Unrealistic triumphalism is the temptation of many a church but even when the hard realities of life are acknowledged, you still won’t hear much about the harsh realities of intellectual life. We acknowledge, for instance, that your “life dreams” may not come true. You may never marry. You may never have a successful ministry. You may fail in education, etc. We also acknowledge that you might have to confront some hard truths about yourself. You may come to reinterpret attitudes you’ve long held and assumed were innocent as, instead, deeply rooted in sin and emotional damage. You may find that you are not nearly as competent (by a long country mile) a parent, teacher, spouse etc as you thought you’d be. Our honesty in these areas, however, needs to carry over into honesty regarding the possibilities of profound intellectual disappointment in the Christian life.
Quite naturally our theologies, doctrine, worldviews, cultural presuppositions, intellectual sensibilities, and so on, matter a great deal to us. They, in a sense, structure the world we live in. We come to depend on them to navigate reality. In so far as they are stable and firmly in place, we feel secure in our grasp of the world. When they are shaken we, in turn, feel anxious, “at sea”, disorientated, vulnerable, at an interpretive loss as to how to handle the world we are now off-balance in. But insofar as you pursue apologetics, or any field of study where you take seriously its implications for a Christian worldview (and your life), you potentially put yourself in the path of such an experience.
What would triumphalism in apologetics look like? Study apologetics; you will find that everything you already believe will be confirmed and you will marshal some killer arguments to defend those beliefs. Or, more modestly: study apologetics; you may find that doing so may refine and change your beliefs but these modifications will always strike you as comfortable and theologically desirable. Of course, sometimes, perhaps quite often, apologetics will be thoroughly enjoyable in those above ways. But sometimes serious intellectual pursuit will knock some cherished beliefs out of you and you won’t be quite sure how to replace them or what possibly could replace them.
You want some examples of this occurring? Well, I have my own experiences. My view of human nature, scripture, religious experience, emotional norms, and science (amongst other things) have all experienced hard shock (even as other prior beliefs have simply enjoyed confirmation.) But detail in example would here distract us into the issue of whether my particular belief-transitions should have happened or not – whether I have good reasons to make those changes or not. I want instead to focus on broad reasons why we should expect these challenging belief-disruptions to happen.
An obvious reason is our finitude. We have very limited cognitive abilities. We don’t have the life-span to devote serious intellectual attention to much of anything and what we do devote attention to, we, to some extent, distort, misunderstand and misinterpret. We are socially-situated beings participating in a culture where a large number of things that are utterly inarticulate and utterly taken for granted are, utterly unbeknownst to us, totally up for challenge and totally alien to the thought of the majority of human beings that have ever lived.
So yes, that, our finitude. But also, God’s magnitude and the testimony of Scripture to our ability to get it totally wrong. You see this right in the midst of the central gospel events. Picture the disciples before the cross, it so starkly present, so undeniable there in front of them. With maximal cognitive force – the plain-as-day perception of their eyes – their world was broken. God did not molly-coddle the reality of the cross to them. Everything they thought they knew about the messiah and the kingdom was destroyed in that event. There was no gentle easing-in to the realisation of their mistake. It was sudden and brutal. So far as we can tell, God let them bear the brunt of that disorientation for a full three days.
And yet, it was glorious that they were wrong. The event of their disappointment was God’s very plan for salvation. What a lesson there may be in here for us.
Here, though, I risk triumphalism about even this topic! We have to make the typical caveats that plague all our hopes in this now-but-not-yet-full experience of the kingdom. We may have to wait longer than three days to see our confusion, puzzlement, or despair transform into comprehension. We may wait until death. We may need to actively fight to keep faith in God’s plan. And fight bitterness, inaction, and pessimism.
I am concerned that we are not prepared for such fights. I concerned that, in fact, we foster an over-protective intellectual environment that doesn’t prepare people for the bumps and knocks of honest exploration of reality. People who are unprepared for a rocky intellectual journey - people who are taught only to expect ease and triumph - will experience those harsh realities as profoundly disillusioning. Reality can confront us without a sugar-coating and our snug beliefs can be ripped from us in a way that feels, frankly, cruel, as I'm sure Jesus' disciples would testify. But if we, too, are his disciples, why do we consider ourselves immune? Why do we think we will never have our own worldview lay in splinters? Why do we think that, even if he were to do that, he would certainly do it slowly, gently, easily, and will full explanation?
Acknowledging these hard-knocks as included in the price-tag of Christian discipleship allows us room in our spiritual life to interpret such hardship, when it comes, as fully part and parcel of that spiritual life. We are allowed to interpret it constructively, as something natural and something to grow through and from. Without an understanding of how these experiences fit into Christian life, their occurrence will be some extra-Christian intrusion – some menacing threat finding its way into our spiritual life wholly from outside. It can be a sort of “double disillusionment”, upsetting not only our beliefs but also our belief that our beliefs won’t be upset. And if intellectual upset is something from outside the Christian life, we may be tempted to step outside the Christian life to understand it...
Therein is the true threat. But it need not be so. Deep intellectual overhaul comes as part of being a finite being groping about before a far larger world and a far larger God. Sometimes they are painfully larger realities to confront.