I have been thinking about that old polarity of faith/unbelief recently. This because of a few significant conversations with friends who have been grappling with their faith, and also because it has long been an issue for me.
The old Evangelical way of understanding faith is all about assurance- we would quote Hebrews 11 v1- Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Faith was something breathed into us by the Holy Spirit- it was about certainty, security, muscular purposefulness. Without faith it is impossible to please God.
Except it never felt that way. And so I wondered if God could ever be pleased with me.
Over the years I became more open about the insecurities of my faith- and discovered that I was far from alone. Sure, I know some lovely people who have not a shadow of doubt- they would echo the words from Hebrews. Some seemed to relax into a beautiful kind of faith, which became a deep well of joy in their lives. To be with these people is a great blessing.
But many others, like me, experience faith as a fleeting presence- ebbing and flowing. Sometimes within grasp, at other times a million miles away.
More recently I have discovered that my faith, rather than being the polar opposite of doubt, can actually flourish in the presence of doubt. It is not that doubt cancels out faith- rather that the honest place of uncertainty and not knowing becomes the means through which I seek to humbly approach God. And sometimes, there he is…
I may well carry temperamental characteristics that skew me towards this kind of faith- but I also wonder if some of this (un)believing (a nod to Pete Rollins for this parenthetical trickery) has been fostered by engagement in all of that deconstruction that happened around the Emerging Church Conversation (Capital letters seemed appropriate!) (Perhaps I am overdoing the parenthesis a little now?)
We became very used to unravelling it all- questioning everything, shaking the theological tree right down to its roots. And once you start, everything is up for grabs. Substitutionary atonement? Biblical Authority? Hell? Virgin Birth? Holy Spirit wackyness? An Interventionist God? Everything has a question mark.
I think that those of us that went through this have a faith that in many ways is stronger- but at the same time is far less concrete- far less dogmatic and assured. What Pete Ward described as ‘Liquid Faith’ may well have the capacity to move like water flowing through our postmodern culture- but there is also a danger that it finds a crack and disappears out of sight- at least for a while…
But there comes a time when deconstruction is not enough- we need to start laying down some more big stones on which to place some of our smaller ones. Or if the brick wall analogy does not work for you- time to stop jumping up and down on the theological trampoline and to rest on it’s soft sprung surface.
I think our starting point in this constructing is becoming clearer. In the words of NT Wright-
And how long must it be before we learn that our task as Christians is to be in the front row of constructing the post‐postmodern world? The individual existential angst of the 1960s has become the corporate and cultural angst of the 1990s. What is the Christian answer to it? The Christian answer is the love of God, which goes through death and out the other side. What is missing from the postmodern equation is, of course, love.’
(Sorry forgotten where I got this quote from…)
Others leaders within this debate are increasingly beginning to commit themselves to foundational beliefs- and in some cases getting a bit of a kicking in the process. I am still working on this for myself, but I have been thinking about what might help me navigate within all this creative flow- in my state of (un)belief.
Here are some of the principles that make sense to me-
- Cynicism– it is almost always a bad thing- corrosive like battery acid. And it is infectious too. I must strive to remain hopeful- which is to say, uncynical.
- Choice- despite my resistance (cynicism?) towards the evangelical three card conversion trick, I continue to think that faith is a choice- we choose to believe, even in the presence of unbelief. That is not the same thing as ‘pretending’, it is about putting ourselves in the place of seeking, hoping and yearning for God, and learning to live in his ways.
- Open to encounter- It is my continued hope, and sometime my experience, that God is to be found in the most unlikely of places- “Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his.” My reaction against the ways I formerly was told to expect to encounter God (primarily through preaching and ecstatic worship) has opened up the possibility of all sorts of other encounters. And I am going to stay open to them as much as I can.
- Open to tradition- I strive too to learn from how others have understood God, both in the past, and recently. It is easy to either rely on a narrow, pre-selected set of references- the good guys, the stars of the Greenbelt festival speaking circuit. I must navigate further, and avoid the simplistic romanticisation of older men and women of faith also- the celtic saints also had feet of clay.
- Faith encountered through praxis and ritual- Sometimes the shape given to faith by tradition, by ritual and by practice is vital. More than just dead habit, it may become the place in which faith is rediscovered.
- Faith in community- sharing common encounters- Can faith ever exist in total isolation? Perhaps- if you are a pillar saint. But Jesus talked about his church. The essence of the followers of Jesus was discovered in the collective- in the sharing of stories and the life of love. In this way faith is tested and sometimes broken- but often shared and strengthened.
- Transcendence– there is much that I do not know. Much that my head can not grasp nor make sense of. But there is often this singing in my spirit- there in all sorts of small things- art, small kids, new leaves, the smell of seaweed. These things often seem to transcend my own narrow experience, and open up the possibility of something much bigger, much more eternal. And this brings me again to God.
The importance of belief. The meaning of belief. Belief in what, exactly? Why is it an issue at all that your belief is only belief when contrasted with doubt? Does belief bring you comfort in the here and now? Is it because you think that without a 100% belief you might perhaps go to a dark and fiery place?
Ok, so starting from first principles and constructing a god from nothing. What sort of a god do we want? Is he going to be self-centred, or one who makes a universe and then leaves it all up to us to get on with? Is he going to be a malevolent god who even sends us bum steers every now and again just to see the mess we get ourselves in?
Or, is this hypothetical god to be one who is the highest of all human emotions, and is love?
So let’s now say that that’s the starting point for our hypothetical god. He is one of just love, mercy and forgiveness. Our innate feeling of what he should be seems capable of telling us what He is.
Next imagine a scenario; a judgement with a god presiding. The defendant has been ‘bad’ and has to go to Hell with no mercy (sorry but you had your chance). Are your morals strong enough to say this is wrong? Those same morals that invented this perfect god (above)? Are your morals strong enough to stand up to this god and say “this is wrong, you should give mercy”? Are you going to stand up to god and say “I believe so strongly that what you do is wrong that I’m going to elect to go to this hell place with no trial. I will just go because you’re not the god I want”.
If you really want your god to be this, totally good G-d then that is the very first step in understanding Him. You can then start to examine, filter, analyse, deconstruct, ALL other evidence, but only once you truly realise what the god is that you actually really want there in the first place. And you have to really, really want your definition of god with the very deepest of yourself. So much that you would stake your life on it. Then you can start to re-construct, with meaning and reliability and certainty. Do you have any doubts about the god you would want?
What remains is purely practical matters (perhaps a bit fundamental, but practical nevertheless), i.e. does god actually exist at all?! In other words can science construct a universe out of nothing, perhaps it can using dice. Let’s make the situation a bit more favourable then, let’s say that dice are removed from the equation and that science comes to realise that they play no part in the running of the universe. It was a mistake that they made in the 1920’s, they shouldn’t have gone down that path, it was a silly mistake.
So, no dice in the running of the universe. The alternative is of course purposefulness. We are immediately presented with the alternative that the universe has purpose, whatever that purpose is. Let’s not change anything else yet, so we still think that the big-bang happened (it didn’t actually, but that’s more complicated to explain), so the b-b happened, but now we understand that it happened with purpose. This is big stuff.
The universe happened with purpose, we haven’t seen a god yet, but we do know that randomness is out, so we have a weird situation were the universe started and with a purpose, but the purpose could be random. We have had to admit dice, which isn’t congruent with our new understanding of things. But we don’t yet have much choice. There is still the incongruent possibility that randomness was there at the beginning and that god if he we really want him to be there he must be a transcendent god who just set things in motion and then left off. We need something more to make god real and convincingly necessary. What we need is immanence in some form. Some way that we can see how he is necessary for the universe to operate.
So let’s just add one more thing to our imagined scenario; we have no dice, they are replaced by purposefulness. We add to this – a requirement for a technical attribute of a particle, and that is one of an outside-of-time synchronicity between all particles in the universe. That is that everything must be related to every single other thing synchronously. Everything must dance together across an infinite space and that tune must be the same across time and space.
That relationship is hierarchical, we are saying that there needs to be a hierarchically superior, outside of time ‘thing’ which gives everything the same tune to sing.
What I think I’m saying is that if science is ever to discover G-d other than a transcendent god, then it will need to 1)remove the dice and 2) find His connection to the universe.
These things (and more) mankind has already found, but science is slow to change (at the gates of progress lie a thousand guards guarding the past). Mankind will find this out. We will discover with the certainty of the existence of everything, that there is a hierarchical structure to existence and that dice are not needed.
How will this change us, when we find out? Do you have any doubts about the god you want?
Wow- a lot of words there Carl!
You appear to be an original thinker, with a meta-narrative that has given shape to the way you view the world. All power to you my friend.
Thank you Chris. Thank you for your recognition of who I am. Thank you for your wishes of strength. And thank you for calling me a friend.
My original thinking sets me apart. I desire it with all my heart, yet it excludes me from the majority. How I wish I didn’t have it.
just wanted to say thanks for your reflections; they put me in mind of some other thoughts I’ve heard / read recently, such as that we could be more interested in Christian spirituality than belief / non-belief (or even (un)belief), those being statements or labels of a rather in or out kind of nature. also I wonder if doubt or (un)belief actually opens us up to the mystery of God; I am one who resists human attempts to pin God down with Dogma and Theology (with capitals!) and our words … how dare we!
oh, and I picked up a copy of your book, Listing, a couple of years ago, and it is one to which I return often – so thanks for that, too, Chris!
Thanks to you too Sarah!
I like your way of saying ‘Christian spirituality’ rather than belief- it seems to fit more with where I am coming from. However, do we not still need things to navigate from, and with- I suppose you could say theology and dogma (without the capitals!) It is these that I find myself toying with again- despite all that has gone before…
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Yes, praxis and spirituality all the way. Rollins got it so right with his “belief in the correct way” rather than “correct way of belief”.
Lower case theology and dogma especially where it disagrees with mine!
Let’s highten the spirtuality and start feeling G-d and knowing Him, with all our selves.
Just testing Emphasis
End of test
Thanks for this. It says just what I’ve been trying to think and a lot more. Much appreciated. Steve
Thank you for reflection which has articulated my own experience but I did not have the words to express!
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Liked your piece! Here is something I wrote recently along a similar theme.
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