Please Believe

This past week, my seven-year-old daughter asked me if I believed in Santa Claus. Not one of those parents too concerned about scarring my children for life, I told her, “no.”

“But, Mom, [neighbor girl’s name here] said that she got a present last year with a card that was in handwriting that was not her mom’s! Do you believe now?”

“Well, no.”

My four-year-old son chimed in. “[Preschool classmate’s name here] said that Santa came to her house last year, but he was very quiet. Do you believe now?”

“Sorry, no.”

Daughter whispering to son, something like, “if Mom and Dad don’t believe, Santa won’t come to our house!”

Then, aloud in ragged unison, “Please, Mom and Dad, believe in Santa Claus! Please!”

In his book Losing My Religion, William Lobdell says that Pascal’s wager just doesn’t work for him, because he can’t will himself to believe something he simply doesn’t believe. Lobdell says, “it seems to me that to indulge in Pascal’s Wager, you actually have to believe in Christ. The Lord would know if you were faking. I could no longer fake it. It was time to be honest about where I was in my faith.”

Christian apologetics seems to function from two underlying convictions – nonbelievers are either:

a) ignorant, and therefore needing to learn more information, or

b) rebellious, and therefore needing to repent.

There are other ideas, too, like the one I most easily gravitate towards. I can identify with wounded ex-believers, and think that the only thing holding them back from belief is healing and an introduction to the real God, the right God, i.e., my current understanding of God.

A truly difficult thing for believers to do is to simply believe nonbelievers’ explanations of their personal faith stories. When Lobdell, and others like John Marks (Reasons to Believe), tell us that they tried, they really tried, to hold on to their faith in Jesus, even their faith in God, and lost it in spite of their knowledge, their desire, and all – it is often incredibly difficult for believers to take that simple explanation and let it be.

It’s ironic that people who treasure a belief in the unseen can have such a difficult time believing what is plainly spoken to them. I know from personal experience that with enough practice believing “impossible” things, it becomes easier to discount obvious things, including the weight of doubt and unbelief going on inside one’s own self.

What good is a faith that feels compelled to ignore or explain away the disbelief it encounters in others and oneself? I think that sort of faith is rightly called blind faith. What I’m after is a wide-eyed, open-eared, expectant sort of belief that takes for granted that the world is bigger than me, that other people have wisdom I don’t, that if I feel my belief system is threatened by someone telling me the truth, then it’s time to do some reworking with that belief system.

Which reminds me of another post I promised recently and have not yet delivered – thoughts from The Myth of Certainty. That would be a counterbalance of sorts to this post. Belief systems are never complete, are always needing reworking, and yet – to gain some traction, one must take a point of view from time to time.

My point of view at this moment is that I have written enough and I need not bother with a tidy conclusion. Feel free to write your own conclusion as a comment!

14 Comments

  1. Julia,

    I would fall into the category of wounded ex-believers; an ex-believer in the sense that I don’t believe much of what I was taught is literally true anymore. As you noted, sometimes one literally cannot believe something that to them is absolutely false just for the sake of social acceptance.

    Currently am reading an extremely helpful book, at least to me, titled, ” The Reason for God” by Timothy Keller, a Reformed Presbyterian preacher. He is gracious and rational in his treatise.

    I am beginning to be able and willing to believe that a personal God exists, but is certainly not the god that was presented to me for most of my life. And I don’t find that to be a bad thing at all!

    • Thanks for your comment, Kelly. I’ve got Keller’s book on my shelf (found it used and looked interesting) – will have to move it up on my reading list!

  2. “It’s ironic that people who treasure a belief in the unseen can have such a difficult time believing what is plainly spoken to them.”

    So very very true, Julia, and well said.

  3. A third point for your Christian apologetics list:
    c. Nonbelievers are spiritually unenlightened, i.e. the Holy Spirit has not opened their eyes so they are unable to see what we see.

    In some camps, I guess that falls under the rebellious point, but where I come from this is a matter completely beyond a person’s control. It’s very difficult to reason with someone who believes he has access to special knowledge that is unavailable to you.

    My experience has been that of one who has tried desperately to believe, sometimes at the expense of my own conscience. I’m still holding onto the bare minimum of Christianity, but I wonder if I do so only out of fear of what will happen to me if I give up that last little bit. Maybe I’m unintentionally living out Pascal’s Wager. Time will probably tell.

    I’ve been doing a little nosing around, and it seems that Pascal would have taken seriously William Lobdell’s inability to believe but would have advised him to live as if he has faith (kind of what I’m doing right now, I guess) in hopes that belief will follow. The difference for me is that I’m not so much living this way in hopes of teasing out faith, but rather hoping that the end results of faith are true. I’ve said that poorly, but maybe you get the spirit of it.

    Incidentally, not so long ago someone offered Pascal’s Wager to me as an argument for belief in God. This was my first experience with the idea, but my immediate thought was, “If there is no God, then what I’d have to lose is that there are a heck of a lot of things I’d regret not doing.” Guess I’m not one of those naturally good people.

    Oh, and I do like what you said about introduction to the right God. As the indoctrinated ideas of God are fading, I’m finding it sometimes easier to conceive of a God I can somehow worship, love, admire, etc.

    Thanks for giving me a place to think out loud tonight. You’d think I’d just start my own blog if I have so much to say…

    • Your “c” point is a good addition to the list. This might be the view of many Calvinists, that God gives grace and the ability to believe to those he has predestined.

      I think you’re probably right about Pascal’s intent with his wager – that choosing to “practice belief” in spite of actual belief may grow authentic belief in someone.

      I’m intrigued with your comment, “If there is no God, then what I’d have to lose is that there are a heck of a lot of things I’d regret not doing.” Would you be willing to expand on that? I’ve thought about this a little bit too – my hope in a physical peaceful everafter softens the blow of not getting to do everything I want to do now (like travel the world, read every good book ever written, etc.), but I try to balance that hope with the possibility that I’m wrong and therefore to enjoy fully this life, which is all I know I have. Is this something of what you are getting at, or when you say you are “not one of those naturally good people,” are you getting more at certain moral values you see your faith demanding that otherwise wouldn’t make sense?

      • Funny thing, I’ve been thinking about that comment a lot this week, too. At the time when Pascal’s Wager was offered to me as a solution (this was several months ago), I was doing a lot more living for the approval of other people. So I think that was a big part of it back then. I’ve come to a place where I suspect God requires fewer things of me, so I’m getting to do more of the things I thought I would regret missing out on. In the past week of rolling it around in my head, I haven’t been able to come up with many biggies that I’d regret missing out on.

        There might be more to this; certainly I will keep thinking about it. Maybe someday it will be a blog post, but I make no promises. 🙂

  4. Wow, so much to like about this post. (great intro by the way)

    The ignorant vs rebellious tags placed on others outside of one’s own belief system is so true, along with the others mentioned. I would also apply that to those who see believers as ignorant, or they are rebelling against the “obvious truth” that there is nothing out there to believe. It goes back to the basic fundamentalism people bring to their belief system, whatever that may be.

    It’s hard to find that understanding of what I truly believe, and I’m trying to take my time to avoid jumping to conclusions that I intellectually or emotionally prefer. So your post and the comments here helped clarify some of those thoughts for me. I agree that I am fearful of blind faith at this point, but I’m also not sure what other kind is available.

    • Thanks, James.

      You said, “I would also apply that to those who see believers as ignorant, or they are rebelling against the “obvious truth” that there is nothing out there to believe.” So would I. Good point.

      Re: your last paragraph – I’m thinking that belief is definitely informed by our intellectual and emotional preferences, but what keeps it from being blind faith is our willingness to recognize those preferences for what they are, and to admit when our beliefs are reshaped by new perspectives. I propose that belief is not something we can really will ourselves to do, but it is something we can analyze in ourselves. It is sort of the un-deliberate outgrowth of our deliberate everyday practices and experiences.

  5. I recently heard Pascal’s wager described as argument by sheer intimidation. I think that’s about right. It is, to me, the most cowardly proposition imaginable.

    You wrote: “A truly difficult thing for believers to do is to simply believe nonbelievers’ explanations of their personal faith stories.” So true. I haven’t read Lobdell, I’ll give you two authors I have read, both “born-again” Christians that became atheist.

    One is John Loftus, http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1591025923?ie=UTF8&tag=poinofinqu-20&linkCode=xm2&camp=1789&creativeASIN=1591025923, his book is difficult in places, but, in my view, his de-conversion is very interesting and his “debunking” is simply overwhelming. Interesting, Norm Geisler endorses this book, admitting it will be a challenge to intellectual believers.

    But a more interesting, and better (easier) read in my view, is Dan Barker http://www.amazon.com/Godless-Evangelical-Preacher-Americas-Atheists/dp/1569756775. Barker was nearly as fundy as the tradition we come from, he was/is a talented and successful writer of christian songs, plays, stuff for VBS etc, I bet many individuals following this post will recognize some of his work. Now he is a sought after jazz pianist. He is also co-head of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an organization that has sued separation of church and state matters all the way to the supreme court. Barker debunks as well, less detailed than Loftus, but very convincing.

    But I still think the greatest argument against Christianity was written over 200 years ago, The Age of Reason by my rarely washed and often drunk friend Thomas Paine. http://libertyonline.hypermall.com/Paine/AOR-Frame.html. It is written in two parts, the full text is available at this link, I couldn’t bear to read it on a computer but perhaps you can. The first was written while he was in a Paris prison cell, fearing the guillotine, he has no Bible and writes from memory. The second part he is out of prison, he has escaped the Terror, has a Bible, and embellishes the points made in the first part. It is a wonderful read, I find myself laughing out loud in a similar way to when I read Mark Twain–terrific wit. By the way, Paine was NOT arguing for atheism, not at all. He believed the French Revolution was leading toward atheism, his book was meant to “destroy” Christianity and allow the “truth” of Deism to spread.

    Jodi writes, “It’s very difficult to reason with someone who believes he has access to special knowledge that is unavailable to you.” This is so true, though I would replace “difficult” with “impossible.” And all three books deal with this, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all “revealed” religions, and that, in these authors’ minds, is what makes them so dangerous and so suspect.

    As for me, when people ask my religion, I say, as I recently put on my FB info, “I’m not telling.”

    I would be interested to hear your comments on “Myth of Certainty,” I recently reread it and was very disappointed. I found it to be limp, lacking any rigor or hard thought at all. His thesis is “Reflective Christians are going to have a hard time,” then he just sort of rehashes that. I don’t recall if you were part of the renegade group that the renegade teen-age looking prof brought to the cities to meet Mr. Taylor, this was back at you-know-where. I did meet him. Big deal I guess. Anyway, thanks for your consistently clear and thought provoking writing, Julia. Nnox

    • Oops, I must ammend a mistake in my post, Paine did not write the 1st part of “Reason” in prison, he wrote it in haste when learned of his impending imprisonment. In his introduction to Part II, he says he finished the manuscript and entrusted it to a friend only 6 hours before his arrest. I reread all of “Reason” today, part two is so good.

    • Thanks for the suggested reading, Nnox. I do really like the former-believer memoir genre. One warning I would mention about Lobdell’s book – it is a painful read. He was a religion reporter and investigated and wrote a lot about the Catholic clergy scandals. Some of the stories are horrific, and I think they hit me even harder because I am a parent. (A one-sentence allusion to a larger story about a four-year-old boy still haunts me.)

      I didn’t get in on the Taylor meeting you mentioned, but I remember the book being a big deal in those days. I do agree with you that rigor and hard thought are not the strengths of the book. It hit me on a different level, reminding me there is more to me and to life than intellectual ideas. I particularly connected with his metaphor of the football game – that just because the thousands of people who attended a football game will each have their own explanation of what happened, this doesn’t mean that the football game never happened. I also appreciated his discussion about taking a point of view without expecting to feel certain about it. I’ll try to get a proper post up soon.

      • Certain things sicken me more than others, sexual abuse is at the top of my list. I recall a song by a certain songwriter, track 3 of her solo album, I think, that retells one of the most horrible OT tales, the woman gang raped (all night?) and then cut into twelve pieces…I still can’t listen to it! (I do listen to the rest of the record.) You may like Loftus, the unwinding of his faith was precipitated by his infidelity, an “ah hah” moment for a religionist, perhaps, the truth is more complicated of course.

        I was going to mention something about Barker’s book, he posits and interesting challenge to believers, take the story of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, list the events from each each gospel as they are given, then try to reconcile their accounts, make a coherent narrative including every detail the gospel authors give. It ends up being a mess. I have not tried this myself, perhaps someone here could try it.

        Wow, I’m listening to the Jayhawks while writing this, “every time I see your face, its like cool cool water running down my back…” I’m happy and will let all this heavy stuff go for now, I wish happiness for everyone reading this. Nnox

  6. All I have to say is THANK YOU, Julia, for writing what you wrote! Losing your faith/religion is a very scary and lonely experience – I know first hand. To read this post gives me some piece of mind and makes me feel not so alone! It is a reminder that losing what you once had is not the end of the story – it’s a beginning to a new, perhaps deeper belief system. THANK YOU, THANK YOU!

    • You are so very welcome, Laura. Thank *you* for reading and commenting here. I wish you comfort and joy as you process your past and move into your future, every day.

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