Let’s Go to Theology Class: Art and Spirituality

The following summary is from the first week of my new class—Theological Aesthetics—in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

Assess the claim that art relates us to realities of a “spiritual” sort. Include in your answer particular reference to John Ruskin’s notion of Theoria (1903).

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

ART SPEAKS TO ME on a level that reaches far deeper than tenets or doctrines. Although such underlying (especially “systematic”) precepts provide a degree of universality to religious practice, my valuation and interpretation of art (for art’s sake) must not be rooted in preconception, bias, “proper” or “theological” interpretation, or value—it’s not theological, but spiritual. Theoria is, after all, contemplative and rational by nature. Here is the fascinating part. In Neoplatonism, theoria (contemplation) is the creative power of the cosmos. This makes me think a painter could present the “unadulterated truth” of a subject, yet the beholder could see a completely different “truth.” Moreover, relative to whose “unadulterated truth?” Ask that question of the wrong person and you will get an earful about absolute truth being a myth. What, therefore, is causing the “creation?” The act of doing art, or the act of interpreting it? (Why does this question sound hauntingly like the proverbial “If a tree falls in the woods but no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”)

It seems Ruskin understands how psychology also plays a role in interpretation of art. Even experimental psychology looks for “visual truth.” That is not to say all art is a therapeutic Rorschach, but how one views an object of art says something about the beholder that can be distinct from the intention of the artist. Does not theoretic faculty involve analyzing the “value and meaning” of mental impressions? Further, Ruskin does not believe imagination can be taught or explained. And even if in arguendo such skills could be taught, I would think the paradigm of the teacher and/or the technique being used to teach could (to a certain degree) impact or “mentor” the student regarding what is imagination and how to practice it. Moreover, interpretation can be impacted by one’s community of believers through suggesting (from a group think or group feel perspective) what one sees or should see. I think this communal context often causes geniuses and the gifted to fear misunderstanding, ridicule, or rejection, which can ultimately stifle expression. This begs the question Can something created but never publicly shared be called art?

I feel more confident now than at the beginning of this exercise to state that art must have a spiritual component. Creativity is gifted to us by the Creator. We are commanded to be creative; to procreate, use, subdue, name, categorize, and build upon what is. In this manner, creation (or if you prefer, art) is not “just art.” It is not only mechanical action. To a degree, art is “functional.” It is the “creative” use of that which is in order to make something which is not. This is precisely how God “created” Creation. He had a concept, intention, or desire (indeed, the “will” to make something) and He “expressed it” by essentially painting with His words! To me, this same process (albeit to a much lesser or universally dramatic degree) is utilized by artists (i.e., other “creators”) to express their vision in a manner that is an honest and accurate expression of what they were thinking or feeling. Creating a painting on canvas does not have the same “function” as a 1957 Corvette Stingray, but both are (at least to some) works of art. Of course, I cannot drive the painting to work!

I look forward to your feedback.

“Real appreciation demands the opposite process. We must not let loose our own subjectivity upon the pictures and make them its vehicles. We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our own preconceptions, interests, and associations. We must make room for Botticelli’s Mars and Venus, or Cimabue’s Crucifixion, by emptying out our own. After the negative effort, the positive. We must use our eyes. We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such an surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)” C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1961/2000), 18–19.

Responses from Classmates
From Meredith:

Hi Steven!

When reading through Ruskin, I found it very interesting how he related beauty to morality. You mention the idea of absolute truth, and I am curious if you think there is an absolute truth to what is beautiful–an absolute truth to what should inspire theoria? Ruskin also mentioned that humans can misuse pleasures and the senses, and that the Christian goal is not a hedonistic lifestyle. Do you think that art, when misused, can lead to lust, greed, or idolization that would not align with what Christianity teaches?

My response to Meredith:

The question of “absolute truth” is something I’ve been studying and writing about for over a year. I find it quite fun to compare and contrast the various isms (pluralism, moral relativism, secularism) with the Truth of the gospel. I wet my whistle (so to speak) in an undergraduate class at CCU regarding the history and philosophy of psychology. I’ll begin with deontological ethics. This school of thought is a principles-based system in which actions are intrinsically right or wrong, and dependent on adherence to the relevant moral principles or values. This differs from moral relativism in that the latter takes its cue (indeed, its definition) from culture or the situation. It is “relative” to the circumstances. Moral relativists believe morals are malleable. As a Christian, I believe moral truth is found in the Scriptures.

One of the greatest influences on my worldview (and my “apologetic” focus) is Ravi Zacharias. Moral relativism says, “That might be true for you, but not for me.” It touts the “freedom” of not being held to “someone else’s moral compass.” Ravi says, “Unless we have a moral principle about such delicate matters as marriage and murder, the whole world will become a welter of exceptions with no rules” (1). He adds that Christianity is a belief grounded in freedom. It allows us to respond to any situation in a uniform manner, freeing us from trying to “figure out” right and wrong in an ad hoc manner regarding each given scenario. We live in a society that increasingly does not value truth on the biggest questions of life. I believe man’s fear stifles the truth about what we’re doing here, how we got here, how we should “behave,” and where we’re going when we die. Man bends the truth, stretches the truth, manipulates the truth to fit a particular worldview, culture, time period, or situation.

I do not believe there is a definition of “absolute beauty” as it applies to any give piece of art or to an observer’s response to that work of art. This is kind of tricky, because I do believe in an absolute underlying truth and morality that applies no matter the person or situation. This universal truth actually reveals the character and attributes of God. I see the ministry of Jesus as a pure revelation of truth and of the will of the Father. Given the fact that theoria essentially means “comprehension,” and can be impacted by linguistics and knowledge, it is not a foolproof means for determining the absolute meaning or “truth” behind a work of art. However, theoria is supposed to focus on direct experiential knowledge of the divine. Indeed, this can be implicated in interpreting art that has a philosophical or theological theme. What might muddy the waters a bit is that Neoplatonists not only see theoria as contemplation, they believe it is the creative power of the cosmos. This likely refers to Creation being spoken into existence. God created the universe and all its elements and creatures by “saying” what He wanted and it came to pass. His words were his “paint brush.”

Yes, I do believe art can be misused, but that seems to be limited to misuse of a work of art in a heretical or cult-like situation. It would be virtually impossible for the observer of a work of art to make an ontological determination of the intent or truthfulness of the artist by merely looking at the art. If the artwork seems wildly off base, however, then it seems a conversation with the artist would clarify his or her meaning. However, I don’t know where I stand regarding art as idolatry. I recommend looking at Professor Buchanan’s feedback to my initial discussion post. 

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(1) Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Secular Gods (New York: Faith Words, 2019), 28.

“We Have Lost the Vertical.”

“When you think of it, really there are four fundamental questions of life. You’ve asked them, I’ve asked them, every thinking person asks them. They boil down to this: origin, meaning, morality and destiny. ‘How did I come into being? What brings life meaning? How do I know right from wrong? Where am I headed after I die?'”—Ravi Zacharias.

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

I AGREE WITH RAVI ZACHARIAS: There has been a drastic impact from man’s decision to look within for meaning, purpose, and morality. We have lost our vertical orientation toward God. The battle between theism and atheism is the oldest philosophical  debate known to man. The greatest battles over the course of history have been over control of the heart of mankind, which is the basic currency of politics and culture. Zacharias believes, “Right from the start the question was not the origin of species but the autonomy of the species” (1). We say No one is going to tell me what to believe! Our inner turmoil is rooted in the fact that we are a worshiping people, with an innate desire, an instinct and impulse hardwired into us, to seek and understand God. Yet we debate whether the concepts of origin, purpose, morality, and destiny should rest with us (relative to culture, history, circumstance) or with God based upon ontological truth.

“What has happened? The answer is clear. The discussion in the public square is now reduced to right or left, forgetting there is an up and a down.”—Ravi Zacharias

The remarkable harmony Adam and Eve enjoyed with God and the whole of creation, the peaceful dominion they were given over it, was broken the moment they decided to look within for meaning and purpose; for the definition of right and wrong. Chandler writes, “While the earth was once wonderfully subdued, it now yields grudgingly. Where it was once only fruitful and abundant, it now offers the challenge of thorns and thistles” (2). God’s very first commandment issued in the Garden—Do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—does not mean God wants to subdue us and is unwilling to share His “knowledge” with us. To the contrary, He is aware of the insurmountable task of systematically evaluating right and wrong, good and evil, true and false, from a human perspective. We lack the ability to perceive and handle the thousands of nuances involved in determining ethics, justice, judgment, and equality. It’s so easy to become embroiled in arguments relative to these issues. Some of the most infamous broken relationships in history have been over arguments gone wrong.

Most biblical scholars  agree that God gave us free will. What they cannot agree on is how to best define the concept of free willexactly how it operates in our lives. Sadly, our desire to know and control things cost us dearly. Adam and Eve enjoyed a glorious relationship with God: walking with Him in the cool of the day. God provided our First Parents with the freedom to choose. I believe He wants us to choose Him rather than be forced to believe and obey. Accordingly, God said to Adam, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen. 2:16-17, NRSV) (emphasis mine).

Essentially, our First Parents staged a mutiny. A tug-of-war began between man and God at the very beginning. Chandler believes this cosmic argument with God has left a “shalom-shaped hole in our hearts, and no matter how much we throw in there, and no matter how long we try filling it, nothing will satisfy but shalom itself” (3)Zacharias believes the moment Adam and Eve chose to look within for purpose, meaning, and knowledge, mankind headed down the slippery slope of secularism, humanism, and moral relativism. Secular and humanistic worldviews say, “We don’t need God!” Moral relativism says, “That might be true for you, but it’s not true for me!” 

“Faith gives the understanding access to these things, unbelief closes the door upon them… A right faith is the beginning of a good life, and to this also eternal life is due. Now it is faith to believe that which you do not yet see; and the reward of this faith is to see that which you believe.”—Augustine of Hippo

The Enlightenment

Skepticism and doubt reign supreme in Western civilization today. When the Enlightenment emerged in Europe in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, emphasis was put on reason and individualism rather than doctrine and tradition. Leaders during this era ( Descartes, Locke, Kant, Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau) taught that reason was the power by which humans can understand the universe and improve their own condition. Enlightenment involved the use and celebration of reason, the power by which mankind attempts to understand the universe and improve the condition of man here on earth. Immanuel Kant sought truth through “pure reason.”

Enlightenment stressed both reason and independence, and elicited a pronounced distrust of authority. For the Enlightenment thinkers, the most important human attribute was rationality. This sounds like a fairly innocuous term: the quality of being based on or in accordance with reason or logic. The difference between man’s logic and God’s is this: Christian rationalism attempts to strengthen not only the physical body, but the spirit as well; enlightening human beings by means of the spirituality it defends. It focuses on spiritual evolution, without prejudices or dogmas. Specifically, the Christian rationalist believes Scripture is the foundation upon which all good reasoning is built. It is the only reliable foundation for all logic and good judgment; the only trustworthy basis for the beginning of thoughts, ideas, actions and practices. The Word of God is intended to be the mind’s bedrock, its compass. This is an a priori argument: relating to or denoting reasoning or knowledge which proceeds from theoretical deduction rather than from observation or experience. This is akin to saying we cannot trust what we see.

Brad Inwood said, “The Enlightenment devalues prejudices and customs, which owe their development to historical peculiarities rather than to the exercise of reason. What matters to the Enlightenment is not whether one is French or German, but that one is an individual man, united in brotherhood with all other men by the rationality one shares with them” (4). We can see in this statement that the authority of the church and of Scripture began to be questioned. A period of objective inquiry concerning the world and mankind ensued as a result of this philosophy. Of course, reading between the lines reveals an attitude that subjective inquiry (no matter the subject matter it pursues) is “illogical.” Inwood added, “Beliefs are to be accepted only on the basis of reason, not on the authority of priests, sacred texts, or tradition.” Alas, this was the Age of Reason.

To its credit, Enlightenment believes in some immutable Truth waiting to be discovered by experience, unbiased reason, or the methods of science. The downside of this worldview is its tendency to define such ontological truth through human reason, or on empirical evidence alone. Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence, or reality. It is part of the major branch of philosophy known as metaphysics. Skeptics of this school of thought believe that “truth” is always relative to cultural, group, or personal perspectives. This is essentially known as moral relativism. Further to this is the concept that we interpret our experienced reality through a pair of conceptual glasses—situation, personal goals, past experiences, values, the body of knowledge we possess, the nature of language, the zeitgeist, and so forth.

Theological determinism is a form of predestination which states that all events that happen are preordained or predestined to happen, typically by a divine will. Some call this “destiny.” Friedrich Nietzsche was against determinism. He said, “Every man is a unique miracle; we are responsible to ourselves for our own existence. Freedom makes us responsible for our characters just as artists are responsible for their creations.” Nietzsche and other Enlightenment thinkers believed if man lives according to the morals or the will of a divine being, then he is a slave. They believed everyone who wishes to be free must become free through his or her own endeavor. In other words, freedom does not fall into anyone’s lap as a miraculous gift.

The Most Important Question

Rationalism, empiricism, agnosticism, idealism, positivism, existentialism, and phenomenology are all part of the discipline of epistemology: the study of how we know. It is certainly helpful to ask “how,” but it is the why that contains the basis for existence. Why are we here in the first place? While science is equipped to answer the how of life, it is not qualified to answer the why. Zacharias believes the points of tension within secular worldviews are not merely peripheral. They are systemic; they are foundational. For example, for the atheist, sorrow is central and joy peripheral, while for the follower of Jesus, joy is central and sorrow peripheral. There is an intellectual side to life, but there is also a side where deep needs are experienced. Sorrow often occurs when we fail to understand why things are happening to us.

More consequences for life and action follow from the affirmation or denial of God than from any other basic question.—Mortimer Adler

I am most impressed by how succinctly Ravi Zacharias expresses the four fundamental questions of life: Where did I come from? Why am I here? How should I live? Where am I going? These questions fall into four basic categories: origin, meaning, morality, destiny. Regardless of our worldview, each of us longs to answer these fundamental queries. Moreover, how we answer them has a direct impact on our actions! For instance, relativism says, “That might be true for you, but not for me.” Whatever is of significance is reduced to value according to the preferences and biases of this or that person, culture, or point in history. This is actually an offshoot of naturalism. If nature is all there is, then there can be no transcendent or absolute source of moral truth, and we are left to construct our own morality. By definition, morality would be contingent upon the person, situation, or moment in time. Obviously, this makes for a rather murky and ambiguous existence!

According to Thomas Hobbes’s concept of empiricism, “mind” is nothing more than the sum total of a person’s thinking activities. Chemical signals received in the dendrites from the axons that contact them are transformed into electrical signals, which add to or subtract from electrical signals from all the other synapses, thus making a decision about whether to pass on the signal elsewhere. Electrical potentials then travel down axons to synapses on the dendrites of the next neuron and the process repeats. Based on this basic neuroscience, Hobbes denied the existence of a “non-material” mind. Accordingly, he concluded there are no objective moral properties or concepts. Instead, there is only what seems good and pleasing for the individual.

Thinking “Christianly”

Nancy Pearcey introduces the concept of thinking Christianly in her book Total Truth. She addresses this idea under the heading “Divided Minds,” indicating that many Christians today are dual-minded, caught up in the fact/value, public/private dichotomy, restricting their faith to the so-called “religious sphere” while adopting whatever secular views they’re exposed to in their daily lives. Harry Blamires, in his seminal book The Christian Mind, makes a very troubling and profound statement: 

There is no longer a Christian mind!

What does that mean? Blamires believes Christians often lack a proper biblical worldview. Certainly, as spiritual beings most Christians continue to follow a biblical ethic of prayer and worship, studying Scripture, and sharing the gospel with others. But as a thinking being, the modern Christian has fallen prey to secularism. I realize that sounds strange, but it is no less true. Unfortunately, many believers tend to hold a secular point of view in everyday matters. They get sucked into conversations laden with secular or scientific principals and participate mentally as if they are not Christians, espousing concepts and categories typically held by non-believers. Ravi Zacharias says, “Christianity is a belief grounded in freedom. It is also, and here is where it contrasts most sharply with humanism, a belief in an absolute” (3). Secularism and humanism are tied to a relativist viewpoint regarding truth and morality—all value is reduced to value according to the preferences, biases, and circumstances of a particular person, culture, or age.

According to Pearcey, “Thinking Christianly means understanding that Christianity gives the truth about the whole of reality; a perspective for interpreting every subject matter.” Augustine of Hippo said, “Moral character is assessed not by what a man knows but by what he loves.” This puts a new perspective on these words spoken by Jesus: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15, NRSV). Paul said, “It is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:16-17). Christians like to focus on the latter part of verse 17—the promise of glory. Spiritual growth demands that we do not jump ahead. Growth requires baby steps; increments of progress. Just like academic programs in college, there are prerequisites for each level.

Our sanctification as Christians begins by suffering and dying with Christ. Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). There is a specific order to our sanctification: we must first die to this world in order to live with Christ in His resurrection. It is only through dying to self that we can live through Christ. This is how we are able to live our theology and not just learn it. Martin Luther said, “It is through living, indeed through dying, and being damned, that one becomes a theologian, not through understanding, reading, or speculation.” Pearcey believes it is nearly impossible for non-believers to  accept Christianity solely in the abstract. As believers, we know what the gospel looks like when lived out in practice. Hart says theology, far from being esoteric and inaccessible, must be rooted in basic elements of human existence (4).

True theology must be a lived theology or it is merely a collection of information. Close study of the Pauline epistles reveals a subtle movement from the indicative to the imperative; from theological theories to practical applications. This is at the core of Paul’s remark, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). It is only through Scripture that we learn how sin corrupts our very interpretation of reality. John Henry Newman draws a very smart conclusion in this regard: “Christianity is dogmatical, devotional, practical all at once; it is esoteric and exoteric; it is indulgent and strict; it is light and dark; it is love, and it is fear.” Kevin Vanhoozer believes as Christians we must learn doctrine in order to participate more deeply, passionately, and truthfully in the drama of redemption. Intellectual apprehension alone, without the appropriation of heart and hand, leads only to hypocrisy.

Concluding Remarks

I think one of the most profound statements contained in Scripture is “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18). Eugene Peterson puts it this way: “First pride, then the crash—the bigger the ego, the harder the fall” (MSG). There are fewer powerful hindrances to spiritual growth than pride and self-sufficiency. The hardest lesson I learned during four decades of active addiction was thinking I was unique; smarter than the average bear. Every time I tried to manage my addiction, it kicked me to the gutter. Not only did I end up getting drunk or high, I betrayed the very tenet of Christianity: “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… [and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31, NRSV).

It is pride that led to disobedience in the Garden. Adam and Eve decided to look to themselves for meaning, purpose, and morality rather than to God. This is when man lost his vertical orientation and chose to define good and evil from a secular or humanist perspective. The result has been constant posturing and arguing over ethics, justice, judgment, and equality. To the secularist, morality is contingent upon circumstance. However, Scripture is the only reliable foundation upon which all good reasoning is built. It is the basis for logic and good judgment; the only trustworthy basis for the beginning of thoughts, ideas, actions and practices. Scripture is intended to be the bedrock of existence; mankind’s compass. Christianity provides the truth about the whole of reality; a perspective for interpreting every subject and every situation. We can only become grounded in truth by thinking with the mind of Christ. This is what Nancy Pearcey means by thinking Christianly.

Footnotes

(1) Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Secular Gods (New York, NY: Hachette Book Group, 2017), 15.

(2) Matt Chandler, The Explicit Gospel (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 112.

(3) Zacharias, 162.

(4) Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1995), 79.

 

 

Disturber of the Peace

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.

Lucifer Cast Down.jpg

WE HAVE HEARD OF many names for Satan. He started as Lucifer—his name is derived from the Hebrew word (helel), which means “brightness.” In Latin, it means “shining one, light-bearer.” This is also the Latin name for the planet Venus, the morning star in the ancient Roman era, often used for mythological and religious figures associated with the planet. The name “Satan” is derived from Hebrew, meaning “adversary.” He has been called Beelzebub, Belial, the tempter, god of this world, prince of the power of the air, and the father of lies. I’d like to propose one more: disturber of the peace.

The following is the legal definition of the term disturbance of the peace:

Disturbing the peace, also known as breach of the peace, is a criminal offense that occurs when a person engages in some form of unruly public behavior, such as fighting or causing excessively loud noise. When a person’s words or conduct jeopardizes another person’s right to peace and tranquility, he or she may be charged with disturbing the peace.

When I think of peace in a generic sense, I tend to scratch my head and wonder from where does this lovely ideal come? Why, if it exists, why do we failed to find “peace?” Why, instead, do we find conflict, turmoil, frustration, agitation, disharmony, distress, fighting, and a deep sense of personal angst? In Psalm , David cries out to the LORD seeking the opposite of turmoil, persecution, anxiety, and fear he sometimes felt. He previously stated in Psalm 3:1, “LORD, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me” (NIV). He said this after fleeing from the murderous intent of his own son! He makes this wonderful proclamation in Psalm 4:8: “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, LORD, make me dwell in safety.”

Jesus With Open Arms

With the peace of Christ, we feel a sense of quietness come over us. Its meaning in Hebrew (sâlôm) is quite comprehensive in its meaning: “wholeness, completeness, soundness, health, safety and prosperity.” It is a favorite biblical greeting, is used as a dismissal to or cessation of war, relationship between friends, and man’s relationship with God. The prophet Isaiah describes the fruit of righteousness as peace, stating “its effect will be quietness and confidence forever” and that God’s people will “will live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest” (Isaiah 32:17-18). The prophet also wrote, “‘There is no peace,’ says the LORD, ‘for the wicked'” (48:22).

Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27, RSV). The Greek word used in this verse is eirênê, which refers to the peace that is the gift of Christ. It is also used many times in the New Testament to express Christ’s mission, character, and gospel. The purpose of the incarnation of Jesus was to bring spiritual peace with God through reconciliation. Luke 1:79 says, “to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace” (NIV). Christ’s life depicted in the Gospels is one of majestic serenity (Matthew 11:28; John 14:27). The very essence of the gospel can be expressed in “peace” (Acts 10:36; Ephesians 6:15). As Christians, we have countless blessings that are grounded in peace.

The mystical writings of the Zohar (a mixture of the mystical aspects of the Torah, secular mysticism and psychology) teach that God is peace, His name is peace and all is bound together in peace. In post-Talmudic Jewish thought, Isaac Arama paraphrased this idea by saying:

Peace is a positive thing, the essential means by which men of differing temperaments and opinions can work together for the common good. Pearls of individual virtue would be dim in isolation were it not for the string of peace that binds them together and so increases their luster. That is why peace is a name of God for it is He who gives unity to the whole of creation.

The Opposite of Peace

Paul wrote, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:15-17). Perhaps the opposite of peace is rooted in our failure to adhere to Paul’s admonition?

Anxiety 01.jpg

Truly, anxiety is antithetical to peace. The American Psychological Association defines anxiety (in a general sense) as an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure. In clinical terms, anxiety may become quite pronounced. People with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns. They may avoid certain situations out of worry. They may also have physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, dizziness or a rapid heartbeat.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), anxiety disorders include those that share features of excessive fear and anxiety and related behavioral disturbances. Fear is the emotional response to real or perceived imminent danger, whereas anxiety is anticipation of future peril. Panic attacks feature prominently within the anxiety disorders as a particular type of fear response. A few decades ago, I began to experience overwhelming anxiety. It seemed no matter what I did, I could not escape the thought that something drastic was about to happen. This unfortunately led to panic attacks. On one occasion, I was nearly done shopping for groceries when I became overwhelmed with debilitating panic and fear. It was so pervasive that I left everything in my cart (milk, ice cream, cheeses, meats, and all) and ran from the store. 

So what are the deciding criteria for panic disorder? According to the DSM-5, a panic attack is an abrupt surge of intense fear or discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes, and during which time four (or more) of the following symptoms occur:

  1. Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate.
  2. Sweating.
  3. Trembling or shaking.
  4. Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering.
  5. Feelings of choking.
  6. Chest pain or discomfort.
  7. Nausea or abdominal distress.
  8. Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint.
  9. Chills or heat sensations
  10. Paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensations).
  11. Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself).
  12. Fear of losing control or “going crazy.”
  13. Fear of dying.

If a panic attack is followed by one month (or more) of the following: persistent concern or worry about additional panic attacks or their consequences (e.g., losing control, having a heart attack, “going crazy;” a significant maladaptive change in behavior related to the attacks (e.g., behaviors designed to avoid having panic attacks, especially avoidance of exercise or unfamiliar situations). Not surprisingly, many people who are in the throes of a panic attack believe they are actually having a heart attack.

The Story of Satan

Satan Attributes

In Ezekiel 28:14-15 we hear God speaking of the fall of Lucifer: “You were anointed as a guardian cherub, for so I ordained you. You were on the holy mount of God; you walked among the fiery stones. You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created till wickedness was found in you” (NIV). Isaiah writes, “How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon.’ I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High'” (Isaiah 14:12-14, NIV).

Some theologians have refused to apply the prophesies of Isaiah 14:12-14 and Ezekiel 28:12-15 to Satan under the contention that these passages are addressed solely to the king of Babylon (in Isaiah) and the king of Tyre (in Ezekiel). Others believe these scripture passages refer to Lucifer for two important reasons: first, these prophecies far transcend any earthly ruler, and, second, Satan has a close connection in Scripture with the world system. Ephesians 6:12 says, “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (RSV).

Revelation 12 describes the casting down of Lucifer: 

Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him… Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short (12:7-9, 12, NIV).

Tempted (Apple)

Satan, as the “serpent,” caused the fall of the human race (Genesis 3). His judgment was predicted in Eden (3:15) and accomplished at the cross (John 12:31-33). It’s been said by theologians that the number of demons who roam the earth in service to Satan is so great as to make them practically ubiquitous. Satan, although adjudicated “guilty” at Calvary, continues to usurp authority. Second Corinthians 4:4 tells us, “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God” (RSV). Satan tempts and accuses us daily, intending to steal our peace and destroy our relationship with Christ. Believers are reminded of this in Ephesians 6:11-18, which contains specific and powerful instructions for how to defeat him.

Loss of Meaning or Purpose

One of the main reasons I have decided to follow my undergraduate degree in psychology with a master’s degree in theology is because I see a tremendous loss of meaning or purpose today. Especially in Western society, we tend to seek definition for our lives—what makes us joyous or happy or believewe have a sense of worth—through “things.” From a materialistic standpoint, this can be anything from the car we drive to the type of cell phone we carry conspicuously as we walk through the supermarket. For others, it is determined by the size of their bank accounts or the overall accumulation of wealth. We seem to have forgotten that none of these things will provide a true sense of worth, purpose, or peace. In the extreme, this approach becomes a form of idolatry.

Ravi Speaking.jpg

I have been following the ministry of Ravi Zacharias for several years, and enjoy watching his lectures and debates. I’ve read several of his books, including The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists and Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend. I highly recommend both books. (For further information concerning Ravi’s ministry please click here.) 

Ravi Zacharias says questioning life’s meaning and our purpose is quite normal. We are, after all, sentient beings. Unlike any other animal in God’s universe, we have capacity for morality, justice, beauty, meaning, love, and hatred. We’re hardwired to ask, debate, challenge, and search. He notes four great questions for which we seek answers: origin, meaning, morality, and destiny. Where did I come from? Why am I here? How should I live? Where am I going? I honestly know no one over my years that has not contemplated these questions. The result of a sense of meaninglessness in America and across the world has caused a myriad of social and personal consequences, ranging from addiction and other excesses to mental illness and conflict. Pluralism and moral relativism have led to a loss of any sense of “the vertical” view between heaven and earth, God and man, right and wrong. The great lie being taught today is there are no absolutes—that everyone’s worldview is correct. This is simply not true.

According to Zacharias, there is an immense difference between a worldview that is not able to answer every question to complete satisfaction (the Christian worldview) and one whose answers are consistently contradictory or arbitrary. There is an even greater difference between answers that contain paradoxes and those that are systemically irreconcilable. The Christian faith stands out as unique in this test, both as a system of thought and in the answers it provides. Christianity does not promise that you will have every question fully answered to your satisfaction before you die, but the answers it gives are consistently consistent. There may be paradoxes within Christian teaching and belief, but they are not irreconcilable.

Emmanuel Kant said, “Thought without faith is empty. Faith without thought is blind.” A genuinely critical Christian theology will be firmly rooted in the tradition of faith while open to the inevitable and necessary reforming of its traditional thought through critical reflection and interaction with new sources of knowledge, new ways of seeing things. A great example is the adjustment made in Christian thought when it was demonstrated through empirical evidence that the sun does not revolve around the earth (geocentric), but that the earth revolves around the sun (heliocentric).

The fact that truth is never available to us in any direct or absolute manner does not mean that we may not pursue it, or that we are unable to lay hold of it at all. The realization that our knowledge is inevitably mediated by some perspective or other does not lead automatically to the despairing conclusion that all points of view are equally useful in answering the question of truth.  Believing that there is something real out there to be known, therefore—that there is a truth to be laid hold of—yet recognizing nonetheless that our particular viewpoint is precisely that, and that the “view from nowhere” is unavailable to us, our concern will be to ensure that we stand in the place which offers the best view available.

Concluding Remarks

Not since the end of World War II has mankind felt afloat on menacing seas. The events of 9/11 (this generation’s Pearl Harbor) plunged us headlong into constant fear and loathing. Hatred, especially as it pertains to racism and violent terrorism, has created a tremendous loss of the sense of safety and security, and has given rise to ever-increasing claims that there is no God; or, if there is, that He is a violent heavenly despot. We see things from “left to right” with little-to-no concern for the middle. We are turning on one another in the name of ideology.

God wants us to be still and know that He is God; that He will be exalted in all the earth (Psalm 46:10). The Hebrew word for still comes from a word meaning to “let go” or “release.” He will make wars cease to the ends of the earth. He will break the bow and shatter the spear. Be still is a call for us to stop fighting and be quiet in Him. It comes from the Hebrew word rapa, meaning “to slacken, let down, or cease.” In some instances, the word carries the idea of “to drop, be weak, or faint.” It connotes two people fighting until someone separates them and makes them drop their weapons. It is only after the fighting has stopped that the warriors can acknowledge their trust in God.

We will find no true sense of meaning or purpose until we let go of the reigns, stop trying to be “right” (especially through might), and return to a vertical orientation (up-and-down.) We are all made in God’s image. We’re expected to look toward Him for the answers to Ravi Zacharias’ four great questions. Where did I come from? Why am I here? How should I live? Where am I going? Further, as Christians, we are commanded to give an answer for the reason for our faith, and to do so with “gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15, RSV). The true path to finding the meaning of life lies in the “community” of believers. Without first putting down our weapons and taming our tongues, we will not discover a comprehensive, cohesive worldview, nor will we be able to come against the true disturber of the peace: Satan.

 

 

 

 

God, Science or Both?

WHEN YOU PONDER THE vastness of the universe, the wonder of the natural world, or the mysteries of the human mind, what do you think? Some of us see nothing but a material world, machinations of which we believe are best explained by the logical reasoning of science. One of the world’s most famous and endearing scientists, Stephen Hawking, did not believe in God or heaven. Hawking invoked the name of God in his seminal book A Brief History of Time, writing that if astrophysics could find a “theory of everything”—in other words, a comprehensive explanation for how the universe works—they would glimpse “the mind of God.”

However, in later interviews and writings, such as 2010’s The Grand Design, which Hawking co-wrote with Leonard Mlodinow, Hawking clarified that he wasn’t referring to a creator in the traditional sense. “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist, he wrote, adding, “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” In other words, Hawking was perfectly at ease with believing something came from nothing.

In Hawking’ s Brief Answers to the Big Questions, his last book before his death March 14, 2018, he said, “People have always wanted answers to the big questions. Where did we come from? How did the universe begin? What is the meaning and design behind it all? Is there anyone out there?” (p. 3). He states the big question in cosmology: Did the universe have a beginning? He notes that many scientists were instinctively opposed to the idea, because they felt that a point of creation would be “…a place where science [breaks] down. One would have to appeal to religion and the hand of God to determine how the universe would start off” (pp. 12-13). He clearly states in Brief Answers, “I think the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing, according to the laws of science.” He added, “If you accept, as I do, that the laws of nature are fixed, then it doesn’t take long to ask: What role is there for God?”

To Hawking and many like-minded scientists, the combined laws of gravity, relativity, quantum physics, and thermodynamics could explain everything that ever happened or ever will happen in our known universe. He said, “If you like, you can say the laws are the work of God, but that is more a definition of God than a proof of his existence.” Hawking’s number-one “big question” is definitely a big one: Is there a God? Trying to prove God does not exist is basically impossible. How does one prove a negative?

CHRISTIANITY AND REASON: THE THEOLOGICAL ROOTS OF SCIENCE

Christianity helped form the heart of Western civilization, shaping ideas and institutions that have persisted for two millennia. Yet there seems to be an inherent antagonism between science and theology. In fact, militant atheists are prone to portray an ongoing war between the two. The conflict, Sam Harris writes, is “zero sum.” Zero-sum basically means if one party gains an advantage, another party must suffer an equivalent loss. In economic theory, a zero-sum game is a mathematical representation of a situation in which each participant’s gain or loss of utility is exactly balanced by the loss or gain of the utility of the other party.

It is worth noting that science as an organized, sustained enterprise arose in human history in Europe, during the period of civilization called Christendom. Pope Benedict XVI argues that reason is a central distinguishing feature of Christianity. An unbiased look at the history of science shows that modern science is an invention of Medieval Christianity, and that the greatest breakthroughs in scientific reason have largely been the work of Christians.

Sam Harris said, “If God created the universe, what created God?” His sentiments are echoed by several atheist writers: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Carl Sagan, Steven Weinberg. They argue the problem of infinite regress—a sequence of reasoning or justification which can never come to an end. Certainly, they say, there has to be a chain of causation, but they ask, “Why does it have to stop with God?” Dawkins makes the further point that only a complex God could have created such a complex universe; but he said we don’t have the luxury of accounting for one form of unexplained complexity (the universe) by pointing to an even greater form of unexplained complexity (God). Consequently, Dawkins concludes that “the theist answer has utterly failed” and he sees ” no alternative [but to] to dismiss it.”

CHRISTIANITY AND THE INVENTION OF INVENTION

Nicolaus Copernicus wrote, “So vast, without question, is the divine handiwork of the Almighty Creator.” Lists of the great ideas of modern science typically contain a major omission. On such lists we are sure to find Copernicus’s heliocentric theory, Kepler’s laws, Newton’s laws, and Einstein’s theory of relativity, yet the greatest idea of modern science is almost never included. It is such a big idea that it makes possible all the other ideas. Interestingly, the greatest idea of modern science is based not on reason but on faith. Consider the scientific method for proving a hypothesis. A scientific hypothesis is the building block of scientific method. Many describe it as an “educated guess,” based on knowledge and observation.

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard argued that scientific method could neither prove nor disprove any religious belief. Instead, religion requires a leap of faith. He said, “You either believe or you don’t believe. But you’re never reasoned into or out of any religious tenets.” Faith, however, is not a highly acclaimed word in the scientific community. Physicist Richard Feynmand wrote in The Meaning of It All, “I do not believe that the scientist can have that same certainty of faith that very deeply religious people have.” Astronomer and Carl Sagan protege Neil deGrasse Tyson complains that “the claims of religions rely on faith” and boasts that “the claims of science rely on experimental verification.” But where is the scientific verification that something came from nothing? Physicist Eugene Wigner has said that the mathematical order of nature “is something bordering on the mysterious and there is no rational explanation for it.” Feynmand confesses, “Why nature is mathematical is a mystery. The fact that there are rules at all is a kind of miracle.”

There is no logical necessity for a universe that obeys rules, let alone one that abides by the rules of mathematics. Yet the universe seems to be ordered. It does seem to follow rules. Without this irrational faith that the universe simply “knows” to follow a certain order, modern science is impossible. Dinesh D’Souza asks, “Where did Western man get this faith in a unified, ordered, and accessible universe? How did we go from chaos to cosmos? My answer, in a word, is Christianity.” Men such as Thales, Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Pythagoras posited a universe that operates through discoverable rules of cause-and-effect. Prior to this, much was based on mythical cosmologies chock full of ideas of an “enchanted universe.”

CHRISTIANITY AND SCIENCE

Churches began to build schools in Europe during the tail-end of the Medieval period, starting first with elementary and secondary grade levels. Eventually, they began to establish universities in Bologna and Paris. Oxford and Cambridge were founded in the early thirteenth century, followed by universities in Rome, Naples, Salamanca, Seville, Prague, Vienna, Cologne, and Heidelberg. These institutions were affiliated with the church, but they were independently governed and operated. The curriculum was a mix of secular and theological, leaving plenty of room for the study and advancement of new scientific knowledge. Interestingly, many of America’s earliest colleges and universities—Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, Northwestern, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown—began as Christian institutions.

Francis Bacon—a devoutly religious man who did expository writing on the Book of Psalms and on prayer—used the inductive method to record experiments. He is considered by many to be the founder of scientific method—the “inventor of invention” if you will. It was under the supervision of the church that the first medical research institutions and the first observatories were built and supported. From the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, a period of several centuries, the church did more for Western science than any other institution. Agnostics and atheists are prone to believing science was founded in the seventeenth century in revolt against religious dogma. In reality, science was founded between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by great leaders in their fields who were theists.

Here is a partial list of leading scientists who were Christian:

  • Nicolas Copernicus—Mathematician
  • Johannes Kepler—Astronomer
  • Galileo Galilei—Astronomer
  • Tycho Brahe—Astronomer
  • Rene Descartes—Philosopher, Mathematician, Scientist
  • Robert Boyle—Philosopher, Chemist, Physicist
  • Isaac Newton—Mathematician
  • Gottfried Leibniz—Mathematician, Philosopher
  • Pierre Gassendi—Priest, Philosopher, Mathematician, Astronomer
  • Blaise Pascal—Mathematician
  • Marin Mersenne—Mathematician
  • George Cuvier—Naturalist, Zoologist
  • William Harvey—Physician
  • John Dalton—Chemist
  • Michael Faraday—Scientist in electromagnetism and electrochemistry
  • William Herschel—Astronomer
  • James Prescott Joule—Physicist
  • Charles Lyell—Geologist
  • Antoine Lavoiseir—Chemist
  • Joseph Priestly—Theologian, Philosopher, Chemist, Educator
  • William Thompson, 1st Baron Kelvin—Mathematician
  • Georg Ohm—Physicist
  • Andre-Marie Ampere—Physicist
  • Nicolas Steno—Scientist in anatomy and geology
  • Louis Pasteur—Chemist, Inventor
  • James Clerk Maxwell—Mathematical Physics
  • Max Planck—Theoretical Physicist
  • Gregor Mendel—Geneticist

A UNIVERSE WITH A BEGINNING

Do latest findings in modern science support or undermine the Christian claim that there is a God? Carl Sagan once said, “…the cosmos is all there is, or was, or ever will be.” Interestingly, in a stunning confirmation of Genesis, modern science has discovered that the universe was created in a primordial explosion of energy and light. Not only did the universe have a beginning in space and time, but the origin of the universe was also a beginning for space and time. Space and time did not exist prior to the universe. If you accept that everything that has a beginning has a cause, then the material universe had a non-material or spiritual cause. Atheists are unwilling to accept that the creation of the universe was, in fact, a miracle.

Ravi Zacharias, in his book The End of Reason, says “nothing cannot produce something.” He adds, “Not only is there something; the laws of science actually break down right at the beginning.” The very starting point for an atheistic universe is based on something that cannot explain its own existence. The scientific laws by which atheists want to account for the beginning of the universe did not even exist as a category at the beginning of the universe because according to those very laws matter cannot simply “pop into existence” on its own. Atheistic philosopher Bertrand Russell said that the universe is “just there.” Obviously, that is not a scientific explanation. In fact, according to science, nothing that exists (or that is) can explain its own existence.

I don’t mean to pick on atheist theories, but read the following thoughts from Stephen Jay Gould

We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because comets struck the earth and wiped out dinosaurs, thereby giving mammals a chance not otherwise available (so thank your lucky stars in a literal sense); because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a “higher” answer—but none exists… We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers ourselves—from our own wisdom and ethical sense. There is no other way.

Ken Ham made a very interesting statement during his February 4, 2014 debate with Bill Nye on the merits of creationism versus evolution:

Non-Christian scientists are really borrowing from the Christian worldview anyway to carry out their experimental observational science… When they’re doing observational science using the scientific method they have to assume the laws of logic, they have to assume the laws of nature, they have to assume the uniformity of nature.

Mr. Ham made the point that creationists and evolutionists really have the same evidence when discussing the topic of origins. We have the same Grand Canyon, the same fossils, the same dinosaurs, the same humans, the same radioactivity, the same stars and planets, and so on. So the issue is not about evidence, but is rather an argument about how the evidence is interpreted in relation to the past. Frankly, its about one’s worldview. Accordingly, this becomes a worldview/religious debate. It is our worldview, based on our starting point (God’s Word or man’s theories), that drives the interpretation of evidence. This is especially relevant when the discussion is about the origin of the universe.

Sire (2015) said a worldview is not just a set of basic concepts, but a fundamental orientation of the heart. Phillips, Brown and Stonestreet (2008) clarify this even further, stating, “A worldview is the framework of our most basic beliefs that shapes our view of and for the world, and is the basis of our decisions and actions.” (p. 8) Assumptions and biases affect data interpretation. What we see depends, to some degree, on what we expect and are predisposed to see. Successful homicide detectives never approach a crime scene with a preconceived notion of what happened.

IS THERE AN END IN SIGHT?

Stephen Hawking gave a lecture in 1996 called “The Beginning of Time.” He discussed whether time itself had a beginning, and whether it will have and end. I assume this means Hawking did not accept the biblical concept of eternity. He said, “All the evidence seems to indicate, that the universe has not existed forever, but that it had a beginning, about 15 billion years ago.” Regarding whether the universe will end, he said “…even if the universe does come to an end, it won’t be for at least twenty billion years.” For me, coming to a conclusion such as this requires a great deal of faith and a pinch or two of conjecture.

Many astrophysicists and theoretical physicists seem to hold the scientific opinion that we live in a closed universe, which means there is sufficient matter in the universe to halt the expansion driven by the Big Bang and cause eventual re-collapse. In other words, the Big Bang caused the universe to burst into existence, and it has been gradually expanding; however, gravity will supposedly pull everything back in, leading to another Big Bang. I read a post on howstuffworks.com that explains a closed universe this way:

Tie one end of a bungee cord to your leg, the other end to the rail of a bridge and then jump off. You’ll accelerate downward rapidly until you begin to stretch the cord. As tension increases, the cord gradually slows your descent. Eventually, you’ll come to a complete stop, but just for a second as the cord, stretched to its limit, yanks you back toward the bridge. Astronomers think a closed universe will behave in much the same way. Its expansion will slow down until it reaches a maximum size. Then it will recoil, collapsing back on itself. As it does, the universe will become denser and hotter until it ends in an infinitely hot, infinitely dense singularity.

An open universe, on the contrary, means the universe will continue to expand indefinitely. Those holding to this theory believe galaxies will run out of the raw materials necessary for making new stars. Stars that already exist will burn out. Galaxies will become coffins filled with dust and dead stars. At that point, the universe will become dark, cold and, unfortunately, lifeless. Creation.com discusses whether the Bible supports the theory that our universe is expanding. We have been told, since Hubble’s discovery in the late 1920s, that the universe is expanding. Hubble found proportionality between the red-shift in the light coming from relatively nearby galaxies and their distance from Earth.

Hubble initially interpreted his red-shifts as a Doppler effect, due to the motion of the galaxies as they rushed away from our location in the universe. Later, Hubble became disillusioned with the recession interpretation: “… it seems likely that red-shifts may not be due to an expanding Universe, and much of the speculation on the structure of the universe may require re-examination.” He said that what became known as the Hubble Law could also be due to “some hitherto unknown principle of nature,” but not due to expansion of space.

What Do the Scriptures Say?

Psalm 104 presents a description of the biblical account of how the universe was formed. Verse 2 says, “The LORD wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent” (NIV). Verse 5 says, “He set the earth on its foundation; it can never be moved.” We must remember that God did not provide the Scriptures as a “science” book. Rather, it is a love letter to His creation. Science certainly attempts to explain the how and God explains the why of creation. Regardless, the Bible does not attempt to make strict scientific pronouncements. You won’t find a verse that says, “Thus says the LORD: The universe is expanding at X rate.” God says in Genesis 1:6-7, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters. God made the expanse, and separated the waters which were below the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse, and it was so. God called the expanse heaven” (NASB).

The prophets of the Old Testament knew that God had stretched out the heavens—a description that bears an uncanny similarity to the theory of an expanding (or open) universe. According to science, what was often considered a metaphorical, poetic expression turns out to be more literal than ever thought. An expanding universe does not negate the biblical account of creation. The great majority of scientists would say that matter is not eternal—that matter did not exist prior to the Big Bang. In fact, the prevailing theory is that nothing at all existed prior to the Big Bang, including time and space. At the moment of the Big Bang—the moment of creation—time began. Space began. Matter began.

McDowell and McDowell (2017), in Evidence That Demands a Verdict, describes what they call “concordist interpretations,” which are driven by what some believe are remarkable agreements between Scripture and modern science. Astronomer Robert Jastrow has said such instances of concordance are significant: “Astronomers now find they have painted themselves into a corner because they have proven, by their own methods, that the world began abruptly in an act of creation… That there are what I or anyone would call supernatural forces at work is now, I think, a scientifically proven fact” (Durbin, SCBTF, 15, 18).

Zoologist Andrew Parker was so struck with the consistency between the sequence of creation events in Genesis 1 and the modern scientific understanding of these events that he wrote The Genesis Enigma, in which he describes this consistency and concludes as follows:

Here, then, is the Genesis Enigma: The opening page of Genesis is scientifically accurate but was written long before the science was known.  How did the writer of this page come to write this creation account? I must admit, rather nervously as a scientist averse to entertaining such an idea, that the evidence that the writer of the opening page of the Bible was divinely inspired is strong. I have never before encountered such powerful, impartial evidence to suggest that the Bible is the product of divine inspiration.

Perhaps you will find the following excerpt from the Afterword of Nathaniel T. Jeanson’s Replacing Darwin: The New Origin of Species, rather powerful:

In the beginning, around 6,000 years ago, God created “kinds” of creatures—the original min. Representing creatures somewhere between the rank of subgenus and order, these min contained millions of heterozygous sites in their genomes. As they reproduced, shifts from heterozygosity to homozygosity led to diverse offspring. Less than 1,700 years after the creation of these min, their population sizes were dramatically reduced. At least for the land-dwelling, air-breathing min, their population sizes were reduced to no more than 14 individuals. In some cases, their populations declined to just 2. However, because this population bottleneck was so short, the heterozygosity of the Ark passengers would have been minimally effected. For sexually reproducing min, a male and female could have possessed a combined four copies of nuclear DNA. These copies could have been very different, preserving a massive amount of speciation potential.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Whenever I bring up science and faith, my secular friends either go mute or they try to start an argument. Not the “forensic point-counterpoint kind,” but the “You’ve got to be crazy! What is wrong with you?” kind. They say, “With the advent of modern science, how can you still believe that whole “creationism and the Earth is only 6,000 years old” garbage. They’ve decided miracles cannot happen. They’re convinced that the creation story of Christianity is nothing but an “enchanted” fairy tale. But scientists cannot escape the question of God. Nature is well-ordered and follows the laws of gravity, relativity, quantum physics, and thermodynamics. Nature bears the marks of a designer. Finally, science is only one source of truth.

Science cannot exist without the assumptions of a stable creation, with meaning, purpose, or the laws of nature to govern it. Without the assumptions brought about by Christianity, modern science would have no footing whatsoever. If nature were inherently self-serving and motivated merely by survival rather than to the giving of life, the stability of natural laws would be unknowable. Nature itself would be a moving deception. We would not have the ability to even perceive such a reality if it existed.

 

References

Hawking, S. (1988). A Brief History of Time. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Hawking, S. (2018). Brief Answers to the Big Questions. London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton.

McDowell, J. and McDowell, S. (2017). Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth For a Skeptical World. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishing.

Phillips, W., Brown, W., and Stonestreet, J. (2008). Making sense of your world: A biblical worldview, second edition. Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing.

Sire, J. (2015). Naming the elephant: Worldview as a concept, second edition. Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press.

Zacharias, R. (2008). The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Press.

Has the Gospel Changed?

THE GOSPEL STORY ITSELF has not changed, but culture and society has. As a result, the Gospel is viewed against the backdrop of current culture. Culture typically evolves over time—changes in demographics, attitudes toward moral issues, drastic advancements in technology. Accordingly, the method by which we present the Gospel today needs to be such that we do not offend non-believers or appear to be holier-than-thou. Only then will people be willing to listen. It has been suggested by modern-day evangelists that when sharing the Gospel we start where and when God did—in the beginning.

ENGAGING AN EVER-CHANGING CULTURE

It is imperative that we refrain from being dragged along by culture. One of the greatest problems that has frustrated the church is the relation between knowledge and piety—between culture and Christianity. In other words, we don’t want to share a watered-down message. We must always be concerned with proclaiming the Gospel—the entire Gospel. Given the audacity of today’s militant atheists, we should expect increasing objection to the Gospel and challenges to the authenticity and inerrancy of the Bible. By using apologetics to give solid answers, we can help people listen and learn about the most important historical document of all—the whole Bible.

The Gospel should point us toward a time when we can see others—all others—truly as God sees us: as one blood, one flesh, as brothers and sisters. Remember that God truly is the Father of us all; that in Christ the division and the divisiveness between men and women, between different national groups, between different economic circumstances are done away with; that all are alike unto Him; and that even those who do not know Him are known and loved by Him.

CHRISTIANITY VERSUS CULTURE

It is common for believers and non-believers to see religion in Western society as Christianity versus culture—two opposing forces of influence. The church stands on one side of the line and culture on the other. Americans are taking notice that their country is becoming increasingly post-Christian, if not outright anti-Christian. They realize that their beliefs on certain theological and moral issues will increasingly be rejected and mocked by the political, cultural, and academic elite.

The bubble of legalism can’t keep sin out of the church, and it hides one of God’s most useful tools—us. 

If we take a literal us versus them stance, we risk turning the church into a “safe haven” where people seek refuge from the quagmire of unbelief and pluralism. Believers tend to unwittingly perpetuate this “sanctuary city” concept by trying to find the balance between immersing themselves in the world and isolating themselves in a sterile “bubble.” Christians who support this approach have good intentions—they want to preserve the church’s purity, recognizing that the church is under attack and that believers need to hold fast to their faith. They understand that a great battle is being waged (Ephesians 6:11-18); a battle that plays out both visibly in the cultural realm and invisibly in the spiritual realm.

Here’s the thing: Taking this standoffish approach tends to externalize godlessness and treats it as something that can be kept out by man-made walls. Godlessness, however, is a disease of the soul that can never be walled out. Godlessness causes rotting from within. It is troublesome to realize that this mindset tends toward legalism, and it tries to restrict interactions between believers and society. In the immortal words of Dana Carvey’s SNL character Church Lady, “Who could be responsible for this? Is it… Satan?” While it is true that the Christian life involves war against the powers of darkness, it wrongly tries to wage that war by withdrawing from the world.

You can certainly find biblical support for a view that pits the church against culture. Believers with this mentality are clinging to the biblical principle of waging war against that which is evil. They rightly recognize that we must put on the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6:11), fight the good fight of faith (1 Timothy 6:12), resist the devil (James 4:7), and cast down anything that exalts itself against God (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). Be aware, however, that this mindset still falls short—it’s too easy to see ourselves fighting against people instead of sin. God uses the church in his plan to rescue people, not destroy them. This is only a small part of God’s plan for restoration. Our social and cultural contexts are full of unbelievers—but those unbelievers are not merely enemies of God; they are also drowning people in need of a lifeboat. The church is not only a base for soldiers, but also a hospital for the spiritually sick.

But consider this angle instead. It is actually culture that is beating people up. Left to their own devices without God, people will take blow after blow—perhaps without even realizing that it’s culture delivering the pain. False promises, questionable social norms, distorted morality, and unchecked sin present in cultures across the globe can all appear good to people without God.

CHRISTIANITY OF CULTURE

I must admit that cultural changes occurring outside the scope and influence of the church are not necessarily bad. God has enabled all people—believer and non-believer alike—to make good and valuable contributions to society. The abolition of slavery and the human rights movement brought about monumental positive changes. And a thorough and honest search of the records of history will show there were Christians on both sides of these issues. Some Christians sought to preserve the status quo of “free” labor from slaves, while others fought for complete emancipation of black slaves. It’s appropriate to state that Christians who took up arms against Lincoln and the Union in order to preserve slavery were morally wrong.

I don’t believe that culture alone can set the stage and lead us in the right direction. Granted, not all cultural tenets are wrong. But culture is not always right either. Today, in a postmodern world, especially in America, pluralism is the norm. Behavior is often analyzed through the lens of moral relativism. The relativist believes that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect objective or universal moral truths. Instead, such individuals make moral decisions relative to social, cultural, historical, or personal perspectives. Under this tenet, truth is subjective. Bottom line: moral relativists believe that moral or ethical judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (e.g., a specific cultural or historical setting), and that no worldview is uniquely privileged over all others. Not even Christianity.

The Body of Christ cannot simply mirror every decision reached at the cultural level in the hope of winning others to Christ. For example, without God in the picture, culture raises up idols in His place—professional sports stars, actors, politicians, the wealthy and powerful. We must ask, Can the church embrace culture without also embracing its idols? Much of Christian doctrine is black-and-white, whereas culture often speaks in “gray” terms. Believers who subscribe to the Christianity of culture mindset rightly recognize that God created and ordered the world in such a way that left room for mankind to make culture, and that said culture exhibits real aspects of truth, generosity, goodness, and beauty. However, this mentality is misguided because it fails to sufficiently see the way in which every culture, indeed every nuance of culture, is corrupted and distorted due to human sin.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “At an early age I came to believe that the life of culture (that is, of intellectual and aesthetic activity) was very good for its own sake, or even that it was the good for man… I was awakened from this confused state of mind by finding that the friends of culture seemed to me to be exaggerating. In my reaction against what seemed exaggerated I was driven to the other extreme, and began, in my own mind, to belittle the claims of culture.” Lewis added, “I naturally turned first to the New Testament. Here I found, in the first place, a demand that whatever is most highly valued on the natural level is to be held, as it were, merely on sufferance, and to be abandoned without mercy the moment it conflicts with the service of God.”

ANTI-CHRISTIAN BIAS IN PUBLIC EDUCATION

Solomon (1996) wrote, “At the close of the twentieth century American evangelicals find themselves in a diverse, pluralistic culture. Many ideas vie for attention and allegiance. These ideas, philosophies, or worldviews are the products of philosophical and cultural changes. Such changes have come to define our culture.” This begs the question, How is a Christian supposed to respond to such conditions?

According to the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS) standards, “[I]t is clear that the dominant social, economic, cultural and scientific trends that have defined the western world for five centuries are rapidly leading in new directions.” The dominant trends that defined Western civilization are of course the Judeo-Christian worldview. So what does this mean for social studies classes in public schools? The NCSS explains, “The United States and its democracy are constantly evolving and in continuous need of citizens who can adapt… to meet changing circumstances. Meeting that need is the mission of social studies.”

Can it be any clearer? Rather than teach America’s true history and founding principles for the preservation of American liberty and Western civilization, the new mission of social studies is to prepare our children to accept the transformation of America. In fact, the NCSS are missionaries of a new religion operating in the field of American education. Unlike Christians, these particular missionaries have government backing, free reign with captive children, and operate under the guise of “education.” This is pluralism at work. It is a systematic tearing down of the “old” in order to make room for the “new.” It is nothing less than indoctrination with one purpose—to convince our children to reject out-of-hand biblical Christianity and to adopt a secular worldview.

Fiorazo (2012) writes, “Christianity is not the thriving , influential power it once was in America. With a majority of people claiming the Christian tradition, why does our godless culture barely reflect the light of Jesus Christ.” We’re living in sad times when professing Christians know less about the Bible than ever before. We live in a country glutted with biblical material, Christian books, radio and television evangelism, but many Christians are not moving on to spiritual maturity. Additionally, there is a degree of biblical illiteracy in America today. Although surveys indicate that a majority of households report having a Bible, not even 50 percent of those who own Bibles read them regularly. Only 1 percent of young Christians read Scriptures on a daily basis.

There are many whose ultimate goal is to completely eliminate Christianity from public life in America. Militant atheists shout from their lecterns that Christian parents are brainwashing their children; teaching them the “so-called truth” of the Judeo-Christian doctrine. The late Christopher Hitchens said Christian parents are committing a form of child abuse by “indoctrinating” their children with biblical principles. He likened belief in the Virgin birth and the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to believing in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. God’s Not Dead 2 tells the story of a teacher at a public school who comes under fire for answering a student’s question about Jesus. When the teacher refuses to apologize, the school board votes to suspend her and threatens to revoke her teaching certificate. Forced to stand trial to save her career, she hires a lawyer to defend her in court.

We’re faced with sentiment such as this:

“The battle for mankind’s future must be waged and won in the public school classroom by teachers who correctly perceive their role as proselytizers of a new faith…. The classroom must and will become an arena of conflict between the old and the new – the rotting corpse of Christianity, together with all its adjacent evils and misery, and the new faith of humanism.” (John Dunphy, 1983)

CHRISTIANITY UNDER ATTACK

Traditional American Christians have long been on the losing end of culture-war contests—on school prayer, same-sex marriage and other issues. But recent events, including the Supreme Court decision overruling Texas’ restrictions on abortion clinics and the mandate that employers provide access to contraception, have added to the sense that religious expression is under attack. According to recent Pew Research reports, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as religiously affiliated has shrunk while the percentage describing themselves as unaffiliated has grown from 2007 to 2014. The percentage who say they are “absolutely certain” God exists fell to 63% from 71% during the same time period.

A new vigorous secularism has catapulted mockery of Christianity and other forms of religious traditionalism into the mainstream and set a new low for what counts as civil criticism of people’s most-cherished beliefs. In some precincts, the “faith of our fathers” is controversial as never before. Some of the faithful have paid unexpected prices for their beliefs lately: the teacher in New Jersey suspended for giving a student a Bible; the football coach in Washington placed on leave for saying a prayer on the field at the end of a game; the fire chief in Atlanta fired for self-publishing a book defending Christian moral teaching; the Marine court-martialed for pasting a Bible verse above her desk; and other examples of the new intolerance. Anti-Christian activists hurl smears like “bigot” and “hater” at Americans who hold traditional beliefs about marriage and accuse anti-abortion Christians of waging a supposed “war on women.”

Ravi Zacharias said, “The Bible is a controversial book that invokes both devotion and derision. It has inspired some of the greatest thinkers this world has ever known and attracted the hostility of others. It takes a central role in any study of Western civilization and touches the most unlikely of souls.” The current challenges to the Bible are for the most part launched from the postmodern worldview. By its very nature the postmodern worldview is difficult to define. It is an eclectic movement, originating in aesthetics, architecture, and philosophy. A postmodern perspective is skeptical of any grounded theoretical perspectives. Ostensibly, a postmodern theorist believes there are no truly truthful truths. Postmodernism rejects most approaches to art, science, literature, philosophy, and religion. This worldview is about discontinuity, suspicion of motive, and an acceptance of logical incoherence. At the root of postmodernism is a strong denial of absolute authority. Ironically, the belief that there is no absolute truth cannot be true unless there is an absoluteness to the absence of absolute truth.

And we wonder why it’s so difficult to fight pluralism, moral relativism, and militant atheism.

References

Fiorazo, D. (2012). Eradicate: Blotting Out God in America. Abbotsford, WI: Life Sentence Publishing, Inc.

Lewis, C.S. (1940). Christianity and Culture. Retrieved from: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0040571X4004023702

Solomon, J. (1992). Christianity and Culture. Retrieved from: http://www.leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/culture.html

 

 

Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today (Part Two)

“But sanctify the LORD God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15, NASB).

have you ever been

THE GENERAL PROBLEM, the problem that faces anyone with a message nowadays, is the broad cultural doubt about absolutes and the authority figures who presume to enforce them. Interestingly, a byproduct of this type of skepticism leads to complacent satisfaction with what one already knows and believes. I’m reminded of a comment I heard at a seminar years ago. The facilitator of the meeting said, “There is what we know and there’s what we don’t know, but more importantly there’s what we don’t know that we don’t know. Brilliant!

Alan Bloom, in his best-seller The Closing of the American Mind, said openness results in American conformism—out there in the rest of the world is a drab diversity that teaches only that values are relative, whereas here in America we can create all the lifestyles we want. Our openness means we do not need others. Bloom says, “Thus what is advertised as a great opening is a great closing.”

It begs the question: If there are no grounds upon which one can argue that one civilization is superior to another, or that one moral code is loftier than another, or that one way of doing things is better than another, then why bother learning about other cultures and philosophies and religions? What begins as a political value of coexisting with differences and resisting authoritarianism that would squelch individuality has become, ironically, a broad indifference to difference and a disincentive to improving oneself by learning from others.

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Christians have a particularly hard time getting the message of the Gospel across to people today. A Christian sharing his or her faith is almost immediately labeled a Bible-thumping wingnut or, worse, a narrow-minded elitist. The other person is typically not inclined to sit still for any length of time to listen to an argument on the Gospel. They are especially unwilling to tolerate any sort of suggestion that they need to convert to Christianity. My life is just fine the way it is, thank you very much! Moreover, statistically most Americans today believe they are already Christians. They celebrate Christmas and Easter, go to church on a fairly regular basis, and treat the poor and disadvantaged with compassion. If they think they are a Christian, why would they need to hear from someone else about the Christian faith? Especially if they think they’re going to hear a lecture that they’re really not much of a Christian.

Detractors of the Christian Faith

“The number-one attraction to the Christian faith is other Christians. Unfortunately, however, the number-one detraction to the Christian faith is other Christians.” (Pastor Mike Miller)

Several years ago Hollywood gave us an in-depth look at ongoing child molestation in the Archdiocese of Boston in the docudrama Spotlight starring Michael Keaton. Under an extraordinary cloak of secrecy, the Archdiocese quietly settled scores of sexual abuse cases leveled against at least 70 priests in Boston. The Spotlight investigative team of the Boston Globe found court records and other documents that identified 19 present and former priests who had been accused as pedophiles. The investigative team discovered that the church’s annual directories showed as many as 107 priests were removed from parishes and placed in such categories as “sick leave” or “absent on leave” and “awaiting assignment.”

Cardinal Bernard Law says he “cannot estimate” how many priests have molested children.

Cardinal Bernard Law, Archdiocese of Boston

The child molestation problem in the Catholic church is only one of numerous failings atheists and doubters like to cite when attacking Christianity. As scandals go, the one involving Jim Bakker was huge. Bakker was accused of raping Jessica Hahn, a church secretary, then paying $279,000 for her silence. Hahn blew the whistle on questionable financial doings at PTL, a conglomerate of the Bakkers that included the church, a televangelist network, a theme park, a water park, and an extravagant residential complex. As a result of Ms. Hahn’s whistle blowing, Jim Bakker was found guilty on 24 counts of fraud and sentenced to 45 years in prison. He was paroled after serving 5 years behind bars.

In 1988, Jimmy Swaggart was implicated in a sex scandal involving a prostitute that resulted in his suspension and ultimate defrocking by the Assemblies of God church. Of course, this led to Swaggart’s now-famous “I have sinned” speech on television. Swaggart was found in the company of another prostitute in 1991, but refused to talk about the incident, deciding it was “flat none of your business.” Several prominent pastors have also come under fire for amassing fortunes and living an opulent lifestyle. Joel Osteen is said to have a personal net worth of $40 million. Kenneth Copeland (The Believer’s Voice of Victory) is worth approximately $760 million. Pat Roberson is said to have a personal net worth of $100 million. Copeland owns a $17.5 million jet, and lives in a lakefront mansion worth $6 million. The median salary of a pastor in America as of March 2018 is $93,760.

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Unfortunately, Christianity in North America has suffered considerably from the widely reported—and widely enjoyed—failures of prominent clergy. Over and over again, talk-radio shows that feature religion have been besieged by callers who wanted to report on personal disappointments with people who call themselves Christians. An abusive father here, a repressive mother there; a flirtatious pastor or licentious youth leader; a thieving church treasurer or a dishonest employee who had proudly proclaimed his faith—over and over again, people of all walks of life report encounters with repellent Christians guilty of rather questionable behavior. These individuals come to symbolize Christianity to their victims, and the pain that they cause sticks to the religion they profess.

A Sign of the Times

We live in a sort-of time-between-the-times, in which people raised in a more or less Christian culture now are reacting against it. This condition especially afflicts Baby Boomers, that generation that has defined itself so centrally as rebelling against “the Establishment.” Christianity was a part of the regime of Mom and Dad against whom they were reacting. Christian apologetics, accordingly, will have to be especially sensitive to this sort of resentment, as well as the incredulity expressed by many over outrageous scandals like the ones I described above. With the increasing presence of believers of other faiths, especially Islam, we are being forced to express a multicultural acceptance of the beliefs of others, sometimes to the subduing or exclusion of our own Christian beliefs. Again, Christians are considered narrow-minded, bigoted, elitist, and just plain dumb. This gulf today is essentially between liberalism and conservatism.

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Skepticism, fear, and anger toward traditional religion are growing in power and influence. The non-churchgoing population in the United States and Europe is steadily increasing. The number of Americans answering “no religious preference” to poll questions has skyrocketed, having doubled or even tripled in the last decade (Douthat, 2007). A century ago most U.S. universities shifted from a formally Christian foundation to an overtly secular one. In short, the world is polarizing over religion. It is getting both more religious and less religious at the same time. For example, in Europe Christianity is growing modestly and Islam is growing exponentially, while fundamentalism is coming under constant vitriolic fire in the U.S.

As a child, the plausibility of a faith usually rests on the authority of others, but when we reach adulthood there is a need for personal, firsthand experience as well. I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior the year I turned thirteen. I was baptized as an outward public sign of my new faith. I do not recall experiencing the presence of God. I unfortunately fell by the wayside for decades, struggling for forty years in active addiction. It took a 12-Step program to give me back the God of my youth and to discover the meaning of spirituality. I learned that we cannot inherit our salvation from our parents. Ultimately, I came to grips with my own faults, powerlessness, and problems. It was painful, but it has proven to make all the difference in my adult life. It has created in me an absolute conviction of the reality of the Good News of the Gospel.

Can Doubt be a Powerful Tool?

Is certainty overrated? Today’s militant atheists believe no one can prove the existence of God, so why bother trying? The late Christopher Hitchens, an atheist known across academia as a defender of science and reality, was fond of stating that parents’ forcing their faith in God on their children is a form of child abuse, adding that it predisposes children to believing a myth rather than seeking observable, verifiable truth.

doubt faith image

Is it wrong to have doubts about your faith in God? Scripture says without faith it is impossible to please God (see Hebrews 11:6), and that a person who doubts shouldn’t expect to receive anything from Him (see James 1:7). In Matthew 9:23-25, we read about a father who brought his son to Jesus seeking healing for a life-long disease, perhaps epilepsy. The father said to Jesus, “If you can do anything…” Jesus replied, “‘If you can?’ Everything is possible for one who believes.” The man answered, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief” (NIV). So there is nothing unusual for even a Christian to experience doubt. In fact, even among the disciples some doubted.

Christianity isn’t about having faith in faith alone. The Greek word for faith (pistis) is a derivative of the Greek word for persuasion (peitho). In other words, faith is not merely a blind, mindless acceptance of things our parents told us. Instead, it is a confidence based upon convincing evidence. Perhaps this is why Josh and Sean McDowell titled their book on seeking evidence in support of the Gospel Evidence That Demands a Verdict. This father-and-son team wanted to help arm Christians who have been stumped by arguments against the Bible or Christianity. I’ve actually been told that Christianity is nothing but a fairy tale, unsupported by scientific fact. Lee Strobel, an award-winning journalist for the Chicago Tribune, set out to prove to his wife and the rest of the world that Christianity was bunk. What resulted was his book The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. The book also led to a major motion picture of the same name, and a series of books to follow.

Was Jesus an Apologist?

Jesus was a brilliant thinker, who used logical arguments to refute His critics and establish the truth of His views. When Jesus praised the faith of children, He was encouraging humility as a virtue, not irrational religious trust or a blind leap of faith in the dark. Jesus deftly employed a variety of reasoning strategies in His debates on various topics. These include escaping the horns of a dilemma, a fortiori arguments, appeals to evidence, and reductio ad absurdum arguments. Jesus’ use of persuasive arguments demonstrates that He was both a philosopher and an apologist who rationally defended His worldview in discussions with some of the best thinkers of His day. This intellectual approach does not detract from His divine authority but enhances it.

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Jesus’ high estimation of rationality and His own application of arguments indicate that Christianity is not an anti-intellectual faith. Followers of Jesus today, therefore, should emulate His intellectual zeal, using the same kinds of arguments He Himself used. Jesus’ argumentative strategies have applications to four contemporary debates: (i) the relationship between God and morality; (ii) the reliability of the New Testament; (iii) the resurrection of Jesus; and (iv) ethical relativism.

Apologetics Strengthens Believers

Many Christians claim to believe in Jesus, but only a minority can articulate good reasons for why their beliefs are true. When Christians learn good evidences for the truth of the Bible, for the existence of God, or how to respond to tough challenges to the faith, they gain confidence in their beliefs. Numerous studies show a number of students tend to leave the church during their college years. While they leave for many different kinds of reasons (moral, volitional, emotional, relational, etc.), intellectual questions are one important factor. Young people have genuine intellectual questions. And when these questions are not answered, many leave the church. Perhaps the contemporary church needs a renewal of apologetics.

reason and faith

People naturally have questions. They always have and always will. Jesus understood this. One of the key functions of apologetics, then, is to respond to questions and clear away objections people have that hinder their trust in Christ. Apologist, author, and speaker Ravi Zacharias emphasizes the important impact of an alert response to someone’s question, even in a small way: “Do not underestimate the role you play in clearing the obstacles in someone’s spiritual journey. A seed sown here, a light shone there, may be all that is needed to move someone one step further.”

Evangelism and apologetics are closely related. Both have a common general goal: encouraging commitment to Jesus Christ. In fact, in certain theological circles, apologetics has been labeled pre-evangelism. On this understanding, apologetics clears the ground for evangelism; it makes evangelism more effective by preemptively addressing impediments to hearing the Gospel. This is certainly true, but apologetics is also useful in the midst of the presentation of the Gospel and after the presentation of the Gospel. In other words, there is no moment in which a Christian takes off his or her evangelist hat and puts on their apologist hat. The relationship is more seamless than that. The difference between the two is one of focus rather than substance. Evangelism is focused on presenting the Gospel; apologetics is focused on defending and commending the Gospel. There is, moreover, an important difference in the audience of evangelism and apologetics. Evangelism is done only with non-Christians, but apologetics is done with Christians and non-Christians alike.

What’s Next?

Next Monday I will delve into “There Can’t Be Only One True Religion, Can There?”

References

Bloom, A. (1987). The Closing of the American Mind. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Douthat, R. (July/August 2007). “Crisis of Faith.” The Atlantic Monthly.

McDowell, J. and McDowell, S. (2017). Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Updated and Expanded. Nashville, TN: Thomas Collins.

Understanding Islam and Jihad

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Nabeel Qureshi, author of the New York Times bestseller Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, has written an engaging and revealing new book called Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward. Qureshi was raised Muslim. He was an eighteen-year-old American Muslim on September 11, 2001, proud of being both American and Muslim. His family taught him to love his country (America), and not just by their words. His father lived this teaching by serving in the U.S. Navy throughout Qureshi’s childhood, starting as a seaman and retiring as a lieutenant commander. Qureshi also has an uncle who served in the U.S. Army and another uncle who served in the U.S. Air Force. Growing up, Qureshi was surrounded by Muslims who loved and served America.

Interestingly, he indicates that it was Islam that commanded him to love and serve his country. Islam taught him to defend the oppressed, to stand up for the rights of women and children, to shun the desires of the flesh, to seek the pleasure of God, and to enjoin the good and forbid the evil. By his teenage years, he proclaimed Islam to all who would listen, and he usually started by informing them of a teaching that was knit into the fabric of his beliefs: Islam is a religion of peace. On September 11, he was confronted for the first time with the stark reality of jihad. It was not as if he had never heard of jihad before; he certainly had, but he knew it as a defensive effort buried deep in the pages of Islamic history. That is how the American imams alluded to jihad, and Qureshi said he and his fellow American Muslims never questioned it. In fact, they rarely, if ever, thought about jihad.

When the twin towers fell, the eyes of the nation turned to American Muslims for an explanation. Qureshi sincerely believed September 11 was a greater shock for American Muslims than for the average American. Not only did they newly perceive their own insecurity from militant jihadists, as did everyone else, they also faced a latent threat of retaliation from would-be vigilantes. In the midst of this, while mourning their fallen compatriots and considering their own security, they had to defend the faith they knew and loved. They had to assure everyone that Islam was a religion of peace, just as they had always known. Qureshi remembers hearing a slogan at his mosque that he shared with many: “The terrorists who hijacked the planes on September 11 also hijacked Islam.”

Qureshi began to investigate the Qur’an and the traditions of Muhammad’s life, and to his genuine surprise, he found the pages of Islamic history dripping with violence. How could he possibly reconcile this with what he had always been taught about Islam? When he asked teachers in the Muslim community for help, they usually rationalized the violence as necessary or dismissed the historicity of the accounts. At first, Qureshi followed their reasoning, but after hearing the same explanations for dozens if not hundreds of accounts, he began to realize that these were facile responses to non-Muslims who questioned Islam. Of course, Qureshi understood why they were doing it. American Muslims truly believed Islam was a religion of peace, and they were interpreting the data to fit what they knew to be true.

But was it true? After years of investigation, Qureshi had to face the reality. There is a great deal of violence in Islam, even in the very foundation of the faith, and it is not all defensive. Quite to the contrary, if the traditions about the prophet of Islam are in any way reliable, then Islam glorifies violent jihad arguably more than any other action a Muslim can take.

FROM QURESHI’S STORY TO MUSLIMS TODAY

Qureshi’s experience of Islam is, of course, his own, but his continued interactions with hundreds of Muslims confirmed for him that his experience as an American Muslim was not far from the norm. Perhaps his parents were more devout than most, his family more patriotic, his sect more explicitly peaceful, but by and large he saw his own former thoughts and convictions in the devout American Muslims he encounters today. In addition, the present climate in America is more than ever reminiscent of the days and months following September 11. The public at large is questioning whether Islam is a religion of peace, just like before, and Qureshi encounters Muslims who are providing the same defenses and explanations that he provided after September 11, before he knew better.

He said he does not doubt that Muslims who investigate the history of Islam from the primary sources are concluding, as he did, that the foundations of Islam are violent. Such Muslims are faced with the same choices he faced: apostacy, apathy, or radicalization. That is, turn from the faith completely, decide the truth doesn’t matter, or join the jihadists. For them, radicalization is not just a paranoid hypothetical, but a potential reality. Thousands of Muslims raised in the West have become mujahideen, fighters with various jihad groups, even though the battles are often centered in Middle Eastern countries. Presently, twice as many British Muslims fight for ISIS than for Britan’s armed forces, leaving their peaceful Muslim families grieving. This includes young women, such as the tragic case of the three girls from Bethnal Green in London.

The radicalized Muslims were explicitly introduced to violent traditions of early Islam, they became convinced of their authenticity, and they intentionally chose to follow them. Whether or not this is always the defining factor for radicalization should not cloud the fact that it is a universal factor. There is no need to remain bewildered any longer. When mujahideen themselves tell us their reasons for becoming radicalized, if we would simply listen carefully to what they say, we would find the foregoing to be true without exception.

There is a reason why both Muslims and non-Muslims might want to avoid the elephant in the room. Acknowledging violence built into the foundation of Islam could lead people to see Islam as a necessarily violent religion, and by uncritical extension, it might lead people to see all Muslims as inherently or latently violent people. Qureshi says we must boldly assert that these are false and dangerous conclusions, but that does not mean we ought to close our eyes to a common impetus for radicalization. Until we diagnose and respond to the actual causes for radicalization, we will continue to lose the sons and daughters of peaceful Muslim parents to terrorism.

EIGHTEEN QUESTIONS

Qureshi indicates that September 11 was a pivotal juncture in his life that ultimately led him to study the primary sources of Islamic history. This, he says, is often a watershed moment for many Muslims who are presently wrestling with the path they will take. Some may very well choose jihad. If we care about these young men and women, and the peaceful Muslim families they come from, to say nothing of the countless innocent lives they may take in the name of jihad, Qureshi believes it is critical that we carefully and thoughtfully engage the study of jihad with both truth and compassion. We cannot close our eyes or indulge in wishful thinking. It would seem the matter is not going away.

He also believes we must, at the same time, be careful not to slide down the slippery slope of assuming every Muslim is a threat. Of the thousands of Muslims he has encountered, only one has become radicalized to the point of explicitly supporting violence, and none have actually undertaken violent jihad. It is wrong, he says, to paint all Muslims with the same brush; we need to see them as individuals, the vast majority of whom just wish to live life, take care of their families, and peacefully honor God.

In his own words, Qureshi says, “I do not claim to have all the answers, especially answers regarding public policy, but there is certainly a first step in responding well to radical Islam, whether individually or collectively. We must understand it for what it is. To that end, I will respond in the pages ahead to eighteen questions people most commonly ask me about jihad. These questions explore the origins of jihad, the nature of jihad today, and the phenomenon of jihad in Judeo-Christian context. After answering these questions, I will conclude by proposing a response to jihad, in my view the best way forward.”

Qureshi is quick to remind us that, contrary to what a lot of frightened Americans believe lately, most Muslims in the world are not violent people, despite their desire to intentionally and genuinely follow Islam. That is why he hopes to also explain their perspectives, so we can understand our Muslim neighbors and show them the love and compassion that all people deserve, devoid of fear and mistrust.

Qureshi says, “Finally, it behooves me to mention that I am a Christian who left Islam after investigating the foundations of Islam and Christianity. This subject matter is deeply personal to me, and I do not pretend to be unbiased, especially since all people are biased to varying degrees. That said, in this book, I am trying to be as objective as I can be in presenting the information about jihad without judgment. I try to keep explicit Christian views out of the discussion, although a few certainly come through in the eighteenth Question and in the conclusion. I ask your pardon, but I really do feel that the Christian teaching of loving one’s enemies, even in the face of death, might perhaps be the most powerful answer to jihad at our disposal today. Not only does it allow us to counter jihad, it also enables us to treat Muslims with the utmost dignity: as image bearers of God.”

As the writer/publisher of The Accidental Poet blog, it is my intention to present each of Nabeel Qureshi’s Sixteen Questions  – which appear in separate chapters in his book – weekly, one each Friday, beginning tomorrow, for the next sixteen weeks. In the seventeenth week I will present Qureshi’s concluding remarks. Qureshi is affiliated with the ministry of Ravi Zacharias, a former Buddhist from India who converted to Christianity and is one of today’s leading apologists. I highly recommend Zacharias’s book The End of Reason.

Please take a few minutes to hear about this challenging and frequently polarizing subject from Nabeel Qureshi as he gives a glimpse into his book by clicking on the link below. May God bless us all.