Why does a believer believe?

I was fascinated to read, courtesy of John Richardson, this extract from an article by John Humphrys. The extract is about the philosopher and vicar Giles Fraser, and leads into a discussion of the question “Why does a believer believe?”

Now I certainly don’t endorse all that Fraser has to say, especially his “Umm … dunno … can’t prove it” when asked about the Resurrection. But he is on to something when he writes:

Evangelicals have misunderstood the Bible. They turn it into some bloody Ikea manual.

Yes, it is all too often read as a catalogue of proof texts and/or as a set of instructions on eternal life. We need to turn away from this kind of misreading, and understand the Bible as complete books and as God’s living word for his people. Humphrys sums up some excellent points from Fraser:

he freely acknowledges that theology is not some sort of intellectual platform on which faith can be built. He quotes Augustine: theology is “faith seeking understanding” – which means you get your faith first and then try to make sense of it. And faith is not a belief that certain propositions about the world are true. It is not grounded in rational argument and neither is there any good line of reasoning that can persuade one to believe. Belief just isn’t like that, says Fraser. So what is it like? Why does a believer believe?

What’s interesting is that you get much the same answer to that question whether it comes from a philosopher/vicar like Giles Fraser or a theologian/archbishop like Rowan Williams or an old lady who has never read a book on theology in her life and wouldn’t know the difference between an ontological argument and a pork pie. Why should she? Theology, as Fraser says, is not the foundation of faith.

Indeed. Too many Christians act as if they have to persuade atheists and agnostics to believe by providing superior arguments. But this just doesn’t work. Just occasionally someone’s mind might be persuaded, but what needs to be converted to Christ is their heart.

To find Fraser’s, or perhaps Humphrys’, answer to the question “Why does a believer believe?”, I had to go beyond John Richardson’s extract to the article in The Times which it comes from:

They believe because they believe. This is not about intellect or learning: it’s more basic than that. It is both more profound and more simple.

Indeed, but this is not an answer, and Humphrys continues by mocking this kind of belief. But what is the answer? Why does a believer believe?

Augustine, who Fraser quoted, taught that this was simply a gift of God, given to some but not others by God’s sovereign election, and Calvinists today hold the same position.

I’m sure sociologists would give a very different answer. They could probably show that some people believe because they were brought up to do so by parents or teachers, and others in response to various other factors such as a crisis in their life. Evangelists have no doubt studied all of these factors and looked for ways to reproduce the conditions which lead many to faith. Probably such studies lie behind the success of many large churches. I say this not to belittle such techniques or the faith of those who come to believe through them, for this faith is genuine, even if sometimes shallow, and the Bible encourages us to equip ourselves to bring in the harvest. But somehow this is not quite satisfying.

Fundamentally, it seems to me, people come to believe in a deep and life-changing way only when they encounter God personally. Job had believed in the truth about God for years, and had remained faithful through great sufferings, but it was only at the end of his troubles that he came to real belief in the living God, and said:

My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
6 Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.

Job 42:5-6 (TNIV)

John Humphrys has never met the living God, and so he does not believe. Many who call themselves Christians and even believe every word of the Bible have never met the living God, and so their belief remains only something in their intellect. But others, whether or not their theology is sound, have met the living God and have an ongoing relationship with him, and so they believe in him with their heart as well as their mind, with an unshakeable faith which is stronger even than death.

Do you want to meet God in this way? If so, how can you do it? Reluctantly I have to accept that Augustine is right, for God decides who he will meet and when. But I also believe, because the Bible says so, that those who seek to meet God, with their whole heart and in humble openness, will indeed find him, or be found by him, and then they will truly believe him.

“… You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the LORD …

Jeremiah 29:13-14 (TNIV)

Seek the LORD while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.
7 Let the wicked forsake their ways
and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

Isaiah 55:6-7 (TNIV)

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; those who seek find; and to those who knock, the door will be opened.

Matthew 7:7-8 (TNIV)

9 thoughts on “Why does a believer believe?

  1. hmm, for me, this issue is sort of mixed up. I grew up in the church all my life, became a Christian, was baptized in the Holy Spirit with the gift of speaking in another language, and then began asking “Why?” At that point, I ended up saying “Well, God is in your heart & in your mouth, you can’t say He doesn’t exist now, can you?” But if it wasn’t for that, I don’t know how things would’ve turned out.;) So yeah, I’d agree, God-experience is essential.

    As you say, seeking God will lead to meeting Him, for that is what He promised. Psalms says to “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” Meeting God is something I find I have to encourage myself to do constantly. He is always there to be found, but sometimes I have to get away from things that are distracting to actually be able to focus on Him.

  2. Helpful thoughts on belief here, Peter.

    “But others, whether or not their theology is sound, have met the living God and have an ongoing relationship with him, and so they believe in him with their heart as well as their mind, with an unshakeable faith which is stronger even than death.”

    Although John Humphrys would mock such belief, isn’t this the kind of belief he himself desires from his own readers? That is, whether or not the arguments Humphrys makes are entirely and flawlessly sound, he really wants the readers of his article to believe what he writes, to believe with mind and heart. He’s not just sounding off, right? He’s after having others share his beliefs. I think belief is an often-unadmitted academic act and is absolutely unavoidable. belief = what I can’t help but believe. There are no belief vacuums, even in the heart and mind of Humphrys.

    I’ve been collecting statements of college professors, who seem really mainly to want “belief” from their students as much as “understanding.” Here are two quotations:

    “When teaching elementary physics, I was impressed with the resistance of mature intelligent students to some fundamental facts and concepts . . . Proof by appeal to the fundamental equation . . . is of little avail. They ‘believe’ the equation, but they BELIEVE their preconceptions” (physics prof Anatol Rapoport in Fights, Games, & Debates, qtd in Rhetoric:Discover&Change by Young, Becker, & Pike, 239).

    “Sometimes I will half jokingly say to [my philosophy 101 students] as they hand me their tests after an exam, ‘Did you believe what you wrote?’ And they all smile. Because they know that the important thing is not to believe what you write but to write the right answers.” (philosophy prof, Dallas Willard in “Truth: Can We Do Without It?” Journal of Christian Ethics 5.2 1999: 12-15.)

  3. Thanks, JK. You raise some interesting questions about belief in scientific concepts. In many ways the issues are similar to those for faith: people believe what they see for themselves, or what they can really grasp for themselves. Prove something by means of an equation or a Bible text, and I will intellectually believe that it is true, but without understanding and without commitment, and perhaps always with the thought that the reasoning might be unsound. Explain to me why what I see and hear implies that it is true, and I will properly understand and really believe it.

  4. peter–

    i think you are right that ‘believers’ believe because they have encountered god. i’m not sure i agree with the need for it to be ‘personal;’ this seems too monotheistically anthropomorphic to me. i think it is possible to encounter god mystically, which does not require a personal, ongoing relationship, but rather a sense of one’s place in god:

    “religion comes to each of us like a huge rorshach test, and people fall into four classes in the way they interpret it. first, there is the atheist who says there is no god. next comes the polytheist who says there are many gods…then there is the monotheist who says there is one god. and finally, the mystic, for whom there is only god. none, many, one, and only. using god as the measuring rod, these are the basic ways we can interpret the universe.”

    huston smith, the way things are

    each of these believers, interpreting the universe, would believe in god differently, i think.



  5. Scott, I certainly didn’t intend to rule out “mystic” encounters with God. In fact in some sense this is what I meant by having an experience of God. But I don’t accept that “mystic” necessarily means “there is only god”. That is pantheism. Sure, many mystics have been pantheists, but others have been orthodox theists. My point with “personal” was not “individualistic” but “not second-hand”.

    Yes, you are right about “faith seeking understanding”, and Fraser or Humphrys is wrong. I should have noticed that.

  6. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Forgotten Ways

  7. The burden of faith of John Bunyan can be compared with the similar burden of such leading atheists as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christoher Hitchens. As Liz Millen (in the Chronicle of Higher Ed blog of 7/20/07) reports, Stanley Fish is making those comparisons:

    “How are the prominent atheists Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins similar to people who believe in God? Stanley Fish parses the argument on his New York Times blog, Think Again (subscription required). One similarity is the vocabulary they use to explain that science one day will be able to explain ethical and moral behavior — ‘belief,’ ‘undoubtedly,’ ‘there will come a time’ — and the reasoning they engage in. Harris and Dawkins exemplify the definition of faith found in Hebrews 11, ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ But isn’t reason what separates scientific faith from religious faith? Not so, says Fish: ‘Any form of thought is an extricable mix of both faith and reason.'”

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