Faith ... in What?

Aug 21, 2003 |Marshall Allen

Everyone’s got some kind of faith. They just don’t always admit it.

What do atheists and Christians have in common? Both beliefs are based on faith.

Try telling this to an atheist and you're likely to get smacked — figuratively speaking, of course. That's what usually happens to me when I use my "atheism as a faith belief" argument to defend myself against the atheist who seems to relish preying on we weak-minded, irrational Christians.

When I meet an atheist who's throwing jabs, I usually counter by telling him that I admire his faith. I don't claim to have proof that there is a God (though of course there's a lot of evidence I could cite, and there's a time and place for that approach; J. Budziszewski does it very well in his writings). My belief is faith-based, and I'm cool with that. But some atheists I've met act like this makes me a small-minded sycophant. That's when I ask the atheist if she has proof that there isn't a God. No? Then I suppose we can hold hands and be small-minded sycophants together! We just differ in where we put our faith. Religious or not, people examine the evidence before us and make a faith-based decision. Faith is at the core of what it means to be human.

Atheists don't take easily to this reality. I remember talking to Liz, an 82-year-old atheist from the old school who was offended when I said atheism and Christianity are both faith-based beliefs.

"You can't use the word 'faith' to describe atheism!" Liz said.

"But 'faith' is defined as belief that isn't based on proof," I said. "Just as I can't prove to you that God exists, you can't prove to me that God doesn't exist."

Liz was silent, so I continued.

"Maybe you're not comfortable with me saying atheism if faith-based, because it's against the dogma of atheism," I said.

Now Liz was getting blustery. I had used "dogma" and "faith" — religious words — to describe atheism. But I think they're accurate. "Dogma" is a system of tenets or principles that's authoritatively laid down. True, the word is most often used religiously. But doesn't this also describe why atheists aren't allowed to use the word "faith" to describe the foundation of their beliefs?

My point isn't to shoot down atheists, but simply to say that we're all people of faith — even those who claim to be faithless. And if all of us are faith-based, then the question remains: In whom or what do we place our faith? We can come to this determination by examining the evidence, holding it up to our lives' experience, and making a choice. Or we can come to it because we find it emotionally necessary or rewarding. But choose we do, one way or the other. Some people avoid the choice by refusing to think about it, living life with a benign, badly informed system of beliefs that's apt to change when the wind blows. Avoiding the conscious choice about what to believe is passive, but it's still making a decision, whether we want to admit it or not.

Considering where our faith lies is the most important thing we can ask ourselves. Of course, people come to different conclusions when they examine their beliefs. For me, after examining the evidence and the experiences of myself and of people I trust, my faith rests squarely in Jesus Christ and the truths taught in the Bible. For this reason, I write from this perspective. But I am aware that others believe differently.

For three years, my wife and I led a youth ministry in Kenya, with high school students who came from dozens of different countries. They were the sons and daughters of the world's elite — ambassadors, aid workers, and multinational businesspeople — all living in Africa as expatriates. Because the students in our group came from so many different countries (there were very few Christians at the school, or in our group), we decided one night to have a panel discussion on religion.

Our panel included a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Baha'i, an atheist, an agnostic — and then we had Roy. Roy peddled "Royism," a belief system based on whatever he was feeling at the moment. Roy's faith, he shared during our robust discussion, was in himself.

Roy hadn't quite reached the guru status. He didn't have many answers for life's bigger questions. He was mum about the afterlife, and contradicted himself when offering explanations for the problems of evil or sin. But he didn't sweat it. He had a comfortable faith, one that went down smooth and easy, without the bitter aftertaste of challenging his assumptions. Lest we mock Royism, we should at least commend Roy for his honesty. And we should also admit that many of us are practicing our own personalized brands of "Royism." I know many Christians, myself included, who can easily lapse into adapting our faith in Jesus to suit our personal or cultural desires. We're taking a faith that's about surrendering to God and redefining it so it's about ourselves — bringing God into our comfort zone.

What a sad and boring departure it is, when we take faith in an infinite God and depreciate it by centering it on ourselves. Faith in God should be characterized by submission and allowing Him to redefine and redirect our goals and attitudes. The faith commanded by Christ results in a radical life that's free of everyday concerns. And it fills us with joy.

Oswald Chambers writes in My Utmost for His Highest, "The initiative of the saint is not towards self-realization, but towards knowing Jesus Christ.... Self-realization leads to the enthronement of work; whereas the saint enthrones Jesus Christ in his work."

Many Christian college students and young adults are redefining their faith in God as faith in relationships or success. For a time in my life, my security and self-worth were utterly dependent on what other people thought of me. I was so desperate for the approval of others that my faith in God was compromised. I was miserable as I tried to please friends who were fickle. Faith in relationships could also rear its ugly head in the life of a guy who cycles through countless girlfriends out of a dysfunctional need to feel the happiness and security he thinks a girlfriend provides.

Putting faith in success can be seen when a person obsesses about getting into the "right" college, as if this is of fundamental importance to his self-worth. It can also be seen in the student who works himself to death with internships and extracurricular activities to pad his resume for the purpose of getting the job at graduation that will provide the proper amount of self-importance and status. For the young adult, faith in success can be seen as striving for a high salary and superb stock options, and making these material factors the foremost considerations when choosing a career. This focus on success can create worry or feelings of failure when success isn't achieved, and feelings of pride and arrogance when it is.

Even our collective Christian subculture can be guilty of forgetting to put faith in God. Corporately, Christians sometimes seem more concerned with being morally right, or publicly pointing out the wrongs in others, than we are about loving people. Or, we can be so concerned about the success of a favorite public leader that we forget that our faith is in a God who isn't limited by one person's achievements.

There's plenty of good advice as to how we can avoid morphing our faith in God to faith in ourselves. A good start is to give any agenda we have for our lives up to God. Then, before we worry about what we're supposed to do, feel or pursue, we can follow the advice of the Apostle Paul, who writes: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

Copyright 2003 Marshall Allen. All rights reserved.

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