The Choice is Ours
One commonly hears some version or other of the refrain that faith is difficult here in the twilight of modernity. How can we possibly believe in the God of Christianity in light of modern science? Or in light of an understanding of the history and composition of Scripture? Or in the context of such astonishing religious diversity and all of mutually exclusive truth claims therein? Or given the amount and variety of suffering in our world? Or given how much we know about the sociobiological basis of all of our thinking and believing as human beings? Or _____? The impression often given is that faith is uniquely improbable or challenging or implausible here in our current cultural moment. All we are left with, it seems, is some vestige of faith as an individually chosen, privately held, subjective collection of beliefs which may provide psychological comfort or a kind of illusory meaning for our lives, but has little bearing on the real world.
Roger Lundin describes the believer’s predicament like this in Believing Again: Doubt and Faith in a Secular Age:
For the past century, with relentless force, the materialist narrative has swept over the landscape of modern culture and into every corner of human life, including religious experience. One of its most important consequences has been to establish and secure a comprehensive alternative to all providential accounts of life’s meaning, so that even when we stand in the heart of belief, we sense that there is nearby another vantage-point from which nature and our experience would look entirely different….
To be a modern believer is to recognize that in the deepest personal sense, belief is optional; whatever a person is able to accept and affirm he or she is also free to reject and deny. In one form or another, all of us today are what Robert Langbaum calls “romanticists”: “It is not this or that political, philosophical, religious, or even aesthetic commitment that marks the romanticist. It is the subjective ground of his commitment, the fact that he never forgets his commitment has been chosen.”
I spent part of this morning with a young person who is taking their very first steps on the road to Christian commitment and baptism. We talked about who God is, about what we hoped for, about Jesus and salvation, about sadness and confusion and meaning, and many other things as well. We talked about belief and action and the connection between the two. We also read from Scripture. We read the story of the Good Samaritan from Luke 10, and about Nicodemus being “born again” in John 3. We prayed and blessed each other into the day. It was a good hour.
As I reflect on these two experiences—reading an academic account of the contours of faith in a secular age, and walking alongside someone who is taking their first steps of faith in this same secular age—it strikes me that our postmodern context is perhaps not quite as unique as we might (like to) think. Whether is a religious lawyer and a searching Pharisee in the first century or a scholar of religion and a young seeker in the twenty-first century, we are all choosers. Our commitments are always chosen. This choosing might look and feel differently at different times and places, the options might be greater or fewer at this or that moment, and the pressures accompanying certain choices might be experienced in different ways. But to be human is to be a chooser.
Jesus thought quite highly of the freedom to choose, after all. To the lawyer, he told a story of love of God and neighbour as the way to eternal life, and invited him to choose his response. “Go and do likewise.” Or not. To Nicodemus, Jesus says, “Believe, be born again, enter the kingdom of light, life, and hope!” Or not. To academics and pastors and young adults in a secular age with all kinds of competing worldviews and rival narratives, Jesus says, “Come, repent, follow, believe, trust, hope…” Or not. The choice is ours.
The choice has always been ours.