Good Questions: What does it mean to “believe”?   

Reflections from Dr. Howell

Is there a God? is such a good question, with no easy answer. We may rephrase the question: Do you believe there is a God? or Do you believe in God? Lots of people must mentally think Sure, there is a God out there somewhere – but that thought, that belief, has no functionality. I might believe the Taj Mahal exists, but I have no plan or desire to go there. So maybe there’s a God, sure, but it doesn’t matter, or doesn’t matter much.

A light bulb popped on in my head as a college student when I read Paul Tillich’s definition of faith as “ultimate concern.” What’s yours? To believe in God implies that God matters. A lot.

Yet, faith isn’t measured by volume; if you have enough faith, God will do stuff for you? God’s not like that, and faith isn’t securing favors from God. To believe can’t be merely a feeling – or the advantage goes to the emotional people. Couldn’t a just-the-facts kind of person have faith? A poem was found on the wall of a cellar in Germany, scrawled by a Jew hiding from the Nazis:

I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining.

I believe in love even when I don’t feel it.

I believe in God even when God is silent.

We modern people stake way too much on feelings, whose unreliability can ruin marriage, a career, and belief in God.

Growing up, I heard that faith is blind: You’ve just got to believe! Don’t ask questions! But faith is full of questions, just as in a human relationship you ask questions and listen. Questions are not merely permitted, but encouraged. And it seems to be that if you arrive at an answer to a question about God, tucked inside that answer are three more questions, whose answers also bear hidden questions. The delight of faith isn’t in the answers but in the quest to learn, know, and experience more, and then more.

History’s greatest learners, our smartest knowers: some don’t believe, but others do. I’m fond of Albert Einstein’s confession: “A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.” Reverence and awe are key ingredients we too often overlook in a life of faith.

But is faith more than getting slackjawed at the wonder out there? Is it personal? Can there really be a personal relationship with God, if you’re brilliant or more normal? I certainly hope so.

Faith has an element of risk, or it’s not faith, is it? The philosopher Pascal famously wagered on God, declaring he’d rather believe and be wrong than not believe and be wrong. Faith is staking your self on something beyond yourself, with no guarantees, but profound hope in that beyond. Absolute certainty might be comforting, but it’s not required – and can’t certainty make you narrow and judgmental?

To say “I believe in God” might be the equivalent of what I said to Lisa at the altar. I promised to stick with her “for better, for worse, in sickness and in health.” I committed. I said “I believe in you. I believe in us.” How would it turn out? I had no real clue. I bet on “for better, in health,” but bound myself to stay “for worse, in sickness.” Faith trusts God to be there, that the future is God’s – although when and how? Not clear.

Next time, we’ll explore why faith is (and is supposed to be) hard, and thus why it’s meaningful – as we get ready to ask Why did God give us such a strange, long, sometimes boring book as the Bible? What is God really like? Why do bad – and good – things happen?