Faith Is Not About Believing the Impossible

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Impasse Saint-Eustache, Paris

Just a thought I’m noodling on, from Marcus J. Borg’s book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally:

Fundamentalism has created so much cognitive dissonance between my faith and the things that I see with my own two eyes. So much so, that all I know about faith is that it’s about believing in impossible things. Isn’t that how people describe it? Faith is believing the impossible?

I’m fine with believing in unproveable things. That sort of belief accepts humanity’s intellectual limitations and the universe’s mysteries. Nobody can prove that there is or isn’t a God, for example. I sympathize with all the reasonable arguments for or against those claims. But the point is, there are reasonable, if not conclusive, arguments for the existence of God. Our understanding of God helps explain the things we don’t or can’t know.

My problem is with an understanding of faith that requires me to believe things I know are most likely not true, or are demonstrably untrue, a faith that pits reason against spirituality.

As Borg says,

Christianity in the modern period became preoccupied with the dynamic of believing or not believing. For many people, believing “iffy” claims to be true became the central meaning of Christian faith. It is an odd notion — as if what God most wants from us is believing highly problematic statements to be factually true. And if one can’t believe them, then one doesn’t have faith and isn’t a Christian (p. 16).

This was my exact crisis of faith during college: I wanted to believe — I did believe — in the transcendent truths of Christianity, but I simply could not believe the things I knew to be demonstrably problematic, illogical, or cruel. I couldn’t pretend that I could believe those problematic “facts,” not without giving up my integrity and intellectual honesty.

I longed to go back to when the problematic facts about Christianity were not problematic, when the world was simpler and more dogmatic, when there wasn’t as much division between what I believed and what I believed probable.

But once you see something, you can’t un-see it. Once I couldn’t believe something, I couldn’t force myself to believe it again.

Guess that meant excommunication for me. People acted like I’d abandoned the faith because I couldn’t find illogical, destructive statements about God, reality, and the Bible reasonable and good. Honestly, thought I’d abandoned the faith.

But Borg makes a simple, brilliant point: This sort of faith — believing the impossible and the illogical — is completely irrelevant to the kind of faith practiced in the earlier Christian period. Few, if any, people had doubts about the factuality of the how the Bible presented science and history. They weren’t as aware of the rest of the world’s culture and religions. They didn’t know what we know now in all kinds of intellectual categories. Most Christians couldn’t even read the Bible, much less base their faith off untenable claims like “the Bible makes perfect sense and never contradicts itself” or confusing theological platitudes like “God ordains suffering, but he doesn’t cause it.”

Yet they had faith. They valued faith — a faith that absolutely nothing to do with choosing to believe “Biblical facts” over scientific, historical, psychological, medical, and sociological facts.

Their faith was in devotion to Christ and his message, a message that made sense to them, that made sense of reality around them, even if it allowed room for the things they couldn’t know — not an alternative set of facts that they found difficult to believe.

Like I said, I’m noodling on that for a while longer.

4 thoughts on “Faith Is Not About Believing the Impossible

  1. telltalesnotlies

    I too don’t think that God expects us to believe the stuff that makes no sense anymore than he expects us to have blind faith. As Paul said “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1) Another statement from a man named Alma comes to my mind: : “If ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true” (Alma 32:21)

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  2. Lyndall Cave

    I read this today on Jeff Turner’s Facebook page:

    “Faith (to me) has ceased to be about resisting things as they are in the hopes of changing them through the strength of my belief. I tried that way, and exhausted myself to the point of having frequent panic attacks. All of my energy was being spent on attempting to believe hard enough, and never entertain even the slightest feeling of doubt, lest God be rendered incapable of moving in my life.
    Over the years I have come to embrace the idea that faith is more of a moving along with what comes my way, trusting that, in some way, it’s bettering me in the long run. It is turning the collisions we all experience with reality into a sort of dance that transforms what would otherwise be a disaster into something meaningful.
    Faith embraces what is, and trusts that what is, is because it is working in our favor. One may have to look way down the road in order to see how this thing will ultimately benefit them, but that is what faith enables us to do. It doesn’t mean life does not sting, or just plain suck now and again, it just means that the sting might prove to be an ultimately life-saving injection, and the “sucking” a removal of something harmful or unnecessary.
    It is easier said than done, but when life runs into you, dance with it. Don’t resist, but flow with it, and trust that the Godhead truly loves you, and is causing all that is to work in your ultimate favor.
    Peace.”

    I know that it’s a little bit sideways from what you wrote about in this post, but I find it fascinating that I read two articles about faith not being blind only a few hours apart from each other.

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    • Bailey Steger

      This is exactly it! And this clarifies for me the importance of noting that “working out in our favor eventually” does NOT mean that the bad stuff is somehow good now, or ever. That’s where I see the mental gymnastics start: “If you really had faith in a good God who loves you, you wouldn’t be upset about this bad thing; you’d see it as good; you wouldn’t have any doubts; you’d feel God right there with you the entire time.” Absolutely not. Our hope is often a long time in coming.

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