I started writing about my Christianity a couple of years ago while in the middle of a crippling bout of depression. My councilor wanted me to double check some of my assumptions, history and associations I had to see if anything in Christian life, either due to faulty thinking or unhealthy habit, may be contributing to those dark thoughts. What follows is the concluding remarks from my 'book' on how I became a Christian.
Rightly or wrongly, I, probably, will always be a little suspicious of people who have been Christians their whole life. They were born Christian and will die Christian. I wonder, hopefully not too cynically, whether they have actually made a choice to become a Christian or was that simply the default setting, as it were? Did they ever come to a point when they made Christianity their own? Have they ever really had to struggle with the difficulties involved in accepting the Bible the way I have? Have they ever been “bad” enough to realize what they’ve been saved from? Do they ever actually philosophize about their faith or is it a purely reflexive worldview? Granted, this suspicion may, in some part, be born out of a sense of envy; I wish sometimes that I didn’t have to struggle as much as I do with my faith. I wish it was as easy as some Christians seem to want me to believe, especially when I so often feel like a weird space alien where ever I go.
Dr. Brian Leftow, professor of philosophy at Forham University, says “I am a philosopher because I am Christian.” I suspect for many modern people that makes little or no sense, but to me, I could never see it any other way. This claim, of course, is a problem for both the theologian and the philosopher. Philosophers tend to think religion isn’t worth the trouble, and theologians tend to think philosophy is more trouble than it’s worth. Philosophy is an act of the mind and will, which is often seen as unreliable “fleshly wisdom” by the religious. Religion, on the other hand, is seen as too subjective to be rationally examined by the philosopher. Both sides, though, are equally guilty of calling out the Thought Police. In Christian circles, it is quite alright to think and question, as long as you think correctly and quickly accept the right answers to your questions, and, in philosophic circles, is quite alright to be Christian as long as your faith does not contaminate your intellect and interfere with your quest for the “truth”. Both sides eye each other with suspicion and both sides too often take their point to an absurd extreme.
I seem to be reasonably well suited to live with uncertainty. I have always been fairly pessimistic about the world, people, the future, but I have always been able to navigate the tensions between my Christian faith and the rigors of reason in an almost aloof sort of way even as faith and reason seem to be polar opposites. For example:
- Faith is stable, eternal. While reason is always tentative, speculative, probing.
- Christianity is orthodoxy. Reason requires testing new ideas; it requires avoiding the crowd (Kierkegaard) or herd (Nietzsche) mentality and anything that interferes with sober thinking (Marx).
- Faith is seen as the opposite of reason. Faith is the evidence of things unseen, while reason requires evidence and argument. Faith is subjective; reason is objective.
- Intellectual pursuits are often seen as unimportant in the light of God’s eternity.
- Intellectuals are seen (often rightly) as the enemy of the Church.
It is sometimes difficult to maintain a sense of worth when you “sit on the fence” the way that I do. While Church and Academia so often stand in open hostility, the world at large generally isn’t much help either to the self image of a philosophically minded person. Popular culture is extremely pragmatic; it wants to know how to get something done. Being a “thoughtful” Christian doesn’t usually produce anything of practical use. The education we all receive in school is extremely utilitarian; you need to learn enough to get a job. Thought life is not necessarily entertaining, quick or upwardly mobile. So, my questions are generally kept to myself. I have to pick and choose my battles, and make sense of all this religion-talk as well as I can away from the prying eyes of the Church, Academia and the world at large.
My questioning is sometimes more accepted in secular circles, though. In the Church, I often am met with offended stares if I openly raise questions or present opposing viewpoints. (Though I think in some circles this is becoming less of an issue.) I’ve been told by very well meaning Christians, that my methods are completely wrong. That I just need to stop questioning and “surrender to Jesus”. OK, so how should I do that, I ask. The answer usually is something like: just read the Bible and all your questions will be answered.
This solution to the problem is, for me, entirely insufficient.
While obviously I believe the Bible is the “Word of God”, I still struggle with some of the same old questions about its authenticity, accuracy, legitimacy and its moral lessons. Some parts of the Bible are easy to grasp and accept. Others are not. If we are honest, we all have our favorite books, passages and verses in the Bible and (if we are being honest with ourselves, right?) we are guilty of completely ignoring certain passages in the Bible that are difficult to understand, or that the meaning is at odds with our current views. We act as if certain passages are divine commands for everyone and at all times, yet deliberately break others. We take verses and parts of verses out of context to fit our own needs. Indeed, whole religions and denominations have sprung up because of this tendency. For example, I seriously doubt the Mormon Church would be what it is today if John 10:16 (“And other sheep have I, which are not of this fold . . .”) did not exist.
That said, it should come as no surprise that I believe that this isn’t always a bad thing. Every human being is different, with different backgrounds, needs and desires, giftings and purposes. For myself, I will honestly say there are things about being a Christian (and being a Christian probably means, in the final analysis, believing what the Bible has to say) that are anything from mildly disagreeable to down-right offensive (rightly or wrongly, I’m still working that out). There are things also that seem to completely contradict what I think the rest of the Bible is saying about God. There are things in the Bible that I don’t understand and there are others that I flat out don’t agree with (at least as far as I understand them). And, I firmly believe, that’s OK with God. Our Christian-hood does not rest, in general, on our philosophical views, our ability to comfortably interpret key biblical passages or even our wants and desires. But I think we should recognize that certain passages are absolutely meant for us for a particular time and place in our lives. There are others that we simply won’t understand. Our lack of understanding may be due to any number of things, including pride, mistranslations, poor study and prayer habits, or God may be withholding understanding for a particular time. We may be resistant to abandon a “black and white” perspective to more fully understand the truth, such as when we tackle “loving the sinner yet hating the sin” or “consumer Christianity”. We may need to look at a variety of issues and Bible passages from radically different points of view that we may really understand them. In other words, the Bible is not accessible without interpretation and application. Sometimes, this requires others to highlight parts of the Bible that are meant for us at a particular time. This is why I spend so much time reading, not only the Bible but also, what people have to say about it. That means dealing with the, more often than it ever should be, evil and inefficient organization called The Church.
My feelings about religious organizations have not changed much since my atheist days. The people who comprise the Body of Christ continue to, on the one hand, disappoint and appall me, and, on the other, educate and inspire me. (That doesn’t surprise me though!) Where would I be without Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Kant, Lewis, McGee, Swaggart and, despite the fact that I think he’s completely off his rocker, John Shelby Spong? Where would I be without Lucile [a woman I met just after becoming a Christian who really taught me alot about the Bible, prayer and Christian love], or that nameless librarian [who helped me to become a Christian by pointing me to a stack of really great books]? Where would I be without my pastors and friends at Greater Portland Bible Church? The most likely answer is a complete mess, or, just as likely, dead. Obviously, I now hold that the Church is a God-inspired organism, created as an instrument of salvation, authentic spirituality and physical healing, comfort and reconciliation on earth. But,
The parallel reality, however, is that at the same time the church is an institution which operates, consciously or not, like other human institutions. The primary goal of all institutions and subcultures is self-preservation. Preserving the faith is central to God’s plan for human history; preserving particular religious institutions is not. Do not expect those who run the institutions to be sensitive to the difference. God needs no particular person, church, denomination, creed, or organization to accomplish His purpose. He will make use of those, in all their diversity, who are ready to be used, but will leave to themselves those who labor for their own ends.
Nonetheless, questioning the institution is synonymous, for many, with attacking God—something not long to be tolerated. Supposedly, they are protecting God, an almost humorous notion if its consequences were not so hurtful. Apparently God is fragile, His feelings easily hurt, sort of like Mr. Suffleupagus on “Sesame Street” who feels sad and frustrated when people don’t believe he exists. Actually, they are protecting themselves, their view of the world, and their sense of security. The religious institution has given them meaning, a sense of purpose, and, in some cases, careers. Anyone perceived as a threat to these things is a threat indeed.">
This tension between the needs of the earthly institution and the authentic Will of God is so often a difficult and narrow path (as all members of my church can attest to over the past couple years). On the one hand, we can begin to see that church is really all about our own individuality and start to demand that it tolerate anything we have a notion to complain about. On the other, it is tempting to circle the wagons and burn the heretics. The intellectually lazy notions of conformity so often squash the awesomely sublime reality of biblical unity. Authoritarian unanimity can be manufactured, measured and enforced, while biblical unity is a mystical phenomenon that transcends all outward identifiers. The true Church is a product of unity, not conformity. In my case, conformity actually did its best to destroy my chances of experiencing unity.
For me, the intellectual life is one of the major ways I combat uniformity and selfishness. It is also how I attempt to promote biblical freedom. More often than not, thoughtful consideration on a deeply philosophic level is what makes religion tolerable for me. It makes God seem more real to me. It helps me live a moral life, one pleasing to God. It roots me in the full meaning of Christian life, allowing me more fully grasp the awesome realities God may hide from those who may just skim through the Bible, or simply “do their time” Sunday morning. It helps me reconcile what I see with my eyes with what I see with my spirit. There really are bad reasons for being a Christian; hopefully, reason itself helps me to properly evaluate them for what they are. All in all, I could never be a “good Christian” unless I led a questioning and examined life.
Are there dangers of the so-called intellectual life? Of course. An over-examined life really isn't much better than an unexamined one. The Bible is full of warnings against overly intellectualizing the spiritual, of rationalizing our wants, excusing our sin and relying too heavily on our own thinking. These should be heeded. Thinking too much may cause all sorts of problems, such as:
- Pride, we know the mind of God
- Lording it over people, we are better than those who are not as intellectually curious.
- Objectification of God.
If you think about it though, over-emphasizing any aspect of ourselves (mind, heart or body) will get you into trouble, but it may be more tempting for “thoughtful” Christians, like myself, to feel superior to “emotional” Christians or those who are always seem to be doing something (the Martha Syndrome, different hang-up, same sin). We can start to believe that a “simple” faith isn't really faith at all. Because we've “studied” and are “smarter” than those who seem to blindly accept and are so easily swept up by their emotions, we can easily start to believe that God has favored us. Worse still, we can begin to believe that our methods are somehow a particular blessing to God, a blessing that feeling and working can’t even begin to compare. We can even set ourselves up to be the very priests of Truth.
Sometimes this can go beyond simple pride when it turns into cancerous suspicion (something I myself must take steps to actively avoid). When someone talks of a miracle, revelation or some blessing from God, I often immediately wonder if it is really true. Is this person looking for some kind of undeserved attention? Are they making it up, or are they completely fooled by their unreliable emotions? There’s nothing wrong with a healthy dose of skepticism, but when it becomes reflexive and cynical, then we have problems, especially when we can help to destroy the fragile faith of others (or my own faith, let me tell you!). Of course, we sometimes find it difficult to realize that our own over-analysis can come off as arrogant or unintelligible to those who have a less cluttered (for lack of a better word) faith until we get smacked in the face with that fact. Sometimes, people like me put our faith in our ability to reason, rather that faith in the Living God, which, of course, defeats the whole project of Christianity.
The final point is probably much more insidious and difficult to correct than simple pride. Philosophy is, in the final analysis, the act of defining things. For all practical purposes, each of the four major branches of philosophy tries to “box up” a single word. Epistemology tries to define the word “knowledge”, ethics the word “good”, aesthetics the word “beauty” and metaphysics the word “real”. Theology, or the philosophy of religion, tries to tell us what the word “god” means, among other things. (True spirituality and devotion, on the other hand, is the act of trying to get “god” out of a box.) We might end up knowing a lot about God, but we only think about “god” as long as “it” is safely under a microscope. And, before long, we can entirely loose sight of the object of our study and begin an endless and sometimes pointlessly destructive obsession with the microscope itself. We loose sight of the fact that our theology, our world view, our philosophy, the handy box we put God in (the microscope) is only a tool. We wake up one day completely unable to tell the difference between the eternal God of the Universe and the divisive philosophies we hold so dearly. In trying so hard to understand Christianity, we can entirely miss the point of even being a Christian.
Does that mean we should just give up trying to understand God? God forbid. While, there may be a very thin line between thinking too much and thinking too little, I believe God created human beings complete with (or later grants us, I’m not sure which) a set of mental and spiritual tools for determining truth and (re?) discovering Him. (If not, then free will is a sham, right?) For me, that means always questioning, testing and having the courage to abandon ideas that I once held sacred. I will give up any untrue belief I have because I believe God still holds me to my first prayer. In order to do that though, I must always test whether I have become complacent in my thought life. Have I taken something for granted? Do my beliefs justify something impure in myself? Do my philosophies help others backslide?
And this approach has served me well from the very beginning. Through loneliness, joblessness, deaths, injuries, disappointments and suicidal thoughts, I have never encountered a new fact or perspective that has lead me to believe that my decision to become a Christian was ever in vain.
Granted, there have been times when I needed more than a little help. These are times when religion, that old self-absorbed emasculator of truth, actually fulfils the purpose for which it was created. If allowed to step in from time to time (in prudent doses, of course!), it allows one to see God in action in a concrete way and reinvigorate failing faith. For me, this is especially helpful when I don’t particularly feel like being a Christian. Other people who share my convictions can encourage and support me (and I them in turn, hopefully). These are other people who maybe, just maybe, know something I don’t, who have powerfully experienced the truth recently and can help me to reclaim that vision for myself again. So, the trick is to avoid having faith in my own mental abilities and rely on the help of other people, and, more importantly God Himself.
In the end, the “thoughtful life” is only a set of tools, not the solution itself.
As the years have passed along, I have become increasingly aware of the fact that these tools cause me to do a good deal of fence sitting. I know it and it quickly becomes apparent to anyone who gets to know me. I've been told it’s a bad thing; I've been told it’s a good thing. Perhaps, it’s really the fate of all people who live east of Eden. Some of us embrace it more than others. In the end, it probably just is. It will remain a source of constant torment for me while continually spurring me on toward the full and joyful knowledge of God. It’s just who I am and how I deal with the world.
 Morris, Thomas V., ed., God and the Philosophers: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason, Oxford University Press, New York, 1994, p. 189.
 Williams, Clifford, The Life of the Mind: A Christian Perspective, Baker Academic, Michigan, 2002, pp. 61-70.
 Taylor, Daniel, The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian & the Risk of Commitment, InterVarsity Press, Illinois, 1992, pp. 29-30.
 Deuteronomy 6:5, see Matthew 22:37.
 Ephesians 4:4-6.
Labels: christian attitudes, depression, faith, my life, reason