Freeing your listeners to decide for themselves


Leif Enger:

“The lovely part of being a witness is that you can’t compel belief. All you can do is say: here is what happened. In saying this the witness is only doing his job; how people respond is their own burden, their own responsibility. Whom would you say has more credibility: the man who pounds on the table insisting his story is true, or the one who, having the reputation of honesty, frees his listeners to decide for themselves?”

gratitude and God

I’m not a philosopher. So I’m just poking around here, not trying to claim too much. But it seems to me that one of the best lines of apologetic argument is to argue from the premise of some good of human existence or human flourishing, on to a demonstration that this “good” only makes sense in light of the existence of God.

This is nothing new, but it seems to me potent. Putting together a number of these arguments helps demonstrate that Christianity is the most livable worldview; that it not only makes the best sense of the world logically, but that it makes the most sense of, and is the most consistent in terms of, lived human experience.

C. S. Lewis makes a number of these arguments in Mere Christianity, arguing from the existence of morality or a moral law in the beginning of that book, on to the existence of a Lawgiver; or arguing from the existence of a deep universal, unfulfilled desire, on to the reality of God, as in his chapter on Hope.

So it seems you could put together arguments for God based on things like “gratitude”; something like this:

  1. It is good for humans to live grateful lives. (or, Gratitude is essential to human flourishing.)
  2. Ultimately gratitude makes no sense apart from a transcendant good and an ultimate Giver.
  3. Therefore, there is an ultimate Giver – God.

Philosophers would formulate this better, and they probably have. Chesterton argued this in a number of ways. But it seems to me very fruitful ground for reflection, and for Christian apologetic living. Living a life of gratitude is beautiful and good, and yet that life makes the most sense only in the context of the existence of God. As Chesterton said somewhere, the athiest’s loneliest moment is when something happens that fills him with immense gratitude, and he realizes he has no one to thank.

admiring Jesus vs. taking him seriously

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a lecture given while serving as a pastor in Barcelona, at age 22:

“One admires Christ according to aesthetic categories as an aesthetic genius, calls him the greatest ethicist; one admires his going to his death as a heroic sacrifice for his ideas. Only one thing one doesn’t do: one doesn’t take him seriously. That is, one doesn’t bring the center of his or her own life into contact with the claim of Christ to speak the revelation of God and to be that revelation. One maintains a distance between himself or herself and the word of Christ, and allows no serious encounter to take place. I can doubtless live with or without Jesus as a religious genius, as an ethicist, as a gentlemen – just as, after all, I can also live without Plato and Kant…Should, however, there be something in Christ that claims my life entirely with the full seriousness that here God himself speaks and if the word of once became present only in Christ, then Christ has not only relative but absolute, urgent significance for me.”

Quoted in Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Christian skepticism in college

In May of 1962, Flannery O’Connor wrote to Alfred Corn, a student in college who wrote concerned that he was losing his faith. O’Connor wrote:

As a freshman in college you are bombarded with new ideas, or rather pieces of ideas, new frames of reference, an activation of the intellectual life which is only beginning, but which is already running ahead of your lived experience. After a year of this, you think you cannot believe. You are just beginning to realize how difficult it is to have faith and the measure of a commitment to it, but you are too young to decide you don’t have faith just because you feel you can’t believe.

She writes that he needs to read more broadly (suggesting Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) not to get answers but to get

different questions, for that stretching of the imagination that you need to make you a sceptic in the face of much that you are learning, much of which is new and shocking but which when boiled down becomes less so and takes its place in the general scheme of things. What kept me a sceptic in college was precisely my Christian faith. It always said: wait, don’t bite on this, get a wider picture, continue to read.

She gives many other practical suggestions – that he not jump too quickly to the conclusion that he can’t have faith just because he is currently experiencing doubt (indeed, she says, doubting is part of faith); that even as he wrestles intellectually with questions, he should look for God by acting as a Christian (she recommends, through Hopkins, charitable giving); and that for every anti-Christian book he read, he should also read one “that presents the other side of the picture”.

She writes:

To find out about faith, you have to go to the people who have it and you have to go to the most intelligent ones if you are going to stand up intellectually to agnostics and the general run of pagans that you are going to find in the majority of people around you.

Learn what you can, but cultivate Christian scepticism. It will keep you free – not free to do anything you please, but free to be formed by something larger than your own intellect or the intellects of those around you.

The most striking feature of the teaching of Jesus

The late John Stott, in his book Basic Christianity:

The most striking feature of the teaching of Jesus is that he was constantly talking about himself….This self-centeredness of the teaching of Jesus immediately sets him apart from the other great religious teachers of the world. They were self-effacing. He was self-advancing. They pointed men away from themselves saying, ‘That is the truth, so far as I perceive it; follow that.’ Jesus said, ‘I am the truth; follow me.’ The founder of none of the ethnic religions ever dared to say such a thing….

With such an opinion of himself, it is not surprising that he called people to himself. Indeed, he did more than issue an invitation; he uttered a command. ‘Come to me,’ he said, and ‘Follow me.’ If men would only come to him, he promised to lift the burdens of the weary, to satisfy the hungry, and to quench the thirst of the parched soul.

The deep caverns of volition

Alan Jacobs, in his book, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis (242):

Objections to Christianity…are phrased in words, but that does not mean that they are really a matter of language and analysis and argument. Words are tokens of the will. If something stronger than language were available, then we would use it. But by the same token, words in defense of Christianity miss the mark as well: they are a translation into the dispassionate language of argument something that resides far deeper in the caverns of volition, of commitment. Perhaps this is why Saint Francis, so the story goes, instructed his followers to ‘preach the Gospel always, using words if necessary.’ It is not simply straight-forwardly wrong to make arguments in defense of the Christian faith, but it is a relatively superficial activity: it fails to address the core issues.