Faith, facts, and history (Hebrews 6:13-20)

What distinguishes fact from opinion?  The question came up recently in an op-ed piece which highlighted something from the common-core curriculum for second grade.  The curriculum made the distinction as follows:

Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested and proven.

Opinion: What someone, thinks, feels, or believes.

What do you think?  For the op-ed columnist, Justin McBrayer, this division between “fact” and “opinion” has only contributed to our children’s inability to ask and answer moral questions.  Why?  Because, McBrayer notes, the definitions above create a false division between fact and opinion.  Can’t opinions be informed by facts?  And can’t our interpretations of facts be influence by our opinions?  Granted, the teaching was aimed at second graders, but McBrayer was able to stump his son:

Me: “I believe that George Washington was the first president. Is that a fact or an opinion?”

Him: “It’s a fact.”

Me: “But I believe it, and you said that what someone believes is an opinion.”

Him: “Yeah, but it’s true.”

Me: “So it’s both a fact and an opinion?”

The blank stare on his face said it all.

(Justin P. McBrayer, “Why Our Children Don’t Think There are Moral Facts,” in The New York Times, March 2, 2015)

For many, faith occupies the broad realm of “opinion.”  It’s something we believe, sure, but it’s hardly something we can test or prove.  Atheists such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have built a cottage industry from accusing religious believers of being “deluded” and believing in spite of the lack of evidence.  You’ve surely heard of the Flying Spaghetti Monster?  It’s a mythical creature concocted by atheists to mock religious belief—after all, you can’t disprove the existence of a Flying Spaghetti Monster any more than you can disprove God.  Though atheists remain a small minority, many apply such similar reasoning to say that no religion can really “get it right.”  Right?

But this confuses the whole issue.  If you study philosophy long enough, you can eventually convince yourself that it’s impossible to know anything (!).  We might, after all, just be plugged into a giant computer like in the movie The Matrix.  But obviously, some things are more reasonable to believe than others, right?  Ah, there we are.  Knowledge and faith might better be placed on a larger spectrum—one in which yes, some beliefs have greater warrant than others.  There may be greater warrant for believing in God than a Flying Spaghetti Monster, and there may be warrant for believing the words of Christ are true.

For Christians, this saves us from turning faith into a flying leap into the dark, or reducing Christianity to blind faith.  Instead, faith rests on the secure promises of God.  These aren’t opinions formed by feelings or personal thoughts, but a promise made from God to man long ago.  So the writer of Hebrews now turns to the story of God and Abraham:

For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, 14 saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” 15 And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. 16 For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. 17 So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose,  he guaranteed it with an oath, 18 so that by two unchangeable things, in which lit is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.19 We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf,  having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 6:13-20)

You recall the story?  In 2000 B.C., God reached into human history to save a man named Abram.  Do you recall what Joshua would later say?  He said: “your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods” (Joshua 24:2).  Abram’s family worshipped other gods—presumably the moon gods prominent during that era.  So if God saved Abram—later giving him the name Abraham—it wasn’t because of the purity of Abraham’s devotion but because of God’s great blessing and promise.  And if you read Genesis, you get a glimpse of how God sealed this promise:

7 And he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” 8 But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.   (Genesis 15:7-10, 17)

What’s going on here?  In context, such practices reflected the magical rituals of Akkadian civilizations.  But the symbolism here is striking.  It’s as if God is saying: “If I fail to keep my promises to you, then let me experience the same fate as these dismembered animals.”

When the writer of Hebrews draws from this tradition, he’s telling us at least two things.  First, he’s reminding us that—like Abraham—our salvation has always been something God accomplished for us, never by us.  Second, he’s reminding us of the unchanging promises and character of God.

So when we consider the nature of faith, we must therefore remember that we aren’t basing our lives on the fearful uncertainty of spiritual speculation.  Instead, we rest on the certainty of God’s amazing promises.  Our beliefs are anchored in historical encounters with a living God—all of which ultimately point to the greatest encounter of all, Jesus, the true and greater high priest.  This is what forms an “anchor” for the human soul—all other forms of spirituality and thinking only reflect the person asking the question.  Christian faith anchors us, secures us, and gives us hope.

What are you thinking?

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