“Belief” is a funny thing. In today’s world, the degree of your belief is often seen as a reflection of your character. Specifically, we tend to admire those who make a “leap of faith,” and the greater the leap the higher the admiration. Faith, we assume, is about making a commitment independent of intellect. And it’s no wonder, then, that Christianity’s harshest critics have specifically targeted this aspect of Christianity. In his book Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris defines faith as “nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail.”
But historically speaking, Christianity has not rested on “blind faith.” Rather, faith was deeply, intricately connected to the human experience, touching our intellects, our emotions, and our actions. God’s earlier followers had been commanded to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5)—that is, to connect faith to our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Later in Christian history, the “reformers” of Christianity (the guys that brought us the Protestant reformation, that is) defined faith as having three essential components: (1) knowledge—that is, the knowledge of God, (2) agreement with that knowledge, and (3) a trust—usually a trust that emphasized some sort of response. So Christianity has no history of “blind” faith or leaps in the dark. On the contrary; Christianity has historically emphasized a holistic form of faith, one that defies our tendency to compartmentalize ourselves—or worse, to overemphasize the intellect to the neglect of obedience.
Tragically today’s North American church has done precisely that: we have overemphasized emotion above all else, and in many ways rendered ourselves indistinguishable from a culture in which “feeling is believing.” In his book Bad Religion, Ross Douthat of the New York Times cites religious scholar Mark Lilla, who notes the way Christianity has turned not downward, but inward:
“A half-century ago, an American Christian seeking assistance could have turned to the popularizing works of serious religious thinkers…Those writers were steeped in philosophy and the theological traditions of their faiths, which they brought to bear on the vital spiritual concerns of ordinary believers…But intellectual figures like these have disappeared from the American landscape and have been replaced by half-educated evangelical gurus who either publish vacant, cheery self-help books or are politically motivated.” (Mark Lilla, cited by Ross Douthat, Bad Religion, p. 177)
So what does this have to do with “signs and wonders?” Well, if we take another look at Hebrews 2:1-4 (yes, the passage from yesterday), we see that the author of Hebrews places and emphasis on “signs and wonders and various miracles:”
“Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. 2 For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, 4 while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.” (Hebrews 2:1-4)
Biblical writers used the phrase “signs and wonders” in several different ways. It was a term used to describe God’s deliverance of his people from Egypt (Exodus 7:3, 9; 11:9-10), it was used to describe true prophecy (Isaiah 8:18; 20:3), and to describe the works of Jesus (John 20:29-31; Acts 2:19, 22). In his commentary on Hebrews, F.F. Bruce notes that the emphasis the New Testament places on such activities is “impressive in its range.”
But what’s it doing here? In her commentary on Hebrews, Marie Isaacs helps us understand that such “signs and wonders” “are the means whereby God corroborates the truth of the definitive word spoken through his Son…the verbal testimony of those who originally heard Jesus’ proclamation of the gospel and the Spirit-inspired deeds of his contemporary followers validate the truth of his message.” In other words, God’s Spirit was active in that climate as God’s way of “proving it.”
No doubt such miraculous signs had an impact on the community. But if we understand this text correctly, the focus remains on what was “declared at first by the Lord”—a message of “such a great salvation.” The gospel remained the primary focus. The “signs and wonders” were a means to a much greater end.
Here is the point. I know many people who have had tremendous religious experiences. And I would never wish to rob them of these memories or from this intense joy. I’m reminded of a fellow grad student who came to know Jesus after “meeting” him in a dream. But the writer of Hebrews never made these experiences the focal point of his faith or ministry.
And neither should we.
Now mind you, I’m not suggesting our experiences should not be shared. In fact, there is enormous value in sharing your faith story—what we often call our “testimony.” But if our story never moves beyond our subjective experience to God’s objective truth, then spiritual outsiders might politely respond by saying: “That’s good for you.” Only an emphasis on the gospel—the concrete truths of our need for Jesus and God’s power to forgive—can reach into someone’s heart and bring those far from God near to him.
If I were to identify any one significant problem with today’s Christianity, it would be the corrosive nature of spiritual boredom. So much of contemporary Christianity seems bent on chasing an experience. For some it might be literal miraculous encounters. For others it might be chasing the spiritual “high” you felt when you first encountered God. Is there any wonder why our Christian bookstores are bulging at the seams with the latest (and thereby greatest) books, worship albums, and DVD studies? Whether we recognize it or not, we’ve put God inside a box: he’s only as real to me as his ability to keep impressing me with his tricks.
What, then, is the solution? The solution is not to dismiss our experiences—this only stifles us emotionally and runs the risk of ignoring God entirely. Rather, we must continually learn to connect God’s truth with the larger wealth of human experience—our own, as well as that of others. Think about this for a second: how did you encounter God? Maybe it was through a Sunday School lesson, a close friend, maybe even through some miraculous encounter. But how did you come to understand God? To encounter God without understanding him is to anchor one’s faith to the unstable moorings of human experience. But to understand God without encountering personally is to pin him down to a lab table, treating the life-giving Savior as if he were a med-school cadaver. We need both, you see. We need knowledge. We need feelings. We need men and women of action. And, as the writer of Hebrews continues to tell us, we find this radical unity by following in the footsteps of Jesus.