“Oh Lisa, vampires are make-believe, just like elves, gremlins, and Eskimos.” (Homer)
Many of the different uses of the word “faith” in the scriptures can be accounted for by recognizing that belief itself is a complex phenomenon with many facets. The question of whether or not to believe in the existence of God is significantly different than the question of how to fully trust in the God whose existence is accepted. Despite these differences, both are questions of faith. The scriptures run the gamut from talking about faith at the most rudimentary level as a simple â€œdesire to believe,â€ to talking about the faith of Abraham, whose trust in God was such that he was willing to slay Isaac, his only begotten son of promise, despite the obvious immorality of human sacrifice.
In the bloggernacle, I have seen more discussions focused on the beginnings of faith than on the later stages of faith. In this post I want to focus on issues of faith that arise for those who are not currently wrestling with the question of Godâ€™s existence. Rather than focusing on the battleground between belief and disbelief, I want to focus on terrain between belief and stronger belief. What does it mean to believe something more strongly? How do we strengthen our faith? What do we really want God to do when we pray, â€œLord, I believe; help thou mine unbeliefâ€? When God requires greater faith from us, what exactly does he want more of?
This is a fascinating subject to me, and Iâ€™ll be interested in your insights.
Some years ago when I was pondering this topic I made some observations about my experiences with belief that have stuck with me. What I realized is that my belief in something is a function of how connected it is to my reality. Further, I realized that this connection to reality is strongly related to how recently I have experienced something in the past, or how soon I expect to experience it in the future. I sometimes refer to this as the thing’s proximity. The nearer the proximity, the stronger the belief. Some examples will help.
My First Baby
When my wife was pregnant with our first child, I believed she was going to have a baby. If I’d been asked, I would have said I believed very strongly. But, when I realized that my wife was going to have a baby in two weeks, it hit me in an entirely new way. A ton of bricks. Looking back after the new way had hit, it seemed almost categorically different, as though I have never really believed before. I had been storing the belief about having a baby in the â€œtrue, but will never actually happenâ€ part of my brain. It was far enough away, and far enough removed from anything I had ever experienced, that my mind could file it away under â€œfiction,â€ and it did so without telling me what it had done.
A similar thing often happens with respect to death. We know we will die some day, but we donâ€™t fully believe it. This is one reason many people are not motivated by their religious views. They keep death and divine judgment in a â€œtrue, but will never actually happenâ€ portion of their brain. A brush with death, however, can bring it into the foreground. The sense of proximity to death gives it reality, and that reality makes the belief motivational. When their beliefs becomes motivational, their faith has grown. The simple fact that death seems real and proximate after a loved one dies (or we nearly die ourselves) makes our belief in death stronger than it was before. As time passes and those experiences fade into the distance, our belief in death shrinks.
I learned about the theory of relativity from my older brother when I was still in elementary school. By the time I got to college, I thought I believed in Einsteinâ€™s theory of relativity. And yet, when I learned that time dilation had been empirically measured with atomic clocks aboard a high speed aircraft flying around the earth, I was shocked. This was not a particle accelerator, which is itself hard to believe in, but an actual airplane flying around the actual earth. I was shocked almost in the way I would expect someone to be shocked who did not believe in the theory of relativity. I met the experiment with skepticism, even though I had supposedly already bought into the truth of relativity. After a bit of introspection, it was quite obvious to me that some part of my brain had not accepted the effects of relativity, but I had no idea of that until I was sitting in a physics class one day and I learned about the experiment.
Did I really believe in relativity? How much of my knowledge of relativity was actually being stored in the part of my brain devoted to remembering fictional stories? In the same vein, how much of our religious belief system is stored in the fiction sections of our brains? Maybe a lot. Would there be a certain shock at seeing an angel, a shock that stems from the realization that angels are actually real? Really real? Maybe this is the same phenomenon we experience when seeing a movie star for the first time. You think that you believe movie stars are real people, but if you ever meet one face to face, you find yourself surprised that they are real people. But why should you be surprised? You shouldnâ€™t be, and you wouldnâ€™t be if you fully believed in them in the first place. If we have a hard time believing in the existence of movie stars, how much harder is it to believe in God?
15 Do ye exercise faith in the redemption of him who created you? Do you look forward with an eye of faith, and view this mortal body raised in immortality, and this corruption raised in incorruption, to stand before God to be judged according to the deeds which have been done in the mortal body? (Alma 5)
26 And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now? (Alma 5)
Can you see it in your minds eye? Is it real? Have you had an experience with God or his Spirit which made them real to your mind? Have you had one recently? I am convinced that from a purely psychological standpoint, we cannot continue to believe in God with any degree of strength if we do not experience in our lives things which ground those beliefs in our reality. What do you think?