Sceptical Innocence – how to avoid gullibility without becoming a cynic

On one level, I’m still a good charismatic Christian. I believe in miracles. I believe in healings, prophecies, tongues, ‘words of knowledge’, miraculous signs. I believe in answered prayer.

Or at least I believe in the reality and possibility of these things; that they have happened, can happen and sometimes (very occasionally) still do. I believe that God is present and active in and through our lives – usually behind the scenes but sometimes in more visible ways.

But on the other hand I have an extremely high level of scepticism regarding any specific reported instance of a miracle, healing, prophecy or sign. If someone says that they’ve experienced a miracle, I’ll want some fairly solid evidence before I accept it.

And if someone claims that God has spoken to them, has told them something – particularly has told them to do something that I suspect they were secretly already planning to do – then my scepticism levels go through the roof. I just don’t believe it, in 99% of cases. As far as I’m concerned, it’s far more likely to be spiritualised wishful thinking than genuine divine communication.

‘God told me…’??

I’ve said before that we humans are incorrigible meaning-seekers and pattern-finders. This innate tendency can be very dangerous when it’s coupled with a religious mindset that looks for signs and confirmations; that expects to find spiritual meanings in everyday events. We can all too easily suspend our critical faculties, spotting a pattern and reading a ‘meaning’ that suits us or confirms us in some course of action, and then claiming divine sanction for it – ‘God told me’.

For instance, while I was typing that paragraph, my computer switched itself off in order to install updates, losing several sentences in the process. The superstitious part of me (for there is one) immediately wanted to worry that this was a ‘sign’ – that maybe God was displeased with what I’d written, and that I needed to do lots of praying and soul-searching before I could continue writing. But that really is superstitious thinking, rather than genuinely spiritual.

That’s not of course to say that God can’t or doesn’t sometimes speak to us through everyday circumstances and events. I genuinely believe that he can and does. But I don’t believe that we can confidently base our life decisions on some randomly-found Bible verse or one-off ‘sign’ that we’ve read into our circumstances. We need to be wise, even to a degree sceptical, about these things.

So I’m not (say) going to head off to Africa straight away just because I happened to spot an advert about overseas missions while I was praying about what to do with my life. I’m not (say) going to leave my family and bugger off ‘on the Lord’s work’ just because I happened to be reading some passage about the early apostles while I was feeling stressed about some situation at home.

Revival wishes and Christian crazes

Another area where I’m now very sceptical is the kind of grand claims you hear in some Christian circles, for example that Revival is just round the corner; that God is imminently going to break out into our nation in mighty acts of power and salvation. I used to get all excited about this kind of thing, and go to prayer meetings where we fervently begged the Lord for revival.

Ostensibly of course this was for the sake of the lost (though I now hold a rather different theology about that). But I wonder if a lot of it wasn’t just the desire for the spectacular, and also the desire for us as Christians to be vindicated in the eyes of the world. I’m not saying revival can’t happen, but I no longer particularly look for it or even desire it.

I’m also highly sceptical about the latest Christian crazes, whether it’s the Toronto Blessing, the Prayer of Jabez or The Purpose-Driven Life ™. That’s not to say that all these things are inherently bad or wrong or of the devil (that too is superstitious thinking). But I no longer look to them to save the world, restore the fires of my flagging faith or magically bring my atheist friends to their knees. Christianity has got along reasonably well without any of these things for two millennia; no new fad or book – or even blog – is suddenly going to make all the difference we’ve been waiting for. Well, maybe this blog might… 😉

So I’d definitely always advocate a healthy dose of scepticism regarding miraculous signs, over-confident prophecies or promises, and latest Christian crazes (particularly any with ™ after the title).

Sceptical not cynical

I said last time that there’s a difference between innocent and gullible; that while Jesus was the ‘holy innocent’ he was in no way stupid. Similarly he advised his followers – us – to be innocent as doves, but at the same time wise as serpents. We don’t have to demonstrate our faith by attempting to believe six impossible things before breakfast like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty.

However, in avoiding gullibility we can all too easily fall into the opposite trap of complete cynicism, which I see as equally unattractive and unhelpful.

Cynicism (in the modern sense) is an attitude of near-refusal to trust or believe; a ‘won’t get fooled again’ position, often arising from a past let-down or betrayal. Cynicism requires a level of proof – proof of authenticity or sincerity – that simply isn’t possible in this world.

Cynicism’s default position is that most people are bad and untrustworthy, charlatans and swindlers; religious people as much as everyone else, if not more so. Religion is at best a delusion, at worst a con-trick. Anything claiming to have any element of the supernatural or divine is absolutely bound to be false, a hoax or worse.

This is the basic premise of Jonathan Creek, a programme I hugely enjoy. It’s essentially a grown-up, darkly comic version of Scooby-Doo, each episode based round a spooky and apparently supernatural mystery which under Jonathan’s rational scrutiny always turns out to have a perfectly natural and usually very human explanation. I enjoy the show’s ruthlessly sardonic debunking of silly superstition and supernatural spookery.

But of course, for Jonathan (or his scriptwriters), such irrational superstition also includes anything religious; any and every claim to the mystical or miraculous. And while in most cases I agree – as I do with much of the anti-religious sentiment in Dawkins’ The God Delusion – I can’t just write the whole thing off as complete bunk.

The trouble with the cynical ‘it’s all a big con’ position is well illustrated by C.S. Lewis in The Last Battle. The dwarves have been fooled once by the false Aslan (the counterfeit Christ); now they’ve seen through that trick they’re never going to let themselves fall for another. So when the real Aslan shows up, they refuse to accept him as genuine, no matter how much evidence is offered. As Aslan puts it, they’re so determined not to be ‘taken in’ that they can’t be ‘taken out’, out of themselves, out of the prison of distrust and unbelief they have constructed in their minds and hearts. So even when they’re offered genuinely good things from truly good motives, they can only smell a trap and a trick.

Cynicism then can become a kind of fundamentalism; or an anti-fundamentalism that becomes as set and rigid as that which it rejects. It closes down the argument and denies dialogue. It’s made up its mind and won’t be changed, even by the facts; won’t be fooled again.

Stage 3 and beyond

I’ve said before that this is largely a ‘Stage 3’ blog, according to M. Scott Peck’s faith-stages schema. In other words, it’s primarily for those who (like me) are going through a sceptical, critical, doubting and questioning phase. I think this is a very important, even vital phase in developing a mature and healthy faith. But it’s not the end of the journey, or it isn’t meant to be.

Unfortunately it’s as easy to get stuck at this stage as it is to get stuck in fundamentalism. I say this from my experience – we (I) can get into a rut of angrily reacting against former fundamentalism, bitterly critiquing and questioning and doubting everything without any intention of moving forward into something more positive. In so doing, we shut ourselves off to the real (albeit imperfect) good that is out there and available to us; to the glimpses (albeit partial) of truth and hope and reality that life offers us amidst the chaos.

So please let’s be healthily sceptical and not fall prey to foolish gullibility about miracle cures, divine signs and promises of revival. But at the same time let’s guard our hearts against an unhealthy, self-defeating cynicism. Despite the often compelling evidence to the contrary, let’s hope and trust that there is some goodness out there without ulterior motives; some truth and light to be found; some genuine love and compassion.

And above all let’s believe in the greatest miracle of all, the miracle of redemption, of transformation, of the possibility of meaningful change. That’s something I’d rather have than any amount of ‘magic’ healings and signs.

About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Scepticism and doubt, Stages of faith, The faith journey and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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