We live in a skeptical age. People—especially young people—express doubts about Christian faith. In this thoughtful eight week study Bishop
Scott Jones, author of The Wesleyan Way, partners with his son
Rev. Arthur Jones, to address hard questions that all of us face when considering faith, religion, and the church. The questions include:
Can only one religion be true?
Why is there suffering and evil?
How can I believe in science and creation?
How can I believe in a God I can’t prove?
Can I trust the Old Testament?
Are marriage, sex, and family life religious issues?
Was Jesus' resurrection real?
Why do Christians disagree about so many things?
The message is strong and clear: Don't let your questions stop you from accepting God's invitation to faith. Engage your doubt, and you may find you are closer to God on the other side.
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About the Author
Arthur Jones is the senior associate pastor and preaching pastor at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Plano, Texas. His passions involve preaching a real and practical faith, engaging people with the Bible and current issues that affect day-to-day life, and providing leadership and vision for the next phases of church life. Arthur is a fifth-generation Methodist preacher who grew up in churches across North Texas. He is a graduate of the University of Kansas and Duke Divinity School, and the co-author of Ask: Faith Questions in a Skeptical Age. Arthur is married to Becky (a Houston native), and they have recently had their first child Sam.
Read an Excerpt
Faith Questions in a Skeptical Age
By Scott J. Jones
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2015 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Can Only One Religion Be True?
What's a religion? How many religions are there?
Scholars who study religions have debates about what constitutes a religion and how they ought to be grouped and counted. Here are some estimates of the ten largest religions in the world and the number of followers each has:
Christianity 2.1 billion
Islam 1.5 billion
Hinduism 900 million
Chinese traditional religion 394 million
Buddhism 376 million
Primal/Indigenous 300 million
African traditional and diasporic religion 100 million
Sikh 23 million
Spiritism 15 million
Judaism 14 million
Most of these religions are actually divided into many different organizations and groups. In the United States, there are more than one hundred different Christian denominations. These are often grouped into families such as Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and others. Add to that the number of nondenominational and independent congregations, and the number of Christian groups would be much higher. The same is true of other religions. There are many varieties of Islam, not all of which recognize each other as genuine Muslims. Muslims are often grouped into families such as Sunni, Shia, and Sufi. Buddhism has many different sects and schools, and even Judaism is organized into at least three main branches.
Not only are there many different religions, but we are more aware of them than ever. In many places in America, before travel was easy and television was invented, the religious options available to people were limited to the few forms of Christianity present in their town and perhaps a Jewish synagogue. But after 1950, the pattern of religious practice in the United States became more complex. People learned about other religious possibilities, and practitioners of other religions moved into our communities.
The story of Sam, an acquaintance of Scott, gives a perspective on this new way of thinking about religion. When Scott met him, Sam was practicing Sufism. That is a mystical form of Islam in which one dances in a group, chanting praise to God and using the name Allah. Sam participated in Sufi discussion groups, read Sufi literature, and traveled to hear Sufi masters explain their way of worshiping God and living their faith. Sam had been raised as a United Methodist in a town where his mother taught Sunday school and his father was a public school principal. Once Sam got to college, however, he began to practice the Hare Krishna faith, which is based in Hinduism. Then came his conversion to Sufism. Later, he returned to Christianity, but it was a form of Pentecostal Christianity that involved speaking in tongues and miraculous healing of diseases. Being a United Methodist was no longer anywhere on Sam's horizon of personal faith or practice.
Sam's story is an example of the multiple religious options available to spiritual seekers today. Some of these religions teach that there are many different ways of truth, but many of these faiths claim to have an exclusive understanding of truth. In other words, they believe their religion is right and all others are wrong. How should we think about the many different religions? Could all of them be right? Is there only one true religion? In our complex, multicultural, postmodern world, these are important and necessary questions.
The Functions of Religion
Religions have taken a variety of forms throughout human history. Religions are cultural systems that provide answers and practices relating human beings to a perception of ultimate reality. Almost every human culture we know has had at least one religion.
Religions serve a wide variety of functions. They provide answers to the questions about the ultimate reality of the universe. Are there gods? Is there only one God? Where did the universe come from? What is the purpose of the universe? What is my purpose as an individual? Why are things the way they are? What happens after we die? What is moral? What is immoral? How should we live?
In answering such questions, groups of people find common approaches to the many different parts of life. Together they build a common culture and way of life that define many of the values, rituals, beliefs, and moral standards that shape humanity. Religion has shaped many other aspects including ethics, law, government, education, war, peace, economics, and relations among groups of people.
These religions give an account of ultimate reality. Sometimes they have proposed that there are many gods and goddesses. For example, we can learn about the views of the ancient Greeks and Romans from the stories that describe their gods. For the Greeks, Zeus was the king of the gods, Hera was his wife, and Athena, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Ares, Hermes, Hades, Dionysus, and Demeter were among the divine beings whose interactions affected events on earth. The Romans adopted many of the Greek gods for their worship, renaming them Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, Neptune, Venus, Mars, Mercury, Pluto, Bacchus, and Ceres. Greek and Roman temples can be found throughout the former Roman Empire, and the residue of their mythology can be found in our art, our literature, and many names used in Western culture. During the first century A.D., Christians started coming to terms with how they would relate to other religions. The origin of Christianity as a renewal movement within Judaism and their subsequent separation started a long and complex relationship between the two religions. The centuries-long conflict between Christianity and Islam made this question even more difficult.
The situation became more complex as the world became smaller and human knowledge of various cultures increased. Scholars in the field of religious studies now understand more than ever before about the wide variety of religions practiced throughout human history. Such knowledge helps followers of one religion understand the beliefs and practices of others, but it also helps each religion understand its own origins and sacred texts.
For example, biblical scholars help people see that the Bible is best understood when seen in light of the surrounding cultures of the time in which it was written. The story of Abraham's preparation to sacrifice Isaac seems completely wrong to modern minds. How could God so mislead Abraham to believe that he should kill his precious and long-awaited child? But Abraham's situation becomes more understandable when one learns that surrounding cultures of that time worshiped a god called Molech, whose religion required the killing of one's firstborn son. In other words, God was teaching Abraham a lesson that he was not like Molech. In the New Testament, it seems odd to modern readers that Paul gives advice about food for sale in the marketplace after it had been sacrificed to the god of another religion (1 Corinthians 8). But when one thinks of the commandment to worship the one true God and avoid idolatry, we realize that Paul is wrestling with a genuine dilemma faced by first-century Christians.
Our modern situation raises many significant questions for people professing or considering Christianity. Sam's journey from one religion to the next was shaped by a variety of experiences in a university community. He encountered good people who professed Hare Krishna and Sufi beliefs and practiced them, so he tried them out. He was educated in the disciplines of modern science, and many of his professors at the university were atheists who thought any belief in God to be irrational and primitive. He might have taken courses in cultural anthropology and studied many different religions. The world he encountered turned out to be much more complex than he had been taught as a child in Sunday school.
Beyond Sam's university education, the emergence of instantaneous worldwide news coverage showed him the problems of religious violence between Christian groups in Northern Ireland, between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, between communist authorities and Christians living in certain countries. Yet he yearned to experience a genuine connection with God, so he kept trying out new religions to see if one would fit. Sam's journey is not unique. Many others have followed similar paths, ending up with a wide variety of outcomes.
Given all this data, what constitutes true wisdom about religion? Can only one religion be true? Let's examine four possible approaches to the question — relativism, agnosticism, atheism, and religion — along with positives and negatives for each one.
Relativism is a position that says there are no absolute truths that are universally applicable. Instead, truth is relative to each individual's perspective or context. People often espouse this view in saying, "That may be true for you, but it is not true for me." Relativists might say that each culture has its own religion, and all are equally valuable. This has great appeal in our modern, individualistic society, because all of us can have our own religion and make up whatever beliefs appeal to us. In addition, relativism places a premium on individual choice, tolerance, and mutual respect. It allows for picking and choosing the best things from each religion and combining them to form one's own unique approach to life.
The downside of relativism is it gives up on truth and is internally incoherent. To say both "There is one God" and "There are many gods" is self-contradictory. Or to say that "Jesus is God" and "Krishna is God" is to invoke very different understandings of who God is and what God means for human life here and now. Relativism means that truth is not an objective entity that can be described.
When people think carefully about relativism, it is easy for them to move into another possibility, agnosticism. The word has ancient Greek roots, in which a means "not" and gnostic means "knowing." Agnosticism means not knowing what is true. Someone can coherently affirm that there may be a truth about God but that human beings have no way of knowing what it is. When asked, "What is the true religion?" agnostics might say, "No one knows." That is more than saying "I don't know." It is an affirmation that even though it may be impossible for anyone to know the right answer, a right answer could in fact exist. Agnostics have the advantage of avoiding a difficult question because the evidence is so hard to evaluate.
The downside of agnosticism is that it tells religious people that their claims to truth are not verifiable, and so they are not holding an intelligent, reasoned opinion. It also devalues religion by saying it is not important for us to choose among faith options, because we cannot be completely certain that one option is right. A third downside to agnosticism is that it restrains people from moving forward with any particular truth or direction. As Yann Martel wrote in his best-selling novel The Life of Pi, "To choose doubt as a philosophy in life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation."
Another approach is atheism. A popular form of atheism is based on a philosophy called materialism. This is the claim that the material world, composed of matter and energy, constitutes the only reality. This view is appealing, because science tells us that life itself is based on various combinations of matter and energy that have formed randomly over the more than thirteen billion years since the "big bang" origin of the universe. Scientific progress, especially since the publication of Charles Darwin's book The Origin of Species, has provided very plausible explanations for most aspects of reality. Materialistic atheists claim that the idea of a god or supernatural being is not necessary to explain anything. The only reality is one that can be measured as matter or energy.
The downside of atheism and its companion philosophy materialism is that they lead to a meaningless and amoral understanding of the world. In a world defined by materialism, the only purpose seems to be survival of one's self or one's species. It can lead to the slogan we've seen on a T-shirt: "Life is a game, and the one who dies with the most toys wins."
If we reject relativism, agnosticism, and atheism, how do we decide which religion is true? All the religions make claims about ultimate reality, and those claims have implications for how human beings should live their lives. If there is a god, what should our attitude be toward that god? Are there many gods or just one? If God or gods exist, how should we live? Is there a purpose for the world as a whole or for my life as an individual? What happens after I die?
What Religions Have in Common
The adherents of most of the world's major religions would respond to these questions by saying there is a true religion and that one can know the truth and live by it. How does one choose among these religions?
One starting point is to look at what they have in common.
Most religions believe there is a divine being, and most religious people say there is just one God. Most believe there is a spiritual part of each person, often called a soul, which survives after the body dies. Thus, they believe in life after death. Most religions believe that our attitude toward God should involve some form of worship — praise for God and learning God's will through sacred writings or revelation, prayers, and offerings. Most religions teach some sort of moral code about having compassion for all human beings. Most of them teach that behaviors such as lying, stealing, and murder are to be avoided. Most religions are universal, teaching that all human beings are included in God's care and that each person has the opportunity to worship God.
There are exceptions to all the above statements. Some religions are polytheistic — they believe in more than one god. Some religions are tribal and favor one group of people over others. Some religions sanction practices such as killing nonbelievers or abusing the marginalized. Not all religions teach the same beliefs and practices.
To make things more complicated, for each of the major religions listed above, there have been times when followers of that faith have taught and practiced things that violate the core teachings of their religion.
In choosing among religions, it's important to keep in mind that choosing a religion is an act of faith. Religions seek to connect human beings with what they understand to be ultimate reality, and that reality is most often outside the realm of ordinary knowledge. Faith is thus a decision to live our lives according to a set of beliefs — about God, the world, and our purpose in life — that cannot be proven objectively.
It is also true, by the way, that choosing no religion is an act of faith. People who believe in limiting their view of reality to the material world and people who focus on pleasure as the ultimate good are also choosing a way of life. Many people simply go through life without thinking and ultimately find a way of life without making a conscious choice. That, too, is an act of faith.
A Christian Answer
Christians believe it is reasonable to believe in God, and Christian philosophers have sought good explanations for why it makes sense. But ultimately it takes a leap of faith to trust that God is real and that God has been revealed through Jesus of Nazareth as attested in the Bible. People come to this faith in a variety of ways.
Television personality Kirsten Powers wrote an article in Christianity Today about her conversion.
Just seven years ago, if someone had told me that I'd be writing for Christianity Today magazine about how I came to believe in God, I would have laughed out loud. If there was one thing in which I was completely secure, it was that I would never adhere to any religion — especially to evangelical Christianity, which I held in particular contempt.
A man whom Powers was dating asked her, "Do you think you could ever believe?" and "Do you think you could keep an open mind about it?" Since she regarded herself as an open-minded person, she agreed to attend a worship service and was invited to join a Bible study. She writes,
I remember walking into the Bible study. I had a knot in my stomach. In my mind, only weirdoes and zealots went to Bible studies. I don't remember what was said that day. All I know is that when I left, everything had changed. I'll never forget standing outside that apartment on the Upper East Side and saying to myself, "It's true. It's completely true." The world looked entirely different, like a veil had been lifted off it. I had not an iota of doubt. I was filled with indescribable joy.
Excerpted from Ask by Scott J. Jones. Copyright © 2015 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Can Only One Religion Be True? 11
2 Why Is There Suffering and Evil? 27
3 How Can I Believe in Science and Creation? 41
4 How Can I Believe in a God I Can't Prove? 55
5 Can I Trust the Old Testament? 71
6 Are Marriage, Sex, and Family Life Religious Issues? 85
7 Was Jesus' Resurrection Real? 99
8 Why Do Christians Disagree About So Many Things? 113