Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Unexamined Faith

Over at Paul Windsor's blog we've been discussing the pros and cons of Christian celebrities, in the sporting world in particular. Now we wont get into that here and now, but the discussion prompted me to look a little closer at the story of Jonathan Edwards the British Triple Jump World Record holder and Olympic Gold winner. Reading an article about it from last years Times I was hit by one detail in particular. It seems as though Edwards who was raised in a devout family, had a conversion experience, and was a deeply committed Christian until after his athletics career, only lost his faith the first time he seriously questioned it, at the age of 40. Edwards who had toured churches in Britain, preaching the gospel and exhorting others to faith, suddenly comes out with:
When you think about it rationally, it does seem incredibly improbable that there is a God.
The tragedy is not that someone should lose their faith, but that the first time they come across any reason for doubting, the faith that sustained them for so long it is immediately jettisoned as make-believe. he says:
I was so preoccupied with training and competing that I did not have the time or emotional inclination to question my beliefs. Sport is simple, with simple goals and a simple lifestyle. I was quite happy in a world populated by my family and close friends, people who shared my belief system.
It seems to me that Edwards faith must have been so rigid and so complete in its construction that the moment one part looks like its could be pulled loose he abandons the whole thing completely. Interestingly the new found scepticism towards his lifelong faith is not applied to his doubts. There is no sense in the Times interview that there is any other rational way to approach the subject, or that the assumptions of materialism should ever be doubted. Edwards states that
Once you start asking yourself questions like, ‘How do I really know there is a God?’ you are already on the path to unbelief.
But this is not true. A faith that acknowledges doubt, that is honest about difficult questions is not a faith that is heading for unbelief. On the contrary, a faith that never questions that cannot change, or admit it was wrong about something, that accepts everything without discussion, is only one step away from atheism because it has no way to grow or adjust. Its completeness and rigidity give the illusion of stability but are in fact just one good shake away from total collapse. This is why churches should be places for discussion and conversation not dogma and lines drawn in the sand. Making disciples is not about conforming people to a set of beliefs or theological system but about teaching them to ask questions and to develop their own real, growing, and meaningful relationship with the reality that transcends the universe, God. This is why when you choose your heroes, pick people not for the certainty they display, but for the way they have been able and willing to change. Not for their faith to a belief that has never been tested but for their willingness to be tested and listen to the questions that they can't answer straight away. Socrates famously said that 'the unexamined life is not worth living,' I quite agree, but would go further and say the unexamined faith is no faith at all, just a superstition awaiting destruction by the next unexpected turn life takes.

When I came to NZ my faith was at a crossroads. Working in pastoral ministry had given me lots of questions that i hadn't had the time or resources to explore. By taking the time out to study and probe these doubts and issues, I knew I was taking a risk, but I also knew that if God was worth believing in at all, God could handle both my doubting and answer my questions. This is why theological education is so important for those in Christian leadership, an enthusiastic but shallow faith wont last the long haul, I know because I was finished after five years. But a faith that is always learning and growing has no reason to ever crumble, because doubts are not there to destroy but are catalysts for greater honesty, depth and humility in your walk with God.

2 comments:

  1. This whole post shows how out of touch I am and have been. I had no idea that Jonathon Edwards had lost his faith. Although I didn't know him very well I did go to church with him when I lived in Newcastle and he always seemed an absolute commited christian. So for him to have come to this decision, can not have been an easy one as I know his family and friends were a very central part of an amazing church.

    On the personal side I know how easy it is to drift and struggle with your faith. But even at my low times if anyone had asked me whether I believed in God or not.. I wouldn't have had to think about it. For me there always seems to be a million questions I don't know the answers to, and things I don't understand and perhaps that means I need to do a lot more study and probing to find them out.

    I like the idea and agree though that a faith that is prepared to ask the difficult questions and is one that will grow and is certainly more honest.

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  2. I often recall stumbling upon Romans 4:20-21.

    "Yet he [Abraham] did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised."

    If the father of our faith had doubts, surely it is okay for us. Of course, to counter those doubts Abraham knew and had experience of the strength of God, which is what he held on to. Likewise, we must a firm knowledge and experience of Christ as our anchor (Heb 6:19-20).

    Obviously, it's not just Christian sports-people or celebrities this is an issue for. A very interesting book I read is called, "To Hell with God," by Steve Cooper. Some atheist friends recommended it to me to show the error and futility of the Christian faith. The thing I found most fascinating was Cooper's 'conversion to atheism' in the preface. I can't recall exact details, but he was brought up as a missionary child. He talks about the time he ripped up and burned his Bible thinking, "To hell with God.' The book then rationalises the newfound faith/non-faith.

    Do you or any of your readers know any more about Steve Cooper? I believe he is a kiwi.

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