Faith Works 3-12-16
Some questions to consider
Recently I finished reading a book of Christian apologetics.
Hey, you relax your way, I'll relax mine.
It was Tim Keller's "The Reason for God," and I don't want anything I'm going to say sound like a criticism, because it's a fine and fascinating book. Keller is a preacher and pastor in Manhattan who has written a number of volumes, but this one is intended to reply to some of the more common doubts and challenges he has heard over the years he's ministered in New York City.
That's, in a nutshell, what is meant by "apologetics." Today that word sounds like it stands for someone making an apology, which is not quite what's intended in this context. When Paul is defending the reasons for his faith in Jesus Christ in Acts 26, before some intelligent Greek leaders, the word used for what the Apostle was doing is a rhetorical category for an explanation and rebuttal. It's the same root word as what we use to refer to "an apology" today, but then it was a method of systematically responding to an intellectual challenge.
Ever since, there has been a category of Christian theology referred to as apologetics, laying out some of the most common arguments against faith in God and belief in religious propositions, and explaining an effective response.
Keller's book is wise and thoughtful; many of you might have heard of if not read C.S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity," also a work of apologetics; the title comes from a 17th century British cleric and author, Richard Baxter, who not only proposed in his apologetic writings the character of a "mere Christian" but also popularized a phrase to calm denominational storms of his day: "in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity." That pithy statement is found within one of Baxter's more than 200 books – now there's a writer!
All of these writings are well worth your time if you are feeling the need to go deeper, and consider in detail certain intellectual and logical claims and counter-claims. But I have to say that in pastoral work, the heart of what's being asked of me by those wrestling with the claims of faith boils down to three questions.
First: is there a God? It's a fairly simple question, which can be broken down in detail, but for most of us, it's a question of do you, or don't you think there is a someone or something greater than our own awareness and understanding? You may say "god" or "gods" (or "spirits" or "beings"), but the first question is: do you believe there is . . . Someone, beyond our own human limitations and finite expectations?
Some step out of the conversation here. Their faith, if you will, is in the senses and material forms, and when the chemical fires in a human body go out, there is nothing more. And when the Sun flares its last, that is all. Well, okay.
But that's a pretty uncommon perspective, I've found. Even a number of people who will say early in a conversation "I'm an atheist, I don't believe in a god" will note a little further on that "of course, I think there could be something larger, greater, I don't know, but this isn't all." Okay then, I'd say you're at least open to the idea that there's someone, some One out there we could refer to as God.
And in this country, at least, survey data show that of those who self-identify as "atheist" about one in five prays (6% say they pray every day), and only about 14% of those who claim that label would argue that a person who chooses to pray can't call themselves an atheist.
I say all of this not to mock, but at least to point out that our labels don't tell the whole story. A solidly materialist atheist might say these others are confused about the difference between atheist and agnostic, which might be so, but I'm just trying to stay on one simple question, without making it too complicated: do you believe in God?
Curious about the other two questions? Yep, come back the next two weeks!
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he believes in God. Okay, not surprising. Tell him about what you do and don't believe at email@example.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.