In a recent conversation with a beloved family member the topic turned to religion and the different things people believe. I told him I’d recently enrolled in classes at a seminary and was planning to pursue a master’s degree in theology. After explaining the path that led me to this decision he replied that he was glad to learn I’d found a belief I’m comfortable with.
“Finding what you’re comfortable with is the most important thing,” he told me.
I found his comment unsettling for reasons I couldn’t fully articulate at the time. This is a family member I love and respect a great deal so I took no personal offense. But the idea of comfort as life’s highest goal flew in the face of my beliefs, especially since I am so regularly discomforted in my Christian faith. The sentiment brought to mind the words of author Frank Turek, who once said, “Most people are not on a truth quest, they’re on a happiness quest.”
My response to this family member in the moment managed to sum up the two larger issues I have with a Philosophy of Comfort:
First, I am definitely not “comforted” by my Christian faith because it calls me to moral responsibilities and duties that are often at odds with what would be most comfortable for me personally. My faith regularly requires me to resist that which I would naturally gravitate to, and to embrace that which I would naturally prefer to avoid. (James 4) My faith does not spare me from the trials and tribulations of life, it gives me hope and peace in spite of them. (John 16:33)
Secondly, I’ve never been one who could be satisfied clinging to beliefs merely because they “get me through the night”. Especially not beliefs I know are untrue. It’s not enough to find a belief system I’m comfortable with and then put on blinders and ask no more questions. For better or worse I am compelled by conscience to follow the truth wherever it leads. And I’ve found it takes a level of courage to do that, because comfort in life is found in the warm soothing waters of the status quo, not the cold harsh current of questioning one’s own beliefs.
When I was in my twenties I went through a period where I questioned my Christian faith. Why did I believe what I believed? Is it just because someone told me it was true? What if it’s not true? What other belief systems are out there? So I began to learn about world religions and philosophies in attempt to understand what other people thought life was all about and why. During that process I watched countless videos of debates between Christians and non-Christians on topics like truth, belief, miracles, the existence of God, and the historicity of Jesus. I remember feeling a palpable sense of anxiety every time I would start a new video. I was intensely curious to hear what was being discussed, and yet afraid the non-Christian would present an irrefutable fact or argument so damaging it would cause my worldview to collapse like a house of cards. I was scared of being forced to leave the warm soothing waters of my status quo, but I was also at a point in my life where I knew I couldn’t stay there if it wasn’t true.
I finally came to the realization that if Christianity were really true it would hold it’s own under honest logical scrutiny and therefore I had nothing to fear. And if it was not true, or only partially true, I needed to know it. Even if it meant I would need to completely rebuild my worldview. I could not stand the idea I knowingly believed a lie.
Over the years I’ve continued to study and learn more, both about Christianity and other worldviews. And the more I learn, the truer Jesus becomes. Rather than leading me away from my faith, the search for truth and the exposure to other belief systems ended up replacing my two-dimensional “cartoon” understanding of Christianity with an awareness of the staggering depth and dimension of the real thing. But rather than feeling like I’ve got it all figured out, I’m realizing how much I still don’t know. (Hence the decision to enroll in seminary.) One thing I do know is that there is no better explanation of reality, no better understanding of the human heart, than that which is found in the teachings and person of Jesus.
Which leads me to my final thought on this topic. There is a fatal flaw with the Philosophy of Comfort, which is found in the underlying assertion that religion is a crutch. Or, in the words of renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, “There is no heaven…that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” The flaw in the logic behind this sentiment is glaringly evident to anyone who has spent five minutes learning the basics of the Christian faith.
Suppose I believe in Jesus because I can’t face the reality that when people die they are simply gone forever. It’s certainly more comforting to believe that the friends and family members I’ve lost are “in a better place” and I will see them again one day, rather than believing they are now inert piles of decomposed biological matter. But as a Christian I know that not everyone who dies goes to Heaven. Everyone is invited, of course, but not all accept the invitation and come to a saving faith in Christ. And those who reject His invitation are far worse off than if their lives had simply ended when they died.
If I were looking for comfort without regard to truth I would subscribe to a universalist worldview that teaches that all roads lead to god; that there is an afterlife but no possibility of punishment in hell and all human beings will ultimately be saved. Or maybe I would end up at atheism or agnosticism, worldviews which not only remove the threat of punishment in the afterlife, they also alleviate the bulk of moral duties and responsibilities in this life.
The grave being the end of life is actually a very comforting thought. There is a poetic sense of destiny and finality in the belief that no matter what happens in this life, when it’s over it’s over. If that were actually true one could comfortably contemplate their life from their death bed and conclude, “I did some good things; I loved often, made people happy, had a few laughs, helped a few people. And I did some bad things, too; I hurt people I cared about, made mistakes, did things I regret and things I shouldn’t have done. But I tried and there it is. My life has now been spent and I’m ready to pass blissfully into nothingness. ” C’est la vie. There’s a lot of comfort to be found in a worldview with no ultimate accountability.
Christianity, on the other hand, teaches that, as C.S. Lewis said, “You have never talked to a mere mortal.” Lewis went on to explain that nations, cultures, arts, and civilizations are mortal, but it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit. In other words, for those who claim Christ as savior, the stakes are much higher. The grave for Christians is not the end, but the beginning. So the things we do in this life matter in the next; we will be held accountable. And that’s a lot less comfortable than the fantasy atheists believe.
Maybe Oxford professor, mathematician and philosopher of science John Lennox was on to something when he said, “Atheism is a fairy story for those afraid of the light.”