I once was at the crossroads between atheism and Christianity. I was 18 years old. The weakness of many of the arguments I heard against atheism, such as “atheism leads to believing that life has no meaning, which proves it’s false,” were driving me toward atheism, or at least toward a formal rejection of Christianity.
I rejected this type of argument because it is based on an opinion, namely that life has – or must have – meaning and because it comes down to “If it works, it’s gotta be true.” Or, more precisely, “If it doesn’t work, it’s gotta be false.”
Since I was in search of the truth (not a working truth), I found the whole thing offensive to reason. More fundamentally, this type of argument didn’t address the real problems I had with the Christian faith.
I didn’t continue on the path toward atheism because I was able to address – through dialogue with a Christian – two kinds of issues I was struggling with: rational and existential. Based on my experience, I’d like to propose some thoughts on having a constructive dialogue about faith.
Faith and reason
Our modern world is based on epistemologies (theories of how we know and understand) where reason and science are central. This means that our presentation of the Christian faith must avoid going against reason and scientific inquiry. It doesn’t mean we can’t challenge some philosophical or scientific positions. After all, the concept of the resurrection was foolishness to the Greeks, but the first Christians couldn’t compromise on this to satisfy human wisdom.
However, several apostles and Church Fathers tried to proclaim the faith in a way that was intellectually acceptable for people of their day. Augustine believed that the naïve presentation of the universe some of his fellow Christians used, which didn’t take into account the philosophical and scientific advances of the day, was doing more harm than good. It encouraged the learned to reject Christian faith on the basis of its obsolete and false views.
One of the greatest undertakings of the Fathers was the use of the intellectual means of the day, including Greek philosophy, to articulate the faith. This endeavour was due, in part, to the desire to demonstrate that our faith could withstand even the most rigorous philosophical system of the time. More fundamentally, the Fathers believed it was possible – even necessary – to use the best intellectual tools available to reflect on the faith and work out its implications. It allowed such remarkable formulations as the doctrine of the Trinity.
It’s not necessary to completely submit to science and philosophy, but we can’t ignore them either. We must not turn off our brains to believe in God. On the contrary, reason can be very useful to faith.
Though we may not be able to demonstrate rationally the existence of God, we must avoid going against reason. Indeed, we must take the intellect seriously in our attempt to “give an account of the hope that is in us” (1 Peter 3:15, NASB).
Of course, not all Christians must become philosophers or scientists. However, the global proclamation by all Christians should include a rational presentation of the faith and exclude, as much as possible, fallacious arguments, in order to avoid turning away unbelievers. We must remember Paul’s wish to “become all things to all [people], so that [he] may by all means save some” (see 1 Corinthians 9:19–23).
Not only about reason
Does this mean evangelism is a purely philosophical endeavour? Far from it! There is also an experiential dimension to the presentation of our faith. We are first and foremost witnesses to an experience and a person (Christ). Apologetics also proclaims our relationship with Christ and the meaning our lives have because of him, though this dimension completes, not replaces, the rational dimension of apologetics.
Thankfully, we don’t only have to address people’s reason. We can even successfully convince someone without changing their opinion or behaviour. This is because matters of meaning and absolutes, including questions of morality and faith, can’t be resolved solely on the basis of reason.
All belief is based on “pre-commitments” (philosophical, existential, and moral) on the part of the person who holds it. We can never be scientifically, empirically, and rationally certain of anything in this world. We all have axioms and presuppositions that aren’t demonstrated – and often can’t be – which serve as the basis for our beliefs, values, and behaviours.
This means we wake up in the morning and live as if we knew that the world and our own selves exist and roughly match the understanding we have of them. Every day, we must make choices, such as not leaving our spouse, though we can’t be sure that he or she is faithful, or that it’s really the person we married, in opposition to, say, a perfect replica sent by aliens to observe us. In fact, we can’t even be certain that our spouse truly exists, as we only can ascertain the existence of others through our senses, which we know can deceive us.
Similarly, when we’re driving, we suppose it’s highly likely that the vehicles around us would offer dangerous resistance if we collided with them. We don’t check to see if we could pass through them, though quantum mechanics admits this possibility.
In other words, reason isn’t the only thing we use to lead our lives. Every day, we take leaps of faith, which constitute more an existential stance rather than a purely rational one.
The true purpose of apologetics
Apologetics can thus be seen not so much as the art of finding the perfect argument to convince everyone, but as the art of proposing reasonable solutions to rational or existential obstacles to belief. In the same way that a person who still has doubts about committing to a relationship must find a way to alleviate (though never eliminate) those doubts, the unbeliever who contemplates the possibility of saying “yes” to God must receive an answer, even incomplete, to the questions and doubts that prevent him or her from committing.
In some cases, the obstacles can stem from bad experiences at the hands of Christians or the church: “How can there be a (good) God if my neighbour who believes in him is so annoying?” The example from Quebec is quite revealing, as some practices of the Catholic church of another time have rendered its population largely “immune” to Christianity. C. S. Lewis, referring to similar traumas lived by societies we would today call “post-Christian,” wrote that one doesn’t court a divorced woman the same way as a virgin.
In other cases, the obstacles to faith may be rational or existential hurdles, such as “If God exists, why is there so much suffering in the world?” Whether we like it or not, this need to confirm existential choices and find answers to the doubts and questions these choices create is part of human existence. It will never end, whether we choose to believe or not. After all, there are good reasons and arguments to believe and not to believe.
The question is: which option seems best? As the spouse will always have reasons to remain or leave, the faith of both Christians and atheists will be “tested.” To live is to choose, never being certain of the validity of our choices, but never being able to wait for certainty before choosing.
Presenting our faith requires not so much proving, in a scientific way, its truthfulness but producing possibilities of belief, meaning, and experience of God to all those who hesitate to give them a chance.
And, though we shouldn’t believe that “if it works,” or “if it speaks to me,” or “if it makes sense,” “it must be true,” we must recognize that the other direction of the equation is important: “If it is true, it should work.” In other words, if our beliefs don’t work in real life – for example, if our lives as Christians don’t match our proclamation of Christ – we give good reason for people to reject it.
After all, if God exists and is basically the God Christianity proclaims (though it is clear that if God corresponds to what Christianity says of him, he is infinitely greater than what we can make of him), human existence takes on new meaning and the life of whoever is in communion with him must necessarily change in some way.
Thus, apologetics can demonstrate only that Christianity is a valid option from a rational and existential point of view, just as some philosophers have demonstrated that atheism is a rational position. In other words, though we aren’t able to prove God’s existence, people can’t claim that only idiots believe in God, however shocking this may be to the aggressive New Atheists like Richard Dawkins.
No simple answers
Unfortunately, the bad press Christianity suffers in intellectual and scientific circles is partly due to an intellectually mediocre presentation of the Christian faith. If we are to hope for dialogue with non-Christians, we can’t caricature their positions – be it atheism, paganism, secularism, postmodernism, evolutionism – in order to then easily (of course) deconstruct them.
Real dialogue requires listening to others, making sure we understand instead of assuming that all who don’t believe as we do must be stupid or hardened, and that their opinions must be ridiculous, irrational, or immoral.
This is why we must abandon simplistic arguments such as “all atheists are unhappy and immoral and are thus wrong, whereas all Christians are happy and good and are thus right.” The Bible itself never accepts such simplistic equations.
We must remember the numerous biblical examples that contradict the assertion “success implies truth/faithfulness to God.” One such example is 8th-century Israel. The people were prosperous and at peace, and believed that their full sanctuaries made God happy and generous toward his people. Amos and Hosea didn’t share this reasoning and announced Israel’s destruction.
And they aren’t the only prophets whose message or life and ministry went against the assertion “success implies truth/faithfulness.” Most prophets, including Jesus, had to suffer hardship and didn’t enjoy success. In fact, the ministry of most prophets was a failure, at least during their lifetime – that is, if we define failure as the poor response to the prophet’s call.
However, the mitigated successes and failures of the prophets are arguably due to the very fact that they communicated faithfully the Word of God to a people who couldn’t have cared less about it (see Ezekiel 2:7; 3:7).
Let’s ask ourselves why the situation should necessarily be different today. “If it works, it’s gotta be true.” Oh yeah? Say that to Jeremiah or John the Baptist! It would seem that the inability to follow God and the use of a more palatable substitute such as a well-defined code of conduct or fashionable recipes that “work” and “bring us success” is characteristic of humanity and indeed, of God’s people, throughout history.
Pharisees didn’t have recruitment problems in Jesus’ time. Does this mean they were right?