Last month I wrote a post ("What is Faith?") describing what biblical faith is and is not. Here I will address how our faith is formed. What factors and forces play a role in what we believe? We tend to think our beliefs (whatever they are) are based purely on intellectual grounds. However, there are a variety of forces that inform what we hold to be true. In other words, it's not quite as simple as we think. This is particularly relevant when it comes to belief in the existence of God and how we are to relate to him. Here we'll look at four of the most prominent influences that give shape to what we believe.
Shaping influence #1: The rational.
This particular shaping influence is the most obvious and the first we think of when it comes to what we believe. We read the books. We work through the arguments. We do our homework. We ask questions. We listen to both sides. If we think certain arguments are compelling, we believe. If we don’t think they’re compelling, we don’t believe. If we're not sure, we remain somewhere in the hazy middle. Though this is what we commonly think is primary shaping influence of what we believe, no one believes what they do strictly on rational grounds.
Shaping influence #2: The personal.
This aspect of what we believe is more subtle, yet even more significant, than the first. Personal reasons will vary in degree and type from person-to-person, but we shouldn't underestimate the role they play in what we hold to be true.
For example, if someone has a bad experience with a church they will be less inclined to pursue additional understanding of Jesus. On the other hand, if someone has a good experience they will be inclined to learn more. Or, imagine an individual who successfully climbs the corporate ladder and thinks, "I don't need God." Meanwhile another, who does the very same thing, may think, "I've arrived, but I'm still not happy. Maybe I need God." Or, someone may experience a devastating loss of a loved one and be moved to think, "I can't believe in a God who would permit this." While another, who experiences the same thing may think, "Surely there has to be more to life than this. I need to turn to God."
We often underestimate the role our personalities, and lens through which we interpret life, powerfully inform what we believe. This has less to do with the rational and more to do with the personal.
Shaping influence #3: The moral.
Additionally, there is a moral component to what we believe. We all have certain ways we naturally prefer to live (think, decide, behave, relate, interpret, etc) and view what is right and wrong, often for no other reason than that is how we want to live. This alone can cause us to dismiss the idea of God simply because we don't want to consider a world in which we are not in the center. We cannot defend our position, since its largely based on personal preferences, so we often hide it behind intellectual arguments. As Blaise Pascal said, "The heart has its reasons that reason does not know." The moral dimension is a powerful shaping influence to our beliefs.
Shaping influence #4: The social.
Sociologists, and experience, tell us that we are also significantly shaped by those around us. We tend to agree with those we like, not necessarily because their arguments are more compelling, but simply because we like them. We may also gravitate towards those who agree with our "moral" and/or "personal" variables. This reinforces what we believe, not because it is necessarily true, but because that is what most people we've surrounded ourself with believe. For example, most people who begin to follow Jesus do so in the context of a community of others who are doing the same. At the same time, many who do not follow Jesus or walk away from him, do so because those closest to them also walk away.
What we believe cannot be reduced to any single variable; it's always all four. Years ago I had a conversation with a coworker who was a self-acknowledged agnostic. At one point he said to me, "You only believe what you believe because you were born in America and had certain experiences that led you to follow Jesus. However, if you were born in sub-Saharan Africa, you wouldn't be a Christian." This is a common argument. Fundamentally, he was implying that his beliefs were rationally constructed and mine were socially constructed. I just turned the tables and replied, "If you were born in sub-Saharan Africa, you wouldn't be an agnostic." In other words, his agnostic views were just as influenced by social influences as my Christian views are.
Whatever we believe is shaped by rational, personal, moral and social influences. The Bible also adds that we, by nature and choice, are spiritually dead and unable to discern truth without intervention of the Holy Spirit (Col 2:13; Eph 2:1). Taken together, how we come to believe what we do is not as simple or rational as we often think. This should cause us to stop and consider why it is we believe what we do. This is particularly true when it comes to the person and work of Jesus Christ because the consequences, positive and negative, are so significant. Next we'll consider reasons to believe in the existence of God.