Faith as Fiction

19 January 2012 5 Comments

I am in my home town–Santa Barbara, California–these last three weeks of January. Trying to write, sometimes with a warm sun on my back. Following is what I wrote the day  before yesterday. Another rough cut from the ongoing work-in-progress The Skeptical Believer:

Faith is not made up, but it is made. Which is why it does not bother me to call faith a fiction, as long as you let me control the definition of fiction (the one who controls the definitions usually wins any argument).

If you think of fiction only as a synonym for false, or as the opposite of fact, you are not thinking enough. The Latin source for the word fiction meant to make by shaping, molding, forming, or devising. The word also carried meanings such as feign, invent, fabricate. It suggested a maker and a thing made, with the possibility that the made thing was a product of the imagination. That was the sense of the first known use of the word in English in the early fifteenth century and the reason the word became associated with literature in the late 16th century. Today, fiction is generally used to identify novels, as a synonym for false, and seen as the opposite of fact. I would like to preserve its ancient sense as a synonym for a thing which is made.

All life, in this sense, is a fiction—a thing made from other things–an invention even, a bringing together of existing things to create a new thing. On the physical level, we have the many not yet fully identified things (from quarks to muons) that make up the atom, atoms that make up molecules, molecules that make up compounds, and compounds that are brought together to make up increasingly more complex things.

The same is true in the shaping of an understanding of the world and of one’s life. We are, from our earliest moments, flooded with data, input, information—the flotsam and jetsam of moment by moment experience. (What William James called the “great blooming, buzzing confusion” of the newborn, a confusion some feel again when trying to make sense out of their lives.) When one is young, this stream of meanings and possible meanings may be highly controlled—filtered for you by parents, church (or some equivalent), school, and social context. You are offered, implicitly and explicitly, a way of understanding and explaining and valuing that makes sense of everything–or purports to. As you get older, more educated, more experienced, you become aware of other ways of understanding, explaining, and valuing. You negotiate between the way you were raised with and the other ways you find around you and, in a process that may go on for a lifetime (or be settled once and for all without even thinking), you create a way of understanding, explaining, and valuing that allows you to live.

And because you create this, as much as discover it, I think it is a fiction—in the sense of a made thing, with some input from the imagination. I do not think it is necessarily a false thing, or an unreal thing, or a nonfactual thing (though it could be). It may be almost entirely true, factual, and real (my belief in human fallenness requires me to say almost). But it is–inescapably–created, made, formed—from the things that have presented themselves to you in your life experience. (If you want to add, in a process directed by God in your own case, I will not protest.)

All of this sounds very post-modern. I am not a big fan of postmodernism, but like any influential movement it has elements of truth and insight (or it would be much less influential), and I think its assertion that all our ways of describing and living in the world are constructions is true and therefore not something to be fought against, rather something to be used in service of more important truths. Of course my understanding of the world is constructed, and of course others construct a different understanding. And of course none of us can prove—to everyone’s satisfaction—the certain truth of his or her own construction. That is bad news to modernist, rationalistic defenders of this explanatory system or that (including faith systems)—those who feel they fail if they do not prove. It is good news—and perhaps not news at all—to those who see faith as a story which is chosen and lived because it offers, in the individual’s judgment, the best possibility for the things one values most—in my case love, grace, mercy, justice, truth, and shalom.

I have moved, as you see, from the word fiction to the word story. It is both a big and a not so big leap. All stories (including histories) are fictions—created things. All are selective—selecting some things and not others from the “great blooming buzz.” (If there were no selection there would be no story and we would understand nothing.) All stories have the potential to be true—there being many kinds of truth. Some stories are more factual than others, though no competent story is without some basis in fact, even if only in the facts of human nature and the human experience. This whole book is exploring the assertion that the Christian faith is best seen as a story to be lived. Faith is also a fictive thing—something made from the fragmented materials of human experience that both explains that experience and offers hope.

That faith is a fiction, again, does not mean that it is therefore false, illusory, or unreliable. I believe the Christian faith to be true and reliable and real (knowing that each of these terms is a minefield). Consider a wall. A wall is a fabricated but real thing. It requires at least a minimum of imagination to conceive of and design. It is often made out of stones, which are also real, although they are not in themselves a wall until they are joined together by a maker with an imagination. I take these stones—factual things, if you will—and make a wall. Someone else can take those same stones and make a monument. Another will use the individual stones—the facts—as weapons, not joining them together at all, but using them in a way that the person finds desirable. A wall, a monument, a weapon—same stones, different uses, different made things. And some will ignore the stones all together.

This is only an analogy, not a proof of anything. It doesn’t solve the problem of where the stones came from (God? our psychological needs? indigestion?), or whether we have used the stones wisely, or even whether the stones are illusory or real. But I still find it useful for thinking about how I am required, in fact, to make something out of all these things that come at me from moment to moment. Everything I have ever learned or experienced or imagined is potentially a stone in the wall or monument or home I have decided to build. I have chosen these particular stones in this particular configuration to build this thing I call my life. The only alternative, it seems to me, is to sleep while it is yet day (Thoreau).

And so I make my choices. I choose my story—my true fiction—from among the cacophony of stories shouted around me. I both choose it and it chooses me. I both discover it (thankful for those who have preserved it for me) and create it (putting it together and finding my part in it). I piece together a faith that shares, in its essentials, the core elements that define faith in Christ, and at the same time is one that is not exactly like anyone’s faith has ever been or will be. My story is lived in common. My story is absolutely unique. I made it. And yet I didn’t make it at all. It was a gift. One that I accept for myself and offer to others.

Daniel Taylor


  • bill palmer said:

    Once we free ourselves from the requirement to prove which of our stories is right (and the terror that mine might be wrong) we each have the opportunity to enjoy and learn from both stories we have written.

    Really enjoy your writing. The Myth of Certainty has been one of the key books in shaping my approach to faith. Is The Skeptical Believer an actual book you are writing?

    Please keep it up.

  • DanielTaylor (author) said:

    Thanks for the good word on MYTH. Yes, I’m hoping to complete The Skeptical Believer by summer’s end.

  • Evan Hedlund said:

    Thank you so much for your defense of faith. In a contemporary theology class, I read your book titled, The Myth of Certainty. Never had I ever read such a freeing book. You helped me see the importance of our faith and revealed the distortions of truth and certainty found in the realm of academia and in the church. In doing so, you helped me see, like Barth and Kierkegaard, that the myth of certainty brings us into bondage while God asks not for certainty but for faith. A life lived out of faith in the story we are a part of, a story whose sum is our own and not our own, a story ultimately written by God. What a beatiful idea!

    Again, thank you so much for your words. They have definitely helped me in my walk with Christ. I look forward reading more of your works. Do you have any update on The Skeptical Believer? I wait in great anticipation.


  • DanielTaylor (author) said:

    Evan. Thanks for the good word regarding MYTH. Encouraging to me. I will send you the manuscript version of The Skeptical Believer for your perusal and thoughts.

  • Evan Hedlund said:

    Thank you so much. I am honored.

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