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.
Faith is Not Blind
No less a giant of influence than Charles Haddon Spurgeon said nearly those exact words (faith is not blind) as he sought to convince his many hearers that faith is not random, fanciful speculation, not just a vague attitude. It is trust or belief in someone or something specific. “You will never get comfort to your soul out of what you do not understand,” he said, “nor find guidance for your life out of what you do not comprehend.” Some level of clear perception and understanding is required.
Nevertheless in our time it is too common for Christians to carry in their minds a hazy collage of beliefs they haven’t thought all that much about. If someone asks them why they believe this or that, they may just subjectivize the issue and say it’s how they were raised or that it is private and personal. Most likely, having been asked about a belief, they’ll answer with a feeling. Sometimes their passions may run high in certain conversations when they feel their views are being challenged, threatened, or even attacked, but rather than showing a capability to better explain or defend those beliefs, they again tend only to get emotional and feel offended.
The blame for this can’t be thrown onto the culture, even though this tendency mirrors the culture, as I explain in the next section below. Cultures are always rife with problematic ways of thinking, and the Church can never fall back on the excuse that it’s the fault of her specific culture, whatever problems are prominent within the flock of a given generation. The Church is supposed to stand for truth and to that extent stand against (whilst being a corrective for) whatever errors of thought, perspective or habit are dominant in the larger culture. It’s always been an uphill fight, of course, given the fact that the pull and influence of culture is always so strong and surrounds everyone all the time.
Our own culture displays a certain intellectual apathy that is detrimental to the disciplines of the mind. Reason itself is a casualty of this, and among very many contemporary evangelicals, this has taken a Christianized form in which an anti-intellectual approach is falsely honored as some sort of spiritual high road. The nearly-prophetic David Wells thus describes the Church’s “self-betrayal through its theologically emptied-out faith” as the reason the Church is of such little actual relevance in our culture, and so seemingly impotent in the face of contemporary challenges. Similarly Dallas Willard has pointed out that leaders in the Church have co-opted the cultural mistake of prioritizing emotion as the primary truth-vehicle. “Christian ministers try to get people to do things by making them feel things,” Willard told an interviewer. Pastors and preachers have to return to a biblical model in which emotions are a natural bi-product of realized truths. A new paintjob on a house with no foundation is a waste of labor.
The regrettable irony of this situation is that scores of believers who would be eminently qualified for biblical scholarship, theological depth and apologetic usefulness sit idly on the inactive list. Some of our best and brightest will warm the bench (pew) for decades and skip what might have been stellar careers in kingdom work, because they were convinced early on that their minds were given to them for their ‘secular’ lives while God only wants their ‘hearts’. They will satisfy all of their more rigorous fascinations on other things and accomplish greater depths in various other fields, but remain – in their Christian lives – at a permanently remedial level. In the name of “simple faith” or a reduced notion of “lay people,” the church, with its engineers, surgeons, builders, planners, teachers, technicians, artists, business people, etc., will nonetheless remain a vast body of theological 5th graders.
This need not and ought not be the case. It is cultural, not biblical. How shocking it would be to contemporary Christians to learn that some of the most prominent revivalists were also theological giants. Maybe the most famous sermon by the most famous preacher of the First Great Awakening (“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by Jonathan Edwards in 1741) was from the pen (and mouth) of one who is also considered by many as among the greatest minds ever produced on this continent. That’s right – a simple parish pastor and revivalist preacher, as well as president of what became Princeton University (and whose father-in-law was a founder of Yale), a man who wrote sermons for common New Englanders as well as theological tomes of such length and detailed philosophical density that most of us would not be able to soldier all the way through them.
Christians need to go against the grain and explore fully all of the reasons for beliefs – our own and those of others, the good reasons and the bad reasons (and the important differences between the two). To float with the postmodern current and make “belief” an intransitive verb – something without an object – is a mistake. Reason is a basic kind of revealed knowledge, maybe the most basic of all. No beliefs can be sensible or of any value without it. John Wesley said that it is “a fundamental principle … that to renounce reason is to renounce religion,” and asserted further that “all irrational religion is false religion.” I remember when it began to be repeated more and more that Christian parents and church leaders must teach kids and converts not only what to believe, but why. I’m afraid that today we cannot even take the “what” for granted, since it seems like an alarming number of those coming out of our churches don’t know what or why. They just believe.
The Confused Culture
It is important to see that this pattern in the Church simply follows the pattern of society as a whole. This is not a problem of religion itself, as the renowned British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge pointed out years ago when he wrote, “I believe myself that the age we are living in will go down in history as one of the most credulous ever.” Muggeridge pointed to early commercialization, mass advertising and the shaping of public opinion by mass media, as evidence for this. He refuted the common idea among many British intellectuals of his time which said that the secular society would move forward beyond shallow credulity while the religious would remain behind. It has not turned out that way.
Since I teach a lot of classes every semester in particular subjects that point this out in the most glaring way, I can say with fairly solid assurance that even a basic “common sense literacy,” if you will, is lacking today. It is by training, by practice and by choice, of course. It has nothing to do with IQ or natural perceptive ability. There is a kind of cultural coma that has been brought on by our being completely submersed at every moment in shallow media, entertainment and social networking.
Thus people continue to say that they believe things, but don’t bother to give many reasons, or at least not many reasons that are any good. They confuse emotion with reasons, as though the stronger they feel about it, the more powerful the case they are making for that belief. They also confuse exterior causes with reasons, as though it suffices simply to say, “I was raised this way” or mention some other circumstance that played a role in their coming to believe the way they do (e.g., “I’m for gay marriage because my brother is gay” or “I’m opposed to abortion because my daughter had one”). Such conditions may give indication as to why the issue is close to someone, but they offer nothing in the way of reasons why the belief is good, right or true. A life circumstance may provide a clue as to what caused you to end up where you did on the matter, but it offers no basis for why I should end up there.
Terms like “argument” and “debate” are anathema to so many today, because political correctness has soured people on the general idea of citizens disagreeing or someone suggesting that someone else’s point of view is incorrect. I constantly explain to people that the classical use of these terms is not pejorative. The true meaning of an “argument” is simply a claim for which you have one or more reasons. A “debate” is merely what happens when those making contrary claims offer their respective arguments for their beliefs (an informal version of the basic scenario people are used to seeing portrayed in all of those movies and TV shows featuring courtroom drama). Not only is it OK to have or make an argument, it is right and necessary to do so. Not only is debate allowable (not intolerant), it is natural and unavoidable. As long as people have beliefs and those beliefs have reasons, these things must be part of life, and we will all be better for it.
But so long as we are under the foolish illusion that belief is just a matter of personal preference – even religious, moral, or political belief – we will mistakenly see argument and debate as, at best, empty wasted chatter, and at worst, mean-spirited rudeness (or even [insert weary sigh] “hate speech”). The danger of this is that a person may well realize someday that without any good reason(s) for his belief in, say, human rights, there’s nothing to compel him to continue holding that belief. Just as so many young adults scrap their Christian beliefs once they see that they never had any reasons for them, there may come a day when moral principles without reasons are also swapped out or let go.
I cannot tell you how often I hear people take moral points of view and offer no reasons for them. One legacy of secularization is the disjunction between moral obligation and a basis for moral obligation. Just recently I explored this with a particular man, probably in his late twenties, who had been raised in a non-religious home on the East Coast. His understanding of Christian belief was woefully deficient and crafted mostly by caricatures in the media. But he undoubtedly considered himself a person of strong moral convictions. As I attempted to locate his reasons for believing that we ought to be just and good, to practice kindness and non-violence as much as possible, to treat all people fairly and deal honestly with our money, etc., I repeatedly ran into a void. He simply had no substantive reasons other than the sense of moral intuition that – thanks be to God – is common among human beings. He went no further than to say, “I just believe it’s right (or wrong).”
I was reminded of a quote from the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who in an essay called “Religion and Morality” likened this to “the attempts of children who, wishing to transplant a flower that pleases them, pluck it from the roots that seem to them unpleasing and superfluous, and stick it rootless into the ground.” As a society we can hope that people continue to hold to most of the basic traditional moral views handed down to them, even though they have no roots or foundation any longer. But people believing in all of those things for no good reasons (that is, no reasons outside of personal feeling, lingering peer pressure, and pragmatic self-preservation) cannot be very reassuring. At least the earlier rivals to traditional Christian morality (like good ol’ fashioned utilitarianism, for example) had reasons.
This is probably why some cultural prognosticators, especially ones who have lived longer and can appreciate the dramatic degree of change that has been wrought, tend to be pessimistic. A good example, again, is David Wells, who sees parallels in our present culture with that of the internally decomposing late Roman Empire: “Then as now, many were skeptical of authority and became easy victims of superstition. Political language began to disintegrate, even as it has today, though in our case one of the main causes is that it has to carry the burdens of a fake piety, which is what political correctness has become.”
Belief is not just a posture or disposition. Despite the popular media usage of the word, “faith” is not just a generic description (e.g., “I’m a person of faith,” which is just a colloquial way of saying, “I’m religious in some way.”). The noun “faith” and the verb “believe” are the same word in the language of the New Testament, and it is a word with a connotation we’ve lost in our common usage today. The public, and especially that part that claims to be Christian, has to wise up to the political emasculation of language (as well as of thought itself). “Believe” is primarily a transitive verb. Without an object, what meaning does the word really convey? Belief has content. Faith does not hang in the open air, but is directed toward and rests upon something or someone. It is the same with the word “trust.” In fact faith is a kind of trust.
So whatever you believe, you should consider the reason(s) for it. There are only a few exceptions, in the rare category of those most basic beliefs (i.e., basic axioms or principles that can’t be derived from any previous ones but must be presupposed at the outset). Any and every other belief you hold, about anything whatsoever, if it is to be taken seriously, if it is to be of any value or worth anyone’s consideration, it must have in its favor more than your emotions, personal history or external circumstantial factors. It must have reasons.