I think probably one of the biggest obstacles when discussing a topic with someone whose position is very different from your own is “selective skepticism.” I’ve noticed that this shows up a lot when discussing evidence for Christianity, evolution, and climate change.
For example, it’s pretty normal to hear someone say, “well, the Bible is just a translation of a copy of a translation of another copy…. It’s all open to interpretation. People disagree. Who knows?” The goal of a person who says that isn’t to really find out about textual criticism and how experts in the field decide which texts are reliable; rather, their goal is to dismiss the the entire question. The person is selectively skeptical in that they are happy to accept other experts, such as medical professionals who recommend vaccines, but they are skeptical of this area of inquiry about the Bible’s reliability before they even look.
But this informal fallacy also shows up within the Church’s own walls. Many of us are quite happy to accept expert testimony that is “on our side,” such as the general reliability of the New Testament, or the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, but we are selectively skeptical about things like climate change or evolution. It’s not that we’ve engaged with these things in a careful way; it’s that we tend to dismiss the question in advance: “It’s hard to say; there’s a lot of opinions going in each direction. There’s no real evidence.”
We Christians are sometimes selectively skeptical, and the easiest way to see that, I think, is to imagine how we would feel if someone said that about the Bible or the Resurrection: “There’s no real evidence. You can find intelligent people on both sides.”
What do we want to say to such folks? Something like, “Hold on! Why don’t you look into this for yourself? Read about the evidence that there is; come spend time with Christians and see; come hear about lives being transformed; why don’t you try approaching God in prayer? Have you read the Gospels?” That kind of thing.
In short: we think that being selectively skeptical toward Christianity is premature. We want others to engage with the thing itself before dismissing it. But that’s just the thing: we ourselves dismiss other areas without engaging in them.
Proposal: let’s we Christians at least be as honest toward these other areas as we are asking skeptics to be toward Christianity. Let’s know what the evidence is (or isn’t) regarding evolution, climate change, etc. before we speak. Let’s take Proverbs 18:13,17 seriously. It will help our witness.
I don’t think that people can get truth about God unless God first gives it to us in some way: through revelation.
Put another way, I don’t think it is possible to be “orthodox by accident.” When we seem good themes in popular, secular culture, for example, we shouldn’t automatically think, “Oh, that’s good, this movie/book/song/speaker/etc. is compatible with Christianity; I can accept and embrace the message of this movie/book/song/speaker/etc.”
No, it is better to say that while all humans are capable of recognizing some truth – and are even capable of doing very good, admirable deeds – there is no one who truly seeks God without God drawing him or her in the first place (John 6:44; Rom. 3:10-18).
You can stumble onto some truth, of course (it’s pretty tough to be wrong about everything!), but you cannot stumble, by accident, into a relationship with God – and that is what Christianity entails: proper relationship with God. Therefore, everything that looks like it is on the side of Christ – and yet explicitly denies Christian doctrines about Christ – is not, in fact, on the side of Christ. To think that simply being “good” in a few ways should set us right with God is like thinking that being a model citizen or “good person” alone could make one a good son or daughter; however, whether one is a good son/daughter depends on one’s relationship with one’s parents.
Think about it: if you had a son and he grew up to be a model citizen, perfect in every way – best job, best income, best education, best manners, best physique, best social standing, etc. – and yet he never called you, never acknowledged you, never responded to your calls, and even taught his children that they had no grandparents … would you call him a good son? What if he volunteered a lot and saved many lives during some crisis after a natural disaster? Would he be a good son then? What if he was a decent guy who never wanted to hurt anyone and yet never acknowledged you at all? Would he be a good son? What if he was always very friendly to his neighbours and even gave away all his possessions to those in need? This might be pleasing to you at a distance, but would he be a good son?
Clearly, the answer is “No.” And I would argue that, in the same way, you cannot be a good creature in a vacuum; you cannot be a good creature without acknowledging your Creator: being a good creature, by definition, means relating properly to your Creator.
So if some movie/book/song/speaker/etc. has good values, great – but does it do anything to move people toward right relationship with God by addressing the problem of sin, advocating for repentance and belief in the gospel so that they might be made alive spiritually? Because if you get that part wrong, it doesn’t matter what else you get right.
In the early Middle Ages, the role of faith was elevated too high above evidence; people were probably too quick to believe things without any evidence – sometimes against the evidence. In the early modern period, we learned the importance of evidence, but we quickly forgot the value of faith; we began to think that faith had no role at all simply because we realized that it is possible to put your faith in the wrong thing. In the postmodern period, we’ve realized that the role of faith cannot be escaped: all evidence is questionable, we cannot be *as* certain as we thought we could be.
So there is a three-fold choice before us:
(1) Some, like Richard Dawkins, insist that it does not take any faith to accept evidence, so they just deny the postmodern discovery and go on in their rationalism: if the scientific evidence cannot prove God, then there is no God. This is also the position of many Christian fundamentalist groups, who insist that evidence can be a foundation for the Christian faith – for example, Creation Science and the Intelligent Design Movement agree with Dawkins that evidence comes before faith; they simply disagree on what the evidence is (and I believe that they are wrong about the evidence). “I can have Truth,” this group says.
(2) The postmodern skeptics say that neither faith nor evidence gives us truth, and so they live without holding onto anything as true. Because anything could be false, they won’t trust anything. This group says, “If I can’t have Truth, no one can!”
(3) We can realize that faith and evidence go together. We must have faith in our senses and mind before we can receive any evidence; we must also realize that if there is a God, he cannot be established using any outside evidence because there can be no brighter light, no surer foundation than God himself. This means that the only way to interact with God is by faith (sort of like the fact that you cannot get to know a person unless you first believe that there is, in fact, a person inside that human body – not just some biological robot; you interact with a person by faith, and then you receive evidence of personhood on the basis of your initial faith). This coincides with Hebrews 11:6: “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” This group says, “Truth has me.” Truth is not their own possession to wield; it is God’s unique possession in which we only participate by his grace.
At the same time, the evidence clearly matters. If all the evidence in the world showed that Christianity had been invented as a hoax in the 19th century, for example, we would have to re-evaluate our faith commitments. That is why I could not be a Mormon, a Muslim, or a Young-Earth Creationist (unless my understanding of the evidence radically changed – and that is always theoretically possible, which is why faith must be included; faith goes past where the evidence can go, but it cannot ignore evidence either). Even Christian faith understands that all Truth is rooted in God; therefore the evidence and true faith cannot ultimately conflict – although our human understanding is always incomplete; always provisional. The eyes of faith see past what reason is able to perceive on its own, then giving to reason things “to chew on,” as it were. This is St. Augustine’s crede, ut intelligas: “believe so that you may understand.”
So I take the third position. This is why I see Creation Science and the Intelligent Design Movement as philosophically and theologically flawed (not only flawed scientifically): they agree with position (1) above instead of the more Christian position (3). They buy into the modern myth that evidence must be a foundation for faith instead of a helper for faith. But this is backwards, as I hope I’ve made clear: faith has to be a foundation for reason. Faith and reason are both human cognitive faculties and we need to use them both responsibly. To the degree that we buy into (1) above instead of receiving our teaching from the Bible, we are worldly in our thinking instead of biblical in our thinking.
(Of course, I agree with “intelligent design” in the sense that I believe the universe was, in fact, designed – but I do not think that design can be scientifically detected [which is what the Intelligent Design Movement teaches]. You cannot even detect that a painting was designed by using *only* the tools of science. You have to *first* believe that agents exist who are able to paint – but that is not a scientific conclusion, it is a philosophical assumption. I will have to do a blog series on Creation Science and Intelligent Design sometime.)
What Should Apologetics Do?
Christian apologetics does its best work when, having listened carefully (Prov. 18:13,17), it uses the wisdom of man (1 Cor. 1:18-31) to silence/demolish pretensions against the knowledge of God (2 Cor. 10:5), giving a defence for the faith (1 Pet. 3:15) – In order that it, too, may be silenced (for it does itself rely on the wisdom of man to some extent), so that the Word of God may be heard. It must humbly say, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). It recognizes that even its own ability to believe in Christ is in some sense a gift (John 6:44) – that it cannot do anything apart from Christ (John 15:5).
Christian apologetics does its worst work when it does not listen carefully, tries to use the wisdom of man to lay a new foundation for the faith (cf. 1 Cor. 3:10-15), and tries to make an excuse for the Word of God (or worse, to speak instead of God), for fear that Christianity will not be respectable in the eyes of the world unless it rests on the wisdom of man – as if God needed the permission of humanity before he could speak. It then gloats and boasts triumphantly in its own wisdom, speaking disdainfully of *those foolish people* who will not believe; they must be “irrational” or “stupid” it thinks – as if it has accomplished something for itself by “figuring out” God. This distortion is clearly sinful.
Apologetics, then, is not (finally) about proving God – for when he speaks, there is no brighter light against which to test him; rather, it is about dis-proving man’s worldly pretensions against God. Intelligent Design and Creation Science do not go far enough because they perpetuate one of man’s great pretensions; namely, position (1) above. Unless we communicate that repentance includes repenting of our own wisdom – for repentance must go all the way down – we do not preach repentance at all. To repent is to utter the great, final “I am wrong”; to believe is to utter the great, final “He is right”; to trust is to obey. Martin Luther spoke truthfully when he said that the whole Christian life must be one of repentance; the Church must always be in a state of reform.