How Can a Modern Person Believe in God?
How can a modern person believe in God? Does it require you to check your brain at the door?
For some, inviting someone to become religious is like inviting them to enter a time machine. How can you reconcile belief in God with all that we know now?
It may surprise you to learn, though, that the world is becoming more religious not less, that is according to a Pew Research Center study from 2015.
Commenting on this study, Jack Goldstone, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, has said, “Sociologists jumped the gun when they said the growth of modernization would bring a growth of secularization and unbelief…That is not what we’re seeing…People want and need religion.”
Why then does it seem like faith is so implausible?
I want to consider two major obstacles that people often face as they are considering faith. Things that stop people who are drawn to Christ from going further.
The first obstacle is that many today view beliefs, and religious beliefs in particular, as only a matter of opinion or personal preference. In other words, it is not something you could claim as fact.
This practice goes back to the Enlightenment where scholars began distinguishing beliefs from facts. The only things that could be called “public facts” were things that could be known by the scientific method.
Only those things that could be observed and repeated in a lab enjoyed the status as certain knowledge. People began to lose confidence in areas of value, purpose, and belief. These were excluded from being objectively judged as right or wrong.
This has contributed to the modern view of religion. We find it odd to talk about their religious beliefs as objectively true.
Lesslie Newbigin writes, “We do not ask whether the belief is true, but whether the believer is sincere in holding the belief. On the other hand, it does not occur to us to ask whether a person is sincere in his or her belief about physics; we ask whether the belief is correct.”
That is why when Christians attempt to share their faith, people often respond: “I’m glad that works for you.”
We often present Christianity simply as opinion. We make it a matter of what I think over against what you think. Christianity, however, presents itself as a fact.
When there is a disagreement today in regard to what are called “facts” we debate them, we test the evidence, and go on arguing about them until we agree. Scientists don’t look at conflicting theories and celebrate the blessings of diversity.
What has this separation of beliefs from facts done to questions of faith? Because the scientific method is not equipped to answer questions of beliefs, we too often conclude that one cannot know. That we cannot come to a right answer, therefore there is no right answer.
Christian belief is not like belief in Santa Claus. You might remember how the movie Miracle on 34th Street playfully dealt with the absurdity of belief in Santa. Smug lawyers put Kris Kringle on trial only to find that they couldn’t disprove he was Santa.
There is, however, no real harm in believing or disbelieving in Santa. The movie makes the case that belief will make you happier or kinder, but either way the stakes are low.
You cannot approach Jesus in the same manner. Jesus confronts the world with his claim to be God.
Jesus states, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life: no one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6). This is a claim that confronts you with a choice. You have to weigh in.
In his book on the World’s Religions Huston Smith, as noted in Tim Keller’s Making Sense of God, says that only Buddha and Jesus so impressed the people of their time that they began to ask not just “Who are you?” but also “What are you?”
Buddha asserted very clearly that he was not god or even some angel. But, Jesus took a very different approach. In a fiercely monotheistic culture, Jesus presents himself as The One True God.
CS Lewis says about Jesus’ claims about himself: “if not true, they are the claims of a megalomaniac, compared with whom Hitler was the most sane and humble of men.”
This changes the whole question about faith. It isn’t just a matter of do you believe something that isn’t seen like UFOs or Leprechauns…Jesus as God puts a claim on your life.
Here is the thing about belief in Christ. It isn’t so much a matter which religious affiliation is right in a cold and detached way. It is a matter of someone calling you.
He is calling you. One who perhaps is very familiar to you is calling. He is calling you with a message that is both an invitation of love and a call to follow.
God enters humanity not to show himself to us as a piece of evidence. He isn’t trying to prove himself with magic tricks. He is coming to reconcile you to a relationship with him that you were created for.
Belief doesn’t make Christianity right. Jesus claims to be Lord whether you respond to him or not. And that must change the way you approach the question of faith.
The second obstacle we face when considering faith is the assumption that we stand in a neutral position trying to make this decision.
Humanity isn’t at a crossroads between belief in Christ or not. The call to Christ is a call away from something you already believe.
Everyone exercises faith in something. We all operate with a set of beliefs about God and the world that cannot be proven.
The one who says there is no God, the one who says we cannot know God. They both hold those convictions by faith.
We sometimes think of belief like we are on a secure platform and faith is calling us to take a blind leap into something uncertain, but that’s not true. We are never really presented with a choice of not putting faith into anything.
In other words, while you are contemplating faith in Christ, you are putting your trust in something else.
I remember once being in New York City and trying to navigate through the subway system. I was on the right train, but I wasn’t sure which was my stop or if I was going in the right direction.
Each stop I debated if I should hop out here or wait until the next stop. Each time I decided to stay on I was putting my faith in the fact that I was moving in the right direction.
The train was still moving me in a direction. As it turns out, it was moving me in the wrong direction, and I wound up being very late.
Waiting to put faith in Christ, not believing in Christ is a resting your faith in something else.
If you are thinking about faith in Christ or having doubts about your faith, remember that there is no “non-faith” option.
I usually tell people who are experiencing doubts. There is nothing wrong with that. Go ahead and explore your doubts, question your faith. God is big enough to handle it. It will hold up.
But, I also will say, “Don’t forget to doubt your doubts.” Christianity isn’t the only belief that needs to be vetted.
Put your doubts through the ringer. Can it be justified that there is no God? Can it hold up that Christ was not who he said he was? So few people take this seriously: Can you actually have any confidence at all in your convictions that Christianity is not true?
How Can I Believe in God?
If it isn’t a matter of just investigating evidence in a cold and detached matter, how can I find faith?
The scientific method isn’t designed to answer a question like this. It isn’t a problem with God; it is a limitation of the method. God can’t be put in a test tube, because he is not a part of creation.
So, the way forward must come from a different approach.
As philosopher C. Stephen Evans put it: “To believe in God is to believe the universe has a certain character; to disbelieve in God is to believe the universe…has a very different character.”
You can’t prove Christianity, just as you can’t prove secularity. They are systems of thinking about everything. It isn’t a piece of evidence; it is a viewpoint that changes how you see every piece of evidence.
Tim Keller says the questions we should be asking are, “which system makes the most sense of our experience, of things we know and need to explain? Which one makes the most sense of our social experience and addresses the problems we face? And which of these is the most logically consistent? In short, we need to ask which of these views of reality makes the most sense emotionally, culturally, and rationally.”
How do we find that out?
Some things can only be known by participating with or relating to them not just thinking about them from a distance. The only way to begin finding answers about Christianity is to begin to participate in community.
Christianity is more than just a message that we can put in a little flyer or memorize and pass along to someone. It involves a community that lives and acts in light of who Christ is and what he has done.
The starting point to faith is starting to get involved with this family. This has always been the way people find faith. This is the way of evangelism. Revivalism has twisted this as if you can find God apart from community.
George Lindbeck among others makes this observation about how Christianity spread in the First Century. He writes:
Pagan converts to the [Christian] mainstream did not, for the most part, first understand the faith and then decide to become Christians; rather, the process was reversed: they first decided and then they understood. More precisely, they were first attracted by the Christian community and form of life... they submitted themselves to prolonged catechetical instruction in which they practiced new modes of behavior and learned the stories of Israel and their fulfillment in Christ. Only after they had acquired proficiency in the alien Christian language and form of life were they deemed able intelligently and responsibly to profess the faith, to be baptized.”
If you are trying to find who to have faith, the answer begins by participating in a faith community. Trying it on, understanding its plausibility, experiencing how its answers line up with reality; in the words of Psalm 34, “Taste and see, the Lord is good.”