A CASE FOR CHRISTIANITY – THE REALITY OF HOPE AND DESPAIR

Is there hope for the universe? There certainly is hope in the universe, given the presence of hopers—we who think and speak in the future tense, who invest ourselves in that distinctively human tense through anticipation, imagination, rumination and speculation (both informed and reckless).(George Steiner has reflected on the significance of the human use of the future tense, “the grammar of hope,” in Real Presences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991)), p. 56. But is there any hope for the universe and its intrepid hopers? One is hard-pressed to find a larger, more significant question than this imperious query concerning the cosmos. For all our cynicism, we are—at the end of the day—inescapably creatures of hope. We look forward; we yearn for something more, something better—anything to give meaning, value and substance to our short lives. Even when our hopes for family, friends, country and ourselves are satisfied—by a happy reunion, an election that goes our way, a job promotion, a negative biopsy—larger hopes (and fears) still loom.

Yet we strive after the future. Even when we reflect back on our lives, our species and our planet, we wonder: What does it mean? What will endure? Is history progressing toward a goal or merely staggering along? What of the present instant, the ongoing now of my unfolding—or unraveling—life? From here and now we look back and we strain ahead. But what is possible for me to hope, to know and to do? As we explore the tenses of life, we often fear that our hopes are empty, hollow, mere specters without a home, that in the end it is hopelessness that will rule the day and our destiny. For the possibility of despair is always close at the elbow of hope, acting as a debating partner if not a heckler. Can one agree with the biblical philosopher that “love is as strong as death” (Song of Solomon 8:6)? Or will death have the last laugh on us all?

How we answer these questions—or if we attempt to answer them at all—will shape who we are and who we become. We are all citizens of the universe—anxious travelers, much of the time, passing through our days and nights in uncertainty and confusion concerning what matters most. In one sense, we are alone. No one else will live our life or die our death. Each self is unique, responsible and indissoluble. Yet our fate is bound up with our world and our fellow travelers, each of whom has a particular way of coping with—or avoiding—these insistent immensities. We are alone— together.

What if these perennial human questions, yearnings and wrestlings with destiny are merely human, all-too-human? What if hope cannot extend beyond human endeavor itself and is never answered by anything beyond it? What if the millennia of human cries echo only into the empty sky and no further? That possibility must be faced if the quest itself is to have any meaning. In the end, hope without truth is pointless. Illusions and delusions, no matter how comforting or grandiose, are the enemies of those who strive for integrity in their knowing and being. Statements such as “I like to think of the universe as having a purpose” or “The thought of an afterlife gives me peace” reflect mere wishes. These notions do not address the truth or falsity of there being purpose in the world or of our postmortem survival, because there is no genuine claim to knowledge: a warranted awareness of reality as it is. A hearty, sturdy and insatiable appetite for reality—whatever it might be—is the only engine for testing and discerning truth. Truth is what matters most, particularly truth concerning our human condition in the world—its origin, its nature, its purpose (if any) and its destiny. Knowing the truth and living according to its requirements should be the hope and aspiration of the reflective person. Only our knowledge of truth—our awareness of reality, no matter how sketchy or partial—can help resolve the inner bickering between the claims of hope and the fears of despair.

The very concept of objective truth is under fire today. Some esteem it as nothing better than a philosophical hangover from less realistic days, a chimera impossible to attain yet still alluring for too many. Truth may also be shunned in a more pedestrian manner. Instead of being philosophically pummeled, the concept of truth may simply be shunted aside with a shrug and a smirk—as antique and extraneous to “real life,” which then is defined as little more than what lies within one’s short-term memory and what enflames one’s immediate expectations. C. S. Lewis writes of the temptations to avoid deeper matters through a fixation on “real life”—or the immediate stream of experience—in the first letter of his classic fictional work The Screwtape Letters (1942; reprint, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), particularly pp. 2-4.

Yet humans are privileged with the ability to transcend their immediate experiences and ponder other matters. Such is the stuff of philosophy, literature, religion and late-night discussions in college dormitories (at least one hopes these still occur).

Perhaps instead of our seeking a reason for hope or asking for life’s meaning or meanings, the situation is reversed. Perhaps we are on the witness stand before the jury of life. This is just how the late psychiatrist Victor Frankl put it in his classic work Man’s Search for Meaning:

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. (Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (New York: Pocket Books, 1959), p. 172.)

“The gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek,” Frankl observes, “were ultimately prepared not in some ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in the lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.”(Victor Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul (1955; reprint, New York: Vintage Books, 1986),pp. xxviil.) As a prisoner of Hitler’s death camps, Frankl noted that those captives with a sense of meaning that reached beyond their immediate experiences maintained hope and dignity, even in their Nazi hell. Those without benefit of this conviction tended to atrophy and die in the pressure cooker of evil, even if they were spared the gas chambers.

Nevertheless, one may live or die for a lie; one may hope in something that gives meaning, direction and even courage for life and be on the wrong side of the truth. Zeal does not insure knowledge; in fact, zeal may serve as a beguiling surrogate for knowledge. It may even blind us to what matters most—and destroy others as a result. After months of meticulous preparation, nineteen young zealots boarded four American passenger flights on September 11, 2001, to carry out a mission that was centered on and animated by a particular interpretation of reality. They were no nihilists—barren of meaning—seeking to destroy for no reason, as some early commentators intoned. They endeavored to accomplish the will of God (Allah) itself—at the expense of their earthly lives, but in the hope of a paradise of very earthly delights. Their lives they gave, and over three thousand lives they took, and the civilizations of the globe will never be the same as a consequence.

This apocalypse of terror not only shook New York, the Pentagon, an open field in Pennsylvania and world opinion. It rattled the worlds of not a few cultural relativists. Even the New York Times, that apotheosis of secularity, editorialized that these horrific events put the lie to postmodernist relativism and called out for “a transcendent moral standard.”(Edward Rothstein, “Attacks on U.S. Challenge Postmodern True Believers,” New York Times,
September, 22, 2001, p. A17.) This kind of language breaks out of and moves beyond mere personal preference and political analysis. It invokes essential issues of how the world is and how it ought to be. It is outrage in search of a worldview, an upsurge of conscience making universal claims. In a similar vein David Brooks wrote in the Atlantic Monthly that a “recovering secularist” like himself needs to realize that “he has been too easy on religion.” By wrongly assuming that religion was playing a diminishing role in human affairs, many secularists have taken a patronizing approach to it, not bothering to evaluate its claims against reality. To do that would be impolite and stir up too much trouble. “Is Wahhabism [a movement within Islam adhered to by Osama bin Laden and his assassins] a vicious sect that perverts Islam? Don’t talk about it.” But in light of recent events, Brooks changed his mind and his method. “In a world in which religion plays an even larger role, this approach is no longer acceptable. One has to try to separate right from wrong.”(David Brooks, “Kicking the Secularist Habit,” The Atlantic Monthly, March 2003, p. 28.) Tragedies may indeed help clear the mind of some conceptual rubble.

Years before the events of September 11, 2001, political scientist Samuel Huntington spoke of a “clash of civilizations” that lay ahead. This thesis was in stunning contrast to a much-celebrated and debated book on world civilizations by Francis Fukuyama published in 1992 that heralded “the end of history.” Reworking some themes from Hegel’s philosophy of history, Fukuyama claimed that the liberal democracies of the West set the standard for world emulation. In that sense history had reached its end or telos. Other nations would soon follow the lead of these enlightened Western nations. Global conflicts over which form of government was ideal would diminish since that issue was really settled with the failure of Communism and the ascent of liberal democracy worldwide. Fukuyama wondered if this democratizing and stabilizing process might eventually lead to a kind of boredom, but he did not foresee the events that now enshroud us.(Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Avon Books, 1992).

But Huntington saw another, less felicitous world. The struggles between civilizations, he claimed, would not primarily be fueled by nationality, politics, ideologies or economics, but by different “cultures” and their perspectives on reality.

Peoples and nations are attempting to answer the most basic questions humans can face: Who are we? And they are answering that question in the traditional way human beings have answered it, by reference to the things that mean most to them. (Samuel Huntington, A Clash of Civilizations (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), p. 21)

What means the most to them is, in the final analysis, their worldview: that complex of concepts that explains and gives meaning to reality from where they stand—given their diverse ancestries, histories, institutions and religions.(Samuel Huntington, A Clash of Civilizations (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), p. 21) The slogan “One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter” may be correct on a descriptive or sociological level, but it rings hollow philosophically, since it avoids the vexing questions of hope, meaning, truth, morality and rationality. As Brooks and others have noted, religion is not withering away under the conditions of modernity, nor can it be adequately accounted for on the basis of social and political factors. It has its own intrinsic power in world affairs and in the minds of mortals.(Peter L. Berger, ed., The Desecularization of the World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).

But these observations, while important, cannot settle the question of which religion (if any) is true and worth following. Nor can the resurgence of religion in the world—particularly Islam and Christianity in the third world (Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).—count intellectually against a secular worldview that leaves no room for God in its understanding of reality. Truth is not determined by counting noses. To begin to answer these questions regarding ultimate reality, we must dig deeper than charting or anticipating social change. We need to think hard, ponder and assess the options in light of the sharpest reasoning and the best available evidence.

I am convinced that a solid and compelling case can be made that what matters most for everyone in this life and beyond is one’s orientation to Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnation of God. Hope here finds its goal—in the truth that satisfies and liberates. Finding one’s way to this discovery may take many routes. This book carves out a path of intellectual investigation and argument. It is a work of apologetics, the ancient and ongoing discipline of defending and advocating Christian theism. This book is applicable to both unbelievers and those believers who seek a stronger reason for their hope. To this end we will explore the core claims of Christianity in light of the counterclaims of its major rivals in the contemporary world. I do not pretend to be neutral on this score; I am a professing Christian who believes the Christian worldview to be true, rationally compelling, existentially engaging and socially, globally, and perennially pertinent. However, the book will appeal to rational and factual considerations that any thinking and concerned person should be able to appreciate.

Before outlining the contours of my approach in more detail, a few words about my own journey may be apropos, since one’s biography invariably shapes one’s thinking—although a book is better judged by the merits of its arguments than by the credentials of its author. After my conversion to Christianity in 1976 at age nineteen, I was counseled by some (although not in so many words) to give up the life of the mind—which I had just begun to explore in my first year of college—in favor of a faith rooted in experience. I attempted this for a few tormenting months. I failed, but I did not give up on being a Christian. There was another and better way. The inquiring mind needs satisfying answers, not merely experiences. As Aristotle put it in the opening sentence of his Metaphysics, “Man by nature desires to know”—and this is no less true of the Christian than of anyone else. Moreover, a Christian anthropology affirms that humans were made to know their Maker and to love God with all their minds (Matthew 22:37-39). This is often a demanding task, but also a rewarding one. Since my failed experiment in unreflective faith, I have pursued the life of the mind as a calling from Christ.

Christian Apologetics begins by laying out the biblical case for apologetics and the apologetic method necessary for defending the faith. That faith (i.e., the Christian worldview) is then explained and defended against various false charges. This initial ground clearing is followed by a defense of the concept of objective truth and the need to seek truth passionately, especially given the high stakes of the Christian message (heaven or hell). The next several articles will address the case for God from natural theology— ontological, cosmological, design, moral and religious-experience arguments for God. To these arguments for theism are added arguments for why the uniqueness of humanity—our greatness, misery, consciousness and rationality—is best explained by Christian theism. The next several articles defend the historical reliability of the Bible, particularly the New Testament. With that foundation, we take up the identity of Jesus Christ, his claims, credentials, incarnation and resurrection. In arguing for these things we will also be considering alternative views and how they fare intellectually. Having made this overall case for Christianity, we then take up three significant challenges to it: the challenge of religious pluralism (Christianity cannot be the only way, given so many religions), the resurgence of Islam and its claims to be the one true religion, and the problem of evil (God cannot be all-good and all-powerful, given the evils of the world). The final article exhorts those confident of Christian truth to lead lives that radiate those convictions before the watching, waiting and weeping world.



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