Let us imagine three individuals. All three grew up in the same conservative evangelical church with the same conservative evangelical views. All three self-designated as Christians before leaving for university.
At university, the first found his views about the nature of the universe, science, the world and scripture challenged. He began to wonder if the faith of his childhood was simply myths and superstitions. He disliked this idea, and began to read as much Christian apologetic literature as he could find. He became conversant with the arguments, and concluded that though theism in general and Christianity in particular could not be proved to a skeptic—It is, after all, with the heart one believes, he often said—it could not be disproved either. It could stand up to scrutiny and one could continue believing without committing intellectual suicide. He had moments of doubt—moments, indeed, of near crisis—late at night sometimes, but he held on to his faith, including his belief that even where he himself could not defend it or reconcile it, scripture was inerrant and the image painted of God was good, true and beautiful.
Our second individual also went to university and heard the same arguments. His faith was troubled, and though he also became conversant with many of the standard Christian explanations, he found them insufficient. In particular, the genocides ordered in the Old Testament seemed wholly out of keeping with the tenor of Jesus in the New Testament. That one glaring contradiction gave credence to other, very specific contradictions that appeared in the books of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and others. He didn’t even notice as his assessment of Jesus gradually shifted from positive to negative, coming alongside his low view of Yahweh. He found Christopher Hitchens’ depiction of God as a “cosmic North Korea, constantly surveilling the world looking for sin” accurate and frightening. He read Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus and was glad to have reasons to reject every aspect of the Bible. Sometimes, late at night, he had doubts, fears that God was actually out there somewhere, perhaps just out of his peripheral vision, beckoning him from his childhood faith to return, but he always managed to think of these as pathological childhood hangups. He successfully resisted faith.
Our third individual met the same challenges to his faith, and read the same Christian defenses as the first, and the same New Atheist attacks as the second. He found the Christian apologetics useless, but the atheist attacks to be aimed at the wrong target. There was an existential fit to Christianity that he found nurturing to his soul, and the New Atheists attempts to characterize Christianity “untrue” were pointless and as “evil and vile” might describe some forms of Christianity he has experienced, but they weren’t the Christianity he understood or embraced. A literature major, he read Julian of Norwich’s Revelations and the novels of G. K. Chesterton and recognized in them the spirit of Christ he had felt in his childhood. And while the Bible might be full of historical inaccuracies, and ANE myths, and contradictions, and cover-ups and plays for power—after all, history is written by the victorious, he recognized—it spoke to him what he recognized as God’s truth. And he loved the the church and its sacraments and its symbolism; he didn’t believe in objective truth and didn’t know what that meant for anyone but him. But he didn’t feel that he needed objective truth: he had Jesus.
These are hypothetical, of course, but I know people of all these stripes, and I imagine you do too. I think many of us have spent time in each of these postures, or at least in a couple of them. My question is, which of these individuals is in and which is out? The second gentleman, of course, believes all three are out: there’s nothing to be in. The third doesn’t have objective lines to argue along, but may well hope all three are in in their own way. The first may well doubt that he is in, but he hopes that he is. How does he feel about the others?
Where are you? How do you feel about the others? What do you hope for?