POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

Do they all teach the same thing?

It is really common today for people to say silly things like: "All religions teach the same things...they agree on the major details but disagree on the minor things." The more I have read and studied the faiths of our world I have found to say such things to be ridiculous. First, slogans like this disregard the actually teachings of the great world religions. ?Second, its just wrong. The following chart is a simple example of how religions agree on the minor things (you all be nice people) and are actually different on things like who God is, the problem with the human condition, how that problem is solved, Jesus, what happens when I die etc. So the next time a friends says something stupid like "all religions are the same" be prepared to graciously and thoughtfully engage that slogan.

Click the image below for a full PDF version of the chart

The timidity of truth in our time

I am in a class this week that is touching on the epistemological issues involved in doing theology and pretty much believing anything.  This morning’s discussion reminded me of a quote from my favorite dead Brittish author GK Chesterton:

We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own. Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced. The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern sceptics are too meek even to claim their inheritance.

GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 1908.

I do think that things have gotten a bit worse since Chesterton’s day some 100 years ago. I think the big fella, if alive today, would rend his garments to see a generation so passive and timid about the mere possibility of truth. I wonder if he knew that this gangrenous passivity would come to so infect those who claim to follow the one who once prayed “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.” John 17:17-19 ESV

Truth as a categorical reality is indispensable to all of life, without it we perish in a thousand unqualified ways. 

Finding God Dialogues

On the POCBlog we wrote a series of dialogues between two friends traveling through life as university students.  One of them, Richard, is a philosophy undergraduate student with ambitions towards a career in jurisprudence. He likes banter and debating but can be impatient and at times unsympathetic to the questions of God. The other, Sundar, is a student in electrical engineering with hopes of working in the field of wireless communications. Both young men enjoy each others company and discussion even though one is an atheist and the other a committed follower of Jesus and the Christian way.

The following is a list of each of the dialogues:

  1. What’s all this then? A discussion of created world
  2. Why are we building alters? A discussion of the religious nature of people
  3. Nobody’s Perfect? A discussion of the perfect and the good
  4. Why do mean people suck? A discussion of the reality of suffering
  5. What of love? A discussion of love, the brain and God
  6. What of death? A discussion of death and eternity
  7. Jesus? Always comes back to him

Jesus?

Richard is a philosophy undergraduate student with ambition toward a career in jurisprudence. He likes banter and debating but can be impatient and at times unsympathetic to the questions of God. Sundar is a student in electrical engineering with hopes of working in the field of wireless communications. Both young men enjoy each other’s company and discussion even though one is an atheist and the other a committed follower of Jesus and the Christian way.

Why I always come back to Jesus?

[Richard spent the summer at home with his family after the passing of his father, he is now at NYU in his first semester of law school. Sundar landed a dream job working at Apple working on antenna design issues with the iPhone – the two are catching up via Skype]

Sundar – How is the family doing?

Richard – OK I guess, Mom seems a bit lost after Dad’s passing but she is hanging in there. First semester of law school is a bit rough—so much reading I’m just swamped. I feel bad because I can’t be there for her but I have my own life to live.

Sundar – You doing OK?

Richard – I guess, still seems surreal him being gone, but I really haven’t had too much time to think about it with all the prep and reading I have to do. Trying to stay focused but I do miss home a bit.

Sundar - Yeah, I’m a bit home sick as well but California is great – how’s that New York weather treating you?

Richard – Well a blizzard in October doesn’t exactly make for a nice walk in central park.

Sundar – It’s a bit chilly here already. Loving the new job here and started attending a great new church. It’s a start up deal so I suppose it fits Silicon Valley culture well.

Richard – So you have found your religious club already. Any cute girls there?

Sundar – Well, that isn’t exactly why I am part of a church community and it isn’t my religious club.

Richard – Well are there? [both laugh]

Sundar – What? Girls? [Grinning]

Richard – I see…you are wasting no time my Jedi master.

Sundar – Dude, shut up. [long pause] I have been out with one girl a few times. She is really smart and works at Google. Not sure how we are going to deal with that as I work on the iPhone now – she of course has that little robot phone going. She is new to the area as well and is involved at Garden City as well.

Richard – Uh, and what is Garden City?

Sundar – Sorry, that’s the name of the church

Richard – Weird – I’m used to Holy Church of the Saints and Holy Mother stuff. Garden City Church – simple and clear enough. I’m going to come and visit when I’m on break.

Sundar – What?! For church?

Richard – No dummy, coming to visit you and check out Silicon Valley. Plus, if I end up doing patent law I may move out there. But yes, I’ll visit your church as well. What is the church all about?

Sundar – Jesus.

Richard – Well, I know, I mean what is the focus there?

Sundar – I’m serious, it’s about Jesus. Remember how you asked me how Jesus can seem to get lost in all that religious mumbo jumbo? I suppose we are trying NOT to do that. Or get sidetracked from who Jesus is and what he is all about.

Richard – You are not about getting a republican in every office?

Sundar – Well, there are Democrats and Republicans and Ron Paulians and even some anarchists hanging around our community

Richard – I like Ron Paulians – they are always eager to convert you. And anarchists for Jesus?! Awesome.

Sundar – Well, they are friends but I’m not sure who they are for or against at this point – right now I’m guessing they might be against quite a bit. [both laugh]

Richard – I want to hang out with the anarchists for Jesus when I visit for sure.

Sundar – How about just believing in Jesus instead?

Richard – You always get back to that don’t you?

Sundar – I try you know.

Richard – I know.

Sundar – You know you can tell me if I ever need to back off.

Richard – Yeah, I told you I’m cool with the way you engage stuff with me. I’ve actually been thinking about our conversation about death quite a bit since my Dad passed away. I’m to the point where I want the gospel to be true – but I still have so many doubts and feel like an idiot for wanting to believe. I really want to believe. To be honest, I’m going to lose friends over this. I’ll tell you more when I come out over break.

Sundar – More about what?

Richard – I want to tell you in person…and meet your girlfriend.

Sundar – She’s not my “girlfriend” – yet [both laugh]

What of Death? Richard and Sundar Discuss Eternity

Richard is a philosophy undergraduate student with ambition toward a career in jurisprudence. He likes banter and debating but can be impatient and at times unsympathetic to the questions of God. Sundar is a student in electrical engineering with hopes of working in the field of wireless communications. Both young men enjoy each others company and discussion even though one is an atheist and the other a committed follower of Jesus and the Christian way.

Death and Eternity?

Richard: He’s dead

Sundar: What, who? What are you talking about? Are you OK?

Richard: No, I’m really not OK…he’s dead, my Dad died yesterday and I just got word from my brother. Nobody saw it coming, he’s just gone.

Sundar: I’m so sorry man. Can I do anything for you and your family.

Richard: I don’t even know Sundar – I wasn’t ready for this. He was only forty-eight years old. I thought we would have more time. I didn’t think this would happen so soon.

Sundar: yeah, I guess [Richard interrupts him]

Richard: Why does it hit me like this? Why is death so disturbing to us? I mean, it is the most normal thing on earth. Every single one of us will die at some point. Yet it doesn’t seem right. Why don’t we expect it? It should be the most normal thing ever, but I hate this. I didn’t even get to say goodbye to him. I didn’t even get to tell him how pissed I was at him. I didn’t get to…[expletive] - I don’t know. [heavy exhale] This just sucks man, what do I do with this!?

Sundar: I don’t know Richard – I’m just glad you are talking about it. I really want to be here for you man, help you make any arrangements you need, just do whatever. I hate it too.

Richard: It’s like all of sudden everything just crashes down and it’s gone.  Everything we work for, everything we think is important, everything we think makes life meaningful is just gone, gone in a moment. We are so helpless to it.

Sundar: Do you mind me asking what happened?

Richard: [speaking quickly] He had a massive heart attack and died in his office. Nobody even knew for like six hours – he was by himself – and they just found him there. [long pause] I wish someone could have been there…I wonder if he was afraid.

Sundar: Man, hard to even think about what that must have been like.

Richard: I wonder if his tough guy, I don’t need anyone but God shtick was going through his head. I never believed that mess but it sure seemed he did. I never believed it. I always thought we would have it out big and really understand each other. I really didn’t hate the guy – that was my own front. I really just didn’t get why he was that way – why he didn’t want to know me. [gets choked up] – ah this is stupid man, I just don’t know what to think. Just feeling it all too much.

Sundar: You wanna get drunk? [awkward silence]

Richard: Do you mean that? [Richard starts to laugh] Are you messing with me?

Sundar: Sorry, I just wanted to lighten things a bit. No we don’t need to get drunk – that would not be good right about now but I thought it might have crossed your mind. [laugh together]

Richard: Has anyone close to you ever died?

Sundar: Yeah, my grandparents. But they were older so it was sort of expected.  

Richard: I think that is why this is hitting me so hard – totally not expected. I don’t know why we don’t think about this stuff more. I mean, do we know when we will die? I think we would live differently if we knew we just had a few more weeks or something.

Sundar: Yeah, I don’t think I think about dying enough. It is easy just to fill life with work, jobs, having fun, going through life. Sometimes I think as if I have all the time in the world and none of us really knows when our days will be up. I think we would use our time with more wisdom if we knew we soon would tap out of this world.

Richard: I know I would have had that big shake down with my Dad. Now, it’s too late now I guess.

Sundar: Who knows man, maybe you’ll get another shot to see him. It is at least possible.

Richard: Remember, I’m going to hell [sarcastically].

Sundar: I don’t think this is the right time Richard.

Richard: No, No. What better time is there? [slightly miffed] You think my Dad is with Jesus now and probably want me to go there. I think death is the end. Click. You are out.  Ball game. Game over.

Sundar: Well, I hope not. I think your reaction to all this should tell you something. Death is not a good thing man. It isn’t just nature’s way of taking out the trash. It is devastating, real and an enemy to life. You said it yourself a few minutes ago “death should be the most normal thing.”  But it isn’t – we know it is not. It feels bad because it is bad.

Richard: I know that nobody can live forever. I understand that Sundar. What bugs me is that it seems to wreck everything and feels so bad. I just wish I didn’t have to experience this. Why is it?

Sundar: Because death is a part of the brokenness of our world. We were not meant for it – so we feel it that way as well. You ever see a baby born?

Richard: No, not yet.

Sundar: It is one of the craziest things to see. I watched the video of my aunt’s kid being born and the joy, natural joy was just crazy.

Richard: You watched that?

Sundar: Not the details man. But Mom weeping for joy, holding the baby for the first time, my uncle acting like an idiot behind the camera. We see the flip side of this when we encounter death. It’s like everything comes crashing down.

Richard: Life and death – are you saying they are two sides of the same coin?

Sundar: No, that is precisely what I’m not saying…some of my relatives might say that. What I am saying is that we know that death is a problem, not simply “the other side of the coin.”  I’m saying death feels bad because it IS BAD.

Richard: I agree man.

Sundar: After my baby cousin was born, he had a lot of complications. Couldn’t breathe on his own, couldn’t digest food and turned all yellow.  They had to put him in neonatal intensive care unit. I remember going in there to see him and being overwhelmed with the beauty and fragility of life. I also had the odd feeling that all the kids in the NICU may not make it. It was like a small picture of what life is really like – fragile, beautiful and needing help. I’ll never forget it. In there, things were a lot clearer.  Life and death were real and had to be considered. I think people probably thought a lot more about God in there.  Have you ever read that book in the Bible I asked you to read?

Richard: A little of it – Ecclesiastes right?

Sundar: Yeah, can I read something out of that?

Richard: Sure, I actually wouldn’t mind at all.

Sundar: [finds a passage on his smartphone] A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth. It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools. For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vanity.

Richard: where is that? Sundar: Ecclesiastes 7

Richard: So is that saying that dying is better than birth?  Sounds like you were positive on birth a minute ago.

Sundar: This isn’t talking about our experience but about the soul being open to learning. That you learn more about wisdom and meaning in life at a funeral than giggling life away like a fool…that we need to face the emptiness, the shortness, the ridiculous ways we waste away our lives not realizing we are all heading towards the grave. It is telling us to really face the coming of our own death in some way before it overtakes us.

Richard: I hear you – I know I was not ready for this. So this would be “the house of mourning” and Jersey Shore would be the “house of mirth”.

Sundar: Something like that. I don’t want to press you on anything now Richard – your family needs you, there is probably a lot of things you need to tend to.

Richard: Well, I’m in the house of mourning so I might as well learn something. I want you to tell me what you think about death, life and if anything is ahead of us after this world. I know I said I don’t believe in an afterlife but I sort of wish there was something. Reincarnation, heaven, nirvana or something.  I mean it is a nice thought to think of seeing loved ones again. 

Sundar: To be honest those are really different ideas. Reincarnation means your soul migrates into other existences and nirvana would be the freeing of oneself from the cycle of suffering, reaching full enlightenment and escaping the trap of reincarnation. These are not ideas about YOU being YOU after your death. Seeing your loved ones again would not quite be part of those ideas. The idea of heaven though is different. That would have to do with you living again as you.

Richard:  Yeah, I heard about that in Catholic school – where you float in the clouds with angels or something like a ghost right.

Sundar: Uh, not exactly. That sounds weird. What Jesus taught was actually about the defeat of death itself and being resurrected from the dead.

Richard: Where did he teach that?

Sundar: To some friends in the “house of mourning” – we actually see what Jesus said and did at the funeral of a good friend named Lazarus in the New Testament book of John.

Richard: He gave the funeral speech?

Sundar: Not exactly, he interacted with some people who were hurting because of death. They were feeling the pain of it and in confusion were asking Jesus some questions. They wondered why he didn’t help.

Richard: Yeah, I do wonder why God doesn’t help. Why he doesn’t just get rid of death and suffering. It sucks you know. He ought to know that too.

Sundar: Indeed. I think he does. Jesus does a few things when his friend died. He wept with the people – God does really care.  He taught them through some hard questions – he wanted them to know the truth about death.  He raised a man from the dead – he wanted to show us what the future could be. [a long silence from both men]

Richard: Well, what did he say, what were the questions he asked?

Sundar: [reading again] Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

Sundar: So Jesus wants us to trust him, believe him in the face of death. Afterall, he is the one who died and came back again to speak of it. He promises resurrection and life to all who believe. So his question was simple “Do you believe this?” His followers are certain that death itself has been defeated and they do not fear it any longer. They do not fear God’s just judgment, nor do they fear their current bodies passing away.

Richard: You always come back to Jesus.

Sundar: I don’t know of anyone else I would turn to when looking at the face of death.

Richard: Why does Jesus get so lost in all the religious mumbo jumbo?

Sundar: I don’t know man… [Richard’s phone rings]

Richard: Hi Mom, yeah, I’m doing OK…lots to think about. I have my flight booked…yes, I know. I know. Love you too.

What of Love? Richard and Sundar discuss love, the brain and God

Richard is a philosophy undergraduate student with ambition toward a career in jurisprudence. He likes banter and debating but can be impatient and at times unsympathetic to the questions of God. Sundar is a student in electrical engineering with hopes of working in the field of wireless communications. Both young men enjoy each other’s company and discussion even though one is an atheist and the other a committed follower of Jesus and the Christian way.

What of Love?

Richard: Another day, another step closer to the dollas

Sundar: What are you all giddy about?

Richard: Got into NYU law school!!!

Sundar: Oh my, now you are really going to be insufferable

Richard: Unstoppable!  Don’t worry, I won’t forget the little guys who helped me along the way [laughs]

Sundar: Oh good for me. What did your Dad think?

Richard: I don’t care what he thinks – he is just pissed I don’t say hail Mary any more. We don’t connect much and to be honest I don’t really care.

Sundar: Isn’t he paying for school?

Richard: Was, I’ve been on my own for a couple of years. He cut me off after I told him what I thought of him.

Sundar: Man, I didn’t know.

Richard: Its ok, I don’t really care

Sundar: You have to care a little – I mean, who wants to be estranged from family. That has to bum you out a little, no?

Richard: No, I sort of hate the guy to be honest. Not trying to sound like a jerk or anything but I pretty much feel only contempt there. But stop all this noise and lets go get a beer and celebrate! NYU and Columbia were my top two and I’m in!!!

Sundar: Aight, give me a half an hour to finish up this digital electronics homework and we’ll head out. Nothing crazy though; I don’t want to tuck you in again like spring break your freshman year. We’ll hang but I don’t want you getting all sloppy drunk OK? I’m not your momma.

Richard: Ok, but hey, I’m not a freshman any more, I’ve matured a bit you know. But we need to have some fun – our time here is coming to a close quickly. We’ve had some good times. We need to soak this in.

[Richard drumming fingers on table, Sundar giving him an angry look…Sundar finally finishes up his last schematic]

Sundar: Aight, lets hit it

Richard: Finally

Sundar: Why don’t you ever talk about your Dad – I mean, I had no idea what was up there.

Richard: Nothing to say.

Sundar: Don’t you love the guy?

Richard: I got no need for love. And that man is the ultimate object of my disaffection. I’m not sure I believe in that whole love business any way.

Sundar: Seems pretty central to being human.

Richard: Love is just input and outputs Sundar. It’s a feeling in the brain – neuroscience has demonstrated that love is nothing but your brain getting all jazzed up in a certain area. We have located the way the brain reacts when people feel love. All just chemistry man…I have not use for that game.

Sundar: Did you get dumped in high school? [laughing]

Richard: Shut up you tool, I mean I like some people and certainly enjoy women, I’m just saying I’m not into all that sappy, “you should love your Dad” stuff you want to bring up.

Sundar: Whether you should love your Dad is another question. I think love is central to who we are. That we are made for relationship.

Richard: Social creatures, yes. But love I can see through that stuff.

Sundar: Hey, just a question about what you said a minute ago about neuroscience. Isn’t that a bit reductionist to say that love equals a certain brain function?

Richard: Not at all, you just have someone think fuzzy thoughts about their Mom or husband or wife or kid or something and watch the brain. When they are feeling love; the brain lights up. It’s pretty simple actually.

Sundar: Yes, but that is my point, there is a person who is thinking and feeling something. How do you know they are not thinking about MMA and beating someone down?

Richard: Well, you tell them what to think about dumb dumb.

Sundar: And how do you know they are thinking about their puppy or girlfriend they love?

Richard: They tell you!

Sundar: What if they are lying? You’d never know.

Richard: [Pauses for a second] I guess you have to take their word for it. But why would they lie?

Sundar: I’m not saying they would or did in the experiment you referred to. I am saying that we must rely on a real person to explain what they are thinking/feeling and then your sensors can perceive the corresponding brain function.  But the love is not the brain function, the brain function is a correlated result of feeling the love.

Richard: But this would imply the person is more than their brain. Which I don’t believe.

Sundar: Well, maybe we are more than our brains.  We both like neuroscience – fascinating stuff – but materialism is a philosophical claim and is not something science can prove. The existence of other minds we may believe, and be right to believe, but we cannot prove this scientifically. It is a truth of philosophy and of experience.

Richard: Yet we have demonstrated clearly that the most important aspect about us is our brains. Our higher and lower brain function dictate everything in our conscious and subconscious experience.

Sundar: I agree that our brains are indispensable – I’m not saying that we are ghosts operating without our bodies. But the mind is something immaterial which is causally and uniquely correlated to our brains.  The brain is the bodily organ where the drama of minds takes place.  Think of it this way [whips out his smartphone and launches a YouTube app].

Richard:  Oh I love that “Guy on a Buffalo” video – so stupid and funny

Sundar: Ok, we’ll watch it – I like it too [they watch a 2 min clip]. Now, if I were to ask you what is the movie we just watched, what would you say?

Richard: “He’s on a buffalo!” [laughing] I would say it’s a story about a guy riding a buffalo in the wilderness and some crazy dudes writing some funny songs to go around it.

Sundar: Right, you would not say that the movie was “just some glass, an AMOLED display, electrons turning on and off in a machine.”

Richard: No, who would talk like that

Sundar: You would. You realize that the movie is a plot, some characters, in this case a buffalo and a guy riding on it, [both laugh] it has people interacting and we have an understanding of these interactions.  Only a goofball would reduce the movie to “physical electronic parts.” And you, being a goofball, do that to a human being. Our brains are the medium of the mind but the mind is not the medium.

Richard: I see what you are saying. Hard to prove that though – especially when we can see so much can be reduced to the brain.

Sundar: Well, as a future NYU law dog, you should think about these things. After all, if we are simply matter bumping around due to the previous states of matter there is no “real” volition, ethics, spirituality or possibility of “changing oneself” as you so often like to say “you” did.  You don’t get credit for your LSAT score as the bumping of matter that is you simply and necessarily had to do this because of the laws of physics.

Richard: Well, if I have to give credit to MY LSAT score to physics maybe I’ll believe I’m more than my brain. I’ve just built my brain so awesomely you know. [laughs]

Sundar: I really just wanted to ask about your Dad. How did we get on all that schmack?

Richard: I said love is just brain chemistry and off you went

Sundar: Sorry man, you must get sick of me doing all that 

Richard: No, I love it. No pun intended.

Sundar: I think you know love is important and central to being human. Otherwise, why would you be so disappointed with your Dad.

Richard: Because he’s a piece of crap – you don’t know what it was like Sundar, you parents, pujas and all – are nice people. Pops…not so much.  Just disappointing.

Sundar: Naw dog, it is just the bumping of atoms bro, your Dad’s brain is what it is. No reason to be disappointed. C’est la vie.

Richard: Stop it [laughs subtely]

Sundar: The central nature of love to our existence is why it’s so disappointing. You had hopes and expectations – the stuff of relationship – that didn’t work out with your Dad. So your hope of love and friendship with Pops is why it hurts so much. You won’t convince me otherwise.

Richard: OK, Dr. Freud, Ok, maybe I wish things were different. To be honest, I’m really thankful for a friend like you. Most people don’t put up with my BS – for some reason you hang around. Probably just want to convert me.

Sundar: No, Richard we are friends, you know that. Whether or not you convert, I like you anyway man. Even in your crusty arrogance and LSAT dominance. [laughs] But for sure, you know I want you to believe in Jesus.

Richard: Sappy bro, let’s get another beer.

Sundar: I’m about done. You should slow it down after that one as well. 

Richard: I have thought more about Jesus in a serious way since meeting you. My Dad and his church friends seem so stupid to me. I couldn’t even look at Jesus as anything but silly…but you messed that up for me Sundar. I’ve realized there are thoughtful and caring believers out there and certainly Jesus is an enigmatic figure.  Maybe after law school I’ll pick back up some religious reading and have some questions for you.

Sundar: I’d really rather you not just put down your wrestle with God and faith in Jesus.  It is more important than law school you know.

Richard: Blasphemy!!! [laughs boisterously]

Sundar: I know, but hear me out. Afterall, your Dad is going to die soon.

Richard: What does THAT have to do with anything!? [a little agitated]

Sundar: Death is a serious thing and that end is coming to us all. Sorry to be so blunt but you shouldn’t put off stuff that is important. Like your jacked up relationship with your Pops or the destiny of your own soul.

Richard: Is this where you tell me why I’m going to hell again?

Sundar: No, we’ve had that discussion – and God knows on that one – but I will say that before our current brainwaves cease, we should care about our own destiny.

Richard: Indeed – I hear you man. Can we just hang now?

Sundar: Never. [both laugh]

Why do mean people suck? Richard and Sundar discuss the reality of suffering

Richard is a philosophy undergraduate student with ambition toward a career in jurisprudence. He likes banter and debating but can be impatient and at times unsympathetic to the questions of God. Sundar is a student in electrical engineering with hopes of working in the field of wireless communications. Both young men enjoy each other’s company and discussion even though one is an atheist and the other a committed follower of Jesus and the Christian way.

Why do mean people suck?

Sundar – Duuude, you wouldn’t believe what happened last night in the parking lot at Houlihans!

Richard – What happened, did a girl talk to you?

Sundar  – Shut up man, it’s crazy what happened.

Richard – Oh boy, here we go.

Sundar  So I’m standing outside in the parking lot talking to a friend. We are standing there and we watch this car back up full speed and smash into a parked car.  We were like: Did you see that!?  But then the guy just tries to drive off. The owner of the car comes out goes crazy, beating on the other guy’s car. So the guy trying to get away almost runs him over getting out of there. Nobody got his license plate number or anything.

Richard – People suck man.

Sundar – Yeah, you think when you hit someone’s car you apologize, not try to run them over!

Richard – You act surprised. Doesn’t your religion teach you that other people are evil doers?  

Sundar – Well, yes and no

Richard – Wow, you trying to sound all eastern on me now? What do you mean “yes” AND “no” – Either your faith teaches you that people are inherently good or that they suck…right?

Sundar – Well, my faith teaches that “we” are evil doers but also that we shouldn’t be…so it’s not just other people. I am assuming that you would not include yourself in “people who suck.”

Richard – Of course not, I’m awesome. Everyone else is the problem. [laughs]

Sundar – Do you really believe that?

Richard – A little…no, not really. All the suffering and junk in the world does tend to bum me out about the state of the world. I mean look around – some good, lots of evil doing. Really makes it hard for me to believe in God. Sometimes I want to – when talking to a guy like you – but then I see all the evil and senseless suffering and I just can’t believe anyone is behind all this noise.

Sundar – But when you say something is “evil” or that people “suck” doesn’t this assume something really important?

Richard – What do you mean?

Sundar – I mean isn’t saying something is evil making the assumption that there is such a thing as good?  Really good, not simply people’s opinions?  To say something is evil, we are saying that it is not the way it should be. Right?

Richard – I suppose so, but I don’t see your point.

Sundar – Well, if we say something is evil and not good don’t we have a standard by which we can make such judgments between things? Doesn’t this assume that we have some sort of moral compass or even a moral law by which we can make such judgments?

Richard – Sure, human beings make such judgments all the time. That guy driving the car – he sucks. [laughing]

Sundar – Well, I agree with that, but how are you making that judgment? Afterall, maybe that guy likes running into other people’s cars and smashing up their property? Who are you to judge that he is wrong, or an evildoer?

Richard – I’m going to law school so I can be a judge you know [smiling]. Oh, by the way, I smoked my LSAT. Can almost pick my school now.

Sundar – I knew you would.  Get back to my question. By what standard do you judge something good or evil? If you have no other standard other that the almighty opinions of Richard the future judge of the universe, I think I’m a little nervous.  Are you familiar with the 1948 BBC debate between Bertrand Russell and Frederick Copleston?

Richard – Yes, I listened to a portion once with you dumb-dumb.

Sundar – Oh yeah, I forgot. [laughing] In that debate Copleston presses Russell on this issue and I don’t think Russell ever answers. He simply says he tells the difference between good and evil by “his feelings.” Without an objective standard we are stuck in a bog of cultural relativism. Afterall, you might say forcing women to wear Burkas in Afghanistan is oppressive and evil while the Taliban says that it is right and even holy.

Richard – But they are wrong Sundar!

Sundar – Says who? I agree with you by the way, but who are we to say? Unless there is a real standard, outside of human opinion, we are stuck in moral and cultural relativism. I think you believe there is a moral law to which we can appeal Richard. How you find that without the existence of God is quite difficult.

Richard – Ok, maybe I do think there is such a standard, but why does it have to come from God? Why can it not simply be the rational thing is the good thing?

Sundar – Yeah, evvvveryone agrees on what is rational. If something is right or wrong whether anyone believes it or not, if something is actually evil then this is something outside of ourselves and even our rationality.  We might recognize it rationally but it is not a creation of our rational processes.  We recognize the evil and the good because they are real and they transcend us. These are not the subject of mere human opinions or popularity of vote or force of the powerful. Might does not make right, nor does a popularity contest.

Richard – Well when I see evil in the world I know it is real, it is more real to me than the good on most days. And as I said, suffering causes me to disbelieve in God. I do acknowledge that I am sort of mad at God or at the idea of God when I see so much suffering.

Sundar – Being that mad at an idea sounds a bit psychotic. [laughs] Just admit it you are mad at God but you know that God is real.

Richard – Man, just leave that alone bro.

Sundar – Ok, not trying to be pushy, but all of us have to deal with the suckiness or the world and even the suckiness of ourselves.

Richard – I work really hard on my own crap man, you know that.

Sundar – I actually respect that about you. But you also aren’t winning that battle [both laugh].  No, what I mean is that everyone, no matter what their philosophy or view of the world, has to come face to face with suffering and God. Atheists deny that God is real and forfeit any sort of ontological goodness outside of ourselves. They only focus on their frustration with suffering. Suffering is bigger to God to those who choose to disbelieve in God. It also leaves them in a relativist bog that they don’t even believe in. Pantheists, like my uncle, believe that suffering is either an illusion (maya)  or simply the other side of the same coin as goodness – you know that yin-yang tattoo you white dudes love to get.

Richard -  Hahahahahahaha…white girls too. I vote we outlaw all lower back yin-yang tattoos!

Sundar – I have a really hard time believing that good and evil are part of the same divine oneness and that if I get enlightened I’ll be like Yoda and see past good and evil. 

Richard – Maybe you are just not worthy Daniel-son. But I see what you mean; I can’t go with “evil is an illusion” either – no way man.

Sundar - Those who believe in God try to hold suffering, God and humanity together somehow. It is tough to do but it might surprise you that those who suffer can cling closely to God in those times. The Christian story is unique though.

Richard – How so?

Sundar – In the story of Scripture, the suffering and evil of the world is taken on by God himself.  Jesus, who is God become man, actually bears suffering on behalf of suffering people. Jesus was called Immanuel, God with us. He is also God suffering with and for us. Jesus’ death for sin is the ultimate sacrifice where God himself takes the sting of evil and death to forgive us and transform us.  Jesus’ resurrection displays that the ultimate enemy and bringer of pain, death itself, is and will be defeated by Jesus. The cross reflects God’s judgment upon sin and his reconciliation of people to himself. In Jesus we find grace, love and relationship.  In relationship with Jesus we have one that is familiar with suffering, who can sympathize with his people and who is present with us in our grief. The gospel places Jesus in the middle of suffering to redeem a sucky world through his own sacrifice and pain.

Richard – You are preaching again.

Sundar – Sorry man, when I first heard that God would suffer with and for us…it kinda answered a whole lot of questions for me. It really makes me thankful.

Richard – So when I see suffering and evil I shouldn’t be mad at God, I should be thankful to God for it? That makes noooo sense.

Sundar – Not exactly, but I am saying that suffering is not meaningless; it does have some purpose in our lives. The gospel is wonderful to me because it brings good news to those who suffer. In the gospel we see that we need not deny the existence of God, or the existence of suffering. We face both. The gospel tells us that we can be saved. This means we can be rescued and spared from the disaster of this world. Plus, you are forgetting an important thing. The evil and suffering isn’t just caused by some cosmic goo “out there” – it is in us. Remember what you said “people suck.”

Richard – Well, we do bad things from time to time, but some people are worse than others. Hitler, Osama and Yo Mama! [laughing]

Sundar – Don’t you say nothin about my Moma! [laughing as well]. Sure, I’m not saying that all people’s actions are the same, or even that all sins are the same. Only that we are all guilty of sin and evil doing to some degree. Really guilty…guilty before God.

Richard – So Jesus must take our sins away?

Sundar – And your guilt and his right judgment for our sins. Do you think God is happy about the evil we do here to one another and against him?

Richard – If I were God, I would be pissed.

Sundar – Jesus’ teaching is devastating. He said that the junk people do actually comes from the heart and the intention of the heart is what matters.  He also taught that out of the heart flow all matter of evil stuff. So WE are kind of the problem, and he is about forgiving and changing US. If God is pissed, he is pissed at us taking all he has given us and turning away from him and doing evil with it.

Richard – I really think you should consider being a preacher and not an engineer.

Sundar – But I love packet switching, information transmission and reducing signal noise! [haha]

Richard –Nerd. But I wouldn’t mind a little less noise in this world.

Sundar – I really think you should consider following Jesus.

Richard – I like him and some of his teaching. I just don’t get the whole worship God thing. So the idea of forgiveness and change is cool. But I don’t get why a god demands to be worshipped.

Sundar – Do you get love?

Richard – No I don’t get love.  And I’m NOT talkin about that. At least not today. Gotta go to class.

Nobody's Perfect - Richard and Sundar Discuss the Perfect and the Good

Richard is a philosophy undergraduate student with ambition toward a career in jurisprudence. He likes banter and debating but can be impatient and at times unsympathetic to the questions of God. Sundar is a student in electrical engineering with hopes of working in the field of wireless communications. Both young men enjoy each other’s company and discussion even though one is an atheist and the other a committed follower of Jesus and the Christian way.

Nobody’s Perfect?

Sundar: What’s good today Dick?

Richard: Not much. And don’t call me that. It’s what my Mom calls my Dad so cut that out. Not in a good mood. I’m really stressing out about law school and getting ready for my LSATs.

Sundar: You’ll do fine man, you’re the smart guy remember?

Richard: But if I don’t get in to the right school, it could affect everything. I worked my butt off for the last eight years to get to this point. I’m just a little stressed.

Sundar: What if you screw it all up now?

Richard: Not an option man. My dream has always been to become an attorney. All my focus on grades these past few years, learning how to think clearly and make good arguments was for getting into law school. If I don’t get in… [Sundar interrupts]

Sundar: What? What then? You are worthless? I mean, I think you’ll smoke the LSAT and have your choice of schools. But you need to chill out or this sort of thing is going to ruin you.

Richard: What, wanting to be the best? Not a thing wrong with that.

Sundar: Not what I’m saying. I’m trying to do the best I can do as well. This idea that you can’t make mistakes, mess up at anything.

Richard: It keeps us going though…the striving for perfection is part of what makes us human.

Sundar: But what does “perfection” even mean?  I don’t know anyone who thinks they are perfect. Do you?

Richard: [After a long pause] No, not really…I mean, who could claim that…to err is to be human

Sundar: And what is “perfect”?

Richard – I’ve actually thought about this some when I was taking early modern [philosophy] It seems dumb to say nobody IS perfect if there is no perfect to be found.

Sundar: Agree, but we are not saying nonsense here. It seems we all know we fall short of something.

Richard: I’m not really sure. Maybe. What if by “perfect” we mean qualities we know about in people that are good and we just see them maximized. A “perfect” person need not exist for us to imagine one. For instance, unicorns are simply combinations of known realities but the totality of a horse with a horn does not exist. I actually think people create the idea of a god as a bundle of known human qualities. We just say a being possesses love, goodness, happiness, etc. in an “infinite and perfect” manner…and presto, you have a God.

Sundar – You are kind of missing something. Imagining a perfect being is an exercise of conceiving something/someone who is good, but in every way. If this does not exist we are imagining no-thing. Plus, just to say that goodness can be discussed in varying degrees means that there must be a sort of “goodness scale”, some reality by which we could judge such so called progress. Of course we can create imaginary things like unicorns but saying “I’m not a unicorn” has meaning. I’m not an animal with horse-like and rhino-like qualities. Of course, we only know horse-like and horns because they are real.

Sundar – My point is the infinite and the good are real concepts. If they are not real we sure speak of them as they are.  When someone says “Nobody is perfect” they are saying something rational and coherent, it is not a meaningless statement. My contention is the concept and category of “perfect” is not empty – there is someone who actually is infinitely good.

Richard – couldn’t we simply mean by saying that “I know I could be better” and ditch all this “perfect” talk as nonsense?

Sundar – No, because it is not nonsense at all. You just demonstrated that.

Richard – Wha? How? I just said “better.”

Sundar – Right. But what do we mean by “better.” You ever read Nietzsche?

Richard – Of course, it is required reading for guys like me! We love us some Nietzsche in the free thought club.

Sundar - Remember his parable The Madman? He asks: Is there any up or or down? What is better if you are not moving towards some sort of limit? If we wipe away the perfect and deny that it is real, we then have no way of knowing how anything is “better” than another. Not objectively any sense. It would only be a manner of preference to say Hitler or Osama are worse than someone else. This is why Nietzsche had to say timid and cowardly things like “we must move beyond good and evil”

Richard – How is that cowardly, some say it is very bold, you know step outside of the herd of dumb humanity and live your own way, on your terms, with your own idea of morality? I think he means we can be courageous to live the way we want and not be bound by society and its dogmas; particularly the arbitrary assignment by those in power of what is “good.”

Sundar - But isn’t that all a bunch of junk Richard? Just hiding behind metaphors? Listen to what my man GK Chesterton said on this [Sundar pulls out his iPhone and does a search]

Richard – You love that dude…ease up on that man crush…

Sundar – Here it is [begins reading]: Nietzsche, whom some are representing as a bold and strong thinker. No one will deny that he was a poetical and suggestive thinker; but he was quite the reverse of strong. He was not at all bold. He never put his own meaning before himself in bald abstract words: as did Aristotle and Calvin, and even Karl Marx, the hard, fearless men of thought. Nietzsche always escaped a question by a physical metaphor, like a cheery minor poet. He said, “beyond good and evil,” because he had not the courage to say, “more good than good and evil,” or, “more evil than good and evil.” Had he faced his thought without metaphors, he would have seen that it was nonsense. So, when he describes his hero, he does not dare to say, “the purer man,” or “the happier man,” or “the sadder man,” for all these are ideas; and ideas are alarming. He says “the upper man,” or “over man,” a physical metaphor from acrobats or alpine climbers. Nietzsche is truly a very timid thinker. He does not really know in the least what sort of man he wants evolution to produce. And if he does not know, certainly the ordinary evolutionists, who talk about things being “higher,” do not know either.

Richard – But can’t we get better without having an upper limit like “perfect.”

Sundar – How do we know we are not getting worse?

Richard – Why can’t we be moving towards a mean or balance? Even as far back as Aristotle we have known that in terms of human virtue that there seems to be a golden mean…we neither love or hate too much, we find a balance to the force in the middle, in moderation.

Sundar – Because we are talking about “better” not “average” unless you want to say “average” is somehow the same thing as good and getting more average means you are getting better

Richard – My logic prof doesn’t think so, but you see what I’m saying right? Virtue is found being balanced not in going to extremes.

Sundar – On some things yes, I do agree, but on other things, no.  We might say moderation is good on some things but not on others.  Moderation in evil would not be good at all. We would not want a balanced approach to abusing people would we?

Richard: Of course not, but that person would not be balanced. She would be extreme in anger, or selfishness or lack of temperance in her basic impulses.

Sundar: But it seems we do not simply want a balanced view of justice and injustice right? Or love? Or truth telling? And this still doesn’t tell us why we think we can actually improve or even more interesting, that we fall short or why such falling short is actually lacking/flawed, even bad.

Richard – If we are honest, we can all agree that we fall short of our own ideals.

Sundar – Agree my friend, agreed.  The only thing I want to add is that we fall short of something, or more accurately, someone, that is real, a standard of good we did not invent, and who transcends us.

Richard – What if that standard was among us? In the human community? That the virtuous man defines goodness for us? I think Aristotle got this right. We see and experience virtue in people and we can aspire to that.

Sundar – Yeah, I really like that as well. Except for one thing, it is kind of like saying “What is good?” and then answering “The good man is good.” It still leaves the question at hand undefined. I do believe we see and recognize goodness in others as we have a conscience that allows us to “see” good and evil. And if you take the concept of “perfect” would we have to say “The perfect man is perfect?” We both agree we have never seen one of those amongst our college buddies. [both laugh]

Richard: I suppose this is what makes Jesus a really interesting figure. If he is who you say he is then we might have Aristotle’s virtue man on the scene in actuality. It is just that someone claiming to be all that on earth is a bit much. Hi, I’m Jesus, I’m perfect, I’m god. That sounds like a guy that wouldn’t be much fun to hang with.

Sundar: But what we see of Jesus in the gospels is profoundly this. He is super present with people. People loved to hang with him. He loves folks, serves others, teaches patiently, hangs at the parties and makes people feel completely at home with him. Part of perfection we see in Jesus is that he was not arrogant, but humble. He was not looking down on people who were far from perfect. He loved and forgave them. In fact, because he embodies goodness and perfection, people around him knew they did not have to fake anything with him. They knew in one sense that they were OK to not be OK. They knew if they flunked out on the LSATs that he would not just kick them to the curb.

Richard:  Hey, don’t get personal man [laughs] – I think we all want to know that we are enough so that we can actually be free to live without all that pressure and burden. To do what we love to do without feeling guilty, without feeling we suck, without some external pressure to make ourselves perfect in the eyes of society or friends or parents…even god.

Sundar: But we do suck. We are not perfect and do some really jacked up mess to one another. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God [Richard abruptly interrupts].

Richard: Christians can have such a low view of humanity. I really don’t like all that sin talk.

Sundar: I really don’t like sin. You didn’t let me finish – and I really don’t like how you jump on me when you get pissed about something.

Richard: Ok, apologies, finish your thought.

Sundar: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified by his grace as a gift. The message about Jesus is that you don’t have to be perfect…he is…and our own suckiness can be forgiven and we can be made right with God. Because he is perfect he’s not down with us sucking – we were made for more. We can be more. Because of his love and grace he forgives us and then begins to transform us; to be more like him.

Richard: I will think I really suck if I don’t do well on that LSAT.

Sundar:  And then what?

Apologetics Series - Summary

Why are we building Altars? Richard and Sundar Discuss Religion

Richard is a philosophy undergraduate student with ambitions towards a career in jurisprudence. He likes banter and debating but can be impatient and at times unsympathetic to the question of God. Sundar is a student in electrical engineering with hopes of working in the field of wireless communications. Both young men enjoy each other’s company and discussion even though one is an atheist and the other a committed follower of Jesus and the Christian way.

Richard: hey man, you get a good workout in?

Sundar: yeah, working stuff out by hitting the Muay Thai pads a bit

Richard: Man, what’s with that face, did someone do something bad in your corn flakes?

Sundar: My Mom is wearing me out again.

Richard: What’s going on? Man you are in college, she needs to chill and realize you are not her little boy any more. 

Sundar: No, my mom is cool, she really does treat me like a grown up for the most part [smiles thoughtfully]. It’s actually a little complicated.

Richard: Well, my next class is in an hour and a half. I mean, I don’t want to hear you whine for an hour but if it helps to talk about it, I’m good to listen.

Sundar:  She is wanting me to do some Diwali celebrations with the family.

Richard: Nice!!! Bollywood dancing!?! [awkwardly stands, screws in light bulb and pets the cat]

Sundar: no, Hinduism…it kinda creates some tension for me. I mean, I love my family but they worship before these statues and get so superstitious about everything, and…[Richard interrupts him]

Richard: so chill out, can’t you just join in for the food and dancing [laughs a bit]

Sundar: yes and no…I told you it is sort of complicated…especially after becoming a follower of Jesus. I can hang, enjoy the festiveness but my Mom really wants me to join in with all the pujas

Richard: poojawhat?

Sundar: it’s an act of honor or devotion to a deity or a person of honor. I’m not really down with that anymore and my Mom thinks I’m rejecting her and the whole family. I love them but they just don’t get why I no longer jump in to worshiping avatars and Hindu deities.

Richard: your family is really religious

Sundar: we are Indian bro [moment of silence and both break out in laughter] Even studying for school is expected to be an act of devotion.

Richard: religion just divides people, I’m sorry this sucks so bad for you.

Sundar: I kinda think religion connects all people in a common humanity on one level…but divides on another.

Richard: you mean all religions teach basically the same things - be good, make the gods happy, be nice to your fellow monkeys?

Sundar: I wouldn’t say something ignorant like that - the major religions are actually nothing alike.

Richard: Well, they might disagree on some minor stuff but say similar things about the big stuff.

Sundar: it’s actually the exact opposite…they disagree on things like: god, the problem with the world, humanity’s role in it, what solutions we need, what happens when we die, and our eternal destiny…

Richard: [Smiles] These are sort of biggies in god-world aren’t they?

Sundar: Yeah…it is usually secular people who say “all religions teach the same thing.” A devout Muslim wouldn’t say that. It is also imperialistic for secular people to define the religions of other people for them. Don’t you think? Buddhists don’t claim to be orthodox in Jewish faith you know. The truth claims of the religions actually make them distinct not the same.

Richard: Well, I think people in the West just want to try and point out some unity in religion so religious people will stop finding reasons to blow each other up.

Sundar: It’s more than religious people blowing stuff up. I don’t think it was First Baptist Church fighting the Vietnam War or filling Stalin’s camps, creating the killing fields of the Khamir Rouge, or creating cultural revolutions that slaughtered millions.

Richard: fair enough, can we say that it seems a human tendency is to want to blow each other up?

Sundar: man is sinful and separated from God

Richard: ok…don’t go preaching…get back to why you think there is a common humanity found due to religion. I can’t wait to hear this one [laughs in a dismissive way]

Sundar: Well, I’m not going to make some fantastic claim. I do want to simply say to be human, IS to be religious. We cannot help ourselves.

Richard: I’m not religious at all

Sundar: Except for when the political season comes around, or when your week is ruined because the NY Giants loose to the Cowboys or when you wanted to smash that guy who was saying Foo Fighters were a greater band than Pearl Jam, or when you declare your atheism superior to all views of life heaping condemnation upon religious people.

Richard: [Sheepishly] Am I that bad?

Sundar: Dude, you don’t make friends easily. But you are deeply religious – you can’t help to worship stuff either. It IS human to worship.

Richard: But I don’t worship dumb stuff like you and your parents…not meaning to offend

Sundar: Yeah, worshipping young men playing football is soooo sophisticated.

Sundar: Human beings throughout time have been very religious in every culture and every time. They seem to want to transcend themselves and circumstances, have minds that seem to be able to do so and create gods and goddesses like it’s going out of style.

Richard: Katy Perry is a goddess.

Sundar: And you’re an idiot [the two laugh, Richard stops and has a serious look on his face]

Richard: I actually get what you are saying man. The very nature of homo sapiens seems to be this way. It is hard to deny that.

Sundar: You could name the species homo adorans. Worshipping man. The really interesting question for me is WHY we are this way.

Richard: Haven’t recent brain scan studies shown that god-stuff happens in a certain region of the brain. 

Sundar: Actually other research has shown that several regions of the brain get activated by questions about god(s). That isn’t my point. My question is WHY are we this way? We don’t have to be this way you know. According to your beliefs we are only a biological monkey that evolved to survive and propagate our DNA to the next generation. But we have a species that in every environment and every time is profoundly religious.

Richard: Well, religion must have had an evolutionary advantage to our ancestors to help them make it through the day. Those creatures with this sort of tendency survived and here we are.

Sundar: But you say religious people are stupid, should get Darwin awards and are less fit than those like yourselves. The books you give me to read by the Rev Sam Harris and his posse all talk about religion as it is evil, worthless and dangerous to people. But now you say it must be awesome because evolution selected it?

Richard: We are smarter now then then so we no longer need it.

Sundar: You should record and listen to yourself sometime. In your view the religious nature of human beings is a historical accident of DNA that was AWESOME and now it is not awesome to our genes any longer? That totally makes no sense at all.

Sundar: The religious sense that we all have, this desire to worship, can be explained by an accident of biochemistry or it could be that we are worshippers by nature, by our very make up and design. We were made to worship.  One of the leaders of the European Protestant Reformation called this the sensus divinitatis, the sense of the divine.  It seems to me that this sense can either correspond to something real or it is an illusion without any sort of explanation.

Richard: OK, let me grant that for a second. There is something real “out there” that we were made to worship. Man, it seems like we don’t have a clue what that is.  Look at how many gods there are just in Hinduism let alone all the world’s religions. Then you add to that all the other religions and their deities: Jesus, Allah, Tom Cruise.

Sundar: hahahaha – don’t even get me started on Scientology – I’m reading a great book on that right now – had it on my iPhone while hitting the pads just a few minutes ago. Have you seen that song “Tom Cruise, is Tom Cruise crazy” – classic.

Richard: [laughing]  Don’t change the subject though, it seems that this religious sense only gets you so far. It launches you into a loony world of gods, goddesses, demi-gods, weirdos and confusion. So if I grant you this religious sense in us, for whatever its cause, you still don’t get to “I believe in God the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth?”

Sundar: Well, I did say it unites us in a common humanity as worshippers…but I never said that “all religions are the same” or “all are equally true in all aspects” or “all gods worshipped are real.” I consider much religion a misguided fiction because we seem to have bad aim in our religious devotion and worship. I mean, you mentioned Katy Perry, there are better things to worship.

Richard: I’m not so sure about that [goofing off again]

Sundar: I believe that we are made by our creator to know and worship him. Yet we choose to worship everything but him. The biblical terminology is idolatry.  This is precisely why I have this dilemma with my Mom. I love her; I want to be with her. But I think it is wrong to worship avatars and statues and concocted deities.  I think it is as misguided as you would think and more because I do believe we should worship God.

Richard: Well, you could just fake it, go through the motions of the…what did you call it

Sundar: Puja

Richard: Just cross yourself and light some candles like we do when we go to Mass with grandma.

Sundar: There is too much faking in the world already Richard. I really don’t want to put on a show, particularly falsely posing to worship idols. Come on, I want to have integrity – we have too much lying and fake crap in the world for me to join in that dance. Plus, I really believe the gospel and I’m not down with religion.

Richard: You just tried to convince me that we are all religious! Just about worked too. Now you say religion ain’t no good? Hey, welcome to my team!  [laughing]

Sundar: No, I think religion is a human creation to try to please god, gods or connect with ultimate reality. It depends upon our effort, typically depends on the ability to keep some rule and it usually crushes the human spirit

Richard: You are on my team!

Sundar: There is a third option between my Mom’s worship of the gods and your atheism. A couple of years ago I became a follower of Jesus. He did not claim to bring a religion to the world but to bring good news. He taught that God loves and pursues people, forgives their sin and rebellion…[pause]…even our idolatry. He died for our sin to bring us into relationship with God and rightly fulfill our desire for worship. One theologian said this way long ago “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find rest in thee” Jesus said he came to seek and save people and bring them into a living relationship with God. He makes them worshippers in spirit and in truth.  So the desire to worship can be aimed not at Katy Perry but the one who created and sustains all things.

Richard: [long pause] – that’s not the thing I heard from Father Joe growing up. He was always telling me about how sinful I am and how I needed to make up for that by doing good stuff. I got sick of that and wanted to be free of that noise.  

Sundar: Sin is real, but there is more than one sort of way to be free…

Richard: Dang, I gotta go get some food and get to class.  I sort of miss Aquinas after gargling on Kant for a few weeks now. Seriously man, I understand why you feel in a pickle with your family. If I was a praying dude I’d pray for you. But, since I ain’t, hang in there [gives a man hug to Sundar]

Finding God in Our Questions - Essay Bibliography and Recommended Resources

…continued from Part 8

he entire introduction to Apologetics Series is linked here for your convenience as well.

Essay Bibliography

Ariew, Roger. “Pierre Duhem.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy  (2011). http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2011/entries/duhem/ [accessed 9/14/2011].

Bauer, Walter, Frederick W. Danker, William Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Behe, Michael J. Darwin’s Black Box : The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New York: The Free Press, 1996.

Boa, Kenneth D., and Robert M. Bowman Jr. Faith Has Its Reasons, an Integrative Approach to Defending Christianity. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001.

Budziszewski, J. How to Stay Christian in College. Colorado Springs: Nav Press, 2004.

Chang, Curtis. Engaging Unbelief : A Captivating Strategy from Augustine & Aquinas. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000.

Collins, Francis S. The Language of God : A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. New York: Free Press, 2006.

Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith - Christian Truth and Apologetics. 3rd ed. Wheaton: Crossway, 2008.

Dembski, William A. The Design Revolution : Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Dempski, William, and Jay Wesley Richards. Unapologetic Apologetics. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2011.

Fernando, Ajith. Acts, the Niv Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.

Groothuis, Douglas. Christian Apologetics - a Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith. Downers Grover: IVP Academic, 2011.

Keller, Timothy J. The Reason for God : Belief in an Age of Skepticism. 1st Riverhead trade pbk. ed. New York: Riverhead Books, 2009.

Lennox, John C. God’s Undertaker : Has Science Buried God? 1st ed. Oxford: Lion, 2007.

Markos, Louis. Apologetics for the 21st Century. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010.

McGrath, Alister. A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology. Louisville: Westminter John Knox, 2009.

Nash, Ronald. Faith and Reason - Searching for a Rational Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988.

Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom, and Evil. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977.

________. Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Pollard, Nick. Evangelism Made Slightly Less Difficult - How to Interest the Uninterested Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1997.

Schaeffer, Francis A. Francis A. Schaeffer Trilogy: The Three Essential Books in One Volume. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990.

Zacharias, Ravi K. Can Man Live without God. Nashville: W Pub. Group, 1994.

Recommended Books

Comprehensive

Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman Jr. Faith Has Its Reasons, an Integrative Approach to Defending Christianity. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001.

William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith - Christian Truth and Apologetics. 3rd ed. Wheaton: Crossway, 2008.

John Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, Phillipsburg, P & R Publishing, 1994.

Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia for Christian Apologetics, Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 1998.

Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics - a Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith. Downers Grover: IVP Academic, 2011.

For the thoughtful lay person

GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Various editions – also can be found online and in a fantastic new audiobook version read by John Lee.

Paul K. Hoffman (Editor), Norman L. Geisler (Editor), Why I Am a Christian: Leading Thinkers Explain Why They Believe, Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2006.

CS Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics – Includes Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, The Problem of Pain, Miracles, A Grief Observed, and The Abolition of Man. New York, HarponeOne 2002.

Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity, Wheaton, Crossway, 2004.

Francis A. Schaeffer, Francis A. Schaeffer Trilogy: The Three Essential Books in One Volume, Wheaton, Crossway Books, 1990.

Ravi Zacharias (ed), Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend, Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 2008.

Popular Level

William Lane Craig, On Guard, Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision, Colorado Springs,  David Cook, 2010)

Timothy J Keller, The Reason for God : Belief in an Age of Skepticism. 1st Riverhead trade pbk. ed. New York, Riverhead Books, 2009.

Gregory Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2009.

Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God, Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 2004. Jesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Message, Nashville, W Publishing Group, 2002

Recommended web sites

As always, we do not hold to or support every single thing written on sites which we did not produce etc. The following have helpful resources on various subjects related to the answering questions and defending the faith. I do stand by what is on Power of Change.

Christian Apologetic and Resource Ministry – www.carm.org Christian ministry dedicated to the glory of Christ and the promotion and defense of the Christian Gospel, Doctrine, and Theology.

Power of Changewww.powerofchange.org – this is my web site where I have written on various subjects theological, philosophical and apologetic. Use the categories and search box on the right to find that which you seek.

Ravi Zacharias International Ministries – www.rzim.org - Equipping this generation of Christians with a culturally relevant apologetic

Reasonable Faith www.reasonablefaith.org  is the web site of Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig.

Stand to Reasonwww.str.org  - Stand to Reason is a ministry founded by Greg Koukl which equips Christian ambassadors with knowledge, wisdom, and character to be effective ambassadors for the Christian faith.

The Content of Apologetics

…continued from Part 7

The Historical Faith and Central Doctrines

Good arguments have been and continue to be developed in service of major Christian teachings and tenants.  The following are but a few essential doctrines.

  • The existence, character and nature of God including his power and goodness in permitting suffering and human evil
  • The fully deity and full humanity of Christ
  • The bodily resurrection of Christ
  • Humanity’s fallen state and guilt before God
  • Salvation is by God’s grace through faith in Christ, by the substitutionary atonement of Christ
  • Belief that Jesus is the promised Messiah - great prophet, high priest, coming king.
  • The Scriptures as the Word of God which reveal to us the gospel and the aforementioned doctrines.

Important Contemporary Interactions and Frontiers

In every epoch of church history Christian Apologists must answer the questions and objections of the culture in which they travel. In the second century AD Justin Martyr interacted at great length with the Logos ideology of Greek Philosophy. I have never in my life been asked about this. I have been asked and thought a lot about the following.

  • Truth as a category – in times past most believed that truth was real, external to us and discoverable. Today many think we construct our own truths and the universe will adjust and adapt to our whims. Ideas such as epistemic relativism, moral relativism, and cultural relativism must be addressed today.
  • Concept of self and identity – modern people think of themselves as constructed by their experiences and environments while Scripture teaches that we are created in the image of God and unique in our personal identity. We have to interact today with a fluid concept of “youness” as many teach “you” are not even real but rather just an electrochemical phenomena working out in a pattern of star dust called the brain.
  • Cultural view of authority – God is the author of and owner of our lives. Yeah, Americans love that stuff. Our view of authority is that it’s always suspect and bad. We are calling people to repent and trust Jesus as Lord of life. There are earthquakes that will go down here. 
  • Our view of history and the future – Do you ever watch any sci fi movies? They hardly, if ever, include anyone who believes in God. Furthermore they are many times morbid, dark and dystopia (a really bad place) views of the future being envisioned by today’s artists and story tellers. We hold that God will reign in the future and the future is bright on the earth. See a difference?
  • Science/Scripture – though a strong argument can be made that science was birthed from the Christian point of view, many today want to image a war between science and faith. Additionally, theories of micro and macro evolution and how they fit (or do not fit) with the biblical narrative must be addressed. 
  • Biotechnology, Technobiology, Artificial Intelligence and Neuroscience – We are working today to engineer and re-engineer life on two fronts. First, we are working in gene manipulation and therapy to heal diseases but the possibility for augmentation looms real. Such work in “wetware” has potential ethical pitfalls and interacts with what it means to be human. Second, we are also working with “hardware” and computer systems to heal and augment using mechanical means. This also raises profound issues related to justice (why do all the rich people have “super brains”) and ethics. How will we understand robot intelligence and ever more interactive machines? Are they “human?” The final issue I’ll raise in this list is in “software” and the creation of artificial intelligence. Neuroscience today can simplistically assume that the brain is a computer and that is all we are. Such mind/brain identity can subvert many aspects of Christian theology and I have already been writing on these fronts.[1]
  • Environmental Concerns – Is technology our savior or an out of control evil which will destroy our world? Or both? Popular films like Avatar[2] are wrestling with these issues, as should a good Christian thinker.
  • Concerns for Universal Human Rights - what worldview grounds the existence of and the inalienable nature of universal human rights?

Pastoral Apologetics

Finally, many times issues regarding making a defense for the faith and caring for people times converge. This list is a small sampling we wrestle with today in pastoral ministry and care.

  • Sexual ethics – sex without marital trust and commitment, homosexuality, transgenderism, sexual abuse of children, pornography and sexual addiction. We both need to make a biblical case on these matters and defend that case in the public square.
  • Medical ethics – abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide are all on the table in public life.
  • Reproductive ethics – various forms of birth control, fertility treatments, surrogate motherhood, embryo care and lab based reproductive procedures which by pass fathers or mothers all must be addressed with care and answers.

The church as a whole must constantly do its thinking well to defend the faith and to commend the faith to people interacting with contemporary issues and problems. The above lists are by no means exhaustive but merely reading through them could seem exhausting. Thankfully, there are many in the body of Christ with deep expertise along every line above.

Furthermore, Jesus is the one who promised to build his church and nothing can prevail against it. Every culture has its challenges; every age has ideology that spews against the risen Son of God. It is to be expected and we are called to get on those walls and contend for the faith as we hold out the gospel of life for many more to be saved.

It is great to live today and belong to Jesus. May God raise up many great thinkers and apologists in our day. Maybe you? Maybe me?

Continued in Part 9 - Bibliography and Recommended Resources

Notes

[1] See two papers linked here - http://www.powerofchange.org/blog/2011/4/28/on-human-anthropology.html 

[2] See my thoughts on Avatar here - http://www.powerofchange.org/blog/2009/12/19/a-few-thoughts-on-avatar.html

An Introduction to Apologetic Systems

…Continued from Part 6

There have been many historical approaches to the academic discipline and practice of Christian Apologetics. There are camps that have formed around philosophical approaches and various ways thinkers have approached the relationship of faith and reason. Though this cannot in any way be exhaustive I wanted to provide a summary of the various ways believers have sought to intellectually and practically defend the faith. I have done this for you by using the titles of popular songs or ways of dancing. You’re welcome. After these brief descriptions will follow two figures which summarize the various views of these positions in tabular form. You’re welcome again.

Classical Apologetics – Two stepping the floor

Classical apologists trace their roots back to the philosophical theology of the early church and the high day of medieval thinking. They think philosophy should serve theology but can take an active role in shaping the necessary preconditions (prolegomena) for doing good theology. Many times the classical method is called a “two step” apologetic in that it first seeks to philosophically prove or demonstrate the existence of God and then secondly, demonstrate the reality of the Christian method, its miracles and revelation in Scripture. They argue that it is hard to talk to someone about the miracle of the resurrection when they don’t even believe God exists. They are not afraid to use the terminology “proving Christianity to be true.”

Evidential Apologetics – Don’t know much about history?

Evidential apologists think two steps are not necessary when one will do fine. This camp focuses on evidences for Christianity and makes inductive arguments based on historical facts. The evidentialists will point to fulfilled prophecy, build an historical case for the literal resurrection of Jesus and point to verifying miracles as reasons to think the Christian gospel is true. Like a good forensic specialist on CSI these dudes dig the pages of history and archaeology and point to biblical evidences that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God. Evidentialists love good learning history and think you should know much about it as well.

Some Reformed Approaches – Song References Below

In the reformed tradition there are actually several flavors of apologetic thinking. One unifying factor for people in this camp is that they hold the position that human reason is flawed and devastated by the fall of man into sin. They hold this for biblical and theological reasons. Due to his fallen nature man cannot reason properly so he cannot think his way into God. Fideism, which sort of means “faith only”, which we will handle in a moment, has been an historical presence in the history of reformation churches. In recent times two philosophical movements have come to the fore in the reformed churches. Pressupositionalism and Reformed Epistemology. The first is theologically oriented and the latter is a move in the analytic philosophy of religion. We cover each in turn.

We want Presup, We want Presup!

Cornelius Van Til was the most prominent recent figure in advocating for this methodology in apologetics. The claim here is that the human mind and reasoning is not neutral in that man is at enmity with God. He is suppressing the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18) so there is no point in “answering a fool according to his folly” (Proverbs 26:4). We need to get over the myth of common ground and reasoning to God. Humans are not this sort of creature so we should not act as if apologetics is a friendly match of intellectual tennis where truth will simply prevail by way of reasoning. However, the presuppositionalist does find a place for rational engagement and it is on the offense. The apologist should “tear down strong-holds of unbelief” with a transcendental argument showing that the Christian faith is the only rational option. All others deconstruct. Even the use of reason collapses unless we know we can trust it. This only comes from God. So when it comes to “answering the fools folly” (Proverbs 26:5) we must expose the flaws of unbelieving thinking that set itself up against the knowledge of God. I find this a great methodology but it does not produce great historical or philosophical arguments in defense of or in favor of the faith. Thankfully there are classical and evidential apologists for that. We can borrow their tools to use in our method. Hooray!

It’s my prerogative, I can believe if I can believe

In the last half of the 20th century men like William Alston of Syracuse, Nicolas Wolterstorff of Yale and St. Alvin Plantinga (sorry for my preemptive canonization of Alvin, but we do love him) of Notre Dame have made some interesting moves in the philosophy of religions. To get into it here would be either fantastically exciting or phenomenally boring. I’m going to hedge my bets and keep this short. Since the enlightenment atheistic and skeptical thinkers demanded someone be able to “prove!!!” that God exists in order to be rational in believing in him. Skeptics try to find escape clauses in arguments for God’s existence so that may say “see, you didn’t prove it, therefore you are a dumb-dumb for believing in God.” Or something like that. The skeptic thereby places the “burden of proof” on the theist as if unbelief is the only basic and default position. Plantinga has been making the argument[1] that it is purely and properly basic, epistemologically speaking, to believe in God without any argument for God’s existence and to do so is completely rational. One is rationally responsible to defeat arguments presented against belief in God and an intellectual believer should be happy to do so. Certainly St. Alvin has offered reasons to believe in God and he has shown that certain objections to God can be fully removed. His argument dealing with the problem of evil and suffering comes to mind.[2]

Fideism – cause you gotta have faith, faith, faith

Fideism is represented well by Martin Luther’s now infamous quote “Reason is the devil’s whore”[3] and is entirely suspect of any project of human reasoning apart from the divine illumination of the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit. Faith is a leap but one worth your life. After all, if faith is in GOD who is fully and entirely worth your trust, you should just flow with that. Other apologists see the fideistic position as self-refuting as you must use reason to make an argument against reason. Yet the fideist gives good warnings based upon good theology so let’s listen to him that faith alone, in Christ alone, by the grace of God alone is the only thing that saves. We should give an amen.

Pragmatic – Born, in the USA, I was, born in the USA

So which is right? I think they all offer something helpful in the apologetic enterprise of the church. As a pragmatic American I think our tool belt should have a little of all of these in the mix so that the Spirit can use reasons, arguments, preaching, testimony and whatever else he chooses to bring people to faith in Christ and find the knowledge of God.

OK, enjoy the tables below.

Table 1: Meta-Apologetic Issues[4]




Classical

Evidential

Reformed

Fideist


Mode

Proof

Defense

Offense

Persuasion


Ground

Reason

Fact

Revelation

Faith


Form

Rational

Empirical

Transcendental

Paradoxical


Precursors

Anselm, Aquinas

Butler, Paley

Calvin, Reid

Luther, Kierkegaard


20th Cent

CS Lewis, Geisler

Montgomery

 

Swinburne


Van Til, Plantinga

Barth, Bloesch


God

God exists

God has acted

God speaks

God loves me


Knowledge

Internal Coherence

External coherence

Scriptural Fidelity

Fidelity to Christ


Theology

AP as Prolegomena

As Polemics

As Theology

As Persuasive Theology


Philosophy

Uses Phil Ideas

Uses Phil Tools

Confronts false Philosophy

Confronts all Phil

 

Table 2: Apologetic Issues




Classical

Evidential

Reformed

Fideist


Scripture

Is the subject of AP

 

Rationally Verified Authority of God


Source of AP

 

Factually Verified Story about Christ


Standard for AP

 

Self-attesting Authority of God


Story of AP

 

Self attesting story about Christ


Religion

Disprove the Worldviews Underlying Religions

Present the unique, factual, and miraculous character of Christian Religion

Presents the antithesis between Christian and Non-Christian principles.

Explain Christian faith is not religion but relationship


God

Show that theism is the only or most rational worldview

Use various lines of argument and evidence to build a case for Theism

Show that God’s existence is basic or foundational to all knowledge or proof

Explain that knowing God is a relational matter


Evil

Deductive Problem

 

Is Theism Inconsistent?


Evidential Problem

 

Is Theism Likely?


Theological Problem

 


Is God Sovereign Over Evil?


Existential Problem

 

Can God be trusted Despite Evil?


Miracles

Miracles are Possible if God exists – validate special revelation

Specific Miracles are probable – serve as evidence in Biblical History

Biblical Miracles are Prophetical – miracles are credible to those who accept Biblical authority

Miracles, internal and external are given to those who respond in faith.


Jesus

Alternative Views of Jesus cannot be rationally held

Detail evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, fulfilled prophecies etc.

Jesus’ claim to be God as His self-attesting Word, confirmed by Spirit

Call people to meet God’s Love in Jesus

 

Apologetic methods are cool but they are a bit empty without developing clear thinking, sound theology, good arguments and Christian evidences for use by missional churches and believers.

In the next post I will give, ever so briefly, some important areas of knowledge that apologists must cover in our day.

Continued in Part 8 - The Content of Apologetics

Notes


[1] Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

 

[2] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977).

[3] It should be noted that Luther’s ranting against reason was in a particular setting of use of reason apart from Scripture in the formation of theology in the Romans church. Philosophy unguided by the words of God is target here.

[4] These tables are adapted from those in Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman Jr, Faith Has Its Reasons, an Integrative Approach to Defending Christianity (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001), 542-544.

The Road to the Truth

…Continued from Part 5

We began this journey together describing our questions as breadcrumbs and clues to what is actually true about life and reality. However, a human being asking questions and seeking answers about God, Jesus Christ, the Bible, and religious teachings will not be enough. You see we might seek answers but there is another who also seeks.

God himself is the author of all truth and Jesus is the embodiment of the truth. When we have our questions we need to have a divine guide to the one who is the truth. God himself has left us many clues in creation and in life and in our own questions. Yet we do not seek God on our own. The Bible teaches us that we are in rebellion and need divine illumination to actually see the truth. Jesus describes us as blind men, needing to see. He describes us as deaf men, needing to hear. He shows us that we are dead men needing to live. Our reasoning can only go so far. Romans chapters 1-3 do indeed teach us that God has left us a witness in the beauty and glory of creation and speaks to us in our consciences as human beings. From looking at the world we can know that God is good, powerful and we are accountable to him. Yet to see Jesus as the light of the knowledge of the glory of God[1] is a work of the Spirit in us.  It arrives from light that shines upon us into the darkness of our sin, doubts and despair.

The apologist can be used in this process but only in a preliminary fashion. I once heard Ravi Zacharias describe the task of the apologist as “clearing the bushes” so that others may look to the cross without hindrance. We can follow our questions to the end of the road but we must eventually arrive at the face of Jesus the risen God. Once we do, whether we end up worshippers or continue in worthless rebellion is up to the grace of God.  Once false beliefs are cleared out and objections have been met, we still must end face to face and bow the knee to Jesus.  The old hymn Amazing Grace describes who guides this miracle well:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me

I once was lost and now I’m found

Was blind but now I see

Once all the questions have been pressed and answers have been given, only God can make the blind see. This is what the Scriptures teach us “Wake up, O Sleeper and rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you”[2] for salvation is of the Lord. It is my hope that he finds you in the midst of your questions.

Blessings team,

Pastor Reid S. Monaghan

Continued in Part 7 - An Introduction to Apologetics Systems

Notes 

[1] 2 Corinthians 4:6

[2] Ephesians 5:14

Richard and Sundar discuss creation

Over the course of this series we will be writing a series of dialogues between two friends traveling through life as university students.  One of them, Richard, is a philosophy undergraduate student with ambitions towards a career in jurisprudence. He likes banter and debating but can be impatient and at times unsympathetic to the questions of God. The other, Sundar, is a student in electrical engineering with hopes of working in the field of wireless communications. Both young men enjoy each other’s company and discussion even though one is an atheist and the other a committed follower of Jesus and the Christian way.

What’s All This Then?

Sundar [texting] - hey man, sup, you want to hit up the football game @ bw3?

Richard [texting] – I free up in an hour or so once i get out of this phil class.

Sundar [texting] – Which class?

Richard [texting] – medieval philosophy? yawn, 2 much god talk for me. u would luuv it

Sundar [texting] – I did – took it two years ago – lol. except none of the profs want 2 teach it so I had a grad student who just went thru the motions

Richard [texting] well, I have the world famous prof that got hired last year – he’s on your team and is all jumpy for aquinas

Sundar [texting]  - jealous

Richard [texting] – don’t be…cya at 9 for wings, beer and football – something we both agree on! Haha!

Sundar [texting]  - I’ll head ovr now – that place gets mad busy for MNF

Richard: Sweet seats, thanks for hooking this up. Man, long day glad to chill a bit. How is your fantasy squad doing

Sundar: suuucks man, Chris Johnson is garbage so far this year…but he got his money no doubt though. How was class?

Richard: You couldn’t resist could you?

Sundar: Well, you were likely discussing something that IS of interest to me

Richard: We were talking about arguments for the existence of your God

Sundar: My god? Not just mine

Richard: Well sure as hell ain’t mine.

Sundar: Anything convincing?

Richard: Uhh, no.

Sundar: Not even going to listen with an open mind?

Richard: Easy killer, we didn’t get to the arguments yet, we were talking about the social historical setting in which these guys did their work. You know, the rediscovery of Aristotle through Islamic thinkers, the church-state cartel etc. I’ll listen once they start making cases for the unseen wizard in the sky. But you know there isn’t any evidence for any sort of God

Sundar: ello, what’s all this then!??!

Richard: Uhhhm…beer and wings? And what’s with the Monty Python bit? [both laugh]

Sundar: No, I mean everything, everything that is around us – not simply flat screen TVs, good food and drinks – but everything that is. It does require some sort of explanation. It’s one of the oldest questions we have as humans beings…every culture has stories to try and explain our existence, no?

Richard: Yeah, we are silly primates that ask dumb questions

Sundar: You do too Richard – you have an explanation story as well – it’s just a bit narrow, boring and doesn’t say anything. [Laughs]

Richard: Hey, what the? I just think the universe simply is a brute fact, it is the only reality and that “where everything is from” is a non-question. 

Sundar: Yeah, I used to believe it. The universe sprang into existence, uncaused out of nothing and now I’m here – and I’m not supposed to ask any more questions!!! And then think that everyone throughout all history asks the question of origins and because you can’t give any sort of answer, you just say the question is dumb? That seems dumb.

Richard: Or smart, or wise or saves me a bunch of headaches and existential crises. [laughs] I just think we don’t know and so nobody knows.

Sundar: So because you are ignorant, everyone has to be!?!?

Richard: Ok, Ok, what I mean is there are no physical explanations for the physical world. How could there be? It IS reality.

Sundar:  What about meta-phyiscal realties and metaphysical explanations for the universe? You will likely encounter some in your medieval class.

Richard: Don’t remind me. [Laughs] No, I don’t think we can accept any such answers because they are not verifiable by reason and science.

Sundar: Reason might weigh in a bit more than you think but science has zip to say here – and believe me, I’m studying engineering and I know the glories of science.  But it also is quite limited.

Richard: Tell me one thing science cannot answer or will not someday answer? I think it does a pretty fantastic job

Sundar: Uh, doesn’t answer THIS question. And you saying the question is bad because it has a different kind of answer is really biased.  Think of it this way Richard – science studies cause and effect relationships between aspects of THIS UNIVERSE. So of course the cause of this universe would not be a subject of scientific experiment. You could put the cause of all things in a lab made of things. So I think we can use reason and science but the scientific method could not be used on the cause of science. Where science is awesome is studying the effects and interactions of the universe and seeing some of the wonderful things that are here.  Why all things exist are here is a question for reason and a question about God.

Richard: But why can’t things just exist and not have a cause at all – like Carl Sagan would say “the cosmos is all there is, all there ever was and all there ever will be”

Sundar: We can’t say that because it is simply not true…philosophically or scientifically. There are really good reasons to think there must be more than the universe.

Richard: Ok, I’m all ears my guru friend [sighs, laughs and grabs a chicken wing]

Sundar:  A simple idea – anything that “begins” to exist has a cause. If there were to be a new bottle of Yeungling show up at the table while you were in the bathroom you would not say “this bottle is all there is, all there ever was, all there ever will be” or “this must have been here forever and eternally” – no, you would ask “who brought the beer” – if something comes into existence, and we know this – it is the reasonable question, not a dumb question to ask, what caused this?

Richard: But that’s easy to say with beer bottles. We are talking about EVERYTHING here.

Sundar: But the principles we know from easy things many times help us with hard things – that’s why we learn arithmetic before differential calculus bro.  If there are good reasons to think the universe “began to exist” then we should ask what caused this.

Richard: Fair enough, but this is precisely what we don’t know – that anything like the totality of the universe “began to exist” – none of us were around at t=0 of the big bang.

Sundar:  But the fact that there WAS at t=0, a time when time began if you will, that we know that it began.  Look, today is Sept 19th 2011, this date is in reference to some other date no?

Richard: Are you going to tell me about how the western calendar is based upon Jesus again? [both laugh]

Sundar: No, not talking “common eras” – I’m just saying that today, and time today, is in reference to the beginning of time.  Time, in other words is finite in the past. There is not an actual infinite amount of time between today and the first movements of matter-energy.  So I think there is a good scientific reason to believe in a beginning of things – so the question of why it began is not dumb after all.

Richard: But if we can’t prove a beginning then you are sort of screwed, no?  And I’m sure there are lots of folks denying the beginning or at least wanting to. I know I would want to.

Sundar: Even if we could not scientifically prove a beginning beyond a shadow of a doubt, there is still reason and medieval philosophy.

Richard: I know, I have it again on Wednesday.

Sundar: The guy your prof is really into, Thomas Aquinas, considered the eternality of the world or whether there was a beginning hard to prove. But he didn’t need to demonstrate the universe has a cause. Following other thinkers from your medieval class he realized that certain things are “contingent” – they don’t have to exist. In fact, they come in and out of existence. Contingency simply means that the existence of something is dependent upon something else.  Our lives are dependent upon our parents, which his contingent upon theirs, ad infinitum…which is all contingent upon the universe. Everything in our world is contingent.

Richard: So something is necessary, I know, remember I’m studying philosophy– I probably know this stuff better than you do bro. My point here would be that which is necessary is only the universe itself. Something must explain everything else…the universe is all that we need. It is simpler than suggesting something else. You remember, Ockham’s Razor right?

Sundar: Yes, I’m sure you guys will hit up William of Ockham in class – we did when I took it.

Richard: It is a principle that teaches us not to multiply answers and entities beyond their necessity. We should save a step of explanation if a simpler one will work. We don’t need to posit any other necessary entity when the universe itself will do. I think this is where Sagan was right – why conjure up a god if the universe is all there is?

Sundar: I would agree Richard, except the universe itself is not necessary; it is fully contingent as everything in the universe IS contingent.

Richard: Well, just because some things make up a bigger thing does not mean that the bigger thing has the same property as the smaller things. This is a logical fallacy Sundar – you can take 100% triangular shingles and make a roof. It doesn’t mean that the entire roof is a triangle. Fallacy of composition.

Sundar: OK, I did forget you were a philosophy major [laughs and grabs a chicken wing]. But contingency and triangleness is a bit different? 

Richard: Maybe, haha, yeah a little different

Sundar: I don’t think you can manufacture necessity out of a bag of contingency, let’s get back to watching the game

Richard: No, no, by all means finish

Sundar: All talk about this world needing a cause aside…we study the univerese all the time. I’m in electrical engineering where we use complex mathematical expressions to describe the way physical reality works. I have always been blown away that there is this electromagnetic spectrum that was just waiting for us to discover. It was always there, part of the fabric of our world, that makes it possible for us to watch these flat panel TVs, for us to check our scores on our phones, to make it possible for us to even see each other. The world had a built in communications network ready for us to use. We didn’t make it, we didn’t invent it, we learned and knew how to use it.  The fact that this, and other marvels of reality, are just “there” always amaze me. Fills me with a sense of awe – even gratitude.  I don’t think it’s all “just here” without explanation, without cause, without reason. All the intelligence we see in the world does not seem to be in any way accidental.  This world was made for us, and us for this world – and I think we know it.  But saying the word “God” can make people uncomfortable…because this is much more personal than talking science and philosophy. I know when Jesus actually changed my life it was the most comfortable and uncomfortable thing for me.

Richard: I do know that…I do think there could be something to it all – I just don’t know…and when you start talking that God schmack I get a little nervous. That would require much more of me to believe that sort of thing.

Sundar: Well, people are very religious you know.

Richard: Oh, believe me, that  I do know…

Intro to Apologetics - Interacting with Wisdom

Continued from Part 4

Whether defending, demonstrating or poignantly calling into question false beliefs and half-truths, every apologist needs to operate in wisdom and dependence on the leading of the Holy Spirit of God.  This requires us to have a well-equipped tool belt and the knowledge to know when and how to allocate the tools.

There is a running joke in our family that has been happening every Christmas for some time. Each year my father-in-law, Terry Monroe, gives me some tool for my collection so that I can fix and build stuff as needed. My father in law is probably the man I respect most in my life, but he also knows I have little current use for such things. Unlike him, I am far from Mr. Fix It or the host of Tool Time. I would rather fix a computer than roof a house, but the tools keep coming! One year he gave me a carpenter’s belt. A leather contraption that holds tape measures, hammers, nails and came with some square pencils. Who knew pencils could be square? I had never seen these before. I asked if I should wear it in a fashion show or to the gym to work out or something!!! But something very different happens when Terry puts on a belt like that: hammers go in, nails fill the pockets and then some magic happens.  You see the difference between Terry and me is skill and wisdom. He has been using tools and completing projects for a long time. He knows which situation requires which tool and precisely how that tool is to be used. On the contrary, most of the time I simply have no clue. My tool belt might be full but I couldn’t get much done; in fact I might just make a mess of things.[1]

There is an analogy here to the realm of apologetics. To defend the faith we must have some good tools. We need to have knowledge and understanding of Christian theology and biblical doctrines. We need to know some good reasons why the core of our faith is true in order to defend it. We need to know why we believe what we do and how to make a case for that. We need to see the weakness in other worldviews in order to humbly question them and their assumptions. These are all great tools but to use them is a matter of skill and wisdom. This only comes with experience and the leading of the Spirit of God. Let me share an example.

Imagine for a moment that you have a friend who is going through a tough time after a family member has passed away and she asks you for the reason you believe in Jesus.  Someone with a full apologetic tool belt has many options here.  He could reach for a hammer and go into a detailed argument for the trustworthy nature of the New Testament based on complicated manuscript counts, repetition of the New Testament passages in the teaching of the church fathers, pontificate about uncials, reliable copying and the transmission of ancient texts. In doing this he would be using a tool but he is also being one. Wisdom would say to point to the comfort of Jesus and the hope found in the gospel. If the conversation then goes to another question we must ask God, in the moment, what the person needs to hear at this time.

Love cares about the person more than winning an argument, and wisdom gives us insight into what the person needs to hear and what they need next in the conversation in order to see Jesus for who he really is. This takes humility and prayer. Douglas Groothuis in his new textbook on Christian apologetics writes the following helpful exhortation:

If we grow in apologetic ability [read tool belt and arguments]—or any other area of competence in ministry—without growing in the grace of humility, an ugly arrogance results, which threatens to blunt or even undermine the force of the best apologetics…Humility embraces prayer and lives within its embrace, whether for apologetics or any other enterprise.[2]

For anyone to engage in evangelism which is undergirded by apologetics she must have two things.  First, she must be fully persuaded that the gospel is true and Jesus the only savior from sin, death and hell. Second, she must love others enough to share that very gospel with actual people in whatever context God provides. This might mean one on one with a neighbor, with groups of friends from sports teams and for some it might mean standing before large crowds of humanity.  Fully persuaded of gospel truth we then seek to persuade others to repent of sin and follow Jesus. This may require the answering of a few questions but again, we must not mind a few questions – we just might find God in them.

Continued in Part 6 - The Road to the Truth

Notes

[1] For those who are interested I am actually making good progress under the training of my father-in-law. I have fixed several things around the house and will soon be building a new bridge across the creek behind my house. I will be using that carpenter belt and an unused circular saw I got for Christmas a few years back.  See, anyone can learn with a little effort.

[2] Groothuis, 38.

The Practice of Apologetics - A Football Metaphor

…Continued from Part 3

In every era we must actually put into practice what the apostle Paul called the defense and proclamation of the gospel.  Apologetics is an interesting area of study and way of life and there are several different approaches to the task.[1]  To introduce the practice of apologetics let me use an analogy from American Football. Any good football team will have several different facets to it. There is a defense that keeps the other team from advancing the ball and scoring. There is also an offense which seeks to overcome the defense of the other team.  There are also special teams which focus on important transition plays and can be incredibly important to a game. Special teams can actually tilt the outcome of a game with a punt return or a blocked kick turning the tide of momentum in mere seconds. Each team also has a culture and manner in which it plays the game so we must say a quick word about the flow we have in doing apologetics as well. The following sketch of the apologetic task using these categories: team culture, defense, offense and special teams. Each is necessary and requires a certain type of skill. [2]

Team Culture

On the one hand it is incredibly helpful in traveling with people over time and answering their objections, providing reasons for faith and helping others come to a place of openness to give the gospel a hearing. On the other hand, I have seen Christians get really into apologetics and become bull dogs for the faith just wanting to battle everyone and smash their arguments into oblivion. Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias has quoted an apropos Indian proverb on numerous occasions which simply states “Once you’ve cut off a person’s nose, there’s no point giving them a rose to smell.”[3]  The meaning is clear. If we want people to hear and understand the beauty of the gospel we must carry ourselves in a way that does not alienate and unnecessarily offend.  Of course the gospel itself will be offensive and foolish to some people. [4]  Above I am speaking about Christians being jerks as they attempt to share the gospel of the grace of God with others. The message of the gospel should be the offensive piece, not our treatment of others. It is possible to disagree without being disagreeable.

In the realm of apologetics we need to realize our aim in defending the gospel is so that we gain a hearing and not so we turn people off with arrogant answers to questions they may or may not be asking. Giving a reason for our hope should not simply devolve into a food fight of intellectual arguments but rather serve as an invitation to a meal and a persuasion that the meal is indeed worth showing up for. Gentleness and respect should be the flow and culture of our team in giving our answers.

Apologetics on Defense

As mentioned above the basic focus of apologetics is defending the truth claims of the gospel.  Christian scholars William Dembski and Jay Richards summarize the defensive nature of apologetics well: To sum up, the task of the apologist is to find counterarguments to the arguments being used to attack the faith…Apologetics is defending the “core” of the Christian Faith.[5] This defensive posture of answering objections to Christian doctrine has also been called “negative” apologetics by some philosophers. It is showing that the reasons against belief are not so strong after all. [6]  An example would be if someone were to say “I don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead because we’ve never seen a dead person rise.” At this point, the Christian would want to defend the gospel claim of Jesus’ resurrection with some sort of historical and theological argument. In summary, apologetics as defense will respond when someone objects to some core Christian teaching and explain why this doctrine stands as true against the objection.  

Apologetics on Offense

Though certainly necessary, the Christian seeking to provide a reason for the hope that she has is not limited to bunkering down in defense. Apologetics may also go on the offense and offer “positive” reasons why people should believe. In this case we are actually seeking to show that our faith is actually true by providing positive reasons to believe.  Some see this project as too difficult or too ambitious as no one will ever become a Christian by getting argued into the kingdom.  I fully agree. Yet this does not mean that certain apologetic arguments for the existence of God, the deity of Jesus and other truth claims cannot be helpful in the process.

Christian philosopher William Lane Craig acknowledges a similar idea in his treatment of faith and reason. Craig differentiates between the certain knowledge of the truth of the gospel which is the privilege of the believer and the task of rationally demonstrating the truth of the gospel to others.   Knowing Christianity to be true, according to Craig, only comes by the inner witness and confirmation of the Holy Spirit. Such knowledge is true and certain and is properly available only to the soul that has been converted and is alive to God in Christ.  Showing Christianity to be true, however, requires demonstrating its truths to others in a reasonable, comprehensible fashion with the intention to persuade.[7] As long as we understand that it is the gospel that is the power of God to save people, we can be free to use positive arguments for various Christian teachings as a means. Let me explain further.

When the gospel is shared with others, we admit that we are sharing with individuals who have certain presuppositions, life experiences, relationships, intellectual background and perhaps professional training. This forms what we may call their evangelistic environment, or the historical situation of their soul. Some of the environment of the person may prove to be fertile ground and open windows to the gospel while some may not be so useful soil. With Scripture and the scriptural viewpoint as our foundation, we may properly use positive apologetic arguments when the situation calls for it. The discerning witness should be equipped with many tools at his disposal as he proclaims the gospel. One could easily see how an understanding of cosmology would be of use if proclaiming Christ with a person with scientific interests, or how an historical argument for the resurrection might be of interest to a history teacher. Just as God may use a tragedy in one’s life to bring them to a readiness to hear, it also seems quite plausible that God may use good reasons and argument as well. If God wants to open a heart to hear his Word through pre-evangelistic engagement by the use of positive apologetic discussion, he certainly may do so.[8]

Apologetics on Special Teams

One of the fun things to see in a football game is the block of a kick and the quick turnaround touchdown that makes the whole crowd go crazy. The kick blocking team goes after things with some focused aggression.  You must break through the walls the kick team has put up to keep you away from the ball.  Many times people put up walls, cling to false belief systems and put obstacles in the way that make it hard for them to hear the gospel message.

As one matures in the faith I believe it is helpful to be able to ask questions, create doubt in unbelieving worldviews and point to the absurdity of life without God. You could call this way of doing apologetics many things: questioning the questioner, tearing down strongholds, positive deconstruction[9], challenging presuppositions, etc.

Dr. Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, asks those skeptical of Christianity to look deeper at the basis for their objections to faith and see whether these are well-founded. In short he asks them to doubt their doubts.[10] He writes as follows:

My thesis is that if you come to recognize the beliefs on which your doubts about Christianity are based, and if you seek as much proof for those beliefs as you seek from Christians for theirs—you will discover that your doubts are not as solid as they first appeared.

Other apologists have also used similar indirect methods to help unbelievers to seriously examine the implications of their disbelief or apathy towards God. One prominent 20th century proponent was Francis Schaeffer, who vigorously worked to ask people to see all the absurdity and meaninglessness that arose from western worldviews that declared God dead or irrelevant.[11] If there is no God then the implications are staggering and have led many philosophers to nihilistic despair. Fredriech Nietzsche was perhaps one of the more honest atheists in history in that he saw clearly the implications of unbelief and wrote about this eloquently in his parable entitled The Madman[12]. In it he describes the implications of loss of belief in God. Many today are not so awake and remain apathetic about life’s ultimate questions:

  • Where did we come from?
  • Is there any overarching purpose to life? To our lives?
  • Do we have the wisdom to harness technology that could destroy us and the environment?
  • What happens when my loved ones die? When I die?
  • Where may I ground my hope? Why not despair?

The apologetics special teams challenge the beliefs of the day, question the intellectual assumptions upon which they are based and deconstruct ideologies so that people might say: Well, why do you believe in God? What is the reason for the hope that you have?

Our society today is steeped in moral and epistemological relativism. It is swarming with hostility and lacking civility in our discourse with one another. It is drowning in abusive sexual perversions. It shouts for universal human rights without giving any intellectual grounds for why such rights are inalienable without a creator and intrinsic dignity of human beings. It preaches a gospel that money and fame are all that matters and chews up human beings in the jaws of greed. The special teams of apologetics should rightly cause these ideas to teeter and fall as they actually are a house of cards. Sadly, it is precisely upon these shaky foundations that many in modern society build their lives. It is a loving friend who will bring into question such unstable commitments and foundations for life.

Continued in Part 5 - Interacting with Wisdom

Notes

[1] See Appendix 1 at the conclusion of this essay on Apologetic Schools and Methodologies.

[2] The football analogy is used by the late Ron Nash in Ronald Nash, Faith and Reason - Searching for a Rational Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 16.

[3] This proverb has been quoted in numerous places by Dr. Zacharias, even in describing the manner and essence of their ministry – see http://www.rzim.org/aboutus.aspx

[4] See 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, 2 Corinthians 2:12-16, Galatians 5:11

[5] William Dempski and Jay Wesley Richards, Unapologetic Apologetics (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2011), 42.

[6] Nash, 14, 15.  Nash follows philosopher George Mavrodes in his use of “negative” and “positive” apologetics when approaching this subject.

[7] Craig, 43-60.

[8] The Apostle Paul’s interactions with gentile farmers and philosophers in the book of Acts (Acts 14 and 17 respectively) seem to illustrate this as part of his practice when preaching the gospel.

[9] I first read this term being used by a British evangelist named Nick Pollard.  See Nick Pollard, Evangelism Made Slightly Less Difficult - How to Interest the Uninterested (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1997).

[10] Timothy J. Keller, The Reason for God : Belief in an Age of Skepticism, 1st Riverhead trade pbk. ed. (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009), xviii.

[11] See “The Absurdity of Life without God” in Craig, 65-90.

[12] For a dramatic reading of Nietzsche’s Madman see the following reading by Ravi Zacharias set to images on YouTube.   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TO5MytakLy8