Luke Cummings's Third Place Essay
What Is the Christian Life?
In my high school, Christianity was as rare as Steelers fans were abundant. To be a Christian and admit to it was to openly invite people to debate and criticize your beliefs at will. In the pervading secular culture of people from my age group, Christianity is seen as contrary to reason and the driving force behind hate and intolerance. In the face of this environment, my faith has been challenged immensely, but this has overall been more of a blessing than a curse. Gordon Clark's compilation What Is the Christian Life? addresses some of the biggest questions and arguments thrown at me during my time in high school, reinforces the implicit link between Christianity and intellectualism, and gives guidance on how live as a Christian in our increasingly godless era.
In the media and popular culture today, religion is almost always portrayed as clashing with science and reason. This clash is nothing new. Since the enlightenment people have used scientific discovery and reasoning in attempting to displace God. My generation is barraged with news coverage of Christian climate-change deniers and politically incorrect cast members of Duck Dynasty. To your average honors student at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School, Christianity is something hillbillies, racists, and simple-minded people follow. Imagine the surprise of those students when they found out that their honors biology teacher was a Christian. To them, it is, perhaps as J. I. Packer would say, an antinomy. However, Dr. Clark emphasized in What Is the Christian Life over and over again that Christianity is centered on the intellect and the Bible itself. Knowledge of the gospel is required almost without exception for regeneration. Additionally, knowledge of the Bible is also essential for sanctification, with Dr. Clark stating that "Sanctification depends on knowledge of the Word, and God's Word is worthy of 'fencing, guarding, clearing up, and marking out on every side'"(Clark, 49). Regular reading and evaluation of the Bible is of the utmost necessity in order to better understand one's faith, and blind belief has no place in the life of a regenerate Christian.
Once I was having a conversation with a group of friends about Christianity and religion in general. At length, one of them dismissively stated "It's impossible to reason a Christian out of a position that he never reasoned himself into in the first place." I am sure that Dr. Clark would find the latter part of that statement completely erroneous, as his writings demonstrate just how critical reasoning is to the Christian Life. One of the main areas in which reasoning is essential in Christianity is faith. Dr. Clark defines faith as knowledge and assent, with trust being a form of assent. An individual (at least one that is capable of reasonable thought) cannot have true faith without a degree of knowledge, as such faith would be completely blind. "The gospel is a message to be understood" (Clark, 216). To have faith in the Gospel without understanding or knowing it would be misguided and foolish. The second tenet of faith, assent, or the choice to believe that a proposition is true, is something that a number of atheist individuals choose to critique. "You can't prove there is a God," an atheist might say, "You just choose to believe he exists. How unreasonable!" Indeed, on the surface, believing something without proof seems foolish, but what constitutes "proof"? Can absolute proof even exist? To a degree, an individual assents to every proposition he holds to be true. For example, when I watch the news, I choose to believe the stories being relayed to me are at least mostly accurate, based on my knowledge of the reputation of the news source and the similarity of the stories to others I've heard on different networks. Are those stories without a doubt accurate? Not necessarily. The news source could be intentionally misleading me, or perhaps the government could be feeding misinformation directly into my TV, though both of those propositions would likely get me labeled as a "conspiracy theorist" in contemporary society. Although Dr. Clark would say that illustrations are a faulty way of accurately conveying concepts, the point here is that the method by which a Christian arrives at his faith in Christ and the Gospel is not some crazy disavowal of reason and logic, but rather the same method by which an intellectual arrives at the validity of any proposition he encounters. A last challenge to faith that I frequently have faced is that it is merely an emotional reaction to fear of the unknown. However, Dr. Clark addresses this idea as well, with his assertion that there is little emotion involved in regeneration and faith itself. Dr. Clark asserts multiple times that, unlike the contemporary idea that the heart always refers to emotions, "the term heart as used in the Bible is three-quarters of the time the intellect" (Clark, 225). When not referring to intellect, the heart also refers to the will, which Clark acknowledges is essential to regeneration. Emotion, which Dr. Clark characterizes as an involuntary unreasonable human response to information, has little place in the reasoned faith of a regenerate Christian. Dr. Clark goes even farther, saying, "living heresy in the twentieth century has resulted reliance on feeling or emotion" (Clark, 169). Contrary to what a great deal of my non-Christian contemporaries might think, Christianity is not a rejection of reasoning but rather an embodiment of it.
Dr. Clark's emphasis of the essentiality of reason to the Christian life ties into both his discussion of evangelism and my experiences with evangelism both in the United States and abroad. Dr. Clark points out the difficulty of determining the most correct way to evangelize and assessing the efficacy of evangelism campaigns. In the introduction, Dr. Clark notes that often evangelism campaigns do not follow accepted New Testament protocols. Dr. Clark emphasizes, "the New Testament gives the message that must be preached. And this is the most important point" (Clark, 150). As we mentioned before, knowledge and assent of the Gospel is essential for true faith, and thus the principal goal behind any evangelism campaign is to ensure that the Gospel is being correctly relayed to the target audience. Dr. Clark gives his own examples to reinforce this, and I witnessed this idea in the Central Asian Republic of Kyrgyzstan, where I resided for a great deal of my childhood. When I first moved to Kyrgyzstan, my family lived in Osh, the second largest city in the country. We attended a church in which the Gospel was preached in Russian, the primary language spoken in Kyrgyzstan. Because the services were in Russian, the congregation was made up principally of local Kyrgyz and Uzbek people, and continued to attract new members over the time my family attended the Church. Circumstances changed a couple of years later and we moved to the capital city of Bishkek, which had a more robust community of foreigners and an established English-speaking church. While the English services provided spiritual nourishment for foreigner Christians (although eventually a devout Arminian became the pastor), it seemed strange that a congregation made up of mostly Christian missionaries made no accommodation for Russian speakers, and thus appeared less effective at evangelizing the local population. This, along with doctrinal disagreements, eventually prompted my parents to move us to a Russian speaking church once again. To an American evangelist, having your target understand the language in which you impart the gospel is taken for granted, but overseas it becomes a more complex issue. Furthermore, the mission field presented the challenge of gauging the efficacy of evangelism on the local population. Even with extensive study of Russian language and Kyrgyz culture, it was difficult for missionaries in Kyrgyzstan to be sure that they were correctly imparting the Gospel to budding Christians. Dr. Clark states that "Understanding is essential" (Clark, 183), and the experience of my parents and other missionaries confirms this to be accurate. Overall, while the campaigns of evangelists like Franklin and Billy Graham may give one the impression that evangelism is about mass conversions of sinners and huge successes, Dr. Clark observes that the true nature of evangelism is often more protracted and less immediate in its results. I find this analysis to be in line with what I experienced and witnessed overseas. I hope to find guidance in Dr. Clark's words in my university years and when I return overseas.
In conclusion, Dr. Clark's volume What Is the Christian Life? furnishes guidance and explanations for questions that I am often faced with in my conversations with atheists, emphasizes the link between intellectualism and Christianity, and provides excellent advice on how to best live out one's life as a Christian in the process of sanctification. Though having gone to be with the Lord almost thirty years ago, Dr. Clark is still able to give a uniquely biblical perspective on questions that many if not all young Christians face.