In all my years as a Christian, I have met only one person who was argued into the faith. "It was between Buddhism and Christianity," he told me, "and Christianity had the best explanation." But many of us need more. Something in the Christian story resonates deep within, as it connects to one or more of our heart's longings and satisfies them in a way nothing else can. In Existential Reasons for Belief in God: A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith (IVP Academic), Clifford Williams calls these "existential needs," and he says we all have them whether we know it or not.
Some of these existential needs are self-directed, and some are directed toward others. For example, we need to love and be loved; to do good things and delight in the goodness of others; to feel cosmic security and expand the realm of justice; to receive forgiveness when we lose our way and admire those who tread morally praiseworthy paths; to absorb the beauty of nature and connect with those we love. We need to feel like our lives have meaning here and now, but we also need the hope of living beyond the grave. And we need to know that in heaven we'll finally be free from this life's problems. What Williams calls the existential argument claims that belief in God is justified because it satisfies these needs.
At this point, some Christian apologists will squirm. For them, reason is the best way to justify belief in God. Emotions are fickle and unpredictable. They can blind us to the truth or disrupt our commitment to our deepest values.
But Williams doesn't abdicate reason altogether. After all, he teaches philosophy at Trinity College (in Deerfield, Illinois). Instead, Williams argues that emotional needs and reason work together—for "need without reason is blind, but reason without need is sterile"—and so offers a nuanced approach that takes seriously the role of human emotions. The key difference is that reason-based arguments attempt to prove that Christianity is true, while existential arguments justify Christian belief on the basis of the satisfaction of needs. Williams helpfully analogizes to the realm of eating: We are justified in consuming food not to prove rationally that food exists, but to satisfy our natural hunger.
Some reply that not everyone feels existential needs. Williams anticipates this reaction, and concedes it at some level. Yet he also suggests that people can have existential needs even if they do not feel them. Indeed, we are not always tuned into our emotions as well as we could be. There are cognitive and non-cognitive obstacles in the way. So the question becomes how to arouse awareness of our needs. Circumstances can jolt even the most hardhearted souls among us to recognize their utter dependence on God, their "existential need" for God.
Others argue that even if we do have existential needs, they can be satisfied without faith, or at least without faith in the Christian God. According to this objection, if we wanted to feel pain, we could justifiably believe in a divine tyrant. Of course, such a deity would be antithetical to the healing God of the Bible. And so, Williams writes, "the remedy for being led astray by emotions is not to distrust emotions, but to develop the right emotions." Here he strategically employs various "tests" to scrutinize and heighten perception of the critic's emotional needs. Human beings, it turns out, derive no satisfaction from being tyrannized from above. Nor can an inaccessibly distant deity, cosmic life force, or non-Christian counterfeit satisfy our deepest longings. Only the triune God fulfills our need to be loved and our hope for deliverance from life's troubles.
Finally, some critics of the existential argument worry that ministering to emotions does not guarantee truth. God, according to this objection, is like an invisible friend who accompanies us wherever we go. But just imagining "Invisible George" doesn't make George real, any more than desiring God's companionship makes God real. Again, Williams concedes this objection in part, but also notes that "need has been such a driving force for believing in God that we should look for some way to legitimize that force." For Williams, appeals to emotion are justified when supplemented by reason. "Believing in God is not like believing in bare facts," he writes. "An appeal to satisfaction is required to produce this different kind of believing. This is the function of the existential argument for believing in God."
Truth in the Center
Most people I know—Christian or not—will agree with Williams that emotions can make life spectacular. When our feelings are turned off or insulated by layers of protective defense, life loses something precious. We trudge on, accomplishing plenty but appreciating little. Williams beckons us to "imagine not having emotions while we do something breathtaking and striking, such as hiking to the top of a mountain or approaching a port in a faraway country on a cruise around the world. It would be a very flat experience." So too do emotions ennoble life's tragedies, as God finds our hearts when we need him most: We need the promise of forgiveness when we're trapped in sin, we need the hope of heaven when battling with cancer, and we need the presence of others to assure us that we're loved in the face of an unwanted divorce.
Williams does more than argue for the legitimacy of emotions. He also illustrates the power of emotional appeals by including anecdotes of very personal faith journeys from dozens of interview subjects. Often Williams provides the reason while the stories provide the emotion, and the blend works.
These stories show how reason and need interact in real life, if not in clearly demarcated fashion or with one begetting the other in a linear progression. "It is not always reason first and then need, or need first and then reason," Williams observes. "The two are often inextricably mixed." One interviewee, for instance, emphasizes emotional resonance: "I love the connection with God," she exclaims. "I get hungry for it …. The center of me needs to touch base with the center of God." Another respondent counters with a demand for logical coherence. "If there is a god out there," he says, "an ultimate purpose or something that we were manufactured for, it would have to make sense, at least enough for me to believe in it." A third interviewee synthesizes both elements, saying, "I found ways of seeing that complement science, and evidence that it is not about me, that there are grander stories than the self-absorbed one that any of us could write."
This book—tightly argued, yet accessible to non-philosophers—will make you think. It is not for lazy readers. It asks important questions about how to justify faith. The reader may disagree with Williams's list of existential needs, or with Williams's conclusion that Christianity best satisfies those needs. However, the reader who demurs has his or her work cut out.
As the New Atheism becomes old news, debates about how to best justify faith have been rekindled. Certainly, Existential Reasons can be read as a volley against those who place confidence in reason alone. In Williams's work, one finds echoes of "postconservative" theologians, who remind us that Christianity is about transformation, not just information. But the genius of this book is that it doesn't swing the pendulum too far. Or perhaps more appropriately, Williams shows that reason and emotion are not opposing poles on a single continuum at all; each has its place in the cultivation, strengthening, and defense of Christian belief. For those of us who need a faith at once meaningful and reasonable, that is good news.
Michael McGowan is a philosophy instructor at Gloucester County Community College in Sewell, New Jersey.
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Existential Reasons for Belief in God: A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith (IVP Academic) is available at ChristianBook.com and other retailers.
Other Christianity Today coverage of rational and emotional aspects of faith includes:
Why Natural Law Arguments Make Evangelicals Uncomfortable | A recent paper highlights the differences between evangelical and Catholic defense of traditional marriage. (March 23, 2011)
The Marks of a Christian | How do you know if you're a Christian? (October 28, 2008)
Previous book reviews by Michael McGowan include:
The Heart of Mission | According to John Wesley, that's the church's greatest task. (June 15, 2010)
Is Self-Deception Always Bad? | Not necessarily, says Gregg A. Ten Elshof. (August 4, 2009)
Christianity Today also has more book reviews.
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