What Are You Afraid Of?

What Are You Afraid Of? November 21, 2019

I had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with a young man named Hayden Bruce on Skype a while ago. He has a podcast called “Pragmatic Christian”—he found my blog and was attracted to a number of things he found there. Our conversation lasted almost two hours—the link is below.

Toward the end of our conversation, he asked me what advice I might have for a person going through a crisis of faith (he called it a “deconstruction” of faith), a person for whom all of the reliable answers, formulas, and guidelines are no longer working. What is my best advice for a person face to face with uncertainty and doubt in areas that have been, up to that point in their life, the most constant sources of certainty and confidence? After a few moments of consideration, I said: “Don’t be afraid.”

The first thing that an angel says in Scripture when showing up to an unsuspecting human being is almost always “Fear not.” And for good reason. Despite the sanitized versions of angels to be found in art and commerce, the appearance of an angel in Scripture is almost always a harbinger of change, an indication that your world is never going to be the same again. Angels never show up simply to announce that “everything’s fine and you’re on the right track.” Angels are always the heralds of new beginnings, inviting us to adventure. They introduce mystery—they do not clarify. Angels announce new departures and the beginning of something whose end is not in view. And the first thing the angel says is that we don’t need to be afraid of change and disruption.

The problem is that human beings don’t like change. Admit it—no matter how liberal, progressive, open-ended or cutting-edge you consider yourself to be, you prefer security and stability to change. As William James wrote, “in the matter of belief, we are all extreme conservatives.” We don’t want our most fundamental and cherished beliefs to be challenged or disrupted. One of the most important aspects of what I do for a living involves regularly challenging my students’ assumptions and most entrenched beliefs—many of which are subconscious and many of which they adopted from their parents and other authorities unquestioningly as children and adolescents. The challenge is intended not primarily to change those beliefs, but rather to reveal them and then to equip students to evaluate them intelligently and consciously.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received as an inexperienced teacher many years ago comes from Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth.

There is still, I think, not enough recognition by teachers of the fact that the desire to think–which is fundamentally a moral problem–must be awakened before learning can occur. Most people wish above all else to be comfortable, and thought is a pre-eminently uncomfortable process.

Brittain’s insight is as relevant to the process of faith and belief as to what happens in the classroom. Because the stakes are so high, there is arguably no arena in which we desire certainty in our beliefs more than when considering what is greater than us and our relationship to it. Persons of faith tend to treat their religious convictions as if they are inviolably certain; I have encountered many atheists who are just as certain in their non-theistic beliefs as the most dedicated fundamentalist persons of faith are in theirs.

And yet there is no area of belief in which we have less reason to be certain about anything than when considering what is greater than us. As one of my most beloved philosophical influences, Michel de Montaigne, writes in his Essays,

What is more vain than to want to guess at God by our analogies and conjectures, to regulate him and the world according to our capacity and our laws, and to make use at the expense of divinity of that small sample of sufficiency it has pleased him to dispense to our natural condition? And because we cannot extend our vision as far as his glorious throne, are we to bring it down here to our corruption and to our wretchedness?

The answers to these questions seem obvious—restricting the divine to our limited capacities is indeed vain, and no, we should not seek to drag the divine down to be confined within our limitations. Yet, Montaigne reminds us, this is precisely what we do.

We prescribe limits for him; we besiege his power with our arguments . . . we want to enslave God to the vain and feeble appearances of our understanding, he who has made both us and our knowledge . . . What! Has God put into our hands the keys and the last resorts of his power? Is he obliged not to exceed the limits of our knowledge?

This is why we need not be afraid when what we were taught concerning the nature and preferences of God turn out to be incomplete, flawed, or simply wrong. We need not be afraid when our current “best hypothesis” concerning human/divine relationships turn out to be inadequate to current experience. What else would we expect? Uncertainty, doubt, trial-and-error, incremental advance and retreat—these are part and parcel of being human. To be afraid of change, to be afraid of being wrong—these are to be afraid of being human.

Here is the link to the complete podcast, largely unedited. We wander through a number of interesting matters; if you want to get a good sense of the conversation, I suggest that you start at 1:08:30 and listen to the end. If you like what you hear and want more, then go to the beginning. Happy listening!

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