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Troubled by Faith?

By Chris Carpenter Program Director - Have you ever wondered why there is so much violence in the Old Testament even though the Bible is considered a book of hope and peace?  Does it seem that sometimes God is intentionally hiding, not revealing Himself to people of faith?  Or, does it bother you that many Christians consistently misuse the sacred text of the Bible, using it out of context to prove a point?

You are not alone.

In his new book, What Bothers Me Most About Christianity (Howard Books/Simon & Schuster), pastor Ed Gungor owns up to the valid criticisms that sometimes swirl around Christianity. Program Director Chris Carpenter recently sat down with Gungor to discuss whether balancing faith and reason is possible, the ongoing debate of science vs. faith, and whether mystery is an essential quality of the Christian faith.

Why do Christians have so many problems with Christianity?  The idea is that you accept Jesus Christ and you are with the program.  Then, somewhere along the way one says to themselves, ‘I don’t understand this concept.  It makes no sense to me.’

I think that if we are intellectually honest that there are aspects of faith that require a leap of faith.  It’s an interesting thing.  The attacks by  these ‘brilliant atheists’ have been doing about Christianity and about faith in general have to do with trying to base it on natural sciences, empirical thinking, and that sort of thing.  What I think happens for us as believers and also for people outside of faith is they think it is a valid argument.  We should look at this and see if there is any way we prove this empirically – not forgetting that natural science is not the only kind of truth seeking device.  There is natural science but there is also sociology, psychology, law, art, and a number of other things that bump up against truth.  These things are a little more subjective, maybe, but they bump up against things that are real.  If we don’t remember that and we don’t realize some of these things are not answered by natural science but by philosophy and some of that stuff we will try to get into their world and try to argue with them on that level.  That sort of guts us from being able to have a position of authority because we are trying to only use the marbles they are using.  The reality is that faith isn’t just an empirical thought.  It’s not just something we can prove.  It’s not just based on truth.  It’s more relational truth. 

Do you think the criticisms put forth by the ‘brilliant atheists’ are valid?

I think there is validity to the criticisms.  I think they are overstated.  For example, is faith reasonable?  You have to say, ‘Yeah, but it is not based just on reason.’  Even though it is reasonable to believe that when you look at the order of the universe and you look at what is happening around you, you can say, ‘Well, it seems like there is something more going on than just happenstance.’  There is a big difference between that and having an encounter with God where you open your life to Him and He comes in and transforms.’  There is nothing you can base that on to prove it.  At some point you will get to the point where reasonableness brings you and then there will be a leap of faith.  That requires a gift from heaven.  So, when they say faith is irrational you’ve got to say to your question, yes.  But faith wins the day.  In my soul faith wins the day.  I think one of the main reasons I wrote the book was not so much to argue with those atheists directly or even to argue with those people outside of faith but it was to try to maybe challenge the Church that when we get hit with attacks that instead of just out of hand throwing back at them the same kind of polemical tone or mean spirited reaction, we should turn the other cheek.

Do you think people who say they never experience any tension or doubt in their faith are liars? 

I think that if we are honest there are some things about faith that bother us.  There is a generation, particularly the young that are rising up and saying, ‘What do you do about this?’  Here is the currency that we have to be aware of.  Every time the Church moves forward she answers questions that the generation that was leading it was asking.  When new generations come up they have different questions because the culture has changed.  If we are not careful the Church gets anachronistic – we get out of sync.  This is because we are answering questions no one is asking anymore.  New generations come and the first thing they do is become skeptical.  The skepticism is just somebody asking whether something can be really true.  They are wondering why certain things important.  A lot of times, those of us who are in leadership, we get freaked out by that.  That is a sign of rebellion to us.  It is a sign that people are pushing back on the faith.  But I don’t think so.  I think that this skepticism ought to be encouraged because if you don’t listen to it, it will turn into cynicism.  Unanswered skepticism becomes cynical. 

As we have been talking, at several points of the conversation, inferences of mystery in Christianity have been made.  Do you believe mystery is an essential quality of the Christian faith?

Yes, I do.  There is an element of faith where if we are not too careful we will try to dissect it and make it about truth.  What is true?  What is appropriate?  What is God saying?  What are we supposed to do?  We so dissect faith that sometimes we lose the mystery of the fact there is something romantic about following a being we don’t see and about learning how to hear His voice and separate it from who we are.  So, we get surprised by God.  There are things that we think we know that we get surprised by.  He is not like that yet He is more like this.  I think that faith is supposed to be rich with mystery and when we try to dissect it too much we rob it of its life.

Building off that statement, is balancing faith and reason possible?

St. Augustine was the first one who started this chatter.  It has been carried by Christian philosophers since then but he started the discussion by saying, ‘Believe that you may understand not try to understand so you can believe.’  Do you understand to believe or do you believe to understand?  I think that what he is really saying is if you will believe in the face of things that don’t make sense, ultimately you start moving toward an understanding.  But you have to be willing to surrender your understanding in order to fully believe.  A lot of people don’t do that.  If you just say I only want to believe what I understand you sort of lock yourself into a place that is like a box.  If you take that to the n-th degree, which some do, how do you describe love?  How do you prove it?  You really need to be willing to take the risk.  When you fall in love with somebody you have to take the risk of asking them out.  You might get turned down.  But if you want to know before you did you would never ask them out.  It would mess up the situation.  It is that kind of thing.

In Chapter Five of your book you discuss the “science – faith smackdown”.  Is science and faith truly incompatible or do they mesh together?

I have been a pastor for 30 years and a lot of the kids I have seen over the years have fallen from grace.  I will tell you that most of the kids who push out from faith it always has something to do with this issue of they thought and thought and thought all of their lives in Christian home schools and Christian schools about the creation story and that evolution was just this demonic thing that was out there.  They rest their entire faith on a way of looking at a scientific idea.  And when they couldn’t get past it in college they fall on the sword and die.  I think that is so silly.  What difference does it make?  If we find out that evolution was really the way it doesn’t change our view.  We just believe God was the one behind it.  Who cares whether it happened in seven days or whether it happened in seven billion years.  It happened.  It happened with what we call in eschatology the idea of a talos – an end game.  The idea that God has intention -- that the world has come into being, has a purpose, and we are part of that story.  That’s our faith.

After people read this book what is the one thing you want your readers to take from it for life application?

The number one thing in my heart would be that it is ok to get a spiritual flu, to get the atheist flu once in a while.  As I like to say in my book, I believe in God most of the time.  The reason I say that is because there is something raw and wonderful about love.  I hope that when Christians read this that they will walk away and think I can be honest about the things that bother me.  It doesn’t mean I’m hating God or disrespecting Him.  We need to be honest.  If we are not we are living an illusion.  It makes our faith fake.  Hopefully, people will fall in love with Jesus just a little bit more and have a sense of honesty that is going to be encouraging.

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