The Art of Believing in Things Unseen

The summer solstice was around the corner, but our seasonal fog had not yet appeared. Instead, we were experiencing day after day of clear, brilliant skies. Without any shades on our second-story bedroom window, I could raise up my head at first light and survey from my pillow what seemed to be a newly birthed world. It was irresistible, and by 5 a.m. each day of this lovely and atypical June, I was sitting on the bench at the turtle pond, watching the dawn sky fill with rose-colored light. I knew God was somehow manifesting himself in these spectacular sunrises. But then one morning he said something straight out: Your journey is over.

I sat quietly, hoping for more. Then, slowly, it began to come clear. I had been on a journey for the past six years, ever since making a long, round-the-world trip by myself. That pilgrimage had rocked me to the core, for during my time in Jerusalem, I had experienced something extraordinary in the Holy Sepulcher. For six long years I had been trying to figure out what happened to me there.

During those few moments alone in the tomb, I was overwhelmed by the sense of a powerful, loving, invisible presence. The sensation was so strong, and lingered on for so many hours afterward, that I found myself breaking into floods of uncontrollable tears for several days following the event. At first there was no doubt in my mind; for a few minutes I had been in the presence of Christ.


Then I began to second-guess. After all, I was worn out from traveling alone, and anxious besideswhat if I’d gotten a little hysterical? Maybe, on the other hand, this had been some kind of encounter with a Jungian archetype. Or perhaps, as Aldous Huxley might have conjectured, I had entered into the psychic presence of millions of pilgrims’ thoughts and feelings about the crucifixion and death of Jesus.

The more I tried to analyze the event, the more elaborate grew my theories. In time, I was miles away from my original conviction about the presence of Christ. What I couldn’t shake, though, was that sense of overpowering love.

Trying to Name the Unnameable

I didn’t know what to call love on this scale. I had certainly never loved this way myself, even when it came to the people I most adored: Mike and our kids. Yet all through the Gospels, Christ enjoins us to love one another as he loves us, and it seemed that one message I could safely take away from my Sepulcher experience was this: I needed to learn how to love people in a much deeper and more profound way. And not just my family or friends: I longed for a sense of oneness with the whole world. Yet how could I possibly experience this without some major change in the way I saw other people?

I began to read the writings of the Dalai Lama, Taoist philosophy, Sufism and Zen Buddhism. I was not shopping for a new religion, just looking for some assistance in the love department. It was encouraging to hear that the impediments to loving compassion lay within my power to overcome. What I had to do was stop seeing things and people as separate from myself, a type of consciousness referred to as nondual. I needed to stop judging.

I worked overtime to squeeze my professed faith into this new, attractive mould. It seemed important that Christianity measure up to the high standards set by ancient Eastern philosophies and religions in regard to love. Besides, even though Christianity might look a little different on the surface from the other great spiritual traditions, this was only cultural. Really, underneath, all religions were the same, weren’t they?

Then, at 5 a.m. on a beautiful spring morning, God gave me the word: my journey was over. Not only that, but the long struggle to make Christianity fit was done as well.

Despite what Eastern writers had taught me about contemplative experience and technique, these other religions and philosophies were not simply Christianity in disguise. The Christ event was unique and thus impossible to explain within a purely Eastern framework. At best, nonduality might serve as the description of a certain kind of Christian meditative experience, but not as a description of reality. For in the Christian view, God and man never lose their own identities, no matter how closely they are united.

More, evil and good are distinct, and both as real as blood; this is why the Christian life is such a struggle. Deep in my heart, I knew I could never accept a philosophy that characterized evil or suffering as illusory when all things were seen as one. The down-to-earth realism of the Christian view was in part why I became a believer in the first place.

The Difficulties of Belief

The relief at being done with the search was immediate, but I didn’t have long to bask in the sensation before a new worry loomed: what was it going to be like to finally ally myself with traditional, orthodox Christianity? As serious as I was about God, I had nevertheless been holding out. When it came to Christian doctrine, I was used to privately picking and choosingtaking on what I personally approved of and ignoring what I didn’t.

For the first time I could feel the sobering impact of Paul’s message in Romans: See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall (Rom 9:33; all Scripture quotations in this article are from the New International Version). If you sign up for this journey, he seemed to be warning me, your own attempts to be holy and righteous will be broken against the hard reality of Christ. More, you will not be admired for your faith, but despised. The world is by its very nature opposed to the Christian project.

Christ himself said so: you will be mocked and spat upon and forced to carry your cross. You will not be rewarded for your goodness or loved for your loving-kindness but sneered at for your stubborn belief in this unlikely story. They will even call you a fool. You will often be lonely, for many are invited but few are chosen (Matt 22:14). You might even lose your family, for the Son of Man came not to bring peace but a sword (Matt 10:34). You could be required to die a martyr’s death like Peter, to stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go (John 21:18).

Hard words. Suddenly, I felt afraid in a way I had never been about the ramifications of believing in mere and unadorned Christianity. This was far more serious business than I let myself grasp during the long and interesting search for cosmic love. Seeking is part and parcel of our cultural romanticism; settling into an unshakable faith is most definitely not.

An orthodox faith by its very nature lays down boundaries and draws distinctions. Tolerance is not its primary virtue, and it scoffs at the notion that change automatically equals progress. Worst of all, it insists on the reality of a supernatural spiritual realm. Thus, I suddenly realized, an orthodox faith would have no problem with what happened to me in the Holy Sepulcher at Jerusalem, for such phenomenano matter how ridiculous they sound to the modern earhave been happening to believers for thousands of years.

I realized that I was going to need a big virtue to handle this unwelcome reversion to orthodoxy. Then I remembered: Christian belief already is a virtue, in and of itself. And it is considered a theological virtue, which means that the ability to believe comes to us through grace rather than through our own efforts. Without this divine infusion of mental strength, our own struggle to believe through reasoning and evidence-gathering is invariably doomed.

Why? The philosopher Josef Pieper says in Faith, Hope, and Love (Ignatius Press, 1997) that the definition of belief, whether religious or not, is that we have an unconditional conviction of the truth of something, despite our inability to prove it logically or empirically. Belief thus differs from knowledge, though in both cases the conviction of truth is equally firm.

To insist that belief meet the standards of knowledge is self-defeating; we can never move forward in faith if we are holding out for incontrovertible proof. Paul’s definition of faith makes this clear: Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (Heb 11:1). In Christian faith, grace gives us the ability to believe, though we ourselves must make the choice to do so.

Faith in a Witness

Yet how can an intellectually responsible person believe unconditionally in something he cannot prove for himself? St. Thomas Aquinas says that what believers really have faith in is the testimony of a witness. A person we trust has told us it is so, and we accept his word as true. This peculiarity of beliefthat it requires another person’s testimonysupports the notion that faith is an act of the will; we freely choose to believe or not to believe what the witness has to say.

Under what circumstances do we choose to believe? First, we decide that the witness himself is trustworthy, despite the fact that we cannot personally confirm the information he has imparted to us. Second, we find that his testimony lines up with our deepest longing as human beings, which is to find and ally ourselves with the good. Third, we choose to commit to a relationship: true belief is not a matter of mere intellectual assent to a proposition but, as Pieper points out, communion with an eyewitness or knower who says it is so.’

Yet because we have not figured it out for ourselves, we remain mentally restless, as Aquinas describes it. We long for a direct, confirming experience of our own. But as Christians, we’ve got a peculiar problem in this regard. We cannot even question our witness. Even heChristis inaccessible to us, except in revelation, miracle or divine speech.

This presents a particular difficulty for contemporary believers. Somehow, our witness has to be able to communicate with us, yet the modern mind is adamantly opposed to and embarrassed by the notion of divine communicationso much so that if and when it happens to us, we refuse to take it in. I learned this for myself after the Jerusalem experience.

Safeguard Against Craziness?

Why do we shut down this way? No doubt at bottom we fear for our mental health. In the Western world of the 21st century, a belief in supernatural revelation equates to lunacy. Being able to explain what has happened to us in scientific rather than religious termsor better yet, stopping ourselves from experiencing the divine at allis our safeguard, we think, against craziness.

We also resist the discomfort of not fitting in. By contemporary standards, secular values seem tolerant and loving; biblical morality often seems unnecessarily harsh and outdated. Yet most secular valuesconcern for the poor, belief in the dignity of the individualare directly derived from Gospel truths. It is when we try to disconnect these values from the ancient religion that gave them birth that we disconnect ourselves from the grace we need in order to live by them.

As I thought all this through, I felt sad about the years I had spent trying to cobble together a faith that didn’t conflict in any way with worldly wisdom. Yet I was a child of my age, predisposed to unbelief, and as with all types of unexamined cultural mind-sets, I was blind to this fact until I began to compare my way of thinking with the thinking of orthodox Christianity.

Only then did I discover the truth: religious faith is not comforting, as atheists so often accuse, but hard. Hence its status as a virtue. In order to keep it, we must nourish it and protect it; otherwise, it will be blown away by the changing winds of fashion. More, we must never forget that this virtue comes through grace.

The beauty of faith is its deep root in lovethe very love I had been so fervently seeking when I set out on my six-year spiritual search, and the love I had met in person at the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. In that moment, I was brought face to face with the witness himself, he whose testimony undergirds 20 centuries of Christian belief. And I found him to be just as described: slow to anger and abounding in love.

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