Salvation by Gullibility?

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?

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  • JustSayin

    I also wonder when the belief that all existence, life, mind, and reason itself can be explained as the product of mindless forces becomes gullibility.

    After all, if you believe that you can ultimately explain anything as being the result of mindless processess, then you have established an unfalsifiable position that No Proof…even in principle…can move.

    Of course, the belief is not demonstrable, but to the modern world anything is better than believing that we all will be held accountable to God.

  • James F. McGrath

    @JustSayin, If you keep your point focused on ultimate explanation – the nature of the universe and existence – then I think you are absolutely right, there is no way in principle to demonstrate that everything occurred as a result of some mindless process.

    But I think that extending that to say that nothing is explicable in those terms is going too far. Do not processes which seem not to be specifically directed by intelligent agency, such as gravity, seem to explain some things?

    I appreciate your concern about God being excluded in principle, but is there not a danger that Christians will, as it were, “insert” God in principle, or conversely, deny natural explanations even when the evidence for them seems adequate?

  • Anonymous

    I think it is dangerous to believe in God, practically speaking,  because there will be some authority to describe what that means to and for the individual, whether text or Tradition (cultural or ecclesiastical, i.e. theological). And there are “problems” with either.

    With the text, are we going to prescribe to some Church interpretaion, or personal interpetation? If Church, then which church, what Tradition? Should we go back to Judiasm and Jewish wisdom, where there are various understandings? or should we prescribe to what scholarship really says and suggests?

    With Tradition? the questions are similar and/or overlapping.

    The questions about life are really political persuasions about what is best, and how those understandings will be implemented in the real world. Our Founders understood the “tyranny” or unlimited government whether Church or State!

    • AaronRoss

      Angie, it also looks like it is dangerous NOT to believe in God, practically speaking.

      All States that have been Officially Atheistic have been totalitarian dictatorships.

      • Anonymous

        It is only dangerous IF there is no liberty of conscience concerning religion/”God”…. 

        • Anonymous

          as I said both government and ecclesiastical domination over the individual limits a free society!

      • Beau Quilter

        AaronRoss. Are you aware of how many dictatorships in the world are Officially Religious? And historically, some of the worst have been Christian.

        Our american democracy is still imperfect, but I think the 1st amendment is one thing we got right.

        • AaronRoss

          Nope, the worst have been Officially Atheistic.  Officially Atheistic Governments killed upwards of 100 Million People in the 20th century alone…many times more than in all the so called “religious” wars in history.

          Mao Tse Tung and “Uncle Joe” Stalin qualify as the greatest mass murderes in human history.

          And, from the point of view of atheism, they got away with it!

  • Guest

    The Nigerian claim is falsifiable (at least in theory); the resurrection claim is not.

  • Michael Wilson

    I think one requires a faith that that there existence is ultimately a good thing/. Like the the question of whether you can “ultimately explain anything as being the result of mindless processes” we don’t know the final condition, so we can’t honestly answer if living has a point. I think though that it is in your best interest to get a positive attitude.

    This is like the Family Guy where Brian convinces Meg to be atheist. After explaining that no God would make someone as ill fitted to exist as Meg, he then switches tracks and says that what ever the real meaning of existence, it is more wonderful than the god idea. To me this is just repackaging theism. Existences ways are mysterious, don’t worry too much about the bad times, just trust the ultimate meaning will be good; or; God’s ways are mysterious, don’t worry too much about the bad times, just trust God will be good.

    Another thing about faith is, the notion that God proved his purpose in Jesus by raising him. This only proved it to those that witnessed it, the rest of us are only trusting human testimony. If belief in the resurrection is God’s litmus test for saving faith, shouldn’t he do us the favor he did Peter and co. by having Jesus appear to every body?

    • Anonymous

      “Self government” is what the Founders understood to be the “modus operendi” of a free society. That means that the “rule of law” was upheld by limiting those that are “empowered” to subvert the minority. Jefferson said that the smallest minority was the indivdual! And the individual is the only one that can be self governing!!! Government cannot implement ‘self regulation” they can only subvert our liberties, as a country, under the guise of protecting the masses!! 

  • Anonymous

     The problem today (IMHO), is the “use” of monority GROUPS that demand rights!!! Individuals define themselves in groups, but if they define themselves ONLY in and by the group’s identification, THEN we have a problem!!! Then we have “culture wars”, or “ethnic identity fightings”, etc……We should affirm individuality in our culture NOT groupish mentality and GROUP THINK!!! Otherwise, we do dissolve our country into factions!!!!

  • Brian

    C’mon Angie, you have a habit of writing up post that make me  [and I'm sure many others here] go, “What?”. You are right to say that group think, as you defined it, is a primary cause of intelligent men [and women] accepting things uncritically [which can be dangerous, and most often is] and in away that isn’t poetic or meaningful but gulliable. But not all group mentality is bad. Focusing too much on the individual isn’t always a good thing you know. It often leads to selfishness and it drains one of an important part of their idenitity [which, believe it or not is often where they fit into a specific setting] in the name of preserving it. It’s corrosive. Groups provide people with a rich, symbolic universe in which they can give themselves and the world around them meaning, and it also can challenge them to act a certain way in the world.
    Moving on, I am intrigued by the first couple comments. Mostly because the idea of God being bracketed out of our  modern society was the topic of my Pastor’s passionate sermon today. It is in my opinion, as someone from the Catholic tradition, that we should affirm both good science and a feeling of awe or reverence for the universe in which we live. Prefering one thing or method over the other often leads to dire consequences [not to mention, it's rigid and stale]. I am of course exaggerating when I say dire but I often feel that those who look at the world too scientifically are only getting that: science. Which is often cold and detached and not at all meaningful or artistic. The other end of the spectrum is just as bad if not worse, and we have many excellent post by our very own James McGrath which can attest to that.
    So what can we make out of all this? I say that we embrace a world view which can edify us and provide us with a world of rich symbols but also with one that allows for us to explore it [through science.] Just because we can explain the world without appealing to a diety or supernatual causes doesn’t mean that such appeals are meaningless, it just means we have a way of interpreting the world through a strictly scientific basis [which isn't suppose to provide one with meaning.] But I also wish to say that, I think our modern society’s way of seperating the realm of faith and reason as seperate things is rather destructive and is in my opinion, one the main causes of so many feeling deprived of any sense of spirituality these days.
    Anywho,  this is just my two cents, and I hope that everyone here can learn from one another. Also, it’s nice to be back James. I haven’t commented on this blog in weeks!


  • Anonymous

    You obviously believe that it is appropriate for an individual’s purpose or meaning to be prescribed by a group. I disagree with you.
    The individual should out his own free choice choose where his commitments will be, this is what makes his life meaningful, what interests him, personally, not some “group formed” thinking, or worse, authoritorial “challenges”!
    You mention selfishness as a “negative”. It can be, but doesn’t have to be. One’s own interests can serve society. Isn’t it true that those that have some type of alturistic goals, are being “selfish” in thier prescription for others? Choice is an important and necessary value for morality to be evaluated. Choices must be made because of taking ownership of one’s own life and the meaning it will make or have. No one else should be doing that for another individual!

  • Brian

    While that’s all fine and dandy. But I would assume that the person who carries out these “authoritarian” challenges, at the very least accepts them. So really, to allign yourself with a certain culture or tradition is really a matter of choice. Of course not everyone has a choice in the matter but here in the west it seems you can choose to either continue or leave your religious traditions. As for selfishness, it does have it’s benefits but as you can see I’m not advocating strict adherence to any one system of thought. Thinking only of yourself is corrosive, but strict herd mentality isn’t healthy either. There has to be a balance. And where that balance is depends largely on the person in question.

  • Anonymous

    I appreciate your comment, as we do believe in a social contract, which has a tension between “societal” and individual interests. That has always been the “problem” or difficulty, because both society and the individual are dependent on one another. This is true. And how the two are untangled, depends on one’s area of discipline. way of understanding meaning, value and life.

    In the West everything isn’t determined or dependent on some “sacred” understanding of life. This is why many of our “religious universities” became “secular”. There is no distinction between the sacred and secular, because what is understood to be true, is true.

    On the other hand, what a person values does determine what their character is. So, a businessman has to be interested in “profit margins”, while the pychologist is interested in how “the profit margin” affects the person’s concept of themselves! Any interests determines goals, purposes, meaning and value in a free society. So, there is no “perfect character”, or “right character response”….it is a question of diversity of interests and value!.

  • Anonymous

    And those interests and values differ from individual to individual, as to the value or benefit to society. This is the place for political differences, and conflict. And it is the foundation of a liberal democracy!!!

  • Q2

    What a thread. You got one guy pining for a new Spanish Inquisition, and angie spewing his Ayn Rand garbage. Buddy, you really need to take that to your fantasy woman’s Atlas Shrugs site, where you are probably one of the more normal ones.

    • Brian

      Who’s pining for a new Inquisition? Everybody here is behaving civilly which is way more than I can say about you. That is no way to treat someone you disagree with.