When does an openness to ‘taking things on faith’ become gullibility? Why should God view people favorably because they show themselves open to falling for claims that do not have evidentiary support? And if God does indeed value belief of that sort, why would a willingness to believe without sufficient evidence that an individual was raised from the dead 2,000 years ago be more positive than a willingness to believe that someone in Nigeria wants to transfer millions of dollars into your account? To state that one of the claims is “true” doesn’t help, unless we are in fact dealing with a question that can be settled, or at least supported, by relevant evidence and the examination and evaluation thereof.
In fact, Paul (the ‘apostle of faith’) doesn’t seem to have ever expected people to become Christians by making a ‘leap of faith’ in the absence of evidence. On the contrary, he refers to the evidence of the Spirit at work in and/or among the Thessalonians, the Galatians, and the other churches he writes to.
I wonder if the idea that one must make a blind leap of faith does not have at least as much to do with a discomfort (on the part of the religious and the secular alike) with treating spiritual gifts and experiences as ‘evidence,’ as with a shift in the meaning of the English word faith. In the ancient world, as for many today, religious claims were evaluated by the miraculous power to heal body and soul. Apart from among Pentecostals and charismatics, such claims and experiences are quite far from the experience and even the thinking of most Christians today, in spite of the importance they seem to have had in early Christianity.
Yet it is worth asking theoretically, even if one hasn’t been driven to ask such questions by one’s own experiences or theological reflections, whether faith in God based on what God has done or can do for you is necessarily a wholesome, positive sort of faith. What if it turned out that God doesn’t do anything for anyone specifically – the weather on your wedding day just happened to be good, and the person you love who recovered from an illness just happened to do so? What if it turns out that God is not the answer to our individual problems, but simply the meaning of our existence? How many of those who call themselves Christians would worship such a God for that reason alone, expecting nothing in return? Would willingness or unwillingness to worship such a God be a good thing?
This post was based on one I wrote a few years ago, and I was sparked to revisit the topic by recent posts about Christians’ willingness to believe unsubstantiated stories about God changing someone’s DNA. It is precisely the fact that people now are willing to accept impressive stories uncritically, that makes it impossible to read ancient texts about miracles and feel confident that the same was not true then. And so gullible Christians in the present day play a major role in undermining any confidence thinking people – Christians or not – can have in ancient miracle stories.
But it seems to me a more important question to ask whether it is appropriate to treat such gullibility as a virtue in Christian circles, as the meaning of “faith.” And for those of us who are persuaded it isn’t, what can we do to most effectively promote a different view of faith, such as that advocated by Paul Tillich?