I had this thought yesterday as I drove home from work: If the heart of Pentecostalism could merge with the mind of Presbyterianism, the results could be incredible! Just before leaving work I had been in conversation with a student who calls himself an atheist, but who is graciously, and curiously, engaging me in conversation. During our first conversation some weeks ago, he mentioned a series of YouTube videos made by a 20-something who was raised as a Pentecostal Christian, but has since become an atheist. The videos tell the story of his deconversion. He is a sharp young man, and I am very intrigued, and at times challenged, by the case for disbelief that he builds in the videos. But something that had been latent in the whole series struck me forcefully yesterday as I watched the video entitled “Losing God,” in which he narrates the climactic crisis point in his turn away from faith.
It’s clear that he never wanted to lose God. But he found himself in conversation with a learned linguistics scholar whom he calls “The Professor.” The Professor had gone through his own deconversion earlier in life. At first, he warned the young inquirer not to go down the path he was starting on, knowing where it might lead. But after sensing his determination to seek Truth, The Professor told him to sit down, relax and listen. Listen he did, and The Professor’s arguments appeared logically sound and even complementary to what he had been learning in his university studies. Finally, he reached a point of such cognitive dissonance, on so many levels, that he just couldn’t hold it together. At this point, he sinks into despair. He’s yearning for the kind of experiences of God that he had in his youth, which had been the primary basis of his faith. The longer they don’t come, the lower he descends. All the while he is still going to church; he doesn’t want to give up belief.
His faith, before all this started, was typical of many in the Pentecostal tradition: authentic, emotional and grounded in experience. Throughout his devconversion journey thus far, he’d all but lost the feelings he used to have. He stopped hearing God’s voice, feeling God’s Spirit, and experiencing God in prayer. He longed for these things, but didn’t know how to recover them. He prayed, but nothing came. At his deepest point of crisis, when he felt the weight of the world was on his shoulders, he went to his parents. He hoped his dad would have “a core of faith underpinned in wisdom that could at least start to help me sort through these issues and get back to God.” Unfortunately, he did not. Instead, when asked how he would respond if someone showed him evidence that the Bible was historically wrong, he said, “Well I would tell them that’s not what I believe, and if they didn’t like it, that was their problem. And if they were gonna tell me crap like that, I wouldn’t talk to ‘em anymore.” But what if it was true? “Jesus told us to live by faith and that he would bring us salvation. He never said, I will give you the truth.”
Apart this statement’s flat contradiction of Jesus’ own claim to be the Truth, and John’s claim that he came “full of Grace and Truth,” these statements typify the anti-intellectual, don’t-ask-questions-just-believe kind of perspective that often passes for authentic God-honoring faith in contemporary post-revivalist, post-fundamentalist evangelicalism and that is particularly prevalent in Pentecostal and Charismatic circles.
Now, before you hear an arrogant criticism of “those uninformed Pentecostals” by someone who thinks he’s arrived at some higher spiritual plane through intellectual study, let me swiftly say that that is not my point. Those, like Pentecostals, who have a deeper awareness of and attunement to the things of the Spirit have taught me much in my journey to a more complete and generous orthodoxy, and I believe they have much to teach much of the Western church, which has mummified the spiritual life of faith and obedience in a layers of rationalist, post-enlightenment (and post-modern) scholarship that have torn the history out of the Bible, cut God out of the gospel, and ripped the heart out of the faith. It is some of these same academic arguments that castigated the faith of the young man in the videos. But the solution to rationalist scholarship is not to a thoughtless (and fearful?) retreat back to “God said it. I believe it. That settles it!” The solution is good scholarship!
What if, in a world where the enemy is working all the angles to subvert the Christian faith, we had more people who have a heart and a mind dedicated to God. Perhaps we need thoughtful believers and faithful thinkers. Some of the men I most admire are shining examples of this marriage of mind and heart: Pentecostals like Gordon Fee, Craig Keener and James Dunn; Anglicans like N. T. Wright, Chris Wright, Scot McKnight, Richard Bauckham and the late John Stott; and brilliant apologists like Peter Kreeft, J.P. Moreland, and Timothy Keller.
What if, when this young man was enduring his crisis of faith, he’d had found a faithful man in his church (which he continued to attend) who had the intellectual capacity to walk with him through his doubt, the patience to listen to his questions and discuss reasonable answers, and the interest to suggests books by people like those named above, which would present reasonable responses to the arguments he encountered in books recommended by The Professor, arguments which systematically dismantled every aspect of the young man’s faith – everything from prayer to the reliability of the Bible to the “experience” of God, to the very reality of God.
The videos hint that there was more going on in this young man than simply being persuaded by a series of rational arguments. (It seems there always is.) But what if a mature mentor had given him some intellectually satisfying reasons to believe at that defining moment in his life, when, as he says, “my mind broke free from my prohibition from using logic,” which led to feeling like “I was losing the most important thing in my life. As the poison of these ideas coursed through my veins, I tried to resist it, but I couldn’t. It just made too much sense. . . I was beginning to enter a stage in my life were I simply couldn’t believe in God anymore no matter how hard I tried. I laid on my couch and prayed again, my hands over my eyes, but it didn’t feel like anyone was listening anymore.”
In God’s seeming silence, in the absence of the feelings and experiences that used to assure us, we need others to come alongside us and believe with us and for us. In this story, no one did that. In the war of worldviews, atheism claimed another victory. Another of our young people moved out into the big world and encountered its big ideas, with their appearance of wisdom, and found that his Sunday School faith was insufficient for the onslaught. Oh, that a wise believer had been there to help!
The moral I wish to draw out of this story is nothing new: we need each other. We need to learn from the things our brothers and sisters in other parts of the church are doing well. We need to abandon the arrogance that says we can win the war if we “just believe” and the arrogance that says we’re too smart to believe that the war really is spiritual. At the end of the day, we need to obey what Jesus said is the first and greatest commandment, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” or, as Scot McKnight renders it, “love God with every molecule and globule” – both those in the emotional control centers of our brain, and those in the intellectual center of our being. Lord, help us to follow you with every faculty you’ve given us so that we, in turn, can help others do the same. sober us with the fact that our neighbor’s faith might hang in the balance.