On Being an Agnostic Christian
Version 1.0, 5-13-06
- 1 Introduction
- 2 A summary
- 3 A three-part framework
- 4 Theology
- 5 Apologetics
- 6 Spirituality
- 6.1 Evangelical spirituality in a nutshell
- 6.2 Spirituality itself—the mystery of meaning and the perplexities of practice
- 6.3 Spirituality and theology—an unfinished puzzle
- 6.4 Spirituality and apologetics—the inspiration of the Bible and the interpretation of experience
- 6.5 Effects—inertia, isolation, and laissez-faire evangelism
- 6.6 The persisting converse—vestigial spirituality and Christianity’s merit
- 7 The way forward
“On being a what??” Yes, an agnostic Christian. And yes, it is an oxymoron. But it will make sense once I explain it, though it might not mean what you think. Take the word agnostic. Agnosticism is the view that we don’t know and perhaps can’t know whether or not God exists. But the word agnostic can also be used broadly to mean that one has no firm opinion on a topic, and that’s the way I’m using it here. By agnostic Christian, I don’t mean someone who isn’t sure about God but does like Christian morality—in that case I might use the term Christian agnostic. No, an agnostic Christian is a Christian who is simply uncertain about many things. And yes, that’s me.
I am a Christian. But I am an ailing one. I am a Christian who doubts. It wasn’t always this way. I grew up in a Christian household and was baptized at seven. In early my teenage years I began to take my faith seriously, and as time went on, my spiritual vitality rose and fell in phases. In the earlier phases I had a sense of mission. I think of those as my golden years, when I was young and excited and, well, naïve. But as I learned more about Christianity and the world and myself, my clarity faded, and my enthusiasm followed. This trend has led to a period of uncertainty about my Christian faith, and this is where I find myself now.
For a couple of reasons I tend to keep these things to myself. First, while some Christians are content to let doubters fight their own battles and come to resolution on their own, other Christians tend to become uneasy and to provide anxious and unhelpful responses. Then there are Christians (whom I haven’t spoken with much but have seen in action) who think the answers are simple, go into apologist mode, and offer arguments I’ve already dismissed. With these last two groups it’s easier just to avoid the subject. So I do.
The second reason I usually keep things quiet is that my doubts are unclear even to me. They are complex, nebulous, and subtle, and until now, I hadn’t sat down to sort them all out. I didn’t arrive at these doubts through a systematic study of Christianity’s claims, or else they’d be nicely organized already. Instead they’ve arisen gradually and haphazardly over the past eight years or so as I lived my everyday life. But drawing random ideas out of my mind all in a tangle is not an effective way to present a complicated and controversial subject if I want to be understood, and I do want to be understood. Bringing up doubt opens up multiple cans of worms, and I’d rather not do that unprepared and bite off more (worms) than I can chew—which is not very many, believe me! So again, I avoid the subject.
Sometimes the state of my faith does come up, however, and I’d like to be able to give a substantive answer without babbling incoherently. And if I want to make any progress in resolving my doubts, I’ll need a clear starting point. So for those two reasons, I’ve finally decided to turn on a flashlight, explore my foggy mind, and try to explain myself.
This essay is addressed primarily to Christians, especially to Christians who know me, since they are likely to have an interest in my spiritual life and since I still generally approach these issues from a Christian perspective. I’ll start with a summary of my position, then lay out a three-part framework for understanding the discussion, walk through the details, and finally examine my options for the next phase of my journey.
As a Christian wrestling with doubt, I’m caught in a state of limbo. Doubt involves a certain tension. On the one hand I want to remain a Christian and to become a better one, for several reasons. First, I find much to value in Christianity. Second, I tend to take its basic tenets for granted. Third, I believe it does have some epistemic merit. Fourth, I worry about leaving it in error. Fifth, I don’t want to hurt the people I care about. And sixth, I’m sometimes very aware that I need God.
On the other hand, various forces have been weakening my convictions and even pushing me in other directions. First, it seems extremely difficult or impossible to know what the correct version of Christianity is. Second, I’ve always found it difficult to understand or engage with the experiential dimensions of Christianity and to progress as a Christian. That by itself isn’t a reason to give up, but it is a discouraging and demotivating factor. Third, even though I think Christianity has some epistemic strengths, some of its fundamental tenets seem hard or impossible to support. Fourth, naturalism often seems to me like a very plausible alternative to Christianity. And finally, since the source of my conservative evangelical Christianity is my upbringing, which is essentially arbitrary, I feel that I ought to investigate other theologies and worldviews out of a sense of intellectual duty.
But none of these reasons takes away from my first statement, that I do want to remain a Christian. Both sides of this tension exist in my mind. Each surfaces at different times and in different ways. I aim to resolve this tension, though the tension is involved even in the attempt to resolve it. That is, I hope that the tension will be resolved on the Christian side, and I will give Christianity every chance I can, but I don’t feel it’s right to give it a free pass. Christianity will have to stand on its own merits. If it can, then hopefully I will have the awareness to perceive it. Even then, however, I’m left with the daunting task of sorting out my theology and spirituality.
Although these questions are of vital importance to me, the difficulty of finding what I consider solid answers has reduced my passion for pursuing them to a few smoldering coals. I tried to sort everything out for several years, but after I’d had enough bewilderment I quietly shelved my search for answers and put my spiritual well-being on hold for a while. Right now I just sort of exist, and I pursue other interests, with these other issues rumbling just below the surface. But I hope that this essay will be a first step in resuming the search.
A three-part framework
The issues in this essay are rather complicated. So before I descend into the messy details, I’d like to lay out a conceptual framework so you can understand how all the pieces relate to each other and what their implications are. The framework has three parts: five characteristics of beliefs, three areas of Christian thought, and five epistemic problems that motivate and guide my search for truth, along with my methods for evaluating opposing views. In the rest of the essay I will be combining these factors and looking at how they show up in my life.
The nature of belief
Before I explain my model of belief, I’ll set out some rough definitions to get us going. A belief, in very basic terms, is an idea that a person accepts as true. Various levels of belief are possible, and these could be described by other terms, but I’ll use belief as a catch-all in this essay. The concepts I want to differentiate more carefully, for the sake of my believing readers, are the varying degrees and types of non-belief, which I will call uncertainty, doubt, skepticism, and unbelief. Uncertainty is an indecision about whether to believe an idea. Doubt is a suspicion that an idea might not be true. Skepticism can be used in three senses: as a general strategy used in evaluating ideas, as a stance one takes toward particular ideas, or as a name for a specific view of the world. As a strategy, skepticism assumes that ideas are probably false until they have been proven true, rather than, among other approaches, assuming that ideas are true until they have been proven false. As a stance, skepticism is a stronger one than doubt. It is a confidence that a particular idea is either probably or definitely not true. And when speaking of it as a viewpoint, I use skepticism more or less as a synonym for naturalism.
Here I’ll outline five main characteristics of beliefs according to my understanding. First, a belief is not only an idea a person has that something is true—it’s not merely a thought. It’s an idea that is integrated into the rest of a person’s life. The result is that the idea is connected to the person’s other beliefs and has effects in the person’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Let’s say a nefarious person has presented me with a large wicker basket that has a hole in the side. The hole reveals only darkness, so I can’t see what the basket contains, but the villain tells me that inside is a poisonous snake. He seems to be the kind of person who would keep such a dangerous creature on hand, so I believe him. Because of this belief, I interpret the hissing sound and occasional movement of the basket to be the work of the snake. I even imagine what the snake looks like as it slithers around and bobs its head menacingly inside the basket. These are thoughts. Suddenly the villain grabs my arm and tries to force my hand into the hole! In response, I am terrified—an emotion—and I resist—an action. I have an expectation that if my hand enters the basket, it will be bitten by the snake and I’ll die. And I have these interpretations, expectations, emotions, and physical reactions as a direct result of my belief that there is in fact a poisonous snake in the basket. This relationship between thoughts and the rest of one’s life is also how we can tell that someone is insincere. They say they believe one thing, but then they do things that conflict with that purported belief.
Second, beliefs can be simple, complex, or anything in between. An example of a relatively simple one would be the belief that if a door is locked, merely turning the doorknob won’t let me open it. A prime example of a complex belief, and the one most relevant to this essay, would be a worldview—an interpretation of reality and human life as a whole—such as Christianity. The word Christianity is like a container for a lot of other ideas, each of which must be believed in for someone to say that they believe in Christianity.
Third, beliefs are held for many different reasons, some of which are better than others. A person can believe something based on varying degrees of evidence or for non-rational reasons, such as a sense of loyalty to other people who believe the idea. Sometimes an idea can be adopted for pragmatic reasons, such as when one is forced by dire circumstances to trust a stranger, and I suppose this could be called a type of belief. And often beliefs are based on assumptions. Here I’m defining assumption to mean an idea that is taken for granted without strong evidence to back it up. Sometimes an idea is assumed consciously and on purpose as a strategy for carrying on an investigation to see where the idea leads. But usually people’s assumptions are unconscious. People have many, many beliefs that either can’t be proven or that they simply haven’t taken the time or don’t have the time to prove.
Fourth, beliefs can be arrived at in different ways. For example, they can be taught as part of one’s upbringing. They can be formed as the result of an experience. Or they can be adopted after intentional study. Several paths can lead from a purposeful investigation to a conclusion and, if the conclusion is convincing to the investigator, a belief; and these paths correspond to the types of logical arguments. The kind that is most familiar to people is deductive reasoning (all men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is mortal). But there are other kinds, and one that is especially relevant to this essay is known as abductive reasoning. Abduction is the process of finding the best explanation for a set of facts. In general my approach to searching for truth is abductive.
Fifth, beliefs are held with different strengths. At a certain degree of weakness, a belief might be considered an opinion. If a belief is held strongly, it’s usually not easy to change. For example, most people probably believe that the universe is very large. If you randomly stopped a person on the street and told them that the universe is actually quite small and asked them to just believe it, they would probably have a hard time fulfilling your request. They might imagine what the universe would be like if it were small, or they might say that they believed it, but deep down they would still believe that the universe is large. People can’t just hop from one belief to another and hold those beliefs strongly.
What all this means for this essay is that I need to explain not only what I believe and what I doubt but also what kind of belief and doubt I have regarding those things.
Areas of Christian thought
Apologetics, theology, and spirituality are three major areas of Christian thought, and uncertainties can exist in all three.
The fundamental issues of Christian belief are in the realm of apologetics. Apologetic questions have to do with the foundational tenets of Christianity and whether Christianity as a whole is true. Does God exist? Is the Bible God’s Word? Is the Incarnation a coherent concept?
Theological questions have to do with the details of Christian belief, what the true nature or shape of Christianity is. What is the nature of the atonement? Does God know the future? What is the relationship between the Old and New Covenants? Should women be leaders in the church?
Spiritual questions have to do with the spiritual realities that relate to our own time and place—current events in the spiritual realm, you could say—as well as how theological truths should be lived out in general. What is God doing in the world? What is genuine prayer? How is my relationship with God? Do I even have one?
I experience uncertainty in all three areas. I’m really using the term doubt as shorthand for a much broader set of difficulties. My problem isn’t just that I don’t know whether to remain a Christian. It’s that I don’t even know what kind of Christian to be if I stay one, let alone how to be a good one. I’m in a general state of confusion.
These three areas of Christian thought are interrelated and can’t be totally separated from each other. Thus as I explain my situation in each area, I’ll bring in aspects of the others that relate to it.
In this essay my main concern is conceptual—what is the state of my faith right now? For some historical background on my relationship to these topics, see the introductions to the Christianity section and the theology, hermeneutics, apologetics, spirituality, and evangelism subsections of my site (don’t worry, they’re shorter).
My epistemic situation
What is an epistemic situation? It sounds medical. Actually it’s philosophical. Epistemology is the study of knowledge, and something that is epistemic is something that has to do with knowledge or the process of knowing.
In each of these areas—apologetics, theology, and spirituality—I’m asking three basic questions: Are my existing beliefs true? If not, what is? If so, what then?
I have five epistemic problems that are motivating these questions and also making it difficult to answer them. The first problem is that my existing beliefs aren’t epistemically secure. That is, they aren’t based on solid methods of establishing knowledge. Instead of secure epistemic foundations, such as a comprehensive network of sound arguments, my existing beliefs are based on my upbringing, my personal preferences, my simple intellectual dabblings, and my unwillingness to give them up just yet. Those might be okay to start with, but for me ultimately they aren’t good enough.
My second problem is that I don’t know enough yet to make my beliefs more secure. And there’s a lot to know. People have different ideas about how to establish knowledge, but for now, as I’ve said, I take a best-explanation approach; and to do a really good job of arriving at a best explanation, you have to survey all the possible explanations and determine at least three things about each one: how well it fits the facts it’s supposed to explain, how effectively it explains them (for example, does it extrapolate from the evidence to make predictions that can be tested?), and how internally consistent it is. A major part of determining those things is examining the arguments for each possibility, the rebuttals to those arguments, the arguments against each possibility, and the rebuttals to those. And you have to try to be fair and impartial when evaluating all these arguments. It’s a demanding task. I consider it also to be a part of what it means to be intellectually responsible, whereas making forceful assertions without examining all the available evidence would be intellectually irresponsible.
My third problem is that when I encounter arguments from opposing sides, they tend to balance each other out, and I’m no closer to the truth than I was before I heard them. This is where the agnostic part of being an agnostic Christian comes in. The world is complex enough that just about any view will be supported by some of the facts and contradicted by other facts. This is why, in a trial, both the prosecution and the defense are able to make a case. For any two opposing views, the evidence that appears to support the one will be facts that the other has to somehow explain away or incorporate into its system of ideas. When deciding between the two views, you have to look at how clearly the evidence supports the first view, how well the second view takes that evidence into account, how clearly the second view is supported by its evidence, and how well the first view takes that evidence into account. In some cases the truth is fairly obvious and there’s little debate. In areas of knowledge that are more remote or intangible, however, such as history or metaphysics, the evidence for both sides can be equally convincing (or unconvincing). This is the trouble I repeatedly have in the area of religion. The arguments within evangelical Christian theology, apologetics, and spirituality are sort of convincing, but other theologies and worldviews have good arguments too. So I’m still on a search (though a stalled one) for the best explanation, because the one I have doesn’t entirely stand out.
My fourth problem is that I’m not completely fair and impartial, which is one of the requirements for a search for the best explanation. I don’t want to leave Christianity. In fact, I want to become a better Christian. This is why I call myself an agnostic Christian and not a Christian agnostic—I’m fundamentally a Christian who has some agnostic tendencies and not an agnostic who just likes Christian morality. Now, from a Christian point of view, not wanting to leave Christianity is a good thing. Part of the essence of being a Christian is loyalty to God and to fellow believers, and that’s what I feel. It’s a large part of what keeps me a Christian, aside from a fear of judgment and of social pressure. But loyalty to a particular viewpoint isn’t all that good for intellectual inquiry, if your inquiry is about the truthfulness of that viewpoint.
This is a conflict I call the loyalty-truth tension. Sometimes the people and ideas you feel loyal to really are trustworthy and true, but sometimes they’re not, no matter how intensely you feel about them. And when they’re not, sometimes that feeling of loyalty can blind you to the truth. That’s why, when truth is your aim, loyalty can get in the way. When you’re loyal to something that really is true, of course, there’s no particular problem, although there could be if your goal is to be absolutely sure you have the truth, since to do that you’d have to examine other possibilities as if they could be true.
In a certain sense this tension is a conflict between two loyalties, a loyalty to a particular conclusion and a loyalty to reason as a method for coming to conclusions. The conflict is that reason might lead you to some other conclusion than the one you want to be loyal to. It could be true that instead of loyalty to the conclusion, the other loyalty should be abandoned—the loyalty to reason—and some other method chosen for seeking truth. For now I trust reason, but this is a question I’ll need to explore.
My fifth problem is that, even though I’m not completely impartial and I do want to remain and progress as a Christian, when I look at Christian theology, apologetics, and spirituality from an epistemological point of view, I’m not very satisfied with what I see. This is one reason I’m asking these questions in the first place (are my existing beliefs true?, etc.). If our beliefs were all completely obvious, there would be no need to investigate them. Knowing the truth would be as easy as breathing. But that’s not the world we live in. The real world is something that has to be explained; the truth is something we have to find; and sometimes we turn out to be wrong and have to rethink our position.
Various factors give us clues about whether we’re right or wrong about an idea. Here are three major steps for an idea that’s on the road from speculation to knowledge: First, the idea has to have meaning or definition. Otherwise we don’t know what we’re talking about when we try to express it. Second, the idea has to be coherent. That is, it can’t contradict itself. And third, the idea has to be attested by evidence. Now, I don’t necessarily mean the physical kind of evidence they pick up on CSI, just that the idea needs to be supported by sound arguments, of which there are different kinds. I’ll have more on that in the essay’s conclusion.
The problem is that when I look at Christianity, significant concepts within it seem to lack meaning, coherence, or evidence. The rest of this essay is devoted to explaining these observations, so I won’t go into them here. But they are the reason that my loyalty to Christianity and my loyalty to reason are in tension. If Christianity made complete sense to me, then there wouldn’t be a problem and I could get on with my life without worrying about such things.
This lack of meaning, coherence, and evidence has a consequence beyond knowing if Christianity is true, which is that even if it is true, I don’t know what to do with it. How do I live as a Christian if I barely know what Christianity means or how it relates to the everyday world? I’ll explain this difficulty in the section on spirituality.
To a certain degree I don’t know if these epistemic weaknesses are a problem with Christianity itself or a problem with my understanding of it. I’m like an airplane pilot who’s lost at sea and has encountered a foggy island, but all I can see are the tops of the mountains. Are those mountains connected by dry valleys? Or are they a series of unconnected peaks jutting out of the ocean? If I descend, will I be able to land? Similarly, are the terms of Christianity connected meaningfully to each other and to human life? Are the concepts that seem to be in conflict connected by bits of logic that I can’t see yet? Are the seemingly speculative teachings of Christianity connected to the real world by evidence? The situation is ambiguous until the facts make it clear, and as I’ve said, I don’t have enough of the evidence yet to know the answers to these questions. Anything can seem nonsensical if you know little enough about it. It’s fine to ask questions, but to find out if they can be answered you need data, sometimes lots and lots of it. Maybe I haven’t read the right books or had the right experiences. At the least, I can say there’s a disconnect between Christianity and my sense of reason. Maybe the fault is on Christianity’s end; maybe it’s on mine.
To summarize my situation (because even I have trouble keeping this stuff straight), I am struggling to understand Christianity deeply while wrestling with issues of intellectual responsibility in the religious realm. I am an evangelical Christian, and I like being one and want to grow in my faith. But I see that the reasons I have right now for being a Christian aren’t entirely solid, and when I ask myself how reasonable (or livable) Christianity seems to me, the answers are discouraging. So I feel the need to step back and examine, as fairly as I can, the epistemic strengths and weaknesses of both evangelical Christianity and the alternative theologies and worldviews, so that I can come as close as possible to the best explanation for the world and human experience. My feelings of loyalty to evangelical Christianity and my tendency to see all viewpoints as equally plausible could get in the way of this search, although if Christianity is true, my loyalty to reason could get in the way of my loyalty to Christianity. Balancing those possibilities is a challenge.
My questions can be boiled down to two: Is there a viewpoint that fits the facts of the world better than evangelical Christianity or than Christianity in general? And how do I go about investigating that question fairly while giving proper weight to the possibility that my current beliefs may be true after all?
To summarize my methods, the goal of my search is to answer the following questions: (1) Are my existing beliefs true? (2) If not, what is? (3) If so, what then? The process of answering these questions involves surveying the ideas that are competing with those beliefs and answering at least three other questions about each one: (1) Does the idea have meaning? (2) Is it coherent? And (3) is it supported by the evidence? Examining the evidence relevant to an idea involves further questions: (1) How clearly does the evidence support this idea? (2) How effectively does the idea explain the evidence? (3) How well is the idea able to account for evidence that seems to contradict it? And throughout this process of investigation, four kinds of arguments need to be examined, whenever they’re available, about whatever point you’re investigating at the time: (1) arguments for the position in question, (2) rebuttals to those arguments, (3) arguments against the position, and (4) rebuttals to those arguments. Note that these are methods used in an intentional study and not necessarily in the haphazard reflection I’ve done so far.
The rest of this essay is occupied with explaining how I’ve seen these questions show up in my thinking on theology, apologetics, and spirituality. One caveat before I go on. Some of my friends, knowing my preference for intellectual rigor, tend to assume that every opinion I express stems from some exhaustively researched, carefully reasoned study of the topic; and they might be tempted to think that’s what this essay represents. This is completely false. Intellectual rigor is unfortunately much more an ideal than a reality in my life. The purpose of this essay is to collect my hazy impressions of these issues and to draw out the principles that seem to govern them. The result will hopefully be a starting point for more rigorous study.
I’ve worked hard to present these things in a logical and organized format so they will be easier for everyone, including me, to understand. But if you scratch the surface of all this clarity, you’ll find that it’s a thin layer on top of a sea of disordered vagueness. In other words, if you ask me questions about what I’ve written here, I might have to think for a while and get back to you (especially if it’s a request for examples—specific cases seem to flee my mind as soon as I’ve drawn conclusions from them). That’s how the whole process of writing this essay has been. I knew I had issues involving doubt, but to put together anything like a complete picture of the state of my faith, I had to spend a long time stirring the murky waters of my mind, collecting the thoughts that bobbed to the surface, and putting them together in a way that made sense. A lot of the details are still down in the depths.
The problem—the too-fertile field of possibility
Since I’m already a Christian, I’ll start with issues internal to Christianity. These internal issues make up Christian theology—the Christian view of God, humanity, and the universe. There is a large set of important questions about the world that Christians have opinions on. Unfortunately, the set of specific beliefs that all Christians agree on is very small. They disagree on everything from the nature of the atonement and the authority of the church to speaking in tongues and styles of worship music. So which Christian answers are the right ones? What beliefs constitute the “one true theology”?
The brief answer is I don’t know. Overall, I’m willing to affirm the core beliefs of Christianity—that God created the world; humanity is sinful; Jesus is the Son of God, died, rose from the dead, and will come again; and that we must have faith in him for salvation. But beyond those few central points of doctrine, I don’t know what to think. There are too many viewpoints within Christianity, and any choice seems arbitrary without more study than I’ve done so far. It’s not that I don’t have opinions. I do have theological default positions, derived from my upbringing and my own dabblings, and some of them I feel rather strongly about. But I’m very aware that with more study, I might change my mind about them. In the spirit of intellectual fairness, I am even willing to entertain the notion that orthodox Christian theology might misinterpret the Bible on some points and that the heretics might have been right after all, though I don’t think it’s likely.
Sometimes I think that if I studied the Bible more extensively, I would arrive at satisfying conclusions, that the answers are there if you just think carefully enough. But sometimes (more often these days, I’m afraid) I think the answers just can’t be known. As I hear the arguments offered for various positions, the Bible seems ambiguous enough that it is very difficult or impossible to settle on one theological position while being fair to all the biblical evidence. But why would God give us such a long, drawn-out revelation of himself while leaving its meaning so unclear?
Theology and apologetics—the nature of the Bible
This question leads me to the intersection of theology and apologetics—that is, the relationship between determining what Christianity teaches and determining whether Christianity is true at all. The Bible is supposed to be a primary source of theological truth, but its ambiguity makes me wonder if the Bible is really a coherent document. Interpreters of the Bible disagree widely, but is it really just a problem of interpretation? Did the writers of the Bible agree?
As a conservative Christian, my default answer is yes. Maybe the Bible’s meaning was clear when it was first written but it has been clouded by the distance of time and culture. Maybe God values the effort we put into understanding spiritual truth, and the struggle is more important than the outcome. And maybe the reason is simply a mystery kept hidden within God’s mind.
But the persistence of these problems leads me to ponder the no answer too. And when I explore that answer, I see three basic possible explanations. Either the Bible was inspired by God but not in the carefully controlled way that conservative Christians think it was; God exists, but the Bible isn’t his Word; … or there isn’t a God to inspire it in the first place. In either of the last two cases, the Bible is merely a record of human speculation. I won’t leap to any of those conclusions, but I also can’t simply dismiss them.
Effects—avoidance and restraint
My thoughts on these questions are undecided enough that I tend not to think or talk about theology much. I almost think discussing theology is a waste of time, at least for me at this point in my life. It’s a field of study that is highly dependent on the conclusions from other fields; and until I’ve dealt with its prerequisites, I just can’t take theological discussions very seriously. First we have to establish that the ground of theology (Scripture) is reliable, and then we have to work out a reliable way (hermeneutics) to build a theology from that foundation. And I am very far from having accomplished either of these. I don’t even know if I ought to be a theological foundationalist. So I tend to avoid getting into theological discussions in the first place.
When I do interact with people on these issues, my uncertainty causes me to restrain my emotions. I don’t want to press a point if I know I could easily be wrong about it. When people ask me questions about theology, I usually give noncommittal answers, as if I had little knowledge on the topic. In reality, I know enough to answer the question. I just don’t know enough to tell them which answer is the right one and defend it. And when I affirm my default positions with people who agree with them, I often feel like I’m only humoring them, since at the same time I’m thinking, I don’t really know if this is true, but I don’t want to sound like a heretic just yet. But I’ve been trying to be more open about my uncertainties lately.
The same hesitancy goes for living by these beliefs, which is where theology intersects with spirituality. I’m reluctant to pursue actions very enthusiastically when they are based on a belief with so much uncertainty behind it. Another idea might be true instead that requires a different response. In fact, I feel disingenuous when I try to enthusiastically embrace ideas I’m not sure I believe. So I generally don’t, and my spiritual life is correspondingly weak. I’ll have more on that in the spirituality section.
If you’re a Christian, especially if you know me personally, you may feel disturbed by all this. That’s understandable. But don’t panic—I haven’t gone off the deep end yet. I’m only asking questions and raising possibilities, not stating conclusions. My concerns are real, but I’m in no hurry to abandon my roots.
Now, just to review, I am an evangelical Christian, and I like being one and want to grow in my faith. But various uncertainties have crept into my mind over the past several years, and in spite of my general contentment with being a Christian, I can’t just ignore them. My desire to remain and progress as a Christian and my wish to be true to my reason form a tension, a conflict in my mind, and I’d like to journey toward resolving it. So I’m trying to explain this tension and its various facets in this essay in order to give myself a starting point and to help me interact with people when the topic of my spiritual life comes up. As I’ve said, the state of my faith has not been very clear to me in recent years, but in the months I’ve spent writing this essay, I’ve been able to gather the following insights into my inner thoughts.
Overarching themes—abduction, naturalism, and the varieties of doubt
Good theology is important to me, but it isn’t enough. My concerns are more fundamental than merely wanting to define the details of Christianity. For the past few years I have been interested in developing my critical thinking skills and applying them to as much of life as I reasonably could. I’ve wanted to have rational reasons for holding my beliefs and to have ways of critically evaluating ideas to decide whether I should accept them. While it’s impossible to investigate everything rationally, I don’t want to intentionally exclude areas of life from that program. And that means that religion has to undergo scrutiny too. The upshot has been that, even without undertaking a concentrated study of these issues yet, my confidence in my Christian beliefs has gradually been eroding.
In some ways this is nothing unusual. The more I learn, the more complicated the world seems, and the less sure I am of anything. Thus, I’ve been in a general trend of agnosticizing over the past several years. I don’t know the answers to society’s questions, and I’m not sure all of them can be known. I’m hoping this isn’t a permanent state, but it is the reality I’m facing right now.
Since my doubts and questions come up randomly in the course of everyday life, I usually only think about them in disconnected bits and pieces, but there are several broad issues lying behind them—a best-explanation approach to reasoning, naturalism as a competitor to Christianity, and the variety of forms doubt can take.
In general, I take an abductive approach to apologetic questions, as I do with most questions. Abduction is the process of finding the best explanation for a set of facts. In the case of a worldview, abductive reasoning would try to find the best explanation for all the facts in the universe, or at least the most important ones, whichever those are. Differing worldviews could thus be thought of as competing explanations for the facts of the universe and human experience. I believe this would correspond most closely to a cumulative case approach in apologetics.
Given my analytical personality and science-oriented upbringing, when I consider the available options, I am much more tempted toward skepticism than toward another religion. So although in principle I think I should find out, I rarely wonder if, say, Hinduism is more warranted than Christianity. For me, the main competitor to the Christian explanation of the world is the naturalistic one. I tend to look at life from both of these perspectives in an inner dialog.
For a while I wondered if this skeptical inner dialog meant I was maybe a budding atheist, but the thought of how that would hurt the people I cared about was painful to me. If someone falls away from the faith, they aren’t saved, and that can be terrible to contemplate. I couldn’t easily do that to my family and friends. But then I realized that part of the reason for my anguish was that I believed they could be right. I believed that apostasizing would mean judgment, and it seemed like a tragic choice to make. So why make it, if that’s still what I believed? And it wasn’t only judgment that bothered me. I felt like I would be hurting God if I concluded he didn’t exist. A contradiction, I know, but it brings out the fact that I hadn’t (and still haven’t) drawn that conclusion yet.
In any case, I doubted I would be the kind of hardened atheist who sneers at all things Christian. I would more likely be a weak agnostic who was always hoping to find the missing piece of evidence for the Christian religion. From an intellectual standpoint, there isn’t a lot of difference between that and a weak Christian who’s looking for the missing piece of evidence. Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher, argued that if you’re uncertain whether Christianity or atheism is true, it’s a safe bet to settle on Christianity, since if atheism is true, the Christians lose nothing, whereas if Christianity is true, the atheists lose everything. Pascal’s wager has some significant weaknesses, but for a case like mine it’s perfect. If it comes down to a choice between being a weak agnostic and being a weak Christian, I’ll side with Pascal and keep my Christianity for as long as it retains a glimmer of credibility. This is an example of how the loyalty-truth tension gets played out in my mind.
Now, my doubts come in various forms. Often I’m essentially playing “what if” with myself. I think, What if the skeptics are right about such-and-such? How would they argue for it? And the skeptical arguments I come up with make sense to me. Then I wander out of that frame of mind and go back to taking Christian things for granted.
Some of my doubts have more to do (for now) with the strength of the arguments we have for certain beliefs than with the beliefs themselves. After I had concluded that I didn’t really want to become an atheist, I took a brief inventory of what Christian beliefs I tend to take for granted and what things I actively doubt. What I still believe are the basic formal doctrines of Christianity. I take it for granted that the God of the Bible exists; that Jesus is the incarnate Second Person of the Trinity; that he was born of a virgin, died for our sins in some sense, and was raised from the dead; that he is sitting at God’s right hand and will return at some point in the future; that we must trust in him for salvation. That is, not only do I take these doctrines to reflect the true form of Christianity (see the theology section), but I also assume them to be true. I’m more uncertain about everything else.
In practical terms the fact that I take these ideas for granted means that they form part of my mental picture of the world. When I think about the way things are, those features are there, however dimly I understand them and their implications. And they form the basis of my limited spirituality, which I’ll talk about in the spirituality section.
You could say I’m a de facto fideist on these central points. I take them almost purely as assumptions, although I don’t believe that I should. Truthfully, that leaves me wide open to doubt in those areas (my theological default positions are even wider open). Once I do examine them critically, there’s every chance that my belief in them will fall apart. For the moment I tend to assume that somehow it all works out in Christianity’s favor, and from a Christian perspective I suppose this kind of weak fideism is okay for now.
However, some of my doubts have become more entrenched. Compared to the things I take for granted, these more settled doubts seem limited in scope, but they come in at a fairly fundamental spot. Where my faith primarily falters is at the inspiration of the Bible. Since that’s my main area of doubt, I’ll take some time to explain it in depth.
Revelation—the central conflict
For me, the two competing explanations for the world are Christianity and naturalism. The Christian explanation of the world comes from God’s self-revelation and the human theology that is based on it. Hence, at least for me, the major battleground between Christianity and naturalism (or indeed any other worldview) is this revelation. Traditionally God’s revelation has been seen as coming in two forms, general revelation, which is God’s use of the natural world to display his existence and attributes, and special revelation, which is God’s communication in the form of written Scripture.
Despite my belief in God, general revelation has for a long time seemed faint to me. It seems to me that few features of the universe are uniquely explained by Christian theism. When I’m thinking about the classical theistic arguments, then, I find most of them weak; and I wonder if, going only on the information in the realm of general revelation, deism or naturalism wouldn’t explain the world just as well. At the moment the only theistic argument that really appeals to me is the fine-tuning argument, which argues that conditions in the universe are just right for life to exist, and therefore the universe must have been designed.
Special revelation is a much more complex issue than general revelation because the theological ideas it asserts are much more specific, there are many more of them, and they are wrapped up with all the complexities of human history and the process of recording that history in writing. One of the central Christian tenets is that the Bible is God’s Word. In keeping with my current attention to the justification of beliefs, my basic question here is why Christianity should be allowed such strong claims for its Scriptures. The Enlightenment began a concerted effort on the part of scholars to study the Bible as a merely human book like all other books. And the Bible certainly is a human book. If it were merely divine, it might have materialized out of nothing one day. But it was written by human beings.
If the Bible is divinely inspired in some sense, then it would obviously be wrong to treat it as merely human. But here’s my question: How would we know? How can we tell the difference between a divinely inspired book and a merely human book? And how can we tell that the Bible is of the divinely inspired kind? It’s potentially a complicated question because the Bible wasn’t written in one day by one person. It was written by many people over thousands of years. How do we know that each book of the Bible is inspired? And each part of each book? At this point, I don’t know, and to take the whole Bible to be inspired just because a pastor or theologian says so seems like a rather tall order.
Once skeptics have excluded God from the writing of the Bible and from history itself, they often feel the need to explain the supernatural elements in the Bible. Sometimes they seem to be grasping at straws, but other times their alternative explanations give me pause. I find myself wondering, for example, if skeptics are right when they claim that the story of the Exodus and of Israel’s special relationship with God was invented to justify the conquest of Canaan.
Of course, there are less extreme positions one could take than the view that the Bible is only human or only divine. Christians believe it’s both, but they vary in the way they define the Bible as God’s Word. The strongest form of the claim is probably dictation theory, in which God simply “whispered in the ear” of the biblical writers and they wrote down whatever he told them. The Bible shows obvious signs of the normal human processes of writing a book, as even conservative evangelicals agree. The question is what the relationship is between the human writing and the divine message. If God didn’t hand every word to the writers, then how did they get their information about the invisible spiritual realities they wrote about?
I believe some liberal Christians hold that the Bible writers were simply theologians trying their best to interpret the awesome events they had witnessed. The question of the writers’ sources for spiritual knowledge repeatedly enters my mind, and it leads me to wonder if maybe the liberals are right. Maybe the Bible was only indirectly inspired through the events that prompted its writing rather than directly in the process of the writing itself. And along with this more lenient view, I wonder if it isn’t more sensible just to admit errors here and there. I’m not saying definitely. Just maybe.
Doesn’t throwing out inspiration have serious consequences for the rest of Christian belief? It does look that way. But does that mean we should hold on to it? I have trouble moving in that direction epistemically. It seems wrong to say, “We need Christianity to be true; therefore the Bible must be true.” We could say other things like, “There’s evidence that the Bible is true; therefore the Bible is probably true,” or even, “We have reason to believe that Christianity is true; therefore the Bible is probably true.” But simply rejecting one position because it’s dangerous to another position won’t work. This is another manifestation of the loyalty-truth tension. In this case we would be taking a logically questionable step in order to preserve the belief that has our devotion.
Even though this doubt about inspiration is more persistent than many of my others, I’m not usually thinking all this when I actually read the Bible. I tend to read it as if it’s God’s Word. I assume that the writers at least knew what they were talking about, even if I don’t. So at times I think of the Bible as innocent until proven guilty (of being merely human) and at others guilty until proven innocent. It’s a strange case, I know.
Intellectual base covering
There are other things to doubt, of course. Skeptics sometimes argue that various Christian doctrines are logically incoherent or that if he exists, God cannot be truly good because of the suffering in the world or because some of his actions in the Bible appear morally objectionable. These issues are important, and since I think Christianity needs to be examined, I intend to deal with them, but they aren’t my primary concern right now.
Similarly, it may be that neither Christianity nor naturalism is true but some other religion or secular worldview is. The intellectually responsible course would be to try to investigate all the options. But I can’t do everything, and to be honest it would be more out of a sense of duty than genuine interest. Being fair to the various possibilities while balancing my time is something I’ll have to figure out as I go along.
The persisting converse—tenacity and apologetic potential
But for now and the foreseeable future, I remain a Christian. These questions don’t mean I’m about to plunge into atheism. Abandoning Christianity still seems very wrong to me; I’m not about to do it glibly. In fact, it would take a long time and a lot of work for me to conclude that Christianity simply cannot be believed, and despite my history with apologetics, I feel like I’ve barely started.
This tenacity is part of my approach to managing the loyalty-truth tension. I don’t think of sticking with Christianity as just a safe bet on eternity. To a certain degree loyalty can be a benefit in the search for truth. The thing you’re loyal to might turn out to be true after all, in which case if you drop it at the first sign of trouble, you might miss seeing the key pieces of evidence that would convince you. So since I still take Christianity seriously, dismissing it prematurely is one error I want to avoid.
And in any case, I don’t see Christian apologetics as completely devoid of promise. There’s the fine-tuning argument for God’s existence that I mentioned earlier. Jesus’ resurrection is supported by some interesting arguments. Conservative scholars’ arguments for the Bible’s historical reliability usually impress me, and so do the insights of contemporary Christian philosophers of religion. And believers have some striking stories about their experiences of God that I’d like to explore and examine.
In case you’re memory’s getting foggy, I am an evangelical Christian, and I like being one and want to grow in my faith. But various uncertainties have crept into my mind over the past several years, and in spite of my general contentment with being a Christian, I can’t just ignore them. My desire to remain and progress as a Christian and my wish to be true to my reason form a tension, a conflict in my mind, and I’d like to journey toward resolving it. So I’m trying to explain this tension and its various facets in this essay in order to give myself a starting point and to help me interact with people when the topic of my spiritual life comes up. As I’ve said, the state of my faith has not been very clear to me in recent years, but in the months I’ve spent writing this essay, I’ve been able to gather the following insights into my inner thoughts.
Evangelical spirituality in a nutshell
Now I’ll bring the discussion into the most personal domain of the three, the spiritual. First, a technical description: In the evangelical spirituality I’ve spent the most time with, the goals of spirituality are spiritual growth and the enjoyment of a relationship with God. Spiritual growth has various causes and occurs in the context of this relationship. In general, it happens when the individual comes to a realization about some issue, often through an experience of interaction with God, that leads to a change in attitude or behavior. These realizations and interactions with God can be spontaneous, or they can be brought about when the Christian engages in certain practices that foster spiritual growth, such as prayer, Bible reading, worship, fellowship, and the sacraments. In some way, both God and the believer play a causal role in spiritual growth, though the ultimate cause is God. The results of spiritual growth are that the person increasingly embodies and displays certain positive character traits, such as patience, compassion, boldness, holiness, and closeness to God. Collectively these traits are known as godliness. I believe this pattern describes evangelical spirituality in general, and it might reflect Christian spirituality outside evangelicalism too.
In the realm of spirituality, my uncertainties seem to exist in layers.
Spirituality itself—the mystery of meaning and the perplexities of practice
My problems begin with the fact that, for various reasons, this system of spirituality has never worked very well for me. For one thing, I’ve rarely been able to engage in spiritual practices like prayer and Bible reading in a way that was meaningful to me, and as I see it, meaning is a prerequisite for their effectiveness.
Here I’m using the term meaning somewhat differently than I used it in my framework. There it meant “definition.” Here, by meaningful I mean that an idea has implications for the other facts of the world or of an individual’s life in ways that are emotionally significant to that person. Without going into my theory on emotions (and making this essay even longer), I’ll say that the Bible is an emotional book; Jesus himself had emotions; and if we are to become like him, we have to learn to see in the world the same meaning that he saw in it. And as far as I can tell, getting to that point typically means having emotionally significant experiences with the ideas we’re meant to find meaningful. For various reasons, I haven’t made it very far down that road yet. The paths I’ve tried didn’t seem to lead anywhere, and now I’m back to the place I started.
Part of the problem I have finding meaning is that the world of the Bible seems remote. The Bible was written to people whose circumstances and concerns were very different from mine. It’s difficult for me to feel inspired by their stories. I even have trouble responding emotionally to the Bible’s depictions of God, such as Isaiah’s vision in Isaiah 6. They’re dramatic, but I have trouble wrapping my mind around them. Maybe if I could expect to encounter God in those ways in my own life, I could relate to them better, but to my knowledge such experiences are very rare in the modern world (and, granted, were rare even back then).
Meaning also eludes me because the practices I’ve always been told to pursue and the spiritual messages I’ve been told to draw strength from have never quite made sense to me. Sometimes this is because the language people use is barely comprehensible. Christians often speak poetically about God and the Christian life, and I usually find it hard to correlate their imagery with real life actions and experiences. It lacks meaning in the sense of definition. Other times it’s because I have trouble getting the concepts themselves to make sense. That is, they seem to lack coherence. I especially have this problem with prayer (e.g., if God already knows, why pray?) and the idea that we can trust God to take care of us (what about Christians starving in Africa?).
A second reason evangelical spirituality hasn’t worked well for me is that some of its directives seem unworkable. That is, they seem generally coherent, but they don’t seem practicable, although since they’re supposed to be put into practice, this could be considered another type of incoherence. If not truly unworkable, they’re at least outside my realm of experience. Here I’m thinking mainly of the idea of a conversational relationship with God, which is actually a fairly fundamental concept in the evangelical scheme of things.
Then there’s the sheer difficulty of the highest Christian principles. Christianity entails a very different way of life from the one that comes naturally. It’s really hard to trust God completely. It takes a lot of courage to be willing to sacrifice everything for someone else’s good. Sometimes I wonder if it’s even possible to be both a devoted Christian and a human being, but some people seem to manage it.
A common theme in most of my difficulties is the fact that God is a very unusual person, so unusual that he’s hard to relate to. All the other people I relate to have bodies, which means I can have direct, two-way communication with them. But God is a spirit. He is invisible, inaudible, and intangible, and for the most part we must relate to him indirectly through the Bible and perhaps other people and the natural world. So I find some of the personal relationship language we use misleading. I acknowledge that there may be aspects of spirituality I haven’t experienced, but relating to God is extremely different from interacting with humans. I would venture to say that this by itself makes having a close relationship with God something we have to work hard to learn, assuming that a personal relationship really is the goal.
Spirituality and theology—an unfinished puzzle
So that’s the first layer, my general spiritual deficiency. A second layer that makes resolving the first one more difficult is my state of theological uncertainty. Even though most theological debates tend to be abstract, they do have practical implications, if only for the ways we worship and pray. And some of these debates relate directly to spirituality, such as the question of miraculous gifts and the nature of sanctification. Then there are more subtle questions that don’t make it into the theological top 100 but still make a difference in the shape of one’s spirituality.
A fairly basic question that seems to fit into this category is, what is God like? I don’t seem to understand God very well. Is he interested in the small details of our lives or only in his grand, missional purposes? Is he strict with his children or lenient? In the Bible, he reacts in different ways to different people and circumstances, and I haven’t sorted it all out yet. I don’t understand him well enough to know what he might be thinking, feeling, and doing in response to me and my circumstances. And it seems to me that if I’m going to respond to him appropriately, those are pretty important things to know.
There’s more to living the Christian life than knowing God’s thoughts and actions, however. Not every reaction we have to God will be appropriate. Sometimes our instinctive reactions are influenced by sinful attitudes and motivations. And even when sinful attitudes and motivations aren’t obviously getting in the way, it can be easy to get confused. There are a lot of pieces in the Christian life to keep track of. You can’t apply the same spiritual principle naïvely across all situations. For example, if you sin against someone, you can confess it to God, receive forgiveness, and experience the relief and joy that brings, but after that you can’t simply walk up to the other person and act as if the past is happily behind you. You have to respect the fact that you’ve wronged them, humbly reconcile yourself to the other person, and restore the relationship.
As I see it, the Christian life is like a complex skill that is foreign to us at first and has to be learned through practice. In many ways I’m still at a beginning, uncoordinated stage, and I don’t even have a clear picture of how all the pieces fit together. I’m assuming optimistically that they do fit together and that everyone basically agrees on how, or at least that the truth is discernable.
Since I currently avoid trying to answer theological questions, my spirituality doesn’t have much of a theological shape. In the areas of spirituality that I do try to put into practice, I’m working from a few default positions. They work okay for the low level I’m at, but I suspect I’ll feel more internal pressure to answer the theological questions once I pursue my spiritual life more seriously, and then I’ll need to work through issues of theological method, as I mentioned earlier.
“Theological method?” you say? “I thought you were being practical in this section.” Well yes, dealing with theory does seem like a step back when I’m trying to put my faith into action. But when the people I go to for guidance disagree with each other, I need some way to decide between their conflicting words of advice. I could flip a coin or rely on my feelings or just pick one, and in fact I might end up doing that on some occasions. But generally I’d like to make a more informed decision, and in theology I’m not sure how to do that yet, if it can be done at all.
Spirituality and apologetics—the inspiration of the Bible and the interpretation of experience
Then while all that is going on, in float my apologetic doubts—the question of whether Christianity is even true. Since I pretty much take basic Christianity for granted, this isn’t as big a problem as it could be, at the moment, but it is an obstacle. The difficulty comes from two angles. The first is the inspiration of the Bible, which I covered in the apologetics section above. The question often comes to my mind, where did the writers get their information? It’s hard for me to worship God on the basis of what goes on in the spiritual realm or God’s agenda in history when I find myself wondering how the Bible writers could know those things.
The second angle is the nature of the spiritual. Since it’s invisible, inaudible, and intangible, I sometimes wonder if it’s even there. Or at least if it’s the way Christians describe it. Christians often describe the inner and outer events of their lives in terms of divine action. I call these events psychological and circumstantial miracles, respectively. The miracles that people usually think of are what I call physical miracles. Physical miracles are the most confirmable, at least in principle, but they are the least common.
Most of the time when believers describe God at work, they’re telling the story of a psychological or circumstantial miracle. They tell of a change in their character when they converted, for example, and they attribute it to the work of the Holy Spirit. Or they relate the story of a bad situation in which a remarkable coincidence got them off the hook or gave them an insight into their lives, and they say God was working behind the scenes to make it happen. They even describe the situation in metaphorical terms, as if God were visibly, audibly, tangibly interacting with them.
Now, it may be perfectly true that these are supernatural events and that psychological and circumstantial miracles do occur all the time. But when I have my skeptic hat on, when I’m in the mode of wanting to make sure what I believe is true, I often wonder if we aren’t just letting our imaginations run away with us. Human beings are interpreters. They compulsively look for patterns and reasons and meanings, and they sometimes find them where they don’t exist. Couldn’t it be that coincidences sometimes just happen, and people then find meaning in them that isn’t there? And how do we know that the psychological changes Christians describe can’t be explained as merely psychological rather than supernatural?
This last question is important from two perspectives. From an apologetic perspective, if we can’t distinguish supernatural psychological events from natural ones, then we can’t use them as evidence for the supernatural. And from a spiritual perspective, if we can’t tell the miraculous psychological events from the ordinary ones, then it’s impossible to know if we’ve really had a special experience of God or if we only think we have.
I especially wonder if it’s is all in our heads when I think about the fact that believers come up with positive explanations for both good and bad events. God is either blessing them or teaching them a lesson, but he never lets them down. How would we know if he had? It’s as if God’s faithfulness is nonfalsifiable. Predictably, it’s hard to have a spiritual life when you suspect that any spiritual meaning you find in your experiences might be illusory.
Effects—inertia, isolation, and laissez-faire evangelism
The result of all this is that I haven’t seen much spiritual growth in my life. I’m a decently good person, but you don’t have to be a Christian to be decently good. It seems to me that true spiritual growth should make one shockingly good, and I’m not that. It should at least bring you to a point that you wouldn’t have reached through the normal process of maturing. But when I look at my life, I don’t see much that’s specifically Christian about the ways that I’ve grown. And beyond general moral character, I also don’t see much progress in the ways I relate to God—worshiping, trusting, loving him, and so on. I admit, some of my behavior is motivated by a desire to obey Jesus. And it may be that some of the growth in my life has been supernatural and that God has worked in ways I’m not seeing right now. But in general, my progress in the spiritual life is lacking.
These uncertainties and deficiencies also make fellowship with the Christian community difficult. I feel somewhat like an outsider in that way, but not a total outsider, more like someone on the periphery—a tangential Christian, you could say, or a minimalist Christian. People make statements about how God works in our lives or some other spiritual topic, and sometimes I can simply accept what they’re saying, but often I think, Well, maybe. In those cases I can’t really share in their feelings of inspiration or add to them with insights or experiences of my own. In fact, sometimes I have to hold my tongue because I don’t want to ruin the moment with a discussion of my doubts. But it’s not only skepticism that hinders my fellowship. It seems that the standard levels of spiritual understanding or experience that evangelicals tend to expect from each other, I just don’t have, at least not in a way I can affirm with conviction. If I’m expected to give input in a spiritually oriented setting, I usually come up with something marginally acceptable and avoid talking about my real issues.
These uncertainties and deficiencies, along with my uncertainties in theology and apologetics, also make it difficult to recommend Christianity to others, simply because I’m not quite sure what I’m offering, why they should believe it, what it’s supposed to do for them, or what they should do once they have it! I’m exaggerating somewhat, but since I don’t have a clear idea of what’s true right now, that’s my gut reaction when I think about evangelism. It’s one thing to believe Jesus is the Son of God for my own, idiosyncratic reasons. But to assert that belief as a fact to someone else is to imply that I can give reasons for believing it that should be adequate for anyone. I’m not to that point yet, so when I try to advocate Christianity to other people I feel at best clueless and tentative and at worst a little guilty. After all, implying that something is plainly true when I know I can barely defend it is tantamount to lying.
The persisting converse—vestigial spirituality and Christianity’s merit
Despite my confusion and doubt, I do still have my own, limited sense of spirituality. That’s why I described myself as a minimalist Christian. I am sometimes able, in the moment, to forget about my doubts and engage Christianity with the thin film of understanding that I have of its significance for my life. I still talk to God as if he is listening. My prayers are hardly profound; there is little emotion invested in them, and I don’t take extended time out specifically to pray. But I do speak (or rather think) to God briefly at random times because I think of him as being present and available to hear me. I still think of God as arranging my circumstances to foster my growth. I try to stay grateful for what I have and the good things that happen. I still take communion, and I take that time to reflect on Jesus’ death and my life and what might make the Lord’s supper as a ceremony mean something to me (that been a lifelong struggle). I still participate in worship music. I do it rather mindlessly most of the time, and usually I see the lyrics more as nice ideas about God than as specific facts about him that I can wholeheartedly affirm, but sometimes the words mean something to me. Overall I do want to follow Jesus. And when I’m feeling especially in need of protection or comfort or forgiveness, it becomes very important to me for God to exist and to be with me and on my side. In those times, I experience my relationship with God as a need rather than as an obligation or an abstract ideal.
Even with all my reservations, I still think that as a philosophy of life, Christianity in some forms has a lot to recommend itself. For instance, it has a very high view of human dignity and actually has a metaphysical reason for it (that humans were created by God in his image), whereas any naturalistic view of human dignity would have to be somwhat artificial and tenuous I think. Along with that, Christian teachings explicitly promote the formation of caring communities. Meanwhile, its Scriptures present a grand, intricate story with a richness of insight and symbolism that has allowed it to form a large part of the Western way of thinking (I can appreciate the depth and breadth of this story even if it doesn’t affect me as much as I’d like). And rather than calling suffering an illusion or telling people to rid themselves of desire, Christianity acknowledges and embraces the full range of human experience. The desires and behaviors it deems sinful, it views as corruptions of more basic aspects of human nature that it then tells us to put to higher uses (even if that’s really hard to do!).
Not only does Christianity acknowledge and embrace human experience, but it amplifies and transforms it by relating that experience to a transcendent personal being. So a desire for safety becomes a trust in God’s providence. A need for personal purity and for harmony with others becomes a need for divine grace and reconciliation with God and his family. A desire for significance and purpose in life becomes a devotion to God and involvement in his activities in the world. Any positive event becomes an occasion for praise and thanksgiving to God. A time of suffering becomes an opportunity to identify with the sufferings of Jesus and to receive divine comfort that we can then pass on to others. A fear of death becomes a hope in eternal life—and not a disembodied spiritual existence, but a full-fledged life lived out in immortal bodies and in direct, unhindered fellowship with God. And this hope isn’t based on mere speculation but on an event in history—the resurrection of Jesus himself.
It sounds great. Now I just have to figure out what it means, if it’s true, and how it all works out in practice! You could say I’m a seeker, though one who is beginning on the inside of Christianity rather than outside it. Maybe the best witness I can give right now is to the value of Christianity if true, and my best invitation is either to plunge right in or to embark on a journey of discovery. Join mine, if you like.
The way forward
What am I saying by all this, and what am I not saying? Well, if you haven’t caught on by now, I’m not saying that Christianity isn’t true and these are the reasons why. I’m only describing my current state of mind. I’m not saying these difficulties are insurmountable and I’m ready to deconvert. For all I know, the answers could be right in front of my nose. This essay is just an acknowledgment of work that needs to be done. It’s a midpoint, not an end point.
Since I still consider these questions vitally important and there’s still so much I don’t know, there’s really nothing else to do but to pick up the search again. But where will I go from here, and how will I get there? In terms of that question, this essay is also something of a crossroads. I find several forces at work in my mind, pushing me in different directions. My desire to remain a Christian competes with my doubts and my sense of duty to investigate all the options and evaluate them impartially. And my desire to progress in some direction is impeded by a sense of futility and the distraction of other interests.
The problem of motivation
You would think that with all these vitally important issues unresolved, I would be desperately scouring the library for answers, having nervous breakdowns, and so on. But I’m not, and there are several reasons for this. First, I’m used to these questions. I’ve been looking into issues of apologetics, theology, and spirituality on and off for a long time, so this is all kind of old hat to me. Now, back when I was in college and first discovering that Christians disagree with each other about everything—even basic, important things like how to live as a Christian—I was in crisis. But eventually I decided that it wasn’t helpful to take everything so seriously and be confused and panicked all the time; that no matter how desperate I felt, I wasn’t going to find the answers I needed overnight; and that I could live some form of the Christian life even before I had all the answers. So I calmed down and settled into the search. And then a while after that, I got tired of repeatedly believing people’s opinions and then realizing I didn’t have proof for them; and with school in the way I didn’t have time to investigate everything seriously, so I put it all on hold until I could give more attention to it and then went on with my life.
Second, I’m lacking one of the factors that causes people to go into a panic when they have doubts in the first place. That is the feeling that their Christian faith is their most cherished possession and they couldn’t bear to live without it. I used to have the same feeling, but as I’ve said, my grasp on the meaning of Christianity for my life has weakened considerably. I do think Christianity is deeply meaningful, but mostly in an abstract sense. My task is to discover or rediscover that meaning. I’m pursuing a sense of Christianity’s value rather than trying to preserve a sense I already have. But if it turned out that Christianity wasn’t true and naturalism was, well, it probably wouldn’t be that much different from my experience of life right now, aside from any social pressure I would then feel to continue espousing Christianity. As I keep saying, however, hopefully that won’t be the case and I will be awakened to more of the reality of God in my life.
Finally, since I tend to be equally convinced by the arguments on all sides of an issue—or rather, since I tend to feel that the evidence for any position on a debatable issue is too weak to be conclusive—I have this feeling that the answers can’t be found, which makes me much less eager to try. I think that’s what drove me in my earlier forays into apologetics, theology, and spirituality—the idea that the answers were there to be found. I had been promised buried treasure, so I dug as fast as I could. And I did find a few gold coins and some nickels and dimes, but not the rich trove I was expecting. Some of the gold coins weren’t even real; they were just those chocolate coins with the gold-colored wrappers. Tasty, but not as valuable as they looked at first. So now if I keep digging, it will be because I’m forcing myself, because I know it’s important to see if anything is there, not because I have a good idea of the spectacular things I’ll find. Meanwhile, other things in my life that seem more achievable are attempting to attract my attention.
So my mind isn’t roiling with all these doubts and questions. What I do feel is a subtle pressure in the back of my mind to get these issues resolved. I feel like my life can’t truly progress in any fundamental sense until I do, though I expect to be addressing them as the rest of my life progresses.
Paths to knowledge
Let’s assume that I can push through my lack of motivation and get somewhere with my questions. How should I proceed? Well, guess what. Not only do people have different ideas about ultimate truth, they even have different ideas about how to find it. It’s one of the basic epistemological questions: What are the sources of knowledge?
For the answer to this, the primary options in the history of philosophy have been the senses and reason, as preferred by empiricism and rationalism, respectively. But there are other possible sources of knowledge. One is mystical experience—direct encounters with God or the infinite, whatever the mystic understands that to be. And another source is the pronouncements of an authority, such as the Bible or the church councils.
The investigative approach that’s considered the proper one depends somewhat on the worldview you’re aiming for. Naturalism would call for something like empiricism, while certain Eastern philosophies would consider mysticism a more appropriate vehicle for truth. But I suspect that opinions differ within those worldviews. I know they differ within Christianity.
Yes, Christians disagree on their basic epistemology along with everything else. Some emphasize the use of evidence because of the fact that Christianity is a historical religion. Others attempt to rely solely on an authoritative source for their spiritual information—the Bible and perhaps the church. And some believe that the spiritual nature of our relationship with God means that our faith should rely on mysticism.
Which view is right? Who knows. I’ll figure it out later. For now I can only be what I am, and what I am is an American who grew up in a scientifically minded household and has had two decades of thoroughly Western education. For most kinds of knowledge I trust introspection, analytic philosophy, and the scientific method. I also like to explore new ideas and try to keep an open mind, though I like to come to conclusions eventually. That’s my basic methodological starting point. As I go along I’ll investigate others. But, obviously, one thing I won’t do is to simply take anyone’s word as the absolute truth without discussion. I’ve tried that already.
I would like to mention one other path to knowledge that I’m borrowing from Dallas Willard, among others. He says, “[Jesus’] way is self-validating to anyone who will openly and persistently put it into practice.” The idea is that as we practice Jesus’ way of life, “we gain insight into how and why his path works and receive a power far beyond ourselves” (“Foreword,” The Spirit of the Disciplines).
C. S. Lewis expands this to a general principle in “Meditation in a Toolshed” (God in the Dock). Looking along a beam of light toward its source gives you a very different experience and body of knowledge than merely looking at it. Being open to experiences gained through action can lead to new understanding.
Now, I can’t say that I’m open to every experience under the sun. But as long as I’m trying to gain a better grasp on Christianity and to find as much truth in it as I can, I might as well include Christian practice among my research methods, especially since Christian practice is one of the puzzles I’m trying to sort out. And even though I won’t just take people’s word for it when they give me their views, I might try out their ideas experimentally.
What will I study? For now I plan to concentrate on the topics that are the most uniquely Christian and the most fundamental to investigating worldviews and Christianity in particular. That means I’ll be looking at the issues surrounding the authority of the Bible and probably the church, the life and teachings of Jesus, the resurrection, miracles, some of the theistic and atheistic arguments, religious pluralism, and the nature of religious knowledge. And I’ll explore Christian spiritual formation. Yes, this could all take several lifetimes. I’ll try to reach some conclusions before then!
I’ll probably put off theological debates until later, such as the mode of baptism or even Calvinism and Arminianism. There are also some apologetic debates I’ll put off, such as creationism. I see theistic evolution as a legitimate option, though if I ever thought I’d become an atheist, I’d need to study this issue to make sure creationism could be safely buried.
Loyalty and truth revisited
And how will I reconcile my loyalty to Christianity with my desire to find the truth, whatever it might be? It may be that they are simply incompatible and that I’ll have to alternate between wanting to believe in Christianity and being coldly indifferent to it as I consider the merits of other options. But a search for truth isn’t the kind of task that requires swinging back and forth between absolute acceptance of a possibility and absolute rejection of it. There’s a wait-and-see element. In this respect a sporting event offers a helpful parallel. The fans are cheering for their own team, and throughout the game they are clearly biased toward their victory; but if by the end of the game their team has clearly lost, they’re not going to pretend that they’ve won. In my case I’m not the most energetic fan, but I still want Christianity to win.
Even though my faith has been eroded and dispirited, I still think Christianity holds some promise, and I consider it the richest and most noble thing around, so I want to give it the best chance I can. I might not stay an inerrantist. I might not even stay an evangelical, though that would be nice. But I hope my investigations will allow me to remain within Christianity for as long as possible, which of course, in the Christian scheme of things, is forever.