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Fifty Years Later – Part 1

New Questions and New Answers for a New Time

Almost 50 years ago I wrote a book entitled What to Believe?, subtitled The Questions of Christian Faith. I was a young professor of religion at the time and was writing primarily for college students, but also for the general reader who might have an interest in Christian theology. The format was to raise a question, look at the various answers that have been offered over the last 2000 years, critique those answers, perhaps offer a peek into my own thinking, and then leave the reader with a question mark. Fortress Press had been looking for such a book, and so published it in 1974. Fifty years later, I thought it might be interesting to see how my thinking today relates both to those questions and to whatever theological inclinations I may have had at the time. Hence the title Fifty Years Later: New Questions and New Answers for a New Time. 

In re-reading the old book, it is clear how much our language and interests have changed: God was a “he” and human beings were “men”. But beyond the use of pronouns, the questions today have a different twist. Christian theology of the past has usually arranged topics into familiar categories: creation, providence, human nature/anthropology, christology, sin, the church, eschatology, etc. I tried to be creative by phrasing the topics as questions, but it was still arranged according to the familiar categories. I’m not sure that the new questions can be directly correlated to the old, but I’ll relate them as best I can. 


1. Why do Some People Believe in God? 


Fifty years ago, I took a strictly logical perspective, describing two answers to the question. One reason why some people believe in God is that they are deceiving themselves into believing that a particular experience is an experience of God, when in reality it is a purely  psychological or social  event. Feuerbach, Freud, and Marx all proposed atheistic theories explaining this process. The second category presupposes that God exists and did in fact encounter people such that they came to believe, but that, of course, cannot be proven. Why do some people believe in God? Answer, either they are kidding themselves, or God really exists, but there is no way to prove one over the other.


The analyses of Feuerbach still warn us against self-deception, and the increasing multitudes of agnostics and atheists are witness to the exposure of that self-deception. But the personal question remains: do I believe in God?  I suppose that at one time or another we all ask ourselves that question. Speaking for myself, my answer reverts back to the early disciples who were so impacted by Jesus that they discovered a whole new way to live. I believe in the disciples’ belief, if you will allow me that, because when you get right down to it, it’s their witness that you have faith in, and the heart of their witness- we’ll get to this later-  is that love rules the universe. Belief in God for me, then, is a belief in love, the two words being interchangeable descriptions of the same reality. 

Looked at from a different perspective, in asking whether or why I believe in God, there are basically three attitudes one can take about reality: that the universe is moral, immoral, or amoral. 1 Immoral would mean that evil rules, 2 amoral, that there is no justice, no right and wrong, no good and bad, and 3 moral, that there is a standard. The issue comes into sharp focus for me when I am confronted by undeserved suffering, something like an infant who comes into the world totally innocent, suffers a great deal, and dies. This “problem of evil” leads some to turn away from belief in God, who is supposed to be both good and all-powerful. This problem led no less a scholar than Bart Ehrmann to turn from Christianity to agnosticism. For me, the “problem” has just the opposite effect. I have to believe that somehow, some way, sometime and somewhere, God makes it all right. The alternatives of an immoral or amoral universe are unacceptable. At heart, I suppose that is why I believe in the God of a moral universe. The alternatives are not acceptable. God makes it right. 

I suppose one could say that those who innocently suffer will be reincarnated and given another chance at life, and maybe that’s how God makes it right. And certainly the elements that make up our body will be reassembled somehow, but for now I’ll stick with the idea that individual consciousness carries forth into the future. I suppose this makes me a believer in a heavenly afterlife, an idea that I find uniquely comforting, and that’s fine. This future was also integral to the disciples’ faith. They experienced a presence of Jesus in their midst that Paul refers to as a “spiritual body”, a new kind of life that transcends our ability to comprehend, but nevertheless is real, a life that awaits us all, incomprehensible as it may seem.

One final note, the line dividing people is not whether they believe in God or not, but whether they are loving or not. Although the original question of fifty years ago is still valid, my question today would be different: why are we the way we are, some loving and others not?

Dr. Carl Krieg received his BA from Dartmouth College, MDiv from Union Theological Seminary in NYC and PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the author of What to Believe? the Questions of Christian Faith and The Void and the Vision. As professor and pastor, Dr. Krieg has taught innumerable classes and led many discussion groups. He lives with his wife Margaret in Norwich, VT.

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