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What do I do when my faith doesn't make sense?
What do I do when my faith doesn’t make sense? Oh, the burden of rationality. I really had to wonder this week how we got to the point where we really need to understand everything. Really? This sounds bad, but when I am asked the question "What do I do when my faith doesn’t make sense?" I might counter with, “What do you do when your faith does make sense?”
How could it possibly make sense? Louis C.K. does a bit where he says that it’s impossible to be certain about God not existing. How do you know God doesn’t exist? Well, I didn’t see him yet. But you’re a human. You can see like a hundred yards ahead. What if God was always behind you?
It’s not just our smart phones that make us so entitled to understanding everything. In Paul’s day, there seemed to be a preoccupation with rationality too. In fact, in the Greek world, where he was doing a bulk of his ministry, philosophy itself was born. About 500 years before the common era, or Before Christ, was Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle. Rational philosophers who believed that the world made sense. Pythagoras famously uttered, “All is number.”
Plato, on the other hand, argued that reason superseded senses. Aristotle took Plato’s theories further. He came up with syllogistic logic. We are given a premise and then from there we can make further conclusions based on deductive reasoning. A major premise, coupled with a minor premise, offers a conclusion. For example, “All humans are mortal. All Philadelphians are humans. All Philadelphians are mortal.”
These basic ideas are still instrumental to our thinking today. But they aren’t all good.
In Corinth, Paul needed to subvert this kind of thinking in order for people to believe in something greater than themselves. Christians almost automatically need to acknowledge that the world cannot start and end with their rationality. So it’s not surprising that Paul starts his letter to the Corinthians trying to present a different world view.
Paul is saying God has made foolish all wisdom of people. That even the Greeks, amid their genius, need to submit to their creator. Paul is preaching to Jews and Greeks who think that the death and resurrection of Jesus is either scandalous or foolish. God uses the weak among him to do his work and he wraps them up in his wisdom. God uses what the world thinks is foolish to shame the wise. Paul even says that God uses the people the world considers low-class and low-lives to do his work.
But since so many Enlightenment-era philosophers influence us, and the fact that the United States is the crowning achievement of the Enlightenment, it’s not surprising that we can’t seem to let go of our certain rationality.
Even in the postmodern era in which many truths are based on our individual experiences, we can’t seem to grant ourselves permission not to understand.
By the middle of the 18th Century, Immanuel Kant acknowledges that there are limits to our reason and our experience, on the subject of God, free will, immortality. There are things that are too complicated for our minds to understand, ultimately. Kant, of course, reduced religion down to ethics, and removed faith and narrative from it, and as a result he made religious pluralism possible. Knowledge is subjective.
Reason has its limits, knowledge is subjective, nothing is going to make sense, and since sense is our goal, why bother at all? Quickly, we can become students of nihilism and not care about anything but our own pleasure. Jesus calls us to do something different.
So what do you do when your faith doesn’t make sense?
Truly, there will be moments where we aren’t just having an intellectual issue, but a really personal one. We suffer through trauma in our lives, trauma that doesn’t seem to have any explanation at all, and we think if we had some reasoning and some explanation then we would be healed. A mother that loses a child, for example, wants to know why it happened, and I don’t blame her.
What do I do with all of the problems in the Bible? How do I listen to writers that are giving me a 2000-year-old philosophy? How can I possibly pray to an invisible God and hope that he can change the world? How come God only answers some of my prayers?
Things get confusing when we have never questioned them. Why would God create a hell? What’s the purpose of eternal damnation?
What do you do when your faith doesn’t make sense? We clearly have been indoctrinated into thinking it needs to and I think rather than just saying, "That’s dumb, screw Aristotle," we should actually consider that this is a real dilemma for people.
For one, there are hundreds of theologians that are trying to make sense of our faith. And they do so for the era in which they live. I can recommend the books to you that might help you clear things up. But it’s amazing, because for me, when my faith doesn’t make sense, I don’t really want answers, I want comfort. When something doesn’t make sense? Talk about it. Relate to others. See what they have for you. Make a relationship. Your comfort might just be in a shared experience.
Talk to God about it. Pray about it. Confront the lack of logic. And don’t go just searching for an answer, especially if you are dealing with something that is deeply personal. Confronting your own fears with God might allow you to face them directly, as opposed to just suppressing them or explaining them away.
Try not to over-intellectualize. Be plain. I really loved the class I took this week on Brethren in Christ's History and Values because it really told the story of simple farmers trying to apply their faith. They generally avoid systematic theology and they try to be as direct as they can. You can really go off the deep end with some of these philosophers, but try to stay open and generous. Apply the best wisdom you’ve been given now as best as you can, as opposed to thinking you need to corner the market on every concept.
Can we learn to be OK with not knowing? Can we be OK with the pain of confusion? Can we lose the intellectual entitlement? The rationalistic despair? Is it OK to believe something or have faith because it fits you and your community? Because the story comforts you? Must you know? How could you possibly live like that?
Can you try to defer to people who simply know more than you, who have enjoyed a longer life and experience? Can we defer to our elders? Or must we be in control all the time?
When our faith doesn’t make sense, we might need to be prepared to suffer. The world is filled with mystery. And if we don’t know that sometimes that mystery is going to cause us grief, we might as well just try not to feel or think anymore. We can’t spend our lives in a world view that’s to tiny that it makes everything make sense. We can’t limit our emotions that much.
Don’t be afraid to change. Our God is a big God. And if Christians never changed, the faith might be dead. We go through alterations. God doesn’t change, but how we think of him does, and how we present him does. Because in every era there is a new way to talk about God and I think we need to master all of those varieties.
When people are saying the faith doesn’t make sense, it’s actually not the worst thing, because it means they care enough to ponder it and to ask a question. That’s good. When we create safe place for people to wonder about God together, I think He’ll show up.