Yesterday at Afternoon Tea, we talked about how we share our faith at a time like this and particularly about apologetics. Apologetics is about being able to articulate reasons for what you believe. It is about being able to answer difficult questions, defend your position and also challenge the beliefs and presuppositions of others.
As with our discussion on anxiety the previous day, I thought it might be helpful to jot down some of the discussion points and share them here
The fool says in his heart…
Our discussion was prompted by the Psalm we read together at Evening Prayer the previous day. Psalm 52 opens with the words:
Only fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
This prompted one participant to ask how we speak to people who cannot see their own folly. First of all, we said that the words are stark and provocative, they grab our attention. It is helpful at this stage to make two distinctions
- First we distinguish between the offense of the Gospel and being personally offensive. WE do not need to be rude or aggressive. We can continue to be winsome in our engagement with others.
- Secondly we distinguish between those who are genuinely engaged in searching out and seeking God and those who constantly and consistently simply ignore his existence.
We will always have friends with questions. They will want to take account of all the things they have heard and read.
However, it seems to me that there is a particular follow to shutting our eyes to any concern for God at all. The Bible shows that God’s revelation is consistent and unavoidable. We live in world of majestic beauty. He shows himself in the glory of creation and in his providential care through history. We sometimes talk in defensive terms about the problems of evil and suffering but the atheist must deal with the problem of goodness and beauty.
Further, Atheistic Evolution has failed to provide a plausible answer to the problem of eternity and infinity. We know that this Universe is finite and had a beginning yet whilst some have experimented with the possibility that the Universe is itself eternally all have comprehensively failed to answer questions about what is before and what is beyond.
Diseases like coronavirus remind us that humans are not omnipotent or infallible. People are beginning to see the limits of their own power. All of our wealth, weaponry and expertise cannot control the smallest of organisms.
Yet our age and culture has been the least curious about God. We have chosen hedonism preferring to simply go out and enjoy ourselves. Of course materialist atheism will lead to individualism and materialism. What is there to do but simply make the best of life and seek pleasure? However to simply turn our backs on the evidence around us and not even to think about the possibility of something or someone beyond who might hold this world in his hands and might one day call us to account is foolish. At least take the opportunity to investigate.
Otherwise we are really behaving just like those students who in the face of coronavirus warnings headed off for their Spring break and crowded onto the beaches of California and Florida. We can recognise the folly in that. There is a similar folly in simply refusing to engage even with the possibility of God’s existence.
Fighting yesterday’s battles?
We have been living through a period of history where there has been a general lack of curiosity. Further, whilst a generation ago, people might have engaged with questions about God, accepting as default the possibility of his existence but looking for proofs and also seeking justification to the big moral questions about how God can allow suffering etc. However people have been less and less engaged with those types of questions.
Contemporary apologetics has been focused on the big questions about truth. Yet we live in a world where people have been less engaged with the question “is it true?” They are more interested in “does it work?” Truth remains essential and we still need to engage those questions but Apologetics hasn’t been that great at tooling us up for the questions about how people get through. They don’t want an intellectual exposition on why suffering exists, they want to know how to get through their own suffering.
The problem is that Christians tend to be trend followers. There also tends to be a lag time. We are 20 years behind the curve in terms of our ability to read the culture. Christian music is only just catching up with rap and hip=hop for example! The risk then is that we might end up fighting yesterday’s battles.
So, I want to suggest that the pandemic and the lockdown is even changing some of those things. The old saying that “there are no atheists in foxholes” remains true. It is surprising how quickly non-religious people will turn to pray. Think about the responses to things like Terrorist attacks with #PrayForParis trending. Think about the response now -how many people not only are talking about prayer but also engaging with online prayer events. #PrayForBoris has been trending these past few days. This reminds us that most people are not hardened atheists. Loyal adherents of Richard Dawkins are a small minority. Perhaps that is why they seem so angry? Most people tend to fall into the category of “nones” -they have no particular religion or beliefs. It is not that they don’t believe in God, it is just that they haven’t even had the time or inclination to think about the question.
Things are changing and so I believe we are starting to see people asking real questions and searching. We need to be ready to respond. We must be careful that we don’t just provide therapeutic prayer events and religious ceremonies to meet demand. That will not meet the needs of people who are searching.
Philosophical and Pastoral answers
At the same time, we still need to avoid a retreat back to intellectual debate. I often comment that when the Bible talks about things like God’s Sovereignty and predestination that its purpose is not to provide material for philosophical debate but to pastorally help God’s people see how much they are loved and that they find security and safety in Christ alone.
Similarly, whilst people are going to want real answers to the question “why is there suffering?” It is not theoretical answers they want. They still need to know how they can live with suffering or the fear of suffering now.
This means our apologetics need to be embodied. We need to show and tell. An answer to the problem of suffering without the demonstration of love, care and hope withing the body of believers won’t cut it. People need to see that we care and how we care.
Take them to Jesus
It sounded so obvious once it was also quite revolutionary when Paul Williams, vicar at Christchurch Fulwood in Sheffield started saying that in our apologetics we need to take people straight to Jesus. He is the one who has the answers to everything. I’ve learnt that the sooner we bring him into the conversation, answering questions by pointing to what he said and did the better.
We often have short windows of opportunity when people’s eyes are opened to their greatest need of all, to be forgiven and reconciled to God. It is important that we don’t miss them. We may be living in such a time. Let’s not miss the opportunity.