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The Ways We Find Faith: Intellect, Need & Interaction
by Diogenes Allen
In my seminary days it was an enormous relief to learn that the ancient Jewish belief in God did not arise from reflection on the natural world but rather because of Abraham’s encounter with Yahweh.
From my previous work in philosophy I had assumed that the ancient Jews believed in God because they wondered where the world came from and how it got its order. I was told that Hume’s and Kant’s refutation of the inference from nature’s order and existence to God were decisive refutations of any move from nature to God. So it had previously looked to me as if the Jews were guilty of bad logic.
I had also been taught in the philosophy of religion that as long as God is not absolutely required to explain nature, there is no proper reason to believe in God. I think the perception that if belief in God is to be rational, it must be based on the natural world, whether in the form of the traditional proofs of God’s existence or upon the natural world’s order, requiring God’s design for its explanation, is very widespread.
Such mistaken assumptions lead to a neglect of many of the actual reasons many people believe in God. In the New Testament Paul explicitly says that faith in the God of Israel comes from hearing. What Paul means when he says that faith arises from hearing is that faith arises from hearing about the way God has interacted with the people of ancient Israel and God’s initiative in sending his Son into the world. This is what people are to respond to with faith. However important the contemplation of nature is, it does not displace interaction with God as the primary reason for belief in God.
Three Types of Motives
I want to look at some of the many reasons people respond with faith. There are at least three main types of reasons that form around particular motives for belief.
First, some people respond with faith because of great or intense distress, such as alcoholics. In responding to a narrative about God’s power, love, and help with their addiction or other overwhelming difficulties, they find immense help and relief. They are able to give some order to their tangled and ensnared lives. Because of this help, their initial belief in what the preacher says attains firm conviction. Like the man cured of blindness in the Gospel story, who, under the pressure of questioning, replied, all I know is that once I was blind and now I see.
A second cluster of reasons group themselves around needs, which are like a deep, unsatisfied hunger. The needs are not so disruptive that a person loses control of his life. A major type of hunger is found in some people’s great aspirations. Many people are attracted by the nobility of a holy, godly life, marked by a sense of service and love. In time, they find that they are unable to live up to the ideal, and often very seriously fail to. This creates a sense of guilt and failure. The promise and experience of forgiveness, as well as the assurance of help in the future to move closer and closer to living up to the ideal, is a reason many people have faith.
The third reason many people are motivated to have faith is that it gives them an understanding of themselves, human nature, and our human condition that coheres with our understanding of the universe at large, whether drawn from the humanities, social sciences, or the natural sciences at any particular time.
All three of these reasons can be present, or perhaps two of them, in various degrees of intensity in the same person. They can wax and wane in relative importance. Sometimes great distress may predominate, as when one is faced with a great loss or a life-threatening illness, and the desire for more theoretic understanding then recedes into the background. For others, understanding may predominate, but aspiration and relief of guilt still play a significant role.
If we are to see the force of these reasons for belief, we need to give some attention to them in detail. So I am going to illustrate these three reasons for belief with two concrete cases. In both instances the people were highly accomplished, well educated, and critically minded: Leo Tolstoy was one of the greatest novelists of the nineteenth century, and Simone Weil was a great French philosopher and political activist of the 1930s.
In Leo Tolstoy’s My Confession, he left us a full account of his recovery of commitment to the Christian faith, which he had discarded as a young man at university. For about a year, he wrote, “my heart was oppressed by a tormenting feeling, which I cannot describe as otherwise than as a searching after God.”
This search, was not an act of my reason, but a feeling, and I say this advisedly, because it was opposed to my way of thinking; it came from the heart. It was a feeling of dread, of orphanhood, of isolation amid things all apart from me, and of hope in a help I knew not from whom.
The life God intends us to have implies that our present life, for all its goodness, is by itself inadequate. Our awareness of its inadequacies fills us with dread, especially when we consider the inevitability of suffering, the loss of loved ones, and the prospect of our own death. Feeling “orphaned” is a result of not having yet come to a spiritual point of reference that would enable us to find our place in God’s order. A secular orientation, however successful it may be in giving us a sense of status and significance in the social order, cannot satisfy our craving for a proper self-understanding or cure our sense of isolation.
Part of the motive behind his conversion was that Tolstoy, like many other people, came to crave a sense of purpose and direction. Yet Tolstoy’s search for God could not be an act of reason:
Though I was well convinced of the impossibility of proving the existence of God—Kant had shown me, and I had thoroughly grasped his reasoning, that this did not admit of proof—I still sought to find a God, still hoped to do so, and still, from the force of former habits, addressed myself to one in prayer. Him whom I sought, however, I did not find.
Like many intellectuals of his time, he had accepted Kant’s refutations of the so-called traditional proofs for God’s existence and believed that the only way to establish the reality of God was by rational proof.
It was Tolstoy’s previous religious training (“the force of former habits”) that finally enabled him to find a way to God through prayer. When Tolstoy began to pray, however, he found that his prayers were not answered immediately:
The more I prayed, the clearer it became that I was not heard, that there was no one to whom to pray. With despair in my heart that there was no God, I cried, “Lord, have mercy on me, and save! O Lord, my God, teach me!” But no one had mercy on me, and I felt that life stood still within me.
But Tolstoy’s need for God, which included his need for significance and purpose, enabled him to continue to pray.
Again and again, however, the conviction came back to me that I could not have appeared on earth without any motive or meaning. . . .
Not just prayer but persistent prayer is needed in our search for God. Tolstoy persevered and eventually found that his prayers had an effect:
“He is,” I said to myself. I had only to admit that for an instant to feel that life re-arose in me, to feel the possibility of existing and the joy of it.
The sheer affirmation of God’s existence deeply moved Tolstoy because he was so seriously engaged with the question of the reality of God. Often our words and prayers do not have a comparable effect on us because our attention is not focused on God. We violate the commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exodus 20:7) by invoking God’s name frivolously.
The ineffectiveness of our words and prayers can be compared to the ineffectiveness of racing a car engine. All drivers know that unless the gears are engaged by moving the gear lever, the car will not move, however much they step on the accelerator. The engine will simply whirl around faster. So too with our talking and praying. Unless we are seriously engaged with the reality of God, our words and thoughts are in vain. They do not move us, as did Tolstoy’s words and prayers, from distress to joy.
God Is Life
Even though Tolstoy’s words and prayers led him to joy, this result was not of itself sufficient to give him a lasting conviction of the reality of God. Next, he was led to question whether his joy in the affirmation of God was merely the product of his own mental processes. “Reason continued his work,” he said, and reason said to him,
“The conception of God is not God. Conception is what goes on within myself; the conception of God is an idea which I am able to rouse in my mind or not as I choose; it is not what I seek, something without which life could not be.” Then again all seemed to die around and within me, and again I wished to kill myself.
These doubts only began to give way when Tolstoy became clearer in his own mind what finding God meant:
I began to retrace the process which had gone on within myself, the hundred times repeated discouragement and revival. I remembered that I had lived only when I believed in a God. As it was before, so it was now; I had only to know God, and I lived; I had only to forget Him, not to believe in Him, and I died. What was this discouragement and revival? I do not live when I lose faith in the existence of a God; I should long ago have killed myself, if I had not had a dim hope of finding Him. I only really live when I feel and seek Him. “What more, then, do I seek?” A voice seemed to cry within me, “This is He, He without whom there is no life. To know God and to live are one. God is life.”
To know God and to live are one because God is zoe, the uncreated life. God the Holy Spirit is an indwelling presence whose manifestations can be mistaken for simple human elation. This is what Tolstoy thought at first, until he recognized that God is life and God’s presence can become a habitual one, which requires only our attention to give us a permanent peace and joy. With this realization the cycle of misery and elation ceased, and the light that shone on him never left him again.
Since God seeks us first, we do not need to rely on arguments for God’s existence; knowledge of God is possible through conscious interaction with God. To experience the effects of the divine life in our own can lead to a firm belief in the reality of God. The reason why religious faith is not mere credulity is that it is anchored in the uncreated life of God, often referred to as grace or the Holy Spirit.
Obedience & the Path of Faith
Conversion cannot be reduced to “good feelings,” however, because feelings alone will not lead us to change the way we live. To interact with God is to recognize that our lives must be transformed and become increasingly like God’s life. One way of recognizing that our religious feelings are the result of interacting with God is that we find ourselves seeking to have our lives conform to his. Therefore when Tolstoy came to explicit faith in God, he had the simultaneous conviction that he should obey God’s will.
It was strange, but this feeling of the glow of life was no new sensation; it was old enough, for I had been led away from it in the earlier part of my life. . . . I returned to faith in that Will which brought me into being and which required something of me; I returned to the belief that the one single aim in life should be . . . to live in accordance with that Will . . . in other words, I returned to a belief in God.
The path we follow to achieve contact with God need not be precisely the same as the one Tolstoy followed, but we have examined his carefully because it contains many features common to the lives of people who have come to faith in God:
• First, a conscious need for God and the beginning of a search for him;
• Second, barriers to belief in God that put the seeker in a quandary, whether it is the notion that science has made belief in God implausible or doubts about the trustworthiness of the Bible or lack of confidence in the credibility of the church’s teachings;
• Third, the mitigation or removal of these barriers by a greater understanding of what Christianity teaches;
• Fourth, the need to go beyond understanding to prayer and participation in worship;
• Fifth, a pattern of oscillation between a sense of conviction, even certainty, and doubt, which is commonly found in accounts of pilgrimages to a firm and settled faith; and
• Sixth, increased clarity about what it means to recognize that to be spiritually nourished by Christian teachings, worship, and devotion is to be in contact with God. This recognition of God’s reality includes a desire to live in accordance with God’s will and usually brings a stability that can weather moments or even long periods of doubt, distraction in prayer, and barrenness of spirit.
Real Contact with God
The second and final path to God that we shall examine is the one followed by Simone Weil, who died toward the end of the Second World War. Earlier in her life she had considered the problem of God to be both insoluble and irrelevant, but that was before she was converted to religious faith through a series of three extraordinary experiences that she relates in her autobiography, Waiting for God. Hers is a compelling example of the conversion of the understanding and has much to tell us about holding to Christian doctrines with intellectual integrity.
Her first contact with Catholicism occurred after a bout of ill health following a year of factory work, which she had undertaken voluntarily to understand better the nature of affliction. She was taken by her parents to recuperate in Portugal, and there she witnessed a religious procession in a very poor fishing village. The heartrending sadness of the hymns filled her with the conviction “that Christianity is preeminently the religion of slaves,” suitable only for those who are wretched (the theme of distress).
Sometime later, while visiting the church in Assisi where St. Francis often prayed, she was overwhelmed by its incomparable purity and later wrote that “something stronger than I compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees.” Through this experience, Weil found for the first time that such compulsion could be elevating rather than degrading, unlike her experience of factory work (the theme of aspiration).
Finally, at the abbey church of Solesmes, while attending services during Holy Week, she simultaneously experienced the burden of a splitting headache and a pure and perfect joy in the beauty of the chanting and the words of the service: “It goes without saying that in the course of these services the thought of the Passion of Christ entered into my being once and for all.” (Here distress and aspiration come together.)
These experiences gave her a view of Christianity as a religion primarily for those who are wretched. The believer finds a force in Christianity that is elevating, but elevation comes in the midst of suffering. Weil was particularly struck by George Herbert’s poems, especially the poem from The Temple entitled “Love (III),” and used to recite it when she was suffering from violent headaches. This led to her experience of what in spiritual theology is called a divine visitation:
Often at the culminating point of a violent headache, I make myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines. I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that, as I told you, Christ himself came down and took possession of me.
“In all my arguments about the insolubility of the problem of God,” Weil wrote of this experience later, “I had never foreseen the possibility of that, of a real contact, person to person, here below, between a human being and God.”
Mystery & Intellectual Light
However, Weil then goes on to make a distinction that is of crucial importance:
Yet I still half refused, not my love but my intelligence. For it seemed to me certain, and I still think so today, that one can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth.
In other words, Weil does not regard her mystical experience as sufficient in itself to establish the reality of God or the truth of Christian doctrines. Thus she does not follow the common route found in the philosophy of religion, which focuses exclusively on the religious experience itself to see if it is sufficient to establish either the reality of God or the truth of Christian doctrines. Nor does she claim that mystical experience is the source or the replacement for Christian doctrines, as mystics are commonly thought to claim.
Rather than relying on her religious experience as conclusive proof for the existence of God, Weil engages in intellectual work to fully convince her mind of the reality of God. Her method is to use the intersection of wretchedness and love as a key to understanding Christian doctrines; in turn, these doctrines are used to illuminate such things as self-regard, personal relations, society, the natural world, suffering, war, work, and beauty.
Hence it was not her mystical experience as such that convinced Weil, but the light it was able to shed on Christian doctrines and, subsequently, the light these doctrines shed elsewhere:
If I light an electric torch at night, I don’t judge its power by looking at the bulb, but by seeing how many objects it lights up. . . . The brightness of a source of light is appreciated by the illumination it projects upon non-luminous objects. . . . The value of a religious or, more generally, a spiritual way of life is appreciated by the amount of illumination thrown upon the things of this world.
The Christian doctrines of Creation, Incarnation, and Trinity, as well as the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist, are “mysteries” that lie beyond the mind’s power to comprehend fully. Nonetheless we can love these mysteries, and because they cast light on the things of this world, they increase our understanding of God, our world, and ourselves. These mysteries illuminate those places that are otherwise dark and disconnected.
Weil also explains how we may have direct contact with God that is not, as in her own case, a mystical experience. Even though God alone can reveal God’s reality, it does lie within our power to be aware that we are hungry for a final and ultimate good and to know that all that we love falls short of it. If we continue to hunger, God the Holy Spirit, in God’s own good time, begins to nourish us with a gracious presence.
Truth & Loving Presence
To come to faith in God, contact with God does not need to be as dramatic as Tolstoy’s or as spectacular as Weil’s. To be moved by Jesus’ teachings and life is to have been touched by the love of God. Even a single incident in Jesus’ life or one of his teachings may awaken a love that opens a path, which if pursued with persistence, leads to full conviction.
We do not have to accept either Tolstoy’s or Weil’s reasoning to see that their experiences initiated and motivated their efforts to bring heart and head together. They would not have made the effort were their hearts not deeply and profoundly moved. Each of them illustrates Plato’s claim that we so passionately care about what is ultimately true because we have been moved by love.
In Simone Weil I have stressed the role of understanding in the mind’s coming to a sense of firm conviction of the truth of the Christian vision. It is important that Christianity casts light in many areas of life and thereby makes intellectual sense so that emotions are not the only basis for being a Christian.
But if such understanding is all that Christianity has to offer, and not an actual reception of elevation, then it is merely an intellectual option, one option among many. To know the Christian answers to the big questions of life does not mean that we know God. We cannot grasp God just by knowing the right words.
Christianity’s appeal to the understanding has to be balanced by responding or reaching out to God in prayer. We only learn to have contact with God in our daily life with repeated effort, for we are dealing with a truth that is alive. However natural it is to seek to enlarge our understanding of God through our mind, Christianity is not merely an intellectual option. It also directs itself to our distress and our hunger for justice and goodness. Only then can we know God’s presence in our lives.
Diogenes Allen, Ph.D., is Stuart Professor of Philosophy at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books on the spiritual life, including Quest: The Search for Meaning Through Christ (Church Publishing Inc., 2000), from which parts of this article were adapted. A substantial portion of this article is an abridgment of an address given by the author in June 2000 at the Design & Its Critics Conference, Concordia University, Mequon, Wisconsin, sponsored by the Cranach Institute and Touchstone.