269 Finding God

Years ago Malcolm Muggeridge penned a book titled The Third Testament, providing biographical portraits of persons who, in their own distinctive and persuasive ways, came to know and love the Lord Jesus Christ.  Though lacking the authority of Scripture, the lives of the saints and martyrs of the Christian Church have ever provided an on-going affirmation of the abiding Truth revealed in the Gospel.  Several recent autobiographical works testify to the perennial power of the Holy Spirit working within the hearts of folks open to Him and also show how apologetics played a pivotal role in their conversions.  (Parenthetically, the numerous references to C.S. Lewis illustrate the enduring value of his writings.)

In Counting to God:  A Personal Journey Through Science to Belief (Attitude Media, c. 2014), Douglas Ell sets forth the reasons he came to (and continues to) believe in the existence of God.  Primarily it was to answer “the great question” regarding the cosmos.  This “great question” endures as perhaps the most ancient and abiding questions ever posed.   “Accident or design—that is the question.  What do you think?” (Kindle #52).  With an abiding interest in science—taking a double major in math and physics at MIT as an undergraduate, then adding a graduate degree in theoretical mathematics from the University of Maryland—Ell carefully considered (while busily practicing law for three decades) the evidence available.    He slowly came to believe that mounting scientific evidence fits easily into faith in the God revealed in Scripture.  Consequently he wants “to go right to the core of the new scientific evidence of design in the universe, and thus the existence of God.  To me, it is the most exciting issue of our age” (#86). 

In a chapter devoted to his “personal journey” Ell explains why science and mathematics have been so important to him and now form a solid part of his faith’s foundation.  As a child he found numbers magical, intriguing, something of a key to Reality.  So too he found all aspects of the universe simply fascinating.  Unfortunately,  he could not fit God into his understanding of what seemed so real and important to him.  What he garnered from his childhood Sunday school classes (with their stories of Noah et al.) seemed impossible to accept, so he “began to doubt God and the Bible” (#266).  Science appeared better grounded and  more cogent to him than Bible stories.   

Years later, prodded by his wife, he joined her in attending church services, where he was surprised above all by the inner peace enjoyed by many of the parishioners.  Since his legal work required considerable time on airplanes he began seriously reading in an effort to reconcile science (but not the Scientism which restricts all reality to the natural realm) and religion (but not the Fideism which denigrates the importance of reason).  “We believers,” he declares in ending his treatise, “need to wake up and see the world the way it is.  The most magnificent battle of our generation, and for our children and our children’s children, is not Islam versus Christianity; it is Scientism versus Belief” (#3451).  

Unfortunately, today’s Scientistic elites, ensconced in “most colleges and universities, newspapers, magazines, and television and movie producers—want you to believe that our universe is meaningless and pointless, a grand system where everything somehow arose by accident and with no purpose or design but somehow, miraculously, gives the appearance of design” (#763).  Countering this are the advocates of Intelligent Design.  Their pedigree includes some of the most lustrous scientists of all time—Copernicus, Kelvin, Newton et al.  Carefully following the scientific method—demanding evidence with which to craft reasonable hypotheses—Intelligent Design thinkers then and now argue that the sheer magnitude of “apparent” design virtually proves it’s real and points logically to a Designer.  This is particularly evident when one considers the mathematical probabilities involved in bringing our world into being.  

The natural world (our wondrous universe) clearly reveals the Creator.  It is, to the author, in its own way a Gospel—good news to inquiring thinkers.  At least seven “wonders” deserve our attention and celebration:  1) the universe began, abruptly, 14 billion years ago; 2) this universe is “fine tuned” for life as we know it; 3) life itself is an incredible miracle; 4) living things reveal an amazingly intricate technology, enabling them to function according to meticulous plans; 5) the origin of new species remains a mystery unexplained by Darwinians; 6) planet earth is uniquely suited for life; and 7) quantum physics enables us to transcend earlier ways of thinking about time and space and causality.  Providing the book’s structure, “Each of these wonders is scientific support for the hypothesis of God” (#165).   Discussing these points, Ell provides (in readable form for laymen) insight into the current state of knowledge regarding the cosmos.  These seven wonders provide data for the “logic of belief” that connects the dots and provides the worldview Ell embraces.  

For open-minded readers, for folks interested in finding God:  “You have a choice.  You can accept the dogma of Scientism as fact and believe the universe is an accident, without meaning and without purpose, and live your life that way.  Or you can use the gift of reason to consider new evidence, evidence that just might lead you to believe in the designed universe of absolute wonder and evidence that just might let you live your life with meaning, with purpose, and with a sense of a greater reality, in awe of life’s mysteries and designs.  Choose well; it’s your life” (#443).  

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Though less well-known than his late brother Christopher (one of the more belligerent “new atheists” who wrote God is Not Great), Peter Hitchens has also enjoyed a highly successful journalistic career.  In The Rage Against God:  how atheism led me to faith (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, c. 2010) he charts his journey from youthful rebellion (a “carnival of adolescent petulance, ingratitude, cruelty, and insensitivity”) against everything associated with Christianity to a mature faith.  In many ways he represents his generation, and one learns much more from this treatise than one man’s story, for things were dramatically changing in England and he would live out much associated with the transformative ‘60s.   As a child, he “lived at the very end of an era that is now as distant and gone as the Lost City of Atlantis.  There were modern things about it, but in general it was a very old civilization” (p. 59).  

Born in 1951 and reared in a non-church-going family, he was exposed to the state-sponsored Anglican “religion” in school.  W hat he encountered was hardly the real thing—instead it was a “strange and vulnerable counterfeit of it” that could be rather easily tossed aside by questioning youngsters.  So at the age of 15 he melodramatically burned his Bible on a field near his Cambridge boarding school.  He fervently believed “it was the enemy’s book, the keystone of the arch I wished to bring down (p. 18).  In its place he embraced the evolutionary Naturalism and ideological Socialism favored by the educated elite of the day.  Thereby unshackled from any authority, he set out to “do his own thing” without fear of the consequences (at least of the eternal sort).  Above all he resisted any sort of  Authority—he would map his own course and set his own rules.  So his prodigal sins multiplied and metastasized, ultimately leaving him with a deep sense of shame and guilt.  

Hitchens’ atheism easily sanctioned his “moral positions,” which were “fierce opposites of what I had always been taught.  I regarded marriage as something to be avoided, abortion as a sensible necessity and safeguard, homosexuality as very nearly admirable.  I renounced patriotism, too—so completely that I would one day shock myself and my fellow revolutionaries with the chilly logical conclusions of this decision.  I began by embracing the silly pro-Soviet pacifism of nuclear disarmament, with its bogus claims of moral superiority over the conventional warmongers” (p. 52).   But in time he would be stationed for two years as a journalist in Moscow, where the absurdity of his adolescent Leftism was made manifest.  The “Soviet Paradise” in reality was an abysmal prison, for the “Communist state had made a serious effort to replace and supplant such forces as conscience and self-control.  It had taken onto itself the responsibilities of God and of believers in God.  But its commandments were very different from those of God” (p. 85).  Inevitably:  “Utopia can only ever be approached across a sea of blood” (p. 153).  

Other assignments around the globe led Hitchens to conclude that “civilization” is a rare and precious thing.  Back home, observing and “writing about the inner workings of Britain’s socialist Labour movement and the increasingly unhinged strikes it kept calling, combined to destroy what remained of my teenage socialism, though I was slow to admit it to myself” (p. 99).  The secularism he had embraced was “a fundamentally political movement, which seeks to remove the remaining Christian restraints on power and the remaining traces of Christian moral law in the civil and criminal codes of the Western nations” (p. 161).  What he had known as a child in England, he finally decided, was far better than what he found in totalitarian and non-Christian lands.  He could not but conclude that something about Christianity made the world a better place.  And he sensed, deep in his heart, that the loss of Christianity in England could not but dissolve civilization.  As his “secular faiths” failed him he began to open his mind to the truth evident in artistic works on display in chapels and cathedrals.  Then he married his wife—and the words of the Church of England’s traditional “marriage service awakened thoughts in me that I had long suppressed.  I was entering into my inheritance, as a Christian Englishman, as a man, and as a human being.  It was the first properly grown-up thing that I had ever done” (p. 105).  

So as a prodigal so he returned to the Church.  But the Church found was not the Church he’d known as a schoolboy!  Innovations abounded; neither the majestic words of Authorized (King James) Version Bible nor Cranmer’s Prayer Book suited the trendy reformers.  Within a few decades, “400 years of almost unbroken tradition had been wiped out” (p. 108).  “The new, denatured, committee-designed prayers and services were not just ugly, but contained a different message, which was not strong enough or hard enough to satisfy my need to atone” (p. 111).  The secularism he’d found finally inadequate was making powerful inroads into the established Church, threatening to inwardly raze it.  Thus he finds and takes comfort in islands of sanity within the Church of England—small chapels still using the old Book of Common Prayer and fellow believers determined to uphold traditional orthodoxy.  

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

David Skeel is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School who sets forth, in True Paradox:  How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, c. 2014), some beguiling reasons for faith in Christ.  Unlike some, who seek to dumb-down the intellectual content of traditional theology in order to appeal to the masses who have little interest in such things, he rejoices in the many ways a more “complex” Christianity fits the manifestly “complex” world we live in!  Clearly there is an evident simplicity to Christian belief.  “The feature that makes Christianity different from any other religion or system of thought is Christian’s belief that Jesus, the God who became man, suffered, died and was raised from the dead to reconcile humans with God” (p. 12).  That said, however, applying its truth to our world leads to considerable complexity!  

We must inevitably try to make sense of the world within God’s Son revealed Himself, and “the capacity to provide explanations for some of the complexities of life as we actually experience it is a key test of any religion or system of thought that claims to offer a comprehensive account of our place in the universe” (p. 18).  To Skeel, the place to begin this endeavor is with human consciousness, that subjective self-awareness of one’s being that “is the single most complex and mysterious feature of our existence” (p. 33).  He defines our “ability to devise and assess theories about the nature of reality our idea-making capacity” (p. 38).  Whereas materialists can make no sense of this trait—either denying its existence or considering it a strange effusion of matter-in-motion—Christians understand it as an aspect of being created in the image of a supremely self-aware and creative God who calls us to join Him, eternally.  Additionally, Christians understand and uphold a timeless, universal moral standard, whereas unbelievers easily slide into various forms of relativism, making ethical ideals mere local products of history and culture.  The dignity of the person, the equality of the sexes, the importance of just legal codes, the importance of the traditional family are all tenaciously held by traditional, orthodox Christians.  

“Beauty and the Arts” provide a second “paradox” eliciting Skeel’s attention, for:     “Our sense of beauty is thus connected with our idea-making capacity” (p. 65).  He finds Wordsworth’s declaration definitive:  “I have felt /  A presence that disturbs me with the joy / Of elevated thoughts, a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused, / Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, / And the round ocean and the living air.”  Materialists vainly endeavor to provide explanations for this unique human attribute.  How do we explain our delight in sunsets or symphonies that apparently diverts us from the “struggle for existence” Darwinists declare explains everything?  To Christians, man’s interest in created beauty points him to an ultimate Beauty, an ultimate Creator who delights in it.  Thus, though an atheist himself, “Leonard Bernstein once said that when he listened to the music of, he thought for a moment that there must be a God” (p. 77).   “‘It was when I was happiest that I longed most,’ the central character in C.S. Lewis’s novel Till We Have Faces says as she reflects on her encounters with beauty.  ‘And because it was beautiful, it set me longing, always longing.  Somewhere else, there must be more of it’” (p. 87).  

On a personal level, Skeel notes he was reared without any religious perspective.  While in college, however, he read texts in some of his literature classes which contained biblical references.  So he decided to read the Bible and was simply “blown away,” for he “hadn’t expected the profusion of genres or the power and elegance of the overarching narrative that we repeatedly go astray yet God loves us and longs to take us back.”  Though other things certainly contributed to his spiritual journey, “the sheer beauty of the Bible is what first drew me in, and it’s still what I go back to when I’m asked over a beer late at night why I believe that Christianity is true” (p. 86).  

Addressing the problem of evil—so often the main plank in atheists’ arguments against God’s existence—Skeel finds the Christian perspective paradoxically satisfying.  To understand that God made a good world that is now marred by freely chosen human sinfulness, and that He entered into our world and suffered on the Cross to save us from sin, provides a key to dealing with pain and suffering.  It’s not an easy answer—but it is, for many of us, a satisfying one.  “The fact that the Son of God suffered an ignominious death means that God fully understands suffering.  Although the Bible doesn’t explain why suffering exists, it teaches that the Son of God—the second of God’s three persons—has experienced suffering firsthand.  Pain and suffering are still ugly, but Jesus having suffered put the ordeal of suffering in a different light” (p. 105).  Importantly, he refuses to say “that God causes suffering, as many Christians do,” preferring to believe “that God allows and eventually transforms suffering.”  This is more than a “semantic” distinction.  “I don’t think it is, and [Bill] Stuntz [one of the author’s close friends, an eminent criminal justice scholar who died of cancer] certainly didn’t.  He called ‘the principle of taking the sourest lemons and making the sweetest lemonade . . . the most beautiful I’ve ever encountered’” (p. 104).  

As a lawyer Skeel takes seriously “The Justice Paradox.”  “Nearly every system of thought gives rise to a theory of justice.  If the proof is in the pudding, a nation’s or civilization’s legal system is the pudding.  The legal system and its effects show us the real-world implications of the system of thought that underlies it” (p. 110).  Surveying world history, it becomes evident how rarely dictated legal codes (from Hammurabi to Napoleon) establish good societies.  A glance at the utopian aspirations of various Marxists, from Russia to China to Cuba, reveals how glowing promises descend into barbarian brutality.  Even the American Republic has failed to fully realize the aspirations of the Founders!  Christians need not be surprised at this.  “The dream of a perfectly just social order is, Christians believe, a dangerous lie that we tell ourselves” (p. 121).  As an old country song declares:  “Ain’t no livin’ in a perfect world.”  

Christians understand justice to be rooted in the understanding and conviction that every person is made in the image of God.  So every person must be treated well.  But materialists, believing man to be nothing more than a higher animal, have no reason to respect “human rights.”  Thus the cruelties of Hitler and Stalin and Mao flowed easily from their deep commitment to evolutionary materialism.  Revering every person, Christians realize how easily socio-political regimes violate human dignity, generally arguing that individuals must be sacrificed for the common good.  So Christians need to understand the inability of the law to fully and finally establish a good society.  Committed to promoting “the flourishing of others,” believers need to embrace “a vision of justice I call ‘law with a light touch’” (p. 129).  Consequently, Social Gospel advocates, whether Walter Rauschenbush promoting Prohibition a century ago or Jim Wallis championing Pacifism today, gravely err.  Determined “to usher in the kingdom of God through law, they are denying Christianity’s teachings, not promoting them” (p. 134).  We need less perfectionistic laws and more reconciliation between a holy God and sinful man!  

“Life and Afterlife” is the final paradox Skeel considers.  Christians, throughout the centuries, have boldly declared their faith in life everlasting.  Beyond the grave there’s Heaven to gain.  Materialists, naturally, disbelieve in anything beyond the physical world.  They have no hope for anything better than physical satisfactions.  Yet they struggle to explain man’s strange awareness of something beyond our time-space world.  C.S. Lewis repeatedly stressed (following an insight of Aristotle) that natural desires unfailingly point to realities which fulfill them.  Thus our hunger indicates there is something real called food.  “All of the longings we have considered in this book may be a foreshadowing of heaven.  Lewis himself experienced those longings with unusual intensity—he referred to the sensation as joy.  ‘If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it,’ Lewis wrote, ‘that does not prove that the universe is a fraud.  Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing’” (p. 145).  

History records few things more clearly than man’s hope for some kind of afterlife.  Exactly what’s entailed therein certainly varies (as multitudinous artistic works reveal) but surely it’s a continuation of some sort of the life we now enjoy.  Christians believe we will not be disembodied spirits but resurrected bodies blessed to inhabit a “new” heaven and earth.  Inspired music—classical works such as Bach Brandenburg concertos and the “spirituals” composed by slaves in the antebellum South—offers hints of what lies ahead.  Skeel also finds the scholarly work of N.T. Wright most helpful.  “Wright argues that heaven and earth are neither ‘poles apart, needing to be separated forever,’ nor are they ‘simply different ways of looking at the same thing, as would be implied by some kinds of pantheism.’  He concludes, ‘No, they are radically different, but they are made for each other in the same way (Revelation is suggesting) as male and female’” (p. 155).