In an Age of Skepticism (RJS)

In an Age of Skepticism (RJS) January 22, 2013

I have had a number of interesting conversations over the last couple of months, some in person, some by email. One was with a young adult who was contemplating how to discuss the Christian faith with a friend who was sure that modern science had removed all rational basis for faith (and was amazed that there are still scientists and other scholars who believe); another with a pastor who cares about reaching his community and doesn’t quite know how to answer all the questions that are raised; yet another with a graduate student who grew up in the church and was now struggling. This last person commented that they have ended up leaving the church they attended for a variety of reasons – probably at bottom because an inability to find a community where it felt safe to discuss their questions and struggles.

This is a big problem, and one we can’t afford to brush under the rug to avoid controversy or out of fear of where the answers might lead. We live in an age of skepticism, and I don’t think it is likely to get better any time soon.

Several years ago Tim Keller, founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, published a book  The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. This book is a great conversation starter. It was written to provide “an intelligent platform on which true believers can stand their ground when bombarded by the backlash to religion created by the Age of Skepticism.” (front flap) The book grew out of Keller’s experience planting a church in New York among intelligent, skeptical, secularized adults. He engaged in conversation, on a personal level, with many people and searched for ways to answer the questions they raised.

Although The Reason for God is an “old” book (published way back in 2008), and one I’ve written about in the past, the conversations I’ve had over the last couple of months lead me to believe that it is a book and a resource well worth another careful look.  Over the next several weeks we will look at the arguments for and against Christian faith presented by Keller in his book. The posts will use some of the material from the original series, but expand upon it based on the conversations I’ve had over the last five years.

Responses to the Conflict. Before digging into the book itself it is useful to consider the relationship between faith and reason and the response of individuals to the real or perceived conflict. The clash between faith and reason is not a new discovery -€“ it has plagued western civilization for the last several centuries. In our Colleges and Universities today many undergraduate students find their faith tested, often severely. Within the graduate and postdoctoral ranks in secular academia strain and tension is almost unavoidable €- in all areas of scholarship and study. Ben Meyer in the introduction to Ch. 5 of The Aims of Jesus reflects that in the course of debates on faith and history (and this can be broadened to include debates between faith and intellectual pursuits in general) there are four general responses to the conflict (I expand somewhat from Meyer):

(1) Faith requires the renunciation of intelligence. This is Meyer’s way of phrasing it. I would put it a little differently. Any elaboration here would detract from my principle point – so I will forbear. If faith doesn’t require the renunciation of intelligence, it at least requires the abdication of intellectual integrity.

(2) Intellectual integrity requires the renunciation of faith. This is a growing view in our world today. Secular humanism and atheism may not be in ascendancy (Alister McGrath, NT Wright, Tim Keller, and others all make this point in various ways) – but the view has become the de facto operating principle for many; the point of departure. More importantly, the accepted alternatives to atheism or materialism do not usually include orthodox Christian faith.  I am not sure how many pastors and other Christian leaders appreciate the depth of this antipathy toward the Christian faith. Among people who would find jokes about race, gender, handicap, ethnicity, sexual orientation, … to be totally unacceptable, jokes about Christians are acceptable.  It is simply assumed that no one with intellectual integrity will continue to hold on to an orthodox faith. And if they do, they deserve the critical jibes.

(3) By the skin of one’s teeth one can hold to both faith and integrity. But within this position there is a constant tension. We bracket off the questions and continue to function – barely. Many stories,€“ both of those who “lost faith” and those who “retained faith”, include this approach in the mix. Scot’s chapter on apostasy in Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy is sobering. The skin of one’s teeth often leads to renunciation in the long run.

(4) Intellectual integrity demands faith. A modernistic “evidence that demands a verdict” approach. Although I doubt that the category fits any of these completely, popular writers such as Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, Hugh Ross, and William Lane Craig, among others come off at times as advocating this approach.

I would add a fifth response to this taxonomy:

(5) Intellectual integrity is fully compatible with faith but requires honest interaction. There is no proof – some ambiguity remains. Of course honest grappling with all the questions and issues is somewhat unnerving to many. It seems inevitable that some views will be refined or even abandoned in the process and this prospect causes concern. Both science and biblical criticism challenge some dearly held ideas. Perhaps it is not true that everything is clear cut. Nonetheless there is a way forward. Exploring the issues does not lead inevitably to deism or liberalism or apostasy. One of the most important things here is the realization that not every doctrine or position we inherit from our tradition is of equal importance or equal truth.

Faith is a relationship. Grappling with issues of faith is best done in relationship within community. We aren’t made to be loners -€“ from God or even before God. But it sometimes seems that the hardest single thing to do within the community of conservative evangelicalism is to find one’s way from a skin of the teeth faith into a robust and reasoned faith. It is rather easy, on the other hand, to find in “the world,” and especially the academy, community support for renunciation.

A bit of an autobiographical note to start: In my adult journey I have moved from 2 to 3, with a long holding pattern in 3, and now on to 5. Neither 1 nor 4 were ever viable options for me. But… the journey is not always easy and it can be painfully lonely. Of course this is not the only possible path. I know some who are comfortable in 4, and too many who have found 2 the only plausible option. Some remain in 3 or a variant of 3. I also know some who take a variant of 1 (although they wouldn’t put it quite this way) because it is easiest to “just believe”.

So a few questions€“ and let’s start a conversation…

What is your story and where would you place yourself within this taxonomy?

And… how can we make room in our community, within our local churches, for people to mature into robust Christian faith?

Is there a place for honest interaction with all of the issues?

Are these issues important in a church aiming to reach an unchurched American population?

Tim Keller’s book  The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism is an excellent resource to start the conversation. In addition to the book there is also a discussion guide  The Reason for God: Conversations on Faith and Life – Six Lessons or a study pack Reason for God Pack, Includes One DVD and One Discussion Guide available for use in churches, small groups, or other outreach and discipleship settings. Although I have not had a chance to see the discussion guide or DVD personally – I expect that the whole package will make a powerful resource.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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  • MatthewS

    This is very timely for me. I’m looking forward to reading this series!

  • Cameron M

    I was discussing this with a friend recently. One thing we realized was how the church can grow wide fairly quickly, but rarely does it grow in depth (intellectually). Truly, we have a need for academic teaching in churches. When you have too much emotional experience that isn’t grounded in the study of truth, you get people easily falling away, especially younger people who, outside the church doors, are steeped in a secular culture that confidently presupposes materialism.

  • I guess my question is this:

    Does everything that is unearthed by science and archaeology HAVE to be at ends with the Bible? When we see something new, does it always have to challenge what the Bible contains, or is it merely taking out interpretation of said Bible into account?

    While I’m not raising the banner in the name of evolution, what I see in my brief (but furthering) studies of ANE history shows that a lot of what we have thought about the Bible may not be as factual as possible. There is the part of me that still believes firmly in the Holy Spirit and trusts that Paul spent his ministry revealing Christ crucified and Christ resurrected, and that will never change. However, I do not believe faith has to make us ignore what is happening here, as God has His hands in science and historical matters just as much as He does the Bible or our own lives.

    Hopefully this makes sense and is received in grace and understanding. I’m not a scholar; I’m a student, and I always will be, in one way or another; just trying to understand and live in a way that reflects the freedom that has set me free. 🙂

  • Chris

    In response to “what is your story?”, I am a preacher’s kid (PK) and a prodigal in the sense that I squandered my inheritance on wild living in college and for a few years after. And since I am a PK, my inheritance was certainly not money.

    I can’t say I rejected the faith of my youth in college, but that it took a “spiritual route” that failed to uphold basic biblical tenets (and sounded really inclusive and cool when the campus crusaders would approach me). In the past ten years I’ve come back to faith by God’s grace and persistence, carried out through a number of friends, family, and people like Tim Keller. What I’ve come to realize is that in looking back to my late father’s influence on my faith journey, I’m very grateful because he was never one to display pat certainty of how the biblical story is true, but he did believe it and wrestled with the difficulties and he didn’t hide his wrestling which I think is the mark of someone who can be effective in interacting with skeptics. So I like your category #5 and see it as having much potential in the discussion.

    I’ve heard Keller preach on #4, and I think he’s highly persuasive when he says, “If you reject Christian faith, it’s not on account of too much thinking, but too little.” Obviously, if you believe there’s a Spiritual component to coming to faith, which Keller clearly does, then no matter how much pure thinking you might do might not ever result in Christian faith, but his aim is to frame the position of faith in such a way that it–no matter where you stand–shouldn’t be the brunt of jokes, and that the claims of the Bible should at bare minimum be explored. After all, “the big questions” posed by the most influential philosophers demand investigation and if you make a truth claim that there is no God, you need to be prepared to carry out the implications to the fullest extent and so on.

    At the end of the day, I can’t provide all of the answers, and I know that, and I’m Ok with that, and so should the atheist be ok with that because neither can they. I have made a concerted effort to find alternatives to the truth I’ve accepted in the Bible and come away more persuaded about that truth. If an atheist can say the same about their position, then I pray that the Christians he/she encounters will engage their questions thoughtfully, respectfully, and candidly that they might find reason to continue to explore the possibilities.

  • Mark

    I find myself squarely in #3. I hope one day I will be in #5. I’d even like to be in #4 but I don’t see how that’s possible.

  • I am an atheist who sees hope in small, progressive communities (like what falls under the umbrella of emergent), but I do not see any hope in “the church” at large changing in any positive way to be inclusive toward skeptical people like myself.

    I read Keller’s book years ago, as an evangelical, and it really helped me work through some of my “doubts” at the time. But, one problem that I see is the automatic assumption that people leaving the church, or even losing their faith, is necessarily a bad thing. Despite the rest of your post, the one thing that stuck out to me was this:

    “We live in an age of skepticism, and I don’t think it is likely to get better any time soon.”

    Why is skepticism bad, and why should it get “better”? This kind of combative language is only going to confirm what people like myself already believe.

  • Phil Miller

    I think 1 and 2 are kind of saying the same thing, albeit from opposite perspectives. But I think that 1 represents what still is said in many churches in one way or another. I think in many ways churches themselves are to blame for people feeling that they can’t be a Christian and pursue something that’s intellectually rigorous. I’ve heard people all my life essentially say that you have to choose who you’re going to believe – God (or the Bible) or science.

    I will also say this, I think the one thing that has helped me to maintain my faith is the fact that I’m married to someone who has PhD in microbiology. I have no problem believing in things like evolution, and personally, I guess I’ve don’t feel like there’s a great tension between my faith in science. I also must say that being married to someone who’s involved in science on a daily basis helps to temper one’s belief when it comes to scientific claims in general. Essentially, I have little hope in human progress as a great hope for the earth. Yes, science can do some great things, but on the whole it moves slowly, and a majority of science reporting in the media is misleading. So, no, to build off what Rob said, I don’t think skepticism is bad. I just think we need be nearly equally skeptical of all great claims.

  • Alan K

    “Why deny priority to God in the realm of knowledge when it is uncontested in the realm of being? If God is the first reality, how can man be the first truth?” I’m not sure I fit in the taxonomy. From what I gather in conversations, intellectual integrity means becoming a neo-Kantian and prioritizing epistemology over ontology. But the quote from Barth above, as well as the work of Kierkegaard have demonstrated the problem with Kant’s move–humanity displaces God.

  • Dan Arnold

    Alan K,

    You wanna unpack that a little bit?

    Shalom uvrecha,

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    I am excited in my faith in Christ (every day is like a new adventure with God never knowing what is going to happen next). On the other hand, I have had large bouts of skepticism in regards to the church. Some problems have already been mentioned but I have often found my faith can be strong even when my theology is weak or full of doubts. My relationship with God is firm even when my relationship with the church at times can be strained. I know I am different than many others I meet because there seems to be such an inter-dependance between one’s theology or church experience that when one gets into trouble, so does the relationship with God. Is it just me or am I just wired differently than other people?

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    My mind is at 2, but my heart is at 5. Sometimes, I’m quite miserable….

  • CGC,

    Keep following Christ and forget church. Your faith in Him will be the better for it.

  • Andrew Haak

    i’m currently leading our Sr High youth group through Keller’s The Reason for God. I’m looking forward to include RJS’s insights in our conversations.

  • Phil M

    I would like to add another number: 0 = unwilling to see there is any kind of tension. I spent many of my early Pentecostal years as a young adult in this category. We never honestly engaged with the issues – always falling back to easy answers and trite responses. We were right, they were wrong, and it extended as much to other denominations as it did to secularism.

    Thankfully, I moved from there to 4, and then to 5. The trick, now, is to find that community that will allow the honest discussion to flourish.

    I agree with your opinion of Keller’s book – it has been a great resource for me and my family. Another great resource has been this blog – not just for the content that the various contributors provide (and the discussions that follow), but the book reviews and links to other resources have also been immensely useful.

    So, thanks for that.

  • Tim

    My journey’s way winding, starting in a functionally agnostic bordering on atheist home that almost worshiped intelligence (dad was a Harvard PhD economist, mom reads still almost a book a day)… somewhere in the 1-2 range. Must have been subliminally interested in faith, at least once i started listening to jazz (intuitive practical theology of communication) and reading Langston Hughes (everything i could find in our wellstocked town library; remembering esp Tambourines to Glory) and listening to Mahalia Jackson and a bit of Sr Rosetta Tharpe more or less from the womb along w my parent’s jazz collection… some thing in the soil must have been prepped.
    In high school hung w musicians, heard many of the best in jazz live in local clubs — even Trane. Whose Love Supreme was loaned me by drummer best friend at the time…
    and within a year or so of getting out of high school, running in softcore hippy circles, found myself practicing zen, yoga, reading the eastern faiths voraciously. Is there a number for seriously curious seeker ?
    Within a few years i reasoned (yea even at the time it seemed more reason than heart, though a little heart was there i suppose, and in hebrew theology the mind lives in the heart) into Christian faith… which was mostly comfortable then, intellectually, holding reason and faith in tension, kind of like 5… but not going v deep v often. (though serving various good and mostly progressive justice and peace and sustainability causes…)
    After twentysome years had a completely unplanned born-again experience.
    Within a few years found myself in seminary…
    now in eleventh year pastoring…
    still a five i guess (But I don’t like going by the numbers…)

    Have read and liked Keller’s book. CS Lewis (a big Keller influence he says) is more influential for me. (Stackhouse’s recent piece on Lewis in CT was v good too though). Also Dorothy Day, Henri Nouwen, Philip Yfirst among equals…
    I am responding i think to this post mostly in hopes that my somewhat wild and totally unexpected ride of a journey thus far may provoke more thought and prayer by those inclined to ditch it.
    Please don’t.
    It’s been tough but all good.
    Blessings on this conversation.

  • Joe Canner

    “Faith is a relationship. Grappling with issues of faith is best done in relationship within community. We aren’t made to be loners…”

    RJS, this is a very important point. I grew up in #4, but when I started to explore evolution (in my 30s) and other “heresies” (in my 40s) I didn’t have that community to explore with and so as a result have spent more time in #3 than in #5. Having thus “poisoned the well” it is very difficult to recover.

    I’m sure there is a better way to gently lead my children and their peers through this transition, but I feel like I am shooting in the dark because I haven’t seen it modeled very well. Any resource recommendations (aside from Keller) on this would be appreciated.

  • JamesB

    I would modify #5 to say that it requires honest interaction with those who disagree with us. And by “honest” I mean an ability to admit we might be wrong,regardless of what it means for our current beliefs or way of life. We are all prone to confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance, while generally not being very good at overcoming either of them.

  • CGC

    Well said James . . .

  • JamesB

    As an aside, I enjoyed Keller a lot as a Christian but haven’t engaged with any of his work since becoming an atheist so I’m looking forward to this series.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Very important discussion. I think RJS is right on in highlighting the essential and central nature of relationship. We are not called to have a theology, we are called to be in Christ by and through the work of the Holy Spirit. This can be real, absolutely real and is based on only the most minimal theology (specifically the gospel and its mediation to us by the Holy Spirit). CGC (10) is not abnormal 🙂 What he describes is the place to start and the place to end up.

    Now, we all love our theology, and good theology strengthens our faith, in fact, it’s often said that good theology is also doxology. I’d even go so far as to say that good science can be, through the eyes of faith, doxology. But, we are not called to have faith in or a relationship with our theology, or our science – we are called to have faith in and a relationship with Jesus Christ. This is made possible by the Holy Spirit whom he has sent. A strong, trinitarian theology is, in my view, absolutely essential. This includes a complete inclusion of the Holy Spirit in our every day thinking. It seems that the Holy Spirit is too often relegated to only certain special duties, or even worse, kept locked up in the Bible somewhere.

    Enough ranting. Position 5 is the way to go. We can only be truly at peace in ourselves and the most effective witnesses we can be when all our intellectual integrity is fully compatible with faith and when we fully and even gladly accept honest interaction. We can and should appropriate those verses that speak of the Spirit’s work to our struggles on the intelect-faith front. Just one example: Eph. 1:17-18 “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people,…” This is not just for church.

  • Rejecting faith never happened for me, possibly because during the youthful years when others were finding a need to make the decision, one way or the other, I had no such urge. I just didn’t participate for a while in church. In college I stumbled on a class in “Religion and Existentialism,” the impact of which was to tantalize me with the ways a searching faith could enrich me intellectually, emotionally and ethically through the mystery. I had grown up the son of a Presbyterian minister, whose career was mostly outside the local congregation and yet whose devotion in congregational life was vital for him, as well as my for my mother, brother and sister. I have no memory of thinking that any of my school mates might go to hell, because they weren’t “saved” Christians. I simply thought I lived by a set of beliefs and standards of conduct that were essential for my own obedient faith.

    So in college, as I changed majors and pursued religious studies for a degree, I became engrossed both in Karl Barth’s neo-orthodoxy and also process theology by way of Charles Hartshorne and Alfred North Whitehead—later, in seminary, I would study under John Cobb. Had you asked me whether neo-orthodoxy or process theology were more “correct,” I’d have chosen process, but in practical terms I continue to this day to be influenced also by the rigor and passion of Barth and others, including, truth be told, some against whom he was fervently opposed.

    So, I’ve never found myself, from an age when I’d given serious thought to faith, even considering 1 or 2, and the skin-of-one’s-teeth sense of 3 is somthing I cannot remember ever feeling. I suppose I’ve teetered on 4 and 5, depending on what kind of discussion I’m having or what else besides theological reflection is going on in my life.

    The book I go back to for assiduous delineation of the arguments for God is an odd one to most, as far as I can tell. I’m the only one I know to whom it’s important for understanding personal faith, the volume by David Ray Griffin, “Reenchantment without Supernaturalism: A Process Philosophy of Religion.” It’s mind-cramping reading in many places, but it’s those places in which I find Griffin pinning thinkers to the mat with cunning reason and not accepting facile answers. It’s not an argument for personal Christian faith—Griffin seems to consider that none of his business—but any personal Christian faith that by this reasoning clarifies itself, or at least MY clarifying Christian faith, will be hard to topple with any of the arguments by recent celebrity atheists like Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris. Not that any of them are largely wrong—I agree with them most of the time, I find—but they’re not arguing against MY understanding of my Christian faith.

    Based on the Griffin book—when my head and heart and spirit are trained on its insights—had have to say I’m solidly in 4 mode. The challenge is working out how to live in the enchantment of my faith, and the interesting thing is that in moments when I’m most challenged, most distraught, most lost and unsure, that’s when the enchantment (the wonder and beauty and power) of Christ comes most alive for me.

    But it’s tricky. I’ve been a Presbyterian minister in typical white middle-class congregations all my 33-year career, and all of the complexities, subtleties and nuances of the way I’ve worked out a faith that meaningfully sustains me are lost on people whose curiosity doesn’t force upon them the kind of search I’ve undertaken. It makes me sad, because it’s all the 1’s who agree with me about the importance of being Christian whose unexamined assumptions are least appealing to me, and all the 2’s with whom I share so much in terms of courageous examination keep shaking Christian faith off like a nuisance insect.

    What I believe, and may well be wrong about, is that American mainline churches stand a good chance of contributing to a powerful movement of faith in our time, if only we can find a way to unteach much of what has been taught and teach what the church has yet to imagine about a biblically grounded way to follow Christ that in no way contradicts the sure findings of science, including, for instance, evolution. Expecting Griffin-esque (or Whiteheadian—pick your smart guy) intellectual rigor is probably unrealistic, so there needs to be another way into what really feels like has to be a new mode of thought, expression and practice of Christian life and community. Obviously, I haven’t invented that yet. Or maybe I’ve been trying to invent the impossible, an M.C. Escher stairway to Christ that can be drawn but not climbed in reality.

  • CGC

    Hi JCW #19,
    This is allot to chew on, thanks 🙂 I do have one question, how does Griffin understand Jesus resurrection from the dead?

  • ktb

    Thank you for this. I have an undergraduate degree in one of the sciences, but I am a member of a denomination that largely expects #4. I transitioned from #3 to #5 but have never been comfortable as a #4, because a lot of the popular apologists seem to gloss over the really hard questions. (The Apologetics Study Bible is particularly bad about this.). I have read reviews of Keller’s book but have not yet read it. Now seems like a good time to pick it up.

  • Aaron

    Mike Gantt #12

    I’m curious how you could advise someone to ‘forget church’…

    like RJS says above, we all need a faith community. We weren’t meant to be loners. I understand the problems people have with ‘church’ as its understood in America, but we still shouldn’t neglect meeting together. Your faith will be better for it – imperfections and all. Never ‘forget church’ (ecclesia) because that’s Christ’s body like it or not. 🙂 You can personally attend (or not) as you wish, but it is ill advice to tell someone else to do likewise.

  • AHH

    While I found Keller much better than most apologetics books, especially in its treatment of science (who would have thought a PCA pastor would endorse theistic evolution!), I also thought it dodged some of the tougher questions, or at least the questions that have me wrestling most in category #5 (and on some days #3).

    I find myself agreeing rather completely with this review of the book, for reasons a few here may understand:

  • Chris

    Those who have commented that as atheists or skeptics they have a hard time feeling welcome at church, is that because you don’t think the message should exclude you in the sense that it challenges you to adopt a belief or a set of beliefs, or are you simply disappointed in how churches shy away from hard questions all together?

  • Aaron (24),

    Forgetting church will do no good unless one remembers Christ instead.

    Millions today are seeking the people of God instead of God. That is a problem.

    “The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God.” Rom 14:22

    The book of Hebrews told the New Testament church that gathering together was to prepare for the day of faith – that is, the day of the Lord. We live in that day.

    Church leaders today are promoting church instead of Christ. That is a problem.

    Church is certain times and certain places. Christ is everywhere. He who worships in church worships in idolatry. He who worships Christ worships at all times and in all places.

    Jer 17:5-8

  • RJS


    There are excellent, good, and not so good aspects of Keller’s arguments. But I don’t think of this book as a standard apologetic. Rather it seems to me that Keller shows that the issues that many people view as defeaters are not actually as persuasive as they appear and that one can plausibly construct an argument for Christian faith.

    As with any book there are places where the discussion seems to wander off track, but not so many as to weaken the usefulness. The book is an excellent discussion starter not a perfect source of answers.

    I agree with the review linked – I am also not a big fan of apologetic approaches in general. More than that I think they are worthless unless accompanied by a holistic approach to the Christian story. This book by Keller is a beginning of a discussion. Several of Wright’s book, and Scot’s King Jesus Gospel are important next steps.

  • RJS


    As a believer I am disappointed in how many churches shy away from hard questions altogether. And how they tend to make those with the questions, whether believers, atheists, or agnostics, feel unwelcome.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    The church sometimes forgets that the world gets to ask the questions and it’s the church’s job to respond graciously and not try to change the subject. Unfortunately, the church for too long has been wanting to ask the questions and then supply their ready made answers. This simply does not work anymore.

  • JamesB

    Well said, CGC…

    One of my big issues is that, to this day, none of the answers have been satisfying. For a few years I was able to live at (3) but by the time I eventually came to an understanding of God that made sense and I was comfortable with, I realized it wasn’t much different than not believing at all so I just let it go. That’s where I have been ever since.

  • SG

    I’m unclear as to what the comments are referring to regarding churches not being open to discussion of hard questions and making these questions seem unwelcome. I don’t ask this in a critical tone but simply want to understand this complaint. Are you saying the pastor, elders or leadership refuse to have discussions about hard questions or is it the lay people you meet? Is it enough to have the discussions in private or do they need to be church wide where many members attend and try to engage? Or are the discussions had and your position is heard but the leadership and/or lay people have already come to their own conclusions and if your conclusions/ideas are different from their own everyone has to agree disagree? Is the complaint related to a disrespectful tone on the church members’ part, in response to your earnest inquiry?

  • RJS


    Great questions. This is a hard issue. I think it the way to start might be simply with some discussion type “classes” led by trained people. Some kinds of questions are better handled one on one, but the discussion can start in a larger forum. There is a skill required though to leading a discussion rather than providing the answers. Keller’s book could be a good way to start one kind of conversation, the “From the Dust” DVD or Deb and Loren Haarsma’s book on origins might provide another.

    I doubt if the worship service is often a good place to start such a conversation.

  • I have my doubts about the age of ‘scepticism’ we are in. Most people I know that use that word to describe themselves are not sceptical at all, they fully subscribe to a tradition (it’s even more weird when you have people call themselves ‘freethinker’ and they all parrot the same enlightenment-light clichés) Except for the first generation, you never get sceptics, every sceptic reconstructs a new system, that will be adopted as the new orthodoxy, and fossilise into a new tradition. so I don’t find those who adhere to the scientist tradition to be sceptics at all, except for that they are (like everyone) sceptics about traditions not theirs. But that’s true for almost everybody…

  • AHH

    Following up RJS @33, in my church last Fall we used the “Test of Faith” video material produced in the UK to start some conversations. An Associate Pastor and I led discussion around it (in a Sunday morning adult ed setting), and overall it was a good constructive thing for the 100 or so attending although it certainly ruffled the feathers of a few people invested in the “culture wars” (a 2-minute mention of climate change drew more nasty emails than the week spent on evolution).
    Having started the conversation with the voices of others (in part so that if people got upset it would be less likely to be directly with us), in February and March we will continue with our own material.

    But it was a hard thing to do, because talking about challenging issues and things that don’t always line up neatly on the Christian side of some tally can be very threatening for some people. Many people want everything to be black and white with pat answers, which is horribly frustrating and even faith-harming to those of us who see shades of gray. In my church the pastoral staff supported our effort and the threatened responses came from lay people, but I suspect it would be different in other churches.

  • CGC (comment 22):

    I don’t know of anywhere Griffin mentions his beliefs about the resurrection. I suspect he’d consider the question out of his bailiwick—that, instead, we would look at our scriptures and traditions and see what happens when we allow his insights and arguments to affect our thoughts and beliefs.

  • In Boston here we’ve been trying to respond to these two questions: “How can we make room in our community, within our local churches, for people to mature into robust Christian faith? Is there a place for honest interaction with all of the issues?” Since 2009, at Park Street Church, we’ve been running a “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” class (named after Mark Noll’s book of the same name), where we run an ‘An organic learning community in which we challenge each other to think and discuss difficult or untouched topics, in love and in the light of Scripture.’

    Each week we discuss a different topic, using as a starting point a simple two-page hand out with: the basic facts of an issue, some pertinent Scriptures (not proof-texts, nor exhaustive, just reminders that we’re trying to think biblically), and some questions. We pick topics that are either contemporary (e.g. killing of Osama bin Laden, “the contraception kerfuffle”, “Tebow and the place of football in American life”, the “9/11 Mosque” etc.), persistent issues (e.g. technology and relationships, Christians and the movies, tithing and generosity), or – the most exciting sessions for me – we have members of the group present from their expertise. For the latter we’ve had:
    – a US Army Colonel and his wife describing life ‘as a Christian soldier in America’s wars’ and ‘impact of deployments on military families’;
    – a female post-doc scientist at MIT describing the challenges of doing good high-level science in general, doing that as a Christian, and doing that as a woman
    – an art teacher leading us once in discussing ‘Christian art’ and ‘Christian’ art; then another time just showing us her artwork and the process of how and why she painted it
    – an English literature professor lead us in a discussion on poetry (which was a remarkable education for me!)
    – the mother of an adult severely autistic son lead us in a discussion on her challenges and how the church values (or not) and supports (or not) her
    – a script-writer (in her spare time, no-one knew she did that) leading us in discussion of story-telling in culture
    – when the Tahir Square uprisings happened, a couple who spent many years living in Egypt, and whose daughter was at that moment trapped near Tahir Square helping us understand the history and culture of Egypt

    On average we have between 25 and 40 attending each week, and when we discussed the “9/11 Mosque” I took a straw poll and it was an even split for-against the Islamic center being built and we had a robust passionate discussion! The glorious thing about that and every discussion is that it makes it reeeeally difficult to maintain a “they’re a xenophobic bigot!”, “they’re naive anti-American!” posture when the brother or sister is sitting right next to you! So what happens is that intellectual, cultural and ‘opinion’ idols are dislodged, we grow in our confidence in the sovereignty of God in the midst of complex issues that defy simplistic answers, we are freed to more boldly seek the truth (facts, opinions, research, quotes) without thinking the pursuit will threaten our faith, and we grow in love with those who have different convictions arrived at in good faith.

    It has not, thankfully, fallen into a post-modern trap of just being in love with questions; each week, while we don’t arrive at clear answers or solutions, we make progress in understanding the issue more clearly, understanding and loving each other more, in recognizing our cherry-picked Scriptures for what they are and realizing we have more reading and better exegesis to do.

    I extend an invitation to anyone to come along, 9.45am at Park Street Church, Boston, each Sunday through May.

  • Peter

    RJS, I really enjoy your very thoughtful blogging. You might also find interesting this consideration of Keller’s book from a Christian who thinks that the book is more intended to reassure Christian doubters than to engage objections from actual skeptics.