The Road of Faith


Created to Comprehend - Part 2

Faith is BOTH: an act of MIND and an act of WILL. The ditches I've discussed share a common flaw: they both emphasize one aspect of faith to the exclusion of the other. Those in the ditch of certainty emphasize the role of reason in faith, understanding that faith must be rational. Those in ditch of mystery emphasize that faith is an act of the will, understanding that a person must eventually move out of their mind and act.

The best way to understand all of this is the analogy of the hiker (inspired by the great William James): 

Imagine a happy lad out for a hike in nature:

Hiker enjoying nature

(1) Now imagine our hiker coming to a cliff (uh-oh!): 

Hiker comes to a daunting cliff

(2) Our hero must now decide what to do. He begins calculating whether he can jump across to the other side: 

Hiker calculates the cost
Hiker calculates the cost

(3) At some point our adventurer decides to go for it: 

Hiker leaping over ledge cliff chasm
illustrations by Steve Robbins

The key phases of this incident can be summarized as such:

Faith is both rational and volitional

Faith is ultimately an act of the entire self. People on the road of faith understand that a person who has real faith must ultimately find themselves dwelling in (3). The problem for those in the ditch of certainty is that they find themselves stuck in (2) and have a hard time getting to (3). But of course all the calculating and cogitating in the world will not get our explorer to the other side of the cliff. At some point the hiker must choose: "do I trust my reasoning enough to act on it?" 

For those stuck in the ditch of mystery, they are keenly aware of the futility and impotence of being stuck in (2), and respond by skipping (2) all together. For them, there is great passion and honor in taking a "leap of faith," where faith is understood as belief without knowledge - or, in our current analogy: believing without step (2). But if our commitment is not founded on (2), then our faith becomes arbitrary (at best), and maybe even meaningless. Getting to the other side of the cliff takes much more than reasoning. But it does take at least reasoning; and the better the reasoning, the less arbitrary the choice to jump.

Marriage Analogy: When a person seeks someone to enter into a marriage covenant with, they analyze their prospect thoroughly. Many have learned the hard way the foolishness of leaping into marriage thoughtlessly, compelled maybe by the deceitful intoxication of romance. But equally counter-productive is the person who overanalyzes their prospects, straining for certainty that the prospect will make them happy, won't hurt them, won't leave them, or won't trigger whatever other psychological insecurity that is paralyzing them. For a good marriage to happen, one must thoughtfully investigate their prospect; but one must also see when their investigation is adequate and act accordingly.  

marriage is a better analogy for Faith and reason

Faith and Doubt: Can a person have faith AND doubt simultaneously? Yes! How? Because doubt is merely a state of the mind. Doubt emerges in that space between conviction and skepticism. Being convicted of some thing means that you believe strongly that that thing is true. Being skeptical of some thing means to believe strongly that that thing is not true. Being doubtful of something falls in the middle: you believe that that thing could be either true or false. Here's a chart:

Doubt is not inconsistent with faith.

But the mind only accounts for a small part of what faith is. Faith ultimately consummates in the will (by which we mean one's true wants and desires - which are revealed in one's commitments and actions): 

Doubt is an act of the mind. Faith is an act of will.
(to be clear, these charts are NOT illustrated by Steve Robbins)

A person can very reasonably have a strong faith while wrestling with doubt. In fact, as Greg Boyd argues in his latest book "Benefit of the Doubt," wrestling with doubts is not only compatible with faith, but can even be indicative of a strong faith. Says Boyd, "When you wrestle with God it is a sign that you have faith, not that you lack it." So yes: One can have faith and doubt (I can't really imagine faith without it)

The Impotence of Agnosticism: While faith and doubt are compatible, notice that agnosticism is not compatible with faith. When it comes to the will, there is no middle option. You either choose to jump over the cliff or you choose not to. You either ask the woman to marry you or continue on your own. You either commit yourself to God, or you do not. You will not impress anyone that you "considered jumping the cliff," nor will you inspire any honor that you "thought about asking that girl to marry me," and you will not garner the praise of angels that you were "rather intrigued by this whole God notion." 

The Road of Faith: So faith is both and act of the mind which leads to an act of the will. It is a well-reasoned commitment of the whole self. In particular, faith in God is a well-reasoned commitment to trust God and to orient our lives according to his will (as it is revealed in the scriptures). God does not demand that anyone trust him, nor does God assume that trusting him is easy. Rather, we are urged over-and-over throughout the bible to seek God and to continue seeking God. 

God understands that his hiddenness is a great obstacle (John 20:29), but he is confident that if we seek him sincerely we will come to trust him deeply (Deut 4:29, 1 Chron 22:19, 28:9) - not as a reward, or because of some kind of magic or anything; simply because he is, in fact, trustworthy. And the more we learn about God, the greater our faith becomes (contra ditch-of-mystery).

We can have real knowledge of God. In fact, we can know as much as Jesus knew (John 15:15)! But the person on the road of faith understands that our knowledge and our beliefs, no matter how right they are, do us little good by themselves (even demons have accurate knowledge and belief). The goal is not "being correct," the goal is "being in covenant." At some point, even though doubts remain and certainty eludes us, we have to see that there is enough rational leverage to compel a commitment. And we ought to commit.

People get stuck so often because they expect to feel certain. They expect to not doubt. And they get trapped in these same intellectual loops. While I believe passionately that a person should never abandon their doubts, I also believe that God reveals himself in many ways. There is only so much we can learn about God in our investigative stages. There is a whole lot more that we learn once we are in covenant with God through Jesus. As Greg Boyd puts it, "there are things that we can only learn in the context of a committed love relationship." We shouldn't abandon our doubts, but we should bring them to the next level.

Faith is BARELY Cognitive: Finally, and most profoundly, knowing God does not merely come from our cognitions. It also comes from our character. That is, what we can understand about God is not merely based on how smart we are, but on how Godly we are! Our character, it seems, is like some kind of "revelation decoder ring." A person who is merciful, compassionate, and loving will understand more about God than a person who is deceitful, selfish, or greedy (no matter how "smart" they are). God appears different to people depending on what they've become! Second Samuel 22:26-27 says it this way: 

“To the faithful you show yourself faithful, to the blameless you show yourself blameless, to the pure you show yourself pure, but to the devious you show yourself shrewd." (David echoes this in Psalm 18:25-26).
Likewise, Jesus' followers wanted to know if Jesus really was who he said he was, or if he was just some guy with an inspiring religious vocabulary and a bag of impressive tricks. Jesus responds, not with arguments and evidence or anything so "intellectual." Rather, he gives his followers a test to use to determine if Jesus really was who he said he was. His test was for them to do the will of God (John 7:17). To actually be the types of persons he commanded them to be. His test suggests that by being godly we will know "whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own."

Faith is ultimately an act of the entire self: our mind, our will, and our character.

  • CATEGORY: theology for your God-shaped hole

  • 09-05-2013

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