Kelly’s account recalls how, as a struggler with doubt and faith, the passage about Thomas in the New Testament was a comfort to her. There Jesus modeled a view of doubt more nuanced than those of either modern skeptics or modern believers. When Jesus confronted ‘doubting Thomas’ he challenged him not to acquiesce in doubt (‘believe!’) and yet responded to his request for more evidence. In another incident, Jesus meets a man who confesses that he is filled with doubts (Mark 9:24), who says to Jesus, ‘Help thou my unbelief’ – help me with my doubts! In response to this honest admission, Jesus blesses him and heals his son. Whether you consider yourself a believer or a skeptic, I invite you to seek the same kind of honesty and to grow in an understanding of the nature of your own doubts. The result will exceed anything you can imagine.
The mistaken belief that a person must ‘clean up’ his or her own life in order to merit God’s presence is not Christianity. This means, though, that the church will be filled with immature and broken people who still have a long way to go emotionally, morally, and spiritually.
Some years ago I was on a panel with a Muslim cleric, talking about our differences in front of a group of college students. And one college student kept insisting, ‘Well, I listened to you both for twenty minutes, and I want you to know that I just don’t see any real difference between you. I just don’t see any difference between the religions. It seems like they’re basically saying God is love and we should love God and love one another.’ In our responses to the student the cleric and I were in complete agreement. At first glance it looks tolerant to say ‘you are both alike,’ but each of us argued gently that the student was not showing enough respect to listen to each religion’s distinctive voice. Each faith had made unique claims that contradicted the deepest teachings of other faiths. And so, we concluded, while each faith could certainly appreciate wisdom in the other, we couldn’t both be right at the deepest level. The student maintained his position, saying that all religions are fundamentally alike.
Ironically, the young man was being every bit as dogmatic, superior, and ideological as any traditional religious adherent can be. He was saying, in essence, ‘I have the true view of religion, and you don’t. I can see that you are alike, but you can’t. I am spiritually enlightened, and you aren’t.’ But as I spoke to him a bit afterward I concluded that he was motivated by an underlying fear. If he granted that any religion made unique claims, then he would have to decide whether or not those claims were true. He did not want the responsibility of having to ponder, weigh it all, and choose. Among young secular adults it is common to adopt this belief that all religions are roughly the same. Dare I say this is a form of emotional immaturity? Life is filled with hard choices, and it is childish to think you can avoid them. It may seem to get you out of a lot of hard work, but the idea of the equivalence of religions is simply a falsehood. Every religion, even those that appear more inclusive, makes its own unique claim. But Jesus’ claims are particularly unnerving, because if they are true there is no alternative but to bow the knee to him. The annunciation pushes the exclusivity of Jesus right in our face. It demands a response and shows us there is a lot of hard work to do.
I commend two processes to my readers. I urge skeptics to wrestle with the unexamined ‘blind faith’ on which skepticism is based, and to see how hard it is to justify those beliefs to those who do not share them. I also urge believers to wrestle with their personal and culture’s objections to the faith. At the end of each process, even if you remain the skeptic or believer you have been, you will hold your own position with both greater clarity and greater humility. Then there will be an understanding, sympathy, and respect for the other side that did not exist before. Believers and nonbelievers will rise to the level of disagreement rather than simply denouncing one another. This happens when each side has learned to represent the other’s argument in its strongest and most positive form. Only then is it safe and fair to disagree with it. That achieves civility in a pluralistic society, which is no small thing.
Everybody knows that there are emotional and psychological reasons why you might want to believe in God. In fact many skeptics at some point make the argument that believing in God is simply an intense form of wish fulfillment. But seldom do people point out that we all have enormous emotional and psychological reasons to disbelieve in God. How so? In looking at a book like the Bible or at a message like the gospel, anyone sees fairly quickly that if it were true you would lose some control over how you can live your life. Who can say they’re objective and neutral about that proposition? Thomas Nagel is honestly acknowledging this. He knows he can’t say, ‘I am completely objective and indifferent in looking for the evidence for God, but I just don’t have enough evidence.’ I hope you see that no one can truly say such a thing with integrity. We all have deep layers of prejudice working against the idea of a holy God who can make ultimate demands on us. And if you won’t acknowledge that, you’re never going to get close to objectivity. Never.
Let’s say you’re a judge and suddenly a case comes before you concerning a company in which you own stock. And the decision will have a huge impact on the price of the stock. Would you be allowed, or would you allow yourself, to rule in the case? No, because you couldn’t possibly be objective when you know that if the decision goes a certain way you’re going to lose all of your money. So you recuse yourself. Here’s the problem: With Christianity, we’re all in that very position. When it comes time to decide whether its claims are right or wrong, you have at least some vested interest in them being wrong. But you don’t get to recuse yourself; you can only look at the evidence. Therefore, I’d like to suggest some ways to deal with this dilemma.
First of all, doubt your doubts. Be skeptical of your own skepticism. Why? Because you realize that you are not completely objective. Maybe you have a very religious parent whom you dislike. Or you may have had a bad experience with an inconsistent and insensitive group of Christians. On top of that, as we have observed, few people can entertain an invitation to give up their freedom without some prejudice against it. You’re afraid of the claims of Christianity being true – that’s fine. If we’re honest, we all are. You’ll never be fair-minded with the evidence if you don’t acknowledge that you can’t be perfectly fair-minded. So what should you do about this? You could simply slow down, so you don’t come so quickly to skeptical conclusions. Also, you should recognize that if Christianity is true, it is not just a set of rational, philosophical principles to adopt— it is a personal relationship to enter. So, to take seriously at least the possibility that it is true, why not consider praying? Why not say, ‘God, I don’t know if you’re there but I do know what prejudice is like, and I’m willing to be suspicious of it. Therefore, if you are there and if I am prejudiced, help me get through it.’ Break the ice with Jesus— talk to him. No one has to know you are doing it. If you’re not willing to do that, I suggest that you’re not willing to own the prejudice that we all start with.
Nowadays we are taught to think of faith as something that relates inversely to logic and evidence – as you get more facts and certainty, your need for faith goes down. But that’s not what Christians mean by faith. Faith means certainty about what you can’t see. And so compelling evidence, evidence that engages rationality, is one of the greatest boosts to Christian faith.
In the Christian view, the ultimate evidence for the existence of God is Jesus Christ. If there is a God, we characters in his play have to hope that he put some information about himself in the play. But Christians believe he did more than give us information. He wrote himself into the play as the main character in history, when Jesus was born in a manger and rose from the dead.
Love without truth is sentimentality; it supports and affirms us but keeps us in denial about our flaws. Truth without love is harshness; it gives us information but in such a way that we cannot really hear it. God’s saving love in Christ, however, is marked by both radical truthfulness about who we are and yet also radical, unconditional commitment to us. The merciful commitment strengthens us to see the truth about ourselves and repent. The conviction and repentance moves us to cling to and rest in God’s mercy and grace.
On one hand, you may feel that you ‘need’ him. Even though you may recognize that you have needs only God can meet, you must not try to use him to achieve your own ends. It is not possible to bargain with God. (‘I’ll do this if you will do that.’) That is not Christianity at all, but a form of magic or paganism in which you ‘appease’ the cranky deity in exchange for a favor. Are you getting into Christianity to serve God, or to get God to serve you? Those are two opposite motives and they result in two different religions. You must come to God because 1) you owe it to him to give him your life (because he is your creator) and 2) you are deeply grateful to him for sacrificing his son (because he is your redeemer.)
On the other hand, you may feel no need or interest to know God at all. This does not mean you should stay uncommitted. If you were created by God, then you owe him your life, whether you feel like it or not. You are obligated to seek him and ask him to soften your heart, open your eyes, and enlighten you. If you say, ‘I have no faith,’ that is no excuse either. You need only doubt your doubts. No one can doubt everything at once— you must believe in something to doubt something else. For example, do you believe you are competent to run your own life? Where is the evidence of that? Why doubt everything but your doubts about God and your faith in yourself? Is that fair? You owe it to God to seek him. Do so.