Art imitates life compelling us to look deeper into the significance and meaning of human experience. For this reason Roger Lundin, author of Believing Again, felt studying literature was vital to our collective well-being—books weaved experience and sensation together giving expression to certain underlying truths about human existence. When Lundin was thirteen years old he read Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire.” After finishing it he felt like his life was taken away from him for a moment—measured and judged—and then returned to him in the form of an “alienated majesty.” (He realized his own situation was essentially identical to London’s main character.)
“To Build a Fire” is a story about a man lost in the Yukon wilderness. He must build a fire or die. Everything that can go wrong goes wrong. When the nameless man’s efforts fail, he submits to fate by falling into a sweet, dreamless sleep of death. London’s story of a hapless man freezing to death made perfect sense to an impressionable young Lundin: life was not directed by any divine being towards some sort of beautiful purpose; instead, life was governed by accident and blind necessity. Things, sometimes terrible things, simply just happened to people for no particular purpose or reason.
The death of Lundin’s older brother during routine surgery reinforced his sense of purposelessness. To him everything was either random or the workings of a divine power so distant and indifferent the thought of submitting to such a power was unbearable. These events deepened Lundin’s appreciation for literature: books seemed to confirm his sense existence was ultimately meaningless; and for the next two years only his high school English classes offered any sustenance for a famished spirit. The poets and novelists he encountered during this time placed him on a path towards eventually believing in God.
In Believing Again, Roger Lundin describes his personal journey from unbelief to belief: using the thoughts of various 19th century thinkers as his reference points Lundin makes sense of the path he took towards returning to faith.
A Changing Zeitgeist
Lundin takes the beginning of the 19th century as his starting point: the Enlightenment was in full swing and people, buoyed by a sense of hope and optimism, believed reason and education was the solution to all of humanity’s problems. However, despite all of the optimism by century’s end a number of assumptions about God and the world were successfully challenged thereby darkening the theological horizon.
Traditional notions around faith were challenged by refinements in the elder sciences of geology, biology, chemistry and physics and the emerging sciences of sociology and psychology. An increase in scientific knowledge contributed to the development of a new Zeitgeist (“Spirit of the Age”): as science increased our understanding of the physical world it did so at the cost of placing in to question certain long held, cherished beliefs, e.g. where once we thought of ourselves as special, advances in biology indicated we were not; where once it was believed the Earth was only thousands of years old advances in geology pointed to the planet being tens of millions of years old. In a sense science knocked humankind off of its pedestal; and by the end of the 19th century people were filled less with optimism and more with a feeling of being adrift, even alienated.
Science cannot really be blamed for causing this cultural shift; rather, it was the perceived implications of scientific findings causing people to question the existence of a divine order or purpose to life. Many of the major intellectual and cultural figures, like Emily Dickinson (1830-1896) and Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), wrote their most important works during this period. Both writers felt they were living during a time of challenge and bracing change; and although doubt had always co-existed alongside faith, it was during the 1800s open unbelief (atheism and agnosticism) first became an intellectually viable and, perhaps most importantly, a socially acceptable option.
In the 21st century, we have learned to live with unbelief. Yet, when unbelief first broke upon the scene in the mid-nineteenth century, the sense of disruption and disorientation it caused was palpable, even overwhelming for some; by the end of the 19th century unbelief went from being an isolated experience on the cultural margins to becoming a central feature of modern life.
Up until the middle of the 19th century young people were simply expected to adopt the same values and worldview as their parents. No questions asked. The situation has changed today. Nowadays young people—with exception of course—are expected to make their own way through the world; they embark alone on a quest for meaning and cannot entirely rely on either society or their family to guide them. Further still, young people are expected to examine things from a distance and not just accept things at face value. Today people possess a degree of freedom and individual responsibility inconceivable to our ancestors. We moderns—again, with exception—do not just trust authority for the sake of doing so or believe what we are told. We test our assumptions against science, against experience and against physical reality.
Roger Lundin is a child of the 20th century. He grew up living with significant doubt. At times he entertained the idea some force (a God) governed the course of life; however, he had no idea what it was like or whether it even had a name. He clearly did not believe it was a loving, forgiving, or personal power directing history or events from behind the scenes. As a child of the 20th century, Lundin believed the laws of nature and the world took no notice of his personal longings, or the prayers and destiny of people. Instead, it appeared to him people were simply wandering around from nowhere to nowhere. The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) describes the situation this way in his poem “Road to Nowhere”:
If what is proclaimed by Christianity is a fiction,
And what we are taught in schools,
In newspapers and TV is true:
That the evolution of life is an accident,
As is an accident the existence of man,
And that his history goes from nowhere to nowhere,
Our duty is to draw conclusions
From our thinking about the innumerable generations
Who lived and died deluding themselves,
Ready to renounce their natural needs for no reason,
To wait for a posthumous verdict, every day afraid
That for licking clean a pot of jam they go to eternal torment.
As Milosz’s reference to the “evolution of life” indicates, Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection nourished the emerging 19th century sense that all who had trusted in God had merely been “deluding themselves.” The Darwinian account of life did not require a conscious divine power to explain the origin, intricacy, or destiny of life. Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. His theory of evolution immediately caused controversy. His so-called “dangerous idea” was viewed as dangerous for primarily two reasons: firstly, it provided an alternative explanation to the biblical account of our origins; and secondly, the theory contributed to the feeling all previous generations were somehow deluded or just plain superstitious by comparison to the current one.
For his part Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was never an atheist. He did not develop the theory of evolution to disprove religion. (He actually completed work to become an Anglican priest.) In reality the main inspiration for developing thinking around natural selection and evolution was a product of his study of barnacles. He wanted to find an explanation for the variety of barnacles he encountered, e.g. why did they differ from one another? He was also anxious to de-legitimate the basis for slavery in the 19th century—slavery being justified both through a wrong-headed appeal to scripture and a completely unscientific belief in white supremacy—as it was practiced in the United States in the 1850s and 60s.
By the end of his life Darwin was an agnostic in the strictest sense of the word, i.e. he accepted the fact some questions were simply unanswerable by their nature, e.g. you could not prove or disprove God in any scientific sense. He never said at any point evolution disproved God’s existence. Rather, Darwin observed in his autobiography scientific theories merely describe how a process unfolds; theories, he insisted in his autobiography, do not answer the question why the observed process exists in the first place; moreover, and unlike some opponents of religion claim, evolution never unseated God; yet, it is accurate to say evolution certainly challenged some beliefs people had about God.
Ultimately, what Darwin’s theory actually does is describe creation not as a single static event, e.g. Special Creation, etc. but as a dynamic process continually unfolding, e.g. evolution. No scientific theory or law—whether we are talking evolution, thermodynamics, gravity, or germ theory—implies or proves there is no God. Theories simply provide descriptions for how processes observed in nature unfold.
That’s it. Nothing less, nothing more.
To make any claims to knowledge beyond this point is to go beyond the science. To put it simply, insisting there is no God because evolution is taking place is like saying God doesn’t exist because objects fall to the ground at a rate of 9.8 m/s2 or vaccines help prevent disease. One thing does not necessarily mean the other. If people better understood the nature and limitations of science (and their own understanding of things) better, they might be more willing to take a nuanced view of the situation, i.e. the situation is not black or white—if evolution is true God must be false or if God is true then evolution must be false—but accept both possibilities as potentially true at one and the same time, e.g. theistic evolution (or to simply acknowledge we do not know). (Then any apparent challenge evolution poses for the believer diminishes (though if we are honest with ourselves it never entirely disappears)).
Modern believers are shaped equally by faith-based and scientific knowledge claims. Consequently, today even “firm” believers appreciate that while religion provides a meaningful account of life, science likewise contributes a great deal to our picture of life. To be a believer today is to recognize that in the deepest personal sense, belief in God is optional: whatever a person is able to accept and affirm he or she is also free to reject or deny. Faith, therefore, is a choice; and by the same line of reasoning unbelief is a choice, as well.
The Adulthood of the World
There is no point in regretting our freedom to choose. We cannot turn the clock back and return to some sort of romanticized former state. The Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) said as much in his Letters and Papers from Prison. Bonhoeffer argued it made no sense for Christians to try and fight the “adulthood of the world.” (He used “adulthood” as a metaphor for the advances made in science and the subsequent leaving behind of certain invalidated beliefs, e.g. the earth being 6000 years old.) Specifically, he observed that it was “in the first place pointless, in the second place ignoble, and in the third place un-Christian” (Bonhoeffer 327) to jettison scientific findings if and when they conflicted with established belief. Admittedly, some ideas and certain historical perspectives are uncomfortable for many believers to entertain. Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer asserted if gainsay (denial) was your only defense against such criticism—just opposing for the sake of opposing—you accomplished nothing.
What we need to appreciate is our understanding of God has changed over time alongside our changing understanding of the world; further, while certain previous assumptions about how God works might be successfully challenged, this does not mean God is challenged per se; it means our assumptions are challenged; and God and our assumptions about the Deity are not the same thing. Not even close.
When your assumptions turn out to be wrong it means you were wrong in this instance; it also means you did not know as much as you thought you did (which should not surprise you). God, nevertheless, remains perfectly untouched and unaffected by the entire process. All anyone can say with certainty is they do not know what God is entirely or that God even necessarily is. By extension they cannot say God is not. When it comes right down to it faith is a choice: it’s not a collection of ideas; it is a state of being (akin to trust) not a series of logical propositions the believer is supposed to memorize and learn by rote. Appealing directly to St. Paul, faith has less to do with belief (fide) in series of ideas or doctrines and more to do with a state of trusting (pistus) God, anyways.
Shortly after Lundin’s conversion to Christianity, he dreamt about how much better his life might have been had he been born during the middle ages. Life was simpler then and the authority of the Church and the Bible were not questioned (actually this authority was challenged but the Church’s ability to kill or imprison opponents kept such questioning to a minimum). Yet, Lundin’s view of the medieval period was correct in at least one respect: the Christian narrative then was firmly accepted “as is” without any real challenge from science or reform-minded Christians like Martin Luther. Lundin, though, freely admits wishing to be alive at this time is an example of foolish idealism. When he was a child his life was saved twice by modern medicine. If he lived during the middle ages, he would have died twice by the age of ten. Lundin does not cry over our loss of innocence and certainty though. Instead, he accepts reality for what it is: something is true not because it is believed in; rather, something either exists or is true because it doesn’t depend upon a believer at all. Lundin, echoing Bonhoeffer, asserts there is no point wishing we could go back to a simpler time; we have to learn to navigate modernity.
To writers like Fyodor Dostoevsky, Emily Dickinson, W. H. Auden, and Czeslaw Milosz , belief and unbelief were real tensions, and as was the case with Jacob wrestling with the angel, these authors wrestled with God—and in some cases also with the shadow cast by His apparent absence. To her credit Emily Dickinson appreciated the significance of both the promise and peril posed by the modern world to traditional belief earlier than most. In the case of Dostoevsky, we find one of the greatest talents in literary history, e.g. creating the polyphonic novel, etc. while also grappling with an exceptional collection of pressing intellectual, political and personal issues. Both writers knew that the theological ground had shifted dramatically in their own lifetimes from confidence to doubt in God. They found the new dynamics of belief challenging and grew weary by the pursuit of God; though they had strong convictions their self-dividing doubts always remained. Near the end of her life Dickinson observed to a friend that on “subjects of which we know nothing…we both believe, and disbelieve a hundred times an hour, which keeps [belief] nimble.” Her observation captures the essence of what it means to believe or not believe in the 21st century—we are as justified in practicing one position as the other.
In his book The Secular Age, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor explains the position of the modern believer this way:
Now this change, which has taken place over the last [thousand years] in our civilization, has been immense. We move from an enchanted world, inhabited by spirits and forces, to a disenchanted one; but perhaps more important, we have moved from a world which is encompassed within certain bounds and static to one which is vast, feels infinite, and is in the midst of an evolution spread over aeons (Taylor 323).
English poet W. H. Auden (1907-1973) looked at the effects of modern science as both admirable and harmful. According to Auden, science liberated men from misplaced humility before a false god. The god whose death Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) declared in the late 19th century was not the Christian God but a cultural deity or rather a “Zeus without Zeus’ vices.” To Auden, the singular achievement of science in the modern world was to de-mythologize the Cosmos; and since God created the universe He could not be directly encountered within it—“just as when I read a poem, I do not encounter the author himself, only the words he has written which it is my job to understand” (Kirsch, Auden and Christianity, p.162).
In 1849 Fyodor Dostoevsky was arrested by the czar’s secret police in Russia for criticizing the government’s policies. He and several others were condemned to death; at the last moment, a note from Czar Nicholas I was delivered to the firing squad. The Czar decided not to put the novelist to death but commuted his sentence to four years’ hard labor in Siberia. A woman named Natalya Fonvizina gave Dostoevsky a copy of the New Testament just before the novelist’s four-year exile began. Dostoevsky wrote Natalya a letter while in prison. The contents of the letter place the Russian author squarely at the center of the 19th century discovery of unbelief and the subsequent efforts to believe again:
I will tell you that I am a child of the century, a child of disbelief and doubt, I am that today and (I know it) will remain so until the grave. How much terrible torture this thirst for faith has cost me and costs me even now, which is all the stronger in my soul the more arguments I can find against it. And yet, God sends me sometimes instants when I am completely calm; at those instants I love and I feel loved by others, and it is at these instants that I have shaped for myself a Credo where everything is clear and sacred for me. This Credo is very simple, here it is: to believe that nothing is more beautiful, profound, sympathetic, reasonable, manly, and more perfect than Christ; and I tell myself with a jealous love not only that there is nothing but that there cannot be anything. Even more, if someone proved to me that Christ is outside the truth, and that in reality the truth were outside of Christ, then I should prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth (Frank, Dostoevsky: Years, p.160).
I don’t know that I’ve read a more passionate statement of faith than what I found in Dostoevsky’s letter. We are as much a product of reason as we are of passion. If we are genuinely thoughtful, and value intellectual humility and honesty, the modern believer cannot ever entirely escape some degree of doubt. But then I remember one simple thing I learned as a young person reading scripture for myself: Jesus never told me I had to have the right ideas in my head; he didn’t tell me faith consisted in having the right understanding; he told me I was literally born to do good. Maybe the question of God’s existence is not so important after all (since it cannot really be answered in any empirical sense). Perhaps faith then is best understood not as a series of logical propositions, doctrines, or dogma, but more of conscious decision to choose to love the good and live in hope.