The Suspense of Faith

An Honest Question

In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, there’s a telling scene in which a young Russian mother approaches her priest in pain and confusion. She cries out, “’‘How, how am I to restore my faith? Though actually, I only had it when I was a little girl, it was something automatic, something I didn’t even need to think about … How, how can it be proven, how can one be convinced it is true?’” [1] One cannot help but hear weakness in her voice and see tears welling up in her eyes. The surfacing of these questions reveals an aching suspension between childhood belief and the future of her adult religion. In her plea she embodies the general sentiment of Mathew Arnold’s Dover Beach:

“The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy
long, withdrawing roar”. [2]

Where once was heard the voice of God crashing on the beach, there is now only silence; the ebb of faith no longer reaches the shore.

Bertrand Russell, the great 19th century British mathematician and atheist, once stood on a similar beach. “More evidence!” was his hypothetical objection when asked his response if found confronted by God after death. [3]Religious belief for him was simply unreasonable; his equations excluded religion. Two-hundred years later his conclusion is shared by many who easily dismiss the existence of the divine. Expressed in restless questions or calculated answers, many throughout the centuries observe insufficient data to believe in God. Without immediate sight of Him, pursuing knowledge of the divine is like climbing a staircase into total darkness. Hands stretched out, desperately grasping for the broad of a door, the tension of faith is felt with every step.

But the doubt expressed by Arnold and Russell is not limited to those who decide finally to reject god.  All manner of Christians painfully and routinely doubt the subject of their faith, questioning matters of divine sovereignty to sheer existence. Whether the immediate source of doubt is a particular suffering or spiritual numbness, followers of Jesus today often repeat the words of the Israelite King David. Writing around 1000 BCE, his poetry often laments of his own downcast soul in response to what the early church fathers would later label the Deus Absconditus—the hidden God. In Psalm 22, the great ruler vulnerably weeps:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer
by night, but I find no rest.” [4]

At each question, one can feel the tormented King’s heart brought low as he looks toward the silence of the heavens.

The book of Hebrews in the Christian New Testament defines faith as “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” [5] The disdain toward this posture from the atheist and the burden of it borne by the Christian are honest and helplessly felt. Words like confidence and assurance are often distant or fantastical. Whether kneeling alone in dorm rooms or huddled with family next to gravesites, often our cries to god are at best received with echoes.

Active faith in God is hard.

But underneath this undeniable difficulty, both Russel’s quip and Dostoevsky’s weeping mother evince a subtle but revealing dissonance. To discover this, it will be necessary to descend from strict philosophical analysis. It is only by approaching on foot, through walking in the worn down shoes of the individual, that we can feel the unsettled ground. At the end of this path, at the top of these stairs, stands the door to the restoration of faith.

An Inevitable Fall

Imagine a paratrooper who has just jumped from her plane. As the cold, thin air whips against her face, she receives little comfort merely from knowing that there are good reasons for her parachute to work. Ensconced in blurry clouds and drowning in empty space, she must actually depend on the parachute to save her. The final act of pulling the cord is a reasonable decision, but an act of faith nonetheless—she has no immediate sight of the final outcome. She doubts. Perhaps the act will result in a painful jerk, injuring her and preventing a smooth landing. Looking to her left and right, she notices that no other paratroopers have pulled their cords yet; they are not even considering it. At the back of her mind she questions whether she is even in free fall; the ground is out of sight, perhaps she jumped into a dream. Nevertheless, she is not a paratrooper until she performs this act, until then she is a fatality.

Importantly, the pull is a personal one. It is an action originating from the will and marking itself in decisiveness, testifying to her belief that this action could save her life. No one can make this decision for her. As such, pressing down on the tension between faith and reason is not an abstract mode of knowing, it is the action of an individual—the vulnerable and often ill-equipped object of analysis, located at the margin of decision and understanding, and precariously placed at the center of you. In the chaos of daily living, the cord must be pulled. This is because, like the paratrooper, at birth we all step off from different planes into epistemological free fall—on what basis can we justify our beliefs? We have many possible parachutes on our persons to choose from, all presenting their unique case for reasonable salvation—and if not salvation from death, then salvation from a meaningless and unfulfilling life.

Cultural, temporal, and geographic variation make some cords closer to reach and easier to pull. For instance, the closest cord for many of us at Hopkins is strung not to God but to the parachute of success. And for most students, of course, success is measured by their performance in school. Failure in school is failure in life. To be fair, this notion is not groundless. Receiving good grades often makes us proud, smart individuals usually have more money, and more education puts us into more powerful positions. And yet successful individuals who put faith in their vocation can still end up miserable. Uncertainty persists. Testifying to this misfortune, at the early height of his career in 2005, NFL superstar Tom Brady admitted in an interview: “Why do I have 3 super bowl rings and still think there’s something greater out there for me. Maybe a lot of people would say hey man this is what it is, I’ve reached my goal, my dream, my life. Me, I think God, there’s gotta be more than this.” [6] If the Tom Brady’s success does not ultimately satisfy him, why should we expect good test scores to be any different? But as often as we claim to write our identity without our letter grades, most students fall into Hopkins with this cord coiled around their hand—like a vice—cutting off all sensation that it is actually there.

In college our other hand is often bound to the mild hedonism of the weekend. When the stress of our studies become too much, many look to the sensation of Friday nights to be a sustainable source of contentment—a recovery of one’s identity perhaps. Fatigued by the grind of our academics, relief from work in this fashion is not inherently bad, but when it becomes a necessary medication there is undoubtedly a disease. Unfortunately its symptoms are latent as they wait to surface until Saturday morning when we wake up and experience severe instances of depression and loneliness, testifying to the fact that this lifestyle was never a sustainable source of contentment after all. But who knows if it will work next week? By Monday afternoon it is often the only medication in sight.

This pattern exists in every decision we make. Our knowledge is neither sufficient nor exhaustive to save us, to pull the right cord. From decisions we make about our professional careers to the way we treat our friends, our behaviors are predicated not on absolute known truth, but by a series of uncertain heuristics or wishful thinking. We live 90% of our life by either what feels best or what we have been told, not by the computation of our intellect. Coming to Hopkins for many may have been motivated by pride, studying is often done out of fear, and going to church, or not, is simply tradition. This behavior is not new. In the Critique of Pure Reason Immanuel Kant writes, “Human reason, in one sphere of its cognition, is called upon to consider questions, which it cannot decline, as they are presented by its own nature, but which it cannot answer, as they transcend every faculty of the mind.” [7] Much of the natural world may be explainable by Russell’s mathematics, but with our inadequate resources we must live in it at least in part by faith. We are all religious.

However, when the context is our complete world view, faithful living is personally challenging and existentially daunting. The pattern has not changed, but the complexity and consequences certainly have. The air is a bit colder and the pressure of one’s acceleration muddles the mind. As we are all born into free fall, we are all also born into an atmosphere dense with external and internal information. Libraries filled with competing philosophical arguments and streets lined with mutually exclusive religious institutions compounded by waring political ideologies and confusing emotional experiences all leave us in a precarious place to discover transcendent truth by ourselves. The weather here is volatile.

Tossed about in this condition, Blaise Pascal confessed, “Nature presents to me nothing which is not a matter of doubt and concern …seeing too much to deny and too little to be sure, I am in a state to be pitied.” [8] Struggling, victimized and tired, when we first recognize the full reality of the intellectual and cultural diversity of Hopkins, we are forced to humbly ask, much like Dostoevsky’s weeping mother, What do the beliefs of my childhood mean? How much of myself is the product of this particular sliver of history? Apathy or agnosticism quickly follows—and understandably so. To individually measure every political, social, and religious opinion and compute a world view that is fully coherent is impossible and wearisome. Nonetheless, we, as individuals, are forced to compute every moment of every day. It is our world view, our calculation, which cannot help but to be lived. Gravity is constant.

A Personal Catch

The 19th century Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard confidently engaged this epistemological storm. Writing to the apathetic and failing Danish protestant church, his prescription to the epistemological freefall was individually embodied truth. As a man tormented by depression, the central mission of Kierkegaard’s life was “to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.” [9] Kierkegaard appropriately acknowledged that the personal stakes of this pursuit are inevitably high. To discover and live by truth has consequences nothing short of eternal destiny. Because of this, he distanced himself from cold and uncertain rationalism and descended into personal inwardness: “For objective reflection, truth becomes an object, and the point is to disregard the knowing subject (the individual). By contrast, in subjective reflection truth becomes personal appropriation, a life, inwardness, and the point is to immerse oneself in this subjectivity.” 10 It is in this immersion that one begins to hear waves crash on Dover Beach.

To Kierkegaard, this plunge cannot be partial. In fact, his writings consistently position persons in constant experiential servitude to truth. In the context of Christianity he writes, “Venture once to make yourself completely vulnerable for the sake of truth, and you will certainly experience the truth of Christ’s word” [10] —an echo of John 7:17, “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.” [11] Both epistemological frameworks are grounded in individual decisiveness, a process that is necessarily one of living sacrifice—the constant corroding away of one’s time and emotion for the sake of something greater. In Kierkegaard’s own words, “Faith is set to a test, is tested, not by reasons, but by life.” [10] Because of this, the pursuit of subjective truth in an objective world cannot exist solely in the mind. A worldview must steer, through sacrifice, the will, directing itself through action. Thus, discovering a fully true worldview, and eliminating doubt, is not sufficiently a series of thoughts, it is individual and committed decisiveness—a posture that does not exist in the head of a person with reason but rather leans into the complex storm of life with one’s entire being. A partial transformation produces someone who St. Paul describes as “being tossed about by every wind of doctrine,” [12] or more concisely, rudderless. To claim to live under a system of truth that exists outside your own creation is dishonest if it is not done completely. If the atheist, the Buddhist, or even the Democrat and Republican, allow the influences of their varied surroundings to significantly affect their behavior, they are subjects not to the system of beliefs embodied in these labels, but their own personal feelings—if left unchecked, a dangerous slant toward solipsism.

A Loving Landing

Christianity, regardless of one’s doubt, is then an individual and complete following of Jesus Christ, a person who claimed to be the divine embodiment of truth itself. Aligned with the demands of Kierkegaard, for Christians there is a necessary reshaping of one’s behavior to be in line with all of how Jesus challenged us to live. In every aspect of life Christians should serve their friends like He commanded, love their enemies like He demonstrated, and preach of His Kingdom like He commissioned. Followers of His teachings should have confidence that His words, regardless of their countercultural implications, or the pain they bring, are worth a complete embrace. Nothing may remain untouched by this belief. In the words of Jacques Ellul, “Faith is a terribly caustic substance, a burning acid. It puts to the test every element of my life and society; it spares nothing.” [13]

But there is much more. This acid burns hottest in the heart. The Christian faith makes a final move that distances it from all other worldviews. Not only does Jesus ask us to follow His teachings, He calls for all people to be in deep relationship with Him; this action is described in scripture most often as adoption. The arc of a Christian’s life is in fact that of an orphan being purchased by his original father after separation at birth. Because of this, more than simply followers of a moral code, Christians claim to be individually and personally loved by and in love with God. Wrapped in cosmic arms and relieved of existential burdens, Christians proclaim membership in a heavenly family. This relationship, if true, must be one of overflowing adoration. Love for Jesus Christ should be the most important thing in life.

It is this affection that further frustrates the likes of Russel. Not only do Christians claim to know of a God they cannot see, but they assert personal intimacy with Him. For many, religious or not, a mountain of abstraction necessitates doubting the substance of this bond. Faith in parachutes, vocation, and even pleasure is tangible and present, but the faith it takes to believe that God, a being who has absolute control over the universe, wants you to be His son or daughter seems at best abstract and distant, at worst offensive. What will come as a surprise to some, Christians are not immune to this incomprehension. For experienced followers of Jesus this story can still seem too good to be true. Amidst the suffering of the world and endemic spiritual numbness it is difficult to sense there is both someone in control and that He loves you personally. If all you know is descent through stormy atmospheres, to love clear skies is challenging if not supernatural.

A Cracked Belief

But are not all paths of inwardness, irrespective of abstractedness, filled with challenge? As we all helplessly endure our epistemological plummet, we are bound to experience difficulty, no matter what parachute we think will catch us. We are in a storm that cannot be denied. In our condition the ideals that Kierkegaard commands, regardless of religious or secular intent, can never be met. All of us constantly crack under the worldviews we wish to uphold. A young mother that lives to defend the political left secretly abhors her sister’s choice to abort her unborn child while a conservative minister deeply empathizes with the gay marriage of his nephew; a stressed out Muslim graduate student reaches for cheap alcohol after a failed day in the lab while an atheist professor in her old age privately searches for the possibility of life after death. In the words of the famous intellectual historian Ernst Cassirer:

“Wherever we encounter man, we find him not as a complete and harmonious being but as a being divided against himself and burdened with the most profound contradictions…His consciousness always places before him a goal he can never reach, and his existence is torn between his incessant striving beyond himself and his constant relapses beneath himself.” [14]

Look around campus. Nobody fully lives out the worldview of the clubs they attend, the quotes they tweet, or even the articles they write. In our persistent inconsistencies, tossed about alongside Pascal, we will often grasp for the closest cord of relief, regardless of the truth it is stringed to or the painful jerk that ensues. In our minds we may strive for consistency but we are creatures of confusion. While we are all religious, we are also all hypocrites.

Russel and his colleagues will be the first to say the personal bond between Christ and His followers is not absolved of this hypocrisy. But isn’t there duplicity even in our mundane relationships? We’ve all experienced periods of relationship in which incoming data is complex if not discordant and we find ourselves not loving and not feeling loved. Busy schedules distance us and gossip is divisive. Missed calls, unfair demands, and unresolved pasts cumulatively prompt us to doubt the subject of our love, a breeding ground for inconsistent affection. The same is true for the Christian and his beloved Christ. Ex-girlfriends, ex-wives, and ex-gods all war over a man’s heart.

For Christians the inconsistency is undeniable. There is often such a dissonance between the claims of Christianity and the actions of its believers that words like hypocrisy are soft. American Christians of the 21st century are not too different from their Danish brethren two centuries ago. Externally, Christians claim to be in love with the transcendent God of the universe and yet we are constantly chasing transient substitutes: power, sex, and money, to name a few. We claim that to know the significance of the cross means the eternal salvation of the soul, but we are hesitant to present this good news to our closest friends. Throughout the Gospels we are taught to give freely and joyfully to the poor, but we are criticized for under tipping needy waiters and waitresses. Internally, Christianity promises physical satisfaction beyond our earthly imagination but college men with empty hearts are still slaves to pornography. Across the aisle their girlfriends are branded daughters of God, wondrously and beautifully made, and yet their insecurity is that of a typical high schooler. There could not be a more lofty set of claims and an utter failure to live up to them. The fully consistent devotion Christianity demands from its followers at best lasts for a couple days before we crack, redressing ourselves with the tattered and comfortable clothes of our own desires. The Christian Church is filled with sinners.

A Brokenness Vindicated

But the restoration of faith ultimately comes from this pile of sin. It is buried here, and from here it must be sourced. Years after the wedding day, when moral failings and adulterous affection have forced one to throw off their ring, a marriage is only restored when the unfaithful spouse desperately attempts to heal past wrongs through repentance and active love. Faith between the two lovers returns only when across the dining room table this attempt is received with mercy and forgiveness.

In Christianity this dynamic is miraculously undermined. Think back to King David’s lament in scripture. If one believes, as Christians do, that the Bible was inspired by God, the fact that God chose to fill it with individuals doubting His presence, living hypocrisies, is puzzling. Why would He present to us what seem to be anecdotes against the validity of his existence and the tangibility of his Love? Why would a fiancé reveal all the reasons a marriage will be difficult before the wedding day? For both instances, it must be for no other reason than to confidently acknowledge that beyond the inevitable difficulty lies an abundance of joy, a marriage that flourishes. King David’s prayer exists as a testament to how God acknowledges our deeply human longing to fully reason our way to truth and our natural struggle with faith in the supernatural. He is the husband that enters into our doubt and reaches down to us in our pitiful and failing climb to Him. It is in passages such as Psalm 22 that the inconsistencies of our lives are vindicated, not condemned. In fact, the Christian God is the only subject in the universe that both demands steadfastness in our following and affectionately embraces our humanity, weaknesses included. Anticipating distrust and rejection, the Bible tells us that God still stood at the end of the wedding aisle. He still wrote His vows.

Jesus of Nazareth consummately embodies this promise. By personally descending from the throne of Heaven and becoming man, God chose to fully experience the storm of humanity, faith included. The author of Hebrews tells us that “we do not have a [God] who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are….” [15] His demonstration of this empathy is vividly depicted in the Garden of Gethsemane, in the hours before His death. Anticipating the pain to come, He desperately prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” [16] In this brief prayer we are giving incredible insight into the difficulty Jesus had with our shared Heavenly Father. One can imagine every part of Jesus’s earthly body trembling before his death, desperately yearning for another way, a different parachute. But in the coming hours the cup did not pass, and He was faithful to His Father’s will, testifying to the conclusion of the Hebrews passage, “…yet he did not sin.”

This reality gets much better. Not only did he join our fall, in his divine descent he fell much farther and endured a much more hellish storm. We are told that Jesus, The Messiah, the true King of Israel, in the moments before his last breath cried out with the words of King David now known as the Deus Absconditus, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” [17] But even in this pain and confusion, though God, and thus necessarily representing the very parachute we all needed to save us, He did not pull but rather severed His own salvation. He did not save Himself. In His climactic collision with earth on the cross, He perished as someone who never realized this descent was not a dream. However, through His miraculous resurrection three days later He triumphed over death! Scripture says it is because of this that He now stands at the conclusion of our journey to rescue us, who are still paralyzed by sin, unable to maneuver our bodies to grasp for Him, our only hope. In both His incarnate empathy and triumphant standing, Jesus embraces the doubters and the confused, the perpetual hypocrites, not the healthy but the sick. His victorious life was, and still is today, lived for those whose descent is burdened by spiritual entanglement, for those who drop hundreds of miles before recognizing His presence. Living by the standards Kierkegaard could not even uphold, scripture says Jesus lived the faithful and consistent life because we could not. The good news of Christianity is simply that. There are no cords to be pulled, only a personal fall into His loving arms.

Two thousand years ago, while walking on a beach off the Sea of Galilee, Jesus called to his followers caught in a gale, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” [18] St. Peter, with a heart full of joy, vulnerably jumped out of the boat’s safety and miraculously began walking on water toward his teacher. But even during this miracle St. Peter, who would later be declared the rock of the Christian Church, doubted and thus began to sink. In this failing, the Bible does not deny the strength of the waves or the tumult of the storm above—it displays Jesus, in all His grace, physically reaching out and suspending His son.

References
1.      Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. N.p.: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, n.d. 76-77.
2.      Arnold, Matthew, and Jonathan Middlebrook. Dover Beach. Columbus, Ohio: Merrill, 1970.
3.      Craig, William. “‘Not enough evidence, God! Not enough evidence!’.” www.bethinking.org.
4.      Psalm 13:1-2, NIV
5.      Hebrews 11:1, NIV
6.      “Tom Brady Talks To Steve Kroft.” www.cbsnews.com. CBS News , 4 Nov. 2005. Web
7.      Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Pure Reason. N.p.: n.p., 1781.
8.      Pascal, Blaise. Pensees. N.p.: Penguin Classics, 1995. Print.
9.      Cappelørn, Niels. Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks. Vol. 1. N.p.: Princeton University Press, 2007. Print.
10.  Kierkegaard, Soren. Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard. N.p.: The Plough Publishing House, 2002.
11.  John 7:17, NIV
12.  Ephesians 4:14, NIV
13.  Ellul, Jacques. Living Faith: Belief and Doubt in a Perilous World. N.p.: Wipf & Stock Pub, 2012. Print.
14.  Cassirer, Ernst. Philosophy of the Enlightenment. N.p.: Princeton University Press, 2009. Print
15.  Hebrews 4:15, NIV
16.  Mathew 26:39, NIV
17.  Mathew 26:46, NIV
18.  Mathew 14:22-23, NIV

 

Karl Johnson is a sophomore from Detroit, Michigan studying economics and chemistry. He proudly aligns himself with the senseless and happy spirits of golden retrievers more than boring ol’ humanity.

The Suspense of FaithImage: Melanie Chan, UC Berkeley To An Unknown God, Spring 2012.

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