A House Built on Sand: Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty

What does it mean to hold a worldview that is authentic and life-shaping? Although we don’t like to admit it, Western culture tends to avoid that question like the plague. And a key component of that avoidance, as I see it, is an unwillingness to sincerely engage our minds with the difficult intellectual problems our worldviews present. Instead, we thoughtlessly accept the hand-me-down worldviews of our parents or culture, stuff them into our closets, and let them collect dust while we go about living our lives as if our worldviews don’t exist. We prefer intellectual dishonesty to honest doubt because we’re deathly afraid of the question, “What am I really living for?”

I’ve witnessed and learned through experience that there are serious consequences to ignoring this important all- question—yet we’re trained to do just that from early youth. In all types of communities (atheistic included), parents want their children’s spiritual lives to be uncomplicated and care-free, and avoid challenging them intellectually as a result. As my Christian experience has demonstrated, this often results in outright indoctrination rather than the cultivation of a critical mindset. “Leave those pesky existential anxieties,” the parents say, “for when they go to college, or into the real world.” Because that always goes so well.

Don’t get me wrong: college can be a great place to seek a faith that is both communal and individual, brought on by sincere reflection rather than indoctrination. And for many (myself included), this involves a serious, sometimes painful struggle to figure out what one truly believes. But is an eruption of overlooked turmoil upon leaving the nest really our best option? Should not addressing doubts and questions be a central component of our lives? Jesus commanded his followers, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” (Lk 10:27) Jesus doesn’t present loving the Lord with your mind as one of the options—the mind is a necessary component of faith, and he asks for all of it. An essential part of loving the Lord with one’s mind is seeking and understanding the challenges that the world has to offer to the thoughtful Christian. What can we learn from an honest examination of other faiths and worldviews? What can we learn from examining weaknesses in our own?

Christ asserts that a believer who doesn’t put his words into practice is like “a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Mt 7:24-27). When Christians urge their children toward the path of least intellectual resistance, they are setting the spiritual foundations of their children’s faiths on sand. That faith might look pretty, it might even feel livable, but questions will come, doubts will blow, and the faith will fall with a great crash. Working through doubts can grow and test one’s faith in intellectually honest ways; that is how one builds a faith on solid rock. Without such inspection, the foundation of a faith remains fragile.

What might a faith built on sand look like in contemporary Christian culture? Take, for example, the Sunday School version of King David. “He’s a man after God’s own heart, the classic Biblical hero!” the teacher exclaims. “What a great king for God’s people!” Christian children learn about his defeating the giant Goliath, his harp-playing, his honorable refusal to kill King Saul. What they don’t learn about is how he slaughters innocent villages for their possessions and sends a man off to his death so he can have sex with his wife. Keep in mind—this is a man some Christians views as a symbolic predecessor to Christ. The idealistic vision of Biblical “heroes” falls apart, of course, when a Biblically knowledgeable atheist points out some uncomfortable truth. The irony here is that there’s so much for a follower of God to learn from such a realistic portrayal of human nature, and the loving redemption that God offers humankind at its sickening worst. Yet Christians often shy away from gruesome Biblical realities because, well, showing grace towards murderers is tricky and they wouldn’t want to scare the kids away. And when contemporary Christianity ignores or misrepresents the vast majority of the Bible, one is justified in feeling lied to. I’ll mention in passing that this type of disillusionment—brought on simply by turning to a random, overlooked page—is symptomatic of having just emerged from a cult.

Another question arises from examining the Bible: how can the Word be authoritative and perfect when it seems to house blatant contradictions? The Synoptics essentially claim that Jesus died during Passover, while John asserts he died the day before. They can’t both be right. Luke details a Roman census that scholars are fairly certain never took place. While I don’t view these kinds of issues as “faith-breaking,” they need to be addressed in some capacity if one’s views on the Bible are going to hold up outside of the Christian bubble. What do contradictions mean for how one understands the Bible and the Christian faith?

Biblical arguments aside, secular thought has produced an array of effective arguments that attempt to foil or explain away the Christian faith, and they can’t be outright ignored. Great thinkers argue that religion is an illusion, cooked up purely as a tool for social and political organization. Morality, they say, is a product of our natural evolution, and therefore inherently meaningless. The more scientists understand the human brain, the more we question whether we really have any agency in the world. Meanwhile, historians have pointed out that just about every ancient Mesopotamian society had their own flood myth with striking similarities to the Biblical account, and Christians steer clear of discussing the potential implications. But it’s when children haven’t discussed how to approach these secular explanations of faith that their ability to seek truth is undermined by fear, panic, and frustration.

Self-deception about the security of one’s beliefs— that is what leads to collapse. Our beliefs do not exist in a vacuum. There are infinite plausible explanations for who we are and why we are here, and there is no way to assign validity to one without understanding the nature of the others. We should choose worldviews based on what we find to be the most compelling explanations for existence, history, and human experience. But it would be impossible for us to make that judgment if we didn’t seek a grounded understanding of the alternatives. You can’t pick one dish, avoid so much as smelling the other options, and reasonably conclude that you’ve found the most delicious item on the menu.

But you have to order something. Living inconsistently is inherently harmful, and goes hand in hand with not being challenged. I spent most of high school and freshman year ignoring this fact. Instead, like many others, I partitioned my brain. On one side, I had beliefs that made me feel comfortable and secure. On the other, I harbored unresolved doubts and questions about those beliefs. And the two never touched; after all, it’s much easier to simply believe that you’ve figured life out, while ignoring those nagging doubts over in the corner. But in separating my hand-me-down faith from my doubtful intuitions, I had completely undermined the faith itself. I no longer regarded it as so relevant as to actually have to impact my decisions. All this is to say that sometimes when a belief hasn’t been tested, it doesn’t get used, either. And this schism can be downright torturous, whether that means guilt, confusion, depression, or fragile delusion about one’s comfortable status in the world.

I speak from experience: don’t go down that road. I humbly invite my readers to examine their own beliefs with the critical mindset that I’ve applied to Christianity. Does your daily life reflect what you claim to believe? Have you really considered the basis for your beliefs? Why do you find yours to be more rational than the alternatives? In other words, do you actually think your beliefs are true? If you’re having trouble answering these questions, it’s time to dig that hand-me-down worldview out of the closet, dust it off, and give it a look over. Start figuring out which parts are broken, and which parts you aren’t using. Be honest with yourself. The best thing you can do for your worldview is to go all-in; whether you end up throwing it away or fixing it, you’ll be somewhere nearer the truth.

Pieter Hoekstra (PO ’17) came to Claremont after spending grade school across the continent and across the pond. He is going to have to pick a major to graduate, though he is unsure about the merit of that philosophy.

Photo credit: Gamerzero from morguefile.com.

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