In the dark 2011 film We Need to Talk About Kevin, titular Kevin, unwanted by his mother Eva since birth, dedicates his existence to her sadistic torment. In his review, Roger Ebert describes Kevin as “a clever little monster who glares at Eva hurtfully, soils his pants deliberately and drives her into such a fury that she breaks his arm. In any other movie, that would be child abuse. In this one, it is Kevin’s triumph.” Culminating in a murderous rampage at his home and high school that comes at the extreme cost of his own freedom, Kevin scores the ultimate victory against his mother: she becomes a widowed, disgraced social pariah for having raised such a twisted, savage son. In the final scene, Kevin is anxiously awaiting his transfer to an adult maximum-security prison, when Eva asks him, “Why?” He responds, “I used to think I knew. Now I’m not so sure.”
What had been a hardened, resolute desire to inflict maximum damage upon his mother at all costs was no longer so ironclad. It began to show the first signs of softening. Recently, my own hardened, cynical attitude toward faith—and a good number of other things—similarly underwent its own softening process.
This is the story of how I, a cynical, skeptical, logical, rational realist and scientist, returned to faith after a nearly decade-long hiatus.
While I was an atheist, my eyes tended to glaze over whenever something even vaguely religious came up in writing or conversation. There’s that r-word again, ugh. It got to the point that I couldn’t make it all the way through articles such as this one that I have now written, if I even bothered to start reading them in the first place. All I ask is that you try your humanly best to keep an open mind as you read this.
Now let’s jump down the rabbit hole.
Let me begin with my own history of spirituality. Growing up I attended a Baptist church with my family, though, I have to admit, I never really got it. Moving away for university at the age of 18 came with many new freedoms—freedoms that I hardly took advantage of, owing to what was probably a youthful, idealistic sense of moral righteousness due in part to my Christian upbringing. It wasn’t until after my final fourth-year exam that I tasted beer. At university I attended a weekly Bible study yet was admittedly keen on the thought of having free Sunday mornings and thus gave up finding an actual church after a few less-than-halfhearted attempts. University studies, especially engineering, while adapting to independent life in a new city for the very first time provided many tribulations. In response to these struggles and seemingly unanswered prayers, doubt and disillusionment eroded my already weak faith. In high school, I doubt many of my friends had known about my faith—something I was determined not to advertise either in high school or in university due to a major lack of conviction in my own beliefs. (Then again, I wasn’t the type to advertise anything about myself in those days.) I was never the rebellious type and thus didn’t give up my faith as an act of spite against my parents. Enough time of outwardly going through the motions of faith coupled with a burgeoning familial crisis continually pecked away at my then-doomed faith. As C.S. Lewis asks in Mere Christianity, a book I will reference abundantly, “Do not most people simply drift away?” As I lost faith in God, I similarly lost faith in romantic relationships and marriage (without getting too personal), and, upon graduating university, I lacked a clear idea of what to do next. Thus began my descent into atheism and cynicism.
To give you an idea of how entrenched my atheism became, consider that at my grandfather’s funeral (he a devout Christian), I complained to my mom about the service, held in his church, as being “too spiritual.” She rightly called me out on this, in perhaps our most direct confrontation regarding faith. I’d slowly been making my stance on faith—or more accurately a complete lack thereof—increasingly clear via subtle comments, an idea inspired at the time by Mark Jaquith’s article, Why I am an atheist and a naturalist:
I decided not to tell my parents directly. I hadn’t lived in their house for a long time. A “we need to talk” sit-down seemed inappropriate for me to initiate. Instead, last year, I gave my adult-aged brothers a heads up (two reactions: “that makes me sad” and “that’s not really news to me”), and decided to stop pretending, and stop guarding what I said, and to let it come out naturally. It took about six months.
In some ways, it was perhaps healthy for me to acknowledge my own disbelief since at least I was finally being honest.
Another death in the family also reinforced my atheism. An elderly man connected by an in-law died in his nineties after having lived alone is his own home until very near the end of his life. He had been an atheist but wasn’t shy to engage in spiritual conversations, often joking that he “protected” his neighbourhood from the roaming Jehovah’s Witnesses by engaging them in lengthy conversations. His funeral was done by a pastor son-in-law who argued that despite this elderly gentleman’s outward disdain toward religion, he was in fact a deeply religious man. This of course being a funeral precluded the pastor from damning the deceased man to hell in front of a grieving family. Nobody, faithful or otherwise, should say or even insinuate that at a funeral. The take-home message to me was that in the end, when it supposedly matters most, it really doesn’t matter what you do—or don’t—believe in.
I gradually became more vocal about my disbelief but like to think that I stopped short of openly bashing religion out of courteous respect to those that did believe. How quaint, I thought, to still believe in an omnipotent, invisible, supposedly benevolent being with supreme authority over the entire universe. Haven’t we moved past such a primitive concept as a modern society? Doesn’t evolution explain how we got here? Isn’t religion obsolete? In his posthumously published memoir, When Breathe Becomes Air, atheist-turned-Christian neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi describes his loss of faith in a story very similar to my own—and likely many other North Americans too:
Although I had been raised in a devout Christian family, where prayer and Scripture readings were a nightly ritual, I, like most scientific types, came to believe in the possibility of a material conception of reality, an ultimately scientific worldview that would grant a complete metaphysics, minus outmoded concepts like souls, God, and bearded white men in robes.
Lee Strobel, prior to becoming a Christian, writes in The Case for a Creator about a 1974 conflict in which a group of Christians in a small West Virginia town objected at times violently to the use of anti-Christian textbooks in their children’s schools:
To me, the controversy in West Virginia was a symbolic last gasp of an archaic belief system hurtling toward oblivion. As more and more young people are taught the ironclad evidence for evolution, as they understand the impossibility of miracles, as they see how science is on the path to ultimately explaining everything in the universe, then belief in an invisible God, in angels and demons, in a long-ago rabbi who walked on water and multiplied fish and bread and returned from the dead, will fade into a fringe superstition confined only to dreary backwoods hamlets like Campbell’s Creek, West Virginia.
As far as I was concerned, that day couldn’t come soon enough.
Philip Yancey, an apologetic Christian author, in Disappointment with God, describes how “secularists, dismissing religion as a crutch, extol the ‘braver’ challenge of surviving in this world without an appeal to a higher Being” (247). “We have killed off our Father,” Yancey continues, “Few thinkers or writers or moviemakers or television producers take God seriously anymore. He’s an anachronism, something we’ve outgrown” (285). (Yancey is indeed a Christian, though, taken out of context, the quotations in this paragraph may seem to suggest otherwise. Don’t be fooled; I’ve just highlighted them to reflect current secular attitudes he discusses in his writing.)
Will Gadd, an esteemed climber and writer—certainly one of my role models—positively rejects the idea of God in his article, The Meaning of Life and this Amazing Universe:
I know there is no God, no soul, no heaven, no hell, no “spiritual” plane despite the copious deluded blather. If there is an absolutely powerful God or presence or whatever then he or she or it is a sadist of the very, very worst kind, and I will not bow to such evil.
John Gruber, Apple commentator extraordinaire, whose website I have read almost daily for the better part of a decade, makes his stance on religion quite unambiguous in a comment about a New York Times op-ed article on speaking in tongues in church:
“We” don’t speak in tongues; religious nutjobs do, and they do it because they believe in superstitious nonsense. …
UPDATE: … this post was, I suppose unsurprisingly, controversial. One word I’ve seen from those whom I presume to be Pentecostals or other evangelical Christians is “hate” … A lack of respect is not hatred; I do not respect superstitious nonsense. But this framing—equating lack of respect with hatred—is what keeps many from criticizing nonsensical religious views.
In his comic How to suck at your religion, The Oatmeal asks:
Did you choose your religion, or did someone else choose it for you?
Forcing dogma on a five year old: Did you know that an invisible bearded flying man created everything in the universe? Oceans, dinosaurs, black holes, people—EVERYTHING!
Okay Dad! I will believe this for the rest of my life.
Forcing dogma on a twenty-five year old: Did you know that dinosaurs are extinct because they couldn’t fit on Noah’s Ark?
HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA Yeah and Jesus rode a velociraptor when he defeated Jehovah’s army of demon tiger monkeys.
Secular attitudes like these I could get behind. I had made my decision regarding God and wasn’t about to look back.
Almost seven years would go by before I would discuss faith again with either of my parents.
Evolution or Design⇧
I am very much a details guy. After my first year working full-time as an engineer in addition to doing some freelance website design work (which I taught myself), I decided to file my own taxes. My self-employment income complicated my tax return far beyond simply punching in a few numbers from some mailed forms prepared by the accounting department. So I did all the calculations by hand, then using software, then reconciled the two. This required learning about depreciation, capital cost allowances, and Canada’s byzantine tax system. It would have been quite easy not to declare my freelance income, which was but a small fraction of my engineer’s salary, yet I wanted to do the right thing (again, that moral righteousness) and wasn’t afraid to put in the time to learn something new while doing so.
Changing gears somewhat, I think that statistically the most dangerous part of all my outdoor pursuits—backcountry skiing (I logged 47 days this past season), rock and ice climbing, and mountain biking—is the drive out to my mountain destination from the city of Calgary (yes, that was a pun). Especially in winter, the roads can get quite treacherous. To this end, I bought a capable car, outfitted it properly, and learned how to drive on ice. The car, a 2006 Subaru Legacy GT, has a turbocharged engine (this kitty purrs), five-speed manual transmission, and an all-wheel-drive system with limited-slip (viscous type) centre and rear differentials. These features, along with four of the top-rated Nokian Hakkapeliitta 8 studded winter tires, make for legendary grip in winter driving. A few sessions of driving on frozen lakes and in empty, snow-covered parking lots demonstrated the understeer inherent in most Subaru all-wheel drive systems. This is important to know for skid control and recovery as understeering vehicles tend to overcorrect during a skid and spin out in the opposite direction of the initial skid. I truly hope it doesn’t sound too smug when I say that the roads would be better off if more winter commuters were this knowledgeable and well equipped.
All this is to say that when I do things, I do them properly—or at least to the absolute best of my abilities. My return to faith was no different. You may be wondering what prompted this, after seven years of atheism. In a deliberately vague understatement on my part, let’s just say that I was inspired by how healthy truly genuine faith can be. My twenty-one-year-old self had ruled in favour of atheism, and now, after years of grinding its way through a series of appeals in my own internal legal system, the case had made its way to the Supreme Court. It was time to find the truth. Why, in spite of all the obvious outward defects of religion, do people still have faith—why do so many rational, smart, logical people so honestly believe in “superstitious nonsense?” As it stood, I’d spent more years of my life going to church than not, and I developed—for perhaps the first time in my life—an earnest, curious desire to see if churchgoers were onto something, or if their main idea was nothing more than a defunct, self-perpetuating delusion more easily swallowed by my grandparent’s generation. Logically, this investigation started with a re-examination of the evolution versus intelligent-design debate.
I have long held the belief that humans have poor intuition when it comes to probability. This came in part from an article written by cancer victim Derek Miller, whose writing was also formative in my atheistic beliefs:
In our heads, extremely unlikely things (being in a commercial jet crash, for instance) seem just as probable, or even more probable, than simply somewhat unlikely things (being in a car crash on the way to the airport). That has us make funny decisions. For instance, on occasion couples (parents of young children, perhaps) choose to fly on separate planes so that, in the rare event that a plane crashes, one of them survives. But they both take the same car to the airport—as well as during much of the rest of their lives—which is far, far more likely to kill them both.
At a previous workplace, I continually declined the weekly lottery pool on the grounds that the odds of winning the lottery were far too unlikely. To me, the couple of dollars collected each week for the group ticket were better spent on a cold sugary drink during a hot summer day (oh to be twenty). Yet it seems to be human nature to cling to the possibility of a win, however unlikely. Otherwise, the lottery business simply wouldn’t exist as we know it. There is always a chance, we convince ourselves, thinking it reasonable to witness rare outcomes within the timeframes of our lives.
This notion of exaggerating the likelihood of extremely improbable events applies equally in the evolution versus intelligent-design debate. Lee Strobel discusses the odds of spontaneous creation in The Case for a Creator:
Even those who look askance at religious faith have been forced to conclude that the odds against the spontaneous creation of life are so absurdly high that there must be more to the creation story than mere materialistic processes. They can’t help but invoke the only word that seems to realistically account for it all: miracle. It’s a label many scientists are loathe to use but which the circumstances seem to demand.
Human intuition may want to cling to the belief that evolution is possible—which is to say that everything in the universe developed without prompt from a random collision of particles through to a primordial soup of chemicals floating in a vast ocean and ultimately to complex breathing, reproducing organisms—given enough time. Realistically, however, such odds are so astoundingly low that something as unlikely as winning the lottery must be innumerable orders of magnitude likelier in comparison. On winning lotteries, Derek Miller said that “[he] might do better wandering around town hoping to find a few million dollars lost in a bag on the street (which has happened, here in Vancouver).”
For life to exist in the universe, numerous physical parameters require such extremely precise adjustment that our intuition may deceive us when it comes to understanding the extent of precision required. Robin Collins, a philosophy professor, explains just how finely tuned the gravitational constant is in an interview with Lee Strobel in The Case for a Creator:
“Imagine a ruler, or one of those old-fashioned linear radio dials, that goes all the way across the universe. It would be broken down into one-inch increments, which means there would be billions upon billions upon billions of inches.
“The entire dial represents the range of force strengths in nature, with gravity being the weakest force and the strong nuclear force that binds protons and neutrons together in the nuclei being the strongest, a whopping ten thousand billion billion billion billion times stronger than gravity. The range of possible settings for the force of gravity can plausibly be taken to be at least as large as the total range of force strengths.
“Now, let’s imagine that you want to move the dial from where it’s currently set. Even if you were to move it by only one inch, the impact on life in the universe would be catastrophic.”
“One inch compared to the whole universe?” I asked. “What kind of impact could that have?”
“That small adjustment of the dial would increase gravity by a billion-fold,” he said.
“Whoa!” I said. “That sounds like a lot.”
“Actually, it’s not,” he replied, “Relative to the entire radio dial—that is, the total range of force strengths in nature—it’s extraordinarily small, just one part in ten thousand billion billion billion.”
“Wow, that puts it into perspective,” I said. “What would happen to life?”
“Animals anywhere near the size of human beings would be crushed,” he said. “As astrophysicist Martin Rees said, ‘In an imaginary strong gravity world, even insects would need thick legs to support them, and no animals could get much larger.’ In fact, a planet with a gravitational pull of a thousand times that of the Earth would have a diameter of only forty feet, which wouldn’t be enough to sustain an ecosystem. Besides which, stars with lifetimes of more than a billion years—compared to ten billion years for our sun—couldn’t exist if you increase gravity by just three thousand times.
“As you can see, compared to the total range of force strengths in nature, gravity has an incomprehensibly narrow range for life to exist. Of all the possible settings on the dial, from one side of the universe to the other, it happens to be situated in the exact right fraction of an inch to make our universe capable of sustaining life.”
Additionally, consider how accurately tuned the cosmological constant is, per another passage from The Case for a Creator:
Nobel-winning physicist Steven Weinberg, an avowed atheist, has expressed amazement at the way the cosmological constant—the energy density of empty space—is “remarkably well adjusted in our favor.” The constant, which is part of Einstein’s equation for General Relativity, could have had any value, positive or negative, “but from first principles one would guess that this constant should be very large,” Weinberg said.
Fortunately, he added, it isn’t:
If large and positive, the cosmological constant would act as a repulsive force that increases with distance, a force that would prevent matter from clumping together in the early universe, the process that was the first step in forming galaxies and stars and planets and people. If large and negative, the cosmological constant would act as an attractive force increasing with distance, a force that would almost immediately reverse the expansion of the universe and cause it to recollapse.
Either way, life loses—big time. But astonishingly, that’s not what has happened.
“In fact,” Weinberg said, “astronomical observations show that the cosmological constant is quite small, very much smaller than would have been guessed from first principles.”
When I asked Collins about this, he told me that the unexpected, counterintuitive, and stunningly precise setting of the cosmological constant “is widely regarded as the single greatest problem facing physics and cosmology today.”
“How precise is it?” I asked.
Collins rolled his eyes. “Well, there’s no way we can really comprehend it,” he said. “The fine-tuning has conservatively been estimated to be at least one part in a hundred million billion billion billion billion billion. That would be a ten followed by fifty-three zeroes. That’s inconceivably precise.”
He was right—I couldn’t imagine a figure like that. “Can you give me an illustration?” I asked.
“Put it this way,” he said. “Let’s say you were way out in space and were going to throw a dart at random toward the Earth. It would be like successfully hitting a bull’s eye that’s one trillionth of a trillionth of an inch in diameter. That’s less than the size of one solitary atom.”
Breathtaking was the word that came into my mind. Staggering. “No wonder scientists have been blown away by this,” I said.
“I’ll tell you what,” Collins said, “in my opinion, if the cosmological constant were the only example of fine-tuning, and if there were no natural explanation for it, then this would be sufficient by itself to strongly establish design.”
Strobel suggests that “there are more than thirty separate physical or cosmological parameters that require precise calibration in order to produce a life-sustaining universe.” With such decisive fine-tuning, the odds of a strictly natural explanation for the universe are so astronomically small (pun intended, as are all of my puns) that intelligent design shouldn’t be dismissed as an alternative possibility.
Our own understanding of design may provide insight into the notion of intelligent design to the universe. In automotive jargon, it is common to talk about the “evolution” of a certain model of vehicle, yet the subtle refinements and improvements in each new generation can be reasonably attributed to human—that is, intelligent—design. It is a descent-with-modification process, taking existing design ideas and tweaking them in subsequent model versions. Particularly radical changes—electric cars, for example—certainly require intelligent design. In an interview with Jonathan Wells, a scholar with doctorates in both religious studies and molecular and cell biology, Lee Strobel records Jonathan’s explanation of intelligent design being a driving factor (ba-dum tsh) behind descent-with-modification processes:
“Phillip Johnson coined [the term Berra’s Blunder] based on a book that was written by a biologist named Tim Berra in 1990. Berra compared the fossil record to a series of automobile models, saying that if you compare a 1953 and 1954 Corvette side by side, and then a 1954 and 1955 Corvette and so on, then it becomes obvious that there has been descent with modification. He said this is what paleontologists do with fossils, ‘and the evidence is so solid and comprehensive that it cannot be denied by reasonable people.’
“Far from demonstrating his point, the illustration shows that a designer could have been involved,” Wells said. “These successive models of the Corvette are based on plans drawn up by engineers, so there’s intelligence at work to guide and implement the process. If you wanted to demonstrate that the similar features resulted from a Darwinian process, you would have to show that once you somehow got an automobile, the natural forces of rust, wind, water, and gravity would turn one model into its successor.”
Descent-with-modification processes thus may be attributable to an intelligent designer. Additionally, consider the Martian biosphere analogy in The Case for a Creator:
“I [Collins] like to use the analogy of astronauts landing on Mars and finding an enclosed biosphere, sort of like the domed structure that was built in Arizona a few years ago. At the control panel they find that all the dials for its environment are set just right for life. The oxygen ratio is perfect; the temperature is seventy degrees; the humidity is fifty percent; there’s a system for replenishing the air; there are systems for producing food, generating energy, and disposing of wastes. Each dial has a huge range of possible settings, and you can see if you were to adjust one or more of them just a little bit, the environment would go out of whack and life would be impossible. What conclusion would you draw from that?”
The answer was obvious. “That someone took great care in designing and building it,” I said.
“That’s right,” he replied. “You’d conclude that this biosphere was not there by accident. Volcanoes didn’t erupt and spew out the right compounds that just happened to assemble themselves into the biosphere. Some intelligent being had intentionally and carefully designed and prepared it to support living creatures. And that’s an analogy for our universe.
As much (all?) of our modern technology is intelligently designed, there are perhaps some parallels to observe between our own human creations and nature. Take the Apple product ecosystem for example: iPhones, iPads, Macs, and the Apple Watch are all unique devices in their own right but share a lot of common materials, fabrication processes, and computer programming. An automaker’s corporate parts bin may be raided when developing a new car model: many existing components will be re-used in an “all-new” design. Correspondingly, if all of the animals on earth, including humans, were intelligently designed, would it not make sense for there to be some similarities in their constituent parts? Could intelligent design of the universe be an explanation for why we share so much of our DNA with chimpanzees (96% similar)—but also bananas (60% similar)?
On a small scale evolution is certainly possible: natural pressures acting on a closed population can promote subtle adaptations over time, but does this really account for complete Darwinian evolution? Wells explains a concept known as the Cambrian explosion that challenges this notion in the same interview with Strobel:
“The Cambrian was a geological period that we think began a little more than 540 million years ago. The Cambrian explosion has been called the ‘Biological Big Bang’ because it gave rise to the sudden appearance of most of the major animal phyla that are still alive today, as well as some that are now extinct,” Wells said.
“Here’s what the record shows: there were some jellyfish, sponges, and worms prior to the Cambrian, although there’s no evidence to support Darwin’s theory of a long history of gradual divergence.
“Then at the beginning of the Cambrian—boom!—all of a sudden, we see representatives of the arthropods, modern representatives of which are insects, crabs, and the like; echinoderms, which include modern starfish and sea urchins; chordates, which include modern vertebrates; and so forth. Mammals came later, but the chordates—the major group to which they belong—were right there at the beginning of the Cambrian.
“This is absolutely contrary to Darwin’s Tree of Life. These animals, which are so fundamentally different in their body plans, appear fully developed, all of a sudden, in what paleontologists have called the single most spectacular phenomenon of the fossil record.”
Spectacular, indeed. It was staggering! But I was having trouble thinking in vast geological terms, where words like “sudden” and “abrupt” have meanings quite different from how we might use them in everyday conversation. I needed more clarity.
“How suddenly did these animals come onto the scene?” I asked Wells. “Put it into context for me.” …
“Okay,” he said, “imagine yourself on one goal line of a football field. That line represents the first fossil, a microscopic, single-celled organism. Now start marching down the field. You pass the twenty-yard line, the forty-yard line, you pass midfield, and you’re approaching the other goal line. All you’ve seen this entire time are these microscopic, single-celled organisms.
“You come to the sixteen-yard line on the far end of the field, and now you see these sponges and maybe some jellyfish and worms. Then—boom!—in the space of a single stride, all these other forms of animals suddenly appear. As one evolutionary scientist said, the major animal groups ‘appear in the fossil record as Athena did from the head of Zeus—full blown and raring to go.’
“Now, nobody can call that a branching tree! Some paleontologists, even though they may think Darwin’s overall theory is correct, call it a lawn rather than a tree, because you have these separate blades of grass sprouting up. One paleontologist in China says it actually stands Darwin’s tree on its head, because the major groups of animals—instead of coming last, at the top of the tree—come first, when animals make their first appearance.
“Either way, the result is the same: the Cambrian explosion has uprooted Darwin’s tree.”
Furthermore, Darwin’s tree supposes that numerous transitional forms should exist between each distinct ancestor, yet Darwin himself acknowledged that the fossil record of his time didn’t support this, as Strobel details:
When Darwin’s The Origin of Species was published in 1859, he conceded that “the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory” was that the fossil record failed to back up his evolutionary hypothesis.
“Why,” he asked, “if species have descended from other species by insensibly fine gradations, do we not everywhere see innumerable transitional forms?” He attributed the problem to the fossil record being incomplete and predicted that future discoveries would vindicate his theory. …
Since that time I have come to learn that the fossil record has utterly let Darwin down. Michael Denton, in his book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, summarized the bleak situation this way:
…[T]he universal experience of paleontology … [is that] while the rocks have continually yielded new and exciting and even bizarre forms of life … what they have never yielded is any of Darwin’s myriads of transitional forms. Despite the tremendous increase in geological activity in every corner of the globe and despite the discovery of many strange and hitherto unknown forms, the infinitude of connecting links has still not been discovered and the fossil record is about as discontinuous as it was when Darwin was writing the Origin. The intermediates have remained as elusive as ever and their absence remains, a century later, one of the most striking characteristics of the fossil record.
Think Darwinian evolution is a foolproof scientific theory? Do your own investigation and decide where the facts point. Strobel had been an atheist before undertaking an in-depth investigation on the scientific evidence for intelligent design to the universe. Perhaps the effort required to properly undertake such an investigation prevents many from reaching their own conclusions instead of listening to the strongest opinions.
If there is an intelligent designer to the universe, then such a master designer’s existence cannot be ruled out simply because said designer seems invisible. C.S. Lewis explains in an analogy to architecture in Mere Christianity: “If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe—no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house.”
Let’s therefore examine what the Bible itself says about intelligent design beyond the unsophisticated Sunday-school explanation “God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1). Some insight comes in the Book of Job, the Old Testament classic on suffering, in which God allows Satan to harm Job, a “blameless and upright” man (Job 1:1), after Satan suggests that Job is only faithful because God has blessed him extensively (Job’s prosperity included 10 children, 7000 sheep, 3000 camels, 500 oxen, 500 female donkeys, and many servants [Job 1:2–3]). Satan destroys almost everything of Job’s, including his property, children, and health—“loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (Job 2:7)—to the point that Job’s own wife tells him to “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9). Job nevertheless maintains his faithfulness and blamelessness but eventually demands answers for his suffering from God himself, as Ravi Zacharias explains in The Real Face of Atheism:
Job had become weary of his pain and sought a just answer for it. The constant implication of Job’s questioning was that he already “knew” so much and needed to “know” why he, an innocent man, was suffering. As the story unfolded, Job threw a flurry of questions at his philosopher friends, who valiantly tried to answer him. But they could not have been more off the mark. God then broke his silence, challenging Job’s very assumptions and reminding him that there was an awful lot Job did not know but had just accepted and believed by inference. Notice the beauty and detail with which God appeals to Job on the intricacies of this universe. God, in effect, said, “All right, Job. Since you only accept that which you comprehensively understand, let me toss a few questions your way.”
Here are some of the questions God then asks Job:
“Who is this that obscures my plans
with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone …
“Who shut up the sea behind doors
when it burst forth from the womb,
when I made the clouds its garment
and wrapped it in thick darkness,
when I fixed limits for it
and set its doors and bars in place,
when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther;
here is where your proud waves halt’? …
“Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been shown to you?
Have you seen the gates of the deepest darkness?
Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth?
Tell me, if you know all this. …
“Have you entered the storehouses of the snow
or seen the storehouses of the hail,
which I reserve for times of trouble,
for days of war and battle?
What is the way to the place where the lightning is dispersed,
or the place where the east winds are scattered over the earth?
Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain,
and a path for the thunderstorm,
to water a land where no one lives,
an uninhabited desert,
to satisfy a desolate wasteland
and make it sprout with grass?
Does the rain have a father?
Who fathers the drops of dew?
From whose womb comes the ice?
Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens
when the waters become hard as stone,
when the surface of the deep is frozen?
“Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades?
Can you loosen Orion’s belt?
Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons
or lead out the Bear with its cubs?
Do you know the laws of the heavens?
Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth?
“Can you raise your voice to the clouds
and cover yourself with a flood of water?
Do you send the lightning bolts on their way?
Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’?
Who gives the ibis wisdom
or gives the rooster understanding?
Who has the wisdom to count the clouds?
Who can tip over the water jars of the heavens
when the dust becomes hard
and the clods of earth stick together? …
Then Job replied to the Lord:
“I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know. …
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 38:1–42:6)
“In sixty-four questions,” Zacharias continues, “God presented Job with the great mysteries of this tightly knit universe, at once intelligible and mysterious. For Job, the splendor was now too great to miss. The designer who had designed the world could also bring design out of Job’s suffering. He was now willing to see the purpose for all life through the eyes of God.” Job’s prosperity was then restored to double what it had been (Job 42:10–13). While the Book of Job gives a glimpse into God’s design of the world, Job himself admits that he “spoke of things [he] did not understand, thing too wonderful for [him] to know.” Critics may dismiss this as an evasion instead of a proper explanation; however, this same scenario applies equally to naturalistic explanations of the universe, as Zacharias demonstrates:
Renowned Cambridge professor Stephen Hawking, for example, is commended for his gift in using the technical data of his expertise to explain the nature of the universe in a popular treatment. However, it does not take long for the reader to realize that the more penetrating the question, the more Hawking’s answers elude even the highly trained.
If the knowledge behind naturalistic explanations to the universe is so esoteric that even world-class experts struggle to interpret it, is the layperson not then believing in such explanations on faith alone? C.S. Lewis explains this double standard that we sometimes apply to scientific knowledge versus religion:
The ordinary man believes in the Solar System, atoms, evolution, and the circulation of blood on authority—because the scientists say so. Every historical statement in the world is believed on authority. … We believe them simply because people who did them have left writings that tell us about them: in fact, on authority. A man who jibbed on authority in other things as some people do in religion would have to be content to know nothing all his life.
I could no longer honestly believe in a naturalistic explanation for the universe. The gaps in scientific knowledge are too great, and the authority we place in such knowledge ironically mimics the common atheistic criticism of blind faith. There are hints of intelligent design everywhere, from animals sharing similar makings to the unfathomably precise arrangement of the universe itself. As Timothy Keller asks in The Reason for God (I cannot recommend this book enough), “Although organic life could have just happened without a Creator, does it make sense to live as if that infinitely remote chance is true?”
I came to the realization lately that I’ve had a life of privilege and opportunity, though it hasn’t always felt that way. On the global scale, being a white male born in a first-world country is arguably winning the lottery. I’ve never had to deal with racism, sexism, disability, or financial uncertainty. Without really trying, I was able to get a university education and land a lucrative corporate career. At no point have I ever had any debt or worried about how to afford my next meal. Though it has been over two years now since I’ve had a “real” job, I’ve had no financial stress, even on a modest graduate student’s salary. With the financial security of some savings from my corporate job, I would not have to work in order to support myself (at least for a while). Even if I needed money, I’d have my choice of which job to accept. I have worked as a structural engineer; I could probably go to medical school; I could make enough money in the stock market to never again work a day in my life in the traditional sense; I could become a wedding photographer; I could work remotely as a computer programmer; or I could work in any number of other lucrative fields. These are opportunities that not everyone has access to. In fact, it is probably more accurate to say that most people do not get nearly as many opportunities. My search for the ever-elusive rewarding career remains ongoing, yet I can now appreciate that not everyone has such a luxury.
While I admittedly find it challenging to identify with someone in a more uncertain financial situation who might have to accept any job to feed, cloth, and shelter themselves or their dependents with minimal hope of ever escaping the poverty cycle, I also find the pursuit of money quite unmotivating. When I made the most money, I was the most unhappy. In some cases it seems that the more money people make, the more likely they are to run into financial trouble. Contrarily, people with basically nothing can be quite happy with what little they do have. I cut down my spending upon returning to school, and it has really shown me the difference between needs and wants. It has become much more rewarding to consider bigger purchases for many months while waiting for a sale than to immediately plunk down top dollar and possess a shiny new object. I’ll invoke the tired adage “money can’t buy happiness” now and add that it sometimes takes a while—and perhaps a lack of money after having made lots of it—to properly understand this.
I’d been very fortunate despite feeling dissatisfied. A crippling cynicism resulted from my lost faith in God, in relationships and marriage, and in fulfilling careers. In psychology, there is such a thing as a healthy level of skepticism when it comes to determining the validity of a new piece of information, yet when your mind’s first reaction is to challenge everything and to want to pick it apart, exposing it for the fraud that your cynical mind knows it to be, a negative worldview inevitably results. This had been my attitude for quite a few years—and it was high time to deal with it. Maybe what I really sought was something else, something beyond what the comfort of success and material wealth or the excitement of new experiences in the outdoors could offer. C.S. Lewis echoes this thought in Mere Christianity:
Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us.
In a university English course, I wrote an essay debunking the notion that success necessarily generates happiness, as perpetuated by children’s fairy tales that so often conclude with the protagonists living “happily ever after.” I concluded that “lasting happiness cannot be guaranteed by success, a fallacy of the American Dream. The happiness thought to result from success is not constant and everlasting, as suggested by fairy-tale endings, but is subject to practical constraints.” Though I’d been struggling with my faith at that point, it seems that I was nonetheless aware of the shortcomings of success. (That essay, along with another one both got As. And because I am a digital packrat, here is a high-school essay on Nineteen Eighty-Four that also received top marks.)
What, then, was evading me?
What does it mean to believe in a higher power? Surely there must be more to faith than the “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” optimism of evangelism booklets. There must be more than simply talking and acting in the right ways. Philip Yancey describes his own disillusionment with a such an approach in Disappointment With God:
As an experiment, I began mimicking “spiritual” behavior on campus. I prayed devoutly in prayer meetings, gave phony testimonies about my conversion, and filled my vocabulary with pious jargon. And it worked, confirming my doubts. I the skeptic soon passed for a veritable saint, just by following the prescribed formula. Could a Christian experience be genuine if most of it was reproducible by a skeptic? (242–243)
As Ravi Zacharias, a Christian author, warns in The Real Face of Atheism, “The danger of a simple faith is simplistic answers. An informed mind can and ought to bring a proportionate response.” I needed answers to my questions, and I wasn’t about to accept cop-out regurgitations.
Let us therefore examine how people come to faith. Eden Chen, in a Christianity Today article, describes his initial embrace of Christianity:
I embarked on an all-encompassing search for God. I studied the major world religions—Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. I figured that if God was real, then he would probably make himself known. I read C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, the most logical expression of faith that I had encountered. All of a sudden, it struck me that running away from Christianity would require more faith than running toward it.
Similarly, the aforementioned neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi also arrived at a point where “faith made more sense to him than not.” Both Kalanithi and Chen therefore embraced Christianity through logical approaches, ultimately coming to believe once the reasons to do so exceeded those not to. My approach was much the same. The evidence against completely naturalistic explanations for the universe and some proper soul-searching got me wondering if my twenty-one-year-old atheist self had really known better than six billion people (not that it’s a numbers game). “There wasn’t one specific moment that led me to become a Christian,” Chen continues, “It was God’s pursuit, month after month, that slowly broke through to my skeptical soul.”
The journey from atheism to theism can be a most vexatious process. C.S. Lewis, known for his Christian allegorical series The Chronicles of Narnia and many other Christian apologetic writings (he really doesn’t need an introduction), had actually been an atheist from the age of 15 to 32. He depicts his own supremely reluctant conversion in Surprised by Joy:
I had always wanted, above all things, not to be “interfered with”. I had wanted (mad wish) “to call my soul my own”. I had been far more anxious to avoid suffering than to achieve delight. I had always aimed at limited liabilities. The supernatural itself had been to me, first, an illicit dram, and then, as by a drunkard’s reaction, nauseous. …
You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.
Lewis’s severe aversion to faith epitomizes the attitude of many secularists: Why can’t we be our own selves—why do we need to submit ourselves to God, whoever he is, in order to be saved? And what exactly do we need saving from, besides, supposedly, death? When I was an atheist, one of my questions was: I don’t think of myself as a terrible person, so why did Jesus need to die on the cross for my supposed sins—if, in fact, such an event actually transpired? To answer such questions, we must now dive into the murky waters of morality.
The first few chapters of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, before he starts to discuss theism, describe how we humans seem to have an innate sense of how we should act—but don’t always: “These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it.” Perhaps this concept is most concisely captured in the “nobody’s perfect” cliché. Globally, we find numerous examples of people outrageously breaking this Law of Nature (Lewis also calls it the “Law of Human Nature, or Moral Law, or Rule of Decent Behaviour”) by deliberately harming others, which we decry as evil, yet, on a personal level, many secularists are content to think that “doing the right thing” is as simple as what any reasonable person might describe as common sense—even if we don’t always live up to this ingrained sense of morality. While this may be a good starting point, true morality needs a more absolute basis than simply doing what “feels” right. Ravi Zacharias disproves this idea of feelings-based morality, as popularized by agnostics such as Bertrand Russell, with the counter-example of cannibalism, in The Real Face of Atheism:
In some cultures people love their neighbors, in others they eat them, both on the basis of feeling. … Secular philosophers cannot logically give an answer to this question of how to determine right and wrong because there is no common starting point for ethical theorists, and it is not for the lack of trying. Valiant attempts have been made, with some appealing and commendable arguments. But they inevitably reason in a circle and become lost in the maze of counterarguments.
While “Thou shalt not kill” is the obvious biblical response to cannibalism, secularists are quick to point out Christian hypocrisy in the form of violence. C.S. Lewis counters that killing—not murdering—may be sanctioned by Christians:
Does loving your enemy mean not punishing him? No, for loving myself does not mean that I ought not to subject myself to punishment—even to death. If one had committed a murder, the right Christian thing to do would be to give yourself up to the police and be hanged. It is, therefore, in my opinion, perfectly right for a Christian judge to sentence a man to death or a Christian soldier to kill an enemy. … It is no good quoting “Thou shalt not kill.” There are two Greek words: the ordinary word to kill and the word to murder. And when Christ quotes that commandment He uses the murder one in all three accounts, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. … All killing is not murder any more than all sexual intercourse is adultery.
To understand why an absolute authority on morality is necessary, let’s consider how a world without God looks like. Far from a secular paradise where everyone lives harmoniously simply by acting in the ways that feel right to them, Zacharias argues that God, man’s transcendental leader, is replaced by a more unscrupulous leader:
The death of God will produce no sanitized supermen to pull us up by our cosmic bootstraps. More likely is the scenario envisioned by the late English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge.
If God is dead, somebody is going to have to take his place. It will be megalomania or erotomania, the drive for power or the drive for pleasure, the clenched fist or the phallus, Hitler or Hugh Heffner.
Muggeridge’s conclusion that either a power-monger or a sex peddler would take the reigns in the place of God is very much in keeping with the disarray of society today.
Despite sometimes-hyperbolic rhetorical techniques used by theists to condemn a secularizing world in its fruitless pursuits of power and pleasure, Zacharias contends that a consequence of atheism is a negatively amended moral code that places the individual above all else: “The logic of chance origins has driven our society into rewriting the rules, so that utility has replaced duty, self-expression has unseated authority, and being good has become feeling good.” “Living under the tremendous illusion that personal freedoms and freedom of speech are devoid of moral assumptions and responsibilities,” Zacharias continues, “we have bankrupted ourselves, so that honor, truth, and morality have been sacrificed at the altar of autonomy and self-worship.” (Perhaps nowhere is modern self-worship more apparent than in “social” media. While I’ll fully admit to jumping aboard the social media bandwagon—online validation, measured in likes and comments, undoubtedly feels great—it is when I disconnect for a few days or weeks that I stop missing it and start feeling genuinely happier. This is the reason behind my very sporadic posts.)
Secularists may try to discredit the Bible as a reliable rulebook for morality. They sometimes point out violent behaviour sanctioned by God in Old Testament passages. Aforementioned atheist Mark Jaquith selects a passage in Deuteronomy to question the Bible’s authority on morality:
When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies.
Enslavement, mass slaughter of prisoners of war, rape (strongly implied), and looting—God-approved activities! Can any thinking person hold this book up as a good source of morality? Surely we can do better.
I agree that we can do better: taking this single passage out of context epitomizes the fallacies of overly literal biblical interpretations. The bigger picture must be understood. The first piece in understanding the bigger picture, as C.S. Lewis illustrates, was that God was trying demonstrate his nature to the Jews: “[God] selected one particular people and spent several centuries hammering into their heads the sort of God He was—that there was only one of Him and that He cared about right conduct. Those people were the Jews, and the Old Testament gives an account of the hammering process.” Throughout this process, God’s chosen people got to exterminate unethical populations, which may sound harsh, yet the next piece of the bigger picture was the preparation of the world for the arrival of Jesus—and a violent, corrupt world was certainly in need of this. Norman Geisler, the president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, explains God’s reasons for killing Old Testament populations that had lost their way to Lee Strobel in Strobel’s The Case for Faith:
“God’s purpose in these instances was to destroy the corrupt nation because the national structure was inherently evil, not to destroy people if they were willing to repent. Many verses indicate that God’s primary desire was to drive these evil people out of the land that they already knew had been promised for a long time to Israel. That way, Israel could come in and be relatively free from the outside corruption that could have destroyed it like a cancer. He wanted to create an environment where the Messiah could come for the benefit of millions of people through history.”
“The pattern, then, was that people had plenty of warning?” I asked.
“Certainly,” he said. “And consider this: most of the women and children would have fled in advance before the actual fighting began, leaving behind the warriors to face the Israelites. The fighters who remained would have been the most hardened, the ones who stubbornly refused to leave, the carriers of the corrupt culture. So it’s really questionable how many women and children might actually have been involved anyway.
“Besides, under the rules of conduct God had given to the Israelites, whenever they went into an enemy city they were to first make the people an offer of peace. The people had a choice: they could accept that offer, in which case they wouldn’t be killed, or they could reject the offer at their own peril. That’s appropriate and fair.”
Singling out certain Old Testament passages to stamp “enslavement, mass slaughter of prisoners of war, rape … and looting” as “God-approved activities” is a huge misinterpretation. Sometimes tough answers require a bit of digging—and putting aside one’s prejudices. “One indispensable prerequisite to a pursuit of truth is the honesty of intent,” Zacharias writes, “A mind that is bent on suppressing or hindering the truth will ultimately find the lie it is chasing.”
A similar misconception surrounds the idea of sin. Paul Kalanithi describes a common misunderstanding of sin: “Maybe the basic message of original sin isn’t ‘Feel guilty all the time.’ Maybe it is more along these lines: ‘We all have a notion of what it means to be good, and we can’t live up to it all the time.’ ” Zacharias asserts that “people constantly fail to understand what sin is. They mock and attack the idea of sin as a hangover from prescientific beliefs. At the most, they recognize it in war crimes, or in social injustices, but somehow fail to interpret it in their own lives, personally.” Sin isn’t simply a means of judging and condemning poor behaviour; indeed, calling everyone a sinner is insulting at face-value, and it suggests a far deeper debt: someone (Jesus) pre-emptively dying for our supposedly bad behaviour. Zacharias explains a better understanding of sin—that we are accountable for our behaviour before God, the absolute authority on morality:
The most deceptive aspect of our sinfulness is the pervasive tendency to self-justification by comparison to some other person. An arbitrary hierarchy of vices is set up, and we exonerate ourselves by how far up the scale we are from the bottom. Those who recognize the nature of sin understand that what renders someone a sinner is not the scale of human wickedness but the very nature and character of God. It is God’s purity that we stand before, not a fluctuating moral code that varies from one society to another. When sin is understood, a moral discussion can begin—for each one of us stands accountable before God. An accountability that high makes the moral law of any land secondary to the moral law of God. Honesty and virtue are embraced because our motivation is to honor God and not merely to appear right before others.
Eden Chen explains how admitting one’s imperfection—conceding to being a sinner but in this revised notion of being accountable for one’s actions according to an unshakable moral code—is the way to opt-in to guilt-free living:
In the instant someone accepts that they are a sinner and that Jesus is Lord, they are made righteous not because of what they have, but because of what Jesus did on the Cross. That was the most simple and complete solution to the problem of how God can punish sin without crippling sinners—that is, all of us—with guilt and condemnation.
“In recognizing the power of Christ over the grave,” Zacharias reasons, “we are able to see, in this tightly-knit universe in which we live, a wonderful design, morality, meaning, and hope.” Atheism, on the other hand, he bluntly repudiates: “the atheist [has] no reason for being, no morality to espouse, no meaning to life, and no hope beyond the grave.” Zacharias concludes The Real Face of Atheism with a critique of atheism’s antagonistic nature:
In this study of atheism we have seen the logical contradictions it embraces, the existential hell it creates, and the vacuous pronouncements it makes. This manifold vulnerability is what provoked the acerbic remark that atheism has a greater capacity to smell rotten eggs than to lay good ones, or to attack other systems than to defend its own.
Believing in nothing—a random first cause to the universe, arbitrary morality, and pointlessness to life—no longer appealed to me. Who, however, was this God that I was supposed to believe in?
Ambiguity and Confusion⇧
I went in to a Christian bookstore recently—or so I thought. It turned out to be a meeting place for the Christian Science faith, and the main book for sale was Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy, first published in 1875. Based on the conversation I had with the cashier (the only other person there) and the literature I was given, I came to understand that the Christian Science faith—distinct from traditional denominations of Christianity—emphasizes physical healing through prayer. Mary Baker Eddy had apparently found a way to invoke divine healing based on her own interpretation of Scripture and her own experience with prayer. For any medical problem, you can summon the help of a Christian Science Practitioner to cure you. The literature contained wonderful testimonies of people being cured of their physical ailments.
Christian Science then is one of a number of faiths that adopt the formula of Christianity as a base plus additional literature, norms, rules, or ideas. My dad calls this “Christianity Plus.” There are other examples of this in nontrinitarian denominations such as Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses. In some of these cases, the “Plus” comes in the form of a prophet purportedly gifted with divine revelation beyond what the Bible itself provides. While my first reaction here would be to dismiss such Christian Plus religious figures as charlatans, it bears examining why so much confusion regarding God exists in the first place. How do we reconcile the different ideas of God offered by different Christian denominations, let alone between all other worldly religions?
To be an atheist is to completely disagree with every religion, and to believe in a single given religion also necessarily requires disagreement with other religions (except perhaps for the inclusive Bahá’í faith) as well as atheists. Regardless of what you believe in—including nothing at all—you must at least in part disagree with someone else’s beliefs. There are no exceptions to this. The crux of this matter lies in the amount of disagreement. C.S. Lewis posits that believing in God, in his case a traditional Christian idea of God, is the most permissive stance in Mere Christianity:
If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all these religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view. But, of course, being a Christian does not mean thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong. As in arithmetic—there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong: but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others.
As for which religion is ultimately correct, Ravi Zacharias argues in an interview with Lee Strobel in The Case for Faith that “you can approach the issue by looking at the four fundamental questions that every religion seeks to answer: Origin, meaning, morality, and destiny. I believe that only the answers of Jesus Christ correspond to reality. There is a coherence among his answers unlike those of any other religion.” Eden Chen elaborates on this sentiment: “[A decisive factor] in my embrace of Christian faith … was my dissatisfaction with the idea of karma and many similar concepts found in Eastern religions. Getting the sort of life you deserve sounded too good to be true, and it didn’t line up with my experiences. In real life, the wicked often escape punishment, and the righteous often live with pain and suffering.” While any given religion has a plethora of apologetic literature establishing its exclusivity on truth, Paul Kalanithi contends that definitive verification, the goal of metaphysics, may be impossible, because
no one, myself included, credits revelation with any epistemic authority. We are all reasonable people—revelation is not good enough. Even if God spoke to us, we’d discount it as delusional.
So what, I wonder, is the aspiring metaphysician to do?
Struggle toward the capital-T Truth, but recognize that the task is impossible—or that if a correct answer is possible, verification certainly is impossible.
In the end, it cannot be doubted that each of us can see only a part of the picture. … Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.
Ravi Zacharias contends in The Real Face of Atheism that, despite competing belief systems, truth can nonetheless be reached on an individual basis:
Amid the confusion of so many beliefs, and the almost circus-like atmosphere of some so-called religious offerings, a person is not only overwhelmed but apprehensive. He thinks he can at best select that which is the least ridiculous. The great danger of such cynicism is the false conclusion that the truth about God can never be known.
Finding ourselves in this swirling cosmos, this matter of God’s existence and life’s proportionate meaning must be settled by each of us.
In this search for truth, confusion and missteps inevitably occur. My dad mentioned how decades ago an acquaintance of his attended a sermon on why modern women should wear head gear, based on one brief passage in Paul’s letter to the unruly church in Corinth: “For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head” (1 Corinthians 11:6). An entire sermon! To read this passage and conclude that all modern women should cover their hair is to take an overly literal interpretation of Scripture outside of its historical context and to magnify it to absurdity. Naturally, the head covering movement is still very much alive. Blunders like these give credence to the atheistic criticism that Scripture is open to interpretation, allowing biblical justification of certain strange or immoral behaviours. An atheist thus dismisses all Scripture as untrue, but this is an oversimplification.
When it comes to confusion, are many of our other important institutions—healthcare, politics, education, even scientific research—so different? Bad news from a medical doctor will cause some people to turn to alternative forms of medicine. Politics remains vehemently polarized. Nobody has yet to agree on the best way to educate children, except to point out a broken, underfunded system. Nature, the paragon of objective scientific research, ambiguously shrugs off a large-scale reproducibility crisis. Strong opinions—and strong disagreements—abound in all of these fields as in faith. Confusion and even outright denial are thus not unique to faith; moreover, would a hypothetical global, unified version of faith be any more convincing if it was the singular exception in a world of ambiguity and disagreement?
Most everyone is familiar with basic Christian mythology, but what if Christianity had somehow happened differently? The Bible, sixty six books written by forty odd authors over 1500 years, has been translated and re-translated from original manuscripts over the centuries, describing certain seemingly impossible events (a virgin birth and walking on water to name but a select few) in the geographic area known today as the Middle East. Is there another way all of this could have happened that would make it any more—or less—believable? In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis contends that the peculiarities of Christianity actually affirm it:
Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have.
The narrative arc of the Bible—Creation, Fall, Redemption, and upcoming Restoration—provides the most convincing account of both the creation of the world and its current flawed state than anything else I could find.
If humanity did come into existence by natural processes, a random sequence of events in an indifferent, material universe, would we be so concerned with mythology, origin, purpose, morality and creativity? Would the concept of a spiritual world beyond the world that we can readily observe with our sensory abilities ever have gained such a ubiquitous following—if such a notion was not quashed as preposterous in the first place? While followers of different religions may never agree on exactly the same idea of God and thus how best to live according to their faith, hopefully we can agree that forcing judgment, strong opinions, and—in extreme cases—death onto each other are not the most reasonable things to do.
Despite all the ambiguity and confusion, I seemed to be drawing closer to the answers that I sought. My skepticism, my doubts, and my desire for autonomy in a material universe were all slowly eroding. Christianity was starting to make sense in spite of its often intangible nature. The next thorny issue to tackle was that of suffering—how could a supposedly loving God allow so much suffering in the world?
Imagine for a minute a world without suffering. Nobody gets hurt, nobody dies, and nobody is ever taken advantage of. Natural disasters never happen. Everyone is euphoric, fit, and good looking. Ignoring the absurdity and impossibility of such a world, consider how decision making would look: any decision made by anyone would necessarily need to have only positive outcomes. Negative outcomes, even relatively less positive outcomes, cannot be possible since anything falling short of the superlative would allow room for jealousy and ultimately imperfection. What, though, does this imply for the idea of free will? If it’s impossible to make a decision that negatively affects someone else, then there isn’t any freedom of choice since there really is no choice.
Although atheists reject God on the grounds that he’d be a sadist for allowing suffering in the world, it is a common theistic argument that suffering is a necessary consequence of the free will that God designed. Peter John Kreeft, a philosophy professor of 38 years that Lee Strobel describes as an “un-philosopher” who “wears a bemused grin and can’t restrain himself from cracking jokes about even the most sacrosanct subject,” explains to Strobel how a suffering-free utopia would ultimately be meaningless in an interview in The Case for Faith: “Suppose we didn’t have any suffering at all. … Suppose we had drugs for every pain, free entertainment, free love—everything but pain. No Shakespeare, no Beethoven, … no death—no meaning. Impossibly spoiled little brats—that’s what we’d become.” In this sense, suffering gives meaning to life, as evidenced in the poignant tales of suffering that abound in both fiction and non-fiction. Further, Kreeft explains how, in the face of likely greater historical suffering, most people have counter-intuitively maintained belief in a good God, while atheism’s outright elimination of God is debasing:
Atheism is cheap on people, because it snobbishly says nine out of ten people through history have been wrong about God and have had a lie at the core of their hearts.
Think about that. How is it possible that over ninety percent of all the human beings who have ever lived—usually in far more painful circumstances than we—could believe in God? The objective evidence, just looking at the balance of pleasure and suffering in the world, would not seem to justify believing in an absolutely good God. Yet this has been almost universally believed. …
So atheism treats people cheaply. Also, it robs death of meaning, and if death has no meaning, how can life ultimately have meaning? Atheism cheapens everything it touches—look at the results of communism, the most powerful form of atheism on earth.
While suffering may seem unfair in the moment, sometimes a bigger reason may be behind it (of course this provides little comfort for acute suffering, a topic I will attempt to address here shortly). Kreeft offers the analogy of a trapped bear, in which a hunter’s liberation efforts may be misinterpreted:
“Imagine a bear in a trap and a hunter who, out of sympathy, wants to liberate him. He tries to win the bear’s confidence, but he can’t do it, so he has to shoot the bear full of drugs. The bear, however, thinks this is an attack and that the hunter is trying to kill him. He doesn’t realize that this is being done out of compassion.
“Then, in order to get the bear out of the trap, the hunter has to push him further into the trap to release the tension on the spring. If the bear were semiconscious at that point, he would be even more convinced that the hunter was his enemy who was out to cause him suffering and pain. But the bear would be wrong. He reaches this incorrect conclusion because he’s not a human being.”
Kreeft let the illustration soak in for a moment. “Now,” he concluded, “how can anyone be certain that’s not an analogy between us and God? I believe God does the same to us sometimes, and we can’t comprehend why he does it any more than the bear can understand the motivations of the hunter. As the bear could have trusted the hunter, so we can trust God.”
Critics may ask why should we trust a supposedly all-powerful God if suffering exists in the world: couldn’t God use his power to reduce or eliminate suffering? “The source of evil is not God’s power but mankind’s freedom,” Kreeft explains, “Even an all-powerful God could not have created a world in which people had genuine freedom and yet there was no potentiality for sin, because our freedom includes the possibility of sin within its own meaning.” In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis furthers this notion, postulating that if God selectively intervened in his creation to minimize or eliminate human suffering, this would also remove free will:
We can, perhaps, conceive of a world in which God corrected the results of this abuse of free-will by His creatures at every moment: so that a wooden beam became soft as grass when it was used as a weapon, and the air refused to obey me if I attempted to set up in it the sound waves that carry lies or insults. But such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void; nay, if the principle were carried out to its logical conclusion, evil thoughts would be impossible, for the cerebral matter which we use in thinking would refuse its task when we attempted to frame them. … Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.
With all the horrors still present in our modern world—war, poverty, depravity, rape, and disease, among many others—sometimes atheists make the argument that believing in God would be more palatable if there wasn’t “so much” suffering. However, defining an acceptable amount of suffering becomes entirely arbitrary, depending on who’s making the call. Kreeft explains this subjectivity to Strobel:
[It]’s like saying it’s reasonable to believe in God if six Jews die in a Holocaust, but not seven. Or sixty thousand but not sixty thousand and one, or 5,999,999, but not six million,” he said. “When you translate the general statement ‘so much’ into particular examples like that, it shows how absurd it is. There can’t be a dividing line.
As for acute suffering, let’s now revisit the Book of Job. When tragedy strikes, people are often unsure how best to react or console the one in anguish. In Disappointment with God, Philip Yancey describes how Christians sometimes downplay misery, offering ultimately unhelpful advice, similar to Job’s friends:
Christians respond to life’s unfairness not by denying it outright, but by watering it down. They, like Job’s friends, search for some hidden reason behind suffering:
“God is trying to teach you something. You should feel privileged, not bitter, about your opportunity to lean on him in faith.”
“Meditate on the blessings you still enjoy—at least you are alive. Are you a fair-weather believer?”
“You are undergoing a training regiment, a chance to exercise new muscles of faith. Don’t worry—God will not test you beyond your endurance.”
“Don’t complain so loudly! You will forfeit this opportunity to demonstrate your faithfulness to non-believers.”
“Someone is always worse off than you. Give thanks despite your circumstances.”
Job’s friends offered a version of each of these words of wisdom, and each contains an element of truth. But the Book of Job plainly shows that such “helpful advice” does nothing to answer the questions of the person in pain. It was the wrong medicine, dispensed at the wrong time. (201)
I was given a variation of these during my own family’s implosion, and it was exactly what I did not want to hear. From a Christian perspective, offering advice like this and saying “God has a plan for you” when someone is suffering—if this is to be believed per passages like Romans 8:28 (“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose”)—is merely unhelpful at best, and faith-breaking at worst, as in my case. How, though, can we best comfort those, faithful or not, suffering in their lives?
A recent sermon was on mourning. To paraphrase the ideas discussed, our society has a grief problem: we value being stoic and not publicly mourning. It is seen as better to mourn in private—if at all—than to mourn in an outwardly visible way that people may not know how to or want to respond to. Internalizing grief, however, instead of properly mourning may actually be more destructive as things need to vent eventually. The thesis of the sermon was: What if having it “all together” actually means having it “all … together?” Healthy mourning means giving the one mourning—which will be all of us at some point in our lives—the space and time to mourn rather than trying to fix their problem or offering empty advice. Sometimes the best thing that you can do is just to be present, to offer comfort.
While I would undoubtedly wish to be able to give a concise, helpful answer to someone suffering deep personal misfortune—such that they might be able to reply with something in the vein of “Huh. This was actually a blessing in disguise. Now I understand why this had to happen. Thanks for pointing that out to me.”—it’s rarely, if ever, that effortless. Consider what Philip Yancey writes about his suffering friend Douglas, a pseudonym for a man whose wife suffered from cancer, then he developed crippling double vision and headaches to the point that he could no longer read more than a few pages at a time after being hit by a drunk driver:
Douglas [said], “I have learned to see beyond the physical reality in this world to the spiritual reality. We tend to think, ‘Life should be fair because God is fair.’ But God is not life. And if I confuse God with the physical reality of life—by expecting constant good health, for example—then I set myself up for a crashing disappointment.”
“God’s existence, even his love for me does not depend on my good health. Frankly, I’ve had more time and opportunity to work on my relationship with God during my impairment than before.” …
“If we develop a relationship with God apart from our life circumstances,” said Douglas, “then we may be able to hang on when the physical reality breaks down. We can learn to trust God despite all the unfairness of life. Isn’t that really the main point of Job?”
Although Douglas’s strict separation of “physical reality” and “spiritual reality” bothered me, I found his notion intriguing. For the next hour, we worked through the Bible together, testing out his ideas. In the Sinai wilderness, God’s guarantees of physical success—health, prosperity, and military victory—did nothing to help the Israelites’ spiritual performance. And most of the heroes of the Old Testament (Abraham, Joseph, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Daniel) went through trials much like Job’s. For each of them, at times, the physical reality surely seemed to present God as the enemy. But each managed to hold on to a trust in him despite the hardships. In doing so, their faith moved from a “contract faith”—I’ll follow God if he treats me well—to a relationship that could transcend any hardship. (204–205)
Having faith therefore means to trust in God despite the difficulties of life, but this is by no means a straightforward thing to do. Yancey explains how it may help to direct your hurt at God:
One bold message in the Book of Job is that you can say anything to God. Throw at him your grief, your anger, your doubt, your bitterness, your betrayal, your disappointment—he can absorb them all. As often as not, spiritual giants of the Bible are shown contending with God. They prefer to go away limping, like Jacob, rather than to shut God out. In this respect, the Bible prefigures a tenet of modern psychology: you can’t really deny your feelings or make them disappear, so you might as well express them. God can deal with every human response save one. He cannot abide the response I fall back on instinctively: an attempt to ignore him or treat him as though he does not exist. That response never once occurred to Job. (263)
The response of ignoring God was precisely my reaction to hardships in my own life. One of my biggest issues with Christianity had been that Christians, in response to misfortune, were exceedingly good at rationalizing their despair, of forcing a silver lining to be uncovered amid disaster. This epitomizes the dichotomic ways of looking at personal tragedy: an apparently unfair event in some way initiated or allowed by God, or a random unfortunate event devoid of any deeper meaning in an uncaring material universe. To start with the Christian point of view, C.S. Lewis very reluctantly argues in The Problem of Pain that suffering is necessary to bring people to God, the only true source of happiness:
Everyone has noticed how hard it is to turn our thoughts to God when everything is going well with us. We “have all we want” is a terrible saying when “all” does not include God. We find God an interruption. As St. Augustine says somewhere “God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full—there’s nowhere for Him to put it.” Or as a friend of mine said “we regard God as an airman regards his parachute; it’s there for emergencies but he hopes he’ll never have to use it.” Now God, who has made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in Him. Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can even plausibly be looked for. While what we call “our own life” remains agreeable we will not surrender it to Him. What then can God do in our interests but make “our own life” less agreeable to us, and take away the plausible sources of false happiness? It is just here, where God’s providence seems at first to be most cruel, that the Divine humility, the stooping down of the Highest, most deserves praise. We are perplexed to see misfortune falling upon decent, inoffensive, worthy people—on capable, hard-working mothers of families or diligent, thrifty, little trades-people, on those who have worked so hard, and so honestly, for their modest stock of happiness and now seem to be entering on the enjoyment of it with the fullest right. How can I say with sufficient tenderness what here needs to be said? It does not matter that I know I must become, in the eyes of every hostile reader, as it were personally responsible for all the sufferings I try to explain—just as, to this day, everyone talks as if St. Augustine wanted unbaptised infants to go to Hell. But it matters enormously if I alienate anyone from the truth. Let me implore the reader to try to believe, if only for the moment, that God, who made these deserving people, may really be right when He thinks that their modest prosperity and the happiness of their children are not enough to make them blessed: that all this must fall from them in the end, and that if they have not learned to know Him they will be wretched. … The creature’s illusion of self-sufficiency must, for the creature’s sake, be shattered; and by trouble or fear of trouble on earth, by crude fear of the eternal flames, God shatters it “unmindful of His glory’s diminution”. … And this illusion of self-sufficiency may be at its strongest in some very honest, kindly, and temperate people, and on such people, therefore, misfortune must fall.
Suffering is therefore necessary to faith. “We know that moral character gets formed through hardship, through overcoming obstacles, through enduring despite difficulties,” Kreeft explains to Strobel, “Courage, for example, would be impossible in a world without pain. The apostle Paul testified to this refining quality of suffering when he wrote that ‘suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope’ [Romans 5:3–4].”
The atheistic point of view, that suffering is random, doesn’t contradict the character-building nature of suffering, yet it misses the intention behind it. It’s easy to say that “hindsight is 20/20,” that overcoming obstacles understandably leads to moral and character growth, yet to demean such experiences of greater spiritual significance is to ignore the true design behind suffering,
“…that it leads to repentance,” [Kreeft explains]. “Only after suffering, only after disaster, did Old Testament Israel, do nations, do individual people turn back to God. Again, let’s face it: we learn the hard way. To quote C. S. Lewis: ‘God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.’ And, of course, repentance leads to something wonderful—to blessedness, since God is the source of all joy and all life. The outcome is good—in fact, better than good.”
To say that suffering, then, is a means of coaxing—not coercing—nonbelievers to repent and also to help believers enhance their faith by trusting in God despite grievances in life is hardly a helpful justification for its existence, but there may be a certain logic to it from God’s perspective. And it must be random: countless nonbelievers seem to escape worldly suffering short of death, yet if having faith eliminated suffering, literally everyone would therefore have it, and we’re back to a world without suffering and thus without free will. Like C.S. Lewis, I really hesitate in making this argument. Is repentance and faith really all that great? If the answer isn’t an emphatic, unequivocal, full-volume “Yes!” then the whole notion of faith honestly cannot be worthwhile. I will resume this topic of joy in faith later.
Suffering, disappointment, and loss will unquestionably form part of everyone’s life, faithful or not. In response to calamity, some people lose faith, while others re-acquire or deepen their faith. As to which direction people will turn, Kreeft can only call it a “mystery of human unpredictability.” Christian newsletters frequently feature heartwarming stories of people “finding Jesus” and cleaning up issues in their own lives, which atheists dismiss as “lost” souls finding religion. From a strict economics point of view, however, if having faith gives one the means to overcome bad habits and to handle suffering and death with dignity, then what good reason is there not to have it—even if you think it untrue (never mind the implications of judgment and eternal life that I’m supposed to harp)?
Here’s a hypothetical scenario: suppose a star quarterback gets a shoulder injury in his throwing arm. To digress briefly, a recommended YouTube video randomly popped up for me recently about a beauty channel girl who left her glamorous, successful life after becoming disillusioned to recuperate in Switzerland for five months. At one point in her video, she says that when you ask God or the universe for something, there are three possible answers: “yes,” “not yet,” or “here’s something better.” Back to the quarterback: say he asks for his injury to heal, but it cannot be repaired. So he becomes a coach and goes on to have a rewarding coaching career. Out of the three possible answers regarding his request for a healed shoulder, this certainly falls into the “here’s something better” category, yet this outcome of a rewarding coaching career is independent on whether or not he has faith in God. But would it look different if he did have faith? Is it about how you look at it—how you want to look at it? To quote a recent Wong Fu video ostensibly regarding event photography:
We are all given a scene, a combination of people, places and things that you don’t have any control over, but it’s up to us to frame it in a way to get the best shot—the question is, what’s the best shot?
It may be impossible to get the absolutely perfect “shot” of a given “scene,” but some shots are decidedly better than others. As a strong background in photography is a prerequisite for effectively photographing a given scene, a strong foundation in faith built on an unwavering moral code will similarly help us navigate the good—and the bad—scenes in our lives. As such, faith doesn’t guarantee health and prosperity. It isn’t a bargain to ensure divine providence. I’m going to age, entropy will increase, and the fragile sack of meat and bones that is my body will break down, sooner or later permanently; I accept this and choose to respond to suffering in what I now believe to be its purpose: faith.
The Invisible World⇧
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis discusses how the devil is a fallen angel, a case of good gone wrong, that may be responsible for much of the suffering in the world: “One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe—a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin.” He pictures a universe at war, where “when you go to church you are really listening-in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going. He does it by playing on our conceit and laziness and intellectual snobbery.” “Christians,” Lewis posits, “then, believe that an evil power has made himself for the present the Prince of this World.”
Is this the connection between a spiritual world and the physical world we interact with: hostile invisible forces subtly affecting our thoughts and actions for the worse? Are nonbelievers who criticize religion invisibly propelled to do so by a dark spirit beyond our comprehension—and thus involuntarily participating in the invisible world despite outwardly rejecting it? Is the evil and suffering in this world initiated by such an unseen malevolent spirit, or is it simply the result of our own human weaknesses and failures—easy corruptibility and succumbing to vices? Or does it really matter to understand how the spiritual world manifests itself in our physical world? If the spiritual world is truly beyond our comprehension, we are therefore limited to our own shortsighted projections on how it looks. Either way, there is still going to be suffering, evil and death in our world.
Alternatively, let’s look at how a good spirit works, namely the Holy Spirit. In Disappointment with God, Philip Yancey describes the progression of God from a patriarchal figure in the Old Testament, to a son Jesus, in the New Testament, to a spirit “fashioned out of individual human beings” (153):
The progression—Father, Son, Spirit—represents a profound advance in intimacy. At Sinai the people shrank from God, and begged Moses to approach him on their behalf. But in Jesus’ day people could hold a conversation with the Son of God; they could touch him, and even hurt him. And after Pentecost the same flawed disciples who had fled from Jesus’ trial became carriers of the Living God. In an act of delegation beyond fathom, Jesus turned over the kingdom of God to the likes of his disciples—and to us. (153–154)
Yancey then details how this delegation involves risk. Delegates can misrepresent their supervisor, which is indeed the case with Christianity: “Slavery, the Crusades, pogroms against the Jews, colonialism, wars, the Klu Klux Klan—all these movements have claimed the sanction of Christ for their cause” (154). In The Real Face of Atheism, Ravi Zacharias asserts that “those who, in the name of Christ, have sought to kill in order to propagate their belief, were acting in serious contradiction to both the message and the method of the gospel.” The point, Yancey argues, is that the Spirit of God now resides among the people of the church, however flawed they may be: “Human beings do the work of God on earth. Or, to be strictly accurate, God does his work through us” (155). This is known as the miracle of transposition, and an obvious example of this occurs in Acts 2:4, when the disciples spoke in tongues: “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” In Transpositions, and other Addresses, C.S. Lewis discusses speaking in tongues—that its purpose was to communicate with people that spoke different languages in their native languages:
On the one hand, glossolalia [speaking in tongues] has remained an intermittent “variety of religious experience” down to the present day. Every now and then we hear that in some revivalist meeting one or more of those present has burst into a torrent of what appears to be gibberish. The thing does not seem to be edifying, and all non-Christian opinion would regard it as a kind of hysteria, an involuntary discharge of nervous excitement. A good deal even of Christian opinion would explain most instances of it in exactly the same way; and I must confess that it would be very hard to believe that in all instances of it the Holy Ghost is operating. We suspect, even if we cannot be sure, that it is usually an affair of the nerves. That is one horn of the dilemma. On the other hand, we cannot as Christians shelve the story of Pentecost or deny that there, at any rate, the speaking with tongues was miraculous. For the men spoke not gibberish but languages unknown to them though known to other people present.
I have never spoken in tongues in the form of uttering gibberish in church, nor can I admit to having an overwhelming desire to try. The purpose Lewis presents, that it was an obvious miracle with the clear intention of crossing language barriers during a few instances in biblical times certainly appears rational to me; however, this is still a divisive issue in Christianity to this day.
It takes a high degree of skepticism—that is, atheism—to completely rule out divine influence in worldly events. When I met with a pastor, he questioned if a sure-fire sign from God would in fact prove His existence (and thus that of the spiritual realm). If, say, we asked God to light the table in front of us on fire—and immediately flames started sprouting up from it—would we take it as a sign of miraculous intervention, or would we start to look for a natural explanation: maybe the table was particularly combustible, maybe there was a nearby gas leak, maybe the last person to sit at the table spilled lighter fluid on it, maybe a close electronic device short-circuited. Chances are we could find some kind of satisfactory natural explanation to rule out divine intervention—and this scenario isn’t limited to incendiary furniture. (In fact, the God-versus-coincidence debate proportionately applies to the origins of the universe: is it a random event, or did God create it?) Conversely, if we had asked for the table to be set on fire—and nothing happened—would it be no less skeptical to call this an example of the futility of prayer than to seek a natural explanation if there had been a fire? In Disappointment with God, Yancey describes how faith necessarily requires such ambiguity: “As Paul Tournier said, ‘Where there is no longer any opportunity for doubt, there is no longer any opportunity for faith either.’ Faith demands uncertainty, confusion. … A guarantee would, after all, preclude faith” 230. Yancey, in a different piece on faith and doubt says, “I believe not so much because the invisible world impinges on this one but because the visible world hints, in the ways that move me most, at a lack of completion.” C.S. elaborates on this notion in Mere Christianity, describing a Christian response to the earlier passage about something still having “evaded us” in highly successful marriages, travel or careers:
The Christian says, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. … If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. … I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death.”
So there is perhaps something beyond this world; unfortunately, we—faithful or not—often lose sight of it due to our own pettiness.
When I worked downtown, my office conducted bi-weekly safety meetings. As it was an office job, safety hazards involved risk surrounding slips, trips and falls; household electrical appliances; and kitchen and washroom concerns. The engineering facility we were designing (but never actually visited) involved higher-consequence risks due to high-temperature processes, pressure vessels, high-voltage electrical equipment and toxic chemicals. While the office was a relatively safer environment than the site, the safety of employees was nonetheless important, and there was a group of full-time health-and-safety employees. One of the catchphrases was along the lines of “employees should return home in no worse a condition than when they arrived at work.” I’m not one to discount the importance of risk management; however, office safety was sometimes taken a bit too seriously.
One day the stairs between two connected floors were closed as too many people were not holding the railings as they ascended or descended the stairs. This required an inconvenient detour via the elevator, including swiping an access card to regain access to the secure floors. This seemed severely patronizing, and the cynic in me remained unconvinced that holding railings would reduce or eliminate stairwell injuries. With my experience in backcountry risk management, I decided that it was time to offer some new perspective and volunteered to give one of the bi-weekly safety talks.
My talk overviewed a three-step procedure to effective outdoor risk management: awareness, minimizing exposure to risk, and preparation. Using backcountry skiing as an example, awareness means knowing about avalanches. It seems that every year in the Rockies a few people die in avalanches despite clear warning signs (a recent storm, closed highways, high hazard according to the avalanche bulletin). Sadly, these tragedies are often avoidable. Ignorance truly is bliss in the backcountry, and there are times when it simply isn’t cool to be in avalanche terrain. Minimizing exposure to risk means avoiding slopes likely to avalanche, especially while creating an uptrack on the ascent, which takes much more time than the descent. Preparation means having the right gear—transceiver, shovel, and probe—and knowing how to use it in the event that somebody is buried in an avalanche. (This is merely skimming the surface of how seriously I take outdoor safety. It has taken me quite a few years of slowly building up my experience, gear, and level of acceptable risk to be able to do what I do, in the safest manner attainable. Bad luck, however, is still possible; I accept this and still choose to participate in backcountry skiing due to the wonderfully rewarding experiences that it offers.) I delivered my speech in the cold, dark depths of February, concluding that, while everything involves some degree of risk, to completely eliminate risk would mean doing basically nothing. Rather than avoiding perceived dangerous activities, educate yourself, demystify the risks, get prepared, and beat the winter blues by doing something outdoors. The talk was well received; some might even have said that it was a breath of fresh air (I will stop making these jokes now).
Perhaps there is something in our nature to overdo things, to get carried away, as we so often admonish children for doing. While our intentions may be honest at the onset, as in the case of closing the stairwell to promote office safety, sometimes we lose sight of the end goal—or indeed become counter-productive in its pursuit: annoyed employees stop taking the health-and-safety department seriously.
This phenomenon can be seen in faith in a concept known as legalism, the age-old idea that rules must be followed in order to ensure salvation. In What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Philip Yancey describes how the Bible college he attended had a sixty-six page rulebook specifying a strict dress code, including allowable skirt lengths; banning alcohol, cigarettes, long hair and facial hair; and stringently regulating dating, among many other rules (193–194). He admits “that in many ways I am now grateful for the severity of fundamentalism, which may have kept me out of trouble” (194) but cautions about how such rules were presented: “I had the constant, pounding sense that following an external code of behavior was the only way to please God—more, to make God love me” (195). C.S. Lewis suggests a similar misunderstanding in Mere Christianity: “People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, ‘If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.’ I do not think that is the best way of looking at it.” Yancey discusses the cheap appeal of legalism:
[Legalism] represents such a powerful temptation to the church. Legalism stands like a stripper on the sidelines of faith, seducing us toward an easier way. It teases, promising some of the benefits of faith but unable to deliver what matters most. As Paul wrote to the legalists of his day, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” [Romans 14:17] (209)
Legalism was around when the Bible was written, and it can still be found today. Taken to extremes, legalism accomplishes exactly the opposite of its intention: getting carried away in observing rules becomes an impediment to faith. There is more to faith than the outward appearance of holiness by observing rules.
For faith to be genuine and healthy, it must be completely honest, and a surrounding church environment cannot involve excessive legalism and judgment. This sounds obvious; however, in practice, it isn’t always so easy. This is how things like Religious Trauma Syndrome develop. It must be permitted to ask hard questions and to voice doubts as well as disappointment among the faithful. These are not to be judged as unfaithfulness but as an effort to seek truth. Indeed, the process of working through doubts should ultimately result in a stronger faith. Taking things too far, however—repenting constantly, feeling guilty and being exceedingly self-effacing due to overblown feelings of imperfection, optionally coupled with a heavily regulated, judgmental church environment—results in toxicity.
In the same way that each artistic movement can be seen as a response to its predecessor—for example, postmodernism following modernism—the church has also changed in response to its earlier attitudes. Divorce used to be unacceptable in church, owing likely to literal interpretations of Scripture (Matthew 5:32: “But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”); similarly, gays used to be (and often still are) harshly judged by the religious community (Romans 1:27: “In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.”) yet are starting to be included.
To tolerate questions, to be more inclusive, to progress, then, is how to overcome toxic religious dogma. Churches with strict rules, especially those with tendencies to excommunicate rule-breaking members, are missing the point. Unfortunately, it is stories from churches like these that make the news, in what is a case of the few that ruin it for the many. A few bad apples leave a sour taste of the whole faithful community (see Westboro Baptist Church). When rule-making gets carried away and the initial goal becomes obscured, sometimes a bit of new perspective can go a long way—and that new perspective can come in surprising forms, like a young engineer in an office.
Every issue that I’d had with religion and church—and there were many—had been addressed. These objections are usually some version of the following, a few of which I have attempted to address in previous sections:
- God doesn’t exist because his existence cannot be proven empirically
- “Answered” prayers can be explained away by coincidence
- Going to church feels weird and cult like
- The church has a history of being hypocritical and violent
- With all the suffering in the world, God must be a sadist
- The concept of sin makes everyone feel guilty
To briefly consider each of these and thus summarize what I have covered up until now:
(1) God doesn’t exist because his existence cannot be proven empirically. While God may appear invisible, this shouldn’t rule out his existence. This gets into the perplexing realm of metaphysics, to which I’ll point to a hopefully comprehensible passage in When Breath Becomes Air, where Paul Kalanithi contends that
to make science the arbiter of metaphysics is to banish not only God from the world but also love, hate, meaning—to consider a world that is self-evidently not the world we live in. That’s not to say that if you believe in meaning, you must also believe in God. It is to say, though, that if you believe that science provides no basis for God, then you are almost obligated to conclude that science provides no basis for meaning and, therefore, life itself doesn’t have any. …
Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.
Between these core passions and scientific theory, there will always be a gap. No system of thought can contain the fullness of human experience.
Another way to say this is that science, while powerful in describing physical phenomena in the world, cannot quite explain everything about humanity—and never will.
(2) “Answered” prayers can be explained away by coincidence. This is the old God-versus-coincidence debate, which applies to no less tremendous a question than the origins of the universe. Arguments can be provided in both directions; however, faith necessarily requires this ambiguity.
(3) Going to church feels weird and cult like. If going to church feels uncomfortable, then don’t go. Honesty is essential, even in disbelief, as C.S. Lewis explains: “When a young man who has been going to church in a routine way honestly realises that he does not believe in Christianity and stops going—provided he does it for honesty’s sake and not just to annoy his parents—the spirit of Christ is probably nearer to him then than it was ever before.” Forcing children to go to church may result in them not wanting to go to church, as in my case. It wasn’t until I did my own investigation about Christianity that I actually wanted to start going back to church. If you don’t have the right attitude about going to church, then it is a waste of time. Go back if and when you feel ready. And avoid toxic churches.
(4) The church has a history of being hypocritical and violent. The church undoubtedly has a history of violence (which was justified erroneously); however, a wholistic view must be taken: what good has come from the church? The church offers grace, and who can argue that people motivated to serve others out of love and compassion instead of personal or financial gain haven’t had a positive impact on the world?
(5) With all the suffering in the world, God must be a sadist. Suffering is a necessary consequence of free will, and it must be argued that suffering leads to repentance, then, ultimately, to salvation and grace.
(6) The concept of sin makes everyone feel guilty. Morality isn’t as simple as doing what you “feel” is right. This is a good start, yet a truly unambiguous moral framework must come from something deeper: an accountability before God.
While entire volumes of books can be—and have been—written on each of these topics, the point is that all of the criticisms against Christianity can be explained. Whether or not you believe in such explanations is of course the whole concept of Christian faith.
Once I’d taken the time to properly investigate the notions of intelligent design and Christianity, I found no more comfort or truth in evolution and atheism. To summarize my findings on the evolution versus intelligent-design debate, I will offer the following metaphor from God and the Astronomers by astrophysicist Robert Jastrow:
It seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries. (105)
Theologians then allege that the explanation for creation has been right in front of—and all around—us the whole time. We just weren’t looking for it. Kreeft explains to Strobel how to look for God in The Case for Faith: “The Bible says, ‘Seek and you shall find.’ [Matthew 7:7] It doesn’t say everybody will find him; it doesn’t say nobody will find him. Some will find. Who? Those who seek. Those whose hearts are set on finding him and who follow the clues.” I sought—and I found. While I may not have been quite as hesitant a re-convert as C.S. Lewis—“perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England”—I delayed letting God back into my life for as long as possible, a period of time over which my inner voice’s repeated, resistant phrase “I’m just not ready yet” slowly but inescapably transitioned from a loudly echoed war-cry first to a lower-cadence sigh, then, ultimately, to silence. I accepted Jesus for the second time in my life, but in a much less naïve way than the first. Let me be quick to point out that there is absolutely nothing wrong with always having had—and grown in—faith. In many ways, it might have been preferable to skip the seven-year period of atheism and cynicism in my life. The old maxims of “learning things the hard way” or “sometimes to appreciate something you need to experience not having it” apply in full here. Yet it is through hardship that faith can mature. Seven years ago, I didn’t yet have a mature enough faith to trust in God despite the struggles in my life. To get to where my faith now is, it necessarily required going through the process of losing it, then rebuilding it, entirely from the ground up.
The process of becoming a Christian logically takes one of two forms: a swift transformation, or a series of more gradual changes over time—or a hybrid of both in which the latter follows the former. One of the more decisive events on record is Saul’s conversion in Acts, where God spoke directly to Saul:
[Saul] fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into [Damascus], and you will be told what you must do.” (Acts 9:4–6)
Saul then made an about-face from Christian-murderer to Christian evangelist. Ravi Zacharias in The Real Face of Atheism describes how Paul (formerly Saul), “who had called for the death penalty for those ‘seduced’ by the Christian message, found himself a trailblazer for the cause of Christ.” Frank Morison posits that Saul’s conversion, which resulted in his absolutely unwavering conviction in Christianity, wasn’t only the result of his encounter with God on the road to Damascus in Who Moved the Stone?:
It is not the immediate effects of the conversion with which we are concerned, though these are noteworthy. But how did this reorientation of a man’s entire presuppositions survive the three years’ solitary communion in Arabia, and the nine years’ patient waiting in Tarsus, and all the bitter persecutions and hardships of the great missions? Why was one of the greatest intellects of the ages brought over and fixed in an instant of time from one pole of dogmatic belief to another? …
You cannot explain a lifetime’s practical devotion like this by ‘atmospherics’ or providential thunderstorms or any ephemeral or hysterical experience. If it requires a ‘purple passage’ to describe how St. Paul came to believe in Christ, we may be certain that we are on the wrong track. (142–143)
Morison himself was initially rather skeptical about the supernatural story of the Resurrection, believing that “[Christ’s] history rested upon very insecure foundations” (9), but, like Saul, he came to a highly intellectual belief in the Resurrection when all other natural explanations fell short:
[Who Moved the Stone?] is essentially a confession, the inner story of a man who originally set out to write one kind of book and found himself compelled by the sheer force of circumstances to write quite another.
It is not that the facts themselves altered, for they are recorded imperishably in the monuments and in the pages of human history. But the interpretation to be put upon the facts underwent a change. Somehow the perspective shifted—not suddenly, as in a flash of inisght or inspiration, but slowly, almost imperceptibly, by the very stubbornness of the facts themselves. (5)
Saul’s, Frank’s—and now my—testimonies are the result of seeing where facts pointed, with or without an obvious sign from God. Such facts don’t always point where you might expect upon closer analysis.
In times of danger, God may also respond to desperate appeals for safeguarding as Philip Yancey describes in Disappointment with God: “In his mercy, God may answer a prayer of mixed motives—witness all the ‘Lord, if you only get me out of here…’ foxhole conversions. But that is for him to decide, not us” (271). Not every conversion may be so momentous; nonetheless, constructive changes may begin to develop in new converts. Consider how Strobel reacts to his wife’s announcement to “become a follower of Jesus” in The Case for a Creator:
“What has gotten into you?” I simply couldn’t comprehend how such a rational person could buy into an irrational religious concoction of wishful thinking, make-believe, mythology and legend.
In the ensuing months, however, as Leslie’s character began to change, as her values underwent a transformation, as she became a more loving and caring and authentic person, I began asking the same question, only this time in a softer and more sincere tone of genuine wonderment: “What has gotten into you?” Something—or, as she would claim, Someone—was undeniably changing her for the better.
Christianity is not simply a means of improving one’s personality, however. It is quite committing, as C.S. Lewis describes in a personally relevant analogy to mountain climbing in Mere Christianity:
In a battle, or in mountain climbing, there is often one thing which it takes a lot of pluck to do; but it is also, in the long run, the safest thing to do. If you funk it, you will find yourself, hours later, in far worse danger. The cowardly thing is also the most dangerous thing.
It is like that here. The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self—all your wishes and precautions—to Christ.
In mountain climbing, route-finding—especially in less-than-ideal conditions such as whiteouts—can be quite challenging. Getting off-route is a very real danger with the consequences of reaching a dead-end or encountering harder climbing than expected, in what is almost always a race against time. While it may be tempting to keep pushing on in the hopes that you have found an alternative route that may eventually rejoin the intended one, the better decision is almost always to backtrack to the correct route, taking the hit of lost time but thereby reducing a further risk of lost time—or worse. To commit to doing what is difficult in the short term may be the best decision in the long term, and nowhere is this more committing than in faith, as Lewis describes how absolute it must be:
[Jesus] warned people to “count the cost” before becoming Christians. “Make no mistake,” He says, “if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for. Nothing less, or other, than that. You have free will, and if you choose, you can push Me away. But if you do not push Me away, understand that I am going to see this job through. Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs Me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect—until my Father can say without reservation that He is well pleased with you, as He said He was well pleased with me. This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less.”
In so doing, Lewis explains how “handing everything over to Christ does not, of course, mean that you stop trying. … But trying in a new way, a less worried way.” I can honestly say that I am no longer worried about anything in my life, including suffering and death, and not in the apathetic sense.
What I didn’t expect is the joy inherent in faith. This is where things may start to sound delusional—just keep in mind that this surprises me most of all. Never in my 28 years on this earth did I expect to be saying such things with a straight face. Lewis describes the joy that faith entails: “The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water.” It turns out that faith is actually rather great: joyful when things are good, and comforting when they aren’t. There is solace to be had in knowing that in some way we aren’t alone—even if life should come to an abrupt, early termination or involve extreme suffering. In returning to faith I have found an inner peace that was heretofore unknown to me. If this a delusion, then it is a most excellent one. While I fully realize that my claim of not being delusional in no way substantiates the veracity of said claim, consider that C.S. Lewis, once again, “perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England,” titled his autobiography Surprised by Joy. Again, I really can’t emphasize how much I never thought that I’d be writing such words.
I have enough outdoor buddies (predominantly atheists) that I regularly entrust my life to via shared ropes during mountain climbing to form a truly exceptional sense of community. The experiences that we share are the kinds of experiences that few people ever get to experience in their lives, and I am privileged to partake in them. To stand on top of a mountain that you have climbed under your own power when it’s -20°C out with knock-you-over winds in a whiteout is to start to appreciate the human condition (suffering—even if self-inflicted—begets meaning). With this kind of community and such extraordinary experiences, you might ask why anything else in my case is necessary—how could a church community possibly transcend this, so why would I need it? The answer is that such communities need not be mutually exclusive, as C.S. Lewis explains in Mere Christianity:
Men are mirrors, or “carriers” of Christ to other men. Sometimes unconscious carriers. This “good infection” can be carried by those who have not got it themselves. People who were not Christians themselves helped me to Christianity. But usually it is those who know Him that bring Him to others. That is why the Church, the whole body of Christians showing Him to one another, is so important.
Christian fellowship need not be limited to heavy discussions of deep topics: simply hanging out is good too, and my personal preference, spending time outside, is surely a rewarding way to cultivate faith.
Regarding the atheistic criticism of not wanting to submit oneself to God, Lewis counters: “It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His Personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.” Turning to God shouldn’t be seen as an act of submission but the formation of a partnership. “The atheist, on the other hand,” Ravi Zacharias asserts, “having rejected God, flutters between pleasurable options, with inner peace forever eluding him. If, after death, he should find out that there is a God, his loss has been irreparable; for not only did contentment and peace elude him in this life, but death has opened the door to an ultimate and eternal lostness.”
While I was an atheist my attitude had been that Christians, despite brave stories of being unafraid of death—especially in countries where being a Christian regularly results in death—were in fact acutely afraid of death given their supposed insurance policy of eternal life. This is precisely the aforementioned attitude of the “ ‘braver’ challenge of surviving in this world without an appeal to a higher Being.” While the offer of eternal life in and on itself certainly isn’t enticing enough for secularists, it may be an oversimplification to call it an “insurance policy.” Heaven is quite an abstract concept, and I can’t say anything definitive about it, especially given our awareness of the pitfalls of over-satisfying our indulgences (how else do we envision paradise except to imagine that everything is perfect?); however, exploiting this notion of life-after-death can result in extremism like suicide bombers. Life in this world is sacrificed in favour of life in the next. I intend the make the most of life in this world before seeing what comes after, and I don’t intend to gamble that nothing comes next. There is everything to gain, and nothing to lose.
It would be remiss of me not to at least mention the “it’s never too late” platitude. “Progress,” Lewis posits, “means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.” I’ll leave it at that.
Faith should be a positive thing in your own life—and genuinely appear as such in the lives of those that you form a community with, faithful or otherwise. Exemplifying healthy faith is probably the most effective means of recruitment too, as everyone hates Bible thumpers and door-to-door evangelists. Faith is something to be celebrated, not ashamed of.
Let’s see how an atheist might argue against some of the things that I have said here in favour of Christianity. To start, you might be inclined to criticize my arguments as simply being parroted versions of common theistic apologetic arguments. While this may be true, I did exactly the same thing when I was an atheist but with the opposite arguments. This criticism is therefore invalid since it applies equally to both sides.
Another criticism regarding church is that churchgoers are lonely and thus benefit from church simply because of the social interaction afforded by regular attendance. While you can’t paint everyone who attends church with such a broad stroke, there are undoubtedly people that this does ring true for. To which I ask: how is this a bad thing? If church gives you a community, especially one that transcends the often-segregated communities typical to urban dwellers—family, office friends, and perhaps sports teammates—how is such a community anything but beneficial, even if you think that the faith component is pure fantasy (so long as the church isn’t a wacky, misguided cult harming its members or society as a whole)?
You might also accuse me of having been “brainwashed” as a kid and thus finding comfort in returning to faith after a seven-year absence. If this is legitimately your attitude, then you’re not hooked up right. Recall Zacharias’s comment about atheism smelling rotten eggs. Timothy Keller, a pastor who started a church in New York City, describes a scenario very similar to my own in The Reason for God:
New York City is filled with people who were raised and baptized in various churches but who abandoned their faith in their teens and college and have not thought much about it for years. Then something brings them up short and they find themselves in spiritual search mode. They work through the basics of the Christian faith and it seems to them they had never really understood it before.
I’ll fully admit to misunderstanding much of Christianity, which I see in a lot of the talk disparaging it.
Lastly, I challenge any atheist to write a book that is equally or more logical, coherent, approachable and convincing in favour of atheism as C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity is in favour of Christianity. I mean it. Then read The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller.
While faith remains a divisive topic today—as it likely will forever—let’s not trash eachother’s beliefs. The vitriol spewed by atheists at the faithful and vice versa is not productive. In fact, it is actually quite counter-productive, as attacking someone else’s beliefs often results in them strengthening their conviction in their beliefs. The Oatmeal’s comic on belief details this emotional response, called the backfire effect:
Your brain loves consistency. It builds a worldview like we build a house. It has a foundation and a frame and windows and doors and it knows exactly how everything fits together. If a new piece is introduced and it doesn’t fit, the whole house falls apart. Your brain protects you by rejecting that piece. It then builds a fence and a moat and refuses to let in any visitors. This is why we have the backfire effect. It’s a biological way of protecting a worldview. Just remember that your worldview isn’t a perfect house that was built to last forever. It’s a cheap condo, and over time most of it will turn to shit.
So, what do we do about this? …
The disappointing truth is that I don’t have much advice for you.
I don’t have a way to change the behavior of seven-point-five billion people carrying their beliefs around like precious gems wrapped in hand grenades. Sure, there are ways of changing people’s minds that are more effective than others, but ultimately they all fall short. This is compounded by the internet, where anything can be cited as a source and every disagreement degrades into a room full of orangutans throwing feces at one another.
The best I can do is make you aware of it, so you can identify the backfire effect in your own brain.
His conclusion is surely worth reiterating:
Because this universe of ours is so achingly beautiful. And we’re all in it together. We’re all going in the same direction. I’m not here to take control of the wheel. Or to tell you what to believe. I’m just here to tell you that it’s okay to stop. To listen. To change.
Take the time to stop and listen—and not only to the loudest voices. You might just gain some new perspective.
It made sense to put all of this into writing for a few reasons. First, I have always enjoyed the written word and its power to inform, to challenge, to comfort, and to persuade. To find different sources, to learn from them, to synthesize parts of them together into this cohesive whole has been an essential and genuinely rewarding part of my return to faith. I have been meaning to write more lately but have lacked a topic as meaningful as this. To write is to think, and writing has helped me to nurture nascent thoughts while keeping track of my changing opinions over time. Plus, I get to indulge my sometimes-overwrought intellectual tendencies—and engage in wordplay of the utmost form. Contrary to what many of my engineering classmates seemed to think, writing is actually quite delightful, as Dan Vyleta, a Scotiabank Giller Prize nominee, so eloquently illustrates in a Maclean’s article (I have been collecting quotations like this for years in the hopes of one day using them; now I feel truly validated in my digital hoarding tendencies):
For here’s a well-kept secret. Writing is fun. Once you have stepped past your pain, your doubts, your inner critic; once you have put to bed your excuses like sugarhopped children (“Today’s not a good day,” “I only have an hour,” “I need to clear my desk first”); once you have stopped fiddling with the font and the line spacing, stopped checking your email, the hockey results, your answering machine, and managed instead to simply step into language, the first word of the first new sentence, writing is fun. More than fun. Magical. It is two or three hours spent submerged in the flow of a process so intuitive, it appears to have its own volition. When it is over—when the day’s writing is done—you emerge refreshed, your senses sharpened, alive to the textures of life, the flow of conversation, the expression on faces and the dance of people’s gesture. Thus a manuscript becomes both refuge and tonic; a place both to flee the world, and to meet it.
Many of my ideas in writing this article came spontaneously, frequently outside, over the course of a few months (it has gotten rather pungent over this time). This manuscript, the longest piece I have ever written, has indeed been both refuge and tonic for me. Secondly, certain big ideas—especially one as life-altering as faith—take quite a few words to properly explore (not that this is a conclusive investigation, but it is nonetheless a start). The answers I found and am reporting here are most coherently and consistently presented in written form. A high-school english teacher once commented on my writing that I should focus on developing my ideas fully, rather than on being too concise. The over twenty-three thousand words here hopefully mean that I have achieved that to some degree!
We humans have an innate desire to create. We want our lives to have purpose and meaning. I would now argue that this is the fingerprint of a greater Creator. We revere our celebrated creators—singers, writers, directors, artists and others—so could this not be an analogy for the ultimate Creator? A pastor recently told me to be deliberate in what I choose to create—with my hands, with my mind, and with my interactions with others. This article is something I felt compelled to create. Regardless of whether or not my story has convinced you about the existence of God, do think about what you want to create in your life. Even if you think that you lack creative talent in the artistic sense, at the very least consider what you create in your interactions with others.
Going through this process of re-reading and re-evaluating the writing and ideas that facilitated my initial fall from faith has been my way to uncover and address many of the things that I had buried or been avoiding in my life. It has taken me the better part of seven years to overcome much of my cynicism regarding God, functional relationships and marriage, and rewarding careers. I’d concluded that each of these was either nonexistent or unachievable to me, so I stopped trying in a lot of ways. Cynicism and apathy consumed much of my life during those years, but no longer. Apologies to anyone that I burned during that time. I have come full circle back to faith, and it will be a major part of my life going forward. Regarding marriage, my attitude had been that even if you do everything absolutely right, there are no guarantees that it won’t fail spectacularly, so why even bother in the first place? Remaining a bachelor is the single (couldn’t resist) most efficient way to avoid ever dealing with failed relationships and marriages—but that’s a cynical attitude. It’s better to have at least tried—and failed—than to have not tried at all and thus remained static.
Part of overcoming my cynicism has been to stop doing things that I don’t enjoy. Right now, that includes living in the city. My entire life has thus far been spent in major cities, and I can’t help but feel that there is a better option for me. There is a time coming soon in which I will leave the city, perhaps forever. We are young and healthy at most once, and the place for me to be during this singular time in my life is outside in the mountains. Even if this turns out to be a failed experiment, at least I will have tried, and the perspective gained from trying such things really is invaluable. My health isn’t something that I take for granted either: a potential health-care concern would have prevented me from doing the outdoor activities that I truly love to do, and remain in the city for up to 18 months. Fortunately, it recently turned out to be a non-issue. If this isn’t my sign to get out of the city, then I don’t know what is. It occurred to me that while I may leave the city eventually, I don’t need to hate city life in the meantime. This is another small refraction toward the new perspective that I’ve been pursuing lately.
Having been an atheist, I can relate to atheists and how they respond to believers. Is it not common these days for a silence to follow when an atheist is first told directly about a believer’s faith? I have been on both sides of this divide. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Think about what you could create out of such an interaction.
My posts to social media these days are almost exclusively photos, and I receive lots of positive feedback on them. There is no shortage of good photos available online, yet perhaps mine are more relatable since most of my followers and “friends” have met me in person. I’m not some famous photographer living somewhere exotic—rather a regular person living in a city (for now), and, as such, my photos are perhaps more approachable than those of the experts, more personal. This article that I have written can hopefully capture some of that same personal relatability: I’m no member of the clergy, yet I hope that this might inspire some of you to look for answers.
Many of the sources I have cited in this article-turned-dissertation are random internet articles, comics, and videos that lack the authority of high-brow literary masterpieces. I have made cheesy jokes (so I have a dry sense of humour; it’s called moisturizer), excessive use of block quotations, and undoubtedly more literary gaffes in these words. It is my hope that these imperfections aid in the accessibility of this text, my own random internet article, so that it can be within reach of everyone. As Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” (This is as good a place as any to mention why many of the quotations I have used here lack page numbers: these are taken from ebooks, where page numbers are arbitrarily calculated based on font size—search for a quotation within an ebook if you really need to find the page that it came from.)
Finally, we can sit here and endlessly debate whether or not God exists, with all kinds of windy philosophical wrangling. I have no doubt that an atheist could read this article and convincingly dismantle, bit by bit, all of the arguments I have used in support of God existing. That’s not the point, however, as having faith in its most essential form—its most unvarnished, raw, and undisguised form—comes down to nothing more than a choice.
And I choose to follow Jesus.
Feel free to print and share this article. Comments may be directed to russell at russellmcwhae dot ca.
- When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
- The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller
- Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
- The Case for a Creator by Lee Strobel
- The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel
- Disappointment with God by Philip Yancey
- What’s So Amazing About Grace? by Philip Yancey
- Who Moved the Stone? by Frank Morison
- The Real Face of Atheism by Ravi Zacharias