Formed to be skeptical
Our culture is awash in skepticism, and everyone is impacted and shaped by our skeptical culture. While this skepticism seems to be the default mode and natural way of functioning in our culture, it is important to note becoming skeptical happens through a formation process. This formation into becoming a skeptical person comes from numerous sources.
Broken trust: Almost everyone will experience broken trust in one of their relationships. Combine this with a steady stream of news about failed and abusive leaders, and it can be difficult to trust anyone.
Us-versus-them: As we continue to become more polarized in our culture, there is the oversimplification of seeing the world as us—the ones who are right and good—and them—those who are wrong and dangerous. Setting up this duality fosters a deep skepticism toward anyone who is “them.”
“Fake news”: The belief that there are those in power—primarily government and news organizations—who, at best, skew information to what they want people to hear and, at worst, are engaged in purposeful propaganda, is breeding skepticism.
As powerful as these three are in forming us to be skeptical, there is a fourth and more powerful source in how we are formed. This way is described by Dallas Willard in Hearing God when he writes: “We live in a culture that has, for centuries now, cultivated the idea that the skeptical person is always smarter than one who believes. You can be almost as stupid as cabbage, as long as you doubt.”
There is a powerful belief in our culture that skepticism is not only good, it also is the trait of someone smarter than a person who believes in God. For Willard, this cheerleading of skepticism has profoundly negative consequences, especially as it relates to God and prayer. Willard describes this consequence when he writes:
“Partly as a result of this social force toward skepticism, which remains very powerful even when we step into Christian congregations and colleges for ministers, very few people ever develop competence in their prayer life. This is chiefly because they are prepared to explain away as coincidences the answers that come to the prayers that they do make. Often they see this as a sign of how intelligent they are. … And in their pride they close off the entrance to a life of increasingly confident and powerful prayer.”
A different formation process
Skepticism provides a tension. On the one hand, there are many legitimate and needed reasons to be skeptical, especially as it relates to trust and abuse of authority. On the other hand, if skepticism becomes too powerful in our lives, our trust in God will erode.
What is needed, then, is a different formation process. More specifically, we need to be formed in a way that does not erode trust in God.
We need a different starting point of our formation. If we start with the ways our trust has been broken—an “us-versus-them” mentality, a “fake news” way of seeing the world or a belief that skeptical people are smarter than people who believe in God—then by the time we start learning to trust in God, skepticism already reigns supreme.
A different and desperately needed starting point is a relationship with God nourished in ways fostering trust in him. These will include ongoing times in the Bible, developing a vibrant prayer life, learning to walk with God during difficult times, stepping out in faith in ways where only God can provide, among others.
Fostering trust in God
When we begin with nurturing a trust in God in our daily lives, our skepticism will be tempered and rightly-ordered by our relationship with God.
A great example of this is Psalm 146:3: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save.” Because of his devotion to God, the psalmist realized we must have a certain skepticism of what people actually can do. His ultimate trust is in God. Because he learned to trust God, he can have a healthy skepticism in areas of life where a certain amount of skepticism is warranted.
If the psalmist started by trying to infer something about God by looking at how those in power sometimes abuse and undermine trust, he would have had a much more skeptical concept of God.
The right kind of skepticism
We do not need to get rid of skepticism. There are numerous, legitimate reasons why it is good to be skeptical, especially as it relates to abuse, broken trust and misuse of power. Nevertheless, if we are not careful and intentional about how we are being formed, then our skepticism can undermine our trust in God.
We need a new vision for our formation in the midst of a skeptical culture. In one direction, we need a God-originated, God-centered, God-ordered formation process leading to Christians confident and trusting of what God can do in their lives. In the other direction, we need formation leading to people who are skeptical in ways actually needed and that are life-giving and healthy for our lives and culture.
Ross Shelton is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Brenham. The views expressed are those solely of the author.