In an Age of Skepticism

University Photo dsI have had a number of interesting conversations over the last couple of months, some in person, some by email. One was with a young adult who was contemplating how to discuss the Christian faith with a friend who was sure that modern science had removed all rational basis for faith (and was amazed that there are still scientists and other scholars who believe); another with a pastor who cares about reaching his community and doesn’t quite know how to answer all the questions that are raised; yet another with a graduate student who grew up in the church and was now struggling. This last person commented that they have ended up leaving the church they attended for a variety of reasons – probably at bottom because an inability to find a community where it felt safe to discuss their questions and struggles.

This is a big problem, and one we can’t afford to brush under the rug to avoid controversy or out of fear of where the answers might lead. We live in an age of skepticism, and I don’t think it is likely to get better any time soon.

Several years ago Tim Keller, founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, published a book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. This book is a great conversation starter. It was written to provide “an intelligent platform on which true believers can stand their ground when bombarded by the backlash to religion created by the Age of Skepticism.” (front flap) The book grew out of Keller’s experience planting a church in New York among intelligent, skeptical, secularized adults. He engaged in conversation, on a personal level, with many people and searched for ways to answer the questions they raised.

Although The Reason for God is an “old” book (published way back in 2008), and one I’ve written about in the past, the conversations I’ve had over the last couple of months lead me to believe that it is a book and a resource well worth another careful look. Over the next several weeks we will look at the arguments for and against Christian faith presented by Keller in his book. The posts will use some of the material from the original series, but expand upon it based on the conversations I’ve had over the last five years.

Responses to the Conflict. Before digging into the book itself it is useful to consider the relationship between faith and reason and the response of individuals to the real or perceived conflict. The clash between faith and reason is not a new discovery -€“ it has plagued western civilization for the last several centuries. In our Colleges and Universities today many undergraduate students find their faith tested, often severely. Within the graduate and postdoctoral ranks in secular academia strain and tension is almost unavoidable €- in all areas of scholarship and study. Ben Meyer in the introduction to Ch. 5 of The Aims of Jesus reflects that in the course of debates on faith and history (and this can be broadened to include debates between faith and intellectual pursuits in general) there are four general responses to the conflict (I expand somewhat from Meyer):

(1) Faith requires the renunciation of intelligence. This is Meyer’s way of phrasing it. I would put it a little differently. Any elaboration here would detract from my principle point – so I will forbear. If faith doesn’t require the renunciation of intelligence, it at least requires the abdication of intellectual integrity.

(2) Intellectual integrity requires the renunciation of faith. This is a growing view in our world today. Secular humanism and atheism may not be in ascendancy (Alister McGrath, NT Wright, Tim Keller, and others all make this point in various ways) – but the view has become the de facto operating principle for many; the point of departure. More importantly, the accepted alternatives to atheism or materialism do not usually include orthodox Christian faith. I am not sure how many pastors and other Christian leaders appreciate the depth of this antipathy toward the Christian faith. Among people who would find jokes about race, gender, handicap, ethnicity, sexual orientation, … to be totally unacceptable, jokes about Christians are acceptable. It is simply assumed that no one with intellectual integrity will continue to hold on to an orthodox faith. And if they do, they deserve the critical jibes.

(3) By the skin of one’s teeth one can hold to both faith and integrity. But within this position there is a constant tension. We bracket off the questions and continue to function – barely. Many stories,€“ both of those who “lost faith” and those who “retained faith”, include this approach in the mix. Scot’s chapter on apostasy in Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy is sobering. The skin of one’s teeth often leads to renunciation in the long run.

(4) Intellectual integrity demands faith. A modernistic “evidence that demands a verdict” approach. Although I doubt that the category fits any of these completely, popular writers such as Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, Hugh Ross, and William Lane Craig, among others come off at times as advocating this approach.

I would add a fifth response to this taxonomy:

(5) Intellectual integrity is fully compatible with faith but requires honest interaction. There is no proof – some ambiguity remains. Of course honest grappling with all the questions and issues is somewhat unnerving to many. It seems inevitable that some views will be refined or even abandoned in the process and this prospect causes concern. Both science and biblical criticism challenge some dearly held ideas. Perhaps it is not true that everything is clear cut. Nonetheless there is a way forward. Exploring the issues does not lead inevitably to deism or liberalism or apostasy. One of the most important things here is the realization that not every doctrine or position we inherit from our tradition is of equal importance or equal truth.

Faith is a relationship. Grappling with issues of faith is best done in relationship within community. We aren’t made to be loners -€“ from God or even before God. But it sometimes seems that the hardest single thing to do within the community of conservative evangelicalism is to find one’s way from a skin of the teeth faith into a robust and reasoned faith. It is rather easy, on the other hand, to find in “the world,” and especially the academy, community support for renunciation.

A bit of an autobiographical note to start: In my adult journey I have moved from 2 to 3, with a long holding pattern in 3, and now on to 5. Neither 1 nor 4 were ever viable options for me. But… the journey is not always easy and it can be painfully lonely. Of course this is not the only possible path. I know some who are comfortable in 4, and too many who have found 2 the only plausible option. Some remain in 3 or a variant of 3. I also know some who take a variant of 1 (although they wouldn’t put it quite this way) because it is easiest to “just believe”.

So a few questions€“ and let’s start a conversation…

What is your story and where would you place yourself within this taxonomy?

And… how can we make room in our community, within our local churches, for people to mature into robust Christian faith?

Is there a place for honest interaction with all of the issues?

Are these issues important in a church aiming to reach an unchurched American population?

Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism is an excellent resource to start the conversation. In addition to the book there is also a discussion guide The Reason for God: Conversations on Faith and Life – Six Lessons or a study pack Reason for God Pack, Includes One DVD and One Discussion Guide available for use in churches, small groups, or other outreach and discipleship settings. Although I have not had a chance to see the discussion guide or DVD personally – I expect that the whole package will make a powerful resource.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If you wish to comment please see In an Age of Skepticism on Jesus Creed.

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