History of the Church Part Five: Colonialism and Evangelism

Steven Barto, B.S., Psy., M.A. Theology

SO FAR WE HAVE explored how the Christian church began, the “marks” and underlying doctrine of the Christian church, Islamism and the Crusades, and the impact of dissension and the Protestant Reformation. In Part Five, I will expound on colonialism and evangelism. Of concern to many individuals over the life of the Christian church is whether colonization deliberately included forcing Christianity on indigenous peoples. Whether missionaries were agents of imperialism or a separate activity meant only to share the gospel. And whether these “lesser evils” are of no concern given the spreading of the gospel.

Colonialism is defined as “the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.” A good example of this concept is how three major powers occupied Afghanistan over the centuries: the British, the Soviets, and the United States. Colonization is sometimes done for the sake of increased security in a region, as in the case with Afghanistan. Rashid writes, “Afghanistan’s geo-strategic location on the crossroads between Iran, the Arabian Sea and India, and between Central Asia and South Asia, has given its territory and mountain passes a significance since the earliest Aryan invasions 6,000 years ago” (1). Regarding Medieval expansion Mumford notes, “When these limits were overpassed, the medieval town, as a functioning organism, ceased almost by definition to exist; for the whole community structure was a system of limitations and boundaries; and their breakdown in the city revealed an even wider dismantling through the whole culture” (2).

Gonzalez writes, “In the Western world, the attitudes of Christians toward colonialism were widely divergent,” adding, “Many Christians of profound convictions protested against the treatment of people in some colonized areas [yet many] were convinced that their enterprise was justified by the benefits the colonized would receive” (3). Some have objected over the years to the concept that God placed the benefits of Western civilization and Christian faith in the hands of white people. I certainly understand this objection; in fact, I wrote in the margin of my copy of Gonzalez, Why say “white people?” Without malice or prejudice, some Christians believe God placed the gospel in the hands of Europeans and North American settlers as “…the so-called white man’s burden: to take to the rest of the world the benefits of industrialization, capitalism, democracy, and Christianity” (4). To the extent that this is likely true, I pray that “white” men and women always share the great news of the gospel with respect and without any air of superiority.

Liew and Segovia write about, “…the process of theological (political-liberationist) as well as critical (imperial-postcolonial) engagement with the relation between the colonialist project and the biblical tradition,” adding, “Worthy of note in this regard is the formation of a network of theologians devoted to the formulation of a Christian theology with poverty and oppression at its core” (5). To me, this approach aligns with the life and ministry of Jesus, who came to minister to the poor, the captive, the homeless and hungry, and to set people free from hopeless oppression (see Luke 6:20-21, 16:19-25; Mark 12:41-44). Yet, the main focus of the story of Christianity is not about “social justice,” but salvation. (See my article Identity Politics in Social and Biblical Justice, June 27, 2021.)

There was an anti-colonial reaction to the work of colonizers whether or not they came bearing the good news of the gospel. Modernity, an intended benefit of colonization, often brought about the dislocation of vast masses who became landless, the destruction of many of the endemic cultural patterns that had sustained societies for centuries, and growing disparities in living conditions between rich and poor. But this is more a result of racial and cultural arrogance than the efforts of missionaries. Gonzalez notes, “The church was deeply influenced by all these circumstances and ideas, but the relationship between colonialism and missions was very complex” (6). Unfortunately, it has often been alleged that missionaries were agents of colonialism, but this was not always true. Further, there were many cases where missionaries reached regions that had never been visited by white traders or colonizers.

The “Mission” of Missionaries

It is true that the colonial expansion of the West—particularly the Protestant West—coincided with its missionary expansion, with the two sometimes impeding each other. Gonzalez said one of the most remarkable characteristics of the missionary movement during the nineteenth century was “…the formation of missionary societies.” Forerunners for the movement were the Society of Promoting Christian Knowledge (S.P.C.K.), founded in 1698, and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (S.P.G.), founded in 1701 (7). Many such “societies” were formed from this modest beginning. It is important to note that during this time most Western settlements had little or no official relationship with missionary enterprises. This was the “official” position in the new colonies of North America.

Spencer addresses the positive and negative aspects of Christian missions. He asks, “What if we had empirical, long-term, statistically significant evidence that Christianity increased the general well-being of surrounding populations? It turns out we do.” The basic assumption of many in our culture is exactly the opposite. They claim the Christian ethic is repressive, and that it detracts from human flourishing. Nineteenth-century history is considered by some scholars to bring the legacy of colonialism, which is far from positive in most cases, and is blended with the history of Protestant missionaries. Christian missions are sometimes described as a form of cultural imperialism, viewed as negatively as economic and social colonial oppression. Spencer writes, “This confusion of missions and colonialism, though, appears to be in error” (8).

Samson writes, “Perhaps the most obvious problem, one which has attracted revisionists in recent years, is the dilemma raised by traditional critiques of Christianisation [sic]. If missionaries were always racist colonialists, how did they make converts?” Samson adds, “Instead of being the dupes of colonialism, whose actions must be limited to the subjectivities of victimisation [sic] or resistance, they can be regarded as active agents in their own histories” (9). Etherington said, “…writing[s] about the relationship between colonialism and Christianity [are] still permeated by disputes about the role of organised [sic] religion in sustaining white supremacy, despite an emerging consensus among historians that Christianity was a two‐edged sword that could undercut as well as sustain domination” (10).

Gonzalez leads us on a necessary quest to understand missions to the original thirteen colonies. For example, colonists were not “…free…cultivating their own land, but indentured labor working the land [now] owned by a colonial company” (11). As to religious freedom, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania led the new world in that direction. Yet, Gonzalez notes the evils of colonization in the New World included mistreatment of Indians. The British wanted their land, and to reach that goal the British followed a policy of extermination and confinement. Thankfully, others (including true missionaries) thought religious tolerance was best because it was God’s will. Conversion to Christianity must be accomplished through an apologetic and evangelism that serves only to provide a defense (a reason) for the hope that is in a believer in Christ to anyone who asks, but to do so with gentleness and respect” (see 1 Pet. 3:15).

Concluding Remarks

It is unfortunately true that abuses and ulterior motives lurk in nearly every corner of human endeavor. I think it is interesting to track and analyze historical, social, and theological developments. The “birth” of Christianity did not happen in a vacuum. Rather, its roots are in Judaism. During the first century of the Christian church, most people considered it a heretical sect of Judaism and not necessarily a “new” religion. The progressive thread of salvation and redemption can be seen throughout the entirety of Scripture. Judaism and Christianity have “rolled with the punches” so-to-speak, developing alongside cultural diversity, colonialization, and purposeful evangelism. Obviously, there are pros and cons to missions achieved alongside global expansion.

Numerous Christians in academia and the church see globalization as a two-edged sword. Some of the more egregious actions taken in the name of conquest or expansion included domination of indigenous peoples, the taking of land in the name of expansion, and forceful servitude (slavery). It would be nice if this had not occurred specific to the world in which missions were conducted, but it was likely unavoidable. Consequently, it can be difficult to see the “good” impact Christianity has on new populations under such circumstances. From a positive perspective, the missionary movement necessitated a spirit of cooperation that seemed to bring churches and denominations together in pursuit of the Great Commission (see Matt. 28:19-20). Gonzalez stated that missionary societies often pulled members from more than one denomination. This helped curb “competing” messages and rivalries among witnessing missionaries.

I think it is necessary to separate the sociocultural impact of colonization from the religious impact of missions. Certainly, most Christian missionaries who bring the gospel to remote parts of the globe have a singleness of purpose: to share the good news of Jesus Christ. I would conclude that colonization was not specific to evangelism. Of course, globalization was not always undertaken with pure motives. It seems the lion’s share of colonizers intended to benefit from expansion, industrialization, increased labor forces, additional sources of raw materials and minerals, agriculture, hunting and trapping, and eventual resale of real estate for profit. Of those colonizers, some intended to bring indigenous peoples out of their primitive state of existence. A smaller percentage, although their prime objective was economical, were practicing Christians who brought the gospel with them. I see no reason to pitch the baby out with the bathwater.

References

(1) Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2000), 7.
(2) Lewis Mumford, The City in History (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1961), 313.
(3) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christiantiy, Vol.II: The Reformation to the Present Day (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010), 417.
(4) Ibid., 417.
(5) Tat-Siong Benny Liew and Fernando F. Segovia, Colonialism and the Bible (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2.018), xiii.
(6) Gonzalez, Ibid., 418.
(7) Ibid., 418.
(8) Andrew Spencer, “How Christian Missionaries Changed the World for the Better,” Institute for Faith, Works & Economics (Feb. 10, 2014). URL: https://tifwe.org/the-truth-about-missionaries/
(9) Jane Samson, The Problem of Colonialism in the Western Historiography of Christian Missions, Vol. 2 (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Publishing, 2021), 511.
(10) Norman Etherington, “Recent trends in the historiography of Christianity in Southern Africa,” Journal of South African Studies, 22:2, 201-219, DOI: 10.1080/03057079608708487.
(11) Gonzalez, Ibid., 276.

Science and Religion: The Two Must Meet

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

The relationship between science and religion has always been complicated. The scientific revolution featured tension and collaboration between religious viewpoints and innovative scientific theories.

ALISTER McGRATH SAID, “HISTORICALLY, the most significant understanding of the relation between science and religion is that of ‘conflict,’ or perhaps even ‘warfare'” (1). As human beings, we strive constantly to determine origin, purpose, morality, and destination. Gottfried Leibniz and other Christian theologians have identified the fundamental philosophical question: Why is there something rather than nothing? Those who claim to be nihilists (rejecting all religious and moral principles, and believing life is meaningless) are rare. But believers in the purposeless, random, chaotic origin of the universe and its inhabitants abound. Cosmological arguments come in several forms, but all believe the mere fact that the universe exists suggests a cause. Theists argue everything that exists must have a cause; the universe exists, so it must have a cause; therefore, the universe is caused by a first cause (i.e., God) (2).

Lang Craig, J.P. Moreland, and others believe the adage, “out of nothing, nothing comes” (ex nihilo nihil fit). David Hume said, “But allow me to tell you that I never asserted so absurd a Proposition as that anything might arise without a Cause” (3). “Nothing” lacks all causal power, because it has no properties at all! Nothing is no thing. Groothuis tells us the “nothing” before the Big Bang is not a subject that can have properties, but is rather an absence of all properties. Zero, divided or multiplied by zero, is zero. I believe the mere vastness and mathematical precision of the cosmos belies a causeless beginning. An actual infinite (which itself sounds like an oxymoron) can never be transversed through successive addition—that is, through incremental steps. We can neither count from one to eternity nor count down from eternity to one (4). Hawking said “…almost everyone now believes that the universe, and time itself, had a beginning at the Big Bang” (5).

The scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation. —Stephen Hawking

Jeremiah wrote, “It is he who made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens” (Jer. 10:12). The universe is a manifestation of the power, wisdom, and love of the Father. In this regard, it is teleological: relating to or involving the explanation of phenomena in terms of the purpose they serve rather than of the cause by which they arose. The universe is contingent (inexplicable by natural processes); is complex (the greater the complexity, the less the likelihood an event came about by chance; and, it is made according to specification (featuring a pattern of design which is independent of mere probability). I believe the existence of natural laws is evidence of intelligent design. A complex system cannot assemble itself. Lennox writes, “The design inference is not based on ignorance of the natural world but on knowledge about it, especially given recent discoveries in physics (fine-tuning) and biology (the cell and DNA)” (6).

C.S. Lewis says, “Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator” (7). Lennox notes that the laws of nature describe the universe, but they actually explain nothing. We were designed to be curious, inquisitive, imaginative, determined. It is natural for us to ask questions. But it is extremely important to realize not all questions (especially regarding origin, meaning, morality, and destiny) can be answered by science alone. Feynman writes, “The fact that there are rules at all to be checked is a kind of miracle; that it is possible to find a rule, like the inverse-square law of gravitation, is some sort of miracle. It is not understood at all, but it leads to the possibility of prediction—that means it tells you what you would expect to happen in an experiment you have not yet done” (8).

Myth: Science Depends on Reason but Christianity Does Not

While there are religions that feature an anti-intellectualism, Christianity is not one of them. Science is a progressive human undertaking. It is built squarely upon the cumulative observation of a cause/effect paradigm, and verified through the scientific method. The basic steps of the scientific method are: (1) make an observation that describes a problem; (2) create a hypothesis; (3) test the hypothesis; and (4) draw conclusions and refine the hypothesis. Critical thinking is a key component of the scientific method. But this way of thinking is not limited to science. We use common sense (rational) thinking in nearly every situation. Remarkably, this model of inquiry is featured in Scripture. Jesus referred to mental faculties in Mark 12:30: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (italics mine). Notice the reference to mind: God is not anti-reason. Merriam-Webster defines reason as “a statement offered in explanation or justification;” “a rational ground or motive;” “the thing that makes some fact intelligible (cause);” “a sufficient ground of explanation or of logical defense.” It is because of these features that the universe is teleological.

As Christians, we are charged with the responsibility of “…being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). We are to be ready with an “apologetic” for anyone who asks us for a reason for our Christian beliefs. Paul also mentions “…the defense and confirmation of the gospel” (Phil. 1:7). He adds, “…I am put here for the defense of the gospel” (1:16). Significantly, the apologetic of which Peter speaks is a defense of Christian hope. Indeed, as Christians our lifestyle and confession are “on trial” everyday. The key element here is that our defense is one that is reasonably sustained, accessible, and well articulated—as any courtroom defense would be. The Greek word for reason is logos, referring to a universal, divine reason—or the mind of God. The transliteration of 1 Peter 3:15 is, “But as the Lord Christ, sanctify in the hearts of you, ready always for defense to everyone asking you a word concerning the in you hope [sic]” (9). Paul writes, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Col. 4:6).

Speaking from the position of science, Lewontin says, “Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science… because we have a prior commitment to materialism… we are forced by our a priori* adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive… moreover, that materialism is absolute for we cannot allow a Divine foot in the door” (10). You may remember from my article Dark Matter and Other Phenomena (Sept. 15, 2021) that God has written two books: the general revelation of creation and the special revelation of Scripture. This provides an excellent means of comparing the rational scientific activity of interpreting nature and the rational theological activity of interpreting the Word of God. In essence, we have two sets of “data.” The first comes from our observations of nature and the cosmos, and the second comes from systematic study of the Bible. As with Scripture, nature also requires interpretation. Paul writes, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:19-20).

Anybody who has been seriously engaged in scientific work of any kind realizes that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words, “You must have faith.” It is a quality which the scientists cannot dispense with. —Max Planck.

Huxley said, “The one act of faith in the convert to science is the confession of the universality of order and of the absolute validity in all times and under all circumstances, of the law of causation. This confession is an act of faith, because, by the nature of the case, the truth of such propositions is not susceptible proof” (11). Scientific theory admittedly offers “the best account” of currently observed phenomena. But unless we have a crystal ball that projects observation into the future, it is impossible to take an absolute position on whether a scientific theory is right. Instead, ours is a provisional view of science, which necessarily undermines the outdated positivism of the “warfare” model of science versus religion. It is much wiser to state, “There is a broad consensus within the scientific community that this is correct, but this will probably shift as and when more evidence accumulates” (italics mine). Not to worry, because this is precisely how scientific method works.

Dinesh D’Souza reminds us that faith is not a highly acclaimed word in the scientific community. Astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “The claims of religions rely on faith [but] the claims of science rely on experimental verification” (12). Science is based on what Trefil calls the principle of universality: “It says that the laws of nature we discover here and now in our laboratories are true everywhere in the universe and have been in force for all time” (13). Admittedly, there is order in the universe. Its complexity cannot subsist without it. Scientists have discovered laws, physical principles, and structures that aid in deciphering the universe.

Science was not founded in the seventeenth century as a revolt against religious dogma. Rather, it was founded earlier, between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, through a dispute between two kinds of religious schools of thought. The first belief held that deductive reasoning was the best way to discover God’s hand in creation; the second promoted inductive experience (including the use of experiments) to properly evaluate and define nature. As a result, the scientific method emerged in the thirteenth century, and the professional position of “scientist” was established in the late Middle Ages, with a great number of scientists being Christians who viewed their work as a fulfillment of Christian objectives. As a result of the rejection of papal hierarchy, the so-called “priesthood of the individual believer” became immensely popular. The “protestant” Christians did not realize they were introducing new theological concepts that would have a huge impact on the emerging scientific culture in Europe.

Quantum Physics and New Interpretations

There have been a number of paradigm shifts in science over the decades, but none as remarkable as discovery of the sub-subatomic world of quarks and leptons. Quantum mechanics, deemed the hardest part of physics, is helping to redefine how the universe operates. The seeming regularity of the universe is based on anomaly, pathology, and holes in the spacetime continuum. At the foundation of quantum mechanics is the Heisenberg uncertainty principle which states: there is a fundamental limit to what one can know about a quantum system. At a basic level, quantum physics predicts very strange things about matter that are completely at odds with how things seem to work in the real world (14). For example, the more precisely one knows a particle’s position, the less one can know about its momentum, and vice versa. Systems with quantum behavior don’t follow the rules that we are used to, they are hard to see and hard to “feel,” can have controversial features, can exist in several different states at the same time, and even change depending on whether they are observed or not.

Hawking addressed the plausibility of predicting the position and speed of all of the particles in the universe. He writes “Our ability to predict the future is severely limited by the complexity of the equations, and the fact that they often have a property called chaos” (15). Thus, a complete prediction of the future cannot be realized. Although scientists stand a good chance of being right about events anticipated over the next few decades, the rest of the millenium will be wild speculation. Quantum mechanics shows that energy comes in discrete packets called “quanta.” This new theory suggests that things do not have a single unique history, but have every possible history each with its own probability (16). Even what we understand as empty space is full of particles moving in closed loops in space and time. Kuhn writes, “Because it demands large-scale paradigm destruction and major shifts in the problems and techniques of normal science, the emergency of new theories is generally preceded by a period of pronounced professional insecurity” (17).

There must be a meeting of the minds between science and religion if we are ever to grasp how a created universe behaves: by what rules, and to what degree of predictability. One such focus relates to paradigms, and how they gain status because they are more successful than competition from existing theories. Paradigm shifts can be rather untidy. Few people who are not involved in the daily practice of scientific method realize how much mop-up work results in this sort of critical change. The dance of science and religion tends to be choreographed by the religious belief itself. For example, there are philosophical, biological, and scientific aspects of Christianity. Moral philosophy asks whether the natural sciences can establish moral values. What role does human cognition play in religious beliefs and actions? Some philosophers argue that religious beliefs are impositions upon mankind. But surely God has implanted is us a hunger for filling our “hole in the soul.”

Religion has always played a role in science. It is no accident that we tend to “look to the stars” for answers. New research has shown us that science and religion need to work together in order to explain origin, purpose, and destiny. Many Americans believe religion and science are compatible on a variety of issues, and the two should not battle each other all for the sake of trying to help people with their lives. The relationship between science and religion must address a number of issues: so-called “conflict,” independent thought, dialog, integration. Although the lion’s share of secular scientists believe science and religion inevitably conflict—as they essentially discuss the same domain—a vast number of authors who cover the subjects of science and religion are critical of the “conflict” model, stating that it is based on a shallow and partisan reading of the historical record. God has written two books: the general revelation of creation and the special revelation of Scripture. I believe we cannot achieve a complete understanding of the universe by focusing on only one of these books. Our knowledge of the world must be grounded in matter and in precepts.

“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:19-20).

References

(1) Alister E. McGrath, Science & Religion: A New Introduction, 3rd. ed. (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell, 2020), 8.
(2) Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 208-09.
(3) Ibid., 215.
(4) Ibid., 219.
(5) Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, The Nature of Space and Time (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 20.
(6) John Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (Oxford, UK: Lion, 2007), 168-71.
(7) C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 140.
(8) Richard Feynman, The Meaning of it All (New York, NY: Penguin Publishing, 2007), 23.
(9) Alfred Marshall, The Interlinear NIV Parallel New Testament in Greek and English (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 916-17.
(10) Richard Lewontin, “Adaptation,” In Evolution:A Scientific American Book (San Francisco, CA: Freeman, 1997), 114-25.
(11) Thomas H. Huxley, in McGrath, Science & Religion, Ibid., 97.
(12) Neil deGrasse Tyson, “An Astrophysicist Ponders the God Question,” in Paul Kurtz, ed., Science & Religion (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003), 74.
(13) James Trefil, Reading the Mind of God (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1989). 1.
(14) Richard Webb, “Quantum Physics: Our Best Basic Picture of How Particles Interact to Make the World,” NewScientist (n.d.). URL:
https://www.newscientist.com/definition/quantum-physics/
(15) Stephen Hawking, Brief Answers to the Big Questions (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 2018), 91.
(16) Ibid., 154.
(17) Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2012), 68.

*a priori knowledge is knowledge that is absolutely independent of all experience.

Dark Matter and Other Phenomena

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

Religion and science are two of the most significant and contentious cultural and intellectual forces known to man. Leading Christian thinkers at the time of the Renaissance used the metaphor “God’s 2 Books” as a way to illustrate allowing both science and religion to tell us about reality. Theologians delineate God’s revelation as General (the physical universe and all its inhabitants) and Special (the Bible as God’s written revelation). It was believed that we must “read” both books to understand Creation. I often use the phrase “all truth is God’s truth.” Albert Einstein remarked, “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” As a theologian and student of the Bible, I choose to study science and religion because these subjects are interdisciplinary: neither science nor religion can provide a comprehensive view of the world. We simply cannot achieve a “complete picture” without integrating these two worlds.

We know the Milky Way is a barrel-shaped spiral galaxy, one of hundreds of billions in the observable universe. It’s also our home. Like other galaxies, the Milky Way is comprised of stars and other material bound together by gravity. Scientists estimate our galaxy to contain 100 billion to 400 billion stars; a similar number of planets likely exist in the Milky Way—some of them are part of solar systems and others are free floating. In addition to stars, the Milky Way contains innumerable nebulae, which are clouds of gas and dust. The vast majority of interstellar gas is made up of hydrogen and helium. Evidence seems to suggest that material in the Milky Way orbits the center far too quickly to be held together by gravity between the orbits of visible objects. Accordingly, most of the mass of the Milky Way is made up from a form of matter that does not interact with light. Astronomers have labeled this phenomenon dark matter (1).

What is Dark Matter?

Dark matter is the name theoretical physicists give to all the mass in the universe that remains invisible. Research suggests that about 70% of the universe is composed of dark energy, while the remaining 25% is composed of a mysterious substance known as dark matter. Unlike normal matter, dark matter does not interact with electromagnetic forces. This means it does not absorb, reflect or emit light, making it extremely hard to spot. In such instances, we typically look for the “result” of the presence of dark matter. All matter around us is made of elementary particles, the building blocks of matter. These particles occur in two basic types called quarks and leptons. Each group consists of six particles, which are related in pairs, or “generations”. The lightest and most stable particles make up the first generation, whereas the heavier and less-stable particles belong to the second and third generations. All stable matter in the universe is made from particles that belong to the first generation; any heavier particles quickly decay to more stable ones. Dark matter isn’t the same thing as dark energy, which makes up some 68% of the universe, according to the Standard Model.

The prevailing theory of today’s astrophysicists identifies four fundamental forces at work in the universe: the strong force, the weak force, the electromagnetic force, and the gravitational force. The idea of a “cosmological constant” was first proposed by Einstein as a means of explaining the concept of a static universe. His formula used dark energy to balance gravity. We later determined that Einstein was wrong: rather than the universe being “static,” it is expanding at a uniform rate. Amazingly, gravity is the weakest of the four forces, but it has an infinite range. Electromagnetic force also has infinite range, but it is much stronger than gravity. The weak and strong forces are effective over a very short range, operating at the level of subatomic particles. It may sound counterintuitive, but the weak force is much stronger than gravity. Bentovish believes theoretical physics is in a state of paradigmatic crisis. The two pillars of theory for the material-causal paradigm—Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics—seem “inconsistent,” as up to 95% of all the energy and mass in the universe cannot be directly accounted for. Hence the terms “dark energy” and “dark matter” (2). This paradigm was shown to “replicate” or account for all major relativistic or quantum phenomena, and offered a satisfactory alternative explanation for the unexplained accelerated expansion of the physical universe. Relativity and gravity alone cannot explain this feature.

What about these “Black Holes?”

The first scientist to talk about black holes was John Michell of Cambridge in 1783. Keep in mind this was theoretical, as no one had observed a black hole in space. Michell broached the subject by explaining how gravity works: If you fire a cannon ball straight up in the air, it will eventually be slowed down by gravity; it will stop moving upwards, and then it will fall back to Earth. However, if the initial upwards velocity were greater than what is called the “escape velocity,” gravity would not be strong enough to pull the object back to the ground. Escape velocity is governed by mass, with the escape velocity for the Earth at 11 kilometers per second. Our sun is far more dense than Earth, with an escape velocity of 617 kilometers per second (3). You may have heard about this phenomenon in relation to launching rockets into space. Hawking states, “During most of the life of a normal star, over many billions of years, it will support itself against its own gravity by thermal pressure caused by nuclear processes which convert hydrogen into helium. Eventually, the star will exhaust its nuclear fuel” (4).

Hawking tells us Einstein’s equations can’t be defined at a singularity, adding “…at this point of infinite density one can’t predict the future” (5). The most drastic consequence of Einstein’s description of gravity in terms of curved spacetime geometry in the framework of his general theory of relativity is the possibility that space and time may exhibit “holes” or “edges,” or spacetime singularities. In general relativity, spacetime itself behaves pathologically, and it can do so in several ways. According to the present standard, a spacetime singularity can be identified by examining particles in free fall—both ordinary matter particles and massless particles like photons. All singularities formed by the collapse of stars or other bodies are hidden from view inside black holes. Naturally, we cannot tell what’s inside a black hole from the outside. But we do know a black hole has a boundary called the event horizon, where gravity is just strong enough to drag light back and prevent it from escaping. As Hawking notes, because nothing can travel faster than light, everything else will get dragged back also.

I am mesmerized by Hawking’s example:

“It is a bit like going over Niagara Falls in a canoe. If you are above the Falls, you can get away if you paddle fast enough, but once you are over the edge you are lost. There’s no way back. As you get nearer the Falls, the current gets faster. This means it pulls harder on the front of the canoe than the back. There’s a danger that the canoe will be pulled apart. It is the same with black holes. If you fall towards a black hole feet first, gravity will pull harder on your feet than your head, because they are nearer the black hole. The result is that you will be stretched out lengthwise, and squashed in sideways. If the black hole has a mass of a few times our Sun, you would be torn apart and made into spaghetti before you reached the bottom. However, if you fell into a much larger black hole, with a mass of more than a million times the Sun, the gravitational pull would be the same on the whole of your body and you would reach the horizon without difficulty (6).”

Michell believed there are stars more massive than our sun that might have an escape velocity at or faster than the speed of light—186,282 miles per second. In this scenario, we would be unable to see the star because any light it might emit would be dragged back inside by gravity. Michell called these entities “dark stars,” or what we now call black holes. It is mind-boggling to imagine a star so dense not even light can escape its gravitational force. Gravity acts over great distances, which is perfect for our universe. The Earth is held in orbit by the Sun, 93 million miles away, and the Sun is held in orbit around the center of the Milky Way galaxy, about 10,000 light years away!* Gravity is only attractive in nature; it never repels. Science has discovered gravitational energy as a byproduct of gravitational collapse—the gravity of a collapsing star draws all its surrounding matter inward. This is believed to lead to a point of infinite density: a singularity.

I cannot help wondering how matter can be squeezed further and further in on itself without reaching a specific value of density. Would not such a never-ending singularity eventually suck everything in? If so, does this represent Creation at its primitive stage prior to God calling things forth? Scripture says, “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2, ESV). More intriguing is the problem of “information,” or the idea that every particle and every force in the universe contains data. However (at least from a theoretical point of view), there is a limit to the amount of information one can pack into a region in space. Hawking says “information” in this instance requires energy, and that energy has mass in accordance with Einstein’s famous equation E=mc². Consequently, if there is too much information in a region of space, it will collapse into a black hole, and its density will be in direct proportion to the amount of information being compressed. But what is meant by information in a black hole? Theoretical physicists believe it is the puzzling result of combining quantum mechanics and general relativity. Calculations suggest physical information could permanently disappear in a black hole.

Are Science and Christianity REALLY Incompatible?

Sadly, the study of science and religion continues to be a “battle” or conflict. Atheists tend to follow a zero-sum model—relating to or denoting a situation in which whatever is gained by one side is lost by the other. Reality cannot be properly studied under this model. John Lennox said about scientists, “They view themselves as the voice of reason. They believe they are working to roll back the tide of ignorance and superstition that has enslaved mankind since we crawled out of the primordial slime” (7). Yet, many of science’s key pioneers were firm believers in God—Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Blaise Pascal, Robert Boyle, Sir Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday. Bertrand Russell said, “Most sciences, at their inception, have been connected with some form of false belief, which gave them a fictitious value. Astronomy was connected with astrology, chemistry with alchemy [but] mathematical knowledge appeared to be certain, exact, and applicable to the real world” (8).

What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? —Tertullian.

At the core of the “science over religion” argument lies observable, verifiable phenomena. Plato’s worldview sprang forth from this axiom, asking Is there any standard of “good” and “bad” except what the man using these words desires? Russell conceded that religion has, at first sight, a simple answer: God determines what is good and what is bad. Accordingly, the man whose will is in harmony with the will of God is a good man. This naturally led to a discussion on the standard of goodness. Is there “objective truth” in such a statement as “pleasure is good” in the same sense that “snow is white?” These thoughts are extremely important, for we are speaking of ontological truth; ultimate standards of morality. Science certainly strives for resolving scientific query through the scientific method: a method of procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.

“Athens” refers to the mathematical, observable, natural realm. Indeed, formulas and equations regarding thermodynamics, gravity, relativity, electromagnetism, subatomic particles, dark matter, black holes, and physics are used to decode the physical realm. “Jerusalem” refers to the theological, religious realm. For the most part, the search for “objective” or “ontological” truth is avoided under the Athens model. Instead, we hear, “I shall consider a statement true if all, or virtually all, of those who have investigated it are agreed in upholding it.” At the risk of engaging in hyperbole, we must not allow “mob rule” to answer vital questions like What is the meaning and source of morality”? or Where did we come from? Admittedly, almost everything that distinguishes observances and theories in the modern world from earlier centuries is attributable to science. Scientific discoveries led to theories and paradigms meant to govern or instruct society. Kuhn writes, “Observation and experience can and must drastically restrict the range of admissible scientific belief, else there would be no science at all” (9). He adds, “At least in the mature sciences, answers (or full substitutes for answers) to questions…are firmly embedded in the educational initiation that prepares and licenses the student for professional practice. Because that education is both rigorous and rigid, these answers come to exert a deep hold on the scientific mind” (10). A hold that is quite difficult to shake free of later in life.

In light of the foregoing, I would like to address scientism—an excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques. A basic (dogmatic) tenet of scientism is that science itself is the only means by which a thing or a condition can be explained or defined. This is not “scientific” thought; rather, it is the expression of a philosophical orientation or worldview. Ian Hutchinson of MIT says, “I think science has some very distinctive characteristics. Most of which, we are all kind of familiar with, though we perhaps have not made a list of them…things like observation, experimentation, measurement, systematization, mathematization, and so forth. These characteristics of science, I believe, can be brought together in two primary abstract categories, so we can really, in a certain sense, boil down what we mean by natural science into the insistence upon reproducibility (science depends on repeatable experiments or observations) and clarity (the unambiguous descriptions of things like measurements or sometimes mathematics that science insists upon). These characteristics, I would say, imply that science’s scope of application is limited” (11).

Moreland defines scientism as, “…the view that the hard sciences—like chemistry, biology, physics, and astronomy—provide the only genuine knowledge of reality” (12). According to scientism, the claim that ethical and religious conclusions can be just as factual as science, and therefore can be affirmed like scientific findings, is seen as a sign of narrow-mindedness or elitism at best, and bigotry and intolerance at worst. Marilyn vos Savant famously said, “Religions cannot be proved true intellectually. They come from the heart—and your parents—and, if you choose to believe it, a soul” (13). Incidentally, she has an IQ of 228, which is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the highest IQ recorded to date.

Scientism presupposes that the only true knowledge about reality comes solely from science, and empirical knowledge claims derived from “hard” science are the only claims that deserve the backing of public institutions. This has been the worldview of public education for decades, implying that religious and philosophical claims are matters of personal belief. Moreland says, “Words such as conclusions, evidence, knowledge, no reasonable doubt, and intellectual heritage become associated with science, giving science the ‘right’ to define reality, while words like beliefs and personal reservations are associated with nonempirical claims, framing religious beliefs as mere ungrounded opinions” (14).

A Most Amazing Creator

I place a great deal of value in science, and particularly in scientific method. As a Christian, I believe in ultimate or ontological truth: a belief is true if there exists an appropriate entity (a fact) to which it corresponds. If there is no such entity, the belief is false. Facts, for the Neo-classical correspondence theory, are entities in their own right. Pythagoras is given credit for the first discussions on the ontological categorization of existence—the philosophical study of being in general, or of what applies neutrally to everything that is real. Essentially, ontology addresses the question Is there such a thing as objective reality? Ontology is closely associated with epistemology, which is concerned with the nature of knowledge itself, its possibility, scope, and general basis: How do we go about knowing things? or How do we separate true ideas from false ideas? or How do we know what is true? or “How can we be confident when we have located ‘truth’?”

McGrath addresses the concept that “…a plurality of methods was required to engage our world…we cannot reduce all cognitive activity to a single fundamental method, but must rather make use of a range of conceptual tool-boxes, adapted to specific tasks and situations, to give us as complete an account as possible of our world” (15). For example, consider the five different ways to explain a frog jumping into a pond: physiological, biochemical, developmental, animal behavioral, and evolutionary. All five explanations are part of a bigger picture. McGrath reminds us that the term “science” is often misused. The general (accepted) definition is “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”

Hypothesis. Theory. Law. These scientific words get bandied about regularly, yet the general public usually gets their meaning wrong. Both natural science and social science are known as empirical sciences. This means that any theories must be based on observable phenomena, reproducibility of results and peer review. Of course, science is never really finished. It must constantly collect and interpret new empirical evidence and determine if such new findings cause a shift in the paradigm.

Christianity remains the religion who is said to have the most run-ins with science. The chasm between science and Christianity seems to be perpetrated by those who have no personal standing regarding faith in God. Skeptics tend to ride the middle of the road on the subject. Rather than prosecute this war of faith and science, perhaps it is wiser to establish a dialog that can lead to enhanced understanding. Pope John Paul II said, “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish” (16). I have made it my life’s mission to help increase the dialog between science and Christianity. I see a need for improved dialog and cooperation; indeed, for a new apologetic. It is for this reason that I will follow this article with Science and Religion: The Two Must Meet.

References

*Traveling at the speed of light, it would take 10,000 years to reach the center of the Milky Way.
(1) Paul Sutter, “What is the Milk Way?” Life Science (June 10, 2021). URL: https://www.livescience.com/milky-way.html
(2) J. Bentovish, “G-d’s Physics: On the True Nature of Dark-Energy & Dark-Matter,” Journal of Physics and Chemistry Research (May 23, 2021).
(3) Stephen Hawking, Brief Answers to the Big Questions (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 2018), 101-102.
(4) Ibid., 103.
(5) 104.
(6) 106.
(7) John C. Lennox, Can Science Explain Everything? (UK: The Good Book Company, 2019), 9.
(8) Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1954), 34.
(9) Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2012, 1962), 4.
(10) Ibid., 5.
(11) Ian Hutchinson, “What is Science and What is Scientism?” The Veritas Forum (January 20, 2010). URL: http://www.veritas.org/what-is-science-and-what-is-scientism/
(12) J.P. Moreland, Science and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 26.
(13) Michael Kinsley, “If You Believe Embryos are Humans,” Time (June 25, 2001), 80.
(14) Moreland, Ibid., 28-29.
(15) Alister E. McGrath, Science & Religion, 3rd. ed. (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell, 2020), 66.
(16) In Science & Religion, Ibid., 10.

Religious Pluralism and Post-Christian Society

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy., M.A. Theology

  • Religious pluralism says all religions are equally valid paths to God
  • The Law of Non-Contradiction says two mutually exclusive claims to truth cannot both be true
  • Religious pluralism fails this Law of logic
  • Two mutually exclusive religious claims cannot both be true

THE VAST MAJORITY OF Americans believe in God or some “higher power.” God is a familiar concept even in twenty-first century America. The 2008 Religious Landscape Report by the Pew Forum, which addressed the religious beliefs of Americans, claimed that 71 percent of Americans were absolutely certain of the existence of “God or a universal spirit.” Seventeen percent were “fairly certain”(1). According to a Pew Research Center report dated May 12, 2015, the Christian share of population in the U.S. fell from 78.6% to 70.6% (2). In a 2019 interview, Robert P. Jones said, “If you go back to just 2008, the country was fifty-four percent white and Christian. When I wrote my book, The End of White Christian America, I was working on 2014 data. And that number had dropped from fifty-four percent to forty-five [which was] a significant drop… we’ve been continuing to track data since 2014, and that number [is] down to forty-one percent now” (3).

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and a plurality of religions have flourished as a result. Is this a good thing? It depends on what you are evaluating. For me, it is good that as Americans we are free to believe however we choose. Moreover, we are free from the tyranny of state-sponsored religion. The Church of England and Islam are two such institutions. Increasing globalization is importing beliefs, faiths, and philosophies along with goods and services. Unfortunately, this diversity has impacted Christianity, causing doubt, apostasy, and defection. The Pew Forum found that 57 percent of evangelical Christians believe “…many religions can lead to eternal life,” while 70 percent of the general public held this same belief (4).

Naturally, adherents to these various faiths claim that their beliefs are objectively true and essential for their spiritual growth and liberation (5). It is not surprising that religious pluralism has led many skeptics to doubt the concept of only one path to salvation. It appears to give much ammunition to militant atheists whose goal is to eradicate Christianity. When Christians, siding with others, decide religion in general is good and no one religion should claim objective (universal) truth, then the biblical worldview will not be taken seriously. Groothuis said, “Religious pluralism therefore poses a significant challenge to historic Christian apologetics, which claims that Christ alone is the way of eternal salvation and that other religions cannot reconcile sinful humans to God” (6).

“It is a daunting task to commend the Christian worldview as the one thing that matters most. To esteem Jesus as the unique and supreme revelation of God is taken by many to be theological chauvinism. The most powerful apologetic for Christianity will be ignored by anyone who simply—and probably ignorantly—accepts all religions as equally spiritual.

Douglas Groothuis

Cultural Impact

We are not fond of being told our existence is not predicated upon our own authority; that we are not free to do as we please. Man has always detested admitting the need for spiritual redemption from his sinful actions; or, that, as a result of the price paid for his redemption, he must turn outward and away, looking to God rather than within. “How can this ‘god’ exist and operate outside the laws of nature?” “There can be no such thing!” These thoughts are the impetus of a gathering storm of disobedience, disorientation, and estrangement that began with the first act of defiance in the Garden of Eden. Such thinking has led to man looking away from God, desiring to be self-sufficient and self-determining, setting his own agenda; deciding the parameters of purpose and behavior for himself. Of course, this sentiment has an impact on one’s religious beliefs. Rampant moral relativism is causing a dilution of “religious proscription” regarding behavior. Religious pluralism has nearly nullified the concept of one way to salvation. Post-Christian culture suggests that Christianity is no longer the dominant religious belief; the citizenry gradually assumes values, culture, and worldviews that are not necessarily Christian.

Sociologists and anthropologists often use “Post-Christian” to refer to the loss of Christianity’s hegemony in historically Christian societies. Post-Christian culture in the twenty-first century has become increasingly hostile toward Christianity: threatening faith, theology, and the community of believers (see The Angry Atheists for more information). At the core of this post-Christian worldview is the idea that no written philosophical text exists (regardless of its affiliation) that contains ultimate truth, meaning, or purpose. Of course, refusing to fix ultimate meaning in this manner is to refuse God. The resulting secularization of knowledge removes God from the center of reality. Opponents of belief in God have become increasingly hostile toward Christianity, thereby setting the tone for personal attacks on those who hold a Christian worldview.

Although Christian apologetics involves demonstrating the basis for why a believer gives credence to the gospel as truth, it also involves explaining how faith must dominate reason. Faith is far from mere ignorance; moreover, it does not include dogmatic rejection of empirical truth. Rather, apologetics involves a defense of one’s frame of reference.

There is a term in computer science called metadata, which refers to “underlying” or “supporting” information for a photograph, text, or other graphic information often used to identify the time and place of its creation, and the origin of the data. Proponents of a post-Christian society speak out against metanarrative, which is a large-scale theory of transcendent meaning and upward progress of mankind throughout history. Postmodernism denies any single narrative that claims to support or explain reality. Interestingly, the postmodernist believes, instead, in a myriad of micronarratives, any or none of which may or may not be true. This concept reminds me of Sire’s definition of worldview as “a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true, or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move, and have our being” (7). The human heart is the location of one’s bias, preconception, misunderstanding, value, or conviction. Entwistle said, “What we see depends, to some degree, on what we expect and are predisposed to see” (8).

God set the tone for basic design as consisting of a unique distinctness between opposites: light and dark, good and evil, above and below, water and land, and so on. It was on the sixth day that He created the first man and the first woman to carry on with His act of creation. This is often referred to as God’s “cultural mandate.” Adam and Eve were to exercise dominion over the earth, subdue it, and develop its latent potential (Gen. 1:26-28). Indeed, this is the beginning of culture.  Charles Colson believes there is scriptural justification for culture building, stating “it starts with Genesis” (9). Christianity is more than a private belief in salvation of the one. Yes, the believer is saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, but this is simply the beginning. Christianity is a comprehensive ideology that holds answers to all of mankind’s endless questions: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? Does life have meaning and purpose?

A Matter of Epistemology

Where does knowledge come from? Hart says, “Truth is more than a matter of ‘the way things seem from where I stand.’ For in practice where I stand—the world as I see it—is also where everyone else stands” (10). He adds that the universal categories of human reason function to provide and underwrite an agreed upon perspective from which questions of truth and falsity may be posited and answered and claims of truth demonstrated. Hart indicates that secularism demands of the Christian that before any investment is made in a “claim to truth, or before we can reasonably expect them to do so,” (5) he or she must provide factual or logical evidence that renders such “belief” reasonable. From the vantage point of logical positivism, it is argued that only two types of statements can be true: (i) analytical statements, such as definitions, and (ii) factual statements that are empirically verifiable (6).

“I am convinced that for any of us to be fully conscious intellectually we should not only be able to detect the worldviews of others but be aware of our own—why it is ours and why in light of so many options we think it is true.”

James W. Sire

Reformed apologists like Alvin Plantinga have taken an epistemological approach to Christianity. Epistemology concerns itself with the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope; it is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. Plantinga and others argue that secular thought has placed an undue burden on Christian apologetics. It demands that Christians offer proof for their beliefs to the point of being irrational (11). Sire writes, “Human beings can know both the world around them and God himself because God has built into them the capacity to do so and because he takes an active role in communicating with them” (12). The apologetics of Jesus included a well-established epistemology, crucial in supporting truth, that states non-contradiction (see above) is a necessary test for truth; that the truth Jesus reveals has experiential factors; that the imagination is a key for presenting truth (consider parable, allegory, metaphor); and that one’s ability to know truth is closely tied to one’s moral rectitude (13).

And Yet…

Prior to His ascension, Christ presented the church with the Great Commission, telling believers all authority is given to them; commanding them to go forth, making disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching as He did (Matt. 18:18-20). This involves every believer, regardless of calling, gift, talent, or church office. Christians are meant to be salt and light among the post-Christian culture of this world (Matt. 5:13-16). Indeed, the body of believers stands between darkness and light at the threshold between forward progress and cultural annihilation. Believers are instructed by Peter, “[I]n your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15).

Apologetics is necessarily paired with theology and evangelism. Because apologetics requires being able to defend what Scripture teaches, apologetics can only be effective when the apologist is well-grounded in Scripture. One cannot defend something without having a firm grasp on its tenets. Further, one would not want to defend something not supported by Scripture. Groothuis, noting the critical importance of being able to defend one’s beliefs whatever they may be (essentially, the investigation of significant truth whether in theology or philosophy) believes a good Christian apologist must be a good philosopher. He or she must possess solid logical and persuasive skills. But there is certainly more to Christian apologetics than giving abstract logical arguments (see Apologetics: Defending the Faith, Part One; and Part Two).

References

(1) Pew Forum, U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2008), 116. URL: http://religions.pewforum.org
(2) Pew Research Center, 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study. (Washington: Pew, 2015), 3-4.
(3) Robert Jones, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Interview by Benjamin Marcus, The Religious Studies Project, Feb. 28, 2019.
(4) U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, Ibid., 58.
(5) Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 567.
(6) Groothuis, Ibid., 568.
(7) James W. Sire, Naming the Elephant, 2nd. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 19.
(8) David Entwistle, Integrative Approaches to Psychology and Christianity, 3rd. ed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2015), 93.
(9) Charles Colson, How Then Shall We Live? (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1999), 295.
(10) Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1995), 43.
(11) Groothuis, Ibid., 64.
(12) James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 36.
(13) See Douglas Groothuis, “Jesus’ Epistemology,” in On Jesus (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2003).

“Counter-Intuitive Biblical Claims?”

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.T.S.

John C. Lennox is a mathematician, bioethicist, Christian apologist, and author. He has written many books on religion and ethics and engaged in numerous public debates with atheists including Richard Dawkins. I have a copy of Can Science Explain Everything? wherein Lennox writes, “There is what we might call, for convenience, the ‘science’ side. They view themselves as the voice of reason. They believe they are working to roll back the tide of ignorance and superstition that has enslaved mankind since we crawled out of the primeval slime” (1). Lennox provides a summary of what these empiricists believe: Science is an unstoppable force for human development that will deliver answers to our many questions about the universe, and solve many if not all, of our human problems: disease, energy, pollution, poverty. At some stage in the future, science will be able to explain everything, and answer all our needs” (2).

Lennox states that the other extreme, the so-called “God side,” believes that God is behind everything there is and everything we are. They discount heredity, micro-evolution, weather, culture, education, and individual discoveries, focusing only on a wonderful mind behind literally everything in our beautiful world. To a large extent, this viewpoint muddies the water regarding evil and happenstance. (Please see my blog post “Why Can’t God Stop Evil?”) These two dichotomies have led to centuries of fighting and name-calling, papers, counter papers, debate, editorial license, and shortcuts. It also leads to harsh rhetoric, like what Physics Nobel Prize winner Stephen Weinberg said: “The world needs to wake up from the long nightmare of religion. Anything we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done, and may in fact be our greatest contribution to civilisation [sic]” (3).

Lennox explains a valuable lesson he learned about a dark side to academia: “There are some scientists who set out with preconceived ideas, do not really wish to discuss evidence, and appear to be fixated not on the pursuit of truth but on propagating the notions that science and God do not mix and that those who believe in God are simply ignorant” (4). The history of modern science includes great Christian and theist pioneers like Galileo, Kepler, Pascal, Boyle, Newton, Faraday and George Mendel. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator” (5). Thomas Nagel made it known that his atheism arose from a personal dislike of the idea of God. He said, “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and, naturally, hope that I am right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that” (6) [italics mine].

Lewis’s apologetic approach looks at a common human observation or experience that fits naturally within a Christian viewpoint. He said Christianity provides us with a bigger picture of reality that is intellectually sound. This stance certainly riles science. Alvin Plantinga, however, echoes Lewis in contending “…if there is deep concord between science and Christian or theistic belief, but deep conflict between science and naturalism then there is a science/religion (or science/quasi-religion) conflict, all right, but it isn’t between science and theistic religion; it’s between science and naturalism(7). J.P. Moreland responds to this dilemma as follows: “Scientism says that the hard sciences alone have the intellectual authority to give us knowledge of reality. Everything else, especially ethics, theology, and philosophy is, at least according to scientism, based on private emotions, blind faith, or cultural upbringing” (8). It is important to note that science is not represented through scientism, and that scientism is philosophy, not science. (Please see my blog post “More on Scientism.”)

You may have heard it said that Western civilization has become a post-Christian culture. Alister McGrath takes it one step further: “…we live in a post-truth world in which we just make up our beliefs… we decide what we would like to be true, then live as if it were true” (9). His post-truth comment is a reference to moral relativism: the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others. Relativism, secularism, and pluralism have attempted to take a bite out of Christian theology and theism.

McGrath quotes Bertrand Russell: “In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt” (10). Russell believes people should study philosophy because it teaches us “how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed [sic] by hesitation” (11). The apologetic approach of C.S. Lewis serves to identify the common human experience, and then show how it fits, naturally and plausibly, within a Christian way of looking at things. Lewis believes the human sense of longing for something that is really real, truly significant, yet proves frustratingly difficult to satisfy, is a clue to humanity’s true fulfillment lying with God. I have heard this longing identified as “a hole in our soul.”

Lewis asks us to look into the Christian way of seeing things and to explore how things look when seen from its standpoint; as if to say try seeing things this way. Granted, worldviews and metanarratives (with all their preconceptions, biases, and presuppositions) can be compared to lenses. Lewis recommends finding out which view brings things into sharpest focus. Further, he notes in Mere Christianity that many people know a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, leading to emptiness and lack of fulfillment. I might add that this “God hunger” is worldwide regardless of culture or religion. For Lewis, there is a third viewpoint that sees earthly longings as a kind of copy, echo, or foreshadowing of our true homeland.

It is truly appropriate for science to be established through an evidence-based approach to theories. In order for these theories to stand, science must identify the evidence that needs to be interpreted, and then try (through the scientific method) to work out which theories are best able to explain empirical phenomena. Imagine the difficulty Einstein faced when proving his theoretical understanding of the photoelectric effect. He set out to establish whether light is made of particles or waves. This is a highly significant concept. Dawkins is rather suspicious of religious beliefs because they seem to involve a retreat from critical thinking and disengagement from evidence-based reasoning (12). Not surprisingly, Dawkins considers religious faith to be “…blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence” (12). Faith is not blind trust, for that would make it illogical.

How is apologetics a part of all this? Groothuis refers to Huntington in Christian Apologetics, who said, “What means the most to [people] is, in the final analysis, their worldview: that complex of concepts that explains and gives meaning to reality from where they stand: given their diverse ancestries, histories, institutions and religions” (13). James Sire defines worldview as “…a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) that we hold (consciously or unconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being” (14).

For those who would blame God (or Christianity, or Islam) for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Gene Edward Veith, Jr. penned the following: “[Thomas C.] Oden saw postmodernism in a different light than I did. He saw it as a reversion to the sensibility of premodern times, marking the end of theological liberalism and making possible a return to Christian orthodoxy” (15). Veith said, “But immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I thought I was witnessing another of Oden’s milestones, a building’s demolition that marked the end of an era and the beginning of something new. Postmodernists believe that reality is a construction (of the mind, of the will, of the culture) rather than an objective truth. But those planes flying into those skyscrapers, taking everyone by surprise, were no mental constructions” (16). Veith notes that even as the dust was settling over lower Manhattan that fateful morning, he heard television broadcasts, readings in the press, and dozens of conversations that were decidedly non-postmodern. In considering the terrorists, their background and their ideology, no one sounded like a relativist. What the terrorists did was evil, people were saying. Veith remarked that not all cultures are equally valid after all. In fact, not all religions are equally beneficent.

Dawkins believes there is no room for faith in science. Evidence supposedly compels the drawing of a valid conclusion. “Science” resulting from the scientific method is decidedly true. Dawkins asks what is faith? He asks his readers if it is a state of mind that leads (“pushes” as he would argue) people to believe something (whatever it may be) regardless of a total lack of supporting evidence. McGrath, however, says, “The issue is that Dawkins here fails to make the critically important distinction between the total absence of supporting evidence” (17). McGrath argues that Dawkins seems to make an erroneous logical transition from “this cannot be proved” to “this is false.” Lack of empirical proof does not ipso facto conclude that something is untrue. Of course, science has established its reputation worldwide as an effective way of making sense of the universe for many reasons, including its skepticism about establishing truths beyond what can be observed. Otherwise, science would be a “faith” or religion.

Of course, as a Christian and a theology student, I do not see God as a physical object within the universe. This does not fit in with systematic theology. God is not a part of creation; rather, He has providence over creation. He is the originator, foundation, and grand cause of all things. Romans 4:17 says God called into existence the things that did not exist. Hebrews 11:3 states, “By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear.” What this signifies is that God did not use any previously existing materials when He created the universe. There were such existing materials. God created the universe ex nihilo (out of nothing).

McGrath suggests that Christians think of God not as part of a painting or diagram, but rather as the canvas on which the picture is painted, or the frame in which it is set. This concept seems to me to miss the point. Instead, I see God as the painter (the “Grand Artist”), not the canvas. God is identified as Creator in the OT (Isa. 40:28; 42:5; 45:18) and NT (Mark 13:19; Rev. 10:6). Creation occurs by God’s Word (Gen. 1:3; John 1:1-3). Since God as Creator is the explanation for the existence of the world and humans, creation establishes our deepest, most essential relation to God (18). Creation speaks of God’s great power and wisdom, for He alone established energy, substance, movement, gravity, and all that mankind has discovered and categorized. Hebrews 1:3 tells us that Christ is “…upholding the universe by his word of power.”

Footnotes

(1) John C. Lennox, Can Science Explain Everything? (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), 9.
(2) Lennox, Ibid., 9-10.
(3) Weinberg, in Lennox, Ibid., 14.
(4) Lennox, Ibid., 16.
(5) C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 140.
(6) Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1997), 130.
(7) Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion & Naturalism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), x.
(8) J.P. Moreland, Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 23.
(9) Alister McGrath, Richard Dawkins, C.S. Lewis and the Meaning of Life (London, UK: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2019), 16.
(10) McGrath, Ibid., 17.
(11) Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (London, UK: Allen & Unwin, 1946), xiv.
(12) Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 2d ed. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1989), 198.
(13) Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 21.
(14) James Sire, The Universe Next Door, 5th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 20.
(15) Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Post Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 14.
(16) Veith, Ibid.
(17) McGrath, Ibid., 23.
(18) D.K. McKim, “Creation,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 216.

The Practical Application of Narrative Apologetics

Written by Steven Barto, BS Psy

STORIES OFFER APOLOGETIC possibilities that are more effective than approaches that rely on rhetorical argument. Certainly, this is because stories engage audiences that would otherwise choose to pass on logical discourse. C.S. Lewis believed a well-told story opens the imagination to new ways of thinking and believing. He believed this approach allows the Christian story to be put forth in its “real potency,” allowing it to sneak past the watchful eye of rationalism.

Christian apologetics has three crucial tasks. First, it must engage cultural objections to religious belief that dominate public discourse in today’s post-Christian society. Second, it must show the ways in which Christianity connects with the lives and concerns of everyday people. Third, it must present Christian beliefs in a way that contemporary culture can relate and understand. Using the medium of story to achieve these goals should be considered by all who engage in evangelism and apologetics in the twenty-first century.

With the proliferation of “non-religious” theories on origin, morality, purpose, and destiny, the early twenty-first century has presented Christianity with a challenge like no other. The evangelistic and apologetic approaches that worked well in the 1950s and 60s do not fit the culture of today. Postmodern writers are attempting to move public discourse forward in a way that uses the best insights of the past without being trapped by it. Postmodern theologians stress experience over reason, subjectivity over objectivity, spirituality over religion, images over words, outward over inward. Are these things good? Sure. But this orientation can be taken too far, leaving Holy Scripture in its wake. Over-stressing such thinking when sharing the gospel tends to lean more toward liberalism. Today, experience is valued more highly than reason, which causes truth to become relative. This often leads to heresy and dogma outside the scope of truth.

But please realize there is no need for Christian evangelists or apologists to panic over the rise of postmodernity. It certainly brings some real challenges, but the Christian faith possesses many resources for meeting such challenges. The faith was able to thrive during the first century, when Jewish leaders persecuted Jews who joined “the way” of Christ. Christianity continued to grow during the rule of the Roman Empire despite torture, beheading, and crucifixion. Certainly, the negative mood today toward theism in general, and Christianity in particular, requires Christians to alter their methods. It is important to connect with people where they’re at rather than telling them where they should be.

Kevin Vanhoozer (1) suggests that postmodernity can be summarized in terms of four major tenets:

  1. Reason. The modern approach of reasoning by argument is viewed with suspicion by postmodern writers. Where modernity believed in a single universal reason, postmodernity holds that there are many different approaches to rationality. Postmoderns deny the notion of universality; reason is merely a context, a relative affair.
  2. Truth. Postmodernity is suspicious of the idea of truth because of the way in which it has been used to legitimize oppression, or give justification to vested interests. Postmoderns see truth as a compelling story told by persons in positions of power in order to force their way of seeing and organizing the natural and social world.
  3. History. Where modern writers tried to find universal patterns in history, postmodernity is “incredulous towards narratives that purport to recount universal history.” From the standpoint of Christian apologetics, this means any attempt to see universal significance in the narrative of Jesus Christ will be viewed with intense suspicion by some in today’s culture.
  4. Self. Postmodernity rejects any notion there is “one true way of recounting one’s own history” and thus concludes there is “no true way of narrating one’s own identity.” All ways of understanding the individual are open-ended and partial. Postmoderns decry universal answers to the question of human identity.

Alister McGrath said apologetics is not about inventing the rationality, imaginative power, or moral depths of the Christian faith. It is about pointing them out, and allowing people to see them clearly and appreciate them for what they are. He writes, “This means the apologist must be able and willing to develop a deep and informed appreciation of the Christian faith. Yet this is not enough: it is also important to develop an outsider perspective” (2). In other words, it is helpful to understand how the great themes of the Christian faith can be defended and explained to people who are not familiar with its vocabulary or practices. This “cultural” engagement involves establishing the Christian voice, conscience, and imagination within a culture so that Christianity is seen as true and satisfying.

A Theological Approach

J.R.R. Tolkien did not refer to Christianity specifically as a metanarrative, but he conveyed the same sentiment when he said Christianity is a story of a larger kind. He suggested that “myths” are ubiquitous, appealing primarily to the imagination and reasoning. Man relates naturally to story. No doubt, this is due in large part because man is created in the image of God (imago Dei), the Great Creator. Man possesses the unique ability to create stories that tend to reflect the divine nature of creation itself. Tolkien referred to this concept as “sub-creation” in his poem Mythopoeia. Accordingly, his theology of religion is grounded in Christianity’s metanarrative. Myth elicits a strong sense of wonder and imagination that fuels man’s longing for meaning. Myth contains deeper truths that otherwise might remain unspoken. Moreover, it creates intellectual and imaginative space for stories.

Tolkien’s position regarding myth persuaded C.S. Lewis to move from a general theism to Christianity itself. Lewis was finally able to see the Christian story as more than a set of doctrines or moral principles. Instead, he regarded it as a grand narrative that ultimately generated and supported such ideas and values. Lewis decided myths offer at least a gleam of divine truth. No longer did Lewis see Christianity as one myth among many, but as representing the fulfillment of all myths. What he called the true myth toward which all other myths merely point. In other words, Christianity tells the true story about humanity that makes sense of all other myths humanity tells about itself. As “dim dreams or premonitions” of the greater and fuller truth of the Christian gospel, Lewis believed the biblical narrative gives rise to a clear and complete vision or ontology of things. He said, “It is like watching something come gradually into focus.”

The writings of C.S. Lewis feature an invitation for his audience to decide if the story of Christianity rings true to life experience, and whether it weaved things together in a more coherent manner. He challenged his readers to consider whether they would like to enter into such a world. This approach is quite useful in apologetics and evangelism. He said we do not need to somehow rise above our “finite” mind in order to discover the “real world” of creation and redemption; rather, it has come to us through the incarnation.

Narrating the Incarnation

Jesus Christ is not merely the object of theological and doctrinal discussion. He is a person who is to be known and loved; to be understood and worshiped. This approach is refreshing given the usual debate regarding His deity and His humanity. Tertullian (A.D. 160-220) insisted upon the unity of the person of Christ while distinguishing the proper functions of His humanity and divinity. He essentially considered the incarnation to represent an amalgam (such as when two metals are fused together). Others during Tertullian’s time attempted to distinguish two beings in one person: saying that the Son is the flesh, the human being that is Jesus, while the Father is the spirit, or the God “part” of Christ. Of course, this approach served to divide rather than unite Father and Son.

The Word was not transformed into flesh, as this would imply destruction of what originally existed. Rather, the Word became clothed with flesh. Origen (A.D. 185-254) taught the necessity of a mediator between God and humanity, noting the respective importance of Christ’s divine and human natures in relation to His work. He wrote, “Therefore with this soul acting as a mediator between God and flesh (for it was not possible for the nature of God to be mingled with flesh without a mediator) there was born the God-man, that substance being the connecting link which could assume a body without denying its own nature” (3). Jesus had to be “without sin” in order for “God and man” to co-exist through the incarnation.

An integral element of Christian evangelism and apologetics is an effective explanation of the significance of Christ. Yet, words like “incarnation” are not well-received outside the theology of Christianity. It is important to accurately and faithfully translate theological terms into cultural dialects. For example, the apostle Paul views man’s condition regarding sin as spiritual slavery, from which mankind has been redeemed by Christ (see Gal. 4:5). For Paul, the analogy is not necessarily about moving from bondage to freedom; rather, it is about moving from the domain of fleshly servitude to the law to a new domain: that of belonging to God. Such concepts are heady and require an explanation that can be easily grasped. Narrative apologetics attempts to communicate the remarkable significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ through telling stories.

The Gospel narratives (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) emphasize the transformative impact of Jesus upon those who believe in His ministry. God chose to enter into human habitation. The Word became flesh and lived among us (see John 1:14). God’s compassion for humanity is clearly expressed by the incarnation. Jesus taught us about our sinfulness, and provided the means by which we are able to rise above spiritual death. The narrative of Jesus Christ makes us want to turn our backs on the sinful past and embrace the gospel. The story itself does not save us. There is no incantation, memorization, or recitation that takes the place of redemption. What happened to Christ on the cross is the means by which we are saved. Faith in His sacrificial death can make us whole; allowing us to be healed by God’s grace. Not only does the incarnation help us understand the paramount importance of Jesus Christ, it also tells us something about the kind of God we love and worship as Christians. Yet, we must never misuse the grace of God.

Philosopher and historian R.G. Collingwood wrote, “The chief business of twentieth-century philosophy is to reckon with twentieth-century history” (5). Some argue that the best apologetics is a good systematic theology. Stephen Wellum says, “We cannot defend the faith (apologetics) without systematic theology” (6). Systematic theology is the exegetical discipline that seeks to grasp the entirety of Scripture as the unfolding of God’s plan from Genesis to Revelation. It is through systematic theology (from the patristic era until now) that doctrine is preserved and the message of sin and redemption is shared. McGrath shares Charles Taylor’s thoughts concerning how to best do apologetics in today’s post-Christian culture: “Taylor persuasively argues that there is a need to move away from the traditional believers-nonbelievers paradigm to a new seekers-dwellers paradigm” (7). Taylor recommends this approach because of numerous alternate beliefs found where modern secularism abounds.

As I’ve said elsewhere, the days of fire-and-brimstone preaching are past. Systematic theology and dogma may speak to the heart of the “dweller,” but a different approach is required for engaging with “seekers.” Essentially, the same fundamental concepts are featured in theology and apologetics; the difference between them is the manner in which these concepts are presented. It is far easier to reach a non-believer through an organized discussion about their doubts and counter-arguments than it is to say unless you believe, you are going to hell. We should not engage in apologetics until we fully know God (including the Godhead), know ourselves as redeemed creatures, made new through the blood of Christ, and plug in to the Body of Christ through a local church. Gathering together, we come to understand our gifts and our calling. We must know the gospel truth as an entire worldview over against the errors of the world.

Apologetics and Evangelism

Apologetics and the Great Commission are complementary. Jesus clearly said we are to go forth, making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that He has taught (Matt. 28:19-20). McGrath says apologetics allows for sustained engagement with others, answering questions raised, and showing how the Christian faith is able to provide meaningful answers, but evangelism moves in a different circle. Where apologetics aims to secure consent, evangelism aims to secure commitment (8). Apologetics aims to establish the plausibility of salvation in Christ. Evangelism is inviting someone to become a Christian. Apologetics involves clearing the ground for that invitation. McGrath believes evangelism is like offering someone bread; apologetics is persuading people there is bread to be had and that it is good.

McGrath says, “Apologetics can be likened to drawing curtains to one side so people can catch a glimpse of what lies beyond, or holding a diamond up to the light and allowing its facets to scintillate and sparkle in the sunlight” (9). It is about building bridges, allowing non-believers and skeptics to cross over from the worldview they already have, and to experience the Christian faith. But the task of an apologist is not simply to win arguments or to establish the “rationality” of Christianity. Instead, it is critical to establish “true God” as a God who may be relied upon. It is also important to share the passion, beauty, and mercy of God. C.S. Lewis was attracted to the gospel story because it offers meaning, not merely “propositional correctness.” He said, “Reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning” (10).

For Lewis, belief in God was neither a distraction from life’s hardship, nor a psychological “band aid” for what causes us grief. Instead, discovering God involves discovering our “true self” and redirecting our lives toward that end. God is not a tangible object, but that does not mean He is not Him. He is, in fact, I am. Admittedly, when we first approach the gospel we do so with rational argument in mind. Lewis believed religious faith is grounded on rational norms that are not identical to those governing scientific theories. He wrote, “[The existence of God] is a speculative question as long as it is a question at all. But once it has been answered in the affirmative, you get quite a new situation… You are no longer faced with an argument which demands your assent, but with a Person who demands your confidence” (11).

NOTES

(1) Kevin Vanhoozer, “Theology and the Condition of Postmodernity, ” in The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 73-75.

(2) Alister E. McGrath, Mere Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2012), 47.

(3) Origen, “On the Two Natures of Christ,” in The Christian Theology Reader, Ibid., 230.

(4) Alister E. McGrath, Narrative Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2019), 97.

(5) R.G. Collingwood, An Autobiography (London: Oxford University Press, 1939), 70.

(6) Stephen Wellum, “4 Things You Can’t Do Without Systematic Discovery,” TGC (Dec. 26, 2017). URL: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/4-things-you-cant-do-systematic-theology/

(7) Charles Taylor, in Narrative Apologetics, Ibid., 99.

(8) McGrath, Mere Apologetics, Ibid., 22.

(9) Ibid., 127.

(10) C.S. Lewis, Rehabilitations and Other Essays (London, UK: Oxford University Press, 1939), 158.

(11) C.S. Lewis, Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church (London, UK: HarperCollins, 2000), 213-14.