Last week, a coworker of mine asked me a question. Not just any question, “the” Question. I’m talking about the Question that every youth pastor told you was coming, the Question you were begging people to ask you the week after Church camp, and, ultimately, the Question that no-one ever actually asks you.
“Why do you believe in God?”
To be fair… my coworker is a Christian, and she knows I am a theology and ministry student at Fuller. So the question wasn’t loaded in the same way that summer teen camps and evangelism class anticipated it would be. It was simply one Christian experiencing some healthy doubt asking another Christian that is supposed to know how to answer such things for a perspective.
The timing wasn’t great, as we work in a Market, and I asked if I could get back with her, because I tend to be wordy, we were starting to get busy, and because I think through things better by writing them out.
So this is an academic confession, a reflection, and maybe even a testimony. A confession in that I admit to not being able to say much; a reflection in that I will explore the way that answering this question has hurt many people, and a testimony because I am answering what is, at its heart, a personal question.
Why do I believe in God?
I’m the type of person that likes to dissect questions before I give answers. Often a question is loaded with other questions or assumptions that need to be addressed before the actual question can be answered responsibly. Other times questions are worded in a way that force a particular type of answer, one that doesn’t do justice to the topic at hand.
In this instance, the question “why do you believe in God?” has at least four basic assumptions working in it. First, the word “why” assumes that one can give an objective, rational defense of their belief in God. Second, the word “believe” assumes a particular form of intellectual relationship between me and God, one that is different from knowledge. Third, it asks a personal question, why do “you” believe, and fourth, it asks about a very particular “God”, a word which means very different things to different people. Exploring these four elements in depth is the only way I know to answer the actual question at hand.
First: belief. What does it mean to “believe” in something? Is it the same as “knowing” something? Ultimately, this determines what a person means, or at least what their words mean, when they say, “I believe in God.” Because, at least when I say it, I mean exactly that.
Belief is similar to knowledge in many ways. It operates at a similar level in that you trust it, you act upon it, and that it can be shared by a community of people. Both are passed down, learned, or sometimes discovered.
But the two are fundamentally different. Knowledge is based upon facts, objective data, testing, reproducibility, verification, etc. Knowledge is ultimately something that can be proven to another sane person, such that at the end of the conversation, all are in agreement.
Belief, on the other hand, is by definition not provable. Why would you need to believe something if it were so obvious? When we use the language of belief, we are talking about something that cannot be proven, cannot be tested, and therefore cannot be talked about in factual terms.
We all believe things, even if we are not religious. People have beliefs about politics, economics, justice, love, and other social dynamics. Atheism, in fact, is a system of belief, because when someone says, “I do not believe in God” it is no different than professing a belief in NOT God. Both are beliefs, and neither are provable.
Beliefs can be doubted. In fact, they SHOULD be doubted. If you think that you know that God exists, then what you may have actually done is turned something that should be believed, which requires poking and prodding and exploring and learning and growing and changing. If your image of God is the same as it was five years ago, I would wonder what God exactly you think you know. Because the God of the Bible is constantly doing a new thing, surprising and upsetting people’s expectations, revealing and concealing, breaking in and ushering forth. The lie that we have bought into is that “knowing” something is better than “believing”, and that “belief” should eventually become “knowledge”. But this is not actually what believing is all about.
Thus, the two projects of the last several hundred years from both side, to prove and disprove God, both failed. After the Enlightenment, the world entered a period of such discovery that everyone began to think that everything that can be known can be dissected, put under a microscope, and proved or disproved. And so many began to try to disprove the existence of God, and Christians, who didn’t realize they were fighting a battle they couldn’t win, spent countless energy and time treating belief like it was knowledge, and neither side ever won.
If anything, Christians lost; not because the other side won, but because they allowed belief to turn into knowledge and then lost heart when it didn’t hold up as such. We have turned belief in a dynamic, spontaneous, and unexplainable God into something that can be swallowed, wrapped up, and grasped. And then we wonder why that god doesn’t look credible to a world well-trained in picking things apart and exposing flaws. They asked for God on a platter, and we gave them a golden calf. They rejected it, rightfully, and closed themselves off to GOD, who can’t be “known” on such terms. Frankly, GOD doesn’t need our help to validate GOD’s existence; how self-important are we to try?
So when I say, “I believe in God”, it actually means a lot of different things. It means, first, that I don’t know that God exists, and I can’t prove it. It means that I have doubts, and that there have been times where I don’t believe in God; all of which actually further validates and strengthens my belief, and my confidence that this belief is worth holding on to. It also means that there are other options, that are equally provable, viable, and intellectually sound. But they are not the options that I ascribe to, or the options I believe are true.
Which brings us to the question of “why”. “Why” is a question used for knowledge, not for beliefs. One can ask “why is the sky blue?”, and assuming you know the answer, you can talk about moisture, the reflection of light, the way light is interpreted by the eye and brain, and give an answer that is satisfying and true in a factual sense.
This is the reason that the question, “Why do you believe in God?” can be so misleading. By using the word why, one expects an answer that can be verified, proven, and justified in a factual sense. And so as a young Christian teenager I prepared logic-based arguments and read Lee Strobel and prepared to out-smart my “opponent” into believing in God… all of which is ultimately impossible. The best one can do is give examples of experiences in which God felt near, when beliefs you already had were reinforced, and the other person walks away, not having had such an experience themselves, thinking that you have based your way of life off something you felt once.
And when it comes down to it, the “why” reason that most people believe in God is because they were told to. By parents, by a pastor, by a friend – most people believe in God because at some point they became involved in a community, whether you were born into a family, brought to a church, attended a camp, or loved by a friend. And none of this is bad, or wrong. Most of the reasons that we believe most of the things that we believe have to do with things outside of our control, and sometimes even outside of our awareness.
But I don’t mean to dodge the question. I’ve talked about “why” and I’ve talked about “believe”, which brings me to “you”, or in this case, me. This is an important turn, because up until this point I’ve only addressed what it means for anyone to answer The Question. But ultimately, it is a personal question. Why do I believe in God? Why do I still believe in God?
I believe in God because I was raised to. My parents are wonderful Christian people, involved in many ways in the local church, and active even outside of it in ways consistent with the ethic of Jesus we were taught to embody. I can’t imagine being able to grow up not believing in God, because I was in church every Sunday. It was the pair of glasses that I was given to see the world through, and that world was captivating.
In the Church, I met and grew to know some of the best people I’ll ever know. I also met and grew to know some of the worst people I’ll ever know. There were people that loved life and God and people with a love that I can hardly understand, and there were people that used religion to become bitter, angry, and selfish. In high school I really struggled with which of the type I was going to turn into, as I felt a strong push to fully immerse myself in the faith, but was also molded by politics and dogma in ways that made me more of the second type than the first.
During this time I also experienced what the Church likes to describe as “a call” to ministry. Simply put, this means that I felt, in some indescribable way, that God wanted me to serve the Church professionally. I followed this “call” to college and seminary, which probably saved my faith. The academic side of Christianity opened my mind to a way of understanding and talking about faith, theology, and the Bible in ways that weren’t reactionary, angry, or hostile. Rather, I fell in love with the study of theology because it embraced the story I had been given, the good and the bad, and showed me that there was a bigger story at work than I had ever imagined, and that I had been called to continue that story.
This story made sense of all of these longings, hopes, dreams, and love, and give me an idea of where this world is headed, and how I could be a part of it. The only reason I still believe in all of it is because the story (or what the Bible calls “the Gospel”), is actually a lot bigger than the one I grew up with, and than what is talked about in a lot of churches. And actually, I think that the vision of the world and the hope for us all might resonate with exactly what we all suspect might be true.
Which brings me to the final piece in The Question: “God”. What kind of God do I believe in? I believe in a God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. I believe this God so loved this world, that he gave the Son, and through this son, Jesus, is reconciling the whole world. And this God is in the process of making all things new, through a community of people who would believe, to invite us into a new world where death and crying and pain will be no more, where nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. Isn’t that the kind of world we all want to live in, Christian or not? When it comes to the Gospel, we have a lot more in common than we think.
And frankly, I think that what you mean when you say “God” in this part of The Question might be more important than what you mean when you say “why”, “I”, or “believe”. (Which makes Rob Bell’s most recent book title, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, very interesting.) But to illustrate this point, I will submit a quote by N.T. Wright:
For seven years I was College Chaplain and Worcester College, Oxford. Each year I used to see the first year undergraduates individually for a few minutes, to welcome them to the college and make a first acquaintance. Most were happy to meet me; but many commented, often with slight embarrassment, “You won’t be seeing much of me; you see, I don’t believe in god.”
I developed a stock response: “Oh, that’s interesting; which god is it you don’t believe in?” This used to surprise them; they mostly regarded the word “God” as a univocal, always meaning the same thing. So they would stumble out a few phrases about the god they said they did not believe in: a being who lived up the in the sky, looking down disapprovingly at the world, occasionally “intervening” to do miracles, sending bad people to hell while allowing good people to share his heaven. Again, I had a stock response for this very common statement of “spy-in-the-sky” theology: “Well, I’m not surprised you don’t believe in that god. I don’t believe in that god either.”
Ultimately, behind The Question is a whole world of issues and questions. But if I had to answer this Question in one swoop, I guess I would say it this way:
I believe in God because I was raised to; because God has stood up to my constant exploring, re-learning, deconstruction, and doubts; because the story God has given continues to capture my imagination and ignite my hopes for the world; and because it gives a name and a purpose to the things in life I experience that are not quantifiable, that seem more than the sum of their parts. These experiences include basic longings and hopes for a better world, or more personal things like watching alcoholics and drug abusers and criminals become completely new people, experiencing the love of a family and a community, or even in falling in love with my girlfriend and experiencing love and acceptance at my most vulnerable.
For all of these reasons, I can do no other than believe in God. And because of the kind of God I believe in, I constantly confess that the way I believe must always be humble and gracious, and that I will never be finished in searching out and navigating the depths of the character of this God and adjusting my posture in light of my learning. It’s from this posture that I hope Christianity can be a conversation partner with the rest of the world, for the sake of the world, if we would be enough like God to humble ourselves and love unconditionally.