Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Faith: Is it Reasonable?

Director Brian Flemming, a self-described “atheist Christian,” has taken on a tough assignment. In his documentary, The God Who Wasn’t There, he is trying to prove that Jesus never existed. In an interview with Christianity Today, he says, “I think that knowledge is basically the enemy of faith, and so I’m basically encouraging people to seek knowledge.” I couldn’t agree more or less… I couldn’t agree more because I believe we should seek knowledge. I couldn’t agree less because I don’t believe that knowledge must be the enemy of faith.

True faith is reasonable: it’s the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.  True faith is built on facts. In Lewis' Mere Christianity, he emphasizes that he's not asking anyone to believe in Christianity if his best reasoning tells him to do otherwise (Book III, ch. 11). We believe something to be true because there is good evidence for it. Now as the writer of Hebrews reminds us, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). That is, some of the things we believe to be true, that we have good evidence for, are unseen.

We believe in oxygen not because we can see it, but because we can breathe it. We believe in the sun not because we can directly look at it, but because we can see everything else. We believe a man named Abraham Lincoln existed not because we have met him or spoken with him, but because of the historical evidence and that big statue of him in Washington D.C.  When I go into the operating room for the first time, I have no direct experience of anesthesia or of the skillfulness of the surgeon, but based upon the testimony of others, and my own research into the facts, I have faith and believe that I will be OK.

We believe in Christ in the same way…not because we have walked with him on earth or have heard him speak in an audible voice, but because of the facts. Woody Allen said that he would believe in God if God would send him a sign –a large deposit in a Bank Account under the name, “Woody Allen” would do the trick. I’m not talking about that kind of fact, but I am talking about things we can measure...

I’m talking about the gospel record, as well as the Jewish and Roman historians who speak of him and his movement. I’m talking about his impact on the value of life…Consider Telemachus the 5th century monk who climbed down into the middle of a Roman arena and said, “In the name of Christ stop!” When he was attacked by one of the combatants and died, the crowds silently emptied out of the arena – History records this was the last gladiator contest in the Roman empire. But we could also speak of abolitionists like William Wilberforce or John Woolman or the compassion of Mother Theresa.

I’m talking about his teaching that inspired the building of colleges and universities around the world and some of humankind’s deepest thoughts; his impact on government, through those who have stood up against totalitarianism and the abuse of human dignity in his name.

I’m talking about his impact on those who have sought to expand human knowledge… like nuclear physicist Peter Hodgson who says that “Christianity provided just those beliefs that are essential for science, and the whole moral climate that encouraged its growth,” and were we to remove every trace of Jesus from history, how much of the world’s great art, music and literature would be left?

I’m talking about his impact on the soul… the millions who testify to the gift of his grace, beginning with his first disciples who gladly faced death to tell us that the one they had seen crucified had risen from the dead, and will raise us up too.

The point is that faith is built on facts, and reliable evidence, but if this is true… what about our feelings? Doesn’t faith owe a lot to good feelings, feelings of joy, contentment, peace, and love? Anyone who has been a Christian for a while knows that feelings are unpredictable. We may be totally in love with God and his people, but that doesn’t mean we won’t have days when we feel spiritually dry and unmotivated. Consider for a moment...when we hear some bad news, or we get into some financial difficulty, or we find ourselves surrounded by a lot of people at school who don’t believe in Christ, or we’ve been hurt by a church member, or there comes a moment when we want to tell a lie, or do something immoral; a moment when it would be much more convenient for Christianity not to be true…a moment when we’re tempted to throw in the towel, a moment when our emotions begin to do a blitz on us; that’s when our Faith comes.  Here is a classic reflection by Lewis....

Faith is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted in spite of your changing moods.  For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience. Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway. That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods "where they get off," you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. Consequently one must train the habit of Faith (Mere Christianity, Book III, ch. 11).

So feelings change, moods go up and down, but faith holds on to what we’ve accepted on good evidence to be true despite those changing moods. And therefore, we must train the habit of faith. Now how do we do that? As Lewis reminds us…we need to spend daily time in prayer, focusing on the truth of God’s word, spending time with God’s people in worship and service. “We need to be continually reminded of what we believe.”  Most people who drift away from the Christian faith do not do so because they were argued out of it, but because they simply drifted away. Their faith withered and dried up for lack of food and water. I’m concerned that there may be a great number of Christians whose faith depends primarily on good feelings…the good feelings they get when they are in church, or when they are with their Christian friends, or when they are singing their favorite songs, or doing their favorite church activity.

Good feelings are great, but good feelings alone will not carry you through suffering or persecution. They will not carry you through the crucible of doubt or the ridicule of a teacher with a bias against Christianity. You’ll need more than feelings to get through that. And faith that depends on nice feelings will not hold up well when you’re sitting there in church, feeling bored out of your mind, angry at somebody in the next pew, or not getting your personal needs met. We’ve got to get serious about knowing Christ…and the power of his resurrection (as Paul once said). To exercise our faith, like we would exercise our bodies…so that, fed by the truth of God’s word, prayer and serving others, it will weather the storms that inevitably come. And, ironically, as we do that… we shall also discover something deeper about faith. That faith is ultimately built on the solid rock of Christ himself….

True faith is reasonable, but it’s also humble: it means coming to the end of myself, believing that Christ alone empowers both my belief, and my best actions. We just got through saying that true faith is based on facts, not just feelings, and that it's nurtured by action. Now that raises an important question Christians have been debating for a long time. What is more important: faith or action? There are two caricatures of the truth which Christians have been accused by other Christians of believing…

One is that “Good deeds are all that matter”; helping the poor, a consistent Bible study and prayer life, or giving money to the church. If you do that, God will bless you with a pain free life with heaven thrown in. But can we put God in our debt? Can God’s blessings be bought with our money, or our good deeds? The other is that “All you need is faith,” that what you do doesn’t matter at all. You can sin all you want, God doesn’t really care...it’s believing in Christ that makes the difference. That’s ludicrous, of course, because a faith that pays no attention to what Christ called us to actually do is not faith at all. As Lewis points out, asking which is more important (Faith, or Good Actions) is like asking which blade on a pair of scissors is more important? True faith leads to action; and action nurtures true faith. But there’s a deeper truth here…and that is that faith means coming to the end of myself altogether and realizing that God alone is the source of both my faith and my best actions. Paul says it best:“Therefore, my beloved… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).

True faith is humble. As a Christian my faith is not in my faith, nor is my faith in my actions. My faith is in a Person. “Apart from me,” says Jesus, “You can do nothing.” Yes, I must work out my own salvation, but only to realize that “apart from Him…I can do nothing,” that God is the one at work in me…enabling me to work for him and to believe in him. This is faith in the highest sense: faith in a Person, the Person. Not faith in my reason. Not faith in my spiritual discipline. Not faith in my moral character. And certainly not faith in my power to judge this messy thing called the church! It’s sad to think of how many people probably sit on the sidelines, unwilling to get their hands dirty and risk serving alongside God’s people because they have more faith in their judgment of the church than they have faith in Christ. True faith is not faith in me at all, but in Christ and what he can work in and through me, and even in spite of me. True faith is not only reasonable…it’s humble.

I’m reminded of a conversation that Aslan has with Lucy & Edmund before they leave Narnia for the last time to return to our world in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. "You won't be returning to Narnia, dear ones," he tells them.  Lucy begins to break down and cry: ‘It isn’t Narnia, you know,’ sobbed Lucy. ‘It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?’ ‘But you shall meet me, dear one.’ said Aslan. ‘Are - are you there too, Sir?’ said Edmund (now much humbler). ‘I am,’ said Aslan. ‘But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.’’

Those words remind me that Christ has brought us into a new world in which we are learning to recognize his voice …and it is called the fellowship of his friends, the Church. The reason we are called into this fellowship is so that we may learn to recognize him in the world beyond its walls. If we don’t recognize him out there in the everyday arenas of life, it’s probably because we haven’t sought him among his people either… “for wherever two or three are gathered in my name there I am in their midst.”  There, in the midst of our brothers and sisters, is where we see the face of our Lord; where our faith is strengthened and we are prepared to follow him where he is often not welcomed or honored.  May he bless you with a faith that is reasonable, based on facts not just feelings, that can ride out the storms of life; and with a faith that is humble, that is powerless apart from Him; but through whom all things are possible.

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