A new perspective on faith

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In their new book, “Into the Headwinds: Why Belief Has Always Been Hard and Still Is,” Terryl and Nathaniel Givens try, and succeed, to manufacture such a realization; not to seed a storm of existential doubt, but to encourage an authentic campaign of increased self-awareness and intentional living — one which they argue must be the condition for true, life-altering faith. (Allie Kneeland)

There are moments when the movie of your life is shattered by the stinging blow of perspective. When, like a third-person narrator, you are made to witness your own misunderstandings and misplaced assumptions. When you recognize with stunned lucidity that you are not who you thought you were, and that you may not have chosen the choices that define you. 

In their new book, “Into the Headwinds: Why Belief Has Always Been Hard and Still Is,” Terryl and Nathaniel Givens try, and succeed, to manufacture such a realization; not to seed a storm of existential doubt, but to encourage an authentic campaign of increased self-awareness and intentional living — one which they argue must be the condition for true, life-altering faith. 

Though a mere 121 pages, “Headwinds” punches above its weight, carrying subheadings that read like philosophical treatises and enough surveys of scientific literature and academic jargon to leave the reader feeling like they just completed multiple university courses. 

Despite the quantity of information condensed into its sparse page count, the latest book from the Givenses communicates its message directly and accessibly, following the playbook Terryl has developed over several books written with his wife, Fiona, for a Latter-day Saint audience. Terryl, a Neal A. Maxwell Senior Research Fellow at Brigham Young University, co-wrote “Headwinds” with his son, Nathaniel, whose graduate degrees in economics and systems engineering contribute to many instructive examples throughout the book. 

“Headwinds” makes little effort to provide convincing arguments for the existence of God. Instead, the book does the intellectual-spiritual work each one of us is called to do in this ever convoluted and changing world, asking what the challenges to faith are, if they are particular to our modern moment, and whether confidence in our belief-forming faculties is possible at all. 

In pursuit of answers, the Givenses offer no shelter from the dual headwinds of doubt and uncertainty. On the contrary, they offer an invitation: to step out from behind our straw houses of dogma — religious, rationalistic, or otherwise — and face the torrent, eyes open, with the hope that this bold approach “can give us new and productive ways to think about faith as an informed and self-conscious way to live, as well as a foundation of discipleship.”

They begin this pursuit with a working definition of faith: “Costly religious commitment that is maintained in the face of opposition” — costly because it requires the sacrifice of immediate material satiation, and religious because it involves “unscientific” means of obtaining knowledge. 

Faith requires of us a resistance to cognitive entrenchment, an openness to self-correction, and an embrace of risk and vulnerability.

Terryl and Nathaniel Givens

Far from being a superstitious relic of a pre-Enlightenment era, the Givenses argue that faith is intrinsic to the human experience and that a worldview which excludes that fact does nothing but blind its adherents to their true nature by offering them a psychologically and culturally convenient foothold free of ambiguity. 

Two such worldviews, according to the Givenses, are rationalism and scientism. 

Rationalism, the individual conviction that humans ought to base all belief in logical reasoning, is a new name for an attitude that existed long before it became the dominating cultural force of the Enlightenment, the Givenses say. But despite its explanatory power and ostensive connection to the social and technological advances of the last few centuries, rationalism ultimately is the thing it purports to conquer: a myth. 

In elevating human reason to the station of deity, rationalism overlooks the embeddedness of reason in our biological and cultural environments. Citing numerous studies and leading theories in cognitive psychology and evolutionary biology, the Givenses explain that not only are we unaware of how most of our beliefs are formed, but we cannot be sure that our natural disposition is even oriented towards finding and recognizing truth, as opposed to finding practical solutions and recognizing social status. 

These same critiques apply to scientism, the conviction that science is the only reliable means for society to identify truth and achieve human progress. 

Clearly, these scientific developments pose a problem for those claiming that all decisions can and should be made through logical calculation. But they can also complicate, if not jeopardize, the believer’s confidence in their own faith. 

“Whether we are firm in the faith or in the midst of a ‘faith transition,’ the real content of our belief is often not fully known even to ourselves,” the Givenses write. “And without knowing that, how can we have any confidence in our faith in anything, including God?”

Though the Givenses take this skeptical objection seriously, they don’t leave us there. Terryl and Nathaniel make the case that by humbly recognizing our epistemic limitations and placing trust in our most fundamental intuitions of what constitutes the Good, the True and the Beautiful — in addition to gathering and analyzing hard data — we will be able to grow in light and knowledge.

Faith, they clarify, doesn’t require us to narrow our acceptance of scientific claims. In fact, it demands of us the opposite. Faith calls on us to expand the domain of rationality to include more and different kinds of data points. In addition to recognizing logical proofs, faith demands we recognize changes in our perception and character as we immerse ourselves in scripture. As well as finding comfort in the current scientific consensus, faith demands we find guidance in the brilliant holiness of a hospital delivery room, star-lit sky and parents’ prayer. 

“Faith requires of us a resistance to cognitive entrenchment, an openness to self-correction, and an embrace of risk and vulnerability,” the Givenses write.

In the final analysis, faith is recognizing how little we know, holding on to the little we do, and using our capacity to choose to move forward anyways. A true and living faith, the Givenses insist, must cease to be merely a dogmatic proposition, and must become a courageous response towards the human condition. 

Indeed, “When we live by faith, we live precariously.”

By introducing greater nuance into our discussion of faith, “Into the Headwinds” empowers us to apply our consciousness more actively and honestly in pursuit of a faith worth having—a faith that shatters the mechanically determined movie of your life, allowing you to truly know yourself and alter the world around you.

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