#16 Unexamined Faith is Not Worth Having

THIS CHAPTER IS THE FIRST of the second half of the book. The first fifteen chapters have been about various “true things” mostly related to theological concerns. We turn now to matters of a more personal nature. What we think about theological matters affects our actions, so it was important for us to look at the fifteen “true things” we have considered up to this point. But now let’s look at some more personal, “close-to-home” issues.

In May 1957 I graduated from Southwest Baptist College, a junior college then but a university now, and that fall I transferred to William Jewell College. One of my courses that first semester was Philosophy of Religion and the textbook was a new work by the Quaker scholar David Elton Trueblood.[1] In the first chapter of his book, Trueblood declares, “Unexamined faith is not worth having.”[2] My professor, for good reason, emphasized that statement repeatedly, and I gradually came to realize that it was, indeed, not only an important statement but also expressed something that I badly needed to do.

That autumn was an uncomfortable time for me. My junior college sweetheart and I were married in the same month we had graduated. During the fall of that year, I was not only taking a full college course load, I was also working from 6:00 to 10:00 each evening in downtown Kansas City as well as serving as pastor of a small “mission” church ninety miles away. But all of that was not particularly a problem for me; having to examine or question my faith was.

Nevertheless, going through that period of doubt, reflection, and examination was an extremely valuable experience. As a result of that process, I came to embrace what seemed then, and still seems to me now, an examined faith very much worth having. And, of course, it has been necessary at various times through the decades since then, to re-examine various aspects of my faith.

How Could Faith Be Not Worth Having?

If faith is always good, as asserted in the previous chapter, how could any faith ever not be worth having? Well, faith is always good, but it is not always stable. Sometimes it is weak, easily shaken, and even so fragile it is sometimes broken by adversity. In that sense alone it is not worth having. If it cannot withstand challenges, both those from within and those from without, how can it be of great value?

Sometimes our faith is challenged by difficult personal experiences. Serious illness, tragic accidents, or the untimely death of a loved one are all reasons many people suddenly, or even gradually, question the reality of their faith and sometimes end up jettisoning it. But if faith is the result of an encounter with God and such faith is always good, why would people ever question such faith? Well, faith in God is, truly, always good, but people often have insufficient or an erroneous understanding of God. Lack of understanding the true nature of God can produce a flawed faith.

If God is considered to be a supernatural power that always protects the believer from harm and unhappiness, then what does that person do at the time of a catastrophic accident or, say, when the loss of a friendship causes great mental pain? If God is thought of as the Almighty who can prevent tragedies in the natural world or the world of human relationships, what do those people do when a tornado destroys their home or when they are betrayed by their best friend? If God is touted to be the answer to all of life’s questions, what does one do, for example, when new scientific discoveries or societal changes brings to light new issues that most Christians hadn’t even thought about and for which there is no accepted or acceptable answer?

An unexamined faith is likely not to withstand the sorts of problems or issues just mentioned. Thus, such a faith is “not worth having,” for it is too unstable to withstand the challenges that come from an inadequate understanding of the God in whom one has placed his or her faith.

A Jesuit priest writes in a recent book about how he grew up with the idea of God as “the Great Problem Solver.” As he grew older, that view of God collapsed when he realized that “God didn’t seem interested” in solving all his problems. So, he writes, “My adolescent narcissism led to some serious doubts, which led me to consider the possibility that God didn’t exist.” And then after one of his closest friends was killed in an automobile accident he decided not to believe in God.[3]

Considering the same matter from another angle, there are many challenges to faith hurled at believers by aggressive atheist or anti-theistic writers. Far more than at the time that Trueblood (or Adams) wrote about unexamined faith not being worth having, in recent years there have been several popular, widely-known authors who strenuously attack faith in God and tout an unabashed atheism. The four most widely known of these “New Atheists,” as they are often called, are Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.[4] And although he is not an author, perhaps the popular TV personality Bill Maher should be added to this list.[5]

These New Atheists represent a belief system which actively opposes faith in God. In writing about them, Chris Hedges titles his book When Atheism Becomes Religion and he refers to them as “America’s new fundamentalists.”[6] And Frank Schaeffer explains that what makes these atheists new is that they are “especially aggressive, political, and evangelistic.”[7]

This is my point: if a person of unexamined faith is confronted by people like the New Atheists, and there are certainly a sizeable number of people who are their ardent supporters or who agree with their militant atheism, will that faith be strong enough to withstand the attack? Possibly not. So, again, that is part of what I mean by emphasizing that unexamined faith is not worth having.

How Does One Examine One’s Faith?

The process of examining one’s faith is not easy, though. Objects in the physical world can usually be examined by direct observation and checking hypotheses by experimentation. The physical world can be examined in the laboratory, often by microscopes, or the world of space by telescopes. That sort of thing is often referred to as the empirical method, generally taken to mean the collection of data on which to base a theory or derive a conclusion in science. But faith can’t be examined in that way. Philosophical thinking rather than the empirical or scientific method must be used.

It has often been said that philosophy is about questioning answers rather than answering questions, so it was natural that my Philosophy of Religion course with Trueblood’s Philosophy of Religion as the text was a valuable place to begin questioning a lot of the “answers” I had accepted by my religious upbringing. When I was in high school, I used to wear a pin clipped on my shirt pocket as an attempt to witness to my faith. The pin said, “Jesus is the Answer.” And I still believe that—or maybe I should say I believe that again. But in spite of my bold claim back then, I certainly didn’t know yet what all of the questions were (and maybe still don’t). And I also wouldn’t have known back then how Jesus was the answer to many perplexing questions.

Studying Trueblood’s book in which the early chapters dealt with issues such as the necessity of philosophy, faith and reason, the possibility of truth, the mystery of knowledge, and the nature of evidence helped me to examine my very sincere, but also very unexamined, faith. That study, and that process of faith-examination, was a most valuable experience for me, so much so that my main academic interest in seminary and then in graduate school was Christian philosophy and apologetics.

Roger E. Olson is a seminary professor at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary and is also a prolific writer. One of his recent books is Questions for All Your Answers: A Journey from Folk Religion to Examined Faith.[8] That book is on the very subject of this chapter, and the title of his third chapter is even “Jesus is the Answer: So What’s the Question?” (Actually, I hadn’t even seen a copy of Olson’s book until after I had written about the pin I wore in high school proclaiming Jesus to be the answer.)

Just as Trueblood wrote about the importance of both faith and reason, so Olson emphasizes that people of faith should not be “gullible, credulous, irrational, or uncritical. God gave us minds and expects us to use them.” So he calls for an “examined, reflective faith” and goes on to aver that reflective Christianity “knows that many of the simplistic answers often touted by folk Christianity are too shallow to do justice to the great mysteries and depths of the faith.” [9]

One of the best explanations about the meaning of theology is that it is “faith seeking understanding.”[10] Thus, there is considerable overlap between Christian theology and Christian philosophy, and people of faith need to study theology to some degree as well as to engage in philosophical thinking. It is sad, though, that so many people who would never be content with their childhood knowledge of, say, politics, economics, or psychology, never go much beyond their earlier years of religious education in often rather “hit or miss” Sunday School classes. Serious theological (and philosophical) study is important for every person of faith, not just for those going into the Christian ministry.

Further, serious doubting is also a necessary part of the process. In examining one’s faith, then, one could profit from In Praise of Doubt, a rather recent book by the eminent religious sociologist Peter Berger.[11] Actually, decades before, Trueblood had declared that “we should never, in pursuing the philosophy of religion, stifle doubt, because doubt, as Galileo taught, is the father of discovery.”[12] And Berger avers that doubt and uncertainty “pave the road to knowledge and indubitable truth.”[13]

So, questioning and doubting are necessary components for examining one’s faith. These components lead to serious thinking, reflecting, analyzing, studying, and, yes, praying. The main danger is that one quits the process too soon. But for those who persevere, the time comes when one can exclaim, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

Faith Examined in Community

Examining one’s faith is not something one can do alone. Just as it is sometimes said that one cannot be a Christian by oneself, neither can people adequately examine their faith by themselves. It takes a community for faith to be thoroughly examined. Serious dialogue with other believers, thoughtful discussions with those who have already been through the process, joint worship, hearing testimonies about faith that proved fruitful: these and other communal activities are a necessary part of examining one’s faith.

Too often there has been an over-abundance of individualism in Christianity, especially as practiced in American society. Faith has generally been understood as a private matter. Of course, it is the individual person who has, or who does not have, faith. But that faith is not something that can sprout, bud, and blossom in isolation from a community of faith.

So if you come to recognize that unexamined faith is not worth having, I hope you will also recognize that in addition to the personal efforts you must make to examine your faith by your own study, thought, and prayer you need also to be a part of a faith community, which may be large or small but which can give you invaluable help in the examination process.

Moreover, while what has been written in this chapter is mostly for those in a Christian context, the same sort of thing is true for adherents of any religion—or for those who profess the worldview/faith known as atheism.

[1] Philosophy of Religion (Harper, 1957). Trueblood (1900-94) was for decades a professor at Earlham College and was the founder of the Earlham School of Theology.

[2] P. 14. The Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams (1901-94) also is often quoted as saying, “An unexamined faith is not worth having,” and I can find no evidence that Trueblood or Adams either cited each other. (And I can’t find that statement in print under Adams’ name, although it is attributed to him at the beginning of the Introduction, by George K. Beach, in An Examined Faith: Social Context and Religious Commitment, Beacon Press, 1991). Also, even though not acknowledged, these words hark back to those well-known words spoken by Socrates in Plato’s Apology: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

[3] James Martin, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life (HarperOne, 2010), p. 37. Martin (b. 1960) is now a widely known advocate for the Christian faith.

[4] Dawkins (b. 1941) is the author of The God Delusion, Dennett (b. 1942) of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Harris (b. 1967) of The End of Faith (2004), and Hitchens (1949-2011) of God Is Not Great (2007).

[5] Maher (b. 1956) was the writer, producer, and star of the movie “Religulous” (2008), a documentary which examines and mocks organized religion and religious belief. The title is derived from the words religion and ridiculous.

[6] (Free Press, 2008). Hedges (b. 1956) uses America’s New Fundamentalists for the subtitle of his book and “The New Fundamentalism” is the title of the fourth chapter.

[7] Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion (or Atheism) (Da Capo Press, 2009), p. 9. Schaeffer (b. 1952) is the son of the late Francis Schaeffer, the widely-known leader of the Christian Right. The younger Schaeffer is also the author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back (Da Capo Press, 2007).

[8] (Zondervan, 2007). Olson (b.1952) is Professor of Theology at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. In the Introduction, Olson declares that “the unexamined faith is not worth believing,” but I think Trueblood’s statement is better: faith is something one has, holds, or lives by, not just something one believes.

[9] The first quote is on p. 13, the short quote is the title of the subsection on pp. 18-23, and the last quote is on p. 23. In the part on “Examined, Reflective Faith,” Olson emphasizes that reflective Christianity is the opposite of what he calls folk religion, which is what most people grow up with.

[10] That was the motto of the scholastic theologian Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). In recent years, a major theology textbook is Daniel L. Migliore’s Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (Eerdmans, 1980; second ed., 2004). Migliore (b. 1935) retired as Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary in 2009.

[11] (HarperOne, 2009). Berger (1929-2017) was not only a sociologist but also a Lutheran theologian, and he is best known for The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1966), which he co-authored with Thomas Luckmann. In Praise of Doubt was co-authored by Aton Zijderveld, and the subtitle is How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic.

[12] P. 20. Later on, Trueblood contends that doubt “shows an overriding concern for the truth. Those who do not care tremendously about the truth do not bother to doubt, for doubt entails work” (p. 45).

[13] P. 101. Berger’s assertion is made with reference to Sebastian Castellio, author of a treatise on “The Art of Doubt, Faith, Ignorance and Knowledge” (1563).