By James W. Miller
I guess I find myself stunned every time I hear it, but I heard it again recently.
“Christians settle for God as their explanation for everything because they’re intellectually lazy.”
Commonly the background experience of the speaker is one of growing up surrounded by an acculturated religion for which people have comfortably settled. She has come to the point where she’s given serious consideration to pressing questions about faith, and she found herself wanting for answers. As a result, she considers herself the intellectual superior of the churchgoing, the street evangelists, her parents, and perhaps a caricature of Christianity that she’s accepted as reality.
The problem is that if you question her about her skepticism, she’s put less thought into the foundations of atheism than she has into Christianity, and the worldview she claims to accept is just as mindlessly comfortable as Christianity was to the religious practitioners she has rejected. She’s never turned around and applied exactly the same level of skepticism to the atheistic worldview that she did to the Christian worldview.
As a result, she usually ends up in a kind of tepid agnosticism that remains unexamined. Agnosticism is not as much a conclusion of clear thinking as it is an act of “putting a pin” in Christianity so that one can come back to it later. Agnosticism is not a resolution; it’s tabling the question.
And that, to me, is what is so stunning. At the very moment she presumes to accuse Christians of intellectual laziness, she’s being intellectually lazy. If we define intellectual laziness as the willful refusal to exert mental energy to examine significant questions, there’s no doubt about it: agnosticism, the kind practiced by modern secularists, is as lazy as it comes.
This is not a snarky way of exchanging diatribes. Rather, it should reinvigorate the Christian intellectual effort. If we think of sin not simply as malice, but rather as the soul seeking out nourishment in the wrong way, we can gain a pretty good insight as to what the soul is longing for. The agnostic’s soul is longing for intellectual credibility. She’s not just sinning; she’s starving. The Church may need to have the humility to admit how often we’ve failed her on this front. We are in fact the ones who have settled into a comfortable, acculturated faith because it’s easier than holiness. And when we do that, we leave the world wanting something more. So rather than condemning the agnostic for what is obviously an intellectual laziness all its own, we might rather answer back with a vigorous, intentional, intellectually sound faith.
I remember going on a two week retreat with Dallas Willard at a Catholic Retreat Center in Southern California. He gave lectures to our small gathering all morning and into the afternoon. “Jesus was smart,” he said. “Of all the adjectives we use for him, we tend not to use that one. But Jesus was smart.”
We have not been ready with an answer (1 Peter 3:15), and the time has come.
James W. Miller is the author of Hardwired: Finding the God You Already Know (Abingdon, 2013).