Engaging with Fear and Faith
Recently, I have begun reading more theological non-fiction than I ever have before - works by C. S. Lewis, N. T. Wright, and others. So far, I have been encouraged by their works, but it has taken me literally years to work up the courage to engage in this type of philosophical musing. In the spirit of Halloween and all things scary, I have to ask myself: Why am I so afraid?
First of all, I should be afraid! These authors are poking a stick at the biggest and most important questions known to humankind. If there is anything to fear at all, it is this! According to C. S. Lewis, “...we must never avert our eyes from those elements in [Christianity] which seem puzzling or repellent; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know” (The Weight of Glory, pp. 34). Or, to get it directly from the Source, Jesus tells us in John 16:12, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.” None of us have ever learned “enough” about God and our faith, and the learning process is a lifelong pursuit, so we should push through our fear if we are to produce greater spiritual fruit.
So what is it about this area of study that I’m so afraid of? What conclusion could these old theologians come up with that makes me want to scream and run away?
My fear begins, I believe, in the simple desire to not be wrong. As someone who has grown up in the church, I’m no stranger to the basics of my faith. I’ve learned the foundational elements over and over again - and I’ve even taught them to others! The issue is that I only know what my fellow congregants have told me.
In high school, one of my favorite classes was called The Theory of Knowledge. Also known as epistemology, it’s the examination of how we know what we know. (English is fun!) It teaches, among other things, that there are really only two ways to know anything: We must experience it for ourselves, or internalize something that someone else communicates to us.
This is where my problem begins, because I have relied so heavily on what my family, my friends, and my church have taught me that I’m afraid I’ve been skating by on secondhand knowledge. I was raised to be an independent learner, and with everything outside of the church, I have been eager to corroborate evidence, cross-reference facts, and maintain an attitude of constant vigilance. In the church, however, I’ve generally been content to allow others to tell me what to believe. In failing to cross-examine these beliefs, I’ve opened myself up to the vulnerability of willful ignorance and naivete.
This leads me to my next level of fear. I’m afraid that I’ve never really thought through my belief in God and Christianity. I’m afraid that I’ve jumped to a conclusion of faith that I have been content to never fully investigate. It was a big problem in my Theory of Knowledge class, because frequently, I divined the conclusion of a philosophical discussion, pronounced that A is equal to G, and failed to follow up on why I got to that point. How did I come to those results? Why did I jump from A to G? Did I ever stop to think about F, or E, or even B for that matter?
Because of this tendency, I’m afraid I don’t have any solid evidence on which to build my faith. What if I dig deeper and realize that all my foundational beliefs are wrong? This Rock that I built my life upon may not be so solid after all. If I discount the input of others, and rely only on my own experience, do I have any proof that God really exists? That He loves us? That we can have a relationship with Him? I can’t point to any one time where I experienced the Living God beyond the shadow of doubt. Whenever I’ve had a moment when I thought I felt the Spirit move within and around me, or when I felt inexplicably connected with Something Beyond, my sense of skepticism always came in like a whisper in my ear. “Can’t that be explained away by earthly things?” it says. “The power of music, for example? Brain chemistry? Biology? How can you trust yourself to know these things?”
There is yet another level of fear below this one. It’s a selfish level, but we are all selfish by nature. I am deeply terrified that if I allowed myself to lose that faith that is the basis of my lifelong identity, my sense of purpose, and my understanding of meaning in the universe, I would crumble like a house of cards and give into the devastating cynicism that exists within me. I’ve always been aware of its presence, though I often refuse to acknowledge it. Like a black hole, it constantly tugs at the corners of my mind, and I’m afraid that if I let the light of my faith get too close, it will be sucked inside and crushed into a singularity, taking my whole life with it. Without the cure of proof, I would be truly hopeless - and that is what I fear above all else.
Faith isn’t about proof, though, is it? Faith is about taking those deep unknowable voices echoing in the universe and translating them into something cohesive - into the One who spoke them into existence. Faith is better than physical proof, because it doesn’t rely on the input of external knowledge that I so passionately distrust. The Christian faith is about coming into a relationship with the Creator on a truly personal basis - a relationship that is wholly unique, distinctly individualized, and spectacularly exclusive. Sure, that black hole of despair will always be with me this side of glory, but I can’t underestimate the solar-level power of the Holy Spirit, which has taken up residence in my heart right alongside that yawning pit.