Rooting Faith Deeper than Intellect or Emotion

Young man sitting by a river

Most of the young people she knew who had left Christianity did so after participating in academic debate during high school. Competitive speech training was supposed to prepare them to combat the world, she observed dryly, but apparently the world won. It was just one anecdote, but the counterintuitive observation from a friend of a friend stuck in my mind because it is not very different from what I’ve noticed in the dozen years since I graduated from the world of Christian debate and apologetics training. I would never have guessed how many of my friends in those circles would go on to drift away from evangelical Christianity or leave the faith altogether.

But when I turned my musings into a short post about the dangers of a faith that is only intellectual, another friend with a similar background disagreed—in her experience, young people left Christianity because for them it was only an emotional experience without enough intellectual content. And right there, in that assumed dichotomy between emotion and intellect, I think we find a key part of the problem.

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Trusting God About Sin and Atonement

Statue with scales of justice

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come… he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Hebrews 9:11-14)

According to the Bible, human sinfulness cuts us off from a holy God, so he sent his Son to take on a human life and then die to redeem us from our sins. Through faith, Christ’s blood atones for us so we can come into the presence of God as children rather than condemned sinners.

For those raised in the church, such a summary of the gospel may seem natural and intuitive, but for many unbelievers it is a weird, incomprehensible idea. Some even see it as unjust and wicked. Why would God demand blood before he forgave? And how can one person’s blood, shed two thousand years ago, have any effect on my own, personal guilt anyway?

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When Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons are at the door

One of the most frustrating things about trying to share the gospel with our friends and neighbors is that most unbelievers simply don’t want to talk about it. They feel like they know about Christianity already, and they aren’t interested in hearing any more. If only there were people who wanted to talk about religious things. Well, there are–and they have probably come to your door recently. Unfortunately, for many Christians the twin silhouettes on the porch are cause for whispers and a hasty retreat to a back room rather than excitement at an opportunity to share the gospel.

Our hesitation is understandable, of course. It is hard to know what to say to a Jehovah’s Witness or a Mormon, and it is frustrating to invest time in a conversation that will most likely bear no immediate fruit. But a little preparedness can change all that. Ask yourself this: How many chances have you gotten to share the gospel in the past year? Is it as many as you would like? As Jesus would like? When a JW or LDS team shows up, God has literally brought a witnessing opportunity right to your door. Don’t let them get away!

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Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

The suspension last month of Wheaton professor Larycia Hawkins for stating that Christians and Muslims are both “people of the book” and “worship the same God” has sparked quite a debate over the merits of her position. The question, of course, is more than academic. In a world where ecumenism is the highest virtue, rejecting distinctions between Christianity and Islam carries very practical implications for outreach and evangelism.

If we’re going to ask whether Muslims worship the same God, we ought to start by considering where the Muslim idea of God originated. When Muhammad founded his religion in the early Seventh Century, he drew heavily from Judaism and Christianity, overlaying and modifying that foundation in line with his own ideas and emphases. Because Muhammad’s image of Allah started with a basically Judeo-Christian sketch, the Muslim God does remain recognizably similar in many ways. Surah 112 states, “Say: He is Allah, the One. Allah, the Self-Subsisting. He begets not, nor is He begotten, and there is none like unto Him.” With the exception of verse 3, an intentional contrast with Christian Trinitarianism, this surah would be unobjectionable as a summary of Jewish or Christian monotheism. But that caveat about the the third verse goes right to the heart of the matter, in more ways than one.

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Apologetic arguments aren’t perfectly conclusive, and that is okay

Apologetics is the reasoned, intellectual defense of the Christian faith, responding to attacks and offering reasons for belief. It is the responsibility of every Christian to be ready to offer that sort of thoughtful answer to the best of our ability (I Peter 3:15), because such conversations are one tool that God uses to draw unbelievers to himself, encourage the faith of his people, and create a culture that is open to the claims of Scripture.

In many ways, everyday modern Christians can be better prepared for difficult apologetic discussions than any previous generation. The printing press and the internet offer Christians almost limitless resources to equip ourselves to challenge false ideas, and that is a very good thing. However, I am afraid that this wealth of resources has contributed to false and counterproductive ideas about what apologetic arguments can and should accomplish. Our misunderstandings are leaving Christians disappointed and frustrated after their exchanges with unbelieving skeptics, while the skeptics themselves evade the force of arguments that should be much more effective and compelling.

The basic problem is that many of us–whether consciously or not–expect apologetic arguments to be conclusive; to leave no rational option but belief. We expect the cosmological argument to leave absolutely no defense against the idea of a supernatural creator. We want our design argument to demonstrate the need for a universal designer with perfect clarity. We are disappointed if a historical argument leaves any room whatsoever for doubt about whether the modern Bible reflects actual first-century events. And so on. Because we know that God exists and the claims of Christianity are true, we expect our arguments to conclude with the same sort of conviction we ourselves feel. Unfortunately, there is both a theological and a tactical problem with such inflated expectations for our apologetic arguments.

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Toward not despising the day of small things*

I was on the mock trials team in college, but I was not very good at it. Well, I actually was pretty good when I was playing the role of a witness, but when I competed as a lawyer, I just couldn’t seem to get it right. This was a bit demoralizing for someone who, at the time, thought he wanted to go to law school. It was also odd, because I had done well in high school debate. I could not figure out why mock trials lawyering did not “click” for me, but in hindsight I think I know. Unlike debate, mock trials is a team event. There are three “lawyers” and three “witnesses” on each team, and you are judged as a group. It is literally impossible for one person to win it or lose it, and everyone has to do their part. When I was playing a witness it was easier to just focus on my piece and let the lawyers manage the big picture, but when I was a lawyer my debate instincts and competitiveness kicked in and I was always looking for the one killer argument or perfect point that would win the case for us all–and therefore I wasn’t a very good lawyer, because I was trying so hard to do our job that I wasn’t focused on my job.

Is there anything that the people who made Just Do It one of the most successful advertising slogans in history hate more than outcomes that are in someone else’s hands? It’s part of what makes marriage and parenting so hard; the fact that you are making something with someone else, like two pianists sharing one instrument. We cannot stand the feeling of responsibility without control.

I think a lot of Christians are feeling that way about our culture. We know all the Bible verses about evangelizing the nations, about being ambassadors for God in a lost world, and we realize they are talking to us. Meanwhile, we see our country falling away from any sort of Christian identity and enthusiastically and publicly embracing every flavor of sin, and we think, hey, the church needs to do something about that; I need to do something about that. But what can you do about a problem made up of hundreds of millions of people, most of whom have already heard the gospel and consciously rejected it?

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Naturalism and morality: The only thing that’s wrong is everything you know

In my post a couple weeks ago, I considered whether naturalism is as exclusively and objectively scientific as its proponents suggest. We saw that naturalists typically begin with an a priori assumption that there is no God, which, if true, would mean the naturalistic worldview is true by default. Since the nonexistence of God is an unprovable starting point rather than an empirical conclusion, the naturalist’s foundational assumption is, in a sense, unscientific. However, it would be unwise to press that point too far. If we want to challenge the naturalistic worldview, we need to offer something more compelling than “but you can’t prove God doesn’t exist.”

There are two main ways in which a Christian can respond to the challenge of naturalism. The first is to avoid the sphere of science altogether and focus on other reasons for belief in God. After all, if theism is true, naturalism must be false, across the board. To the degree that faith or experience or historical evidence or anything else give reason to believe there’s a God, naturalism is undermined. The Holy Spirit crying with our spirit “Abba Father” offers an absolute refutation of naturalism before even a shred of scientific evidence is considered.

If naturalism is false, though, we can expect it to falter even in the scientific realm. And if there’s further evidence which might sow seeds of faith in someone’s life, why not offer it? This brings us to the second possible response to naturalism, attacking it on its own ground.

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Why I am a Christian, Part I

When it comes to attempts to “prove” Christianity, I tend to agree with Chesterton when he writes that “a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it. And the more converging reasons he finds pointing to this conviction, the more bewildered he is if asked suddenly to sum them up… That very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.”

Additionally, any attempt at logical proof of Christianity has the same flavor as an effort to prove deductively that one’s wife exists. Even if the attempt is successful, something is lost in the process. The fact that Christianity can successfully be fit into a logical proposition should not be taken as evidence that it is best left there.

Despite these caveats, an apologetic that avoids the temptation to try to fit Christian belief into a simplistic and rigid “2+2=God”-type formula can be valuable, both in confirming the believer’s faith and in offering non-Christians reasons for belief. With those goals, then, the following is the best account I can give of the “converging reasons” why I am a Christian.

IS THERE A GOD, OR NOT?

In questions of religion, the first logical division is that of theism from atheism: “Is there a God, or not?” This has always struck me at the easiest step in the Christian apologetic. The classic question, “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” demands the existence of a supernatural cause. We can look down through the depths of time to see infinity below us, but we find nothing in the universe able to reach far enough to rest on such a foundation. So there must have been something that could stand upon infinity and, reaching out, hold up all else – all that could not itself be rooted in eternity.

We can take it as a premise that the universe exists. If it exists now, it either began to exist at some definite point in time, or else it has existed without beginning, from infinity. Regarding the latter option, science and logic agree that our temporal, material universe, with its limited supply of energy, could not possibly have existed from infinity; put simply, it is not the sort of thing which is eternal.

This leaves us with a universe which did not exist, and then began to exist. It was not, and then it was. Yet, ex nihilo, nihilo fit: Out of nothing, nothing comes. While the universe was not, it certainly could not cause either itself or anything else. And it would have remained comfortably not forever had not something else, something that already was, caused the universe also to be. Furthermore, this Cause had to have been one that is the sort of thing which is eternal. (If our Cause had ever not existed, it would itself require a cause, and so on.)

Thus far we do not have much of a “God.” However, note that our Cause is eternal and sufficiently powerful to create the universe. There are also strong hints of intelligence and will, unless we picture creation as an act of necessary and unconscious emanation after the model of the Neoplatonists.

The structure of nature itself strengthens the case for the existence of a Cause, while offering additional hints as to that Cause’s essence. The step from jumbled, prebiotic chemicals to the complexity of even the simplest form of single-celled life, with its hundreds of genes each containing thousands upon thousands of precisely-organized nucleotide bases, remains inexplicable except in terms of an active intelligence. And once one moves beyond the unicellular level, “irreducibly complex” biological features such as the eye, bacterial flagellum, or blood-clotting cascade, once again defy purely natural explanations.

So now our Cause is a designer also, and the conclusion that He possesses intelligence and will seems inescapable. An emanation cannot choose, yet design of the sort we see in creation requires choice: “I will make it like this, and not like that.” Furthermore, the Cause did not merely create apples; He made them red and sweet. He did not merely create a sun, but also sunsets. The superfluous flourishes suggest a taste for beauty and complexity, a joy in creation and design.

Further evidence of divine personhood come from our own personhood. As Francis Schaeffer wrote, “A stream cannot rise higher than its source.” That which does not possess personality – self-awareness, intelligence, will, emotions – cannot dispense personality. From this combination of personhood with necessary existence and immeasurable power, our Cause certainly appears to fit the traditional understanding of “God.”

Before leaving this topic, there is one further evidence for the existence of God which I have always found persuasive, though my purely logical side is inclined to turn up its nose at the argument’s subjectivity. I am speaking of the sense that one is living in Someone Else’s work of art, that this mountain and that cloud and that man are not merely there as a matter of happenstance, but that Someone put them there and is glad to see them. It’s the difference between a crowded bus station and a play, or between a photograph and a painting; between what simply is and what is by design. This sense of the intentionality of the world is unlikely to persuade someone who does not himself feel it, but for me it is perhaps the most deeply-felt argument for theism.

DOES GOD MATTER?

The principal question now, from the human perspective, is whether this God whose existence seems evident has any practical relevance to our daily lives. In-and-of itself, the fact of a Cause, even of a personal Cause, does not imply anything beyond an explanation for our own existence. We have not yet gotten any farther than the Deistic “Supreme Architect” who set the game in motion and then exited the playing field. In particular: Does God view His relation to individual humans as anything more than that of two coexistent beings? And if so, how does He view that relation? Does interest in it influence his conduct? And can the relation be affected by human action?

At this point, there are two possible avenues to pursue in answering these questions. First, we might continue to examine nature and our own experience to seek evidence of God’s hypothetical involvement in human affairs, and secondly we might consider the claims by various religions of documenting just such involvement. I propose to do both.

The first argument I will consider is probably the weakest from a purely logical perspective, but it nonetheless catches deeply at the human core. It concerns what we might call the human sense of transcendent meaning, that what one is and does ought to matter, and does matter, in a venue beyond the merely natural and material. What is it that makes the pagan Greek hoplite charge a bristling field of bronze spearpoints, or makes the African tribesman offer a portion of his hard-won kill to the gods, or makes the American yuppy businessman attend a spiritualism retreat in the Catskills? I suspect that one of the atheist’s hardest tasks is fighting the resilient sense that THIS is not all there is, but that what one does here matters in some undefined way. Socrates wasn’t entirely sure what would follow his hemlock draught, but he was nonetheless quite sure that he ought to drink it, despite the fact that this was an entirely irrational conviction from a biological standpoint.

This observation could be used, of course, merely as another argument for theism. In the absence of a Designer God, instincts such as our sense of transcendent meaning can only be explained through survival value, an explanation which seems quite insufficient to answer for an inclination to suffer inconvenience, harm, or even death for the sake of an undefined, non-terrestrial something.

Beyond this point, though, if God’s existence is already assumed, then the human confidence in transcendent meaning offers a powerful rebuttal of the Deistic conception of an “absent God.” If God exists, then our sense of transcendent meaning comes from Him. And yet, a God without concern for humanity offers no more hope of such meaning than is found in a strictly atheistic world. After all, if our actions are to have significance “beyond” and “after,” that significance by definition must come from something other than ourselves. There must be some relation between God and man for a life to have meaning beyond the curtain of the material world. Unless that meaningful relation exists, the Godgiven instinct to look for a meaning that transcends our natural existence is nothing but a deceitful promise, a signpost to nothing.

A second argument against an “absent God” is based on the moral law. Every human, be he pagan, Muslim, or Christian, has an innate sense of right and wrong which can be ignored, but not escaped. The thief whose partner cheats him of his share of the loot feels genuinely wronged – in a very different way than he would if the stolen goods had been lost or accidentally destroyed – because his partner “broke the rules.” The moral relativist who espouses sexual liberality in the abstract will still break your nose if you corrupt his daughter, and feel justified in doing it. Jean-Paul Sartre spent his life teaching that “everything is permissible” because God does not exist, yet he signed a document fiercely condemning the French for their treatment of the colony of Algeria. It is only by concerted effort that one can ignore his conscience, and then only in part or for a moment.

This innate moral law cannot be mere amoral instinct, for instinct tells us what to do, while the moral law tells us what we ought to do. Instinct tells us to eat; morality tells us we ought not eat what is our neighbor’s. Furthermore, as C.S. Lewis points out, morality is most often a guide between conflicting instincts, such as when the instinct to protect others conflicts with the instinct for self-preservation.

The moral law cannot be explained away as nothing but a social construct either. If morality was merely something one learned from parents, teachers, and peers – like driving on the right-hand side of the road or using the metric system – then there could be no higher court of appeal than one’s own, individual society. If I drive on the left-hand side of the road, I had better beware my local highway patrolman, yet that same patrolman feels not a hint of acrimony towards the millions of Englishmen who do exactly the same thing on a daily business; for, after all, it’s up to them to decide how they wish to drive. In contrast, we do feel something is wrong, deeply wrong, when the Aztec rips the still-beating heart from a human sacrifice, or the Hindu burns a widow on her husband’s pyre, or the tribesman mutilates his daughter’s genitals. In this case, we do not say, “Well, it’s up to them to decide.” No, because these sorts of actions must be judged by a higher standard than social convention – that of the moral law.

Our sense of objective moral standards, then, most certainly exists, while being inexplicable through either natural or social agency. In that case, these moral imperatives that we feel, these laws regarding what we ought and ought not do, must originate in a Lawgiver; a hypothesis that actually has the added advantage of fitting their felt nature more closely than any other. Like a science-fiction robot that mistakenly believes itself human until it encounters inviolable and inexplicable commands programmed into its very core, so we also discover commands that cannot be explained except through the “programming” of some powerful Other (though of course, in contrast with our illustrative robot, our felt commands can be disobeyed).

If I was merely attempting to demonstrate the existence of God, I would stop here, but the goal now is not merely to discover whether God exists (a proposition for which this argument does offer additional support), but also how this God views his relation with individual humans. And the moral law has much to suggest here. For this is not merely a felt, implicit promise, like our sense of transcendent meaning. Rather, these are direct commands: “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not.”

We have, then, a God who is sufficiently concerned with the human condition to reach into our very souls and implant direct commands for how we ought to act, along with the suggestion that how we respond to this Law is part of a play that extends far beyond the realm we now inhabit. And that should give us, to once again quote Lewis, “cause to be uneasy,” for, after all, the moral law does not offer any hint of flexibility or grace. “You ought,” and yet we do not. “You ought not,” and yet we do.

This brings us to the realm of specific religious claims, but I see that I have already run well over two thousand words and I think I will belatedly append “Part I” to the title of this post, leaving the remainder of the issue for later.