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Basis of Faith and Meaning

A number of people over the years have suggested that because of some doctrinal position or another that I hold, I no longer have a basis for my faith. Those who express themselves a bit less forcefully see it as a weakening of faith, a distancing from God, and a lessening of belief in God’s power. Two doctrines in particular tend to bring this response: 1) My rejection of Biblical inerrancy, and 2) My acceptance of the theory of evolution. In the second case, it seems also that people feel that an acceptance of the theory of evolution robs life of all meaning. If human beings were produced by a process of descent from the smallest form of life, somehow God no longer has a purpose, or no longer has control.

I’ve been thinking about these things recently, and asking myself just what is the basis for a meaningful Christian life, a question that seems to me to combine these two issues quite nicely. Since I rarely have difficulty finding meaning in any particular day of my life, these aren’t questions on which I spend lots of time.

Let me list some of the places from which people say they get meaning and find a basis for their faith:

  1. A certain set of historical events, such as the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus
  2. Certain spiritual experiences or encounters with God or the divine in some way.
  3. Don’t know, it just happened.
  4. A deep internal need for God.
  5. God made me specifically, and intended me for a specific purpose.
  6. Community, being part of a church or spiritual family
  7. I make my own meaning.
  8. I became convinced that the Bible was true for logical and historical reasons.

That list is not exhaustive, but I think it illustrates this adequately. I would have to say that for myself, there are elements of the first, second, third, sixth, and seventh. The focus of my own meaning in the world, however, combines my personal encounters with God with making my own meaning. My encounters with God, however, mean that when I make my own meaning, I do so in relation to God, which doesn’t mean quite the same thing as it does by itself.

So what would it take to shake my faith or even to make me abandon it? I really can’t think of anything. The classic question for Christians is what would happen if someone found a clearly identifiable body of Jesus, proving he was not physically resurrected. Since I do believe in the physical resurrection, that would be troubling and would require some rethinking of elements of my faith. At the same time, I believe I would simply adjust to the other possibilites in the resurrection. If I had never experienced the risen Christ, I would not find the historical evidence anything like sufficient to convince me of the resurrection. If the physical evidence got worse, I would still have the experience of the risen Christ.

Similarly, at one time I believed something very much like a hard version of inerrancy–there could be no errors in the Bible of any type, including in historical and scientific matters. Through study I became convinced that this was not the model of inspiration displayed by the scriptures. At the same time I knew that I heard the voice of God through the scriptures. So despite a substantial shift in the method by which I believe God communicates (and it’s quite possible I’ll again change my mind with further study!), I don’t doubt that God does communicate.

I never had the problem that some people claim with evolution, which is the loss of meaning. I went from believing that God literally formed the first human being from dirt and then literally breathed into this statue so that it became a living creature (Genesis 2:7), to believing that God formed a human being through the process of descent with modification, and when that being was the human being he intended, he saw that it was good. Notice that I don’t see God as ever getting further from the formation of man. The method changed; the result was the same.

In a conversation with my wife I was searching for an analogy for this difference in the method by which a person was formed. I proposed the difference between a mother laboring and giving birth to a child versus a C-Section. She suggested more the difference in the connection between a parent by birth or by adoption. I still feel a little closer to the first analogy; there really is no difference in how connected the mother is to the child in either birth. I will admit that if adoption (or step-parenting) is done properly, I agree with my wife’s point. The tie should be created and should exist just as tightly as a blood tie. But I’m not sure people understand it that way. The key is that God’s parent-child relationship with human beings is not changed by the method by which he produces those children. It has always interested me that many are happier being descended from dirt than with the idea of being descended from a small life form that lived in dirt–or water.

I think that if the meaning of your life is shaken by any change in the method of your creation, that meaning may be pretty loosely attached in the first place. You may need to look at your experience of God and your connection to God. I’m often accused of putting more weight on science than on the Bible and faith, but in a most fundamental way I think it is creationists who put a greater weight on science than I do. The methodology of science is, for me, a way of learning about the physical world, with results that are tentative and subject to change at any moment. They have to be, because we learn new things. My meaning doesn’t come to me from my understanding of the function of the physical world, and it isn’t shaken when new things are discovered about the physical world. I’m really placing much less weight on science in my spiritual life than the creationist who feels that he must find a scientific basis for everything in Genesis in order to uphold the faith.

1Now faith is the substantial nature of things we hope for, the clear conviction of things we don’t see. 2By this means the elders were approved.

3By faith we understand that the universe was made by the word of God, so that things which are seen didn’t come out of things already visible. — Hebrews 11:1-3 (TFBV)

It’s my faith–my belief in, my confidence in, and my trust in God that gives substance to my spiritual hopes and gives me clear conviction. This is a different category of “knowing” than knowing that the earth orbits the sun, or accpetance of common descent. Even using the word “knowing” is deceptive, because it is entirely subjective. I can’t prove it to you, I can’t make you hear me. I have good friends who think I’m irrational because of it, and I understand their point of view. But I have the firm conviction.

This is a conviction that worked from Abel, Enoch, Abraham, and Moses, who had no scriptures at all. They couldn’t believe that scriptures were without error, because they had no such option. They only had their belief that they had encountered and communicated with the living God. That gave them enough to work with, and gave them meaning in their lives. They didn’t have the doctrine of the incarnation or the resurrection. But they were faithful nonetheless.

39And these all, having received approval of faith, did not receive the promise, 40since God concerning us foresaw something better, so that without us they would not come to completion. — Hebrews 11:39-40 (TFBV)

Their belief was without seeing, without scripture, and yet they received approval and remained firm. I’m not against facts as part of your faith. But the foundation had better be deeper than the details.

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