Losing Faith in ``Faith''

Dan Barker wrote a book called Losing Faith In Faith: From Preacher To Atheist.

I bought the book after having read some parts online, since many things he says have a ring of truth. But you need to read his book with the same care as you need for reevaluating your faith: distinguish between observations and conclusions. Many of his observations on the fundamentalist scene are painfully true, but he turns them into arguments against God whereas they are actually only arguments against a particular lifestyle (or style of belief). And he had remarkably little to say about what my faith is about.

For example, he says something to the effect that in the past he used to credit God for everything good happening in his life, but now as an atheist about as much good happens though he does no longer attribute it to God.

This is like a child saying: ``I used to be grateful to my parents for everything they did for me, but now I stopped this, and still they care about me as before.'' Is this a proof that the parents' love is nonexistent, or is it rather a proof of the child's blindness to their love?

In his chapter "Leave no stone unturned: an Easter challenge for Christians", Dan Barker writes: My challenge is simply this: tell me what happened on Easter. I am not asking for proof. My straightforward request is merely that Christians tell me exactly what happened on the day that their most important doctrine was born.

What a challenge - as if that is what matters. A fact is not disproved by being not able to give details about which there is no or conflicting evidence. So the right answer to the Eastern challenge is: ``Tell me exactly what happened on the day that Rome was founded, and I'll tell you what happened on Easter'' (cf. Matth. 21:23-27).

The details are not an essential point if, instead of maintaining that the bible is literally true, one holds that it contains God's people's understanding of what happened, including their communication with God and His messengers. So it is acceptable that there are the typical human limitations in describing the same objective events. After 2000 years it is undecidable what precisely happened; in 50AD it might still have been possible, but apparently no one cared since this was not considered essential at that time either.

And neither was it a problem for most of the greatest thinkers of the past. The text of the bible has been unchanged for almost 2000 years and the discrepancies in its descriptions of certain events were always known. This didn't stop those with an opennesss for God to trust the essentials of the biblical message, not even intellectual giants such as the discoverers of our modern laws of nature, Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell...

Paul recommends in 1 Tim. 1:4 (and 2 Tim. 2:23, Tit. 3:9) to give up discussion of things that only cause quarrels without driving people towards God, and he mentions explicitly conflicts about lists of ancestors (cf. Matth. 1:1-17 vs. Luke 3:23-38) which at that time posed the same kind of problem as now the Easter details - things far too long ago to decide them one way or another. Instead of forcing the details into an unconvincing tale that attracts criticism, it is enough to admit one's lack of sufficient data to decide the arguments, and the quarrels subside.

The real proof of resurrection is the power of Jesus now; and this is verifiable now. According to John 7:17, Jesus said, Whoever is willing to do what God wants will know whether what I teach comes from God or whether I speak on my own authority. And the only arguments that convince an atheist are those of power, not those of logic. The kingdom of God is not a matter of words, but of power. said Paul, in 1 Cor. 4:20. And he knew, since he turned Christian not by persuasion but by meeting the power of Jesus, Acts 26:10-18.

The fundamentalist position is too rigid and creates as a reaction the kind of disillusioned people such as Dan Barker who seem to think if the rigidity is disproved the whole thing falls down. Most of the atheist's arguments are based on an attack of rigid dogmatic assertions. Interpreting ``all-knowing'' as ``incredibly more knowing than we'', ``all-mighty'' as ``incredibly more knowing than we'', etc. eliminates all the logical arguments against God's character, and similarly for other things. Christian presumptiousness in their claims of what they know about God feeds atheistic power; becoming humble and modest brings Christians closer to the truth and removes Christianity from the shooting line of atheism. And it makes their message more accessible to thinking people who are searching for God without being prepared to sacrifice ratio to dogma.

There is a widespread belief that the gain from Christian living is the blessing of God in material terms, including such things as health, friends, etc.. If that is the basis, the motivating force, of your belief, it will crumble under arguments like those of Dan Barker, because you don't need to be a Christian to be happy in such terms (cf. John 6, especially v. 60-68.)

The true gain from Christian living is the friendship with God, having contact with Him and enjoying His presence. This is what you can gain or lose depending on your faith. Material blessings or hardship are secondary byproducts, not the main thing; if you measure quality by these secondary things you'll be deceived.

Look at the motives of the heroes (and the other characters) of the bible! What made them trust, and why, what was the consequence for their life, in which way was it more blessed, in which way made more difficult? Find out about Paul, Jeremiah, Joseph, Abraham, Solomon, Amos, Jonah, Peter, Jesus, Noah, Job, ...! (I could give you more detailed directions, but it is probably more rewarding to go hunting on your own!)

If you do that you'll make startling discoveries, not at all like the traditional fundamentalist message, but providing a much deeper foundation for a faith that is unshaken by circumstances. The bible will come alive in ways you never expected. And your concept of faith will change from ``swallowing the unquestioned opinion of authorities in an act of obedience'' (the remnants of which you may be struggling with right now) to a realistic concept that is in agreement with the power that the heroes of the bible drew upon.

Arnold Neumaier

My Views on the Christian Way of Life
Gedanken zum Leben als Christ
Science and Faith
On Christianity
my home page (http://arnold-neumaier.at)

Arnold Neumaier (Arnold.Neumaier@univie.ac.at)