I’ve been ruminating about this old article from the NY Times, which contains a letter from an agnostic couple in Texas who fake being Christians so that their neighbors will still let their children play with the couple’s kids. Of course, I could express outrage at how badly these Christians have misunderstood what Scripture teaches. How these parents, out of some misguided fear that their children could “catch” unbelief or be contaminated by the agnostic-virus, end up living in fear of the world and the irreligious when in fact they and their children should be fearlessly and lovingly engaged with the world, bashing down the gates of hell with the grace and power of the gospel.
However, I want to nudge in a different direction. I think the reason so many Christians are afraid of interaction with agnostics, atheists, Muslims, and the like is that they know, deep down, that if they get too close, their worldview probably would crumble. They’re right. Of course, I don’t think Christianity is in any way threatened by unbelief. But the simplistic pseudo-Christianity which underlies too much of evangelicalism’s moral self-congratulation cannot survive prolonged contact with non-Christians.
I am convinced that this is why so many Christian kids “leave the faith” when they get to college. They suddenly discover that unbelievers aren’t horrible people. They find that agnostics and atheists can love and sacrifice for others. They discover there are smart people – smarter than their parents and their pastor – who don’t believe that the earth is 6,000 years old or that simple syllogisms can prove that Jesus was Lord (rather than liar or lunatic). Since no amount of questioning or doubt or diversity was ever tolerated within their upbringing, the fact that people can poke at their inviolate authority without lightning bolts falling or turning into Satan-worshipping cannibals leaves the student with a lot of questions and no tools to arrive at the answers.
Of course, a robust Christianity can deal with all these problems. It understands that common grace and the image of God are still existent and at work in the lives of unbelievers. It can engage with critical scholarship and scientific inquiry, taking every thought captive on its own terms. It can work with people as they wrestle through doubt rather than relying on thought police to beat the sheep back into the fold.
But this sort of Christianity cannot do the things too many evangelicals want it to. It cannot be used as self-congratulation, because it recognizes that without God’s grace we’re all just as good and just as bad as our neighbor. It cannot be used to condemn everyone around us, because it recognizes that there is much to be appreciated from them. It cannot set up our churches as inviolate castles of righteousness, because judgment begins with the house of the Lord. It cannot give us the peace afforded by that modern Baal of Absolute Certainty, because the creaturely confidence of the Old and New Testament can be doubted and will be won only by wrestling through much blood and many tears.
I learned this Christianity through thoughtful parents and believers, and through the bruises I got as I interacted with the world. I don’t have it figured out, but I have survived. I sat through secular religious studies classes (I even survided getting a college minor in religious studies). I know homosexuals and atheists who are in many ways better people than I am. I’ve wrestled with arguments and wondered if my faith could possibly come through intact. I made mistakes – believed wrong things, and did wrong things – and not in some way that made me a “better person.” I still ache sometimes thinking about them.
But I didn’t come out the other end an atheist, or even a “liberal” (or at least I don’t think I am, since Borg and Schleiermacher still manage to make me fighting mad and I would die before denying the crucified and risen Lord). This wasn’t because I was particularly smart or churched or faithful. It was because the faith that I know, the Christianity that Scripture teaches, is big enough to handle them. In particular, this biblical faith has three tools of which we must avail ourselves if we’re going to deal with the world’s challenges, and all three of these tools are too often lacking for many Christians.
First, it has a God who is in control. He rules over the universe as its king. We don’t have to “make room” for Him in science or philosophy, because His domain is not simply the gaps, but the whole puzzle. If those disciplines try to advance falsehood, we have divinely-empowered truth to overcome it. If what they discover is true, it can do no more or less than teach us about the world He has made. What’s more, he rules over the human heart. We don’t need to be afraid for ourselves or our children, as if their faith was some fine china which the first hard question will break. Rather, we can go into the world like rocks, secure and solid. We cannot change an agnostic’s heart, but God can (and does) throw us through the windows of their unbelief. It might not always look that way to the world, but the truth is that even when we’re battered and disenfranchised, we have the power of the Spirit and the providence of God on our side. When we deny this, when we live in fear, we cannot help but fall to unbelief in the world because it has already found its rest in our own hearts.
What’s more, we have a Savior who loves us anyway. That’s intentionally ambiguous – I’m leaving the referent of the anyway up to you. Why does the world scare you? Because you might, in a moment of weakness, be tempted? Don’t go rushing foolishly into sin, but also know that God doesn’t need your suburban monastery to avoid it. He’s already got that taken care of. Does it scare you because you might find out you’re not as good as you think you are? God’s love didn’t start with your superiority, but your inferiority (to Him). You don’t need to turn your neighbors into devils in order to make yourself look good; Jesus knows how messed up you are. That’s why he died for you instead of issuing you a commendation for righteousness.
Lastly, Scripture leaves us with an understanding that we are human beings – no more and no less. You don’t need to have some God’s-eye-view of truth that cannot be challenged. You are a human being. Neither should you see others as undeserving of you love. They’re human beings too. This relieves an incredible amount of pressure from the “worldview debates” that rage around us. I don’t have to walk about like I have Truth, that unassailable rationally-airtight case that lets me know God is there (funny how that sort of Truth makes God subordinate to how hard we think about Him). Neither do I have to fear when men claim their Truth proves that God isn’t. God is there, and he is true; my knowledge of this isn’t founded on the shifting sands of my reason, but the solid rock of His existence. I don’t have to fear when the tides of doubt come in, because while I cannot hold them back, neither can they move Him.
Let me put it another way. The world defines faith as a leap as a dark, as believing in the face of reason, as believing despite every evidence to the contrary. This has absolutely no resemblance to faith in the Bible. Biblical faith is trusting in what you know to be real (God) despite changing moods and circumstances. We don’t ask God for a sign not because He wants us to believe in spite of them, but because He has given us ten thousand signs, and putting Him to the test pretends like we are the judge instead of Him.
We cling to our leap-in-the-dark God because we think it inoculates us from doubt, but in fact it empowers it. Leaps in the dark are inherently stupid, in the same vein as “If your friend jumped off a cliff…” All doubt has to do is convince you that you should stay on the ledge. What’s more, leaps in the dark make it all about us. Sure, God might catch us, but He might not. It’s you and me who end up making the call, and when we’re the deciding vote, the world can play the lobbyist and sway the election.
Instead, look at the light shining all around you – in the world, in God’s Word, in human beings, in Jesus Christ. Biblical faith is assent to what the light already shows us. It is confidence that we have met the living God, and that He is in charge of things. Doubt cannot threaten that, not really, not finally, not if you have eyes to see. Neither can the world touch it, because it’s eyes God gives you rather than a ballot you cast that leads to truth. God is in charge, we are His in Jesus Christ, and we are His creatures – no more, and no less.