Walking on Water vs. Reality
And straightway Jesus constrained his disciples to get into a ship, and to go before him unto the other side, while he sent the multitudes away. And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone. But the ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves: for the wind was contrary. And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear. But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid. And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water. And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus. But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me. And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt? And when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased. Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God. (Matthew 14:22-33)
For example, why would the disciples think Jesus was a “spirit”? Were they in a habit of confusing physical persons with spirits and vice versa? What implications would this have for the post-resurrection stories we get in three of the four gospels? Is this an example of a collective or mass hallucination?
Also, why don’t we find the detail about Peter walking on the water in the parallel account found in Mark 6:45-52, which ends with the disciples’ hearts being hardened instead of worshiping Jesus and calling him “the Son of God”? Matthew has apparently grown the tale by giving his version more impressive melodramatic grandeur, just as he does with other episodes he incorporates from Mark’s gospel. Also, it is odd that Mark would fail to include this detail about Peter walking out to Jesus on the water since many apologists have claimed that Mark was written by someone very close to Peter, even under his supervision.
But I think the real take-away lesson of Matthew 14:22-33 points to the assumption that faith (a conscious act of will involving belief based on hopes, wishing and imagination) gives the believer conscious power over reality and to the psychological wreckage this assumption creates in the mind of the believer. The story makes it clear that Peter was able to walk on unfrozen water only so long as he kept up his faith. But as soon as his faith began to waver, reality stopped obeying and consequently he started to sink into the water.
According to the pericope, Peter starts to sink as a result of a mood swing that he suffers in the process of an action he’s chosen to undertake: he sees the wind and becomes afraid, and consequently he begins to sink into the water. Reality alters itself in response to emotions. Perhaps the rule is: If you have divinely approved emotions, reality does what you want it to do; if you fail to have divinely approved emotions, reality will not cooperate.
After Peter becomes afraid and starts to sink in the water, we learn from words inserted into Jesus’ mouth that Peter started to sink because he doubted. As we saw here, Christians tend to doubt their own faith-beliefs quite a bit, and this tendency goes back to Christianity’s earliest days. To doubt is to be uncertain. Peter had already witnessed Jesus performing miracles, and he already believed in supernaturalism to begin with. He even left the only life he knew – as a fisherman – to follow Jesus. He was certain enough for all this. Was the uncertainty he experienced walking on the water a real historical detail (which Mark forgot or chose for some reason not to include), or was it a literary device invented by the author of Matthew to press a theological point? Regardless of how believers answer this question, we see the philosophical assumptions of Christianity in operation here.
Whether it is due to an emotion or to faltering confidence, the philosophical underpinnings here are undeniable: consciousness holds metaphysical primacy over reality. If you believe a certain way, reality will obey that belief. If you begin to doubt, reality stops obeying. That’s the primacy of consciousness with a vengeance. Pure, undefiled, undiluted metaphysical subjectivism.
Psychologically, the purpose of the entire passage is to trap the believer between faith and doubt by toying with his tacit recognition that, contrary to biblical assumptions, reality holds metaphysical primacy over conscious activity. It teases the believer into trying to believe that what is in fact impossible is magically possible – so long as you have enough faith! – all the while waiting to belittle him for the nagging doubts that will inevitably arise from seriously contemplating the idea that reality obeys the intentions of the will. The believer most likely doesn’t really believe that he’ll be successful if he tries to walk on water (or command a mountain to cast itself into the sea, or cast out demons, or heal the sick, or cure blindness, or raise the dead, etc.), so questions about the strength of his faith will always linger, even if he seeks to ignore them. Indeed, the more he tries to ignore such questions, the more likely they will fester and add to the psychological conflict that haunts him. (In the link provided above, we saw that the champion apologist Gary Habermas suffered a whole decade of persisting doubt!)
The only way out of this choking dilemma is for the believer to compartmentalize, pretend and reinterpret stories such as the one above so as to artificially harmonize Christianity’s prescription of faith with the stubborn, unalterable facts of reality. When faith and facts are in obvious conflict (as is so often the case), the believer is to blame himself for his own failure, not his worldview for its striking contradictions. Just as Jesus scolds Peter for his lack of faith, the believer is to hold himself in contempt for his doubting, a compounding of doubt which is inevitable given the fundamental incongruity between what Christianity teaches and what we find in the world when we look outward.
The losing confrontation between faith and facts will naturally drive the believer to seek psychological safety, which invariably involves, among other defensive measures, avoiding any situation which might put his faith to the test. This is because he recognizes implicitly that his faith will fail every test. Just as the old Danny Barker hit Nothing Fails Like Prayer puts it, the believer must neuter his faith in order to protect it while at the same time pretending that it is a “gift” from his god. In so doing, he fundamentally compromises his own character by choosing a path of dishonesty about the state of his belief system.
A devotion to faith puts man’s mind in opposition to fact. Such devotion of course breeds a habit of evading truth, as opposed to embracing it. Yet this is just the beginning of the clash between reason and faith. The view that facts are just revisable creations that can be altered by an act of will, supernatural or otherwise, can only mean that facts are not absolute and thus cannot serve as the proper ground for truth. Beliefs that are formed on such premises are thus held independently of and thus contrary to facts, as though facts either didn’t matter, or as though they will somehow conform themselves to what one believes. In such a way faith rests squarely on the primacy of consciousness and puts man’s mind in opposition to reality.
Faith will always break into pieces when it comes into contact with reality. Because of this, the believer must practice ways of neutralizing it expressly to protect it, to downplay the supernaturalism of his worldview in order not to expose its falsehood, to relegate it to benign literary tropes that aren’t supposed to be what the stories have him believe them to be, all the while not realizing that all along it’s been a void that has consumed him, turned him against himself, and created moral wreckage where instead there should be a wholesome, rational character. The “safest” course for the believer is simply not to think about it.
by Dawson Bethrick