Faith Outside the Bubble
The riddles of God," said G. K. Chesterton, "are more satisfying than the answers of man." This sparkling one-liner from the 20th century's best theological journalist could serve as a motto for Matthew Lee Anderson's new work, The End of Our Exploring: A Book About Questioning and the Confidence of Faith (Moody Publishers). Like C. S. Lewis before him, Anderson sets out to explore a middle way between free-floating skepticism and dogmatic certainty. The first perspective sees any form of commitment as betraying integrity, holding that the wise are characterized by permanent questioning. The other refuses to think about questions, seeing them as a slippery slope leading slowly but surely to unbelief.
This is no mere academic tension. Anderson's book has emerged from reflection and dialogue with colleagues and friends, particularly at the Torrey Honors Institute of Biola University (the author's alma mater). Like many—myself included—Anderson is worried about young believers who lose their way through well-intentioned guidance of the "just trust, don't think" type. He's also concerned about a Christian subculture that fails to prepare young Christians for life outside the "bubble." Within this subculture, excessive reliance on slogans and clichés can act as substitutes for thinking. As Anderson rightly notes, "It is the nature of clichés to avoid examination."
Anderson is good on why we need to ask questions if we are to grow in our faith, and why so many pastors feel threatened by them. Sadly, some interpret the questions of those who are genuinely exploring the faith as challenges to their authority, or blasphemous attacks on the gospel. What is really a kind of spiritual growing pain is misunderstood as rebelliousness or subversion. Anderson reminds all of us who pastor such people that rather than slapping such questions down, we need to examine the context within which they arise.
Anderson cuts to the quick, avoiding scholarly detachment and academic jargon. A series of well-chosen examples allows him to probe why we are reluctant to engage questions, while at the same time illuminating how such questions can enrich faith. We need to do more to help Christians—especially those attending college—to internalize their faith, gain a proper confidence in its roots, and learn to express this in gracious responses to the questions they will inevitably encounter.
The Downside of Apologetics
In The End of Our Exploring, apologetics—or, at least, a certain kind of apologetics—comes in for critique. "The work of providing reasons for Christianity has teetered on overcompensating for the anti-intellectual strains in American Christianity and the rise of a noisy atheist opposition." I know what he means. Christian apologists (like me) who have taken the lead in engaging the "New Atheists" (like Richard Dawkins) have tended to focus on the intellectual arguments for and against belief in God. While this leads to some good outcomes, there is a downside, and Anderson is right to note this.
On the one hand, we need to show that there are answers to the New Atheists' arguments. If we don't respond, people will assume that we can't respond, precisely because we have no answers to give. Anglican theologian Austin Farrer made this point years ago, and Anderson endorses it. Reason doesn't create faith. But a public perception that faith is irrational creates a negative cultural predisposition against faith.
Anderson supports Christians engaging with this noisy yet somewhat superficial atheism. It needs to be done, and on the whole, it has been done well. Despite lingering media sympathy for this aggressive godlessness, it's on the way out. In the United Kingdom, Dawkins is so yesterday. He is increasingly becoming a figure of amusement on account of the sheer predictability of his godless rants.
On the other hand, this way of engaging atheism suggests that Christianity is just a set of ideas, and it neglects the crucial relational aspects of faith. More problematically, it also encourages people simply to learn the answers, without having internalized the deep logic of Christianity. Anderson worries—with good reason—that a faith that knows the answers, but doesn't understand the questions, is both superficial and vulnerable.
That's why Anderson is right to emphasize the need for recovering "the practice of catechesis," meaning a deliberate education in the fundamentals of the faith. When done well, it cultivates our "ability to question and live into the answers." The rise of the New Atheism showed clearly that many Christians weren't good at connecting the dots of their faith. They knew their Scripture well, but hadn't quite figured out how to weave its themes together to yield a coherent way of thinking. They trusted and loved God, but they had neglected Jesus' command to love God with one's mind.
In Anderson's phrasing, we need to be able to "show our work." By this, he means we need to commit to explaining why we believe certain things, rather than simply asserting them. "We may," he writes, "have grasped our understanding intuitively, without reflection." Anderson makes this point partly to help readers see why discussing differences needs to go deeper than assertion. We need to explore why we arrived at our conclusions, and to have a degree of openness or "hospitality" to other viewpoints—even if we may, for good reasons, reject them.
More to Be Said
I liked Anderson's book and will not hesitate to recommend it, especially to pastors. Yet more needs to be said. Yes, we need to learn from the past, from voices scattered across the Christian tradition. But I found myself wishing the book had expanded on this, delving deeper into both the questions this raises and the answers that others, such as Lewis, have given. Anderson himself has read both Lewis and those thinkers to whom Lewis pointed. I would have loved more detailed examples of how engaging the past enriches the faith of the present, and perhaps a brief discussion of the flaws inherent in what Lewis called "chronological snobbery": our lazy assumption that modern equals better.
Yes, Anderson is right to point out that the current emphasis on "dialogue"—particularly within emerging church circles—can stand in tension with a commitment to truth. But it doesn't need to. I wish the book had included more on the role of dialogue as a form of apologetics or a means of spiritual development. And I would have liked more on the role of friendship as a way of helping us to cope with doubt, of deepening our appreciation of aspects of our faith, and as a context for exploring disagreements without provoking division.
But on the whole, this wide-ranging and well-written book does a fine job of opening up the place of questioning in the Christian life. Anderson has insightfully explored how questioning can be a legitimate form of intellectual inquiry, and a means of growing in faith. Further questions remain, not least about how to convert these ideas into pastoral practices. But it's a great handshake to begin a conversation.
Alister McGrath is professor of theology, ministry, and education at King's College London, and president of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. He is the author of C. S. Lewis—A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (Tyndale House Publishers).