Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Faith,Wilful Ignorance and Mysterious Ways

For this post I’d like to discuss something I touched on when discussing the effects of immigration. I want to talk about having faith in the absence of specific answers, and as an alternative to bickering about things we do not and cannot know.

Faith is a tricky concept, especially when, like myself, you’ve been raised in a culture that prizes rationalism, absolute intellectual knowledge and scientific enquiry. These are all good things. As humans we are curious; we like to find out what things are, what they do, how they work, where they came from, what will happen to them if we do this or that or just leave them be.

As a species this curiosity has not only been our greatest asset, it has defined us and our development. Right from ‘If I tie these logs together, could I sit on them and float down the river?’ to ‘I wonder what happens if I mash these two lumps of uranium together?’ Our thirst for knowledge drives us.

As a result, because religion can often only be very vague in terms of certain knowledge, many people grow frustrated or disdainful of it. ‘Prove it’ is the atheist’s constant (and not, on the face of it, unreasonable) refrain. The whole study of theology is based on similar questions. Who is God? What is God? How does He work? Where did He come from? What does He want? Theology suggests various answers to all these questions. Where these answers differ we get schisms, arguments, even conflicts.

Some questions have answers that can be reasoned through, and if we have no physical evidence, we can at least demonstrate a chain of logic. There are some subjects, however, for which we cannot do that. For me, some of the hardest are well-known questions such as ‘Will virtuous non-Christians go to heaven?’, or ‘Do other religions lead to God?’

My natural sense of justice and fair play push me towards saying yes to both. Surely a life lived in accordance with the ideals of love, mercy, forgiveness and grace that Christianity preaches must count for something, even if the person in question has not explicitly accepted the grace of God.

On the other hand, Jesus seems fairly unequivocal. ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one shall come to the Father except through me.’

One can tie oneself in theological and philosophical knots and say that such a person has accepted His grace even if they didn’t realise it. ‘Every good thing is done for me, even if you do not know my name’. Similarly it strikes me as horribly arrogant to state that my religion happens to be the only true and correct one, and everyone else is mistaken or misguided. It seems only fair to concede that all faiths at least point to God, even if some are distorted or only see Him very vaguely. I can perhaps say that I think mine is the clearest image of God whilst still admitting that not only are others at least partially correct but that my image is by no means perfect.

Issues of soteriology cause ructions within the church. How are people saved? How does it work? Theories abound but true knowledge is absent. This doesn’t stop serious arguments, fallings out, accusations of heresy and even persecutions.

Secular modernity disdains blind faith, and I think does so rightly. To me a faith unexamined, unquestioned, and untested is a weak sort of faith, a brittle kind that might snap at the first hint of doubt.

It’s easy (for me at least) to believe in God. It makes logical and rational sense to me. Much of traditional Christian doctrine likewise makes sense, or is at least of a kind that I am happy to believe in until I see definite evidence to the contrary.

Other questions though leave me shrugging and shaking my head, unable to arrive at an answer. The typical atheist response would be to say that these issues can be dismissed until a proper answer presents itself, but this strikes me as a kind of close-mindedness. We can dismiss the importance of the question, muttering something about ‘mysterious ways’, and this can often come across as wilful ignorance or an intellectual cop-out in place of a robust response. When used as such, the ones asking the questions get rightly frustrated.

However, I think that as a response it can be used actively as well as passively. Faith in the existence of God, or the Incarnation of whatever is one thing. There may be no scientific evidence, but I can believe the assertion anyway. Not knowing the answer, but being able to believe that even though it might not make sense to me, God knows what He’s doing, even if I can’t figure it out myself is a different and more difficult kind of faith. It’s much more like trust than belief, and as a result is much harder, especially given the human need to know how things work. I don’t know whether salvation is through election or free-will. I don’t know whether good non-Christians go to Heaven. I know what I think makes sense, but that’s not the same as knowing the answer. All I can do is believe that God is good, loving and just, that He knows what He is doing, and what He’s doing is for our ultimate good.

I don’t see this as blind faith or wilful ignorance per se. It’s not a faith unquestioned so much as a faith that doesn’t know all the answers, and is happy to admit that. A faith that is willing to trust that all will be made clear, even if at the moment I am incapable of understanding, and that I already know as much as I need to. It’s a faith that comes very hard, and can be rather unsatisfying. I’ll just have to try and deal with that, try to trust, and believe that ultimately, all will be made known.

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