Monday, June 17, 2013

Philosophy, Worldview and Evangelism: Cultivating a Credible Cultural-Intellectual Context

"The gospel is never heard in isolation.  It is always heard against the background of a worldview.  A person raised in a cultural milieu in which Christianity is still seen as an intellectually viable option will display an openness to the gospel which a person with a naturalistic or postmodern worldview will not.  One may as well tell her to believe in fairies or leprechauns as in Jesus Christ!

"One of the awesome tasks of thoughtful Christians in our day is to help turn the contemporary intellectual tide in such a way as to foster a worldview in which Christian faith can be regarded as an intellectually credible option for thinking men and women."  ((Garrett J. DeWeese and J. P. Moreland, Philosophy Made Slightly Less Difficult: A Beginner's Guide to Life's Big Questions [Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2005], 157.)

Over the past week, I have casually read through DeWeese and Moreland's Philosophy Made Slightly Less Difficult, along with Imaginative Apologetics, edited by Andrew Davison.  In different ways, both texts present the same fundamental challenge - the need for contemporary Christians to cultivate a credible cultural and intellectual climate or context in which the Christian gospel can be heard as what William James would term 'a live option'.  [A lengthier review of Imaginative Apologetics will appear here shortly; this blog post is primarily some reflections on DeWeese and Moreland's book.]

In chapter five of Imaginative Apologetics, Michael Ward argues that:

"The apologist is thus a John the Baptist figure, preparing the way for the One who comes after.  Apologetics serves a vital ancillary function and this is its main justification, for although reasoned defences do not of themselves create conviction, the absence of them makes belief much harder to engender or sustain.  As Farrer wrote, 'What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned.'" (Michael Ward, "The Good Serves the Better and Both the Best: C. S. Lewis on Imagination and Reason in Apologetics," in Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition, edited by Andrew Davison [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011], 77-78.)

Ward then closes the chapter by quoting C. S. Lewis:

"Conversion requires an alteration of the will, and an alteration which, in the last resort, does not occur without the intervention of the supernatural.  I do not in the least agree with those who therefore conclude that the spread of an intellectual (and imaginative) climate favourable to Christianity is useless.  You do not prove munition workers useless by showing that they cannot themselves win battles ... If the intellectual climate is such that, when a man comes to the crisis at which he must either accept or reject Christ, his reason and imagination are not on the wrong side, then his conflict will be fought out under favourable conditions." (ibid., 78; citing C. S. Lewis, "The Decline of Religion," 182)

Simply put, Christianity must be seen as a credible and live option if we are to have a reasonable hope that non-Christians will respond positively to evangelistic appeals.  We thus have the responsibility to present a credible defense of the truthfulness of the key historical truth-claims and theological doctrines of Christianity. We have also the responsibility to consciously cultivate an atmosphere within the church and within the hearts and minds of individual Christians wherein a robust rational defense and explanation of the Christian faith is valued.

A large part of that task is philosophical in nature.  The questions that are considered in philosophy center around the "Big Questions" of life - Why am I here?  What am I?  Where am I going when I die?  Is there a God?  What is God like?  What is good and evil?  Is there an objective morality?  Can I know anything?  What can I know?  How can I know things?

The questions within the discipline of philosophy also impinge upon many of the crucial issues that work against the intellectual credibility of a robust evangelical Christianity in contemporary society.

(1) Religious Pluralism / Universalism - All religions are equally valid paths to 'knowing the divine' or 'attaining salvation'; or else the even broader vision that all people will ultimately be 'saved'.  With the rise of religious pluralism, presentation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the only way to know God and be saved is offensive, and to some even nonsensical.  Philosophical examination can help to dispel the myths of religious pluralism.

(2) What Is Truth? / Relativism - A popular catchphrase today is "You have your truth, I have mine.  Truth is relative."  Again, in a culture where relativism reigns supreme, presenting Jesus Christ as the only truth is offensive and/or nonsensical.  What can it possible mean to say that Jesus is 'the truth' if there is no such thing as 'objective' or 'absolute' truth.  Philosophical examination can help to dispel the myths of relativism.

(3) Ethical Relativism / Subjectivism - Another popular perspective today is that what's 'good for me' may not be good to everybody.  Moral values differ from person to person and culture to culture, and there is no overarching standard of right and wrong that applies to everybody.  In a culture where ethical relativism reigns supreme, presenting the Christian life as 'the good life' is an empty vision.  Furthermore, presenting notions of 'sin' and 'judgment' is offensive and nonsensical - after all, what somebody wholeheartedly believes is 'right' is 'right for them'; how then could God justly judge them for such actions/beliefs?  Philosophical examination can help to dispel the myths of subjectivism as well.

(4) Science Exists; the Soul Doesn't / Physicalism - An increasingly prominent (academic) perspective is that of 'physicalism' with regards to human beings: we are physical creatures only.  Any notion of 'mind' or 'soul' can at most be some sort of 'emergent property' which arises out of and is completely dependent upon the physical body.  This perspective, I argue, is a direct and logical outworking of mainstream evolutionary theory.  In a culture where human beings are seen increasingly as 'evolved animals' and 'physical creatures', the Christian notions of 'created in the image of God' and 'everlasting soul' are nonsensical.  Philosophical examination can help to dispel the myths of physicalism as well.

DeWeese and Moreland's relatively-slender volume (165 pages) is oriented toward addressing such cultural and intellectual barriers to Christian faith.  More importantly, their desire is to make rigorous philosophy accessible and desirable to the average Christian in the pew of American churches.  If I may be so bold, I suggest that they succeed wildly with the first goal, but do not quite achieve the second.  That is, if they truly do succeed in making Philosophy ... Slightly Less Difficult, it is, at most, only very slightly less difficult.  There is, unfortunately, a tendency toward the use on in-house terms, and a delving into very complex in-house discussions and arguments that confuse the issue and will probably prevent many lay readers from wading through all the chapters.  That is, in my view, a shame, on two counts.

First, the book is excellent.  DeWeese and Moreland present a thorough and in-depth treatment of several issues that Christians need to thoughtfully work through.  It would be valuable for Christians to work through and understand the material in the volume.  Unfortunately, it is the responsibility of the authors to make the book accessible to the lay reader, and I do not think DeWeese and Moreland did as good a job of that as they could have.  That does not take away from the quality of the work - it's excellent.  I just think it's a little too-highly-written for the average reader.  Perhaps my expectations are too low.

Second, the last chapter of the book is tremendous, and I fear that many readers will have become overwhelmed and quit before they get there.  I want to close this brief post with a quote from that last chapter:

"It is not just those who plan to enter the academy professionally who need to understand philosophy.  Christian philosophy is also an integral part of training for Christian ministry. ... Again and again we have seen the practical value of philosophical studies in reaching students for Christ.  From questions dealing with the meaning of life or the basis of moral values to the problem of suffering and evil and the challenge of religious pluralism, the profound philosophical questions that students are asking are much more difficult to answer than to pose.  They deserve a thoughtful response rather than pat answers or appeals to mystery.

"The conventional wisdom says that 'you can't use arguments to bring people to Christ.'  This has not been our experience.  The fact is that there is tremendous interest among unbelieving students in hearing a rational presentation and defense of the gospel, and some will be ready to respond with trust in Christ.  To speak frankly, we do not know hoe one could minister effectively in a public way on our university campuses without training in philosophy." (Philosophy Made Slightly Less Difficult, 58-59.)