Making Belief Believable
Readings: 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17
We’ll be having another meeting of the Sceptics’ Group today after church. This time we’re going to be talking about the resurrection and I’m looking forward to it very much. So far we’ve discussed topics like life after death and Christianity’s relationship with other faiths. Next up is the trinity. Discussing the really challenging aspects of Christian doctrine has proved hugely popular and it’s easily the best supported of all the initiatives I’ve had a hand in starting in my 8 years here. Why might that be?
I have a strong suspicion that one reason is the lack of confidence that a lot of “people of faith” have in talking about their beliefs. It’s not just unfashionable to be a Christian. Worse than that, it’s seen by some as being irrational and intellectually unsustainable, the equivalent to believing in fairies at the bottom of the garden, as Richard Dawkins has put it. I know that people in the Faith at Work group have talked of feeling uncomfortable about telling their workmates what they do on a Sunday morning. If you feel like that you can rest assured you are not alone. As a public Christian I have little choice but to say who I am and what I do, but I often find myself flinching inwardly at the anticipated onslaught.
This situation does not obtain in many parts of the world, quite the reverse. My daughter spent some of her gap year doing voluntary work in Africa. When she admitted to not believing in God she was met with complete incredulity. Given the situation we have here, what can we do about it? How can we have a measure of confidence in our beliefs in what seems an indifferent, often hostile world?
There are no easy answers here but we can at least begin by being as clear as we can be about what we mean when we say that we “believe” something. We Christians are enjoined to do a lot of believing. In few minutes we’ll be saying the creed together and I know that presents not a few of you with some real problems. In today’s reading from the first letter of John we are told:
“Everyone who believes Jesus is the Christ has been born of God….who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes Jesus is the son of God?”
So, there’s quite a lot hanging on what we believe. The problem here is that we too easily fall into the trap of thinking that belief is the same as certainty. It isn’t and by it’s very nature it cannot be. The statement “I believe in God” is not “falsifiable” to use a term coined by the philosopher Karl Popper. By this he meant that the statement can be neither proved nor disproved. By the same token – and this is crucially important to understand – the statement “ I don’t believe in God” is equally “non-falsifiable”. To that extent the atheist holds to a belief equally as much as a person “of faith” and it is very important to be clear about this from the outset.
So, does this leave our beliefs meaningless? Of course not. Certainty, as demonstrated by scientific and mathematical proofs is highly valued in our society and for good reason. Advances in these fields of inquiry have lifted people out of poverty, ignorance and disease. But scientific and mathematical knowledge is not the only kind of knowledge that’s worth having. Indeed, the kind of knowledge that you gain through believing is arguably even more important because it touches on our emotions and our values and therefore on what matters most to us in life.
Paradoxically, what makes belief so valuable is precisely the uncertainty that lies at its heart, because to believe is to nail your colours to the mast; it’s to say what really matters to you in the hope that your investment of belief will be proved worthwhile. Let me give you an example. I started my business 4 years ago. It’s something I’d wanted to do for a long time believing that it was the best possible outlet for my gifts and talents. My partner and I both had enormous excitement on starting out at the positive impact on businesses and organisations that we’d have and we had a hunch that it would work. But for all our belief and enthusiasm it’s only really come good in the last two months. During the first two years in particular there were some very rocky moments. Will this really work, we wondered? And there were sleepless nights when it really seemed unlikely. But for all that we stuck at it because we believed in it, we were committed to it and this was an emotional commitment on our part above all else. The question wasn’t whether we believed the business existed – of course it did! – but whether we believed it would work and it was only the emotional commitment that we had in it that kept us going when things looked pretty bleak. The fact that it’s come good is a real joy but there’s no certainty in this and there never will be, as anyone who’s been in business will tell you.
Looked at this way, belief is a commitment that begins with a hunch – a hunch that the commitment will be worth it. And, as I said, part of what makes belief so important is that it involves risk. If your belief is proved to be justified then you gain a huge amount but if not, then you face huge disappointment. To be clear, we’re in the realm of intuition here and emphatically not the kind of knowledge that is provable one way or the other.
Conceiving of religious faith as a form of evolving commitment based on a hunch, as opposed to a requirement to give your undoubting assent to a set of complex doctrinal propositions, changes the picture very much for the better. This is so not least because it allows for growth and development over time. It’s not a one-off event in which you suddenly see the light.
In this sense, religious faith is a bit like marriage or a long-term relationship. You meet someone and you like them. They’re sexy and funny and – if you’re really lucky – they’re rich too. You have a hunch that there could be something in this and it turns out that they’re interested in you too. So the relationship develops and before you know it you’ve been together for 40 years. But – please note – there’s still a critical element of uncertainty in this. When I say “I know my wife loves me” (which I do!) I’m not making the same kind of statement as “I know that 2 plus 2 equals 4”. When we’re talking about the kind of knowledge we have of relationships it’s an intuitive and emotional kind of knowledge that is based on experience – and, key word – trust. And sadly, we all know of some very long-standing marriages that have foundered on a betrayal of trust, such that what seemed good and certain wasn’t at all. Human relationships are subject to time and chance in the way that the laws of mathematics are not.
Religious faith has some of the qualities of marriage about it. You’re exposed to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and they seem to make sense to you, giving both shape and meaning to life. You tentatively set out saying “I’ll give this a go”. Through worship, prayer, study and fellowship you learn and grow and experience tells you there’s something in this, even though there are dark nights of the soul along the way when you wonder where God is in this relationship and whether you aren’t chasing a phantom after all. But still you keep faith because this man Jesus, his life and his teaching, make emotional sense to you and without them there’d be something seriously missing in your life.
This understanding of faith is more tentative but also more truthful and, surely, infinitely more worthwhile than our struggling with complex,doctrinal propositions in the hope that one day we’ll be able to give them our total, undoubting assent and so secure our place in heaven.
Having said all this I don’t want in any way to deny the importance of intellectual rigour in our faith. No one is looking forward to our sceptics’ meeting more than me and, clearly, an understanding of and engagement with doctrine is important, otherwise we can too easily lose sight of key aspects of what it is we are committed to. But what I am arguing for is some sense of balance.
The great problem with obsessing about doctrine and worrying, for instance, about whether we can truthfully say the words of the creed, is that it so easily diverts attention from what really matters. One of the constant themes of the New Testament is Jesus’ criticism of the devout and doctrinally correct. Jesus was quite clear that if religious practice and doctrine get in the way of serving the needs of men and women then something has gone radically wrong. That’s why he made a point of healing on the sabbath against the teaching of the religious authorities. “The sabbath was made for man” he said “ and not man for the sabbath”. It’s just such teaching that took him to the cross and it’s just such teaching and practice, with its unstinting commitment to the poor, the outcast and those in despair that we are invited to follow. It is the commandment that “you love one another” that we must obey if we are to be his followers.
The big question therefore is surely this: does all this make sense to you? Does Jesus’ example and teaching give you an idea that you can’t find elsewhere of what it is to be truly and fully human? If it does, then he is worth following – his way is worth your commitment. And if you are committed to him then, for all your inevitable doubts and failings, you will truly be able to say the words “I believe”.