Blind About Faith
Over the last few months, I’ve been following a blog by former Seventh Day Adventist pastor Ryan Bell. The blog is called Year Without God, and chronicles Bell’s decision to take a break from God, walk away from the church, and try living like an atheist for a year. I have more than a few reservations about the project itself (I’ve written about them here), but it has been very interesting to ride along with Bell in the post-church, post-God landscape.
In his recent post called “No More Blind Faith,” Bell talks about a recent conference he attended where he had the opportunity to dialogue with a handful of conservative “Christian apologists.” These Christians were trying to persuade Bell (and others) that faith wasn’t “blind,” that Christianity was public truth based on reason, not just private persuasion or personal fancy. Bell speaks admiringly of the sentiment, but goes on to dismiss it as, ultimately, untenable:
I’m not sure how you can say “no more” to blind faith and still be a Christian. I know the slogan is meant to say, faith must be based on evidence. But still the actual step of faith is a step into the dark—a leap—or else it’s not faith. It’s sight. And the Bible says, “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). What is “seeing faith?” Especially when the author of Hebrews defines faith as “evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). You either present evidence for your beliefs, which qualifies them as public truth, or you claim that faith is the evidence. Say no to blind faith long enough and you will likely say no to faith altogether.
From my reading of his blog, Ryan Bell strikes me as a very intelligent person who speaks in refreshingly measured and irenic tones (a nice contrast with some in the burgeoning genre of “former pastors who saw the atheist light”), but as I read this paragraph, I wondered how it was that he managed to emerge from years of higher education and two decades of pastoral ministry with this simplistic an understanding of the nature of faith. The stark, binary way he presents the options seems remarkably naïve to me. Blind faith or no faith? Faith or sight? A leap into the dark or views based on evidence? These are our only options? Surely Bell must realize that faith comes in greyer shades than this?
It’s not as though, after all, the human predicament is to stand bewildered and clueless before the smorgasbord of religious and irreligious options on offer, and just randomly decide, “well, I guess I gotta pick something, so I pick… THAT ONE!” Each of us (whether we believe in God or not) has negotiated and will continue to negotiate the complex mélange of the traditions we were socialized into, our own personal experiences, the things that we place value upon, the testimony of others (past and present), the things that we long and hope for, the things that we admire and cherish, the ideals we are convinced extend beyond the contours of our own peculiar psychologies, the wounds we carry and the resources we believe are available for healing, and, yes, even the whispers (or loud shouts!) from beyond the boundaries of the empirical. AND, we must wrestle with the often indiscernible ways in which all of these things interpenetrate and exert influence upon one another.
All of these things (and many others, no doubt) factor into where and how one leaps. I can’t think of a single Christian—event those with whom I strongly disagree—for whom something like the cumulative package above doesn’t form the scaffolding from which the “leap” of faith is made.
And speaking of the scaffolding from which we leap, where, incidentally, is the acknowledgment that atheism and agnosticism also rely heavily on things that cannot be observed in the empirical world and cannot be proved? Truth and morality matter a great deal to Ryan Bell and many who walk away from Christian faith. But what observable evidence do we have that human beings should order their lives always and only according to true propositions? Why should truth trump usefulness in a world devoid of any objective meaning or telos? How would we prove that it should? And when was the last time you encountered empirical evidence for an objective moral imperative (not that human beings seem to believe in such imperatives, but that they should)? The list could go on. So many of the values and assumptions that sometimes drive people away from God are just as remote from the realm of observable, testable, empirical evidence as the existence of God. All world-views rely on things that can’t be proved.
Is faith in Jesus Christ a leap? Of course it is. But it’s not blind. It’s pretty rare indeed that we choose anything blindly. It might even be impossible. And this is especially true when it comes to world-views. We all leap, every day, in various directions and for a wide variety of reasons. Some of these reasons are good and admirable; some of them are silly and barely comprehensible. But they are still reasons. To be human is to be a leaper, for we all must choose to whom or what we will give our allegiance, based on less evidence than we would prefer.
Nobody has blind faith, and Ryan Bell should know better than to suggest that this is so. Our public conversations about God and religion are toxic and poorly informed enough as it is, without adding more confusion to the pile.
I deeply honor Mr. Bell’s courage and his journey.
Although I can’t at this point imagine how anyone can be or become an Atheist, I can understand how someone might eventually come to realize that most everything they blindly accepted as “gospel truth” concerning God from organized religion was in fact not true at all.
Yes, I can certainly resonate with some aspects of Bell’s journey. My concern is with the way he is framing the nature of faith. I don’t think it’s accurate and I think it reinforces a great many stereotypes out there that get in the way of fruitful dialogue and mutual understanding between people across the religious/irreligious spectrum.
Perhaps Mr. Bell is really discovering that seeking Christ primarily through intellectual pursuit neither develops or sustains faith. Mother Teresa of Calcutta used to say something to the effect that she was in fact also being ministered by the destitute people she served. Through them she encountered the living Christ. Fr. Henri Noewen expressed it similarly regarding his experiences with Larche.
It is often better, I think to, put down our studies of the “law” and simply become missional and loving.
Likewise the Spirit who comes to us and animates our love is not discovered in study groups or lecture halls so much as in places of prayer. If I knew Mr. Bell I would encourage him to go to a private space, kneel before a cruciformed cross and plead with God to reveal HIs presence. Ask for an interior understanding, a “knowing” an experience of His presence and being. If Mr. Bell is one of God’s he will not see something with his eyes, God will do him one better. Mr. Bell will know and experience something in his soul.
I obviously have no idea what Mr. Bell has or has not tried in his quest. But like you, Paul, I am convinced that God is not far from any of us, and that he rewards those who seek him with heart, soul, and mind.
I don’t know ,Ryan….
Personally I understand completely where Mr.Bell is coming from concerning blind faith, maybe not concerning whether there is a God or not because Creation itself testifies to me of the Creator, but when it comes to whether I believe Jesus of Nazareth was in fact the Messiah foretold by the prophets of old then to me that’s a whole different ballgame. We ourselves have nothing to verify the claims associated with Jesus except the ancient writings of the New Testament, which if we can be honest about it here, are for the most part highly suspect after serious and unbiased critical scholarship analysis (see professor Bart Ehrman’s outstanding work).
If I have chosen to believe that Jesus was/is the Son of God and the Messiah, it’s only because I want to believe it, I can offer you no solid proof whatsoever, mine is a blind faith.
I think most of us who believe do so either out of fear because we’ve been told that we will go to hell if we don’t believe, or we believe out of a deep psychological need for a “Higher Power” to use as a coping mechanism with life or a “Savior” to call on to help us out of life’s many jams.
I’ve found myself migrating more and more toward the Universalist’s perspective which historically wasn’t totally uncommon or even considered a heresy among some of the earliest Christians.
I understand where Bell is coming from, too, but I don’t see our epistemic situation nearly as bleakly as you do.
First, I don’t agree at all that “if we can be honest about it here, [the New Testament writings] are for the most part highly suspect.” I think that many of the problems we encounter in the NT and its discrepancies are due to an imposition of our expectations on the text regarding how the stories should have been told, rather than trying to enter into the first century world and its understanding of theology and history and how the two worked together.
Additionally, on the level of the texts themselves, there is far better manuscript evidence for the NT documents than any other literature from the time period. We can still reject it, of course, and we can still entertain all kinds of conspiracy theories about how these texts were dreamed up and what was excluded from the canon, etc, but the fact remains that the textual basis for the NT it resoundingly strong. It’s not a perfect collection of documents, of course, nor is the transmission one of 100% accuracy, but I think we have good theological reasons not to expect such things in the first place.
I also don’t think that Bart Ehrman is the last or best word on the New Testament. I’ve read a bit of Bart Ehrman and while I don’t doubt that his scholarship is “serious,” I certainly would dispute the claim that it is not “biased” if only for the reason that there is no such thing as “unbiased scholarship.” Everyone brings something to their interpretation of the texts. In Ehrman’s case, it seems to me that the problem of evil and moral concerns about the nature of God and how God is presented in the Bible (not to mention his own experiences in the church) loom very large indeed in how he interprets the NT.
But who would want to believe such a story out of nothing or out of pure desire alone? Why would anyone choose something so strange? The central claims of Christianity are so radically unexpected and even undesirable, based on what those in the first century would have been hoping and longing for. If all we are looking for is for some kind of connection with a “higher power,” there are far more convenient and less demanding options out there to choose. Christianity is far too weird to have been the fruit of someone’s misguided pious longings for transcendence, in my view (I recently wrote about some of these themes here.)
It seems to me that to be a Christian necessarily puts us in the realm of at least some level of trust in the reports of those who have gone before us. It is an irreducibly historic faith in that it purports to tell the story of events that actually happened in specific times and places, that were reported by people with names and stories, etc. Whatever else Christianity might be, it is not an esoteric, ethereal option or set of techniques that someone discovered and which we can now select from among other similar options. It is a radically, offensively, storied faith, and one that forces us to trust in God’s self-disclosure to other people at other times and places.
This is the sense in which I mean that faith is not “blind.” Nobody chooses anything blindly. We choose things because we are convinced (enough) by enough combinations of factors (historical, testimonial, existential, spiritual, psychological, relational, whatever). This is true for all of us.
“It seems to me that to be a Christian necessarily puts us in the realm of at least some level of trust in the reports of those who have gone before us.”
“Trust, but verify” – Ronald Reagan
And, I would add, recognize when and how the language of “verification” is appropriate and when it might not be.