My writing and thoughts often carry me to the “edges” – to the edge of unbelief and to the edge of the depths of belief. My instinct for these places is an instinct for the obstacles to faith. Why do some believe and others not? And what is the exact nature of belief and unbelief?
There is a form of belief familiar to everyone. It is simply the manner in which we see the world. We are not particularly aware of any effort required in this exercise. We open our eyes, look, and see what we see. This perception, however, can also be clouded by many things. For some, every simple perception of the world comes colored with a mist of fear and anxiety. Things are not only what they are seen to be, but are also seen to be threats. If you have never had this experience you are blessed.
I recall my first experience of a major city – New York in 1971. I was working as a street musician along with a friend. The city was amazing – a constant feast for the eyes and senses. I had seen nothing like it. A week or so after arriving, we were mugged at knife point. What we lost financially was insignificant. What I lost was the city I had first encountered. In its place was a hostile, dangerous environment in which every face was a potential enemy, every alley way a hiding place for the next disaster. We went home.
Of course this “perception” of the world is simply the fog of psychology. But it is worth remembering how important that fog can be in how we see.
There is a way of seeing that many would describe as “seeing things as they are.” We assume that how we see things is objective, real, accurate, normal, etc. All of these take for granted an agreement concerning our perceptions. It would also be readily accepted that inner dispositions and culturally agreed ideas might distort these perceptions. The racially-divided society of my Southern childhood contained a large array of false but generally accepted (by whites) distortions of the world. Those who began speaking about equality in the 1960’s sounded, at first, like people from another planet. It is little wonder that Martin Luther King, Jr., described his vision of a world in which race was not issue in terms of a “promised land.”
These questions of perception are crucial to an understanding of faith and overcoming obstacles. Faith is a means of perception. It is an “organ” of seeing and hearing. It is the “evidence of things not seen,” or, “the seeing of unseeable things.” To “see the unseeable,” is of a piece with to “know the Unknowable.” The things of God are not obvious or clear to a darkened heart.
Our modern version of things “as they are,” is simply things understood in a “secular” manner. For the most obvious thing to modern man is that his world is a great neutral zone. God (if there is a God) can choose to make Himself present in the world, but there is nothing about the world that is inherently connected to God. The world is just the world. He lives in a fog of unbelief.
With such an assumption underlying everything that appears, it is little wonder that the vision given by faith is such a stumbling block. To perceive the world as sacrament and wonder contradicts our culture’s commonly held view.
When someone says that they “believe” in God, I’m not always sure what they mean. It is entirely possible (and even often the case) that they mean something quite different than what I would mean by the same statement. There is the acceptance of God as a theoretical construct, a mental assent, even a trusting mental assent to the existence of a higher being who loves, creates and provides for creation. That trusting assent may have a significant amount of content: the “God of the Bible,” or the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” etc. In many cases (even most), however, trusting assent to the existence of such a God does not alter the shape or nature of creation itself: it remains the same neutral, secular world. This is the situation I have described as a “two-storey universe.”
There are many versions of such a God – from the so-called literalist version of the fundamentalists, to the gentle, politically-correct God of modern liberals. Some struggle with the name of this God, wondering whether “He” should be replaced by “He/She” or other English neologisms (in one graduate school I attended, certain professors would only accept papers written in conformity with a neologistic orthodoxy – and that was over 20 years ago).
But the content of the “superior being” in the two-storey universe is relatively beside the point. Such a God, regardless of content, is not the God and Father of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ: it is a lightly Christianized version of the ancient sky gods. And in the cultural perception of modern, secularized nature, it is an endangered species. Few attacks on the Christian faith sound as silly as those of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Their inaccuracies and caricatures are rivaled only by the rants of the adherents whose god they despise.
But Christians would do well to listen to their critique – for the god they don’t believe in was taught them by someone. To say, “I believe in that god, only my reasons are very good,” is actually inadequate. What Dawkins, Hitchens and company reveal is an obstacle to faith. If the universe itself is the one they perceive – if it is truly inert, self-existing, self-referential and spiritually neutral, then the case against the God taught and made known in Jesus Christ is strong indeed. Positing a sky-god above and outside such a world is perhaps interesting, but it is not persuasive and, more to the point, not Christianity. David Bentley Hart has this to say about the Christian God:
To speak of “God” properly—in a way, that is, consonant with the teachings of orthodox Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Bahá’í, much of antique paganism, and so forth— is to speak of the one infinite groun