Read the first post here.
Some of you have asked how it all went…it went mighty well, thank you.
It all went down like this: the Christian student group I sponsor at school had an end-of-the-school-year party, and I crashed it. Yep. I let them mingle and eat the pizza for a bit, then gathered the group together (kinda large…about 25 or so, most of which I had never seen in the club before. Funny how that happens when you bring pizza and make it a party) and went at it. I don’t think they were expecting that, even though I told them a few days before what I wanted to do. I think they just expected me to briefly announce something and back off. Well, that is not my style.
First, I recapped what happened for those that weren’t there, then I had those that were there for the conversation rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 meaning the atheist totally walked all over them, 10 meaning that the Christians defended the faith exceptionally well. Everyone gave a 4 score or below…which is an F.
I pointed this out to them. My intent in this point, I told them, was not to put them down and make them feel bad about themselves, but to give them a chance to realistically assess their ability to articulate their faith and to handle themselves in a conversation like that. Friends hold up mirrors when appropriate. We went on to discuss the challenges that lie ahead for them in college and beyond. The challenges are far from insurmountable, but when an unprepared Christian with a toddler’s ability to defend the faith and think through tough questions meets a hostile secular environment that *appears* intellectual and learned (key word right there, appears), the result is that usually the Christian ends up walking away from Christ sooner or later.
This all was a great reality check for them. I’ve discussed it with most of them before, but, as Hugh Hewitt says, repetition is a precondition of success. They need to hear that message over and over again, for experience has taught me that their prior mental habits and ways of talking die hard: most of the times I say it to them, they nod in agreement then go right back to faith and feeling talk. Hey, it’s the religious diet they’ve been brought up on in youth group, so what do you expect?
The first day we didn’t cover any specific objections the atheist had. We spent most of the rest of the time walking through how to handle a conversation with an aggressive contrary person. This is all tactics, not specifics. The atheist in the group (I got confirmation that he was just there to argue, btw) was a total steamroller. He would make an aggressive accusation that usually involved attacking strawmen or using loaded language–more on that stuff later–and as soon as the Christians in the group would start answering the charge, he’d interrupt, change the subject, and make another charge. They really didn’t know what to do with the guy. I talked about how to reign the conversation in, how to keep it on topic, and how to graciously hold the other person’s feet to the fire on his use of loaded language. This is a crucial lesson to learn, for most I’ve encountered don’t know how to identify loaded words that have an emotional impact but little argumentative force. Most simply let the emotive power of the words fluster them, and they accept the legitimacy of the terms without question. This is bad strategy.
Next we discussed how to go on the offensive a bit with questions of our own. Why assume the burden of proof on everything and let the other person control the conversation? Everyone in the discussion has a worldview; we’ve got our sticky parts to explain, but the atheist has more! Why should we have to always be in the “hot seat?” We went over a few easy, simple questions to ask in any conversation that are gracious, yet at the same time force the other person to do his fair share of ‘splainin.
I also spent some time on discussing the atheist’s use of straw men. Some of the objections he had involved him foisting trumped up beliefs onto the Christians, then attacking those. Example: at one point in the conversation he said, “so let me get this straight. You guys believe that God fathered himself through a virgin, then was tortured to death to pay a punishment that he himself inflicted in the first place?” There are so many straw men there in that one question that it’s hard to know where to begin. For starters, Christians don’t believe God fathered himself. We are trinitarians, not modalists. Three persons, one substance. That is why we are comfortable saying that there is one God substance, that Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit are all God, yet Christ prayed to the Father often. Hard to totally wrap my mind around that, granted, but God as Trinity is a world away from that guy’s rubber dummy. The “Father/Son” titles of the first and second persons of the trinity do not connote any physical siring on the Father’s part. God the Father did not physically sire God the Son (or Himself, for that matter); the titles are figurative, reflecting the intimate relationship they share with each other and of the roles each play functionally in the plan of salvation. To suggest otherwise by charging that Christians believe God “fathered himself” is a laughable straw man.
I counseled the students to listen carefully in the conversation for straw men attacks because they occur frequently in conversations like these, and I gave them a few pointers on how to dismantle them.
That was the first day. I told them to come back the next day to discuss specific objections. I forgot, though, that I double booked that day, and I wasn’t even going to be on campus! I was instead at a middle school about 15 minutes away doing presentations to the PE classes there about wrestling. One of the presentations I was scheduled to give overlapped a bit with lunch at my school, so I was in a bit of a pickle. Luckily, I had some assistants with me there, so I left them in charge of it during lunch and raced over to the high school so I could meet the kids for another lunch tutoring session. It was a hard transition to swing, but with some considerable Providential assistance, I made it work.
About twelve or thirteen students returned that day. We reviewed the previous day’s material, and then went over a few specific objections the atheist had. We talked about God commanding the Israelites to wipe out the Caananites, a bit about “tolerance,” and a tad about freewill and determinism. I’m surprised the atheist harped on that last one, for its an argument that’s been largely abandoned in philosophic circles. His argument was that if God was omniscient (all-knowing), then that would exclude human freewill: God would know the future, including what I would do tomorrow. Being God, his knowledge would be perfect and certain, therefore there’s no way I could choose otherwise. If God knows that I’ll eat an orange for breakfast tomorrow, that means I have to eat that orange. I am not free to choose.
The problem with this argument is that it does not follow that if God knows I’ll eat the orange that I therefore have to eat the orange. All that follows is that I will eat the orange, not that I must. There is a difference. To see this, think about the direction of causality: does God’s knowledge cause my action, or vice versa? For the person to show that God’s knowledge excludes human free will, he must show that God’s knowledge causes me to eat that orange, but that is a pretty tough thing to show. How does merely knowing event X will happen, even if that knowledge is certain, cause event X? Knowledge causes jack squat.
A much better way to look at it is to view it from the opposite direction: my actions causes God’s knowledge. This doesn’t mean his knowledge is any less certain or perfect. It just means that in the future if I choose to eat cereal instead, that will be the content of God’s knowledge.
If this is still a bit fuzzy, think of it in possible worlds terms. A possible world is simply a fancy philosophical way of thinking about a way things could be. The actual world, including the future events that will happen, is one possible world. A world in which I choose to eat an orange is a possible world; a world in which I choose to eat cereal is another possible world. A world in which I choose to eat oatmeal and play the piano (rather than wrestle) is another possible world. Theoretically, there are infinitely many possible worlds: worlds which are logically possible (a world in which a square circle exists is not possible. Since that concept is contradictory, it is not a possible world) but which might or might not be actualized.
For every possible world in which God exists (some think he exists in every possible world, making him a necessary being…another post for another time, perhaps), he is omniscient…without getting too far into the details, I’ll just say that it comes along with the territory of being God. We therefore say that God’s omniscience is necessary: he must be omniscient. It is impossible for him to be not omniscient.
This does not mean, however, that the content of God’s knowledge is necessary. The content of God’s knowledge varies with every possible world. In a possible world in which I eat an orange, that is the content of God’s knowledge; in a possible world in which I eat oatmeal, that is the content of his knowledge. In every possible world, my actions are freely chosen, yet God is still omniscient. My actions cause His knowledge. It does not follow that his knowledge is not certain or it is somehow tarnished. No meaningful definition of omniscience is sullied.
Heady stuff, I know…But I explained that to them, and wrapped up with some more general perspective. I gave them a few resources for further study (a few Greg Koukl books, an str youth website, and Love Your God with All Your Mind by JP Moreland), and sent them on their way.
The feedback I received was overwhelmingly positive. Students told me later that the tutoring sessions created much good conversation outside my classroom, which was one of the goals. I’ve also received some messages recently from students saying that they’ve begun to frequent the websites I referenced….
Good stuff, good stuff.