Part of the extended series Evidence for the Faith
How do we know Christianity is true? What evidence is there for our beliefs? The answers to the first question are as broad-ranging as the question itself. The answers to the second depend on which beliefs we have in mind.
This series is title, in part “Why I Believe.” I don’t intend to stay focused on that for long, since my reasons for belief need not have anything to do with anyone else’s. The real question is Why should I believe, if I should at all, and why should you?
A Personal Reflection
Still I want to kick off this series with a personal reflection before I move into a more formal presentation of a cumulative case for Christianity. I’ll begin with the topic of Christianity and humanness. One reason I’m starting there is because, for me, it was the start of my move from a vague occult agnosticism toward believing in Christ. I want to tell that story as a story, not intending to lay it out with philosophical or evidential rigor, since that wasn’t the way I experienced it at the time. I’ll come back around to the same topic with a formal argument. I expect someone will point out—with great glee and gusto—that there’s no good argument in what I’m sharing here. Let me re-emphasize that I will attempt to produce that kind of blog poset very soon, but it’s not my purpose this time. I want to start this series on a more personal note.
Rejecting the Faith: Church, Alternatives, and Failure
I rejected my parents’ Christian faith when I was a teenager. We had a really poor pastor at our church for far too many years: old (to my eyes), dour, confrontational, and insensitive, even to the point of asking the mother of a friend of mine, the Saturday after the dad had committed suicide, if she might want to sell him her deceased husband’s boat since she “probably wouldn’t be wanting it much now.” That made it hard to think very highly of Christianity.
Meanwhile I was disocvering an enticing alternative in the occult. My brother and I read every book we could get our hands on about Ruth Montgomery, Jeane Dixon, Edgar Cayce, and other spiritualists and psychics. We had a ouija board, and we dabbled in seances. It was all great fun, but it also led me to set Christianity on a shelf.
Neither of those facotrs, however, was nearly the barrier to belief that my own disappointment with Christianity kept proving to be. I was a “brain” at school, and just about the least athletic kid on the playground. I had good friends at school and around home, but being small and slow, I learned early on to be careful who I offended. Don’t get on the big kids’ bad side: that was my credo. I knew how I could get hurt if I messed that up.
From what I had learned at church from a young age, I gathered that God was way bigger than any of the big kids I’d learned to be cautious around. So I did my best not to get on his bad side.
It didn’t work.
I knew right and wrong. On the surface I did okay, but inside I knew I wasn’t meeting the Christian standard (or what I thought it was, at the time). I’d prefer not to go into details; they don’t matter now anyway. What matters is how many nights I lay awake, beating myself up for not measuring up. Finally I gave up.
It wasn’t working. I still went to church because my family expected it, and because it was a place to sing and occasionally to play trombone, which was my real love at the time—I studied the instrument in college and played professionally for a while—but there was nothing spiritual about it.
Human Needs Met and Unmet
I turned away from Christianity because it failed to meet my human needs. Now, though when I consider why I believe, what comes to mind before anything else is how well it meets human needs—far better than any other worldview.
A Fun Digression—With a Point
The turning point for me was when I went to college, on my own, free from parental oversight, able to make my own decisions for my own reasons. I had a girlfriend at the time, a year younger than me, living back home while I was at school ninety miles away. One day she came for a visit. She and I sat down on opposite ends of my bed to talk. We kept a circumspect distance from each other. My roommate, Wayne, whom I had known only a few weeks, took the courteous route and excused himself. (This story ties in to my faith journey, you’ll see in a moment. In the meantime it’s just fun to tell it.)
Debbie and I talked for a while, and then I took her on a walk to show her the music buildings. Michigan State University is a very large school, and the two music buildings were about a three-quarter mile walk from my dorm. We toured them, then came back to the room, and sat down to rest and talk, just as we had been. Wayne opened the door, saw us there, said a rather embarrased “Excuse me!” and quickly left.
After a short break, Debbie and I went to visit my brother, living off campus a little over a mile’s walk away. We spent some time with him, then returned to the room, seating ourselves on the bed again, not touching one another. It wasn’t long before Wayne opened the door, saw us there, said a rather embarrased “Excuse me!” and quickly left.
MSU was a Gilson family tradition: my sister was studying there, too. So a while later we walked over to Barb’s place, which was even further. If I remember right, we had dinner with her and her husband. Then it was back to my room, where we assumed our same semi-distant positions on my bed. Wayne opened the door, saw us there, said a rather embarrased “Excuse me!” and quickly left.
Debbie left to go home not long after. When Wayne came back, he had just one question: “Were you two sitting there on your bed just talking like that the whole day?”
From his perspective we had behaved ourselves rather amazingly, sharing a bed the whole day (or so he thought) without ever touching. And maybe it was amazing—although I did have family members nearby who would have known if we hadn’t shown up as expected.
What Does It Really Mean To Do RIght? And Why?
Later I asked myself, “Why behave? Why do right” It wasn’t just a question about touching, or even about casual sex. It was deeper and rougher than that. I tried to think of some reason to do what I had been told was right, and I couldn’t come up with one. It occurred to me that if I had chosen something even as violent as rape, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate a good reason not to do it.
I’ve shared this story before, and someone told me, “Look, Tom, if you can’t think of any good reason not to rape a woman, you’re hardly even human. It’s obvious enough to the rest of us.” For me at the time, though it was a tough call. It was tough partly because I knew violence of that sort was wrong. I had no trouble with that. When I asked myself just what it meant to be wrong, though, I had trouble coming up with an answer. I could get caught, which would be bad news for me; but I took the question deeper: If I knew I’d never get caught, would I know it was wrong? . It would hurt the woman, obviously, and I knew I was supposed to care about that—and I did care about it, believe me—but what if I hadn’t? (There are far too many men who don’t!) What principle would stop me from harming her? I couldn’t think of one.
It Takes God For It To Make Sense
I was still at a stage of rejecting Christianity, but it came to me then that if there was no God, then right and wrong were probably a matter of what one preferred to do, what one could live with himself doing, and what he thought he could get away with. That made perfect rational sense to me. Indeed, I’ve had many atheists (not all, but many) argue that position in the years I’ve been blogging. There was only one problem: I knew it was wrong. I knew it was wrong. I knew there was something actually bad, evil, wrong—however you want to put it—about doing harm to another human being. And the only way I could make sense of it being actually wrong was if there was such a thing as real right and real wrong, which, it seemed to me at the time, required that there be a God.
It was a few weeks later that friends of mine shared how I could know God in a new way, a way of grace and forgiveness, not failure and beating myself up. I won’t go into that whole story now. Still I wondered whether I had been right about my moral conclusions: couldn’t there be some way to get to real right and wrong apart from God? I took an ethics course the next semester, in which we studied Kant’s categorical imperative, Mill’s utilitarianism, and de Beauvoir’s “ethics of ambiguity.” All it did was seal my conclusion: there was nothing in their systems, apart from God, that produced a real right and wrong.
Force-Fit or Naturally Fit?
I think just about everyone believes that right and wrong are real. If they don’t, it’s because they’ve talked themselves out of it with some difficulty in order to accommodate a worldview where real right and wrong don’t fit. Frankly I think they can make that work, to a degree. It’s just that what we all know about morality—that it’s real—fits far better in a theistic system than in any other. Moral reality can be hammered uncomfortably into non-theistic systems. It fits comfortably in a universe where a good God is the foundation for all reality.
That’s one of my reasons for belief, told in story form rather than with any attempt at philosophical rigor. I’m still promising to come back soon with a more systematic argument. Maybe you know me better now, though.