Mr. Zacharias was born in India in 1946 and immigrated to Canada with his family twenty years later. He received his Masters of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is well-versed in the disciplines of comparative religions, cults and philosophy, and he held the chair of evangelism and contemporary thought at Alliance Theological Seminary for three and a half years. He has written five books and is heard in a weekly radio program, "Let My People Think," which is broadcast on more than 850 stations worldwide. His ministry's website is www.rzim.com.
Ravi Zacharias set the tone for the God and the Academy conference for Christian professors in June of 2000. As the first plenary speaker, Ravi appealed to believers in positions of influence in the university to understand the world they are in and learn to engage in it for Christ's sake. The following is an excerpt of his speech.
Lostness wears many different faces, and as we are gathered together to look at the academy, where there is a celebration of the mind and the intellect, we find it is becoming harder to understand how to bring the simple truths of the gospel into such an arena.
A few years ago, Paul Johnson, the English historian, wrote a book called Intellectuals [Harper & Row, 1988]; it received mixed reviews, but in the closing statement of the book, he ends with these lines, "Above all we must remember at all times what intellectuals habitually forget: that people matter more than concepts and must come first. The worst of all despotisms is the heartless tyranny of ideas."
The June issue of Atlantic Monthly included an article called "Harvard and the Makings of the Unabomber," by Dr. Alston Chase. Alston traces the journey from intellectual optimism to intellectual despair in Ted Kaczynski. He has some marvelous insights into what actually happened. In his closing paragraphs Alston makes this comment: "The real story of Ted Kaczynski is one of the nature of modern evil--evil that results from the corrosive powers of intellect itself, and its arrogant tendency to put ideas above common humanity and by this process of abstraction to dehumanize our enemies."
Alston goes on to talk about the experiments to which Kaczynski was subjected, the Murray experiment, which he describes in these words: "Vehement, sweeping and personally abusive. Attacks were made assaulting his subjects' egos and most cherished ideas and beliefs."
I would like us to understand and accept not only the face of the attack, but the heart of the battle. In doing this, in understanding both the face and the heart, we can get to the truth and not lose sight of the person.
The first and foremost challenge is the face that stands before us, which is unblushingly strident, and exhibits a smuggled-in autocracy. You see, once upon a time, the ramifications of anti-theism, or atheism or agnosticism, were at least understood for what they were. For example, when you read Darwin, writing even in his earliest understanding of The Origin of Species, one of the comments he makes is this: the philosophical ramifications of his idea could be dire. He shuddered at the possibility of how "nature red in tooth and claw" could engender horrific carnage in the years, decades, and centuries to come.
Darwin understood the logical implications of the worldview that would be engendered from what it was he was propounding. He had that idea somehow, and he was fearful of what its possibilities would entail. Even Nietzsche, as bold as he was, and as unapologetic as he was, realized that the playing field was stripped wide open, and the consequences could be staggering.
Once upon a time, the naturalist, understanding his or her worldview, had a healthy respect for the possibilities and, with some degree of apprehension, would try to work his or her way through them. Maybe that is why, even now, cosmological arguments are attacked roundly by many of them, which has been done for years. While the argument from design has also been given heavy attention, now all of a sudden the moral argument is the one that is facing this kind of a charge. But at the same time there is a stridency--a fearsome stridency.
Let me explain what I mean here. Listen to the words of Richard Dawkins giving an illustration of the philosophical ramifications of naturalism:
There was a well-known television chef who did a stunt recently by cooking a human placenta and serving it up as a paté, fried with scallops, garlic, lime juice, and everything. Everybody said it was delicious. The father had seventeen helpings. A scientist can point out as I have done that this is actually an act of cannibalism--worse, since cloning is such a live issue at the moment, because the placenta is a true genetic clone of the baby. Science cannot tell you if it is right or wrong to eat your own baby's clone, but it can tell you that is what you are doing, then you can decide for yourself whether you think it is right or wrong.
So on one hand, Dawkins just finished telling you that science cannot tell you whether what you are doing is right or wrong, but science gives you the authority to tell you that you alone determine whether it is right or wrong.
A stridency--an unblushing stridency--and a smuggled-in autocracy. What is that smuggled-in autocracy? Somehow there are those in the academy who would like to locate the single vision in either chemistry or biology or physics, then they will have explanatory power over all of life itself.
Listen to Thomas Nagel, professor of philosophy at NYU:
In speaking of the fear of religion, I don't mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions . . . in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper--namely the fear of religion itself. . . . I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and naturally hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that.
When I finished an open forum at Cornell University, packed with over a thousand students, a young woman came to the front and was literally crying. She said, "Every waking moment I am living with naturalistic assumptions. You are presenting an ultimate paradigm shift. How can I possibly make that kind of a change in the atmosphere in which I am living every waking moment of my life?"
You see, one can pity her deep struggle--why can't physics explain it all? Listen again to Dawkins. "There is at the bottom of it all no good, no evil, no purpose, nothing but"--and how do you like this value-added term--"blind pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music."
So we can all be reduced somehow to physics or chemistry or biology.
There is a second challenge: It is a disposition that points to the immoral while de-legitimizing morality at the same time. I don't know if I've been in an open forum anywhere when there has not been a student or a professor from somewhere who has stood up and talked about all of the atrocities that have been committed in the name of Christianity. And it is not just in the West that you hear this. You can walk in any Middle East country and hear Muslims saying that to you. You can walk into India and you will hear it time and time again. To the average Indian, the Christian faith is associated with the days of the British Raj; they were unable to differentiate between a generalized perspective of life and the specific teachings of Christ Himself.
But the truth of the matter is that it was Mahatma Ghandi who once said, "I like their Christ, and I don't like their Christians." And when you go on to the historical records, you see this black eye that Christendom has and to which it must own up.
However, atheism has, in fact, engendered greater carnage than "Christendom" in its politicized exploits. But when atheism worked its way into violence and sensuality, it was the logical outworking of some of their beliefs. When politicized Christianity did what it did, it was in violation of the teaching and the very person of Christ. That is the difference in the worldviews.
What may we deduce? Is it possible that somewhere in the deepest recesses of the human heart, we are really not battling intellectual ideas as much as we are fighting for the right of our sexual proclivities and our passionate indulgences?
Aldous Huxley said it when he wrote his book Ends and Means [London, Chatto & Windus, 1937]. "We objected to morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom."
Now bear that in mind. You and I have normal drives; how much more perverse can your passions be when you want the freedom to do whatever you want to do whenever you want to do it in any way you want to do it? At least in the temptations common to us all, the Christian leans upon the power of God to resist. The anti-theist wants unbridled freedom and sexuality, which may be the heart of his or her struggle.
At one university lecture, with well over 1,000 in attendance, a woman ran up after my talk was finished, grabbed the microphone and screamed out at me, "Who told you life needed to be coherent? Where did you get this idea of cultural coherence from?" I replied, "Wait a minute, ma'am. I was quoting Daniel Bell the sociologist who said culture is an effort to find a coherent set of answers for the existential questions that confront all of us in the passage of our lives." She said, "Ah! Words, words, words."
I replied, "All right, I will try to answer you, but I have one question for you first: Do you want my answer to you to be coherent, or may it be incoherent?"
The sad reality was that at the end of that talk--and all kinds of things happened that night--when I was being driven back to the airport the next day one of the organizers asked, "Are you aware of the person who raised that question?" I said, "No I'm not." He went on to explain to me that the physical body of that particular individual was a contradiction in itself--supposedly born one way, but hormonally predisposed toward another.
Now I ask you, why would she want a coherent set of answers to life if her body itself was sending to her incoherent signals? And my heart was heavy with the realization of what she probably was battling inside.
May I suggest to you it is a disposition that points to the immoral when the academy rails against us today while through the back door it is smuggling in an epistemology based on physiology at worst and moral relativism at best.
The third challenge is a language that endorses spirituality, while intellectually it denies the spiritual.
We saw an unblushing stridency with a smuggled-in autocracy, a disposition that points to the immoral while de-legitimizing morality, and now we hear a language that endorses spirituality, while intellectually denying the supernatural.
You see, what we get is a heavy dose of spirituality. It's all right if you want to talk about a certain religion. Up to a point one fully understands its strident claims, too. But it's very welcome to talk about Eastern philosophies, be it Buddhism, Hinduism, or some pantheistic worldview. And that's fine, for I think in a legitimately pluralistic society we must be able to hear these counter-perspectives and people must be given freedom to share those views.
My heartache in all of this is: why are these views accepted with cultural protection, while the Christian faith is openly debunked and mocked? So it is a language that endorses spirituality, while intellectually denying the supernatural--more particularly, certainly, the Christian faith.
But that is only the façade. What is really being brought in through the back door is a divinization of the counter-culture and the deification of the self.
Let me try to pull this down into a funnel point here, so that I can make three different responses to this predicament. If you turn to the Hindu scriptures and the Upanishads, you will read something like this: A father was talking to his son who had gone away 12 years for an education, and comes away without understanding what the self is really all about. And so the father decides to teach the son. And in the Chandogya Upanishad, the sacred scriptures of the Hindus, there is this conversation:
The father looks at the son and points to a tree and says, "What do you see there?" And the son names the kind of tree it is. And he asks, "What do you see hanging from its branches?" And the son says, "I see fruit hanging from its branches, father." And the father says, "Go and bring me that fruit." And the son goes and brings the fruit, and the father says, "Break this fruit open completely." The son breaks it open. The father says, "What do you see now?" He replies, "I see seeds, seeds everywhere!" He says, "Break open one of those seeds." And the son breaks open one of those seeds, and the father looks at him and says, "What do you see now?" And the son says, "I see nothing, I see absolutely nothing." And the father looks at him and gives him that famous line from Upanishadic teaching, after saying to him, "Out of the nothingness that is inside the seed, came this whole marvelous structure of this tree. Out of such nothingness, son, sprouts your life. Tat tvam asi, "thou art that." Nothingness.
That is the essential nature of yourself; out of that nothingness emerges and flowers your individuality. Isn't it fascinating that while science has gone so far--philosophers now plead that we must have an interest in people, not just in ideas--the truth of the matter is that the value of the person is lost? And when you move into an escape in Eastern philosophy, you find some marriage of the minds there. There is an essence really of nothing in the essential self. You end up with some kind of a fluid idea of ultimate reality which then ultimately goes and is absorbed into that impersonal absolute called Brahman, and the self no longer exists as we know it.
If there is one thing I see so fundamentally different from the gospel of Christ to anywhere else you would turn in the pantheistic worldviews, it is this: Jesus identified the individual so clearly and called upon that individual for communion with the divine in an "I-You" relationship. Eastern pantheism eradicates that individuality. That's why there is only one capital "I" and no "I-You"--and the self is lost. And what has actually happened now in an effort to exalt the self in an autocracy and an autonomy is this: we have ended up in a society that has no value for the self at all. It was little wonder that a man like Ted Kaczynski did not think he was killing any people--he was only killing an idea.
What can you and I do in this situation? I give you three responses to this unblushing stridency, to this disposition that points to the immoral, and to this language that endorses spirituality while intellectually denying the supernatural.
Number one is this: If at the heart of the battle is a struggle on where to anchor morality, then for the Christian, life must be inseparable from the word.
If there is one apologetic struggle I live with, it is this question: why is it so many people who talk of a supernatural transformation show so little of the transformed life? Why, when we talk so much about the work of the Holy Spirit of regeneration in a life, is it no longer so obvious to the unbeliever who does not see the change, but only hears our language?
Somehow we in the academy must come to grips with the possibility that we no longer need to convince the average student of the aimlessness with which the majority of people live. But somewhere that student may desperately need to see a life that is consistently lived in its proclamation and in its deed.
Consider Sir Thomas More in the play A Man For All Seasons, when he was imprisoned for not supporting his king in an immoral venture. His daughter comes to him and says, "Dad, why don't you at least in words say it is okay? You don't have to in your heart really mean it. Just verbally affirm what the king is doing. We can have you back. They will let you out of this prison."
Sir Thomas More looks at his daughter and says, "Meg, you don't understand! You don't understand what the word means." He said, "When you give somebody your word, it is like taking your life and holding it in your hands. You are cupping your life in your hands when you are giving them your word. And should you let that word fall through, you will look down and not find yourself there."
If there is something the secular world longs to see, it is that the apologist, the philosopher, the economist, the mathematician, the scientist--whatever discipline you come from--lives a life that shows that unmistakable inner quality. Then they will be enchanted by the brilliance of the mind that God has so mercifully given to you, and they will see the translation of it into a humble spirit--a life that is so beautifully lived.
Henri Nouwen, who wrote The Return of the Prodigal Son (New York : Doubleday, 1992), gave up his teaching position at Harvard in order to work with the mentally handicapped in Toronto. His book was based on the power that Rembrandt's picture of the Prodigal Son had upon his life when he had gone to St. Petersburg and stared at that picture for three hours. Henri Nouwen said, "You know, I have preached an awful lot about the forgiving father, the receiving father. I'm not sure I have fully been engulfed in that myself to understand this kind of love." He said he went to work with the mentally handicapped "not because I had something to teach them, but because they had something to teach me."
Nouwen wrote of one of the young women at the institution who would always stand at the door welcoming each new person, people who would often have some unattractive saliva or whatever falling down the mouth. But she would just reach over and grab them and embrace them, give them a kiss and welcome them into that place. Henri Nouwen said, "It had been a long time since I understood what it was to receive such unconditional love."
Secondly, hope is to be inseparable from death. As we talk about the hope for the university, as we talk about all of the possibilities, my plea is this: somehow, somewhere we need to bear in mind that God not only wants us to proclaim the triumphs and the victory that He gives, but--and here's what I want to say to you as candidly as I can--may we never forget the heart of the gospel, which is the cross of Jesus Christ.
Mahatma Gandhi said it clearly: there were many things in the Vedas he wished he could remove, said he. There were many things about the Christian faith he did not understand, said he, and some he did not like, he stated. But the most powerful truth in the Christian gospel is unmatched anywhere else: the cross of Jesus Christ. And Martin Luther King, Jr., in one of the most colorful sermons he ever preached, declared the marvel and the beauty of the cross. If we forget that, we have forgotten the heart of the gospel.
A director of an interdisciplinary study of religion in relation to science in one article pleaded with the church to change:
To be truly evangelical, the church of the next millennium will need a theology that will necessarily have to be genuinely liberal and even radical, particularly in its relation to a worldview shaped by science. For Christian theology to have any viability, it may well have to be stripped down to the newly-conceived essentials, minimalist in its affirmations; only then will it attain that degree of verisimilitude with respect to ultimate realities which science has to natural ones, and only then can it command respect as a vehicle of public truth.
I've got news for this scholar: what he wants is a Christianity that is evidently not biblical.
When I speak at an open forum in universities worldwide, the greatest silence in the audience comes in the last 20 minutes of two days of presentations, when I take them back to the cross before taking them to the empty tomb. And as that cross is expounded, there is silence in the auditorium as the hearts of men and women are listening eagerly to this counter-perspective of Jesus Christ that stands so unique and so awesomely powerful.
Lastly, the struggle is inseparable from the triumph. Yes, these are hard days. But I also believe that somehow in the midst of all of this, God is still going to bring some triumph of glorious possibilities.
Some years ago I was in Beirut, Lebanon. I have a friend there who is called Sammy. Sammy is a short man--like a teddy bear. He just bursts with enjoyment. He loves doctrine, he loves life; he loves to live out that doctrine. You can never talk anything in silence or quietude with him--he's loud. You sit in his van and it moves more by prayer than by any mechanical ability under that hood. He drives you through enemy territory with the bumpersticker, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God."
As we were chugging along one day, some Syrian soldiers came and stopped us, all armed to the teeth. I said, "That's it. I'll be buried in the Bacca Valley." They asked us to lower the window and an officer planted his gun into the van, and he looked at Sammy and said, "Do you have any dynamite? Any explosives?" Sammy said, "Yes! This van is full of explosives!" I was sitting next to him and I thought, "This guy is strange. I don't know where he gets his humor." Then Sammy rummages under a tarpaulin over the van, with the Syrian soldiers just staring at him, and he pulls out a New Testament, and he says, "This is the dynamite. It's not the kind that will hurt."
The Syrian soldier was rather disgusted with that. Sammy insisted that he take it, so the soldier decided to pay attention to me. After remarking on my status as an Indian, he saluted us again and waved us on.
Sammy chugged for about 20 yards and pulled up. I asked myself, "Now what is he doing?" He looks at me and he says, "Brother Ravi, you don't know how much it upsets me to see all these soldiers, 50,000 of them from another land, in my country taking it over. One day I got on my knees and got angry with God, and I asked Him what He was doing to my land, sending all these people in here. And I sensed God interrupting me and saying, 'Sammy, just a minute. For all these years you have complained that Syria has not allowed missionaries within her territory, and you kept complaining that I do something about it. And now that I sent 50,000 Syrians to you, you are still complaining about it.'"
Ladies and gentlemen, he has placed you in the academy. He is giving you an audience that will make a world of a difference some day.
Let me close with this simple illustration: I've been to Athens many times. When I was there last, I noticed something I had never noticed before. We had just come off Mars Hill, and I was walking on the main street by Mars Hill and the Areopagus there. It's a beautiful setting, magnificent in history. Nice apartments overlook it.
As we were walking on that street, I suddenly caught sight of the road sign with the name of the street--I couldn't believe what I was reading. So I called all of my friends together and said, "Look at that name on this road opposite Mars Hill. Look at this big street; look at what it is called! Dionysius Areopagetos--Dionysius the Areopagite." When Paul went to Athens, the Bible says some scoffed, some said they would hear him another time, and some of them believed. One of those who believed was Dionysius the Areopagite. Two thousands years later, this street has his name.
Someday, somewhere, a great mind will be proclaiming the gospel for Christ's sake. Behind it may well be your name because you stood firm and you stood strong. My heart is burdened for the academy, and how glad I am that men and women like you are there. May God richly bless you