Wednesday, May 9, 2012
In Search Of Truth, The Nature Of "Faith"
I'd like to take another brief detour from our continuing look at the book of Acts to examine a word we're all familiar with in popular culture, but one which I think we terribly misunderstand when it comes to the biblical concept. That word is "faith".
Imagine for a moment an episode of your favorite sci-fi show about space exploration. At some point there is almost always an episode where the main character, or another protagonist, visits a planet, or encounters an "alien of the week" who is very religious. The subject of faith comes up and the protagonist, in response to the religious person's declaration of faith, says something along the lines of "well, I'm a man of science". Or maybe the religious person expresses faith in something in a way that is written to seem completely illogical or without any basis in fact. It's assumed that faith, by its very nature, is blind and unreasoning.
In general, popular culture (and therefore our favorite fiction) seems to value "faith" in theory but paradoxically doesn't seem to have much practical use for it. Even I will agree that faith is virtually useless and pointless... if faith matches the definition our fiction has given it.
I can't speak for how other religious texts or even other Christians view the word "faith", but I can at least say that the way the word is used in the Bible does not imply a brainless, emotional belief in something despite all reason and evidence to the contrary. Logical discernment of truth is valued in the Bible.
Isaiah 1:18 (ESV)- "Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.
Acts 17:11 (ESV)- Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.
Paul even acknowledges that if Jesus was not raised from the dead, the logical conclusion is that his entire message is bogus!
1 Corinthians 15:13-14 (ESV)- But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.
Dr. William Lane Craig tells a story in "The Case For Faith" about how he needed surgery on his eye. He and his wife researched all of the specialists in the U.S. to find the best doctor they possibly could for the procedure. Basing their decision on qualifications, educational background, patient success ratios and likely everything else you'd expect, they finally made a decision. They chose a doctor to trust. They chose a doctor to "put their faith in".
C.S. Lewis tells a story in "Mere Christianity" of how he fears that the anesthetic in a medical procedure will not work. Yet he acknowledges that this is an irrational fear, since the doctors caring for him are experts. (His fear was based on the illogical kind of "what if" that I blogged about a couple of weeks ago.) In this case, his faith in the doctors was not BASED on emotion, but was used to OVERCOME emotion so that he could go through with a procedure that would help him.
Maybe most of the religious people you know seem to have a foolish, blind faith. But faith itself does not indicate whether or not it is reasonable. It can be either reasonable or blind. But it certainly isn't blind by default. Just like trust is not blind by default. Having faith does not require that we inhibit logical thinking.
If we are searching for truth about anything, we should constantly be unsatisfied with agnosticism or ignorance. If we are completely content to settle on the position "I don't know", then our search for truth has ended. There are many things we will never be able to know in this life. But "agnosticism" is also often used as an intelligent sounding way of saying "I'm ignorant and uninterested in the truth".
Unless we're comfortable saying that, we ought to be constantly aiming to have a "position" on matters of God and the Bible. Our positions may be held with a loose grip. They may change (and should change) in light of better evidence or reasoning. But if we say we want to know the truth, we should dislike taking an unqualified position of "I don't know" and prefer to say "my current position is (fill in the blank)."
I say "unqualified" because MOST things in life we can't truly KNOW. You don't know if anything you're planning to do at any given second will actually work out before you have a lethal seizure. But based on the best information available, you can have confidence that certain things will play out as you predict.
Applying this to faith, we should not demand the evidence for something be "iron-clad" before we choose to believe in it. Less evidence may result in a weaker commitment to belief in something, but it shouldn't rule out belief itself.
Dr. Craig uses a phrase I like when it comes to determining what I believe. He says that we should aim to make our position (belief) about something conform to the best explanation of the available evidence.
For example. A dead body is found. It has holes all over it and is surrounded by blood. Bloody footprints lead to the next door neighbor's house, where a bloody knife is found matching the nature of the wounds on the body and bloody shoes are found in the closet that the neighbor was known to wear all the time.
Multiple witnesses confirm that the neighbor hated the victim and repeatedly threatened to kill her. The neighbor's fingerprints and DNA are all over the crime scene and the victim's blood is all over the neighbor's boots and knife (which also contain the neighbor's fingerprints).
It would not be unreasonable to believe that the neighbor killed the victim. If someone did not believe this was the case, I'd have to ask them what scenario BETTER explains the evidence. We should demand the same of ourselves when examining the claims of the Bible.
If Jesus did not physically rise from the dead, we should have another scenario in mind that we think fits the evidence. He and his followers were liars/crazy, the account was legendary and exaggerated over time, etc. Otherwise we should be willing to say, "I don't know why I don't believe he rose from the dead. I just don't and am content to remain ignorant." (By the way, I don't think any of those alternatives come close to fitting the evidence available, but they are still popular ideas floating around.)
In the courtroom, the jury has the benefit of pleading ignorance. Defendants are innocent until proven guilty. But if we're going to say that we really want to know what the truth is about Jesus, or the Bible, we can't come into the search for truth with a default position we plan to take unless convinced otherwise.
Granted, this is hard to do. We all come into the search for truth with some built-in biases, but we should aim to recognize these biases and keep them from influencing us as much as possible.
We all have faith in a multitude of things. The meaning of the word doesn't change when it comes to faith in God. Religious faith can be every bit as well-reasoned and thought-out as faith in our car or the chair we plan to sit in.
The ideal faith in God is confident and unwavering. But we don't need to wait until our faith reaches that point before we decide to trust him.
Personally, some aspects of my faith I believe in very strongly. Other aspects I believe in with some hesitation, but still do so because I can't see a better explanation for the available evidence. The nature of faith is that there will always likely be some degree of uncertainty. Maybe a high degree sometimes! But faith, like trust, is an activity that welcomes the participation of the mind.
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