My friend Wes posted an article about how communication is set up in the church, and why it’s not effective at equipping Christians to defend their worldview in hostile environments. The article describes what I encountered in church, after I was raised in a non-Christian home and become a Christian on my own by reading the New Testament. The view presented in the essay is how I viewed the church, and is probably how most outsiders view church. I think it explains why young people leave the church in droves once they move out of their parents’ houses.
On the Internet, one soon discovers that many respected church leaders are quite unable to deal directly with opposing viewpoints. In fact, many of them can’t even manage meaningful engagement with other voices. Their tweets may be entirely one-way conversations. They talk at their audiences. They can talk about other voices, but fail to talk to them, let alone with them. Their representations of opposing viewpoints reveal little direct exposure to the viewpoints in question.
[…]Around this point, it can start to dawn on one that many church leaders have only been trained in forms of discourse such as the sermon and, to a much lesser extent, the essay. Both forms privilege a single voice—their voice—and don’t provide a natural space for response, questioning, and challenge. Their opinions have been assumed to be superior to opposing viewpoints, but have never been demonstrated to be so. While they may have spoken or written about opposing voices, they are quite unaccustomed to speaking or writing to them (not to mention listening to or being cross-examined by them). There are benefits to the fact that the sermon is a form of discourse that doesn’t invite interruption or talking back, but not when this is the only form of discourse its practitioners are adept in.
Many church leaders have been raised and trained in ideologically homogenous cultures or contexts that discouraged oppositional discourse. Many have been protected from hostile perspectives that might unsettle their faith. Throughout, their theological opinions and voices have been given a privileged status, immune from challenge. Nominal challenges could be brushed off by a reassertion of the monologue. They were safe to speak about and habitually misrepresent other voices to their hearers and readers, without needing to worry about those voices ever enjoying the power to answer them back. Many of the more widely read members of their congregations may have had an inkling of the weakness of their positions in the past: the Internet just makes it more apparent.
One of my friends who comments here as “Wintery’s Friend” actually did his M. Div, and I think it was he who told me that his seminary had dropped the lone course in apologetics that had been part of the curriculum. Now seminary grads don’t learn any opposing views. They just pre-suppose that the Bible is true in the same way that Mormons pre-suppose their Bible is true, or Muslims pre-suppose their Bible is true, etc.
If one’s opinion has never been subjected to and tried by rigorous cross-examination, it probably isn’t worth much. If one lacks the capacity to keep a level head when one’s views are challenged, one’s voice will be of limited use in most real world situations, where dialogue and dispute is the norm and where we have to think in conversation with people who disagree with us.
The teachers of the Church provide the members of the Church with a model for their own thinking. The teacher of the Church does not just teach others what to believe, but also how to believe, and the process by which one arrives at a theological position. This is one reason why it is crucial that teachers ‘show their working’ on a regular basis. When teaching from a biblical text, for instance, the teacher isn’t just teaching the meaning of that particular text, but how Scripture should be approached and interpreted more generally. An essential part of the teaching that the members of any church need is that of dealing with opposing viewpoints. One way or another, every church provides such teaching. However, the lesson conveyed in all too many churches is that opposing voices are to be dismissed, ignored, or ‘answered’ with a reactive reassertion of the dogmatic line, rather than a reasoned response.
You can imagine that the first questions that you’ll be asked by a non-Christian co-worker would be things like “why think God exists?” and “why think the Bible is history rather than legend?”. In order to answer those questions, you would have to know how to counter what a non-Christian believes. You would have to show them the reasons for your view.
Unfortunately, many of the conservative Christian leaders we trust think that the best way to be convincing is not to show your work, but just to speak Bible verses at people who don’t accept the Bible as an authority. Some people attend church for 20 years, and they never meet a single person who didn’t just assume that the Bible is trustworthy without doing an investigation first.
What’s most surprising is that this fideistic view of Christianity is not even Biblical. The Biblical view of faith is that faith is trust in God, based on evidence. This is why Jesus offered his own resurrection as evidence to a generation of unbelievers. His miracles were also evidence offered to unbelievers. And the Old Testament is filled with examples of people like Isaiah presenting evidence to unbelievers. The fideist view sounds more like the Mormon “burning of the bosom” view. We can do better than that!
That debate has over 6 million views on YouTube. That’s a debate with Christopher Hitchens, one of the most famous atheists of the last 100 years. In the post-debate comments, the atheist admitted he lost. Watch it. You won’t find it in most churches, so you’re going to have to learn it on your own. Without anyone’s help. Don’t be a spectator. Don’t settle for youth pastor Christianity.