An Invitation Back to Faith

I’m writing to those who, like me, would have called themselves Christian as a child but who left aside that faith in the teenage or college years.

My aim will be to show that the reasons—the doubts, the discoveries, the emotions—that led you to set aside faith as you came of age were, although probably reasonable, not ultimately correct. You will see in what I’m about to argue that the reasons that persuaded you then should not persuade you now; that in fact the intellectual insights that moved you away from faith as you came of age were tainted with a kind of naivety, and that the more sophisticated reasoning and greater experience available to a more mature adult not only warrants a return to faith, but compels it.

My basic premise is this. Over-reaction of a certain kind is a basic human epistemological tendency. This tendency, along with other overwhelming features of young adulthood—a growing sense of autonomy, a general pushing aside of parental authority, greater exposure to moral ambiguity in oneself and one’s surroundings, and exposure to an awe-inspiring array of new information and ideas—conspires to lead a young person to cast aside their faith. This casting aside feels reasoned and well-motivated, but is in fact irrational and unwarranted.

Now let me explain.

As a child you may have believed in Noah’s ark. When you heard in Sunday School that Noah, having been warned by God of a coming flood, built a gigantic wooden ship and then brought into it two of every species of animal on the earth, you pictured this scene vividly in your mind, enjoyed it, and accepted it. Nothing in your young experience cautioned you that the story—or your vision of it—might be fictitious. It seemed plausible enough; after all, how many species could you name at that age? And it was a compelling image. What child doesn’t like animals or dramatic tales of impending destruction?

At that early age you built, under the guidance of your elders, a model of how to read and process biblical stories. It was an unsophisticated model; naturally it had to be: you were a child. You took whatever words you read from the page, imagined the scene as well as you could based on your own understanding of language and the world and on the hints and suggestions of your guides. You formed the best image you could—the best mental “movie”—and took this to be both (1) what the Bible said and (2) a true story about something that happened in your world.

All of this was quite innocent. You were innocent in making the best interpretation that you could. Even your guides were innocent, or largely so. In fact, your guides may themselves have had a much more mature understanding of the story than they communicated. How can an adult impel their mature insights into a child? Accuracy, or plausibility, are not always the highest goals. It was good that people told you a good story, and good that you absorbed it as best you could.

But then one day your youthful interpretation fell on hard times. Perhaps in junior high, or high school, or college, someone pointed out to you that your image of the story didn’t jive. There are something like nine million species of animal on this earth; how could two of each fit onto a ship of any size? If the whole earth flooded something like seven thousand years ago, where is the geological evidence? And there’s a moral problem. The climax of the story comes with God’s eradication of life on the earth. In childhood God’s judgment may have seemed fair to you (even if scary). Children are often more ethically absolute than their older counterparts. But perhaps this judgment came to seem too harsh, too hateful, too indiscriminate. And so, on the basis of some new insights, you began to question the truthfulness of biblical stories.

And yet there is already an error in logic here—the error of youth rather than childhood. Do you see it now? The error lies in your identification of your interpretation of the biblical message with the actual biblical message. Because you had received this interpretation—this mental movie—so young and had held it for so long, you assumed that your interpretation was the biblical story. In fact your movie may have emblazoned so deeply into you so early in life, that even now you can’t quite bring yourself to see it as distinct from the actual biblical words. But it is distinct—as every interpretation is distinct from every message.

And so you began to tell yourself that you were doubting the accuracy of the Bible when in fact you were doubting the accuracy of your interpretation.

If it had only been the Noah’s ark story, your faith might have been saved. But then the seven days of creation described in Genesis chapter 1 ran afoul of one professor’s calculation of the age of the earth and another’s awe-inspiring account of Evolution. Now your hometown views were in real trouble. How could you, a freckle-faced yokel (feel free adjust that description for fit) defend your mental movie of a rapidly-ripening earth presided over by a robe-billowing deity against such charming, learned authorities? (Two syllables on “learned” there—very sophisticated.) Perhaps your childhood faith put up a fight for a while—in your own head if not in your speech—but eventually you had to concede.

Only you didn’t have to concede. Again, you made an error then that age, growing humility, and reflection may yet enable you to reverse.

There were two problems with your concession to your professors’ claims.

The first we have already touched on. When you rejected Genesis 1 as a reliable description of the beginnings of our world, you did not in fact reject Genesis 1, but your own movie based on the book. By now you surely see that your movie was hardly the only possible interpretation. Various people have various views on what Genesis 1 describes. Presumably there is some “original interpretation”—the movie that the original author had in mind, whether we imagine the author as Moses or as God or as some editor(s) or some combination of the three. It is possible that the original interpretation really does represent truth about how the world was created—for example, that the progress of creation could be usefully divided into six stages (“days”), that the simpler plants, fish, and birds came about before the more complex land animals and humans, that the creation is in some sense fundamentally good, and so on. It is possible that the words of Gen 1 express the truth; and if so, it is likely that as children we were unable to reform the correct movie from the correct words. Therefore our rejection of “the Bible” was a sensible rejection of our understanding of the Bible, but an unreasonable, premature, and frankly self-important rejection of the biblical text itself. Self-important because we, in our youthful hubris, assumed that our perspective was the only perspective.

The second reason you should not have conceded so easily to your professors is that their own view was not as certain as they stated or implied. I’m not saying that the theory of Evolution is wrong or that the world is really just a few thousand years old—I’m not rejecting scientific models out of hand. But the strength of these views is certainly not as great as professors of science tend to express (or evidently believe), and the whole field of knowledge—not just religion—is far more open for inquiry and doubt than the scientific culture tends to portray.

Perhaps I need to defend that assertion. In the ordinary scientific account, everything that exists is material. Energy, particles, waves, forces—these are the only things and there is nothing else. There is no spirit and therefore no afterlife or angels or gods. There is nothing supernatural, only the natural—that which we can observe. The standard of all truth must be empirical: seeing is believing.

This is the materialist position. It forms the underlying presupposition by which most science and scientific education operates. It is the aspect of science most directly opposed to the idea of God, and the aspect that is most aggressively deployed to make religious believers feel that their ideas are wrong or even silly.

The trouble with materialism is that it is not only observably false, but it is patently, glaringly false. By two separate arguments.

First, on what basis should we argue that materialism is true? More simply: why should you believe it? Well, by its own lights, observation is the only standard of truth; that is, you believe something when you see it. But on what observation could I ever come to believe in materialism? What could you show me—empirically—to convince me that materialism is correct?

Consider carefully what the challenge here is. In order for me to believe on the basis of observation that the only things that exists are matter, you must somehow show me the total absence of non-matter. You must take me to the edge, as it were, of matter, have me look over the precipice and observe, “Yes, I see now what you mean. There is nothing else here but matter.” But there is no such edge, literally or figuratively. There is no way that you can show me—or yourself, for that matter—the absence of non-matter. Said another way, there is no way in which you can show me the “completeness” or total adequacy of matter, such that the possibility of non-matter, or compelling rationales for its existence, would be forever obliterated. Indeed, in a moment I will reverse the argument and show that far from being wholly adequate, matter is indeed patently inadequate to explain what we commonly observe everyday; so that it is not non-matter, but matter that is in greater need of proof.

I suspect and fear that the rise of materialism in the last 200 years is a sad case of the simple error of mistaking a premise for a conclusion. Scientific investigation quite rightly (in most cases) makes a materialistic assumption. The experiment assumes for the sake of simplicity that the only things relevant to the experiment are material particles and whatnot. The experimenter doesn’t really believe that nothing but matter exists, but in order to focus on learning the principles by which matter behaves, the experimenter takes it as an assumption that nothing else is present to modify the results. This is sensible.

The trouble is that with time, and with wishfulness, and with the deterioration of insight that can happen when an idea is passed from teacher to student on down through the generations, this useful assumption came to be seen as more than an assumption. It came to be seen as truth—as arguable, as convincing, as established. The materialistic assumption was so powerful and useful in the investigation of physical phenomena that it came to be seen as the only lens by which all reality should be viewed. It’s the classic error: when all you’ve got is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. And so scientists who rightly used this perspective to do their work came to use it as their perspective on everything. Tragic.

But of course, when you are young and an older, brilliant, charming, respected professor declares to you that nothing exists but particles and fields and waves, you are not prepared to answer him. Even if you were, he controls the floor—would you challenge him on his own turf? Certainly you’re not prepared at that age to see that materialism is not only questionable, nor merely incorrect, but tragically wrong. But perhaps with age and reflection you come to see him as less intimidating—less unquestionable—and other arguments begin to show their merit.

The other reason that materialism must necessarily be false is that you clearly, unavoidably, necessarily are experiencing something non-material right at this moment. That something is your consciousness, and it is utterly inexplicable in terms of materialism. Without belaboring this point—for the literature on the subject is vast—let me highlight the most interesting insights.

Your consciousness, of course, is what enables you to perceive the things around you from the perspective of a single, personal identity. You are you. You experience things. You are aware of your own thoughts, what your eyes see, what your skin feels. Although your consciousness is clearly connected somehow with material things (like your eyes and skin), it is not itself, in any way, material. It does not seem to be constituted by material. It does not seem to share the properties of matter.

Nothing in material science explains the phenomenon of experience, for example. There is no “consciousness particle”—some elementary particle that produces or constitutes consciousness. Particles have mass and spin and attraction and repulsion—at no point does awareness enter into it. No individual particle has consciousness, so far as we are aware, and even if they did, the result would be a mass of little “I’s”, rather than the single “I” that you experience. This singleness of consciousness—the sense that you are one “I” despite being attached to a body made of trillions of particles—is one of its most mystifying features.

There’s also the question of why? If we assume that the universe was created by accident, with no personal intent behind it, we are confronted with a series of intractable conundrums. If the universe is a vast machine, launched blindly down the years into the present, why has it produced these living, conscious creatures? It’s easy to imagine a state of affairs in which absolutely nothing exists. After all, the universe doesn’t have to be here. Why is there something here rather than nothing? And then, it’s easy to imagine a universe that is pure machine—all planets and orbiting and clockwork, but no life. And yet this universe had just those properties needed to produce life. Why? Why not some lifeless universe?

And not just any life. Life, at its essence, might be nothing more than highly complex molecular interactions—just one step removed from “clockwork.” And it’s easy to imagine a universe that evolves from large-scale clockwork to fine-scale cells and organisms, without any implication of consciousness. And yet this universe, incredibly, up and decided to award to certain entities with direct conscious experience.

And note here—though it’s difficult to wrap one’s mind around it—that in the absence of minds, no concept of “entities” would exist. A rabbit hopping through the forest would simply be one complex of physically interacting molecules (the rabbit) passing a mess of other complex, interacting molecules (the trees). Without a conscious mind around to see it, there would be no rabbit and no trees—only the clockwork, as it were. Thus the presence of consciousness in the universe not only puts awareness and persons into the world, but imparts them with the ability to recognize other things—first their own bodies, but then also rabbits and planets and stars—to identify them not merely as coagulations of molecules but as coherent, distinct entities. Is it really likely that this remarkable result burst forth from nothing by mere accident? Why should this particular kind of universe—one resulting in complex life and a mystifying personal consciousness—have come about rather than some simpler one? Is it really so clear that, as your professors taught you, the only entities that exist are material, when the ability to recognize “entities” at all is a function of non-material minds?

So far from being absolutely compelling in their arguments, your professors were really treading on very thin ice. But the story of scientific materialism is very appealing, the pressure to adopt it is high, and your beliefs about God and Scripture that these views contested had been formed when you were a child. You were set up to fall.

At the beginning of this essay I said that over-reaction is a basic human epistemological tendency. What I meant was that people have a tendency, under certain circumstances, when confronted with a small amount of information that contradicts what they believe, to over-react to that challenge. Rather than throwing out some small part of their belief—just the part directly challenged by the new information—we will often throw out the whole belief as if the whole thing were tainted by the doubtfulness of the part. So, for example, if a friend whom you deeply trust betrays you in some small matter, you may become so angry and disillusioned that you dismiss the whole friendship as a deception and abandon the friend. Later it sometimes happens that you realize your error. You see that although it’s true that your friend harmed your trust in a certain limited way, with hindsight you realize that your friend in general was true and trustworthy. You see that you overreacted, you regret it, and you wished you could restore the relationship. Usually it’s too late.

In the same way, as a younger person you allowed your faith in Christianity to lapse, or perhaps forcefully pushed it away, not because some large part of the whole came under doubt but because various individual parts of the faith—maybe the story of creation, the reliability of certain biblical passages, or the problem of evil—seemed to collapse, and this led you to assume that the whole thing was collapsing.

This problem was exacerbated by an unfortunate tendency for people, when some particular aspect of their faith is questioned, to begin to see their whole belief system in terms of the particular part being doubted. If someone casts doubt on the biblical story of creation, for example, before long you’ll have it in your mind that the story of creation is the essence of Christianity. It isn’t. After a while when you think of Christianity, you think only of those parts that are controversial or uncertain. You quickly forget the many parts of the Bible that still make sense and attract you. The character of Jesus Christ, for example. His excellent teaching on human nature, tolerance, happiness, God’s love and forgiveness. His remarkable miracles, amply attested by no less than nine written first-century witnesses, who reference thousands of other direct witnesses. His self-sacrificial death out of love for you. The calm, steady wisdom of Proverbs. The profound, worldly insights of Ecclesiastes. The many enlightening and thought-provoking stories in the Bible that are seldom mentioned because they do not serve controversy. Soon the Bible becomes nothing but a catalog of scientific and historical error, violence, rape, racism, slavery, and judgment.

But look again. Your memory has failed you. Certainly the Bible contains a great deal that is abhorrent, mystifying, or opposed to the scientific mainstream. But the abhorrent parts are generally reporting evil rather than advocating it. The mystifying parts deserve contemplation and discussion, not derision and dismissal. And the unscientific parts—well, science only goes so far to explaining the strange and complex world we live in. Horatio.

But back then you panicked, and filled with the promise of new ideas ahead, you threw out the baby with the bathwater.

What I hope I am helping you reconsider is whether that choice was really reasonable, correct, or wise. What I have argued so far is that it was unreasonable because: (1) you were really rejecting your own childhood view of Christianity, not a mature view; (2) more was made of the correctness and adequacy of the new ideas than was warranted by their actual merit; and (3) you rejected a large thing—faith in God and Christ—on the basis of relatively small, relatively localized doubts.

There’s something else, deeper and darker.

The adolescent urge is to escape from parental authority, to take up one’s position among adults as an equal peer. This rebellion is perfectly natural, but many young people overdo it. A natural urge to challenge and question becomes a disdainful sneer at all authority. This urge—it is virtually an instinct—can often motivate a person to push away harder than they need to. And since God is the ultimate parental figure, the ultimate authority, there is a tendency to push him away too. “I don’t need you. I know just as well as you. I can make my own way.” Everyone has to go through this. But it makes for bad theology. Have you now grown past it?

Darker still. The adolescent and early adult years are also a time of experimentation and exploration. You do things you’ve never done before. Sometimes you regret them. Other times they make you feel guilty but you kind of enjoy the guilt. You see things, smell things, taste things, and feel things you could never have imagined (and probably wouldn’t have wanted to) ten years before. Then when you think of Jesus looking down on all this you feel ashamed, disgusting, and lost. You feel an odd mixture of fear and anger—fear that you might be judged, and yet anger that God might judge you. “What right do you have?” the adolescent cries. “I can do what I want! My will is my own. You can’t tell me what to do!” Invictus.

Denial brings a kind of escape. It is easier to believe that God doesn’t exist or doesn’t care than to obey, confess, or face judgment.

It all comes together into a perfect storm. The naive faith of a child, the bully pulpit of materialism, the drive to reject authority, and a growing awareness of moral compromise all drive you to jettison your faith.

But unlike the friend whom you could never again bring yourself to call, this discarded relationship can be restored. Your faith does not need to lie neglected.

For me the turn came—as it does for many, it seems—when I first held my son in my arms. Although I had never completely rejected Christianity, by my mid-twenties I cared nothing for it. This little light of mine was burning low.

It occurred to me then, standing in the hospital tugging my son’s little cap and watching his legs held askew at a ridiculous angle, that another father had held me in just the same way not so long before. I realized for the first time that the powerful, permanent love that I felt for this boy had been felt for me.

I never felt so much loved until I loved so much.

It changed my world. It made the planets and computers and creation and the protozoa and the particles all seem terribly unimportant—a mere distraction from the main event.

So I went on a quest to rebuild what I had lost since losing interest in Christianity, to reconstruct what I had failed to grasp as a child, and to reconsider what faith should be, so that I could live the best life and give the most love I could.

I’m still on that quest. But one thing I have discovered. The biblical authors, along with those who followed them—Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Bonhoeffer, Lewis, Willard, and others—make more sense and hold more insight in their respective little fingers than all the scientific papers you could read in a thousand lifetimes. There is such a thing as a mature faith out there, and it is sophisticated, experienced, reasoned, fearless, and right.