Monday, October 26, 2009

The nature of faith

I've been putting this entry off, mostly because I'm not entirely sure what faith is. I'm quite sure I know what it isn't, though, so let's start there.

Faith is not merely agreement, nor is it an optimistic feeling, nor is it acceptance of something without or against evidence. These are all modern stereotypes of faith that have little to do with real faith.

Faith is also not just an emotion. Faith can certainly be emtional, but it's not just an emotion. There have been plenty of times that my faith has told me to do something I really don't feel like. And it's not just some guilt feeling either: There have been times I knew by faith that I should do something neither good nor bad but something I still didn't want to do. Figure that one out. Besides, if it was easy or emotionally desirable to be a Christian, lots of people would be Christians.

Faith is also not entirely rational. If Christianity were merely a case of weighing evidence and coming to an inevitable conclusion, witnessing would be a cinch and everyone would be a Christian. It wouldn't be hard to be a Christian at all, but practicing the Christian faith is a difficult task.

So what is faith? It's a kind of conviction that something is true, even though that conviction is not entirely emotional or rational. It's a confidence that the still, small voice I hear speaks the very words of God. It's a certainty born of familiarity with the Creator of the universe. It's just faith. I wish I could explain it better, but if you have faith, you know what I mean. If you've never had faith, I probably sound like a nut.

How does faith relate to evidence? That's a tricky question, because there is definitely a kind of relationship between faith and evidence, but it's not a simple one. I think this is where I'm going to depart most sharply from my creationist colleagues. Looking at the life of Christ, I see a sort of mixed message about evidence.

On the one hand, Jesus offered evidence of who He was. He healed the sick, raised the dead, and fed the hungry. He offered these acts as evidence of His identity to John the Baptist (Luke 7:18-23). When Thomas doubted His resurrection, He appeared to Thomas to show him the evidence Thomas wanted (John 20:24-29). When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, He did so "because of the crowd standing here... that they may believe You sent Me" (John 11:42).

At the same time, Jesus offers this evidence to those who already believe. Speaking of Nazareth, Matthew recorded, "He did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief" (Matt. 13:58). When the Pharisees and Sadducees demanded a special sign of Christ's authority, He replied, "An evil and adulterous generation wants a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah" (Matt. 16:4). Telling the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus said, "If they don't listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded if someone rises from the dead." Even when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, it appeared to be contingent on faith: "Didn't I tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?" (John 11:40). To Thomas, He said, "Because you have seen Me, you have believed. Those who believe without seeing are blessed" (John 20:29).

It seems to me that Jesus does not want us relying on evidence. Jesus wants to bring us to the point described in John 10, "the sheep hear his voice.... The sheep follow him because they recognize his voice. ... I am the good shepherd. I know My own sheep, and they know Me" (verses 3, 4, 14). He does not want us to rely on the evidences that He graciously supplies but instead He wants us to have confidence in His voice alone. And from his reaction to the Pharisees and Sadducees, it would appear that any scoffer's demand for evidence will be rebuffed. If they will not believe Moses and the prophets (i.e. the Word of God), no amount of miracles will convince them.

As a point of application, I think modern creationists would be much better served if we stopped coddling their every doubt and fear with new "evidence for creation" and instead helped to wean them off evidence altogether. A truly close Christian walk with Jesus should render evidence irrelevant. This is where we really want to be, not buffeted about by the wind and waves but confidently walking through the storm with our eyes fixed unwaveringly on Christ. To put it another way, Anselm of Canterbury wrote,
The Christian ought to progress through faith to understanding, and not through understanding to faith. Let him rejoice if he is able to attain understanding; if he cannot, let him revere what he cannot apprehend (quoted in Southern. 1990. Saint Anselm. Cambridge UP, p. 123).

The flipside of this is the realization that faith opens your eyes to new evidences that you could not see otherwise. These are not evidences that are irrefutable or purely rational but they are true nonetheless. Any faith that seeks understanding must grapple with these truths. What might seem like minor anomalies or "tiny mysteries" or procedural problems in conventional science become important keys to creationist theories when viewed through the eyes of faith.

I think I've given my Christian readers much to wrestle with, and to my skeptical readers: Mock all you want, but I will still confess that I have heard the voice of the Good Shepherd. You may think it's nonsense, but it's truth nonetheless.

Next time, I want to address the nature of idolatry. That should be fun. Meanwhile, here's a list of the entries in the entire series:

The Truth about Evolution
The Nature of Science
The Nature of Evidence
The Nature of Explanation