During my first year of pastoral ministry I experienced a crisis of faith. I had entered theological college four years previously with the confidence of both youth – I was only twenty years old – and fundamentalism. I knew what I believed and knew it with utter certainty to be true. Theological college put paid to that. I discovered students, theologians and philosophers who saw things very differently to me, and that chipped away at the absolute certainty on which I had constructed my faith.
It all came to a head the year after I finished college. It seemed there was nothing I could be certain about. Not the bible, not the story of Jesus, not the resurrection of Jesus, not the existence of an afterlife. Yes there were strong arguments in favour of these, but there were also reasonable arguments to the contrary. Instead of absolute logical certainty I found myself dealing with probabilities. I had always thought that the arguments for faith were irrefutable, that it was rebellion and not reason that led to unbelief. But I discovered that those who believed differently often had very cogent arguments, that the ‘evidence’ could be read in dramatically opposite ways. For someone whose faith had been built on the bedrock of certainty this was a very uncomfortable place to be. It took its toll. I soon found myself wondering if I really believed in God anymore. Doubt filled my mind.
I used to take long, late night walks. These afforded an opportunity to think through the doubts running through my mind. It was on one of these walks that I had an encounter with God the like of which I have never had before or after. I didn’t hear voices or see angels. I was simply filled with an overwhelming sense of God’s presence. That was the beginning of the reconstructing of my faith.
This reconstruction required me to let go of the idea that I could have absolute logical certainty about my beliefs, that it could be proven like a mathematical formula or scientific theory. What I could have were reasonable convictions. I could show that it was reasonable to believe that God exists, that Jesus lived, died and rose again, that the Bible gives us a trustworthy story about God and Jesus. But I could not show that it was unreasonable to believe the opposite. In the realm of belief about God there were not logical absolutes, but a continuum of probabilities.
Why then did I believe? Most likely because I was raised in a Christian household, had experiences that I interpreted as reinforcing the faith in which I was reared, found my faith to be coherent and reasonable, and in my faith found a clear sense of purpose and values to live by. Experience, reason, and utility combined to create a foundation for my belief.
My philosophy lecturer at College once made the point that this is how knowledge of people works. How does my wife know I am faithful to her? She doesn’t follow my every move nor have a detective follow me. Her sense that I am faithful is built on trust, which in turn is built on experience (she has found me to be trustworthy) and reason (she has no evidence to suggest I am unfaithful, but plenty of good reasons to think I am faithful). She chooses to trust me, and her experience and reason reinforce her trust.
So it is with my faith in God. I heard the message and chose to believe it, and my trust is reinforced by my experience (I have had moments in my life where I have had a strong sense of God’s presence and work), reason (for example, I find the fact the universe exists points to its being created) and utility (life lived in accord with God’s word just seems to make sense to me).
Once I learned to be comfortable with this my faith was quickly rebuilt, but without the arrogance and pride that marked my earlier believing. I abandoned a faith built on certainty and discovered instead that a deliciously rewarding, life-transforming faith can be built on conviction.
How about you? Have you ever felt like you’re losing your faith? What brought/didn’t bring you back?