A man attends a church service at the insistence of his daughter, and something happens to him so that, from then on, he is sober. A woman seeks guidance through prayer for a new job, praises God when she obtains an interesting position, and a year later she is laid off. A man is devoted to his religious congregation and does much good for his family and community, and one day his wife announces that she wants a divorce. A person receives distressing news in the mail, and at that very moment the person receives a cheering phone call from a best friend.
Whether large or small, difficult or happy, unexpected or anticipated, our lives are filled with events, some of which move us powerfully, and some define our lives. If we are religious and/or spiritual, such events can validate, test, or even destroy the convictions and concepts that had given our faith a foundation. Although not primarily individualistic, faith is of course a deeply personal thing, and therefore we could feel shaken to the core by events and experiences that send us on new trajectories or call our fondest hopes into question.
Spiritual Growth as Discovery
I like to think of religious and spiritual growth as a process of discovery, modification, and refinement of one’s beliefs, akin to ongoing scientific testing. If I’m a chemist who develops a compound that seems to cure a certain disease, I must continue to test it to verify its safety and effectiveness. If I’m a physicist who discovers subatomic particles acting in unexpected ways, I must continue to study them and corroborate what I know with what I’ve now observed.
Eventually, hypotheses become theories, that is, a hypothesis that has withstood experiments and has become a framework for understanding phenomena. Theories, too, require ongoing testing and do not necessarily explain everything completely. For instance, Newton’s calculations about gravity covered most observations but did not explain aspects of the orbit of Mercury. Eventually, those aspects were explained Einstein’s theories of time, space, light, and gravity.
At no time, though, would a scientist respond to a failed experiment or altered hypothesis with a despairing conclusion like, “I no longer believe in science,” or “Science is a foolish enterprise that leads to nothing.” Yet disappointing or tragic circumstances can lead people to discard religious beliefs altogether.
I don’t want to push the similarities too far, and I’m not talking about scientific and historical studies of biblical texts. I’m thinking about ways we can informally adapt the spirit of empirical inquiry: to consider “life” and experience as continual testing grounds for our religious and spiritual beliefs. Is a belief adequate to explain things going on with me? Is this theological insight a suitable guide? What if a crisis of some kind, some compelling evidence, intervenes and throws dearly held beliefs into question? We could discard belief altogether, throwing away our religion as a discarded world-view. Or we could test and rethink beliefs so that those beliefs become stronger and, in a way, more truthful. After all, it may be God who is introducing the new experiences that are shaking us up.
The Jewish and Christian scriptures provide stories that reflect this “scientific” way of testing, modifying, and verifying one’s faith.
The Importance of Evidence
In the New Testament, the apostle Thomas gets a bad rap. Known ever after as “Doubter,” he wants firsthand evidence that Jesus is alive. When Jesus next appears, he gives Thomas special attention; he shows Thomas his body and his wounds. Unfortunately, you might say, Jesus then goes on to praise the kind of faith that is strong without the evidence provided by sight---seemingly a proof text for blind, uncritical faith. But still, the fact remains that Jesus gave Thomas the proof he requested. Jesus knew that Thomas needed a “test question” answered before Thomas could move forward.
Plenty of us need proof, or some kind of “sign,” to validate a religious search or to gain strength when faith wavers. I once met a man, struggling with belief, who had never been able to find a four-leaf clover. He prayed that if God were real, he might be able to locate a four-leaf clover. The next time he searched, he found several. Think of such a thing as a preliminary hypothesis: I needed evidence of God, and something amazing happened in response to my query. But it may have just been a coincident, so now I’ll step out in faith and see what else transpires.
Jacob’s prayer in Genesis 28 is that kind of prayer. He goes to sleep, resting on a stone of all things, and he has a vision of God’s angels ascending and descending to Heaven. Convinced that he had found a holy place unawares, he built an altar to God, called the place “House of God” (“Bethel”), and vowed, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you” (Gen. 28:20-22).
Is this a mature prayer? Perhaps not: "If God steps up for me, I’ll respond." But it is the beginning of a process of discovery. After all, God meets us where we are, not where we might be potentially, or where we’d be in different circumstances.
We see a similar process at work in the stories of Gideon in Judges 6. A man appears to Gideon, saying, “The Lord is with you,” and Gideon begs to differ: the evidence just isn’t there! If the Lord is with him and his Israelites, argued Gideon, why has disaster befallen them? The man gives Gideon a sign: fire springs from a rock to consume the meal Gideon has presented to the man, whom Gideon then recognizes as an angel. A few verses later, Gideon needs another sign, this time he lays out a fleece and asks that it have dew upon it while the surrounding ground remains dry, which happens. God also allows the fleece to remain dry while the surrounding ground is dewy. Thus fortified with proofs that validated the hypothesis “The Lord is with you”, Gideon proceeds with his tasks, still hopeful that God will continue to provide (Judges 6:11-24).
When God Seems Missing
We seek signs, and sometimes we perceive God’s presence and find the assurance we need. But what about the times when God seems absent or silent? What if death or divorce or job loss wrecks our lives? What if our best efforts go unrewarded or punished? There are plenty of scriptures that witness to feelings of abandonment and disappointed by God. It is significant that these anxious statements of distressed faith and feelings of betrayal are part of the biblical tradition: God’s word to us.
Think of Psalm 44. ”Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever. Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground” (verses 23-25). Many of the psalms, in fact, express a process of discovery: trouble of some sort happens, the psalmist beseeches God for help, the psalmist waits and expresses pain and hope in God’s eventual blessing, and then the psalmist praises God for being faithful. Several psalms add the detail that God has done wonderful things in the past. We might call these memories evidence for having faith, while discovery and validation of God’s providence is ongoing. In the psalmist’s own experience, though, evidence of God’s care isn’t immediately forthcoming. Acting on the premise that God does exist and does care, the psalmist keeps “testing” that premise by beseeching God for help, sometimes tenaciously and accusingly, as in Psalm 44.
Another way of validating the premise that God cares is to “claim” biblical promises. I’ve known Christians who like to do this: they’ll select a verse that expresses some aspect of divine care, and they’ll have faith that God will act in accordance to that biblical promise. This is a venerable way of trusting God.
We must remember, however, that biblical promises about God’s love and care may be generally true, but that neither God nor life generally conforms to all our expectations. Just as a scientist can’t “make” a physical phenomenon happen (otherwise, it would be falsifying empirical results!), so faith and prayer don’t necessarily lead to specific outcomes. I wish I’d kept the reference to a blog post I once read, where an unemployed person had claimed the promise of Jeremiah 29:11: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” Months later, the person still sought a job, and was considering this verse (originally words of hope to the Judahites experiencing their worst national crisis) in developing ways. Scriptures provide assurance that evidence of God’s favor and help may be forthcoming, even a long time away.
Like some scientific breakthroughs, evidence that supports faith might appear unexpectedly. A favorite story is the two disciples who meet Jesus as they walk to Emmaus from Jerusalem, Luke 24:13-35. They weren’t even seeking Jesus, because they despaired that Jesus had been killed, invalidating their beliefs and hopes. But Jesus accompanies them unrecognized and becomes such a compelling presence that they want him to stay with him. Finally they recognize him when he breaks bread, he disappears, and in their joy they made the 7-mile return trip to Jerusalem to tell others. That story always reminds me of Archimedes running through the streets in excitement when he discovered buoyant force and water displacement, although Jesus’ followers still had their clothes on.
God himself links signs to trust and faith. You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah,” God warns in Deuteronomy 6:16, referring to the Exodus 17:1-7 story where the people expressed no trust in God when they lacked adequate water. Yet God says, “Put me to the test” in Malachi 3:10, when the people have not been faithful in bringing offerings and tithes to the Temple; if they corrected this disobedience, God would “pour down for you an overflowing blessing” (Mal. 3:11). Evidence of God’s help may be seen when we step out in faith to do something difficult (such as giving money charitably when we’re financially struggling) and then perceiving positive things in our lives.
But, God also sends overflowing blessings to undeserving people. Grace is wholly a gift, after all. Jesus taught that a person who comes to faith very late gets God’s blessings, too (Matt. 20:1-16). Take the thief on the cross, who has the barest minimum of faith, and Jesus welcomes him into paradise (Luke 23:39-43). Take the stories of scoundrels and sinners who have reformed, from the Apostle Paul through Augustine to Thomas Merton and Charles Colson and so many others. In these cases, God’s unexpected generosity becomes the “data” for strengthening and validating belief: if that life can be fixed, then God must be real.
“Test yourselves,” Paul says in 2 Corinthians 13:5. There is also the test and evidence of self-recognition, where a person is doing honest self-assessment. The stumbling block to a solid faith is one’s own self, one’s illusions. We’ve all known religious people who don’t realize what a poor impression they’re making. They speak warmly of God’s love but fail to show much love themselves. They embrace God’s blessings but hold uncaring judgments (sometimes rooted in their political opinions) toward others. You fear that their inconsistent faith will spread, or that they will find their own faith wanting under discouraging experiences.
Just as scientists like Thomas Edison fail many times, so we all fail many kinds of spiritual “tests.” In this case, the data for a strong faith may be our own dependability (or lack thereof) and our fault-ridden character. We thought our resolutions were solid, but in optimum circumstances we failed and fell. Unpleasant though they are, these situations can be powerful ways to progress toward a more solid life in the Spirit. 1 Peter 1:6-7 notes that the genuineness of one’s faith becomes tested, but ideally this is a test analogous to a precious metal being refined in fire so that the impurities are removed.
Two famous biblical stories come to mind. One is that of Peter himself, his denial of Jesus, a story told in all four Gospels. Though adamant that he would never deny knowing Jesus, he does so three times, and rushes off with a crushed, contrite spirit that he’d betrayed his teacher and friend, and that he hadn’t known himself as well as he thought.
The story of Elijah’s flight from the wrath of Jezebel is also well known. Elijah has been justifiably fearful, but he has fallen into the illusion that he carried the entire responsibility of witnessing to God, and that everything has come to ruin. A comforting image from the story is the “sound of sheer silence” that summons Elijah more strongly than violent manifestations of fire, wind, and earthquake. But I like the story because God reminds Elijah that he is not as alone as he thinks. God tells him that seven thousand Israelites have not capitulated to the foreign gods (1 Kings 19:9-19). Not only that, in a wonderful example of divine evidence-provision, Elijah also gains a cohort, Elisha, during his journey from Mt. Horeb to Damascus (1 Kings 19:19-21).
Controversially but crucially, I believe it is important to incorporate new experiences into our faith that run counter to the literal sense of scripture. Some religious groups will not ordain women into leadership roles, based on the subordinate role of women in the Bible. Other groups began to ordain women when God’s gifts for leadership were observed and validated in the lives of women. New experiences of divine blessings led to an old “hypothesis” being rethought.
A major issue among churches today is the ordination of LGBT persons. Many of us straight people have formed theological positions on this issue based on scriptural prohibitions, without having spent time with LGBT persons. But as LGBT persons exhibit gifts and callings for church ministry, experience has been brought bear upon scriptural interpretation.
For instance, Galatians 3:2 reads: "The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?" The predominantly Gentile church of Galatia had received God's Spirit apart from fulfilling any traditional religious requirements. In our own time, have gay persons received calls and gifts to ministry by ceasing to be gay, in compliance with the prohibitive Bible verses, or by believing in the Lord? A similar case is Acts 15:12-18, where the surprising situation---God is working among Gentiles---is seen as validation of something new God is going.
Flexibility and Wisdom
“Flexibility” may not be the first term that pops into our minds when we think about religious beliefs. Stereotypically, at least, religious persons hold their beliefs with tenacity. Christian liberals can be just as doctrinaire as their conservative counterparts. This is also true when a person’s religious life is simply an everyday life with a few cherished beliefs tacked on.
The New Testament scholar Luke T. Johnson refers to “symbolic worlds” as “systems of meaning” that ground us, both as individuals and communities. Symbolic words are connected to religious narratives that, in turn, address the ultimate questions about our origins and transcendent reality. But symbolic worlds can become damaged or shattered as experience calls into question our beliefs and assumption. A most tragic example, notes Johnson, is the Holocaust, which shattered the meaning of covenant and Torah for those millions who lived through that time. New religious experiences, on the other hand, can bring new possibilities of meaning. Johnson notes that the first Christians experienced kinds of power such as freedom from fear, authority over evil forces, healings, love and reconciliation, and an endurance of life beyond physical death. Those first Christians expressed that experience in terms of Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead and the subsequent, widespread gift of God’s own spirit. (1)
Because our lives are always enriched with new experiences both small and great, beliefs may require flexibility, modification and replenishment. Just as the orbit of Mercury didn’t quite fit the gravitational formulas that adequately explained other phenomena, so our religious beliefs may hold up well in the normal course of things but become shaky in the face of trouble and tragedy.
The Jewish and Christian scriptures indicate that new religious experiences---fresh ways that God works, acts, and blesses---can be part of the very fabric of religious life. God may introduce into our lives, whether we seek them or not, things like signs, serendipitous events, miraculous occurrences, and powerful indications of God’s presence. To think of beliefs as “hypotheses” and “theories” does not imply that they are tentative, but that our understanding and insights about spiritual reality grows as we ourselves grow in experience and wisdom.
(Following my proposal to a journal, I was given the green light to write this piece and then it was declined---not an unknown experience for writers!---but it fits well here.)
1. Luke T. Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 11-18.