Occasional blog and online home of Paul Wallace

  • Local Pages

  • Quote of the month

    And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around. Lucky me, lucky mud.

    -- Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle

  • Facebook

    Why I am a Christian

    Marc Chagall, White Crucifixion, 1938. This is my favorite image that reflects Jesus’ love for the world. Chagall was Jewish (note Jesus’ prayer shawl) and the background images show scenes form the Holocaust. Image source: The Art Institute of Chicago

    For those of you who are new to psnt.net, welcome. For those of you who are lurkers, you may be well aware of the fine discussions that have been going on within our comment pages. The whole atheism-negative theology thing started a week or so ago and is still going strong. I would like to add a bit more to the ongoing fun by saying something about how people come to believe in God. Or at least how I came to believe.

    First, a quote from Chris, who is skeptical about the reality of God. This was addressed to me.

    Given the lack of any… standard by which the ‘immaterial’ or the ‘supernatural’ can be judged, it is, therefore, only by *presupposing* that there is such a thing (as ‘God’, as the ‘immaterial’, as the ‘supernatural’, etc, whatever one might suppose, in practice, that these words might actually refer to) that one can claim to speak meaningfully about such a thing. Any such claim is a mere assertion, however.

    To anyone who does not share your presuppositions, you are speaking merely gobbledegook. It just happens to be a cultural artifact that, in our civilisation, theistic roots run deep; as such, the nonsensical nature of God-speak is not clearly apparent, even to most of those who do not ‘believe’ in ‘God’.

    The question, as always, has to be, if you claim to ‘know’ something, please tell the rest of us how it is that you happened to come by that knowledge.

    My answer, which will certainly be unsatisfying to Chris, is the following. I wrote this for the first post on psnt.net.

    I’m deeply skeptical about the power of reason to effect change outside of the sciences.

    At some point in my life I ceased to fear arguments, no matter how well-reasoned. Maybe it began in eleventh grade, in Fr. McCaffrey’s philosophy class. He took us through all the well-worn arguments for the existence of God: the ontological, the cosmological, the teleological. Also arguments against the existence of any God, given the wretched state of affairs down here on Earth, who could simultaneously be omniscient, omnipotent, and all-loving. I don’t remember the details. He must have presented other arguments of all kinds, but I don’t remember them either. What I do remember are his questions, which cut through all the higher philosophical claptrap and jangled our nerves. He would look directly into our eyes and ask in his soft Irish accent, Who are you? Do you believe in God? Why? Do you believe in God because your mother believes in God? Why do you believe God loves you? Why? Do you believe God loves you because your priest told you so? And so on. These were not cheap shots. He was serious. He loved us, he loved his job, and his questions were troubling. Some students wept. At which point he would offer Kleenexes. It was in Fr. McCaffrey’s class that I began to see that all true education is intensely personal.

    Good questions from a loving teacher are powerful. Better than pure reason for waking us up. When was the last time (outside of scientific work) that you let reason dictate your deep beliefs? Why do you believe what you believe? Is it because you stood aloof above the fray of competing “world views” and let reason eliminate all but the best? Like a cautious consumer? Or do you believe what you believe because you once loved someone or hated someone? Because someone once loved you or hated you?

    I am not a Christian because it “makes sense” or because someone sat down and diagrammed it for me. I am a Christian because I have been loved deeply and unconditionally by Christians. Some of them — like Fr. McCaffrey — troubled me with hard questions. But all of them loved me when I did not love them. And I have come to believe, over many years and through many struggles, intellectual and otherwise, that the God of these Christians — that is, God as incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth — is real and alive and even loves us. Despite the pain and weariness of life, despite the very real evil in the world, despite my moods and frustrations and endless head games.

    I did not presuppose God or God’s love, believe me. These, especially the latter, are among the least intuitive realities imaginable.

    I grew up in a church and in a tradition that I have come to re-embrace, and it is always easy for others to suggest that I have simply reverted to the theism of my youth and the “theism of the civilization” (?) out of insecurity (Chris did not say this, granted, but IMO it was there as subtext). But that kind of psychoanalysis removes any possible meaning from what any of us says, because it would be highly disingenuous to claim that skeptics and freethinkers are not part of a long tradition themselves, yet I would never claim that they are just unwittingly clinging to that tradition. We must take each other’s words seriously without deconstruction or psychoanalysis.

    Reason is a wonderful tool, but it is weak force for deep change in human beings. Faith, hope, and love are not tools; they are virtues, powerful and exceedingly difficult to embody, and much more efficacious than reason for changing lives.

    Comment Pages

    There are 3 Comments to "Why I am a Christian"

    • Tom Harkins says:

      Paul, I like this closing statement of yours: “Reason is a wonderful tool, but it is [a] weak force for deep change in human beings. Faith, hope, and love are not tools; they are virtues, powerful and exceedingly difficult to embody, and much more efficacious than reason for changing lives.” Paul (Apostle) says, in the same chapter with “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love,” “Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.” I agree that when I “came back” to believing, it was primarily based on the love of my parents (and others) and their “joy,” as opposed to any intellectual argument.

      The primary “caveat” I would suggest, though, and perhaps you may be saying this anyway, is that reason does also play a significant role in the Christian experience. Jesus says, “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” He says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man comes to the Father, except through me.” He frequently says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, . . ..” Thus, even love is “without an anchor” if we don’t know what actions love should take in given situations. We may say, “For the good of the person as to whom we are acting,” but that’s just the catch: What IS the “good” for that person? To answer that question, we must know “the truth.” Thus, though it was love that “brought me back home,” the “home” that it brought me back to involved a certain set of beliefs and consequent actions–not just some “nebulous” ocean in which one may sink without the knowledge of where the shore is that one is swimming towards.

      This is where the “substantive content” of the Christian faith becomes so critical. We love, because love is of God, John says, but Christ says, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” He also says, “Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father.” He also says, “And what is the will of my Father–to believe in him who he has sent.” Not that this is exclusive of other things that God requires, obviously, from other passages, but this is the ultimate. In other words, it is ultimately necessary to embrace Jesus as God’s Son sent to earth (the Incarnation) to enter into the “kingdom of heaven,” a kingdom where love is the prevailing emotion and motive for behavior, but a kingdom nonetheless “exclusively” reserved for “believers.”

      A verse probably all readers know: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him shall have everlasting life.” That’s it in a nutshell–love PLUS substantive content. And how someone is persuaded as to the “substantive content” may well involve the use of reasoned argument, though unlikely by itself to “flip the switch” without love being manifested.

      Tom Harkins 12/27/2010


    • jackd says:

      Thanks as always for the post, Paul. I can’t really respond to your explanation (if indeed a response is appropriate other than appreciation for what you share with us), but I feel I must make one comment.

      it would be highly disingenuous to claim that skeptics and freethinkers are not part of a long tradition themselves, yet I would never claim that they are just unwittingly clinging to that tradition.

      Perhaps I’m misunderstanding your point, for it doesn’t make sense to me to suggest that both returning to the faith of one’s youth and leaving religion altogether are both “clinging to [] tradition”. Even if turning to skepticism and freethinking can be characterized as moving to a different tradition, it’s a tradition of an entirely different character than any religion I’ve ever heard of.

      Note that I don’t necessarily think your original point is refuted, exactly. You show every evidence of having thought long and hard about the nature of your religious commitment as you’ve returned to your faith and I see no reason to minimize that.


      • Paul Paul says:

        Hi Jack,

        As ever, you have made a great point. Abandoning one’s faith and becoming an atheist is indeed not the same as returning to the faith of one’s upbringing. The dynamics are just not the same. I get that.

        I guess there are two things I’m really trying to say in this post. First, my main point is that, no matter what one believes, it is always easy to explain away the belief in order to not have to deal with its reality. Whether or not I am correct, this is what I sensed Chris was doing with me.

        For example, I could say of the ex-Christian atheist that he is avoiding his true self — the self that was raised in a Christian home and longs to return to it but refuses. That is, perhaps he separates from Christianity for reasons that have nothing to do with Christianity. So the religion of one’s youth is abandoned because it brings with it too much emotional baggage. Or whatever.

        The second point is about the Enlightenment tradition itself. Our culture, as “religious” as it is, is steeped in Enlightenment thinking. Three hundred years later, the culture still swims in assumptions and beliefs shaped largely by the advent and success of modern science. (See, for example, the way that most people equate truth with factuality; if it is not literally true, then it can’t be “really” true. Also see my recent post on science envy.) So I could also say that atheists are doing nothing more than letting that mindset run its course.

        I’m not sure that freethought is that different from religion. It does not have some of the marks one generally associates with religion, but I’m still not convinced (no God in Buddhism, after all, but I still think of it as a religion). It is a basic worldview that cannot be proven, it must be lived in order to be understood, it relies on a certain mode of thought that is quite tightly constrained, it informs one’s ethics, one’s personal life, one’s understanding of his place in the cosmos. And, above all, it is a tradition, a nice long tradition that one joins, whether or not one knows it, when one leaves religion behind. I’m not trying to minimize it — to do that would be to minimize my own tradition — I’m just pointing out that leaving religion is hardly the radical move that many suppose it to be.

        What I’m saying is like the author of Ecclesiastes, who insisted — correctly, IMO — that there’s nothing new under the Sun.

        To wrap this up, I’d like very much to hear your thoughts about the difference between freethought and religion. It’s not something I’ve thought about at all, and my comments above are very much off-hand. Worthy of thought.

        Happy New Year to you and Barb!




    Latest posts