To those unfamiliar with Avatar: The Last Airbender, there’s a character named Toph. Toph is an earthbender, which basically means she can manipulate earth. Although she’s physically blind, she’s learned to use her earthbending to feel the location of everything connected to the earth, therefore letting her “see” all things at once and making her arguably the strongest earthbender in the world (next to Bumi). From the outside, Toph’s physical blindness makes her seem helpless; a blind girl who can’t fend for herself in any way. However, it was this same apparent blindness that made her see better than everyone else.
I think authentic Christian faith can work in much the same way. Here’s why:
First of all, let me explain the definition of “faith” I’m using. It’s interesting that if I do a simple Google search of “faith,” the first two definitions that come up are as follows:
- Complete trust or confidence in someone or something.
- Strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.
This is interesting because when it comes to defining faith, I think most Christians would line up with #1, while skeptics would classify Christian faith as #2 (especially the “based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof”).
So the definition of “faith” I’ll be using whenever I use the term “faith” is #1, in opposition to #2, and the majority of this article is specifically in regards to the intellectual battle that’s heavily emphasized in our culture today. There are many Christians and mystics who aren’t “educated” and “intellectual” in the modern sense, but have an extremely close connection with the divine (even more so than the majority of people). But because there’s such a big push from scientism, relativism, rationality, and related philosophies today, I think it’s important to address this aspect of spirituality.
The general consensus among those who harshly criticize faith (particularly regarding Christianity) is that all of it is “blind.” It’s just people accepting certain ideologies and conceptual ideas about God (if there even is a God) with no rational or logical reason other than “it’s just true,” or “because the Bible told me so.” To these critics, Christians can be seen as small-minded, gullible, unintelligent, or susceptible to blindly believing in things that have no proof or make no sense to the more refined minds of our current age. Indeed, there most likely are Christians who fit the above descriptions—not being able to give a solid answer to why they believe what they believe—and instead default to a response that suggests they haven’t explored their reasoning themselves.
However, in today’s culture, which heavily emphasizes practices of reason and science, there’s even more importance for the Christian to “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” (1 Peter 3:15-16 NRSV) The keywords and phrases here are “defense” and “hope that is in you.” It starts with the outward sign of the Christian having hope—an authentic hope that’s natural and apparent to the point others will demand an account of why that is. So basically, this passage is suggesting that a natural progression of evangelizing is to lead by action and the way you live your life, and when people ask or demand an explanation from you, to be able to defend your position. And if you can’t play to our current culture by defending on the grounds that they’ll understand, it’ll be harder to be effective at evangelizing and transforming the culture. Most Christians are familiar with the following words from Jesus regarding evangelizing:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20 NRSV)
But the Christian tradition can’t possibly match up to the intellectual thought and reasoning of today, right? Isn’t this a “secular” practice, and Christianity is all about faith? To answer these questions, if we believe that all good things come from God, and if we consider rationality and logic good things (you read the Bible and are reading this article using rationality and logical thinking), then therefore God is the one who gave us rational thinking and logic, and logically we should be able to use these tools to more fully understand and even defend God.
If this still sounds too much on the secular side, then I encourage you to read (or reread) Acts 17. This is what Paul basically did in Athens in Acts 17 to be effective at debating with those present, especially the philosophers. “Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him” (Acts 17:18 NRSV). When he spoke to the Athenians at the Areopagus, he used their philosophy, terminology, and ideas to explain and strengthen his position. He didn’t even use the name Jesus or say anything about him being divine: “because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.'” (Acts 17:31 NRSV) Again, I encourage you all to check out Acts 17 and the methods Paul used to preach to those unaccustomed to Jewish or Christian thought. In fact, this type of evangelizing lines up with what Geeks Under Grace is trying to do with pop culture.
The ideas of exploring faith and rational thinking as it’s connected to faith isn’t new. There’s a vast amount of intelligent and rational Christians today and throughout history who have demonstrated that the Christian tradition is far from unintelligent, and actually welcomes critical thinking, scientific findings, and philosophical dialogue to further understand God and solidify the choice of following Jesus.
Several of the intellectuals I have come across in history that operate from an intellectual viewpoint (and at the same time defend the Christian tradition) include:
- St. Thomas Aquinas
- C.S. Lewis
- G. K. Chesterton
- Peter Kreeft
- Bishop Barron
- Timothy Keller
- Thomas Merton
- St. Augustine
- Blaise Pascal
- William Lane Craig
Typically the strongest apologists and defenders of Christian tradition (such as those mentioned above) come from a place of honest searching, questioning, rationale, and critique, which eventually leads them to dive into Christian tradition. And not all are born into the faith, but rather convert by philosophical arguments and understanding.
Much like Toph, their Christian worldview doesn’t blind them, but instead helps them to see far better than ever before. It’s almost like they realized how blind they had become and wanted clarity in the truth, a search that led them to Christianity, where they found the best responses. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.”
This is all to encourage you followers, it’s possible to have a faith that’s not “blind.” It’s possible to have a strong defense for your faith. You’ll probably be surprised by the amount of intelligent thought that’s been infused in Christian tradition since the beginning.
So for you followers of Jesus, keep diving deep in your Christian tradition and faith. A large problem I’m seeing today is that people are leaving Christianity because they feel they can’t ask honest questions without being deemed heretical. These people are wanting to know legitimate answers to hard questions that are keeping them from taking that next step in their growth, but they’re being put down for doing so.
A good person to read who did anything but avoid hard questions is St. Thomas Aquinas. His method was to basically pose a theological position (“God is real” for example), take any and all objections to this position, choose the best objections, strengthen the objections so that they’re even better and more convincing than the original objection (called “steel manning” in the practice of debate and argumentation), then come back with his own objections to those objections (if any), proving the position true or false. He did this because he wanted to know the truth. If these initial objections couldn’t hold up to his positioning and counter-objections, then he was confident that he arrived as close as he could to truth. His “Summa Theologica” is where the bulk of this is from.
So again, to those genuinely seeking, I encourage you to continue learning and asking the tough questions to wise people who are sincerely interested in truth and not simply out to protect their doctrines. There are people with legitimate and rational answers who have probably already thought through most (if not all) of the deep questions you have about spirituality (and Christianity, in particular). In fact, there’s over two-thousand years worth of content that you can find with that little device in your pocket. And I’m not saying you have to become a hardcore apologist, either. This culture is just looking for Christians who can adequately explain their own positioning for themselves and, again, are able “to make a defense to anyone who demands an accounting for the hope that is in them.” Remember to “do it with gentleness and reverence.” If you feel confident in your position, then you probably won’t feel threatened or defensive.
I really like that first definition of “faith,” the one which includes the word “confidence.” Again, I think that’s important in the Christian faith. To have confidence in your faith—being bold and ready to adequately defend it within the boxing ring of our knowledge-heavy world today—is a great asset that can help bring others to God. It very much reminds me of Toph. If people saw what this blind earthbender could do in combat, they would probably realize she could see better than everyone else. In the intellectual combat that’s abundant today, I feel our culture should be able to view Christians the same way.
“’I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,” your sin remains.’” (John 9: 39-41 NRSV)