Book Club Discussion: Are Apologists Closer to God?

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

As we continue our discussion of Peter Rollins’ The Fidelity of Betrayal, we get into some philosophically heady material, which takes some time to digest. However, I am convinced that Rollins' approach is one that has the potential to not only change how we think about our faith,  but also how we interact with it in our lives. I'm not sure that I agree with all of his conclusions, but this has definitely been a worthwhile read!

In Chapters 4 and 5, Rollins deconstructs the notion that Christianity is a set of propositional statements that render God present as an object for contemplation or analysis. Using examples from mythology, Scripture, theology, and philosophy, Rollins shows how mankind has long been interested in speaking of God in these terms, to the point that “instead of thinking about our understanding of God as a poetic utterance arising from an encounter with God, it was thought that our understanding of God directly matched up with the very nature of God. While the former approach argues that our understanding is an acknowledged misunderstanding that arises in the aftermath of God, the later approach argues that these words can render God rationally manifest.” (p. 79)

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the modern Church. Heavily influenced by the Enlightenment and the philosophical tradition of Logical Positivism (the idea that if something is not able to be judged true or false, then we are rationally compelled to ignore it as irrelevant), much of the modern Church has bought into the belief that the truth of Christianity should be treated like any other set of factual claims, and that people of faith can somehow rationally observe ultimate truth with a level of personal detachment and objectivity.

Those of us who grew up during the apologetics movement of the 80s and 90s know all about this. We read Josh McDowell and Norm Geisler and Lee Strobel. We knew about the “evidence that demands a verdict.” For many of us, fighting the good fight of faith meant proving to skeptics that young earth creationism was scientifically sound, that the Battle of Jericho was an historical fact, and that believing in God was a perfectly rational and reasonable thing to do. 

According to Rollins, this approach “presupposes that the truth of faith is on the same level as scientific statements. In philosophical terms, one would say that the creationist is claiming the same ontological status for both the claims of science and the claims of faith.” (89)

“Thus the truth affirmed by Christianity ends up being treated like any other set of factual claims, claims that are provisional and open to being proven wrong. Even if one believes that the various claims within the Bible are wholly accurate, it is always possible that a new discovery in archeology, history, or biblical scholarship will overturn the current body of evidence. Apologetics, in its attempt to defend the factual claims of the Bible through the use of reason, thus implicitly affirms the very philosophical outlook that undermines its own project, placing the truth of Christianity in the realm of rational reflection and thus into the realm of reasonable doubt and provisionality.” (93)

A devout student of apologetics myself, I spent years and years secretly fearing that my faith would fall apart if scientific evidence compelled me to believe evolutionary theory or if the historical accuracy of a biblical account was reasonably questioned. I’d placed my faith in a set of propositional truth claims that could be deemed true or false based on measurements and evidence and analysis and reason.  So when I felt I could no longer reasonably hold to a creationist perspective, when I found myself questioning the concept of Biblical inerrancy, I feared I would have no choice but to walk away from Christianity altogether.

And I’m not alone. I’ve recently reconnected with a lot of old friends who, like me, grew up with the constant reminder that Christians are to “always be ready with an answer” in defense of the rationality of faith.  But when these friends began to study science or history or literature or philosophy or whatever, they began having questions of their own…questions that didn’t have easy, Sunday-school answers.  Having been taught that the Christian faith is held together by a set of propositional truths and fact-claims, they found that removing one truth (or fact) was enough to make the whole thing collapse. Faith was a house of cards. While some of my friends have simply changed the way they think about their faith, others have given it up altogether.

Of course, Rollins advocates changing the way we think about faith, (which we will discuss more exhaustively in our next discussion). For him, the idea that faith can be observed with a level of personal detachment and objectivity represents a misunderstanding of the nature of faith.

“Such an approach seems foreign to the unconditional commitment that is demanded of authentic believers,” he writes, “a commitment that is described by the apostle Paul as one that involves becoming a living sacrifice. Distancing oneself from one’s faith asks that believers engage with the deepest, most intimate, most personal, and most pressing issue in their lives in the guise of a detached, disinterested observer. Yet, approaching the truth affirmed by Christianity as some abstract, objective assertion to be tested, simply demonstrates that the questioner is approaching this query as a problem to be pondered, dissected, and solved, rather than a mystery to inhabit and be transformed by.” (90)

Rollins argues that “while approaching things in the world as objects to study and understand is vital for the development of technology, our faith cannot be treated as a detached object without fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of faith itself. The life of faith cannot be treated in the way we approach objects such as computers (which become more understandable the more we dissect and explore them).” (91)

This approach, writes Rollins, effectively gives the truth affirmed by Christianity over to the academic. “Philosophers can ask whether these claims are logically sound, historians can ponder the likelihood of certain scriptural claims, sociologists can ask whether Christian truth claims play a functional role in society, psychologists can explore whether these truth claims are only wish fulfillments, and theologians can contemplate the relationship  of these truths to Christian doctrines and creeds.” (91)

Essentially, true Christianity belongs to those who can dissect it, study it, and reflect upon it. What’s worse, “the knowledge of religious truth can thus be gained and maintained outside of a transfigured life,” because “faith is reduced to the idea of a theoretical system divorced from one’s practice.”

Indeed, growing up in the conservative evangelical subculture, I was pretty convinced that if I could just read enough books, I could get closer to understanding God. If I could only find answers to all of my questions, if I could put all the pieces together, if I could learn more about science and history and theology and philosophy, I would believe without doubt, and I would win people to Christ.  I held theologians and apologists in the highest regard, and I attended a Christian college in an effort get all my facts straight regarding a biblical worldview. 

And yet, as I’ve grown up, I’ve found that theologians and apologist do not exactly have a lock on fruitful Christian living. I’ve met many theologians who are humble, and kind, and generous. I’ve met others who are arrogant, and judgmental, and greedy. If God is an object (like a computer) that can be more fully understood by close examination and study, then shouldn't apologists and theologians be closer to God than the rest of us? If they are closer to God, shouldn't they more consistently show God's love (1 John 4:7-8)? Furthermore, if the truth of Christianity is tied up with academia, then why have some of the most amazing Christians I’ve met been completely illiterate. (I’m thinking of the Christian widows I met in India. Some of them could not read the Bible, and yet they more faithfully followed the teachings of Jesus than any Bible expert I’ve ever met. )

When the Pharisees showed little interest in following Him, Jesus proclaimed, “I praise You Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for this way was well-pleasing in Your sight.” (Matthew 11:25-26)

Perhaps the truest part of Christianity can be accessed by all, not just experts in theology and apologetics. 

Next week, we will discuss Rollins’ alternative, one that emphasizes faith as a response to a transformative event, as opposed to faith as belief in a set of propositional truths.

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