Two years ago I met with a young graduate physics student at the University of Calgary. We talked over coffee in a Starbucks and she asked me a question. “Can I identify myself as a Christian?” What she meant was this. She had been raised nominally in a Christian home, but her academic studies had caused her to question, not her faith particularly, but the Christian faith of her cultural upbringing. What she knew of Christianity seemed at odds with her scientific pursuits. She was willing to explore Buddhism or even leave the religious sphere altogether and become an atheist. At this point in her studies she wanted to identify herself as one thing or another, but whatever she chose would have to satisfy herself intellectually. She was not willing to compartmentalize her life, such that as a physicist she would operate as an atheist, but at home she would switch over to a religious persona. So her question to me was, “Can I identify myself as a Christian across all areas of my life: professional, leisure, home, and faith?”
I assured her that, yes, not only did I think it was possible for her to identify herself as a Christian, but that out of all the options she was pursuing, Christianity would make the best sense of the world. “Christianity, “I said, “is a comprehensive and coherent system for understanding all of life.” She and I talked for a couple of hours, and I laid out some reasons why I thought she could be intellectually satisfied as a Christian. Over the next few months this young woman made the choice to identify herself as a Christian. A year later, when I asked if she was now intellectually satisfied, she answered, “I still have many questions, but I believe my new faith has provided me with a solid foundation from which I can tackle those questions.”
Max Weber, the great German sociologist, spoke of a ‘disenchantment’ of the world. Science and religion, he thought, were incompatible. Each undermined the other. While religion speaks of meaning, purpose, and value, science speaks of a reality in which such concepts have no place. Thus the ‘disenchantment’. John Searle, the well-known philosopher of mind, concurs with Weber. He writes (quoted in “The Unintended Reformation” by Brad S. Gregory, p. 27):
Given what we know about the details of the world—about such things as the position of elements in the periodic table, the number of chromosomes in the cells of different species, and the nature of the chemical bond—this [scientific] world view is not an option. It is not simply up for grabs along with a lot of competing world views. Our problem is not that somehow we have failed to come up with a convincing proof of the existence of God or that the hypothesis of an afterlife remains in serious doubt, it is rather that in our deepest reflections we cannot take such opinions seriously. When we encounter people who claim to believe such things, we may envy them the comfort and security they claim to derive from these beliefs, but at bottom we remain convinced that either they have not heard the news or they are in the grip of faith. We remain convinced that somehow they must separate their minds into separate compartments to believe such things.
Contrary to Searle, Christian theologians since the beginning have sought to show the comprehensive nature of the Christian faith. The claim is that, if Christianity is true, it will be compatible with all that can be known, with all that is knowable. In other words, the Christian faith is not a religious system in which one must compartmentalize one’s scientific pursuits, one’s leisure, or one’s home or religious life.
This Friday my church will begin a new small group that aims to discuss the question, “Can I identify myself as a Christian and be intellectually satisfied with the Christian worldview?” Frequently I have heard students question the viability of their Christian faith in various secular environments, such as science. They have been taught either that science is not compatible with their faith, or they have stumbled across inconsistencies and contradictions that lead them to question their compatibility. The purpose of this new church group will be to start a conversation in which we try to demonstrate the claim that Christianity is compatible with all that is known and knowable. And not only that it is compatible, but that its cogency surpasses any other world view.
One simple definition of apologetics says that it is the rational defense of the faith. My purpose in starting this group is not so much that the students be able to defend the Christian faith to nonbelievers, but simply that in their own minds they can have the assurance that they do not need to compartmentalize their faith. Weber and Searle were wrong. Christianity is compatible with all of life, whatever the pursuit, and helps to explain all of life.
Paul Buller will lead the discussion. My role as pastor is to teach the people the basic tenets and doctrines of the Christian faith. I’m answering the question “What is Christianity?” Paul will then step in to discuss two follow-up questions: (1) Why believe it? which is the basic apologetic question, followed by (2) What does it mean for the rest of my life (i.e. science, history, philosophy, careers, family, community, etc.)? That’s the compatibility question.
This is my hope for the group: We will encourage people to ask their questions; we will not stifle challenges they bring to the Christian faith; we will not shame them for having serious doubts; we will freely let people share their opinions while we respectfully respond to those opinions; we will not tell them to compartmentalize their faith; we will try to bring grace and truth together.
I’d be interested in hearing from you the readers if you have ever had any experience with such a group as this one. What risks or dangers do I invite with such a group? What advice do you have?