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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

How to Decide about the Big Questions

My last post answered questions from Down Under about why we should trouble ourselves to try to answer life’s most troubling questions: What is real? What is the best we can hope for? Why don’t we enjoy it already? and How can we solve that problem?

A follow-up question has come to me since:

The very best and most attentive philosophers disagree on the existence of God. I assume that this is also the case across many academic disciplines. Given my obvious intellectual limitations on the subject, how can I ever come to a confident decision on the matter? Perhaps it's about doing what I can with what I've got, so to speak, and, as you say, see what I can find out and what answers make the most sense to me.

This is where I get stuck or overwhelmed each time I venture off to find answers on this subject. The result? I freely admit, I do believe that I try and consciously avoid the subject, for the most part, taking refuge in agnosticism and choosing to engage with these penultimate matters, not because I necessarily want to, but because the task at hand seems so elusive for someone like myself.

I understand that the intellect is only one domain of how we come to be persuaded in our beliefs, that there's the emotional, social and whatever other domains that also contribute, but it's the intellectual one, I think, that appears to be the barrier here.

In Can I Believe? Christianity for the Hesitant, I offer two relevant discussions: on how to make up one’s mind about religion and on what Christians offer as grounds for believing as we do. My correspondent is working through those, he says, but wants to ask this question now anyway.

I will point him, and you, to those multi-chapter discussions, since that’s where I put my best foot forward. For now, however, let me offer two related suggestions.

First, even very smart people don’t convert to Christianity on the basis of intellectual demonstration. No one I can think of has ever been merely argued into Christian faith.

And how could they be? Since Christianity’s fundamental reality is a relationship between God and ourselves, how can we possibly be rationally compelled into loving someone—or Someone? One might be argued into respect for someone, even admiration, but hardly into devotion.

Only acquaintance makes sense here. And Christianity therefore offers, and expects, and demands ongoing personal interaction with God.

To quote a bit from Can I Believe?:

It doesn’t just happen to do so, as a kind of interesting, if perhaps unnerving, bonus. The guidance and strength enjoyed in prayer are essential to the Christian way of life, as that life is paradigmatically lived as a partnership between one- self and God. Human beings function optimally in constant communion with our Maker, not off on our own “as gods,” deciding for ourselves what is “good and evil.” And the Christian way is one of learning how to connect and reconnect with God throughout the day so as to learn to see God in one’s peripheral vision, so to speak: to walk through life with the constant sense of God’s constant presence—a presence of love, holiness, and creativity, a presence offering power to live as we ought.

Those who earnestly seek God therefore need not only to study the best arguments they can find. They need simultaneously to pray for genuine encounter with God. Christianity isn’t a conclusion to a chain of inference, but a relationship of love with one’s Creator. Only entering into actual experience can move one properly into a convinced state of mind.

Second, how should one then most effectively search for such encounter? The testimony of believers through the centuries is dual: pray on your own and go to church. Over and over again, this experiential ellipse shows up in Christian testimony. I sought God in private prayer and I sought him in the company of serious followers of Jesus.

Sometimes God shows up in the solitude of one’s room. Sometimes God shows up in the company of worshippers. Usually it’s a combination and series of both kinds of experiences, big ones and small ones, with the small incidents sometimes as convincing as the big moments, and each of them reinforcing the other.

Readers might be disappointed with this answer. Read good material, think hard, pray, and get acquainted with a good church? Hardly original.

Originality in this discussion, however, is to be doubted, not affirmed. I stand with the historic Church of mainstream Christian testimony. So I simply pass on the tried-and-true tradition of my forebears and betters. This is typically how Christians across the globe and across the centuries have come to know God.

There is no magic formula, nor lock-it-down argument, that can give one what is finally available here: not certainty, but assurance. Not Final Answers, but faith.

Again, this might disappoint some readers. Let’s remember, however, that nothing else in life of any great importance can be known with certainty, either. So keep reading. Keep talking. Keep praying. Keep listening in church.

And, yes, I’ll caution you that God might make you wait a bit. But you’ll wait only as long as it takes to get you ready for the rest of your life….


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