Do you sometimes struggle to engage with unbelievers? Do you feel ill-equipped to dialogue with those who reject faith in Jesus Christ? There is an important book that offers an excellent example of one such engagement, entitled Is Belief in God Good, Bad or Irrelevant? (InterVarsity Press, 2006). Coauthored by Preston Jones, assistant professor of history at John Brown University and a Christian, and Greg Graffin, an atheist punk rocker (Graffin also has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology), the book chronicles the discussions between these two disparate personalities as they wrestle with life’s most challenging questions from two opposing worldviews.
I was intrigued by the genesis and nature of this unusual relationship. As the leader of the punk band Bad Religion, Graffin’s lyrics seem to represent an earnest attempt on his part to wrestle with questions of evil and suffering in a universe that to him is utterly indifferent to humanity. At least this was what drew Jones’s interest, compelling him to write an appreciative e-mail to Graffin. This resulted in a lengthy series of exchanges, with each man presenting answers to the questions from their respective viewpoints that ultimately formed the basis of their book.
At one point in the book Jones states that he has “sometimes . . . felt more at ease with thoughtful atheists than with Christians, because atheists often come to their beliefs after asking difficult questions about evil, suffering and the seeming indifference of the universe.” On this point I had to shout Amen!
Too often, I encounter thoughtless Christians who, frankly, know little or nothing about what they believe and why they believe it and, worse, have little interest in changing their condition. I am not sure they ever even give these larger questions a second thought. Instead their faith, it seems, is often based on a common set of popular assumptions that fall under the banner of Christianity with which they agree. In other words, they believe in God, Jesus, the Bible, conservative values, and so on, but they scarcely know or demonstrate how these beliefs should impact their lives. This is precisely the kind of faith James is addressing in chapter two when he writes, “You believe there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that-and shudder” (v. 19, NIV).
James’s point is that mere intellectual assent to belief in the things of God is not saving faith. Faith is active, given by the Holy Spirit, and it includes an inclination to obedience. Real faith produces obedience, acting upon these truths accepted by faith and submitting to the authority of Christ in every area of your life and thinking. Unfortunately, the seemingly more common brand of Christianity, which rejects obedience, is nothing more than a cultural construction that has little to do with historic orthodox Christianity.
I say “cultural construction” because in some parts of this country being Christian is more a matter of birthright than conscious submission to the lordship of Christ. It’s as if one were to say, “Of course I’m a Christian; what else would I be? I wasn’t born Jewish!” William Wilberforce confronted this same condition in his day more than two centuries ago when he wrote:
With Christianity, professing Christians are little acquainted. Their views of Christianity have been so cursory and superficial that they have little more than perceived those exterior circumstances, which distinguish it from other religion. These circumstances are some few facts, and perhaps some leading doctrines and principles, of which they cannot be wholly ignorant. But of these consequences, relations and practical uses of these principles, they have few ideas-or none at all (William Wilberforce, Real Christianity: Discerning True and False Faith, [Bethany House: Minneapolis, MN, 1997]).
I, too, have a friend who remains a committed atheist that I regularly hear from, often in response to one of my weekly commentaries. We continually engage in vigorous debate and dialogue over issues of evil, origins, human nature, the existence of God, the efficacy of religion, moral theory, and numerous other subjects. Sometimes these dialogues get a little frisky as there is depth of passion on both sides and the issues with which we are dealing are arguably the most important questions facing humanity. When things get too heated we both agree to take a break in the discussion and remain friends, never wanting to damage the relationship. Admittedly, these dialogues can be very taxing and sometimes leave me discouraged, but I do not do it for me but instead for him-and ultimately for Him-and thus I want to be prepared. I would be so ashamed if my willful ignorance edified another’s unbelief!
I respect this friend because he takes seriously the ultimate questions of life and he is endeavoring to make sense of the world; I believe he respects me for similar reasons. While we often end in disagreement, there are those rare occasions where he finds harmony with the Christian perspective on compassion, humility, consumerism, and careerism, for example. While I disagree with my friend’s worldview, I cannot condemn it as being thoughtless. He has invested tremendous energy and effort into trying to understand and work out his perspective of life and the world. More so, I fear, than many professing Christians.
Furthermore, my friend remains willing to engage in spirited discourse that constantly challenges his beliefs, something that far too few Christians are willing to do even with each other, despite the fact that Scripture calls on us to “exhort one another” daily (Hebrews 3:13, ESV).
The absence of such interest on the part of so many Christians only impoverishes the witness of Christianity and gives comfort to the “cultural” Christian. And, I would add, this intellectual sloth serves to reinforce rejection of the Christian faith on the basis that it is for the nonthinking and somehow inadequate when answering life’s great questions, thus supporting what Lenin referred to as the “opiate of the masses.”
Christians are duty bound to grow in truth and knowledge, especially in light of the fact that such intellectual apathy dishonors the Lord and may contribute to a culture of unbelief. The prophet Hosea delivered this charge against apostate Israel: “My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests” (4:6, NIV). Hosea later issues a general warning that “a people without understanding will come to ruin” (4:14, NIV).
I pray that the Holy Spirit would renew in all of us a desire to be equipped, to grow in knowledge and understanding and be willing to engage opposing ideas and relationships with those both in and outside the faith.