Re-taking Ground for the Gospel
The second in a three-part interview with Paul Copan, professor of philosophy and ethics, and the Pledger Family Chair at Palm Beach Atlantic University, and author of numerous books on the Christian faith.
On a flight home several years ago I sat with my nose in Paul Copan’s book True for You, But Not for Me: Deflating the Slogans that Leave Christians Speechless. Near the end of the flight, the young man next to me asked me what I was reading. By the look on his face I could tell he was dying to know.
Though I don’t remember now exactly what I said, it was something like, “It’s a book about questions people ask today about faith and belief in God.” I didn’t mean to play cat and mouse, but once a schoolteacher, always a schoolteacher, and the schoolteacher in me wanted to find out just how interested he really was.
He then asked, “Well, is it good?”
I looked at him and said, “I live in New Orleans and have three children.” I didn’t make it through my next sentence before he started nodding his head. I said, “I want to be able to answer their questions about why it makes sense to be a Christian.” He was hooked when I said, “This is a great book for parents.”
Paul Copan is a scholar whose books are resources that we can put in the hands of seasoned believers, unbelievers, or believers struggling to be sure, like the young father on my flight.
After you read one of Paul’s books and become a fan, try some others: When God Goes to Starbucks, Is God a Moral Monster? or How Do You Know You’re Not Wrong? are great popular books. Visit his website to see more: www.paulcopan.com.
— Marilyn Stewart
Q: Christianity has been marginalized in every sector of the public square. Christians are often shouted down and our values and beliefs are ridiculed. In what area(s) do you see us regaining ground first?
A: As we look at the progress Christian philosophy has made since the late 1970’s and early 80’s, the faith of many Christians has been strengthened, and outsiders to the faith have been attracted to it. We have witnessed how belief in God is being taken with greater seriousness in the academy, and there is a growing number of theists in the guild of philosophy—most of them being Christians.
We are witnessing progress in the publication of books and journal articles in the philosophy of religion that are sympathetic to Christian theism. Indeed, a wide range of mainstream academic and university presses are producing these books. Christian thinkers have made great inroads in presenting the reasonableness of belief in God and the credibility of the Christian faith as a robust, intellectually credible worldview. Given the tone of hostility toward belief in God in most of Western philosophy in the 50’s and 60’s, this is quite remarkable. Some important ground is being regained here.
The God-science discussion is an ongoing, fascinating and often fruitful one, although some in the science community assume that any kind of “design” is “unscientific”—as though the insistence that there is no design were a neutral scientific statement! No, it is quite philosophical. Interestingly, modern science was begun by thinkers committed to the Bible and thus a rational (yes, designed) universe that was capable of being studied. These thinkers’ belief in the miraculous did not diminish their capacity of doing exceptional and creative scientific work. While discussions about science and design, it seems, continue to be polarized and polarizing, astrophysicists continue to discover more breathtaking, delicately-balanced conditions for the possibility of life. In addition, the evidence for the Big Bang—and thus the beginning of the universe a finite time ago—continues to mount and thus reinforce the biblical revelation, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Such evidences offer a remarkable defense of design and the power of God. It is difficult to explain these things unless God is brought into the picture.
We are seeing the same sort of thing when it comes to the existence of consciousness. Atheistic philosophers of mind and neuroscientists are puzzled as to how the consciousness could have emerged from unconscious matter. “…modern science was begun by thinkers committed to the Bible and thus a rational (yes, designed) universe that was capable of being studied. Science actually offers us much reinforcement for the Christian faith.”The Christian has an answer to those sorts of questions – we are created in the image of a supremely aware being; so therefore “consciousness” is not a surprising phenomenon considering God’s existence. Or consider rationality: why should we trust our reason if our beliefs are simply the result of unguided, mindless, non-rational material forces over which we have no control? I believe we can gain ground by focusing on how the Christian faith offers resources to plausibly explain these and other features of the universe and human experience while naturalism/atheism just does not have those resources.
Science actually offers us much reinforcement for the Christian faith. Some people consider evolution as a theory that displaces God. I say that if it’s true, it actually points us to a Designer. It’s important to keep in mind that before evolution can even get started, the universe has to begin to exist; secondly, the universe has to be just right for life (a life-permitting universe); thirdly, just because the universe is just right for life doesn’t guarantee that life is going to emerge (a life-producing universe). And even if life is produced, that’s no guarantee that life will continue from single-celled organisms to homo sapiens (a life-sustaining universe). Without God, biological evolution couldn’t even get off the ground! Even Darwin himself, at the end of his Origin of the Species, didn’t see evolution as being opposed to belief in God. Although a lot of Christians engage in the creation versus evolution controversy, I think the far more critical point of focus is God versus no God. Evolution is often a side-trail. After all, there have been committed Christians like evangelical theologians John Stott and Henri Blocher, who have held to evolution. I find that creation-evolution discussions are secondary. After all, God could have guided the evolutionary process. The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing—God versus no God. We can make progress in the God-science discussion if we keep that in mind.
Of course, we shouldn’t forget that philosophers and scientists aren’t unbiased and personally detached from their discipline. Thinkers like Aldous Huxley (author of Brave New World) or Thomas Nagel (a New York University philosopher) have gone on record to acknowledge their own personal reasons for evading belief in God. No matter what the evidence, some people will always try to find ways around believing in God.
Q: How can I share my faith with a relativist, someone who thinks no one can really know what’s “true”?
A: When a relativist claims that we can’t know what’s true, he’s making a truth-statement (“it’s true that we can’t know what’s true”), and he is making a statement of knowledge (“I know that no one can know…”).
That said, a basic point that might be helpful is when we are dealing with relativists, we need to remember that a lot of times arguments are not going to be decisive because people don’t become relativists because of rigorous logic. If they did, they wouldn’t be relativists because they believe in absolute logical laws! Relativists typically adopt their view for personal reasons—freedom and autonomy. This doesn’t disprove relativism, but it shows that intellectual criticisms of relativism might just get a shoulder shrug or a “Whatever!”
Keep in mind also that relativism is not only self-contradictory (it affirms that “it’s absolutely true that there is no truth” and that “intolerance” and “judging” are always wrong), it is also selective. Relativists aren’t relativistic about who won the Super Bowl, about the daily traffic report, or about the contents of their drug prescription (e.g., “that’s just true for the pharmacist but not for me”). People tend to be relativists about morality and God; they want to be in control.
Relativists will get very upset if you steal their car or intentionally trip them. When relativism negatively affects them, then they protest. Relativism reflects a fairly shallow or hollow life and way of thinking. Relativists don’t want to think deeply about the massive contradictions their selective philosophy of life produces.Keep in mind also that relativism is not only self-contradictory, it is also selective. Yes, relativists can be gently challenged intellectually, but more than that, they need to be befriended; they need to learn to trust the Christian. As the book I Once Was Lost (InterVarsity Press) reveals, Christians need to build bridges of trust with relativistic or postmodern persons. This is the first “threshold” they need to cross before they will become more open to being challenged intellectually as well as interested in the gospel.
Q: How can a pastor keep up with training his people to defend their faith against the wide-ranging flood of opposing ideas?
A: The pastor (or someone on church staff) can do a sermon series, teach an adult Sunday school class, or offer training on the weekends to assist Christians in answering the top ten or fifteen questions that non-Christians ask. When I speak on university campuses, the same kinds of questions keep coming up: What is the evidence for God? How could God allow evil? Why think Jesus is the only Savior when there are so many different religions? In fact, Christians can take the initiative by investigating the wealth of resources on the internet and in published books; they can readily find answers themselves.
What are some useful tools to explore? Try the Apologetics Study Bible (B&H Academic)—a helpful place to start. Check out William Lane Craig’s starter apologetics book On Guard (Crossway) and then his Reasonable Faith (Crossway). Craig has a marvelous website www.reasonablefaith.org; it’s a terrific resource with essays, Q&A, debates, and podcasts—basically your one-stop shopping of (mostly) free materials to get you to where you need to be.
I’ve tried to write books at a popular level that deal with slogans and issues that non-Christians typically bring up and that Christians need to be wrestling through: True for You, When God Goes to Starbucks, and the like.
Pastors should not pretend that there are no difficult topics. They should model humility and not give pat answers to hard questions. They should respond to questions in a fair-minded, well-reasoned manner. They should preach in a way that helps Christians see how the Christian faith makes sense of things—and actually does a much better job than its worldview competitors. I think Pastor Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God as well as his ministry reflects a thoughtful Christian faith that other pastors can imitate. Another fine guide along these lines is N.T. Wright. His books The Challenge of Jesus, Simply Christian, and After You Believe are excellent examples of the kind of thoughtful, practical biblical material pastors can address in their sermons. These books will better enable them to connect with their congregations in a holistic, Christ-centered way.
In their sermons and teaching, Christian leaders should bring up examples of how apologetic answers can be helpful in dealing with doubts or in opening up doors for telling the gospel to unbelievers. They can talk about alleged inconsistencies in Scripture or work through some of the ethical challenges of the Old Testament rather than skirting over them.
Pastors can also call upon experts in apologetics and Christian philosophy to come to their churches and do seminars to train their people to think through and talk about their faith. A great resource is the Evangelical Philosophical Society (EPS: www.epsociety.org). I had been president of this organization for six years. It seeks to make an impact not only in the academy, but also in the local church.
Every November the EPS puts on an apologetic conference where lay people and pastors can come to be better equipped. EPS philosophers and apologists are often willing to come to churches and lead apologetics seminars and training, or they may even engage in debates with atheists and skeptics. This can be a great means of outreach to those who have questions. Not every pastor will be a philosopher or apologist, but there are things that pastors and church leaders can do to better equip their congregations, and there are brothers and sisters in Christ who could come alongside them to assist them in their ministry to help build up the body of Christ and to enable them to be better prepared to give a reason for the hope that lies within them and to do so with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).