By Jack Holloway
As a theology student, I often struggle with how to explain theological and biblical concepts to my friends who aren’t accustomed to care about such things. When people ask me “Why do you believe in God?” or “Why are you a Christian?” or even “What are you studying?” I am often at a loss for words, because it’s not apparent how to explain it in secular terms.
The God I believe in is not merely the thing that connects all humans and makes us more than fleshy bags of bones, nor do I believe God is merely goodness and the hope of justice, nor do I believe God is merely the “ground of being” or the transcendent mystery beyond my being. I believe in God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I believe in the gospel, in the revelation of Jesus Christ, in the teachings of Paul, etc.
What leads me to believe such outlandish things? On what grounds do I believe? What is the logic behind my belief? I find these questions difficult to answer, not because I’ve never considered them and I operate with a naïve, uncritical faith, but because faith involves a completely different frame of reference from the one which operates on reason, demanding grounds for conclusions, logic for getting to them, and evidence for backing them up.
Many Christians try to make faith a matter of reason anyway. Apologists adopt the methodology of science and try to make the case that belief in the gospel is reasonable on that basis. Frankly, I find this pursuit totally futile. It ranges from presumptuous, to outright embarrassing, and is mostly uncompelling.
Other Christians go the route of those like Friedrich Schleiermacher, Paul Tillich, and, more recently, Rob Bell. Such theologians try to connect belief in God to a universal human experience. They seek to associate God with something people already find compelling, and so attempt to draw them into faith through something they already hold dear.
But this also has its limits, because then human experience becomes the litmus test for belief, and whatever people are uncomfortable with in the Christian faith just gets tossed. The only essential things are those which resonate with me personally; everything else is optional. And so, you get a compromised faith, a human-centered faith, which isn’t faith in the God of the gospel at all.
So how do we explain our faith in a secular age? Well, as Don Draper says in Mad Men, if you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.
A good example of “changing the conversation” in favor of faith can be found in the example of black Christian faith.
Chance the Rapper, to pick one exemplar, raps about “the King of all Kings,” about stepping on the devil’s neck, giving Satan a “swirlie,” and treating demons “just like Pam.” He says, “I don’t believe in kings, I believe in the Kingdom,” “I don’t believe in science, I believe in signs,” and he’s “gon’ praise Him ’til I’m gone.” He raps about going to heaven, prayer, Bible stories, and the Christian references go on and on. When he received his Grammy, he said again and again, “Glory be to God!”
Songs like “How Great,” “Blessings,” and Kanye West’s masterpiece “Ultralight Beam” collapse the distinction between gospel music and hip-hop.
Chance even led what was essentially a five-minute worship service on Saturday Night Live, and a truly majestic and powerful one at that.
At no point does it seem to occur to Chance that it’s problematic to believe in the gospel. Heaven, Satan, demons, prayer, blessings—none of these concepts are awkward to him. At no point is he embarrassed by referencing them. At no point does he try to justify his faith by appealing to the merits of Christianity, or going through some intellectual Tai Chi.
He believes, boldly, joyfully, and unabashedly. It is obvious that the gospel is good news for Chance, and not an intellectual embarrassment.
I think this boldness comes from the general boldness of black faith. Black liberation theologian James Cone begins a chapter on “God in Black Theology” with the clear statement: “The reality of God is presupposed in black theology.”
This is because black theology is unfazed by Enlightenment rationalism and modern criteria for belief. Cone quotes Malcolm X who said, “Don’t let anybody who is oppressing us ever lay the ground rules,” and also, “What is logical to the oppressor isn’t logical to the oppressed.” A white, affluent society may agree that beliefs must be established on A-B-C, with X-Y-Z justification, but that should in no way obligate blacks to comply. On the contrary, blacks defy a racist society by refusing their criteria for belief.
And so, Cone doesn’t have a chapter on the basis for believing in God. Instead, he says up front, “I presuppose the reality of God.”
Cone thus gives us an example of what courageous theology looks like. White theologians tend to get too bogged down by philosophical questions. They tend to be preoccupied by modern questions and modern doubts. Cone demeans such concerns, because the Enlightenment was a white enterprise that reinforced black oppression. Black theologians are not intimidated by modern philosophy. They don’t feel obliged to defend themselves to it the way white theologians often do.
But it is precisely indifference to modern philosophy which, I think, enables one to be a bold Christian. Cone is not embarrassed by faith, by God-talk, or by the Bible. Nor is Chance the Rapper, or Kendrick Lamar, or D’Angelo. And nor should I be.
So how do we speak of Christianity’s “outdated,” “outlandish” beliefs in a secular age? Maybe we just boldly and joyfully proclaim them as we believe them!
Why do I believe in the gospel? Because there is a promise laid out in the Bible that God’s goodness has had victory over the evil and injustice of the world, and the church today keeps this promise alive through the proclamation of the hope of its future fulfilment, and I have found myself called to believe in that promise, to witness to it, and to live by it. That is why I believe.
On what grounds? With what evidence? With what logic?
I cannot explain it in such terms. I was not the one who made the promise, or who called me to believe. This power lies with God. I can only respond positively to God and be a faithful witness.
It is this kind of bold faith that has power. Black faith teaches us that only by demonstrating our passion and joy for the good news can we be compelling witnesses to the reality of God in a godless age.
Jack Holloway studies Karl Barth and Marxist Theory at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He is the Secretary-treasurer of the International Society for Heresy Studies, and he holds a B.A. in biblical and theological studies from Regent University. Jack is also a musician, an avid beer-drinker, an amateur baker, and a lover of film.
The quotes from James Cone and Malcolm X come from James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 40th anniversary ed. (New York: Orbis Books, 2010), pp.58, xvii, and xix.