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Why Do I Have Faith?

Last week, I found a message from a reader of this blog buried off in some dark corner of Facebook-land that I hadn’t noticed for at least a month.  It was a message that was both encouraging on a personal level, as well as provocative in the best sense of the word.  As it happens, the powers that be in Facebook have thus far prevented me from responding to this message.  Every time I try to reply, I get a message telling me that I cannot do so due to some setting in one of our accounts (I don’t have an email address for the person who wrote to me, so I’m at the mercy of Facebook).  Rather than wading through the labyrinth of Facebook’s privacy settings, I decided to do the only rational thing and simply write a blog post in response :).

So, first the letter (slightly edited for privacy reasons), then my response below.  And if the writer of this letter happens to read this, let me say that I would welcome further dialogue on these matters (I can be reached by email via a button on the sidebar of this blog).  I apologize in advance for the length of what follows.  If you’re mainly interested in my response to the question in the title of this post, you are quite free to skip to the last few paragraphs :).

—-

Hello Ryan,

I feel that you’re at a disadvantage here since I know a fair bit about you and you know nothing of me. I started following your blog a while back… I thought I’d write you to both let you know that I’ve enjoyed a lot of your posts and also because I feel solidarity towards you and your approach to God. I’ve just finished a philosophy undergrad at ______ and plan on attending ______ in the fall to do a master’s degree there. A large part of my motivation for attending ______ is because of the uneasy relationship I have with faith. I grew up in a Christian family but have had numerous doubts about the existence of God ever since my teens. I’ve been unable to shed my faith but neither have I been able to find a strong, life-altering faith. I hope that by attending ______ I’ll be able to excise at least some of my doubts or come to a more comfortable position on where I stand.

Anyway, I just thought I would write to let you know that I liked your article on the New Atheism as a failed theodicy. It was quite interesting. It seems to have parallels with some of C.S Lewis’ apologetics based upon moral arguments. I’m coming to have a greater respect for the idea that morality points strongly towards the existence of God. Previously I had thought this to be a weak argument indeed.

You’re obviously a busy man with a career and family so I will not be the least bit offended if you don’t reply to this email.  However, if you do have some time I wouldn’t mind hearing some more of your thoughts about the New Atheism and the current state of apologetics. I watched a YouTube debate between William Lane Craig and Hitchens last night and it seemed like he avoided to some extent, many of the arguments put forward by Craig in favour of talking about the problem of evil. I guess in part due to your article and in part due to the debate, but I felt as if the problem of evil isn’t really a rational objection so much as an emotional one. If this is the case, it’s interesting because the atheists like to claim superior rationality. 

Anyway, I guess the one question I have is why do you have faith? To what extent do apologetics support it and to what extent does your subjective experience of God support your faith?

Feel free to respond or not, as your time dictates. I’ll continue to read your blog with interest.

Sincerely,
______

——

First, let me say thank you for taking the time to write and for your kind words about the blog.  Thanks also for sharing a bit of your story—it’s a story that resonates with my own on a number of levels.

I’ll try to answer your questions as best I can.   First, what do I think of the New Atheism and the current state of apologetics?  Not a lot, to be honest—and on both scores.  I think the New Atheism as a cultural phenomenon has kind of run its course.  It strikes me as the cultural equivalent of watching an angry teenager vent his rage at the stupidity and injustice of the whole world that doesn’t think like him or do what he wants.  It’s interesting, even entertaining to watch for a while, and maybe even worth engaging on some level, but after a while you realize there isn’t much to be gained.   It’s pretty easy to scream and yell and point out how stupid everyone else is, but not so easy to articulate a compelling counter-vision of reality.  I think the New Atheism’s rather impoverished and barren alternative worldview—to whatever extent they even articulated such a thing—was quite early discovered by many to be profoundly lacking and an inadequate reflection of their own experience.  Looking back on my time spent researching and writing about the New Atheism, I don’t exactly regret the choice of topic… but I certainly feel that there might have been other issues to pursue that had a bit more, shall we say, staying power?  I suspect that the New Atheism will not live long in our cultural memory.

Re: the current state of apologetics, my feelings are, again, mixed.  I don’t watch many “debates” because I feel these are set up to be adversarial spectacles rather than anything like a mutual dialogue and exploration of truth.  Almost invariably, in my experience, debates between atheists and believers tend to simply be exercises in fortifying the boundaries we erect between one another.  There is so much fear and anger and mistrust involved in many of these “conversations” that the potential for anything good to come out of them seems almost nil.

Having said that, I don’t think apologetics is a useless exercise.  It all depends on how we understand the practice.  One of the best definitions I have heard came during a class with Alastair McGrath a number of years ago at Regent College.  Apologetics isn’t about trying to argue someone into faith, he said, but “removing unnecessary obstacles to belief.”  I like that.  To whatever extent I engage in apologetics, this is the approach I try to take.  Often people have fairly deep misunderstandings about the nature of faith in general or about Christianity more specifically.  Clearing away a bit of rubble to make possible a clearer view seems to me a much more appropriate task than providing an ironclad rational case for faith (as if that were possible—for Christianity or any worldview).  Reason can only get you so far after all.  There is no syllogism or linear logical process that could ever produce a crucified Jewish peasant on a Roman cross and an empty tomb as the cure for the world’s ills.  When it comes to the deepest questions of human existence, we are always in the realm of choice not proof.

Your final question is obviously the biggest one of all, and, perhaps ironically, the most difficult to answer.  Why do I have faith?  I suppose the theologically correct answer would be to say that I have been given the gift 🙂 (Eph. 2:8-10).  But that probably says both too much and too little… I have faith for a wide variety of reasons (some of which I am aware of, some of which I am undoubtedly unaware) running from the sociological to the existential and everything in between.  But this response is getting quite lengthy, so I won’t attempt to enumerate each and every one of these.

I think that, perhaps ironically, I have faith for reasons similar to those offered by the new atheists for not having faith.  The central argument of my masters thesis was that the New Atheism was/is a (very poorly justified) form of protest against the state of the world and the problem of evil.  They expect better from God and from people of faith.  There is far too much evil and suffering and waste to believe in a good God who loves and looks after his world, they say.  But the grounds for protesting against the state of the world and for describing the kind of world a good God would have made do not and cannot come from a consistent materialistic worldview.  It makes no sense to rage at God for not making a better world when one has no coherent rationale for expecting the world to be better.  It makes a bit more sense when one believes that there are good grounds for one’s protest—when one believes that the world was created for goodness, truth, beauty and love, and is being led toward a future where these things will be fully and finally realized.

I guess that you could say that, on one level, I have faith as an act of protest.  This doesn’t exhaust my reasons for having faith, to be sure, but it certainly plays a large role.  Like the new atheists, I, too, vacillate between rage and sorrow at the state of the world, at the suffering, the waste, and the evil that I see all around me (and in my own soul).  I, too, expect better from the world—and even from God. I have faith because I refuse to surrender my deep sense of ought to meaninglessness or consign it to the category of “curious evolutionary byproduct.”  I have faith because I am convinced that the deepest longings I have were made to be fulfilled, not endlessly frustrated.  I have faith because I believe forgiveness is both necessary and possible.  I have faith because I believe that inexpressible suffering of so many, many people across space and time must be addressed, that the wounds of history must be healed.  I have faith because I believe in the promise of God to make all things new.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kerby #

    A topic near and dear to my heart, Ryan. Thanks for your comments. You rightly point out that those of us who have faith do so for many reasons, some of which we are not aware of. For me, one of the reasons I have faith is because it is the glue that holds all the disparate parts of my life together. Religion is on the wane in pomo culture (we didn’t need Barna to tell us that!) but where it does fit, individuals are approaching religion as consumers, picking what they want and determining how it suits them. Perhaps this is also what I am doing…but I don’t think this tells the whole story. We want to be loving fathers and husbands, responsible employees, good citizens, and sensitive stewards of the earth, but how do we provide an overarching justification for all of these different desires and values? On one hand, I think faith helps us connect all of these disparate aspects of life into one congruous worldview, while at the same time not making religion bear the entire weight of one’s life choices. Ethics and ecology each have value in and of themselves, and this is common ground we share with all humanity, and need not turn to faith to determine. At the same time, I feel faith and my stance on these issues is mutually supportive so that faith strengthens these other areas of my life rather than existing in some degree of tension with them. Happy to hear other perspectives on what is going on here…

    April 8, 2013
    • Yes, what you say here reflects my own experience too, Kerby. Coherence, congruence, providing an overarching framework for how I think and how I live—these are all important parts of how and why I embrace faith.

      A few other things that occur to me as I think more about this…

      1) I think one of the most persistent untruths out there—one that enjoys considerable cultural traction—is that faith is a “religious” phenomenon as opposed to a human one. But when it comes to the questions of how we will live (and why), how we understand ourselves and the world (and why) and what, if anything, we can hope for (and why), we all rely on faith. Nothing that ultimately matters about life can be proved empirically. Everyone relies on faith, not just those who believe in God.

      2) Despite my “faith as worldview” affirmations above, I am increasingly coming to see the life of faith as a response to a summons and trust in a person. I have spent a lot of time in my life implicitly or explicitly trying to construct a “Christian worldview” where all the the rational dots connect up, this just isn’t possible (for Christianity or any other worldview). I see so many things only in part… My confidence is (or ought to be) located far more in the person of Christ than in my ability to conceptualize the nature and the task of faith correctly.

      Anyway, just a few more musings… Thanks for your comment.

      April 8, 2013
  2. Ed #

    As the author of the of the letter, let me express my gratitude for your reply. I appreciated your thoughts on the subject. The reason you were unable to contact me via facebook is because, due to my uneasy relationship with the site, I deleted my account (I’m back on, hopefully temporarily!). I had trouble with the contact button on the page so I used facebook. Thanks again for the reply. I sent you my email via facebook. I wouldn’t scorn any of your advice for Regent College either!

    April 9, 2013
    • Thanks for making the connection, Ed. I appreciate your thoughts and your questions very much.

      I share your unease with Facebook, incidentally. I can think of (at least) a hundred good reasons to pull the plug on FB and only a few not to…. Luckily, I have gotten quite good at cheerfully ignoring my better judgment when it comes to social media… Sigh.

      I’ll respond to you privately re: Regent College.

      April 9, 2013
  3. mike #

    “I grew up in a Christian family but have had numerous doubts about the existence of God ever since my teens. I’ve been unable to shed my faith but neither have I been able to find a strong, life-altering faith.” …. .I admire and applaude the honesty and willingness to bare all here,it’s so rare and beautiful. The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous utilized an inspired work-around for the vast multitudes who struggle with or outright reject organized religion’s version of God. Instead,new members are immediately encouraged to develop belief in a “Higher Power” of their choosing ..a God of their own understanding,be it what it may. In time,progress in the 12 Step program will then invariably lead most people by the Holy Sprit, to an authentic Spiritual awakening. I have many grave reservations believing the nature of the christian God I was taught about growing up, yet personally I could never doubt or deny that a ‘Higher Power’ is orchestrating the Universe. Im just trying to figure out FOR MYSELF exactly who/what that Higher Power really is.
    Unfortunately,In my opinion, organized christianity lost it’s ability/credibility to speak with any Godly authority centuries ago. ..”The KIngdom of God is within you”. 🙂

    April 9, 2013
    • What are the biggest differences you’ve noticed between the “christian God I was taught about growing up” and the “Higher Power” who is orchestrating the Universe that you have now embraced?

      (I’m genuinely curious… I have no particular interest in defending “organized Christianity,” even if I’m obviously embedded in the institutional church…)

      April 10, 2013
  4. mike #

    For the record, I AM a follower/believer of Jeshua the Messiah,OK 🙂
    ..A fundamental difference in these approaches is that using the vernacular of the ‘Higher Power” empowers and encourages the individual to become a Seeker and discover for themselves the immense Mystery of “a Power greater than ourselves”.(commonly refered to as ‘God’) The individual is emplored to turn inwardly through prayer and meditation to improve their consciouss contact with ‘God’ AS THEY UNDERSTAND HIM,this ‘understanding’ will evolve naturally as the individual grows in faith…many will eventually become unorthodox christians. This flies is in direct opposition to man-made organized scholastic christianity on every level. One follows the Spirit of the Law,the other clings to the Letter. If the long dark History of organized christianity shows us anything, it is how NOT to do religion. ..IMO

    April 10, 2013
    • Sounds pretty good to me :).

      As I said, I’m no defender of institutional Christianity. The Anabaptist tradition I am a part of was, of course, birthed as a protest against the abuses and errors of the “organized Christianity” of the day. The themes of personal responsibility run and the “inward turn” run pretty deep in our theological DNA. Having said that, Anabaptists can, over time, “insitutionalize”… And we have… Life with the letter is easier and more manageable than life with the Spirit, it seems.

      I worry, though, that the emphasis on finding God “as we understand him/her/it” runs the very real risk of turning God into little more than a projection of our desires/insecurities/hang ups/grievances, etc. Somehow, we have to preserve the possibility of being genuinely confronted by the God who is not what we expected, not what we were looking for, maybe even not what we wanted or hoped for, but nonetheless, the God we need. When I read the gospel narratives, it strikes me again and again that Jesus was not the Saviour anyone was really looking for and he accomplished salvation in a very unusual, “foolish” way by human lights. I don’t think Jesus would have fit anybody’s category of “God as they understand him.”

      And yet, this same Jesus promises that those who seek, will find him. I guess it’s a bit of a mystery. The God we don’t want and try to keep away, the God who confronts and challenges us, who bids us to die to ourselves and embrace a life of sacrifice, is the God that we really are looking for, whether we know it or not.

      April 11, 2013
      • mike #

        Please try not to take anything I say Personally, it’s not intended that way 🙂

        “……finding God “as we understand him/her/it” runs the very real risk of turning God into little more than a projection of our desires/insecurities/hang ups/grievances, etc.” Yes,sure it does,and initially thats exactly what the majority of us are doing,subconsciously anyway.Yet the spaciousness that including ‘AS WE UNDERSTAND HIM” provides, is fallow ground for the Holy Spirit’s direct intervention. From the standpoint of a preacher caught in the matrix of organized christianity,this sounds crazier than hell…and it is,to the carnal man.

        “….we have to preserve the possibility of being genuinely confronted by the God who is not what we expected,not what we were looking for, maybe even not what we wanted or hoped for,….” Absolutely,thats how it works,and over time there should be a natural progression of our understanding of God and a commensurate evolution of our personal theology as we develop and grow in God consciousness throughout our lifetime, unfortunately this can’t happen in church.Organized christianity does not facilitate this nor can it condone it, The very survival of the corporate church depends on it keeping strict theological control over its congregants. No Thinking allowed.

        I am one of a vast and growing number of unorthodox “homeless” christians.

        April 11, 2013
      • Oh, I’m not taking anything personally, here. It’s very interesting for me to hear your perspective.

        I agree with what you say about “as you understand him” being a spacious place where the Spirit can (and does) speak and move. Absolutely. I get a little nervous about the apparently individual nature of the whole quest (part of how we “progress” in our understanding of God surely involves others and community…) and about how “natural” the process is (surely some people’s “natural” inclinations lead them to some pretty funky views of God), but I think being open to the possibility of divine encounter and learning is a fantastic place to be.

        So… if the “preacher caught in the matrix of organized Christianity” is me, then, no, it doesn’t’ sound “crazier than hell” to me at all. Being open to “God as we understand him” sounds, like many other things, very promising.

        “unfortunately this can’t happen in church. Organized christianity does not facilitate this nor can it condone it, The very survival of the corporate church depends on it keeping strict theological control over its congregants. No Thinking allowed.”

        Can’t? Really? Surely this seems to be placing an unwarranted limit on God doesn’t it? I have heard rumours of people having life-giving encounters with the Spirit of the Risen Christ in the institutional church… I might even be one of these people. I know of many “institutional churches” who foster a spirit of openness and exploration and who respect a diversity of viewpoints. I would like to think that I worship in one. “No thinking allowed?” I’m sorry, while I certainly don’t doubt this describes some expressions of “institutional church,” it doesn’t describe them all. Not every institutional church has a power-hungry, egocentric, megalomaniacal man at the top who is desperately trying to control the thought-worlds of his congregants. Sometimes, yes. But not always. Not by any stretch.

        April 11, 2013
  5. mike #

    All good points,Ryan. and I should have stipulated at several places in my comment that there ARE exceptions. In fact, I should add that organized christianity,with all it’s shortcomings, is the VITAL first stepping stone one encounters on The Way. For the seeker, ‘church’ serves a purpose, albeit a short lived one.

    April 11, 2013
    • I would say that, AT ITS BEST, church is (or ought to be) more than a first step. It’s not a kind of temporary stopping point for spiritual adolescents on the superhighway to enlightenment. Again, AT ITS BEST, it is a place where we encounter and worship Christ together, where we learn to love our friends and our enemies better, where our biases and shortcomings can be challenged, where we can discern together the will of God in a spirit of grace and mutuality.

      Does this happen always or even often? No. Not even close. But whenever I am tempted to write off the church, I remind myself that Jesus seemed to think a lot more highly of the church than many of his followers do. I think this ought to make us squirm a bit and ask some questions.

      April 12, 2013
  6. mike #

    I have to smile a little at your first paragraph,Ryan, which (which for millions of us) aptly describes a good AA 12 step meeting. 🙂
    You and I and are “the church”, and it only takes 2 or 3 of us gathered together (anywhere/any place) for Christ to be present, no organization needed. It’s the premise and format of the Institutionally organized meetings that Im ‘writing off’.
    …Be reminded that throughout christian history it has always been the (anathemised and martyr’d) “heretics” that have,in the final analysis, brought forth fresh revelation from God. (Galilaeo,WilliamTindel,JohnWycliffe,Dirk Willems,Martin Luther etc etc etc .
    “The heresy of one age becomes the orthodoxy of the next” Helen Keller

    April 13, 2013
    • You and I and are “the church”, and it only takes 2 or 3 of us gathered together (anywhere/any place) for Christ to be present.

      Amen.

      April 14, 2013

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