Monday, July 31, 2006

So what is faith?

When I talk to people who don't share my belief (in a higher power in general, but in Jesus in particular) I often hear people claiming they could never have faith. They seem to think that just because having faith ISN'T knowledge (in the sense that you KNOW it is true) it must be the polar opposite of it. Thus one exercises faith in something in SPITE of the fact it isn't true. One need look no further than a site like Slashdot for an example. For those unfamiliar with the site, Slashdot is a technology centered website where a majority of the community appears (in my inexpert and thoroughly unscientifically formed opinion) to be made up of atheists and agnostics. A recent comment I ran across (in an article having nothing to do with religion, but had mentioned having faith that something would happen) demonstrates this. This person has equated faith, whether consciously or unconsciously, with not thinking about something and accepting it blindly. It pains me to see this. However, as I said before, it is not uncommon. I don't think that the equation "FAITH = NOT THINKING" is correct, let alone the kind of faith I possess.

So then, what is faith? To answer this question I'm going to quote one of my favorite Bible verses. Before I am accosted for referencing the Bible in a message directed primarily to people who don't possess faith, let it be noted that I am referencing it because I think it is valid to examine what kind of faith the Bible asks you to have before rejecting that same faith.

Hebrews 11:1 says " is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." I believe the problem most non-believers have with this sort of faith is that they unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, object to its positively optimistic nature. This isn't to say non-believers can't be optimists, but a majority of them seem to have grown up in a world where a skeptical mind and a pessimistic attitude are the tools to discovery of truth. Only after assuming nothing is true, and allowing for the truth to prove itself out, are they ever sure of the factual nature of something. Of course, I am generalizing here to an extent. But at the core of someone who scoffs at faith there is usually at least a kernel of this cynicism.

Take off the blinders...

Before we plumb the depths of what faith is, it's important to go back to our definition and ask "What is faith NOT?" Well, primarily, Biblical faith is not the same as blind faith. Notice the verse does not say " is being sure of what we are just guessing is there and certain of what we have no evidence for." God, in essence, does not ask us to swallow the pill of faith without giving us a drink of truth to wash it down with.

When the apostle Paul was arrested for preaching about Jesus he appealed in a hearing to a local official named Agrippa. After presenting to him what he knew about Jesus and his earthly ministry he culminated it by saying, "...I am convinced that none of this has escaped his [Agrippa's] notice, because it was not done in a corner." That one sentence captures one of the great truths of Christianity: Jesus' ministry was a PUBLIC ministry. He wasn't hiding in a room in a hut in the middle of nowhere claiming that God was speaking to him. Instead he was out and about in front of crowds of hundreds and thousands in big cities such as Jerusalem. This leads to one of the great foundations for Christian faith: portions of the Bible are verifiable historically!

To put this in perspective let's look at the Holocaust denial movement. For those of you unfamiliar with this movement: "Holocaust denial (commonly called Holocaust revisionism by its supporters) is the belief that the Holocaust did not occur as it is described by mainstream historiography [recording of history]." This movement attempts to persuade others that the holocaust never happened and the Nazis are getting a bad rap. Most people have FAITH, and it can only be called faith for any of us that did not witness it firsthand, that the holocaust occurred. Why is this? We have faith because when people began saying "the holocaust never happened" people who witnessed it stepped forward with the same message: "It most certainly did happen." People came forward who had lived in, liberated, or otherwise experienced the atrocities that occurred in camps such as Auschwitz and Dachau to counter the claims that the holocaust never occurred.

What does this have to do with Christian faith? More than you may realize. When Christianity began in the 1st century it too was making controversial claims: A man named Jesus walked the earth and did miracles, gave signs of his divinity, and was put to death on a Roman cross. As Paul said "it was not done in a corner." This means that if the claims put forth by the early Christians about Christ were untrue, it would be reasonable to believe that people would come out of the woodwork to provide evidence against any lies, just as some do today to provide evidence against the claims of the holocaust deniers. Christians and Christianity, even more so than the holocaust, had its share of enemies. The Jewish people considered it blasphemy. The Romans (who controlled most of the "known" world at the time) saw it as at least a heresy against their government, and eventually a threat to their power. However, we have no historical evidence of any credible witnesses challenging the verifiable facts of Christianity to say "I was there and that's not how it happened."

Does this then mean that we can be guaranteed that Christianity is true? Unfortunately not, but it helps us make an educated guess on whether the claims it makes about itself are true. This is where faith comes in. Faith is the bridge that spans the gap between what we know is true and what we estimate is true based on that knowledge. Jesus once said, "I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?" This is the opposite of faith. Jesus is saying "If you won't accept the things I can show you [earthly things], then there is no way you can bridge the gap to accept the things I can't show you [heavenly things]." We can reason though that if Jesus IS trustworthy in the things he claims that we can verify, then why should we doubt him about things he claims that we can't verify? Faith simply helps us get over that narrow chasm of what we don't know. Faith does not help us ignore what we know is not true. So the next time someone asks you to "have faith" don't take this as an insult to your intelligence and a call to abandon your reasoning. Rather, consider it an opportunity to accept that we, as humans, don't and can't know everything. Sometimes we just have to make educated hypotheses based on the facts we have.

Shed some light on the subject...

Another thing that will explain what faith is, by showing what it is not, is a light switch. Most people think of faith like they do your standard, run of the mill, light switch. Just like the light switch is either on or off, faith to them is either something that you have or you don't. A more realistic model of faith is a fancier style of light switch called a dimmer switch. A dimmer switch has on and off settings like a regular light switch, but it also has a near infinite number of positions it can be set to in between on and off that allow it to shed as much light as you would like it to. Real faith is like that in the sense that people aren't either atheists to the core on one end and fervent, undoubting believers on the other. Typically they fall somewhere in the middle. When we think of faith this way we realize that it's not a giant leap in the dark, but actually a path that we take that leads us from unbelief to belief.

A man once came to Jesus asking him to help his son saying: "
...if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us." " 'If you can'?" said Jesus. "Everything is possible for him who believes." Immediately the boy's father exclaimed, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" Here we see clearly the odd contrast between belief and unbelief that exists in us all. Just like a room with a dimmer switch only turned on halfway is neither dark nor bright, a person torn between belief and unbelief has faith. But, at the same time, they have doubts. Most people, when they realize they have doubts, begin to question their faith. For those who consider themselves Christians they may begin to wonder whether they are true Christians, whether their doubts may be a sign that God has not saved them, or worse that God doesn't even exist. For those who consider themselves unbelievers they take these doubts and use them as proof to themselves that their worldview, one that is lacking God, is correct. We can then see that faith isn't something that is supposed to bridge this giant gap from "off" to "on", but rather it's meant to help us get across the much smaller gap of "dim" to "brighter", and is thus not an unreasonable action.

Work it out...

What else can help us understand faith? Faith is like a muscle. The more you use your muscles, the more naturally the movement of doing so becomes. Eventually you build endurance and strength. Faith works in a similar manner. The more you practice faith, the stronger and more resilient your faith grows. This is not to say that faith is some sort of illusion of a false reality that gets more real the more often you pretend it's real. It's more like the mother who trusts her child with bigger and more responsibility as she proves herself trustworthy. If we exercise our faith in small things, and they prove fruitful, we can eventually begin having faith in larger things. Exercising faith in this way is a lot like feeding a person. The apostle Paul, when talking about people who had not had enough practice in their faith, said: "I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it." You can't feed a baby a steak; you have to start them out on milk. In the same way you can't expect someone who has little experience in practicing faith to take a huge leap of faith. They need to start themselves out with small steps.

So if you want to grow in faith, what can you do? Start small. Look over the evidence, with an open mind, for and against such questions as "Did Jesus exist?" and "Is the Bible trustworthy?" Never let any preconceived notions or previous conclusions sway you one way or the other. One thing we have to do is ask ourselves the uncomfortable question, "How does this apply to me?" If you have been living a life with no reference to God, could your actions have offended God? We must always be honest with ourselves in this regard, remembering that the goal is to discover what is true, regardless of how much it may pain us or may be difficult for us.

Practice what you preach...

So you may be wondering, "What about you, what kind of faith do you have?" In terms of the dimmer switch analogy I'm definitely on the "brighter" side, but in many ways I'm a lot like the man who told Jesus "I believe, help me with my disbelief." Everyday I struggle with doubts, but everyday I try to exercise my faith and make it grow a little stronger.

Many of you reading may be thinking something along the lines of "This guy doesn't know anything. He's just one of those brain-washed Christians." This however would be a mistake. For the first 21 years of my life I lived as many people in our society live today: without faith. If it could not be demonstrated with a double blind experiment, a mathematical formula, or I witnessed it myself, I wouldn't accept it as truth. One day though I realized that there existed things not explainable by those methods. Things such as the anthropic principle and near death experiences didn't seem to be suitably explained by traditional science. There even existed the possibility, in the near infinite knowledge man had yet to possess, that things such as God existed. I was forced to ask myself the same question I challenged you to ask yourself. This led to me realize the great trouble I was in. If God existed, he had the distressing combined ability to know what I had done wrong and punish me for those wrongs. And believe me, by even the loosest definition of wrong, I had done wrong.

So I began exploring the differing religions each claiming to have the sole connection to God. Ironically, the one that I had always considered to be most disconnected from reality, Christianity, turned out to be the one I found with the biggest basis in fact. I had always ridiculed the Christians. I had always loathed them for being lemmings who believed what was spoon fed them on Sunday without realizing how idiotic it was. However, when I truly allowed myself to ask the question "Could Christianity be right?" without having the answer of "Of course not." on my mind at the same time, I found it to be much more plausible then I had ever allowed myself to think. As I began to realize all of the verifiable aspects, some of which are noted above, I began to believe. So what then did this mean to me in my amoral state? It meant 2 things:
  1. I had separated myself from God through my misdeeds.
  2. God is just and can't just say "Your sin doesn't matter." any more than a just judge can send a guilty criminal free by saying "Your crime doesn't matter."
So what was I to do? Fortunately God had provided a "Get out of jail" card. He had his son, Jesus Christ, pay the debt for me (and for everyone), and in order to claim this gift, all we have to do is what Peter said on the day of Pentecost: ""Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins." Once we repent, or turn away from our sins and never return to them, and are baptized, God forgives us.

I'll be honest. It sounds a lot simpler than it actually is. Just like when you exercise a muscle it feels awkward and gets sore easily, starting on the path out of sin and into forgiveness has its share of growing pains, slips, and stumbles. I will promise you one thing though. If you do decide to start a "faith workout" and end up in the loving arms of God you will not be disappointed.

If you'd like more information about what I've spoken about here, do not hesitate to email me. I hope God blesses you on your journey of faith.

No comments: