The Heart Has Reasons
In all my years as a Christian, I have met only one person who was argued into the faith. "It was between Buddhism and Christianity," he told me, "and Christianity had the best explanation." But many of us need more. Something in the Christian story resonates deep within, as it connects to one or more of our heart's longings and satisfies them in a way nothing else can. In Existential Reasons for Belief in God: A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith (IVP Academic), Clifford Williams calls these "existential needs," and he says we all have them whether we know it or not.
Some of these existential needs are self-directed, and some are directed toward others. For example, we need to love and be loved; to do good things and delight in the goodness of others; to feel cosmic security and expand the realm of justice; to receive forgiveness when we lose our way and admire those who tread morally praiseworthy paths; to absorb the beauty of nature and connect with those we love. We need to feel like our lives have meaning here and now, but we also need the hope of living beyond the grave. And we need to know that in heaven we'll finally be free from this life's problems. What Williams calls the existential argument claims that belief in God is justified because it satisfies these needs.
At this point, some Christian apologists will squirm. For them, reason is the best way to justify belief in God. Emotions are fickle and unpredictable. They can blind us to the truth or disrupt our commitment to our deepest values.
But Williams doesn't abdicate reason altogether. After all, he teaches philosophy at Trinity College (in Deerfield, Illinois). Instead, Williams argues that emotional needs and reason work together—for "need without reason is blind, but reason without need is sterile"—and so offers a nuanced approach that takes seriously the role of human emotions. The key difference is that reason-based arguments attempt to prove that Christianity is true, while existential arguments justify Christian belief on the basis of the satisfaction of needs. Williams helpfully analogizes to the realm of eating: We are justified in consuming food not to prove rationally that food exists, but to satisfy our natural hunger.
Some reply that not everyone feels existential needs. Williams anticipates this reaction, and concedes it at some level. Yet he also suggests that people can have existential needs even if they do not feel them. Indeed, we are not always tuned into our emotions as well as we could be. There are cognitive and non-cognitive obstacles in the way. So the question becomes how to arouse awareness of our needs. Circumstances can jolt even the most hardhearted souls among us to recognize their utter dependence on God, their "existential need" for God.
Others argue that even if we do have existential needs, they can be satisfied without faith, or at least without faith in the Christian God. According to this objection, if we wanted to feel pain, we could justifiably believe in a divine tyrant. Of course, such a deity would be antithetical to the healing God of the Bible. And so, Williams writes, "the remedy for being led astray by emotions is not to distrust emotions, but to develop the right emotions." Here he strategically employs various "tests" to scrutinize and heighten perception of the critic's emotional needs. Human beings, it turns out, derive no satisfaction from being tyrannized from above. Nor can an inaccessibly distant deity, cosmic life force, or non-Christian counterfeit satisfy our deepest longings. Only the triune God fulfills our need to be loved and our hope for deliverance from life's troubles.