Friday, April 28, 2006

Check your Oil?

I get my oil changed at those quick-change 10 minute places. The mechanic and I always play the same game—How much Money can I get this Guy to Spend?

My cars have reached the age where, apparently, they need regular maintenance that I am not adequately providing. Our routine is familiar:

“That cheap $15 oil change, please.”

Furious tinkering under the hood of my car.
“Sir, your air filter is dirty. For $15, that should be replaced.”
“Uh……Okay.” (doubling my price)

More furious tinkering.
“Sir, your transmission should be flushed, for $79 we can get that squared away.”
Calculating how much my $15 oil change is costing me, “No, Thanks.”

Never one to be daunted by a “No,” he attempts another attack.
“You know, every 30,000 miles we recommend a complete oil cleaning system that would clear out any of the deposits left. It is only $39.”
Now I am in that half-way spot of pleased I did not spend $79, and fearful that if I don’t commit, my engine is sure to quit in the middle of an emergency trip to the hospital.
“Er….go ahead. I guess.”

Recently they have cleverly increased the tactics by introducing a computer. They take me out of my car, walk me over to the computer, and point out how IT is demonstrating with lovely colored charts and graphs all of the maintenance I am neglecting with my poor car. It is as if my mechanic is saying, “I am just a simple human that could make a mistake, but here — HERE is a computer making billions of calculations per second, and within those tiny seconds has determined that your automobile will DIE unless immediate treatment is administered, and how can you argue with a computer?”

The simple answer is that you can’t—I cough out more money.

One day, just for fun, I think I will agree to everything and see how far they are willing to go.

“Sir, you need a radiator flush.”
“Sure, go right ahead.”
“We also recommend a brake pad re-adjustment, and light replacement.”
“Knock yourself out.”
“Transmission flu---“
“Yep, one of those too!”

I figure the conversation would develop to the point of:

“Sir, we further recommend the Executive package, in which we remove your entire engine, power-wash it with acid, dry it with an airplane engine, and then completely replace every single part that could possibly be replaced.”
“Why not? Go ahead.”
“Oh. HEY, JIM! We got an ‘Executive’ on bay Two.” *wink, wink*

Jim would pipe up, “Good thing, too! From here I can see the right side of the car is not lined up with the left side. Better throw in a full car body alignment, or else that Executive won’t last two weeks.”
“Sir, do you have time for this?”
Having prepared in advance, I brought my sleeping back, a month’s worth of reading, and provisions to feed a camp, “Sure, go ahead.”
“Then step this way to our finance department, and we can get you all fixed up.”

Instead I dance between what to pay, what should be done, always with the hope that somehow I am money ahead by not spending too much, and getting away with a few extra miles before spending the real money. I dread that final day when he opens the hood and sighs:

“Oh, dear. Harrumph. Hmmm….”
”Anything wrong?”
“Be with you in a minute, sir. Just checking ‘er out.”

I see him pull out a few sticks, continue to furrow his forehead, and start consulting manuals.
“Is there---“
“With you in a minute, sir. HEY JIM! Can you look at this?”

The shocked looked on Jim’s face is not comforting. Nor is his statement, “Wow! Never seen that before!”

Gary walks by. (I assume it is Gary, since his shirt proudly proclaims, “Gary” but no one has ever yelled out at him, and he never says a word.) Gary takes one look, pulls out a kazoo and softly plays taps. “Ta. Ta. Taaaaaa.”

They close the hood, and my mechanic approaches me, rubbing his hands on a towel.

“Try to look at it this way, sir. Don’t think of it as a loss of an automobile, but focus on the good times you had together. The drives, the laughs, the open road.”
“Is it…..?”
”Yep. Time to take that final journey to the Great Crusher in the Sky.”

Many of us drive our cars around, never thinking about what needs to be maintained on them, hoping that everything under that engine is running smoothly, and occasionally taking them in for the mandatory check-up, performing the minimum amount of repair work for the maximum benefit until the next mandatory check.

I wonder if many theists do the same with their spiritual life. I see believers and non-believers working hard for promotions, trying to find the perfect mate, attempting to raise children, getting groceries, taking children to hockey, basketball, cheerleading, band and soccer. Both get up in the morning to alarm clocks, drive to work, take lunch breaks, catch a baseball game with friends, and come home to clean their house.

We all encourage our kids to do well, spend time with our families, work in the yard, and help the neighborhood paper drive.

We all look exactly alike in our ambitions, activities, and living day-to-day. We are so used to quick check-ups. Fast oil changes. Drive-though food. Those that do cook, use a microwave to get it in 3-5 minutes. If we need a safety pin, a shovel or a steam engine, we can “run right out and get it.”

What I see is the exact same human reaction to theism. Every Sunday believers attend a church for their “check-up.” Saturday they got an oil change and a transmission flush in 30 minutes. Sunday they get an attitude change and bitterness flush in the same time. And, just like that oil change only lasting for a short time, so, too the spiritual-change.

By Sunday afternoon, they have returned to looking just like me. Same problems, same resolutions, same humanity. Amazingly, we have come to expect it! Just like needing a tune-up, it is assumed that “tapping into God” only lasts so long, and eventually wears down. Need to give it a kick with a daily devotion, or a prayer, or a meeting together. Constant maintenance must be administered, or the God-power runs down like an old battery.

And it is always the human doing the jolting. The human going to church, the human reading the Bible or praying, and if the human stops—God stops. The only time God re-starts is if the human restarts. All of the impetus is on the human.

No matter how much I stay on top of keeping my car maintained, there is always something more. Being a human creation, it won’t last forever, and the only way to make it last as long as it can is by constant attention. It is the same with theism! I could pull story after story after story of people striving to “know” God, working to keep their relationship with God, working to stay out of sin, working to be more like God, and every single time it is the human performing the effort. And it always, always, ALWAYS requires a little bit more. More time. More reading. More work on the part of the human.

God is doing none of the work. Just like my car is not trying to maintain itself, and is, in fact, doing the exact opposite, God is sitting on the sidelines, forcing humans to come to him, and if they do it wrongly, or not enough, or stop, God stops. Just like my car.

“What a friend we have in Jesus.” Heard the song? Imagine if I was a friend like Jesus. I would tell you that you must do all the talking to me. I sent you a letter once, but that is all you get. You must continually work to have a relationship with me. If you stop, I won’t have a relationship with you. If you do it wrongly, I won’t be your friend. But I won’t tell you how to do it right.

If anything good happens in your life, it is because of me. If anything bad—it is your fault. You can ask me for anything, but I only provide the same things others get that aren’t my friend.

Oh, and if you aren’t my friend, I will hate you so much that I will torture you forever.

What kind of relationship is that? I wouldn’t want that out of my car, let alone a friend!

I wish theists would think about this, next time they get their oil changed. Are they doing the same thing with a God? Listening to what a human has recommended they do to maintain this relationship? And waffling between what is the minimum requirements to keep God happy, yet not have to pay with taking care of the poor, loving others, giving up of time, labor and money? If they really believed in a God, why are they doing the bare minimum to keep it? If I truly was convinced my car needed the maintenance to operate, I would (reluctantly) spend the money. Believers are willing to sacrifice for their car, but not their God.

At least with my car, if I stop repairing it, it conks out. With God, once I stopped maintaining the relationship, I recognized that I was doing all the work—there was no God. He didn’t conk out; He was never there in the first place! I didn’t need to maintain a non-existent relationship.

A car needs its human to continue to perform. So, too, a God.


  1. It's different in Calvinism. In Calvinism, it's a false dichotomy to distinguish your work and God's work. Paul wrote in Philippians that "It is God who is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil 2:13). The reason any of us are willing to put forth any effort in our growth as Christians is because God has already done some work in us to make us willing. As far as our pursuit of Christ, Jesus said, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him" (John 6:44).

  2. Thanks for the comment, ephphatha. I was born, bred and baptized Calvinist, so I know the routine a little bit. (I tend to write to a broader scope of theism.)

    Even in Calvinism, there is human obligation. While the Calvinist God may have performed the initial push, it is still up to the human to complete the project. Humans still have to be the one believing and confession. (Rom 10:9). (And Paul contradicts this by claiming there is no work at all, just Grace. (Rom. 11:6) Not the clearest chap.)

    Of course, James is a sticky wicket, saying faith without works is dead. (James. 2:20) and that faith, by itself, without works, is not profitable. (2:14) The New Testament is replete with mandates, probably the most well-known being to love our neighbors, (Rom. 13:9). In the Calvinism I was raised, humans still had the obligation to be holy as God was holy. 1 Pet. 1:16. We were not taught that we can sit back, let the chips fly where they may, and if we didn’t love our neighbor, who were we to blame? Since God was the one that was responsible for doing the work.

    I would hope you would agree that humans still have some responsibility, even under Calvinism.

    But if you look at the pragmatic side, even believing on faith that God was doing the initial work, we still only see humans doing everything. It may be humans that claim God started it, but it is still humans. I saw this often, especially in business meetings—“God is leading us in this direction.” “No, God is leading us in that direction.” They couldn’t both be right. We prayed and hoped and figured what the best path was to take. In retrospection, it was just humans blaming or giving credit to God for very human actions.

    A friend pointed out something that fascinated me, on the pragmatic side of Christianity. I am sure you have had in the past, or could now, enter a Christian bookstore. What are the shelves bulging with? Self-help books. On Marriage, Divorce, Drug addiction, Raising children, relationships, employment, money, attitudes, and about every topic one can think of.

    And there are shelves and shelves of what I talked about—books on having a better relationship with God. Knowing God better. Becoming Holy. More faithful. More loving.

    If Christians believed it was solely a God effort, and no human effort, these books would just get dusty.

    And if you look in these books, they give the token shot of praying on God, and waiting on God to do something, and then there is a great big word, “BUT” followed by 100’s of pages of efforts humans should be doing to improve in these areas.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think self-help books are necessary and beneficial. Even Christian ones. However, as an outsider, I see that Christians themselves see the failure in relying upon God alone. That they have to do this on their own.

    What do you do about someone like me, ephphatha? You have to take my word for it, but if you followed me around, it would be impossible to distinguish me from a Christian. I have the same morals, same strengths, same weaknesses. You would see me be as generous as a Christian, and also commit an act you would call “sin” like a Christian.

    But clearly you would not claim I am getting this ability to love my neighbor from God. I am dead to God, correct? So, why am I no different than any other Christian, if not for the fact that we are all human?

  3. dagoods,

    I can't really speak to the people you grew up with or what they believe. It sounds like there's definitely some difference between what they believe and what I believe.

    I do not think Calvinism removes human responsibility. The point of my initial post was to say it's a false dichotomy to distinguish your work and God's work. If God works in us, that doesn't mean we don't work or strive, and it doesn't relieve us of the responsibility to work and strive. Rather, it means God gives us the disposition to work and strive, and then it is we who do it.

    According to the Bible, God's work in other people is not limited to Christians. But there are some aspects of Christian morality that I would think impossible for a non-Christian to engage in. While you may be kind, decent, and generous with other people, I don't expect that you love God, worship him, or try to further his kingdom.


  4. Ephphatha: Can you flesh this out?
    Rather, it means God gives us the disposition to work and strive, and then it is we who do it.

    I am not trying to “hammer” you, but I am genuinely curious as to how this works, and if (it may not be possible) we can develop a method to determine what comes from God and what doesn’t.

    1. If God gives us the disposition, can we still choose to not do it?
    2. If God does not give us the disposition, can we still do it?
    3. If God gives the disposition, and the person does not do it, is the person responsible?
    4. If God does not give the disposition, and the person does not do it, is the person responsible?
    5. What exactly IS “giving the disposition”?

    I am not being a jerk, but we came more from a “paradox” Calvinism. We had free will responsibility AND God was sovereign and pre-determined actions. An unresolved paradox we shrugged and said, “Some day we will know.”

  5. Dagoods, these are all really good questions, and I've been wanting to do a blog on it for a while now. I think I'm going to save answering them for that blog. School is almost out, and I hope to have more time then.

  6. Great! I'll look forward to it.

  7. Steve, granted an emotional experience can't prove that there is a God, it seems clear that it can cause a belief in God. Do you think that such a belief can be rational? Assuming the person isn't exposed to some definite defeater for their belief in God, so you think a person would be rational to believe in God if they simply had a strong feeling they couldn't shake that God exists?

  8. Steve,

    I didn't mean "causing an argument." I meant "causing a belief." Not all of our beliefs are the result of thinking through arguments. Sometimes, we just find ourselves believing things. Somebody will come up and tell you how he caught this gigantic fish. Your gut may tell you he's exaggerating, or it may tell you he's telling the truth. We often go on hunches or feelings when forming our beliefs. It's something I would argue that we can't help. I'm curious to know if you think it's irrational to have beliefs like that. If I just have a gut feeling that there's a God, but I can't necessarily prove it, am I being irrational?

  9. I guess a god is a concept by which we measure our pain quote would be in order here (John Lennon, an atheist)

  10. Steve, if belief without any basis in argument is irrational, then would you say that it's impossible to know something without knowing how you know it? After all, if your belief were based on an argument, then you would have to at least know that the arguments is how you came to the belief, right? Does that make sense?

  11. Steve, how do you avoid an infinite regress, then? Before you can know something, you have to know how you know it. But if you know how you know something, then you have to know how you know that, too. Back and back it goes.

    If you have to have a reason for everything you believe, then you have to have reasons for all your reasons, and reasons for those reasons.

    Don't you think there's anything at all you can know or believe without having to know how you know it or have reasons for why you believe it?

  12. steve and ephphatha, I have stayed out of this discussion, because I was enjoying it, and did not want to interrupt. Besides, ephphatha had my hands full, debating Exodus elsewhere. *wink*

    steve, back to your original response. I do find a healthy ability, in many theists, when caught in a pickle, or attempting to justify something say that because it is of another world, i.e. supernatural, we cannot understand it here. I don’t mind that so much, if it wasn’t so often immediately followed by an explanation of what the supernatural world is like.

    I also see that people desire their experience to reflect their God. They think helping others is moral, they want their God to be moral, so naturally he must help others. Being loving and kind and merciful is a good thing, so God must have those attributes. We abhor and are adverse to pain, suffering, torture and murder, so, the God one chooses to believe in would obviously also be adverse to such things.

    You know the phrase as well as I: “If a fish could make a God, it would look like a fish.” Not only physically, but in its desires, attributes and propensities.

    And, in the same way that if we do not continually work on our relationships, and interact, they presume God would also cease, if the human does not pursue it.

    ephphatha – my initial thoughts as to “gut belief.” I would agree that we all have experienced believing something by instinct, or gut reaction, or “just a feeling” or however we want to express it.

    While such determinations are not necessarily wrong, they have a likelihood of being wrong, and should put us on our guard as to whether they are accurate. I am sure that not only have we experienced these gut beliefs, we have also had situations where we later found out they were wrong. Using your example that gut reaction the guy was lying about his fish, turns out to be truth.

    And, we have also seen people that have instinct, or gut reactions, that by our being outside the situation, we can clearly see at that moment they are incorrect. I have watched too many clients make too many decisions, based on their “guts” that I immediately informed them were wrong, and it turns out they WERE wrong.

    Again, it does not mean every belief such as this is incorrect. (And don’t forget, we “believe” differently in a variety of areas. What I believe is beautiful, you may not. Or funny, or sad. What you believe about the Pythagorean theorem is the same as I, yet neither of us “gutted” that one out. What we believe should be done about the economy may be a mixture of study, gut, and intellect. What I believe on how a bow should be built is much different than you believe, due to my lack of expertise. Life is a scale of knowledge, reason, study, disposition and, yes, gut reactions.)

    Knowing this, we should check our gut beliefs with some external parameter to the best of our ability. Study the area. Check with friends. If we obtain knowledge that conflicts with the gut belief, be prepared to change it based on knowledge. Holding to a gut belief, in spite of knowledge, becomes a dangerous thing.

    Finally, if it is just a gut belief, I do not see how one could ever dispute with another person’s gut belief that differed. If a “gut belief” (for example) the God is a Christian one, meets a “gut belief” that God is a Mormon one, how can gut belief One dispute with gut belief Two? As steve said, there should be humility with the belief on guts alone.

    I honestly do not recall a person that believed in a God solely on gut belief, and was willing to equally accept my determination there is no God, based on reason, study and knowledge. Why would “gut belief” trump reason, when we all have seen it be wrong?

  13. Dagoods, to be honest with you, the whole "created in the image of God" thing troubles me. On the one hand, I think you're right to say we attribute a lot of things to God that we see in ourselves. One of the popular arguments Jehovah's Witnesses use against hell, for example, is to ask, "Would you send your son to hell for an eternity of suffering just for a lifetime of sin?" as if we should expect God to be just like human fathers.

    But on the other hand, I've known Christians who say one of the reasons they believe in God, and that God revealed himself to the Jews, is because he's not at all the sort of being people would've invented. He's not at all like us. And they give Biblical justification for it--both examples of God's actions and attitudes, and specific verses that say God isn't like us.

    I'm not sure what to make of that. But as far as morality goes, it doesn't trouble me that there are rules we have to live by that God doesn't. Whenever there's a heirarchy among people (like parent and child, employer and employee, officer and enlisted), there are things the inferior is obligated to that the superior isn't, and priviledges the superior has a right to that the inferior doesn't. If that's true among people who are of equal value and worth, then it seems to me it would be far more true among people and gods.

    The way morality works, different rules apply to different people in different circumstances. This doesn't trouble me at all.

    I completely agree with you that "we should check our gut beliefs with some external parameter to the best of our ability" and that we are often wrong about our gut feelings. But we are often wrong even about things we do try carefully to discover. That doesn't tell me whether you think it can ever be rational to believe something just because you have a feeling it's true. If the mere possiblity that we could be wrong is enough to say we aren't rational, then we can never be rational about anything except maybe those few things that are incorrigible like our own existence, the fact that we're thinking, etc.

    In a situation where you've got a gut feeling that X and somebody else has a gut feeling that not-X, and there's no immediate way to decide between you, I agree we should have the humility to admit that we could be wrong. But if it's a belief, and to believe is to think it's true, then we naturally ought to live consistently with it until we discover it's not true.

    I honestly do not recall a person that believed in a God solely on gut belief, and was willing to equally accept my determination there is no God, based on reason, study and knowledge.

    I've met lots of people like that. In fact, I think most people are like that. Most people don't delve into the philosphical arguments for and against God, yet most people still have an opinion about it. Why would a person believe in God just because they have a gut feeling that he exists when they know good and well there are atheist philosphers out there who have studied the subject and applied reason vigorously and come to the conclusion that there is no God? Well, I suspect it's because they also know there are theist philsophers who have been just as rigorous and have come to the opposite conclusion. Who knows what conclusion they themselves would come to if they studied just as virgorously as the theist and atheist philosophers? As long as there is dispute among the experts, we can't appeal to authority. The study you have done is only helpful in forming your beliefs; they can't help to form somebody else's beliefs. Nobody is going to take your word for it as long as there are experts who disagree with you. And until they study the issue for themselves, they're likely going to go on their gut feeling.

    Why would “gut belief” trump reason, when we all have seen it be wrong?

    Well hopefully in general it wouldn't, but we've all seen reason be wrong, too. I suppose it depends on the strength of the gut feeling and the strength of the reason.

  14. Steve, you've turned my challenge back on me, but you haven't answered it yourself. I would still like to know how you avoid the infinite regress given your position that you must known how you know something before you can know it, and you must have reasons to believe something before it's rational to believe it.

    As for me, I think all knowledge is based on unproven assumptions. You can ask, "How do you know?" only so many times. Eventually you'll reach "first principles." These things include our awareness of our first person subjectivity, the laws of logic, math, geometry, and things like Occam's razor (the law of parsimony), the uniformity of nature, the veracity of our senses, that "ought" implies "can," causation, the past, etc. I think that for some people, the idea of God presents itself to the mind in much the same way as a few of the things I listed above. For those people, I think it may be rational to believe in God completely apart from arguments.

    In my theory, just because something is rational, that doesn't mean it's true. It's possibly to be rationally justified in believing something even if you happen to be wrong. David Hume would agree with me about that. He said that "a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence," but he also said that a prince who had never seen nor heard of ice would be justified in doubting a person who told him about it.

    So that's how I avoid an infinite regress. I think knowledge begins with particular examples of things we just seem to know without being able to prove them or account for how we know them. From those, we derive the rest of our knowledge. How do you avoid the infinite regress?

  15. Steve,

    In your answer, you seem to be making a distinction between "believing" and "knowing." You grant that there are some things you believe (i.e. you think are true) even if you have no particular reason to think so. Good. That gets you out of the infinite regress.

    But what about the knowledge infinite regress? How do you get out of that one?

    Frankly, if you're going to argue for objective truth, then you can't very well say that anybody is rational for believing in falsehoods.

    Is it your position that when any two people have a disagreement, no matter what the subject or the reason for the disagreement, that at least one of them is irrational? After all, by the law of non-contradiction, if there is really a disagreement going on, at least one of them believes in a falsehood. Does that mean at least one of them is necessarily irrational?

  16. Steve,

    I'm not using sophistry here. I never said it's possible for two people to know contradictory propositions. If you'll read my post carefully, you'll see that I subscribe wholeheartedly to the law of non-contradiction.

    I only wanted to know if you think it's possible to believe something that's false and be rational at the same time. You first said, "no," but now you say, "yes." I guess that means I pursuaded you, huh?

    I guess if I were rational, I'd be studying for my test Wednesday instead of debating.

  17. Steve, I don't think you can know something that isn't true. But this question you ask me is equally problematic for you since you think it's possible to be rational while thinking something that isn't true.

    I trust rationality in general because I know with certainty that the laws of logic are valid. But I can't trust my own ability to use reason correctly with certainty, because I also know that I make mistakes in thinking.

    Since you think a person can be rational while believing things that aren't true, why do you trust rationality?

    And how do you get out of the knowledge infinite regress? You still haven't answered that.

  18. Steve,

    I realize you make a distinction between knowing and believing (or thinking). That's why I said you successfully got out of the infinite regress as far as thinking and believing are concerned, but you haven't gotten out of the infinite regress as far as "knowing" is concerned. If, in the real world, people do actually know things, and you believing all knowledge must be derived from reasons, then you are faced with an infinite regress in the real world. So yes, my argument does work in the real world.

    But as a philosophy major, I think you'll agree that a correct argument can be based upon false premises, correct? In this respect, would you not agree that the "problem" of infinite regress is easily dealt with when one realizes that one need not prove every premise to rationally believe a conclusion.

    If an argument is based on false premises, and if (as we agree) you can't know something that is false, it follows that the argument is based on premises that are not known. If we don't know that the premises are true, then we don't know that the conclusion is true. The conclusion, therefore, cannot be an item of knowledge. So no, what you're suggesting doesn't deal with the infinite regress caused by really having an item of knowledge. If we have an item of knowledge, then it has to be arrived at from other items of knowledge, and they have to be arrived at for other items of knowledge, etc. etc. That is, of course, unless you arrive at items of knowledge which don't require proof, demonstration, or some account as to how you know it.

    (btw, I minored in philosophy. I majored in history. Well, I guess I should say minoring and majoring since I still haven't graduated. But graduation is only three days away!!!)

    Speaking of which, I think I'm going to have to bow out now. I've got to study, and I've stayed in this longer than I meant to anyway.

    However, it behooves us to re-examine as many premises as is humanly possible.

    I'll agree with you there, and I'll let my last post be one that ends in agreement. I love happy endings!