Some people of faith have become disillusioned with established religion and are struggling with what Christianity has become. Some have endured experiences that have entirely upended their faith, while others have lost confidence in their communities of faith without necessarily abandoning faith itself. Perhaps our endeavor to ascertain an ultimate explanation comes from a desire to find something worth being moved by, so we can encounter religion anew. When I read Abraham Heschel’s words about wonder and awe, I am moved. We need faith, but according to Heschel, awe precedes faith (God in Search of Man, 1955, p. 77). Can we develop our capacity for awe and wonder?
I know that for some people, it’s important that the very words of the Bible are inerrant, but that’s never been my take on inspiration. I acknowledge that the Bible’s text is not divine words sent down through a heavenly pipeline. Knowing that the Bible is written by humans, however, does not destroy my belief. While I expect all things human to have imperfections, I believe the writers of the Bible had divinely inspired thoughts and were guided in the writing process. Faith is not a test of accuracy but a way of thinking about God that includes moments of wonder and decision as well as a commitment to the evidence that supports faith in God.
In my thinking, God and His character as depicted in the Bible are not always the same thing. I encounter God most clearly in the Scripture moments in which Moses and Abraham experience intense meaning as God’s character shines through His words. I find Moses’s and Abraham’s reasoning with God and honest questioning of His character to be important aspects of faith. God tested Abraham, and while I admire his example of faith, I wish he had more often reasoned with God, as he did when Sodom was threatened. Perhaps then we could have discovered clearer conceptions of God’s love, mercy, and justice. Instead, I continue to re-examine and seek a clearer faith.
What about God’s silence in the face of suffering? It’s a question as old as the patriarch Job. Cookie-cutter explanations that such suffering is God’s will or deserved by sinful people will never suffice. What of a mother’s prayers failing to prevent her child’s death? Some might say that her faith is too weak. Yet, what of faith that endures through crises? What of slaves who developed a faith so strong that the cruelties of slavery could not erase it (see African American Readings of Paul by Lisa Bowens)? What of the faith that remained among many who endured Auschwitz before its flames were smothered? Such faith must be a gift from God, a kind of enduring grace.
Modernism and secularism have made religious faith less common today, and many fear that it will be extinguished. Many continue to fight the culture wars, seeking a powerful Christian empire and refusing to admit they’ve already lost to culture. These people insist that others must repent, while the same sins go unchallenged by the Christian leaders in our churches. It’s no wonder that people have lost faith in their religious institutions and church communities. The church looks just like the rest of the world, with precious few practicing or even listening to God’s commands. The authority of God’s Word is lost when it’s reduced to human discussion points. Faith is not mental assent to doctrine or creeds. Philosophy and theology are likewise poor substitutes for faith.
To the atheist and agnostic, who dismiss faith altogether and declare the death of God, I say that I too reject the notion of an angry cosmic judge, a tyrannical bully in the sky. I deny a God who tortures people for eternity, punishes lack of belief, or manifests other such nonsense that some believe about God. My faith is not in a God who will solve all my problems or save me to an afterlife while condemning unbelievers for eternity. I have faith in something else.
I’ve abandoned religious beliefs that portray God as unforgiving, mean, and harsh. Such a God would be unworthy of my love. I agree with eighteenth-century theologian John Wesley, who said that such a God would be his devil. Faith is an experience of thinking correctly about God. It’s not a blind leap in the dark but the wise and enlightened steps we take as we search for deeper explanations. Faith is ultimately about fidelity and unconditional trust in a God of goodness, beauty, and love. Faith is a way of making sense of God’s character. It’s learning to think properly about God and working alongside Him in the world.
What about the life of Jesus? More than words on a page, He is the Word made flesh and blood. God is fully revealed in the person of Jesus, which encourages me to find a better, purer, and more intimate faith. I don’t expect things to magically change because of faith. I know faith will not prevent suffering, injustice, or death, but it gives life meaning and enduring fidelity. I look to the faithfulness of Jesus. Receiving the faith of Jesus does not cancel my own faith but teaches me how to be faithful. I am learning to accept His deeper way of looking at faith, the Bible, God, and my own existence.
Craig Ashton Jr.