In graduate school I once attended a one-man show, put on by an Australian who was visiting a friend of mine. We had chatted a bit before the show, and it turned out that he and I were about the same age. As I watched him cavorting around the stage—in a way entirely appropriate to the performing arts, but still, he was a grown man—I had a very clear sense: that could never be me. Odd as it seems to me now, I had never really considered that certain paths of life were effectively off-limits to me.

This essay is prompted by reflections about the nature of the Christian faith, and about how that faith is alternately gained or lost. Any change in a person’s ultimate beliefs about reality is quite a remarkable thing; it’s perhaps for that reason that changes in religion are relatively infrequent among adults. I’ve known three or four people to leave the Christian faith, who were Christians as adults. When I think about those people, part of me has a similar feeling as with the guy on the stage—that could never be me. But another part of me says: that could certainly be me. And (more provocatively) that is like the thought you get when standing on a cliff or the edge of a tall building: I could jump off. The immediacy of the possibility is somehow gripping.

The Christian faith is unique among the world’s religions, I believe, in that it is founded on a single historical fact: the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:16-19; ESV)

The whole edifice is built on a single event, one Sunday morning, not quite two thousand years ago. Here I contrast historical fact with (say) a set of propositions or a logical proof. I cannot believe that Christ rose from the dead in the same way that I believe in the Pythagorean Theorem. I have to believe that Christ rose from the dead in the same way that I believe in my wife’s faithfulness—as a contingent fact, one which can never be known with absolute certainty, but which is established on the basis of relationship—and indeed a relationship that would be destroyed ipso facto if I demanded the rigorous sorts of evidence that I would demand in mathematical demonstration.

The other major faiths are founded on religious texts. The Qur’an is its own witness; the Tanach simply is. The Bible is probably unique among religious texts in identifying a single particular fact which, if falsified, would bring the whole thing down. (Paul is not doubting the Resurrection in the text above, but is instead highlighting its importance for the Corinthians: as if to say, if there were no gravity we would fly off into space, toward certain death in the absence of the sun’s warmth.)

Historical facts are flimsy in at least a few ways. There is in the first place the logical possibility that the disciples overpowered the guards and stole the body—or that some or all of the gospel accounts were simply fabricated. (There’s no external corroboration for or against the miraculous claims, so one’s view on those matters will be a recapitulation of what one has decided a priori to be possible.) The five hundred people who Paul cites as witnesses to the Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:6) have now all fallen asleep, so I am denied immediate access to the eye witnesses—not that, if I were inclined to doubt, that would not beget ever more elaborate objections about the nature of eyewitness evidence.

Historical facts are also flimsy in that one’s acceptance a given fact is strongly dependent (as noted above) upon one’s worldview, and consequently upon the company that one keeps. Example: In the middle of our city there is a religious shrine frequented by white pigeons. All of the pigeons near the shrine are white; elsewhere in the city the pigeons are the usual greyish color. The local story is that a bird that spends forty days at the shrine turns white. I don’t believe this for a second. Of course I have no explanation for why the white birds are concentrated in that very part of the city, but it’s certainly not evidence some supernatural bird-whitening force. It’s simply not possible in my worldview.

And the company one keeps. The go-to example here is the Flat Earth Society, but any survey of the public will reveal that large numbers of people hold nonsensical beliefs, and are reinforced in these beliefs by their respective communities. One is struck by the very flexibility of belief. This is amply demonstrated in any of the instances of paradigm shift provided by Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Just before the paradigm shift, the entire scientific community is a reactionary anti-empirical mob. After the paradigm shift, they are once again aligned to reality. Of course, there is no guarantee that the paradigm shift occurs.

One cannot help but see the applicability of these facts to one’s own situation. My beliefs are undoubtedly communally conditioned—and I say that as a person who stands out as individualistic in the most individualistic society on earth. Our globe apportions the faith of its citizens in groups of billions: to believe anything or nothing is to believe that an awful lot of people have deceived themselves rather thoroughly.

Two things follow on from these reflections. The first is an idea from Joseph Ratzinger’s excellent non-introductory book, Introduction to Christianity. He observes that the fact that the person who embraces faith and the person who rejects faith can never be entirely certain. That lack of certainty is perhaps the strongest point of contact between a believer and a non-believer.

The second thing is to consider the role that the community of faith plays in the maintenance of faith. I believe it is uncontroversial to say that loss of faith is generally preceded by a disconnection from the faith community. I am aware of exceptions, but I believe that on the whole the pattern holds. Among adults I have known who have turned away from the Christian faith as adults—as I mentioned, three or four people—I believe that a separation from Christian community preceded the loss of faith.

This ineluctably leads to the suggestion: “Aha! There is no such thing as faith in Christ: it is simply a large group of people playing make-believe, and as soon as they’re apart, the game ends.” I don’t wish to be dismissive of such an argument because (as noted above) that is more or less my own analysis of the billions of people in the world who see things differently from me. But to acknowledge the communal dimension of Christian faith has no bearing on the truth of Christian beliefs. That would be as illogical as scattering a brazier of coals and concluding from the coals’ subsequent cooling that there is no such thing as fire, or scattering a sports team and conclude therefrom that there is no such thing as football.

I confess freely that I make every intellectual effort to conform my heart mind to the Christian faith. Repeated prayers, reading of Scripture, a consistent semi-liturgical structure: aside from offering meet worship to the Creator, a substantial portion of that time is devoted to transforming my own mind. And one cannot devote such energies to forming one’s character without at least thinking, “I sure hope I’ve got this right.”

As an exegete-in-training I must point out that the Bible has no idea of individual Christians. The community is the locus of salvation, which is why the unity of the community is so important in, e.g., the letters of Paul. A great deal of theological shoehorning is required to make an inherently communitarian faith relevant to the individualistic West. So, to update my earlier sentence, one cannot live in community with others without thinking, “I sure hope we’ve got this right.” (Actually, I run with a pretty fringe crowd, and we live in sort of an extreme context—if we’ve got it wrong, we’ve got it really wrong—so I have thoughts like that a lot.)

When I was younger I was much enamored of worldview analysis, tracing broad historical movements using intellectual commitments as a guide. So for example, Augustus accepts ascriptions of divinity, and within a few generations Nero has made his horse a senator. Eugenics aims to improve the bloodstock of the human race, and within a few generations we have the racial policies of the Third Reich. The hidden implications of ideas work out historically. While there’s a liability to blunt analysis and over-interpretation, on the whole I think there’s a lot to it.

More recently I have become more interested in the way that decisions are reinforced and amplified over time, the way that habits form character for good or for evil. Why can’t I run a marathon today? Not because of any one decision, but because of thousands of decisions not to train for a marathon—or rather the lack of any conscious decision to that effect. Why can I read the New Testament in Greek today? Not because of any one decision, but because of thousands of decisions to spend about 20 minutes a day on it, for about five years. Why can’t I love my enemy today? Why doesn’t material wealth have as much of a draw as it once did? Why I am a tea person and no longer a coffee person? Why I am married to the woman I am married to? Why do my children exist? I am constantly walking through a multi-dimensional universe of watershed moments. Sometimes an early decision has permanent effects; sometimes they have to be reinforced constantly. Recognizing this is probably the most important intellectual development in the last fifteen years of my life. Fifteen years ago I had the Romantic (or, perhaps just the young man’s) infatuation with spontaneity, freedom, and individual choice. I have now torn down the poster that read, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” In its place I have, “Today is the day you’ve been training for your entire life.”

I think the decision to remain in community is one of those decisions. A decision to be in Christian community is a decision to amplify the Christian resonances, and dampen non-Christian resonances. By the same token, choosing to engage in a non-Christian community is a decision to dampen the Christian resonances, and to embrace whatever else is there. It is surprising that this is true, given that even the best Christian community is not very Christ-like; but there you go.