The Problem With Faith
Let’s say you’ve settled on a conclusion about what’s true, and you feel pretty solid about it. You’ve done some research--done some deep thinking and spiritual housekeeping--and you’re committing to believing X or Y. Now, I ask you, what would you call the stuff behind your decision? What led you to make the choice that you did? I’d venture to guess you’d use a word like “reason,” “rationale,” or “logic”—something that makes your decision sound like it was simply appropriate, even obvious, given the evidence. But I’m here to argue that no matter what decisions you’ve come to make about reality, the more appropriate word behind your actions is “faith.”
“Woah, there buck-o. You may not have heard me, but I'm a decidedly card-carrying scientific naturalist. Don’t go lumping me in with all those hand-raising, kowtowing religious folk.”
Oh, don’t worry, I heard you loud and clear hypothetical-objector-guy, and my argument remains the same. No matter how science-based your stance may be, it is still one that is rooted in faith. In fact, if you stop and take a thoughtful look at your own actions, and what you base them off of, you’ll recognize you’re acting as a man or woman of faith way more often than you care to admit.
I’d say almost all but the most paranoid take it on faith that the decided “laws” of our universe such as gravity or nuclear bonds will persist to the next day. We don’t go around wondering if the atoms in the chair we’re sitting on will continue to hold their structure, or if in the next moment the chair will suddenly become a cow, or be ripped from existence entirely. It would be ridiculous and extremely counterproductive to continually question every aspect of our reality all at once. So, we subconsciously agree to simply trust that there are constants in this universe that give order to things. However, our culture has a peculiar way of drawing a line between what is acceptable to put faith in, and what is not.
It Comes Down to Testimony
But first, lets look at the word “faith” for a second. I feel like we, as a society, have given faith a very narrow connotation. We reserve faith for the traditional religions. We say that faith has more to do with feelings than facts, while words like “reason" and “logic” are more fit for the field of science. But what if, for the sake of this argument, I substituted “faith” with the word “trust?” Trust isn’t that scary of a word, now is it? It’s a word that can play nicely in the context of both religious and scientific communities. One can trust a religious text, just as one can also trust scientific data. And when you boil it down, that’s essentially what faith is: trusting in a testimony that’s being told.
“Cool, so faith and trust are essentially the same thing. Great. Well, it’s pretty easy to trust in something that’s a proven fact,” I hear someone now saying.
And to that I say, where are you getting your "facts?" Believe me when I say I am not one of those, “we faked the moon landing; Elvis is still alive,” type of conspiracy guys, but I really do think we need to seriously consider how we come to conclude something is a “fact.” I can almost guarantee none of my readers have much experience with subatomic particles or have witnessed another galaxy with their own eyes, but these are things we accept as common knowledge nowadays. But why?
Testimony. We trust the testimony of the scientists that study such things. We trust that they have put in the effort to make an informed conclusion on something. Thus, we give them credibility in our minds and accept their words as factual. For the most part, this goes on without much of our noticing. This is due to the fact that many claims largely already appeal to a personal schema that we’ve been developing in the context of our culture and place in history. At this particular time, in this particular culture, the concept of atoms or the existence of other galaxies all seems plausible in most people’s accepted view of the world. So, when new claims surrounding such subjects are made, we shrug our shoulders and say, “Huh, makes sense to me!”
Even when a scientist makes a claim that goes against our current thoughts or feeling, we often still allow them credibility, even if (sometimes especially if) we can’t comprehend their claim. Why do we do this? It’s because we recognize our own ignorance, and trust in the expertise and the work put in by the one making the claim. Even if it means changing one’s own behavior, a person will often heed a new study claiming that fish is the new smoking, or that egg salad sandwiches cause cataracts.
But what about when that same person comes across a religious or moral claim that confronts them? The script is often flipped. Now, it doesn’t matter how much work or dedication went into the assertion. If it means changing their behavior in the slightest, that person suddenly become an expert on the matter and pins the ignorance on the one making the claim. Yet, unlike the dime-a-dozen scientific studies that claim and counterclaim on a seemingly daily basis, oftentimes statements of religious nature cannot be definitively dismissed.
Bridging the Gap
Now, why is that? Why, no matter how narrow-minded a religious claim may sound, can we not definitively disprove it’s assertion? It’s because there remains this veil, this distance, between ourselves and full knowledge of reality—something that no amount of research and experimentation can traverse. Regardless of what conclusions you’ve made about reality, a measure of faith is still required to bridge the gap. Still not convinced? Let me explain what I mean through an illustration.
Let’s say that in this illustration you have your typical illustration man (we’ll call him Tim for short). And let’s say Tim is going on his preverbal morning stroll when he suddenly notices this nondescript red object high up in the branches of a nearby tree. Now, Tim isn’t a botanical expert, but drawing from his local context and previous experiences with red objects in trees, he makes an assumption that it must be an apple hanging up there. Given the evidence presented, it seems like a pretty reasonable assumption, right?
Now, lets say a second person comes along and he just so happens to be a botanical expert. He applauds Tim for the valiant effort, but informs him that this particular tree is actually a red pear tree, and the object is, in fact, not an apple but a pear. Convinced by this fellow’s background, Tim decides to believe his new friend’s claim and begins to call the object a pear as well.
Soon, a third person comes along. He quickly assesses the situation and proclaims, “Nope, you’re both wrong! That thing up there is definitely a tomato.” Tim is skeptical. He’s never seen tomatoes grow on trees before. Then again, there may be some special variety that does and he’s simply never come across it before. He confers with his new botanist pal and eventually decides to reject the tomato hypothesis.
Finally, a fourth guy stops by the base of the tree. “Would you look at that!” he proclaims as he looks upward. Before he even has a chance to listen to the tomato, pear, and apple theories, he continues, “my friend told me his red yo-yo got caught up in the pear tree and I just had to come see it for myself!”
Now, lets break down where faith comes into play in Tim’s experience with this mysterious red object:
When he first comes to notice the object, Tim develops a statement about the object based on what he sees, and any relevant previous experiences he’s had. He probably employed a very logical process. Something like: This object is in a tree; apples grow on trees. This object is red; many varieties of apples are red. However, due to the distance between himself and the red object, Tim still has to rely on a certain level of faith to conclude that it is an apple. In other words, the reasoning Tim used only got him far enough to make a statement of faith, not a statement of fact. And in this case, the testimony Tim’s putting his faith in is his own. He trusts his own experience and subject-knowledge is viable enough to make a trustworthy statement.
Then along comes the botanist. After learning about his new friend’s expertise and hearing his explanation, Tim decides to replace his apple hypothesis with the new red pear theory. He trusts his friend’s testimony over his own because he admits his own knowledge is limited and he sees value in the words of someone with greater experience. And, just as importantly, Tim trusts that this new acquaintance is being honest with him and not willfully deceiving him. However, despite this new found expertise, the distance between the two of them and the red object still allows for the unknown. An amount of faith is still required to conclude the object is a pear. But now, Tim’s faith is no longer so much in his own testimony, but that of his new friend.
Next, comes Tomato Guy and his claim. This time, Tim is unconvinced. In this case, Tim's reasoning first references his own personal experience, but then differs to the credibility of his new friend. Tim’s rationale looks something like: This man’s claim doesn’t describe anything I’ve experienced before; his conclusion isn’t trustworthy. This man doesn’t have the credibility of my new botanist friend; this man’s explanation isn’t as viable as my new friend’s. In this decision, Tim’s rationale caused him reject the tomato theory, but it is still his faith that keeps him adhering to the notion that the object in question is a pear. Tim is trusting that both he and his botanist friend are not ignorant of some rare species of tomato that Tomato Guy is correctly identifying in the branches above.
At this point, Tim is probably feeling pretty confident in his decision about the red object. All the parameters seem to line up in his mind. He has the backing of an expert, and he’s even successfully defended his theory against a naysayer. But then, this fourth gentleman comes along with an outlandish claim.
"I mean, why would a yo-yo be in a tree?” I sure Tim is thinking. "That just sounds so farfetched." Yet, Tim cannot say with any certainty that the notion is impossible. Unable to climb the tree, Tim cannot prove that this man’s friend didn’t at one point send his yo-yo flying up into the canopy for them to now come across and ponder its existence. Tim now has a decision to make. Does he remain adhered to his botanist friend’s hypothesis or does he now accept this story of a red yo-yo?
Everything was so neat and tidy with the pear theory. The botanist had explanations that made sense to Tim, it was a safe guess that no one would ridicule him for. And if he turned out to be wrong, he could simply blame the bad information on the botanist. But, now this new man comes along and offers not facts and figures, but a testimony. Yet, there’s this confidence about him that Tim cannot overlook. This man seems to know and trust the owner of this yo-yo, he even calls him his friend. But Tim doesn’t know this man’s friend. How can he trust that he’s telling the truth? Who plays with yo-yos anymore, anyway?
This is the great risk of faith. Yet, what many don’t recognize is that there’s risk on all sides. The botanist could have all of his facts right. He could have correctly identified the bark of the tree, the climate and soil type and region could have all lined up to say that this is in fact a red pear tree. In fact, it could actually be a red pear tree. But if the object in question is a yo-yo that happens to be stuck in a red pear tree, he would still be wrong.
An Element of Hope
Hopefully, you’re still with me after all the fruit and dollar-store toy references. I admit that was a rather exhausting illustration, but I feel it's an accurate depiction of the world of beliefs we live in. When it comes down to it, faith is required of all of us. It’s unavoidable. At some point, we are trusting in somebody's testimony.
Now, I know I said that faith is essentially trusting in a testimony. But, if we take a closer look, this thing that we find within ourselves goes much deeper than mere trust. There’s an element of hope involved. We don’t just think something to be true, we hope something to be true. That is the type of faith I see in most people; the faith that something will come of all this; that there is meaning hiding somewhere, just waiting to be found. Something as simple as the inkling that our thoughts are being listened to--that the cries of our heart are somehow being heard--describes the faith I mean.
Whether we label it “faith” or not, I’m here to argue that this hope--this longing--exists in some form or another within all of us. It just so happens that those for which the necessity of hope is most prevalent, are often those whose circumstances require it most. The choice of non-faith is the religion of the privileged—those so insulated by wealth, comfort, and status that they see no need to hope for better. But for even the most well off, a day of need will come. Tragedy strikes and crisis comes to rich and poor alike. And it’s often through such trails that one’s faith makes itself known. But it’s not just one’s own faith that is revealed, but also the object in which faith is placed. Which begs the question: Can the object of your faith uphold the burden you are placing on it?
A.W. Tozer in his book, Pursuit of God, describes faith as “the gaze of the soul upon a saving God.” What in your life is your “saving god?” Is it comfort? Is it success? Is it the love and approval of another human being? Will not these things ultimately be crushed under the weight of expectation you’re placing on them? Or are you the only thing you choose to place faith in? That way, the only thing you have to answer to is yourself. But, what if the day comes where your self is the very thing that is crumbling?
"So, what? You want me to believe in this all-powerful God who will just one day come and make everything better? I'm supposed to just sit back and believe in Him and not question anything? That’s easy for you to say, everything already conveniently lines up with your own preferences. I didn’t grow up in the church, how do you expect me to trust in something like that?”--I expect some of you are saying at this point.
Yes, I did attend church from a young age, but as I said before, I say that I really only became a Christian my sophomore year of high school. And that’s because it was the time I actually did begin questioning things. I wrestled with my faith to the point of tears more nights than I can remember. Those days were undoubtedly the most difficult time of my life. Yet, I wouldn’t trade them for the world. Because through them I came to truly know what I believe in, and why I believe it.
And no, my statement of faith is not simply my own personal feelings. In fact, there are some Biblical concepts that directly go against my personal feelings, or at least what I’d prefer. There are things in the Bible that I simply cannot wrap my head around--things that I cannot justify in my own mind. But, I readily recognize that I am not the one who justifies--or even the one who comprehends--the workings of this world.
Think about it. If the God I worshipped could be completely comprehended by my own simple, finite mind, what kind of God would he be? Yet we see people act on this notion all the time. They decided to withhold faith in God because they don’t understand a particular aspect of Him. They would rather continue on in their own comfortable, little world where the only viable governing principles are the ones that happen to make sense to them at the time. They invent this quasi-personal force they call “the universe,” and speak to it like a TV that’s acting up—hoping somehow it will listen. If things somehow end up favorably, they thank it. But they are careful to never give it enough personhood to where it might ever ask something of them in return.
Yet, unless you are comfortable with labeling yourself the end-all-be-all of all existence, something will be asked of you regardless of what you believe. And that something is to admit that in and of yourself, you cannot--and will not--bridge the gap between your personal understanding of things and complete reality. Faith must be placed in something, or someone, in order to fill this gap. And whatever you decide to have fill this gap, now becomes the authority to which you submit your life. It’s this submission part that our North American culture has a tough time with. However, we are already doing it whether we recognize it or not.
For those who have decided to profess faith in God, I ask you: Does your God ever ask anything of you that you do not what to do? Does He ever disagree with you? I’d venture to say, in this culture especially, a significant portion of those calling themselves Christians are actually more closely following a deified version of their own self-centeredness, rather than the teachings and person of Jesus Christ. If trust is the root of faith, then one could say that humility is the soil. To have faith in something greater than oneself requires that the self assume the role of the lesser. And if we, as Christians, confess that we have all sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God--and that such a God is infinitely righter and more knowledgable than ourselves--then we should expect ourselves to have gotten some things wrong along the way, and subsequently need to be guided and corrected in some, if not many, areas of thinking.
I can here a certain someone now saying, "That’s all just great, but you Christians are all in the same faith-boat as the rest of us. There’s a chance you are deceived by your own speculation, as well. Why do you insist on shoving your beliefs down everyone’s throat like you know something the rest of us don’t?”
First of all, I’ll admit that we Christians are taking a risk in our belief. Paul, in a letter to the church in Corinth, says, "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:19) We are staking our lives on the fact that Jesus is who he says he was. However, if you think about it, all others are staking their lives, and their eternities, on the very same premise. They’re just hoping Jesus was wrong. The one option Jesus did not leave for us, is to ignore him.
If Christianity proves to be true, convincing someone of the Truth of Jesus’ message means the difference between eternal life and eternal death. Given this, you can understand why we can be pushy sometimes. I’ll address this more in my essay on “Love” but if evangelism somehow becomes more about winning an argument than saving a life, then I believe we have gotten away from the very Gospel message we aim to convey.
For the scientific naturalist, however, any motivation to proselytize would only come from a personal distaste of other religions or the self-satisfaction of seeing more people join their own side. In fact, in the end there would be no way of knowing if they were actually right in their thinking, because when the time came for the big reveal, they would already be dirt just like everyone else. But, they would definitely know if they were wrong.
So, can we all agree to get comfortable with faith? Again, we employ it every day. We have faith the sun will rise tomorrow instead of exploding and whipping out our entire solar system, we have faith that the banana we ate this morning is actually good for us and not some carcinogenic nightmare-fruit that the scientists of Big Pharma have been marketing as a “superfood” for decades in order to keep the public dependent on their medicines. Faith is innate in all of us. Some are probably just not used to calling it “faith.”
It seems to be that the grander questions draw us out into areas of faith many of us aren’t comfortable with. When the stakes get higher, many try to force them lower by refusing to trust in anything outside of what they perceive they have control over. However, the stakes of reality aren’t set by the individual, they are set by the highest claim in existence--and that claim was made by God Himself. He set the bar at eternity--and eternity must be addressed before an individual can look to any other claim.
Again, I return to the question: What is the object of your faith? Or should I say, what is the object of your hope? Can he/she/it withstand the weight you place on them? And what does that faith offer you? What does it say about eternity?
"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” — Matthew 11:28-30