Sometime back, Tim Hardin came out with “Reason to Believe”.
Here’s the beginning, and the song’s premise:
“If I listened long enough to you
I’d find a way to believe that it’s all true,
Knowing that you lied straight-faced while I cried.
Still I look to find a reason to believe.”
Perhaps that lyric resonates with me because I feel in it the truth that belief is a choice, and that for a multitude of reasons, each of us would choose to believe in an idea or a cause, or in somebody, if we could find a reason to make the choice feel valid.
Everyone who believes in God has at least one reason, and our reasons are crucial to the integrity of our faith and its working out in practice.
Kierkegaard holds that the Christianity of many people is tainted because it is grounded in impure reasons, such as: the quest for personal salvation; the need to feel forgiven; a conviction that faith will deliver prosperity; or the vision of heavenly rewards in return for our earthly sacrifices.
In Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, he contends that the only worthy reason to believe, and the only one that will guide us toward integrity and an effective faith, is simply to will the good. He would have us will the good for no other reason than because it is the good, and to recognize that following Christ is the best and perhaps only way we can recognize what the good is.
On our way to Tucson for Thanksgiving, my son Cody and I talked about happiness and how it results most naturally from the setting aside of ego when we turn our concerns toward the well-being of others.
Some years ago, I spent a summer in a cabin in the mountains above Chico, California. I had a great job, a lovely environment, but my kids were a thousand miles away. My marriage of seventeen years had disintegrated. I felt as if a tumor the size of a softball had taken root in my stomach, except whenever my thoughts turned from my plight to somebody else’s. Then the tumor would shrink, only to grow again when I returned to brooding about me.
Later, I spent several days in Tijuana taking notes for an article about Mother Teresa’s seminarians. These folks had forsaken all their possessions to live on handout food, in the barracks-like quarters of a former elementary school located in a polluted barrio of families living in shacks and tool sheds. The seminarians had taken a vow of “poverty, chastity, obedience and wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor”. Yet (or consequently) they appeared to be the happiest of all people.
Cody, a high school teacher, mentioned that many teachers want to help others but get discouraged because students and parents aren’t demonstrably appreciative. So, eventually, they give up sacrificing for their students.
When Cody wondered aloud if it’s possible to continue pursuing the good of others if we don’t feel compelled by our faith, I thought of a theme that drove Feodor Dostoyevski’s novels: without God there is no reason to follow any moral system.
I suspect even believers who do good for the sake of reward such as the desire to get thanked, to find peace, or to achieve heavenly bliss, are doomed to discouragement, because their motive is essentially selfish. In Christian terms, blessings don’t follow from sinful (i.e. selfish) motives.
According to Kierkegaard, we are called to find in our hearts or spirits the will to choose (and act for the sake of) the good regardless of personal benefit. To ask ourselves: will I pursue the good if all I ever get in return is mockery and punishment on earth followed by eternal oblivion? Can I believe that strongly in the good, which essentially is love?