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Faith of the Faithless


As a child reared in the very buckle of America’s Bible belt, I can clearly remember hearing people speak of how Jesus was “in their hearts,” and was the cornerstone of their lives. Coming from most, the sincerity with which such proclamations were made was touching, even if I, as a Jew (and for a good portion of my life an agnostic one at that), didn’t share their particular faith.

Yet at the same time, I often found myself wondering, and still do, why many of those who insist on how important their personal relationship with Jesus is, sometimes say and do things that call into question how deeply their Christianity truly runs.

By this, I do not mean people who act contrary to the tenets of Christianity, per se. After all, there is nothing surprising about people acting in contravention of their stated principles: everyone does that from time to time, and Christians surely have no monopoly on hypocrisy. Jews, Muslims, believers and non-believers of all stripes are quite studied at saying one thing and doing another. It appears to be part of the human condition.

So no, I am not speaking of those good Christians who support wars based on deception, or what the Bible calls “false witness.” Nor am I speaking of those Christians who, in my state of Tennessee, are watching, without raising their voices by even a decibel as several hundred thousand of their neighbors get thrown off the state’s health care plan this week.

That termination from TennCare will leave many without the means to obtain prescriptions and treatment for even terminal illnesses matters not, it seems, to most of Nashville’s evangelical church community. Indeed, many in that particular contingent voice support for the Governor’s belt-tightening measures. After all, they’re tired of “paying taxes to take care of others,” and, you’ll hear them cluck, if “those people” would just work harder, or perhaps stop smoking, they wouldn’t have so many health problems in the first place.

What would Jesus do? Why, lecture the poor, of course, after lobbying for tax cuts. He was famous for both. But as bad as that is, and as much as I’ve now spent a few paragraphs on it, that is not actually the focus of my thoughts this day.

Rather, I am speaking now of those whose actions seem to imply that they are less than thoroughly convinced about the strength of their own beliefs, or those of others like them; folks whose actions raise the question, just how faithful are persons of faith after all?

Recently, I got to thinking about this question because of the announcement that President Bush had gone on record as supporting the teaching of “intelligent design” in American schools. For those unfamiliar with the concept, it is but the latest pseudo-scientific prattle pushed by those who wish to insert religion into the nation’s educational system under the guise of something else.

Not as blatantly theological as its illegitimate cousin, “creation science,” many in the evangelical community have latched on to it as a way to get God back in the classroom, however subtly. Though the theories put forth by its advocates are untestable (and thus, by definition unscientific, as even many of the advocates themselves acknowledge), folks like Bush see no problem with the idea that ID, as it’s called, should be added to high school science classes, alongside evolution, as just another “theory.”

That such scientific illiteracy masquerading as open-mindedness comes from a man who believes there is no evidence of global climate change should surprise no one of course. But what is surprising, or at least disturbing, is how readily so-called people of faith have jumped on the ID bandwagon, even as the movement to “prove” matters of faith calls into question the very nature and extent of that faith in the first place.

After all, what kind of faith is it that requires (and seeks out) proof?

Faith is supposed to come from the heart, because by definition it is not about empirical evidence as generally required by the mature brain. Faith is about something less tangible than science, but just as real for those who have it. Turning faith into something that can be proven, something that can be validated ostensibly by the strictures of the scientific method (and which needs to be in order to be taken seriously), suggests that those proclaiming their faith are not nearly as convinced as they would have us believe.

Of course none of this is particularly new. One of the reigning hallmarks of Western Christianity (at least in its dominant white version, which is very different than that practiced in most of the black church, or by liberation theologians in Latin America, or even by white rebels like Jim Wallis or Tony Campolo) has been the stunning faithlessness of its approach to God, as evidenced by the capitalistic way in which it has been commoditized, and the way in which it has sought out things like ID to validate its key concepts.

Christians who follow a faith such as this are the kind of folks who regularly engage in “gotcha” religiosity: you know the type; people who quickly point to this or that Scriptural verse as proof that Jesus was the living embodiment of God the father, without whom one is lost. They will write books about the hidden “code” in the Bible that proves this to be true with mathematical precision. They will point to the shroud of Turin as proof of Jesus’ divinity and resurrection.

They will point to seemingly out-of-place wood on what they believe to be the Biblical Mount Ararat as proof that the flood described in the book of Genesis happened exactly as written there: forty days and forty nights on a Gregorian calendar that didn’t even exist yet, ridden out by Noah, Sarah and every animal two-by-two.

They will speak of the sun dancing in the sky at Fatima, or Medjugorje or some such place–an absolute physical impossibility which would result in the instantaneous destruction of Earth and all its inhabitants–as proof of something important having to do with Mary.

They will look for miracles on the sides of refrigerators, in windowpanes, in the clouds, in coffee mugs, or anywhere else where they might be able to find the image of Jesus, and then upon finding that image will insist that these are proof of everything they believe.

And now they will push for the teaching of intelligent design, or worse yet, creation science, so as to prove that the Biblical account of the origins of the Universe are true as written, to the letter: from the 900-year life spans of early Scriptural figures, to the two utterly contradictory and incompatible creation stories that occur within the first few verses of Genesis–all of it.

It’s as if believing is not enough; it’s as if one must find forensic evidence as though one were conducting a murder investigation. But what kind of faith looks for, indeed requires, such proof?

Not a very strong one.

By striving to produce empirical validation for their beliefs, many modern Christians have turned questions of faith into the equivalent of a high school debate tournament. Believers then get so bogged down in proving the minutiae of what God said, when, to whom, and with what meaning, that they miss the essence of the creator they claim to be worshipping and call into question the depths of their belief system, which, were it strong, would hardly need evidence.

It all raises the obvious question as to why people of faith can’t simply be secure in their beliefs, in their faith, in their personal relationship with God, but instead must treat faith claims as science, as provable, as empirical, and thereby cheapen the beauty of faith itself? Why must they turn that which is sacred into that which is profane?

Could it be that self-proclaimed believers aren’t as sure of their own views as they insist? Perhaps it is all part of the same self-doubt that leads so many churches to build ever-larger buildings and chapels (even when half the pews are empty each week) as if to say, “Look at us, look at our devotion.” What is the “mega-church” after all, if not an attempt to outdo others and prove one’s religiosity, not to God, who presumably, can already read what is in the hearts of parishioners, but rather to oneself?

At the end of the day, one has to ask just what is the value of a faith that spends as much time trying to turn its key tenets into accepted fact as it does worshipping and celebrating the awe and wonder of creation? Why is the unsettled, unprovable, ultimately un-scientific nature of true faith so scary? Why, in other words, are Christians so defensive (and for that matter fundie Jews and Muslims too), that they must project their own insecurities into the world in utterly faithless form?

To persons of true faith, the value of this kind of religion is altogether lacking, which probably explains why many Christians, who seem to place more emphasis on outward manifestations of piety than a commitment to living by Christ-like principles–people like George W. Bush, for example–think it’s such a great idea.

Tim Wise is the author of White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (Soft Skull, 2005), and can be reached at timjwise@msn.com. His website is www.timwise.org

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