“IN WHAT other field of study would so many people reach so dismissive conclusions on the basis of so little know-edge as outsiders are comfortable with in disregarding Christian truth?” With this quotation from his Canadian compatriot the poet Margaret Avison, John Stackhouse begins this challenge to those who are minded to take Christianity seriously but hesitating before doing so.
His aim is to help enquirers to “understand more clearly what Christianity does and doesn’t claim, and what Christianity does and doesn’t offer”, so as to be “in a better position to decide whether you can, in fact, believe”.
He begins by exploring how we decide about anything that matters in our lives, including how we relate to religion. Like C. S. Lewis, he advocates embracing the most plausible hypothesis currently available to us, which, importantly, does not make assent dependent on absolute certainty. Religious commitment is essentially about faith, which, in its turn, entails trust in the plausibility of a particular religion.
This leads into a detailed account of Christianity based on how plausibly it responds to four key questions: What’s real? What’s best? What’s wrong? And what can be done? In spite of there being so many Christian denominations, he identifies in Christianity “a common core of doctrines and practices, a common array of rituals and morals, according to a common set of values”.
This bold claim is tested against the biblical drama of salvation culminating in Jesus as God incarnate and his cross as the key to life in all its fullness here and hereafter. This story, Stackhouse admits, is strange or even outlandish. So, why do billions of people believe it? His answer is unequivocal: it’s because of who Jesus was and is. So a key chapter is devoted to detailing historical, philosophical, ethical, and experiential grounds for believing in Jesus’s life, teaching, death, and resurrection.
Much remains mysterious, and hotly contested, but Stackhouse makes a case for Christianity as not only plausible, but as the most plausible among world-views currently on offer.
So, why not believe? The final chapter highlights the scandal of particularity and the problem of evil as potent obstacles to belief in Christianity. As a professor of religious studies, he is well-versed in mainstream world religions, and makes a cogent case for Christian uniqueness. But he acknowledges that neither Christianity nor any other religion or philosophy fully accounts for the prevalence of evil and suffering in the world. But he makes as good a case as any for Christianity as a faith capable of sustaining a plausible theodicy.
Overall, his perspective is conspicuously Protestant and theologically conservative, but suggestive rather than dogmatic. He avoids current controversies relating to sexuality, politics, and gender/racial equality, which is unfortunate, given how perceived religious beliefs and policies in relation to such issues significantly affect the ways in which Christianity today is weighed in the balance and is, or is not, found wanting.
Nevertheless, he does enough to challenge the lazy dismissiveness of, for example, the New Atheists. But, more importantly, he provides his putative seeker after truth with a cogent case for Christianity, and does so with such clarity, wit, and conviction as C. S. Lewis himself would surely admire and applaud.
The Rt Revd John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.
Can I Believe? Christianity for the hesitant
John G. Stackhouse, Jr
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