Reflections and Confessions of a Christian Existentialist
What do you believe? Why? How well-thought out are those beliefs? How certain are you that your beliefs will hold up to scrutiny? How should you live your life? Deep questions such as these have preoccupied my mind and rolled around in my head for as long as I can remember. For those wondering why I always forgot my backpack in class, why I have trouble finding my keys and my cell phone, and why there are times that I've appeared to be disinterested in small talk, you now partly understand why. If you're interested, what follows is the very real story of how I've grappled with those questions and arrived at a few conclusions.
While it is probably no secret to most that I grew up as a Bible-believing Christian in a fundamentalist church, it might come as a surprise to some to find that I was not always as certain of my faith as it may have appeared. I don't remember the line of questioning, but I do remember my sophomore Chemistry teacher being the first to sow the seeds of skepticism. While unease over being looked upon as a doubter kept many of my questions hidden, I also felt a gnawing deep down in my core that the most essential elements of my faith were true. That inner gnawing has been the driver of my life over the past thirty years, during which I have at times felt like the father who cried out in Mark 9:24, "I believe; help my unbelief."
At some point during my senior year of high school, I announced my intent to attend the secular university in my backyard and study philosophy at Central Washington University. I remember my pastor and mother both being extremely concerned that doing so would lead me to wander, but my inward attitude towards their concern was that if my faith were true it ought to be able to hold up to scrutiny. In some sense, however, their concerns were well-founded as my orientation towards skepticism was extended further though the education I received in the liberal arts. My need to consider and discuss existential questions found an outlet at CWU, where I received a classical education in the Great Books curriculum used by the Douglas Honors College. My thoughts and beliefs were continually being challenged, reconsidered, and sharpened through weekly readings and lectures as well as the writing and discussion that followed. My experience in the DHC helped me think critically, taught me to be open-minded, and also helped me learn to disagree without being disagreeable. While I didn't appreciate it enough at the time, the experience was at times humbling, often uncomfortable, and ultimately satisfying.
During my time in the DHC I particularly remember considering the role that faith and reason played in measuring truth while reading St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who is considered by the Catholic Church to be its greatest philosopher and theologian. In his rather lengthy Summa Theologica, Aquinas articulated a sensible and convincing faith that was rooted in the supernatural revelation of Scripture and buttressed with reason. While I took great joy in the rational faith expressed in the Summa Theologica, I still found myself struggling to take on faith that which could not be arrived at with reason. As odd as it sounds, I wanted Christianity without faith.
As such, I remember reading Rene Descartes' (1596-1650) Meditations on First Philosophy and strongly identifying with his attempt to toss out all which was not certain to him, start from scratch, and then root his philosophy upon a foundation of truths which were plainly true. Two skeptical arguments made by Descartes that left a lasting impression on me included his evil genius argument and his dream argument. The evil genius argument posits that rather than a benevolent God, it is possible that there might be an evil demon who is "as clever and deceitful as he is powerful, who has directed his entire effort to misleading me." Descartes speculates that it is not out of the realm of possibility to consider that our sense of reality might be nothing more than an illusory world created by an evil genius. The dream argument holds that since people do not realize that they are dreaming, it is possible that our entire waking reality is also nothing more than just a dream. Realizing that his opinions, perceptions, assumptions, and presuppositions could mislead him, Descartes' came to the conclusion that the only thing that he could be sure of at all was simply that he existed. In his Second Meditation, Descartes states, "I have convinced myself that there is nothing in the world--no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies. Doesn't it follow that I don't exist? No, surely I must exist if it's me who is convinced of something.... Thus having fully weighed every consideration, I must finally conclude that the statement 'I am, I exist' must be true whenever I state it or mentally consider it." The sheer magnitude of Descartes' arguments was hard for me to ignore. Watching films such as The Matrix, A Beautiful Mind, and The Truman Show all around the same time I was reading Descartes simply reinforced the idea that everything I held to be true had at least the possibility of being entirely wrong.
Beyond the foundation of "I think, therefore I am," Descartes was not able to build a lasting philosophy that could really get beyond the skepticism created by his own dream and evil genius arguments. Descartes attempted to use reason alone to fight his way out of the uncertainty he created and ultimately failed for reasons expressed well by G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), though not in response to Descartes. While I only came to find G.K. Chesterton later on in life, he is very quotable and his ideas succinctly represent the bridge of thought I crossed on my way from Descartes to Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). In his Orthodoxy, Chesterton states that, "Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all." The power in Chesterton's statement is that it ties faith to reason in a way that makes them entirely inseparable from one another; to abandon faith entirely is to abandon reason as well. The despairing road this leads down is best expressed in John Cage's "4'33" and in London's "invisible" art exhibition--indeed, such emptiness resembles precisely what I felt after reading Descartes. In short, the binding power of Descartes' skepticism can only be unloosed with faith. Without faith, one must lose confidence in reason itself, which is precisely what Chesterton called the "suicide of thought" and the "thought that stops thought." For the first time, I felt like I truly understood the emptiness, depression, despair, and mental anguish that it seemed to me like people in our "enlightened" post-modern world were experiencing on a large scale. I felt like I understood it because I briefly experienced it. And yet still, there was a gnawing deep down inside that continued to propel me.
Thankfully, my reading of Soren Kierkegaard's The Sickness Unto Death soon followed. Simply getting through the reading itself was a feat of perseverance and determination that was fueled by the sense that Kierkegaard acknowledged both my despairing and my inner gnawing. I came to the point where I accepted that I would likely never come to a place where I could fully rationalize any claims to truth, that both faith and reason are inseparably intertwined, and that in order to get beyond the skepticism bred by Descartes one must, as Kierkegaard states, take a "leap of faith." From my high school years and beyond I had resisted taking such a leap, but as I read through Kierkegaard I realized that I must. Albert Einstein stated, "There are only two ways to live your life. One as though nothing is a miracle. The other as though everything is a miracle." Paul Young wrote in The Shack, "If anything matters, everything matters." The direction for me to leap was clear. I concluded as Rich Mullins that "There is such a thing as glory / And there are hints of it everywhere / And the hints are overwhelming / And its scent is in the air." To believe in an evil genius, a hollow big bang, or in nothing at all seemed and still seems to me a far greater leap of faith than to believe in a God of purpose, glory, and miracles. It has taken time, but I have come to accept that part of what is extraordinary about the Christian faith is precisely what I resisted when I was younger. I sought a God I could wrap my mind around but instead found a God that Kierkegaard wrote about when he stated the following in The Sickness Unto Death: “If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe. If I wish to preserve myself in faith I must constantly be intent upon holding fast the objective uncertainty so as to remain out upon the deep, over seventy thousand fathoms of water, still preserving my faith.”
In terms of how certain I am that I have leaped in the right direction when it comes to my faith, my certainty now grows daily even if it uncomfortably resembles Christian agnosticism on a purely intellectual level. By Christian agnosticism, I mean I have come to accept that there are certain questions that I simply cannot answer with certainty. Yet I have come to believe that this tension between belief and doubt is absolutely necessary to leave room for faith; yes, perhaps instead of Christian agnosticism, I should simply call it Christianity. Indeed, the people I've known that have continued to work out their faith "with fear and trembling" have seemed far more Christian than those that have professed belief without appreciating the gravity of such a profession (Philippians 2:12). There are perhaps too many that have the faith of a watermelon when all that Christ asks for is the "faith of a mustard seed" (Matthew 17:20).
So what has it been that has kept the mustard seed of faith alive and gnawing and growing inside of me? Just about everything that I discussed above relates to the journey of intellectual belief that I have traveled, but did not touch on what I have experientially believed to be true. While I have inwardly struggled through doubt, my faith has been sustained through experiences at the altar, through being on the receiving and giving end of expressions of Christian love, through experiencing the truths I've found in Scripture within my own life, and in watching the power of Christ transform the lives of many who are near to me. While I can admit that my subjective human experience would be a poor means by which anyone ought to arrive at any conclusions about objective truths, it also remains that all perceptions of objectivity must first past through a subjective filter. As such, because of the experiences I've had, in ways in which my head has doubted, my heart always has believed: there is "one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live" (1 Corinthians 8:6).
So where has this journey taken me? To leave room for the understanding that leaps of faith will vary based on how they are informed, my positions have become a lot less fundamentalist and far more ecumenical than when I was younger. To keep my faith as sharpened and informed by reason as it can be, I have tried to stay current on the latest happenings in science and have read the harshest critics of Christianity. Neither Friedrich Nietzsche, Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, nor Sam Harris have convinced me that my faith is untenable and, in fact, each have rather reinforced my belief that the leaps of faith they've chosen to make have crossed greater chasms than my own. While a critique of the aforementioned might make for an intriguing blog post in the future, I do not wish to take away from my intention in posting this blog. As I hit the ripe old age of thirty today, I hope to continue to experience more of the fullness of Christ in my faith and to do more to share that experience with others. I also hope that I can keep better track of my keys and my cell phone. Thank you for taking the time to read this... and go Seahawks!