The Loneliness of Thinking Christianly

I got an email from a reader named Mark this morning, who told me he was frustrated by the lack of decent thinking among many in the Church. He said he’s looking for a higher conversation than is generally available.

Christians, we have to take this seriously. For the past three years or so, at apologetics conferences across the country, I’ve asked numerous groups this question: “How many of you who have a real interest in apologetics, worldview, and other aspects of Christian thinking feel very alone in your church?” In every case, at least three-quarters of the people raise their hands. That’s the loneliness of thinking Christianly. It’s wrong. In fact, in view of Christianity’s heritage, it’s downright strange.

Thinking Christianly, Past and Present

Christianity is a thinking religion, or at least it was until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when a wave of anti-intellectualism washed over large segments of the Church. We live in an historically anomalous era, compared to Christianity down the centuries.

From Jesus, to Paul, to the early Church Fathers, to Augustine, to Gregory, to Boethius, to Magnus, Aquinas and the other Scholastics, to Erasmus, to More, to Luther and Calvin, to Edwards; and to the great leaders of science including Copernicus, Galileo, Brahe, Kepler, Faraday, Maxwell, Linnaeus, Mendel, and many more, the Christian faith has always been a welcoming home to great thinkers.

As a comprehensive explanation of reality–a worldview–Christianity still is a welcoming home to great thinkers. As a social institution, however, it hasn’t been; which is why there are still many, many thousands of thinking Christians who feel alone.

I think it also explains why such thoroughly abysmal thinking as you find among atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris has gained a foothold in our culture.It has the appearance of erudition. Too few people can tell the difference between that appearance and the truth, which is that their work is riddled through and through with lousy assumptions, weak evidence, and fallacious reasoning. (Would you like documentation for that claim?)

Connecting Thinking Christians

I’ll repeat myself: the loneliness thinking Christians suffer is wrong. I’ve made it my entire vocational focus to work on correcting it, not only through this blog, but especially through my day job as National Field Director for the Ratio Christi student apologetics alliance. One of our initiatives is to gather local networks of lonely apologists for a day of fellowship and encouragement.If you’d be interested in helping organize a meeting like that, please contact me.

It’s going to take time to resolve the plight of the lonely thinking Christian. In the meantime, I’d like to introduce you to some other thinking Christians, to interact with on the Web. For a long time, before I found a church that welcomed deep thinking, it was websites like these that kept me in touch with others who cared about Christian intellectual life.

On the Web

Those few websites should be enough to get you started. The Poached Egg and Apologetics 315 sites function as portals into the thinking Christian Internet, with lots and lots of links. Besides those, I’m going to add some more here that I think are of special interest.

Christianity Is For Thinkers

I don’t know how many times atheists have laughed at my blog’s name, saying “Thinking Christian? What an oxymoron!” Let’s be honest: it might be true in their experience. They might never have met a thinking Christian. That’s a fact about Christianity as a social system in this particular time and place, however. It’s not the story of Christianity over time, and it’s not even the story about Christianity as a belief system today.

The faith we hold is intellectually secure, philosophically and historically robust. It’s been standing skeptics’ attacks for thousands of years, and still it stands.

Note to atheists and skeptics: I’m expecting some of you to see this as a post to jump all over, telling us that thinking Christianity really is an oxymoron after all. I suggest we just stipulate up front that that’s your opinion. Then you don’t need to say so here. This post was written for thinking Christians, especially the ones I’ve described as lonely. I’d appreciate it if you’d let us have a conversation together here. Thanks.

Comments

  1. scblhrm

    Tom,

    It may be in your links and I missed it, but I’d include Edward Feser’s blog link and general link as well…..

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  3. Ray Ingles

    This is not intended as a challenge, just a question out of curiosity. Do you have any thoughts on why “a wave of anti-intellectualism washed over large segments of the Church” in “the late 19th and early 20th centuries”?

    I have my own theories, of course, but I pledge not to discuss them here. I’m just honestly curious how Christians account for it.

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    Tom Gilson

    That’s a fine question, Ray, thanks.

    J.P. Moreland covers this in his book, Love Your God With All Your Mind. Christianity was under an unprecedented level of intellectual assault from German biblical criticism and the evolution controversy. WWI undermined many Christians’ confidence in the superiority of European culture. Basically they retreated into isolated intellectual enclaves (there are exceptions, of course!), which eventually morphed into isolated anti-intellectual enclaves.

    That’s a very over-simplified version, but it’s the rough outline of the explanation as I understand it.

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  6. C

    Thank you for this article. It is helpful to know that this is not just cultural problem for where we are.

    I do sometimes wonder if it might be more lonely for women. There seem to be few participants even in the online world.

  7. Ken Abbott

    The several extant books by David Wells are also good on the lamentable decline of the intellect.

  8. Nick Peters

    This also adds in to why it’s so hard to have a thriving apologetics ministry. We don’t get much support. We’re often seen as lesser because we go against “faith.”

  9. Cynthia Hampton

    Your article really hits the nail on the head about how I feel. I think what really bothers me is trying to get someone interested in just taking a one evening class or go to a simple weekend conference locally. I think a lot of the Christians I know are very comfortable doing only what they do at church and don’t seem to have any interest in know very good answers to things like the problem of evil or giving evidence for the existence of God. I live near Biola and there is something going on every month practically. But just trying to get someone excited enough to go with me is difficult. You would think I was asking them to have a root canal. I get nothing but excuses from people both from family who are Christian and people I know in my church. I am not sure how to spike people’s interest. Sometimes I am unable to go to something because of car trouble or illness, but then I tune in to live streaming video and it’s almost as good as being there, except not being able to be with everyone else there.

  10. BillT

    For those who might be interested in Christian lectures (sermons and talks) that are intellectually challenging, high on content and teaching I would recommend a stop here. Pick by topic or verse and a large number of free talks are available. The main speaker is Timothy Keller whose books have been NYT bestsellers but who is actually a better speaker than writer. I believe that you will not be disappointed.

  11. bigbird

    For Christians who are in the UK, please feel free to request to join the closed Facebook group “UK Apologetics”. It’s an active group of almost 1,800 members that discusses solely apologetic issues.

  12. David Marshall

    Another solution might be to go to a Presbyterian church. In my experience, having grown up in them, and spoken in many around the US, Presbyterian churches tend to emphasize reading books.

    There may be other such denominations. Remember the joke from A River Runs Through It? The Dad, a Presbyterian pastor, defines Methodists as “Baptists who can read.” No offense to Baptists reading this, who by definition pass that test.

  13. Donald M

    Good post, Tom. I have often been frustrated with feeling that lonliness you spoke of. I don’t get why so many of my fellow Christians just don’t want to read, study or engage on these issues. I read all this great stuff, and if I bring up a book or an author in conversation at Church, almost 98% of the time, no one has a clue who or what I’m talking about. Sometimes it feels like pushing a string up a hill.

  14. Mark S Phillips

    I’ve come to realize, through the teen apologetics ministry I have at my church, that a good number of our youngest Christians would concur with your thoughts, Tom.

    That being said, I can also attest to what a basic course in apologetics can do for our teens. It’s like throwing them a life preserver.

  15. Lynette Soehn

    There was a time that I didn’t know that I wanted a thinking Christian life. It was the exposure to someone gifted in taking deeper truths and making them easy to understand that gave me a taste of what I didn’t even know I wanted. If the church continues to teach things that require little thought we will continue to have congregations full of people who would rather not think too deeply.

  16. bigbird

    Apparently only 28% of Americans read 11 books or more in the past year.

    The vast majority of these books are fiction, so it’s no surprise “thinking Christians” are in a minority – most people read very little non-fiction. And the non-fiction they do read includes “American Sniper” (top of the non-fiction best-seller list in 2014).

    It is encouraging though to see books like “Unbroken”, “Killing Jesus” and “Proof of Heaven” high on the best-seller list.

    Given the massive shift to online behaviour in recent years, it seems obvious that better ways are needed to engage people in apologetics in online forums. I’ve been greatly encouraged by the success of the UK Apologetics facebook group I referred to above, and I suspect leveraging Facebook to enable people to engage in apologetics more is one possible solution.

  17. Travis

    Tom,

    Please add the CAA G+ discussion group as well. We’ve been steadily growing (quickly this month) and now are at about 4800 members.

    To add to the lamentations I’m hearing here-

    Many Christians who I interact with are almost afraid to dip into apologetics because they are afraid that Christianity doesn’t come out on top after all and are afraid that it actually might make them fall away.

  18. Rob

    In New Zealand you could add:

    http://www.thinkingmatters.org.nz
    http://www.robward.org

    In the UK:

    http://www.johnlennox.org
    http://www.apologetics315.com

    Podcasts:

    Unbelievable (Justin Brierley in the UK — excellent weekly debates between Christian and non-Christian)

    William Lane Craig @ Reasonable Faith (brilliant)

    Intelligent Design The Future (From the Discovery Institute — brilliant if you are a scientist)

    Grek Koukl at http://www.str.org (brilliant)

    Cold Case Christianity (J Warner Wallace — great but not so much for me personally)

    If you are lonely, feed every day on podcasts……!

  19. scblhrm

    Travis made this important observation, “Many Christians who I interact with are almost afraid to dip into apologetics because they are afraid that Christianity doesn’t come out on top….

    That sheds light, not on an unfixable problem, but on the value of apologetics, which is just another word for “intellectually equipping”. The link in comment #4 here unmasks something that has been to some degree the illusion that Theism has “in-fact” lost intellectual ground when “in-fact” what has happened is the ascension of various sorts of misrepresentations of reality secondary to bad metaphysics. Hence part of the problem isn’t the capacity to untie such bad metaphysics but simply the actual untying of said knots in the dialogue of unpacking all of that with those who have an uncanny and peculiar a priori fevered willingness to embrace the incoherence of opaque nihilism on all fronts as they display an eerie readiness to have all truth predicates end not merely in fiction, but in bad fiction.

    Quite often it’s a matter not of the facts nor of coherence with evidence nor with reason, but merely of the Theist lacking the skill and background in the use of the proper language and metaphysics to navigate a challenge. You see some of that in the link in #4 leaking through as viewed through the lens of a few hundred years. Logical lucidity and the simplicity of the width of explanatory power are in the Theist’s corner – if one can afford the time to either “officially” learn the language (formal degrees) or if one can afford the time to “dabble” consistently in the give and take of challenge/answer in places such as Tom’s site here and other blogs (Etc.). Inept novices such as myself take a post and just break it down and research terms, words, concepts, and so on. I think it was G. Rodrigues (or maybe someone else) who once employed the word “essentialism” midstream in what was to him the most casual and simplest of sentence constructions but which was to me a sentence I spent a day or more unpacking (I think I ended up buying “Real Essentialism” by David Oderberg). Then I jump in and try something, get my ego slapped, or spanked, or both, go back and figure out where I went wrong, and research again this or that word or term or concept. It’s a process that is both tedious and fun. And guess what Christian? Having to dance that dance is okay.

    The “degree of difference” in “plausibility” at first shrinks, narrows, and after enough time/learning goes by, begins to favor the metaphysics of Theism in many ways. That reality, that fact, unmasks something in that the mere fact that there are profoundly intelligent people on both sides of “challenges” extricates the true topography of the intellectual landscape here. Evidence is one thing, observational reality yet another, and a priori presuppositions yet another, but too often it’s all hashed out in oversimplified blurbs mashing all of the above together – creating the illusion of a problem for the Theist. But guess what Christian? Half the time the “problem for the Theist” is just that – an illusion. In fact, as it turns out, half of the materialist’s tools in his tool box are just that – the escape hatch into fiction’s nihilism – into illusion wherein all truth predicates – including his own – find annihilation. It’s an eerie readiness on their part to dive through that escape hatch mid-dialogue into that ocean of absurdity, so one may as well just expect it. And learn to use it in one’s favor.

    Once into Theism, or out of Materialism (Etc.), then we come to something that is in my view a smaller step – that of the Christian paradigm of the God Who is love verses Pantheism’s paradigm verses some other Theistic paradigm. There will be differences of opinion though (IMO) the weight of explanatory power in such arenas as, say, moral excellence juxtaposed to moral fragmentation housed in and defined by love’s ceaseless reciprocity summing to unity in the very essence of Being and Personhood in what David Hart elucidates as the metaphysical “infinite wellspring of being, consciousness, and bliss that is the source, order, and end of all reality” begins to find in *Trinity* and in *Christ* those beautiful vectors of logical lucidity which are profoundly exhaustive as the process of unpacking ensues. The Christian paradigm begins to quickly outpace its Theistic counterparts (IMO). The tools are out there and perhaps the most important thing is simply holding onto, or retaining, the needed patience of getting one’s feet wet.

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  21. toddes

    Tom,

    I think I’m going to be the dissenting voice.

    While Christianity has always been a thinking religion, the majority of Christians have not been thinkers. Consider this from Chapter 15 of Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity:

    “Medieval times have frequently been described as the “Age of Faith” or the “Age of Reason” because in this era “everyone believed what religious authority told them to believe.”

    As will be seen, the masses of medieval Europeans not only were remarkably skeptical, but very lacking in all aspects of Christian commitment — often militantly so! To attempt to explain why medieval Christianity had made so very little headway among the peasants and lower classes, this chapter examines the local clergy, finding them almost universally ignorant, often lazy, and frequently dissolute.” [emphasis mine]

    Thinking Christians are the minority not just now but, more likely, always. Aquinas and such stand out because of the parcity of thinking Christians.

    However, Christians today have an advantage that Christians of days gone by did not: they can read and study the Word. They just choose not to and have become ignorant, lazy and frequently dissolute.

    Still I would take a multitude whose knowledge extends little beyond “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so” yet who offer a well-spring of love, comfort and blessings to the poor and forgotten than a single intellectual who can offer arguments one after another but who never moves beyond his books and inner dialogue. We need to remember that Christianity is more than an intellectual pursuit divorced from “good works”.

  22. scblhrm

    Holding a metaphysics which prompts the birth of hospitals *is* the possession of a more coherent metaphysical regress than PN ever *has* or ever *can* possess.

    Because God is love.

    The necessity of Timelessness and the necessary Immaterial ends of all lines are of late coming into focus. Science is finally catching up.

    Because God is Spirit.

    Temporal becoming – change – exists.

    Because God creates.

    Oh dear – PN of late is nervous about that last thing about temporal becoming.

    Else God.

    God is love. God is Spirit. God creates.

    Simple.

    Perspective, and how one couches a descriptive, is everything.

    🙂

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    Tom Gilson

    toddes, someone raised a similar point on Facebook.

    There were issues with the dichotomy between the priests/monks and the lay people in the Middle Ages, and there was also the reality of life where vocational education called for little by way of literacy.

    Today we have supposedly overcome that dichotomy and we live in a literate culture, yet few people in or out of the church are well equipped for extended rational discourse. So I do not expect that even a large plurality of Christians would ever become enamored of apologetics.

    That’s all true enough. Here’s what’s still missing, though: on the whole, from my experience and the research I’ve seen, church leaders are all too willing to let thoughtful Christians feel weird and lonely in their churches, instead of supporting and equipping them.

    If the two options you present in your closing paragraph were mutually exclusive, I’d agree with you. They aren’t.

  24. David Bump

    A lot of people have found that evolution isn’t really compatible with the Bible, and various compromises to make it fit are unsatisfactory at best. I know some who simply hunker down and say “The Bible says it, and that settles it.” However, since I was a kid in the 60s, there has been a lot of growth in the Biblical (“Young Earth”) creation revival, and now a lot of people who aren’t even Christians are at least doubting the standard view of evolution. Of course, there’s a spectrum of views; I even know an atheist evolutionist who thinks there must be SOMETHING more to the story than the raw reductionist materialism of the neo-darwinian synthesis.
    For beginners, I’d recommend the Answers in Genesis website. They also have advanced material. The Institute for Creation Research is another I’d recommend, but for those looking to get involved, support research, and keep up with the latest ideas, I’ll invite you to join me in the Creation Research Society.
    For books, I’d suggest Persuaded by the Evidence and Transformed by the Evidence

  25. scblhrm

    A few links of (possible) interest for the thinking Christian:

    On origins and metaphysical means and ends the causal shape of reality within the paradigm of philosophical naturalism verses the A-T metaphysical / Theistic paradigm finds the latter with far more to offer than the former. “Now, that much shows at most only that if you allow immanent final causes at all, you are to that extent committed also to formal causes. But someone could admit this and still deny formal causes at the level of biology. He could say, for example, that there is immanent final causality at the level of fundamental physics — that basic particles, say, have causal powers and dispositions by virtue of which they are “directed at” or “point to” certain effects and manifestations — but that there is no such finality at any higher level of physical reality…… But such a position would be plausible only if there were no causal powers at higher levels of physical reality that are irreducible to those described by physics. And that is simply not the case….” as noted by E. Feser here.. Intellectually speaking, the sloppy assumptions of some of today’s thinkers are further touched on here. As philosophical naturalism attempts to retain both it’s justification of evolution and its own self-contained materialism as the whole-show several intellectual problems arise.. On genetics and Genesis, the Flynn-Kemp proposal, while not something many of us necessarily agree with, is congruent with the observation that genetic footprints actually can easily accommodate an original pair of humans. The old / young Earth steps both equally satisfy Christianity’s metaphysical regressions in terms of the causal shape of reality, final and formal causes, and abstraction’s (mathematical and otherwise) inability to exhaustively account for either material or “reality’s qualia shape”. Some interesting reading on various regressions dealing with biology and original sin can be found in part one and then in part two.

  26. scblhrm

    The Christian enjoys the peculiar fact that everything about the causal shape of reality and parts-in-common and parts-in-contrast, from the highest to the lowest reams of actuality – wherever the eye may focus – all reduce to “ultimate foundational propositions” (a phrase I acquired from Brad B at STR) as physicality alone fails to rise to the level of what can be called proof. Far from it in fact, and while many naturalists and skeptics don’t want to give more than a wave of the hand at the (troubling) question of temporal becoming as it relates to reality itself, and at how that (necessarily) ties into our interpretation of the causal shape of reality, and at how that ties into (necessarily) the apparent improbable course which our predictable rate of mutation seems indebted to, and at how that ties into (necessarily) the variety of life we find today, and at all of that mixed together in PN’s disjointed and hopeless reach for anything remotely analogous to seamlessness, there remains all sorts of assumptions, presuppositions, a priori commitments, and troubling metaphysical missteps which go unaccounted for if no-god. Of course, all these vectors, and more, accommodate A-T metaphysical intellectualism far easier as on all these fronts and more the Theist finds far, far less of that pesky need for uncomfortably shoe-horning-in-the-data whenever we speak these things, or of time, or of timelessness, or of physicality, or of a robust intellectual coherence amid ultimate foundations.

    In a letter to the Christian:

    You need to take a strong dose of analytic philosophy. The kind of philosophy that predominates in the Anglophone world is known as analytic philosophy. This style of philosophizing contrasts sharply with that of Continental philosophy. Whereas Continental philosophy tends to be obscure, imprecise, and emotive, analytic philosophy lays great worth and emphasis on clarity of definitions, careful delineation of premisses, and logical rigor of argumentation. Unfortunately, theology has tended to follow the lead of Continental philosophy, which only results in darkness being piled upon darkness. The experience of the last 40 years of the renaissance of Anglo-American Philosophy of Religion has revealed that important apologetical issues can be brilliantly illuminated through the light of philosophical analysis. Richard Swinburne, the Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at Oxford University has written,

    It is one of the intellectual tragedies of our age that when philosophy in English-speaking countries has developed high standards of argument and clear thinking, the style of theological writing has been largely influenced by the continental philosophy of Existentialism, which, despite its considerable other merits, has been distinguished by a very loose and sloppy style of argument. If argument has a place in theology, large-scale theology needs clear and rigorous argument. That point was very well grasped by Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus, by Berkeley, Butler, and Paley. It is high time for theology to return to their standards.

    The rest is of this letter to the Christian Apologist can be read here.

    Disclaimer: On the existential side of reality – it cannot be wholly “discounted” as such vectors are of true import. Only, what the letter linked to above aims at is to add something that may have been of late neglected – those affairs of analytic philosophy.

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  28. Jeff

    The majority of the posts and articles are not related to universalism but cover a very wide range of theological topics. But the website owner is a universalist. (as were some prominent Saints in the early church)

    It really is a great website with some top shelf posts, articles and discussion, and I thought some of your readers would enjoy it.

  29. Billy Squibs

    I use a very handy app called Pocket Casts to listen to all my podcasts. It’s not free but it’s probably my #1 app. One resource that I download on this app is the podcasts from Issues Etc. It’s a Lutheran station that broadcasts daily and the range of topics they cover is fantastically diverse.

    On another note, William Lane Craig has been mentioned a few times here already. He’s a man I greatly respect and I look forward to his weekly podcast. With this said, I wonder what people make of Randal Rauser’s most recent post on what he claims is the problem of WLC clones.

    On only a slightly related topic, I must ask myself why counter-apologetics is just so damn easy to do in comparison to apologetics. For example, Stephen Fry recently gave an emotionally driven formulation of the problem of evil (I think he mistakenly refers to it as a “theodicy” – which of course would be a defence of the problem). His haughty response has received nearly 4 million views so far and I would image there are quite a few people who were blown away by it.

    I’m not dismissing the problem – it really is a genuine issue for Christianity as well as other worldviews. However, his objection was stated in such sophomoric and emotional terms, and without any acknowledgement that the problem of evil still persists on his worldview, that I am rather surprised it has become so damn popular.

    Could an apologetic answer to what amounts to articulate chest-beating ever come close to reaching such an audience?

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    Tom Gilson

    When I saw your question about Rauser’s post, I thought, “If there’s a problem with ‘clones’ it’s that they’re not doing their own thinking about these questions.”

    Then I clicked the link. Yep.

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    Tom Gilson

    However…

    Not everyone has the capacity to do creative work in this field, even on the most basic level. Those who can, should. Must, actually.

    Besides that, though, if Craig “clone” means someone who knows Craig’s arguments and can present them with understanding, not just copy-paste them, and if it means someone whose faith is strengthened through that, and if it means someone who can explain reasons for faith to someone else, even if that person doesn’t have the wherewithal to develop new arguments or approaches, then I’m okay with that kind of Craig “clone.”

    I emphasize, “with understanding.”

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  33. Billy Squibs

    And perhaps this is a real problem for the apologetics. The very endeavour that is supposed to be about wrestling with the objections to Christianity and about engaging people might attract those who are more interested in learning all the arguments by rote just so they can deliver the syllogistic coup de grace.

    I don’t really have a pressing point here. It’s just my stream of conciousness spilling onto the page.

  34. Billy Squibs

    Chest beating? No, I don’t think so, especially after the manner of Fry, who doesn’t know as much as he thinks he knows about what he’s talking about.

    Sorry Tom. Poor sentence construction on my part! I meant to imply that Fry was the one doing the breast beating and this was evidenced by his indignant “How dare you…” answer.

    For those not aware of who Fry is, he is and actor (e.g V for Vendetta, Blackadder), quiz show host (QI), author, humorist, and generally the darling of the media. Although he is neither as overt in his atheism or as batty as Richard Dawkins, I happen to think he is one of the most popular and influential atheist voices in the UK. When he speaks about such things as God and the problem of evil he is genuinely considered something of a wise sage on such matters. Even good old Ray has quoted him in the past as if he had said something of importance.

    To clarify, I think he raises an important issue. But I would be with Tom in thinking that he doesn’t know as much as he thinks he does (or perhaps he just doesn’t let on).

  35. Erick Chastain

    Hi everyone, this is a bit of a shameless plug. Gaudium Quarterly (Catholic Arts & Letters) seeks to add to the “Thinking Christian” sphere, based on our perception that more community along these lines should be built. To join the conversation, see http://gaudiummag.com/

  36. Angela

    Thank you for this post. You just illuminated for me why I’ve felt so lonely in church for the past 35 years. When you can go to the same church for more than three decades and still feel like an outsider, there’s got to be a reason for it and this post helped hit the nail on the head.

    I believe that we are supposed to love and serve our fellow man but there has to be a balance between the heart and the head. My heart finds much to do in my church but my head is isolated and virtually ignored.

    If it were not for blogs and conversations with my family, i fear I would never have conversations relating to apologetics at all. It is truly a lonely road but this post makes it a little easier. Thanks for this and the resources presented here.

  37. Pingback: Dealing with Loneliness as a Christian Thinker. | The Caring Mind

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