December 25, 2017


How Can I Possibly Believe That Faith Is Better Than Doubt? (Peter Wehner, DEC. 25, 2017, NY Times)

Not seeing and still believing is held up by Jesus as a greater thing than seeing and believing. But I'm not sure I have ever fully grasped what it is about faith that makes it precious in the eyes of God. Recently, with the help of friends -- pastors, theologians, authors, fellow believers -- I've tried to deepen my understanding on that subject.

To start out, it's worth noting that treating Christian faith as different from proof doesn't mean it's antithetical to evidence and reason. Christianity is a faith that claims to be rooted in history, not abstract philosophy. St. Paul wrote that if Jesus was not resurrected from the dead, the Christian faith is "futile" and followers of Jesus are "of all people most to be pitied."

Christians would say, in fact, that reason is affirmed in Scripture -- "Come now, and let us reason together," is how the prophet Isaiah puts it -- and that faith properly understood is consistent with and deepens our understanding of reality. "Reason purifies faith," George Weigel, my colleague at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, told me. "Faith without reason risks descending into superstition; reason without faith builds a world without windows, doors or skylights."

But faith itself, while not the converse of reason, is still distinct from it. If it seems like that's asking too much -- if you think leaps of faith are for children rather than adults -- consider this: Materialists, rationalists and atheists ultimately place their trust in certain propositions that require faith. To say that truth is only intelligible through reason is itself a statement of faith. Denying the existence of God is as much a leap of faith as asserting it. As the pastor Tim Keller told me, "Most of the things we most deeply believe in -- for example, human rights and human equality -- are not empirically provable."

As Mr. Wehner notes, the central Anglospheric insight is that Reason itself can not be grounded in reason--it requires an ur-statement of faith.  This renders Reason just another variant of the panoply of human religions.  Its main distinction is not that it has any greater access to truth, but that it is the ugliest, most inhumane, most hopeless of the faiths, in its denial that human beings have any intrinsic value and that there is any basis for judging human behavior.

Of course, many religions come out of such an analysis little better.  Polytheism and animism can not ground objective morality.  Many religions, including, most tragically, Judaism are racial and not universal.  Sunni Islam makes God a sort of dictator, supposes that the words of a mere man (actually men, given what we know of the Koran) are infallible and--a trait it shares with all the worst political philosophies--imagines that mankind can achieve perfection.  

Which brings us to the question of why one should have faith in Christianity rather than any of the other choices, and the answer is: aesthetics.  It is the beautiful story. 

Consider the story of the Christ:

The Creator gifts us a world which He imagines to be perfect, but Man sins and Falls and God drives us from the Garden to suffer for our sins.

As time goes by He grows increasingly frustrated with us, even being tempted to our destruction, but negotiating several covenants with us instead, to try and police our behavior, but also His.

Eventually, He determines that the only way He can hope to understand His Creation is to live as one of us.

Thus, Jesus is born, in the form and manner of an average Joe.

He experiences life as a mortal, preaching to us about what He expects from us, but unable to conform even Himself to those expectations.

On the Cross, He goes so far as to despair of His own existence, violating His prime commandment. He dies having failed to live up to His own standards, but having achieved insight into why we do likewise.

In recognition of the incompatibility of mortality with the divine plan He intercedes on our behalf and secures us the possibility of the grace we can not earn ourselves.

What appeals about such a faith?  Begin with the fact that the God of the Bible is rather human.  Forget the claims of the Church and read the text and you find a Being who is distinctly lacking in omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence.  In the first set of encounters between Man and God we even find Him jealous of us: expelling us from Eden before we eat from the Tree of Life and become like him; favoring Abel, who lives Edenically, over Cain, who is independent; destroying the Tower of Babel lest we become His rivals; etc..  As the Christ we find Him threatening that He comes with a sword, scourging the moneylenders, and crying out: My Lord, My Lord, why hast Thou forsaken Me?

Meanwhile, what is the Bible but the long account of His attempts to be reconciled to Man?  He gives us repeated chances and agrees to accept limitations on Himself, because. despite our flaws, His love for us endures.  Indeed, the power of the Christ story lies in the very aspect of it that made life so hard for Christian missionaries: God so loves Man that He is even willing to become one of us and experience death in order to comprehend us.  We preach Christ crucified.  Ours is the God who died. 

There simply is no more beautiful story that men tell themselves.  It is why the One Story is repeated in part or in whole in nearly every great fiction of the West.  

Obviously, it helps that, to the extent men can comprehend, it is uniquely "true"--in its comprehension of human nature--and infinitely valuable--in its provision of objective morality and the bases for the End of History--true in ways that are inaccessible to Reason and other faiths.  But, here too, because of what we know of Reason, these are really aspects of the faith's beauty, not matters of "truth."

So what is it we celebrate at Christmas?  All the Virgin Birth and Wise Men stuff is really needless accretion.  Boiled down to its essence, the cause for celebration is that the helpless human baby in the manger is God, a God who has set aside His divinity in order to be more like us and try to understand us better, even to the point of His own mortality. This most powerful Being, the Creator os us and our Universe, somehow loves us so much that He is willing to stoop to our level, despite all our failings.  Why, Mr. Wehner asks, is faith better than doubt?  Because the Faith is beautiful.   

May you and your families have a very Merry Christmas and a splendid 2018.  And may all of us keep in our hearts and minds the wonder that we live in a wonderful world and are profoundly lucky creatures. 

GOD BECOME BABY (Peter J. Leithart, 12 . 4 . 15, First Things)

Arians and Nestorians kept God at a respectable distance from the all-too-human Jesus, but the Church closed the gap by insisting that, from beginning to end, the Gospels present the life of a single hero, Jesus, the incarnate Son of God. Arians and Nestorians thought they could understand divine nature without the Gospel, and then they tried to retrofit the Gospel into what they already knew. The orthodox did the opposite: They discerned that the Gospel reveals the only God who is, strange and disreputable as he may appear. If that meant revising all they thought they knew about God, so be it.

Apart from sects outside the mainstream of Christianity--Jehovah's Witnesses being the most prominent--Arianism is no longer a viable option. Nestorianism has had more staying power. Many instinctively read the Gospels in a soft-Nestorian fashion, shifting from Jesus the man to Jesus the Son of God as seems appropriate. That "Nestorian shuffle" is a hard habit to break.

But it needs to be broken, since the good news depends on letting the Gospels re-teach us about God, the God who was "made like his brethren in all things" (Heb. 2:17). To become a sympathetic, saving priest, God the Son was born as an infant, learned to turn over and crawl; he learned to walk on human feet and to speak the language of his parents; he went through puberty, and no doubt his legs and arms were gangly for a time. God came near, entered into our weakness and misery, so that he could know and redeem human life from the inside. That is the good news of God, because it proclaims the God of the good news.


Posted by at December 25, 2017 7:49 AM