Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Beyond Opinion, edited by Ravi Zacharias

Source of Book: Purchased for the occasion

I am participating in an online book club, hosted by my friend Carrie, who has a popular book blog, Reading to Know. I am the token male member, so I will have to work even harder to prove that I was selected on my merits alone. If you want to join in or see what we are reading, the link to that post is here:

Reading to Know - Book Club

The books fall into four categories:

  1. Books I plan to read.
  2. Books I plan to read with the kids.
  3. Books I have already read. I will comment on these on the Reading to Know blog post for these books.
  4. Books I am not planning to read.

Beyond Opinion is written by about a dozen authors, one of which is editor Ravi Zacharias. While the topic is apologetics, it is not really a primer or a “how-to” instruction book. (Apologetics is the defending of a position, in this case Christianity, through the rigorous use of information and logic. The original Greek word referred to the rebuttal, or “defense” that the defendant would make in a trial. This is the word that was used by the apostle Paul to describe his “defense” of his faith given to Felix.) Rather, it presents perspectives from various authors on the common challenged given by modern thought and modern culture to the Christian faith.

I agree with Zacharias that one of the worst failings of the modern, Western church is that of systematic thought. We have come to base our explanation of our beliefs on personal experience, and have not trained the younger generations to think logically and carefully about belief. This is not a failing limited to the church, of course. Our entire culture seems incapable of any sort of explanation for its worldview, simply acting on unspoken and unacknowledged assumptions.

The key point is that anyone can claim that a particular religion or worldview, or discipline, or whatever, has changed his or her life. Personal experience is not a valid foundation on which to base one’s view of the profound questions of life. I have been moved by a number of pieces of music throughout my life, but would not wish to make the mistake of making the aching sadness of Tristan and Isolde a guide for my behavior or aspirations.

The book is divided into four sections. (They are actually labeled as three sections but with a subdivision of section one, but I found that a division in four made more sense to me.)

In the first, the question of responding to difficult questions is raised as it applies to postmodernism, atheism, Islam, Eastern religions, and more. I particularly was struck by the concept of a “worldview”. This is particularly evident in discussing the so-called debate between religion and science. The underlying worldviews are that of naturalism (the observable world is all that exists) and theism (the belief in god as a distinct person – as opposed to pantheism). Science does not and can not answer the big picture questions of life: why does the universe exist, and what is our purpose in life. In this way, each of the major worldviews (atheism, theism, and pantheism) is, at its core, a belief, rather than a provable certainty.

I was reminded again that the vast majority of us humans simply make assumptions about the nature of reality without ever noticing what our assumptions are. We choose our course of action without even thinking about why we do so. In this way, we make decisions – even good decisions – for the wrong reasons. Then, when our worldview is challenged by someone who has done a minimal amount of thinking, we are stymied. Similarly, we risk losing the next generation because we cannot pass down a logical and thoughtful defense of what we believe. This might explain why it seems increasingly popular to deny belief in anything: good or evil, truth or falsehood. We as a culture have forgotten how to think.

Because of this lack of thought, we are unable to respond to those who hold strongly opposite opinions. I enjoyed reading the writings of the late Christopher Hitchens, who died late last year. Obviously, I disagreed with his underlying worldview, but I appreciated his honesty and intellectual rigor. His aggressive atheism did illustrate an observation presented in this section of the book. The stance of atheists like Hitchens is thus:
1.      God does not exist.
2.      I hate Him.
The origins and implications of this interesting paradox are explored further in the second section of this book, which addresses the questions behind the questions.

As humans, we are an odd combination of logic and emotion, neither of which is completely separable from the other. The argument has raged among philosophers as to whether we determine our behaviors from our logically held beliefs, or whether we come to our conclusions emotionally and then seek logical justification for what we have already decided.

I personally would take the middle road, or perhaps embrace the paradox that our beliefs affect actions that we will to occur, while what we will to occur affects what we choose to believe. The two are inseparable, and we must assent to an idea while we embrace its consequences emotionally if we expect to see a consistent result.

For this section, I want to particularly highlight an idea that was new to me before I read this book. The “problem of pain” is a consistent, recurring issue throughout the ages of philosophical debate. Why, if there is a loving and powerful God, is there pain and suffering in the world? Here is the paradigm shift: if all we are is neurons that fire in a manner predetermined by natural selection, why do we feel emotional pain? Does that pain actually mean anything? If it is just neurons, why not just dull the pain with heroin? The very fact that we feel pain, and are angry about that perceived injustice in and of itself demonstrates that we believe that things should be fair, that they should be different. Does not that very belief undermine the idea of evolved neurons?

Last week, a friend’s wife died suddenly and unexpectedly. I wasn’t particularly close to her, for a variety of random reasons having nothing to do with her merits. My friend is understandably devastated. If all I am is neurons, why does this cause me pain? Why do I hurt for my friend? If death is natural, and I am not personally and directly affected by her loss, why do I even give a crap? But I am diminished by her death. My heart hurts for my friend. Even if he died tomorrow, my pain would persist. A purely naturalistic worldview cannot account for this. John Donne, however, recognized the common bond we all have, not as evolved organisms, but as fellow beings, created in the image of God:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as a manor of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

(From Meditation 17)

The third section discusses the internalization of apologetics. We do not seek to defend the Faith purely as an academic challenge. We seek to internalize the reasons for the hope we have within us.

I will particularly mention that the section on the Trinity is an amazing chapter, well worth reading for its own merits, but even better in the context of the greater discussion. The greatest commandment is love, not because of some prioritization of a bunch of rules, but because the very nature of God is relationship. The concept that God is Love does not depend on the existence of man. Indeed, it is completely independent of all creation. This is why orthodox Christianity differs from other religions, and why the Christian view of the relationship of God and man is so different. Love and relationship are the nature of God and of the universe; rules and appeasement are not.

I do not have the space in this review to chronicle my and my wife’s families’ journeys through legalistic, cult-like organizations, although that may be the topic of a future blog post. However, a particular line resonated with my experience, “Christian spirituality is the very opposite of religious showmanship or one-upmanship.”

The final section of the book ties the previous sections together, and makes a cogent call to the church to return to a vigorous teaching of doctrine and development of the mind. For too long, we have been content to focus on emotion and experience, while allowing the mind to atrophy. For too long, we have conceded intellect and discussion of the great issues of life to those who come from a naturalistic or pantheistic worldview. We have invited the charge that Christianity is opposed to logic and coherent thought. Historically, this has not been so. It is through our own laziness and self absorption that we have abandoned the sphere of thought. I might add my own editorial here in asserting that we have, over the last 150 years, focused our efforts on political solutions, hoping that emotion and inertia would suffice to pass our faith on to the succeeding generations. In doing so, we have utterly failed to capture either the intellect or the imagination of those outside our little bubble.

In conclusion, I believe that it is insufficient to come to a correct conclusion. We must wrestle with our faith and come to grips with why we believe. If we do not believe that our worldview best explains reality; past, present, and future; we ought to seek out a worldview that does. It really is that simple. Either our minds and hearts both must believe, or we really do not believe at all. If we do not believe – and demonstrate – that our worldview is supported by the evidence, we will fail.

In this vein, Zacharias puts it best. “That is why I am convinced that the most effective defense of the faith and offense against falsehood must be based on an examination of worldviews.” 


UPDATE 2018:

In a development which greatly saddens me - but at this point in 2018, doesn't remotely surprise me - it turns out Ravi Zacharias is a fraud. 

Over the course of decades, he has lied about his degrees, lied about his academic pursuits, lied about his past, and lied about a woman he engaged in an affair with, slandering her in the process. 

You can get a well researched, documented account of the various issues here.  

In the six years since I wrote this post, much has changed. Most crucially, I have left Evangelicalism for good. People like Zacharias are a significant reason why, although the embrace of White Supremacy in the form of Donald Trump is a bigger one. But Zacharias is a symptom of a greater problem: the need to lie that plagues Evangelicalism. In reading my post again, I am struck by the fact that my belief in the need for a life of the mind, truth, and intellectually honest defense of our beliefs hasn't change. What HAS changed is that Evangelicalism has been proven to have been lying when it came to the above. It had no interest in truth, honesty, or the life of the mind - it just wanted a strongman to carry out their racist goals. Sorry, that's what I take from the events of the last 6 years.


    1. I know it kinda sounds silly but I don't really know what to say in response to your thoughts here.

      #1 - I haven't been able to finish the book myself due to the aforementioned C.S. Lewis class popping up and my scrambling about trying to keep up with the reading material for that.

      #2 - I was frustrated by the Beyond Opinion book when I picked it up because it was difficult to work through. Not that it shouldn't be worked through. I'm just saying it was hard for me. (Hard things are typically good things though.)

      #3 - I firmly believe that if we do not explain to our children why we believe what we believe, and why we do what we do - they will walk away from not only our family culture but our faith as well. (Side stepping arguments involving predestination.) You've clearly pointed out WHY it's important to wrestle with these thoughts and I really benefited from reading your thoughts here.

      So, token male, I'm glad you are participating! Thanks.

    2. Off topic - I thought I had successfully subscribed to your blog but apparently it didn't "take" earlier and therefore I've missed your last few posts. Catching up now! Also, I think you're officially in my Reader now.

    3. I'm guessing that my book selection (Professionalizing Motherhood) is on your "Books I'm not planning to read" list. :D

    4. Stephanie, you have guessed correctly. I am torn as to whether I should even join the discussion on that one, as I have views on gender roles that are a bit unorthodox in conservative Christian circles. I may just have to adopt Thumper's adage here.
      Suffice it to say that I believe that men have been driven away from both the domestic sphere and from the church, and that self-help books for women and mothers have significantly contributed toward this alienation.

    5. You are motivating me to finish this book. I'm enjoying it, but as I'm in the process of moving to a different state, it keeps getting buried in my book bag. You bring up some great points and I'm excited to take them to the book as I pick it up again.

      Most notably, I appreciate your emphasis on worldview. I was very encouraged by the chapter about talking to young people about the tenets of our faith, especially as I have two teens.

    6. I am appreciating the book, yet overwhelmed with it. It's been much to take in, but I intend to finish this weekend. However, I know that I am not capable of sharing my thoughts as articulately as you have.

      Maybe you should jump in with your thoughts on motherhood for the very reason that your views are different.

    7. Thank you for such a succinct summary/review. It was a relief to see everything that has been floating through my head in black and white. This is a book that I have struggled to fit into my life but will affect me for the rest of my life.

    8. Well, I quit (for now, maybe) in the middle of the chapter on the Trinity, but I agree that it's a really, really good one. I posted my very surface thoughts here: