The question of unbelief 2.5

My friend David Hayward (a facebook friend, anyway…) has written a very interesting post on the 10 Movements of faith, most of which don’t sound very faith-like, using words like questioning, doubt, rejection, darkness, abandon and fear.  From a Western evangelical point of view, these are bad words, things that we either try to avoid, ignore, heal, or if nothing else fails, condemn.  However, perhaps David is right; perhaps we should not fear these, but recognize them as signs of growth.

I’ve seen these stages over the years in many friends and acquaintances.  I don’t know that everyone goes through all stages, at least concerning core beliefs. As I commented on David’s blog, I think the Western evangelical church is often geared towards keeping people at Stage 1, where people can be entertained, placated, and manipulated.  Growth  – as any parent can tell you – is often hard to deal with.  Then, some folks are just better at dealing with questions than others. And, as I have mentioned, it may not be our core faith that’s challenged, but the “baggage” that we often receive along with the Gospel, or perhaps even the nature of our faith.  Again, I think David is on to something: if we never go through these stages, we’re not growing.  As my favorite songwriter has written,

It’s not that hard
to figure it out
Where there’s no question,
there’s no doubt

– Glen Phillips, There Comes a Time

As we read through the Gospels, it seems that Jesus even encouraged questioning and doubt at times – consider the story of the Rich Young Ruler, for one, or the “eat my flesh” teaching.  A preacher that I heard many years ago said that God “offends the mind to reveal the heart.”  If we won’t challenge our own beliefs, sometimes God himself will.  The ancient church traditions – such as the Eastern Orthodox and Anglican – seem better able to deal with these stages of faith, and even anticipate and encourage them.  There is a wealth in the liturgical and mystical (speaking of the old mystical tradition, not what currently passes for mysticism) traditions that the evangelical church simply cannot understand; and perhaps it is this very issue – dealing with these “negative” stages of faith – that acts as a barrier between the old and new.

So, what happens when the church fails to recognize these stages as growth rather than “backsliding?”

At the close of his post, David asks

Can we consider the possibility that someone abandoning their faith and leaving the church could actually be a potential development in their spirituality, a stage where they are being beckoned to abandon their child-like faith to move toward a more mature and adult faith? And can we allow people to linger in any of these movements without time limits? I think these are important questions to consider.

Fundamentalism, and even more temperate versions of evangelicalism, leave no room for those who have to step outside of the program. If they fail to “experience” God like they are supposed to, or question some of the teaching, they are often condemned, or treated as immature (the “weak in faith”).  However, I think we need to ask ourselves, exactly who is “weak in faith,” those who dare risk their faith to deal with their questions, or those who insist on suppressing doubt?

The question of unbelief

How could you forsake the love of God that way
Don’t fade, you’re staying here with me
Don’t fade, I need to know that someone still believes

– Don’t Fade, Glen Phillips

A week or so ago John Loftus over at Debunking Christianity (a very interesting site) asked Christians to tell him why he didn’t believe:

But since you believe we will be punished by God in hell (however conceived) if we don’t believe, then you need to offer some explanations for why we don’t believe. Surely a good God like yours wouldn’t punish us if we weren’t deserving of it, right? And surely your God wouldn’t punish us for our disbelief without offering us a clear testimony with sufficient evidence to believe, right?

Now, John’s testimony is that he was a Christian, received a Th.M. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and studied under William Lane Craig. But, over time he came to unbelieve in God – an opposite response of what we’d generally expect. And, there are others who have similar stories.  John suggests three possible reasons for not being able to believe: ignorance, willful disobedience, and a failure to experience God – all good questions to consider.  Concerning the question of ignorance, is disbelief merely a matter of not enough information?  In John’s case, I would have to presume the answer is no; he’s got a theology degree, and I haven’t.

As far as disobedience goes, he asks a very profound question in response: “Who in his right mind would be willfully disobedient of that which he knows to be true, if the truth is that he will go to hell if he is?”  Of course, the question of being in one’s right mind is another issue. I suppose one could hypothesize that unbelief is a type of psychosis resulting from the inability to reconcile the sinful nature with a works-oriented theology, like Paul describes in Romans chapter 7.  It’s really an interesting thought, along the same lines as, “does OJ really think he’s innocent?”; but it’s not an idea I would pursue at this point.

I think that John’s 3rd option – a failure to experience God – deserves some real thought.  A hard-core double-predestination Calvinist would probably pick this option and write these atheists off as merely people whom God has rejected.  However, I’m not a Calvinist, and I don’t think the answer is that simple. On this question, John writes:

Have we just failed to experience God in our lives? Do we need to experience something that we didn’t? What kind of experience do you mean? A miracle? Well, whose fault is that? God knows what we need to believe, and if so, why doesn’t he provide it? If God did the greater deed, by sending his son to atone for our sins, then why doesn’t he do the lesser deeds by providing us the evidence and experiences we need to believe?

It’s somewhat interesting that John wrote this post last week, as I’ve been thinking about this question myself. Why, indeed, do some people appear to be blind to what seems to be the clear revelation of God?  I believe that God, indeed, has revealed himself, and quite clearly, as Paul writes in Romans 1:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

Part of the answer, at least for some, might be answered by Loftus’ own proposition that modernism is the Achilles’ Heel of Christianity.  We differ, however, in that John believes modernism to be the superior worldview, whereas I take an opposite view.  Perhaps – at least in part – buying into modernism is tantamount to planting seed in a field of weeds; the clear result is that faith is choked out.

I began this post quoting Glen Phillips, who is perhaps my favorite singer/songwriter. He seems to understand faith and doubt in a way that I find quite remarkable, being he’s not a Christian, or even necessarily religious (per an interview in 2004; although, the song “Thank You” on his latest album implies he’s at least a Theist).  I’ll end this post with a verse from “Dam Would Break” that seems relevant to this discussion:

What is this ice that gathers round my heart
To stop the flood of warmth before it even starts
It would make me blind to what I thought would always be
The only constant in the world for me
And every hour of every day
I need to fight from pulling away
And if my mind could only loose the chain
The dam would break

An atheist who understands the importance of epistemology

This is one of the reasons l like John Loftus:

If I have a focus when it comes to debunking Christianity it is with control beliefs. Control beliefs are those beliefs that control how we view the evidence, and so my critique is generally philosophical and epistemological in nature. I’m interested in how we know what we know. How we view that which we know is the difference that makes all of the difference.

How we each look at the evidence is controlled by certain beliefs of ours. Since this is so, I want to know how to justify those control beliefs themselves. For me it’s all about seeing things differently. It’s not about more and more knowledge. It’s about viewing what we know in a different light. …

How do we decide which approach, which bias, and which set of control beliefs are preferrable when looking at Christianity? That’s the biggest question of them all! Why? Because the set of control beliefs we start with when looking at the Bible is usually the same set we will come away with.

After people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, this is a breath of fresh air.  In fact, if you look back through my posts and comments you’ll see that I’ve been saying the same thing.  Whether you talk about worldviews, paradigms, presuppositions, narratives or control beliefs, the point is this: if you don’t deal with the differences at this level, discussion about topics like the truth of Christianity are pointless. Yet, the majority of discussions and debates stay fixed on the minutia rather than at the “meta” level.  Words don’t even mean the same thing in different belief systems.

However, I still have major disagreements with Loftus on many of his control beliefs, and question whether he’s gone deep enough; perhaps there are presuppositions controlling his control beliefs. John is, without a doubt, a modernist, as he makes the point, “I call our modern ways of thinking the Achilles’ heel of Christianity.”

Here, again, I would tend to agree with Loftus. Modernism as a worldview is at the very least hostile to Christianity; it is a competing and contrasting worldview.  However, as it emerged at least partially from within the Roman Catholic church, it became over time the predominant worldview of the West, including that of the Western church.  Now, not all facets of modernism are necessarily bad; but, as modernism reframed how we look at the evidence, as Loftus talks about, and also redefined evidence itself, a Christianity whose apologetics (itself a modern concept) is framed within modernism is essentially cut off at the knees.

I believe the question of “Does God exist” or “Is Christianity true” can only partially be addressed without addressing the question of whether modernism is an accurate worldview.  While modernism certainly still has its adherents, especially those for whom modernism serves as a necessary foundation, it is generally held that modernism is a failed worldview. Whether it simply implodes or is transformed in a post-modern derivative remains to be seen. In any event I have a hunch that the discussions of the next generation will be quite different from those we have today.

Further into Loftus’ post he lists his control beliefs, which I believe are discussed more fully in his book. What I think John is saying is that essentially in order for him to really challenge Christianity, he needs to bring people completely into a modernist mindset.  As I indicated, I would tend to agree with him. My contention, however, is that to adopt a completely modernist mindset is already to abandon a Christian worldview. For those who try to maintain a set of Christian beliefs within a modernist worldview, I think it is quite easy to draw them away from Christianity. To try to maintain a dual worldview is difficult at best, and often requires some type of loss of intellectual integrity. Others take a compartmentalized view, such as Francis Collins; but this, too, seems like intellectual suicide.

Loftus concludes:

I just don’t see how Christians can refute any of these reasons for starting with a skeptical attitude, since they are all practically undeniable (and even obvious) to modern educated scientifically literate people. How much more is this so when these reasons are all taken together as a whole. So it is no surprise that I look at Christianity with the presumption of skepticism. And it is no surprise that I reject it.

While I think some (or perhaps all) of John’s points are able to be challenged from within modernism, I suspect that the more someone is inclined toward a totally modernist worldview, the more likely they are to find these points convincing.  However, I suspect that the opposite is also true: the more someone’s mind has been transformed (Romans 12:2) away from the “pattern of the world,” the less likely that these arguments will have that impact.  Modernism is but one of several philosophies that has challenged a Biblical worldview, as discussed in my series on Webber, and the current evangelical church has been weakened by more than just modernism.  I also suspect that someone whose worldview has been impacted by other contrary philosophies such as romanticism are more susceptible to challenges as their belief system is already impaired.

I appreciate Loftus’ level of thinking here; where many atheists today refuse to deal with worldview issues or discussions about presuppositions, Loftus appears to understand the importance of recognizing and identifying presuppositions, which is probably why people like Norm Geisler recommend his book. However, as I stated earlier, I don’t think Loftus goes deep enough in identifying presuppositions, which is possibly why he and William Lane Craig seem to talk past each other.