Has the Faith Been Found Out To Be Foolish?

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Not long ago I heard J.P. Moreland in a lecture discussing the importance of knowing that Christianity is true. Moreland is an apologist and the author of what I consider to be one of the most important books written by a Christian in recent years, Kingdom Triangle. I don’t have his exact words, but it went something like this:

“There seems to be among average churchgoers a nagging suspicion, a fear, that the scholars—those who are really in the know—have proved the faith is all wrong. In the universities, the laboratories, and even the  seminaries they’ve found out the Bible is mostly false and the message of Christ is a big hoax; but the rest of the world just hasn’t quite caught on yet.”

Moreland was actually drawing from Dallas Willard, in another on that short list of most important books, The Divine Conspiracy. Willard is professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California, and stands in a good position to comment on this topic. On page 92 he wrote,

The powerful though vague and unsubstantiated presumption is that something has been found out that renders a spiritual understanding of reality in the manner of Jesus simply foolish to those who are “in the know.”

This presumption, though “vague and unsubstantiated,” is nevertheless “powerful,” he says. What kind of effect might it have? Does it really make a difference? It must. A believer, after all, is someone who believes; and if that belief is colored by concerned that the really smart people, the ones who understand, have found out it’s all foolish, that belief may be little more than a confused mind game: “I guess it’s all wrong, or at least I think it is, but I’m going to believe it anyway.” This is irrational. It makes us double minded, even unstable, to use James’s words (James 1:6-8).

I wrote in a pending post that quite often, it really is good to do what others say is good for us; but too many churchgoers “believe” not because they think it’s true, but because they think it’s good for them to believe. That kind of belief isn’t good for you, though; it’s just confused.

This presumption that it’s foolish to believe is wrong, at any rate. Willard goes on:

But when it comes to say exactly what it is that has been found out, nothing of substance is forthcoming.

Thus Rudolf Bultmann, long regarded as one of the great leaders of twentieth-century thought, had this to say: “It is impossible to use electric light and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.”

To anyone who has worked through the relevant arguments, this statement is simply laughable. It only shows that great people are capable of great silliness. Yet this kind of “thinking” dominates much of our intellectual and professional life at present, and in particular has governed by far the greater part of the field of biblical studies for more than a century.

But the baseless presumption in question must be seen for the empty prejudice it is if we are to enroll with serious intent in Jesus’ school of life. Though this is not the place to discuss it, you can be very sure that nothing fundamental has changed in our knowledge of ultimate reality and the human self since the time of Jesus.

Here on this blog entry is not the place to discuss it either, for it would go far too long. I will leave you with questions and some advice instead, directed especially toward followers of Christ. Do you really believe what you “believe?” Does believe, for you, mean to consider the Gospel to be true and reliable information, or does it mean something less than that? Do you sense that nagging suspicion that it might be all wrong after all? Are you believing because you’re confident it’s true, or because you think it’s probably good for you?

If you identify any of those haunting doubts in you, here’s what not to do: Don’t try to squash or squelch it, don’t feel condemned about it, and don’t feel shame over it. It’s a signal, a good and helpful one for you to pay attention to. It may be a sign that what you “believe,” you don’t really believe, and that you’re trying to manage some kind of impossible schizophrenic doublethink. Bring that vague unsettledness out into the open. Turn it into genuine questions. Then you can look for genuine answers, in Scripture, at your church, and among good books and blogs (of which I hope this is one).

11 Responses

  1. mattghg says:

    Interestingly, I’ve also encountered the expectation among non-Christians that Christians actually think like this. One lady I met while going door-to-door refused to talk about the gospel on the grounds that “It’s all nonsense… isn’t it?” – as if she were expecting me to agree with her. I didn’t (and don’t).

  2. Sai says:

    I suppose I identify a little with the idea of having a nagging suspicion it’s all wrong, but I must ask – is there anyone who never has any nagging doubts about Scripture? Not to the extent of secretly thinking it nonsense, but just sometimes having doubts…
    I am a naturally skeptical person – of anything – and so for something to be “proved” to me, and to be known to be true, is very difficult for me. Any advice?

  3. Charlie says:

    Hi Sai,
    I wrote a long comment earlier about my own experience and then erased it thinking it would serve no purpose. Maybe part of it will help.
    I used to say that I know God but believe Jesus. By this I meant I had logical, philosophical and experiential evidences for God by which my beliefs had become knowledge (logically, not chronologically).
    But the story of Jesus I just believed, I took it on authority and tradition.
    But when I got into the origins debates I soon found myself on apologetic websites which demonstrated the historicity of Jesus’ Resurrection. Suddenly vague shadows of arguments that I had in the corners of my mind made sense. A light shone brightly and I knew that Jesus lived, and died and rose again and that this was not just something I had to accept, but that I could know it.
    I’m not saying belief has to be found this way, but finding this core, fundamental and logical truth to the Gospels made a world of difference to me.
    Jesus was and is who He said He is. This means God is who He says He is and Scripture is what He says it is.
    I was always a Christian, but my faith took on a whole new meaning from then on.
    I am not afraid of challenges to the Bible at all anymore. I have looked into so many of the problems that have been solved that can expect others to be solved as well. And even if they can’t, by the weight of the testimony, they become much less relevant than they might have been otherwise.
    Grappling with objections, whether historical, logical or philosophical have only made made my belief stronger.
    Even strange, almost abstract arguments like the argument from reason and the evidence from math have become clear to me while defending Christianity and the world view against objections.
    I hope that’s worth something to you.

  4. wrf3 says:

    I believe the Gospel to be true and reliable information: that Christ died for my sins and physically rose the third day. I also, in my darker moments, have those nagging suspicions. In spite of my failings, I have to say, along with the Apostle Paul, “for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.”

  5. Marco says:

    @wrf3: but Paul also said: “For if through my falsehood God’s truthfulness glorifies him even more, why am I still being condemned as a sinner?” (Romans 3:7), thus implying that even lying is a justifiable means for gathering followers.
    Furthermore, Saint Augustine said “I would not believe in the Gospels were it not for the authority of the Catholic Church” (and, since the authority of the Church is based on the Gospels, some would say that we have a huge problem here…).

    In truth, in the early centuries of Christianity, the Gospels were not considered to be a literal word of God. Moreover, people were forbidden from reading the Gospels, probably to avoid them being confused by the contradictions and the errors lying therein. When mechanical printing was invented, howver, and as alphabetized population grew larger and larger, that was no longer an option. Therefore, the Church could only scramble and declare the divine inspiration of Sacred Scripture, in order to strengthen the authority that Saint Augustine considered so necessary for belief.

    So, probably, to answer the orignal question, it all boils down to: how much trust do you have in the Church?

  6. Tom Gilson says:

    Context, context, context! Romans 3:8 follows Romans 3:7. I urge you to read all of Romans 3, actually. But for now, just the one following verse:

    And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.

    In other words, the verse quoted above is not something being affirmed, it’s being rejected.

    I’m on a schedule today that doesn’t allow me even to read, much less catch up with, all the many comments on this blog since yesterday morning. I have to say this to Marco, though: Your understanding of beliefs in the early church is based on old and obsolete scholarship.

    Sai, my additional advice, if you’re a reader, is that you read Pascal’s Pensées. It is surprisingly readable, and he addresses your kind of question in there.

  7. Marco says:

    Tom, you probably know that Paul’s verses we’re talking about make part of a wider scope. In the early years of the Church, there was a bitter fight between jewish-christianism and pagan-christianism; the former faction was led mainly by Peter and James, the latter was led by Paul. That’s what Paul is referring to when he says “as some people slanderously charge us with saying”: both factions were accusing each other of deception, while occasionally collaborating for common purposes.
    Let me quote another letter, Phil 1, 15:

    “15It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. 16The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.[c] 18But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”

    So, basically Paul says: “It doesn’t matter if a preacher of Christ is good or evil, what matters is that Christ is preached. Incidentally, I’m good and the others are evil”. I think these verses are clearer than the previous ones. In the grand scheme of things, Paul feels the need to defend all Christ preachers, while at the same time proclaiming his superiority over his arch-rival Peter, and rejecting his accusations of deception. Paul implies that preaching Christ through deception is no cardinal sin all the time, but at the same time he needs to defend himself from such accusations, so that’s why Rom.3:7 is followed by 3:8.

    Oh, and to return your favor, I will suggest a book to you as well: “The Cock Crowed Once Again”, by Karlheinz Deschner. Not so readable in truth, but very interesting nonetheless.

  8. ‘It may be a sign that what you “believe,” you don’t really believe, and that you’re trying to manage some kind of impossible schizophrenic doublethink.’

    JP Moreland claims thoughts are implanted into his brain from outside.

    http://kingdomtriangle.blogspot.com/2008/05/moreland-on-spirits-guidance.html

    The irony of somebody who says things like that talking about ‘schizophrenic doublethink’.

    Why take seriously somebody who claims outside influences are implanting thoughts in his mind?

    The guy needs help, not respect.

  9. Steven,

    Why take seriously somebody who claims outside influences are implanting thoughts in his mind? Why not? Have we so fully plumbed the structure of thought and of reality that we know that it cannot happen? We have not, I would think. The physicists have yet to give us a complete and consistent picture of physical reality. At bottom, we don’t yet know what matter, or space or time, are. And then there’s metaphysics . . .

    I think that the implantation of thoughts from outside has happened to me on a pair of occasions. Quite specific thoughts – thoughts meant to be expressed to another near to me – were, it seems to me, communicated to me quite directly, mind to mind as it were.

    Indeed, the possibility of direct mind-to-mind communication would seem to be an essential part of the Christian world-view. God is pure Spirit, after all. So your question seems to ask why anyone would take Christianity seriously. The answer seems obvious to me. Read the men and women of intelligence and good will who do take it seriously. I suggest that Augustine is a good place to begin. Such a fertile and subtle mind he possessed!

  10. Tom Gilson says:

    Franklin, thank you for that reasoned answer. I was thinking instead of pointing out that Mr. Carr seems more intent on mocking than reasoning. I think that would still likely be the case. I hope he’ll rise to the level of discussion that you are offering him.

  11. SteveK says:

    Steven Carr presumes Christianity is false and then draws his conclusion from this. I would agree with Steven’s conclusion about JP Moreland if it weren’t for the fact that such a presumption is unjustified.