Why should anyone believe anything?

What about the first idea in your list? “Why believe anything?”



Hi Bill,

I’ve found the topic “Why believe anything?” is one that is resonating on university campuses. For many people, belief is something that seems 1) irrational and 2) optional, and as a result belief can be a bit of a curiosity. I find non-believers often come to a talk on this topic thinking, “I know belief works for some people – I wonder what reasons they give for making that a part of their life,” a bit like a hobby.

Recently as I’ve spoken on the topic, I’ve used Jesus’ parable of the good shepherd in John 10 to try to challenge those assumptions head on –

  1. I want to make the point that, ultimately, the only reason to believe anything is because it’s true. Jesus begins much of his teaching (and this parable in particular) with the words “Truly, truly I say to you” (10:1). Jesus is claiming to be stating things the way they really are. There might be many benefits to believing Christianity – it can provide a system of ethics (Jordan Peterson might see it this way), a caring community, etc., but at the end of the day truth is the only thing that really matters. Who would want to dedicate their life to a lie, no matter how noble? I think it was Tim Keller who astutely pointed out that if someone becomes a Christian for any reason other than being convinced it’s true, there’s a good chance they’ll walk away from their faith when the going gets tough, or when God asks them to change something in their life. But if they’re a Christian because they believe Christianity is true, that’s not something you can walk away from – it’s the basis of faith that can “go the distance.”

  2. I also want to challenge the notion that “belief” refers to whether we go to a place of worship on the weekend. It was Reinhold Niebuhr who argued that, in today’s world, our understanding of “religion” has become far too shallow. For Niebuhr, “religion” refers to where we find “confidence in the meaningfulness of human existence,” and as a result it’s something that “is assumed in every healthy life.” We are all religious – it’s part of our human wiring – we all find meaning in our lives in something. At the popular level, I continue to find David Foster Wallace’s words deeply provocative on this, especially since he speaks as an agnostic. In his Kenyon College graduation address in 2005 he said, “There is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” When I speak on this from the parable of the good shepherd, I like to point out that when Jesus describes what the sheep can follow – he offers an either/or – either the good shepherd OR the hired hand (John 10:11-12). There is no neutral ground. Jesus is saying that we all follow something.

But. Jesus is also saying that not all we follow treats us the same. What reveals the difference between the good shepherd and the hired hand is the presence of the “wolves.” When the wolves come, the hired hand flees and the good shepherd stays. Jesus here is saying something about life – there are such things as wolves. There are things that happen that have the capacity to destroy us. The question is, “Will what we’re following, what we’re ‘worshipping’ stay with us when the wolves come?”

I’m again moved by David Foster Wallace’s words on this:

“The compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship… is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. Worship your body and beauty… and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”

I think it was my colleague Cameron McAlister who pointed out to me that David Foster Wallace shared these words just months before his own suicide. He was speaking here not just theoretically, but tragically from the anguish of his own experience.

At this point I like to share my testimony about how I became a Christian, when “wolves” descended on my life and I began to realize that I had been placing my identity and sense of meaning in life on a foundation that could not sustain it. I was torn to shreds, and only then came face to face with what Jesus said was the real state of my heart – that I had been desperately finding my identity and meaning in anything but him, that I had rejected him, but for this reason he had died for me and gave me the chance of a new life in him, with him as the object of my identity, meaning, and worship – a shepherd who would stay with me come what may.

In short, I like this question “why believe anything?” because it allows us to dismantle some wrong assumptions about Christianity – especially the view that belief and religion is something that just “believers” have, instead of something that’s at the heart of all of our lives. I find, too, that it provides a great opportunity for us to ask our non-believing friends, “what would you say you find your meaning in – in Wallace’s terminology, what do you worship?” I think it’s open door for us to share our testimonies for how we’ve found this true personally.

I’d love to hear how you’ve maybe thought about this question of “why believe anything?”!