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Foundations of Faith, Week 1

What’s My Problem?

Presented on July 9, 2006
Last revised on December 15, 2006

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.

He descended into hell.

The third day He arose again from the dead.

He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.

Amen.

The Apostles’ Creed

A Religious Experience

On a Monday night in late August 1982, I suddenly became aware that the Apostles’ Creed, or something very much like it, might actually be true. It was not a comforting thought.

After a struggle, I accepted the implications, and on Wednesday morning, I asked God to forgive my sins for Jesus’ sake, and to do whatever He wanted to do with me.

Before this experience, I had picked at the Bible off and on, but I now found myself opening a book I had never really seen before. It made sense, and it rang true. “Jesus loves me, this I know.”

Since then, I’ve heard a lot of stories like this in church meetings. The clinical name for it is conversion. I’ve also heard it called getting saved, being born again, getting religion, or coming to Jesus. I’ve been told that it’s a typical experience of people who come to believe and accept that something like the Apostles’ Creed is true, and relevant to them, personally.

What’s My Problem?

Since 1982, I’ve worked in a university and in business, and I am still the only “believer” in my family of origin. So I’ve had lots of conversations about something like the Apostles’ Creed with people who don’t believe it. The technical name for it is evangelism. I’ve also head it called sharing my faith, witnessing, and pushing my religion down peoples’ throats. In the process, I’ve been asked some very good questions. Some people just want to argue. Some are sincerely curious. Most are a little bit baffled.

“How can there be just one way to God? Isn’t that pretty arrogant?”

“What makes you think God is even concerned with us?”

“How can you be a scientist and an educated person and still believe that?”

But it’s both my nature and my scientific training to take truth very seriously, and to take other people seriously, too. “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it,” doesn’t work for them, and it’s always seemed pretty circular to me, too. I don’t really lose these arguments, but I’ve never really won them, either. Critics rejoice that there really is nothing behind my faith but—faith. Seekers seem unpersuaded, and those that do eventually come to faith seem to do so on their own.

Now, this doesn’t keep me, personally, from continuing to believe. I naturally turn to God when things get hard, or when I’m really thankful, and I believe He’s proved faithful. But sometimes I feel like I’m walking on air, or maybe water. And the stakes are so very high.

I’ve never gotten very deeply into what is called apologetics--defenses of the faith based on evidence and argument, but I do pay some attention to how others defend and proclaim it. I’ve heard debates between believers and nonbelievers, and arguments about specific issues like intelligent design and the accuracy of the Bible. Both sides bring out their champions of single combat, and their experts and their specialists. I always feel like I’m at a tennis match—left, right, left, right.

In my opinion, there is evidence to believe, if you want to, and evidence not to believe, if you don’t want to. And it’s all pretty flimsy, given what’s at stake.

So what are the foundations of faith?

A Wind in my Soul

Sometimes, when I look back, things seem to fit together in ways I didn’t see at the time.

In December 2003, I was in the midst of a three-way correspondence about religion with my father (a retired lawyer and still-practicing skeptic) and a professor friend of his. In one letter, I threw out the line, “No one ever came to faith in Jesus Christ because they lost an argument.” I don’t know what the professor did with it, but it struck a chord with my Dad and I.

In March 2004, an Oxford professor named Richard Swinburne came to speak at our church. Professor Swinburne claims to have used Bayes’ Theorem, from the mathematics of probability, to show that the likelihood that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ really happened is about 97 percent. I also read Swinburne’s The Resurrection of God Incarnate, and though the talk and book didn’t really do it for me (whatever “it” is), they did spark an interest in the whole subject of philosophy. Among the handouts at Professor Swinburne’s lecture was a bibliography of apologetics and philosophy. The references were grouped on a one-to-five scale, with one being basic material that only a believer would find convincing, and five being the writings of the Big Dogs of philosophers who are also professing Christian. Swinburne was among them. So was Alvin Plantinga.

In July 2005, my panic attacks and generalized anxiety disorder returned with a force not felt in almost fifteen years. I have a quick mind, and when I’m wide awake on the living room couch at 3 AM, I can dig myself a pretty deep hole. And there I was, staring not only at the foundations of faith but at the dirt underneath the basement walls. Somewhere in there, I bought a copy of Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief. I can’t say it got me out of the hole, but it did give me some things to cling to as I crawled out, slipped back in, and crawled out again.

Because I was feeling so bad, I had taken a year off from teaching in our adult class at church. In the spring of 2006, I started wanting to teach again. Plantinga’s book was helpful and interesting to me; maybe it would be so to others. So I offered it as a possible topic and was given the four Sundays in July 2006. Cautiously but joyfully, I reread Warranted Christian Belief and prepared four half-hour talks. They were generally well-received, and several people who were on vacation asked me for my notes.

So here they are, rewritten for the Web.

What You’re About to Read

It’s ironic. I have a Doctor of Philosophy degree, but all the formal philosophy I know, I learned from Professor Plantinga’s book and a few other sources, in the last six months. I’m in no position to criticize Professor Plantinga, or even express an opinion besides, “I liked his book.” This amounts to a glorified book report, with some Bible teaching mixed in for the benefit of my Sunday School audience. So if you find this, Dr. Plantinga, please forgive me. And critics, I know it’s probably full of gaping holes. I’m a rookie. I’ll learn.

Here’s my summary of Dr. Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief.

If you’re looking for a silver bullet, this isn’t it. If you’re seeking to understand how faith works, or how Christian belief can be intellectually OK, even “in this day and age,” read on. Here, in my own words, is Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief, with a side order of grits (you’ll see) and a helping of Bible.

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV