What is Faith?
The question I’d like to explore with you today is ‘what is faith?’ Well, Richard Dawkins, the miltant atheist thinks that faith means believing something in spite of the lack of evidence – or even because of the lack of evidence and in the light of our reading from the Book of Hebrews today [Hebrews 11:1-3] you can kind of see why. That said ‘faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’. Or as another translation puts it, faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Now I guess you could say that if it is somehow virtuous to believe something you can’t prove, then the more unbelievable what you believe is, the more virtuous you are for believing it? That would certainly explain why some people believe such preposterous things. Now I could give you thousands of examples of bizarre beliefs but here’s just two:
A worryingly large number of people believe that the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001 were perpetrated not by Al Quaeda as per the official version but by the US Government themselves; to give them an excuse to invade Iraq. Lots of Muslims believe that but so do lots of other Americans and one of the main claims of the ‘911 truthers’ as they call themselves is that if you look at the footage of the twin towers collapsing, they fall in exactly the same way that buildings do in a controlled demolition. So the idea is that the CIA (or Mossad because, of course, The Jews are often at the root of a conspiracy theory) the CIA or Mossad or whoever had rigged the twin towers with explosives prior to the planes flying into them and that’s why they completely collapsed which they wouldn’t have done otherwise…
Well, as the comedian Bill Maher says ‘How big a lunatic do you have to be to watch two jet airliners filled with jet fuel slam into buildings on live TV, triggering a massive inferno that burned for two hours and then think ‘Well, if you believe that’s the cause…’
So that’s the 911 truth movement but the most extreme conspiracy theorist at large today is the former Coventry City goalkeeper and Grandstand presenter, David Icke. Now some of you will remember his infamous appearance on Wogan in 1991 during which he announced that he was the son of God and predicted a series of earthquakes which (unsurprisingly) never happened. What you might not know is that he now tours the world promoting his theory that the world is run by a race of blood-drinking, shape-shifting reptiles from outer space who include within their number our queen Elizabeth, former president George W Bush and somewhat bizarrely the country and Western singer Boxcar Willie. Well, I say somewhat bizarrely; as if that’s the bizarre bit….
But the fact is David Icke regularly plays to packed houses, his 16 books have all sold thousands of copies and his website gets half a million hits a week. So, lots of people believe what he’s saying and to them or to atheists like Richard Dawkins, what we believe probably seems just as weird. But do we believe what we believe in spite of the evidence? Well, obviously I don’t think so.
If you look at the first Christian sermon ever preached, by Saint Peter on the day of Pentecost, you will see that, like a barrister, he presents a case in which he appeals to precedent, to what God said and did in the past, to show that his claims as a Christian are compatible with what his fellow Jews agreed upon as fact. He also appealed to current events, to things which his audience had seen with their own eyes. So, in the book of Acts he says: Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.
Now someone like Richard Dawkins could (and certainly would) question whether God really did do any of the things that Peter suggested he did, either in the past history of Israel or in the first-century present; but clearly Peter didn’t expect anyone to simply take his word for it. He appealed to their reason, cited evidence and, as I said, presented a case. And that has been the practice of the church throughout history. Theologians have consistently presented arguments for why belief in God is both rational and reasonable. Now, again, people may not buy those arguments but they can’t deny they exist even if they don’t think they prove that God does. And, of course, they don’t prove anything. Dawkins may be wrong that people believe in God without any evidence but of course those of us who believe do have to do so without proof.
I likened Saint Peter to a barrister a moment ago and I think that the court-room provides a good analogy for faith in general: the members of a jury are asked to reach a verdict based on the evidence available to them. They can’t know for certain whether a person is guilty or not so, ultimately, each juror makes a decision which is to some extent, a leap of faith.
Now, of course, in some court cases, guilt or innocence can be established beyond reasonable doubt. I can’t think of any real life examples but in one episode of Blackadder goes forth (the one set during the first world war) there’s ‘the case of the bloody knife’. Obviously I can’t do justice to Rowan Atkinson’s delivery but this is how he summarized it: a man was found next to a murdered body, he had the knife in his hand, thirteen witnesses had seen him stab the victim and when the police arrived he said, ‘I'm glad I killed him’. Of course the joke was that the man’s lawyer, Bob Mattingburg not only got him off, but got him knighted in the New Year's Honors list and the relatives of the victim had to pay to have the blood washed out of his jacket.
But not all cases are of the open and shut variety and, as I said, a verdict is ultimately a statement of belief not fact. Hopefully, on most occasions, the jurors get it right but of course sometimes they don’t.
Now I would like to suggest that, contrary to what Dawkins might say, the leap of faith required to become a Christian is not actually that different from the sort made in the jury room. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know anyone who has converted to Christianity who did so for no reason. It’s not like you can just go up to people on the street and say ‘Would you like to become a Christian?’ and they say ‘Ok. By the way, what’s it all about?’ If you think of something like the Alpha course, that’s a systematic presentation of the case for Christianity which appeals to evidence, reason and testimony and culminates in an invitation to make a decision ‘for or against’ in response to what you’ve heard. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nicky Gumbel the vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton who developed the alpha course was originally a barrister…
Meanwhile, even people who have simply grown up in the church must presumably have made a decision to stay in at some point. Teenagers or young adults who stop believing in God generally stop going to church. But they often come back. I did! So to a greater or lesser extent, people who go to church regularly have weighed up the evidence for and against the existence of God and decided that the balance of probability is in his favour. So it’s simply not true to say that faith is believing in spite of or even because of the lack of evidence.
At the same time we are dealing in probability not certainty. We don’t know that God exists, we believe it; but when we do, when we take that step of faith, we often find that He takes a step towards us, we experience his presence, we see his hand at work in our lives which strengthens our faith and makes it easier to keep trusting Him in the future.
Now I’ve been fortunate enough to have had many such experiences of God and whenever I do I think ‘Wow! Now I know that God exists and I will never doubt again’… but a few weeks or months later I might still think ‘Well, was that just a coincidence. How can I be sure?’ And the fact is I can’t. Because it’s about faith not certainty - much as I and possibly many of you would like it to be otherwise…
So, I’m going to end with a short passage from one of my heroes, CS Lewis. He said: The operation of Faith is to retain, so far as the will and the intellect are concerned, what is irresistible and obvious during the moments of special grace [the kind of moments I was just describing]. By faith we believe always what we hope hereafter to see always and perfectly and have already seen imperfectly and in flashes.
May God give all of us that kind of faith, today and always…