055 Defending the Faith

It’s always a pleasure to recommend a colleague’s book, and a new professor in Point Loma’s history department, Rick Kennedy, has just published a fine treatise entitled Faith at State: A Handbook for Christians at Secular Universities (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, c. 1995). Though designed for students at state institutions, the book can be read by students and professors wherever they study and teach. (Rick also has an astute article, “Miracles in the Dock: A Critique of the Historical Profession’s Special Treatment of Alleged Spiritual Events” in fides et historia, XXVI:2 {Summer 1994}, pp. 7-22, wherein he demonstrates Hume’s fallacious reasoning and calls historians to recover an earlier, better methodology.)

Universities, Kennedy insists in Faith at State, need Christians on campus, for universities influence our culture, and the Christian voice needs heralds in that process. He cites the oft-quoted statement of Charles Malik to emphasize this point: “‘At the heart of all the problems facing Western civilization . . . lies the state of mind and the spirit of universities'” (p. 13).

The university, at its best, may be portrayed as the “Academical Village” Thomas Jefferson envisioned for the University of Virginia. Kennedy likes the “village” image because universities provide relaxed environments enabling folks to find “time to chat, gossip or take a walk” (p 19). They are–or should be–comfortable, nurturing communities. They provide the facilities where learning takes place. And Christian students should seize advantage of every opportunity to learn!

To help students attain their goals, Kennedy introduces them to the essentials of university life. “There are lots of good faculty members at every school. The job of the student is to seek out the good ones and avoid the bad ones” (p. 35). There are other students with whom one can discuss and learn. There are nearby Christian churches and on-campus organizations which can assist students (Kennedy himself was encouraged by Navigators and the Church of the Nazarene in San Luis Obispo). There are the Bible and the works of great Christian thinkers from St Augustine to John Henry Newman which help Christian students integrate their faith with what they are learning.

Above all, Kennedy calls Christian students to help recall universities to their original mission: the search for truth. Most universities still have mission statements of a deeply religious character. Christians on campus can urge professors and students to live out that mission. They can also relish the excitement and joy of thinking! Reason itself, Kennedy says, brings its own rewards.

Readable, thoughtful, buoyantly celebrating the love of learning, Faith at State is a book one should give students who are embarking on their academic voyage.

* * * * *

Two Wheaton College professors, Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm, have edited a treatise, Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, c. 1995), which brings together essays (initially presented at a Wheaton conference) by evangelical scholars who wonder if it’s possible “convince postmodernists of the truth of the gospel” when many of them discount the very possibility of truth (p. 11).

In “The Pragmatics of Postmodernity,” Wheaton’s Roger Lundin seeks to describe and critique today’s academic culture. He argues that “Postmodernism in America is Romanticism stripped of its pretensions” (p. 27). If one relies on nothing more than his or her inner feelings, then “all principles,” as Stanley Fish asserts, “are preferences.” Whatever works for us, whatever satisfies our desires, becomes “truth” for us–though of course we recognize that others have different sorts of “truths” which satisfy their own unique desires. Consequently, we use words not to discern truths embedded in reality; rather we employ them to massage rhetorical flourishes, to get our way in our world. Resisting that trend, the apologetic task begins, Lundin says, by first understanding the world we seek to engage.

Nicola Hoggard Creegan, who teaches at North Carolina Wesleyan, proposes “Schleiermacher as Apologist: Reclaiming the Father of Modern Theology.” She supports the Father of Liberalism’s effort to “start with human experience,” the “present god-consciousness in all” creation (p. 60), a commonality which facilitates human discourse. To Schleiermacher, “‘true religion is sense and taste for the Infinite'” (p. 63), a sense of dependence on God. Creegan argues that in The Christian Faith (Schleiermacher’s magnum opus) we find fundamentally orthodox theology designed to satisfy the deeply-felt longings of secular man.

“Schleiermacher’s other central task,” she thinks, “was to question the boundaries of the supernatural and the natural. Nature was not to be thought of as dead, inert, mechanical stuff, broken every now and then by miracle or arbitrary intervention and separated starkly from the whole realm of the spiritual. Creation and incarnation may have had extraordinary inceptions, but they continue as naturally or supernaturally as God’s order does. Schleiermacher thus spoke of the supernatural in the natural” (p. 69).

This view, Creegan argues, better suits the postmodern world than the dated “modern” overemphasis on God’s utter transcendence. Rather than the demythologization of Bultmann et al., what we need is a remythologization, a recovered awareness of “the continuing miracle of the preservation of life” (p. 70). Creegan presents a challenging perspective on Schleiermacher, and her discussion tempts me to peruse his The Christian Faith–a testimony to the scintillating nature of her essay!

William Lane Craig, a visiting scholar at Emory University when this paper was presented, tackles the topic of “Politically Incorrect Salvation.” “‘Diversity'” is the shibboleth of the postmodern age” (p. 76), he says. Yet Christians, committed to the objectively true, particularistic basis for their faith, have generally resisted various forms of universalism. Relying on the principles of logic, Craig seeks to refute those who glibly claim that “God is too great to be captured by categories of human thought” and may be diversely discovered with multiple maps of reality.

A noted evangelical writer, James W. Sire, entitles his essay “On Being a Fool for Christ and an Idiot for Nobody: Logocentricity and Postmodernity,” challenging one of the central presuppositions of “postmodern literacy theory–the idea that there is no sure ontological foundation for language” (p. 102).

Postmodernists generally follow Nietzsche, arguing we use metaphors and anthropomorphisms which express our inner impulses but lack objective referents. Sire calls for a return to logocentricity, the conviction that words accurately embody truths, that we know the essence of existent realities. Sire writes well, constructing an impressive piece de resistance against much that poses as “postmodern” theory.

Philip D. Kenneson, professor of philosophy and theology at Milligan College, takes a different tack in “There’s No Such Thing as Objective Truth, and It’s a Good thing, Too.” In his view, much of postmodernism is a boon for Christians, since they can simply join hosts of others spinning out versions of reality which they find most satisfying.

What Kenneson argues is that the Christian story provides an attractive alternative to both the established modernistic secularism and traditional theology. Christians can offer winsome things such “as forgiveness, reconciliation, peacemaking, patience, truth-telling” (p. 162), etc. As long as believing such things makes life better for all involved, it’s sufficiently “true.” And, perhaps, living according to such “truth” puts one on the way to some ultimate Truth.

What’s evident in these essays is this: generally evangelicals see the work of apologetics as a defense of traditional doctrine against the attacks of postmodernism. However, some see windows of opportunity for Christians to take advantage of postmodern paradigms to present the Faith in a fresh and persuasive manner.

* * * * *

Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, professors of philosophy at Boston College, have just published Handbook of Christian Apologetics: Hundreds of Answers to Crucial Questions (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, c, 1994), a thoroughly traditional approach to defending the Faith, designed for students seeking brief synopses of rational “arguments for all the major Christian teachings that are challenged by unbelievers today” (p. 13).

Kreeft and Tacelli write with a sense of urgency, for “Western civilization is for the first time in its history in danger of dying. The reason is spiritual. It is losing its life, its soul; that soul was the Christian faith” (p. 23). To do battle for the Lord, to struggle to save those benevolent and beneficial blessings of civilization which have flourished in Western Christian Culture, means committing our minds to the defense of the Faith, accurately labeling and resisting heresy wherever it appears.

Thinking clearly leads to confidence in the existence of God. The authors set forth “twenty arguments” which, tied together, persuasively demonstrate the rationality of theism. Here they sum up the traditional ontological, cosmological, teleological, moral, historical, experiential evidence which justifies belief in God the Creator.

God’s relationship with His world leads us to questions concerning cosmology. “No idea in the history of human thought has ever made more difference than the idea of Creation” (p. 106). If God created, there can be no purely naturalistic evolution. If God created ex nihilo, providence and freedom, miracles, angels and demons become more understandable.

The divinity of Christ is staunchly defended against all the fashionable contemporary denials. “The essential modernist revision is to see Christ simply as the ideal man, for ‘man for others’; as a prophet, rabbi, philosopher, teacher, social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist, reformer, sage or magician–but not God in the flesh” (p. 152).

Christ’s divinity glows forever in His resurrection. “Every sermon preached by every Christian in the New Testament centers on the resurrection. The gospel of ‘good news’ means essentially the news of Christ’s resurrection. The message that flashed across the ancient world, set hearts on fire, changed lives and turned the world upside down was not ‘love your neighbor.’ Every morally sane person already knew that; it was not news. the news was that a man who claimed to the Son of God and the Savior of the world had risen from the dead” (p. 172). If Christ didn’t arise from the grave, who moved the stone at His tomb?

Confidence in Christ’s resurrection accompanies the confidence that the Bible is truthful history, not myth. Bultmannian demythologizers have shredded the Scriptures, stealing childlike faith from the hearts of innocents. To avoid the pitfalls of both modernism and fundamentalism, the authors provide eight solid principles for biblical interpretation which enable believers to robustly embrace the abiding truth of God’s Word.

End-of-time concerns–immortality, heaven and hell–are treated. “Next to the idea of God, the idea of heaven is the greatest idea that has ever occurred to the human mind” (p. 259). Failure to attain heaven leaves one stuck in hell–the anguish Dostoevsky described as resulting from “‘being unable to love'” (p. 294). When we buy Satan’s lie that selfishness singularly satisfies, we lose contact with God. And “Only because hell is the privation of God–the source of all joy–is hell painful. And only because hell is the deprivation of God, the only God, the true God, ‘the only game in town,’ is hell’s alternative to God the inevitable and just punishment for the folly of refusing” His Presence.

Given the eternal reality of heaven or hell, nothing on earth counts for more than salvation. “The only reason for any of the church’s activities, the only reason for the very existence of the church at all, is exactly the same as the reason Jesus came to earth: to save poor and lost humanity. The church, after all, is in the same business as its Head” (p. 316). Jesus came not to save us from punishment for sin, but to free us from sin’s deadly addictions.

After treating questions concerning non-Christian religions, the book calls for a bottom-line commitment to “objective truth,” relying on this statement of C.S. Lewis: “‘if Truth is objective, if we live in a world we did not create and cannot change merely by thinking, if the world is not really a dream of our own, then the most destructive belief we could possibly believe would be the denial of this primary fact. It would be like closing your eyes while driving, or blissfully ignoring the doctor’s warnings'” (p. 363). Importantly, “Truth is not an attitude. Truth is not how we know, truth is what we know” (ibid.). Joining Aristotle and Aquinas, Kreeft and Tacelli insist on a realist stance, rejecting varieties of subjectivism.

A helpful bibliography ends the Handbook of Christian Apologetics. For students (and teachers) looking for a convenient summary of solid answers to perennial questions, this is a valuable compendium of “answers” to life’s questions.

* * * * *

A Princeton University professor of philosophy, Diogenes Allen, provides a cogent work in Christian Belief in a Postmodern World: The Full Wealth of Conviction (Louisville: Westminister/John Knox Press, c. 1989). Interestingly enough, the book was published in the year the Berlin Wall fell, the year which marks in significant ways the demise of “modernity,” the dominant (and oft-dictatorial) intellectual milieu for 200 years.

Modernity drove a “wedge between the mind and the heart,” between scientific thinking and religious faith. Allen argues it’s now time to reunite the disjoined parts. Responding to a questioner who asked “Why should I go to church,” he said (and says to us): “Because Christianity’s true” (p.1). That appeal makes sense today because “there are fundamental developments in philosophy and cosmology that actually point toward God” (p. 3). Christian “apologists” need no longer be defensive! The times allow energetic, attack-mode argumentation which once again places Christian truth-claims in the center of intellectual life.

Early on Allen sums up his case: “. . . (1) that the natural world’s existence and order point to the possibility of God; (2) that our own needs, unless deliberately restrained, lead us to search for what is ultimate; and (3) that conviction concerning the reality of God comes from the actual experience of divine grace, frequently made possible through the witness of the Bible and a believing community, but that such experience of divine grace is usually easily overlooked” (p. 19).

Nature, many modern scientists believe, points us toward a Creator. The materialistic, mechanistic assumptions of Enlightenment-packaged science have dissolved. A discerning doctrine of creation proves itself fully compatible with the findings of contemporary science, for theology provides an answer concerning the source of what is while science deals with relationships between things. “According to the Christian doctrine of creation, the creation of the universe is not an event in the past which is over and done with, so that once the universe is created, it runs on its own without the need for any divine activity. God’s creative activity is continuous” (p. 46).

Ultimately Allen agrees with “what Austin Farrer calls ‘double agency.’ God enables the members of the universe to be what they are, and the members of the universe, acting according to their natures, cause the universe to develop in ways cosmology, evolutionary biology, and history describe'” (p. 172). So “‘God’s creative activity is the continuous action whereby creatures exist. Every creature is what it is, with its powers of operating, because of the creative activity of God presently in action'” (ibid.).

Thus Allen titles one of his chapters: “The order of the world points to the possibility of God” (p. 50). The intricacy of the cosmos makes credible the conclusion that an ordering Mind designed it. Still more: “The existence of the world points to the possibility of God” (p. 64). In Allen’s judgment, the objections Hume and Kant leveled against the “cosmological argument have been found to be both philosophically misguided and scientifically outdated” (p. 64). Their credibility has been eroding and will ultimately collapse.

This enables Christians to recover this truth of St Thomas Aquinas: a necessary being is needed to explain the existence of a contingent universe. That the universe is contingent seems obvious to scientists in the age of Einstein. Why the universe is leads us to embrace the necessary being of a Creator. The Book of Nature, rightly read, reveals nature’s Author.

And so does the Book of Scripture! Embracing the Word revealed in Scripture opens one to the reality of God’s Grace. However well-ordered we may find the natural world, we know in our hearts we’re designed for another world. It’s that world we encounter preeminently in Christ Jesus. Once we abandon self-serving preoccupations and direct our gaze God-ward, we find the source of our ultimate well-being.

Such faith, Allen argues, is a “reasonable faith.” Hume’s narrow definition of “reason” can no longer hold, for it even eliminates common sense conclusions concerning basic things such as economics, politics, etc. Certainly there’s a subjective pole to our knowing, but that doesn’t eliminate the possibility of knowing truth embedded in the world we live in. Reason and revelation complement each other when one experiences “metanoia, a turning from the sensible world toward the supersensible realities on which it depends for its order and goodness” (p. 155).

For example, Wittgenstein, engaged in a discussion concerning historical questions concerning St John’s Gospel, “suddenly said, ‘But if you can accept the miracle that God became a man all these difficulties are as nothing, for then I couldn’t possibly say what form the record of such an event would take'” (p. 158). Revelation, accepted by faith, enables us to rightly reason about nature.

This is a fine book, brimming with references to the best of contemporary scholarship as well as ancient classics. Allen writes clearly, argues vigorously, doing apologetics at its best.