A recent discussion raised the idea of following God blindly / in ways that we don’t understand. I’m taking this opportunity to examine that notion and offer some of my thoughts about it.
I think it’s true that God engages people / we find ourselves in contexts with God in ways that are uncomfortable. Sometimes this is because we lack the information to assess a task, situation, or relationship as we would normally do. In other words, we can’t take the steps toward understanding something—what is involved, by whom, when, for what purpose, etc.—in order to determine if and how we will act: whether we “buy in” or not.
Now I believe that the above represents not only a normal process but a healthy and even essential one. True, we assess information to understand—and then act—all the time in daily life (and so it typically goes unnoticed), but also in ways that are essential to our well being and even survival. So in my view, assessment toward understanding, in preparation for action, is a fundamentally human way of engaging with the world. I recognize that we could nuance this a lot, but let’s leave that for later.
So what is God doing by (seemingly) circumventing this?
Well, in my view God is seeking to engage us within God’s greatest project: bringing about God’s kingdom. Further, I believe that God engages us toward this end in a manner that seeks to create trust in our relationship of committed attachment with God (there are preceding steps here, such as cultivating belief and developing understanding, but let’s focus on this step). Yet in my experience, and according to my Bible reading, I don’t think that God seeks to create this trust in a manner that is divorced from / contrary to how we engage with engage—or not—with issues in other areas of our lives.
In other words, I see symmetry between how we relate to the created, natural order and how we relate to God as the creator. So there are times and situations when certain human competencies / virtues will take the fore (relying more on my senses and reason) and other times / situations when other human competencies / virtues will predominate (relying more on my creativity and imagination). And this symmetry is in fact necessary, particularly for developing our trust in God, to the furtherance of our relationship of committed attachment to God. This is a topic in itself, and again I’ll have to leave it for later.
My main point is that I do not believe that God ever calls us (or indeed, ever called anyone in the biblical texts) to act “blindly,” to act on faith alone or even to come to Christianity through faith alone. Nor is this a matter of simply knowing God—being reliant on what I understand of God’s character and nothing more.
Let’s take a few examples. What about Abram (Abraham), Matthew, or Peter?
So what was Abram’s understanding, when he answered God’s request to go to Canaan? It seems that he understood something of who God was, the general destination, and that the request held a certain importance. Yet Genesis 11 also indicates that Abram had, once before, set out for Canaan (with his Father, Terah) but had stopped short. So it seems he also understood something of Canaan itself, that influenced him to go there. Thus I see Abram’s action both as guided (or semi-informed) purpose combined with faith.
What about Matthew’s understanding? Well, by the time that Jesus tells Matthew to “Follow me,” in chapter 9 of Matthew’s Gospel, the stories and news about Jesus would have been widespread. His acts of healing and his willingness to associate with “sinners” would have become our equivalent of urban legends. Thus Matthew would have understood enough to know that Jesus represented a “second chance” for him. So to my mind he risked an act of faith based on what he understood generally (and so hoped for himself, personally).
But let’s take a harder case. What about Simon and Andrew? They meet Jesus only in chapter 4 of Matthew’s Gospel. Yet even here, if we follow the flow of the Matthew’s narrative, we see that the Judean people of that period had been prepared for Jesus, such that a degree of general understanding had been developed through John’s activity (chapter 3) and specific understanding by Jesus’s own, direct action (described in Mt 4:17).
Notice also that Jesus calls Simon and Andrew to something: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (Mt 4:19) Now recall: Hebrew narrative is by nature terse, so details are never superfluous but purposeful and necessary for the reader’s understanding.1 We are not told why Jesus made this comment, nor why it would have been important for Simon and Andrew. Yet it clearly gave them a far greater sense of purpose, and likely they would have understood the tie between that purpose and Jesus’ own purpose.
So What would they have all likely understood?
At very least, that something was afoot—something was happening, and in each case this seems to have been tied to a prior desire (to go to Canaan), hope (to be given another chance), or sense of purpose (to change people’s lives).2
I am emphasizing the role of human “understanding” in order to push back against the reformation principles of acting / engaging with God “by faith alone,” and that coming to belief in God amounts to “faith seeking understanding.” These are substantial notions that I cannot fully explain here. Yet I raise them not only because some may object to my perspective on these bases, but also because this thinking has had a strong, indirect influence on Christian thought in a number of ways.
Particularly, they have influenced a representation of faith as the most important element in relating to God, to the point that faith is “all we need” or that it can “go it alone.” From my perspective this orientation is responsible, in good part, for the widespread loss of credibility that the church in the western world experiences, to the point that Christianity may be seen as “faith without understanding.”
The idea that faith is primary to human existence has often been supported by the claim that all human beings “start” from faith, as newborns. Yet biology clearly contradicts this. Instead, it proves that humans start with what we might call “inchoate” (or tacit) knowledge.
Thus in my graduate research I explained how neonatal biology and neurology have approached consensus concerning the occurrence of what they call “prenatal olfactory learning.”3 So against viewing the earliest human disposition as “faith” or “trust,” newborns already ‘know’ (or perhaps, pre-understand) the mother’s scent and are attracted to it. This occurs as a result of the infant’s lived experience, by being (indirectly) in relationship with the mother through the infant’s environment (i.e., the uterus).4
To conclude, my concern is that when Christians promote the idea of “just having faith” or “blind faith” they are actually advocating something unnatural and unbiblical. And my experience is that this not only negatively impacts Christians (via a distorted picture of who God is and how God acts), but also acts as a negative apologetic for non-Christians, for whom this idea—like “faith without understanding”—amounts to intellectual suicide.5