Wanting to believe – Pastoral Backstory – May 4th, 2017


May 4th, 2017

The mind, in times of bereavement, craves a certainty gained by reasoning as to the existence of the soul after death. –Gregory of Nyssa, (d. 395 AD)

Can anyone come to believe in God without wanting to believe in God?

Does wanting to believe in God somehow taint that search for reasons to believe?

I’m asking nine minutes of your time for this week’s Backstory–or more if the topic fancies you. Nine minutes of conversation between two people of vastly different views but who share a common appreciation.

First though–who’s having the heart to heart in the video you’ll soon scroll down to?

One is Robert Lawrence Kuhn, the brain-trust behind Closer to Truththe program that appeals to some stout thinkers in theology, philosophy, and science for insight into the deeper questions. It was Kuhn who introduced us to another philosopher, Eleonore Stump, whom we depended on mightily through that series last fall on suffering. Kuhn shares no faith in God, but is too thoughtful to dismiss out of hand any and all arguments for God’s existence.

The other is one Sarah Coakley: a theologian and priest in the Church of England. We’ve only been introduced to her through Kuhn, with whom she engages regularly on a variety of theological topics. (Oh, and also through Wesley Hill.) We’ve already found another of her chats with Kuhn we’ll share next week. So, you might as well become familiar with her!

Why post this 9 minute back and forth about why one ought to believe in God? Let us offer a couple of reasons that will orient you to their conversation, and then invite you to listen for yourself–perhaps more than once. Then after you do, we’ll share the largest reason we point you to their civil debate of the souls.

The first reason derives from those two questions I began this post with, questions their conversation in part centers on. Kuhn, as you’ll hear, acknowledges the question of God to be undeniably important and relevant to any human’s reflections on life. But he expresses a concern that one’s search for faith in God might be “contaminated” by a desire to see that faith confirmed. Wanting to believe, he proposes, may bias one’s culling through the reasons for belief (or unbelief). Listen for Coakley’s gentle analysis of his premise.

Another reason for hearing them out is quite apart from the content of their dialogue. Sure, their conversation was being taped (and would be edited), and thus there was some measure of pre-planning in the topics they would cover. But there was no script here–no, as far as I can tell, advance notice of where the conversation might go. I note that retention of spontaneity between them to invite you to take note of how she acts rather pastorally with the kinds of questions he puts forth–asking and listening more than telling; pressing him to ask the questions beneath his questions. In her approach to his query, there is guidance for us all in what it means to “make a defense of the hope that is in us.”

Okay that’s enough to acquaint you. Grab a beverage and listen in.


In a cultural moment in which we appear to be increasingly incapable of having a respectful discourse over foundational issues, their exchange is both refreshing and atypical. No scowling, epithets, or eye-rolling–but also no pretending they were in agreement.

Did you notice how she exposed some of the premises behind his questions, which to some degree may have helped him re-evaluate those questions? For instance, why, she intimated, must there be a dispassionate detachment from the question of God for the search for God to be valid? Why is an inclination not to believe a more credible posture for considering belief? She kindly pushes back against his presenting issues if only to help him see what’s really at work within him. There’s typically a deeper story to any of our allegiances–whether we believe in God or not. Probing that story does get us a little closer to truth–which aids in either confirming our sound beliefs or dismantling our precarious beliefs.

But the main reason we thought this a fitting and timely post is due to where their conversation eventually lands. It’s the place where most inward deliberations or public conversations about God ultimately lead: the reality of our own death. As we’re in a series on the doctrine of resurrection, discourse on God, death, and faith fits nicely, don’t you think?

As you heard Coakley say, what she most detects in Kuhn’s questions is both an underlying demand for being in control of what he thinks and believes, and also a corresponding fear of giving over that control. Again, it’s his concern that wanting to believe taints his search for belief that most illustrates his commitment to control over his beliefs. He’s not unique in that desire to be in control over what one trusts. None of us want to be duped. All of us want to retain our authority to admit or dismiss arguments for this or that belief.

But that reference to “Kantian heteronomy”–yeah, I had no idea what that meant either. So I looked it up. (Praise Google from whom all miscellanies flow.)

Heteronomy refers to action that is influenced by a force outside the individual, in other words the state or condition of being ruled, governed, or under the sway of another, as in a military occupation. Immanuel Kant, drawing on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, considered such an action nonmoral.

From her vast data banks, Coakley pulls up that concept to describe Kuhn’s overriding issue: he refuses to be swayed by a force outside himself, and especially when it comes to considering belief in God. But here’s the thing she impresses upon Kuhn near the end of their talk: there is nothing that more challenges our belief in our own control than when we think of our death. We will all one day be on a deathbed, a reality we will be powerless to overturn. Any control we thought we had will in that moment be a “fantasy we can no longer maintain.” So it’s in prayer that Coakley “rehearses” for that moment when she will have to give over her life.

But while death disabuses us of thinking ourselves the master of our fate, it’s our natural response to the thought of our death that has an even more helpful purpose. For it’s in the desire for life not to end–the desire for joy and love to endure–that we are given a hint of a reality in which neither life, nor joy, nor love do end; and that hint is itself the beginning of an argument for that reality, too. Those desires–each one reasonable–don’t prove God. But neither do they render nonsensical arguments for God–who is our only hope of those desires being fulfilled.

This Sunday, we’re going to hear Paul, so to speak, put on Robert Kuhn’s hat and imagine a world in which there is no resurrection. What is true if death is a true and irreversible end? You might think that an odd use of Paul’s time in a chapter arguing for the resurrection. But just as Sarah Coakley let the thoughts of our death press Kuhn toward thoughts–even arguments–for God, so we’ll let imaginations of a “resurrection-less” life lay bare our desires for a different world. And from those desires we may well find a kind of argument for their fulfillment.


Does wanting to believe in God taint that search for reasons to believe?

I answer that question with a question: who have you ever come to love–and therefore implicitly put your faith in–whom you did not first want to trust?


When we’re no longer afraid of death, we’re no longer afraid of life.

Sarah Coakley


Author: Patrick

Pastor of Christ the King Church (PCA)

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