Religious beliefs help us to order our lives and our world. They inform us about our place in the universe and provide us a rationale for being and living, and consolation in dying. Sometimes, however, certain beliefs, prime directives really, in our traditional belief systems clash with personal experience, rational thought, or reason, which produces a crisis of personal faith. What does one do then?
Sunday morning in Baptist Bible study this subject was broached when one of the fellows said "there are some things that I just take 'on faith,'" which I understood to mean that some things just don't seem to make sense for whatever reason, and so he just accepted them without question. After a moment I raised this question: why do we do that—accept things "on faith" without question? Shouldn't we challenge what we don't understand? The reaction from the class was defensive. We were, after all, talking about Baptist confessional beliefs.
Confessions are not offers to dialogue, but statements demanding acceptance. And some beliefs are so basic to faith that even their challenge threatens to undermine "the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3), and shakes the very foundations of a faith that gives meaning and order to life. What was an academic question for me, whose answer, I hoped, might lead to a better understanding of how we think about faith was seen by the class as an assault on faith, or so it seemed.
Religious confessions are holy things; for the confessor they are the very essence of absolute truth, and we defer to them as we do not to other secular beliefs we hold. Secular beliefs we change quite frequently, but in the face of a threat to religious belief we sense the shifting of tectonic plates beneath our feet. But the fact is that religious beliefs do change. What was gospel truth yesterday and today, tomorrow may very well be consigned to the dust bin of discarded religious belief.
There are numerous examples of Christian "believers" who questioned beliefs and refused to take things "on faith." For example, that was precisely the case with Job. His friends told him that he was suffering because of his sins (the common view of Mediterranean antiquity). That answer was not satisfying to Job. He was willing to admit that he may have sinned, but what he was suffering was out of all proportion to whatever sins he may have committed. He kept wrestling with a faith that affirmed: "sin always results in suffering; Job is suffering; therefore Job is a sinner." Job could not let the matter drop until he became convinced that God was powerful enough to do whatever God wanted—but Job never admitted that what he was suffering was the result of his sins (and of course the reader knows from reading the prologue to the poem, Job was right). In short Job never accepted the premise of his friends, even though he lost his one-sided argument with God. Because we have read the book, we know that Job's friends wanted him to confess something that was not true.
Here is another belief that was "gospel truth" in the Christian church. From the second century to the sixteenth century the standard view of the cosmos was that the earth was the center of the universe. A Polish scientist and churchman Nikolas Copernicus, however, in the early part of the sixteenth century proved that our solar system was heliocentric—meaning that the earth and all the planets in our solar system revolved around the sun. Fearing the inevitable conflict between his book and the church, Copernicus did not allow his book to be published until his death. At the end of the sixteenth century Giordano Bruno, a Monk-philosopher, believed Copernicus was right. Bruno was taken to court and given a chance to recant his heresy of the earth revolving around the sun. He refused to recant and was burned at the stake as a heretic. Later Galileo Galilei, an Italian astronomer of the 17th century, was placed under house arrest by church authorities for agreeing with Copernicus. In the end, however, he perjured himself and recanted. The church was mistaken, the confession was wrong, and eventually was quietly changed. Today we all know that the earth is a planet in an out of the way solar system at the edge of the Milky Way galaxy—and it circles around our sun. The religious belief that was once "gospel truth" for over a thousand years was replaced by a secular truth.
In short, confessions of faith are absolute truths only for those who accept them as such. Faith, however, may not demand that I confess things I find questionable or untrue; for confessions do not originate in the mind of God; they are human formulations that are changed by vote, synod action, or simply quietly over time. The Christian church is a conservative institution with a vested interest in its survival with the least amount of change. Some things, however, will always be in need of change—and change begins with questions.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University