Bestselling author of the "The Road Less Traveled," one of the most influential self-help books ever, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck believes that our souls are not born fully developed and that this world is, as Keats put it, "the vale of soul-making." A pioneering thinker on the relationship between religion and psychology, Dr. Peck is also a nondenominational Christian minister. Now 67, he is semi-retired. The following is the introduction from his new anthology of quotations, "Abounding Faith."

Used with permission of Andrews McMeel Publishing

My primary identity, before that of a religious person, is that of a scientist. We scientists are empiricists, meaning believers in empiricism. Empiricism is the philosophy that the best-not the only, but the best-route to knowledge is through experience. That is why we conduct experiments-controlled experiences to gain knowledge.

In this respect I am very much like Carl Jung. Toward the end of his long life the media decided to do a film interview with him for posterity. To me it was a rather inane interview until its conclusion, when the reporter asked, "Professor Jung, a lot of your writings have a religious flavor. Do you believe in God?"

"Believe in God?" old Jung repeated, as best as I can recall, puffing on his pipe thoughtfully. "Well, believe is a word we use when we think that something is true, but for which we do not yet have a substantial body of evidence. No. No, I don't believe in God. I know there's a God."

I have faith in God because I have seen the evidence. But, you might ask, is faith earned or is it a gift, perhaps even more of a gift than any of the other virtues? St. Paul wrote: "By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God." As far as I'm concerned, no truer words were ever spoken. I would simply elaborate that in my personal case it has been God who reached down to me through His grace to open my eyes so that I might see the evidence of His footprints at almost every turn.

Make no mistake; it is a gift. The fact is that many-if not most-people never see the evidence. But how can they not see it? Or hear it? How can they not hear the "still, small voice" of God within them, speaking with a wisdom beyond the capacity of their own brains?

I am reminded of a rather critical review of my early work. The review ended by concluding something to the effect: "These books are not particularly consoling to those of us who do not, like Peck, seem to have a direct phone line to God."

I wrote a note back to the reviewer to suggest that her conclusion might be slightly misleading. "If I have a direct phone line to God," I informed her, "frankly, most of the time the machine doesn't work. But yes, upon occasion it does ring." What I didn't add was the fact that many people permanently leave their phone off the hook.

But why? Why would they leave it off the hook? It is an excellent question to which the answers are multiple, complex, and still ultimately mysterious. For the sake of brevity let me simply once more quote St. Paul: "It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God." There is a certain loss of control involved that many people either will not or cannot bear.

The ability or willingness to bear it is itself a gift. Yes, faith is indeed a gift. This doesn't mean the gift cannot be sought after and nurtured, however; it most definitely can be. The seeking and nurturance of faith is what I would call "healthy piety."

Piety can be simply defined as "the practice of religious faith." But public piety is so frequently not a virtue. Indeed, it is often a vice, an unhealthy practice of self-satisfaction and self-aggrandizement that may actually interfere with faith development. It is no accident that Jesus railed against it. Yet healthy piety is a terribly important matter....Bear in mind I am talking of piety that is private, sometimes even deliberately hidden.

One stumbling block to the silent seeking for God that is healthy piety is the sense of many rational thinkers that they must have God all figured out before they can have faith in Him (or Her). This is understandable but excessively self-reliant. Because God is so much bigger than we are, we can never get Him pinned to the wall like a butterfly we can study at our leisure. You will never completely understand God the way God can understand you. Complete understanding of God as a precondition for faith is an impossible illusion. This is why St. Augustine proclaimed: "Do not seek to understand that you might have faith; seek faith that you might understand." It is a glorious message. Not only does it make the sequence correct, but it rightly implies that the acquisition of faith will open our eyes to a whole new level of understanding.

By agreeing completely with St. Augustine that a healthy faith in God precedes a deep understanding of this world, in no way do I mean to discourage healthy doubt or questioning.

By doubt I don't mean atheism-the certainty that God does not exist. I mean agnosticism-the not-knowing, the questioning of God's ways and even the questioning of His very existence. Such questioning is usually a necessary step in the movement from a simplistic, hand-me-down faith to a faith of mature simplicity that lies "on the other side of complexity." Indeed, I believe that this kind of doubt should be, in itself, considered one of the great religious virtues. Use your mind. Think for yourself, for God's sake!