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 :).
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.
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.