Does Faith Matter?

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith

The moment that we discover that faith in God undergirds all that we think, feel, or do our attitude about faith changes. If faith is a logical necessity, then the quality of our faith starts to matter a lot. Are we going in all directions with an unreflective faith in a vague god of our own imagination or do we believe in God almighty, the maker of heaven and earth whose son, Jesus Christ, walked among us and died for our sins?

For the skeptic, the next question is: so what? Does it really matter what we believe?

Conducive to Rationality

In studying epistemology in the previous chapters, I have implicitly argued that faith matters because it is conducive to rational thought and behavior. We worship God who identifies with truth, as when God revealed himself to Moses:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” (Exod 34:6)

The word translated as faithfulness (אֱמֶֽת; amuth) in the Hebrew means both faithfulness and truth. The King James Bible actually translates this word as truth. 

This focus on truth is conducive to rational inquiry, as is obvious from many points of view. If truth were not important, Christianity might as well focus on mystery or fantasy, as many other religions do.

History of Public Education

Christians have always linked their faith to their actions. Jesus’ brother James writes:

“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.” (Jas 1:22-24)

Thus, we expect that Christians will act on their beliefs.

Because the Bible plays such a prominent role in Christian faith, Christians have always promoted literacy and education. The oldest universities in Europe were all started by the Catholic Church. Public education in Europe began with an academy begun by John Calvin and in America began as church Sunday school programs designed to help children learn to read their Bibles.

American Colleges

The oldest colleges in America also started out as Christian schools even if they later wandered from their Christian roots. The reason for this was that before the twentieth century about half of all university students aspired to become pastors and pastors were the best educated people in most towns and villages. 

The story of David Brainard is instructive.  Brainard, a young man infected with tuberculosis, got into trouble because of a private conversation:

“In 1742 he was expelled from Yale College when he claimed that one of his teachers did not have any more of God’s grace than a wooden chair” (Noll 2002, ix).

Because of his expulsion, Brainard could not be ordained so he embarked on a career as a missionary to the Indians in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. In spite of his great passion for missions, Brainard died of tuberculosis at the age of 29 (Noll 2002, ix-x). Brainard also inspired the founding of Princeton University and, in the nineteenth century, a generation of missionaries who evangelized the entire world. Jonathan Edwards edited and published David Brainard’s journal and later went on to inspire the Great Awakening and serve as Princeton’s first president.

Later, the first college in America to admit women and men together in 1834 was Oberlin College in Ohio whose president at the time was evangelist Charles Finney, who played a key role in the Second Great Awakening. Oberlin became a model for other Christian colleges that campaigned for women’s rights, abolition of slavery, and temperance (Dayton 2005, 35-43).

Benefits of Rationality

Now some of you are probably thinking, education is all well and good, but does faith impact my earnings? Two recent studies show that churches and missions can have a direct and long term effect—the halo effect—on the communities that they serve.

First, Mike Wood Daly studied the spillover effects of congregations in Toronto, Ontario, Canada following methods employed in an earlier study in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He writes:

“When applied in twelve congregations [10 Christian; 2 Islamic], the methodology revealed an accumulated ‘halo effect’ or economic contribution of $51,850,178. The estimate translates into an average value of $4,320,848 per congregation. Even the smallest of the congregations studied, a Presbyterian Church with approximately 150 members and an annual operating budget of $260,000, was estimated to have an annual halo effect of $1.5 million.” (Daly 2016, 9)

The study looked at seven spillover effects: open space, direct spending, education, magnet effect, individual impacts, community development, and social capital and care.

Second, economist Felipe Valencia Caicedo studied the residual impact of education provided by Jesuit priests in missions in Brazil that were later closed. He writes:

“The Jesuit order founded religious missions in 1609 among the Guarani, in modern-day Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. Before their expulsion in 1767, missionaries instructed indigenous inhabitants in reading, writing, and various crafts. Using archival records, as well as data at the individual and municipal level, I show that in areas of former Jesuit presence—within the Guarani area—educational attainment was higher and remains so (by 10%-15%) 250 years later. These educational differences have also translated into incomes that are 10% higher today.”  (Caicedoy 2018, Abstract) 

While faith and education may not necessarily go together, this research brings to mind a passage in Exodus:

“[The Lord] keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exod 34:7)

Normally, people focus on the second part of this verse, but the first part is instructive in reading the Caicedo study—250 years is not a thousand generations, but it is a blessing of twelve generations or roughly three times the length of time involved in the stated curse.

The halo effect of churches and missions is a blessing larger than expected.

Answers to Prayer

The focus on rationality is seldom mentioned by Christians when they talk about why they came to faith, but everyone has a story about how God answers prayer and performs miracles—if you do not believe me, ask around. 

In my own case, I could not have supported my family and gone to seminary but for two rather arbitrary events—the dates of my joining and leaving federal employment. I joined the federal government two week (one pay period) before they abolished the old federal retirement system, something that meant nothing to me back in 1983. I left the government at yearend 2010, announcing my retirement a week before my division was abolished—on the exact same day as my departure date. If either of these dates changed, I could not have earned as generous a pension and seminary would have been financially out of reach. 

Coincidence? Perhaps. But not everyone prays to a God that loves and cares for people because he created them in his own image. Human rights stem from our creation in God’s image. Does it matter? You tell me.

References

Caicedoy, Felipe Valencia. 2018. “The Mission: Human Capital Transmission, Economic Persistence, and Culture in South America.” Quarterly Journal of Economics.  October. Online: https://doi.org/10.1093/qje/qjy024. Accessed: 4 January 2019.

Daly, Mike Wood. 2016. Valuing Toronto’s Faith Congregations. June. Online: https://www.haloproject.ca/phase-1-toronto. Accessed: 3 January 2019.

Dayton, Donald W. 2005. Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (Orig Pub 1976). Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers. 

Noll, Mark A. 2002. The Work We Have to Do:  A History of Protestants in America. New York:  Oxford University Press.

Does Faith Matter?

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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