I’ve been mulling this post for a while, and I might as well go ahead and put it up. I am, by temperament and reaction to experience, a pessimist; I’m the sort who thinks the problem with Murphy is that he tried too hard to look on the bright side of things. When things are going well, I have a hard time relaxing and enjoying it, because I figure that every silver lining has its cloud and that the greatest danger in life is complacency. I mistrust when things come too easily, or line up too neatly—the universe is simply too cross-grained to come up cooperative without a fight, or a trick. The advantage of pessimism is that it greatly reduces (though nothing can eliminate) the number of unpleasant surprises; and as a recovering control freak, I don’t like unpleasant surprises. I much prefer to have contingency plans in place, when I’m smart enough to come up with them.
This is, of course, not all there is to be said about me; I also have a weird optimistic streak, and sometimes I’m not sure how these two things coexist. But it does mean that trust and faith come very, very hard for me; there are very few people in this world whom I could honestly say I trust more than provisionally, and I can’t honestly claim to trust God all that much either, a lot of the time. I know people for whom faith in God comes easily, where I have to fight for it, and at times I’ve felt myself to be inferior to them; now, I just figure that it’s a matter of different spiritual gifts, and that their greater gift of faith serves one purpose where my weaker gift serves another. After all, Jesus didn’t say you need a lot of faith: even if you have barely any at all, that’s enough. What matters isn’t the size of our faith, but the size of the God in whom we put our faith.
But if faith comes so hard, why believe at all?
Partly it’s because, as I’ve argued before, we’re wired to believe; we can’t stand nowhere, and we can’t hold ourselves in abeyance (not for very long, anyway)—we inevitably settle somewhere. The only question is whether we realize it or not. Better, as a matter of tactics, tochoose to believe—better to pick your ground deliberately than just to end up where you end up. Better to actively interrogate the universe, to search for truth and ask the hard questions, to come to the best conclusions you can; one must do so with proper humility, in the awareness that one could always be wrong (especially in the details, even if one’s fundamental conclusions are correct), but “humble” does not in any way mean “timid.” Pick your ground and argue hard—drive both yourself and anyone who disagrees with you to the limits—because if you’re wrong, you need to be proven wrong, insofar as that’s possible, and the only way that can happen is if there are no holds barred and no punches pulled.
I know there are those who say that no one was ever argued into faith; that’s not true. It doesn’t, by any means, happen this way for everybody; even among Vulcans, not everyone lives by logic. But there are those who are argued into faith, and there are those of us whose faith requires argument; and if that doesn’t make for easy faith, it has its own virtue about it. At the very least, it makes it easier to talk with others who don’t find faith coming easily.
For my part, I didn’t have to be argued into faith: I grew up in a Christian home, the grandson and nephew of pastors. That said, while the assumptions of my childhood were unquestionably Christian, they were not required to remain unquestioned; when I had questions, they were always taken seriously and answered fairly. If the unexamined life is not worth living, it’s certainly true that the unexamined (and unchallenged) faith is not worth holding; it’s the equivalent of a security program that’s never been tested by hackers. My family, whether explicitly or simply by temperament and interest, understood this. It’s one of the reasons I came out in such a different place in my faith from my grandmother the pastor (which, given the strong-willed, strong-minded and self-certain person that she was, made for some arguments that made the walls ring, let me tell you.
All this was a good thing, because it meant that I was free to interrogate my own faith when the time came that I needed to do so; and I did. It was not enough that my family believed; not enough that I wanted to believe—indeed, I mistrusted (and mistrust) that desire, because such desire can easily trap you into betraying yourself. As Bacon said, people prefer to believe what they prefer to be true—and if your preference leads you away from believing what really is true, that gives reality an opening to take you down from behind. I want to believe what is true partly for noble reasons, and partly out of sheer self-defense, because everything we believe that is not so renders us vulnerable in some way.
(If it’s true that knowledge is power, it’s primarily in this: that knowledge, which we may define as having what we believe about the world be in conformity with the reality of the world as it actually is in itself, means that we don’t misevaluate ourselves, our situation, and the challenges we face, and thus are able to properly determine how to use whatever actual power we possess as we seek to manage our situation and respond to those challenges.)
As such, I’m not ashamed to say that my faith is, or was, a faith of the intellect first; the affective dimensions developed more slowly, and later. This is why believing with the mind and trusting with the gut are very different things for me; I’d fail the Niagara test nine times out of ten, I expect, a walking advertisement for the truth of Flannery O’Connor’s observation that “it’s harder to believe than not to”—even, at times, if one already does believe.
And I do believe. I’ve read Calvin and Luther and some of the Church Fathers, the Enlightenment philosophers and their modern counterparts, and I’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking about existentialism in its various forms; and I have come to the conclusion, for whatever it may be worth, that the Christian faith, and specifically that understanding of it mediated through the teaching of Augustine of Hippo and Calvin of Geneva, offers the best, the truest and deepest, account yet managed by human beings of the reality of existence. Theologically, I believe that this represents the outworking of God’s providential promise to my parents and to the church in which I was raised for my salvation; existentially, if you will, I say that this is the means by which God’s Spirit has worked in my life. It all comes to the same thing, in the end. As I say, this particular path has its own virtue about it; but it does mean that I find myself all too often crying out with the father of the demoniac, “Lord, I believe!—help me with my unbelief . . .”
That’s the reason why, not long after I started blogging in earnest, I posted Andrew Peterson’s song “No More Faith”:
I say faith is a burden—
It’s a weight to bear;
It’s brave and bittersweet.
And hope is hard to hold to;
Lord, I believe,
Only help my unbelief
‘Till there’s no more faith.
And it’s the reason why, a couple weeks later, I posted his friend Andrew Osenga’s song “We Are the Beggars at the Foot of God’s Door”:
We have known the pain of loving in a dying world,
And our lies have made us angry at the truth—
But Cinderella’s slipper fits us perfectly,
And somehow we’re made royalty with You.
O we of little faith, O You of stubborn grace . . .
We are the beggars, we are the beggars,
We are the beggars at the foot of God’s door.
That (sometimes despite myself) I believe, in trust that it’s not about my little faith, but about God’s stubborn grace: we are (as Malcolm Muggeridge originally said) beggars at the foot of God’s door, if we can set aside our pride long enough to accept the position—and our joy is that he has welcomed us in.