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When you consider leading an Open Forum, you have to anticipate the kinds of questions that most seekers will bring to the table. (Note: I am using the term seekers in a rather awkward—but convenient fashion. Admittedly, the Bible says that no one seeks after God. And believers are called to seek after the Lord. So, I could be accused of misapplying the term. But the customary usage of the word in our culture has been to apply the word to those outside the Christian faith. Hence, I will refer to non–Christians as seekers.) It is important that you not consider those who attend an Open Forum as some kind of a threat, but rather as people of virtue and integrity. (Even if they’re not, it’s not your concern.) Individuals respond well to those who see their journey as a genuine attempt to understand God. People want to find purpose in life and spiritual meaning.
The quest for spiritual meaning is as old as life itself. Somehow, we intuitively understand that humankind is more than flesh and bones. All people possess a sense of conscience, a soul and that we are on a journey. Most of us believe that this trek through life continues after our "three score years and ten " but we're unsure about where it will end. We do know it will come to some sort of a close in this present state. But as one writer has noted, "...for life's journey to be a homecoming we have to know our bearings and, more importantly, there has to be a home." The Open Forum is part of a quest to find our bearings, and—hopefully—will begin to point people towards home.
The journey that Open Forum participants enter into is rare. Americans live in a culture where it is popular to search for truth...but unpopular to claim to have found it. Richard Lowry recently wrote that radical pluralism makes it "…much harder to support a politics of serious purpose in America." He goes on to note that, "…soon we will have lost the ability to conduct reasoned debates among ourselves, and will only tell each other our feelings, our stories (a trend already noticeable in talk shows.)" Ours is an age in which open–mindedness is taken to mean that you can believe anything except that you have found truth and can make life–issue decisions in light of that truth. People who undertake coming to an Open Forum as a sincere quest to find meaning in life must be viewed as being somewhat courageous in light of the current trend in thinking.
It was the philosopher Socrates who wrote, "An unexamined life is not worth living." The discussions in an Open Forum are designed to examine the very underlying assumptions we make about life and truth. Most of our presuppositions have never been scrutinized, yet they shape the way we interpret our world. The Open Forum will explore our most basic assumptions.
In the first century A.D., the Apostle Paul traveled the Middle East with the message of God’s love. He made it his mission to relate to whatever culture he encountered. For example, when Paul came to the Greek Aeropagus (recorded in the Book of Acts), he quoted the poets of their culture...not their prophets. Paul had an intuitive sense of the questions that were in the minds of his audience.
Many people still have questions today. They are uncertain about religion in general—and Christianity in particular. Their inquiry can run all the way from the personal and intense—–to the superficial and distracted. The Open Forum discussion series assumes that the questions raised are more along the lines of sincere and earnest.
The following is a summary of the most commonly heard questions raised in an Open Forum. See how many of these questions you have encountered in conversations before. My goal will be to first show you how to enter and understand the postmodern world. You will read what I generally say to someone with these types of questions. Remember: you might not hear the question exactly as I have stated it. You have to think broadly about what kind of issue the postmodern is raising. After considering what a sincere postmodern is probably saying, I’ll go back and show you how to bring your friend—perhaps in the setting of an Open Forum—more toward the gospel.
At the Aeropagus of Paul's day, the words of the cultural scribes and poets might nave been written on scrolls or found on the marble columns that surrounded the apostle as he spoke. The poets of today also appear all around us, from the subway graffiti to the bumper stickers you observe as you drive to work or to school. To illustrate each question raised, I will try to find a corresponding and familiar bumper sticker—the poems of our day—that serve as metaphors for the questions people have about life and faith I have listened to.
Here are the questions I hear people asking today. Think about them. Then see how we can begin to address their struggles. I will write as though a friend is talking to me in an Open Forum. I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of others.
"In a sense, I am saying that many people are skeptical of Christianity's certainty. It's not that most Americans don't believe in some absolutes. Of course there's absolute truth out there. Gravity, death, and taxes—these are obviously absolute. But many of us simply doubt any religion's ability (or your own ability for that matter) to apprehend truth, then comprehend it and encode ultimate reality in language (in an absolutely accurate manner). How can you be so sure?"
"Consider the paradoxes of Christianity that undermine a sense of certainty. For example, Brian McLaren writes, "… is it absolutely wrong to kill your child? (In the Bible, Abraham was commanded to.) Is it absolutely wrong to worship in an idol's temple? (Naaman was given permission to.) Is it absolutely wrong to go to a prostitute? (Hosea was commanded to.) Is it absolutely wrong to have more than one wife? (Many good Bible characters did.) Is it absolutely wrong to own slave? (Then why does the Bible regulate slavery rather than categorically forbid it?)." I want to know … how can you be so sure?"
"I am wondering...how can Christians be so certain and assured about what they claim to know? More and more Americans are skeptical as to what Ultimate Reality (or God) is like. They tend to think, 'If you did know all truth, you would have to be God.' But this is not possible."
This is what I hear people saying…or asking of Christians. Who—or what—is the best poet of our culture that captures this sentiment? I think it's the bumper sticker that reads: Question Reality. Or perhaps the simple phrase Whatever.
(This next question has to do more with the credibility of religious people.)
"You Christians always seem to be so happy, and perfect. When I think about it—with cell phones, faxes, the Internet, office in home, commuting, busy schedules, kids' athletic games—I feel more alienated from life than connected in any meaningful way. I feel it at school. At home. With my family. In my dorm. With my family of origins. Most of us Americans have few friends."
"This question is a little personal and is difficult to articulate and admit. But I’m asking if you (as a Christian) struggle with Twenty–first century living as I do. And all I hear about—from churches—is their organizational approach to getting together. But I don't see how you can organize your friendships into little groups. I am attached to too many organizations already! Shouldn't your idea of community be more along the lines of friendships being rare...precious...unscheduled...and a little unorganized? Mine is. I’m not as close to others as I want to be."
What is the best poem of this world? Perhaps it is the bumper sticker that reads: Don't follow me—I'm lost too! Or it may be TV shows like Friends, or Seinfeld.
"With this question, I am saying, 'I wrestle more with doubt—about whether anyone is right or near the truth. I bristle at religious claims that certain groups have The Truth. Don't you doubt anything about your faith?'"
"I’m also thinking, 'I'm tired of feeling guilty about myself. I want to be free of this suffocating religious stuff.' For me, my religious upbringing was full of codes, rules, and boredom. For instance, I am accused of embodying the guilt and failure of a couple (named Adam and Eve) who lived very long ago (if at all), and supposedly dropped the ball for all of us. I’m tired of feeling guilty—and wondering if you religious people ever entertain doubts about your own faith."
The bumper sticker, Screw Guilt, might be a little harsh (and dated). But it captures this sentiment. People today want to portray a "kinder and gentler" person than this bumper sticker espouses—but the thought is close enough to the current sentiment.
(This question is more a bit of a confession, which is hard because it leaves people vulnerable. They might also feel some resentment because a religious person has been insensitive.)
"I know very little about your faith. I did not grow up in a church. You use words that I have never heard before. Big ones, like: Sanctification. Election (used differently than the way I use it). Predestination. Covenant. What do these words mean? I am uncomfortable with the assumptions you seem to make about how much I know."
"I resent your inclusivist language."
What is the best poem of this world? Perhaps it is found in the bumper sticker: If Jesus is the answer—what's the question?
"I have observed only rather dark and intense Christians. Or they seem to be rather black–and–white about life. This may not apply to you Christians all the time. But I have observed it in too many religious folks. Too many of you seem deadly serious. And I emphasize the word deadly. Who took the fun out of your fundamentalism? Life is not a problem to be solved—it is a mystery to be embraced. You're too intense. Relax."
"If there is a god, I’m hoping that he or she brings a little more lilt to life than what I’ve felt from religion up to this point. Life has unexpected turns, humorous paradoxes, mysteries that cannot be explained. It is rich...and supposed to be fun."
The best poet might be the one who produced the whimsical bumper sticker: Life's a beach!
"I am sick and tired of religions fighting and competing. I can't understand why religious people can't all get along. Why does one faith have to be right? I find it difficult to believe that billions of people who believe differently than you are wrong—and need to be corrected. Why do most discussions regarding faith and religion invariably lead to heated arguments?"
"And why do religious people have to employ 'war' language? The words and actions associated with many religious causes—crusades, arguing, picketing, attacking, belittling—it fuels a feeling of nausea in me. I would rather negotiate than confront. Religious people talk about family values and love, but they seem to be combative, angry, and hateful."
My neighbors down the street display this bumper sticker: Hatred is not a family value. That captures these sentiments well.
"I am someone who cares about the arts, music, politics, the planet, and many other interests. But I have found that many religious people don't seem to care a great deal about such matters. The world is a polluted mess, for example. Where are the Christians at the community clean–up days?"
"On top of that—to be honest—religious music—sounds so dated. I have trouble connecting with the seemingly somber tones. Where are the excellent religious musicians?"
"And then I have other questions about the issues of life: Where are the excellent religious artists—writers—thinkers? I want to ask my religious friend these questions: "Are you sure that God is a Republican? Why are you so mad at the President? And his wife? Have you thought deeply about political issues? Things like compassionate welfare that keeps human dignity in place, or restorative justice, or jobs vs. environmental considerations, local vs. international economics, issues regarding life, or cloning, the question of the existence of a soul, history as perceptions or facts, or the dumbing down of education, or military presence into the next century, or.... "
"The list seems to never end. Do religious people have anything to contribute to these issues?"
If you just consider the ecology issue alone, the best cultural poem might be found in the bumper stickers: Love Your Mother or Think Globally—Act Locally.
" The very idea of hell seems morally repugnant and unfair.
Christians say that if we don't believe in Jesus—as they do—that we are lost and condemned. I'm sorry, but I just cannot buy that. I know some fine Muslim, Jewish, or agnostic individuals. I cannot believe that they are going to hell simply for barely missing your rendition of the "truth"...and then spending eternity in torment. We all have such a brief moment in time on earth. You are demanding that everyone 'get it right' in their fleeting lives? The punishment seems to outweigh the crime."
I am sure that these questions have lodged in your mind and soul many times. This idea of hell seems to go contrary to a society that is moving more towards peace and tolerance. The best poet of this view might be the bumper sticker: Take It Easy. Or it might the wishful sentiment found in the bumper sticker that says, Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.
"I dislike people who are narrow and intolerant. I want to be reasonable (and not be intolerant myself!). But narrow people seem so harsh. Christians always say, 'Jesus is the way....' But I’ve met others more holy and moral than these people...and how can Christians say others who differ are wrong? And going to hell?"
"It's hard for me not to come to the conclusion that Christians are arrogant. How can they—without being perfect and omniscient—say that they have ABSOLUTE truth? Doesn't this make it hard to be accepting, loving, and cordial to other folks? Where do religious men and women begin to talk with—and love—people like myself, when they hold all the cards? And when they know what is right and wrong?"
The best poems of this worldview are found on vehicles everywhere on bumper stickers like: Your mind is like a parachute—it only functions when open and Celebrate Diversity.
These are probably the most common questions of the thoughtful individual. If you are going to facilitate an Open Forum, you must enter the postmodern world, and understand what the questioner is asking. In the next few pages, I want to show you how to respond to these inquiries, and communicate in a way that might establish further dialogue.
If you found that any of the preceding questions resonate with your experience in listening to your friends, it's worthwhile to explore how you—as a Christian—might respond. In order to do this, we'll need some friends: people in history who "connected" well with others and generated thoughtful discussion. Let me suggest two rather well–known figures.
The first is the Apostle Paul. He's found in the pages of the Bible, and obviously comes from a religious viewpoint. But we'll not utilize him so much for his religious beliefs, but for his approach to others. Paul was a man who was willing to walk a mile in another's shoes. Look at how he interacted with people: "I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view."
Paul's advice to Christians would be to enter our friends' world and see life from their perspective. That's what I tried to do in the preceding chapter. This is what I will continue to do in the upcoming material. I will try to see life from their perspective and appreciate what is right and good within it.
Our second role model for dialogue is the philosopher Socrates. He is the one who suggested that it is often better to ask a few probing questions—interacting and exploring with people—than to present your package of truth. This is the essence of dialogue. It is more difficult to ask a perceptive question (because you have to listen hard and perceive what is being said) than it is to simply state whatever you believe.
I seek to not only enter the postmodern world, but also attempt to ask perceptive questions, hoping to open up meaningful dialogue with sincere inquirers.
I have arranged the questions I raised earlier—in the same order. Following Paul's lead, there will be an appreciation of what is good and true in what a postmodern is asking of religion. Hopefully, the appreciative response will be stated in much the same way the apostle would have responded to his friends. Then, as Socrates suggested, there will be a question designed to establish a place for continuing the search for spiritual meaning.
Here is how I begin to respond to sincere questions from a postmodern.
Pauline appreciation statement:
That's a good point. We have to distinguish between Christianity and our version of it. Too often, many of us have been guilty of preaching a fair–haired, Anglo–Saxon Jesus who affirms our western culture and values. I don't want that. Here's the way a friend of mine put it: I believe that Christianity is true—but that my version of it may not be completely true. I may have some misconceptions, gaps, baggage, cultural limitations. I believe that Jesus is true but that my version of him might not be completely accurate. I appreciate your humility—we are all finite.
Would you like to explore the Christian faith together? I'll consider my baggage also. Will you?
Pauline appreciation statement:
Yes. All of us are having trouble connecting most everywhere. That includes religious people. We have not cornered the market on being a community of friends. The trick is to ask ourselves: "Why?" Is our alienation...sociological, psychological, or historical? What if it rooted in all of these considerations?
Or what if it also rooted in an alienation from God? What if the source is spiritual?
Would you like to explore the idea that some—or much—of our alienation from others is rooted in an alienation from God?
Pauline appreciation statement:
To be honest, I am conscious of both doubt and guilt. I wrestle with doubt—my faith has plenty of struggles and challenges. But doubting means that you feel a statement (or belief) has strayed from some standard of truth. If I doubt that you will keep a promise, it means that I have questions about you attaining a certain absolute. Otherwise, anything goes...and there is no doubt. You cannot have doubt unless you have some sort of standard. Doubt means that you believe in some sort of absolute truth.
First Socratic question:
Do you believe in truth for everyone? That there is—somewhere—some sort of standard?
And this notion of guilt—I have to acknowledge that it persists (no matter how I fight it). Dogs and cats feel no pangs of conscience. They can defecate on my front lawn and feel no remorse. But I cannot suffocate a sense of moral "ought–ness." So, I wrestle with doubt and guilt.
Second Socratic question:
Why do we feel guilt?
Pauline appreciation statement:
I apologize that Christians have been so insensitive. The first Bible study I ever attended was awash in religious language. I made mistakes, was embarrassed, and never wanted to return. There has to be a way to talk about God without using antiquated or insensitive words.
Would you like to know a little about my faith...without the weird language?
Pauline appreciation statement:
Yes! I find a great deal of humor in life and irony and paradox and mystery. In many ways, life is not a problem to be solved—it is a mystery to be embraced. It is a shame that many religious people have been joyless and morbid. Or that they have been so mechanistic and black–and–white. I sense a thirst for spirituality, for knowing God—and an openness to faith (which includes mystery).
Would you like to know God—as mysterious and fascinating?
Pauline appreciation statement:
Yes...I am sick and tired of religions fighting and competing. Much of it nauseates me also. There is a need for love, respect, and civility between people of differing beliefs. Furthermore, religious individuals are too often unfair in our criticisms of others—without being self–critical.
I am open to exploring issues of life and faith without being antagonistic. Are you?
Pauline appreciation statement:
As believer, I care about the arts, music, politics, the planet, etc. I agree that Christianity has too long ignored the arts, aesthetics, etc. In fact, I feel that my faith gives me a sense of purpose—not just data. God created the artistic. The Oxford professor C.S. Lewis wrote that, without God in the picture, you cannot distinguish art from garbage. My faith actually informs me about the world of art, politics, ecology, etc.
Would you like to know how my faith relates to the arts, ecology, etc.?
Pauline appreciation statement:
I'll admit that the idea of hell seems pretty horrific. A sincere person is misled about what is right, and then spends an eternity in hell. Doesn't seem fair, does it? Perhaps there is another way to look at this idea of hell.
If it doesn't seem fair, are you not admitting to having a sense of what is right and wrong? Would it be fair to view the life of a Hitler or a Pol Pot and the life of Mother Teresa as both being virtuous and good? Do you read about the slaughter of six million Jews, and think, "Oh, that was just a little poor judgment." Most individuals are horrified by the atrocities committed by history's Hitlers and Pol Pots. Most of us hold up Mother Teresa as living a noble life. Your visceral response to the idea of hell indicates that you believe in good and evil.
First Socratic question:
If you make such distinctions, are you not saying that some things are absolutely wrong (and some things are absolutely right)? Are you not saying that some acts cross a line in your mind, and are morally repugnant?
(Now I continue with more Pauline appreciation.)
If you do hold that Pol Pot's regime committed evil atrocities in Cambodia, then you are saying that evil exists. I believe the same thing. Now, you must go a step further. If the idea of hell strikes you as morally offensive, does this yardstick of what is right and wrong apply to everyone? (In other words, should everyone feel that the notion of hell is repugnant?) If your paradigm is universal, then you believe in absolute truth. If it doesn't apply to all, then why can't I choose to believe in my own truth? That should not upset you, since your beliefs are merely personal perspectives. I don't have to apply them to myself. Furthermore, you shouldn't find hell to be morally repugnant, since there are no universal morals. There are only personal tastes. You can begin to see that this line of thinking doesn't work in the long run. Most of us believe that some things are wrong—no matter what (or where we are). We admit to a belief in evil and good.
This is where the Christian faith explains reality for me. Hell is the outworking of evil, and the terminus for evil. In other words, evil exists here and now, and it must go somewhere some day. On the other hand, if I didn't believe in hell, I couldn't label anything morally repugnant or unfair. Hell must exist for there to also be good in the universe. If there are good things today (for example, the legacy of Mother Teresa), then I am conceding there is also evil. Where did it come from—and where is evil going? The existence of hell offers an explanation.
Second Socratic question:
Would you want to explore the idea of hell and evil?
(Finally—if appropriate—a little Pauline probing.)
Ultimately, the bumper sticker we mentioned earlier: Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty, makes little sense unless you believe in absolute truth and evil. The cultural poet is responding to the "random violence" and "senseless acts" of brutality that we witness every night on television news. But think about this idea of random kindness and senseless acts of beauty: How can you label an act of beauty senseless unless something first makes sense? If beauty is truly senseless, could I not label an act of rape as beautiful? Calling something senseless means that the line of reason and rationality has been crossed. But whose reason? Whose sense of what is right and wrong? Christianity offers a coherent picture of love and life, thereby making it capable of calling something "good" or "bad." Hell, on the other hand, is the ultimate outworking of evil.
Pauline appreciation statement:
Yes, many times, Christians are unfair. We act angry and intolerant of those with whom we disagree, but we want them to listen to our ideas. It's not right. I, too, like people who have open minds. I've seen that bumper sticker: Your mind is like a parachute—it only functions when open.
But have you ever considered what a truly open mind is like?
A mind is, in one sense, like a parachute. It functions only when it is open. But that is a half–truth. A parachute does not function simply because it is open. It must also be collecting something—in this case, air—in order to work. A parachute that is simply open in a vacuum (for example, deep space) does not function. In fact, the entire metaphor of a parachute argues for the existence of absolute truth and reality. An individual does not deploy a parachute unless he or she absolutely believes that gravity exists, that the hard ground is unforgiving when impacted, and that the human body cannot withstand such a direct unimpeded fall. Parachutes are a strong argument for truth being absolute. Therefore, a mind is like a parachute—it only functions when it is open, and when it is collecting and holding on to something true and real. A healthy open mind, in other words, also closes down on good, solid evidence.
G. K. Chesterton (when commenting on his good friend H. G. Wells) once wrote, "He thought that the object of opening the mind is simply opening the mind. Whereas, I am incurably convinced that the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid."
I think we just described a healthy, functioning open mind. Do you have that kind of open mind?
My experience tells me that honest seekers in an Open Forum will eventually roam into two sticky issues: The consideration of truth and tolerance, and the existence of God and evil—in the same world. People are asking, Why can't we all be more tolerant of one another's views? And How can there be a good God and evil coexisting in the world? I will take a moment and address these two issues. They seem to invariably arise in an open discussion series.
Sticky wicket #1. (Part 1)
Before you get into an actual discussion regarding truth, there are some background considerations. This is what Part 1 explores.
There is a common notion running around today which doubts whether anyone can claim to know the truth about God (or Ultimate Reality). Os Guinness writes: "Yet in an era that prizes tolerance, affirms diversity, and bends over backwards not to appear judgmental, serious claims to truth sound much like an obscenity—–often prompting embarrassed looks, rising blood pressures, and even open hostility. Clearly a claim to truth marks one off as culturally gauche, politically most incorrect, or on the side of the fanatics and bombthrowers."
It was Winston Churchill who remarked, "Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened."
We need to consider the objections raised by those who find any claims for absolute truth to be either arrogant or misdirected. From these objections, we'll consider if such a thing as absolute, timeless truth even exists.
Following are the main objections to the idea of absolute truth.
If someone says that the only thing we can know with certainty about religious things is that we cannot know anything certain about religious things, is this not an absolute and certain statement about religious things? To say that relative statements "are the most we can humanly manage"—is this not also an absolute statement? To make such a large claim about the limits of knowledge first requires transcendent (absolute) knowledge.
In order to say that we cannot know anything for certain about matters regarding God requires certain and absolute knowledge about God. This statement doesn't work.
But there is another way that people deny the accessibility of absolute truth.
How can anyone know that they cannot know? If someone is saying that we cannot be certain, I empathize with their recognition of our finitude. But radical skepticism and a healthy finitude are two different things. Radical skepticism rules out knowing anything for certain—except radical skepticism. But that is an absolute kind of skepticism that says there are no absolutes!
A healthy finitude, instead, says that we do not know everything, and ought to be careful in our truth claims. A healthy humility does not rule out knowing anything, however. There is a difference between not knowing completely and not knowing at all. It is a faulty dilemma to say that if you do not know something in it's entirety, you do not know it at all. For example, just because you cannot know God is his entirety (which I would agree with), it does not necessarily follow that you cannot know him accurately. Here's another example. Pretend you know a man who has a friend named Bill. Your friend can say some truthful things about Bill. This man called Bill exists. Bill is a male and a father. He's a husband. Your friend may not know Bill perfectly but he can know him accurately.
We can know what God looks like. It is not impossible.
To say that truth statements are not possible is begging the question. The statement ("truth is not absolute") is itself an absolute truth statement! To make this claim, you have to make an exception to your own truth claim. That is, to say that it is not possible to make authoritative statements about God is indeed making an authoritative statement about God!
Many philosophical movements have had to face the absurdities of excluding themselves from their own worldview. Brian McLaren has noted, "Freudianism says that all beliefs and behaviors flow out of certain psychosexual complexes...all beliefs except, of course, Freudianism, and all behaviors except, of course, the behavior of expounding Freudianism. Evolutionism says that all characteristics, including the development of thinking brains, are selected naturally to favor survival...not necessarily the apprehension of truth; this belief suggests that the very organ which conceives of evolution is oriented to produce useful theories, but not necessarily true ones. And radical postmodernism (rejection of absolute truth claims regarding God) rejects the universal truthfulness of every other belief while assuming its own position as the only universally true one."
It is possible to make authoritative statements about God.
There is much to be said for the idea of humility. I agree that Christians have exhibited too much hubris and arrogance in the past. We need to own up to that. But this turns the idea of humility on its head. It seems to me that real humility would say, "I don't know—I'm willing to investigate the evidence and what you're saying and listen to others scrutinize what I'm saying. I'll be fair and play by fair rules." Does it not seem that humility would say, "I'm not sure"—rather than, "It can't be!"
This is why it is not simply a matter of mere speculation when we search for truth about God. Real humility would say that—instead of speculating—why not do some investigating? It would seem that we do that in all of life. When we are uncertain as to which item is the better buy, we do a little homework.
It is not arrogant to claim to know the truth about God.
The two tests for truth regarding any statement have always been the fact that your claim is both affirmable (by it's very statement) and not falsifiable (by the fact that you cannot negate it without contradicting your statement). Here are two examples: First, what about the statement, "I exist." The very fact that you can state it affirms that you exist. That's the first truth–test. Second, try saying, "I do not exist." It is not falsifiable. You cannot say this without contradicting your own words.
Therefore, to say truth is absolute is not circular reasoning. It's a self–evident conclusion!
There is some truth to this idea. To some degree, our culture and our backgrounds influence us all. But that is not to say that we are bound by our cultural baggage. There is a difference. If our perceptions about reality are cages by which we are confined and limited, then no one could even make the simple observation that we are boxed in. They would have to be able to get out of the box to make such an assertion. For the Christian, there is a ready acknowledgment that we do hold to our beliefs from a certain cultural vantage point, a particular perspective. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that truth must lie outside the range of our senses. Rather than seeing truth as being obliterated because we take into account our unique backgrounds, it is probably better to consider that it might be distorted. Truth is still accessible—even if we have limited perspectives. It simply has to be gathered from broader sources. Let me explain.
As we began this segment of thinking, some people believe that all truth is really true from a certain way of seeing things. Truth is just a matter of your perspective. Dr. Norm Geisler has responded to this challenge:
The old story of six blind men and the elephant is often used to illustrate and support this position. One blind man, feeling only the trunk, thought that it was a snake. Another discovered only ears and concluded that it was a fan. The one who came across the body said it was a wall and, after finding a leg, another said it was a tree. Finally, the last blind man felt a pointed tusk and informed them that it was a spear. To some, this proves that what you think is true is only a matter of your perspective of things. They claim it proves that all statements regarding God are just a matter of one’s own perception.
It should be pointed out, though, that all of the blind men were wrong. None of their conclusions were true, so this illustration says nothing about truths. There really was an objective truth that all of them failed to discover. Also, the statement, "All truth statements regarding God are simply as matter of your perspective," is either an absolute statement or simply a matter of your perspective. If it is absolute, then not all truths are a matter of perspective. If it is a matter of opinion (perspective), then there is no reason to think that it is absolutely true—it is only one perspective. It doesn’t succeed either way.
To make the claim that "all truth lies outside of our senses" means that the speaker has been able to step outside of his or her senses to discover this statement to be absolutely true. But if this is so, then absolute truth is indeed within our reach.
Truth is more than our perceptions. To be sure, we have to recognize how culture, language, sex, family backgrounds and so forth influence our conclusions. We must sift through more data by recognizing the limits of perspectives. But truth can be discovered.
Let me tell you where I land this plane: Truth—by its very nature—must exist and be absolute. Otherwise, life as we know it is unlivable. For example, I'm glad that the airline pilot who flies me to a retreat believes in absolute truth…especially when he's landing the aircraft. Runway 2–9 means the same thing for both himself and the air traffic controller. I’m glad they believe that truth is both accessible and means something. Anyone can make a statement (such as "truth is relative to your perspective"). But a truth statement must also be livable. It’s easy for me to say, "I don’t exist." But it’s not livable. The very making of that statement by myself denies its truthfulness.
Look around you. Everywhere, life cries out that truth does exist and we need it to get by. I'm happy that automakers believe that four cylinders absolutely means four. Truth is truth—and we need it (and use it) to live. That ability to know truth extends throughout the universe—even into matters of a spiritual nature. It is comforting to know that human beings also have the capacity—in the same way—to know something about Ultimate Reality: God.
It is at this point that I ask my friends, "But what do you think?" This discussion has made the claim that truth—by it's very nature—is not limited to our perceptions and cultures. Truth is absolute and accessible (we have the capability to discover it). Ask them what they think about truth being absolute.
Sticky wicket #1 (Part 2)
Many years ago, the philosopher G.E. Lessing wrote a story that went something like this:
A father has a magic ring that he must bequeath to one of three sons. He loves them all. and desires to hurt none. He has two other rings made (but they are not magic). An argument arises between the brothers. They go to Nathan the Wise (representing the wisdom of the age). He offers: "Let each brother think his own ring is the magic one. But—in the meantime—show forth gentleness and heartfelt tolerance."
This was Lessing's way of holding up tolerance as the chief virtue in an open society. In theory, he holds to the idea that there is absolute truth (there is a magic ring). But no one can know—no one can prove—who's ring is the true one. Therefore, tolerance is best.
Carl Poppler made the same argument in his influential book The Open Society. Poppler held that any ideologue who believes that he has the Truth is potentially one step away from being a tyrant. For it's a short distance (in his mind) from the confidence that, "I'm sure that this is the Truth" to the tyranny of, "Therefore, you must obey me, because I know what is good for you." Poppler's thesis: A democracy can only be sustained if there is an attitude of permanent uncertainty on all issues of ideology and virtue. He notes that this is the genius of the physical sciences: they dismiss historist's schemes that are all–inclusive in describing "why things are as they are." Real science contents itself with modest, tentative, falsifiable hypotheses. True scientists are engineers—not ideologues. An open society must be one that rejects absolute truth claims and the a priori assumptions that go with them. An open society is a scientific society that treats human experience as an ongoing experiment in social engineering for which we have no blueprint.
He, too, advocates tolerance as the supreme virtue.
This applies to our upcoming discussion of truth and tolerance. Why can't we all be right? Why don't all roads lead to heaven and God? Isn't it intolerant to say someone is wrong?
Maybe. Maybe not.
To respond to these formidable challenges, it is important to distinguish between an unhealthy intolerance and a healthy one. There are times when intolerance is the better virtue.
Automakers believe in such things as healthy intolerances. For example, when hanging the car doors, they employ computers to make sure that doors fit as close together as possible. This is a healthy intolerance. The automakers view sloppy work as unacceptable. You, as the buyer, appreciate how wind noise is reduced, and how easily the doors open and close. Healthy intolerance can be good.
When it comes to people, a healthy intolerance is viewing as unacceptable such things as hate speech, mean–spiritedness, name–calling, racism, or sexism. These are things we should never tolerate. A healthy intolerance has a repudiating side.
But it also has an affirming side.
A healthy intolerance is also comprises values like loving the telling of truth, wanting the best for others, demanding that what we say corresponds to who we are and what we do (integrity). In other words, demanding truth in advertising (as an example) is a healthy intolerance. Or simply not tolerating anything as being right.
What do I mean by that?
Consider this real–life and unfortunate example: On an overseas trip, you witness an African tribe performing the female circumcision ritual. The teenage girl is screaming in pain as men carve up her body performing a clitorectomy. Will you complain to the tour guide that this is barbaric? If tolerance is the maxim in life, the guide could then point out that you are expressing Eurocentric values and are being intolerant of their culture.
Can you see how upholding tolerance as the highest value simply doesn't work? It crashes on the rocks of reality. Radical tolerance gets bogged down. You must remember that exercising tolerance in relationships is good. But applying unrestricted tolerance when it comes to truth is a travesty. There is such a thing as a healthy intolerance. There is an appropriate time for realizing that everything proclaimed as being valid and true cannot be right. How is that? When is that appropriate time? Perhaps it's best illustrated in "The Relativistic Bog."
On these pages, I have drawn a fictional world. There is a horizontal line representing The Plane of Human Opinion running horizontally across the planet. All that anyone know sits on this line, and everyone lives on this plane. (In other words, the world is a closed system.) You will notice that I have drawn four different types of people on this plane.
Now, write in over the four people these words: "Buddhist," "Atheist," "Muslim," and "Christian." These four people represent the differing religious views in our world today. There could be—and are—more religious perspectives. For the sake of discussion, let’s just cite these four different faiths.
There are four conclusions you can draw from this picture.
(This is simply saying that if all we have is opinion, then everyone has the right to hold to one—–whatever it might advocate.)
(This notes that all faith systems—in their essence—contradict one another. Sure, there are some similarities in (for instance) their morality. But in their essential features, they oppose one another. Most people fail to realize this. For example, if you are an atheist, then you hold that—in all the universe—there is no god. The Christian says that—in all the universe—there is a God. Both positions cannot be right.)
(This simply acknowledges that absolutely no claims for truth are necessarily correct. Another view—yet undiscovered—could be correct.)
(All religious systems, in their essence, contradict one another, they are mutually exclusive. There is no middle ground. Hence, if one system can be demonstrated to be true, all of the others are false.)
This is where radical relativism bogs down. If everyone cannot be right...and this idea of God really matters...then how do you discover who is right (if anyone is)? Being tolerant is not the highest value. Especially if this concerns such weighty matters as truth, God, and eternity. Being truthful is more important than being tolerant.
Ultimately, radical postmoderns need to recognize that tolerance (as it is preached by the elites) is the most intolerant position of all..."because it eliminates any absolute view from consideration. What if the absolute view is true? Isn't tolerance taken to be absolute? In the long run, tolerance cannot be really true unless it is open to some real absolutes that cannot be denied. Tolerance and open–mindedness should not be confused with empty–headedness." (Geisler). This is the myth of tolerance. It either requires absolute belief in nothing being absolutely true (except, or course, tolerance); or it will embrace any other view only if that particular truth claim is stated to be relative (not absolute). Ultimately, postmoderns need to see that tolerance—as it is proclaimed today –is the most intolerant position of all.
Years ago, E. F. Hutton had a series of commercials showing their agents brainstorming over business problems. The solution was found when they thought outside the mental boxes and asked, "What if...???"
What if God really did exist, and had entered the system revealing truth about himself? Would that change the picture? Wouldn't it mean that whoever discovered what God had revealed about himself would be the ones who have apprehended truth?
This would not be arrogant. It would be a humble and gratifying experience. Imagine you are in a theater that suddenly caught fire. The smoke is so thick, everyone has but a few minutes to escape, or they die. And suppose that you were fortunate enough to have discovered the last exit door left untouched by the flames. What would you do? Would you be viewed as intolerant if you grabbed everyone’s attention and literally demanded that people follow you to life? Would you consider it an acceptable tolerance if you allowed your friends to head toward any exit door they desired? Love demands telling the truth. Most caring people would be lovingly intolerant, just as I did not tolerate my kids playing in traffic. It might have looked safe to them, but I knew better.
This is the essential claim that Christianity makes. God loves us and has revealed himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Many have been fortunate enough to stumble upon this truth. It's not an arrogant or intolerant claim. It is the exuberant joy of having found grace and life.
It is at this point, I might ask my friend, "Do you want to explore the foundations for what it means to discover life in Jesus?" If he or she responds positively, I can begin to employ the more modern apologetic materials that are widely available.
But there is one final sticky wicket that has to be addressed.
Sticky wicket #2
Many years ago, the English writer and philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote a book designed to debunk the Christian faith. It was entitled Why I am Not a Christian. Russell wrestles with the sticky problem of whether or not a good God would allow evil and suffering in the world. In the end, he declares that no such God can exist—with all the pain we observe in life. Many years later, Harold Kushner wrote a similar book after the tragic death of his young son. He doesn’t disavow that God exists … but comes to the conclusion that God is incapable of stopping evil. Not a very powerful deity.
The problem of God’s coexistence with evil—in the same universe—has vexed thinkers for years. But this struggle is not without answers. Many fine philosophers have responded to the authentic questions of pain and loss.
In order to wrestle with this problem, I will approach the problem of evil from five different directions. When you put these all together, I think they provide a reasonable response to the problem of pain and suffering.
Russell had a simple syllogism for why he disbelieved in God. You can find it in his book. In trying to determine the answer to, "What is evil?," Russell made this simple argument:
God is the author of everything.
Evil is something.
Therefore, God is the author of evil.
That sounds pretty airtight, doesn’t it? Bertrand Russell couldn’t deny the existence of evil. So, he deduced that God made it. And he couldn’t worship a god who made evil.
But there is another way to think about the nature of evil:
God is the author of everything.
But evil is not a thing (it is a lack in things).
Hence, God did not create evil.
The rust on your car that you fight to keep away is a good example of this argument. Rust is not a created thing, as much as it is a corruption of created things. God made iron ore and he made oxygen. Good things. But they come together and form rust. Evil is the corruption of our being free—and God making us good. More on this later.
So, where did evil come from?
God made everything perfect (including you and I).
But imperfection cannot arise from perfection.
So, perfect creatures cannot be the origin of evil.
So, again, where did it come from?
God made everything perfect.
One of the perfect things God made was free creatures.
Free will is the cause of evil.
Hence, imperfection can arise from the perfect.
(not directly, but indirectly, through freedom)
Again, the argument needs a good illustration. In the early 1970’s, Dow Chemical Company was sued for making Napalm, a hideous mixture of petroleum jelly and gasoline that was produced as bombs during the Vietnam War. But Dow only made the jelly. Someone else combined the jelly with gas. The courts ruled that Dow was not liable. They made some of the aspects of the bomb, which were considered good and beneficial by themselves. But they did not make the lethal combination that destroyed so many lives.
This seems to be a reasonable understanding of evil’s origins. God created the fact of freedom—humankind performs the acts of freedom. God made evil possible—humankind makes it actual.
But why does evil keep going? Why doesn’t God—if he exists—stop it?
Here is how several authors (Russell included) have stated this problem:
If God is all–good, he would destroy evil.
If God is all–powerful, he could destroy evil.
But evil is not destroyed.
Hence, there is no God.
There are two directions we can go in answering this objection:
Evil cannot be destroyed without destroying freedom.
Love is the greatest good for free creatures.
But love is impossible without freedom.
So, to destroy freedom would not be the greatest good.
During World War II, Corrie Ten Boom was a prisoner in a concentration camp. She noted that—without the prisoners being free—the guards could get whatever they wanted from them, such as obedience, etc. But the guards could not get one thing from the incarcerated. They could not get love. Love demands freedom. Love is unforced.
Here’s a second way to answer the objection of evil’s direction:
Evil will yet be defeated.
If God is all–powerful, he can defeat evil.
If God is all–loving, he will defeat evil.
Evil is not yet destroyed.
Therefore, evil will one day be defeated.
But what good can come out of present–day evil?
This is a difficult question to answer honestly. I cannot imagine all the pain and tragedy that has occurred in this world. However, without minimizing real pain, let me suggest three purposes for pain. Even if we don’t know God’s purposes, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a good purpose.
Pain can be a friend—warning us of greater evil.
(The pain in your arm can forewarn of an impending heart attack.)
Pain can keep us from self–destruction.
(Lepers feel no pain and eventually (unintentionally) destroy themselves.)
Pain can help to bring about greater good.
(The heartache of a bad marriage can help to renew it.)
But if there is so much evil. Does this mean people go to hell?
Some people think that if God really loves people—even though we are sinful—then the best thing would be to save all. Everyone goes to heaven! But consider this response:
God does desire all people to go to heaven (II Peter 3:9).
But God cannot force anyone to love him.
(Forced love is a contradiction)
Therefore, all who go to hell choose to go there.
It is not having one person in hell that makes the notion of hell to be evil. It is one more person than really wants to be there that makes it evil. A world with some hell in it may not be the best world conceivable … but it may be the best world achievable (since we are free creatures).
The discussion of a good God and an evil world is never easy. It is usually associated with someone’s personal pain, and this minefield must be negotiated carefully. However, if they can see that a Christian’s approach to pain and evil has some good solid thinking behind it, they may be ready to consider the claims of Christ. You must ascertain their level of interest.
In order to continue this journey, you need to examine the responses people gave you regarding the questions you raised. If they have an interest in looking further, you will find that there are three ingredients necessary for living an examined life. The first is courage. No one has a corner on truth, and it is always difficult to discover that one is mistaken. It takes a certain level of fortitude to change your mind when all the evidence shows you might be in error. First, courage is needed.
Second, there is a need for civility. We live in an era of sensationalism, name–calling of those with whom we disagree, and character assassination. That will not do for this journey. Good people of integrity can disagree.
Third, as we saw earlier, there is a need for an open mind. Not the kind that is so open that it will not tolerate any opposing opinion. An open mind that closes in on the truth.
These are the chief characteristics of the honest seeker. I always ask my friends—before we launch into the familiar modern apologetics, "Would you describe yourself as a courageous, civil, open–minded seeker?" If they say "Yes," we can journey on together.
After an Open Forum, I try to wrap up loose ends, and help people decide the next step. Journeys examining spiritual things cannot be rushed. But they cannot be so casual that there is no effort made to discover what might be real—and what might be fake. And if this journey is looking into issues of eternal consequence, then it behooves individuals to decide how earnest their inquiry really is.
Athletic teams take time–outs and half–time breaks to regroup and plan the next period of play. A break is necessary here, a time to take stock of personal interest and decide if anyone wants to continue the spiritual quest at this time. Journeys of this nature demand a degree of attention. Ask yourself, "What is their level of interest?"
Most individuals in American society fall into one of three categories in this regard. The largest segment of our population might be called "distracted." Many might fall into the category of individuals who are basically indifferent and disinterested in continuing. This, then, would be a good place for these types of people to disembark. They know where to pick up the conversation, when they are ready. They know that you view these things as being of ultimate importance. But people should never feel pushed or cajoled into spiritual discussions. As Francis Schaeffer once said to a friend who was investigating, "Hurry—–but don't hurry." Thank your friends for coming this far. Pray that you might meet again.
A second type of individual can be labeled "closed." This is the person who is more than disinterested. They have either listened—and are unmoved—or they will not listen. But either way, they feel that no amount of information or discussion will help. The issue is dead. The best thing to do is disembark at this point. I'd rather they have a good taste in their mouth, than have them feel I am forcing anything down their throat. Thank them for coming along.
The last group can be categorized as open. These are people who are somewhere on a continuum of skeptically open to very open. Either way, they would like to continue the dialogue, and find that spiritual things matter to them at this time in their life. Rather than disembark then, I would invite them to buy another ticket, and stay on the train with you for a second ride. Building off the ideas you discussed in your Open Forum series, take time to help them consider whether the evidence for Christianity is compelling. What evidence is there? Who is Jesus?
You should be on familiar ground now. Traditional apologetics can have its affect from here on.
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