The Way Home: Faith for the 21st Century – Lecture One: Requirements for a 21st Century Faith


Worldwide confusion

Last October, I was on the train from Boston, where I had attended a conference, back to my home in Virginia. Sitting next to me was a young man from Taiwan. A graduate from National Taiwan University, he was now working on a Master’s Degree in Landscape Architecture at Harvard University. He had long hair and looked very much like an artist. He was very intelligent, and could tell me the names of all the different kinds of trees whose leaves were changing that we saw from the window of the train.

As soon as we took our seats, I began to seek ways of talking with him about Christianity. I told him I had just come from a conference on taking the Gospel to China; that my wife and I had lived in Taiwan almost ten years as missionaries; that I did research on Christianity and Chinese culture. I was hoping he would ask me questions, but he didn’t. He just was not interested. After a while, he went to sleep.

When he woke up, I tried a different approach. I asked, “What do young people in Taiwan believe in nowadays?”

“My friends mostly don’t believe in anything,” he replied. “Those who do have faith are Buddhists; a few are Protestant Christians.”

“Do you have any religious faith,” I asked him.

“I am a Catholic. But I don’t go to church.”

After a long silence, he said, to me, “Actually, all the young people I know are confused and lost. We really don’t know the meaning of life or how we should live.”

We then had a very good conversation about the Christian faith.

In January, on my way to a conference with Chinese biblical scholars in London, I sat next to a young American man who attends university in England in order to be with his girlfriend, who is also a student at that university. She is from Poland, and they had met in the United States. We talked about all sorts of things, and then I asked him the same question, “What are your friends living for?”

He looked at me a long time, seeming to be quite confused, and said, “That’s a good question. I don’t really know.” It was clear to me that he also had no idea of the purpose of his own life, other than to be with his girlfriend.

The conference I attended in London was quite interesting. About fifteen scholars from universities in Mainland China were gathered to talk about how Chinese intellectuals have responded to the Bible over the past 100 years. I learned that some of China’s most outstanding writers and thinkers have been deeply influenced by the story of Jesus, even if they themselves do not believe in him. Several of the scholars at the meeting were not Christians, but they were doing research on the Bible in order to find meaning for their lives and for all of China. They all said that China faces a crisis of faith and meaning, and that many educated people are turning to Christ for the answers.

The need for faith (xinyang)

Surely, there is a worldwide crisis of faith as we begin the 21st century. Today we are going to think about what sort of faith can give our lives direction, meaning, and hope.

First, let us ask, What is faith? The Bible says that it is the “Conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1). We believe in something that we cannot see.

Of course, a really solid faith must be based on some reasons: There must be evidence to support our belief; it must possess some reason & logic; it must somehow agree with our deepest intuition; and it must agree with our personal experience.

Christian faith is not “blind” faith. We are not asking anyone to believe in something that has no evidence to support it; is unreasonable; contradicts our fundamental sense of truth; or completely denies our daily experience.

Why do we need faith?

In the 20th century, many people began to think that we do not need faith. Science, they thought, had disproved the existence of the Christian God, and of course the popular religion was only superstition. But now we see that people all over the world are turning to religion to solve the basic problems of life. Buddhism and traditional Chinese religions are growing in China, as is Christianity.

That is because we cannot operate solely by what we see, including science. Many things just don’t present us with proof ahead of time. When I made reservations for my flight to Taiwan, I had to trust the airline company to let me on the plane at the agreed time and place. As the plane took off, I had to believe that it would land safely. There was no proof ahead of time! Likewise, when a young man asks a woman to marry him, he does not know whether she will say, “Yes!” Nor does he know whether their marriage will be a happy one. Science cannot explain what love is, much less give us the love we want.

We cannot operate solely on what we think, either.

Some things are hard to understand. Love, for example. Who can figure out why two people fall in love? What man can understand a woman when she is upset? What is beauty? Why do I respond to a lovely sunset, a moving piece of music, the gracefulness of a Chinese porcelain vase, or the painting of birds and flowers?

Nor can we operate solely on what we feel.

Feelings are unreliable, as we all know. You may think that the young man who smiles at you really loves you, until you see him with another girl! You may believe that your father or mother or wife is angry with you, but perhaps he/she is just having a bad day.

Another problem with feelings is that different people feel differently about the same thing. For a long time, Westerners believed their culture was superior, but Chinese thought that theirs was better! Muslims feel that Mohammed is the only true prophet, but Buddhists and Hindus disagree. Who is right?

Furthermore, we must live on the basis of some things which we believe to be true. For example, almost everyone assumes that life has meaning; that actions have consequences; that there is a difference between right and wrong; and that people are important – at least I am important! Faith of some sort is necessary just to face each day.

Even atheism is a “faith.” Those who don’t believe in the existence of God believe that there is no God! They cannot prove this conviction. What laboratory experiment has demonstrated that God does not exist? As we shall see later, Darwinism, which claims to explain the world without God, has very serious difficulties as a scientific theory.

Furthermore, in the 21st century, faith is needed to give purpose for life and to provide power for living every day. We face unprecedented challenges. For example, the ecological crisis threatens us with disease, lack of resources, and even conflict. We are all affected by the financial crisis, which has, like the damage to the environment, resulted from greed and from governmental foolishness and corruption. Many places of the world are facing political crisis. Mainland China, for example, is run by a government that admits that corruption has made the people very angry. I do not need to tell you of all the international crises that cause war, suffering, poverty, death, and fear around the world.

At least some of the time, we all face personal crises. We are almost all too busy, with little time for deep and loving relationships; for rest and exercise; for seeking God. All sorts of fears rob us of inner peace, and different passions drive us to do things that are not good for us or for those around us. Some of this is caused by broken families, as marriage fall apart under the strain. This only makes our personal life more painful.

Even those who are relatively happy face difficult choices at home and at work. Constant change in our lives and in society produce confusion and a sense of instability. We seem to be floating on a wide and stormy sea in a very little boat, with no sail or rudder.

A faith for the 21st century

In this situation, a faith for the 21st century must fulfill at least four conditions:

1. Show us how to live: Ethics

First, it must show us how to live. A faith worthy of our full confidence must give guidance for handling stress; making decisions; family life; and wisdom for daily living. It must give show us how to live together in society: It must provide a philosophy for government, economics, education, health, and care for the environment. It must promote both freedom and order in the home, in society, and in the world. Such a faith must affirm each individual without promoting disharmony. In today’s globalization, it must be able to bring all peoples together: Therefore, it must affirm the unity of the human race while recognizing our individual and cultural differences.

If you are interested in how Christianity has affected American society, you may see Hope Deferred: Studies in Christianity and American society. The Switzerland of the New Testament shows how the faith of the Bible applies to all of life also.

2. Be true: Epistemology

Second, a faith for the 21st century must be true. How can we believe something that is false? That is not faith, but foolishness!

Our faith system must be true to experience. This world view must be in accord with the findings of science; it cannot be mere superstition. At the same time, it must recognize the value of tradition and yet be open to new insights and to change.

Now that this world is one small village, and we are aware of different cultures and value systems, a 21st century faith must be universal; that is, is must be true for all peoples. While transcending any particular culture, it must be able to explain and affirm the good in each one. For example, we need some view of life that acknowledges and retains what is good both in Chinese culture and in Western culture, while enabling us to see and to reject what is not healthy in each of those. For example, see my book, Confucius and Jesus, which compares and contrasts these two great men.

A valid faith must be essentially simple at the core but sufficiently complex to relate to all aspects of life and thought. That is, the basic ideas must be few and clear, but those principles should apply to the various problems we face and the many activities in which we engage each day.

For example, a valid faith must solve the physical problem of the relationship of the one to the many; the social problem of the relationship of the individual to the group; and the family problem of the relationship of husband and wife.

If our faith is going to be convincing, it must be logical. That is, it must be internally consistent and coherent. We cannot sacrifice our minds in order to believe something. We cannot ask people to believe that black is white, that truth is false, that good is evil. The secondary concepts should flow naturally from the primary ones, and not contradict each other.

At the same time, we must admit that we don’t understand everything. The world, great civilizations like China, even individual people, are too complex. Who can deny that we are responsible for what we do? But we must also recognize that our ability to do what is right is very limited, and that we are greatly influenced by all sorts of factors outside our control. A true faith will somehow enable us to hold on to truths that are complementary, and allow for mystery and wonder.

We are not only thinking people; we also have feelings. A really true faith must correspond to our deepest intuitions. Most people believe that there is truth, beauty, and goodness. We somehow know that love is central to life’s purpose and meaning. We sense that this life has value. We assume that people are important; that actions have consequences. And most of us have a sense that there is an afterlife; this life is not the end of existence. Likewise, all over the world, and throughout history, most people have believe that there is a God, and that he should be both good and powerful.

If we are going to accept a worldview, it must evoke absolute trust in us. In other words, it must seem to us to be absolute truth, and have compelling persuasiveness. Somehow, deep down inside, we must be able to believe that this faith is fundamentally true, even though we don’t understand it all and even when our life is hard. Another way of putting this is to say that this faith must speak to our inner being, the depths of our soul. Indeed, it must come to us as a word from God.

The great American theologian, Carl Henry, has written about the truth of the Christian faith in his six-volume book, God, Revelation, & Authority. An abridgment of the first four volumes of this work of theology and philosophy gives many good reasons for accepting the Bible as God’s Word to us, and answers most of the questions people have about Christianity.

3. Give life: Ontology

A faith for the 21st century must give life. It cannot just be a theory of life. It must create life in those who believe.

First of all, it must answer questions about the origin of life. Was Darwin right, or are we created by God? Second, it must show us how to live well now – how to stay healthy, how to earn a living, how to enjoy profound peace and joy in this life. And it must tell us how to overcome death.

A 21st-century faith must be practical. Those who believe it should be able to find strength to overcome fundamental challenges, such as guilt, fear, anger. It should enable us to deal with busy-ness and the loneliness that afflicts so many today. For those who are addicted to alcohol, drugs, computer games, pornography, sex, there must be power in this faith to find freedom.

Likewise, a 21st century faith must help us find ways to reduce corruption in politics; to reduce strife between different ethnic groups; to forgive those who have inflicted deep wounds upon us.

This faith must bring out the best in each person without encouraging pride. It must speak to the whole man: Heart, hand, head. It should enlighten the mind; warm the heart; move the hand.

A faith that is worth giving your life to must produce works of beauty: art, music, poetry. It must put a song in our hearts and in our mouths.

If you are trained in philosophy, you will realize that I have just said that a faith for the 21st century must deal with all three branches of traditional Western philosophy: Ethics (how to live); epistemology (how to know anything, and how to know that we know- the question of truth); and ontology (what is the basic essence of the universe? One part of this question is, what is life?).

Those familiar with Chinese philosophy will know that ever since Confucius, most Chinese thinkers have concentrated their attention on the first of these – how to live. In the period of the “100 schools” there was some thought given to the other two branches of philosophy – people talked about whether human nature was essentially good or evil, and whether a “white horse is a horse,” for example – questions of ontology. Later, in the Song Dynasty, with the rise of neo-Confucianism, such questions were again raised, along with theories of knowledge.

Actually, we must think about epistemology and ontology! How can we know how to live, if we have no way of knowing anything? And how can we make good decisions unless we have some idea of what life is all about?

But there are two other questions which most philosophers ignore, and which Christianity discusses a great deal: First, How do we overcome our faults, and the consequences of our wrongdoing? Second, Where is this world going? What happens after I die? Of course, these two go together, for if there is a life after this one, and if only those who are good enough can enjoy happiness after death, then I must know how to be “good” enough.

That is where two other branches of thought come in: Soteriology – the doctrine of salvation; and eschatology – the doctrine of the last things. Christianity claims to tell us how to deal with our wrongdoings, and how to enjoy everlasting life.

That brings me to the last requirement of a faith for the 21st century: It must

4. Lead us home

Any faith that deserves our total commitment must take us home. That is, it must tell us how to escape from bondage to evil, both now and forever.

We all want to be free, and we all want to go home. We want to have power over our bad habits and bad thoughts, and we want to go to a place where we know we are loved and where we find lasting peace.

Philosophy alone cannot change us, as many educated people have discovered. Nor can it offer us hope of love, joy, and peace both now and forever.

Most people, at some time or another, feel very tired.

We are physically tired from our work, and we desire rest.

We are emotionally tired, also. Tired of trying to please parents and spouse and children and friends and teachers. Tired of trying to appear to be successful and happy, when we are not. Tired of trying to be understood and loved. Tired of trying to overcome our faults.

We are also spiritually tired – we are weary of searching for answers, and finding none that really satisfy us. Many are tired of going from one temple to another, one god after another, one religion after another, without finding real peace.

We are not only tired, but also lonely. Is there anyone who really understands me? Is anyone really listening? Am I all alone in this vast universe?

And we are afraid. Will I graduate with good grades? Will I publish enough papers to keep my teaching position? Will I get a good enough job? Will I find a suitable mate with whom I can live happily for the rest of my life? What will happen to my children in this uncertain world? What happens if war breaks out? And what will happen to me after I die?

Any really valid faith must give me rest; it must offer me love and a family that will not fall apart; it must promise me a future without fear.

And it must take me home to God the Father.

Though most of us love our parents, we are aware that they are not perfect. Perhaps they were too busy to spend much time with us. Maybe they didn’t know how to express their love for us. In some cases, parents have spoken unkind words to their children, have made them feel unworthy, and have even made them feel rejected. With the rise in the divorce rate, many people really have no place to go where they can have rest, and peace, and love.

Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father buy by Me.”

Clearly, he assumes that we want to go to the Father. We want a Father who will take care of us, provide for us, protect us, and love us. And we want a father who will not die and leave us alone in this cold, dark world.

Not only do we long for a father, but we want brothers and sisters, too, people who will be there when we are lonely, who will help us when we are in trouble, who will enjoy life with us and walk with us through troubled times.

Jesus promises that he can take us home – home to a Father who is also loving like our mother; home to a father who will provide all that we ever needed; home to a father who will never died. He will take us home – home to a place where we are important, and noticed, and understood, and loved.

This home has no mortgage on it, so we won’t be thrown out! This home can’t be torn down to make way for new buildings. This home has a family from all over the world, people of all sorts who have been given a life that will not end.

Is Christianity a faith for the 21st century? I think so. In the next three lectures, I shall try to tell you why I believe in Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, the only one who can take us home. I shall follow the order of Jesus’ words: We shall look first at Jesus as the way – and talk mostly about ethics, but also some about soteriology. Then we shall ask whether he really is the truth – and talk about epistemology.

Finally, we shall try to understand what he means when he says he is the life – and here we shall deal with ontology, but also soteriology, and eschatology. Don’t let these big words scare you! I shall speak very simply. I myself don’t know much about philosophy, so you don’t need to worry! I am just trying to show you how comprehensive the Christian faith is, and how it answers questions of all sorts, including those that philosophers ask, but also those that religious believers, and ordinary people, ask as well.

But before I go further, I want to tell you some of my own story. This will provide background for everything that is to follow.

Not wanted

I am the youngest of five children. When my mother learned she was going to have me, she became very angry. She did not want another child. She was sick most of the time during her pregnancy, and nearly died when I was being born. The doctor told my father, “I can save either the mother or the child. Which one should I save?” My father told him to try to save my mother, because she still had four children to take care of and of course he loved her. Of course, the doctor was able to save both of us.

Although I agree with his decision, I was not happy that he told me this story many times while I was growing up, usually when he was displeased with me. You can see why I started life both physically and emotionally weak.

My father was a good man, but for various reasons he did not know how to express his love to me, so I always thought that he was not very happy with me. It was not until I was 50 years old, long after my father had died, that my mother told me he was always proud of me, and told others so; he just did not tell me.

As I was growing up, my parents did not usually go to church. Actually, my father never went to church, though my mother sometimes did. We did not read the Bible or pray together in our home, except that my father did say a prayer before dinner, thanking God for the food and asking him to forgive us all our sins. When I was twelve, my mother had me attend confirmation classes in the Episcopal Church. I believed all that I was taught, and loved the liturgy of the church, which was filled with quotations from the Bible; I also was moved by the music.

In my childhood, our family had everything that most people believe will give you happiness. My father was a high-ranking naval officer, so we had servants to cook and clean for us in our home (at one time we had six); a car and a driver; several gardeners; a boat that we could us any time; an airplane and a pilot; and a large house. Our guests included movie stars, members of the American Congress, leaders of foreign navies, and even Vice President Nixon.

We lived in Taiwan for one year, when I was 13 years old. My father was the Commander of the Taiwan Defense Command. He met with President Chiang Kai-shek each week, and we went to dinner parties with the General Staff of the R.O.C. military at least once a month. Our family spent almost two days with Chiang Ching-kuo, who gave us a tour of the East-West Highway, which was being built. We lived on the top of Yang Ming Shan in a house that you can see from Tien Mou; we also dined with the President and Madame Chiang in their home several times.

Despite all these things, however, our family did not have peace, and neither did I.

I went to a boys’ high school for three years, a thousand miles from home. It was one of the best schools in the South. Though I liked the school, I was very unpopular. One reason was that I enjoyed the daily chapel services, which the other boys did not like. I also didn’t mind keeping the many rules of the school, which they all hated. They saw me as a “good” boy, and very religious, but inside I did not know God. I read the Bible almost every day, and believed everything in the Apostles’ Creed, but had no peace in my heart.

When I went to college, I continued to attend church and to read the Bible. I was one of 50 students in the honors section (out of 2,000 freshmen students). Our history teacher was an atheist, and he constantly criticized Christianity. Because I did not agree with him, all the other students thought I was a Christian. One summer, I went to work as a volunteer at a church mission to the Indians in Arizona. My roommate, who was a zealous Baptist, also thought that I was a believer.

Well, I was some sort of believer, but I had no life from God in my heart.

In my second year of college, I was so depressed that I went to the school’s psychiatrist. He helped me to see that I bore some resentment against my mother, but could not tell me how to get rid of this and forgive her from my heart. Nor could he help me have love for my father. I knew I was not keeping God’s commandments, but I didn’t know how to have peace with God or to reform myself. My classmates considered me very religious and moral, but they didn’t know how unhappy I was inside.

I was constantly bothered by headaches, which I thought might be caused by reading too much, for I did like to read, and I did well in school. Meanwhile, my older brother, who was a pastor, started telling me how he had seen God work miracles in answer to prayer. Several people with serious illnesses recovered after he prayed for them. I also noticed that he had a new kind of joy, and I wanted that very badly.

One day, in 1965, when I was 21 years old, I was visiting him, he offered to pray for my headaches with a friend of his. As they were praising God and praying for me, I was angry with God. I didn’t want to praise him. I was tired of trying to be good but not making any progress. Suddenly, however, I was filled with joy and happiness, and began to laugh. From that day to this, I have not only believed in my head that Jesus is Savior, but have known in my heart that the Bible is true.

For many years, I had been planning to become a lawyer, then a politician, and finally President of the United States! I was very interested in politics, and thought that political power is the way to change society. I had applied to three law schools, and had been accepted, but God led me to become a preacher instead. I’ll tell you more about my seminary career later today. While in seminary, I married Dori, whom I had met during my last year in college. We have been married for 41 years now, and have one daughter, Sarah, who is married.

Even though I have known God for 44 years now, life has not always been easy for me.

My wife and I have had the usual marital difficulties. In fact, we have spent about a dozen years in marriage counseling at various periods of our life. Our relationship is very good now, but if it had not been for God’s help, we might have been divorced by now. We were not perfect parents to our daughter. We have had to apologize to her for things we did not do right. By God’s help, she has forgiven us.

I have been fired from my job twice; each time was very painful to me. In high school, as I said earlier, I was very unpopular. I was also unpopular in seminary, because I believed the Bible to be true, and most of my classmates and teachers did not. I have known what it is like to be lonely and rejected.

Like most people, I have had a variety of physical ailments. I have had operations on my knees and my hands and my eye. I injured my back in Taiwan in 1978, and have to do exercises every day to keep from having pain. I have a condition on my heels that causes pain if I do not wear the right kind of shoes. My eyesight is not good. For twenty-five years, starting from the time my wife and I came to Taiwan as missionaries in 1976, my health was very bad. My whole body ached all over, I was always tired, and sometimes I had stomach aches that would keep me in bed for as long as twelve hours.

In 2001, I had a sort of breakdown. My health was bad, and my doctor told me that I was suffering from mild depression. Two reasons for my depression were worry and resentment. It took three years and the work of God to heal me. He showed me how to overcome my fears and forgive those who had hurt me. Now I am stronger and healthier than I was ten years ago.

Why am I telling you all this? Isn’t this supposed to be a series of theological lectures? I am sharing my story with you because I believe that a true faith must speak to all of life, and it must enable us to enjoy peace and joy in the midst of trouble and failure. Over the past 44 years, I have discovered that when Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he is right. My faith has been tested in many ways. I have told you about some of them, and will tell you more later. Each time, God has helped me to overcome difficulties, and my faith has come out stronger.

But this is not just my personal experience. Over the past several decades, I have traveled to a number of places in the world to visit Christians. I have been to England, Spain, Morocco, Ivory Coast, Mexico, Canada, China, and India. In each place, I have met with Christians, and I have discovered that their experience is like mine. They, too, have faced many difficulties, but they have found that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and that through faith in Jesus they can know God as Father.

In all of these places, and in Charlottesville, where I have lived since 1989, I have also talked with hundreds of non-Christians. Many of them are intellectuals from Mainland China. Some have been Buddhists, Hindus, and atheists. Everywhere I go, I find that people have the same basic questions about life, and similar difficulties. When they trust in Jesus Christ to help them, they experience peace; when they do not, their lives are weighed down by sorrow, and guilt, and frustration.

The other thing I have seen in my travels and in my reading about Christianity in the West, in China, and all over the world, is that faith in Jesus Christ gives not only personal joy, but it changes relationships between people; it can guide us in our family life; it can even change entire nations and cultures.

The Christian faith transformed the Roman Empire in many ways: The awful gladiator games were stopped; unwanted babies were not left outside to die; laws were made more just; homosexual practice was no longer glorified; the old religions died out; philosophers stopped engaging in speculation, and began to think about the meaning of the Bible. Literature and the arts were transformed as well.

As Christian culture spread, the barbarian ways of northern European tribes – my ancestors! – were softened a bit. Over centuries, Christianity transformed architecture; art; music. Especially in England and America, where Protestant Christianity had the strongest influence, laws were influenced by the Bible, so that government power was limited and citizens were given more freedoms. Historians also recognized that Protestantism, with its affirmation of this world and of all honest work, led to a great economic expansion as well as scientific breakthroughs. Perhaps most importantly, biblical teaching about sex and the family uplifted the place of women, so that they were treated with dignity and respect, and it showed men how to live as well.

Of course, Western civilization also retained much of the non-Christian heritage, and true Christians were always a minority, and even they did not always live according to the teachings of the Bible, so that there was still too much war and injustice, even up to the present. We can also observe what happens when a nation rejects the Bible as its standard, as is happening in America and Europe today.

But now that the Christian faith has spread around the world, we see the ways in which it has inspired art; architecture; music, not only in Europe but also in Latin America, Africa, India and Taiwan. Those who believe in Jesus Christ have fought for freedom and justice; they have traveled to distant lands to heal the sick and teach the poor.