When Faith Is Not Enough
Several years ago I took a trip to Wyoming to climb the Grand Teton mountain. Just before embarking on the long hike up the canyon, I learned that someone had died in that canyon the day before. The person who died had come to the mountains unprepared -- no rope, no ice axe, no protective clothing. He slipped while walking across one of the canyon's spectacular hanging snow fields. Thinking himself relatively secure, he had simply taken one false step; perhaps the warming snow gave way underneath his sneakers, perhaps he was astounded by his magnificent surroundings and wandered off the beaten path. There he was shooting down a steep snow slope, something he had never experienced before in his life. Unaware of the danger, the man started hooting in delight like a child's first exhilarating but relatively secure toboggan ride. His exultation gradually changed into fear as he realized that his speed was rapidly increasing and that it was impossible to stop. As his friends chringed at his screams of terror, he plummeted out of their sight to his death.
His initial reaction disguised the genuine danger he was in; perhaps it would have been better for him to remain in blissful ignorance right up to an unexpected end. The realization of a disastrous end robbed the snowslide of any delight and his awareness of an immediately ensuing death produced only fear. If only he could have simply reverted to believing that he was simply on a long toboggan ride again; but he could not. As death approached the man surely doubted the wisdom of taking that path; too late his regrets.
It is curious to begin a book with such a grim story, but the story is illustrative of the two themes of this book. We have all have made commitments about ultimate reality -- whether or not there is a god and how that god is best approached -- and we have all made judgments about how best to attain happiness in this life. As we shoot ever more rapidly toward death we begin to wonder whether or not we have chosen the right path. Will our path lead to true knowledge of self and God? Are we being directed towards happiness, genuine human fulfillment or are we plummeting towards an insignificant, meaningless existence which terminates in the grave? If so, wouldn't it be better just to live a drugged, dishonest existence in which we are blithely unaware of both our plight and our destiny? Doubt and death, God and self, happiness or insignificance, guilt or grace? These fundamental human concerns are deeply intertwined and connect with our heart's deepest longings. We don't want to take the wrong path with respect to any of these matters. We are getting closer to the end, progressing much more rapidly than at the beginning, and we want to be sure that we are heading in the right direction toward self, God, happiness and grace.
Since you are reading this you have resisted the temptation to skip the introduction and get right into the meat of this book. I'd like to set the stage for the two portions of this book. The first section is a systematic discussion of the oft- ignored topic of doubt. I believe the reader will learn more about authentic faith by reflection on doubt and will also learn more about her own religious beliefs and uncertainties. The second part of the book is a reflection on the meaning of life, again a topic seldom discussed, except perhaps jokingly, but often deeply felt. Doubt and the meaning of life: issues that are ignored, denied, repressed, dismissed but felt.
The topic of this book is faith. How to have faith in the midst of our doubts. How faith alone synthesizes the disparate elements of our self -- finite and infinite, wicked and good, necessary and free, temporal and eternal, body and spirit -- into a meaningful whole. We have doubts, to be sure. But the benefits of faith are so great -- only through faith can we live an authentic, happy and fulfilled life -- that the struggles of life and belief are worth the effort.
The shadow of a doubtThe first half of the book is not triumphal, doesn't resolve everything to everyone's satisfaction, doesn't offer pat answers. It does what is says it is going to do -- take doubt (and doubters) seriously. It helps the reader to understand faith in a deeper way, presents a powerful case for the existence of God, offers hope for understanding the problem of God and human suffering, suggests positive ways for dealing with doubt and affirms the excitement of embracing the adventure of life. It does this knowing that reasonable people will say, "Yes, but" and it allows people their "buts". How should we understand faith in the midst of our ambiguous, ambivalent and suffering world? We have moments of light where God seems clearly evident and moments of darkness were we sense God's hiddenness or absence. How do we reconcile these contradictory impulses in our believing nature? This section explores faith and doubt through personal experience, the stories of Abraham and Job, and the insights of the great Christian philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard.
Searching for my SelfWhat is the meaning of life? No other question is as likely to raise eyebrows and launch snickers as this. Nevertheless most people feel the force of the question (and their lack of answers) at some time in their lives -- people feel disheartened, lost, and alone. The fragile grip we have on life is broken by suffering, monotony and reflection. We want our lives to count, but feel insignificant. We desire fame and honor but seem forgotten and ignored. Wishing for significant human relationships we often feel alienated and unable to communicate. And wanting to live a worthy life we feel shame. The seriousness of these issues breaks through the jocularity and the question forces itself upon us -- does my life have any meaning?
Christians blithely claim that life has meaning but seldom understand how faith in God makes life meaningful. This section explores our most profound human attempts to find meaning and happiness and will show why they invariably lead to despair and brokenness. The central theme of this section is the attempt to create a self of abiding value. But we are creatures, not creators, so our attempts to create a self are doomed to failure. Our true self is found through faith in God. How does God unite the disparate elements of our lives into a meaningful and enduring whole?
Although the initial chapter is rather gloomy, overall this section is positive and engaging. Its inspiration is again the work of Kierkegaard and the atheistic existentialists that followed him. It is philosophical reflection on fundamental human needs -- for significance, security and to know and be known. It draws on poetry, literature, film, music and Scripture to illuminate the human quest for self- understanding, ultimate significance and happiness.
The adventure of faith, I shall argue, is worth the effort because only through faith in God can our deepest needs be satisfied -- our need to find our self, to live a fulfilled life, to feel secure, to redeem time and to be forgiven.
The rideWhen my son was three years of age, we took a trip to Disneyworld. With his younger sister we took the baby rides, but Will was ready for something wilder. So we waited in the interminably long line for the roller coaster ride through a gold mine. As we approached the coasters we could hear the squeaking of the metal and the squealing of the passengers. "What's all that noise, Daddy?'' "Where are all those screams coming from?" "Why are they screaming, Daddy?" "Yeah, I think I still want to go on this ride." Will's delight and terror grew as we sat down and peered into the darkness into which we would soon fly. "Where does this thing go, Daddy?" On came the seat belts. I held him close, assured him of a safe and fun ride and then off we went!
The journey was tame for a hard core coaster rider like me, but was pure excitement for a young boy. The ride was filled with fits and starts; we jerked into motion, around corners, down unseen hills, and to a stop to view facades of miners. "Ooooooh, noooooo!" "Why are we going so fast?" We hit bumps hard and the drops were swift and startling. There were close calls as we nearly bashed other cars and near misses as it seemed we would crash into the walls. I held him close to me, and looked into his anxious and thrilled face. I had to assure him that we would have a safe trip and a happy ending. "Is it OK if I hold onto your hand?" "Hang on, Daddy!"
The Disney engineers and workers conspired to design and construct a safe yet exhilarating ride. We were never in any real danger. And I was there to communicate my love and concern. Will, confident that we wouldn't crash and die, was poised to enjoy the ride. All in all it was a rollicking and harrowing journey for a three year old. The ride was made tolerable, in part, by my continual assurance that everything would be all right. "That was fun, Daddy. Do you want to go again?"
This book will take the reader on a similar, rollicking and harrowing, journey. For it tracks the journey through faith and doubt, which is fraught with emotional and intellectual ups and downs. This ride takes us from light to darkness, from high to low, from peace to suffering, and from comfort to anxiety and back again to tranquility. Our ultimate destination is not at all clear. Our tracks are dialectical -- from moments of light we shift into moments of darkness; there is some solace in rediscovering the radical nature of faith but we are then forced back into the dim world of human misery; finally we notice some glad glimmers of hope and some concluding yet provisional resolutions of living with doubt, guilt and death.
Fits and starts, sudden stops, near misses, crashes and bashes, unseen drops and walls, and no end in sight. I would like to assure the reader, as I could my son, that everyone will have a safe trip and a happy ending. But I cannot. This ride is dangerous, the human contents of the coaster are often spilled, and we can't see our destination. But life isn't optional. We must ride. So hang on!
Kelly James Clark