Laura Martin, over at her excellent blog Enough Light, posted today about being cautious with apologetics. She quotes Austin Farrer:
Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish. –Austin Farrer, writing on CS Lewis
This brought a memory to my mind of a time in my life when this principle proved true. It’s a bit of a painful one, as many of the ones from my college days are, but I think it might be worth sharing here.
(Trigger warning, though. Don’t read if you’re vulnerable. I’m going to write this as honestly as I can, and that means talking about eating disorders and depression.)
All throughout my elementary and high school years, I went to Christian schools. There was a great deal of emphasis on apologetics. My mother was very “into” apologetics as well, so I was surrounded (almost overwhelmed) by rational arguments for the Christian faith. This was heightened at the Christian college I attended my freshman and sophomore years. We analyzed worldviews, critiqued pop culture movies and music and books, and generally filled our minds with this simple equation:
Christianity = right, Everything else = wrong.
No ifs, ands, or buts; we had the rational arguments on our side.
At the same time, though, my moods were darkening. I had wrestled with a nameless beast of darkness for years until stumbling on its true name, depression. Even then, I didn’t realize the full extent of what was happening. (It took years before anyone diagnosed my bipolar disorder.) All I knew was that this horrible depression had covered me and I was powerless.
I sat in Biblical worldview class, listening to students debate the origins of the universe, and fantasized about cutting myself.
I sat in French lab, listening to unintelligible French babble, and scribbled hate mail to myself in the margins of my notes.
I looked in my medicine cabinet and wondered if someone could overdose on Tylenol.
I hid my binges and purges and darkness and mental chaos from everyone as best as I could.
And all the while, I wondered if Christianity was really real.
After all, if God loved me, then why the pain? And if Christians were supposed to have the corner on the truth and be love and all that, then why were the Christians surrounding me so awful? Not all the time, of course. But why all the gossip? Backstabbing? Pettiness? Hypocrisy? Why had my childhood church split? If Jesus came and made us all equal, then why was there a double standard of behavior for men and women in this subculture? Why didn’t I feel the joy that everyone else claimed that they felt?
What if—I swallowed back fear—what if this whole Christianity-thing wasn’t true? What if it was a big game that everyone else was playing? What if God wasn’t real at all?
I didn’t dare tell anyone.
Looking back, I’m certain there were people I could’ve told. (Two particular professors come to mind.) But I didn’t. My fears were overwhelming, my depression was crippling, and, worse, I felt things come into my head. They weren’t voices. Not audible ones, at least. But I seemed to feel them in my head, taking over and leaving little room for rational thought.
One day my sophomore year, the pain felt especially intolerable. I was anorexic, bulimic, and hearing voices whispering, jump out the window. I lived on the fourth floor of the dorm; below was pavement. Jump . . .
I had a choice. Kill myself or live. (Like Hamlet, soliloquizing to be or not to be, minus the poetic brilliance and a ghost for a father.) Death looked preferable to life. I wasn’t trying to play God, I only wanted the pain to end. But what would happen afterwards?
I reasoned like this: If there’s a god, then there’s a heaven. If there’s a heaven, then there’s a hell.
At that time, I believed that everyone died by their own hand went to hell. (I don’t believe that anymore. I’ve wrestled with that issue too, and John Piper was a big help in forming my current thoughts.) I didn’t want to go to hell. Obviously, that would not improve matters.
But—here came that fear again—if there wasn’t a god, then there was no heaven. And if there’s no heaven, then there’s no hell. I wouldn’t go anywhere. I would cease to exist. I could kill myself, no worries about hellfires or consequences.
I had to figure out if there was a god.
(I didn’t care if he was good or evil or indifferent. I just needed to know if he existed.)
I sat around all day, writing in my journal and arguing with myself. Keep in mind that I was a born again Christian; I had belief, but I didn’t feel anything but pain. I certainly didn’t feel joy or certainty about my beliefs. So I wrote and argued, argued and wrote.
In the darkened auditorium before chapel.
In the corners of the library between classes.
In empty classrooms while everyone was at lunch.
In my dorm room when my roommate was socializing after dinner.
I thought I was searching for a reason not to believe, to prove that this god-person wasn’t there. Really, though, I was searching for some reason to believe and live, even when I believed that I didn’t want to live.
All the apologetics I’d ever read or discussed or reasoned through crowded in my confused mind. Those arguments were there, acting like pesky mosquitoes, sucking the blood from my arguments against the existence of God.
Were they solid philosophical arguments? No.
Would my reasoning have stood up to any and every assault against them? No.
Would C.S. Lewis & Co. have been proud of them? No. (Though Lewis would have sympathy and compassion for me, I think.)
They were immature, shaky, tangled-up messes in the dark mind of a half-starved, desperate, mentally ill girl. But they were enough to keep me alive that day.
Years later, I sat in a women’s Bible study and had several women argue with me that “apologetics never saved anyone.” True, in the sense that they meant it; apologetics has no power to grant salvation to anyone.
But reasoning can bolster the faith of those whose faith needs bolstering. That day, God used it to save my life.