This week I'm at the University of East Anglia to help the Christian Union with these events. Last night I spoke on the topic "What do Christians actually believe?" Afterwards there was a great question about faith which I answered so badly I thought I'd have another go on the blog. Here's what I wish I'd said...
How can God expect us to have faith? It seems so uncertain.
We all live by faith. Whether we are Muslims, Christians, atheists, agnostics, we all live by faith. I mean this in at least two ways.
First of all, we all must trust the testimony of others. Only a small fraction of my knowledge has been attained through direct observation, scientific experimentation or mathematical proof. For the rest, I've been told it. Teachers have told me, books have told me, journalists have told me, my parents have told me. I can have all sorts of rigorous standards which I expect these sources to adhere to. But I simply cannot personally fact-check everything I'm told. I have to take it on faith.
I once made this point in a conversation and the other guy said "No, you can check your knowledge scientifically and if you don't, it's not certain knowledge." I said "I can't scientifically assess the truth claims of my wife." He said "Yes you can." I said "No I can't. If I seek to falsify each of my wife's statements (falsification being at the heart of the scientific method) I wouldn't have a wife to assess!!" The scientific method is great for some truth claims but by no means all!
Nonetheless there are things that I know apart from such investigations (i.e. that my wife loves me, that she is trustworthy, that she has always been called "Emma", that she is beautiful, that she is "right" for me, that she exists, that this world exists, etc, etc!)
So that's the first point. So much of our knowledge comes to us in ways other than direct observation / scientific experimentation / mathematical proof. We live most of our lives by the testimony of others. In other words we live by faith.
There's a second sense in which we live by faith. We all have a view of the world that depends on larger commitments to truth, beauty, goodness, etc. You might object and say "I don't have any larger commitments. I am completely neutral as I build my view of the world from the ground up." But then I'll ask you, "Why do you do it that way?" At that point you'll have to justify that particular method of interpretation and this will reveal a worldview that precedes and shapes your approach to the world. It's inescapable. None of us can say "Just the facts ma'am, just the facts." Even that turns out to be a kind of worldview. Everyone has commitments of the heart and mind that go deeper than the facts.
Here is the Christian worldview in a 5 minute animation:
Here we find a God who is before, behind and beyond this world. There is a Father loving His Son in the joy of the Spirit (find out more here). This personal, good, truthful, beautiful, loving God is the ground of all being. From this God comes everything else and we are intended to participate in the life of this personal, truthful, beautiful, loving God.
Jesus came as the expression of God lived out in our humanity. He took on Himself the consequences of our vicious, wicked, lying, ugly, hatefulness and then rose up from the dead to offer us His kind of life. Connection to Him puts us in touch with what is most deeply true about reality: that there is Goodness, Truth and Beauty bound together in love. In other words, Jesus reconciles us to God.
This is the framework from which Christians view the world. And I'd like to suggest that it makes sense of reality in a way that no other view does. Here we have a very high regard for truth. We will want to assess the world rationally and rigourously. But we also see that there is a personal, an ethical and an aesthetic dimension to truth that must be explored too. Beneath and beyond the axioms of mathematics and the findings of science, there is love. Here in the Christian view is a grounding for our dearest intuitions - that personal relationships are what's most important.
We all live as though love is the greatest reality. Only the Christian can ground that intuition in something deeper than wishful thinking. The atheist does not have love as the ultimate reality. The theist-in-general does not have a God who is essentially love (since a single-person God cannot be love). It is Christianity that actually gives to the world a pair of spectacles that brings the world into proper focus.
Christian faith is about adopting these spectacles (rather than any other).
If the question is "Why does God expect us to have faith?", the answer is: Everyone has faith. What God wants is for us to have the sort of faith that actually fits us, fits the world, fits ultimate reality. He says "See the world like this. Doesn't that make sense of you, me and everything else?"
C.S. Lewis said this: "‘I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen. Not only because I can see it but because by it I can see everything else."’
This is another way (a much clearer and more succinct way!) of saying the same thing. You can get to grips with the sun in two ways. You can look at it (carefully!) but you can also look at everything else in its light. Both kinds of looking establish the reality of the sun.
The same is true of Jesus (who, incidentally, claimed to be the Light of the world, John 8:12). We can look at Jesus to see this God of love walk the earth. Here is something we can investigate and I urge you to do just that. Pick up one of the four biographies we have of His life, read, pray, chat it through with others. This is what it means to "look at the sun." At the same time we can look around at a world which Jesus illuminates. You can say to yourself "Could it be true that the Jesus-God is the deepest reality in this world? Could it be true that His kind of truth, beauty, goodness and love are what's ultimate in the world?"
When you put the two together you have a "Sun" that accounts for the sparkle. You have an Explanation for the light that we prize in this world.
As I look back at my conversion I see these two things going on. On the one hand I was reading the Gospels and in them encountering the unmistakable Light of Jesus. It got to the point where I could no more deny that He was Lord than that I could deny that the sun was bright. There is something self-authenticating about the Light of the world - He recommends Himself just by the force of His own compelling personality. At the same time though, I was listening to the Blues Brothers on repeat: Everybody needs somebody to love. It was striking me forcefully that love was the deepest reality in the universe. And all of a sudden these two things came together: I saw a sparkle in the world and I had found a Sun to explain it. There's a word to describe this kind of eureka moment: faith!
Why does God expect us to have faith? Everyone has faith. But which faith actually fits? I'd urge you to pick up the Gospels, shoot up a prayer and say "God, if you're there, shine!" See if the Jesus you meet there doesn't make sense of everything. It's worth a shot, don't you think?