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How We Believe

Rollen Stewart’s name may not be familiar to you. But you’re probably aware of the trend he started: displaying “John 3:16” signs at sporting events.

In the 1980’s the media referred to Stewart as Rainbow Man and alternatively as Rock’n Rollen. He’s a born-again Christian with an apocalyptic, the-fiery-end-is-near take on the Gospel. To convert people before it was too late, he looked for a way to get the word out to as many people as quickly as possible.

Having once tried his hand at acting, he recognized the power of getting on camera. So, he donned a rainbow-colored afro wig, pulled on a John 3:16 t-shirt, and started showing up at sporting events and doing attention-grabbing stuff.

He created the now-familiar trend by going to lots of sporting events. All over the country and even around the world. Showing up for NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL games became his full-time gig.

As you may remember, the passage he favored reads like this: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16) It occurs in the larger context of Nicodemus’ nighttime visit with Jesus and their discussion of what it means to be born from above.

Stewart was not interested in explaining the text’s meaning in its larger context. Reading it in isolation, he interpreted it merely as a promise of heaven for those who believe and the threat of hell for those who don’t. It seemed to him the perfect message for persuading people to convert. Sadly, his mission became a coercive obsession. He is now serving three consecutive life sentences for kidnapping.

Sharing the faith is actually one of the things we Christians do. Jesus himself told us to do it. (Matthew 28:16-20) Accordingly, in the Episcopal Church, our Baptismal and our Confirmation rites include a promise to share the Good News in both word and deed. Stewart’s approach seems misguided on several counts. So I practice a different way of inviting others to consider sharing my faith in Jesus.

The challenge, of course, is how to go about issuing such an invitation in our world today. I’m going to leave aside here the important discussion about living peaceably and respectfully with people of different faiths and different cultures. Instead, I’m going to discuss the challenge of belief in a secular age such as ours.

The philosopher Charles Taylor famously calls this a secular age. And by that he does not mean that everybody—or even most people—reject the existence of God. Instead, he points to some pervasive influences that makes it hard for an increasing number of people to believe.

First, there’s the success and the broad acceptance of the scientific explanation of the world. Most non-scientists like me have a general sense that science assumes a closed, mechanistic system.

Some of us have read just enough physics and chemistry—or popularized explanations of those fields—to recognize that we are way past Sir Isaac Newton and the idea of a universe composed of billiard-ball-like atoms crashing into one another. To paraphrase a friend, nature is way weirder than that.

Still, here’s the common, powerfully influential idea. Everything that happens in nature can be explained by another natural phenomenon. That appears to leave no room for God to show up in or to act upon the events of our everyday, ordinary lives.

Some vocal—and occasionally caustic—atheists insist that the scientific view of the world should force any reasonable person to reject God’s existence entirely. Some believers, like Thomas Jefferson, retained their faith in God by adopting Deism. On that view, there is a God. However, God is entirely outside of space and time and never meddles in the events of this world.

Along with the mechanistic view of nature, many have come to assume that any spiritual experience occurs only in the entirely private, interior spaces of an individual’s heart and mind. After all, that’s the only place left in human day-to-day life left for God to show up. So, if I share my faith with you, I’m sharing a personal feeling or belief.

People may respect that I’ve had such experiences. They may also wonder if those experiences are just peculiar to me. Maybe they’re a mere figment of my imaginary. But regardless, in no way can private, inner experience be used as evidence of the truth of a faith. My personal experiences cannot persuade someone else who has never had such experiences. Moreover, it would be wrong to impose my private spiritual take about things on anyone else.

Let me remind you, that I’m simply outlining in very brief terms the intellectual influences that make ours a secular age. Not everyone believes that nature is a closed system from which God is excluded. And plenty of people, myself included, understand our personal spiritual experiences as what Hartmut Rosa calls resonance: the sense that we are being addressed by something—by someone—beyond us.

Still, these pervasive intellectual influences affect how everyone believes. Taylor says that they make belief fragile. No matter what we believe, we recognize that we believe what we do in the context of alternative beliefs that whole groups and communities find persuasive. Those same groups and communities view our beliefs as alien and sometimes even repugnant.

So, in such a context, how do we begin to share our faith in a convincing way? Well, to be honest, it’s not possible to provide a complete answer to this question given the limits of this space. In fact, I’m writing a book right now about discipleship in a secular age that addresses this and related themes in detail.

In the meantime, I’ll suggest this. Sharing the faith should involve offering reasons to believe that can speak to those who swim with us in our cultural sea. In an earlier life, I taught philosophy. Specifically, I taught the classic proofs for the existence of God. Some are better than others. But none of them is really a slam dunk. So, I don’t follow that path.

Instead, in my upcoming book I will offer what I loosely call existential arguments. I ask, “What sort of beliefs—if followed consistently—will provide you with a reliably stable sense of your own significance, your life’s purpose, and your highest good?”

Those familiar with my other books and essays will recognize the core thesis from which all of this will unfold. Our faith is rooted in a relationship with a person. With the risen Christ. Not private feelings or dogmatically asserted doctrines. We are addressed in our very core from beyond ourselves by the God who loves us.

Please stay tuned for a few more previews in the months to come. Of course, I’ll continue to post weekly (for the most part) about the Sunday scriptures and various spiritual themes. In the meantime, thank you so much for being part of this community of readers and thinkers, seekers and wonderers.

You can check out my books at my Amazon Author Page or at the Book Page at this blog.

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