Pastor's Blog

To say “I know” requires the confidence of almost overwhelming evidence.  To say “I believe” indicates some missing evidence.  Maybe even a lot of missing evidence.  Faith is a form of knowing that has both confidence and uncertainty in its makeup.

The evangelicals that I have been associated with over the years focused on faith’s confidence component.  Knowing what God says about everything and possessing a faith that was certain about everything was important.  My wrestling with atheism convinced me that that pursuit is misguided.  It pushed my idea of faith to build more on faith’s other component:  uncertainty.

We are small creatures in a vast and complex universe.  We take so much pride in what we know (or think we know) and often fail to be humbled by the immensity of our ignorance.  The most educated of us know nothing.  We are children.  No, we are infants.  If that.

I don’t see the Bible as a treasury of the intricacies of God’s immense mind.  I see it more as a coloring book.  Not because God isn’t complex, but because we are not, and He is.  Everything must be made simple for children.  And I’ve accepted that whether we acknowledge it or not, that’s what we are.  I know that’s what I am.

I don’t have to know all the details about how the world was created and I don’t have to prove all the findings of science to be fallacious. 
I don’t have to know all the details about the outworking of the end times. 
I don’t have to know how the afterlife works. 
I don’t have to know what every passage in the Bible means. 
I don’t have to be able to solve every philosophical riddle or every social problem. 
I don’t have to have answers to every objection to Christianity.
I still have questions and objections to quite a few things myself.

I no longer believe that faith need be an impregnable fortress, every point proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.  Mine isn’t.  I liken my faith to a single thread of spider’s silk -- sturdy enough to bear the weight it must bear, but fragile and delicate, swaying without breaking when the wind blows.

I know so little and am uncertain about so many things.  I have faith’s certainty about a few crucial things.  Chief among them is this:  Around AD 30 a group of Jewish men claim to have seen a crucified and completely dead Jesus a few days later fully alive and well.  They touched him.  They ate and drank with him.  They listened to his voice.  They were certain of it.  They were willing to die insisting on it.

My atheist friends pointed out that many people are willing to die for religious values or philosophical ideals.  Agreed.  But the first followers of Jesus did not go to their deaths for religious ideals.  They seem, in fact, to have differed with each other on religious questions.  They agreed on the certainty of an event that occurred in history:  Jesus was crucified, died, and rose from the dead.  They insisted that happened and that they were witnesses of it. 

If the claim is false, why make it?  Worse, if you know the claim to be false, who in their right mind would continue asserting it when threatened with imprisonment, torture, or death?  Were they all insane?

If the claim is true, is it not worthy of serious consideration?  If this happened in our world – what does it mean?  Surely, it must have some significance.

And that is what I came back to.  When I have doubts and unresolved questions, when I can’t make sense of things, this is what I always come back to.  That is my spider’s silk.  Or to use Jesus’ imagery -- my tiny mustard seed.  And that is enough.

Throughout the 1990’s I was having problems with Christianity that I couldn’t resolve.  I started down the road to unbelief, thinking I might find answers in a perspective without God.  But the more I probed atheism the more I discovered problems and inconsistencies.  I decided to turn around, go back, and try to figure a way to make my life work within the confines of Christianity.

“I decided to turn around and go back” is a simple sentence that summarizes a lengthy process.  The atheist soup in my head had been twenty years in the making, with new ingredients slowly stirred into the blend throughout that time.  “Deciding to turn around” wasn’t done in a day.  The online interaction with the atheistic professor lit a small spark, but it took some time for the spark to burst into flame.

I knew some things had to change, if I was going to maintain my sanity.  One of those changes involved the role of certainty.  The evangelicalism I know values certainty and seems to equate it with faith.  If an all-knowing God speaks to you in the Bible, you can be certain that what He says is right.  So there is no need for uncertainty when it comes to anything that the Bible says.  The Bible is certain – and you can be too.  Exercise simple faith.  Faith knows, and it knows with certainty.

This seems logical but I think there are questions we need to ask.  Yes, God is all-knowing and yes, the Bible is God’s Word.  But is my interpretation necessarily identical to “what God said”? 

Or is it possible to misinterpret the Bible?  Can you always be certain that your interpretation is the only interpretation?

I think it only seems reasonable to conclude that there is a difference between God’s Word and various interpretations of God’s Word.  God’s Word is certain – but our interpretations are not as certain.

But isn’t that why we talk about faith?  Faith believes; knowledge knows.  We usually make a distinction between believing things and knowing things.  Knowing involves a more definite certainty;  faith involves some level of uncertainty.

We may always want to be able to say “Thus saith the Lord”, to insist that we’re right, and to be able to do so with certainty.  But because we must interpret the Bible, much of the time we can’t know with that level or that type of certainty. 

We don’t know;  we believe.

If faith involves some level of uncertainty, how should we then live?  Should we be dogmatic, certain, and insistent that we are right, or is it better to be more tentative and flexible, holding what we believe with a slightly loosened grip while we try to answer hard questions that our beliefs might raise?

Simple faith means, not that I know with absolute certainty, but that I don’t know, and I know that I don’t know.  That’s why I must exercise faith.  Faith doesn’t need to boast in absolute certainty.  Faith owns and glories in its own smallness, its ignorance, its limitedness, its finiteness.  Faith is unashamed and unafraid to be humbled before the enormity and the complexity of God, of life, of the human soul, of the world and everything in it.  Faith is not afraid to confess:  I don’t know, but I do believe.

 

Who is a pastor to talk to when his heart is struggling with weighty questions?  When I was wrestling intellectually and emotionally through the 1990’s, I had nowhere to go.  I trusted Christians and Christianity less and less.  I began looking for answers in the writings of secularists and atheists – and they made sense to me.

I decided that maybe talking to someone completely removed from my sphere of life would help me understand things better.  Those were the early days of the internet and I began reading the critiques of creationism and defense of evolutionary theory by a college professor in the western US.  I told him the intellectual issues I was struggling with and we had a pleasant and helpful interaction.

I came across a brief essay on his website, two paragraphs long, on why you should do favors for other people who could never repay you.  The professor said you should do such favors because the laws of the universe might one day repay your kindness. 

That struck me as odd.  This man believed the universe existed by chance, that everything was matter, that there was no such thing as soul or spirit, and yet he proposed that we should do good in the hopes that some spiritual law operating within or behind the universe would somehow mystically repay us.  That concept is called karma and is a religious rather than a scientific idea.  I asked why he felt it necessary to import religious ideas into his scientific view of the world.

The professor didn’t seem to understand my question.  “Isn’t it just good to be nice to people?” he asked.  That struck me as odd, too.  Secular atheism doesn’t acknowledge an overarching universal standard of good and evil.  “Good” and “bad” are just terms each person uses to mean “good (or bad) for me.” 

What benefit is there to me in helping a stranger?  Isn’t it a waste of my time?  The stranger is not really my problem.  I was unafraid to think or say that.  It didn’t seem to me at odds with an atheistic view of the world.  So I asked the professor those questions.

“So,” the professor responded, “the only reason you do good is because your God dictates it?”

“What makes ‘good’ good?” I asked.  “If I expend effort, energy, and time and get no positive benefit or advantage from it, how is that good to me?  If I don’t think it’s good – then why would you say I’m bad for saying so?” 

The professor responded that he didn’t think he’d ever met such a selfish, dark, and evil human being! 

When I read that in his email I had to laugh.  Here was a very educated and dedicated atheist who couldn’t accept the consequences of his own worldview.  He couldn’t live by his own lights.  He had to cheat and import religious ideas into his godless world to make his view of life work.  He insisted his ideas were natural and good – but mine, which were just as natural as his -- were selfish, dark, and evil.  By what standard?  On what basis? 

I began to find that pattern of thinking repeated among the secularists that I spoke with.  They all cheated.  When it came to how they believed people should live, they all affirmed basic religious ideas.  Suddenly, I understood that Christian ideas weren’t just “imposed artificial constructs” (what secularists and atheists often called religious ideas).  Christian ideas adequately explained the fabric of reality, of humanity, of human nature.  At the foundation of thinking, Christian ideas made good sense and accurately described the way things are.

That didn’t answer all my questions or solve all my problems, but it gave me some hope that at its foundation at least, Christian ideas were rational and perhaps warranted more thought on my part. 

So I went back and began re-thinking my way through my faith – from the foundations up.

 

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