Does Faith Matter?

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

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?

Other ways to engage online:

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

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Noll Tells the History of Protestants in America Briefly

Noll_review_06272015Mark A. Noll.  2002.  The Work We Have to Do:  A History of Protestants in America.  New York:  Oxford University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

We live stories.

When I worked as a chaplain intern, I discovered that I had a special connection with the drunks that came in and were strapped in gurneys to dry out. From their gurneys they would rage—often in Spanish—and many of the interns were intimidated. I talked with them; cried with them; and defended them in group. My affinity with these men was a mystery—I had never been drunk and strapped in a gurney.  Much later, I realized that although the gurney treatment was not a personal experience, my emotions had long been bounded and gagged—too dangerous to be expressed the omnipresent, polite company—for most of my life.  My affinity with the plight of the gurney men was a metaphorical story, not a life experience story.

We live stories. Stories give life meaning. This is why history is so important.  We find meaning in the stories that we tell and those that we cannot express.

Introduction

Mark Noll starts The Work We Have to Do with the story of David Brainard.  Brainard, a young man infected with tuberculosis, got into trouble:

“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” (ix).

Expelled from college for a private conversation, Brainard could not be ordained so he embarked on a career as a missionary to the Indians in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. A man of great passion, Brainard died at the age of 29.  In the end, he was a friend of Jonathan Edwards and was at the time of his death engaged to marry Edwards’ daughter, Jeusha (ix-x).  Edwards, of course, went on to inspire a revival known as the Great Awakening; it was Brainard who inspired Edwards.  Brainard also inspired the founding of Princeton University and, in the nineteenth century, a generation of missionaries.

Noll’s title, “the work we have to do”, is taken from Edwards’ eulogy over David Brainard (14). Noll focuses on providing a short overview of the role of protestants in American history. He writes:

“Even if Protestant beliefs and practices have often worked at odds with each other, there can be no mistaking the importance of Protestant religion for the national history. Although a short book on a big subject can hit only high points it is able to suggest some of the depth, drama, dynamism, and diversity in this story.” (xi)

Organization

Noll writes in 7 chapters, preceded by a preface and followed by an appendix, chronology, reading list, and index. These chapters are:

  1. Who are the Protestants?
  2. Where do Protestants Come From?
  3. Protestants in Colonial American, 1607-1789.
  4. Protestants in Charge, 1790-1865.
  5. Times of Trial and Renewal, 1866-1918.
  6. Protestants in Modern America.

Noll was (1979-2006)  professor of history at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, a school famous for its one-time student, Billy Graham.  He is now the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at Notre Dame University [1].

One of the histories which I was not familiar with was the story of Methodist Francis Asbury.  Noll writes:

“In 1771 Wesley asked for volunteers to go to America, and Asbury responded eagerly [at age 13].  Before he died, Asbury traveled nearly 3000,000 miles, mostly on horseback, into all the former thirteen colonies and the new states of Tennessee and Kentucky” .

Asbury himself wrote about his daily schedule as:

“My present mode of conduct is…to read about 100 pages a day; to preach in the open air every other day; and to lecture in prayer meeting every evening.”

Noll notes:

“When he arrived in America there were 4 Methodist ministers looking after about 300 laypeople.  By the time of his death in 1816, there were 2,000 ministers and more than 200,000 members of Methodist congregations.”

How many pastors today can make a claim like that? (52-53)

Noll is in a clear position to opine about what it means to be protestant today.  He writes:

“In some sense Protestantism in America began with Puritans battling with the English state church over questions of innovation, experimental spirituality, and adaptation of worship to the people.” (116)

Does that sound familiar?  Noll sees the strengths of Protestantism as:

“[There are] twin, but often competing strengths of Protestantism.  There strengths are a connection with the historic Christian faith and a drive to express that faith in an up-to-date, contemporary manner.” (116-117)

Do you feel the tension in this statement? Sounds like the theme for a new book![2]

Assessment

Mark Noll’s The Work We Have to Do is a good summer read.  Clearly, he is writing for an introductory college course in church history, but his accessible style makes it a book that just about anyone can enjoy.

Footnotes

[1] http://history.nd.edu/faculty/directory/mark-a-noll/

[2] Bothersome Gaps:  Life in Tension (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-OT).

Noll Tells the History of Protestants in America Briefly

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