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Ask Augustine

by Paul A. Tambrino, Ed.D., Ph.D.

Isn’t it true that the recent deluge of atheist best-sellers (by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, etc.) have shown that belief in God and in sin have become intellectually indefensible for all thinking people in the academic world?

I can quite simply refute that universal statement by saying, “I am a thinking person, I am in the academic world, I believe in God and I believe in sin.” But I am not into the Elijah syndrome of thinking it’s only me against the world. There are millions more like me who believe in God as I do; and yes there are even many in the academic world who believe as I do.

In a discussion with Dr. Richard Harris, of Belhaven College, he said, “Today, it has become rampant to the extent that liberal theology supports the false idea that each of us is the arbiter of truth – that truth is what we make it to be rather than an absolute given to us as guidance and a performance standard from the Creator. Understanding of and adherence to the truth is not part of liberal theology; truth is less important than feeling good about ones self. The idea of tolerance and unity is promoted as a higher good than real, biblical truth. But tolerance in the absence of truth is no virtue; tolerance of those who promote false doctrine is destroying the church from within.”

The eighteenth century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau almost prophetically said that there will come a time when “feelings will be more important than reason and sincerity will trump truth. “That time has apparently arrived in our culture and especially with some academics and non-believers today.

It is true the word sin is seldom, if ever, uttered any more from many church pulpits. Such churches argue that it isn’t culturally relevant to personalize sin.

If so, then the next step in cultural relevancy would be to remove the cross (which in fact has been done by a popular television evangelist), for there is no need of a personal savior if sin is only an abstract concept. In keeping with that at least one hymnal has changed words in the hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” In an effort to accommodate culture, the personalized line, “tho the eye sinful man, thy glory cannot see,” has been depersonalized and changed to “through the eye of sinfulness;” making sin an abstract notion at best.

A few years ago Christianity Today featured an article about “The New Atheism” (of Dawkins, Hitchens and others) and how it revisited the “God is Dead” movement of the 1960’s. It was argued back then, as it is now, that any talk about God, since it is not verifiable by the five senses, is meaningless nonsense. But this verifiability argument really collapses on itself because, as the late D. James Kennedy often would point out, philosophers realized that verifiability itself could not be verified.

Today there is a counter attack against this “New Atheism” in Christian philosophy led by a resurgence of excellent books by Tim Keller (The Reason For God), Norman Geisler (Christian Apologetics), Lee Strobel and others. Add to these is the increasing interest in natural theology, a branch of theology that seeks to prove God’s existence apart from divine revelation. While I agree that few could call them compelling proofs, the traditional arguments for God’s existence are finding intellectual defenders today.

This is not to say that the death of God movement and atheism in our society are dead and that Christians can declare final victory. “After a period of passivity” Christianity Today notes that there are signs “the sleeping giant of atheism has been roused from his dogmatic slumbers and is fighting back.” J. Howard Sobel and Graham Oppy have written large, scholarly books critical of the arguments of natural theology. Some years ago Cambridge University Press released its Companion to Atheism.

Because of all this some, like the one who submitted the above question, might think that the resurgence of natural theology and Christian apologetics in our day is a waste of time. They argue that we live in a postmodern culture in which appeals to such arguments are no longer effective. Perhaps Richard Harris and Rousseau are right; in today’s culture truth is relative and the rational arguments for the truth of theism no longer work. Sincerity and feelings are all that matter.

But neither Richard Harris nor I nor millions of others are ready to wave the white flag of surrender in the academic arena – because the idea that we live in a postmodern culture is a myth. A postmodern culture is impossible.

People are not relativistic in the areas of science, engineering, and technology; they are relativistic and pluralistic only in matters of religion and ethics. But that’s not postmodernism; that’s modernism.

We live in a culture that remains modernist and if we yield our gospel to a postmodern culture it will be self-defeating. If we lay aside our best apologetic weapons of logic and evidence, we ensure modernism’s triumph over us and therefore Christianity will be reduced to but another voice in a cacophony of competing voices, each sharing its own “truth” and none commending itself as the objective truth about reality.

The gospel is never heard in isolation; it is always heard in one’s cultural environment. A person raised in a culture where Christianity is seen as an intellectually viable option will display an openness to the gospel.

Those who dismiss Christian apologetics because, “no one comes to faith through intellectual arguments” are tragically shortsighted. Although it is true that God must first change the heart of the unbeliever; it is the broader task of Christian apologetics, including natural theology, to help create and sustain an environment in which the gospel can be heard as an intellectually viable option for thinking men and women. Doing so gives people the intellectual permission to believe when their hearts and minds are first moved (as they indeed are) by God.