Skeptics Welcome 1: The Times They are a Changin’

By on Aug 3, 2015

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For thousands of years we assumed that Earth was the center of the universe. That the sun and moon and stars and whatever else there was out there revolved around the Earth. And that the earth itself was stable and unmoving—completely at rest. After all, it certainly seems that way when you step outside and stare out into the universe.


But now we know that none of this is true. Now we know that well, we’re tiny little ants, who live in a tiny little corner of this huge planet…which is spinning around its axis at a thousand mph…while orbiting the sun at the center of our solar system at 66,000 mph…a solar system which is itself flying around our galaxy at 450,000 mph…which is itself hurling through the universe at a couple million mph! Do you ever trip and fall and don’t know why?


That’s why.


We thought we were the kings of the cosmos, but we’ve discovered we’re more like ants on a rollercoaster. We’ve discovered the universe is a whole lot bigger and we’re a whole lot littler than we ever imagined.


It reminds me of the words of that great prophet, Bob Dylan:


Come gather ’round people

Wherever you roam

And admit that the waters

Around you have grown

And accept it that soon

You’ll be drenched to the bone

If your time to you

Is worth savin’

Then you better start swimmin’

Or you’ll sink like a stone

For the times they are a-changin’.


Now the times are always a changin’, but it certainly seems to be the case that in the 50 years since Dylan penned these prophetic words, the times have been changing at a rate never before seen in the history of the world. In particular, technology has created, for all intensive purposes, a new world. You click a few buttons and in a few minutes you can learn more about the world than previous generations could have hoped to learn in an entire lifetime.


Think about it. Our ancestors interacted with a small handful of people each day—their family and maybe the family that lives in the cave down the street. But you and I interact with hundreds, if not thousands of people on a daily basis—because of cars and planes and TV and internet, we bump up against people from all over the world all the time.


And as we’ve bumped into all these people from all over the world, we’ve discovered something; namely, that we disagree with each other about an awful lot of stuff—food and clothes and politics and religion. Think about something that you’d be willing to stake your life on; something you believe so deeply that you’d be willing to die for it. Got it? Well no matter what that something is, somebody else is willing to die for their belief that you’re wrong about that.


I was in college when the bigness and diversity of the world came crashing in on me. The claims of science and other religions started ringing in my ears and I realized that there were a lot of voices out there claiming to have the truth. And as all those voices ricocheted around in my head, I got more than a little confused, and for the longest time I just didn’t know what to do with it—the skepticism and the doubts and the questions. Many people are in the same place—on and off the fringes of faith because they just don’t know what to do with their skepticism.


This series is for skeptics, which probably means it’s for all of us. Because most of us have a skeptic down in us, somewhere and sometimes. And so before we go to the Bible to let it show us what to do with our skepticism, we need to talk for a second about what faith isn’t.


Your faith is as strong as you feel certain about it—this is the way many of us have been taught to think about faith.[1]


To have faith is to be certain that what I believe is true. So certainty = strong faith and skepticism = weak faith. And when you think about faith this way, it’s pretty clear what you’re supposed to do with your skepticism: you better pretend it’s not there and push it out of your mind and heart so that you can get back to feeling certain, because that’s what it means to have faith, that’s what God wants from you: certainty.


Now maybe you’ve never had anybody come right out and say that to you, but if you’re anything like me, this is the way you’ve been taught to think about faith. And there are lots of problems with this—two in particular.


#1- You Can’t Be Certain


I can only assume that most of you reading this are human beings. And so, fellow human beings, the first problem with the whole faith = certainty idea is that, well, we’re all human beings…which means we simply cannot be certain about much of anything.[2]


Think about it. We’re painfully finite, limited, fallen creatures who know far less of reality than we could ever even begin to comprehend. We peek at the infinity of the universe through a tiny pinhole, during a very brief space in time. And no matter how long we live and how much we learn, what we don’t know will always greatly outweigh what we do know.


So you can stretch for certainty all you want, but it will always lie beyond your reach. Because you’re a human, and that means you don’t get to be objective or certain. And that leads to the second big problem with the idea that faith = certainty.


#2- It’s Crazy


Trying to convince yourself that you’re certain of something that you know good and well you can’t actually be certain of…is crazy!


Case in point. Greg Boyd tells a story about a young father with a young family who learned he had an incurable form of brain cancer. So a group gathered together to pray for him and before they started praying, someone reminded them how God rewards those who have faith and so everyone needed to push aside all of their doubts and believe that God was going to heal this young father.


So…if they could convince themselves that God was going to heal him, then God would in fact heal him. This young family’s future hinged on the ability of a group of people to convince themselves they were certain God would heal this man.[3]


And all of a sudden, Greg realizes just how ridiculous all of this is, and an image pops into his head: it’s God, holding this young father hostage, with a gun to his head. And God says, “If you convince yourself you’re certain that I’ll heal him, he lives. But if not, he dies.”[4]


How sadistic and crazy is that!? How sadistic and crazy is a god who runs the universe like that!? And yet, that’s the way many of us tend to think about faith. It’s this bizarre psychological game in which we try to convince ourselves that we’re certain about things that we simply can’t be certain about.


Because if faith is the ability to convince yourself that something is true, then blessed are the Bigfoot hunters for theirs is the kingdom of God.


Some of you have lived your whole life thinking that the healing of loved ones, that the answering of prayers, that your eternal destiny hinges on your ability to play this ridiculous psychological game. And I’m sorry you’ve lived with that burden, and I’m happy to tell you that’s not the way God does things, so you can quit trying to convince yourself that you’re certain—that’s not your job.


And so for our next installment, we’ll turn to the book of Job and let it teach us what to do with our skepticism and what faith really looks like.

[1] Greg Boyd does a great job unpacking this idea in Benefit of the Doubt.

[2] An idea I explore in chapter 9 of my book, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed.

[3] Mark 11:24 is often appealed to in support of this way of thinking. While on the surface it can be taken that way, a deeper look at the text in the context of the wider teaching of Scripture makes it clear this cannot be taken at face value. I’ll have to leave it there for now.

[4] This is recounted in Benefit of the Doubt.