The duty to try

This modest tribute to Lewis and Tolkien adorns a wall in the Eagle and Child, the Oxford pub where they met with friends. December, 2005

This modest tribute to Lewis and Tolkien adorns a wall at the Eagle and Child,
the Oxford pub where they often met with friends. December, 2005

“I suspect that most of the individuals who have religious faith are content with blind faith. They feel no obligation to understand what they believe. They may even wish not to have their beliefs disturbed by thought. But if God in whom they believe created them with intellectual and rational powers, that imposes upon them the duty to try to understand the creed of their religion. Not to do so is to verge on superstition.”
Mortimer J. Adler

Perhaps an intellectual such as Adler was a bit harsh on his fellow believers when he suspected most of them were content with blind faith.  My theory is that most people who could truly be described as having blind faith aren’t aware of that limitation, but perhaps the lack of awareness in itself is indicative of the complacency Adler warns against.

In any case, the enduring popularity of C. S. Lewis and other authors suggests that there are a great many believers who are eager to understand their own faith, as well as faith in general.  Lewis, an erudite atheist who eventually became one of the greatest Christian apologists of all time, could never be said to embrace or advocate blind faith.

In fact, Lewis has probably done more to interest the average person in theology than any number of writings penned by professional theologians.  Though it’s easy to forget it, Lewis was not a theologian; he was a professor of literature at Oxford and Cambridge; a man who deeply understood the power of parable, allegory and metaphor to bring difficult concepts to life, and make them accessible to people of average intelligence.

I agree with Adler that faith carries with it the duty to exercise our rational powers.  Superstition, which rears its head in almost every facet of life in addition to religion, can easily masquerade as mysticism or the much-overused term currently in favor, “spirituality.”  But reason, properly applied and not given weightier authority than is expedient, can help us to tell the difference.

Here’s an interesting question that applies to believers and unbelievers alike: is it possible to have “blind faith” in our own reason, or in our own lack of faith, as well as in faith itself?  In other words, do “religious” and “non-religious” people often fall prey to the same errors in thinking?

One year ago today:

Mind and soul


  1. Julia, good morning. Its too early to be weighing in on such deep subject…but here goes. Yes, people of faith or no faith can make errors in their reasoning and judgment. Just look at the world’s problems…
    Beautiful photo.

    • Thanks Merry! Thanks for “weighing in” – and I agree. In fact, the more I listen, read and consider opposing viewpoints in various areas, the more I see a sameness in some of the logic on either side. It’s so easy for us to see others making the same mistakes we are making. It’s like we almost have radar for it in other people even as we are all but blind to it in ourselves. I’m reading an interesting book called Snow by a Turkish writer named Orhan Pamuk. Though the arguments and controversies all take place within an Islamic setting and point of view, many of them are strikingly similar to debates that occur within different camps of Christianity. Some things, it seems, are universally human…

  2. HarryS

    🙂 I deeply appreciate all the “wow-we” people on these pages. 🙂

    • Thank you Harry! I like the people here too, the ones I quote, and the ones who show up in the comments. 😀

  3. singleseatfighterpilot

    I was most likely the first to express religious opinions in the comments section of this blog. My comments were, in some cases, blocked entirely; and in other instances truncated – the argumentative portions being censored.
    Does the question posed in this blog represent a paradigm shift? If so, I welcome it.

    • Sorry, no paradigm shift. My intent here has never been to provide a venue for argument (particularly not for argument between individuals who otherwise have no relationship with each other). My intent with this post is to provoke thought and self-examination, for people with or without faith, concerning the nature of our own beliefs, and whether we put them to the same tests we impose on others. Arguments are for court, Congress, and other places where some sort of codified resolution has to be reached. I have seldom seen them produce any benefit in social settings, and this is a social setting, albeit a nontraditional one. Hope this makes sense.

      • Ann

        Thank you Julia for keeping this an ‘argument free zone’.

        • You’re welcome, Ann! Thanks for saying “thanks.”

  4. How can you take something up, hold it close to your heart and run with it and then fight for it if you haven’t first tested it’s mettle? I spent a lot of time wandering around spiritually in order to find myself where I am today. I don’t go to church, my church is inside me. “I” am my offering to God. I belong to him and whatever he throws at me I am learning to accept is perfect for me and the world. Everything that happens to us happens for a reason. It might feel like something horrible at the time but we are assured that everything is important. I guess we all think that we are the centre of the universe but at the end of the day we are just so many ants in a massive big exponentially growing colony…that is, until we realise that God cares about every sparrow…I weighed it up. You have “a great big bang that just “happened” from nothing…” against “creation by a higher power” Ok, which was easier for me to believe? Creation all round guys! 🙂

    • Yes, your closing words are basically the same question (and answer) that Pi offers the skeptics at the end of his story. I just loved the point made at the end of that book (Life of Pi by Yann Martel), and I was certainly not the only one – in fact, President Obama called the story “an elegant proof of God.” I do go to church, but I believe strongly that we must see that as a part of, not a substitute for, our individual relationship with God. It’s a beautiful and humbling realization that the love of God that is so powerful in our own lives is freely offered to everyone and in fact, as you (and the Bible) say, not even a sparrow is unimportant.

  5. bobmielke

    My Christian walk and faith in God’s word has gotten me through a lot of heartache in my life. Three failed marriages including one where my wife simply vanished off the planet were tough to overcome alone.

    I’ve seen His work in my life accomplished by way of miracles, where He opens doors at just the right time, in just the perfect way, so that He gets the glory. Can I get a big Amen please! Amen!

    • Bob, you certainly get a BIG Amen from me on that! And I’m sure, from many other readers as well. There are some circumstances in my life in which the only light that broke through the darkness was obviously the divine light of God’s love. As you say, it manifests differently at different times, but to those of us who have been on the receiving end of such grace, its source is unmistakable. Thanks for sharing your faith here.

  6. Michael

    This idea reminds me of what Kierkegaard said about faith,” that true faith must include an element of doubt otherwise it is just an intellectual exercise. There must be at one point a leap of faith.” I paraphrase. This is pretty heavy stuff. I know people often think belief and doubt are non compatible, but they coexist. I think that is part of what it means to live in paradox- my personal understanding. In this life we are always going to see through the-“glass darkly.”

    • I agree. Francis Schaeffer, another theologian whose work I admire, had a very hard time with that “leap of faith” idea, but again, I think much of the argument may be mostly semantics. The bottom line is that faith and doubt do co-exist and vie for dominance in our minds on a continual basis. Once when I was somewhere around 20 years old I went to my Daddy and told him I was struggling with doubts about everything I had been taught from childhood. To my surprise he told me that was a good thing, that my faith would never be mine if it came from him or anyone else; that doubt was an essential part of the journey. That reassurance was crucial to me several times in the years that followed. Far too often, we are sabotaged by this “all or nothing” idea of absolute perfection, and as you pointed out in an earlier comment, it is almost never that cut and dry.

  7. Michael

    What a wise Dad you have. Many persons are threatened by the slightest hint of doubt. Doubt is part of the wilderness journey.

    • Michael, all four of us kids have always thought of our Daddy as a great source of wise counsel. I think the more secure we are in the faith, the more we are unafraid of doubt. It is definitely a defining experience, as are so many trials. Also, there are so many different kinds of doubt, about different minor and major questions. If everything was obvious, there wouldn’t be faith involved.

  8. I am a R.C. Christian, but I believe that all faiths have merit. I also feel that the Lord God lives within a persons heart. If you live your faith no matter what it is then you will have love and contentment. People who do not follow a religion have their own beliefs, however it does not make them wrong. We all were given free will, we decide what to choose. If you are a good, kind, loving, caring person then your heart and soul will be a happy one. I do not judge people by their faith or no faith, I look for the good and try to stay away from the evil.

    • Patricia, I think that people who are secure in their own faith (or lack thereof) do not feel threatened by people who disagree with them or think differently. One thing I notice is that the more we feel an inappropriate degree to control others (for whatever reason, including the misguided effort to help them) the more we feel a need to criticize the choices other people make. Jesus said we will know people by the fruits (results) of what they say and do, so I think looking for good and avoiding evil is a wise approach. Part of free will is recognizing that others have the same choices we do, and allowing them to exercise those choices. It also involves a degree of trust in others that is hard for some of us.

  9. Michael

    Francis Schaeffer? Did he not write something like-” There is a God and He is not silent?”
    I read that in college and really appreciated it.

    • Yes, Francis Schaeffer wrote a lot of great stuff. The book that preceded the one you mention is The God Who Is There and it was a textbook in my Systematic Christian Doctrine class back in 1977. It has been very influential in my thinking. Also, there is a great book and video series by him called How Should We Then Live? which we have on VHS tape – I should digitize them. They might appear a bit dated now but what they have to say is timeless. Francis and Edith Schaeffer founded the L’Abri Fellowship in their home in Switzerland. It began as a place where questioning and discussion were welcomed, and reason was seen as intrinsic to faith. You can read more about them at the link.

  10. Honestly, I don’t have many thoughts about religion as it hasn’t been a part of my life. What I do think is, families and individuals are entitled to find a sense in community in whatever they choose to embrace. As long as it’s not detrimental to others or holds itself out as the only option or the only truth. I think that’s when zealots become dangerous. Personally, I don’t expect anyones life choices to be a reflection of my own. Often they are, since friendships are usually based on some type of common interests. Religion and Politics are generally a tabu topic of conversation for Canadians. Considered too personal for social get togethers, akin to asking someone, “so what’d you pay for that?”. Or “what do you get paid there?” I’m not sure about younger folks. They’re probably more out there and open.

    • K, I smiled when I read those “akin to” questions because, believe it or not, I’ve heard people actually ask such personal things – definitely a cultural difference between Canadians and people in the USA, although I think you’re right that young people in any country are more apt to be “out there” with what they are willing to say and do. The problem with discussions of religion or politics is not just that they are personal; it’s also that the stakes are seen to be so high that people feel an urgency to win others over, a degree of conviction that does not apply to normal chit-chat. This can be true not just of religion but also of animal rights, human rights, environmental dangers– really anything that is seen as affecting someone’s life or well being. When critical issues appear to hang in the balance, people tend to get argumentative in their sincere conviction that speaking out might make a difference. It takes some of us a long time to realize that such arguments rarely accomplish anything except increasing hard feelings between people whose closely-held beliefs may conflict with each other. I agree with you that zealots can be dangerous, and zealotry and dogmatism are found on all points of the spectrum. Many religious people I know of are afraid to admit their beliefs openly for fear of ridicule and persecution. I think that’s sad too. When the climate is hostile to unpopular beliefs, it’s tantamount to censorship and thought control, something that is anathema to all librarians and I hope to all Americans.

      • I can’t understand why any body feels ‘entitled’ to judge anyone else’s choices on many things, including religion and politics. I follow my dad’s doctrine which simply was, “live and let live’. It’s not to say that I don’t think there aren’t a lot of knuckleheads out there, but I wouldn’t waste a moment of my life on a mission to make them think and live like me. I think those types have a huge ego.

        • I think it’s a combination of ego and fear. The ego part coming into play in thinking that one is unfailingly, totally right, and thus anyone who is different is wrong, and the fear part coming in from a basic insecurity that feels threatened by anything different. Deep down, many people tend to look to others for validation and thus want others to think as they do, and this can get out of hand when coupled with strong egocentric views of the world.

          I know this plays out in little harmless ways…how often do we show up somewhere and feel under- or over- dressed if everyone else is wearing a different style of clothing than we are? It’s understandable that we would want to be dressed more like others in that situation (or perhaps, would want others to be dressed more like us). But as mentioned, when the stakes appear much higher, the fear increases, and the ego can also increase in direct proportion, especially if one’s entire sense of security is bound up in being right.

          Once when I was a young girl, my friends and I were laughing at an older teenage boy at church who was obviously brilliant but very different. My father scolded us and told us we were laughing at him because we were afraid of him. I thought that sounded crazy at the time, but as I have grown older I totally believe he was right about that.

          In the long run, humility (perhaps the most difficult of all virtues) is the answer to so many of these problems, and more. Some of us seem to be born with a good share of the tendency toward humility, but others of us have to go through some very painful experiences and mistakes to learn it. I have to say that the one advantage common to almost anything horrible I have been through, is that all these trials have increased the very meager share of humility that I started with. Of course, as many have pointed out, the problem with trying to gain humility is, the moment you think you have it, you’ve lost it! 😀

          • I love our chats Julia! You’re so spot on about life and always help me see another side. You’d have made an excellent mediator. I might be wrong, but it seems more and more like ‘being humble’ is going out of fashion. A lot of people have become ‘loud talkers’. They insist on an entire restaurant or bus or Dr’s office or airplane to hear about their job, kids, sex-capades or what they did last weekend. I’ve always thought they were show-off’s or attention seekers (and not just men). Perhaps I’ve miss-judged them. Maybe they’re actually weak, acceptance-seeking, non-confident, socially stunted people that fear not being relevant. I’m not even being sarcastic even though it might sound that way. There used to be such a thing as ‘An indoor voice’ where you wouldn’t dream of bothering people. It seems like a thing of the past and it’s probably not coming back.

            • I don’t think you sound sarcastic. People are definitely less reserved than they once were, and humility is not what we see rewarded in public life. I know I’m guilty of being a “loud talker” sometimes, though not intentionally (I’ve always been a bit too loud, volume-wise) but I agree with you that it’s getting worse overall and sometimes I miss the old days when people were less “out there” with everything. I wonder if the current “casual dress everywhere” climate contributes to other behaviors. I’m not saying I want to go back to the days of dresses, suits and ties, but it does seem that people behave with more dignity when they are dressed nicely. I haven’t totally given up on hoping for a more refined climate but it does seem unlikely.

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