“I’m too smart to believe in all that.” This is a sentiment that, while not always explicitly expressed, I encounter on a somewhat regular basis, whether directly in my own interactions with people or indirectly as I talk to my friends about their own friends and family.
Part of me gets it. I’ve had my own dark nights of the soul or so I call them now. At the time I was a bit more ambivalent about them, not quite sure if they were dark nights or brilliant glimpses into reality. The most intense of these happened one semester in college. I was the kind of person who recognized my own skepticism in Schopenhauer’s famous quote—“He to whom all men and all things have not at times appeared as mere phantoms or illusions has no capacity for philosophy”. In fact, I can still remember exactly where I was when I first encountered it. Plus, I can still recite it, nearly word for word, a decade and a half later.
It was the spring semester of my sophomore year at Yale. I was taking a philosophy class devoted to Nietzsche, and this Schopenhauer quote was in the introduction to one of our books. And my solitary, evening-long reading sessions often left me wondering and doubting and scrambling to doubt even more. When I’d break for time with friends, all I could think to talk about was how maybe nothing was as it seemed, maybe everything was a lie, maybe everything was a figment of our imaginations, and if not, maybe, nevertheless, I had completely misunderstood the nature of the world and the nature of my life. (Yes, I was that guy. Even when my girlfriend would come to visit, I’d bore her to tears at Denny’s in the middle of a midnight omelette agonizing over these doubts.)
I had spent the previous year and a half flourishing in my Christian faith for the very first time, but my doubts became as strong as my beliefs. I was caught in between. It seemed the smallest nudge could send me either direction, spending the rest of my life in skepticism or spending the rest of it following Jesus. Maybe I could have changed my mind later, but in that moment, I didn’t know what to believe. It all seemed so precarious.
I had faith, but my reading was raising all sorts of questions that I didn’t have answers to. What if I always had so many questions? And what if I couldn’t come up with satisfying answers? Was asking deep questions incompatible with believing in Jesus? Maybe being smart was at odds with being Christian. I never phrased it in quite this way, but I think I understand what people mean when they object that they're too smart to believe.
Given that I’m a pastor of a Christian church, it’s probably not surprising how the story turns out. I emerged from that semester with a renewed vigilance and a brand new peace regarding the soundness of my faith—a peace that has only grown the more I’ve continued to study and question over the years. But it’s not the outcome that’s interesting. It’s the why behind the outcome.
So why do I believe? And why do I believe the basic tenets of my faith more strongly than ever? Here are 7 reasons.
1. All truth is God’s truth.
If God made all things—if He’s really God, and He knows all things, owns all things, and defined all things in the first place—then there is absolutely no truth that scares Him. All truth is His truth, regardless of how we might discover it.
Because of this we embrace all forms of inquiry that can lead to the discovery of truth, whether historical, scientific, rational, or anything else. This should give us great relief, as any authority figure who wants to limit our pursuit of truth is an authority figure who has something to hide.
2. Other smart people believe.
If there are smarter people than me who believe (“smarter than I”, for you grammar nerds), then maybe I’m not too smart to believe. So it comforts me that I personally know many people smarter than I am who share my faith—doctors and lawyers and researchers and math professors. But even more than that, it comforts me that some of the smartest people in history have asked deep, honest questions of faith and yet have been Christians.
There are all sorts of individual examples throughout the centuries—did you know that Anselm, who lived in the eleventh century, formulated theological arguments that are still seriously engaged in academia today?—but I’m particularly fascinated and encouraged by the resurgence in philosophy professors who are Christian over the past 50 years or so. Whereas it once would have been embarrassing for a philosophy professor to be known as a Christian, a great shift in the intellectual landscape began by the 1960s.
One of the leading figures behind this shift was Alvin Plantinga. His arguments on how we can know things (as well as the problem of evil, etc.) completely changed the conversation that was happening in professional philosophy. It’s not the case that all philosophers are now Christian; but it is the case that belief in God is now widely acknowledged as being rational and respectable. In other words, this one-of-the-smartest-in-a-generation philosopher convinced all the other philosophers there was no such thing as too smart to believe.
Like most professors, the majority of his work was published in journal articles that are inaccessible to those of us in the general public. However, some of his most important ideas have received book length treatments that are comprehensible to non-specialists. If you happen to be interested, his book Warranted Christian Belief is really all about whether we can be too smart to believe in God or not. (tl;dr: No, no you can’t.)
3. Science needs philosophical undergirding that it cannot supply for itself—thus, it cannot be an ultimate explainer of anything.
4. The Bible isn’t as specific as many of us think when it comes to scientific claims—in fact, I see no reason to reject it based on science.
These two points are important enough to me that I wrote a long post explaining them a few years ago. A good chunk of what I argue in that post is a result of reading the philosophy works I mentioned in #2 above.
Here are the short versions:
Science has enabled marvelous advances in knowledge and technology. Yet, in the popular mind science has come to enjoy a place of unassailable privilege that it shouldn’t. First, the scientific method is not the only way we can come to reliably know things—so if we’ve learned to question the boundaries of what other forms of inquiry can tell us, we’d be wise to do the same here. Second, when we do such questioning, we realize that sometimes, what is masquerading as science is no longer science. It’s dumb to argue with good experimental data. However, experimental data often get conflated with the interpretation of that data. Good experimental data can be used to make bad explanatory leaps, and when this is the case, truth is no longer guaranteed because true science is no longer happening.
Just like we need to avoid making science say more than it rightfully can, we need to avoid reading more into the Bible than is really there. Sometimes we are tempted to reject the Bible because somebody made poor inferences from it. But the solution is not to reject the Bible; it’s to be more careful about our inferences.
If you’re interested in the intersection of science and faith, the Veritas Forum has videos from a wide range of STEM professors at top universities who explain how science helps them believe better.
5. I find the historical arguments for Jesus’ resurrection compelling.
I’ve also written on this in some detail before, but here's the short version:
If you look sociologically at the new beliefs that popped up in the wake of this event (the supposed resurrection of Jesus), the simplest and most logical explanation of the beliefs is that Jesus was truly resurrected. The beliefs of the first followers of Jesus were radically different than anyone else’s beliefs on the afterlife. Plus, these beliefs were universally acknowledged as the core of their new faith. Something must have happened to give rise to these new beliefs—because beliefs like this aren’t prone to change. So what happened? The resurrection must have happened.
6. I find arguments for theism far more compelling than the arguments for atheism.
I’ve read great intellectuals like Hume, Nietzsche, and Marx. I’ve read the new atheists like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris. But as much as I’ve read, I find none of their arguments convincing. Even when I was a student begging to be convinced otherwise, no argument for atheism ever stood up in my mind.
Conversely, there are many good logical arguments for the existence of God, arguments that come from all sorts of different directions. I take the existence of complex life, consciousness, order in the universe, beauty, love, and language each to imply the existence of God. (In general, my mental math is something like: arguments for the existence of God + arguments for the resurrection of Jesus = arguments for the truth of Christianity.)
There are many great resources for these kinds of arguments. Here are a few suggestions depending on your appetite:
- Tim Keller’s Reason for God is an easy read and very helpful.
- Reason for the Hope Within is a bit more advanced, but harder reading also means more robust arguments.
- Here’s a short (~20 page) pdf of two dozen or so theistic arguments by Alvin Plantinga—it’s dense, but if you’re philosophically inclined it might fascinate you.
7. I see God in my life, in the people of the church, and even in places He’s been rejected.
The older I get, the more I believe not just because of rational argumentation but because of having personally experienced God. Now, if the facts were all against God, my experience shouldn't be enough to convince me. But since I have evidence that supports my experience of Him, my experience of Him makes my faith that much richer and stronger.
Once again, I've written at some length on this before. Science and philosophy help me believe that there is a God. But theology and experiencing Jesus in His church have taught me that the God who exists actually loves me. Jesus loves me, this I know.