Starting this series by attempting to tackle this question seems silly, but there really is no better place to start. Of course, the ability to bring this post to an end is what makes me nervous. This can be a very broad question.
But the point of this series is not to comprehensively explain everything I believe. It is to provide the reasons why I believe some of the things I do – in particular, some of the things that a growing number of people in the world do not.
So, why not start at the point where all the rest must begin. Belief in God. “Why?” inquires the skeptic. “Why do you believe in God?”
It would be easy, at the outset, to launch into some previously prepared apologetical defense, in which I point out specific evidences that validate faith in a divine being while simultaneously poking holes in arguments to the contrary. I’ve come across many defenses like this over the years – some mean-spirited, others genuinely thought-provoking – but the majority of them lack the very thing I am intending this series to contain: personal testimony. Rarely have I heard the defenders answer the Why question; more often than not, they seem caught up in how they believe in God. I could go on and on about what Christians believe and how that belief is configured and structured, but if my words do not emerge from my own personality, emotions, inclinations and experiences, then all I have done is offer a formula, not a testimony.
Why do I believe in God? Because in God I find meaning.
“Meaning” is a tricky word. Allow me to clarify: purpose, motivation, intentionality, objectivity, inspiration, and grounds for justice.
It is in God – and, without meaning to separate the two, the idea of God – that I find these things. Each of them are integral to human existence, but all of them can be gathered up within the word “meaning.”
Since humanity’s beginning, there have always been individuals who believed that any or all of the above terms could be experienced outside of a reality in which a divine being reigned over our existence. Some of them have dismissed the concept of God completely, while others have been content with thinking this God set existence in motion but then eventually took his hands off the steering wheel and abandoned the vehicle. Either way, if these individuals wanted to determine their purpose, or be inspired, or appeal to some foundational rule of order, they had to go about it by entirely human means. They had to take cues from either the biological impulses within them or the natural world around them (or both).
I am the opposite. I do not determine meaning in this life merely by the instincts and urges of my body, nor by the functions and occurrences of the natural world alone. I point to something outside of these realities. I point to something Other than these things – a Something that is separate from them. And, aided by millennia full of humans who have thought similarly, I refer to this Something Other as “God.”
Further assisted by particular human traditions, I have embraced a particular viewpoint about this God, the details of which are legion. Suffice it to say, this viewpoint includes core beliefs such as:
- Monotheistic – meaning there is only one God who oversees all, rather than multiple gods who each oversee some
- Transcendent – meaning this God acts from beyond my own reality, or, perhaps more accurately, from a reality that is higher than my own perception allows me to experience
- Intimate – meaning that despite this God’s transcendence, “He” (to use a human pronoun) intentionally interacts with humanity, seemingly showing interest and concern regarding our existence
- Personal – meaning that, as an extension of Intimate, this God wills that I would be intimately aware of, and even dependent upon, His existence
This, of course, is where personal testimony must kick in, lest I fall into the trap of qualifying and quantifying my belief in God in only clinical, philosophical language. It is not enough to leave my explanation at a short list of characteristics. I must claim them as important to my own existence.
I believe in God and in the particular details above because I believe they sufficiently explain how I experience existential meaning. The above characteristics are a source for purpose in life (my own individual one, and the world’s comprehensive one), for motivation to go on living, and for the significance of intentionality in the way I speak and act. I can trust in these things because I believe this God is objective – not acting on mere whim but according to His determined will. As such, I receive inspiration to live according to that will. The Latin root of inspiration is spiritus, after all.
Finally, I believe and uphold a certain standard of justice. I insist in an absolute right and an absolute wrong. Because of my own fickleness, and the capricious will of humanity in general, I know that this absoluteness must proceed from an objective Other, not a subjective me.
Now to respond to what I believe are some natural follow-up questions…
Isn’t your belief in this “Other” simply the result of your unique upbringing?
I have known some skeptics to ask me, if I had I been born in 12th century Saudi Arabia or 14th century China, do I think I would have a completely different concept of God or spirituality in general? After all, are not even the details of my theology that are listed above the natural result of being born into a time and place that is heavily saturated with people who think likewise? Isn’t my belief in the Christian God dependent on the specific cultural and religious influences within which I grew up?
No doubt. But the fact that I was born at a certain time and place and within an arena of particular influences does not, in and of itself, invalidate the existence of the God I believe in today. It may sound callous and narcissistic to some people, but I believe that had Bo Bowen grown up in 13th century Central America and accepted that culture’s most prominent belief system, he would have been mistaken. My faith in God and in His characteristics is such that I intentionally reject contrary belief systems.
If that sounds theologically small-minded, I’m sorry. Once again, I’m just being honest.
Why do Christians say they believe in one God when they actually believe in three?
This question is worth its own post (or its own blog), but in lieu of that I will just respond to the alleged discrepancy itself.
The Christian faith is indeed predicated on the concept of “a Triune God” – that is, a God who is one nature, but acts as three expressions, or “persons.” God’s nature is what He is. The “persons” reveal who He is, specifically Father, Son, and Spirit.
Why would any faith system add such a confusing mind pretzel to its theology? Because of that millennia of human tradition I mentioned above, most notably the thoughts and experiences collected in the Bible, which continually refers to the who of God in three distinct ways. It may seem like needless muddling of an idea, but the doctrine of the Trinity, which developed during the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D., actually helped Christians think more clearly and profoundly about God.
Isn’t it easier to simply find the meaning of life in life rather than outside of it?
When I have been asked this question, the person I’m talking to usually appears frustrated, as if my beliefs are too burdensome for any normal person to accept. Belief in God seems too technical, too complicated. I try to remind them that they were the ones to press me for a satisfactory answer for why I believe in God.
It’s not like I wake up every morning with the words purpose, motivation, intentionality, objectivity, inspiration, and justice at the forefront of my mind, or the concepts of monotheistic, transcendent, intimate, and personal plastered mentally across the bathroom mirror. For me, belief is experiential, not formulaic. Even the most left-brained, mathematical mind does not see all religious faith as a series of ones and zeros, but as something with which a person identifies, has a relationship with.
Sometimes the question is asked with a tone of offense, as if it is terribly rude of this God to expect our belief without giving us proof of His existence. I was speaking once with a college student who bluntly declared, “I won’t believe in God until he gives me a full-proof reason to believe in him?” Setting aside the nonsensical premise of this statement, I asked him what kind of proof he was interested in? Was it an audible, otherworldly voice in our ears every day saying, “Hey, don’t forget, I’m God and I exist”? Was it an unequivocal physical manifestation of God walking around in our midst? Or is it the scarcity of violence, sickness and despair we want, the presence of which seems to be all some skeptics need for dismissing the idea of God? His response: “I don’t know. I just want more proof. More evidence.” I clarified that he meant he wanted evidence that had no logical explanation or couldn’t be explained away by science. “I guess so,” he said. I told him that’s exactly what I meant by this feeling – this inkling – of meaning I had been talking about.
He wasn’t satisfied. At that point, there was nothing more for me to say.
Finally, sometimes the question is asked in exasperation, suggesting a control issue. The skeptic is not interested in embracing the concept of Something Other because that would mean there is a power and a will operating outside the bounds of human reason. That will could be imposed upon humanity. Belief in God is an act of submission – it is accepting that my will is not central – and whether he admits it or not, the skeptic finds this difficult. If only he knew that he is not alone. It is as difficult for the believer as it is for him. The only difference is that I have chosen to do what is difficult in order to gain something greater.
That “something greater” is the feeling – the intuitiveness – that my existence is not random, nor is it pointless. I do not agree that this notion is merely the firing of neurons or a side effect of evolutionary development. No, I have value beyond my suit of flesh and my immediate environment. I was designed for a reason by a reasonable mind, and created for specific place within a grand Creation. There is something to all this; we’re all headed somewhere. It was so before me, and it will be so after.
That is why I believe in God.