Reasonable Doubts Blog

The Process of Faith

Posted in Defining faith by Cheryl Berman on the June 1st, 2010

While researching for my book I came across a fascinating interview in the Biblical Archaeological Review.  Apparently a leading expert on the apocryphal gospels, Bart Ehrman, had lost his faith as a result of his studies and the Biblical Archaeological Review decided to interview him and three other scholars about the effect of their studies on their faith. The three scholars who joined Bart Ehrman were James F. Strange, an archaeologist and a Baptist minister, Lawrence Schiffman, a Dead Sea Scroll scholar and an Orthodox Jew, and William G. Dever, an archaeologist who had once been an evangelical preacher, lost his faith, and is now an agnostic Reform Jew (you heard me right).

The conversation was interesting and I will give you pieces of it in coming blogs, but for this blog I want to focus on the end of the interview where the scholars summarize their views of faith.  Lawrence Schiffman (the Orthodox Jewish scholar) says that he sees faith as a lifelong quest.  He doesn’t believe a person can be labeled a “believer” or a “non-believer” because people’s life experiences are complex and believing in God is a challenge. “Faith is a process.”

I think Schiffman is making a critical point about the concept of faith.  Faith is not a given, as some might think. Often it’s a struggle.  Schiffman points out that in Judaism there is a commandment to believe in God.  If it were a simple thing, there would be no need for a commandment.   Judaism is aware that life has it’s complexities and that people encounter some real challenges to their faith.  The commandment to believe in God (the first of the Ten Commandments)  testifies to this struggle.

So often we judge others, and ourselves for that matter, based on our religious positions at a given moment.  We ignore the larger picture.    If you are struggling with faith that does not make you a heretic.   It makes you an individual in the midst of a confusing process.  Sometimes it is difficult to see an end when you are in the middle of a difficult process.  But I think there is something comforting about knowing that you aren’t there yet.

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4 Responses to 'The Process of Faith'

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  1. Eliezer said,

    on June 3rd, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    Looking forward to your future posts on this topic, and others topics too!
    I always struggled (and I don’t think I’m the only one) with the commandment to believe…it’s not like I can tell myself over coffee “you must believe!” and behold I believe. Belief in something is not in our control – our minds decide if something is believe-able or not. So how can it be a commandment?

  2. on June 4th, 2010 at 7:11 am

    You make an excellent point and thinkers and halakhists disagree over the mitzvah to believe for that reason. According to the Rambam the mitzvah to believe in God is the first mitzvah of the Aseret Ha’Dibrot, but the Halakhot Gedolot doesn’t list it as a mitzvah at all.

    As someone who has struggled with her faith I can understand the Rambam’s position. But how do you do it? How do you “convince” yourself to believe in something? For the Rambam the answer was simple. He had a list of proofs for the existence of God. For him studying, understanding and ultimately accepting those proofs would constitute fulfillment of the mitzvah. But for some, it is not as simple. Modern philosophy has shown that you can’t prove matters of metaphysics (like God) through the intellect alone. We need to learn to draw from something a bit more elusive – our intuition. We have to draw from our experiences of God, from moments that we can sense His presence. For me the best example of such moments are from Yom Kippur.

    Thanks for your comment Eliezer and for raising an issue that people have struggled with for so long. I look forward to reading more of your comments.

  3. david said,

    on June 14th, 2010 at 11:27 am

    your quotation from the rambam is accurate but to my mind misleading. According to the rambam there is a clear proof for G_d in his belief system and intelectual failings are perhaps the worse form of moral failings. You however are basing faith on intuition and feeling. Well if someone is missing that intuition of feeling how can you command them to get theat feeling?

  4. on June 14th, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    I believe that intuition is something a person can reconnect with. That has been my life experience. You can be commanded to try to focus on reconnecting with your intuition by prayer, listening to music, learning Torah (yes Torah has a non-intellectual component), and doing mitzvot with the proper intent.

    But to some extent you are right – reaching God intellectually shouldn’t be written off completely. Kant has shown that matters of metaphysics cannot be proven but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t very convincing arguments for the existence of God. As long as a person is aware that these arguments are meant to convince, not prove – in other words they can be disproved but they are still very good arguments. I’ll give you an example. I recently read an article by Professor Nathan Aviezer (a physicist) about the anthropic principle. The Anthropic principle states that the universe seems to have been designed for the existence of man. Even the slightest changes in certain physical laws would make the universe uninhabitable. And human beings exists because of a large number of very improbable physical phenomenon. Here is the article:
    This is not proof in the technical philosophic sense of the term, and some other scientist might come up with a disproof of this argument, but it is a convincing argument. I don’t discount these arguments to help us reconnect intellectually with our belief in God.

    Thank you for pointing it out.

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