on January 3, 2009
In Search of a Confident Faith is an excellent comprehensive apologetic for establishing trust in God "for real." I wanted to review this book due to my own interest in Christians becoming confident in their faith. The book reaffirms the Christian faith as one of propositional knowledge confirmed through personal experience; but does so at a very accessible level. Moreland and Issler address many helpful points concerning the influence of Western culture in creating doubt in Christians' faith. First, the authors address the misuse of the term "faith" in today's culture as a "blind leap" or as in place of reason. The term historically entailed a much richer meaning of trust and confidence, which crucially required the proper exercise of reason, evidence, and knowledge. Second, they describe the essential role of knowledge in the Christian faith; through a look at the Biblical view of knowledge, through breaking down the concept of knowledge, and through addressing our plausibility structures (explained more thoroughly later). Third, the authors attend to intellectual and emotional doubts: both through logical arguments and then through practical steps in handling these doubts. Fourth, Moreland and Issler handle doubt caused by low expectations of God's intervention into a believer's life and make practical suggestions for increasing trust in God. Their writing systematically and carefully treats each area without losing interest or bogging down in terminology.
Of particular interest is the section on plausibility structures, which the authors define as a set of background assumptions that establish a tone for what people think, how they feel, and how they act. Plausibility structures form our default beliefs and determine the things we are embarrassed to believe. According to Moreland and Issler, "Our current Western cultural plausibility structure elevates science and scorns and mocks religion, especially Christian teaching." (page 46) The result is a tendency for Christians to doubt the supernatural worldview of the Bible. Those Christians who experience this doubt may not even realize their assumptions about knowledge are based on influence from this plausibility structure.
The Western cultural plausibility structure is broken down by analyzing commonly accepted background assumptions involved, including: 1) "It is smarter to doubt things than to believe them. Smart people are skeptical." 2) "Religion is a matter of private, personal feelings and should be kept out of debates--political and/or moral--in the public square." 3) "Science is the only way to know reality with confidence....science has made belief in God unnecessary." 4) "We can only know things through our five senses." (page 48) Plus, the authors provide steps to appraise and refute doubts caused by this plausibility structure, including a thorough questioning of the validity of the doubt itself. For example, is it really true that "it is smarter to doubt things than to believe them"? The authors suggest this kind of thinking is "intellectually irresponsible because our lives flourish with truths but flounder with falsehoods." (page 51) For an example, the correct medicine for an ailment will help a person get well, but the wrong medicine (or taking no medicine at all due to skepticism) could have devastating effects.
Moreland and Issler then move onto dealing with specific intellectual doubts and emotional wounds, including childhood coping strategies that keep us from moving into a relationship of trust in God. The section on treating emotional wounds is reminiscent of Neil T. Anderson's approach in "Victory Over the Darkness." The source of the coping strategy is targeted (i.e. an abusive parent, failure to live up to parent expectations, etc.) and then a biblical truth is put in its place. And by including the source and treatment of emotional doubt, the authors have produced a comprehensive apologetic that is refreshing and transforming.
In part two, the authors investigate possible ways of increasing expectations of our faith in God. First, they explain why believers should expect God to intervene in their lives: Jesus promised to intervene in their lives. Second, they offer the example of Jesus' faith and how he lived his life fully in God's Kingdom through reliance on the Holy Spirit and reliance on God. Third, the authors give an explanation of some of the indicators of a life lived with a supernatural worldview. They explain that much of the doubt believers experience is caused by the apparent lack of God's activity in their lives. So the solution to this particular doubt is to give more witness of the supernatural activity of God in our individual lives. If more Christians would give this witness, their testimony would build up other believers' trust in God; their "God-confidence."
This section of the book is strung together with candid personal stories by both authors. Not only do Moreland and Issler offer stories, but they also share their own struggles with and failings in spiritual transformation. Their personal touch in this section gives the book a "realness" lacking in some apologetic literature. The reader will not find merely another discourse in theology or another lecture in philosophy; but will find these authors are sitting down with the reader to share their own journey to the truth about world in which we live. In keeping with the personal feel of the book, the conclusion to part two offers active steps to grow in reliance on God; including a brief but extremely helpful discussion on the difficult subject of discerning God's Will. Christians who read this book will definitely be edified and encouraged.
"Faith has a public relations problem."
With that sentence, J.P. Moreland and Klaus Issler launch In Search of a Confident Faith. The authors are professors of philosophy and Christian education, respectively, at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California, and evangelical Christians. Their book is not an apologetic for the Christian faith directed at unbelievers. Rather, it is an exercise in spiritual formation for believers, aimed at "overcoming barriers to trusting in God," as the subtitle puts it.
One of the reasons faith has a public relations problem is because it's so widely misunderstood. The rash of books published recently by atheists reinforces this misunderstanding by tagging faith as an intellectual leap in the dark. This partially explains why, for example, Richard Dawkins and his ilk annoyingly refer to themselves as "Brights."
Chapter 1 looks at "What Faith Is...And What It Isn't..." Moreland and Issler note three synonyms of faith (confidence, trust, and reliance) and define faith as "trusting what we have reason to believe is true." Rather than an intellectual leap in the dark, then, faith has its reasons. Interestingly, faith is not merely a spiritual act, it is an inherent part of the intellectual enterprise, for much of what we know we take on faith (confidence, trust, and reliance) from acknowledged authorities. Moreland and Issler go on to note that in the Christian tradition, faith is further delineated as noticia (content of belief), assensus (personal assent), and fiducia (ongoing commitment). Philosophy helps clarify the nature of faith by pointing out that there are degrees of belief, by distinguishing confidence in persons from confidence about truths, and by showing us how beliefs are changed indirectly rather than directly.
Chapters 2 and 3 offer advice about how to deal with intellectual and emotional barriers to belief, what the authors call "distractions of the head" and "distractions of the heart."
Much of the reason why faith has a public relations problem in the West is because of the "plausibility structure" of modernity are so thoroughly naturalistic. That is to say, whereas in earlier ages--and even in other places today--belief in the supernatural is presupposed, in our age and place, unbelief is presupposed. "Our current Western cultural plausibility structure elevates science and scorns and mocks religion, especially Christian teaching. As a result, believers in Western cultures do not as readily believe the supernatural worldview of the Bible in comparison with their Third World brothers as sisters." Moreland and Issler offer a "four-step procedure" for reducing intellectual doubts: (1) "Spot the activating source...and be alert while being exposed to it." (2) "Explicitly state to yourself exactly the doubt-inducing cultural assumption that lies beneath the surface of the activating source." (3) "Challenge and question the truth of the cultural assumption. Is that really true? Doubt the doubt!" (4) "Replace the cultural assumption with a biblical truth...and make it your goal to grow in God-confidence about the alternative." Underlying this advice is the author's commitment to the rationality of the Christian faith and the biblical world, which they believe to be both defensible and truth.
Many doubts arise not because of intellectual questions but because of emotional issues. "Life fundamentally consists of two basic movements," the authors write: "either we're moving toward God, or we've moving away from him--there's no neutral or middle zone. They go on to conclude: "a fundamental life skill for all believers is learning how to discern the subtle ways our heart moves us in either direction." An important goal of the spiritual life, then, is to identify and feed those desires that draw you closer to God, and to identify and starve those desires that draw you away from him.
If the first three chapters define faith and name intellectual and emotional challenges to it, the final three chapters talk about "expanding expectations for our belief in God." For my money, Chapter 4 is worth the price of the book. Titled, "Making Sense of Jesus' Incredible Promises," it asks, "What is the normal Christian life?" Many Christians struggle with Jesus' promises, which seem to set the standard of spiritual experience too high. Moreland and Issler suggest that we approach the issue differently, asking, "What kind of Christian living is humanly possible?" Rather than taking our current experience as "normal," they suggest that we have set our sights too low. So, they suggest four "God-Confidence-Nurturing Projects. (1) "Personal/relational," focusing on prayer and Scripture meditation; (2) "Content/worldview," based on serious biblical and apologetic studies; (3) "Action," putting your beliefs into practice through your behaviors; and (4) "Progression," which is paying serious attention to growth or progress you have made in your spiritual journey.
If naturalism describes the plausibility structure of modernity, and if it is opposed to the biblical worldview, then it has to be undermined. This can be done at a philosophical level, but also at the level of credible witnessing to supernatural events by contemporary persons. Chapter 5, "Bearing Witness to God's Activity in the World," does exactly that. Moreland and Issler provide personal testimonies of supernatural experiences, and they cite the supernatural experiences of people they know. They argue that these testimonies are credible and inexplicable by naturalistic means. Faith is built through credible confirmation, so it is important for believers both to share and to hear such credible testimonies.
God-confidence is also strengthened as we receive divine guidance for life. Chapter 6, "Learning to Trust in God for Guidance about Life Decisions," addresses the numerous ways God guides believers: Scripture, wise counsel, spiritual promptings, etc. As a Pentecostal pastor, I was especially encouraged to see Moreland and Issler emphasize the important role the Holy Spirit plays in all this: "The Holy Spirit is not just some force or power, but is a Person of power, who mentors and coaches us and makes it possible for us to live by faith and grow into Christlikeness." "Furthermore, although we are always indwelt by the Spirit, we also need constantly to be `filled by the Spirit,' to intentionally coordinate our decision making and life walk with the Spirit." Once upon a time, Biola University, the home of Talbot Theological Seminary, was a hotbed of cessationist theology. Evidently, not any more!
In Search of a Confident Faith is an excellent book. It patiently defines terms; supports its arguments through Scripture and reason; is richly illustrated with salient personal testimony; and provides wise advice for believers. I recommend this book to any Christian interested is strengthening his faith, but especially to high school grads, college and graduate-school students, and pastors. They are on the frontlines of the conflict between naturalism and supernaturalism, both intellectually and experientially, and could benefit from Moreland and Issler's advice.
on April 23, 2012
Moreland and Issler begin the book with a corrective to the common misconceptions of faith in the modern world. Faith is normally understand as belief without evidence. Objects of religious faith are seen as something that we can never have knowledge about. Moreland and Issler counter this by referring to faith as "God-confidence," and of trusting what we have reason to believe is true.
They proceed to address challenges to our God-confidence, ranging from intellectual doubts to emotional doubts. With regard to intellectual doubts, they particular call attention to the influence of the secular worldview as reflected in the media. They encourage us to keep our minds attuned to the negative effects of these influences. It's also important for believers to avail themselves of Christian scholarship. There are intellectual resources adequate for meeting the challenges of secularism in every field, and it is essential that believers know where to turn for answers to those sorts of challenges. In fact believers are encouraged to not ignore intellectual challenges to the truth of Christianity. Resolving intellectual challenges is itself a great confidence-boosting activity in our trust in God. With regard to emotional doubts, they discuss the importance of finding emotional healing for past wounds that lead us on the path away from God instead of toward him.
The second part of the book is filled with advice and examples to help increase our confidence in God. The authors give practical suggestions on how to develop our confidence in God, and also present numerous examples of testimonies which they have found credible (and some of their own testimonies as well) of God working in the world through miracles, answers to prayer, and guidance. I found this part to be worth the read all on its own, and I was encouraged in my own life. God is at work in the world, and we need to be growing in our God-confidence in order to be a part of the blessing.
I found this book to be highly readable and enjoyable, as well as informative and encouraging. Well worth it.