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)