Saturday, March 29, 2014

Believing in God: A Defense of Intellectual Assent that "God's Not Dead"

"Intellectual assent" is getting a bad rap in many of our churches today.

To be clear at the beginning, let me rush to assure my fellow moderates, not to mention my progressive readers, that I do not think that what many call a "saving faith" is achieved with pure head knowledge or a recitation of some sentences. When Jesus tells Nicodemus to "believe in" Him in John 3:16, our interpretation is affected by the English language's lack of a verb form of the word "faith." Jesus is telling Nicodemus that whoever "faiths" Him will have eternal life, and the best our translators do with that is "believe in."

The illustration I most often use (members of any Sunday School class I have taught can skip this paragraph - you have heard it multiple times) involves my grandmother, Mimi, who lived near a naval air station and saw airplanes fly every day for years. She believed that airplanes could fly. She saw them. People flew on airplanes to visit her. She was not stupid. She knew airplanes could fly. She believed that fact absolutely. Yet, Mimi would not fly. She would not set foot on a plane. Irrespective of her intellectual assent - her head knowledge of the facts - Mimi did not believe in airplanes.

Saving faith requires more than head knowledge, more than a creedal statement of "belief." Faith in Christ is a heart event, a soul event, a complete being event. "Believing in Jesus" is not a compilation of good works or a result of any particulat action, but it requires following Jesus. It is more than simple acceptance of the historicity of the cross and the resurrection. It is more than opening a gift. It is a giving of oneself to God through Jesus Christ. Even the thief on the cross did more than say "I agree."

Saving faith changes us, transform us, turns us into disciples. It requires more than intellectual assent to a set of facts.

That said, intellectual assent to the very existence of God is critical. Because we (correctly) denounce mere intellectual assent as sufficient for salvation, we tend to poo-poo the necessity of acceptance of facts altogether. We want to say that there is nothing we can "know" religiously. I have discussed this more specifically here.

The new movie "God's Not Dead" brings a variety of perspetives on the question of intellectual assent. As movies go, this one suffers from what many "faith movies" have in common - uneven acting, hyperbole in characterization, and, perhaps most directly, the problem of dealing with real-life spiritual issues in a two dimensional message delivered by strangers, people with whom we have no personal relationship. Still, the movie avoids a lot of easy answers. It addresses deathbed confessions, the power of prayer, finding God in the little things, and - in its central plot point - the intellectual aspect of Christianity. Can thinking people accept the existence of God?

The movie will raise the hackles of some who will think that it teaches that intellectual assent is sufficient for salvation, especially in a short quote from Franklin Graham that is featured in one character's story and in the denouement of the story of the central villain, a philosophy professor. I don't want to spoil the story for those few of you who might go see the movie, but suffice it to say that attempting to describe anybody's theology based on a ten second sound bite is always dangerous. I do not believe that is the point of the movie.

Defenders of the movie will champion its hero and his debate with his philosophy professor. They will proudly stand with him in proclaiming their "belief in God."

This blog is not a movie review, really. What I want to address instead is whether those of us who people our churches really believe in God. We would largely reject the vicious atheism of the film's philosophy professor, who clearly has a hidden agenda and is so personally involved in the issue that his attack of the lone vocal Christian in his class borders on the maniacal. If honest, however, many Christians in their private moments will admit to being troubled by some of his arguments. If Russell and Hawking and Rand and Dawkins and so many other smart people are atheists, are we ignoring good sense and just believing in magic? Philosophy and science and mathematics search for proveable answers to their hypotheticals and reject the supernatural. Do we?

Even longtime church members get uncomfortably silent when the topic of discussion turns to the mystical, the spiritual. Too many, I fear, jump to participation in programs and espousing philosophies without first deciding for themselves if they really believe the supernatural, the extrascientific, the non-mathematical.

To say that intellectual assent will not save you is a far cry from saying that intellectual assent is unimportant. If we do not start with believing in the fact of God, it is hard to see how much of the rest of what we call Christianity will follow.

I detect that a number of church members and so-called Christians do not in fact belive in God. If they do, that belief has little effect on their lives, missions, priorities, and plans. Here is what I mean:

Belief in God requires intellectual assent as to the existence of a supernatural, more-powerful-than-you, authoritative, personal entity. If you do not believe in the truth of any of those four attributes, you do not believe in God. We can disagree about the nature, form, gender, level of concern, and means of communication of God. But anything less than supernatural is simply created. Anything of equal power is only inspirational. Anything not authoritative is merely to be considered. Anything not personal may be an amorphous supreme being but will not require following - it would simply be a historical artifact to be acknowledged, much like Mimi's airplanes.

If you say you "believe in God" but then reject what God says or demands if it "does not make sense" to you, then what you believe in is a set of religious constructs from which you can pick and choose according to what makes you feel good, or accords with your understanding of the world, or is what you have come up with on your own. Perhaps you choose to "agree with" what other really smart people propose and defend. Whatever ... you have made yourself, your feelings, your intellect, the intellect and persuasiveness of others, and your perception to be gods. You rely on them rather than on outside authority. This is, of course, the essence of what is now called "post-modernism": the idea that there is no truth ; thus we are all in charge of forging our own authority. (Hear me well - I am not for a moment suggesting that belief in God requires you to accept whatever some preacher or teacher or self-proclaimed authority tells you God says. I absolutely defend your right to challenge any other human being who claims to know what God is saying to you.) My point is that to reject what you know God wants solely because it does not make sense to you is a telling indicator of your lack of intellectual assent in the existence of God. You are not really analyzing what you are being told; you are rejecting the authority, and thus the divine existence, of the teller.

If you say you "belive in God" but then reject the hard things you feel called to do because you "cannot do" them, then your belief in God falls somewhere behind your belief in good intentions limited by human failings, age, disease, and inefficiency. I saw a great Facebook exchange last week on this exact point. A friend of mine (who in my estimation shows great insight and belief in God) posted the following in response to the death of Fred Phelps, leader of the despicable actions of Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas: "Fred Phelps has died. I hope people picket his funeral with signs that say 'God Loves You.'" In turn, somebody commented: "It is almost more than humanly possible for some to acknowledge and speak this, even by carrying a sign at his funeral." My friend of great insight responded: "I'm glad Christians aren't called to what's humanly possible."

Christians who give lip service to God in a hymn or litany and then spend the rest of their so-called worship service, not to mention the rest of their week, discussing philosophies, internet how-to lists, politics, and social work are not demonstrating a belief in God. Belief in God separates us from the culture. It demands a focus on something higher than even really outstanding intentions of praise and worship, innovations for justice, help for the poor, and defenses of personal dignity. (Those things are not wrong of course, but when they become the purpose rather than the byproduct, they become the thing in which we believe.)

I believe the hesitancy in our current culture to say "Jesus" or "God" except when cursing is, at least in part, due to a weak belief in God. It is easier to discuss things we are sure about, like philanthropy, service, and kindness. We know what those things are and how they will be accepted. Saying "Jesus" out loud makes too many uncomfortable, as though they were talking about believing that the magician really did saw the lovely assistant in half.

The intellectual is, for me, the tipping point of faith. Once I accept the factual existence of God, the rest of faith comes naturally. If there is a God, then I have little choice but to worship and obey that God, for I am quite sure that I am not godlike. I know there are others who can accept the existence of God and still choose not to worship or obey Him, but I do not understand that calculus. The area of doubt for me is always at the point of intelletual acceptance of the existence of God - when I am once again assured of His being, I know how the rest comes together.

I suspect that is true for more of us than admit it. I do not think the existence of storms and earthquakes make people get mad at God and thus decide not to follow; the problem with human suffering is that it makes us doubt that there is a God at all. We then combine the problem of evil and suffering with the intellectual proclamations of the philosophical atheists and scientific humanists of the world, and we can quietly question the existence of God. It becomes much more comfortable to look to the church as a place of comfort, a group of friends to provide us community, and an outlet for our good-hearted impetus to help others rather than as a gathering of those who agree in their belief in the existence of the supernatural.

We say we believe in God. That starts with the facts. it is time that we acknowledge the value of intellectual assent.

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