conversion-of-st-paul

Conversion of St. Paul

In Why do some Christians become atheists?, I discussed five reasons why some Christians may have abandoned faith to become atheists – some noble reasons, some not.  The ensuing commentary helped me see that these same principles can be applied to any faith or anti-faith decision.  Here are those now six ideas, but I wanted to also ask the question – is Christianity primarily or first a decision of the heart or head?  I argue that, to the chagrin of logicians and empiricists, Christianity is a religion of the heart – that is, conviction of the intuition and conscience, not an intellectual decision of the mind.

You are a Christian because (choose all that apply):

  1. You were raised that way, and have never seriously considered any other viewpoint, nor seriously questioned your faith.
  2. You made an emotional decision to become Christian during a dark time in your life.
  3. You felt a deep conviction and a reality in the presence and peace of God that led you to receive Christ.
  4. Your conversion was based on the first good argument you heard, and you came from a position of weak ideological commitment – again, you may have never seriously considered any other viewpoint.
  5. You are caught up in the novelty of your new Christian world view mostly because it is different, and will leave it when the novelty wears off.
  6. Reason and experience have led you to your conclusion that Christianity is true.

A. My Conversion

For me, it was numbers 2, 3, and 4 initially.  I had no really well developed intellect with regards to matters of faith or philosophy, so questions about the reliability of scripture, the reality or unreality of the supernatural, or the history of the Church did not really interfere or complicate my decision.  However, I also came from a skeptic’s background, so I was not coming from any religious background.

Later, I actually left Christianity due to being hurt by the church and some overly narrow doctrines, as well as some of the tougher questions of God’s fairness (eternal hell?) that bothered me.  However, after exploring Buddhism and yoga, I returned to Christianity for intellectual reasons, primarily.

B. Is this typical?  Experience first, then mind later, if at all?

To some extent, I think that practially and doctrinally speaking, coming to faith is by definition an experience of intuition and conscience first, and mind later.

While intellectual arguments may clear the way for faith, most people make a faith commitment NOT upon initial intellectual conviction, but upon a heart conviction (intuition, conscience) and an experience of the Divine upon the heart.

Intellectual development usually FOLLOWS Christian conversion, but what is foundational is not merely an intellectual decision, but an experience of a heart-conviction of truth and experienced relationship/peace that begins the journey.

Such emotional foundations and beginnings can certainly be misleading and gone back upon when reason comes to bear, and I understand why an atheist/unbeliever would be skeptical of this order of operations, so to speak.

But Christianity is first and primarily a faith of the heart, of personal conviction of guilt and truth, and of God’s love. As the scriptures say, it is ‘the goodness of God that leads you to repentance,’ (Romans 2:4) – that is, it is not first a head thing, but a heart thing.

C. Atheists go mad at this order of operations

The thoughtful atheists over at Common Sense Atheism have a real problem with this.  Christian philosopher and debater William Lane Craig, when asked about why he thinks Christianity is true, has in the past merely said that the base of his belief is not intellectual, but the conviction of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

When Craig says that he is sure of his faith primarily due to his experience, he is unfortunately confusing empiricists because they don’t hear what I think he really means.  They hear him basically retreating from their demands for logic and empirical evidence into the realm of the subjective – his own experience.

Not only is that beyond argument, they contend, how is that any different from the subjective experience of any other religion – be it the ‘warming of the heart’ of Mormons or the experience of nothingness of Buddhists?  In the end, atheists argue, that is not a convincing argument – that is not argument at all!  Faith makes people so stupid!

But I think what he is saying is very powerful, not just something obviously illogical or protected in the realm of the subjective.

D. What William Lane Craig is NOT saying

When Craig claims that the root of his belief is in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, here’s what atheists might hear, but what he is NOT saying:

  1. It is true because I had an experience
  2. Logic has nothing to do with faith or belief – reason can’t touch real faith

Anti-theists who go off on a rant when he says such things are ignoring the fact that Craig is an accomplished debater and philosopher – if such a statement is such a sophomoric blunder on Craig’s part, what is really going on here?  Is he just dumb in this area, or is there something else he is trying to get at?

E. What William Lane Craig IS saying

Those of us who have been in these debates a while realize something – you can’t prove OR disprove the existence of God with reason and logic.  Either you remain neutral because you realize this, or you make a leap of faith towards or away from God.  Some might argue that either leap is greater than the other, but in the end, both the conviction that God IS or IS NOT is a faith proposition.

When WLC admits that what keeps him in the faith is not his impressive intellect or reasoning powers, but his experience, he is making some very strong statements that are lost on many skeptics.  I believe that they are the following:

  1. Faith is always a leap beyond reason. While intellectual arguments may keep you FROM faith, in the end, pro-faith logic can only take you to the DOOR of faith.  It is still a leap of trust beyond the reach of pure reason.
  2. Christianity is reasonable enough to try. While Christianity is, to Craig and others, eminently reasonable, logical, and true, it can’t be proven beyond ALL doubt.  It is reasonable ENOUGH that one ought to take the chance and EXPERIENCE it.
  3. Arguments are cold, relationship is warm (and fuzzy). Beyond the cold and impersonal arguments, there is a REAL, LOVING, PEACE-GIVING God whom Craig has experienced, and that is as powerful, if not moreso, than the debates of self-important fools (Craig included)
  4. Unanswered questions do not negate faith. For many Christians, the EXPERIENCE of God is so real and ongoing that the unanswered questions of faith are not enough to override what powerful things God has done in their own personal lives.
  5. There are no real showstopper contradictions in Christianity, and plenty of well-answered questions. Though there may be unanswered questions that cause doubt, there are also many many questions sufficiently answered by and about faith, and it therefore may be smarter to doubt your doubts until your understanding and maturity grow, rather than to hole up in unbelief until all questions are sufficiently answered.

One thing I really love about WLC is that in his arguments for the existence of God, he always makes his personal experience the last point.  While to empiricists and skeptics, this may seem like a weak way to conclude, he includes it to fill out the picture this way – though his intellectual defense of Christianity and God are formidable, he is claiming that God is not just defendable and reasonable in the intellectual realm, but real.  Real in a way that we can and should experience.  Despite the limits of what our reason may or may not tell us about God, whether or not we can understand all we need or want to, WLC is claiming that God is real, and real to him.

That is a powerful assertion to make it, and he makes it unashamedly.