By John Bowen
Until then, we had done no more than exchange pleasantries on a Sunday morning. But one day Catherine asked if she could talk to me. No sooner were we sitting down with our coffee than she launched straight in: “So … why do you believe in God?”
I smiled. What a lovely question! Not the weather, not yesterday’s sermon, not politics (church or otherwise). I gave a one-sentence summary that we then spent an hour unpacking: “It seems to me that faith in God makes the best sense of the world we live in.”
In our world, there are a lot of misunderstandings of that little word “faith”—not least faith in God as Christians understand God. Here are some of them:
“Surely having faith is the important thing, not what we believe”
Well, no, “faith” by itself is not enough. You have to have faith in something. In that, faith is like its sisters hope and love. Hope is always hope about something or for something. Love doesn’t exist as an abstract, free-floating quality. It only exists if it’s love for someone or something. So the important question is not whether we have faith—all human beings have faith in something—but exactly what we put our faith in. It’s possible to put our faith in the wrong thing. In fact, I suspect we’ve all done it from time to time.
So what is distinctive about the faith of a Christian? Put it this way: Christianity invites us to put faith in the Faith. By “the Faith,” I mean that web of ideas about God, the world, human nature, Jesus, and the future which are summarised in the creeds.
The Faith is what the church has been working out over the centuries as an explanation of the world and how we should live in it. Personally, as I said to Catherine, I find it makes really good sense of the world we live in.
“I do have faith in God—in Jesus, even—but I have a problem with the creeds”
The trouble is, you can’t really have faith in someone unless you know something about them. Before the recent federal election, each party published its platform—the policies it intended to pursue if elected. Voters could then weigh up those ideas, plus the character of the parties and their leaders, and decide which party they would trust—and vote for. We were given information in order to inspire our faith.
So when we say we have faith in God or Jesus, it assumes we know—or at least believe—some things about what God is like. “God” cannot just be an empty word. One way to think of the creeds is that they are a summary of what Christians think God is like, and what God has done. They give us reasons for having faith in God.
“But my faith and my reason have nothing to do with each other”
Last month, I suggested that faith and reason are actually partners, not enemies. Healthy faith says, “It seems to me reasonable to believe that X is the case” (that’s the reason part) “so I will trust that it is true and act accordingly” (that’s the faith part).
If faith is unrelated to reason, I could believe the most unmitigated nonsense, and nobody could criticize. I could believe the moon is made of cheese, and nothing you could say would convince me otherwise. Well, you see the problem.
I actually agree with those in church history who have called faith without reason a heresy. It’s called “fideism.” Fideism fails to give due honour to the grey matter the good Lord has seen fit to put between our ears.
“If Christian faith makes sense of the world, what about things like mosquitoes, viruses, and tsunamis?”
I can’t explain them. Well, many have tried, and some answers are more satisfying than others. (Every Christian should read at least one book on this topic. I recommend Peter Kreeft’s Making Sense out of Suffering as a good place to start.) But no argument is 100% watertight, so that looks like evidence against Christianity—right?
Right. But every view of the world—every faith—is challenged by things that don’t fit. There is no complete explanation of the world available to us, however smart we may be. In spite of the difficulties, the Christian story still offers a satisfying faith to live by.
Why are we discussing this? Simply because, if we are to be a more missional church—involved with the de-churched and the non-churched—questions like Catherine’s will come up, and we had better have some answers at the ready. We will need to heed the apostle Peter’s advice, written to a church on mission: “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). Or, as The Message puts it, “Be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you’re living the way you are, and always with the utmost courtesy.” Holy wisdom, holy word.
John’s most recent book, The Unfolding Gospel: How the Good News Makes Sense of Discipleship, Church, Mission, and Everything Else (Fortress 2021), is the basis of the Niagara School of Missional Leadership course, Reimagining Church.