Three secular thinkers appear to be increasingly captivated by the Christian vision of reality. Their questions are providing answers for many seekers, says Paul Vander Klay in this follow up to his first blog on their influence What Douglas Murray gets right (and wrong) about the church
For a UK radio show host, Justin Brierley can be terribly un-British when it comes to bare-faced direct questions. That’s certainly true when it comes to secular thinkers such as Jordan Peterson, Tom Holland and Douglas Murray.
All three have a complicated relationships with faith and have been guests in the past three seasons of The Big Conversation from Unbelievable? Pesky Justin always pokes and prods at them with a smile on his face about the status of their personal beliefs. “Do you believe in God?”
Murray is an ‘uncomfortable agnostic’ who is waiting to hear a voice. Peterson acts as if God exists but could be backed into a skeptical corner on the big stage by Sam Harris. Holland seems to be the most committed of the three as someone who has taken up regular church attendance and says he ‘believes more on some days than others’.
All three seem worried about the direction Western culture is headed.
The mechanisms for apocalyptic calamity in the minds of these secularish prophets are historical, political and psychological. This adds an anxious element to their fearful prognostications because at least in the traditional fideistic Christian frame, God and his righteousness will win in the end. Evolution, whether biological or cultural, offers no such guarantees.
Despite their unbelief, watchers from the “religious” side of the stadium cheer them on. They hope that these three, who are in a strange way championing some of their cause, will “cross the line” personally. But what would that mean? Aren’t these the questions that grip us in the midst of this long retreat of modernity? Is re-enchantment possible? Desirable?
In fact, many lower-profile fans in the stands are changing sides. I have video evidence from an abundance of conversations from “randos” that many lower profile players are crossing over from a decaying New Atheism into the arms of increasingly muscular sacramental churches.
Watching these three liminal characters work hard to construct a bridge from the secular shore seems to make the crossing easier for seekers in the stands. One cheeky meme-maker in the Discord community created this symbolic representation of what he is seeing in his peer group.
The challenges that Murray, Holland and Peterson present to the church are some of the best opportunities we currently have for good faith, productive dialogue to address long standing difficulties. These are not just theories in the academy but pastorally dynamic in the marketplace of new ideas on social media. All three stand at the receding frontier of modernity declaring “Can’t believe. Can’t not believe. What shall I do?”
None of the three have found the church’s response to their conundrum sufficiently compelling to definitively “cross the line” yet, but they are all providing some sort of a bridge of critical questions by which others are going beyond them.
While I’m sure all three would love for the church to “deliver answers”, (and many in the church have certainly tried to do so) my guess is that right now the church doesn’t really have “answers” as such to give. If we did we’d have already moved on from this moment.
The Heretics That We Need
One of my favorite church history books ‘Heresy’ is from another regular on Unbelievable?, Alister McGrath. As the church crosses temporal cultural frontiers, new answers to new challenges collaboratively co-emerge. Just as we had to learn about Christology by the challenges to it, so also will we sift through the wheat and tares of modernity by facing deep and difficult questions.
Peterson, Murray and Holland are all helping us work hard on the very difficult problem of how exactly heaven and earth meet in this day and age when the sky is just empty space.
Douglas Murray stopped being an Anglican when, after analyzing Islamic texts, he decided he could no longer believe any religious text could be “infallible”.
Jordan Peterson in a conversation with Jonathan Pageau longs to figure out whether the story-verse can actually touch down in the matter-verse.
Tom Holland wrestles with historical questions around Jesus in a way not too dissimilar from history and Arthurian legends.
These are big issues that take our brightest and our best to work through. As new categories arise, new distinctions appear and we don’t see old texts exactly in the same way their authors could imagine.
Tim Keller, a pastor with a lot of experience leading deeply secular people into the life of the church often comments that before people CAN believe they must WANT TO believe.
Right now, like these three, we’ve got a lot of people wanting to believe, but who are holding back. They’ve found the rationalist utopian of New Atheism nihilistic and long to live inside the story. The church should be this place but many look in and say “Is this REALLY what it looks like to live out a story of that breathtaking magnitude?”
On Unbelievable? recently, Tom Holland expressed to NT Wright how unbelievable he found it that Christians didn’t relish reading their religious text. The Bible is great! Why don’t Christians read it all the time? They believe themselves to be living in it. Why are they often so timid and dull?
A New Mission Field
So why pay attention to these three unbelievers?
At almost every major stage of evangelistic development it is the mission field that teaches the missionary how to harvest. Individual pastoral care is almost always far more about listening than advice giving. Give people the right context, enough time, and the right partner, and they will talk their way through their particular misery, through deliverance into gratitude.
The Biblical record does not state that a tome of systematic theology fell from the heavens following the Ascension of Christ. Like Holland, In his discussion with NT Wright, Murray signalled his disappointment with the church for not standing up for itself in society.
Tom Wright might look like a kind old gentleman compared to the zinger-slinging challenges of Holland and Murray but he’s been around the world watching the church do its work face to face, belly to belly, one person at a time amid the innumerable plurality of cultures and crises the planet daily affords. He reminds Murray that around the world it is the slow, quiet, patient, sacrificial obedience that wins hearts and the future.
It is often not among the brilliant and the wealthy of the world that Christ moves, but through those the world sees little value in and affords little status. Upon small and lowly churches the Spirit of Christ descends and teaches us, often painfully, the way of Jesus. Winning in the long term often looks and feels like losing in the short term.
Youtube’s attention economy is primed for those victory-over-the-prophets-of-Baal-on-Mt. Carmel moments, but that voice that Douglas Murray is waiting for only comes, if at all, in God’s own timing and most often in unexpected lowly ways and places.
I’ve often asked people “Wouldn’t it have been better if Jesus had appeared to Saul of Tarsus while he had the heavens open at the stoning of Stephen? Two birds with one stone so to speak? Cut short the whole persecution thing for the sake of the Christian’s families and the Apostle Paul’s guilty conscience later on? What a statement that would have made if the chief prosecuting attorney against Stephen had switched sides right there at the moment of his victim’s execution!”
However, the church was scattered at the death of Stephen, so Philip and others participate in a second diaspora, at each step learning from the Spirit’s work in Samaria, Caesarea and Antioch on the way to Ephesus, Corinth and Rome. Quietly, slowly, beneath the radar. This is how Christ conquered Rome.
Can the Tide of Faith Come Back In?
What I believe we have today is an unprecedented opportunity for the church to harvest the goods of modernity and proceed to the next evangelistic challenge as Murray, Holland and Peterson pause by the water’s edge waiting for God to make a path through the sea.
I think Christians today, as they often are, are too timid and impatient. Yes, Christianity is threatened in every generation with extinction and is always challenged by major cultural transitions like we face today. We have difficult questions to wrestle with but in every generation the Holy Spirit brings to us often the most unlikely conversation partners to help us find the way.
Very early on one might bet that young Stephen would be the right guy to contribute to the church and much of the New Testament, but God let the guy holding the cloaks do some destroying before he turned to him and showed him how much he would suffer.
I have always thought the most important aspect of the Unbelievable? show was not the “owning” of adversaries or the “answers” offered by Christian leaders but the modeling of productive conversations between the church and her critics.
What we have in the strange public prophetic work of Jordan Peterson, Douglas Murray and Tom Holland is a tremendous opportunity for productive conversations that are helpful for thousands who would ask the questions these men ask if they had the words.
Authority is almost always recognized more than it is asserted in our skeptical age. In order for the church to speak with authority in a way that isn’t merely asserted but authentically recognized, it will need to respond to the tough questions and work with these critics as co-laborers in the harvest that will come.
Paul Vander Klay is a YouTube vlogger and pastor in Sacramento California https://www.youtube.com/paulvanderklay