While working in a National Park this summer, I’ve been given the opportunity to meet many different types of people and interact with those from various walks of life. I recently met one man in particular who sparked in me deeper reflection about the nature of faith.
As we sat outside the employee recreation center, he told me of his spiritual journey. This man struggles with drug addiction and alcoholism, and consequently, has been to the point of death on more than one occasion. When he was finally compelled to seek help for his addictions, he managed to locate a therapist who practiced a novel method of therapy. This therapist, as this man described, would “transfer energy around different parts of my body.” He found the therapy healing (although he has not found freedom from his addictions yet), but what was perhaps more comforting was the story of how his therapist came to be in her present occupation. Her story of near-death experiences immediately connected with him. She too had died, met “God,” and had been sent back. Hearing this therapist’s story and experiencing her work on his body caused a spiritual awakening for him. He grew increasingly more curious about spirituality and religion, which prompted him to investigate the plethora of religions practiced on earth. He loves, in his own words, “comparative religion.” He confesses that all ways are legitimate ways to God. The only difference between the religions is ultimately whether one, a combination of many, or your own path will be more helpful for you as you pursue “God” on your spiritual journey.
This man seemed to display all the classic signs of being a “seeker.” He employed spiritual language. He sought spiritual experiences. He confessed the legitimacy of all paths. Thus, with a pious hand wave, he dismissed my arguments to the contrary. “That’s good you have that, but that’s your path and I have mine,” was his only response. “I believe in Jesus too, you know. Jesus had such a higher consciousness.” As I spoke more and more with him, it began to dawn on me that, although this man professed himself to be spiritual, his thoughts and actions betrayed otherwise. I realized that a seeker of this sort possesses a profound irony to which he is unaware. The seeker who professes to be open to spiritual experiences and to desire spiritual knowledge can only judge the spiritual realm by the yardstick of their own experience. It is this yardstick of their own experience which they must employ to adjudicate between that which is helpful and not helpful. They must marshal their yardstick in order to comb through the various religions for the wheat amongst the chaff. This man didn’t like that Christianity sent people to hell, but he certainly liked Jesus, with the caveat that he got to interpret Jesus through a different lens. On what basis did the seeker extricate the kernel of spiritual substance from the chaff of human opinion? Only the yardstick of their own experience can do the job. Ironically then, the seeker’s profession to being open to the messiness of spirituality is betrayed by how neatly they are able to fit their spiritual experiences into boxes.
In the seeker’s vast cosmic carnival where every spiritual experience has good standing, the seeker is, ironically, cast adrift and thus left only to themselves. The absence of any standard means that they must supply their own. Thus, the yardstick of their experience sways from east to west and declares itself the law of the land. But the yardstick’s rule appears so benevolent to the seeker that the coup goes unnoticed. The invisible rule of the yardstick is the reason that the seeker assumes a defensive posture when they are confronted by the faith of the Christian. Faith constitutes a challenge to the rule of the yardstick of experience. This man sought to defend the yardstick’s citadel by questioning me about my faith. How could I believe that people went to hell? Hadn’t I simply been taught from a young age that my religion was true? How could I claim to know the truth? This caused me to open my mouth and say, “Because faith is a higher form of knowing.”
I came away from that conversation with that phrase ringing in my mind. Faith is a higher form of knowing. That claim begins to make more sense when it’s placed side by side with the seeker’s claim about knowing. The form of knowing that the seeker possesses is a knowing which must always be subject to their own experience. If they cannot comprehend how God could send people to hell, He must not. If they cannot understand how people of other religions could be wrong, they must not be. If they have experienced a near death experience and saw “God,” then they are confirmed in thinking that each person may blaze their own spiritual trail up the divine mountain. Their knowledge allows them to safely remain the arbiters of their own beliefs and practice. To put it even more bluntly, their God will never ask them to trust Him while He does something they don’t like or understand.
In what way then is faith a higher form of knowing? The simplest answer would be that faith is higher because it originates from a higher source. Whereas the seeker must use their own experience as the yardstick for their life and practice, the Christian walks by faith by placing their trust in the God who transcends our experience. Because we were made by God to be creatures which are finite, our understanding is necessarily limited. However, this arrangement is all a part of His good design and intention. This arrangement only becomes problematic when the creature desperately seeks to overturn this natural order and instead be like God. We will only be discontent with creaturely knowledge if we are discontent with being creatures. However, the one who has been made new in Christ possesses that same spirit of humility and joy which Christ possesses. That heart of humble submission allows us to find our proper place as creatures who are subject to their Creator. Though our sinful hearts cringe at the thought, it is only in this humble submission to our Lord that we can be lifted up to true knowledge. By placing our trust in the Creator who made us and thus transcends us, we find that we are better able to understand and inhabit the creation which He made. Since we were made to be dependent upon the self-existent One, we find the completion of our knowledge in that relationship of total dependence.
This knowing of faith defies our ability to measure it by the yardstick of experience. Although the transcendent God makes Himself sensible to us, He does so in a radical way which breaks into our experience, rather than originating in it or being subject to it. Coming from outside and above, God overturns and relativizes our own experiences by confronting us with the truth of Himself. This intrusion or in-breaking is a divine act whereby God comes to the creature in such a way that the creature is simultaneously disrupted from their normal sinful patterns, but is also confirmed in their creatureliness. They rediscover anew their status as creatures who require reliance on their Creator. The sinful heart suffers severe vertigo in this moment of intrusion. However, the Spirit speaks softly to the creature’s being and brings the peace that the creature so longs for; the peace of no longer striving and instead merely resting.
At this point, the creature experiences faith. The knowing that comes from the loving bestowal of the Creator’s own presence with the creature. The creature cannot lay claim to this presence, but can only receive it as God draws near in loving fellowship. In this fellowship, the creature experiences a knowing which knows on the basis of trust in the Transcendent Maker and Lover of the creature. In reconciling us to Himself, God re-establishes for us the creaturely rhythms that our sinful heart sought to disrupt. In these rhythms, the creature cannot help but find the wholeness and peace that God intends for His creature. Living in these rhythms allows the creature to experience the knowing of faith which refuses to use the yardstick of experience, but instead knows on the basis of the reconciling self-revelation of Knowledge Himself.
My high school Bible teacher would always tell this story when he was talking about the notion of an “irrational leap of faith.” I believe he took the parable from Francis Schaeffer. Imagine you are stuck in a blizzard in the Swiss Alps and you are going to die soon if you don’t find shelter. However, as you near death, you are able to make out the edge of a cliff through the sheets of snow. Suddenly, from above, you hear a voice calling out to you. “You! Down there! Go and jump over that ledge! There is a little cave just over the edge where you can safely ride out blizzard for the night! I will come back and get you in the morning! I’ve lived my whole life here in these mountains and I know them like the back of my hand!” You hear this voice and you have two options: you either continue on in the blizzard and die, or you trust the individual who has just called out to you from above.
This parable seeks to teach that faith is a knowing on the basis of trust in one who transcends one’s own experience. The one who jumps over this ledge is not making an irrational leap of faith. They have confidence in the safe cave being there because they trust the one who knows better than them. It is important to note that this analogy can only take us so far though, as analogies are wont to do, for in the analogy the local merely speaks with the authority of having a higher quantity of knowledge. The local possesses more knowledge, but this knowledge is still of the same species of the knowledge of the imperiled hiker. If the hiker lived their whole life in the Alps, they too would possess the same level of knowledge as the local. However, in the case of God and the creature, the difference is not that of quantity but of quality. God’s knowledge transcends our knowledge and is thus qualitatively different. They are not even of the same species. God’s knowledge which exists on a higher plane is not proper to the creature, but this knowing can be participated in through God’s self-giving presence which leads to the mystery of faith.
The take away is this: we must walk by faith. The seeker’s knowledge cannot transcend their own experience and so they are stuck in the position of having to be their own God. Because the yardstick of their experience is the yardstick of their reality, the seeker cannot find themselves in the position of simply being the creature that they are. The Christian whose heart is filled with faith has found wholeness by bringing an end to their striving to be that which they are not. God approaches them in their experience, and yet He transcends that experience because He is not bound by it. He voluntarily enters into it in order to establish loving communion with His creature. The creature must live by faith because the creature must live in dependence upon the self-existent one who fashioned the creature for joyful fellowship with Him. The creature’s yardstick of reality cannot be the yardstick of their experience, because their yardstick was designed to be insufficient for attaining to the knowledge that the Creator is capable of. But that’s okay. The boundaries of our creaturely knowledge testify to our dependence on God and thus serve as sign posts to point us from our creaturely insufficiency to the sufficiency of the Creator. Sin seeks to blind us to our own insufficiency. This means that sin is fundamentally an attempt to posture and jockey for an autonomy that it can never attain. When God confronts the creature, this sham is exposed for the foolishness that it is. The sinful creature’s heart can only be repulsed at the divine in-breaking, but when the Spirit regenerates that heart, that gracious coming of the Creator and Redeemer God kindles faith in the heart of the creature. The creature is made whole and begins to live in that rhythm of dependence which God always intended for it.