Donald Miller, minister and seminary president, tells about a woman who phoned him one Saturday night and asked, “Dr. Miller, what do I believe?”
“What do you mean?” asked Miller, not sure he had heard her correctly.
“I mean,” she said, “what do I believe? You see, I’ve just come from a party where several people got into a discussion about their various beliefs. One woman was Jewish, and she told us what she believes as a Jew. Another was Roman Catholic, and she told us what Catholics believe. Somebody was a Christian Scientist, and he talked about what they believe. I was the only Protestant in the group, and, frankly, I didn’t know what to say. What do I believe?”
“That woman,” said Miller, “must have come into the church on confusion of faith, not the confession of faith.”
Unfortunately, there are a lot of people today who are suffering from confusion of faith and can’t say exactly what they believe. It is easy to sympathize with such people. In a world as confused and heterogeneous as ours, it is no wonder they feel lost and bewildered. Many things have happened in the present century to shake anyone’s easy confidence in what most believers once took for granted.
Two world wars, several other major conflicts, and the great suffering that accompanied them have eroded many people’s faith.
Albert Camus, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, said that he could not believe in a God who permitted the destruction and unhappiness of millions of people, including innocent women and children. In one of Ernest Hemingway’s novels, A Farewell to Arms, someone asks Lt. Henry, who was wounded in the first world war, if he is croyant — that is, if he is a believer. “Only at night,” he replies. In the daytime, when his mind is alert, he can no longer believe; at night, some of the old yearnings return.
The age of science and technology has made it increasingly hard to think in terms of religious causality.
Many people are inoculated with just enough understanding of the laws of physics to blind them to the great mysteries of the universe. They take a “laboratory approach” to life and, because they cannot quantify or qualify the role of the Creator, assume that the deity was only a “God of the gaps” imagined by primitive people to explain the natural phenomena for which they had no scientific explanations.
Recent advances in medicine and communications, among others, have only further removed us from a sense of the presence of God. Wonder drugs and organ transplants have given many persons undue confidence in the power of physicians — a confidence many physicians themselves will readily admit is probably misplaced. And the development of the media, especially TV and videotapes, has provided humanity with such a vivid world of instantaneous diversion that many persons now go through life without confronting the void surrounding their consciousness. They simply turn on the “tube” or put on some headphones and propel themselves immediately into some vicarious world where they can escape the necessity of existential decision-making.
“Who needs God, man?” asked one twisting, gyrating young man with an oversized cassette-player on his shoulder and earplugs in his ears. “This is it!”
The geometical increase of knowledge in our time, with the relativism that invariably accompanies it, has also had a destructive influence on faith.
“Everything in the mind is in rat’s country,” says anthropologist Loren Eiseley. “It doesn’t die.” He means that we are like pack rats, especially now that we have computers — we never destroy information. As a consequence, we are overwhelmed by data banks, by stored experiences, by all there is to see and hear and know. In a world filled with so much information, people don’t know what to believe. The Hindus in Indiana have one belief system, the natives in Zimbabwe another. One religion teaches renunciation, another advocates embracing the world. What should a person believe? It is no wonder that professors of religion in colleges and universities are often respectful of all beliefs while having none of their own.
“God used to rage at the Israelites for frequenting sacred groves,” says Annie Dillard in Teaching a Stone to Talk. “I wish I could find one.” Her point is that we have so relativized the world that we have ended by desacralizing it, by removing every hint of transcendence; pantheism, the idea that everything is inhabited by a god, has given way to panatheism, the idea that nothing is any longer holy.
Confusion of faith, indeed! We admire the great modern heroes of the Christian way, such as Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa, but we don’t pretend to understand how they can be so single-minded. We are personally much more in tune with Woody Allen, who says in Love and Death, “If God would only speak to me — just once. If He would only cough. If I could just see a miracle. If I could see a burning bush or the seas part. Or my Uncle Sasha pick up the check.”
What happens when we no longer believe anything and can’t act from a center of spiritual certainty, the way our forebears did? We lose our sense of direction. We are like globules of quicksilver racing this way and that, with nothing to steady or guide us.
I once heard a very convincing explanation of this from a completely nonreligious source, a merchant of self-confidence named Shad Helmstetter. What, asked Helmstetter, is the most basic thing that can be described about a person? It is the person’s behavior. Whatever else can be said about the person, the behavior remains the most obvious. But what determines behavior? It is feelings, isn’t it? The person behaves the way he or she does because of the way he or she feels. And what controls the person’s feelings? It is attitudes. If the person has an optimistic attitude, he or she will feel upbeat and happy. A pessimistic attitude, on the other hand, results in feelings that are negative and unhappy.
But there is something else, said Helmstetter, that lies behind attitudes. It is beliefs. What people believe controls their attitudes. If they believe there is a God, and that God is working for their good, their attitudes will be more positive than if they believe everything is mechanistic and there is no moral center of life.
If we do not know what to believe, in other words — if our belief centers have simply collapsed from the pressures of suffering and scientific preoccupation and intellectual relativism — then we have nothing with which to control our attitudes and feelings and behavior. Our human consciousness will drift without a rudder on a vast sea of meaninglessness.
We are what we believe.
Helmstetter’s explanation goes one further step. Behind behavior and feelings and attitudes and beliefs, he says, there is an even more basic determinant in our lives. It is programming. The human mind, he said, is like a computer. It behaves the way it is programmed to behave. It acts on the information that is fed into it. It is what we are programmed to think that determines what we believe and, in turn, what our attitudes are, and so on.
Two famous sociologists, Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, have given a name to this programming. They call it “the social construction of reality.” In a book by that name, they demonstrate the manner in which all human beings tend to receive their understanding of what is real and valuable in life from other human beings, especially those in greatest proximity to themselves, instead of from their own independent experimentation and perception.
If our society believes in God, we shall probably believe in God. If the society is not particularly interested in God, then we are not likely to be very much committed to thoughts of a deity either.
Given a society like ours, then, which is admittedly only nominally religious and given more and more to secular, hedonistic inclinations, our programming for belief is at best rather indefinite and we are more likely to emulate such popular idols as Cher, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Sylvester Stallone, Lee Iacocca, and Donald Trump than St. Francis or Mother Teresa.
But fortunately belief sometimes manifests a way of asserting itself against its programming. It did in the case of Saul of Tarsus, the highly trained Pharisee who claimed to have had a remarkable encounter with the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus and went on to become the hyperenergetic thirteenth apostle. It did in the case of Ignatius of Loyola, a soldier reared to battle and courtly love under the secretary of the Spanish treasury. Lying in bed with a wounded leg, he asked for a certain book to read. His attendants could not find it so they brought him another book, The Flower of the Saints. When he had finished it, there was a visible change in his manner. Laying aside knighthood, he became an ardent follower of Christ. Eventually he founded the influential Society of Jesus.
Belief asserted itself against programming also in the case of Sasha Makovkin, the gifted potter I met in the summer of 1987. Sasha’s uncle was the dean of St. Basil’s Russian Orthodox Church, the great landmark on Red Square in Moscow. During the revolution that created the Soviet state, the soldiers carried all the icons from the church and threw them onto the pavement in the square. They offered the dean a bargain: if he would walk on the icons, denouncing his faith, they would permit him to live; if he would not, they would shoot him. For many years, Sasha did not understand why his uncle refused and died for his belief. Why would anyone hold belief dearer than life?
Sasha, of course, belonged to a new era, a new kind of programming. He came with his family to the United States and reached manhood during the heady days of Vietnam, when young people were “tuning in and dropping out,” when smoking pot and avoiding the draft became a way of life. Protesting the war and joining “the way of jeans and sandals,” he discovered his talent and became a potter. He and the woman he lived with built a rude house entirely of castaway materials in the woods above the hippie center of Mendocino, California.
Then, while leading a pottery workshop for a local Presbyterian church, Sasha began to read the Gospel of John. Over and over, he felt confronted by the challenge to believe in Christ. “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish” (
“More than eighty times,” said Sasha. “More than eighty times it says we must believe. I could not get away from its insistence. At last, I had to surrender to Christ.”
At last, too, Sasha understood about his uncle. There are some beliefs that shape one’s attitudes so completely that one will even die for them. Sasha’s own attitudes began to change. So did his feelings and behavior. He began to witness to this strange power that had come into his life, and to the wonderful happiness it brought. As he gave pottery workshops, which he was doing with increasing frequency, he talked about the Greatest Potter of all, the One who shapes our lives into things of beauty and durability.
Now several years later, he talks of little else. Everywhere, he speaks of the power of belief to change human life. His own beautiful life is his greatest witness. There is no confusion of faith in Sasha. In a world of suffering and scientific attitudes and intellectual relativism, he goes quietly and confidently on his way, for he knows what he believes. More importantly, he knows whom he believes, for the faith he has found is a deeply personal faith, one in which he believes God has addressed him and he has answered with the commitment of his life.
Sasha’s programming did not prepare him for this. Like Tertullian of old, he believes in spite of the evidence, in spite of the way our society has chosen to construct its view of reality. But his belief has triumphed over his programming, and he is an example of what it means to live with the certainty of faith in an age of secularism.