Normally, the payback for snoozing my phone alarm in the morning is being five (or more) minutes late to whatever I was waking up to go to. But this Saturday, the consequence was that I snoozed my phone—then pushed it off my bed in my sleep and shattered the screen. By the end of the day, not a single pixel was left working. What was already an overbooked Saturday suddenly became a sequence of miserable hours reading through online phone reviews and agonizing over what to choose in the face of the innumerable and expensive options before me. By the time I finally decided what phone I would buy, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had almost certainly made the wrong choice. How could I feel anything else in the face of that many options?

I got my new phone two days later, and life went on. Or it did, until a friend shared a comic from my favorite site:

Image from

While I would have found this comic funny before Saturday, seeing it so soon after my phone-buying ordeal left me feeling challenged.
It might seem easy to see why choosing what we believe isn’t something we can leave up to the New York Times Wirecutter staff so that we can laugh at the idea of reviewing religions. Randall Munroe, the author of the comic, doesn’t have to be religious to see this. But after losing my phone, I was forced to deal with the fact that we sometimes do have to choose between an array of options without knowing for sure what is right, and reviews are one way to assure ourselves that we have made the right choice. 
My challenge raised by this comic was that I wanted a better paradigm to understand our belief systems than treating them as items to be ordered from Amazon. I wanted a better answer as to why I believe in Christianity and not something else. On Harvard’s campus, I regularly observe two prevailing frameworks that answer the question of why one chooses a particular set of religious beliefs. The first is not so different from the one on display in the comic: religion is one thing you are free to pick and choose based on what fits you best, to mix and match, or to opt out altogether. We see this mode physically enacted each year at the activities fair, where students go to shop for what grabs our attention most, and a religious student organization is a table and a choice as surely as an a cappella group you audition for. For those who choose to opt in, religion in any form is supposed to fit well in our life’s shopping cart. Rather than answer my question prompted by the comic, this framework leads to the conclusion that Wirecutter reviews would be a pretty good way to choose a religion. 
The second framework is that our religious beliefs are part of our cultural background, and that our religion is one more aspect of our identity and thus practically determined by our origins. Based on this view, it is wrong to talk about religion as a set of beliefs and practices resulting from those beliefs, when our religion is important only insofar as it forms part of our larger identity. To look at student organizations once again, under this framework, Harvard College Christian Impact and Harvard African Students Association differ only based on which elements of identity they focus on. Based on this understanding, the answer to my question of why I believe what I believe would be that I practice Christianity because my parents are Christian, and you practice whatever you practice, because that is what your parents (or just people “like” you in general) practice. First, note that I just made an assumption about you that I shouldn’t have made—I may largely share my beliefs and rituals with my parents, but it is far from certain that you do, even if this framework subtly demands it. Second, religion can only be relegated to being a cultural object that forms part of our identity, like clothing style or food preparation, once we’ve already decided that what religion is really about is not faith or finding truth. So, the question of why we believe what we believe remains wide open.
Outside of these two frameworks, there is a third approach, which I have found to be much less commonly invoked in my conversations with peers than the previous two, that suggests that a series of logical, historical, and scientific criteria is capable of either proving one religion true, or disproving all religions and proving some form of atheism or agnosticism as the correct belief system. An important historical example would be the tradition of Islamic rational theology, which held that faith can be proved starting only with rational arguments. This framework also argues that religion has been disproved by science. There is certainly an appeal to the idea of starting with universal principles and moving towards an inevitable answer about what is correct to believe. However, I think most of us would admit that there is no truly universal and non-circular way of assessing all the questions we have about the world in the first place, and that to view faith as a series of philosophical questions is irredeemably reductionistic. 
Based on my presentation of each these frameworks, it should be clear that I do not believe that any of these three frameworks provide compelling answers to the question I started out with. Is the only answer to opt out and hope that what we believe never breaks, so that we never have to look to online reviews or anything else for something new to believe in? 
I think so, if our only goal is to figure out a foolproof way of proving to ourselves why we have put our trust in a certain place, but I also believe that starting out with a comic about choosing what we believe in let me all too easily miss the reality that is embedded in the center of my Christian faith: grace. With an understanding of grace, I realise that each of us is ultimately unable to find the truth on our own, and so no framework will be adequate for solving the problem of belief in a pluralist world, or indeed any other. The answer is that God has acted. Not only has God acted in the ultimate way in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, but God continues to act through his Spirit and Church.
God is not a passive object of study about whose existence we should debate. Rather, God is the ultimate agency, far more powerful than our epistemological limitations. God chooses to meet us and to save us, regardless of our limited ability to know anything for certain. Strikingly, God has chosen that God’s grace, and the knowledge of God, be revealed in the incarnation and mediated through the global body of Christians, the Church. This is the doctrine of election. In Ephesians, Paul put it this way: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8 NIV). In the Gospel of John, Peter states this in another way when he is asked if he too will leave Jesus. He answers, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69 ESV). 
Peter is not saying that we are all born with an innate sense of who God is, or that somehow the default human position is one in which we know the truth. Peter is saying that for those of us who encounter Jesus Christ, we have encountered God and the words to eternal life. After this encounter our most urgent question changes from having to choose one religion, or no religion, out of a plethora of religions. It becomes a question of how we respond to meeting the Holy God. I believe that these encounters still happen today—through the celebration of Christmas, Christian witness, reading the Bible, inexplicable acts of the Holy Spirit, and perhaps even humble blog posts.
And so, sometimes, our phones break and our Saturdays become endless series of CNET reviews and reddit threads as we try to replace what we lost. Choosing what to believe in, however, doesn’t work the same way at all, if there really is a God capable of choosing us and not simply being chosen. After my webcomic meditation, the doctrine of God’s sovereign grace, which had always seemed incredible and unlikely to me, has become not only believable, but downright convincing.  Is it to you? Or does your belief system solve this problem of uncertainty in a way that I didn’t even come close to touching on here? Where does your faith come from?
Caleb King is a junior in Kirkland studying Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.