Apologies for the incomplete nature of this post– more to come!
I cannot remain unmoved by the news one hears these days – though it is old news – the old news of pastors quitting their jobs and renouncing the faith, racked by doubt and disbelief, finally accepting the surely more rational option of agnosticism or atheism. Now their years of theological strivings are at last ended – the illusion (so they say) at last shattered – the emotional cushion of Christianity at last withdrawn, and now it’s time to face the real world bravely, chin up lad, it’s time to accept what Reason and Rationality have been saying all along. Often it happens in seminary; for some, after years of pastoring or theologizing or philosophizing or biblical scholarship in the academy.
I am truly troubled by the sincere doubts of the scholars.
Yes, it is true that there are very many intelligent Christians who remain persuaded that, in the end, Christianity withstands all the tests of skepticism. Yes, it is true that even whilst doubts remain, one can still be a faithful Christian and a rational skeptic (at the same time!); one can still seek God, hope in God, wait for God, patiently, humbly, even in the middle of skepticism and doubt. Faith is not a test that must be passed in order to become a Christian, but rather faith is the starting point; with even a little faith (cf. Lk 17:5-6), God can begin His transformative work in a person, strengthening, guiding, teaching. Faith does not need to eliminate doubt in order to be faith. Faith can reckon seriously with doubt and remain faith. For many people, it does.
But what about those people for whom the answers in the end seem insufficient? How are they to be answered?
Then there is the news that comes from the secular academy, and again it is very old news, 17th-century news in fact, of the indomitable march of Reason and Science towards Atheism. All those ancient religious superstitions and dogmas (so they say) have long since gone the way of the Titanic upon striking the various icebergs of Modern Physics, or Neuroscience, or the Latest Psychological Findings, the main point obviously being that all human thought is headed the way of atheism, and with it, all thinking people.
The Sea of Faith was once, too, at the full… / … / But now I only hear / Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar…
– Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach
The criticisms of Christianity from the secular academy are, of course, much less troubling than those from the specialists, the seminarians and the biblical scholars. Many of the Dawkins-esque criticisms are just plain wrong, and/or betray the unfamiliarity of the critics with the God they are supposed to be criticizing. Many of these arguments are straw man arguments, or logically fallacious. Many – but not all. Some are deeply considered. Day to day at this august institution, I am wont to observe that not a few of my very intelligent acquaintances, whose minds are subtle and perceptive and undeniably more powerful than my own, are entirely unpersuaded by any purported evidence of God. It is different when you know a person, you know how they think, you know how serious and studied they are. In the face of such an observation, who can remain unmoved?
Yes, there are also not a few intelligent people who do uphold the Christian faith. Yes, there have been deft theodicies and winsome apologetics. And I do not think these reasonings are worth nothing, nor that the aforementioned reasoners are merely credulous and foolish.
But how are the unconvinced dissenters to be answered?
Is faith fundamentally rational, or is it something quite different? Is it reasonable to believe that Christianity is true? Is it on account of Reason that one should or would believe Christianity is true?
What kind of reason might we be after? Of course, whether a belief is rational is not decided by majority vote. The above discussion may have been misleading: I do not mean to suggest that the existence of dissenters is what calls Christianity into doubt. It is, rather, the reason for their dissent, their alarming suggestion that perhaps Christianity just does not hold together rationally.
We may divide into two questions: “Is it rational to become a Christian?”, and, “Is Christian doctrine internally rational?”
Enter Johannes de silentio. What resources does Fear and Trembling offer in the face of the news, in the face of these observations?