Over and over again in his book Creed: What Christians Believe and Why, Adam Hamilton says belief is a choice. Nothing else epitomizes his book more than that. For just as the book is mostly accurate and true, yet some of it is dangerously misleading (see the rest of this series, above), so it is, too, with this repeated claim that belief is a choice. There’s truth to it, but as he uses it, it’s both mistaken and misleading.
Let’s look at some typical examples.
Believing that Belief is a Choice
In the end, belief is a decision of the will. I choose to believe certain things. Thirty-five years ago I decided that I believed the tenets expressed in the Apostles’ Creed. [Kindle Locations 122-123]..
I wish he’d said belief is a matter of both the intellect and the will. He didn’t. Not in these locations, either:
As a Christian, I see God’s glory and creativity throughout creation. The atheist, looking at the same things, sees the glory and creativity of nature. At some point we choose either to believe or to reject the idea that there is One whose power and mind have brought forth the cosmos. (Kindle Locations 244-245).
In the end we make a choice to believe. That’s how the Creed begins, credo in Latin: I choose to believe these truths; I choose to build my life upon this foundation; I have decided that if I must take a leap of faith, I’ll take this leap of faith rather than the other. (Kindle Locations 1990-1992).
Hey, take your leap one direction, or take it the other. Choose away! But do you have reasons for what you choose? I’ve already shown his response to atheistic scientists is empty.
In my own life, when I first read the account of Jesus’ resurrection in Matthew’s Gospel, I found it unbelievable. I next studied Mark’s Gospel, and when I read of the empty tomb, once more I was skeptical. It was only when I came to the end of Luke’s Gospel that finally I believed. As we noted earlier, believing is a choice. I chose to believe that Jesus rose. Why? I suppose at some level I decided to trust the first disciples, whose accounts were captured in the Gospels.(Kindle Locations 841-844).
We choose to believe, because — why? Hamilton “decided” at “some level” to “trust the first disciples.” Which just leads to a further why? Why did he choose to trust them?
As far as I could find, here’s his clearest answer to that question:
My point in mentioning these early documents is not only to affirm that Jesus existed, but to show that we have a number of sources telling us about him and describing what his earliest followers believed about him. In the end, choosing to believe in Jesus is largely about choosing to believe what the earliest Christians taught, preached, and wrote about him.(Kindle Locations 406-409).
That’s really thin.
This paragraph concludes a section in which he has explained a bit (not much, but a bit) about the reliability of the New Testament documents. I’ll grant him that. He also mentions the early disciples’ willingness to die for their beliefs, which I would consider one good piece of a cumulative case for belief in Christ. Still in spite of that, his language of choice seems to come down to a decision of the will, with very little input from the intellect.
Complexities to Consider
There are complexities here, to be sure. Reformed theology tends to affirm that persons’ choices are determined by God’s prior action. Arminian theology puts human choice at the forefront. As a Wesleyan, Hamilton is probably more aligned with the Arminian view. But an Arminian can still say that belief is a matter of intellect, not just will. He doesn’t do that.
There is also the philosophical question of doxastic voluntarism. That first word, doxastic has to do with believing, while voluntarism is about choosing. The question it points to is simpler than the language: Can we really choose what we believe?
Is Belief Ever a ‘Choice’?
Suppose I asked you to choose to believe you were currently reading these words out of a book instead of on a screen. Could you just decide to believe that? Not a chance!
Or suppose I asked you to believe that at the moment you were reading this, I was on the phone talking to my wife. You could say it’s not impossible, but you’d have no reason to think it’s true, right at this moment. Open-mindedness isn’t belief.
We don’t choose to believe just by deciding. We need reasons to believe.
Or, could you believe that Jesus died for your sins and rose again unless you had reason to believe you were a sinner, reason to believe that Jesus lived, reason to believe he was resurrected, and reason to believe his death and resurrection were able to remove your sin? Not a chance. For some, the message itself makes so much sense under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they believe with no further evidence.
That’s fine; it still isn’t the same as saying (as Hamilton seems to say), “Hey, its’s not impossible as far as I know, and I could choose to believe either this or that; so I guess I’ll choose to believe.” It’s belief informed by reasons, and by the reason. We don’t simply choose to believe.
Is It Just a Matter of Liking It Better?
Or rather, we don’t do that unless we’re deciding between two options, neither of which appears to be more true or false than the other. If it’s an intellectual toss-up, we can choose the one we like better. It’s hard to shake the feeling that this is exactly what Adam Hamilton has in mind for Christian faith. But that’s virtually the same as saying the only reason to choose Christianity is because one likes it better than not believing.
That choice may be influenced by one’s moral preferences. The Bible does say that some people would prefer to hide in darkness rather than coming to the light, because their deeds are evil. If there’s any truth to his idea that belief is a choice of the will, this moral realm is where you’ll find that truth residing. Funny thing, though: he never mentions that.
How Postmodern Is He?
But then there’s another category to consider: postmodernism. (Hang in with me for a moment here, please.) For many postmodernists, belief is a personal decision because truth is personally constructed. Truth isn’t something you discover, it’s something you create. Now, the two Hamilton books I’ve read don’t clearly indicate any postmodern leanings, but they did lead me to wonder whether anyone had identified Hamilton as a postmodern thinker based on other work he’d done. So I went looking on the web.
I only found one source that attached Hamilton to postmodern views. That might not seem like much, except the source was Hamilton himself, saying in 2009, “We have an approach for the gospel that is exactly what’s needed for the 21st century. Our theology was postmodern and emergent before it was cool.”
I don’t know the full context of the quote, and I don’t have space here to unpack what it might mean if it meant exactly what it appears to mean at face value. I don’t know how postmodern he is. But to affirm postmodernism/the emergent church at any level hints at some potentially disturbing views in his theology and in his approach to truth. (I’ll have to leave it at that for now.)
Complexities aside, the fact remains that Hamilton portrays belief as a choice, a decision almost entirely of the will, hardly at all of the intellect. This flies in the face of every New Testament passage affirming reasons for belief. It makes belief a toss-up, rationally speaking; something to be chosen based on personal preference and individual experience.
Atheists love it when Christians speak this way. They want to portray belief as a mindless leap. Language like Hamilton’s plays right into their hands.
To be fair, he does supply a small number of reasons for belief in this book. But this is very, very thin compared to his repeated insistence that belief is a decision of the will. Which is both misleading and dangerous. It’s misleading because Christianity is a religion of heart, mind, and soul together. It’s misleading also because Christianity can’t just be a matter of personal preference. Whether Jesus lived, died, and rose again is a matter of fact and reality, not your preference or mine.
Still, there’s enough complexity here, what he says can almost sound right and true. That makes it more than misleading. It’s insidious, which makes it dangerous. If you’re going to read Adam Hamilton, read with your eyes open.