Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Why keep swimming

Why do the majority of Christians doubt the literal existence of the Devil? We’re affected by the pervasive skepticism and disenchantment of our “secular age,” but it’s not just that we’re passively affected by our culture. A lot of us are actively searching for an intellectually honest and respectable faith, a faith that prizes scientific knowledge and literacy. From cutting-edge cosmology to genetics to evolutionary theory to particle physics to neuroscience, Christians want to investigate and enjoy the findings of science and integrate them with faith. But this pursuit, one I heartily approve of as a social scientist, can create tensions and raise hard and difficult questions: How does evolution fit with the book of Genesis? Or neuroscience with the belief in an immortal soul? The pursuit of a scientifically literate faith can move you deeper into doubt and increase the pressures of disenchantment.
Many scientifically literate Christians find it hard to believe in ghosts, and this skepticism affects their beliefs in other supernatural beings— angels, demons, and the Devil. Even belief in God is affected. Across the board in this secular age, doubt haunts belief, which is why many believers are drifting toward agnosticism and atheism. The tide of disenchantment is simply too strong, and faith is swept away. 

Consequently, a large part of being a scientifically engaged and literate Christian is swimming against this tide of doubt and disenchantment, and that’s exhausting. Some days it seems like it would just be easier to stop struggling, to let the tide of disenchantment take you and drift into unbelief. 

So why keep swimming? 

Because the secular age isn’t wholly characterized by disenchantment. Here and there in the secular, we encounter the transcendent, the holy, and the sacred. We encounter beauty and ugliness, love and meaning. We are skeptics, but we are also haunted by the sense that there is something more. 

As [Charles] Taylor describes it, the secular age is characterized by two cross-pressures. On the one hand is the downward pressure of skepticism and disenchantment, where the enchanted world is emptied out and all that is left is the flat, horizontal drama of human action and interaction. This is the trajectory of a Scooby-Doo episode, the journey to discover that, in the end, there are no ghosts or gods or devils. In the final analysis, at the end of the thirty-minute adventure, there are only human beings. 

But here and there in this secular age we also experience updrafts of transcendence, a pull toward the heavens. We’re interrupted by wonder and awe. We’re surprised by joy. We experience a deep-seated ache and yearning, a feeling of restlessness, a longing for home. Even in an age of particle physics and brain scans, we still bump into the magic from time to time, still experience the enchantment of the world. We’re skeptical and scientific people, yes, but we’re also haunted by the suspicion that the universe is more than the sum of its subatomic parts. 

Doubting and disenchanted Christians live at the center of these cross-pressures. We are skeptics, but we are also haunted in ways that agnostics or atheists are not. And that haunting keeps us swimming against the tide of disenchantment, keeps us tethered to faith through a restlessness and dissatisfaction with a thoroughly disenchanted world, a world ruled by the iron and deterministic laws of cause-and-effect.

From Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted, by Richard Beck. 

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