It was with a certain level of boredom and frustration that I sat through the “debate” between the celebrity Christian apologist Glen Scrivener and the celebrity atheist Matt Dillahunty on Justin Brierley’s Unbelievable? podcast. It was late and I was tired. But when Mssrs. Dillahunty and Scrivener locked horns on whether the Christian story was actually true or not, regardless of its supposed social or psychological benefits, I threw in the proverbial towel.
I honestly cannot understand how people can argue endlessly for years about things they clearly haven’t the first clue about. What is “truth”? There are obviously different categories of truth. On what day was Christ crucified? Was it on a Friday or a Saturday? Or was it on Tuesday? This is the most banal level of truth, historical or literal truth. Who cares?
Even science doesn’t stop at this basic level of truth. A GCSE science textbook will give you a “true” factual description of a chemical bond. But a PhD biochemist will know that there’s more to it than that. A world expert will understand that the ultimate truth of the nature of chemical bonding opens out into a bottomless mystery.
Nobody knows the ultimate truth about anything. Science can describe certain features of the observable natural world. History can describe certain events. They can do this more or less accurately, more or less successfully. “Truth” is one word we use to determine the degree of success or accuracy of these descriptions. If we judge it to be close enough to the thing itself, we call it “true”. If it seems to be too far off the mark, we call it “false”.
But the description is not the truth. It points to the truth. This is because any description will always fall short of the reality it is trying to describe. Words, concepts and theories are just pointers. They describe phenomena, which are themselves pointers to the reality beyond the appearance, to the noumena, the “thing-in-itself” as Kant called it.
In the world of mathematics, it is true that 2+2=4. In the world of science, it is true that water boils at 100° C. In the world of Shakespeare, it is true that Othello was consumed by jealousy. Within the closed systems of mathematics, physics and literary criticism, we can make certain claims which are verifiable true or false according to the internal criteria of each system.
But what do these things mean beyond the system? What is jealousy? What is water? What are numbers? Every system exists surrounded by an unfathomable mystery.
“Is Christianity true? Does God exist?” What a ridiculous pair of questions! If science is just a pointer to truth, not truth itself, what do you think religion is? Religions are just pointers. They point to the truth, but they are not themselves the truth. The question is not whether or not they are true, but whether or not they are good pointers. The added complication is that the thing they are pointing at is explicitly a mystery. They don’t point to things we can observe in the physical world, like science does. They point to God. But what is “God”? Exactly. It’s a mystery. If you have no idea what “God” is, how can you ask whether or not He exists?
If you don’t believe in God then, you don’t believe in the Mystery of existence. Which means that you think that you understand existence. You know how and why existence exists. Does Matt Dillahunty know this? If he did, he would be worshipped as a god. “Science will one day discover the secret of existence” he might retort. “I put my faith in science”. What if science finally concluded that the answer to life, the universe and everything really is 42? Or some complicated equation? How does knowing this even come close to what religious people mean by “knowing God”?
The question to ask about religion is not, “is it true?” but “does it point to the Truth?” It is more like a question than an answer, more like “what is Reality?” than “42”, more like “what is God?” than “this is God”. Nobody can answer the question posed by religion, unless they already know the Truth, unless they have themselves personally experienced it. Otherwise, all we have to go on are the reports of others. Have people who have followed religion into the Great Mystery found that it delivers or not? Is the final verdict that it does or doesn’t point to the Truth? Does it, or does it not, lead to God?
If you look at the historical record, you will find many Christians who claim that Christianity is true in the sense that it leads to Truth. There is no way to corroborate or disprove this claim without following the Christian path to God. Just like any good experiment, you need to follow the correct procedures, which in this case, would involve faith and prayer.
However, even if you fail, that proves nothing beyond the fact that you failed. Perhaps you didn’t run the experiment properly. Perhaps you didn’t have enough faith (“ye of little faith!”) All you need to validate the truth claims of Christianity is to have at least one clear instance of a person for whom the experiment didn’t fail, by their own account, and by the account of those who knew them. And there are thousands. These are the positive results of this particular experiment. Of course you can discount them all. You can say that they were all liars or delusional. What basis would you have to do that, other than distrust? Why believe anything? You might have a religious experience yourself and write it off as a hallucination.
If you are of such a skeptical bent, you won’t believe what I am about to say, even if I swear that it’s true because I’ve been there. But that’s your problem, not mine.
Follow mathematics to the end, follow science to the end, follow religion to the end. What do they all ultimately point to? Follow the trail sincerely wherever it leads and you will find that they all ultimately point to the “One”, to the unity that comprehends all things. The ancient symbol of the One is, of course, the sun. Follow anything right back to its source and you will arrive at the effulgent, radiant source of all. You will arrive at the One God.
All religions point to God. Even science points to God. But when you ascend to the mystical heights, to the ever-shining One, then what? Well, what goes up must come down. You must return to the earth, to the river, to the bench, the trees and the sky. You must return from the One to the Many. But now the river, the bench and the trees are seen in a different light. They are seen as they are in themselves, not as they are through the filter of your ego. They are seen in the light of Zen. All things point to Zen, especially God.
You cannot look directly at the sun without blinding yourself. And you cannot look directly on the face of God. This is why, since time immemorial, the moon has stood in for the Most High as the reflected image of God. The moon is literally the mirror of the sun; the light of the moon is the reflected light of the sun.
The “finger pointing to the moon” of Zen tradition represents the human attempt to describe Ultimate Reality. Zen has also been described as “direct pointing to Reality outside the scriptures”. Here the minimalist finger of Zen is substituted for the complex, baroque finger of “the scriptures” or “religion”.
The moon represents Reality, but it is not terrestrial Reality. It is the reflected light of the sun. Only as the light of the moon illuminates the Earth below is the Reality of Zen revealed, like the “moon in a dewdrop”.
The “finger pointing to the moon” is religion, including Zen Buddhist religion. The “finger pointing from the moon” is the reflected light of the Sun, of the One, of Ultimate Reality, of God, pointing back down to Earth. Bathed in the cool light of the moon, we experience the world as eternal and eternally present. We experience Zen.
There is no point obsessing about the finger. Whether the finger is Zen Buddhism or Christianity, or any other pointer, it is the pointing, not the pointer, that matters. There is no point staring at the finger like a cat. Look where the finger is pointing. Equally, there is no point obsessing about the moon. The moon is just another finger, the “finger of God”, if you like, pointing back down to Earth.
Don’t worry about whether religion is “true” or not. Just follow where it points to. Don’t worry about whether God “exists” or not. Just follow where He point to. Religion points to God and God points to Zen.
Then you can just get on with your life, and “chop wood and carry water”.