As Christians, we naturally emphasize faith because faith is what God rewards. Faith is what connects us to God. Without faith it’s impossible to please God. But, faith also separates people from God – when they don’t have it.
Faith is a stumbling block for the agnostic and the atheist.
When agnostics and atheists (and sometimes even Christians) talk about faith, they often talk about faith in the “blind” sense, divorced from reason and rationality. Real faith, however, is anything but blind or irrational.
For the Christian, faith informs a God logic that is captured in doctrine. This logic is far from irrational or inconsequential. Faith is part of that God logic, but it isn’t divorced from logic or truths discoverable in the material world that God created. Atheists and agnostics, however, don’t see the connection.
For the Christian, then, who wants to “go into all the world” and fulfill the Great Commission, we can’t leave our minds behind if we are going to reach agnostics and atheists. By reach, I mean connect. By connect, I mean have an intelligent dialogue. Not that our reaching, connecting and dialoguing will necessarily produce the results we desire, but the point of the Great Commission is that we go. The rest we leave to God who commands us to go.
We all know that one sows, another waters and another reaps, and God is the superintendent of all of these things. The word of God, goes out and does not come back void. So, we are called to go, knowing that going is our instruction, that God is the instructor and that He will make something of it.
That is the promise. We must simply go and work in the garden. God produces the fruit.
In a recent article written by a self-described former “atheist who smugly responded to any and all mention of Christianity with a) a Friedrich Nietzsche quote, b) a Karl Marx quote, c) a Flying Spaghetti Monster reference or d) all of the above,” Victoria Le Sweatman warns against the kind of “evangelism” that wraps itself in secular culture and discourages the goers from advocating “a rigorous, orthodox view of Scripture.” As a former “none,” she has some credibility when she encourages Christians to embrace the “deep, rich history of Christian intellectualism and scholarship” as the tool to connect with agnostics and atheists. (How to Reach Your Friends Who Don’t Believe)
When we talk about “trusting the Lord” and our walk with Christ, we are talking about a Person our agnostic and atheist friends have never met. If all we do is talk about someone they do not know and do not believe they can or will ever meet, we will lose them. Jesus met people where they were, and we need to meet our agnostic and atheist friends where they are.
Truth will stand up to scrutiny, and we should not be afraid that it won’t. All people, Christians, agnostics, and atheists included, avoid the hard questions that make them feel uncomfortable, but Christians have no reason to avoid them. Agnostics and atheists, on the other hand, stand on more slippery ground. As C.S. Lewis said in his autobiographical work,
“A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.”
A good example of a Christian connecting with an atheist is found in The Atheism Tapes, the 6th volume, involving an interview of Denys Turner (embedded below). Turner focuses on questions that are uncomfortable for the Atheist to ask, which are: Why is there something, rather than nothing at all? Why do we exist? Why is there a universe? Where did it come from?
Those questions defy a scientific explanation. They do, however, invite a rational explanation that involves something that we might call faith. At the very least, the questions suggest something behind and beyond the material world. Denys Turner puts it this way:
[O]n the other side of our language is something which sustains it which can’t be contained within it … and that’s what we call God.
We also can’t engage agnostics and atheists (and even some shy believers) without confronting the hard questions. Hard questions don’t have “tidy and comforting answers”, but there are answers nonetheless. The answers may not be perfectly palatable, but the medicine we often need is bitter. Truth is truth however hard to swallow, and ignoring or skirting it gets us no closer to the answers.
A missionary in our church who learned the language of a small, indigenous people group in the Brazilian rain forest, developed an alphabet for them and translated the Bible into their language tells the story of a man in the tribe who contracted deadly malaria. Aspirin addresses the symptoms, but quinine cures the disease. Without quinine a person dies, but with it a person is virtually assured of living.
This man was given aspirin and quinine, but he died anyway. The reason he died became apparent when his hut was cleaned out.
The man had taken the aspirin. Bitter though it was, the aspirin made him feel better. Instead of taking the quinine, which was even more bitter, he stuffed it between the floor boards. Under the floorboards in the dirt of the ground below they found all the quinine he had not taken. Apparently, he didn’t feel the results of the quinine working in his body like the aspirin, so he didn’t take it.
Dealing with an agnostic or atheist is a lot like the man in the hut. Some can see the “good” that religion does, but they can’t swallow the bitter pills that come with it (whatever might be bitter for each person). If the man in the hut understood the reasons for swallowing the pills, he might have taken them. The language barrier between the man and the missionaries prevented the understanding that would have saved his life.
The same is true with agnostic or atheist friends. They don’t speak our language. We need to engage them where they are, speak their language and model Christ in our own lives. For Victoria Le Sweatman, the rational arguments, identifying God in common, transcendent experiences and facing the hard questions brought her closer to God, but “seeing Christ work in the lives of actual Christians is what opened [her] heart to Him in the first place.” We can’t model Christ to someone unless we are close enough to engage them and for them to see Christ at work in us.
As Paul became all things to all people, we need to step out of our comfort zones and “Christianease” and meet people where they are. We don’t have to sacrifice our “rigorous, orthodox view of Scripture” to do that, but we do need to employ our minds and the “deep, rich history of Christian intellectualism and scholarship”.
That is another way of saying that we need to love God with all our minds, as well as with our hearts and strength, and we need to spread the Gospel with our intellect.