Monday, December 12, 2011

Book Snap: David Sanford's "If God Disappears"

From the December 2008 E-Block.


I'll have to admit from the start that this book by David Sanford was not what I expected it to be. The subtitle is 9 Faith Wreckers and What To Do About Them, and promotional blurbs referred to a figure of 31 million people who have left church in the past several years. I was therefore expecting at least some part of the book to deal in issues of those who have professed to apostasize because of unanswered questions that would be addressed by apologetics.

But that's not at all what's in here. All of Sanford's nine "faith wreckers" have to do with emotional, social, or personal reasons why people leave institutional church (but not necessarily Christianity, though some examples are offered of people doing that too). To that extent, If God Disappears was a disappointment, albeit not one that can be faulted to the book itself, but rather to my own misplaced expectations for it.

Still and all, I decided it would be worthy of a review -- why? Because Sanford does fall into a nebulously problematic category; his solutions for these nine faith wreckers are a mixed bag that may in some cases work, but in other cases merely cover over or exacerbate the very problems Sanford is trying to solve. My contention over the years, and that of many apologists, is that faith based on fact will not be wrecked as readily (and certainly not rationally). Much to my disappointment, Sanford shows no awareness of this. We would not know that Apostolic sermons appealed to the historical fact of the empty tomb, for example, as a reason for people to become Christians.

Please note that I am not saying that our response to someone who, as in Faith Wrecker #1, has lost faith due to evil or suffering, should be to remind them of the empty tomb. Comfort, fellowship and prayer is the proper response to someone whose spouse has tragically died, or whose friend has fallen terminally ill. I am saying rather that the fact-basis for faith should have been laid much earlier, so that when crisis does occur, those in pain will have something more tangible to fall back on. Thus one of my issues with Sanford's book is that his solutions are reactive rather than proactive, though arguably, he is not thereby saying that he would disapprove of proactive solutions. The point more is that it is unfortunate that we need Sanford's fire extinguishers when we could have prevented many of the fires in the first place.

With that, here is a summation regarding Sanford's nine "faith wreckers" and his responses.

  1. Experiencing evil and suffering. Aside from my point just above, Sanford does make a good point: Those who fall victim to this difficulty often confuse feelings with reality, and event with fate. [8] The former makes an excellent point about the transient nature of feelings associated with evil and suffering, and can only emphasize the point that with a foundation of fact, "reality" becomes much easier to use as a control over feeling. The latter is an advice against sealing one's destiny over a single event.

    Sanford's solution is understandable: Comfort the afflicted by sharing in their sorrow. As the Body of Christ, this is indeed our solemn duty, to bear one another's burdens. But as an apologist who has seen plenty of wrecked faith, I would have liked to have seen Sanford say more about factual basis for faith. He does speak of not letting faith be overshadowed, and sticking by what one knows to be true [15], but the epistemic basis for this knowledge is inadequate: God reputedly "speaking" to him through Scripture (a claim that is just as equitably made by anyone else, as in my favorite example of the Mormon with a "burning in the bosom"). There will be more specific epistemological difficulties in other entries.

  2. Living recklessly as a rugged individualist. Sanford's solution here is non-controversial and spot on: Humility, trust, and submission. Without these, doing your own thing can get you in trouble, and in turn, wreck faith. Indeed, he might have added a bit more about the importance of this with respect to the nature of the Biblical world (see here).
  3. Making your own rules. Arguably, this is not much different from the last step; though Sanford makes a slight differentiation in that the solution here is making decisions based on truth. We thus do see again a proper focus on reality vs. feeling, though nothing in the way of epistemology.
  4. Believing that anger is justified when my vision of God is clouded. It is here that I ran into some issues with Sanford. He has apparently aided emergent teacher Brian McLaren in being published, and as I have written elsewhere, in multiple reviews of McLaren's books, McLaren's approach to Christianity is one of disturbing compromise and disregard for fact. Here as well, Sanford's solution has the uneasy appearance of something much like Joel Osteen's easy explanations by disconfirmation. Sanford avers, for example, that one purpose of suffering is that, "Only when God disappears can we fully enter into His terrible sufferings." [60] Unfortunately, this is based on an interpretation of Jesus' dying words on the cross that, while popular, is not entirely accurate; Jesus' quotation of Ps. 22 was not meant to express that he had been abandoned by God, but that despite that appearance, he would be vindicated; see here. Logically, it is also questionable whether a direct link can be made between God "disappearing" and us "entering into His sufferings." Perhaps this is an emotionally satisfying answer, but intellectually, logically, factually, and theologically -- it is not. Thus as well Sanford's answer to "experience God's love and grace," while well-intentioned, is a solution that merely bandages the problem rather than solving it, by making something subjective and experiential into an answer. Mormons, too, can say they "experience" love and grace from God! (Sanford is also not aided by the fact that he defines "love" in terms of a sentiment rather than a practice -- see here -- and does likewise with grace.)
  5. Neglecting my time with God and failing to see Him in my life. The same problem emerges here as Sanford is once again speaking of "feeling God's presence" and of people finding faith through things like the birth of a child. While we may be thankful for any person who comes to faith (versus 99 who do not), such things will again not provide a sufficient epistemic grounding for retaining faith in crisis. Some will survive such a crisis by sheer determination. Others will not. Sanford's solution, to "reclaim God's promises even if I have to wait" again sounds uncomfortably like Osteen's non-disconfirmable directives.

    None of this is to deny that indeed, God may have specific times and places for everything. But using this as an all-purpose response to any disappointment, apart from corollary evidence, will inevitably reduce its force and persuasiveness as an explanation.

  6. Studying God without heart devotion. This was perhaps Sanford's most disturbing chapter. Sanford professes to wish to be a "facilitator" rather than an "answer man" -- such that he tells people to ask God to "show them the truth about their questions and the assumptions behind them." In this area, Sanford places himself in the problematic category of the emergent movement, which seeks not to answer questions, but to distract us from them. In the final analysis, this will not do as a tactic with earnest seekers, who will rightly see this as a diversion -- and it is disturbing as well that Sanford's advice sounds as comfortable in the mouth of someone like a Mormon. How is "ask God to show you" here any different in practice and epistemic worth than a prayer asking God to reveal to you whether the Book of Mormon is true?

    Sanford's reasoning for his practice in this regard is also difficult to countenance. He is concerned that like a "university professor, we can make faith and spirituality much too complicated or cumbersome and much too negative or boring for the next generation." [89] What is this? Is not the essence of discipleship to learn, so that we may eat meat and not milk -- just as well to say, move from simple to complex? Is "I'm bored" now a valid reason for compromise? Boredom is a modern, individualist phenomenon, and not one that Jesus or the Apostles or any of their contemporaries, or anyone up until the era of leisure, would have been concerned with. Sanford errs in suggesting that we ought to bow to boredom.

    I am, finally, disappointed that Sanford did not relate how he answered his daughter's questions, "How do we know Christianity is true? How do we know one of the other religions isn't true?" I would have liked to have heard his answer myself, but he only relates to us that they "began a dialogue" that helped his daughter "make faith in Jesus Christ her own." It speaks for itself that Sanford goes on to say that "searching for new answers intellectually" apart from "an authentic desire to know God" can be "disastrous." This is true to the extent that seeking which is not earnest will inevitably result in a biased result, but at the same time, Sanford's advice is insufficiently nuanced, such that it comes out as encouraging an uncritical, a priori commitment that in the long term will not provide a solid grounding for faith.

    It also does not seem that Sanford is aware of how critical this situation is. His example of how "study can actually damage our faith" [91] relates to a case of the "study of numbers" of which the operative question is, why the numbers 43 and 44 do not appear in Scripture! Sanford refers to such issues as things God does not care about -- and in that particular, he is right -- but would he encourage the same answer to someone with real objections about, for example, the existence of Jesus? Or would he brush that off as not needing an answer, but a case of someone needing to ask God to reveal the truth to them, about that and about themselves?

    In the end, it is not "studying God without heart devotion" that is the faith wrecker, but either "studying God and making snap decisions based on it" or just plain "being without heart devotion" (essentially, disbelief). Sanford's connection between the two is unfortunate. (Thankfully, his advice is qualified by an excellent point that "lack of understanding is not a valid reason for unbelief or disbelief" -- essentially, as I have said, snap decisions based on inadequate study are not sufficient to decide on matters of truth.)

  7. Experiencing the most crushing circumstances in life. This, too, is arguably a variation on a prior listing, although here Sanford addresses the issue from the aspect that God nowhere guarantees a trouble-free life. Unfortunately, his answer -- "God works behind the scenes" -- suffers from the same limitations we discussed in Issue #1 regarding Joel Osteen's seeing God aiding in things like finding parking spaces.
  8. Doing as we please. Much like listing two above, Sanford essentially refers to self-inflicted grief that results in wrecked faith. (The analogy he uses is refusing to wear a seat belt.) He also makes an excellent analogy concerning the proper timing of Jesus' incarnation: The social conditions (such as the availability of Koine Greek as a lingua franca) were just right for Jesus to come just at that time. This is the closest Sanford comes to providing an answer relevant and satisfactory to an apologist.
  9. Being wounded in or by the church. The "faith wrecker" here is an intelligible one; Sanford's solution is an acceptable one, that we should respond, essentially, by living as examples of Christ.

So, in summary: If God Disappears is a mixed bag of helpful advice and difficult pills to swallow. I can say that it is likely the best that can be offered under the premise of a faith that is not based in fact; and thus, while it may bandage small wounds in the short term, it will not be up to the challenge of curing the cancer of widespread disaffection with Christianity that is coming down upon us.


  1. You said, "My contention over the years, and that of many apologists, is that faith based on fact will not be wrecked as readily (and certainly not rationally)."

    I don't dispute that but my contention is that many evangelicals have faith in the church and not in Christ. Therefore, when the church disappoints them, as it eventually will, some react by rejecting the previous object of their faith. But they haven't rejected Christ because they never truly accepted Him - or, if they did, it was only momentary. I think your contention is also true, but that it is subordinate to this one. That is, our faith should be in Christ alone, and we should base that faith on facts.

  2. I can go along with that -- though as a hardcore introvert I probably would never think of it myself.

  3. JPH, a query regarding #4: Have you read Richard Bauckham's essay on the cry of dereliction in the Gospel of Mark? (It appears as the last chapter of his Jesus and the God of Israel.) His approach there, which is by no means unscholarly, appears to align more with what you relate of Sanford's use than it does with your own conclusions based on earlier scholarship.

  4. @JB: I have not seen that, no. But I'd find it hard to see how one would get around it once the whole of Ps 22 is considered -- or make it more than a temporary abandonment. Can you sum up Bauckham's case or should I read it all?

  5. @JPH - My notes on Bauckham's book have been sent to your e-mail.