Paying an Intellectual Cost (141)

In this episode John and Gregg resume their discussion from last episode of the article on apologetics in the Biola University Magazine: “Young people are indeed leaving the church,” by Craig Hazen and Larry Barnett.

During this conversation John contrasts the above article with another, entitled “How becoming more secular brought me closer to Jesus,” by Allison Lynch. John does so in part to investigate a hunch that he had from last episode. Namely, that while the Biola article contends that much (if not all) of the difficulties that cause young people to leave the church are due to unanswered doubts, that this is not the case.

In other words, John contends that Barnett and Hazen’s approach is entirely partial and that it will not be effective where the issues forcing people from the church are experiential, and not intellectual, such as the situation that Allison Lynch presents.

Lynch’s article chronicles her evangelical past and, ultimately, her break from evangelicalism.

Gregg agrees with John regarding the insufficiency of a purely intellectual approach. Further, Gregg finds it curious that Barnett’s Next Gen Project is based on a study noting six issues that young people have with the church. Yet Barnett’s argument centers on only one of the six issue (the church being “doubtless”), and has taken the issue of being doubtless out of context of the original study!

In other words, rather than focusing on the issue as stated (that the church is does not doubt enough and / or is unfriendly toward those with doubts) Barnett is instead effectively claiming that the research shows that those who doubt are falling away from the church—not the conclusion of the original research at all! Gregg finds this (mis)use of others’ research to be very problematic.

Gregg comes back to John’s famous phrase of needing his Christian faith “to reconcile with his lived experience,” and noting that both one’s experience and one’s Bible reading should be questioned. Ultimately though, Gregg views both the Biola article and Barnett’s website as entirely focused on the intellectual, in the sense of “knowing the right stuff and applying it in the right way.”

For John the other missing piece is about behavioral conformity. For example, in her article Allison notes that there were things that she had to “hide” from her small group and her pastor. John sees this as being an evangelical “behavioral code” that forced Allison to hide or mask herself to other Christians. John wonders if this is Allison’s church not being able to connect with her doubts or differences, and yet these doubts and differences had a clearly (and even mainly) experiential quality.

Gregg wonders about the notion of doubts generally: much depends on what is being doubted (or in Allison’s case, what had to be “hidden” in light of her doubts). So Gregg doubts that Allison’s church was able to integrate its member’s theories about God—their theology—and their understandings about real life in a sufficiently robust way, and thus when a clash arose between Bible and life, Bible would always win. In such an environment honesty about “real life” is impossible.

Indeed, Gregg notes that part of one’s responsibility as a Christian is to doubt the perspectives—the beliefs and theologies—of our fellow Christians, whether skeptically or suspiciously or both, in order that Christianity has a greater chance of being more associated with truth than with the status quo! So against an epistemological formulation of doubts (that doubts are related to a lack of correct knowledge) Gregg advocates equally an experiential basis for doubt.

John appreciates Allison’s view that, by moving away from the unnecessarily strict filter of “Christian or not,” she has been able to see that she is responsible for her own happiness and to see people for who they truly are (rather than trying to change them). Gregg agrees with this in part, though he views the fact that these categories (of “Christian or not,” or seeing someone as “saved or not”) are so entrenched and so primary to evangelical thinking as a clear indication of the brokenness of evangelicalism.

In such cases Gregg advocates acting on one’s doubts, not ignoring them or trying to dispel them, noting that doubts are in fact incredibly valuable, as doubts are key to fueling further research. In other words, while curiosity is an excellent prompt to research the Bible, Gregg instead finds that doubts are an even better catalyst: they can compel us to good change.

Gregg notes that insofar as Allison’s indicates that she is moving away from evangelicalism, it is crucial to understand that atheism—should Allison’s or anyone else’s situation result in embracing atheism—is in fact a truth-seeking exercise!

John and Gregg finish with a discussion of Allison’s comment that “I reject the idea that you can only find God in an Evangelical Christian church setting, or that you can only begin to understand God through the message of Jesus Christ.” John finds her view, and particularly her contention that “there are so many gaping holes in this theology, it’s hard to know where to begin” to be unsatisfying.

Gregg agrees, and views Allison’s comment as both vestigial (of her former beliefs) and non-sensical, as the very claims of every religious view, with the exception of Baha’i (which Gregg sees not as a belief set but as an “interface” to belief), make clear claims to exclusivity. In other words, insofar as Allison’s claim is to a breadth of options for knowing God, this very claim is actually contradicted by the terms of all of the major religions!

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