Friday, June 21, 2013

Is the Bible the Word of God: The Need for Conversation in Apologetics

My first foray into apologetics (making a defense for my faith, not apologizing for it, I would have been quick to add) was during my junior year of high school, about when I started really caring about the Christian faith I had more or less passively inherited from my family. The fact that my faith largely expressed itself through reason would become significant and probably led to my struggle with doubt as I realized the limits of reason. Anyway, I bought and devoured apologetics books with my lawnmowing money-- I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, The Case for ____, and so on. I reveled in the ability apologetics gave me to establish a firm rational foundation for my faith, impervious to any counterargument or skeptical attack.

If you couldn't tell, I don't look back on those days with much pride. I've since realized that the center of  Christian faith, the "faith" that needs to be firmly founded and vigorously defended, is not in the rational head but in the prerational heart. A faith built on knowledge of Biblical theology and rational arguments alone, which is largely how I started out, is an empty shell of God's desire for us (see James 2:19) But that's a discussion for another time, probably after I've read more of Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith (which I highly recommend if my previous statement intrigued you).

What I'm concerned with now is not so much the overly rational form apologetics often takes--though Alistair McGrath has plenty to say about this--but its focus on the "argument". If you have read any William Lane Craig or Alvin Plantinga, to name two, you probably have a sense of what I mean by this; if not, I roughly mean "A statement formed by reason and interconnected supporting evidences advanced in apologetics to establish a point being argued." For example, in classical apologetics you have the ontological argument for the existence of God, the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, and so on.

The danger of focusing on "argument" in apologetics is that they tend to be highly self-contained and, ostensibly set up to persuade skeptics, usually tend to be tremendously convincing to the apologist himself, so that apologetics can seem to consist primarily of the learning, memorization, and regurgitation of canned arguments (which often devolves into the other, less benign kind of argument, especially if both parties are doing it). Let me give an exaggerated example: Atheist at twelve o'clock? Quick, throw the cosmological argument at him! That didn't work? Point out the problems with Darwinian evolution! He's still not convinced? Argue that everyone believes in real good and evil, and therefore an absolute reference point for good! It's not working! Call in backup! Refer him to your theologian friend with a blog!

What is missing in the above example (I don't know how familiar it will sound to anyone but me) is simply conversation. Instead of viewing nonbelievers as beloved people made in the image of God and potential partners in real dialogue (or even as people to learn something from), a heavily argument-based approach to apologetics treats them as potential targets for conversion, and arguments as the tools for accomplishing this goal. Notice how no mention was made of anything the atheist is actually saying, just that they aren't buying your arguments so you'd better field more. Something tells me that this isn't a very good way to win people over to seeing things your way.

The other danger is that if all you're doing is reciting or rehashing arguments you've studied beforehand, you will be left flat-footed if a skeptic has some evidence you can't explain or a counterargument you can't answer. I'd like to do a case study of this with a Cru resource a friend showed me presenting arguments for the authority of the Bible/its status as the word of God. It's a pretty good outline of the supporting evidence for the Bible being the "word of God". What concerns me is that it's very one-sided: it presents some basic arguments and substantiation for each of its points, with the assumption that these will be "enough". If this is not the case or if someone has already heard these arguments, then it becomes useless.

What is needed beyond the basic talking points is conversation. This means an openness to allow the person you're talking to to really be heard and help shape the conversation--to actually hear and understand their questions rather than just giving them your answers. Viewing nonbelievers as people rather than simply evangelism targets means humbly entering into the loving give-and-take that should be a part of all of our relationships. For something completely different, let me illustrate with an imagined dialogue between Peter the evangelist and Paul the atheist.

(Paul is on the campus green, playing frisbee with an iPad. Enter Peter.)

Peter: Hi, I'm doing a survey about peoples' beliefs. Can I ask you a few quick questions?

Paul: Oh, another "survey"? You're here to tell me about Jesus, aren't you?

Peter: Actually yeah, that's right. Would you mind?

Paul: Eh, why not. You can dispense with the survey questions. I'm sure I've answered them before. I get what Penn Jillette said about how you really believe there's a heaven and hell so you want to tell people about it, and I respect that, but I just don't see how the Bible can be true. Between a book with talking snakes, magical fruit, people living in fish, and people coming to life like zombies, or the facts of what we know today about the world, about history, about people, the choice of which one to listen to is obvious, at least for me.

Peter: I certainly see the Bible as more than a story about talking snakes and zombies! 2 Timothy 3:16 says that all scripture is God-breathed, and the more I read it the more I see God, through His Spirit, transforming me through its truth. It's truly a book unlike any other book.

Paul: Well, that's great that you get so much out of it, but I still think it's pretty ridiculous overall. And whatever the Bible says about itself isn't admissible evidence to the contrary.

Peter: Well, I guess that's true. Internal evidence like that is convincing to me, but if you don't trust God in the first place I guess it wouldn't work for you. Have you considered the external evidence? Like archaeology--things like the five cities Abraham defeats in Genesis 14, or the fall of Jericho have been independently confirmed. That's pretty cool.

Paul: Sure, but for every Biblical "fact" archaeology confirms, it disproves another two. There is no evidence whatsoever for the Israelites being slaves in Egypt. Or most of the conquest of Israel. Or the earthquakes when Jesus died.

Peter: I'd have to look more into those. But a lack of evidence for something still isn't evidence against it.

Paul: But it's still significant, and it gives me no reason to believe any of these things actually happened.

Peter: Point taken. But I guess archaeology isn't what convinced me either. Or what about all the fulfilled prophecies in the Bible? The Bible predicts things like the fall of Tyre, or the Babylonian captivity--not to mention the hundreds of messianic prophecies Jesus fulfills!

Paul: That's assuming you've dated the books correctly. If they were written retrospectively after the events occurred, there's nothing amazing about it. Lots of scholars--even Christian scholars--think most of the Old Testament was compiled, if not written, from oral history during the second temple period. And have you seen some of the messianic prophecies Jesus "fulfilled"? Like prophecies written about someone else, songs that aren't predicting anything, or random parts of the law! I can't help but see your "hundreds" number as greatly inflated. Which of the so-called messianic prophecies can you establish as definitely being about Jesus in the first place?

Peter: Well, for instance, the famous "suffering servant" passage in Isaiah 52 and's hard to argue that it wasn't written about Jesus. Or Micah 5, which predicts a predicted ruler of Israel would be born in Bethlehem.

Paul: That's two plausible ones. And as my Jewish friends are sure to point out, for every prophecy Jesus fulfilled, you can point to plenty more that he didn't.

Peter: That'll be at His second coming.

Paul: But how do you decide which prophecies predicted Jesus' first time and which ones were about his second? Whichever ones he didn't fulfill now, he'll get to later? Seems awfully ad hoc to me.

Peter: Hm...I'm not sure how to explain it to you, but I still think it's pretty amazing. But I didn't come to believe in the Bible because of a list of prophecies Jesus fulfilled. Hm... Try to keep in mind that it isn't like any other book you might read. It was written by dozens of people over thousands of years, in many different places, circumstances, and genres, but it's all one story! Through all that, the Bible doesn't contradict itself. Isn't that amazing?

Paul: Doesn't contradict itself? Sure it does. Matthew and Luke give two different, incompatible genealogies for Jesus. And all four of the gospels give different accounts of the crucifixion. It's only supposed to be the central, defining event for your whole religion. You'd think they could get their story straight.

Peter: Hm, those are tough ones. I'd have to get back to you on the genealogy thing, but I'm sure there's an explanation.

Paul: Riight.

Peter: But about the crucifixion accounts, I would almost think it would be more suspicious if all four of the gospels agreed perfectly on it--it might indicate the writers collaborated or fabricated their stories.

Paul: So the fact that they contradict each other is supposed to make them more credible?

Peter: Surprisingly, yes! Especially when you consider that Matthew and Luke both drew from a lot of material in Mark, but their crucifixion accounts both differ from it and each other, indicating they were also drawing from their own independent knowledge of the event. And John's take is completely different yet.

Paul: Huh, I guess that makes more sense. But it's still kind of a distraction; it still doesn't explain why the discrepancies are there. Couldn't they differ in a way that doesn't contradict each other?

Peter: Well, when you consider that they were writing these things decades after they happened, it's not too surprising that minor discrepancies like that would occur, while the main theme and message of the crucifixion stays the same through them all.

Paul: Hm, I'll have to think about that. But I could pull up plenty more Biblical contradictions. There are web sites full of the things, after all, and I doubt that you or anyone could address them all.

Peter: I could try, but I'm not sure that's the point. I didn't come to believe in the Bible by having all the contradictions I saw in it resolved one by one, that's for sure.

Paul: Well, how did you come to believe in it, then?

Peter: I was raised in a Christian home, so I guess I've always been taught that the Bible is the true word of God. But I really came to believe it for myself in my senior year of high school. My girlfriend had dumped me, my grades were slipping fast, and I didn't get the part in our spring musical I'd been hoping for. Basically, all the things I'd been relying on for stability or a sense of control in my life had gone out the window, all at once. One day, at home, I didn't know where else to turn, so I reached for my Bible--I hadn't opened it in a few months--and it just fell open to 1 John 4:16: "And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them." And I thought that sounded really nice right about then, to rely on the love that God has for me instead of all these other things that had failed me. So I prayed to receive this love that God has for me and for Him to live in me. And right then I felt this amazing peace like I hadn't in a long time, and I've been following Jesus ever since.

Paul: Huh. Even if God is just your imaginary friend, that's interesting what a difference he made. It's funny you should say that, because my senior year of high school was when I started identifying as an atheist. My parents sent me to a Christian high school and I always saw this big tension between the stuff they taught us in Bible classes with what I was learning in my other classes--science, history, English, everything. I got increasingly annoyed that people believed all these ridiculous claims for no reason, with no evidence. Like the Bible and Christianity were disconnected from the real world, and there was no point to believing them.

Peter: I can assure you, they aren't for me. No, I can't prove that God exists, but I believe it because it sheds light and meaning on everything I know. I can't prove that good and evil are real things that don't just exist in our heads, or that it's better to be well than to suffer, or that the universe began from nothing, but I intuitively know these things have to be true, and Christianity explains them all perfectly. If I only believed things I could prove objectively, I wouldn't be left with much at all. Certainly not enough to live on.

Paul: Well, I'm not about to pray the magic Jesus prayer, but you've given me a lot to think about.

Peter: So have you.

Paul: What you're telling me about sounds different than the Christianity I rejected. Kind of interesting. Anyway, I should get going to class. Thanks for talking. And for listening.

Feel free to critique how realistic this dialogue is. It's largely me allowing the faithful and skeptical sides of my mind to duke it out for a little while. Notice how the times when Peter really seemed to connect with Paul and get a point across was when he deviated from the preestablished talking points (which he realizes aren't really central to his own faith) and tells the story of why he, personally, believes. A testimony, being so personal, lacks weight as an apologetic argument, but it has the potential to get someone to want to share (or at least understand) your faith instead of trying to draw them to it by forceful argument.

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