April 10, 2011

A Faith Deeper than Experience

In the last ten years or so, a movement has been gaining steam in western culture.  This movement is called “The New Atheism.”  It is not in fact new at all in that there have been atheists around for a very long time, particularly since the scientific revolution made such a position more fashionable than it once was.  These new atheists, however, led by the so-called “Four Horsemen” of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett, are unparalleled in the history of the movement in their open contempt of all things religious.  Richard Dawkins in particular stands out as the most public and vocal spokesman for the group.  His personal belief is that religion in general is a disease of the mind.  He honestly believes that parents who teach their kids religion in any form should be convicted of child abuse.  These folks have what amounts to abject hatred of religion and are especially intolerant of the Christian faith.  Their general characterization is that Christianity as a religious movement and Christians individually are supremely irrational at best and intentionally delusional at worst.  Now, we who are Christians certainly don’t count ourselves as irrational, but the charges of these new atheists, mostly carried on the back of persuasive rhetoric, not reason, are convincing to many.  So it is true?  Is our faith irrational?  Are we irrational?  Are we abusing our children by filling their heads with garbage that will leave them disadvantaged in a world fully explained by science?  I mean, all of us here who would count ourselves followers of Christ can probably point to some religious experience we have had to justify our personal faith, but is there anything beyond our private experience that would make what we believe reasonable for someone else to accept?

We have spent the previous five weeks talking about some of the things that we believe.  These are the “whats” of our faith.  As moderately conservative evangelical Baptists, we believe things like the Bible is God’s authoritative and inerrant world of self-revelation to reveal life to us.  God Himself is triune in nature, existing as the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.  We believe that every single person on this earth is debilitatingly broken by sin and in need of the salvation available only through Jesus Christ.  All of these conversations, however, are in-house conversations.  They are discussions that Christians have with other Christians and folks who are otherwise on a journey with God, not with those who are outside and uninterested in the faith.  Folks who don’t believe in God or are simply uninterested in Him don’t care what an orthodox formulation of the Trinity looks like.  They don’t believe the Bible even matters so of course it isn’t authoritative in their minds.  They don’t accept the idea that people are fundamentally sinful, or evil, to use the more culturally relevant word, and so there is nothing from which they need to be saved.  Detailed discussions of theology, then, are great for believers to have together so that we better understand what we believe in order that our lives may better reflect this.  But, such conversations don’t give us anything to share with our neighbor who really isn’t sure about all that Jesus stuff.   It doesn’t give us any answers to our co-worker who just read a book by someone like Dawkins and is genuinely interested in the Christian response to virulently anti-Christian rhetoric.  It doesn’t give us any reasons to offer our skeptical family members to lovingly convince them of the validity of our faith.

For all of these reasons and more, in the weeks leading up to Easter, we are going to talk about some of the reasons why we believe.  We have some of the whats down and are more confident in our own faith, and now we are going to turn outward and examine the whys.  In other words, we’re going to turn from the discipline of theology to that of apologetics which is concerned with defending and offering reasons for the faith.  It comes from an old definition of the word apology which means to offer reasons for something.  Now, the discipline of apologetics is broad so we are going to focus in on one particular area that strikes me as most relevant in the current cultural discussion: Christianity and science.  Next week we are going to look specifically at whether or not those two can peacefully coexist.  At our special Good Friday communion service we are going to spend some time talking about whether or not we can accept miracles as real.  Then on Easter morning we are going to take a close look at the greatest miracle, the resurrection, and its implications for us.  As for this morning, we are going to take a look at the question we asked a few minutes ago: Is Christianity rational?  Does our faith make any sense?

Think about that for a minute.  Does what we believe make any sense?  It’s a question that all of us ask at some point in our lives.  We were created for asking big questions like this.  We don’t come to them often, but at least once in a while we stop and think about whether our belief system is coherent.  In these moments a few things are possible.  First, we come away confident in our beliefs and revived to keep moving forward.  Second, we are not terribly confident in our beliefs, but have had such a powerful personal experience that this lack is not disconcerting to us in any way.  Third, we are confident in what we believe, but aren’t really sure why which leads us to a season of questioning and growth.  Fourth, we don’t know what we believe or why and are shaken by this.  When this last thing happens, people do one of three things: they work to gain the confidence they desire, they turn to rely heavily on a few platitudes which are allowed to substitute for reason, or they reject their beliefs to search for something in which they can have confidence.  Unfortunately, far too many folks who have been raised in the church, but who have not been made aware of the whys of their beliefs fall into one of the last two outcomes. This leads to people becoming either atheists or modern-day Pharisees who live according to law draped in merely the language of grace and a quiet fear of the answer to the question: does any of this really make sense?

Now, none of this is to bring into question the profound experiences many of us, including myself, have had with God.  Experiences are important.  We should cherish and remember those as markers and reminders of God’s faithfulness in our past.  But, at some point we have to get beyond experience.  We have to be able to defend our faith with something more than, “Well, I just believe it’s true.” The reason for this is that our culture is both experiential and relativistic.  This means that while experiences do carry a great deal of weight in terms of lending credence to an argument, your experiences are yours and mine are mine.  I can have great conviction in the validity of Christianity while my good friend who happens to be a Muslim can have great conviction in the validity of Islam.  Which one of us is correct?  Different religions have different truth claims and so the line about them all offering different paths to the same end is simply not true.  When one says the goal is to become nothing and one says the goal is to become something they can’t both be right.  Conviction alone does not justify our faith.  Also, given our scientifically-driven culture, mere conviction does not offer a rational reason for our beliefs.  I mean, 600 years ago, there were a lot of people who had strong convictions that the earth was flat.  How’d that conviction do for them?  Indeed, what we believe matters a great deal, but why we believe matters just as much.  Right beliefs held for the wrong reasons are not really right beliefs.  If in our heart-of-hearts we aren’t convinced of the rationality of our faith, we will fall to the trap of being all show and no substance, of being a house on the shore with not enough stilts to hold it up when the waters rise.

And if all of this wasn’t enough, we are commanded in Scripture to have a grasp of the whys of our faith.  When the apostle Peter—a man who knew the dangers of having lots of show and no substance—wrote his letter to the believers in Asia Minor, he wrote this in chapter 3: “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?  But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed.  Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.  For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.”  Now, the nature of the suffering Peter hints at here has changed, but persecution is persecution.  The attacks of folks like the new atheists demand to be answered.  Our charge as followers of Jesus is to be prepared to do so.  So then, let’s ask the question one more time: Does our faith make any sense?

There are several ways to respond to this question.  Let’s look quickly at five of them.  The first way we can respond is from the realm of science.  This is somewhat apropos as this is the realm of the most significant modern challenges to the faith.  Now, there are a multitude of ways to answer the charge of irrationality coming from the scientific community.  Let me share one with you that has been very convincing for me.  Perhaps the most celebrated conflict between the church and science is the Church’s supposed rejection of Galileo’s theory that the earth revolves around the sun—heliocentrism—instead of the other way around—geocentrism.  The Church, as the false caricature goes, wanted to put people as the most important center of all things, whereas Galileo bravely recognized that we are merely irrelevant specks of dust in an unimaginably huge universe.  As the science of astronomy has continued to develop, however, scientists have come to discover something interesting.  While we are certainly not at the center of the universe we are in what is likely the only place in the universe capable of supporting life.  Astronomers have discovered that the universe, as large as it is, is overwhelmingly hostile towards life-supporting environments.  The odds of carbon-based life forms (which are all we can imagine) existing anywhere else in the universe are so slight as to render it nearly categorically impossible.  How, then, could we have come to exist in this universe when the conditions to allow our existence are so narrowly defined?  Shall we chalk this up to a victory of luck as Dawkins does?  Shall we, as do many of the new atheists, argue that even though it looks like our planet has been carefully placed and specifically designed such that life is not only a possibility but a near certitude, that this is all just a work of chance?  Or shall we argue that a life-affirming, supremely intelligent God designed things such that we have the opportunity to live and move and find our being in Him?  Which is more rational?  Which makes more sense?  We are able to know all this, by the way, because our planet is situated in the universe such that we are able to discover and explore an incredibly vast amount of our universe without ever leaving home.  We know more about the misnamed “final frontier” than we do our own planet.  Again, is this merely chance or design?  Does our faith make any sense?

A second area of response comes from the realm of ethics.  Ethics is, of course, the study of morality and why we do the things we do.  For those who would deny the existence of God because of the supposed explanatory power of Darwinism, one of the most difficult challenges before them is to explain how and why people behave the way they do.  The simple reality is that there are some behavioral norms that are universal and which don’t advance our species according to Darwinian dictates.  Things like murder and stealing and torturing babies have always been recognized as wrong among the human race.  Treating others with kindness and love has long been recognized as more desirable than hatred and strife.  Why is this?  That may seem like a silly and obviously-answered question, but it’s not so obvious as it seems.  If your response to that question ran something along the lines of, “Because they’re wrong,” you are making an assumption of an objective moral standard of behavior.  Unless there exists some sort of transcendent God in whom such a standard can be rooted, there can be no truly objective standard of behavior.  When opponents of the faith try and reduce humans to little more than animals, they overlook something huge.  There is no definite standard of behavior among animals and there is among humans.  Think about the last National Geographic special you watched.  The animal world is a vicious, wild, and deadly place.  There the law of the survival of the fittest reigns.  Not so among people.  We look out for and even honor the weak and the sick among us.  Such a phenomenon simply doesn’t make sense if the world can be explained according to the dictates of philosophical Darwinism—a fact which even Darwin himself recognized.  And someone might try and argue that the very fact that all human cultures operate along some basic similarities in terms of their behavior reveals that the Christian faith is no more notable than any other world religion, but they must answer the question of where all these other religions got their ethics.  The fact of similar strands of behavior running throughout most human cultures does not demonstrate their equality, it demonstrates an objective standard which is implanted in all of them.   So then, which makes more sense, that humanity is advancing naturally towards some altruistic ideal which is decidedly unhelpful in terms of our fitness for survival in a tough world, or that there is an objective standard of behavior rooted in a single, benevolent God who is calling all people to Himself?  Does our faith make any sense?

From ethics, let us move to the somewhat related field of pop-psychology.  In 1937 a man named Dale Carnegie published a book which is most centrally responsible for launching the self-help genre which has at least 77,000 titles on Amazon.com.  Who knows what this book is?  How to Win Friends and Influence People.  This book sat at the crest of the cultural wave that swept our nation and which held that we have within us the potential to fix ourselves.  The majority of psychology today is focused on doing this or that exercise or following this or that health regimen in order to think better about ourselves, in order to make ourselves more complete.  The self-help culture this has enflamed does make the assumption that we are in need of help (at least according to the false definitions of sin we talked about last week), but it also assumes we are capable of fixing the problem.  Over the years, the self-help movement has grown into a self-help industry.  There are thousands of self-help books and seminars and DVDs and products.  All of these sell because they cast a compelling vision that if we follow ten or seven, or better yet, three simple steps, we can bring ourselves more in line with the image the publishing company wants for us to bear.  In looking at this from a bit more cynical of an angle, however, the darker assumption here is that we’re never really going to manage to help ourselves and if we start getting close they are going to move the standard further away like the dollar-on-a-string that keeps getting yanked just out of reach so that we keep chasing it.  Think about all this with me for a second.  What do you think is more likely here: that with enough self-help manuals we’ll finally get ourselves right, or that the doctrine of original sin has some basis in reality?  After nearly eighty years and thousands upon thousands of books with no end in sight, I think we can pronounce the self-help movement a failure.  What’s left when you pull the rug out from under our hope of making ourselves better with enough work or good deeds or holistic cleansings?  When getting more beautiful or in better shape or into that dress or those pants or attractive to that girl or guy doesn’t solve anything, what do we have left?  How about a God who says, “I created you in My image and you don’t have to become anything other than yourself in order to be right which I will help you do”?  Does this make any sense at all?

You would want to think so, but more and more folks are not settling on this as their conclusion.  We are all of us on a search for meaning in this life.  We crave it. We need it.  We were created for it.  But when the answers of our culture fail to deliver on their promise—and those bills have been coming due for a long time—where do we turn?  Well, the answer in a growing population of our western culture is…nothing.  Ever since the Enlightenment, western culture has been on a gradual journey away from God.  There have certainly been some bright spots, but on the whole, the movement has not been in the right direction.  Well, because we believe that God is the source of all things, we also believe that apart from Him there is no life, no meaning, no purpose to anything.  In other words, apart from God there is nothing.  This truth has made itself known in our culture’s growing nihilism.  Nihilism is a philosophical belief in nothing.  This malaise can play itself out in anarchy—if there is nothing and if nothing matters let’s do anything.  But it can also play itself out in the rise of hollow people.  These are people who go about their days completely devoid of purpose and life.  What more, they have given up the search.  They spend most of their time drifting blindly through the routines of their days, but on occasion punctuate this ennui with contrived dramatic experiences to remind themselves that they are still alive.  This explains the rise of extreme sports and the thrill-seeking culture.  It explains part of our culture’s obsession with sex and the growing number of television shows like Two and a Half Men, How I Met Your Mother, Glee, Gossip Girl, Skins, and others that approach the issue from a decidedly amoral standpoint.  If the only thing that generates any feeling or excitement in life is sex and intentionally putting our lives at risk in extreme sport settings, guess what we’re going to do a lot of?  But among the thinking population of the West—including of all places, France, whose national turn from religion was one of the earliest and most complete—people are starting to ask the right question: if what we’re doing isn’t working, should we try something else?  And increasingly, the something else that answers this question is God.  Here’s the truth: without some sort of a transcendent God (be it the Christian God or not), there is no purpose to this world.  Which makes more sense then, that our lives are meant for little more than drifting listlessly through life even though we know there’s something more, or that we are vested with the extremely noble purpose of bringing glory to the God who created everything we see and don’t?  Does faith make any sense at all in this light?

As a final area to examine, let’s turn to history.  On this, let’s be honest for a moment.  Life in Europe in the Middle Ages was tough beyond anything we are capable of fathoming.  The culture was completely dominated by the Church and the Church used its power in ways which were decidedly dishonoring of God.  Perhaps one of the most notable examples of this is the infamous Crusades.  Now, modern treatment of the Crusades is generally not very fair in its presentation, but there were a lot of things done in the name of Christ during that period of history which brought great dishonor to His name.  Because of all this, many folks conclude that the Christian faith has done more harm, historically speaking, than it has done any good.  The new atheist movement advocates this position loudly.  But this only gives one side of the picture and ignores most of the twentieth century history.  If you were to take the sum total of people killed in wars justified in some part on Christian principles, you might be able to count it in the hundreds of thousands, or even the single millions.  That’s a lot and each one of those deaths was a tragedy.  But then you turn to regimes of the twentieth century which were founded on the principles of Marxism or Communism which were avowedly atheistic and discover something startling.  The regimes of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Hitler (who if not an atheist was a pagan at best) are responsible for deaths of tens of millions, possibly even more than 100 million people.  These regimes had no concept of human rights.  People were only cogs in the state machine and useful only to the extent that they produced something the state could consume.  They only had value to the extent the state said they did.  Those who were not deemed inherently valuable to the state were suitable for two ends: slave labor (forced value) and death.  Death was cheaper.  Let’s look beyond merely atheistic nations.  In India—a primarily Hindu country—it was long a custom to cremate living wives with their newly deceased husbands.  Honor killings are common in Muslim majority countries.  There are jungle tribes throughout the world that still practice cannibalism.  Cultures that explicitly reject or are simply not built on a Christian worldview are pretty terrifying places.  A few decades ago a group of Chinese sociologists and psychologists did a lengthy study to figure out why the U. S. was just better than every other nation in the world at pretty much everything.  Their firm and confident conclusion: it has little to do with our economy or our political system or geography or our access to natural resources or any of that.  It has everything to do with our religious foundation.  So you tell me: does our faith make any sense?

I hope the answer to this is abundantly clear by now.  If it isn’t, let me know and I’ll keep going.  Friends, we have a faith that makes sense.  It deeply, truly, and completely makes sense.  Here’s the thing: when we come to the points in our lives in which we ask ourselves the hard questions, when we are willing to do the hard work of answering these, there is a good rule of thumb to follow.  Examine all the different options available with as unbiased an eye as possible (this is far more difficult than it sounds).  With the options unpacked before you, take a look at the world around you.  Which of the options before you offers the best explanation of the world around you?  Which makes the most sense of the facts and experiences common among all people?  Which best explains our existence in this world against odds for which the word incredible doesn’t even begin to cover it?  Which explains the fact that people seem to have an ingrained awareness of an objective standard of right and wrong even if they don’t always follow this?  Which explains the abject failure of the self-help movement and power-of-positive-thinking psychology?  Which explains western culture’s gradual rejection of nihilism as a satisfactory explanation of its experience?  Which explains the incredible abundance and freedom available in cultures founded on a Christian worldview as opposed to those which are not?  I submit to you that only the Christian faith offers a satisfactory explanation of all these observations.  We have a faith that makes sense.  Look, we haven’t had time to examine all the other options this morning and I encourage you do take the time to do so.  But, I’m going to be so bold to say that if you come to the point where one of those other options seems to make more sense to you than Christianity as a good explanation of the world around you, go with that one.  There’s no use in pretending.  You’ll only make yourself miserable.  I say this because I am so confident in the rationality of the Christian faith.  We have a faith that makes sense.

So, my friends, cherish your experiences with God.  Look forward to encounters with Him that give further credence to what you believe to be true with bated breath.  But know in your heart-of-hearts that you have a faith that goes much deeper than mere experience.  You have a faith that makes sense.  When the fires of an encounter with the living God cool—and they always cool at some point—your faith has roots that go deeper still.  It is rational beyond the explanatory power of anything else in this world and no amount of rhetoric from the new atheists can change this fact.  Try as they might, the simplest and most straightforward answers to the tough questions of this world are found in the Christian understanding of the world.  We have a faith that makes sense.  Take these few pieces of evidence, find more as you desire, and walk forward with the confidence that when nothing else in this world seems to, we have a faith that makes sense.