A friend asked me to weigh in on a Facebook discussion: “Can we choose to believe?” It was clear the inquirer’s intent was to ask if someone could choose to believe in the existence of God. Another friend encouraged me to share my response here…
I must say I’m a total lightweight in philosophy – much more comfortable (and interested) in theology. First, “belief” I think goes much deeper than we tend to treat it. Belief can be about existence (i.e. Do you believe in Santa Claus? Do you believe in the Easter Bunny? Do you believe in God?), or about trust (i.e. Do you believe in Barack Obama as President?). We can have a belief in scientific principles (i.e. Do you believe in macroevolution?) or attributes (i.e. Do you believe that piece of paper is red?).
When philosophers ask about belief in God, it seems that they’re primarily talking about existence and attributes. Can a God exist? Can a God like this exist? Can someone choose belief in the existence of something? Many people will want to say no. We believe something because we believe it — whatever evidence we have assessed has convinced us — not because we choose to believe it. If we know that piece of paper is white, it would take some real mental gymnastics to convince ourselves that it’s red. When the evidence on one side outweighs the other, they’ll say, they can’t just choose to ignore the evidence and believe something contrary to it.
I get the importance of being convinced by the evidence. But I suppose I’m also not convinced we’re such rational creatures that we really believe or don’t believe in things based on a logical examination of the evidence. This is why we see red-faced arguments between otherwise rational people over stupid (or not stupid) issues. They have so committed themselves to believing in something that they’re nearly immune to all evidence presented on the opposite side. At that point, they’re not holding those beliefs because of evidence, they’re holding those beliefs because of a commitment to them — probably more unconscious than conscious refusal to consider the alternatives.
But then there’s this — which I suppose is one of my great general critiques of philosophy… It seems that philosophy treats God as an object rather than a subject. Philosophy tends to examine God more the way that you would examine a table or the number six or the concept of beauty.  Look for Trinitarian language in philosophy. I find very little. Because the Trinity reveals God as Subject–as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in relationship–and it seems that philosophy is more comfortable analyzing objects than subjects. And so, at least in my experience of it, philosophy tends to stop at theism and rarely goes to Trinitarian theism.
I don’t believe in an objective God. I believe in God the Father Almighty and Jesus Christ his only Son and in the Holy Spirit. That’s a totally different belief. It’s not a belief that they are. I suppose it includes that, but it’s much more a belief that this Trinitarian God is Life and Salvation. And ultimately, I think it’s much more about choosing to put my trust in the God whom the historic community of the Church has witnessed to. I believe I could choose to walk away from that trust, and thus from any legitimate “belief” in the God of the Christian faith. But I don’t want to. I choose to continue to believe.
Martin Buber’s I and Thou would lend some extra philosophical points to the discussion.
What do you think? People who have wondered/struggled with the question of God’s existence, how does this strike you? People who are heavier weights in philosophy, where am I assessing correctly and incorrectly?
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1. I’m not necessarily saying this is philosophy’s fault. It just seems that philosophy is better setup to ask and answer these sorts of questions. And for me, at least, these aren’t the questions I’m really interested in.