Monday, January 9, 2012

A Doubter's Guide to Faith (1): How Can I KNOW?

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Luke 1:5-20

“A Doubter’s Guide to Faith”. Today, we introduce this series with a focus on a wonderful question: “How can I KNOW?” It is the question Zechariah asked of the angel when given some incredible good news. It is a question that the wise men managed to answer with enough confidence to embark on a journey across countries and cultures to find a child. And it is a question that we struggle with to one degree or another, at some times more than others.

 It is nothing new. In the first century, the apostle Paul commented, “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1.22-23). Paul’s message is still true today. We’re not in the business of miracles and answers, we’re here to offer Jesus (Eugene Peterson). Yet, we all ask, “How can I KNOW?”

It’s nothing new. My children went through that “Why?” phase. Remember that? For kids, it becomes a clever conversational tool that keeps things going without end. So, with parental authority, we declare the end with “because I said so”. And that’s when dissatisfaction with the answer sets in. “Because God says so,” that’s the way it is? Excuse me? Don’t I get a say in the matter? Is there any external, observable evidence? Yes, there is. So, three weeks from now on January 29th, we’ll look at evidence for faith in a variety of areas. How can I KNOW?

It’s nothing new. In the realm of physics, proof is valid if the probability of error, of being incorrect, is 1 in 35 million – or less. That is an extraordinarily high standard, higher than many other areas of science because of the mathematical nature of theoretical physics (“Higgs ahoy!” The Economist. December 17 2011. Mobile edition, no author listed). Newtonian physics, then Einstein’s theories of relativity, and now quantum mechanics are all proven to this degree – and are all still “theories”. So, when someone objects to evolution, for example, as an “unproven theory”, they are actually confusing the definition from the perspective of science. According to Frances Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project and a Christian, evolution is “settled science” (Frances Collins, lecture at Q, 2008). And that raises some very important questions of faith, so our doubter’s guide will address science on January 22nd. How can I KNOW?

It’s nothing new. In some of those moments when we need God the most, it seems that God shows up. We experience healing or comfort or a presence. But, other times, it seems that God is absent, out to lunch, busy, uninterested. It’s an issue of pain, not just any pain, not just the pain of life, but pain of being let down, disappointed, even hurt by God. The band, The Fray, sings, “Where were you? Where were you? Just a little late. ... In the end, everyone ends up alone” (“You Found Me”. 2009. The Fray. The Fray). Next week, January 15th, we’ll focus on those experiences of absence and pain. How can I KNOW?

It’s nothing new. In fact, the Scripture makes clear that one of the reasons it is written is so that we may KNOW. “I write these things . . . so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).

“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed (Luke 1:1-4).

We are all doubters. And, God wants us to have confidence, to KNOW. So, how do we get there?

Blaise Pascal is my “patron saint” and his writing is a great resource for the “theory of knowing”. He describes it in this way (one form of many, Pensées):
Doubt. Reason. Faith.
Skeptic/Philosopher. Mathematician/Scientist. Christian.
Pascal was offering the three primary ways to knowing – doubt, reason, and faith. He did not attempt to remove any one of them from human experience. In fact, he used all three, and he was all three – skeptic, mathematician and scientist, Christian. Today, we tend to view these ways of knowing as in conflict with each other, but for Pascal they were complementary.

Doubt: Question everything. René Descartes, known for his “I think, therefore I am” sound bite, met with Blaise Pascal in 1647 (Tomlin). Thinking, for Descartes the great philosopher, was about questioning.

“We shouldn’t question God.” I’ve heard the phrase over and over, usually from people in pain of some kind, usually from people who dearly love Jesus. But it doesn’t match the biblical witness. Zechariah questions God, and he still gets the son promised to him (Luke 1). Abraham questions God extensively – asking 8 straight questions about the justice of God in Genesis 18. Job questions God, even issuing the ancient equivalent of a summons, legal action against God for mismanaging Job’s life. And, when the LORD shows up, the LORD declares that Job was right (Job 31, Job 42).

So, doubt, question. And, know that doubt won’t get you to God on its own.

Reason: Logic, evidence. Christians believe that we are created in the image of God and that must include the mind – all our doubts and all our reasoning skills. The last thing that Jesus would want us to do is check our brains at the door. When Jesus was asked a question – like many others, a trick question – he responded with, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” (Luke 10:26). Jesus expects us to do our homework! And, if we haven’t done it, he’ll push us back to it.

So, reason, explore evidence. And, know that reason won’t get you to God on its own.

Faith, likewise, has its limitations. Faith won’t help us in calculus or with the discovery of the Higgs bosun (the latest subatomic particle) or even a Super Bowl victory – at least, not on its own. Pascal understood the limits of each way of knowing and was skillful at pointing out the limitations of doubt and reason.

Pascal wrote: “Put the world’s greatest philosopher on a plank that is wider than need be; if there is a precipice below, although his reason may convince him that he is safe, his imagination will prevail!” (Cited by Tomlin).

“The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing . . . . It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason” (Pensées, 423-424).

Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, captured this idea with his phrase “the leap of faith”. He understood that no matter how close we came to God with reason or with doubt, like the logarithmic curve approaching its limit without ever reaching it, there is a gap that can only be crossed with faith, by “God perceived by the heart.”

If you were to ask me about my relationship with Robin, about whether or not she loved me, I could respond with the path of doubt. That does not mean I doubt her love, but that I arrive at a conclusion because I question everything. When she wrote me that cute love note, was it because she wanted something from me or does she really just love me? When she baked my favorite oatmeal raisin cookies – a recipe in her family for generations – was the appropriate response, “So, whaddya want?” or a recognition of her love?

The path to knowing Robin, for me, is the path of faith. It is a simple thing: Every time I have trusted her, I have found myself loved, not manipulated. The more I trust her, the more I know I am loved. It is perception by the heart.

How can I KNOW? Doubt, reason, faith. If it is God you want to know, ask your questions, examine the evidence, and realize that – at the end of that search – the leap of faith awaits you, the perception of the heart is necessary. It is knowing as loving, experiencing.

The main Hebrew word for “know” is a word for knowledge that comes from intimacy, from experience. That’s why to know “in the biblical sense” has entered English as an expression for sexual love. While sexual love is only one dimension of that Hebrew expression, it emphasizes knowing as loving and experiencing. “You will find me if you seek for me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29.13).

If you want to know this God, a God whom Pascal describes as “hidden” (Tomlin), you won’t manage to do it by reason and doubt, by evidence and argument alone. God is not the “God of philosophers and scholars” but the passionate, intimate, and personal “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob”, “God of Jesus Christ” (Pascal, 913; Tomlin). You will only find this God by seeking with all your heart, perceiving with the heart, by knowing as loving and experiencing. That’s how the wise men were able to find Jesus – they started with evidence and reason and finished with love.

Some practical steps toward perceiving God with the heart, or growing in that perception in this new year:

First, face yourself honestly. Pascal’s word for the human condition is “wretchedness”. He writes, “If our condition were truly happy we should not need to divert ourselves from thinking about it” (Pascal, 70; cited in Kreeft, 169). We are so busy ignoring our mortality, diverting ourselves from our wretchedness, that we are too busy and too preoccupied to seek God. Face yourself honestly, reduce the clutter in your life, and get ready to meet with God.

Second, get into the Scriptures. You may have a hundred and one arguments and reservations and questions with the book. It is still God’s book, and reading it puts us in touch with God. Since it is written so that we can “know”, it stands to reason that reading it just might guide us on the path to knowing God by faith. Where to start? With the gospels, the Jesus stories, with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the central stories of the book. As Pascal writes, “[Jesus] can only be found by the ways taught in the Gospels” (913).

Third, practice prayer. But, I’m not even sure I know God yet! I haven’t resolved my philosophical issues or answered my personal questions! I don’t even know how to pray! What God desires is a personal relationship with you, and that involves two-way conversation – Scripture and prayer. If you don’t have a prayer of your own, use one of the prayers of the church. Use the Lord’s Prayer, the “Our Father”. Use the psalms, the first prayer and song book of Israel and the Church. Use a hymn or song from worship. Pray it morning and evening. Pray it at your meals. Practice prayer.

Fourth, connect with the people of God. The church is full of imperfect people . . . and a wonderful God. And it is pretty easy to tell the difference! Get into the life of the church, get into a group, become part of a ministry team, join a mission project . . . and in all these connections you may find yourself face to face with God.

Blaise Pascal grew up in the tradition of the church – Scripture, prayer, the people of God. But it wasn’t until he was an adult, over 30 years old, that he met Jesus. On November 23, 1654, Jesus met with him, “from about half past ten to half past midnight”. He wrote about it, in sentence fragments, and sewed the parchment into his jacket, wearing it above his heart. “Fire. My God and your God. Total renunciation.”

It is a visionary experience that I have never had. For that matter, I never followed a star to the Christ Child or heard from an angel in the temple. But I have learned to perceive God by the heart, and to do so without neglecting the important work of doubt and reason. I invite you to this journey, to seeking God with all your heart – to honestly face yourself, to get into the Scripture, to practice prayer, to connect with the people of God. And I believe that Jesus will meet with you.

  • Eugene Peterson. One of many books!
  • Frances Collins, lecture at Q 2008
  • The Economist. “Higgs ahoy!” December 17 2011. Mobile edition, no author listed.
  • The Fray. “You Found Me”. 2009. The Fray.
  • Blaise Pascal. Pensées. Translated by A. J. Krailsheimer, 1966. London, England: Penguin Group.
  • Peter Kreeft. 1993. Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined and Explained. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.
  • Graham Tomlin. Winter 2006. “Profiles in Faith: Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)”. Knowing and Doing. The C. S. Lewis Institute. Electronic edition.

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