Righting America

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Revisiting Evangelicalism and the Desperate Need for Certainty | Righting America

William Trollinger

This post originally appeared on July 30 of this year. We republish it now because we have received a few very interesting posts in response, which we will be publishing here over the next week or so.

At the heart of much of evangelical apologetics is the promise that you can know that you know the truth. Not think or hope or have faith that you know the truth, but know that you know the truth.

In particular, you can know with certainty – it has been proven – that Jesus rose from the dead. The classic work is Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict, which was first published in 1972, and which has been updated again and again. Also popular in this genre is Gary Habermas’ The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, as well as Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus, which – as of 2017 – is also now a movie. There are also CDs, including “Top Ten Proofs for the Physical Resurrection of Jesus Christ.” And the internet is awash with ironclad arguments, including Jack Zavada’s “7 Proofs of the Resurrection: Evidence the Resurrection of Jesus Christ Happened,” as well as, from Answers in Genesis, Tim Chaffey’s “Infallible Proofs.”

Note the language: Evidence, Verdict, Proof, Infallible.

I taught for eight years at Messiah College, an evangelical school in south-central Pennsylvania. In my time there, my favorite class to teach – hands down – was HIS 321: History of Thought in America. Half of the class periods were devoted to lecture, half to discussion. The only textbook we used was David Hollinger’s and Charles Capper’s two-volume collection of primary documents, The American Intellectual Tradition. Each week, students would write a two-page paper in response to a prompt regarding one or more of the sources, which included – to give a few examples – Jonathan Edwards’ “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners,” Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?,” Jane Addams’ “The Subjective Necessity of Social Settlements,” and Michael Walzer’s “What Does It Mean to Be an ‘American’?”

William James, courtesy of Houghton Library [public domain]

Every single time I taught this class at Messiah the liveliest discussion focused on “The Will to Believe,” the iconic 1897 essay written by the psychologist and philosopher William James. For those not familiar with this piece, James – who himself could not believe in orthodox Christianity – offers “an essay in justification of faith, a defense of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters” (75; quotes from 3rd ed. of American Intellectual Tradition). James rejected what he saw as an arrogant science that laid claim to exclusive truth, and that asserted that religion – because it could not be adequately tested or sufficiently proven – was unworthy of acceptance by any thinking person. Instead, and as he puts it near the end of “The Will to Believe,”




This command that we shall put a stopper on our heart, instincts, and courage, and wait – acting of course meanwhile more or less as if religion were not true – till doomsday, or till such time as our intellect and senses working together may have raked in evidence enough – this command, I say, seems to me the queerest idol ever manufactured in the philosophic cave. . . If we believe that no bell in us tolls to let us know for certain when truth is in our grasp, then it seems a piece of idle fantasticality to preach so solemnly our duty of waiting for the bell (87; emphases James’).

The first time I taught the course, I assumed that my evangelical students would focus on (and perhaps find encouraging) James’ argument in behalf of the legitimacy of religious belief (the essay really should be entitled “The Right to Believe”) in an age of science. I was mistaken. Instead, and this was the case every time I taught “The Will to Believe,” they gravitated toward – what really animated the conversation – James’ distinction between two kinds of belief:

The faith that truth exists, and that our minds can find it, may be held in two ways. We may talk of the empiricist way and of the absolutist way of believing in truth. The absolutists in this matter say that we not only can attain to knowing truth, but we can know when we have attained to knowing it; while the empiricists think that although we may attain it, we cannot infallibly know when. To know is one thing, and to know for certain that we know is another (79: emphases James’).

On its own the class would divide between – to use James’ terminology – the empiricists (where of course James stood) and the absolutists. But the absolutists in this case were not scientific absolutists. They were religious absolutists. And the arguments that ensued had to do with whether or not we can be certain in our religious beliefs. At some point in the debate, those in the absolutist camp would assert that if you don’t know that you don’t the truth, you don’t really have faith. No Kierkegaardian or Jamesian leap of faith here, as these young evangelical absolutists equated faith with certainty.

The first time I taught this class I was stunned by the number of students who declared themselves religious absolutists. But I should not have been. In fact, what I should have been surprised by was the number of religious empiricists, given that the evangelical subculture in which many or most Messiah students were/are raised was/is awash with claims that there is overwhelming evidence proving the truth of Christianity and the resurrection of Jesus, and given that evangelical apologetics again and again equates faith with certainty.

Over time, I moved from being stunned by the number of religious absolutists in my classes to being saddened. Again and again, these students would talk about how they would not be able to believe if they did not know that they knew the truth. They “needed” certainty. But this requirement for certainty is really a requirement that one’s reasoning can transcend human limits, can transcend human flaws and delusions, can be untainted by – to use theological language – sin. One must be perfect. Godlike. That’s the requirement.

What pressure. What a fearful place to be.