Using faith to reach a conclusion

Saturday, September 20, 2008

A new book has landed on my desk titled, "I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist." The authors are unknown to me, but since I have great regard for the person who gave the gift, the book will get a thorough examination. "Atheist" is an interesting word. Much like the word "apolitical," which means not political, atheist refers to a person who is not theistic. (Literally, atheist means "without God.") Theist comes from "theos," the Greek word for God. To put a fine point on it, an atheist is not accepting of a deity, a higher power, a God.

During World War II, the late Leslie Weatherhead, a British Methodist pastor in London, collected a series of sermons into a book, "The Christian Agnostic." (Literally, agnostic means "not knowing.") Gnostic comes from "gnosis," a Greek term associated with spiritual knowledge. Again, to put a fine point, an agnostic does not know if there is a God or not. Further, an agnostic might claim that while there is a possibility that God may exist (there's the "not knowing" part), there is also no proof for God's existence.

Fair enough. Weatherhead's book is, regrettably, long out of print. His thoughts have helped many a skeptic, those people who are curious about Christ, even attracted to him, but who cannot, in Weatherhead's words, "sign the dotted line" to faith in him.

Let's face it. Faith is not a math problem. Math is a wonderful tool to help us learn logical reasoning. (Not to mention essential in balancing our checkbooks.) In math, you can arrive at an unambiguously "correct" answer. Faith isn't like that. Unlike math, we bring different "numbers," various and disparate experiences, to the table. We can't use a pencil to scratch out a clear line to faith in Christ. It is not much of an exaggeration for me to suggest that the following two sentences are of vital importance:

Faith is not something you make yourself have. It's something you find yourself with.

Faith is always a gift. If you drive across a bridge, you have faith that the span will hold the weight of your car. You don't know that it will, of course, but you have faith that all appropriate monitoring has taken place. You have faith that the bridge has no catastrophic stress fractures. No one knows, with certainty, that a bridge will hold your weight, yet we all drive confidently across each and every one of them. That's faith. You and your spouse may have a joint checking account. You have no certain way to know that the other person won't clean out that account and fly off to parts unknown. That's faith, too. Faith isn't an equation; it's a confident leap into open air. It's a trust, without empirical information to guide and support you, that you won't crash into the rocks below.

A person of Christian faith says to himself/herself, "I choose to live by these convictions. I choose to do so because I accept history's account of the person and work of Jesus — and that account lies almost entirely within the confines of the Bible. I know in our postmodern culture that history is suspect; it is shaded and shaped by its interpreters. Knowing all this, I choose to believe the Jesus story anyway." Or, "I choose to believe because my heart tells me the story is true and can be trusted."

You can't reach those conclusions using math. Math only gets you so far. At some point, you've got to depend on the gift, which faith always is.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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