The Pride of Skepticism
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“Perhaps the primary origin of subjectivism today, at least in America, is the desire to be accepted, to be ‘with it,’ fashionable, avant garde, ‘in the know,’ rather than ‘square,’ ‘hokey’ or ‘out of it.’
“We all learned this as children – to be embarrassed is the absolutely primary fear of a teenager – but we put more sophisticated, scholarly disguises on it when we become adults.”
- Peter Kreeft
“The evidence of God’s existence and His gift is more than compelling, but those who insist that they have no need of Him or it will always find ways to discount the offer.”
- Blaise Pascal
I don’t like to look stupid. I’ve gotten pretty good at laughing at myself, but any ten-cent psychiatrist will tell you that’s just a defense mechanism. Á la Eminem at the end of “8 Mile,” the easiest way to avoid ridicule is to beat them to the punch. I am also proud, and I like to think that my beliefs and opinions are based on something substantial, not just feelings or hearsay. Accepting things based on “authority” has always been difficult, because in that situation the facts are only as reliable as the source, and how well do we really know anyone, much less their motives? I would willingly label myself a “believer,” but in actuality I have a hard time believing a lot of things.
Confession: I am a skeptic. I like to see things, feel them, taste them. I don’t care that everyone says fried mushrooms don’t taste like mushrooms (or anything at all, really) – I don’t like mushrooms. No, not even these mushrooms. I can’t accept that this politician truly is honest – such an idea is out of my range of experience. And, although I certainly accept that they can – and even do – occur, I have a really hard time believing your mystical or spiritual experience. Miracles have been worked in my own life, and yet I am skeptical whenever I hear of those in someone else’s. Is that what really happened? Was anyone objective there to witness it? Is there proof?
And yet, that makes me like the man who prayed for just $100 dollars to pay his rent. If I can just get that, he pleaded with God, then I can make it. When he went to the mailbox, there was a forgotten refund check for $100. Never mind, God, I’ve got it, he said. It is much easier to believe that I did it, that it was coincidence, or that it was (gasp!) karma or fate. It is the pride of skepticism: I am smarter, stronger, better if I can claim responsibility for my own life. And what I cannot attribute to myself must be the result of nature, or physics, or statistics; therefore, it cannot be helped anyway. This is the same pride that hates to be mocked, to be made to feel inferior.
There is a particular form of this pride that I feel requires special attention: the misogyny of the skeptical husband. Misogyny technically means “the hatred of women,” but since the term is used colloquially for any offensive action or thought directed towards women, I will use it in the same sense. The Bible clearly commands that the man be the leader in his home and of his family, especially spiritually. But where there is a void in leadership, someone will rise up to take the mantle. This is why there are so many women who lead the charge for the family to go to church and be actively involved, with the husband/father grudgingly following along. Many men go to church to “keep the peace” at home, not out of any personal belief or conviction. They often write off their wives’ faith as an emotional response or need, and fancy themselves “above” such frivolity.
This is the masculine pride. As a man, we believe ourselves to be more intellectually capable and less subject to emotional experience or involvement. We are reasonable and levelheaded. We are skeptical, unwilling to accept a proposition without evidence and unable to accept illogical presumption. We can accept that our women do not subscribe to these same requirements, and nod approvingly at their fancy. It is such a dangerous and hateful pride, because it attributes qualities to women that we would never express out loud. It is dismissive both of their intelligence and their reasonableness. Intelligent and inquisitive men would never marry women like the ones they suppose must be capable of believing in the Christian “myth.” And yet, church after church, pew after pew, are all filled with women and their children. The husband is absent, if not physically then mentally and emotionally. Women believe and lead in the church because the men have failed to, not because they are more susceptible to some deluded mirage promised by the panacea of Christianity.
The danger in practicing Christian apologetics is that we can succumb to the desire to win the argument, when it is truly the heart we are after. A debate won swells the pride and the head, and creates a desire to find another victim. This is obviously true of any defended idea or ideal, but the desire is most wicked when the pursuit should be one of love, not intellectual conquest. And yet, pride is the primary weakness of all people; when we are proud, we feel powerful. The pride of skepticism is the belief that we are beyond credulity, that we can surpass – at the very least – all those intellectual dwarfs who, even for a second, allow faith to become part of their worldview. But this is a misrepresentation of faith, and a bastardization of intellect.
Sir Isaac Newton, quoting an old maxim, said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” This was a reasonable humility in that we would all be unable to achieve anything meaningful if every individual had to start from scratch. We take the vast majority of what we believe on authority, and yet we deny that very idea when we are faced with an uncomfortable truth. The Gospel is an example of an uncomfortable truth: we are told that we are not, in fact, good people, and that we need a savior. Jesus Christ presents Himself as that Savior, and asks only that we relinquish our pride and accept His sovereignty and forgiveness. It was pride that led to Lucifer’s rebellion, and it is pride that inaugurates our own.
Last weekend, I was able to spend a few days in the company of a group of Christian men on a retreat. A small part of the time was spent sharing stories of the obstacles we had overcome and the temptations we had conquered, only through a power that was beyond our own. We heard stories of miraculous changes in people’s lives, and witnessed the Holy Spirit working in the midst of a group of intelligent and capable believers in Christ. These were men I knew, whose stories I did not have the luxury to be skeptical about, because I know them. I am one of the witnesses, and I have lived many of the same experiences I saw and heard about.
Skepticism is tiring; the skeptic spends so much time seeing through things that he often doesn’t realize that the point of seeing through things is to see something else on the other side (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity). As a skeptic, I miss out on much of the joy and peace that comes from sharing a changed life. My skepticism is actually inside-out: I know what is possible and true intellectually, but I have a hard time convincing my heart. My life is a miracle, but it is hard to accept the testimony of another. If you want to argue the evidence, so be it. If you want to debate the disparate accounts of changed lives, fine. If you want to doubt the existence of absolutes, I understand. Just realize that there are giants on both sides of the fence, and the intelligence and ability is not disproportionally distributed. Mocking the person is no better than bullying, and does not signify an unassailable argument. The conversation is valuable only when it is respectful. Skepticism is beneficial only where it is reasonable.
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