The Birth of Faith in the Crises of Self-Understanding

Travis T. Anderson, Department of Philosophy

The German theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher is considered the father of both modern Protestant theology and contemporary hermeneutics (interpretation theory). When he died in 1834, he was so beloved a teacher, pastor, and public figure that his coffin was reportedly followed through the streets of Berlin by devastated mourners stretching back well over a mile, and thousands of other Berliners and travelers lined the route to pay their respects.1

For generations of contemporary Christians, Schleiermacher’s name has become almost synonymous with the ability to balance intellectual rigor and faith. But when this famous religious writer and teacher was still a young man, struggling on his own at school, his belief in the teachings of his devout father collapsed almost completely under the weight of doubt and skepticism. On a cold winter day in January 1787, his struggles culminated in this agonizing lament: “Faith is the regalia of the Godhead, you say. Alas! dearest father, if you believe that without this faith no one can attain to salvation in the next world, nor to tranquility in this—and such, I know, is your belief—oh! then pray to God to grant it to me, for to me it is now lost.”2

The mature faith Friedrich Schleiermacher found in the wake of his personal crisis was not the same faith he had lost. The naïve faith of his youth was refined by the twin furnaces of experience and self-examination. And Schleiermacher himself was transformed in the process.

History and the scriptures themselves are replete with stories of faith and lives transformed by those two fires. The book of Job is perhaps the quintessential scriptural example of a sustained assault on faith successfully endured. And yet, contrary to most superficial readings of the story, surely that assault occasioned not just suffering but a genuine crisis for Job (and for the members of his family, who are often completely ignored), a crisis in which Job experienced real doubt and despair even though he responded to comforters and doubters alike with unwavering conviction. If there had been no crisis, if his faith had emerged essentially unchanged, then the experience would have not really been a trial but merely a graceful passage through senseless pain and persecution.

The very nature of faith is like water in the wild: it is purified only in tumbling over and fighting its way through hard places; it must constantly be replenished and refreshed if it is not to dry up; and it can increase only if it has a source beyond itself.

Christ taught the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well that whoever would drink of the water He had to offer would never thirst again, for it would refresh the soul like “a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14). But we must drink that water for the soul to be refreshed. And we must drink it not just once, but continually—as our sacramental rites suggest. After all, if we read John 4:14 carefully, we note that Christ said whoever would drink of that water would never thirst again, but He did not say a single drink or cupful would suffice. While the water in a well might never dry up, we must still repeatedly draw and drink it for it to do us any good. A well from which we cease to drink is no better than a well with no water at all.

Transformative Faith

So, as we pass through life’s crises, how do we develop and exercise the kind of faith that increases and grows but that also helps us grow along with it? Asked differently, how do we become and remain faithful “doers of the word” and not just ideologically consistent “hearers only” (James 1:22)? How do we become not someone who merely possesses faith like a pendant on a chain but someone whose faith is living and transformative?

Again, the life and teachings of Jesus provide the answer: we must become disciples, not mere believers. The word disciple derives from the Latin discipulus and translates the Greek mathētēs, which means “the student and follower of a teacher” and “one who becomes a teacher in like manner.” We drink faithfully of the water Jesus offers us by studying His life and following His example. But that means becoming like Him, striving to enact in our own lives the principles and values He exemplified in His. Just as the original disciples of Jesus grew in faith and understanding only as they struggled on a daily basis to become as He was, we must undergo a similar transformation if our faith is not to remain dormant.

Bruce Hafen, former provost at BYU, reflected on precisely that transformation in a devotional address he gave at BYU when he was the young president of Ricks College in 1979. He suggested that both our understanding and expression of faith typically traverse a number of different stages on the road toward what he characterized as “spiritual and intellectual maturity.”3

President Hafen observed that we begin such a journey by seeing the world and others in simplistic, mostly black-and-white terms. Being a lifelong lover of film, perhaps I can borrow from that familiar domain in illustrating his point:

Like in childish or cartoonish movies, the moral universe seems to someone with naïve faith as if it is peopled by good guys and bad guys, structured by laws that are simply broken or obeyed, and colored by consequences that are ultimately just and usually swift. It would seem there is no need for subtlety of interpretation or difficulty of deliberation in such a universe, for there appears to be no ambiguity in the way its related events unfold and have meaning. This is not to say that at this stage we don’t see apparently unjust things happen, but when they do happen, we believe that (despite our ignorance) they must have a just purpose and express God’s will—and like disasters that befall strangers at a great distance, they often don’t seem to involve us or to require our intervention and concern.

Hafen noted in his address that at this stage of spiritual development we express our faith by exercising a childlike optimism and goodness—”it is typical . . . to trust [our] teachers, to believe what [we] read, and to respond with boundless enthusiasm”4 to the challenges we encounter. While childlike faith has many virtues, notes Hafen, it is possible only when “we simply do not—perhaps cannot—see the problems that exist.”5

Growing Up

But those very challenges and problems eventually awaken in most of us what Hafen described in his address as “a growing awareness that there is a kind of gap between the real and the ideal—between what is and what ought to be.”6 That awareness often begins to develop when bad things happen to us and ours—for if we know we have been striving earnestly to live a godly life, then calamities cannot be easily explained away as divine punishment for sin or as the natural “just desserts” of our mistakes, and we are thus forced to ask ourselves that haunting question, “Why me, O Lord? Why me?”

Awareness of either apparent or genuine injustice can then harden into disillusionment, which is always painful and sometimes devastating. It usually creeps up on us like fog in the darkness—we don’t notice it until the lightning flashes of failure, loss, hurt, or some other personal disaster open our eyes, little by little, to the recognition that where there was clarity and stability, it is now difficult to discern even vague outlines of the world we once knew so well. In a world covered by this fog, God seems not to care about undeserved suffering and tragedy, prayers receive no apparent answers, promises appear to go unfulfilled, imperfections in others become obvious, and we find ourselves increasingly confused and uncertain about what we previously believed with complete confidence.

Hafen wisely counseled his listeners to respond to such crises not with denial but with honesty and courage:

[We need] to be more realistic about life’s experiences, even if that means facing some questions and limitations that leave one a bit uncomfortable. That very discomfort can be a motivation toward real growth. . . .

If we are not willing to grapple with the frustration that comes from honestly and bravely facing the uncertainties we encounter, we may never develop the kind of spiritual maturity that is necessary. . . . We must develop sufficient independence of judgment and maturity of perspective that we are prepared to handle the shafts and whirlwinds of adversity and contradiction that are so likely to come along in our lives. When those times come, we cannot be living on borrowed light.7

Real growth requires that we confront disappointment and tragedy with a sustained effort to understand life and its challenges, and it requires us to realize that a crisis of faith is less the consequence of changes in the world and in others than it is the result of a profound transformation in ourselves. To put it simply, when we progress from a satisfaction with the world as it appears to someone with simple faith toward an understanding troubled by ambiguity and uncertainty, we are growing up. And just as physical growth is awkward and often painful, so too is spiritual growth.

But here the analogy becomes strained. While our bodies will continue to age and develop whether we want them to or not, any genuine emotional, intellectual, or spiritual growth requires not only our consent but our active participation. While change is inevitable, change for the better is not, and growth is change for the better. The difficulty is to push forward and continue growing once we have discovered through sad experience that growth always requires an uphill trek.

Hafen’s reflections on the transformations of faith end with the sage observation that at higher levels of spirituality we must learn to “not only view things with our eyes wide open but with our hearts wide open as well.”8 I will venture to suggest that the faith of someone who has learned to live with an open heart is a faith reborn—a faith of generosity, love, and trust, but also a faith tempered by the knowledge that becoming like the Christ requires us to haul in the net, feed the hungry, minister to the sick, strengthen the faithless, and even, at times, upend the tables of a few moneychangers, rather than waiting for God and His angels to solve the world’s problems while we worship in the detached comfort of our pew at church. It also requires serious and consistent self-examination.

But those efforts to change the world and ourselves for the better still require God’s help if the results we truly long for are to be realized. Hence, at this stage, faith is still required—perhaps required more than ever. It just needs to be a mature faith, a faith rooted deeply in both a clear understanding of the world as it is and an informed trust in God’s willingness to help us transform it and ourselves into the form of what ought to be. Retreating into bitterness and disbelief is not a remedy for the immaturity and innocence of naïve faith—it is its dark reflection. Blind denial is simply the mirror image of the blind faith it abhors, not the wisdom it wants to be.

Know Thyself

Socrates was justly famous for his allegiance to the ancient Greek aphorism “Know thyself.” I would propose that we follow his example with equal fervor, for faith develops fully only when faithful action is coupled with selfunderstanding. In a very real sense all of Western philosophy is a protracted attempt to know and understand both the world and the human mind that inhabits it. Science may appear to have taken over the former task, but there is a critical difference between understanding matter and understanding the material world. I myself particularly appreciate efforts by late-19th- and 20th-century existentialists like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger to engage the enduring questions science can never answer for us, and I find especially appealing their writings on the lifeaffirming power of love, authenticity, and being for others.

If any transformation of our faith involves a correlative transformation of the self, then striving to better understand ourselves as we navigate the uncharted landscape of our future—rather than waiting for crises to initiate that transformation—can only help us strengthen our faith and prepare for such crises. Those two projects are inextricably intertwined. Just as Enoch and Moses and Joseph emerged from their respective trials of faith with stronger faith but also with a clearer understanding of their own nature, character, and capacities, so too can we. And if we seek God’s help as we struggle to understand ourselves, rather than muddling through with nothing but our own limited resources, we will grow all the faster.

God reminded Jeremiah, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee” (Jeremiah 1:5). On our own we have only the mirror of this life’s experiences in which to see who we are. But God also knows who we were and who we can be. And it is that expanded, eternal perspective, illuminated by a light that is not our own, that opens upon the faith necessary to move mountains and transform lives—including our own.

This article is taken from an address given by Travis T. Anderson, a BYU associate professor of philosophy, on Sept. 11, 2014, as part of the Philosophy Lecture Series.


1. Jonathan Hill, The History of Christian Thought (IVP, 2003), p. 232

2. Brian A. Gerrish, A Prince of the Church: Schleiermacher and the Beginnings of Modern Theology (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1984), p. 25

3. Bruce Hafen, “Love Is Not Blind: Some Thoughts for College Students on Faith and Ambiguity,”

4. Ibid

5. Ibid., p. 5

6. Ibid., p. 2

7. Ibid., pp. 5–6

8. Ibid., p. 8