Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University
February 25, 2015
Readers of this blog may recall that last week’s post contained a letter from a former student of mine, plus the first half of my reply. The present post contains the conclusion of my letter. Click here if you want to read or review the student’s account of his doubts and depression. As explained in my introduction to last week’s post, my reply to the student was crafted as a “homiletical open letter,” which I read during a Sunday worship service at the Lake Washington United Methodist Church – hence the reference below to “the sermonic part of this long letter.” One of the Lectionary texts for the morning, I John 5:9-13, is discussed at length, and may also be worth reading before you proceed.
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Fourth, if my assessment of your depression is correct, I think it helps to explain your current bout of “misanthropy and agoraphobia.” These would turn out to be symptoms of your underlying sense of shame. Shame is the fear of being exposed, and there is no surprise that you’d avoid the company of people whose approval you covet but whose disapproval you fear. Nor is there any surprise that you’d hate them for disapproving of you – even if their “disapproval” is only a projection of your own self-doubts. When you stop hating yourself, you’ll stop fearing that they might confirm your self-hatred. But that doesn’t mean that it’s “wrong” for you to avoid company at this point, as if your temporary reclusiveness were yet another thing to loathe yourself for. No, it’s just a symptom of your self-doubt, and it will vanish once you accept the needlessness of your self-doubt and the genuineness of your worth as a person, a husband, a scholar, etc.
We come, fifth, to the question of your religious doubts. I’m inclined to agree with your observation that these are reciprocally related to your depression. Each is both a cause and an effect of the other, although it’s likely that each has other causes and other effects as well. Thus, one reason that you are depressed is that your identity as a “Christian” has been compromised, and one reason that your identity as a “Christian” has been compromised may be some lurking notion that “Christians” are magically exempt from depression. That said, however, the lifting of your depression may not whisk you back into the bosom of Abraham, because another reason for your loss of faith, and probably a more decisive one, is your sense that “the arguments just don’t quite go through.” And of course the “arguments” for Christianity won’t magically become valid if you start to cheer up – maybe thanks to Prozac.
But is faith ever grounded in the validity of arguments? I don’t think so – and I don’t think you think so either. I find it intriguing that your remark about the weakness of the arguments for Christianity is immediately followed by the remark that “lacking some other eye-opening experience of God, [you] don’t know what would bring [you] back to Christianity.” But why would an eye-opening experience validate the arguments for Christianity any more than happy pills would? In one sense, it wouldn’t. But what an eye-opening experience might provide is the necessary spiritual insight to understand that the truth of Christianity does not depend on the validity of theological arguments. Rather, the truth of Christianity is shown in the quality of inward life and outward conduct that it produces in those who have accepted it despite the lack of ironclad proofs and irrefutable evidence. It is only then that any arguments on behalf of the faith can “go through.” Does this reduce faith to wishful thinking? Well, yes, but the fact that one wants something to be true does not make it false, any more than it makes it true. And the desire for something to be true may make one more alert to the kind of truth it is than the desire for it not to be true. For example, isn’t it precisely because you want Holly to love you that you behave like the kind of husband that she continues to want to love? Of course! And would it be justifiable for you to act as if you didn’t want her to love you in order to test whether she actually does? Certainly not! The truths by which our lives can be well lived only seem true once we have started living by them. If we wait for proof that they are true before we start putting them to work in our lives, we’ll wait till Doomsday.
Let me tell you a story. Another former student of mine once asked me why I believed in God. I think I gave her as good an answer as she was prepared at that moment to hear. I said, “The world is such an amazing place that it offends me to think that nobody would finally get credit for it.” Is that a valid “argument” for Christianity? Well, it’s a somewhat slapdash version of the cosmological argument – but, like more rigorous and nuanced versions, it doesn’t prove the existence of God to the satisfaction of someone who doesn’t already want to believe in it. Rather, it expresses the ontological gratitude which believers really do feel, but which they can’t satisfactorily account for except by faith in a wise and loving Creator.
At last we come to the sermonic part of this long letter. John the Revelator writes: “This is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who has not the Son of God has not life” (I Jo. 5:11f). What he means by “eternal life” is not an indefinite prolongation of this life beyond the grave. What he means is that we can share on this side of the grave in the very life of God himself. Anyone can share in it, and some testify that they do share in it, but no one does share in it simply by accepting the validity of some snappy theological argument or by forcing himself to believe six impossible things before breakfast, like the White Queen in Alice. “Eternal life” or “saving faith” is the result of what you call “an eye-opening experience,” or rather, it is an entirely new way of experiencing reality, a new way of “seeing” and “taking” things, a new way of acting in the world and interacting with other people. It is a way of living in the world with confidence, not of the world with anxiety. It is living for the world, not for oneself alone. It is not white-knuckled obedience to lofty moral norms, but open-handed love of neighbor. It is being liberated from the futile and frenzied quest for other people’s approval, and being quietly, humbly but invincibly empowered to help weak-willed, broken-hearted people – people just like ourselves – to make it through another day. There is no “external” proof that Christian faith is true. In that sense, faith is a “leap,” as Kierkegaard said. What proof there is comes after the leap, not before – in the living of a life that is shaped by it.