Back in graduate school, at a wonderful Boston-area university known for many things but decidedly not for Christian formation, one of my professors asked a room full of students: “Do you think religion is a helpful or a harmful force in the world?” It was one of those hot potatoes teachers are prone to throw—as much, I suspect, to tempt students out of their torpor as to promote academic debate.

Furtive glances spilled across the lecture hall. At least one student was wearing a hijab. Another was outspoken about her work with Jewish charities. We Christians were less conspicuous, but our presence was suspected.

A few students mustered responses, all diplomatic. No one sprang the trap. Of course, the question was silly. The professor may as well have asked, “Are clouds good or bad?” It’s the kind of anecdote that anxious conservatives gather into evidence rooms as another mark against liberal elites and their attacks on common sense.

But with inquiry, it’s so often the intent that counts. I assume the professor sought genuine discussion, so I actually take comfort in his impolite prompt. When skeptics interrogate Christ and his church, their very questioning betrays a holy interest. (Atheists, a community purportedly unconcerned about God, sure burn a disproportionate number of calories talking about him.)

Skeptical questions aren’t the problem. More concerning, to me, is the growing tendency—both outside the church and inside—to see cynicism as the only honest posture, to wield questions as weapons rather than tools. The cynic navigates a shipwrecked world in a leaking life raft, hoping to puncture everyone else’s before someone floats too near to theirs.

The ...

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