Faith and skepticism in the 21st century
Culture | Rachel Wilson
Dan Taylor speaks on his belief that faith and skepticism go hand in hand. | Photo for The Clarion by Drea Chalmers
For many believers, skepticism and believing seem contradictory, but for former Bethel professor Dan Taylor, the two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they go hand in hand. He may even argue they’re his story.
In his recently published book The Skeptical Believer, Taylor writes, “We didn’t much use the term ‘skeptic’ in churches I grew up in. We called such people doubters. Sometimes backsliders or carnal or lost, but mostly doubters. I didn’t know exactly what a doubter was, but I knew pretty early that I was one.”
Students, alumni, faculty and community members filled The Underground Nov. 7 when Taylor came to Bethel to speak at a forum he titled “Going on a Bear Hunt” where he delved into the idea of faith and skepticism in the 21st century.
“God is telling us a story,” he stated, “but it’s not the only story in town.” Taylor went on to reveal the foe and friend he refers to as his “inner atheist.”
After giving a brief overview of the history of human thought ,including premodern, modern and postmodern views, the former English professor quite fittingly used three children’s stories to explain the intellectual movements.
The first describes a movement characterized by authority, tradition, simplicity and security. Premodernists rarely ask questions. The Modern movement, which includes the last 300 years, is characterized by rationale, science and certainty.
Finally, the postmodern view relies on sensibility and individual reason, avoiding generalizations at all costs. Postmodernists are known for creating their own reality, instead of discovering it. They often advocate on behalf of the ‘what’s true for you is true for you, what’s true for me is true for me,’ idea.
“I find myself in each of these groups,” Taylor vulnerably admitted during his talk Thursday.
Thus, Taylor suggested a fourth category worth noting. Using the children’s book, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen, he described a category that delicately balances all three of the aforementioned intellectual movements.
Appropriately, Taylor used a story to tell his story. The book described a family going on a bear hunt in which they met several obstacles, overcoming all, until they met a big, black bear in a dark cave. Upon sighting the bear, the family ran from the cave into their safe home.
Why is this representative of Taylor’s story? Because it’s a quest story. It’s a story with big goals and big risks. It’s a story that realistically portrays obstacles and failures. It’s a story that requires community. It’s a story not about the end goal, but the process—just like Taylor’s own story.
“I was wrong all those years in trying to kill him,” Taylor admits, referring to his “inner atheist.” His self which wants to believe and his self that doesn’t want to believe are inexplicably intertwined. However, it’s this very side of him that most vividly represents the grace, love and mercy of Jesus Christ.
All stories told, the greatest story of all for Taylor is the love story of God for His creation. Taylor added that what God wants of us isn’t belief—that’s the easy part—but a life organized around Him.
“Skeptics are skeptical. And believers, well, aren’t. Unless they are. The two concepts can, and often do, go together because we live in a fallen world where knowledge of truth is always partial and often distorted,” Taylor writes.
For all authentic believers, both inner selves exist—that is, the believing self and the non-believing self. Some would go so far as to argue that both are necessary for authentic belief. We don’t have to silence the latter in order for the first to flourish. We do, however, need to entertain our believing self in order to not let our skeptical self take over.
“Even though I write the occasional book about it, I’m not a champion for doubt. I’m willing to argue, however, that there’s room for us doubters—us skeptics, if you will—in this story we call the Christian faith,” Taylor writes, concluding his talk by intimately inviting us on that journey with him.
Taylor’s latest book, The Skeptical Believer, and many of his other works are available in the Bethel bookstore for purchase.