There was a time when it was nigh impossible not to believe in God—not because of man’s irrational superstitions, as atheist popularizers tell it, but because of nature’s rational design.
To early thinkers, the intelligibility of nature pointed to an ineluctable fact: a prime, non-contingent source of reality (i.e., the uncaused Cause, the One, Apeiron, Logos, Yahweh) brought the universe into being with a structure that made knowledge possible. By the late Middle Ages, this fact led researchers to science—a methodological system of inquiry that liberated knowledge from the limits of natural philosophy and the errors of alchemy and astrology.
From Belief to Unbelief
Ironically, the success of the Scientific Revolution eventually led to the disenchantment of nature, unseating “God” from the firm ground of “fact,” and pushing him into the misty region of “faith,” and making disbelief tenable.
As confidence in nature’s God shifted to confidence in man’s mastery over nature, a certain script took shape: God is out of the picture and man, through the unlimited powers of reason and science, will unfetter civilization from the vagaries of nature and put it on the inevitable march toward progress.
During the next 200 years, the story gained currency, finding a ready ear with anyone having an aversion to the “Man Upstairs.” Although it has had limited success over rank-and-file folks (the vast majority of people today still hold religious beliefs), the meme has had a growing influence over those who shape the media, entertainment, the arts, education, law, the courts, and other cultural institutions.
The effect over the last half-century has been the shrinking of societal support for religion, making religious belief harder to maintain. Since 1960, there has been a ten-fold increase in unbelief, from 2 to 20 percent, with religious liberty becoming ever more tenuous, especially in the arena of sexual ethics and lifestyle choices.
In light of all this, what should concerned Christians do?
Telling a Better Story
I once heard Oxford theologian Alister McGrath suggest that instead of leading with logic and argument to prove Christianity true, we should lead with a story to make people wish it were true—a story that appeals not only to reason but the imagination. In the same vein, Bishop Robert Barron, in his 2017 Erasmus Lecture, endorses the approach of Hans Urs von Balthasar who recommended that we lead with the beautiful over the true and good. In either case, we have a story that is better than that of the other side, and we need to tell it in a way that is more compelling.
I’m reminded what someone once said about evangelism: the job of the evangelist is not to give people a drink or even lead them to water; it’s to make them thirsty. Of course, that requires knowing people enough to know what will trigger that thirst.
A case study is the apostle Paul’s tangle with the Greek philosophers on Mars Hill.
While awaiting the arrival of Silas and Timothy in Athens, Paul wasted no time getting a handle on the cultural bearings of the city. He roamed the public square, making note of its spiritual artifacts; he entered the synagogue to reason with Jews and ventured into the marketplace to dialog with the Epicureans and Stoics.
By thoughtfully engaging the Athenians and their culture, Paul discovered a spiritual thirst unquenched by their spiritual expressions. For example, the altar “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD” represented an existential angst over the need to know everything the gods required to merit good favor. This information enabled Paul to present the Christian story in a way that was more compelling than the one the Greeks had known. As a result, after his telling it, some of his hearers became thirsty, with a few deciding to follow him to the wellspring.
Over the next three centuries, the sacrificial love exhibited by Christians among their pagan neighbors, especially in times of plague and famine, stirred the non-Christian imagination to a better hope—a better story—than the one offered by paganism. The result was an explosive growth that, in two thousand years, made Christianity the largest religious affiliation in the world at two billion members and counting.
If Only For a Moment
A few years back I was working the election polls as a volunteer, sitting next to an older Jewish gentleman named Irv. Voter turnout was heavy, giving us little opportunity to talk, but early on I overheard him refer to his deceased wife who had died nearly one year ago. I would later learn that, in Judaism, the one-year anniversary of a loved one’s death is marked by a commemoration ceremony called the “yahrzeit.”
Throughout the day, I noticed people, dozens of them, passing by Irv’s polling station—people he knew and who knew him. He’d catch their eye and call out to them, and they would talk.
In whispered tones with a voice intermittently breaking, Irv brought his wife into the conversation. Heads nodded as he recounted the lives she touched, the long and courageous fight she waged and lost against cancer, how sorely she was missed by so many, and how lonely, empty, and uncertain life was for him without her.
Irv’s grief seemed as fresh as if he had lost his wife a week ago and not a year ago. I wanted to offer him a word of sympathy and comfort. I silently prayed for an open door and wisdom.
It wasn’t long before my prayer was answered. Within a few minutes, voter traffic slowed to a trickle. I gave Irv’s shoulder three staccato taps. He turned my way with eyebrows raised and I started in, not knowing where this would go.
“Irv, I just wanted to tell you how touched I’ve been at all the wonderful things you and your friends have been saying about your late wife. You must’ve loved each other very much.”
“Oh, Regis, you’ll never know. We were married for 48 years, and [his voice cracking] we had so much joy together, more joy than any two people deserve.”
Irv was struggling to maintain his composure. I looked away at the pencil I was rolling between my thumb and forefinger.
“I can’t think of a greater blessing and testimony to love,” I said.
“Yes, yes, I know. But it’s over. That’s my great pain—accepting that she’s gone and we’ll never be together again!”
Had I taken time to consider, I wouldn’t have said anything, but, reflexively, I replied, “Maybe not.”
Irv tilted his head, leaning in just a bit.
“What do you mean?”
“Uh, well, from what I’ve heard, modern Judaism doesn’t play up the afterlife much. And that, I mean that seems curious to me—you know, given its numerous references in the Old Testament.”
“Hmm,” Irv muttered with a look inviting an explanation.
I offered some examples from Job, Daniel, and Ezekiel, adding, “And that gives me hope that our sorrows in this life will be answered in the next, including a reunion with loved ones in an existence where disease, death, and tears are bygone memories, and where our best times together are yet to come.”
My gaze returned to the pencil between my fingers.
A few moments passed, then…
“I hope you’re right. I don’t know why it is not taught… It’s a mystery.”
A wave of voters descended upon us and we resumed our election duties.
I don’t know whether Irv accepted what I shared with him that day; all I know is that he wished it were true—if only for a moment.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Apostle Paul Preaching on the Ruins” painted by Giovanni Paolo Pannini in 1744.