Thursday, July 7, 2016

We have seen his glory

Listening to non-believers, atheists, agnostics, and others characterize religious belief can be simultaneously amusing as well as enlightening, because more often than not their words betray an utter ignorance of the experience of religious faith. Some persons, for example, talk about religious faith as a kind of belief on the basis of no evidence at all, or perhaps even belief contrary to the evidence one has available. This is all very wrong, however, and certainly doesn't reflect the actual experience of faith that religious persons themselves have.

In this respect, consider the words of Romanian Orthodox theologian Dumitru Stăniloae:
Faith is experienced by the faithful not as a personal creation, as a result of her own efforts, but rather as a pressure exercised on her consciousness by a presence or by the overwhelming signs of a certain presence, which is one with the reality in which she believes. The subject feels herself conquered, gripped, touched. Only after the production of these states, which include within themselves also the knowledge of her own faith, or only in their framework, does an activity on the part of the faithful person also take place, a will to believe and more (Iisus Hristos sau restaurarea omului, p. 12).
Stăniloae emphasizes how religious faith is really like a kind of perception, a way of coming to accept what has been presented to a person's experience apart from her will or wish or fancy. The object of faith, of course, is not visible and perceptible by the five senses. It is not an empirical object, but it is not for that reason any less real. Faith comes from a sense or a perception which is not strictly speaking empirical -- that is, which is not based on one of the five senses of the body -- but through which a person is nevertheless put in contact with some kind of force or presence outside of herself.

Consider now the words of the Gospel according to John:
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).
John describes the faith of Christians in Jesus of Nazareth as a kind of sight. It is not the invention of their intellects; it is not a wish or fancy; it is not anything of the sort of blind will-to-believe described by popular-level atheist detracts of religious faith. Rather, it is a response to a presentation of glory, just as belief in what I see with my eyes is a response to the presentation of various objects to my senses. John and the other Christians saw something in Jesus beyond his mere physical existence as a human being living in Palestine in the first century. They saw his glory, a glory of the sort that could only be had by the only-begotten Son of God the Father.

If a person doesn't see this in Jesus, they cannot have genuine religious faith. True faith in Jesus is not something that you simply will into existence, though certainly the will has a role to play. I can close my eyes to the evidence of my senses, so that I refuse to see what is standing right there before me. In the same way, a person can act in such a way that the presentation of the truth about Jesus never touches his spiritual senses, preferring rather not to believe and in this way not to be caught up with Jesus and his demands at all. But religious faith is not a product of the will, granting even the role that volition can play in its formation or suppression.

When a village atheist characterizes religious faith as a kind of wishful thinking or willful belief beyond or against the evidence, he is therefore not adequately representing the actual experience of real religious believers at all.

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