Wednesday, June 20, 2018

TTT #16 Unexamined Faith is Not Worth Having

This article is based on the 16th chapter of Thirty True Things . . . (TTT), the first chapter in the second half of the book. The first half is mostly about theological “true things.” The remainder of the book is about more personal, “close-to-home” issues.
My Personal Experience
In May of 1957, I graduated from junior college and transferred that fall to William Jewell College. One of my courses that first semester was Philosophy of Religion and the textbook was the newly published Philosophy of Religion by the Quaker scholar D. Elton Trueblood.
In the first chapter of his book, Trueblood (1900-94) declares, “Unexamined faith is not worth having” (p. 14). My professor, for good reason, emphasized that statement repeatedly, and I gradually came to realize that it was, indeed, not only an important statement to think about but also something that I badly needed to do. 
That autumn was an uncomfortable time for me. Seeking to examine my faith resulted in a trying period of doubt, reflection, and examination—but that was an extremely valuable experience.
As a result of that process, I came to embrace what seemed then, and still seems to me now, an examined faith very much worth having. Of course, at various times through the decades since then, it has been necessary to re-examine various aspects of my faith.
How Could Faith be Not Worth Having?
If faith is always good, as asserted in my 6/10 article (and in Chapter 15 of TTT), how could faith ever be not worth having?
Well, faith is always good—but it is not always stable. Sometimes it is weak, easily shaken, and even so fragile that it is broken by adversity. In that sense alone it is not worth having: if faith cannot withstand challenges, both those from within and from without, how can it be of great value?
Faith in God is, truly, always good, but people often have insufficient or an erroneous understanding of God. Failing to have an adequate understanding of God can produce a flawed faith.
Moreover, there are many challenges to faith hurled at believers by aggressive atheist or anti-theistic writers. Far more than at the time that Trueblood wrote about unexamined faith not being worth having, in recent years there have been several popular, widely-read authors who have strenuously attacked faith in God and touted an unabashed atheism.
These “New Atheists” represent a belief system that actively opposes faith in God. If a person of unexamined faith is confronted by people such as those militant atheists, that faith may not be strong enough to withstand the attack.
That is part of what I mean by emphasizing that unexamined faith is not worth having.
How Does One Examine One’s Faith?
The process of examining one’s faith is not easy, though. Philosophical and theological thinking rather than the empirical or scientific method must be used. Serious reflecting, analyzing, studying, and, yes, praying must be a part of that process.
In addition, being a part of a community of faith is also invaluable for that important endeavor.
Those who come to realize that unexamined faith is not worth having need to realize that in addition to their personal efforts they must make to examine their faith by study, thought, and prayer they also need also to be a part of a supportive faith community.
That community may or may not be a part of “organized religion,” but robust faith often doesn’t last long for people who proclaim to be “spiritual but not religious.”
[The 16th chapter of Thirty True Things . . . (TTT) can be accessed by clicking on this link.]


  1. A very good concept.

    I have heard that those who convert in their late teens or after are more likely to retain and be strong in their faith - they took the time to make a good decision in the first place.

    1. Yes, that is probably true. In the Anabaptist tradition, baptism has not usually been until the teen years, or later. Among Baptists there has been a tendency through the years for baptizing younger and younger children. And for the churches that practice infant baptism, confirmation has often been an expected and somewhat forced experience for children before the teen years--not their own choice.

      Of course, there is nothing wrong with children making a decision to follow Jesus and become a Christian--if there is also emphasis on growth and if that child grows in the faith and continues to examine and re-affirm their initial faith-commitment.

  2. I don`t know if I fully agree that unexamined Faith is Not worth having because most new born believers may need time to develop a stronger Faith as they go from being a baby Christian to an adult Christian.
    Apostle Paul talks about this in starting off feeding them milk and then progress to more, as they grow as a Christian.
    I realize that Jesus said, "Oh ye of little Faith", but I tend to believe that some Faith unexamined is Better than No Faith at All.

    1. Thanks for your comments, John Tim, and your questioning of the matter I wrote about.

      Certainly, newborn Christians aren't likely to have an examined faith--although if they are not young children their decision has often been based on serious examination of the meaning of faith from the beginning.

      All new believers, though, need to be nourished and their faith strengthened through active participation in a faith community.

      As in Jesus' parable, if the seed is not planted in good soil (a strong community of faith) it can soon result in nothing. According to Luke 8:13-14, "Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature."

      For those who are like the people in rocky ground or among thorns, their initial faith is not necessarily better than no faith at all -- because it does not last.

  3. Examining one's faith echoes the ancient claim of Socrates, who, in Plato's "Apology," states "The unexamined life is not worth living." This examination was part of Socrates' faith, and he preferred risking death to accepting an exile that would have in his mind separated him from his examination. In due time Socrates was indeed condemned to death by Athens, and died from drinking the famous cup of hemlock per Plato's report. As in many things, Plato casts a long shadow on Christianity.

    In 1 Kings 19:11-13 we read the familiar story of Elijah's encounter with God. God was not in the wind, earthquake, or fire, but when Elijah heard the still small voice, he covered his head with his mantle, and stood before the Lord. It is easy to get confused, to expect God to be in the wind, earthquake, and fire. That is the expectation of unexamined faith. Who would expect God in sheer silence, in a manger, or on a cross? Yet, we know, God is love. Where do we find love?

    1. Thanks, Craig, for mentioning Socrates's statement that, I'm sure, was in Trueblood's mind when he wrote what he did about unexamined faith.

      I hadn't thought of linking the idea of an examined faith to the story of Elijah. Thanks for sharing that insight.

      Your concluding question is one that haunts people of goodwill at the present time. But I also wonder, Where do we find faith? Where do we find hope? as well as Where do we find love?

  4. PS - I really like the full chapter. Communities of faith have been a strained experience, and not where I would put my trust. However, belonging to "a community of faith" is vital because we are social creatures, and this was the Master's plan. I have found spiritual mentors to be very worthwhile, but one must be selective in finding a trustworthy one.

  5. I have just come back home after going with my son-in-law to his Rotary Club meeting, which was hosted today by William Jewell College. Dr. Elizabeth MacLeod Walls, the college president, made an excellent presentation, beginning with her explanation of the current mission/vision statements for the college. William Jewell's registered trademark is now "The Critical Thinking College."

    I told Dr. Walls after the meeting that my latest blog article was about my first semester at Jewell and that while I did not use the words "critical thinking," that is what I was led to do during my two years as a student, beginning with the Philosophy of Religion class mentioned in this article.

    I remain grateful for the education I received at William Jewell College -- and for being challenged to engage in critical thinking during my time there.

  6. Local Thinking Friend Temp Sparkman (wrote in an email comment), "The evolution of examining my faith began at Southern [Baptist Theological Seminary]. When I got off the bus on Lexington Road and passed by the sign 'Norton Hall' I had no inkling of the transformation that would come of the Southern Seminary experience."

    1. Yes, my experience of examining my faith during my junior year in college was re-enforced at Southern, aided greatly by the courses I had under Dr. Rust. (Temp, of course, knows who Dr. Rust was; for those of you who don't know him, he was an Englishman who was educated as both a scientist and a theologian and who long taught Christian Philosophy at SBTS.)

  7. Thinking Friend, and old graduate school friend, Graham Hales in Mississippi shares these significant comments:

    "To not examine faith is to borrow from others and thus it is not really your faith. I was questioning my faith in Junior High school. My pastors urged me to 'just have faith and don't doubt.' Not very helpful.

    "In college, most of my professors were not believers and gave me no help. I transferred to another college and found Trueblood to be helpful. I went to seminary on full scholarship to see what this 'big boys' had to say. I did not find easy answers from any of them.

    "Then, one night, in a mystical experience I met Christ who asked me to put aside my questions for a moment as answer one question: what will you do with me? It was an overwhelming experience and led to my doctoral dissertation on mysticism. My faith now is a very personal one and though I doubt many contemporary expressions of Christianity, I have never doubted my relationship to Jesus. It makes the other questions nice to think about but has never shaken my faith."

    1. Thanks, Graham, for sharing such important comments.

      What you wrote about your "mystical experience" reminded me of Pascal. (You may recall that I wrote about him in my Oct. 15, 2017, blog article--found here:

      It seems to me that even mystical experiences have to be examined to some degree, but certainly those who have had a strong mystical experience as you (and Pascal) had are able to examine and then confidently to affirm their faith much more definitely that those whose faith is based more on intellectual assent than upon encounter with God.

    2. In response to my response to him, this morning Graham (aka Dr. Hales) sent me this email message:

      "I so agree. For me, mystical experience must be INTERPRETED within the guidelines of the New Testament, especially the Gospels. The experiences do root one in a person rather than a doctrine which, it seems to me, was the experience of those who met Jesus in the flesh and, later, through the Holy Spirit. It does tend to make theological particulars much less important."