A few years ago, The Washington Post ran an interview with evangelical mega-church pastor Rick Warren where Warren was asked the following question: “How come some people ‘get’ to believe and others do not? ” Why does God “allow” some, like Rick Warren, to believe but not others? After all, many people would really like to believe—perhaps they would like the comfort provided by religion but for whatever reason just can’t bring themselves to do so. What if we just can’t believe?
In response, Warren says a few things about how the Bible promises that who seek God will find him, but he doesn’t challenge the root assumption of the question: God’s primary interest is that we set aside our rational objections and “believe in him.”
I think that most people who are honest about their belief or disbelief in God would admit that they are pulled in both directions at different points in their lives (or even at different points of the day!). There are times when God’s existence seems self-evident and there are times when it seems utterly impossible. Frederick Buechner has memorably stated that “there is doubt hard on the heels of every faith, fear hard on the heels of every hope”; I would say that the opposite is also true—that the persistence of hope hounds even the most hardened skeptic. Belief and unbelief are both plausible ways of “reading” the ambiguous world we live in.
So what do we do? Just passively accept whichever way we happen to be inclined and not give the matter another thought? Try to “force” ourselves to believe or attempt to perform the necessary exercises to convince God to gift us with this ability? Or might we perhaps use the ambiguity which makes the matter so difficult to consider a different understanding of what God might be after.
What if God’s primary interest wasn’t in getting us to “believe” certain facts about the cosmos? What if he was willing to take whatever faith we could muster and use it in the promotion of his intentions for the world? What if God has created the world in such a way that living authentically human lives involves things like trust, commitment, uncertainty, and risk; what if part of what God is after is a recognition of our dependent and creaturely status and a willingness to accept and live within the parameters (cognitive and otherwise) that this entails?
The seventeenth century mathematician/philosopher Blaise Pascal is mostly known for his famous “wager” where he tells the skeptic, in a sense, that he ought to “bet “on the existence of God because the potential gains far outweigh the potential losses of choosing incorrectly. In the same passage from Pensées that contains “the wager,” Pascal addresses a variation of the question posed to Rick Warren above: “What if I just can’t believe?” Pascal’s answer (very loosely paraphrased) goes like this: live as if it were true and see what happens. Rather than thinking yourself into belief, try living yourself into it? If loving (or even believing in) God is difficult at the moment, start with loving your neighbour.
I don’t think that the ultimate standard by which God will judge us is the degree of certainty about his existence that we manage to conjure up before we die. I cannot imagine God asking, on judgment day, “did you manage to preserve your belief in me, despite living in a world where my existence wasn’t always obvious?” I can imagine him asking: “Did you act according to what light you were given? Did you seek me with your entire being? Did you refuse to let pride and fear overcome hope in the possibility of a future of justice and peace? Did you nourish and make the most of what faith you had or complain that it wasn’t stronger?”
Whatever might be said about these questions, they at least seem to avoid the implication that human beings are little more than proposition affirmers/deniers. At the end of the day, nobody really benefits from a bunch of people “believing” in God if “belief” is understood as something like “cognitive acceptance of the existence of a supernatural being.” It’s hard to imagine how God benefits from a bunch of people nodding their heads when asked “do you believe in God?” just as it’s hard to imagine how it changes much for human beings.
But if God has intentions for the world that go beyond individual human brains and what they find rationally plausible, and if the realization of these intentions depends, in part, on what we do not just what we think, then maybe we ought to expect a deep and indissoluble connection between beliefs and behaviour. Perhaps if we busy ourselves with doing what we’re reasonably sure God wants us to do, the “belief” in him that we struggle to maintain or discover may be closer than we think.