“Ninety-nine percent truth and one percent error amounts to one-hundred percent error.” This is what I was taught when I was nineteen-years-old. And I believed it. It sounded good. It sounded full of conviction and assurance and that is what I liked to hear. For many years I lived under the assumption of this powerful statement, believing that everyone who was in the slightest bit of error was completely deceived by the evil one. Oh, and one important note, my understanding and interpretation was the standard against which all others were judged.
I understand differently now, but I learned the hard way. Of course, I still recognize that this can be true when it comes to certain issues that are of cardinal value, but my studies have made me much less ridged than I was before. I guess the primary thing that did this to me was the realization that the “standard”, my own doctrine, was flawed and in need of change. The first time I realized this, I went through a period of intellectual doubt. Most specifically, I doubted my own ability to be correct.
In the last contribution to this series, I talked about doubt that is brought about for emotional/experiential reasons. Now I want to focus on doubt that is brought about for intellectual reasons.
The mind is a very powerful thing. As one writer put it (I think Jonathan Edwards), “The heart will not accept what the mind rejects.” Of course this does not happen overnight for most. It comes with questions, concerns, and small doubts here and there. As children we have the tendency to believe what we are told. Whether it be Santa Clause, storks and babies, the tooth fairy, or God, children are very trusting. It is not until we become adults that we go through a time of critical analysis, but even then, our tendency is to root for the “home team.” In other words, we want mom and dad to be right, therefore, we attempt to see things through the lenses we were given. When something challenges our childhood assumptions, our emotions fight to keep us at the bays with which we are familiar. However, our emotions only have so much vitality and traditions become nuanced and redirected slowly. Sooner or later, adjustments begin to be made and we find ourselves in an intellectual crisis of faith. This is natural and this is good. However, many Christians are completely unprepared for this crisis and it eventually does great damage, even to the point of sinking their ship.
This series is primarily for those who struggle with doubt, so I am going to continue to talk directly to you. However, I think it is something that all Christians need to hear.
The category of intellectual doubt is large and varied. However, ninety-percent of the time I do notice one central theme that threads people’s intellectual problems with Christianity: the assumption of systematic indubability.
I have never been much good at building houses out of cards, but I have seen many that are tremendous. Each card is interdependent. They are all connected in such a way that the house would not exist if one were to be removed. The weakest link will cause the whole house to crumble upon removal or even the slightest movement.
Many people have their understanding of the Christian faith built in such a way. For so many Christians, their theology is a house of cards. Doubt, in any area, is like tampering with one card. If something happens to this card, all is lost. Therefore, doubt, in any area, is an incredibly fearful thing.
However, when it comes to Christianity, intellectual doubt is nothing to fear. It is the other side of the coin to intellectual growth. As long as we don’t see our faith as a house of cards, we can begin to rearrange, question, doubt, wrestle with, and engage issues with much more confidence. I often tell people that I have less faith in the reality of one’s faith when they say they have never had any intellectual doubts at all. I will distinguish this from what I call “spiritual doubt” in the next chapter of this series, but what we must realize is that any type of true intellectual engagement—any time we seek to love God with our minds—this requires an assumption of some doubt. Think about it. If you approach your studies simply seeking to confirm what you already believe, you are not studying at all. Your mind is absent as your heart’s ambition is to take your prejudice and have it affirmed. However, when you are pursuing truth first, you begin to release yourself of obligations to serve what you already know. Otherwise, you are your own master, not truth, and certainly not God.
Systematic indubability is when we see things in such a way that any challenge to our certainty makes everything fall since they are systematically connected in a precise manner.
Is the Bible reliable? Why can’t I see God? Why doesn’t God act today like he did in biblical times? What about evolution and the big bang? Why are so many scientists atheists? Is there something I am missing? Did Christ really rise from the grave or was this made up by well-meaning followers of Christ? Is Christ God? Why is it taking so long for Christ to come back? How can we claim to have the truth when there are so many alternatives?
These are all questions that, while having emotional drives and implications, have a strong intellectual component to them. Many of you are experiencing doubt that is intellectual in its foundation. If you have your theology built as a house of cards, your faith is going to respond accordingly. To even entertain that you might be wrong about this or that doctrine, this or that interpretation, this or that belief, causes you to fall apart inside.
A few points here concerning intellectual doubt:
1. The Christian faith is not a house of cards. Most assuredly, there are foundational issues of the faith that, if taken away, will destroy Christianity. Issues like the existence of God (there is no such thing as a “Christian atheist”), the resurrection of Christ, the reality of God’s judgment and grace through Jesus Christ, and Christ’s atoning death on the cross. However, there are many details of the Christian faith that can suffer adjustments without destroying the entire faith. I have seen many people leave the faith and the catalyst of their departure was a rejection of inerrancy (the belief that the Bible does not have any errors, historic, theological, or scientific). I have seen others leave because they felt they had to adjust their view of the early chapters of Genesis, creation and the flood. I have seen others who thought that if there was any redacting (editing by the authors) of the Gospel narratives, their faith was destroyed. Still, I have seen some who come to believe that the flood was not global. These are issues to be sure. But they are not issues which can cause any harm to the essence of Christianity in any way.
It is normally those who are brought up in rigidity who are susceptible to letting this kind of doubt crash their faith. This is why you see so many who are “former fundamentalists.” Fundamentalism feeds on unnecessary rigidity and therefore, unfortunately, is quite a seedbed for graveyards of Christians.
While I believe strongly in many issues that are of non-cardinal value, I don’t hold on to these too tightly. This is a fundamental philosophical precursor to dealing with many intellectual doubts. The inability to identify, isolate, and distinguish between essentials and non-essentials often causes the entire house of cards to fall.
2. While there are people out there that are more educated than you who are not Christians, there are also many people out there who are more educated than you who are Christians. Don’t forget this. It will help you to realize that the cultural assumption that the more educated you are the more likely you will become an atheist is simply not true. While education is of immense value to the truth, as we will see in the next contribution to this series, in a Christian worldview, there is something far more powerful at work bending our wills.
3. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are the only one to ask these questions and entertain these doubts. Feeling alone in a time of doubt amplifies the power of the doubt unnecessarily. Christianity has two-thousand years of history and I guarantee that your questions have not escaped the notice of great people of the past. Christianity is littered with intellectual giants who have wrestled with the exact same questions you are and come to the conclusion that Christianity is true. That is why it is so important to become a good student of church history. While we live in an age of scientific discovery and technological breakthroughs, don’t assume that people are philosophically more enlightened than before. We are not. In fact, an argument could be made that we are falling into the greatest intellectual and philosophical slumbers since the dark ages due to our preoccupation with high speed technological and scientific breakthroughs. We don’t have time for wisdom anymore.
4. Answers are available. Simply put, I do not believe that there is any objection or even the accumulation of objections to which there are not reasonable and sufficient answers. This does not mean that anyone will be compelled to agree with the answers (as that is a different spiritual matter), but it is important to realize that there is simply no objection out there that is detrimental to Christianity. Of course, there will always be possible alternatives, but this does not make them probable alternatives. And this is an important thing to realize: possibility does not mean probability. Yes, there is the possibility that (as you might hear from an accredited scholar on one of these documentaries), that the followers of Christ went to the wrong tomb, but when considered in light of all the evidence, you will quickly realize that it is not a probability.
There are some incredible, balanced, and well-respected scholars in Christianity. There are thousands of books, lectures, and even full courses of study that are broadly available. Make sure that you are committed to studying these issues. Bring your doubts and concerns to the table and I am certain that you will be presented with answers that are intellectually satisfying concerning the central issues of the Christian faith.
I said before that I don’t give much credence to the faith of those who have never really wrestled with their beliefs, but I also don’t give much credence to those outside the faith who act as if the Christian answers to their objections are not intellectually possible and sustainable. This tells me that they have either not studied the issue well enough or are too biased to admit the sustainability of the Christian faith. Because of this, in my opinion, they are somewhat intellectually irrelevant in the market place of ideas.
Intellectually, when we come of age, Christians should intellectually challenge all their beliefs. God is certainly not afraid of questions and doubts. And it is not sin. In fact, this is the bullseye of obedience. “The way of the fool is right in his own eyes.” The diligent Christian searches all things to “find out whether these things are so.” The Christian faith is intellectually sustainable. There are answers to the questions and doubts we have. Whether or not we can accept these answers is another issue all together. We will take this up next time.
Questions to ask yourself to see if your doubt is intellectually initiated:
- Do you believe that Christianity is a house of cards?
- Do you think that there are questions and doubts that cannot be sufficiently answered which will destroy the essence of the Christian faith?
- Are you convinced that really smart people are less likely to be Christian?
- Do you believe that there are people out there that are smarter than you who are Christian?
- Do you only believe what you can understand completely?
- Have you studied any cardinal issue of Christianity, thoroughly examining both sides of the issue in a balanced manner with the best minds each option has to offer, and come to the conclusion that the Christian view is unsustainable?