InTouch Magazine: A Conversation with Joseph Loconte
Originally published in InTouch Magazine.
Somewhere in a church basement on a weekday night, a group of Christians will meet under fluorescent lights. They’ll drink coffee, eat pound cake, and talk about their neighbors, co-workers, family members, and the parents of their children’s friends. They’ll go through books and handouts, discuss passages of Scripture, and share tips and strategies. At the end of the night, they’ll pray to God that He would equip them to reach the “lost”—those people who don’t believe in Jesus Christ—with the New Testament’s good news.
Over the last several decades, thousands of Christians have met together under similar circumstances, with hopes of fulfilling the charge to “go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matt. 28:19). Yet despite the efforts to devise effective methods, they will increasingly meet an audience who doesn’t want to listen.
Recent studies have shown that a growing number of American adults no longer claim any religion. A large percentage are not seeking faith; but for some, spirituality remains an open question. They’re looking for answers—for a compelling reason to believe.
Cameron Lawrence interviewed Joseph Loconte, author of The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt, about how Christians can do a better job reaching out.
Cameron Lawrence: If spiritual searchers are feeling turned off by churches and maybe, in some cases, by Christians themselves, what are we missing?
Joseph Loconte: Sometimes we overwhelm searchers with intellectual arguments, with evidence, for the faith. If we’re concerned about responding to searchers, we give them a book of apologetics and expect that to be utterly persuasive. But it doesn’t happen that way.
I want to be the first one to say that God has given us a mind. He wants us to think. But much of the Christian community has so overemphasized and obsessed over rational arguments that they lost sight of other vital parts of human personality—storytelling, appealing to people’s moral imagination and their deepest hopes and longings.
There’s a reason that one of Jesus’ favorite teaching tools is the parable—life as story. That ought to tell us something. And yet for some bizarre reason, our apologetics and evangelism do not reflect that fact about the life of Jesus and about human personality.
There are issues that searchers are struggling with. They’re struggling with great questions of doubt and grief and disillusionment in life. I’ve felt for a long time that our answers to those questions have simply been inadequate: too pat, too rationalistic, not humane, not personal, not—at some level—deeply biblical.
CL: It seems that some Christians tend to live within a tightly prescribed, narrow framework for life with God—often self-imposed, which is to say it’s even more rigid and limited than Scripture itself suggests it should be. That tendency appears to be motivated by the fear of doing or believing something wrong, and the result is that some Christians tend to isolate themselves from people who think or live differently.
JL: It’s a risky thing to walk in the valley of doubt with people. It’s costly. And you have to have a theology of grief to be able to do it. Part of what that means is, you have to be willing to say, “I don’t have complete, fully satisfying answers to some of these great, difficult questions.”
We don’t get those full and final answers on this side of eternity. And there’s a level of discomfort Christians have with simply acknowledging that our answers to the problems of grief, struggle, and suffering are only partial answers. There’s going to be an element of uncertainty, of not knowing, and we’re going to have to live with that. We’re going to have to live with mystery.
For various historical reasons, there are certain parts of the Christian world that want to eliminate all doubt. And I just think that’s not real life—and not deeply biblical. There are just things we do not understand.
CL: The irony is that, by trying to systemize and define everything, we don’t make faith stronger. It actually becomes weaker.
JL: Radically weaker. We know deep down in our hearts that these systems, dogmas, and theologies don’t really provide fully satisfying answers or the kind of sustained contentment and peace we’re told we should have. And so we know there’s a gap between these things and our personal reality. That’s what creates real doubts.
“We don’t get those full and final answers on this side of eternity. And there’s a level of discomfort Christians have with simply acknowledging that our answers to the problems of grief, struggle, and suffering are only partial answers. There’s going to be an element of uncertainty, of not knowing, and we’re going to have to live with that. We’re going to have to live with mystery.”
— Joseph Loconte
CL: Some attempts to systemize and come up with definitive answers on all things theological seem to be a response to more liberal thinking in the contemporary Christian landscape, which sees truth as relative, less fixed. The systematizing and defining really come from a desire to protect the faith.
JL: There has been a tendency in some strains of the church that would say the search is all that matters; where you arrive doesn’t really matter—it’s the searching that counts. Now, that’s like going up to the Amtrak counter and saying, “It doesn’t matter where to; just sell me a ticket.” That’s intellectual nonsense.
The search is not all that matters. The destination, and our response to what we find, is what matters. But, if we do believe the doctrine of the fall, then we have to recognize that our knowledge of God—and of His ways in this world and in our lives—is only partial. We don’t know Him as well as we think we do. We only know Him through a glass darkly. And there’s something about the deeprootedness of sin and the fallenness of this world that keeps us from knowing in the way our hearts long to know.
CL: We Christians sometimes have an us-and-them mindset with regard to people who are searching. The darker side of that mindset is pride about our belief—somehow thinking that it makes us better than those who believe differently. But if mystery is inescapable for everyone, there’s a much more level playing field between “us and them” than we may realize.
JL: We talk as if a person comes to a place of belief, and then all his questions are answered and there are never any doubts. But that’s how people come to talk in a very triumphalist way—quite often, publicly. I think that’s a huge mistake. It’s untrue to Scripture, untrue to human life. And it doesn’t draw people to the faith. At the end of the day, it probably repels them.
So, we’ve got to be honest with ourselves and learn to live with doubt, but hold on to the things that we have become convinced of, as Paul writes.
CL: What practical advice would you give to someone wanting to do a better job responding to searchers?
JL: One thing we can do is start to develop a heart that identifies and empathizes with the searcher—trying to understand what it’s like to walk in his or her shoes instead of standing in judgment and standing apart. We’ll get to the doctrine of sin and the fall. We have to get there if we’re going to share our faith. But we don’t have to start there.
When you look at my book The Searchers, you’ll see I’m building up to the bad news of the gospel. But I don’t start with the bad news. I start with a story from the film The Italian: a little boy is separated from his mother, desperately trying to find her. I wanted to connect with people’s need to be home—to be connected, to belong and be loved—and then begin to show how the Christian story speaks to that need.
If we can start thinking in those terms—identifying with the seeker in some universal aspect of human life or human personality, empathizing with it, and then showing how the Christian story speaks to it—that would help us immensely in our witness.
CL: And do so in a way that doesn’t feel like a sales pitch—to genuinely connect, human to human.
JL: Yeah. I think the beauty of this approach is that there’s no formula. It means you have to get to know people. You have to listen. What’s stirring them? What’s stirring their imaginations? It may be something very positive and not an area of great struggle. Meet them at that level as best you can, and begin to point them toward a Christian perspective regarding that dimension of their lives. That, to me, is the way to begin.
CL: What advice would you give to someone who is searching?
JL: You have to be open to the possibility that truth exists—truth about life, the universe, God—and that it’s knowable. If you’re not open to that, that there are realities you can grasp, then there’s no search.
Another aspect of that, of course, is deciding in advance—as best you can—what you’ll do with that knowledge once you achieve it. Here’s where the intellect really does play a part. Will you be intellectually honest as you’re encountering aspects of truth along the way and continue on the search? Or will you find the truth inconvenient and dispense with it?
If you haven’t at some level determined to hold on to what you’ve learned and become convinced of, then the outcome will be predetermined. You won’t really be searching. You’ll be going through the motions of a search, but you won’t find what you’re looking for.
Joseph Loconte is professor of history at The King’s College in New York City. He’s also the author of The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt.