I had an interesting conversation over lunch about the genealogy of human beliefs and behaviour. Why do we do and believe the things we do and believe, whether about God or anything else? Is it because we have coolly surveyed all of the options and exercised our unimpeded freedom to decide what is true and good? Or are we locked into certain options before we are ever born by virtue of some combination of the time, place, and family background into which we were born? Am I a follower of Jesus because I have freely chosen this, or because I was born in the back half of the twentieth century in an ostensibly “Christian nation” into a family of Christians? Is my identity chosen? Given to me? Both? Neither?
I suspect that there are few things that we postmoderns cherish more than our imagined ability (moral duty, even!) to choose—to determine the shape of our own lives, to craft our own identities, to decide for ourselves. Yet we know that as human beings we are acted upon in ways that we can barely even enumerate. We know that countless historical, psychological, biological and social factors influence our behaviour, our beliefs, our brain states, our attitudes and emotions. We know, in our more rational moments, that we are not nearly so “free” as we would like to think. But what are the implications of these realities for the life of faith, where we often place such an emphasis on understanding correctly and freely choosing to respond appropriately to the God we believe is always beckoning? Is it even possible to consider our religious convictions as freely chosen amidst all of the external forces that are always acting upon us?
Not long after my lunchtime conversation, I read these words in Roger Lundin’s Believing Again.
On its own, history can neither supply us with an abiding home nor establish a stable framework for our lives, yet God has nonetheless fashioned from its materials the stage upon which the drama of redemption is being acted out. At the dawn of the Christian era, the Apostle Paul reminded the Athenians that one of their own poets had said of God that “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Over the past two centuries, we have come to see that it works the other way as well. If we “have our being in history,” so does God, because in Jesus Christ, he “became flesh and dwelt among us.” As Karl Barth told a group of students in the ruins of postwar Europe, “God was not ashamed to exist in this accidental state,” and as a result of the incarnation, our history has become God’s history, and “we are not left alone in this frightful world. Into this alien land God has come to us.”
However the genesis of belief is understood, however innumerable the factors beyond our control that have led to the way in which we apprehend the present, we must remember that this complex stew represents the very materials from which God has fashioned the stage for the drama of redemption. And that God himself entered these same conditions, this “frightful world” with all of its complexity. We may only dimly understand why we are the way we are and how we have ended up in the places we have ended up, but whatever else might be said about the human condition, I am convinced that one of the most important truths about us is that we are not left alone.