(NYT) Some Sundays ago, I was part of a sermon in my universityâ€™s church. It was the kind of ecumenical church in which Iâ€™d grown up. The minister and I sat on the proscenium above the congregation and below the stained-glass windows, and spoke about the ways that evangelical Christians understood God â€” a subject on which I had written a book. Afterward, there was a lunch open to the community. The questions people asked as we ate our avocado-and-cheese sandwiches circled around the puzzle of belief. Why do people believe in God? What is our evidence that there is an invisible agent who has a real impact on our lives? How can those people be so confident?
These are the questions that university-educated liberals ask about faith. They are deep questions. But they are also abstract and intellectual. They are philosophical questions. In an evangelical church, the questions would probably have circled around how to feel Godâ€™s love and how to be more aware of Godâ€™s presence. Those are fundamentally practical questions.
You could imagine that if you were going to spend an hour or two each week fretting over one or the other, you might opt for the practical. This choice is more real for many evangelicals than most secular liberals imagine. Not all members of deeply theologically conservative churches â€” churches that seem to have such clear-cut rules about how people should behave and what they should believe â€” have made up their minds about whether God exists or how God exists. In a charismatic evangelical church I studied, people often made comments that suggested they had complicated ideas about Godâ€™s realness. One devout woman said in a prayer group one evening: â€œI donâ€™t believe it, but Iâ€™m sticking to it. Thatâ€™s my definition of faith.â€
It was a flippant, off-the-cuff remark, but also a modern-day version of Pascalâ€™s wager: in the face of her uncertainty about Godâ€™s existence, she decided that she was better off behaving as if God were real. She chose to foreground the practical issue of how to experience the world as if she was loved by a loving God and to put to one side her intellectual puzzling over whether and in what way the invisible agent was really there. [More]