etc., it is a matter of someone creating something and someone discovering a being who created you.

    The nature of the inanimate object in this video is a good model of what religion is NOT. At least true Christianity is NOT like a cupboard.

    It is true that theology and doctrine can be like a cupboard. But that is the construct in the human mind.

    The issue then becomes, who made the cupboard. The video implies that we interpret the instruction manual and come up with a cupboard. Or worse, there is no way to come up with a rational workable practical model of “THE CUPBOARD” (i.e., The Truth). Taking the manual literally leads to an incomprehensible mess.

    This seems more like a deist view of God.

    I also reject the idea that you lose friends because of different religions or that you cannot have discussions about what you believe. All dialogue results in arguments, denial, and violence. This is really a straw man.

    This video is filled with old saws.

    Not of them real.

    In the end life is simply a hopeless meaningless jumble of nothings.

    Don’t worry. Be happy.

    Ugh!

  6. Jonathan,

    Thanks for posting the video and your observations. I also appreciate the comments that have followed.

    Perhaps a hotel suite is a good example. We learn about the hotel, make our reservation and register at the hotel lobby. After the clerk gives us the room number and key, we take the elevator to the top floor and go to the Presidential Suite.

    In order to enter that room, we must have the right key. It must fit the tumblers of the lock perfectly in order to work. We cannot make our own key and expect it to work, unless it is the precise key as the one the clerk has given us.

    If the key is a plastic card, it must have the exact code created by the system in order to work. I might have a piece of cardboard with me, but it won’t open the door. Neither will a card from another hotel, or a card for a different room in this hotel or even a card for this room that I have obtained on a prior visit.

    There is only one key that unlocks this door.

    After we check into a hotel, we never go to a room off the lobby, where we can make our own keys. The reason for that is simple; hotel locks and keys don’t work that way.

    The video make some very bad assumptions. One of them involves the argument: “If a person builds a cupboard according to the manual (for discussion purposes the Bible), that cupboard will be a monstrosity. On the other hand, all of the other tables were attractive, and the builders looked contented.”

    Nothing could be further from the truth. Building according to God’s manual is the only way to make a cupboard that is fit for the purpose intended: to have a relationship with God and receive eternal life.

    All other attempts may appear to be attractive and satisfying, but in the end they are the cupboards that will be destroyed the Owner of the hotel.

  7. Jonathan,

    I notice that I referred to a “all of the other tables” in the third to last paragraph. I meant to refer to cupboards instead.

  8. I was raised in an Atheist household, and accepted the Lord as my Personal Savior at college, in 1974. The biggest issue I often ran into, after the change was this very ‘Syncretism’. In a very big nutshell, it is that age old deception from Eden – that all gods are God.
    The basic tenets of being a Christ follower are that Jesus was born, died on the Cross, and was Raised – all to atone for our sins. In the basic sense, if one accepts this, everything else within the Christian community, be it tongues or baptism by immersion are all “window dressing”. For these cases, syncretism is possible, although that it must be applied very carefully.
    However, I have found that it is the attempt to tie together different religious systems that tears the fabric of this concept. To say that Islam worships the same God – when Allah denies the divinity of Jesus – is morally impossible for a true Christ follower. In the same vein, Mormonism’s concept of a parallel salvation, unmentioned in the Bible – the traditional Word of God – here in North America, is equally incompatible with a faith based in the Old and New Testaments.

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