In the last fifty years, we have experienced a significant culture shift in our country. We used to be able to consider Christianity as “home team” because most Americans appeared to have some sort of allegiance to the Christian faith, partly due to people in previous generations having grown up in church, having attended Sunday school or vacation Bible schools, having personally heard the evangelist Billy Graham… most people in our country grew up in a home that considered itself to be “Christian.”
That is no longer the case.
You see, things began to radically change over the course of the last few decades and fewer and fewer people have any sense of allegiance to Christianity or faith or Jesus, partly because fewer and fewer people have a connection to the Church (research indicates that people aren’t less spiritual; they just aren’t Christian). For example, I no longer expect most people to know the common stories of the Bible or to understand what are core Christian beliefs like how the Bible is an authority for us, whether or not Jesus really was raised from the dead, or if there is, in fact, an after-life.
These changes have occurred for a number of reasons, which we won’t spend most of our time on, but I think it’s fascinating to note that in 2007, a group of researchers discovered that in addition to a lack of understanding basic aspects of the Christian faith, society’s understanding of Christianity, the people around us, indicated that Christianity had an image problem, especially amongst the younger generation known as Millennials, those born after 1980 and before 2000. They view Christianity as being:
- Sheltered and naive.
- Too political.
While I think these assumptions about the Church matter, and we’ve addressed many of them in the past, it’s important to notice that most of these criticisms are against the church and produce emotional responses. Those assumptions about Christianity aren’t necessarily focused on doctrines or beliefs that form the basis of the Christian faith; they are essentially about the impressions people have about Christians. They aren’t attacking whether or not the Bible can be trusted or whether or not Jesus was raised from the dead or whether or not miracles exist. They are attacks on the way that Christians act and engage in society, which is why they bring about a lot of strong feelings from people.
The researchers heard numerous young people say, “I feel like Christians are too judgmental because they make me feel like I don’t measure up” or “My experience with people who said they were Christians led me to believe they were hypocrites because they stole from me.” So the criticism of Christianity amongst many of these younger people has mostly been based on the way Christians act, producing some very strong feelings.
And while this all matters, right? How people feel about the Christian faith is important. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that there has been another battlefront of criticisms against Christianity from a group of intellectuals known for what has been called New Atheism (e.g., Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, etc.). These authors and thinkers have, since c. 2004, written numerous books and articles and given many talks about why they believe that Christianity is an unreasonable belief system:
“When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion.” – Richard Dawkins
“Either God can do nothing to stop catastrophes like this, or he doesn’t care to, or he doesn’t exist. God is either impotent, evil, or imaginary. Take your pick, and choose wisely.” – Sam Harris
“We keep on being told that religion, whatever its imperfections, at least instills morality. On every side, there is conclusive evidence that the contrary is the case and that faith causes people to be more mean, more selfish, and perhaps above all, more stupid.” – Christopher Hitchens
As you can see, these authors within the “new atheism” movement are not pulling punches when it comes to their views concerning Christianity, the existence of God, and whether or not Christianity has a basis for morality. They suggest that it’s delusional to have faith, that God is not good, and that people of faith are stupid and naïve.
So on one hand we have people who have seen Christians behave poorly and those people feel like Christianity is basically a waste of time and on the other hand, we have intellectuals who believe that the ideas and beliefs that underlie Christianity are also a waste of time. If you read widely and listen closely, you might feel like Christianity is under attack… which may be really concerning to you… I get that.
But let me pose another scenario for you… another way to look at it. These criticisms and questions about the Christian faith provide us an opportunity to clarify truth and to provide evidence that can be evaluated. The world around us absolutely loves stories and everyone is telling a story about their products or their ideas but there is no greater story than the story of Jesus and God’s plan of redeeming the world and that great story is grounded in history, reality, and evidence.
In other words, I believe that following Jesus, what has been called “Christianity,” is based on a historic event, Jesus’ death on a cross and his resurrection, which can stand historical scrutiny and that a Christian worldview is entirely reasonable. And just to be clear, the Apostle Paul, who wrote more of the New Testament than anyone else, agreed that if our faith isn’t based on truth, it is a fool’s errand and a waste of time:
“And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless. And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost!” (1 Cor. 15:14-18 NLT)
So this morning we’re beginning a new sermon series called “The Reason for Faith,” with today being an introduction. This morning I want to basically ‘set the table’ for us and our coming meals. And our series is somewhat inspired by Tim Keller’s New York Times best seller, The Reason for God. For the next two months I want to spend time addressing some of the tough questions that people have of Christianity so that we can be better equipped to deal with both the emotional challenges and the intellectual challenges:
|Emotional challenges to Christians.||Intellectual challenges to Christianity.|
|· Christians are judgmental jerks.
· Christians are hypocrites.
· Christians are meany-heads.
· Christians smell funny.
|· Jesus didn’t raise from the dead.
· Miracles don’t exist.
· How can a loving God allow suffering or evil?
· The Bible isn’t true.
In fact, here are the specific topics we’ll address over the course of the coming sermons:
- How can there be only one true religion? (Oct. 14)
- Is Christianity oppressive to women? (Oct. 28)
- How can a loving God allow evil, suffering, and send people to hell? (Nov. 4)
- What about all of the people who never hear about Jesus? (Nov. 11)
- Hasn’t science disproved Christianity? And do miracles really exist? (Nov. 18)
- How can you believe in the Resurrection? (Nov. 25)
Obviously we can’t answer every question or address every issue over the course of the next few weeks, but I’m hoping that over the course of this series, you’ll have a better understanding of your faith, a better understanding of the intellectual sustainability and reasonableness for why I and millions of others believe that following Jesus makes sense… or if you are on the fence and exploring whether or not you can believe and have faith in Jesus, perhaps this series will help you in your journey.
Head, Heart, & Hand.
So now that you know what’s in store for this sermon series, I want to take a little bit of time to talk to you about some important reasons why I am convinced we need to press into exploring thoughtful responses to the tough and challenging questions that many of our friends and family have about Christianity.
If you look at church history and explore Christianity spirituality, you’ll find that there has traditionally been an emphasis on head, heart, and hands by theologians and pastors and other Christian leaders.
- Head – the intellect, our mind.
- Heart – our feelings and emotions.
- Hand – our behaviors and actions.
Each of these aspects of human identity matter and are part of what it means to be human. People think and people feel and people act. These aspects of human identity (head, heart, and hands) are deeply connected to our ability to love God. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment of God was, he said this:
“… you must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ (Mark 12:30 NLT)
To honor and love God, we must do so with our emotions, our actions, and our thinking… and we need to better understand how our mind affects our feelings, how our emotions shape our thinking. According to the research of many psychologists, most decisions are made based on our feelings, which somewhat confirms what Thomas Cranmer said:
“What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.” – Thomas Cranmer
Society tells us, “If it feels right, do it…” The problem is that our feelings can be so fickle that we need to engage in more thought and foster the life of the mind. After all, the brain and our mental faculties can be strengthened.
The bottom line is that there is a complex relationship between the way that we feel and the way that we think and how we act and I think it’s a mistake to try and overplay the emotions against the mind or the mind against the emotions. God created us to feel deeply and to use our brains (cf. this was a huge part of my own journey – finding a space where I could ask questions and engage with thoughtful people).
So while our feelings matter… immensely, I also think that when we are confronted with truth and are wrestling with what we have come to know to be accurate, our feelings can change or be significantly chastened. And this is why our sermon series is so important to me. I believe that we can, in fact, focus our attention on ways that cultivate both our feelings and our thinking, our emotions and the life of our mind. Both are important. And I don’t think we in the Vineyard have anything to worry about when it comes to whether or not we cultivate our experience of God’s love and our feelings and our actions – we do that quite well as a church tradition… it’s kind of what we’re known for. What we need is to build capacity in our church community for a value for thinking and the life of the mind because we all have people in our lives who have many questions and we need to stop giving five dollar answers to fifty dollar questions (e.g., when someone asks, “How can a loving God allow such terrible suffering” and someone responds with “Let go and let God”).
The Life of the Mind.
I actually think it’s a disservice to our faith if we ignore or pretend that tough questions don’t exist. It’s actually unhelpful to people to pretend that there aren’t complex issues that people need to wrestle through. If you don’t believe me, I hear this from many of your family members who have questions about Christianity. By the way, parents need to encourage and engage in their children’s brain development (cf. The Whole Brain Child).
So I think it’s really helpful to know that throughout church history there have been some brilliant minds who have helped the church think deeply about how to respond to these questions. Scripture actually encourages us to do our best to wrestle with these topics and help the world understand our faith in Jesus. The Apostle Peter wrote:
“… And if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way…” (1 Peter 3:15-16 NLT)
My prayer and goal through this sermon series is that you will have a much better understanding of what Christians believe, how to best explain challenging issues, and a stronger sense that Christianity isn’t crazy or naïve or a waste of time; rather, the Christian worldview makes the most sense in light of all of the evidence.
So when the media refers to Christians as a bunch of ignorant people or atheists suggest that one has to be irrational and illogical to embrace faith, or if people you interact with claim that there aren’t reasonable answers to the big questions of life, I want to hit the pause button and say, “not so fast.” One atheist has written:
“One of the things that is wrong with religion is that it teaches us to be satisfied with answers which are not really answers at all.” – Richard Dawkins
While this may be true of some religion and some Christians, I find this claim to be pretty ridiculous if it’s meant to be a reference to all Christians. After all, I have been shaped by and trained by so many brilliant scholars, women and men who engage in serious reflection, that I find Dawkins’ comment simply intellectually dishonest. Some of the world’s leading philosophers and scientists are Christians… and being a follower of Jesus should encourage thinking, not replace thoughtfulness or intellectual pursuits or cause us to accept simplistic ideas:
“Wherever the gospel is planted, the academy follows… wherever the gospel takes hold of a culture, you inevitably see academies, schools, and institutions of learning develop. They develop not only to teach people how to read and understand the Bible, as important as central as that is. But wherever the gospel goes, it seems to generate intellectual deliberation and inquiry.” – Bradley G. Green in The Gospel and the Mind
The thing is, according to Scripture we must embrace the life of the mind because it is in the space of our thinking that we experience transformation:
“And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice– the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2 NLT)
So this series is going to get into some challenging topics. How do we answer people’s tough questions? How is it possible that one can accept the findings of the scientific world and also believe what the Bible teaches about Creation? Is science and faith incompatible and mutually exclusive? What reasons are there to reject the common assumptions of most people telling us that miracles are impossible? How are we to account for so much evil and suffering in our world and throughout history when we’re told that God is good and loving and merciful and gracious and kind? These questions and others like them are going to be what we wrestle with over the course of the next two months.
But in order for us to wrestle well, we need to make a thoughtful decision to engage in the life of the mind and agree that the way that we think matters. We are called to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts, all of our soul, all of our strength… and all of our mind. Head, heart, and hands. God transforms us as we change the way that we think about the world around us and our great need for his grace.
And the only way that we’re going to see many of our friends and family members come to having a reason for faith in Jesus is if we take the Apostle Peter’s words seriously and prepare ourselves to explain our hope. Ladies and gentleman, the Christian hope of a future that is full of God’s presence and no longer contaminated by sin and death is founded and grounded upon a historical event – the resurrection of Jesus… and I believe that historic event stands the scrutiny of skeptics and is one truth that I am willing to die for because it is at the heart of the good news.
So for the next two months, let’s think together. Let’s wrestle together. Let’s ask questions together and ask God’s Spirit to help our minds to engage our faith, perhaps in a new dimension.