Archive | Faith

Living with Unanswered Questions

Some of you have a lot of questions about the Christian faith. I am especially talking to those of you who are “seekers,” who, according to your own testimony, would become a Christian so long as you get past all the hurdles. But there is also those of you who are Christians but your commitment has been placed on hold until you get some answers. Many of you have been on this quest for years but no one can answer all your questions sufficiently. Therefore, you remain content in your agnosticism or your nominal faith.

“How did the first sin come into being?”
“How can God be sovereign and humans remain free?”
“Where was God during the Holocaust?”
“If God is so intentional, what about all the waste in the world (miscarraiges, extent species, unneeded body parts, etc)”
“Why does Paul seem to have a different view of faith, works, and salvation than James?”

And a thousand other questions that never get answered. Sure, you have heard the options, but none of them are sufficient for you to say you have found “the” answer.

I get this. I empathize with this way of thinking. After all, I live in a western world. I am a child of rationalism. I was fed from the milk of Descartes and his modernistic idealism. Because of this, I am not naturally comfortable with mystery, unanswered questions, tension, things I don’t know. This is especially the case when it comes to questions about things that affect the direction of my life.

However, my basic thesis here is that thinking that you need to have all the questions answered before you make a commitment is not only unhealthy, but it is wrong.

Not too long ago I sat on an airplane waiting to fly out of Orlando back to Dallas. The plane was delayed for quite some time as, for some reason, the preflight checks were taking longer than normal. Unfortunately, it gave me time to think about all the things that could go wrong with the plane. I wondered how many components they had to check. Think about it. Do they really check those things well enough to put more than two hundred people thirty thousand feet in the air? “What if they missed something?” I thought to myself. There are just so many things to miss! I worked myself into a panic and then had to calm myself by attempting to reintroduce common sense.

When it comes to faith, many of us have the same types of questions that keep us from ever really relaxing. All the things we fail to check. All those things we could be wrong about. These possibilities cause us to lose our joy and replace it with doubt and spiritual panic or just make us perpetually indecisive.

Though we need to be diligent, informed, skeptical, and wise in our faith, we need to be careful that we don’t work ourselves into an impossible situation. I don’t know how many people I have talked to who are always one fact, one verification, or one piece of evidence away from belief. Often, no matter how many reasons we have to believe, we simply cannot trust. “Yeah, but what about _______?” is the most common thought in our head. It goes on and on. There are always other possibilities to explain the evidence.  Even if the other possibilities are highly unlikely (“well, maybe there is some explanation for the resurrection that we don’t know about”), with this mindset in the driver’s seat, these doubts serve as legitimate reasons for us to suspend our faith commitment. Continue Reading →

Why “I believe in logic and reason” is a Nonsense Statement

I’m exposed more than the average citizen to regular discussions and debates of ‘off limits’ subjects like religion, partly by circumstance and partly by choice, which is to say partly because I’m in classrooms every week where these topics are on the agenda and partly because I go out of my way to observe or listen when they are hashed out in larger public forums.

You are likely to hear something today that people in generations gone by would have thought strange, which is the following: In the context of disagreement about religious beliefs (like what a person believes about God, the afterlife, etc.), someone who doesn’t believe in any such things will announce his or her belief in “logic” and “reason.” This declaration of allegiance to logic and reason is typically offered with boastful superiority, as if to say, “Well as for the rest of you, you can believe this or that, but as for me, I believe in logic and reason.” The implication that is given by this simplistic credal statement is that belief in logic/reason is unique to the person making the confession of belief in it, as though it is the exclusive alternative to the other people’s beliefs. They believe x-y-z, but I believe in reason.

What Think Ye of Reason? Whose Son is He?

Nobody likes an ugly custody battle, but in the recent era of boisterous “in your face” internet debate styles, we’ve seen an attempt to co-opt the favored terms and claim them as the natural and exclusive property of the self-appointed champions of reason and logic. When you see any particular individual or group lay claim to “reason”, you should get suspicious. Anti-religious atheist groups are the most glaring culprits when it comes to this. They love to name their groups things like “The United Coalition of Reason” and grab media attention by naming their events things like “The Reason Rally.”

Not that this is entirely without precedent. In the early 1790s some radical Enlightenment-loving French revolutionaries dismantled the altars of Paris churches as a display of their contempt for the Roman Catholic clergy of their time, erecting new displays to the symbolic goddess “Reason.” Their cause was more political and social (and in their context, more dire). Today’s cavalier use of “reason” is more of a self-serving PR strategy. By claiming “reason” as my own, I imply it is on my side only and that those opposed to me are clearly unreasonable. This is why Al Gore decided that his 2008 book lashing out at Bush & all of this political opponents should be entitled The Assault on Reason. As strategies go, it’s completely self-congratulatory but probably as effective, at least, as other similar political statements we’ve often heard, such as “The difference between me and my opponent is that I am interested in the truth.

Unfortunately most of the matra-like repetition of the words logic and reason amounts to posturing and nothing else. Few people care to understand just what we are talking about when we employ these words, which in common use are mostly synonymous.  The late Dallas Willard once wrote that “Reason is a voice that all of us hear.”  Reason is nobody’s child. Nobody has sole custody. Nobody has the market cornered. Logic is inescapably embedded in all of our thinking and discourse. Everyone who has thought about it very long has realized this. Aristotle was one of the earliest to elucidate it clearly in writing. All human thinking and discourse, if it is coherent in the least bit, is employing and relying upon basic logic. The only way for any person or group to jettison reason entirely (and remain consistent in doing so) would be for that group or person to utter words totally at random or remain completely silent. For that matter he (or they) would not be able even to think in propositions without making use of reason.

This is not to say that human beings are rational in all of our deliberations and decisions. We are influenced by and subject to all sorts of other influences too. And not that even the smartest people among us don’t occasionally violate the canons of reason. We’re no more intellectually perfect than we are morally perfect. Christian theologians have long alluded to what they call the “noetic” effects of our fallen nature, meaning our imperfections and limitations are not only in the ethical domain. Our minds are flawed enough all the way around to cause us to be foolishly illogical in specific ways on certain occasions.

But these limitations apply to everyone across the board. Nobody is immune. The thought processes of the most devout believers are the same basic combinations of factors as those of the least religious. For everyone the mental life consists of a regular mixture of common sense, ignorance, insight, oversight, at times pristine logical thinking, at other times glaring errors or blind spots, biases, confusion, emotionalism, etc. Where disagreement exists between two points of view, the wrong approach is simply to hail everyone who agrees with you as reasonable and brand everyone who doesn’t as illogical. When you apply the words “illogical” and “unreasonable” to people it is generally in order to insult them . Apply the terms instead – and appropriately – to the arguments themselves if you can demonstrate why they apply.

A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing

When you hear the casual tossing around of the words “logic” and “reason” in this usual contemporary way (i.e., claiming them for my side) you should ask some basic questions of the person using them. What does he or she take those words to mean? What is their definition? Are they the same thing? Different?  If the person is claiming that someone’s view or position is “illogical”, can he or she point to exactly where logic is being violated? Most people who speak this way don’t realize that something is not “illogical” simply because it is strange, outlandish, hard to believe, or even empirically false.

Another question I ask is, does the person (claiming to believe in “logic and reason”) suppose that the most reasonable and logically astute thinkers of history agreed with him/her? Alexander Pope’s immortal poetic line that “a little learning is a dangerous thing” tends to apply here. Pope’s advice was to “drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring.” In a similar vein, and more to the point regarding basic religious belief, the great Francis Bacon wrote, “It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion” (Of Atheism). This is why C. S. Lewis had his fictional senior demon Screwtape advise the novice demon Wormwood to keep it shallow and superficial when trying to mess with his victim’s head. “Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the church,” writes Screwtape, who adds a few lines later, “By the very act of arguing you awake the patient’s reason, and once it is awake, who can foresee the result?” (The Screwtape Letters).

The culture of the internet with its dizzying array of endless media is vastly different from the one Pope and Bacon knew, yet it demonstrates their principle well. So many people today know just enough to be “dangerous.” They suppose themselves to be so eminently reasonable and scientifically literate when in fact they are typically less knowledgeable than people were in generations past.  Note I did not say “less informed” about events in the world or having less access to information. But they’ve thought so little and in such fleeting, candy-sized media-wrapped sound bytes about the issues they are discussing that they are closer to being enemies of reason than friends.

The majority of those on whose shoulders Western Civilization stands would have been baffled by the attitudes of those talking such a big game about logic and reason. Had they been put in a time machine and dropped in the middle of the recent “Reason Rally” they would have thought they were in a different universe where “reason” must mean something else. What, after all, would someone like John Locke have thought of the advice of Richard Dawkins, arguably the intellectual spokesman for contemporary atheism, to the crowds at the “Reason Rally”? What would such a preeminent thinker as Locke – so massively influential in shaping British thought at the time as well as upon the American framers, a man who wrote, among so many other things, an essay actually entitled “The Reasonableness of Christianity” – what would he think upon hearing the leading voice for popular atheism urge his throngs to employ the strategy of contempt, ridicule and mockery against religious believers? So much for “logic” and “reason.”

There are atheists who do understand the meaning of reason, and they do their cause at least the favor of rising above the foolishness of throwing those words around without comprehending them. One such example is Robert Paul Wolff, a philosopher whose textbook About Philosophy is among those on my shelf. In it Wolff writes that although he identifies as an atheist, he is incapable of contempt toward those who believe otherwise. He knows too much. He has drunk deep from the spring. Depth in philosophy, to paraphrase Bacon, keeps bringing this atheist’s mind back around to the theological possibilities.  In his text Wolff praises the Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, calling the melancholy Dane “the most gifted” of all the important thinkers in our history. Wolff writes candidly that although he is an atheist, “as a lifelong philosopher, I am forced to recognize that almost every great Western thinker for whom I have profound respect thinks that I am wrong.” This, Wolff admits, often makes him “a little nervous.”


Faith and Reason

As old a topic as it is, the contemporary abuse of words like “logic” and “reason” begs for us to revisit the discussion of the role of reason in the realm of faith. And while we’re chastising those who wave the flag of reason like they are its sole custodians, we need to remind a certain segment of the faithful and devout that reason is not a weapon of darkness. I said above that reason is nobody’s child, and that includes Satan. Reason is not a tool of the Evil One that you should resist. The truth is that you can’t resist it anyway as was explained already. To make a case against reason you must use it.

Christians do not idolize reason, nor do we scorn it. When the Gospel of John employs “logos” in its opening line, you can be sure that the writer does not despise the voice of reason, which he no doubt recognizes as the voice of God, imperfect as we are at hearing and discerning it accurately.  All revelation presupposes rational agents – even if imperfect ones –  who can comprehend basic communication. Truth is dependent upon the most basic principles of logic. Otherwise the written word is just markings and the spoken word (“rhema”) is just noise. Show me a Christian who claims to be opposed to reason and I’ll show you someone who (a) doesn’t understand the nature of reason to begin with, and (b) is probably failing miserably to achieve the kind of wisdom and discernment toward which a disciple is supposed to strive.

Faith and reason are not cosmic foes fighting on behalf of God and Satan, respectively. That is as idiotic a parody as the parody of faith itself in which it is naive assent to patently false propositions, a la “believin’ what ain’t so”. C. S. Lewis once called faith “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods” (Mere Christianity). It is a kind of trust that endures through the tumultuous and fickle emotional roller coaster of life. It is the “substance of things hoped for” (Heb. 11:1) where “hope” is understood in the biblical sense of being tethered to something solid but beyond your immediate vision or grasp, not mere “wishing” or escapism.

The mind is not murdering reason in order to make room for faith. Reason cannot be killed, and if it could be, any meaningful concept of faith would die with it, and no contemplation or discussion of anything would be possible from that moment on. For the opponent of faith to thump his chest and announce that he believes in logic and reason is as useless as if he said, “I believe in saying words out loud that express my views.”  My response to either one is, “Uh, .. OK. Me too. Now what is your argument?”

An Anatomy of Faith

Why do we believe certain things and not others? I know, I know . . . we are Christians. Therefore, we have a slam dunk answer to that softball question. It’s the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit takes the Word of God and activates it in our lives. While this is certainly true, there are often details that He works through. After all, the Holy Spirit uses many mundane things to bring about our faith. He uses our minds, godly influences, our circumstances in life, and deep conviction.

When I became a Christian, I was very young. I don’t remember a time when I did not believe in Jesus. So, I don’t have any grand conversion story. I just believed what my mother taught me from birth. And as I grew up, I wanted everything she had taught me to be true. She was my guide, serving for a long time (even until today) as a sort of referred conviction. I believed because she believed. And I wanted her to be right. Statistics tell us that this is almost always the case. For many of us, it is the case that we believe what we grew up believing. If you were reared as a Buddhist, you will likely be a Buddhist.  If your parents were Muslim, chances are you will be a Muslim. Atheists produce atheists, Hindus produce Hindus, agnostics produce agnostics, and . . . Christians produce Christians.

I remember what John Hannah, my Historic Theology prof at seminary, said one time in class, “We are going to teach you all kinds of great and wonderful things. But, in the end, you are just going to believe what mommy and daddy told you.” There is a lot of truth to this. None of it makes anything right or wrong. The objection that we just believe what our parents taught us, or that our culture defines our beliefs, while important in understanding how we believe things, only says so much. It does not address the rightness or wrongness of said beliefs. Perhaps we only believe what our parents taught us. . .and perhaps they are wrong (as is implied in the objection). Then again, perhaps they are right. The objection only speaks to our epistemology (a big word which simply refers to how we know or believe what we know or believe).

With this in mind, I want to introduce a graphic I constructed to help work through what can be a very complicated issue.


The three circles at the bottom represent three primary sources of influence. The first is REASON (or the INTELLECT). The second is EXPERIENCE. And the last is TRADITION. Each of these has a different level of influence on each of us.  They, in turn, feeding into the circle that represents our EMOTIONS. Our emotions then feed our WILL. And from here we make our choices or take actions.  Your emotional disposition at any given moment will determine your choice.

For example, I talked about the influence our parents have on us. Tradition, as we will later see, is much more complex than just what mommy and daddy taught us, but for me, as a child, this was pretty much it. I did not use too much reason or experience in making my choice for Christ. Mom told me it was true, therefore it was true. After all, I had no reason not to trust my mother. At that time, my chart would have looked like this:


Continue Reading →

What if Someone Knows Something You Don’t?

Making a commitment to God is not easy. This is especially true with skeptical people. I am not talking about skeptics out there. To put it another way, I am not talking about unbelievers. I am talking about skeptical Christians. I am talking about those of us who continually second guess ourselves. We don’t really trust ourselves. And, just as importantly, we don’t trust others. The alternative options to our faith, while not necessarily compelling, are overwhelming. What if I am wrong? is a haunting thought. This thought puts up road blocks, yield signs and detours all over the highway of our spiritual life. We are perpetually terrified about being wrong.

What does this look like? Maybe we used to read the Bible with great faith, but now pause at every turn, thinking Can this really be true? During worship at church, we sing the songs, but we have to work ourselves into a place where hope is present in our voice. We still teach our children about the principles of the faith, but guilt fills our hearts, since we don’t know if it is really true. We pray to God, seeking some indication that he is really present and really loves us. We long for the “faith like a child” that we remember having in the past, but somehow, we cannot get it back. We are just too skeptical. What if we are wrong?

I am a master of theology. I kid you not. I have a degree (somewhere in my office) which proves it. It says “Master of Theology Degree.” But this is quite the overstatement. Yes, I went to seminary. Yes, I did pretty well and won some awards (those are somewhere in my office too). But I certainly don’t consider myself a master of theology. Nor have I mastered any one aspect of theology. There will always be people out there who know more than me and there will always be factors that I have not considered. In a very real sense, even though I am a “Master of Theology,” I am frequently skeptical of the beliefs I hold dear. More importantly, while I have learned to use and embrace my skeptical nature, I don’t want to be this way.

There are many things that I know almost nothing about, which intrigue me nonetheless. Architecture is one of them. Carpentry is another. Forensics is another thing that interests me, but not enough for me to make any moves in that direction other than watching the television series “Bones.”

Then there are some things that I know just enough about to be dangerous. Paleography is one. Playing the guitar is another. If you ever hear me playing, you would understand the danger. Human anatomy and psychology are both areas in which I have some knowledge, but if I were to attempt to teach on these things, I would look pretty weak to the trained eye.

There are some things that I know pretty well, yet I am still timid about my knowledge. For example, I study exercise and nutrition. I have been certified twice as a weight trainer. However, I have not kept up on these areas well enough to be sure of my knowledge about the latest issues and understandings. I could (and have) held exercise and weight training seminars that were good enough to pass muster with the audience, but would not contribute anything to experts in the field. Continue Reading →

Dealing with Your Inner Skeptic (while in the Purgatory of Doubt)


Some of you are living in a purgatory of doubt. You find yourself caught between two opinions. You have studied just about all you can study. You have read both sides to the issue. All Christian apologetics books do now is make you ill and create more anxiety. The confusion of the options is a constant ringing in your ears, from which you can find no peace. It is not as if you don’t want to make a decision for Christ; after all, you have been a Christian for quite some time (at least you thought you were . . .). Now you are not sure if you ever really believed at all.  Now you are finding it intellectually (or so it seems) dishonest to believe anymore. Why? Because you have yet to be convinced enough.

How does one get convinced enough to trust Christ? You don’t really trust anyone, not even yourself.

I don’t have all the answers, but I hope to share some advice as one who has been there. Not only have I been there but, given the right circumstances (meds, not enough sleep, waking up on the wrong side of the bed, bad habits haunting me, a good fight with my wife, reading too many fundamentalists – Christian or non, a past which won’t let go, depression, having to call donors to get caught up on taxes, or listening to certain music which takes me to places I don’t need to go), I can still go there. However, for the most part, I have learned how to talk to this “inner skeptic” (Daniel Taylor calls him his “inner atheist“).

Here are his five characteristics:

1. He likes to make you doubt, but he never presents better options.

Initially, I must realize that the skeptic who sends me to “doubters’ Purgatory” is not holding as good a hand as he thinks. He bluffs a lot. In fact, just about every hand is a bluff. But it is enough to keep us folding, especially when we have not experienced him before. You see, this skeptic never presents any better options. His arguments are never positive. It is enough for him to introduce the pebble in your shoe. And as long as you focus on that pebble, eventually you will sit down and become immobile. This is Purgatory.

Inner Skeptic: “There are too many disagreements in Christianity. Which do you choose?”

(Notice, this is not a positive argument for anything better.) Continue Reading →

Why I Lack Certainty About Christianity

Belief does not come easy for me. I have a little “unbeliever” who has set up camp in the back of my mind, and he has no idea when, or how, to shut up. He is always questioning everything, from the stories I hear to the beliefs which tie me down emotionally. (I borrowed this idea from Daniel Taylor’s The Skeptical Christian. Taylor is possibly the most profound and honest writer I have ever read.) This unbeliever’s goal is to make me less certain about my beliefs and, in doing so, render me spiritually impotent and sterile. I have found many ways to tame this unbelieving beast, but I have also come to the conclusion that he will never totally shut up.

There are not many things about which I have absolute certainty. What I mean by “certainty” is very important here. I do not mean that there are only a few things about which I am convicted as to their truthfulness. Nor do I mean that there are just a few things I am obligated to evangelize. What I actually mean is that there are very few things about which I have indubitable knowledge of. (Perhaps the use of that word did not help…I just like to say the word “indubitable.”) Indubitability implies that one cannot be wrong. It is akin to infallibility. It is perfect and incorrigible conviction. However, none of us really have access to this type of certainty.

In dealing with doubters over the years, I have found that this reality has been the fountainhead for much anxiety in people’s faith. It is not that a lack of perfect certainty is the cause; rather, the cause is the belief that they are supposed to have perfect certainty. Once people begin to have doubts about their faith (or some aspect thereof), especially those who have grown up in very conservative traditions, many begin to doubt their faith altogether, thinking, “How can I have faith, if I have doubts?” It is not that conservative doctrines themselves are at fault; it is the idea that has been preconditioned into their thinking, that belief always and completely casts away doubt. The solution is very often as simple as convincing individuals that faith and doubt will always exist together, which is okay.

Some people say that they have no doubt at all, and they never have. I have difficulty believing assertions such as this, though I suppose they might be true for a very small number of individuals. However, at this point, I think it would be valuable for us to distinguish between “certainty” and “certitude” (Daniel Taylor introduced me to this concept, but I don’t know if the distinctions he made are embedded in the specific definitions of the terms). “Certainty” is the more objective type of conviction. It is the idea that one cannot be wrong due to conclusion of objective facts and evidence. “Certitude” is an emotional conviction that people have, which does not necessarily require evidence. It is the feeling of certainty, but not certainty itself. Most people I come across, who believe that Christians must be certain about their faith, are really talking about certitude. Certitude is good, but one can have certitude that is wrong. Therefore, people can have a strong level of “certitude” without possessing absolute “certainty” about it.

Let me put it another way: No matter how certain you believe you are about some truth, (assuming that it is true) God is even more certain than you are. Most people are comfortable with this idea. For me to say that God has greater assurance about what is true than you do is without question. Similarly, to say that you and I don’t possess perfect faith is generally acceptable to most of us. This allows you and me the opportunity to grow in our faith, and by doing so, grow in our conviction concerning this faith. Assuming this is the case, our “certainty” is not really certainty, but certitude.

As you must know by now, I like charts. Let me try this (those of you who have been through The Theology Program will be familiar with what follows). It’s called “The Chart of Certainty:”

Chart-of-Certainty Continue Reading →

Doubting Your Faith? So What?

“So what?” seem to be the most dismissive and insensitive words one can say to someone who is in trouble. Of course, often it is. If someone says, “I’m hungry,” or “I’m cold,” and we respond by saying “So what?”, we are not to be commended. However, “So what?”s are sometimes given a bad rap. When we decide to never use them, we actually might make matters worse. This is particularly the case when unnecessary feelings of entitlement are at issue.

I have been reading a book called A Knight’s Own Book of Chivalry by Geoffroi De Charny. Written in 1356, this little handbook on how to be a knight with honor is quite a jewel, speaking to me often in my self-pity. For the most part, it cries out, “So what?” to my problems over and over again. In fact, the ideals Sir Geoffroi calls me to strive for are all the things that cause me to wallow in self-pity. A good knight, according to Geoffroi, is intentional about making sure he does not live his life with too many comforts. As religious as Geoffroi was (he was actually the first recorded owner of the Shroud of Turin), his purpose was not some legalistic asceticism. He just did not want people to become too pampered. He believed that undue pampering would bring about serious and unnecessary depression. He encouraged knights to sleep outside in the cold and then in the heat. He discouraged mattresses and white sheets. These are things that I would feel deprived of if I did not have. And I would expect you to pamper me with “I’m sorry”s to indulge my feelings of neglect—neglect by others and neglect by God. Were I to tell Sir Geoffroi that I lacked such things, I imagine he would say, “So what?”

This comes in many areas of life. Continue Reading →

Believing for No Reason

One of the earliest signs of the healthy development of the mind of a child is that he or she starts responding to everything with a simple question: Why?  Every parent knows this and knows that it can drive you nuts, but it is a reassuring trademark of the kid’s normal intellectual growth.  To ask “why” is to solicit a reason for the truth of something. What begins in childhood is supposed to continue throughout the course of life. We believe things on account of other things, or in words, for reasons.

That’s not to say that every preference in every area needs to have an argument that supports it. In matters of artistic predilection or taste, no reasons are required other than, “I just like it.” Whatever kind of music sounds good to you, enjoy. Feel free to load up your device and belt it out at your leisure. You don’t really owe anybody a sophisticated explanation. You also don’t have to make a case for how and why certain foods taste better to you than others. They just do.

But what if I treat everything else this way? What if I take political stances, proclaim spiritual realities, assert opinions about history and offer declarations about moral principles – all “just because”?  After all, maybe those views are simply the ones I like. Does that suffice? Do I need reasons or can I just say that I believe those particular things, period?

I’ve been surprised time and again to run right up against this way of thinking in recent years. At first I was caught so off guard by it that I wasn’t sure what to say in response. It was so foreign to me that a blank stare was my only reaction. But I’ve been trying to learn just how I can begin to demonstrate how utterly wrong-headed it is for people to hold beliefs for no substantive reasons at all. So permit me here to say some things about it, starting with those who profess to be Christians who think along these lines, and then moving on to the larger context of society in general. Continue Reading →