There are many reasons that people believe and trust in God, and I don’t mean to try to address all of them. But I have come to see some general distinctions in why Christians have faith. One general way is what I consider a top down Christian who believes for reasons along the lines of: “The bible (or the Church) is inerrant and it says this, so I believe it.”
I have no quarrel with such a view. However I don’t think those with this view will be particularly helpful in explaining to non-believers why they might also believe. Non-believers generally don’t start out with the premise that the bible or the Church is inerrant.
Then there are what I would call bottom up Christians. Descartes I believe is a very good example. It is the process he goes through to believe in God that I am referring to. That is, he asked himself fundamental yet difficult questions about his world and his existence and how he could make sense of it. This led him to believe in God.
Now this distinction is not a very neat one. Because even if you are bottom up you usually come to give authority to the Church and/or the Bible. After all are you really a Christian if you don’t give any weight to what we know of Christ and his Church? Also the top downers usually will have some reasons to believe other than the inerrancy of the bible and/or the church. So there definitely is overlap in everyone.
I consider myself more of a bottom up Christian. My reasons for belief in Christ have much more to do with my desire to fundamentally pursue the ethically correct course. It was through the consideration of what that would mean (meta-ethics) and how I can accomplish that end that supports my belief that Christianity is the way.
Now some might say – that it’s more likely that I am Catholic because I was raised Catholic. And although I think my philosophical views support Catholicism this is just in my head. They would say that if I didn’t have this philosophical belief to support my faith then I would just rationalize my faith some other way. I honestly can’t answer that. It is hard to answer such counter-factuals.
However I can say that because of my “bottom up” justification I am not so concerned with several of the issues of Christian doctrine that have no bearing on why I am Christian. These same issues seem to deeply trouble many other Christians. If there were to be a divide between bottom up and top down Christians, I would say it centers on inerrancy.
By “inerrancy” I think I can refer to both the inerrancy (usually called infallibility) of the Church and the inerrancy of scripture. For Catholics the inerrancy issue centers on the church and scripture. For Protestants it centers on scripture. How important that is to you is a big indicator to me of whether you are a “top down” or “bottom up” Christian.
Let’s consider scripture first. For Catholics the second Vatican Council said in the Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum)
“The Books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.”
Now for the most part bottom up Christians are fine with understanding “…for the sake of our salvation” to mean if it has nothing to do with our salvation it might contain an error. So for example if the bible says rabbits chew the cud, or quotes Jesus saying the mustard seed is the smallest seed, this is not going to be something we feel we need to investigate and defend. It’s hard to see how the veracity of these issues has anything to do with our salvation.
No doubt many top down Christians will be startled by my saying “might contain an error”. I have read/heard many times arguments along these lines:
- If the bible is wrong in one place how can we trust it in other places?
As to this argument, I can only shrug. I suppose the bible could be wrong in other places. But I believe that scripture teaches “firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.” And that is really the point right? God seems not to have much of an interest on whether I get every minute and trivial detail of history or science exactly right. Otherwise he would have spent more time teaching history and science instead of ethics when he was here on earth.
Moreover, I read other books and learn allot from them even if they get some things wrong. Why should I refuse to read or learn from the books of the bible if they get some things wrong? This is the same attitude I take with the Fathers of the Church and Saints. Reading them can enrich my life and faith even if they do get some things wrong. Do I put more trust in the books of the bible and the teaching of the magisterium? Sure. But it can still be a spectrum.
The other argument that usually gets trotted out goes something like this:
- God knows what is true and false and the bible is inspired, so why would God lie?
Here I just have a different notion of “inspired.” Some Christians treat inspired as if there effectively was no human part to the writing. We can imagine the authors of the various books being unable to control their hand as it writes the books of the bible. Their intellect (or lack thereof) would play no part. That’s not how I see “inspiration” at all. I see inspiration more along a spectrum of the common understanding. Such as this story was inspired by my grandfather. Etc. OK, I think there was more to inspiration (“God breathed”) than that, when it comes to scripture but it needs to move further in that direction than some sort of uncontrolled hand. Would God have allowed the human author to make a mistake about something irrelevant to our salvation? I see no reason to think he would guard against it.
As a Catholic I also believe the Holy Spirit guides the Church. Might the church make some mistakes? Sure. That doesn’t mean that following the Church is not the best way to living a good life and salvation.
At this point some will say I am a cafeteria Catholic when it comes to the Church and a cafeteria Christian when it comes to the bible. They will say I just take what I like and listen when I want. I disagree.
It is not like I reject any particular teaching. I have a hunch that some things the Catholic Church teaches about mortal sin are wrong. But it is not like I have some big issue with any of the politically hot button issues. I also don’t have a particular part of scripture that I think must be wrong although I suspect there are some errors. But these errors are by and large in minor details.
So it’s not the case that I am only Catholic when it suits me. I really have no problem saying I should try to live by Church teachings and never completely discount any scripture as to how I should act as merely mistaken. Although I do interpret Old Testament scripture in light of Christ’s Teachings and admit there is certainly friction.
Just because I hold open the possibility that the Church or Scripture might get some things wrong from time to time that does not mean that I don’t hold them up as the most important authorities for how I should live. It does mean that I will spend less time worrying about whether rabbits chew the cud, or what some convoluted Old Testament passage is supposed to mean. Plenty of Saints have made it through life without ever a care about these issues that seem to keep so many people from embracing the faith. Letting go of the minutia will leave more time to focus on what the Scriptures and the Church have rather clearly asked me to focus on. Trying to strengthen my faith in Christ so I can follow him and be more loving, honest, hopeful, and charitable.