Faith and Seeking Understanding

Saint_Augustine_Portrait

Botticelli: St. Augustine

Christian faith is not the conclusion of an argument: it begins in some sense or other in a personal encounter with God. Some people experience this encounter in a dramatic way, for others, it is much gentler and quieter. But we believe because we believe God, who, in some way, speaks to us. This belief is more a matter of personal trust in the God who loves us and has revealed himself to us than it is the conclusion of an intellectual investigation.

We are created in God’s image, and God is love. Our faith is thus best nurtured by experiencing God’s love through prayer, worship, and the sacraments, by acts of service or contemplation that we do out of love for God, and by Christian community, where we love others and experience and are nurtured in love.

God also knows and understands everything, and our desire to understand Him and the world He has created is part of His image in us. Although belief and trust are primarily personal responses to God’s love for us, we also want to understand what we believe and who we trust. There are, moreover, parts of Christian teaching—like the Trinity, the Incarnation, or the virgin birth—that are difficult to understand. And Christian faith also gives rise to difficult questions: for example, if God is all knowing and all powerful, and He desires what is good for everyone, why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?

Throughout history, some of the most brilliant Christian minds have tackled these problems in works like Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, Augustine’s On the Trinity, Boethius’s Consolations of Philosophy, or Anselm’s Proslogion. Others have written exhaustive treatises which attempt to explain Christian doctrine in its entirety: Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, or John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. To master any of these texts is the work of years, and to fully understand and respond to all of the puzzles and challenges that could be raised against Christian belief is a work beyond any human lifetime.

The most that arguments—whether for the existence of God or the historicity of the Gospels or the compatibility of God’s goodness with our experience of evil—can do is remove intellectual obstacles to faith: they do not, in themselves, bring us into a personal relationship with God.

My biggest need is not to know about Christ: it is to know Christ. I’ve read hundreds of books and articles—both on general philosophical and theological debates about the truth of the Christian faith, and specifically on debates about Christian sexual morality. One of the dangers, I find, is that it’s easy for me to drift away from God even as I spend hours a day studying Him. Instead of, like Abraham or Moses, growing closer to Him as a friend, I can come to see Him more of an object of study, or a subject for debate.

Of course, there are times when study and argument are necessary, and the Church needs those who are able to understand and defend her teaching to do so. Dorothy Sayers’s essay, “Creed or Chaos,” [pdf] does an excellent job of showing that, if we want to love and serve God, we need to know who He is and what He has called us to do.

But even when study and argument are necessary, they are always secondary to love. Scholarly argument can, at times, remove obstacles to faith, or clarify what it means for us to love God and neighbor. But when argument is disconnected from love, it becomes sterile, more likely to push people away than draw them in.

At the same time, when we are bothered by difficulties in belief, or when we struggle with understanding parts of the Church’s moral teaching, it’s important to remember that we can continue to trust God, to love Him, and to obey Him without fully understanding Him or His will for us. If we are confused, we can be faithful and obedient to what we know, while praying and looking for ways to understand those parts of our faith which are still difficult for us.

If we fall into the trap of thinking we have to understand answers to every objection before we can follow God, we will have misunderstood one of the most fundamental elements of the Gospel itself, which is above all a Gospel love, and not, primarily, a Gospel of intellectual argument.

Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that as we believe thy only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, Ascension Day Collect)

ron50Ron Belgau is completing a PhD in Philosophy, and teaches medical ethics, philosophy of the human person, ethics, and philosophy of religion. He can be followed on Twitter: @RonBelgau.

6 thoughts on “Faith and Seeking Understanding

  1. This is so good. I love the part where you say,

    “At the same time, when we are bothered by difficulties in belief, or when we struggle with understanding parts of the Church’s moral teaching, it’s important to remember that we can continue to trust God, to love Him, and to obey Him without fully understanding Him or His will for us.”

    This really touched me because this is exactly what God keeps bringing me back to…will I love Him even when I don’t fully understand.

    My “dark night of the soul” has always dealt with suffering/evil. I’ve read and read and read, always trying to understand more fully. And I’ve definitely been helped by some of the great Christian writers. However, when suffering becomes real, I find it hard to remember what I’ve read because all I feel is pain.

    I recently went through a particularly painful time of doubt and what I found the most helpful was worship. I stumbled onto the music of Fernando Ortega one day and just sat and listened and read the Psalms. The Lord really ministered to me in a sweet way and I was able to surrender and worship. All my questions were not answered (will they ever be, this side of Heaven?), but the peace that came was so comforting.

    Thank you for this encouraging blog. I too, want to know Christ, above all else.

    Blessings!

  2. Thanks Ron! I could not agree more that “when argument is disconnected from love, it becomes sterile, more likely to push people away than draw them in.” Doesn’t that point to a critical question about HOW to “argue” in love? Because I don’t think we’re very good at it as an institutional Church. Obviously the arguments throughout society about homosexuality (especially as they play out in the media) are not often being made in love, are even more rarely perceived as loving, and are most definitely pushing people away. Is there any way to make our intellectual/historical/moral arguments to the broader society/culture/media these days that won’t simultaneously impede our ability to welcome and accompany more people at a level where it’s much easier for them to feel loved?
    (Maybe another way to ask that question is “how would it be possible for the Church to amplify the kind of thing that’s happening at spiritual friendship toward the much bigger audience they face?”)

  3. Excellent comments, Ron. Theology has been a friend to me. It’s helped lead me back to Christ and to love His Church. Theology, however, should lead us into prayer, worship and an encounter with Christ. A “theologian” in the Eastern tradition is not some scholar or philosopher, but it’s someone who has witnessed the energies of God. One could say, God uses our minds as the doorway to our hearts.

  4. Pingback: Following Hard After God - ✝ Fall And Die

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