The Benefit of the Doubt

A blog about Dialogue, Doubts, and Christian Faith ~Travis Dickinson~

Pursuing God Intellectually: Make friends with Christians of old


(This is part 3 of a multipart series: Part 1, Part 2)

I’ve suggested that we understand our call to love God with our minds (Matt. 22:37) as a call to pursue God intellectually. This pursuit, I say, is analogous to (though importantly different from) the way in which we pursue any person we love. In other words, we should be interested in deep and difficult questions precisely because we love God and want to know him better.

But what does this look like?

For anyone who is intellectually pursuing God, it seems one cannot neglect being acquainted with the Christians of old.

Now I know this is not all easy and fun times. I also say this as someone who does not naturally gravitate to reading old books. Now don’t tell my Dean (since I teach in a Great Books program at SWBTS), but if I’m reading for personal enrichment, I’m naturally reluctant to reach for Plato, Aristotle, Augustine or Aquinas. I’m even reluctant to reach for C.S. Lewis!! Now also don’t tell that to Christian philosophers/apologists everywhere or I’ll lose friends and reputation!

Let me be clear, I don’t naturally gravitate to reading the books of old, but I know that I neglect these at my own peril. I’ve had to force myself to become friends with these ancient saints and allow them to speak wisdom, and the wisdom they speak is incredible. So though this can be a battle, you need to know the extraordinary value there is in reading old books (I hope my Dean is still reading to this point). I’m even going to quote C.S. Lewis (I hope my colleagues are still reading at this point). But, seriously, this is important. Lewis says:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook — even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united— united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books (C.S. Lewis “On Reading Old Books”)

The point here is old books come at issues with a different set of assumptions and force us to question ours. Whereas contemporary books, even books arguing for an opposing worldview, probably share many of the same and perhaps faulty assumptions. Perhaps this is why we are sometimes reluctant to read the old books. We may get confronted with our own wicked assumptions!

But here’s the thing. Many Christians read only popular level books, if they read at all. As a Christian, you stand in a long and rich intellectual tradition and to neglect the old books is to neglect a rich repository of truth and wisdom. In fact, it is often the case that the most difficult objections to Christianity were raised by Christians who were deeply grappling with their faith. You should check out the gold in Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Dante, Duns Scotus, John Locke, the reformers, Jonathan Edwards, Chesterton, Lewis, and many, many more.

One last thing. You should also read those thinkers who will likely be read for centuries to come. There’s no doubt that Alvin Plantinga will be read as long as western civilization exists. William Lane Craig is another thinker that has made massive contributions to apologetics and philosophy. I don’t share a number of views with these thinkers (among other things, I’m not a reformed epistemologist, contra Plantinga, and I lean Platonist, contra Craig) but there is definitely more agreement than disagreement. I also really appreciate their views even where I disagree. These thinkers are more difficult than the popular guys, but they can be faithful guides as you love God with your minds.

When doubts come, they can sometimes make us feel isolated. We feel like we have stumbled on something that no one has ever thought before. The tragedy is that is almost certainly not true. Truly, nothing is new under the sun and, often times, these ancient thinkers have provided a robust answer to the objection. Whenever you have a question, one of the first things to do is to find out who in the history of Christianity has confronted this (or similar) questions. They will be your guide.

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