Friday, November 2, 2007

Taking Things on Faith

Dr. James McGrath has an excellent post today about the dangers of "taking things on faith:"

In student papers, I regularly read that things are supposed to be 'taken on faith'. In terms of what they mean by this, there is simply no such teaching in the Bible. Neither is what they are proposing a good idea.

The closest one might get to it is the story of Thomas in the Gospel of John. There, however, he gets to see, and his skepticism is not particularly surprising given what he was being asked to believe.

Those who believe without seeing are said to be blessed, but they are not expected to simply believe a story someone tells them. They are expected to experience Christ's life-changing power and perhaps also miraculous healings and exorcisms. There is no expectation that people will simply believe things in the absence of evidence.

The failure of Jesus' contemporaries to believe he was the Messiah is not about belief in the absence of evidence. It is about what they believe based on the evidence they had available.

There is no reason to think that the author of Genesis expected his readers to believe his creation story 'on faith'. He does not dispute the basic facts of the natural world as understood in his time: that the world is mostly land with a large gathering of connected basins filled with water called seas; that there is a dome over the earth; that above the dome are waters; that there are lamps placed in the dome (the moon, like the sun, being viewed as a source of light). He says all of this because it is what people thought in his time. None of it is anticipated to require faith to believe it. What the author offered was an alternative story of creation, not alternative facts about that which was created.

The author of Genesis doesn't even seem to have intended to "prove" that monotheism is better than polytheism. There are no logical arguments. There is simply a story, one that he seems to be confident will be found more appealing than others available in that time.

When people today read the Bible in a non-literal fashion, this is not a retreat from the advances of scientific knowledge. It is rather a return to the classic way of approaching these texts. The only people who are allowing the concerns of modern science to determine the way they read the text are, ironically, the fundamentalists, who seek absolute certain scientific explanations in a text that does not offer them.

If you are looking for inerrancy in Scriptures and won't take no for an answer, I suspect that most Christians would be grateful if you would try Islam or some tradition that at least claims to offer such a text. But please, please stop trying to make Christianity live up to your strange modernistic expectations. Not only will it never do so, leaving you feeling the need to 'take things on faith', but the fabric of Christianity gets warped and distorted even through the futile attempt.

Taking things on faith is extremely dangerous. But what the Bible calls for isn't that. The word 'faith', like the word 'truth', had primarily to do with trust and trustworthiness. The object of this trust was not, in most instances, a text or words, but a person.

The question that we then have to ask next is this: when, if ever, is it appropriate to make leaps of trust? My own answer is that this leap is one that we might make in relation to that all-encompassing reality that we refer to as God. This is not an expectation that supernatural interventions will sort out all our problems, but a confidence that the reality of which we are a part is neither simply hostile nor ultimately meaningless. Even in this respect, however, we make a leap not in darkness and ignorance, but based on intuition and the evidence we have available. As I have said before, to feel that we can go beyond the evidence and the explicable is not necessarily inappropriate, whereas to ignore or deny the available evidence clearly is. To paraphrase Hebrews once again, "Faith is the evidence of things unseen - not evidence that the things that are seen don't exist.

Hebrews lists heroes of the faith, but nowhere on the list are people who by faith 'believed X, Y and Z happened in the past even though they couldn't prove it'. These are heroes of trust, not heroes of belief. Christians today have much to learn about the difference.

Read it here.

I think that this is an important reminder that we need to have faith (trust) in God and not in the work of human beings--even if that work is the Bible.

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