How We Really Decide

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There are people who spend their lives thinking about the questions about God, either as theologians or philosophers.  We should add that these people are as divided in their conclusions as people in general!  But most people do not have this luxury or inclination.  But just the same they do make decisions about whether to be Christians, and furthermore how seriously to take their Christian life.  Everyone has that question before them, and the opportunity it presents (as well as the demands):  ‘everyone who seeks finds; knock and it shall be opened to you’ says Jesus (Matthew 7:8).  How then do people with ordinary obligations in the world make such decisions?  Some actually decide based on other factors: for example, social pressure or conformity, the desire for a moral upbringing for one’s children, a political preference, ethnic affiliation.  God can use these too, but they are incidental to the decision whether or not to become a follower, a disciple.

It is the whole person who is summoned by God in and to faith.  By a convergence and an alignment of what we think, feel, will, and hope, we make the great decisions of our life.  Something similar could surely be said for deciding to take up some challenging work, or to marry.  Philosophers talk of a ‘cumulative argument,’ the way the pieces come together for us and reinforce one another. We meet  someone who impresses us, wrestle with grief in the face of a loved one’s death, we regret things, read something that opens a vista, are troubled by evil in the world, and are built up by the community we find in Church. At the intersection things come together.  One dimension may be most important when we begin, but over time another may rise to greater significance.  The great Anglican (and then Roman Catholic 19th century theologian John Henry Newman said we had an ‘illative sense,’ a kind of collective intuition based on just this kind of conglomeration of senses and judgments.  The mind, heart, soul, and will in concert can make deep judgments.

Let’s be clear what we aren’t saying, especially in relation to reason.  We aren’t saying that reason doesn’t matter because the world is utterly irrational, or because religion is just a matter of personal feeling.  But we are also not saying that you could simply deduce your way to God, nor that your faith can be proven.  Rather we are saying that thinking, questioning, and testing are part of the picture.  But our reasons are of many kinds.  By analogy people nowadays speak  for example of ‘emotional intelligence.’  In short, people do make informed decisions, but of a unique kind, because the question being answered is distinct indeed.

One last point: what, you might add, about the power of the Holy Spirit in all this? Precisely so - faith is a gift, and so the work of God and not of ourselves.  But God does this work through many avenues in our minds and hearts, the conjunction of which I have been describing.

Deuteronomy 6:4-5: Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! 5"You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might 

Newman, ‘An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent’: "The mind ranges to and fro, and spreads out, and advances forward with a quickness which has become a proverb, and a subtlety and versatility which baffle investigation.  It passes on from point to point, gaining one  by some indication; another on a probability; then availing itself of an association; then falling back on some received law; next seizing on testimony; then committing itself to some popular impression, or some inward instinct, or some obscure memory; and thus it makes progress not unlike a clamberer on a steep cliff, who, by quick eye, prompt hand, and firm foot, ascends, how he knows not himself, by personal endowments and by practice, rather than by rule, leaving no track behind him, and unable to teach another."


How Far Can Reason Take Us?

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We have already seen that, while human beings don’t simply think their way to God, our minds do have a role.  Since God exceeds what we on our own can know, his existence cannot be proved, at least here in our lives as they are, creaturely and flawed. While faith may indeed be a “leap,” it is one whose ground we have surveyed, or which has a kind of running start! 

Here we do well to consider what have sometimes been called “proofs for the existence of God” (but aren’t actually).  St. Thomas Aquinas, the great theologian of the High Middles Ages, called them “viae,”  ways toward God. One might translate this as inkling, pointer or breadcrumb.

The important thing to note in these mental pathways is that they speak only of what God is not.  He is “eternal, immortal, invisible, only wise,” (I Timothy 1:17). In other words, at the edges of thought is suggested to us one who isn’t bound by time or death, who isn’t perceived empirically, and who isn’t limited in knowledge.  But what it would be like to be such, and how we who are temporal, mortal, sensate, and limited, would know such a One, is beyond us.  In theology this was called the “negative way,” since it can only speak of what such a One isn’t.

It is an odd kind of knowledge, but it is not nothing.  It is suggestive.  There is an analogy here to what some modern thinkers have called “boundary situations” (for e.g. Karl Jaspers, Gabriel Marcel), in which we come to the limits of our strength - we all have had some experience of such situations.  Again, God is not there proven, but at the very least the question about Him is raised more urgently, “for keeps,” in which circumstance, if there were an answer, we would be more ready to hear it. 

Youtube link to ‘Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise’   

Thomas, the Summa:

First Way: In the world, we can see that at least some things are changing. Whatever is changing is being changed by something else. If that by which it is changing is itself changed, then it too is being changed by something else. But this chain cannot be infinitely long, so there must be something that causes change without itself changing. This everyone understands to be God.[7][13]

Second Way: In the world, we can see that things are caused. But it is not possible for something to be the cause of itself because this would entail that it exists prior to itself, which is a contradiction. If that by which it is caused is itself caused, then it too must have a cause. But this cannot be an infinitely long chain, so, therefore, there must be a cause which is not itself caused by anything further. This everyone understands to be God.

From AA:

  • "Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity."[8]
  • "The alcoholic at certain times has no effective mental defense against the first drink. Except in a few cases, neither he nor any other human being can provide such a defense. His defense must come from a Higher Power."[9]
  • "Follow the dictates of a Higher Power and you will presently live in a new and wonderful world, no matter what your present circumstances!"[10]

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