Sunday, February 28, 2010

What Is Faith? (Part 2)

So what does a proper understanding of faith mean for the Christian? We talked last time about the misguided assumption that it must be held contrary to evidence. But if faith isn't just blindly assenting to the beliefs of one's church or culture, then what is it?

If you ask any Christian who is somewhat familiar with the Bible for a definition of faith, you will likely get the following response:

"Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." 1

This verse admittedly defines faith for many Christians, and read in isolation it could be interpreted as advocating the very view I wrote against in my last post. The problem is that this verse was not intended as a strict definition of the concept. As one commentary puts it, "[This verse] is not really a formal definition of faith; rather it is a description of what faith does for us." 2

On this more precise understanding, this verse can be interpreted as saying that faith (our loyal belief in and attitude towards God) allows us to feel certainty about the object of our hope and about those aspects of our relationship with God that are not always immediately clear (such as trusting Him through a difficult decision).

My friend H.L. Hussmann (whose blog can be found here) illustrates this idea better than anyone else I've heard. He relates the story of Charles Blondin, a 19th century French tight-rope walker who became famous for carrying all sorts of objects (including his manager) across Niagara Falls on a tight-rope. He asks us to imagine watching Blondin push a wheelbarrow back and forth across the rope several times with no difficulty and then asking the audience if they think he can do the same again, but this time with a person in the wheelbarrow. It is easy to imagine the crowd shouting in approval until the next question comes: "Can I have a volunteer?"

Here is where Biblical faith comes in. Our beliefs that God is and that He can are well-grounded by the evidence. But faith is trusting that evidence enough to take action. And it is the only appropriate response to the revelation that God has given.

This also helps us avoid another alarmingly common misunderstanding of faith: that it is something that will allow us to avoid difficulty of all kinds if only we can get enough of it. This idea treats faith as though it were some metaphysical currency that can be collected and cashed in when needed, but given the definition of faith that we have worked out, it is clear why this is inadequate.

Faith as an attitude and response toward God leaves no place for this escapist understanding. Rather than allowing us to avoid problems (e.g. the problem of too little evidence), Biblical faith pushes us to honesty about our situation and then calls us to trust God to bring us through it. I suppose it is possible for one person to trust more than another (and so have 'more faith'), but the very idea of trust presupposes some struggle. This is precisely why it is so difficult.

I can believe in Blondin's abilities easily from a distance, but continuing to believe from inside the wind-tossed wheelbarrow is another story entirely. This requires genuine faith, not a cheap counterfeit.

1Hebrews 11:1 (NIV)
2Believer's Bible Commentary. Ed. by William MacDonald

Monday, February 22, 2010

You want me to love who?

Before I continue with my thoughts on faith, I want to take a brief excursus to offer something that is currently on my mind. My hope is that it will spark friendly discussion, or at the very least introspection.

Tonight I had the privilege of hearing Archbishop Desmond Tutu speak. It is rare that someone's mere presence can command the respect of a room full of hundreds of people with varying backgrounds and ideologies. It is rarer still that this respect is extended even when the message delivered is difficult to hear. And it is nearly unheard of that this respect should remain when the person's words offend some of our most deeply held convictions.

And yet this is essentially what I witnessed tonight. I saw a foreigner tell a room full of red-blooded Americans that what they have called just and warranted is really only a higher form of revenge. That their ideals of national pride are in fact (dare I repeat it?) immoral. That the correct road, the road to real healing, is a much narrower and more difficult one. Could it be that those we have called our 'enemies' are actually the ones we are to love?

And yet, those who received this hard word--to their credit--applauded it. Doubtless, there were many who harbored doubts about his implications, who bristled when he got too specific in his examples, who were made uncomfortable by his boldness. To be transparent, I was one of those people. I thought things like "How dare him bring up 9/11...," "We had good reason to respond the way we did...," "There's more to it than that...," "Homophobia isn't the same as racism...," "But all religions aren't the same...," and a whole litany of other such thoughts.

And in thinking them, I totally missed the point.

I missed the fact that going immediately to these rehearsed answers (while they may even be true and valuable) I ignore the thrust of his message and refuse to recognize the pride in my own heart. The issue here is not one of politics or issues, however much we may like for it to be. It is one of love. Of motive. Of tolerance (in the true sense). Of our very humanity.

Tutu brought this point home well with the story of a woman he knew who was severely injured when a man from a particular 'liberation' group tossed a hand grenade into the room where she was dining. After the woman's long recovery, in the midst of great physical difficulty and pain, she remarked that she'd like to meet her attacker. That she'd like to forgive him. My attempt to avoid tears was broken by her next comment: "I hope he can forgive me."

What a radical idea loving one's enemies is. There is something about it that moves us to applause, even though it breaks us. Especially when the message comes from one who has lived it. Let us not forget in all this the originator of this message; the only One who lived it entirely. Everything about Him offended the leaders of His day. His politics were 'dangerous,' His theology surely unorthodox. The words He spoke were hard. And yet He loved so well that even His executioners were moved to admit, "Truly this man was the Son of God."

Jesus' message was not one of nationalism, or of dignity, or of getting what we are entitled to. It was, and remains, one of self-sacrifice, even for--especially for--those who least deserve it. What an inhuman concept.

Truly this man was the Son of God.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

New Video!

Just a quick note to let you know I've updated the 'Featured Video' section of the blog. I'll try to do this more frequently from now on, so be on the lookout!

Friday, February 19, 2010

What Is Faith?

"Where we have reason for what we believe, we have no need of faith…"1

"To 'choose' dogma and faith over doubt and experiment is to throw out the ripening vintage and to reach greedily for the Kool-Aid."

And my personal favorite:

"Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence."

This is how the skeptical community, almost without exception, views religious faith. Are they right?

I cannot speak for other religions, but here I want to provide a Christian definition of faith--one that is rooted in Scripture and the history of the church. I think this will be very valuable for the Christian and the skeptic alike. For this post , I want to deal with the misunderstanding that is so common among critics: that faith is, in essence, blind.

The word generally translated as 'faith' in the New Testament (NT) is the Greek pistis (πίστις). It may surprise you to learn that this was a term sometimes used for 'forensic proof.' For example, it is used in this sense in Acts 17:31, where the NASB translates it as 'proof.' In many more instances, the NT uses it to mean something closer to 'faithfulness' or 'loyalty.' These include the idea of trust in the object of faith (God), as well as fidelity.

This is, like it or not, how faith is used in the Scripture and what it has always meant to the church. My question, then, is where does the idea of its 'blindness' fit into these definitions? All of these concepts--faithfulness, loyalty, trust, fidelity--assume ipso facto that there is a known basis that justifies the act of faith. There is something to which we are faithful, someone to whom we pledge our loyalty, trust, etc. And this is always rooted in--not contrary to--evidence.

Speaking of Christ's resurrection, Paul said it this way, "'I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I utter words of sober truth. For the king knows about these matters, and I speak to him also with confidence, since I am persuaded that none of these things escape his notice; for this has not been done in a corner."

It is important to note here what Paul did not say. When charged by his judge with madness, he did not reply "But I have faith! Why do you require evidence? How dare you criticize my faith?!" Rather, he pointed to the evidence in which his faith was grounded, in this case Jesus' resurrection.

Similarly, when Thomas famously doubted the report of Jesus' resurrection, it is important to note what Jesus did not say. He didn't say, "But Thomas, faith is blind. Why must you demand proof? Have faith anyway, my child." No, He said, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe."

It should be clear to anyone who looks at this honestly that Christian faith was never intended to be blind in the sense of 'contrary to evidence.' Sadly, I do not exaggerate when I say that this is probably the principal criticism offered of religious belief by the popular atheists, whose writings have reached millions of people. It is a tired objection, and it has no basis in Scripture. Instead, the NT writers understood faith as 'believing what is known to be trustworthy.' Of course, the question of whether or not the evidence actually is trustworthy is still open, but this is a separate issue.

Next time, I will discuss how this more nuanced understanding of faith affects the Christian. Stay tuned...

P.S. For a more in-depth discussion of this, see J.P. Holding's article here.

1 Sam Harris. End of Faith. pg. 225.

2 Christopher Hitchens. god Is Not Great. pg. 95.  Always the joker, that one.

3 Richard Dawkins. Lecture from 'The Nullifidian.'  The theist can generally count on Dawkins to play right into his hands. Here is a prime example.

4 Acts 26:25-26 (NASB). Emphasis mine.

5 John 20:27 (NIV).

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Are you sure?

There's an old proverb that says, "Beware the sound of one hand clapping."

The book of Proverbs says it like this: "The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him."1 

The idea here is that there is always more than one side to an argument, and wisdom dictates that if we are genuinely interested in truth (not just 'seeming right' to others), we should always be careful to examine all sides of an issue.

Unfortunately, this little morsel of wisdom is all too often ignored, even by those who should know better. Just today I read an exchange between some friends about an issue that probably none of them were qualified to speak about, but did that little fact stop them from giving their opinion or even lead them to wonder if there might be a perspective besides their own? You can probably guess the answer to that. As the Avett Brothers say in one of their songs, "Ain't it like most people, I'm no different--we love to talk on things we don't know about."

Regrettably, the church is no exception to this problem. Though it saddens me to admit it, the exchange mentioned above was between Christians, and it was by no means an isolated incident. We all have our own ideas of what God is like and how the church should work, and we rarely pause to examine these ideas, much less compare them with others to see how they fare. Why do we do this? Is it pride? Is it ignorance? Is it just plain laziness?

The answer to all these is probably often yes, but I wonder if the prevalence of this attitude among Christians might go a bit deeper. As Christians (particularly evangelicals) we are taught something unique among world religions: that we can have certainty. In fact, if you read my first post on the knowledge of God, you probably noticed that I began by showing how the Christian can legitimately have this very thing. As Paul himself put it, "I know whom I have believed." 2

I wonder, though, if we do not confuse this certainty that we can have regarding our relationship with God with the way that we know most other things. As Christians, our certainty comes not through ourselves but through revelation--it is the gift of God in the form of the Holy Spirit. However, on most every other issue, God has not given this kind of revelation. It is a grave mistake then to assume that we can be as sure of everything as we are of our salvation.

Another problem is that we only know what we are taught, and we rarely seek to learn anything contrary to what we already believe. Josh Billings said it this way: "Education is a good thing generally, but most folks educate their prejudices." When was the last time you intentionally read something that you knew you would disagree with? Now, I am not saying that every Christian should read all the atheist literature or anything like that. As an apologist, I have to and believe me, it (usually) isn't any fun. But I do think that we should be more critical of our attitude when we are confronted with views that differ from our own, especially when dealing with fellow believers.

So, the next time you are about to give your opinion to someone, ask yourself, "Am I really sure enough about this to say what I was about to say?" And if the answer is no, I challenge you to say something more honest instead. Maybe even "I don't know."

1 Proverbs 18:17 (NIV)
2 2 Tim. 1:12 (NIV)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Can we even know about God? (Part 3)

So what is needed to get us from mere theism (the belief that God exists) to Christianity?

In a word, revelation.

Last time we discussed the ability of natural theology to give us knowledge of God. We now turn to what is known as 'revealed theology,' so called because rather than coming through mere reason or observation of nature, it is given, or 'revealed' directly to us by God Himself.

For the Christian, this revelation consists in the Bible (and possibly certain utterances of the corporate Church, but we'll leave the Protestant/Catholic discussion for a later series) and the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. For the Muslim, it's the Qur'an and the prophet Muhammad. Then there's the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith (Latter Day Saints), the Bhagavad Gita and Krishna (Hindu), the Tao Te Ching and Lao Zi (Taoism), and many, many others.

I'll cover in more detail later how we can differentiate between these various and often contradictory claims to divine knowledge, but for now let's just assume that the Christian revelation is the true one. What is it?

The Christian revelation differs from all of the others in that it is principally rooted in the life of a historical figure and the writings about that individual's life. This is decidedly not the story of a mysterious text handed down from heaven, or a vision in the sky, or some otherwise mystical experience. This is a man who lived and gained wide influence in an identifiable region of the world at a traceable time in the past. Further, this man did not claim only to have a more in-depth or complete explanation of a previous revelation, but rather made the much more extraordinary (and falsifiable) claim to be the revelation, the literal Word of God incarnate.

Without going into too much detail here, the idea is basically that if the writings about this man can be trusted to deliver his teachings to us accurately, and further if the man himself can be trusted to have spoken truthfully, then we have here a clear path to genuine knowledge of God.

And it is a much more complete and interesting knowledge than can be delivered through rational argument or even subjective experience alone. From these we can know that God is and even that He is personal and supremely powerful. But revelation tells us what He is like. From Jesus we learn that God is the very embodiment of love, that He cares deeply for us, and that He is interested in how we live.

So, yes, I think knowledge of God is definitely possible, and so this blog can now proceed with working out its various nuances. Disagree? I'd love to hear about it.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Can we even know about God? (Part 2)

Last time we discussed a couple of more personal avenues to knowledge of God. In this post and the next I want to consider some more external options.

It might be fairly said that the concepts presented last time constitute how the Christian knows that God exists, while the ones here deal more with how we show that He does. Both ways can establish genuine knowledge, but since humans do not have immediate access to each other's minds, these are better for teaching and learning, since everyone can verify them independently.

The first is argument. This can take many forms, but the ones I want to focus on here are the various 'theistic proofs,' or arguments for God's existence. These are known collectively as 'natural theology,' because historically, most have sought to establish God's existence through inference from either the 'natural' world or reason itself. There are quite a few such arguments, some good (in my opinion) and some not-so-good. I hope to cover the better ones in more detail in a future series, but for now I'll just mention the 'big three,' if you will.

The most common until very recently (within the last fifty years or so) is called the cosmological argument. There are various versions of the argument that utilize different methods for establishing God's existence, but they all argue from some contingency (something that could have been otherwise) in the world back to God.

The second and currently most popular among apologists is the teleological argument. This argument begins with some account of order or design (usually in nature), and infers God's existence from the seeming necessity of an intelligent mind.

The third (and my favorite) is also the oldest: the ontological argument. The various versions of this argument are intended to establish God's existence on the basis of reason alone. 'Ontology' is literally the study of being, and so this kind of argument begins with an idea or conception of God's being and then infers (more-or-less successfully) His necessary existence.

It is important to note that in their deductive forms (the teleological in its more modern forms is usually inductive...more on this later), all of these arguments, if successful, provide us with real knowledge. That is to say, if I offer you one of the above arguments that is valid and has all true premises, then you have to either show me that at least one of the premises is false, or else accept my conclusion. This is important because the attitude of the atheist on the street (and even of some of the popular new atheist literature) towards these arguments is usually to wave a hand at them or somehow laugh them off. This is much more difficult to do with a proper understanding of deduction.

Personally, I love arguments for God. But they have several weaknesses.

First, they are often difficult to present in everyday conversation, and they only get more complex as time goes on. I think they still have a place here, but perhaps not as a first option.

Also, not everyone is convinced by them. There are many very good Christian scholars, for example, who reject the soundness of the ontological argument.

And thirdly, they cannot by themselves get us all the way to the Christian God, but only to some more vague, enormously powerful entity. To get us the rest of the way, something else is needed.

And this will be the subject of part three...