Christianity, a guide for the skeptic and spiritually curious is way for our St. Alban’s Anglican community to continue to invest in our Christian faith during time away from the college. Each week we’ll publish a new video along with questions to explore on your own, with friends and family, or with your St. Alban’s small group online. If you’d like to explore the issues discussed in the video more deeply, click through below for an extended conversation on the nature of faith, doubt, and pressing more deeply into the life of faith.
Questions for further reflection:
- Did thinking about faith as trust change the way you think about your belief? How so?
- Have do you reason through what you believe about God? Did you find anything in the above helpful in doing so?
- Doubts can be experienced by people of religious faith, as well as by people without religious faith. Have you ever experienced doubt? How was this doubt resolved?
Carnival Clowns in a Secular Age
The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard tells the story of a circus come to town. Before the entertainment begins, a fire breaks out backstage. The Ringmaster sends a clown, who was already dressed and made up for the performance, into town to fetch help and give warning. The fire was developing into a roaring blaze and there was a possibility the wind could push the fire into the neighboring homes and buildings. When the clown arrives in town, the villagers think its part of the act, a bit of promotion for the circus. They laugh. The more the clown flails his arms and pleads for help, the more people laugh at him.
The story has been used as a parable to understand faith in the modern world. People of faith wish to communicate something urgent. They want to convey their understanding of reality, meaning, history, and future to the world, but with their ancient beliefs, difficult “insider” words, and strange morals they come dressed as clowns. If there is truth in the parable, the truth lies in this: there is a profound misunderstanding between the modern secular world and people of faith. As with most misunderstandings, there is enough blame to go around.
The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor said that our modern, secular world can be understood in one of three ways. In the first way, secularism can be understood as the emptying of God from public spaces. One could think of the shrewd political act conducted by Pope Leo III who crowned Charlemagne the Holy Roman Emperor in the 9th century. To be sure, Charlemagne had the sword, but the Pope held the crown. The political sphere was subject to the religious. That is true no longer. When religious people try to insert themselves into the public sphere, they appear as the clown did. Out of context they are easily misunderstood and dismissed.
The second way Taylor says that secularism can be understood is the emptiness of the churches and a general lack of participation in religious life. I’m less persuaded by this point. I remember attending a “mindfulness” exercise at my children’s local public school. The children were encouraged to adopt a pose specifically associated with a religious tradition from the East. They were then told to send out “positive energy” to friends and family. No doubt the school was absolutely persuaded that what they were doing was a purely secular exercise. If an Eastern practitioner had been present, I’m not sure he would have agreed.
The public school’s “mindfulness’ exercise points to a tension in modern secular society. There is a general agreement that we ought not push religion upon one another in public spaces, such as schools. And yet, these public spaces inevitably feel the need to incorporate religion and spirituality into their programs. The only way that this can be done in such a way that no one really understands what is taking place, is to adopt the religious practices of an unfamiliar culture. The unfamiliar culture is a costume that disguises the religious longings of the public sphere. As a person of religious faith, I’m grateful for these little exercises in the public schools. Despite secularism’s momentum, the mindfulness exercises keep the students attuned to a world that lies beyond what the eye can see, and the hands touch, which is just another way of saying the realm of faith and religious belief.
Perhaps Taylor doesn’t have any children or grandchildren participating in mindfulness exercises in public school. Otherwise, he would be able to see that there is still robust engagement and participation in religious life, but I suspect what he really means is that there is a lack of participation in the traditional religious expressions of Western Christianity. This tension is born out in a recent study conducted by Pew Research, which found that participation in religious institutions was in precipitous decline. And yet, the same survey found that in younger generations, spiritual curiosity was at an all time high. This is a tension that escaped the headlines, and one that secular interests would rather keep hidden behind the curtain.
The third and final way that Taylor speaks of secularism, is that secularism represents a transition from a society where belief came easy and was the social norm to a society where belief may not be the social norm and is “not the easiest to embrace.” Its this last sense that comes nearest to the truth, though not in the way that Taylor means. For Taylor, there are two polarized groups: the modern secular humanists who have difficulty embracing belief and the dogged faithful, who remain steadfast in their religious convictions. I certainly know some of both types, but the truth is I don’t know very many of either. Rather, the vast majority of people I encounter are somewhere in the middle. I know very few committed atheists. I know a lot more spiritually curious agnostics. I know very few religious fundamentalists. I know a lot more people seriously invested in their religious belief, who nevertheless experience frequent occasions of troubling doubt. This might be an effect of secularism, but I rather doubt it. If anything, secularism has given people permission to say what they have always felt. Faith is not the easiest to embrace. If the ancient texts of the Bible are to be believed, I’m not sure faith has ever been easy to embrace. If Christian faith is in part measured by belief in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, one will quickly discover that there were no Christians on Easter Sunday. Not one of the disciples believed the resurrection reports. Faith has never been an easy thing.
What exactly is faith and what makes it so difficult? There are two great mistakes people can make when thinking through faith. The first mistake is to assume that faith is shorthand for unwarranted belief. The second is to assume that faith is rock solid, certain, conviction. Neither really gets to the essence of the faith set forward in the Scriptures nor the faith as experienced in the daily lives of practitioners. I’ll deal with both mistakes in turn.
Faith: What is it?
The english word faith is derived from the Latin fides, which can be translated as trust. When faith is translated as trust, it becomes clear that faith is not something that only religious people practice, but rather something that all people practice every day. All of us place our trust in others, in institutions, and in things. Religious faith simply means that you’ve placed your trust in God as well. Christian faith means that you trust God as revealed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The First Mistake: Faith is shorthand for unwarranted belief
Its a mistake to assume that faith is shorthand for unwarranted belief. The British philosopher Bertrand Russel wrote an article titled “Is there a God?”, where he set forward what has become a fairly well-known analogy called “Russel’s teapot.” Russel was attempting to demonstrate that the burden of proof should rest on people who make unfalsifiable claims, as religious people necessarily do. He wrote:
“Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.”
There are two claims operating in the above. The first claim is that if I were to believe in a microscopic, cosmic teapot, it would be wrong for me to argue that such a teapot did indeed exist, since skeptics would not be able to prove that it didn’t exist. That is the first claim and one that I happen to agree with. The second claim is more subtle and much harder to prove. It is this: faith in God is the same as belief in a cosmic teapot. In other words, both are based on assumptions with no compelling evidence. This second claim rests on much weaker foundations than the first.
To begin, I’m unaware of anyone in the history of the world who believes in a microscopic teapot orbiting the sun. Why would the thought ever occur to anyone? On its face it’s unreasonable and absurd. On the other hand, when ancient and modern people have thought about their own existence, as well as the existence of the world they live in, the vast majority of them have concluded that it is reasonable that the world as we know it is a world made by a Creator God. If you don’t believe such a conclusion to be reasonable, this doesn’t mean you’re wrong, but it does mean you’re out of step with what the majority of human beings consider to be reasonable. For example, consider the words of the Psalmist:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8.3-4)
The Psalmist has the very common and very human reaction of looking at the night sky and being moved to think of a Creator. The profundity of the beauty of the world moves him to consider the divine. Modern people might find the Psalmist’s prayer hopelessly naïve. After all, we now know about the primeval atom and the Big Bang. We don’t need a Creator to explain the moon and the stars. Not only is this a misunderstanding of the way religious people think about a Creator God, but it’s an equally simplistic and naïve use of reasoning.
First, the Psalmist is not trying to answer questions as to the origin of the universe. Rather, moved by the beauty and wonder of the universe, he is compelled to consider a Creator. He’s not looking for an explanation of where the world came from, but rather he’s looking to express a feeling of the soul. Many scientists, as they’ve unraveled the deeper mysteries of the origins of the universe, have been compelled to do the same thing. For example, consider the physician and geneticist Francis Collins, who was the head of the Human Genome Project when the human genome was first decoded and is the current director of the National Institutes of Health. He wrote:
“When you look from the perspective of a scientist at the universe, it looks as if it knew we were coming. There are 15 constants—the gravitational constant, various constants about the strong and weak nuclear force, etc.—that have precise values. If any one part of those constants was off by even on part in a million, or in some cases, by one part in a million million, the universe could not have actually come to the point where we see it. Matter would not have been able to coalesce, there would have been no galaxy, stars, planets or people. That’s a phenomenally surprising observation. It seems almost impossible that we’re here. And that does make you wonder—gosh, who was setting those constants anyway? Scientists have not been able to figure that out.”
Collins is doing the very same thing that the Psalmist was doing, though with a much more sophisticated base of evidence and reasoning. Collins is referring to what scientists and philosophers call the Fine-Tuning Argument, which relies upon things like the strength of gravity measured against the strength of electromagnetism, or the strong nuclear force measured against the same. If the strong nuclear force had been strong, almost all hydrogen may have been burned in the early universe. Had it been weaker, no elements beyond hydrogen would have been formed. Some scientists and philosophers have concluded that given these facts, and others, the chances of such a universe coming about in such a way as to sustain life as we know it is virtually zero. Therefore, they have concluded that the universe was designed by a Creator.
Both Collins and the Psalmist, each in his own way, has taken what he knows about the world and reasoned to the conclusion of a Creator God. The calculations of an astrophysicist can prompt the same need to ponder divine purposes and plans as the ancient shepherd looking at the stars. There is an important lesson here. Modern people sometimes assume if that if the ancient world had access to the knowledge that we do know, they would not have needed faith in God. But this simply isn’t the case. As was shown above, scientific discovery can be just as much a source of faith as gazing at the night sky. They need not necessarily push you towards unbelief.
Given the above, it’s important to recognize that some of the scientific discoveries of the past two centuries, notably the theory of evolution and the Big Bang, are not nearly as devastating to religious belief as some people claim that they are. Just as some might think it’s simplistic to look at the night sky and conclude “there must be a God!” It is equally simplistic to say humans are descended from apes and conclude “there must not be a God!” It simply does not follow. It might be a surprise to learn that many Christians are comfortable with both the Big Bang and evolution and can easily incorporate both into their understanding of the Biblical narrative.
Religious faith is not unwarranted belief. Most religious people, both in the past and alive now, believe that there are good, reasonable grounds for their faith. Furthermore, far from driving people away from religious belief, scientific discovery has the same power to draw people more deeply into religious faith. The power of scientific discovery to devastate religious belief is greatly overstated and prone to serious logical fallacy. We’ll have more time to explore some of the reasonable claims of faith, particularly as they relate to Jesus and his resurrection from the dead. For now, it’s enough to say that the vast majority of people alive today find it reasonable that life as we know it was brought about by a Creator God.
The Second Mistake: Faith is absolute, certain, conviction
Religious faith can be reasonable faith, based upon reason, experience, and evidence. But here we must be very careful. The kind of reason, experience, and evidence that can be gathered to warrant faith is not the same as scientific certainty. This leads us to the second mistake people often make about thinking through religious faith. Religious faith is not equivalent to absolute, certain, conviction.
Certainty is mostly reserved for the realm of what we can confirm by sight with our eyes, touch with our hands, hear with our ears, or what we can logically deduce from these sensory experiences. In 1827, Robert Brown was able to observe tiny particles released from grain he was observing through a microscope. The particles moved in a strange, unpredictable way that came to be known as “Brownian motion.” This was enough for Albert Einstein to reasonably (and rightly!) infer that the particles were being pushed around by hundreds of millions of even smaller molecules made of atoms, however it wasn’t until recently that an Oxford student, David Nadlinger, while participating in a research competition, was able to produce a photo of one. Brown’s sensory experience of seeing particles jitter beneath the lens of his microscope, led to inferences, that eventually led to a photograph. As part of the natural world, even though many believed the atom was too small to be seen, it was always there to be seen.
Linking certain belief with the visible world poses problems to religious belief. After all, as the 19th century hymn puts it, God is “Immortal, invisible, God only wise.” How can you verify the existence of someone who is outside the realm of visible beings? Thankfully, what can be seen, touched, or heard is not the sum total of human experience. There is a range of human experience that exists outside of the realm of certainty as described above. The retired prelate of the Roman church, Benedict XVI, put it like this:
“Man does not regard seeing, hearing, and touching as the totality of what concerns him…he does not view the area of this world as marked off by what he can see and touch but seeks a second mode of access to reality, a mode he calls in fact belief, and in such a way finds in it the decisive enlargement of his whole view of the world.”
There are common human experiences that lay outside of what we can see and touch. Purpose, meaning, beauty, morality, friendship, and love are all part of the marrow of life, and yet one cannot see his purpose or examine love under the lens of a microscope. Each of these falls well beyond the realm of what can be verified and made certain. Nevertheless, who would deny that they provide the substance of life that makes it worth living?
I remember many years ago, the celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins came to Charleston, S.C. This was just a short trip down the road for me, so I made a drive over the bridge to see him. By the time I arrived, the auditorium was packed to overflowing capacity. People had driven all over the southeast to see Dawkins. I remember speaking to a young man from Georgia who wept outside the auditorium because he couldn’t get in. The sense of religious devotion was palpable, if not ironic.
A few of my friends did make it into the event. All of them were atheists. They were kind enough to let me buy them a beer in exchange for a summary of the lecture. We didn’t get too far. The first thing that they said was Dawkins began the lecture by stating how grateful he was to be alive in such an amazing, complex, beautiful, and mysterious universe. This was affirmed by everyone at the table, but our conversation hit an insurmountable roadblock when I pointed out that gratitude assumes that there is someone on the other side able to receive your gratefulness. At first this objection was brushed away as a bit of unnecessary hairsplitting. As we talked more deeply about what the word “gratitude” actually means, the table fell into a defeated silence. Eventually, one of my friends somberly announced over his pint of beer that he couldn’t be grateful and maintain his convictions about the non-existence of God. One would have to go. As we walked home from the bar, I remember him admitting that gratitude was a feeling he must give up on. It was an unwarranted feeling.
The mistake my friends made, I think, was to place their religious conviction (atheism is after all, by definition, a religious conviction) above the evidence. The evidence was not the kind that is confirmed by sensory experience. It is still evidence, nonetheless. Their profound feeling, which was shared by all at the table, and which led them to evangelize me about the feeling I too should have at being alive in a universe such as this, was gratitude. This feeling of gratitude, which demands a person to express gratefulness too, should have led them in search of such a person. Our feelings, longings, and desires can act as evidence of unseen things. The Oxford English professor and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis put it like this:
“The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex.”
My friends felt gratitude at the wonder of the universe. Well, couldn’t it be possible that there is such a person to whom gratitude might be expressed? Might the feeling point to an object that can satisfy the desire? Lewis continues:
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.”
What Lewis is saying is that human experience is composed of experiences that while intangible, are nevertheless profound. Through the very profundity of the experience, they feel more “real” than the real world. Compelled by this sense of reality that lies beyond the certain world of what can be touched, seen, and heard, we set off in search of what lies beyond.
Normal human experiences, such as the desire to discover one’s purpose, or a deep sense of gratitude, the longing for friends, or the experience of falling in love, train us to attend to a world beyond the realm of scientific certainty. Again, this doesn’t mean that we enter such a world without evidence or reason, but it does mean we cannot enter such a world on evidence and reason alone.
Think about a man who has fallen in love with a woman. Science can tell us about the various chemicals released by the brain, such as vasopressin, adrenaline, dopamine, and oxytocin, that give the man a sense of pleasure and romantic purpose, but science can’t tell the man what to do with his sudden burning urge to buy a ring. Particularly tingly neural receptors aren’t a sure indication of a marriage proposal.
The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard famously struggled with this very thing when he broke of his engagement to his lifelong love, Regine Olsen. Kierkegaard understood that we’re confronted with a series of alternative ways of life. For Kierkegaard, he could either be a bachelor or a married man, but he couldn’t be both. On the one hand, he knew he was in love. On the other, he was also worried that his melancholy would be a burden on Regine. So, he decided to break off his engagement and remain a bachelor.
Fortunately, we don’t have to wonder how Kierkegaard made this decision. He spent a lifetime sorting it out. When you must make a decision, you use your reason, you collect evidence, and you seek advice. While each of these things is useful for making a decision, none of them can actually make the decision for you. You can only make a decision by “leaping” into it. Kierkegaard said that this can only be done by faith.
As we said earlier, faith comes from the Latin word fides, which means trust. The leap is made trusting that you have made the right decision, but you can’t be certain of it. It’s this lack of certainty that introduces the problem of doubt. If you’ve ever been to summer camp, you might have participated in the team building exercise called the “trust fall.” If you’ve ever done it yourself, or caught someone doing it, then you’ll know that people hardly ever fall stiff as a board. They almost always bend at the waist in an attempt to catch themselves when they fall. This doesn’t mean that they don’t trust their friends or teammates. It simply means that when you exercise your trust, it’s almost always mingled with a little bit of doubt.
Did Kierkegaard doubt his decision to break off the engagement? Almost certainly. That’s the case with all of life’s deepest, most important questions. What is my purpose? What is the meaning of my life? Am I in love? These questions put us on a journey that has a destination. But one only begins the journey and commits himself to a path by faith. As with any exercise of faith, its to be expected that one second guesses the course to which he has committed himself to from time to time.
Returning to Lewis’s point above, our longings and desires can point us to a deeper reality than what our senses convey. For Lewis, this deeper reality ultimately leads us to God. I’d want to add something to this picture. It’s not just that these intangible, human longings lead us to a deeper reality. These intangible human longings also teach us and train us how to pursue the deeper realities of the unseen world. If Lewis is right, and such things are meant to lead us to God then it seems that they could also train us how to pursue a relationship with God. We reason our way through it. We collect evidence from our experience. We speak with those we trust. Eventually, however, we must leap into that new job, or that new relationship. The same can be said for our relationship with God. There is a time for gathering one’s reasons, but there must come a time for the leap as well.
Why not just remain uncommitted? Why not just avoid the leap altogether? My primary work is with college students. A particular problem with a lot of college students is that they want to be certain of what they’re leaping into. They want to know for certain that this is the right major. They want to know for certain that this person is “the one.” They want to know for certain that this job is the one they should take. But the problem is, you cannot make these kinds of decisions with certainty. You can only make them by a leap of faith. I see a lot of college students trapped in a state of indecisiveness because they don’t understand life is lived by faith, not by certainty. This trains them as well. It trains them to be perpetually indecisive and as a result, a great deal of life rushes by.
Faith, whether it’s the faith of leaping into a new stage of life, or whether it’s leaping into a relationship with God, is like a passport to life’s richest experiences. Reason, evidence, and experience can take you to the border of friendship, purpose, meaning, beauty, truth, morality, and love, but these things can’t get you across the border. Only faith can do this. And when it comes to a spiritual relationship with God, reason, evidence, and experience can be of great service, but they can’t take you to a place of certainty. They can only take you to a place of reasonable faith. Only the leap of faith can take you into the new territory of a life with God.
Faith, Doubt, and the Path Forward
Just as with the person who bends at the waist to catch themselves during the trust fall, people of faith also experience moments of doubt. These moments of doubt might be relatively small, such as “I wonder if such and such really happened the way that the Bible says it did” to larger questions of “I wonder if such and such is really immoral, like my minister said it was.” These questions can be even greater, such as doubting the truth and existence of God altogether.
When I was in seminary, training to be a minister, I experienced a period of profound doubt in the reality of God. I should have expected this. My college chaplain used to joke that seminary should be called “theological cemetery, where your faith goes to die.” I had friends lose their faith in seminary. One friend described some of the things he had learned about the Bible as “family secrets” of the church that were ultimately devastating to his faith. I learned the same things he did and didn’t find them nearly as problematic as he did. Rather, the sense of isolation I felt from a particularly close Christian fellowship while in college, paired with some moral struggles, led me to a place where my faith was riddled with doubts. I thought that my experience of doubt was abnormal for Christians and concluded something had gone wrong with me or my faith. I didn’t tell anyone.
If I had found the courage to discuss my doubts with someone, they might have pointed out that a life of faith is not a life of certainty, and that many of the great Christian saints have had moments of serious doubt. Thérèse of Lisieux, a Roman Catholic saint, is venerated for her practical approach to spirituality. And yet, while suffering from tuberculosis, a disease that she would eventually die from at the young age of 24, wrote that she was suffering “from the worst temptations of atheism.” Many were surprised to read the letters of Mother Theresa, the Albanian Nun who made a vow to not refuse Jesus anything. After a series of mystical encounters with Jesus, she committed to live and serve amongst the poorest of the poor. Her work would earn her the Nobel Prize and see her admired and revered by people of many faiths. She was recognized as a saint in the Roman Catholic in 2016. Nevertheless, as her letters published posthumously showed, she suffered periods of extreme doubt and even unbelief.
How are we to understand such doubts? To begin, doubts are not an abnormal experience for people of faith. As we discussed earlier, its natural to second guess a “leap of faith” from time to time. Beyond this however, experiencing doubt and working through it can lead to a deeper understanding of the path you’ve committed yourself to. Doubts can cause you to reevaluate both belief as well as unbelief. But doubts can also cause you to consider the course you’ve taken and having worked through the doubts pursue your path with greater resolve than before.
The Scottish author and minister George MacDonald wrote: “Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to the honest. They are the first knock at our door of things that are not yet, but have to be, understood.” His point can be made through little story he tells called The Princess and the Goblin. In the story, a horde of goblins living under a mountain have plans to kidnap the princess and use her as leverage to gain power above ground. The plot is discovered by a miner boy named Curdie, who overhears their plans while he is working below ground. Before he can leave the mine and warn the kingdom, he’s captured by the goblins, who bury him in a cavern sealed off by large stones. Curdie is eventually rescued by the Princess. She used a magic ring, made of spider’s silk, to find him. The silk unravels, leaving a thread that takes her where she needs to go. The Princess follows the thread to Curdie. The same thread leads her out a secret way, unknown to both the miner boy as well as the goblins, back to safety.
Curdie is baffled how the Princess could navigate the mine. She shows him the ring, but he thinks she’s teasing him. So, she offers to take Curdie to the person who gave her the ring, a mysterious “Great, Great, Grandmother” that lives at the top of the castle. The two go up and up the stairs to the Grandmother’s room. When they arrive, only the Princess can see her. Curdie thinks he’s been tricked again. He thanks the Princess for the rescue but leaves angry thinking she’s making fun of him.
The Princess is deeply hurt that Curdie doesn’t believe her and she complains to her Grandmother, who in truth is a faerie spirit, only visible to those with the eyes to see. The Grandmother listens for moment, then says to the Princess, “People must believe what they can, and those who believe more must not be hard on those who believe less. I doubt if you would have believed at all if you hadn’t seen some of it.” Curdie had not seen as much as the Princess had seen. Therefore, he couldn’t believe what she believed.
One of the reasons that faith is hard is because people can only believe only slightly beyond what they have seen and experienced. Think about the difference between two people who have just met and begun to fall in love and two people who have been married for a long time. The couple who has just met are likely to be having an exhilarating experience, but also a stressful one. The early stages of a relationship, despite all its joys and energy, are fraught with fears, insecurities, jealousy, and misunderstanding. These things are present in the early stages of the relationship, because the couple is not able to believe what they need to believe about the other person in order to feel secure in the relationship. And they’re not able to believe, because they haven’t been together long enough to see and know through experience that the other person is trustworthy. A good relationship builds up a track record of trustworthiness. Ideally, over time, as two people see more of one another they learn to trust each other more. Fears and insecurities subside as the couple is able to believe more and more in the other person. A couple that has been married for a long time might not feel the exhilaration of falling in love, but they’re also less likely to feel the stress, fear, insecurity, and jealousy of a young relationship. They have seen more of one another, so they believe more in one another.
A relationship with God really is no different. There might be certain things that you have trouble believing right now. For example, you might have trouble reconciling a Creator God with what you know through science about the beginning of this universe. This might not actually be a problem for you. A nagging sense of guilt from some past action, or even shame from a current addiction might be your problem. This might prevent you from believing that God loves you. There might be certain parts of your life, such as your purpose, money, pain, or grief, that you don’t quite believe God is big enough to handle. If you walk with God for a time, you’ll find many of the things you have trouble believing and trusting in now will be resolved one way or another. You’ll believe more because you will have seen more. This doesn’t mean new doubts and challenges won’t arise, but it does mean that those fears and insecurities you have at the beginning of your relationship with God won’t be the ones you’re wrestling with ten years from now.
The Great Grandmother’s words to the Princess are wise words. “People believe what they can. And people who believe more ought not be hard on those who believe less.” Believe what you can for now, and if you find that you’re one of those people who believe less, you ought not be too hard on yourself. The truth is, all of us believe more about God than some, and less about God than others. The doubts that people experience both when first beginning a relationship with God, as well as those that come after many years of walking with God, aren’t spiritually counterproductive. People haunted by doubts often have an opportunity to grow in their faith. As we noted earlier, doubts are the “messengers of the Living One to the honest. They are the first knock at our door of things that are not yet, but have to be, understood.”
Understanding from the Inside
One of the things Kierkegaard noted about a life of faith is that once you’ve made a leap of faith, the world you’ve entered into can only be understood from the inside. For example, Kierkegaard could only really understand the significance of remaining a bachelor after he committed to do so. The same is true for a life of faith. You can reason your way to belief in God through a variety of ways, but you can only understand what it is to be a person of faith by making the leap and walking the path. Faith is only intelligible to those who are practicing it.
How might you go about doing this? You may be in a place where you need to continue to explore. I had a New Testament professor at Oxford named Michael Greene. Michael told me of his own coming to faith while a student at Oxford. When he heard the Gospel story, he said that if true, it would be the greatest discovery of his life. However, if false, he would fight against it all his days. I always admired Michael’s willingness to be intellectually open to either. If you’re in a place where you’re not ready to make the leap, I would encourage you to commit yourself with all seriousness to reasoning your way through the possibility of God. Some places I’d encourage you to look would be C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, Tim Keller’s The Reason for God, or Alister McGrath’s Science and Religion.
If you’re ready to make a leap, which is not necessarily a lifelong commitment to faith in God, but rather a commitment to pursue a path for a time, then I can recommend two things. First, I recommend that you begin to pray. For some people, prayer comes easy. For most, prayer can be a difficult, even tedious thing. We’ll have an opportunity to talk about prayer more deeply later. For now, let me offer two suggestions.
First, pray selfishly. When I speak to college students about their prayer life, they tell me that they pray for their mom and dad, their sick grandmother, their friend going through a bad breakup, etc. Rarely do they pray for themselves. This is a huge problem. We live in a fast passed, frantic, stressful world. Our lives are encumbered with many burdens, the kind that can keep the mind racing at night. In John Bunyan’s book The Pilgrim’s Progress, there is a scene where Christian, the pilgrim, approaches the cross with a heavy burden on his back. He has tried and tried to have his burden taken off, but nothing would do. Upon seeing the cross, the burden tumbles down to the ground and rolls into a tomb, never to be seen again. Bunyan is making a point about our personal sense of guilt, and how the cross of Jesus can free us from this burden. But it’s important to know that guilt is not the only burden God wishes to free us from.
The scriptures teach us to “cast all your anxieties on God, because he cares for you” (1 Pet 5.7). When you pray, do pray for others, but don’t forget to pray for yourself. Work through the things you’re worried about, the things that make the mind race, then “cast them” on God. The Greek word, ἐπιῤῥίπτω, which has been translated as “cast,” means to throw, or place upon. Before I go to sleep in the evening, I imagine the things I worry about as separate, heavy burdens. I intentionally pick them up, one at a time, and hand them to Jesus. They are now his burdens. This doesn’t mean there’s work to do on my end when I wake up the next day, but it does mean I work as if God himself has taken an interest in the outcome. This is something you could practice to begin to understand what it means to trust God from the inside.
The second thing you could do is read the Bible. I’d encourage you to begin in a Gospel, a short book about the life of Jesus. There are four: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. If you picked Mark, you could read a chapter a day and be done in a little over two weeks. A chapter shouldn’t take you more than a few minutes. Take a little notepad and write down one thing that impressed you, confused you, made you mad, excited you, or made you think. You can bring these things to God as well.
Remember, the goal is not certainty. Rather the goal is to use faith as a passport to a new experience. Pray and read as if you expected God to begin working in your life. Commit yourself to this new path and seek to understand a life of faith from within a life of faith.