Archive for the ‘Apologetics’ Category

Why Apologetics?

I’m not huge on apologetics.  It’s not that I find it invaluable or dull; I simply only have so much time in the day.  In the midst of all that has to get accomplished in life, some things have to get cut.  For me, one of those things is apologetics. Instead, I’ve allowed Brian to pick up the slack for me and do all the heavy lifting while I sit back in my insular world of exegetical debate.

Nonetheless, I can’t help but be interested in apologetics to some degree, especially since so many of my non-Christians friends and coworkers buy into junk that gets spewed out on a regular basis.  For instance, Dan Brown writes a book full of historical inaccuracies and incredible leaps of logic, but people buy into it.  It’s simply hard to sit by and listen to people regurgitate his junk without saying something about how wrong it is.  That is, on basic level, engaging in apologetics.

But after watching a video of John Piper interviewing Doug Wilson about his upcoming documentary, Collision, I encountered a slightly different take on public apologetics than I had previously heard.  Collision is a documentary of a debate tour Doug Wilson conducted with well-known atheist, Christian Hitchens.  Wilson and Hitchens debated on a few university campuses over the topic: Is Christianity good for the world?

Wilson referred Acts 18:27-28 to present a more church-focused view of apologetics than what I had previously thought of.  Here is that text:

When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the believers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him.  When he arrived, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed.  For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah.

What Wilson points out here is that by engaging in public debate, Apollos encouraged the church.  Wilson’s goal is that by answering the objections someone like Hitchens has to Christianity, he is able to encourage those who face those same questions (especially university students).  It’s interesting because I’ve never really thought about the pastoral function of apologetics.  By answering the critics of Christianity, one can encourage those whose faith has been “dented” (to us Wilson’s word from the interview).

To be sure, Wilson says that he would love for unbelievers to come to faith, as one would expect.  But his point about giving Christians confidence that there are answers to the questions that are thrown at them is one that sticks out to me.  Maybe for those who are more knowledgeable of apologetics this is old hat.  For anyone interested in encouraging other Christians, perhaps taking up the challenge of apologetics is worthwhile, if not necessary.

I’ve included the trailer for the documentary below.  I’ve tried to get the video of Piper’s interview with Wilson on here, but I can’t figure out how to do this with wordpress (score a point for blogger) and it isn’t on youtube yet.  When it is loaded onto youtube (and I think it will be), I’ll let you know.  Until then, you can go here, (video will open, it’s about 15 minutes long).

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“It’s the economy, stupid.”

Whether or not you remember this popular campaign slogan from Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential bid,  17 years later, it would seem that the US economy still ranks in the top 3 stars that share the media limelight (global security and Michelle Obama’s wardrobe appear to be the other two).  Much of the economic news today seems to fall somewhere between “disheartening” and “terrifying.”  Indeed, the words “economic” and “crisis,” once mere friends, are now considering marriage, much to the chagrin of their disapproving parents.

I’m not made of wood, so from time to time I struggle to divorce myself from the sense of impending doom that hangs heavy in the air.  Praise be, God alone is our provider, and my ultimate hope rests in Him.  We’ve heard these sermons, and they make the excellent point that we needn’t worry ourselves to death about money, or even worse, let it take the place of God (e.g., Mt.6:19-34).

Balancing this is the call to be wise stewards with what God has given us, and the very practical matter of deciding how to spend, give and save our money.  God is my provider.  Amen.  Now, what should I do with my paycheck?  The parable of the ten talents surely isn’t talking about money alone, but it’s not not talking about money either.

The problem I’ve encountered as I’ve looked into financial matters is that nobody seems to agree about much of anything, save the fact that the world economy is in big trouble.  (Read a few articles and financial blogs for a week and you’ll see what I mean.)  The whole endeavor seems steeped in opinion and speculation.  One expert will tout their prescience of the economic collapse while failing to mention that they’ve also lost their shirt in the downturn.

The same phenomenon seems evident in the world of dieting.  Atkins diet?  South Beach?  Eat your blood type?  Mediterranean Diet?  Weight Watchers?  Shall I even broach the topic of parenting?  Attachment parenting?  “Ferber-izing?”  Co-sleeping?  Cry it out?  To spank or not to spank?  Experts wage war along these and numerous other lines, and lay people such as myself are left confused, wondering how to sift through the claims and find out what’s actually true or false.  Unless you make a career out of investigating every truth claim, it seems impossible to sort it out.

Enter relativism.  Enter agnosticism.  So many truth claims, such passion behind the arguments, so many “studies” that “show” said argument to be correct, so many testimonials, so little time, know-how, and expertise to sort it out.  What we are able to sort out are some superficial generalizations upon which everybody agrees:  “Don’t spend what you don’t have,” “Exercise and avoid fast food,” “Love your kids and be a vital part of their lives,” etc.  At the limit, we find an expert or two with whom we agree, providing us with a permission slip for our actions:  Spanking is wrong; Dr. Spock says so.

Is religion any different?  “Just believe in something,”  “Don’t kill anybody,” “Be tolerant of other beliefs.”  There can’t be just one way to Heaven; Oprah says so.  Where does that leave us?  I sympathize with the honest agnostic relativist, but are there some differences?  If agnosticism and/or relativism “works” in other areas of life, is it fair to say it “works” for religion?

I would suggest several differences that set the religios project apart from those mentioned above.  First, there is a matter of degree.  Religious claims (at least, those of major world religions) are umbrellas under which all other truth claims fall, and a lens through which they are viewed.   They are meta-claims, as it were.  “Follow this person and lose weight” is a vastly different claim from “Follow this person and inherit eternal life.”  When we weigh a truth claim, the scope and import of that claim ought to factor into our consideration.  For example, if I claim that crushed ice will chill water much faster than cubed ice, I doubt any reader will struggle for long weighing my claim.  The scope is limited to cold beverages, and the importance is minor at best.  If I claim that all perceived reality is an illusion, as the Bhuddist does, the scope and consequences are enormous, and merit more thoughtful, probing consideration.

Second, we must note the predictive nature of so much information.  Study A shows that gold is the safest investment over time.  Study B shows that people who cut their carbohydrate intake by 50% lose an average of 10 pounds a month.  Study C shows that spaking children increases their propensity for violent behavior.  (N.b., all said studies above were pulled out of thin air for illustrative purposes only.)  In every case, we have an (sometimes subjective) analysis and interpretation of data with a tremendous reliance on statistics.  Worse yet, all such studies attempt to predict the future in some way.  Furthermore, all the studies above interact with a wide variety of variables that can drastically affect the predicted outcome.  The differences in analysis, and the affect of unknown or misunderstood variables lead to the sea of differing opinions that litter our bookshelves.  Finally, the truth claims of investment, diet, and child rearing are, to a great extent, empirically verifiable.  Did you get a good return on your investment?  Did you lose weight?  Is your child in prison for aggravated assault?

Religious claims, on the other hand, lack many of the characteristics above.  At their core, religious claims do not predict the future so much as they explain and assign meaning to reality.  “There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is the prophet of Allah,” is not a prediction of the future.  It’s an existential claim.  How would one confirm that Mohammed is God’s prophet?  That all of life is illusory?    That there is a Heaven and Hell?  These claims are arrived at through different means, and must therefore be treated differently.

While there may be empirical evidence to support religious claims (e.g., the observation of a changed life upon accepting Christ), none of us can verify them in the same way we would verify the efficacy of a diet.  Of course there are predictive claims in religion (e.g., if you reject Christ you will suffer eternal torment), but again, these are not empirically verifiable (at least, until it is too late to do anything about it).

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, there is a difference between the statement “I don’t know,” and “I can’t know.”  The former is simple ignorance, the latter is agnosticism, and there is an enormous, unsubstantiated leap of faith between the two.  Every student of apologetics has heard the rebuttal to the agnostic:  “How do you know that you can’t know?”  Indeed economists have a difficult time predicting market behavior, but does that mean that market behavior is unknowable?  Even if we grant that market behavior is unknowable on the grounds that it is attempting to predict the future, why should we conclude that other knowledge (i.e., religious knowledge) is unattainable?

In the end, the agnostic must ask him or herself whence their agnosticism.  Is it apathy?  Why wouldn’t we investigate the outrageous claim of the Christian faith that our eternal destiny hinges upon how we respond to Jesus?  Is it simply because we prefer to spend our time in other pursuits that we (erroneously) find more satisfying?  Is it confusion?  Are we trying to fit the round peg of religous claims into the square holes of scientific ones?  Is it laziness?  Weeding through the average religious section in a book store is daunting, after all.  Is it wishful thinking?  If we cover our eyes and ears, we may not have to deal with whatever unpleasantries lurk in religion’s murky waters; pleading ignorance is a “safe,” easy way out.

Despite my strong words above, I do hold a great deal of compassion for those who would claim to be agnostic.  In the information age, we are assaulted on all fronts, and at all times, with truth claims ranging from trivial to terrifying, and monumental to minute.  There is no escaping it, save the fleeting release proffered by so many other vices that vie for our time and money, or the simple bliss of shutting it all out.  I do not minimize for a moment the depth and breadth of the human struggle for truth and meaning in our world.  I pray regularly that God would break my heart for those who are captive to that struggle, and do not yet know the freedom available to them in Christ.  Still, we must note that the rejection of Christianity in favor of agnosticism (or any other world view), is not a matter of knowledge alone.  In actuality, it is resisting the work of the Holy Spirit (c.f., Jn. 15:26; 16:8-11), for which we will have no good excuse.

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The advertisement above is part of a controversial campaign sponsored by the American Humanist Association (AHA hereafter).  Signs like the one above will appear on busses and at bus stations around Washington, DC this winter.

Humanism, per the AHA, “is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity” (per their FAQ; the Humanist Manifesto, quoted extensively below, expands on these themes).  This “greater good” is  achieved in part by cultivating caring relationships, responsible and informed decision making in a free, democratic society, toleration of other humane ideals, cooperation, and striving for the well-being of others.

On the surface, I could say “Amen” to the AHA’s bottom line, at least, as I understand it (foreshadowing!).  Their efforts to put an end to human suffering, uphold the dignity of humankind, and spread of peace appear admirable.  Why indeed, then, do we need a god?  Allow me to answer this question.

Taking the ad’s advice requires an understanding of what it means to be “good.”  As far as I can understand the AHA’s philosophy, “good” is the maximization of personal happiness and fulfillment for all humankind, thus defining a subjective and vague term with two other subjective and vague terms.  “fulfillment” is what comes from the “participation in the service of humane ideals.” ” Humane ideals,” of course, are concerned with seeking the personal happiness and fulfillment for all human kind.  Thus spins the amorphous wheel of goodness.

Indeed, the rhetoric found in the AHA’s writing is full of positive terms:  “human welfare,” “happiness,” “fulfillment,” and “well being” are a few.  The problem is that each of these concepts are hopelessly vague and ill-defined.  The meaning of these concepts is assumed, presupposing a universal agreement among all people.   AHA is therefore decidedly collectivist in its outlook.  To reach their goals, we must agree on what these terms mean.  How exactly do we do this, since in truth, these concepts are immensely subjective, and as diverse in meaning as the peoples of earth?  This is especially problematic since the AHA is “committed to diversity.”

What if it so happens that the maximization of my personal happiness has a negative impact on the personal happiness of others?  How do we decide that case?  The AHA enjoins us to resolve differences cooperatively without resorting to violence.  But how do we know good and evil?  The good cannot compromise, otherwise evil will win.  When the Nazi party desires to wipe out the Jewish people, I see no compromise or cooperation available to us.  They must be stopped, even to the peril of their own happiness and fulfillment.

Perhaps anticipating this problem, the AHA qualifies their respect for diversity by limiting it to “those of differing yet humane views.”  We’re back to the original problem, though: Who gets to define “humane” here?  Perhaps the “humane” view is to euthanize anybody we deem unable, for reasons of illness or handicap, to “enjoy a good life?”

Even if we all agree upon these terms (PS: we never will),  why is striving for them the highest good?  Given the AHA’s epistemology (“observation, experimentation and rational analysis”), how do we arrive at the conclusion that personal happiness, comfort, or fulfillment comprise humanity’s summum bonum?  We’re back at collectivism; or at best, “majority rules.”  Given the vaguely defined assumption that everybody wants to be “happy,” is it therefore the highest good?  Who says?  Show me the logic, but only after you show me that everybody wants to be “happy,” as you define it.

Most people in the world believe in the supernatural, too.  Why doesn’t the majority rule here, as well?  If we take our cue from the natural world, (of which we are undeniably a product; see AHA’s anthropology below) the highest good for any living being is the propagation of its genes to the next generation; it is survival of the race, independent of, and often to the demise of, any other race.  Nature seems quite apathetic to personal happiness or suffering, why should we, nature’s children, be any different?

We quickly realize that the AHA’s anthropology is paradoxically exalted and impoverished.  On the one hand, humankind is highly valued, with intrinsic “worth and dignity.”  On the other, we are the result of millions of years of “unguided evolutionary change”:  a cosmic accident of no greater intrinsic worth than an amalgam of organic chemicals.  On one hand we are able to make sweeping decisions about what maximizes “good” and “happiness” for the most people possible.  On the other, history shows us that the much of our “progress” carries the excessive baggage of new and unanticipated problems.  On one hand we are noble, with the ability to “progress towards our highest ideals.”  Auschwitz, the Killing Fields, Darfur, and other sad histories speak to a very different human ability which is far from anything the AHA could call “noble.” 

Why believe in God?  Because any human designation of goodness, purpose, or worth is ultimately subjective and arbitrary.  These vague terms must be defined by something above ourselves.  As Francis Schaeffer said, humankind “is not a sufficient integration point for himself” (A Christian View of Philosophy and Culture, 278).  That is to say, we need something above and outside ourselves if we are to make any absolute claims about morality, purpose or meaning.  Brian Marchionni cannot make such claims for all humanity, nor can 100,000 people like me.  Even if we did, we have naught more than a small minority telling everybody else what’s right and wrong, which smells an awful lot like the authoritarian tyranny so quickly condemned by humanists.

The job of absolute claims belongs to the infinite One who is outside ourselves – the One who is omniscient and omnipotent, yet knowable and personal – the One who has the authority and ability to say not only what “good” is, but also how we strive for it – the One who Himself acts in history to bring about the best for humankind- the One who helps and guides us to these ends.  This One is the Triune God of Christianity, and we need Him.  We need Him not only because we cannot make absolute claims of good and evil, but because thousands of years of recorded history show us that we are incapable of consistently choosing the good.  We need Him because, functionally speaking, we’re lousy humanists.  Indeed, the only truly good “humanist” is God Himself.

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As promised in part I, here are some further reflections on suffering, with a specific eye to some categories.  After having a weekend to think this post over, the word “categories” might overstate my true intentions.  I really have a distinction in mind, since categorically speaking, all suffering is the result of sin, be it mine, yours, or Adam and Eve’s.  One may pigeon-hole the various kinds of suffering that fall under this umbrella any number of ways, but I’m mostly interested in distinctions among them.

The main distinction I wanted to point out in this post was what I might call ordinary suffering and faith-suffering.  Put differently, we could say that all people suffer to some degree; it is the way of our fallen world.  There is also suffering that is a direct result of one’s choice to followed Jesus.  The promised persecution and self-denial that Christianity entails is a special kind of suffering, and it seems to me that is what is most often in view when the NT epistles interact with suffering.   The best known examples are found in James 1 and Hebrews 12.

Here, the suffering is specific to the cost of being a Christian, and the purpose is framed in terms of strengthening one’s faith.  Here again we have an important consideration when praying amidst suffering, which I made in part I: our first priority is for God’s glory.  We oughtn’t be so hasty, then, praying that the persecution of Christians in China should stop.  Rather, like Paul in 2 Thessalonians, our prayer is that those persecuted stand firm, and God is glorified.

This is not meant to even hint that our hearts shouldn’t break for those who suffer for the name or Jesus, or that we have no desire be for their peace and well-being.  My point is that there is a greater good, nay, the greatest good, and that is for God to be glorified, and His Word faithfully proclaimed.  Should we pray for religious persecution to end in China?  Absolutely!  It’s evil and we therefore resist it and wish for its demise.  But, said demise shouldn’t be the only thing for which we pray.

One other very important aspect of suffering worth bringing to the fore is that  properly understood, it can point us to God.  I believe that instinctively, all humankind recognizes that suffering is not the way it’s supposed to be.  Pain is painful because the body is telling us that something is wrong.  Your head shouldn’t hurt like this, your arm oughtn’t be broken.  Something is not the way it’s supposed to be, and demands attention.  The same can be said for emotional suffering.  It hurts to be lied to, to lose somebody special, to be the object of fun, because things aren’t meant to be that way.  Humankind naturally expects good.  Even the liar feels betrayed when s/he is the victim of a lie.  The “bad” news that occupies the bulk of reporting is news because evil and suffering are intrinsically curious; they are out of the ordinary.  “Father Loves His Son” is not a headline; that’s normal.  “Father Abuses His Son” is a headline, because it’s abnormal.

The fact that there is so much suffering in the world points to the fact that something is fundamentally wrong, and humankind’s best efforts have yet to fix it.  For as much as our technical prowess has relieved countless millions from pain, it has equally inflicted pain upon countless more.  Enter the omnipotent, omni-loving God who since the introduction of suffering has stopped at nothing, (sending His Son to be tortured to death inclusive), to restore things to the way they should be.

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