This week, I’ll be starting to coauthor a new series titled “I Take Issue With.” Essentially, the purpose is to do my best at providing answers to the questions and problems people may have with Christianity that prove to be stumbling blocks to their faith.
Most of the Christians who struggle with doubt do not simply have one question or one problem. One question alone cannot (or at least should not) destroy the faith of doubting Christians. The problem is that not dealing with questions for long periods of time leads to cognitive dissonance, as I’ve talked about in previous posts. As more and more questions pile up, our faith may still stand fairly strong. Until, of course, the rains hit and the winds blow and we realize that our beliefs have been standing on a sandy base of unquestioned assumptions and unreasoned faith. When we are confronted with death or heartbreak or sinful desires, we ask, “Why do I believe?” and we come short with no good answers. That silent lingering doubt, “maybe I shouldn’t believe” becomes an echoing refrain, reverberating without ceasing in the chamber of our minds until we become convinced that it is time to give up the faith.
I easily fall prey to this problem. When the questions are not big enough (and when I’ve got two essays to write and a project to finish and friends to eat with), I can find mediocre solutions that would not persuade an unbeliever and that do not persuade me when bigger troubles hit. To make sure this doesn’t happen, I’ve enlisted a friend, C. Marshall to describe in detail the issues he has with the doctrines and principles of Christianity. Mr. Marshall is a once-Christian who is still curious about the faith but has many intellectual problems with it. He’s going to be keeping me intellectually honest and I shall do my darndest to bring him back to the faith.
The goal of this series is to imitate Jacob in wrestling with God. We will not come to the perfect answer for every question, but we will strive to look at all these issues from an intellectually rigorous perspective. If these sorts of things interest you, you may also want to look at “Answering the Atheist” on the website of the Limestone Church of Christ. Mr. Marshall will be starting us off with a first question.
Many Christians invoke their direct experience of Christ as their primary reason for belief in the veracity of Christianity. Yet religious experiences appear to be nearly universal across geography and time. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, animists, et alia all claim that they experience deep connections to the divine. But if other religions are incorrect, in whole or in part, why do they grant believers a deep sense of meaning and the impression of supernatural interaction?
I can think of three primary ways of accounting for the diversity of religious experience while maintaining the significance of a Christian’s experience of Christ’s love:
1. Reduce the other religious experiences. Explain them in terms of their social construction and/or neurological and psychological mechanisms. Then, you don’t need to invoke the transcendence of a foreign tradition to account for the ecstasies of its adherents. But if you take this route, I would like to see a very good account of why I should trust the experiences of the world’s Christians (or my own experience, if God grants me a vision).
2. Other people are being fooled by Satanic temptation. Islam really is of the devil. People quaking before their gods are, unbeknownst to them, worshiping demons. If something’s true, I don’t care if it’s horribly offensive, so take this tack if you’d like. But then I’d like to hear how we know we’re not being misled by demons into believing Christianity when we should be Muslims. And then I’d like to hear you say that at an interfaith conference.
3. Believers are experiencing God, just in a different way. This would seem to contradict universal claims of Christianity’s truth. It also seems like it would be deceptive of God to reward people for their false beliefs.
In sum: I am dissatisfied with all of my own poorly-articulated straw-man formulations of the ways a Christians can hold to Christianity’s unique truth and account for widespread religious experience. It seems more elegant to me to explain all religions in a reductionist fashion, in terms of their social/psychological/neurological bases. Help me out here!
Stay tuned for the answer in part ii of this series!