Archive for the ‘Faith and doubt’ Category
September 4th, 2012 | 5 Comments
I recently read two articles that, while they’re directed at very different audiences, have a common thread between them that regular readers will recognize as a concern of mine lately.
English writer Francis Spufford is on the press-junket for his book, Unapologetic. This article he wrote for the Guardian (with a tip of the hat to Arni) seems to be setting up an approach toward speaking of religion that consciously and…well, unapologetically avoids putting up faith as “Reason 2.0″ as is done by most Christian apologists. To give you an idea of his approach, which is sure to be controversial among believers and unbelievers alike, here’s a bit from the post:
The point is that from outside, belief looks like a series of ideas about the nature of the universe for which a truth-claim is being made, a set of propositions that you sign up to; and when actual believers don’t talk about their belief in this way, it looks like slipperiness, like a maddening evasion of the issue. If I say that, from inside, it makes much more sense to talk about belief as a characteristic set of feelings, or even as a habit, you will conclude that I am trying to wriggle out, or just possibly that I am not even interested in whether the crap I talk is true. I do, as a matter of fact, think that it is. I am a fairly orthodox Christian. Every Sunday I say and do my best to mean the whole of the Creed, which is a series of propositions. But it is still a mistake to suppose that it is assent to the propositions that makes you a believer. It is the feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don’t have the feelings because I’ve assented to the ideas.
I have recently been considering that the goal of “breaking down the barrier between faith and reason” may be misguided, at least to the extent to which it tries to blur the line between them. “Faith isn’t against reason: it is reason!” The enterprise of making sure that people don’t conclude that our religious convictions contradict the world of reason too often slides into the quagmire of “proving” our unprovable convictions.
This pitfall comes from the ubiquitous misconstrual of “faith” as “believing”. Faith is not belief, but a commitment to a belief (at least in its dullest form: for the Christian it should be a commitment to the Truth himself). Reason is for believing; faith is for living. I think Spufford was trying to say that we will only live out what we want to, what is emotionally real to us.
To be sure, we don’t want to base our beliefs on things that we know aren’t true (which isn’t the same thing as resting in beliefs we aren’t sure are true). But living without reasonable beliefs is the danger of Scylla to the Charybdis of reasonable beliefs without faithfulness.
It’s the latter danger that I see gobbling up most Evangelicals. Everything important to them about their faith has to do with beliefs about this or that fact or “truth”. If Jesus were to come back today, they’d rather be found committing an act of sin (since we’re all hopeless, dirty sinners) than believing something incorrectly (something about finding “faith” on the earth, wasn’t it?). Completely, utterly, hopelessly backwards.
This observation is behind the other post I wanted to share, a post by Zac Bailes called “Jesus, Truth, and Coffee“. It’s his reflections on a conversation with one of those Evangelicals I was just talking about. Here’s a salient quote:
Christians across the globe have become so concerned with making sure people know the truth about Jesus that they forget what that truth provokes. Love for the neighbor becomes sublimated to a concern about recognizing truth. They remained entombed in the truth of power, rather than the liberation of love.
No wonder our faith seems so trivial to the world! We tell them it’s about believing “facts” without any evidence, often enough in contradiction of evidence, and then we refuse to live as though those “facts” had any value for our lives at all. When the positivists tell us that our beliefs must be proved to be worth anything, we take them at their word and get waylaid as we single-mindedly turn our entire religion into an exercise of maintaining the right beliefs and proving them to others.
Instead, we have despised the only thing that could demonstrate the value of faith, the one unmistakably clear charge given to us by the one in whose name we claim to be acting: devotion to God as expressed by devotion to one another. The most emotional investment we have is put into holding everyone else accountable for behaving in ways that indicate that they believe correctly. This is why, as Spufford notes, the world looks at believers as people doing our level best to shut our eyes, clench our fists, and just believe something. We do not attempt to feel our faith; we are content to believe it. We do not love that in which we believe; we are not committed to it enough to energize it with the affection of commitment.
And in so doing, we demonstrate ourselves faithless.
July 13th, 2012 | 1 Comment
They said the birds refused to sing and the thermometer fell suddenly, as if God himself had his breath stolen away. No one there dared speak aloud, as much in shame as in sorrow. They uncovered the bodies one by one. The eyes of the dead were closed, as if waiting for permission to open. Were they still dreaming of ice cream and monkey bars, of birthday cake, and no future but the afternoon? Or had their innocence been taken along with their lives, buried in the cold earth so long ago? These fates seemed too cruel even for God to allow. Or are the tragic young born again when the world’s not looking?
I wanna believe so badly in a truth beyond our own, hidden and obscured from all but the most sensitive eyes; in the endless procession of souls; in what cannot and will not be destroyed. I want to believe we are unaware of God’s eternal recompense and sadness; that we cannot see His truth; that that which is born still lives and cannot be buried in the cold earth, but only waits to be born again at God’s behest, where in ancient starlight we lay in repose.
from The X-Files, S7xE11, “Closure”
There is no theodicy; there is only the choice to wait and see.
My friends, you can keep your confidence about the ultimate meaninglessness of our lives and our love, the irredeemability of our pain and our sorrows, the ephemerality of all we hold dear, the transience of even Love itself. I’ll certainly not begrudge you your ability to keep a stiff upper lip while staring into that yawning gap (are your eyes really open?). I readily admit that I don’t have proof to the contrary.
But I stand with the majority of humanity throughout history and rest in the conviction that there is, must be, more than this. I doubt I could even be said to truly love anything whose immortality I do not undyingly await.
So please don’t hold it against me that I have chosen not to feign your practical certainty about the matter; forgive me for not even attempting to be contented by, much less in love with, such a universe as yours. There are times of such goodness and joy that that sort of universe doesn’t even seem plausible, times when existence itself seems too good a gift not to have been granted us by a good Giver. But in the other times, when confronted with the most horrific scenes that humanity or nature can paint, I will not give pat answers or cheap apologetics. I’m not in denial; I know exactly what it looks like. But I will wait and see.
June 5th, 2012 | 3 Comments
Recently I heard a Sunday School teacher of young children bubbling about how many catechism questions her children had learned that year; I should note that she was not bragging, since she doesn’t teach the catechism herself, but was commending the parents and children for their hard work because of how important it is for children to “know what they believe.” Laying aside her dubiously assumed answer to the question of “do they even know what the catechism is saying so that they could be said to ‘believe’ it?”, I think her remarks convey a popular misunderstanding among many people, and not just Christians.
On one hand, I agree that knowing what we believe is extremely important: we should always be aware of what beliefs are guiding us day-to-day. It’s part of a critical self-awareness that many are missing when they function from all sorts of unexamined assumptions and then act as though “believing” is the same thing as “knowing”. And this is the problem: although knowing what we believe isn’t the same thing as knowing the right things, most people who are most confident that they know what they believe seem to be the likeliest to “know” things they have no proper epistemological basis for knowing. So when people like this Sunday School teacher speak of the importance of children knowing what they believe, what they mean is believing exactly what we’ve taught them to believe before they have a chance to be critical about any of it.
I want my children to start off being aware of how little they know, not how much they know–or think they know. I also want them to be aware of how little everyone else knows, how much mystery there still is in this world, defying all of our confidence.
But it’s a difficult balancing act: I want my children to trust what my wife and I tell them and not gainsay everything we try to teach them. I want them to learn to live off their best guesses, while recognizing that that’s all they are. By this I hope they will avoid fundamentalism of both the religious and positivist varieties. I want them to live in wonder and in expectation, starting off not as skeptical blank slates who must learn everything for themselves but as notebooks written in pencil who can rest on the suggestions of those older and wiser than they, correcting as necessary.
As long as children are aware that their catechisms are written in pencil, some of the danger is mitigated. But children are so black and white that it’s often hard to get them to unlearn “facts” without damaging the trust tissue their learning is couched in. So I’m stuck thinking that by and large, catechism as practiced by most is a bad idea. If I had a chance to revise the way catechism is taught, this is how I would preface things–not just once, but often.
We’re learning the things believed by our mothers and fathers in the faith. They didn’t know everything, of course, and they made mistakes like we do, but they followed God and did their best to understand Him, and this is what they came up with. We’re entrusting it to you for safekeeping.
If we were able to communicate that…that’s really about all it would take, isn’t it? If not those very words, the regular reinforcement of this disposition toward knowledge, which falls under the virtue called humility, would seem to help many avoid crises of faith later in life.
None of the toilsome expositions about uncertainty, faith, doubt, hope (i.e. the stuff I talk about on this blog all the time) would be necessary for most Christians to perilously work our way through if we could have just learned to gratefully hold everything we were taught with an open hand and not been trained to “know what we believe” to the point where we held such unrealistic expectations about the capacity of anyone–to include the biblical authors–to have absolute, unquestionable knowledge.
Children want brute facts; their young minds are usually not amenable to nuanced views of epistemology. They often ask hard questions like “Is that true?” that we’re unprepared to answer without the necessary nuances. But answering that sort of question by both affirming that 1) “Many good people think it is” and 2) “But many other good people disagree” is extending them an invitation for discovery that will benefit them far more than unwavering confidence in “what they believe”.
Fellow non-/post-Evangelical believers, how have you seen this approach play out? Have you seen something that’s worked better?
February 5th, 2012 | 0 Comments
The language of this poem by George Herbert, from The Temple (1633), while slightly archaic in spelling and vocabulary, is very readable, and I implore you to make the effort to read it. It beautifully describes my commitment to an informed faith that has had the effect of redirecting my focus away from things I’m required to believe without question – what is so often falsely called “faith” – and back toward the Subject of my faith, in whom my faith, hope, and love begin and end: a God who is supremely lovely.
The Pearl (Matthew 13)
I know the wayes of Learning; both the head
And pipes that feed the presse, and make it runne;
What reason hath from nature borrowed,
Or of it self, like a good huswife, spunne
In laws and policie; what the starres conspire,
What willing nature speaks, what forc’d by fire;
Both th’ old discoveries, and the new-found seas,
The stock and surplus, cause and historie:
All these stand open, or I have the keyes:
Yet I love thee.
I know the wayes of Honour, what maintains
The quick returns of courtesie and wit:
In vies of favours whether partie gains,
When glorie swells the heart, and moldeth it
To all expressions both of hand and eye,
Which on the world a true-love-knot may tie,
And bear the bundle, wheresoe’re it goes:
How many drammes of spirit there must be
To sell my life unto my friends or foes:
Yet I love thee.
I know the wayes of Pleasure, the sweet strains,
The lullings and the relishes of it;
The propositions of hot bloud and brains;
What mirth and musick mean; what love and wit
Have done these twentie hundred yeares, and more:
I know the projects of unbridled store:
My stuffe is flesh, not brasse; my senses live,
And grumble oft, that they have more in me
Then he that curbs them, being but one to five:
Yet I love thee.
I know all these, and have them in my hand:
Therefore not sealed, but with open eyes
I flie to thee, and fully understand
Both the main sale, and the commodities;
And at what rate and price I have thy love;
With all the circumstances that may move:
Yet through these labyrinths, not my groveling wit,
But thy silk twist let down from heav’n to me,
Did both conduct and teach me, how by it
To climbe to thee.
Many thanks to my friend Peter Smith for bringing this moving, insightful poem to my attention!
November 21st, 2011 | 2 Comments
When people quote 1 Corinthians 13.13, “Now these three things remain: faith, hope, and love,” the odd man out is almost invariably hope.
Preachers and other exegetes tend to read too much into serialized lists like the one there at the end of 1 Corinthians 13, imagining that the things listed have been presented by the author in a super-humanly insightful, divinely inspired order of importance; then they tend to turn those suppositions into sermons or doctrines. I, in turn, tend to cast such speculations out as the fanciful effects of a too-mystical, Bible Code-esque view of Scripture.
But in this case, I really can imagine that the order of “faith, hope, and love” was intentional after all. Paul certainly identifies the most important member of the group, which happens to be the last listed and could imply that the list is in order of “great, greater, greatest”. This would mean that hope is next to love, and that faith, without which it is reportedly impossible to please God, is somehow not as “great” as hope. But could that be?
I don’t know if Paul meant to imply that. But as far as I’m concerned, hope is at least as important as faith — in one sense, maybe even “greater”.
Love is the basis of my faith and the object of my worship. Above all, it is in Love that I trust and in whose interests I seek to act – the biblical understanding of “faith”. I find a denial of the objectivity, universality, and absoluteness of love’s existence and importance wholly unsatisfactory to my observation and experience, and I worship the Judeo-Christian God insofar as I believe He is Himself love personified. I believe that it is love in which we live, move, and have our being. So my faith is in love, specifically the sort described by followers of Jesus since the first century.
But this doesn’t mean that hope is some strange third wheel: it’s where I live. My faith – what I seek to live by – is energized by my hope in love; in other words, faith is how I live, and hope is why I live that way. I abide in the hope that way, way down there, below all those turtles, is Love. And it is hope that keeps me believing and acting out my faith. My commitment to living out my devotion to the absolute values of love and goodness is energized by my hopeful expectation that this kind of life will not be for naught. It keeps me carrying on in the darkest days of doubt.
Unfortunately, our particular set of guiding beliefs and expectations is what most Evangelicals refer to as faith. A lack of certainty is seen as an enemy of faith. In removing the intrinsically unfulfilled aspect of hope from the equation, they are left with an understanding of faith as assumed certainty. But, as Paul once wrote, “Who hopes for what he already has?” We can live in anticipation, expectation, and even confidence of something without feigning certitude of it. It is those who force themselves to come to grips with the extremely tentative nature of our beliefs, ideals, and expectations who best understand the Christian hope and, as a result, faith.
Be that as it may, all the talk about the virtue of Christian doubt among the progressive/liberal sort of Christians, myself included, understandably leaves many cold — again, myself included. Even while affirming the necessity of healthy skepticism, I have been discouraged to see a rising preoccupation with doubt among many of my fellow sojourners: doubt has become the stereotypical post-Evangelical replacement for faith. Entire blogs have turned into doubt vs. faith zones, not necessarily because the authors really think that faith and doubt are opposites (although some probably do), but because in overcompensating for the problem of a steadfastly uninformed faith, they have forgotten that doubt is not its own recipe, but merely an ingredient of a greater virtue, that “sunnier side of doubt” to which Tennyson alluded: hope.
Doubt is not a substitute for faith: it’s a corrective measure for a faith characterized by artificial certitude. Doubt has no positive existence worth celebrating; it is a side effect of humility, which begins in discomfort, settles into euphoria, but usually leaves those dwelling in it too long feeling hungry for more certainty. A healthy skepticism says, “I’ll step lightly until I know this is true,” whereas the unhealthy form of it I see too much of these days says, “I’ll go around looking for things to debunk.” Although the widespread misunderstanding of “faith” as blind belief among Evangelicals is legitimately critiqued by a humble recognition of our fallibility and potential for self-delusion, this deficiency is not necessarily remedied by either a similarly conceited disbelief or a similarly blind default stance of skepticism. When certainty eludes us, we must avoid manufacturing it in any direction; I am suggesting we would do well to remember the under-appreciated virtue of hope.
My hope, more than my credulity, is in the Christian God. Do I believe in God, Jesus, the ethic of love articulated by my forbears in the Christian faith, etc.? In a sense, but primarily because I hope in them. Hope steers my faith, not the assumption of certainty that masquerades as “faith”. My theological speculations are an explanation of how I expect my hope to be realized by love’s final victory, and my faith is merely how I go about fulfilling my theology. My hope is that which I commit to build through my life of faith. It seems to me, then, that hope is closer to love than either one is to faith.
With the tendency to conflate a reasoned and conscious hope with the make-believe of those in stout denial of reality, many who have come down this road with me have decided that they are content to rest in disbelief, a ready shelter from the turmoil of doubt. To be sure, getting one’s head out of the clouds and finding the beauty where we are on the ground is a laudable task, and I will listen to what they teach me and respectfully wish them well; but hope calls me deeper.
Have you been half asleep
And have you heard voices?
I’ve heard them calling my name
Is this the sweet sound
That calls the young sailors?
The voice might be one and the same
The moment we begin our exploration of the expanse beyond the turtle our world sits upon, we become like aliens. Faith is my commitment to step out of my capsule of unquestioned certainty and into that unknown world, knowing full well that what I inhale has every chance of being incompatible with my constitution. For after all, the air where I’m headed can hardly be any more unhealthy than the air I’m leaving behind. It’s either stay and suffocate while I try to convince myself to be satisfied in this world or dare to suppose that my difficulty in breathing here is due to the fact that, in Lewis’s words, “I was made for another world.” I will embrace even the faint opportunity to fill my lungs with a purer air so that I am more fit to offer something to this hurting world.
I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it
It’s something that I’m s’posed to be…
So in hope, my act of faith in a love still largely unrealized, I take a deep breath, and descend the ladder to place my foot on the back of the next turtle down…
August 22nd, 2011 | 21 Comments
Becoming an atheist is not in the cards for me at this point. But if ever I find myself an atheist, here’s my pledge to you.
I will not set up websites or troll others’ websites trying to get people to see why I lost my faith or why they should as well. I probably won’t even waste my time frequenting other skeptic/atheist blogs, either to shore up my non-belief, or to help me cope with my loss of faith, or to poke fun at those who still believe. If I step into the void of a godless universe, I’ll know exactly what I’m getting into (which, not coincidentally, is one reason it’s unlikely to happen any time soon).
If anything, I will spend my time trying to bridge the great divide and getting people to stop demonizing one another long enough to understand the positive aspects of the other side — and to exhort the true believer and the disillusioned alike to recognize that there are indeed positive aspects on both sides that we would all do well to cultivate. From what I’ve seen, you can remedy most of the bad aspects of the other guy’s belief system by helping to inform his beliefs more easily than embittering him by forcing your system onto his or trying to make him your clone.
I’m just so blasted tired of the bitterness and the negativity. Whether the God of love exists or theism is pure hogwash, I simply won’t live my life like that. Whatever ad hoc meaning I can contrive out of a purposeless universe will not include debunking the purpose currently bringing about good in other people’s lives. Yes, I can see myself delicately augmenting their current purpose with concepts of open-mindedness and goodwill, perhaps, but not popping their balloons just because mine got popped and I’ve convinced myself I’m happier without it.
I guess you could say that I’ll continue to serve, worship, and even proselytize for what Christianity has identified as good, right, and lovely, even if I abandon my faith in the Ultimate Basis for those concepts. So in a very real way, I can pretty much promise you that even if I lose my faith in God, I’ll never really lose my religion.
And hence, I pledge to you that my religion won’t ever grant me permission to be a jerk, a troll, or an evangelist for self-made and self-defined purpose.