Finding Faith: The cycle of naivety

Sceptics often claim that believers are naïve, because naïve people believe easily. What they don’t realise is that naivety plays an even larger role in the life of faith than they think.

Christians can be really naïve. Take the verse which says that “we know that all things work together for good to those who love God” (Rom. 8:28). Because some people may believe this in an ignorant way, sceptics conclude that all people who believe it are necessarily ignorant. That’s why it’s called ‘faith’ and ‘hope’, right?

Although this may not be news to many Christians, there is a second naivety that lies on the other side of scepticism or doubt[1]. The term is a bit misleading though, because it automatically implies ignorance. Yet the second naivety is actually borne of greater experiential knowledge or deeper insight. And it doesn’t stop there. Believers are not immune to doubt or drought – St John of the Cross’s “dark night of the soul” is probably the most famous example. But on the other side of this dark night lies ever-deeper communion with the divine. The first naivety may be based on hearsay, but after that comes trust, relationship, and wonder.

cycle

In another dimension, we orbit the great questions, both intellectually and emotionally. Or rather, the big questions circle us. You will never be ‘done’ with the question of suffering this side of the grave, but just because you are reconfronted with it doesn’t mean that you are in the same place that you were the first time. With each revolution, you drill down deeper.

Which brings me to an interesting point.

At the early stages of one’s spiritual growth, the core of your faith is very large because you are trying to make sense of the worldview and baggage that you have inherited, and so you hold on to everything. But as you get more comfortable, you let go of the things that you realise are peripheral. The core shrinks. Many Christians (and non-Christians) think that “true faith” means believing in young earth creationism, or hold a specific belief about the “end times”, or seeing the Bible as scientifically inerrant and mechanically inspired. There is no distinction between these minors, and the majors of knowing, loving, and following the crucified, risen Jesus as God incarnate. Unfortunately this is where many people get stuck. They confuse being a follower of Jesus with believing in peripheral issues. More often than not, sceptics are former Christians who discovered that certain scientific or moral facts are at odds with their interpretation of the Bible, and concluded that the Bible must be wrong and God must not exist. I have yet to meet a sceptic who is not profoundly ignorant about the core of Christianity.

This talk of shrinking the core of your faith makes it sound like maturity equals liberalisation. But I have heard many liberals who are just as ignorant and have jettisoned everything in the name of progress. Usually the core becomes their particular culture’s idea and expression of their highest virtue. For us today it is inclusivity/tolerance as love. But it hasn’t done them any good: the effect on their souls is much the same as scepticism. Both are spiritually perilous.

This isn’t to say that people who are at the “first stage of naivety” are wrong, stupid, or even immature. You could believe true things, even with partially-examined or wrong reasons. Even more than that, God deals with people in different and better ways than we can dream up. Talking about “levels” or “stages”, for all their truth, is usually a power-play. We should be hesitant to do so when greater men don’t. However, I would say this: being post-Christian is to progress beyond the first naivety, but not beyond the first scepticism to the deeper naiveties.

Albert B Simpson captures the essence of this beautifully in his old hymn called Himself:

Once ’twas painful trying,
Now ’tis perfect trust;
Once a half salvation,
Now the uttermost;
Once ’twas ceaseless holding,
Now He holds me fast;
Once ’twas constant drifting,
Now my anchor’s cast.

Once ’twas busy planning,
Now ’tis trustful prayer;
Once ’twas anxious caring,
Now He has the care;
Once it was my working,
His it hence shall be;
Once I tried to use Him,
Now He uses me;
Once the pow’r I wanted,
Now the Mighty One;
Once for self I labored,
Now for Him alone.

Once I hoped in Jesus,
Now I know He’s mine;
Once my lamps were dying,
Now they brightly shine;
Once for death I waited,
Now His coming hail;
And my hopes are anchored
Safe within the veil.

~~~

[1] A term coined by Richard Rohr, as far as I know.

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