Monday, July 29, 2013

Why I Am Still a Christian


A week ago I read one of the saddest stories to come to my attention in recent years. In his Weekly Meanderings post of 20 July, Scot McKnight provided a link to a post on the blog of Hemant Mehta ("The Friendly Atheist") written by Rachael Slick, the daughter of Christian apologist and Westminster Seminary Escondito graduate, Matt Slick. The post in question outlines Rachael's journey from dutiful, theologically-trained homeschooler to newly-converted atheist, the latter the consequence of her inability to answer—as she puts it, the "impossibility" of aligning a plausible answer with Christianity—the question as to why certain behaviors identified as "sinful" in the New Testament were not sinful in the Old Testament. Such an "inconsistency" was, for her, "proof" that the Bible is not, as she was taught (indoctrinated?), "infallible." Better, she reasoned, to "[educate herself] in science, a world far more uncertain than the one I left, but also far more honest."

Reading Slick's narrative caused an overwhelming melancholy to sweep over me. For all the arcane theological niceties in which she had been indoctrinated in her childhood—indeed, I always found it difficult to get the communicatio idiomatum across to my undergraduate students; for her, as a child, to articulate such a theologoumenon is certainly impressive, to say the least—had she never been taught a reading strategy for Scripture so as to answer intelligently the question, as N. T. Wright poses it, How Can the Bible Be Authoritative? I immediately recognized the tell-tale footprints of fundamentalism all over her story: extreme attention to sharply delineated patterns of authority and the concomitant demand for unquestioned obedience to one's superiors in the pecking order; patriarchal hierarchicalism; the prioritizing of so-called "truth" over love; and, more than anything else, the prioritizing of the quest for certainty over the quest for truth, usually born of a minimizing of the difficulties associated with the latter quest. And lying beneath all these is one major problem: the baleful influence of a foundationalist epistemology according to which any "proof" of the "fallibility" of any part of the Bible as one assumes it "must" be understood causes the entire structure of Christianity to be overturned. It appears she was raised in an environment in which there was little reflection, let alone acknowledgement, of the issue of what the Bible actually is and what questions it is and is not designed to answer. Such fundamentalism, unfortunately, is still common in American Christianity, and it bears its ugly fruit all too often in the lives of children raised in it who, in apparently growing numbers, are rejecting the faith en toto when they leave their protective cocoon to go to university.

Slick's story was poignant to me because, like everyone else in evangelical Christianity, I too have family members and friends, not to mention former students and classmates at Christian institutions, who have abandoned the faith I still hold dear. Her story likewise reinforces my belief that there are basically two reasons for the phenomenon of apostasy from the faith among people raised and, at times, trained, in conservative evangelical Christianity. The first reason is the apparent implausibility of Christianity in an increasingly secular and ever-diversifying western world. The Philadelphia of my youth was populated almost exclusively by Christians and Jews. Even those who did not actively practice their religion maintained a nominal adherence to it, identifying belief in God as one of the most salient differences between the capitalist West and the West's atheistic Soviet bloc enemies. Such ideas as heaven and hell, and indeed the sole existence of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, were widely assumed to be true, and the cultural hegemony of America and Western Europe meant that non-Christian religions like Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism were rarely, if ever, taken seriously.

Such cultural homogeneity, and the assumptions that went along with it, certainly do not characterize the America of today. Ethnic and religious diversity are now empirical facts, and the pluralism they entail has increasingly been seen as a positive contribution to the strength of our democracy. America's economic and military vicissitudes have contributed to an incontestable sense that the nation's former cultural assumptions rest on shakier foundations than previously had been imagined. Most significantly, the rising tide of secularism and a resurgent, evangelistic coterie of articulate "New Atheists" have made the case that theism, Christianity in particular, at best is both unprovable and unnecessary. At worst, so the argument goes, it is baseless and emotionally harmful superstition, especially where the fundamentalist instinct to distrust science rears its ugly head. In such an environment, it has become ever more difficult to assert the plausibility, let alone the absolute truth, of Christianity.

The second reason for the rise in youthful apostasy is what I like to describe as "Christians behaving badly." [Indeed, I can envisage a wicked situation comedy based on such a premise, starring none other than Martin Clunes.] Evangelicals may not like it but, as survey after survey indicates, and as anyone who works in the world can attest, they are not viewed positively by the population at large. "Judgmental," "anti-intellectual," "homophobic," and "self-righteous" are just a few of the perceptions commonly bandied about—and this with reference to people who are supposed to be marked by their love, not just for God and each other, but for their enemies as well. To put it simply, if Christians are unwilling or unable to live the way their religion says they ought, why should the religion itself be taken seriously?

I am well aware that such "reasons" can often simply be excuses used to justify an alienation precipitated by other factors, for instance, the "stumbling block" Christianity places in front of Americans for whom "freedom"—freedom to think and act as one pleases, the freedom to live without the looming specter of (objective) guilt and shame hanging over one's head—is the idol to which they give ultimate allegiance. So Slick:
Someone once asked me if I would trade in my childhood for another, if I had the chance, and my answer was no, not for anything.
 My reason is that, without that childhood, I wouldn’t understand what freedom truly is — freedom from a life centered around obedience and submission, freedom to think anything, freedom from guilt and shame, freedom from the perpetual heavy obligation to keep every thought pure. Nothing I’ve ever encountered in my life has been so breathtakingly beautiful ... Freedom is my God now, and I love this one a thousand times more than I ever loved the last one.
Nevertheless, these reasons cannot simply be dismissed, and it is high time people like I who still believe explain, as a friend and former student asked me last year, "why [I] believe xrianity to be true." Indeed, I still count myself as a believer even as I acknowledge the counterintuitive nature of Christianity's basic claims. I have been a Christian as long as I can remember. I was raised in a Christian family by a father who was both a  preacher and a theology professor. Not only did I attend a Bible-believing church regularly, I attended a Lutheran elementary school for four years in which the religious education I received at home and in church was supplemented more than competently. After high school I attended a Christian college and ultimately was awarded a terminal degree in New Testament Studies by a famous evangelical seminary. Christianity, for people like me, came "naturally," as it were. [Note, for those wont to quibble, I am not writing theologically at this point.] Exercising faith in Christ cost people like me relatively little, or so it seemed at the time.

But it is precisely people like I who need to come to grips with, and always hold in our consciousness, the apparently outrageous nature of the claims we make. We, like our Jewish friends, claim that the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the god, that is, of a somewhat small group of Semitic people with a decidedly chequered history—is in reality the God of the whole world. Even more astoundingly, we Christians proclaim a "gospel" message that purports to be the climax of the biblical story of Israel, yet whose fundamental teaching could be summarized by St. Paul as "Christ crucified" (1 Corinthians 1:23).

Such a message is, to be blunt, an oxymoron. The "Messiah," as every Jew "knew," was a winner who would vindicate Israel by defeating the people's pagan oppressors and establish the promised Kingdom in Jerusalem. But a person who was crucified was, by definition, a loser, brought low and made a spectacle by the victorious Romans, who scoffed at his claim by placarding "The King of the Jews" over his head on the gibbet. To claim, as Christians do, that this Jesus was God's Son, that in him and indeed as him the eternal God had become "enfleshed" and "tabernacled" in our midst (John 1:14) is indeed a wonderful and fantastic idea, but it is not one that can simply be assumed without argument or reasoned defense.

Likewise, I too have experienced the left foot of fellowship delivered by Christians who, despite easy smiles and well-rehearsed pieties, are as ruthless in the pursuit of power and control as the most stereotypical capitalist, and are unafraid of using traditionalist understandings of the Bible (at least within their circles) to consolidate and reinforce that power. The seeming disconnect between what the New Testament says should be the way Christians live and how they actually do live in America, more often allowing the present age to squeeze them into its mold than standing over against the world by virtue of a Spirit-transformed mind (cf. Rom 12:1-2), is—or at least should be—a scandal acknowledged within the evangelical world. But alas it too often is not.

Why, then, do I hold on to faith? At the outset one should make a distinction between the reasons why one believes and the (secondary) arguments used to justify or defend such belief. In the nature of the case, plausibility, even compelling probability, is necessary, but rarely if ever is, as Ed Sanders would say, the "real reason" for belief. Indeed, to this day I find the person and message of Jesus of Nazareth, as recorded in the four Gospels, utterly compelling. Likewise, of all world religions it is Christianity alone that provides a coherent and realistic picture of the human predicament as well as the acknowledgement that humankind does not have the ability to rescue itself from that plight. It also, in my view, provides an elegant-yet-unexpected climax to the "story" which finds its introduction and conflict in the Jewish Scriptures of what Christians call the Old Testament. The "gospel" it proclaims of Jesus' messianic, sacrificial death and victorious resurrection is one that resonates within me, both demolishing innate human pride and glorifying the gracious God who did for humanity what it couldn't do for itself.  For me this message, as St. Paul says, encapsulates God's wisdom and his saving power (1 Cor 1:18, 24). But, if so, that is because I count myself among those whom the apostle says are "being saved" (1 Cor 1:18). He knew quite well, as modern Christians also do, that this same message is "folly" to the worldly wise and a stumbling block for all who pridefully choose to trust their own achievement or ethnic/religious heritage (1 Cor 1:23). It is a message he later says cannot be "received" by a psychikos ("natural") person without the Spirit to enable the proper discernment of its truth (1 Cor 2:14). What, then, is the real reason I believe? Paul would say that it is because I have been "called" (1 Cor 1:24), authoritatively summoned to faith by God's Spirit through the proclaimed word of the gospel. And it is this same Spirit whom the apostle elsewhere claims assures God's people that they truly are his people and warrants their calling him "Abba" ("Father"; Romans 8:16).

But this certainly doesn't settle things. Lots of good people sincerely feel confident about things when such confidence is misplaced. Every religion has its convinced and intelligent adherents. By definition, therefore, most, if not all, are wrong in their beliefs, no matter how sincerely held or existentially uplifting they are. What is needed, then, is what philosophers refer to as justification of religious belief. I am not a philosopher (I recommend reading such scholars as Basil Mitchell and Richard Swinburne if one is interested in such things), but Saint Peter nonetheless exhorts his readers "always [to be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Pet 3:15). This, of course, entails more than mere proclamation in the face of unbelief ("You ask me how I know he lives? The Bible tells me so." Yes, but why should I believe the Bible's testimony?). Begging the question, after all, is no argument. It entails more than simply exposing the bankruptcy of the presuppositional foundations of naturalism or any other anti-theistic system, profitable though such an expose may be. In the nature of the case, arguments for Christianity can never achieve the mathematical certainty of, say, the physical sciences. There is no one argument that "objectively" settles the matter. Christianity, after all, demands faith without sight; it will only be when we see our Lord "face to face" that we will "know fully even as we are known" (1 Cor 13:12). But that is no reason to avoid the task of reasoned defense. What matters, as Mitchell argued, is amassing a cumulative case so as to expose the baselessness of claims that Christian belief is based on "fairy tales" and wishful thinking.

Of the many arguments I could adduce, I will mention just two. The first admittedly has little probative value, but I mention it nonetheless in order to counteract the increasingly strident and, frankly, absurd assertions of Richard Dawkins and others that Christianity (and religion in general) is responsible for most of the ills that currently beset the world. The point is this: the lives of such men as my father John and uncle Bill McGahey, and my teacher Harold Hoehner, demonstrate tangibly the effect of the gospel on those who have been truly grasped by its message. In other words, I have seen firsthand the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ to change people so that they become, in effect, living apologetics for the truth of Christianity and embodiments of the cruciformity that alone reflects how people should live with one another. As I have often said, in a very real sense I remain a Christian today because of my father, a man who always considered others before himself, who cared not one whit for the structures of the present evil age, and who perfectly combined the twin virtues of grace and truth in all his dealings with others.

The second, and most important, argument for Christianity's veracity is simply one constituent element of the gospel message itself. I am speaking, of course, about Jesus' resurrection from the dead. In my early years as a fledgling theological student, I came across a little book written in 1977 by University of Manchester New Testament Professor F. F. Bruce. In The Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament Bruce briefly traced the sermons attributed to the apostles in the Book of Acts. What struck me then is how it is Christ's resurrection, not his atoning death that I had always assumed (and been taught) was the all-important matter, which in every case was the salient matter, not merely in Jewish contexts where it nicely provides the fitting climax to Israel's story (Acts 2, 7 [by implication, Stephen's testimony being cut off by lynching]), but in Greek settings as well, where talk of resurrection was a cause for dismissive ridicule (Acts 17). Indeed, the new apostolic message was described as a proclamation of "the resurrection from the dead" (Acts 4:2), and warrant for belief was provided by the apostles' "witness" to its historical veracity (Acts 3:15).

For St. Paul, Christ's resurrection on the third day was a nonnegotiable aspect of the traditional gospel message he had both "received" and "transmitted" to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15:1-4). In the face of some Corinthian converts who, for one reason or another, "[said] there is no resurrection from the dead" (1 Cor 15:12), he makes it abundantly clear that the truth of Christianity stands or falls with the literal, bodily resurrection of Christ (15:12-19), which serves as the foretaste and first installment of the ultimate Messianic defeat of death and guarantee of the ultimate resurrection of his people (15:20-28). Note that, in this context, Paul defends the veracity of the apostolic tradition about Christ's resurrection, as Peter had earlier, via eyewitness testimony: Cephas and the Twelve, 500 brothers and sisters at one time, James the Just and "all" the apostles, and then, finally, himself (1 Cor 15:5-11).

"Christianity" was true, in other words, not because it provided the gateway to a heretofore unimaginable level of intense religious experience. It was true, according to the apostles, because God had shown it to be true in history ("on the third day") by raising Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, thereby vindicating one who had been executed by the Romans, with the consent of the Jewish leadership, as a supposedly-failed Messianic pretender. Once again it is essential to understand just what this belief entailed. When the apostles claimed Jesus had been raised from the dead, they emphatically did not mean, as Marcus Borg would have us believe, that the early Christians somehow experienced Jesus as "alive" in a non-bodily way. "Resurrection" simply didn't mean such claptrap. As N. T. Wright says, "'Resurrection' meant embodiment; that was equally so for the pagans, who denied it, as it was for the Jews, at least some of whom hoped for it" (The Resurrection of the Son of God, 694).

Why, though, should we believe this apostolic testimony? The reason, I propose, is that the Christian belief in Jesus' resurrection best explains both the rise of the Christian movement in general and the contours of the belief in particular (i.e., as Wright argues, the inference to the best explanation; Resurrection, 685-718). Despite some bold claims, there are no near parallels to Christian belief in the paganism of the ancient world. The late Old Testament Book of Daniel provides the category of individual bodily resurrection, but posits it for all people at the end of history in preparation for the final judgment (Dan 12:1-3). Christians asserted, on the contrary, that this resurrection had come in the midst of history with reference to a single individual, the crucified Jesus of Nazareth (while not denying the future general resurrection or the connection between them). And this resurrection was no mere resuscitation of a corpse. It was a transforming revivification into what Wright calls a "transphysical body," one that, according to the Gospel accounts, bore the scars from his execution and could eat fish, yet passed through the grave clothes in which it had been wrapped in the tomb, could walk through closed doors, and not be immediately recognizable.

I suggest that it is only if we take seriously the New Testament claims of Jesus' empty tomb and post-resurrection appearances to his followers that adequate sense can be made of these developments. We start, as in the Gospels themselves, with the empty tomb, perhaps the most assured fact that historical analysis can affirm. Without an empty tomb, there is simply no way that the later Christian belief in the resurrection could possibly have arisen, for the simple pointing to his grave would have nipped any movement built on a supposed resurrection in the bud. But an empty tomb is not sufficient, in and of itself, to have caused such developments to arise. That demanded yet another factor, namely, the appearances of Jesus to his followersand, in the case of his appearances to his brother James and the persecutor Saul of Tarsus, those who heretofore had not been followersnarrated in the Gospel accounts and enumerated by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. Of course, naturalistic explanations of these appearances have been suggested ad nauseum by those hesitant to affirm Jesus' resurrection: mass hallucinations (really?), visions understood as projections of guilt and/or grief, fantasies caused by cognitive dissonance, wishful thinking proposed by those unwilling to accept failure and/or mistaken beliefs. By themselves, such appearances would be insufficient to produce belief in resurrection. But the conjunction of these appearances with the empty tomb explains both the belief in the resurrection and the surprising, indeed novel, ways that belief was articulated by the early Christians.

To be sure, such an argument cannot prove the resurrection, let alone the Christianity which depends on it. People are free to come up with alternate explanations, and no doubt more will be forthcoming. After all, confessing to belief in Jesus' resurrection is no mere disinterested truth claim (though, of course, there have been some, like Pinchas Lapide, who can affirm Jesus' resurrection while denying his status as Israel's Messiah). Belief in Jesus' resurrection entails belief that Jesus is the risen Lord, to confess which is to make what Tony Thiselton has called a "self-involving truth-claim," one in which the confessor nails his or her colors to the mast as an act of commitment (see A. C. Thiselton, The Hermeneutics of Doctrine [Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2007] 12-13). This is a confession that, as Paul says, can only be uttered through the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3). Yet, it seems to me, naturalistic rationalizations of the biblical data all fail to provide the explanatory power that the Christian explanation does to deal with the data on the ground.

In the nature of the case, this post, while long, only scratches the surface and is intended as a springboard for further study. If one is interested in more detailed argumentation, I recommend the following: Gary Habermas, "The Late Twentieth-Century Resurgence of Naturalistic Responses to Jesus' Resurrection," Trinity Journal n.s. 22 (2001) 179-96; Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2010); and especially N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God; Minneapolis: Fortress/ London: SCM, 2003).

8 comments:

  1. Great post Jim G! As a former child who attended a Baptist church weekly during my at home years and threw it away early on, Slick's feelings and thoughts ring true to a certain degree with my experience as well. Did I know what I was doing? Yes. Did I know the theology and gospel? Yes. Two things prevented me from following Jesus and both are touched on in your post. My questions got a negative response and got me kicked out of Sunday School many times. Although I wanted answers, me and my questions were glossed over or ignored or dismissed. What do we expect when we treat inquiring minds like that? Also, I learned pretty quickly that I was not the 'right kind' and saw the overt favoritism shown to those kids whose socioeconomic situation was better than my family's place. As I grew older, I could see the hypocrisy of that favoritism and the "Sunday Xians" were prevalent. Those two issues made it very easy to reject Jesus and the love that He had and has for us (and me specifically). Aubrey Malphers said it best when he said, "Christianity isn't true because it works but, if it's true, it better work." With all that being said, would I have walked away anyway (before being placed into His family in my 30's)? Real good chance that my naturally rebellious nature would have compelled me to flip God the bird for 20 years anyway but as I remember it, that drove me from away and made it easy to justify myself.

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    THINGS THAT DO NOT MAKE YOU A MEMBER OF THE LORD'S CHURCH.

    1. Simply believing that Jesus is the Son of God does not grant you membership in the Lord's church.

    Mark 5:1-12 .....7..."What business do we have with each other, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?....12 The demons implored Him....

    Demons believe that Jesus is the Son of God, however, that does not give them membership in the Lord's church. Legion was not part of the body of Christ.

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