|Austin Farrer. (Image source: bbc.co.uk)|
Have you ever had an idea, one that is strong and meaningful but tough to articulate, and then you stumble upon a quote that brings it into sudden focus? Such a quote flashes like lightning around the idea, illuminating it and allowing you to see it clearly for the first time.
I had the experience tonight after discovering a remark by Austin Farrer, an Oxford scholar and close friend of C.S. Lewis:
For though argument does not create conviction, the lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish. [in Jocelyn Gibb, ed., Light on C. S. Lewis (1966)]
I’ve spent hundreds of hours over the last couple years exchanging arguments with all sorts of unbelieving friends — atheists, agnostics, and other labels I didn’t know existed. Some fellow Catholics have warned me that, “Nobody has ever been argued into the Church,” or that, “Evangelization is more about the way you live than the arguments you give.” Neither sentiment ever rang true with me, at least not completely, but I couldn’t explain why.
Then I discovered Dr. Farrer’s quote, which affirmed two key convictions that have brewed within me during these many encounters. First, without arguments or good reasons to believe in God, most Christians will abandon their faith — especially while they are young. Religious experience and devotion can only carry people so far. Most of the atheists and agnostics I engage were raised in Christian homes, but ones that provided no intellectual support.
Second, Christianity is not even a viable option for most non-believers if, to them, it lacks respectable arguments. It’s not that they won’t find the Gospel compelling without good, supporting reasons; it’s that they won’t even consider it. Without a strong intellectual basis, they’ll pay Christianity as much attention as Scientology or Hinduism.
These two facts mean that arguments are a good thing, not bad. We don’t have to be argumentative, but we do need arguments. They may not help people pass through the porta fidei, the door of faith, but they do unlock the door. They make the journey possible.
To this declaration I have three — well, not so much objections as stipulations:
1. Instead of “good reason”, I would say “sufficient reason”; many people believe or disbelieve on grounds that neutral observers (if there be such in this day) wouldn’t necessarily grant are rational, let alone indicative of good reasoning. While I dislike and categorically reject “Bulverisms” (appeals to psychology, or at least to psychobabble) in an argument, only a naïf would completely discount the role of the psychological in coming to (dis)belief; some people will look for, and accept, the sorriest excuse of an objection rather than admit an opposing argument has any validity.
2. Certainly Devin didn’t intend to imply that the way Christians live has no impact on disbelievers. But while good Christians’ behavior may not provide a compelling argument for the truth of the evangelium, bad or hypocritical Christians’ behavior definitely poses a formidable argument against the faith!
3. While many people do abandon regular religious practice in young adulthood, they don’t necessarily stop believing; most return to their religion, many to their former communions, later in adulthood. The reasons they have for returning they often find themselves.
Granting these stipulations, then, Devin is essentially right. As the ranks of the unbelievers and the unchurched grow, we will face more and more demands to show that one ought to believe, that the Faith isn’t merely one option in a salad bar of optional beliefs but the one which conforms best with reality.
It won’t be enough to point to the Bible; in fact, it was never really enough. For, as St. Augustine pointed out so many years ago, people who don’t believe in God, let alone Christ, don’t believe in the Bible (cf. Against the Letter of Fundamental Letter of Manichaeus 5:6); naturally, if there’s no God, there’s nothing to inspire Scripture save human invention. Saint Paul may have referred back to Scripture when he was speaking to the Jews of Beroea; however, when he spoke to the Greeks of Athens, he quoted Greek playwrights and poets (Acts 17:10-12, 22-31).
Indeed, to fully defend the Faith, one needs not merely a database of proof texts; he must be able to show the unbeliever how Scripture is to be read. Two of the biggest problems Christianity faces in the postmodern world are: 1) the Scriptural illiteracy of the average Christian, and 2) the poor understanding both Christians and non-Christians have of story and its role in human development. Both of these underlie the error of Biblical literalism, which allows the unbeliever to set up a false dilemma: a person must either deny the divine inspiration of Scripture or deny certain scientific discoveries about the material origin of man. The Christian needs deny neither; however, it’s incumbent upon him to demonstrate why, if he’s to remove the unbeliever’s objection and dismantle the false dilemma.
Christians need not only greater Scriptural literacy but also greater scientific literacy, if they’re to hold their own in debate with postmodern logical positivists. This entails not only a better acquaintance with current scientific developments and theories, but also a better grounding in the history and philosophy of science. “Scientism”, which is a popular but largely inchoate version of logical positivism, draws much of its strength from an equally vague “Whig history” of science and muddled, untutored distinctions between science, religion, philosophy, and theology.
Now, it stands to reason that not everyone can be expected to master such a wide variety of intellectual disciplines. Not everyone, however, needs to be a full-time apologist or evangelist; nor does everyone have to have doctorates in so many disciplines. Rather, a layered approach, such as that which was used to develop the Baltimore Catechism, in which students start from basic levels to more complex questions, each building on the previous levels, seems to me to be best. Moreover, curricula that integrate learning from each intellectual discipline into a robust knowledge and defense of the faith can be developed.
The only real hope Christianity has in America lies in maintaining Catholic orthodoxy and/or Orthodox catholicity (not being funny here). Most Protestant denominations will slowly succumb to the culture through selective ignorance, poor education, and “Church of Nice” hermeneutics, eventually losing their ability to defend whatever bits of the “faith of our fathers” they’ve managed to retain until now. The Evangelical free-church communions will either fall prey to the same external demands or marginalize themselves through Biblical literalism, poor education, and “God-hates-X” hermeneutics, eventually losing their power to attract converts by behavioral witness.
To sum it up: The Faith is reasonable, but only for those who know how to reason and have the proper facts to support the reasons. We may not be able to argue others into Christianity; but at least we can teach our children so they can’t be intellectually bullied out of it. With the proper education, we can truly give them “a climate in which belief may flourish”.