Recovering Christian Confidence: Proclaiming the Gospel in an Age of Skepticism and Cynicism Lecture 2. Alister McGrath. Points of contact for faith. What are “points of contact”? How can we explain the attraction of the gospel? Its truth? Its relevance? Its beauty?.
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What are “points of contact”?
How can we explain the attraction of the gospel?
Apologetics is not opportunistic!
It rests on a rigorous theological foundation, grounded in an understanding of the character of God, and the nature and destiny of humanity
Apologetics therefore demands a specifically Christian understanding of human nature – to which we now turn.
While Christians believe that humanity is part of the created order, this does not mean that we are indistinguishable from the remainder of creation. We have been set a little lower than the angels, and been “crowned with glory and honour” (Psalm 8:5).
Men and women are created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27). This brief yet deeply significant phrase opens the way to a right understanding of human nature, and our overall place within the created order.
So God created humanity in his image;
In the image of God he created them;
Male and female he created them.
(Genesis 1:27, NRSV)
What does it mean to say that we are “created in the image of God”
What difference does it make?
In the ancient near East, monarchs would often display images of themselves as an assertion of their power in a region (see, for example, the golden statue of Nebuchadnezzar, described in Daniel 3:1-7).
To be created in the “image of God” could therefore be understood as being accountable to God.
This important point underlies an incident in the ministry of Jesus Christ (Luke 20:22-5). Challenged as to whether it was right for Jews to pay taxes to the Roman authorities, Jesus requested that a coin be brought to him.
He asked, “Whose image and title does it bear?” Those standing around replied that it was Caesar’s. Christ then tells the crowd to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.
While some might take this to be an evasion of the question, it is nothing of the sort. It is a reminder that those who bear God’s image – that is, humanity – must dedicate themselves to him.
The “image of God” can be taken to refer to some kind of correspondence between human reason and the rationality of God as creator. On this understanding of things, there is an intrinsic resonance between the structures of the world and human reasoning. This approach is set out with particular clarity in Augustine’s major theological writing On the Trinity:
God knew the limitations of humanity; and though the grace of being made in the image of God was sufficient to give them knowledge of the Word, and through Him of the Father, as a safeguard against their neglect of this grace, God also provided the works of creation as a means by which the Maker might be known.
Humanity could thus look up into the immensity of heaven, and by pondering the harmony of creation, come to know its Ruler, the Word of the Father, whose sovereign providence makes the Father known to all.
The “image of God” means that we have the created capacity to relate to God
Therefore our hearts long for God
We are unfulfilled until we relate to God
Human experience is distinguished by a longing for God, often mistaken for something else
Develops the idea that nothing created or finite can satisfy our longing
Knowing God’s creatures makes us long to know God, as their source and origin
Therefore the beauty of nature cannot be captured; it will only lead to dissatisfaction and frustration
Sigmund Freud: God is just an illusion we invent, a wish-fulfilment. We invent God because we need a father-figure.
C. S. Lewis: we are made to relate to God, and we are going to be restless until we do so.
Armand Nicholi, The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud debate God, Love, Sex and the Meaning of Life (Free Press, 2002)
Nicholi is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School
Human nature is characterised by being made in God’s image, yet being sinful and fallen. We never lose God’s image through sin, even though it may be weakened or attenuated.
There is thus a tension between our divine origination and intended goal, and our present situation as fallen inhabitants of a fallen world
The beauty of nature
A sense of longing
Awareness of mortality
The world around us is God’s creation
In some way, that world reflects the glory of God
“The heavens declare the glory of the Lord” (Psalm 19:1)
So how can we gain a better appreciation of God’s glory?
Armed with the Christian doctrine of creation, we see nature as God’s creation
Ecologically, this leads us to respect it
Spiritually, this leads us to gain a deeper appreciation of the creator
Apologetically, it allows us to build on someone’s delight in nature, moving from the creation to the creator
Nature can be very beautiful, and evoke our sense of wonder
But it is not nature itself that is the real object of our love and longing
Nature points beyond itself
The creation points to the creator
The Son of God created the world to communicate himself in an image of his own excellency . . . He communicates a sort of shadow of his excellencies, so that when we are delighted with flowery meadows and gentle breezes, we see only the emanation of the sweet benevolence of Jesus Christ.
Human mortality is very threatening
In recent years, many have tried to deny it, evade it, or suppress it
Classic analysis of this in Ernst Becker, The Denial of Death
Winner of the Pulitzer prize in 1974 and the culmination of a life’s work, Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death tackles the problem of the “vital lie” – the refusal of human beings to acknowledge their own mortality.
So what can we say? And how can we use this point of contact wisely?
“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else”.
The brevity of human life
Being overawed at the immensity of the universe
Being reassured of the love of God
And that inverted bowl we call “the Sky”,
Whereunder crawling cooped we live and die,
Lift not thy hands to It for help – for It
Rolls impotently on as Thou or I.
Leading American cell biologist
Wrote fascinating book entitled The Sacred Depths of Nature (1998)
As one of North America’s leading cell biologists, Goodenough recalls how she used to gaze at the night sky, reflecting on what she observed. Each of the stars she saw was dying, including our own special star, the sun.
“Our sun too will die, frying the Earth to a crisp during its heat-death, spewing its bits and pieces out into the frigid nothingness of curved spacetime”.
She found such thoughts to be overwhelming and oppressive.
“The night sky was ruined. I would never be able to look at it again. . . . A bleak emptiness overtook me whenever I thought about what was really going on out in the cosmos or deep in the atom. So I did my best not to think about such things.”
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honour.
Augustine’s prayer to God:
“You have made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you”.
Blaise Pascal: the God-shaped abyss within us
Sermon: The Weight of Glory
Title comes from John Donne, who spoke of ‘the exceeding weight of divine glory’
Preached in the University Church, Oxford, on 8 June 1941
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing.
These things - the beauty, the memory of our own past - are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.
For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have not visited.
What other “points of contact” can we identify?
How can we go about finding them?
And how could we go about applying them?
From Greek word apologia, meaning ‘defense’ or ‘argument in favour’
Used in New Testament
Most famous example: 1 Peter 3:15
Believers are urged to ‘give a reason for the hope that lies within them.’
Negatively, it is about countering objections to the Christian faith
Positively, it is about explaining the truth and vitality of the Christian faith
Both are necessary parts of our task!
Which “big picture” is best?
Not a question of “proof” – all worldviews, including atheism, lie beyond rational or empirical proof
Rather, a question of “best fit”
Which gives the best account of what we observe and what we experience?
Idea developed by Gilbert Harman
There are many potential explanations of the world
So which offers the best fit?
The simplest? The most elegant?
Not a knock-down argument – but an important attempt to evaluate how we make sense of complex situations
What worldview makes most sense of what we observe in the world?
What "big picture" offers the best account of what we experience?
“Inference to the best explanation" is about working out which explanation is the most satisfying
The real question is this: does belief in God amount to the “best explanation” of what we observe and experience?
These things can’t be proved or disproved
Two excellent 20th-century role models
C. S. Lewis
We’ve touched on Lewis already, so let’s look at Schaeffer.
Latent within every non-Christian belief system is a fatal contradiction
Our task is to find that point of contradiction, and show that the belief system is unworkable
This means listening to others, helping them to find this fatal flaw, and appreciating its significance for their beliefs.
Let us remember that every person we speak to . . . has a set of presuppositions, whether he or she has analysed them or not . . . It is impossible for any non-Christian individual or group to be consistent to their system in logic or in practice . . . A man may try to bury the tension and you may have to help him find it, but somewhere there is a point of inconsistency. . . .
He stands in a position which he cannot pursue to the end; and this is not just an intellectual concept of tension, it is what is wrapped up in what he is as a man.
It is like the great shelters built upon some mountain passes to protect vehicles from the avalanches of rock and stone which periodically tumble down the mountain. The avalanche, in the case of the non-Christian, is the real and the abnormal fallen world which surrounds him. The Christian, lovingly, must remove the shelter and allow the truth of the external world and of what man is to beat upon him.
[A Sikh] started to speak strongly against Christianity, but did not really understand the problems of his own beliefs. So I said, ‘Am I not correct in saying that on the basis of your system, cruelty and noncruelty are ultimately equal, that there is no intrinsic difference between them?’ He agreed. . . .
The student in whose room we met, who had clearly understood the implications of what the Sikh had admitted, picked up his kettle of boiling water with which he was about to make tea, and stood with it steaming over the Indian’s head. The man looked up and asked him what he was doing, and he said with a cold yet gentle finality, ‘There is no difference between cruelty and noncruelty’. Thereupon the Hindu walked out into the night.
Jean-Paul Sartre was one of France’s most trendy thinkers in the 1950s and early 1960s
He held the very radical view that ethics was not about the decision you reached; it was about exercising your freedom in reaching that decision
The decision is thus ethically neutral; the important thing is the process of judgement
This means that ethics is not about “right” and “wrong”
But can Sartre live with this view?
Is it not true that some decisions are good, and others evil?
Is it not true that some things are good, and others bad?
Algeria was formerly a French colony
Fought for its independence in 1960
Vicious war, which caused disquiet in France, especially amongst intellectuals
The “Algerian Manifesto” was a call for ending this dirty, immoral war
Sartre signed it
[Sartre] took up a deliberately moral attitude and said it was an unjust and dirty war. His left-wing political position which he took up is another illustration of the same inconsistency. As far as many secular existentialists have been concerned, from the moment Sartre signed the Algerian Manifesto he was regarded as an apostate from his own position, and toppled from his place of leadership of the avant-garde.
Other examples . . . .