Belief in God: A House of Cards?

Note: This posting continues my discussion on the pervasive experience of doubt in the Christian’s spiritual journey that began in my last two postings.  You may want to read them first for context.

Bible text: Psalm 27:7-9

            Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud,

                        be gracious to me and answer me!

            “Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”

                        Your face, LORD, do I seek.

                        Do not hide your face from me.

Another thing I want to say about intellectual doubt (see my last posting) is that our doubts are often premised on the assumption that intellectual rationality is the only criterion for the truth. If something does not convince us by rational intellectual persuasion, then it cannot be true.

As I grow older and reflect on my experience in life, I find myself challenging this assumption. Intellectual rationality, I am coming to believe, is not the only and sole criterion for what is true. Life is more complex that intellectual reason alone can grasp.

For example, I have begun to believe there is something that I might call emotional rationality, if that phrase is not an oxymoron. Something may not make sense to our mind, but it may make convincing sense to our heart. We are foolish to discount it because it is emotional rather than intellectual in character.

Instead of emotional rationality, it might be more accurate to say intuitional rationality. Something within us seems to perceive something as true even though we have used no intellectual processes to get to it. Or maybe it works another way. Rather something without us has made itself known to us by its own initiative, not by ours working through the tools of human reason.

I think this is very important is dealing with the question many doubters ask: Does God exist? Philosophers and theologians have devised many philosophical proofs for the existence of God, but those proofs have not banished atheism as a viable philosophical stance.

In fact, I have come to believe there is no ultimately conclusive rational proof that God exists beyond a shadow of a doubt, nor any proof that God does not exist. There is no such thing as intellectual certainty in answering the question.

Instead the compelling reason for believing God exists may prove to be an intuitional one, a reason in some way grounded in religious experience. We believe God exists because in some way that God has made God’s own self known to us.

At least that is how it has happened for me. I grew up in an intensely religious family. My father was a Baptist minister. But throughout my youth and early adulthood, I was troubled by doubts about the reality of God. Was what my religious education had taught me just a verbal house of cards in the end, or was there some divine reality that those words pointed to?

Intellectual study of theology did not resolve the doubts. I’m convinced today that it can never do so. Still I am a believer in God, so much so that I serve as a pastor. What turned things around for me?

One night about 25 years ago, I sat down to pray. But instead of my normal pious prayers, I simply said to God, “God, I’m tired of trying to get in touch with you. I’ve done everything I can, but nothing seems to work. From now on, I’m just going to sit here in silence. If you are real, you are going to have to get through to me rather than the other way around.” And so when before I would have sat down to pray, I just sat in silence, saying and doing nothing.

Well, I had no mystical experiences that night or over the coming months. But what did happen was that gradually, ever so gradually, a convincing sense of God’s reality and his presence with me seemed to grow within me. It has remained with me every since.

Intellectual argument had nothing to do with that conviction. I am not sure I would even call it a religious experience, certainly not an emotional one. It was not exactly emotional. It has the character of mystery. But something very real—or rather someone very real—seemed to win over my confidence anyway. I was coming to know someone who was making his/her presence real to me.

In some mysterious way, it was an experience of coming to know the holy, as Rudolf Otto described it some 100 years ago in his book The Idea of the Holy. A mysterium tremendum et fascinans (a fearsome and fascinating mystery) was making itself known to me. The psalmist was describing something of the same reality when in Psalm 27 he hears his heart saying, “Come, seek his [God’s] face.”

I am very aware of how troubling this may be to someone who is confident that a rigorous intellectual rationality is our only protection against sliding into superstition and emotional prejudice. I am indeed aware of how easy it is easy to equate intuitional knowing with culturally based assumptions and conventional conditioning. (I was after all raised in a religious environment.) We need the tools of rational debate to test what we may feel we know by intuition or emotional experience.

But I am also convinced that the search for rational certainty is a foolish search, whether it is Christians doing it or secular scientists. Human beings are never given the gift of certainty.

That is why the saving virtue of the Christian life is trust, not certainty. We hear the gospel preached. We hear its message that God loves us. And we hear its challenge to seek God’s kingdom and its justice above all things, with its promise that whatever happens to us in our life of discipleship, God will be with us always.

Can I prove that message to be true beyond any ability of doubt to assail us? No. All I can do is what the apostles did–call you and me to test this good news by living it. As we do, we have the testimony of faithful Christians through the centuries that indeed Christ’s promise proves true: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” (Matthew 28:20).

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