Thinking and Believing


The Incredulity of St. Thomas by Caravaggio. Public Domain

I help people discover how it is possible to both think and believe.

This is often what I say when people ask me what I do. I work in a Christian collegiate ministry with graduate students and university faculty. I say this because it is not obvious either inside the church or inside the university that one person may do both.

In the university world, it is often thought that if one is serious about thinking, that this rules out believing. One study, by sociologist Elaine Ecklund, found that only 36 percent of university professors still claim some form of belief in God whereas 90 percent of the American public does. Sometimes this has to do with the perceived conflict between science and faith, most often due to the evolution wars in this country. Yet there are leading biologists like Francis Collins, who led the effort to map the human genome, for whom this has never been a problem. Sometimes this is a consequence of what I call, “stupid things done in Jesus name.” For some, the wounds they have experienced at the hands of Christians are serious. And sometimes, I’ve met people who simply do not want there to be a God.

I also find that some really do not think authentic faith has room for authentic questions. And yet questions are at the heart of what a university does. Jesus loved questions. He loved it when his disciples asked him questions. And he probably asked more questions than anyone in the New Testament. He even asked questions in response to questions! This runs so contrary to the idea that a person who believes has lots of answers and lots of certainty. For me, it is much more the case of finding someone who I can really trust with my questions, and who often uses questions to transform me and my outlook on the world, if I am patient and persistent enough with them.

Sadly, I’ve often found the church to equally be a place where, if one is serious about belief, it means that one must rule out much of what some people think. Often it comes in the form of some conflict with what we understand the Bible to be saying. Most often, I’ve found the conflict to be apparent rather than real, more often the result of trying to make the Bible answer questions its’ writers didn’t intend to answer. Sometimes there are real conflicts, but then there are also real anomalies in the data of any field, and the worst thing you can do is force a solution, as much as you’d like to “neaten” things up. And sometimes, the conflict is really one between cultural ways of life in society and the counter-cultural life of God’s people. Here, it seems, the answer is to not simply ask what but why–to understand the reasons behind a different way of living.

I think it is equally the case here that people struggle with the idea that an authentic life of faith does not have room for questions. Yet in the gospels, I see that faith is acting on what one does know about God or Christ, even while asking about what one does not know. After all, none of us gets to one hundred percent certainty about anything. We live and act on knowledge about which we have far less than 100 percent certainty all the time.

To the contrary of what some think, I am convinced that the life of faith may actually open up the life of thought and research. First of all, at the heart of the formative practices of Christian faith is the practice of attentiveness, first of all to God, but also to one’s own life, one’s neighbor, and one’s world. Often, attentiveness is the seedbed in which the curiosity that leads to good questions grows. And good questions are at the heart of good research. Don’t get me wrong. I know lots of people who are not believers who are attentive and ask good questions. I’m simply saying that the attentive life that flows from faith prepares us to be attentive, whether in the lab or the art studio, or when we are studying a musical score or a balance sheet or statistical table.

I could go on. The conviction that we worship and follow the one who is Truth ought make us dogged in the pursuit of truth, because we really believe it is out there, and isn’t just a masquerade for who has power. The paradoxes of the faith–the incarnation, the Trinity, humans as the imago dei and yet as finite and fallen–leads, I believe to a flexibility or suppleness in thinking that is open to the answer being “both this and this” rather than an oppositional binary. Certainly, the belief in a Creator who thinks (the ultimate, it seems to me, reconciliation of believing and thinking), gives a powerful rationale for hypothesizing theories, and searching for lawful order in the cosmos, and even for the power of mathematics to map onto the physical world.

At the end of the day, however, what I am about is not an argument about whether it is possible to think and believe. Rather, what I am about is deeply desiring that my friends engaged in the “heavy lifting” of academic or professional life are able to live with this deep sense that the joy they experience in the joining of prayerful pursuit of knowledge and attentive inquiry, the wonder of those “aha” moments, is the pleasure of the Creator upon them, for which they were made.

St Irenaeus wrote:

The glory of God is man fully alive; moreover man’s life is the vision of god: if God’s revelation through creation has already obtained life for all the beings that dwell on earth, how much more will the Word’s manifestation of the Father obtain life for those who see God.”

My longing? Human beings fully alive discovering in the creation of God the glory of God, bringing thought and belief together. That is joy indeed.

Doubt. . . And Belief

"C.s.lewis3". Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

C.s.lewis3“. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

One of the most troubling experiences for those of us who are people of faith comes when we face serious questions and doubts about that faith. Most often, these come unbidden. It may simply be that life happens and we wonder, “how can this be true and yet there be a good God?” It may be that we are pursuing a line of intellectual inquiry related to our calling and suddenly come smack up against something that poses questions about what we believed to be true–whether this concern the origins of life, or the nature of human freedom, or the rightness of certain convictions and the ways in which we have lived these out.

I think there are at least two aspects to what troubles us in these situations. One is that something, or even Someone, we have cherished as true and real is called into question–perhaps even the very existence of what we have loved is questioned. We do not want to lose what we have so loved, and has so made sense of our lives. The other troubling aspect for many of us, I think, is that we suspect that it is wrong, or there is something wrong in us, to have these questions and doubts.

In a book on C. S. Lewis, I came across some statements I find very helpful on this topic of doubt and belief. Lewis held that, “If it’s not true, God does not want you to believe it.” Clearly belief to him was not “believing in that which you know is not true.” Lewis rather believed in the thoughtful but not frantic effort to resolve the questions and doubts we face. He wrote, in a letter to Rhona Bodle:

don’t mean by this that you should cease to study and make enquiries: but that you should make them not with frantic desire but with cheerful curiosity and a humble readiness to accept whatever conclusions God may lead you to, (But always, all depends on the steady attempt to obey God all the time. ‘He who does the will of the Father shall know the doctrine.’)”

At another point he also writes her:

“No one can make himself believe anything, and the effort does harm. Nor make himself feel anything, and that effort also does harm. What is under our control is action and intellectual inquiry. Stick to that.”

From this I draw several insights that I have found helpful:

1. Implicit in all this is that doubt for Lewis is part of the life of faith, not antithetical to it. The antithesis of faith is unbelief, a refusal to act upon what one is convinced is true.

2. We cannot make ourselves not doubt and the frantic effort to do so only makes things worse, not better.

3. Nor should we go to the other extreme and make doubt a fashionable way station, something to be celebrated. Sometimes I fear that it is more preferable these days to talk about what we doubt and question, than what we believe and embrace, as if the latter person must always be a bit narrow-minded lacking in intellectual acuity or sensitivity.

4. Intellectual honesty is important. This means an openness to the truth, whatever that turns out to be, whether it confirms, re-shapes, or overturns what we have believed. Lewis never wanted people to believe if the evidence against their faith was stronger than that for it. At the same time, Lewis thought we should continue in our beliefs unless we were presented with cogent reasons to change them, even when we have questions and doubts.

5. For Lewis, part of the answer is disciplined intellectual work–meeting the doubts head on. Rarely do we come upon a question that others have not wrestled with, often deeply. No where is this more true than in the Bible itself. Philip Yancey makes the observation in a very thoughtful post on this subject that none of the famous atheists of the past or present raise questions that have not been raised and wrestled with in the pages of scripture. Beyond this, there are thoughtful people who have written on most of the questions that we face. To search prayerfully looking for God to give illumination about the things we struggle with is not to force a resolution but rather to express faith that God may meet us in our search.

6. The other part is disciplined obedience in what we know. The great command to love God and love our neighbor is not suspended by our doubts. Continuing in our own reading and prayer, our worship, our community with others and service are all ways we walk in the way of God who ultimately is the one to address our doubts.

What Lewis’s counsel emphasizes is that faith and doubt are not mutually exclusive. By “action and intellectual inquiry” we are expressing a trust that God rewards those who seek and who come to God with their questions. What I also appreciate is the recognition that belief is not merely a matter of intellectual assent but rather a deepening relational trust–a movement from believing “in” God to believing God, as we would a spouse or friend we trust deeply because of all we’ve shared together. What Lewis commends is an approach to doubt meant to take us into the knowing and being known that is the deepest longing of human beings, something never easily won, but worth the effort.

Going Deeper: A Book of Glory or A Confusing Book?

Bible open to John. (c)2015, Robert C Trube

Bible open to John. (c)2015, Robert C Trube

For some of us, our experience of reading the Bible seems to vacillate between these two extremes. Sometimes we see amazing things about God and God’s purposes and the human experience that catch us up in wonder. And sometimes, we are just plain perplexed and confused as we read and try to figure out, “what is this about?”

My title though has a particular reference to what we’ve been considering in our church’s study of John’s Gospel. Often the book is divided into two parts: The Book of Signs (John 1-12) and The Book of Glory (John 13-20 or 21 if you include the epilogue). The first part consists of Seven Signs that are meant to help persuade us to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (cf John 20:31). The second part concerns the final events of Jesus life and passion, in which John sees Jesus being glorified. Five chapters (13-17) consist of a lengthy talk and prayer that at first reading may seem confusing, even if there are some glimpses of glory along the way.

An example of both is John 13:31-32. Judas has just left to betray Jesus and here’s what follows:

When he was gone, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him.  If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.

There is definitely some glory in there but also some fairly convoluted sentences. There is a good deal of this kind of thing in these chapters. It is not my intent to unravel all this here but rather to remind those of us in our church what our pastor said about working through this material, which might be helpful for others who find themselves confused either in John’s gospel or other parts of scripture.

1.What Jesus says is worth our attention! Right before this section, Jesus reminds his followers:

For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say. (John 12:49-50)

If Jesus is saying just what the Father wants him to say and these commands lead to eternal life, careful attention is warranted!

2. A good way to pay attention is to read (and re-read) before our messages. That’s not a bad way to pay attention for one thing. Also, even if we can’t figure it all out–it will prepare us to hear the word explained in our Sunday messages. This is just good sense in general and a good argument for knowing ahead of time what texts of scripture will be preached on so we can read, pray, and be working with our pastor to understand what God is saying. Rich even gave us a schedule–so no excuses!

3. The third thing that Rich shared is to reflect. The questions he gave us are good for this section, and maybe more generally as well.

  • How does my belief in Jesus affect my daily life?
  • How well am I doing at loving?
  • How well am I doing at obeying?

Believing, loving, and obeying are pretty basic stuff–basic but also challenging! I will never in this life get beyond believing, loving, and obeying. I often want the new and exciting. But if I’ve seen anything in John, it is in these things that we find life in Jesus. We’ve learned that our healing is in our obedience. In the man born blind, we saw that believing was seeing for him–the more he believed, the more he saw.

So, where will you make time this week to pay attention to Jesus, to read and re-read what he says, and reflect on how well you are believing, loving and obeying? Can you take time this week to read over on your own the text from either last week’s message in church, or the one for the week to come? Are there some others you can talk with about this stuff?

If’s funny how many times I listen to messages and forget what I heard before I get to the parking lot! If nothing else, Going Deeper helps me keep reflecting on how what I’ve heard should affect my belief and my behavior. I hope that for all of us, that we can be not only hearers of the word but doers (James 1:22). That would be glorious!

All the posts I’ve made for our “Going Deeper” blog now appear as a separate category on my home page.

Review: Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief

Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief
Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief by Roger Lundin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The very fact that I am writing these words and you are reading them suggests some kind of belief about the function of language. Exactly what that function is has been called into question by recent literary theory. At one time if I said I was writing about a book by Roger Lundin titled Beginning with the Word, you would think that my words had reference to the actual (or virtual) book. Recent literary theory has separated word and thing such that any use of words is simply representing what they signify in my mind, my own subjective experience, and not the actual book.

Certainly there is warrant for this idea. One of the daunting tasks of reviewing is to attempt to do justice to an author’s ideas, whatever one’s critique of them may be. Actually, this is something I felt I struggled with more than usual in reading this book, reading it twice, and even then, not being sure I am doing the author’s ideas justice.

What Lundin seems to be doing in engaging 19th and 20th century writers like Emily Dickinson and William Faulkner as well as theologians like Karl Barth, as well as literary theorists like Ricoeur and Gadamer is to explore the skepticism of belief in both modern literature and literary theory that arises from this separation of word and thing. In so doing he explores the desire to believe in the midst of such skepticism, the desire for a storied existence in a literary culture suspicious of any metanarrative. He considers the power of words to awaken awareness using Frederick Douglass’s autobiography of how reading gave him an awareness of his personhood and the desirability of freedom.

Lundin would propose that there is even yet ground for belief because of the Word who became Flesh, the One who incarnated a union (reunion?) between word and object. This is a central tenet of Barth’s theology and provides a basis for a belief in the transcendent, in the possibility of grace, and for being part of a story that makes sense and gives meaning to life.

The author positions himself not as one proposing an “absolute” argument as a modernist writer might, but rather speaks as a “witness” weaving together a theology of the Word, his own experience, and themes in literature (story, making sense of time, a longing for home, and dreams of justice and deliverance) to affirm that it is possible to make statements of belief that aren’t simply polite fictions, personal sentiments, or statements about what we know isn’t so, but rather affirmations of ultimate, life-giving realities rooted in the One who brings Word and Thing together.

I confess that I struggled to follow the train of the author’s thought at points, particularly where he delves into literary theory. The thematic approach reflects less a linear argument than coming at an idea from several perspectives. Yet I suspect that for some these elements along with the humble yet forthright “witness” that affirms while leaving room for others might in the end prove winsome and more persuasive than any absolute, linear argument. Certainly for any student in literary studies who wrestles with critical theory and questions of belief, this is an important resource.

[This review is based on a complimentary e-galley version of this book provided by the publisher through Netgalley. I have not been in any other way compensated for the review of this book.]

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