12.30.2009

DEBATING GOD? The REAL COLLISION













Showdowns always attract an audience. We live in a competitive dog-eat-dog world, and we love to see someone on top take a tumble. Growing up, I couldn't wait to watch the Bulls play the Bad Boy Pistons. Bill Lambier and his dirty entourage did nothing but intimidate their opponents. Who could stop them? They were the dominant force of the late 1980s. But then came one like no other, and his name was Michael Jordan. And every year I waited for #23 to step out and show these Bad Boys that their "Jordan Rules" were totally impotent against his great talent. Every year I waited anxiously for this showdown, ugly as it was, angry as I felt--those Pistons were so foul and I loathed them! But I always came out on top, because, well, my guy won. There he stood, #23, triumphant over his foes holding that great golden ball in the air. Ultimately, something felt real good about those Pistons going back to the locker room in shame. I had won along with Jordan.

This drive to shame our opponent is in us all. We love to see someone fall; we enter into the conflict, and identify with our hero, only to feel uplifted when this iconized warrior wins what has become our battle. Adding a little baseball in the mix, who doesn't want to see their favorite player in the dugout walk to home plate and point to the far wall as the other team reels and sends its personality to throw their team's best curveball? It meets some sort of fleshly desire for vengeance that we can obtain along with the one with whom we have come to identify. It's painful to admit, however, that we haven't won much of anything. Next year another team comes, another championship game is played, and all before is forgotten.

In the Christian world, there is a different kind of showdown that has become more en vogue as of late, namely, public debates over key points of doctrinal difference. Who doesn't want to hear something like this? It's the Christian sport, if you will, not in the physical arena, but in the arena of our pride--the mind. It too fulfills a form of fleshly vengeance against the person challenging the hero that I have come to iconize on my side, whose wit and personality I have best identified with.
A sparing of the minds and dueling of the intellect! There is nothing quite like it when two great debaters step up to the platform to display their unyielding argumentation and genius of word choice. But what is accomplished? Well, as good Americans, that is determined by who was "on their game" that day. Who made the best arguments? Who was the most articulate? Who spoke with the most authority? In other words, who won the audience? The sad reality, however, is that not much was accomplished except a further pandering to the people's carnality of hoping their guy wins. All said, very few in the audience are theologically capable enough to weed through all the superficiality, and really think through the implications and consequences of each particular viewpoint. The debate, more often than not, is won by the best display of personality.

As if this does not create enough conflict in the Christian realm, there is something far worse among Christians today that has become an acceptable platform of discourse, the debate with the atheist. Vicious attacks against Christianity have risen over the past decade by notable atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. In fact, Hitchens a few years back scoured the country looking for an evangelical pastor/theologian who was willing to tour with him and debate the existence of God. Douglas Wilson, pastor in Christ’s Church of Moscow ID, agreed to this debate. Since then, various debates have taken place in public media forums such as the Joy Behar Show and Imus in the Morning. Recently, the movie Collision was produced which is essentially a debate tour arguing the topic “Is Religion Good For The World?”. The debate has gained quite a bit of publicity, and many Christians have flocked to watch the movie.

I have asked numerous Christians what they thought of the film, and the general response goes something like this, " it was alright, Wilson is a nice guy, Hitchens is a fool, but, overall, it was interesting." Interesting? Such an important topic as the existence of God is just interesting? What did it accomplish? The responses are seriously troubling. How can we take such a casual nonchalant approach over such a debate? This debate is framed as a question over the veracity of what God has made known of himself in his Word, and we treat the whole thing as if it's just a bar-room kind of sparing match? Fact is, Hitchens is clearly hostile to the Christian message, especially the exclusive claims of Christ. What profitability comes from something like this? And, should this be permissible?

What is the first question asked after a movie like this? We know, who won the debate? Well, what determines this? Again, who made the best arguments? Who was the most articulate? Who spoke with the most authority? Who won the audience? For the atheists, Hitchens won, clearly; he was brilliant. For the Christian, it can be no other, Wilson! But is there not something more at stake here? What have we done to the name of the one who is at the center of the debate, namely, the LORD? To the casual onlooker, we have presented God as a concept to be debated, and this concept of X is taken as something that can be accepted or rejected if I am persuaded in the mind by rational argumentation? The consequences of this are not being considered. God's existence for the skeptic seems to hinge on who wins the arm wrestling match of persuasion. Where would you go in the Bible to validate this approach? Paul may have "reasoned" daily in the school of Tyrannus, but, and I quote, "when some were hardened and did not believe, but spoke evil of the Way before the multitude, he departed from them and withdrew..."

This is nothing new. Martyn Lloyd Jones faced the same thing in his day. In 1942 he was asked to debate the great atheist Dr. Joad, a well-known radio speaker. Jones was asked to debate religion with him at the Union Debating Society in the University of Oxford. Now Jones was no slacker and could debate with the best of them. The stage was set; thousands would come and hear this great debate. But Jones turned down the invitation and refused to take part in the debate, after which many Christians criticized him for dodging a "wonderful opportunity for preaching and presenting the gospel". Jones' comments are interesting and worth citing. Jones writes,


I think it is wrong as a total approach. My impression is that experience of that kind of thing shows clearly that it very rarely succeeds, or leads to anything. It provides entertainment, but as far as I am aware, and in my experience and knowledge of it, it has very rarely been fruitful or effective as a means of winning people to the Christian faith.
But more important still are my detailed reasons. The first is, and to me this was an all-sufficient reason in itself, that God is not to be discussed or debated. God is not a subject for debate, because He is Who He is and What He is. We are told that the unbeliever, of course, does not agree with that; and that is perfectly true; but that makes no difference. Holding the view that we do, believing what we do about God, we cannot in any circumstance allow Him to become the subject for discussion or of debate or investigation. I base my argument at this point on the word addressed by God Himself to Moses at the burning bush....draw not night hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thy standest is holy ground. That seems to me to be the governing principle in the whole matter...God is always to be approached with reverence and with godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire.

Jones continues,

To me this is a very vital matter. To discuss the being of God in a casual manner, lounging in an armchair, smoking a pipe or a cigarette or a cigar, is to me something that we should never allow, because God, as I say, is not a kind of philosophic X concept. We believe in the almighty, the glorious, the living God; what whatever may be true of others we must never put ourselves, or allow ourselves to be put, into a position in which we are debating about God as if He were but a philosophic proposition...

The second argument I adduce would be that in discussing these matters we are dealing with the most serious and the most solemn matter in life. We are dealing with something which we believe is not only going to affect the lives of these people with whom we are concerned while they are in this world, but also with their eternal destiny. In other words, the very character and nature of the subject is such that it cannot possibly be placed in any context except that of the most thoughtful and serious atmosphere that we know, or can create. Certainly it should never be approached in a light spirit, or in a mere debating spirit; still less should it ever be regarded as a matter of entertainment.

Jones' comments are very important. The Bible does not present God as a concept to be debated. If someone wants to deny his existence, Psalm 14 is God's answer: "the fool says in his heart there is no God..." Psalm 92 describes a man like Hitchens as senseless and as a beast that keeps his head down chewing on the grass. His is a willful suppression of the truth.

What then is there to debate? The natural man cannot receive the things of the Spirit of God, they are foolishness to him (1 Cor. 2). Have we forgotten that our message is foolishness to the world? Didn't Jesus warn about casting pearls before swine? Isn't Hitchens just the kind of person from which our Lord commanded us to shake off the dust from our feet? Can you imagine our Lord setting up a theater to debate in that Samaritan village which rejected him in Luke 9? When Christ was challenged by Pharisees, his responses were not presented as being open for discussion; it was all or none, repent and be converted or face the wrath to come.

I hope we recognize, at the end of the day, that debates like the one outlined above end up becoming nothing more than an iconizing of the personalities to whom we have become attracted. It panders to a certain fleshly desire for vengeance in all of us, while we forget the glory of the one who must free sinners from this present darkness. Have we really longed for the salvation of their souls? Or have we not forgotten that God has chosen to foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise? We need to remember just whose name is at stake when debates like this are going on. As God said to Moses, I AM WHO I AM. This is certainly a name we don't want to forget, unless, of course, we want to bring about the worst kind of Collision.

8 comments:

  1. Hello Chris, thanks for the post. I too have watched the movie and agree with most Christians, Hitchen's is a fool and his world view leads to suicide. I have also read P&P by Jones in which, I believe, your quote is from and understand the Doctors point. However, a few thoughts:

    - John Calvin debated and saved many of the Roman Catholic faith through them. Sometimes, even the person he was debating with (thought admittedly, not on the existence of God. My point being that God has historically used debate to save His children).

    - Very Godly men (Greg Bahnsen, Cornelius Van Till, Tim Keller, CS Lewis, and others) have engaged in debates with atheists and continue to do so.

    Based on your comments, would you go as far to say the men listed above were in sin? Should Pastor Wilson never of created the movie because he is in sin? Should he have never written the books the came before the movie? I have an ongoing conversation with an agnostic friend of mine in which we privately debate God all the time. Is that wrong?

    Thanks!

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  2. Chris, I don't remember the Pistons always getting beat by Jordan and the Bulls. I think you are engaging in nostalgic fibbery. =)

    I do remember Bill Lambeer's clear, plastic face mask from when he had a broken face... now THAT was some serious intimidation, wasn't it? lol.

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  3. Hi Jeff,

    In my humble opinion, debating is not wrong within the Christian sphere. I am in no way suggesting someone is in sin for debating. I have done it here! Pride is a real concern, though. But it's the "audience" that primarily concerns me. We are too tied to personalities today. We don't seem to be able to think beyond our favorite guy to the real issues--that is my concern. But, when it comes to an atheist as hostile to the gospel as Hitchens is, I agree with ML Jones, there is no profit in such a debate. He is a fool. If your gnostic friend is not hostile and open to reasoned discussion, by all means, make known Christ to him!

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  4. Brad,

    lol...I just refuse to listen to your nonsense comments :) I remember history selectively, and what I remember, ignoring the late 80s early 90s, is that Michael was always the victor... See, I have admitted to who is the real problem

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  5. Mark Van Der MolenJanuary 2, 2010 at 6:53 AM

    Chris,

    I agree wholeheartedly about the growing "cult of personality" problem. Paul Washer was recently interviewed on this very topic, and he admitted he wrestles with this "fame issue" himself. I'm convinced this problem is going from bad to worse by the day, fueled by internet technology where prideful men self-promote and acolytes line up blindly to defend their "man". We need to get back to understanding that even the men we appreciate are broken and in need of correction.

    On the issue of debate, though, I'm wondering if you could flesh out a bit more what you mean by debate being acceptable in the "Christian sphere". I'm unclear on the contours of that sphere, since you blessed the idea of engaging Jeff's gnostic friend, but not the hostile atheist Hitchens.

    I'm thinking your position is not so much the "sphere", but more contingent upon on the hardness of heart of the unbelieving person you are engaged with?

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  6. Hi Mark,
    Thanks for the interaction. As Jeff mentions, I think there have been many profitable debates among Christians on important issues. I have thoroughly enjoyed them. I am always somewhat shocked by the response of those attending though, precisely because of the problem that you acknowledged--the cult of personality.

    In terms of Jeff speaking with his agnostic friend, the level of discourse is quite different since there is no audience. I am speaking of two different things. Jones's point is correct in the public arena. But my friend and I around the table discussing these issues is a far different thing. So, a great measure of wisdom and prudence is needed to discern what makes for a profitable discussion/debate in these particular cicumstances. I do still maintain, however, that the existence of God is not up for debate--as per Exodus 3. CJG

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  7. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for your post!

    On the whole, I agree with everything written, but I wonder if you could comment on your advice regarding the error of the audience in succumbing to the temptation of pride; that is, instead of arguing against public debate because of the possibility of attaching a persona to the arguments (a sort of "personality cult", as another comment has it) couldn't you forewarn an audience to refrain from doing so? Could your advice in this post be something akin to "throwing out the baby with the bathwater"?

    Now, I already see a problem with my own implication, that is in the wisdom of not being a stumbling block to anyone, but I wonder if you can comment on this further.

    Finally, you have stated that to debate the existence of God is to debase him to a philosophical construct. I agree. But a more presuppositional approach to the debate may avoid this sin. Further, we must consider another purpose of such debates, not so much in winning over the "opponent", fool though he may be, but rather in providing a public defense to the audience (many of whom are not atheist, or believers, I would guess), and exposing the foolishness and contradiction of Satan's lies.

    thanks!
    Doug

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  8. Hi Doug,

    Thanks for commenting. Again, I would want to qualify my comments with regard to the particular circumstance. Simply because I am critiquing a particular problem in the Christian realm in terms of application, this does not mean that I am against it in principle. Did I seem to suggest this? As I stated above, I have enjoyed reasoned debates between Christians on many doctrinal issues. In my post, however, I was basically raising some of the problems that I have observed with Christian debates as a launch pad to address not only application but also principle when it comes to thinking through the implications of Collision. This was my main objective. So I can see why there is some confusion. My poor late night writing!

    Second you write, “But a more presuppositional approach to the debate may avoid this sin.” This is my point, albeit it was demonstrated implicitly. But this being so, what then is there to debate? If you are taking this apologetic approach, with what premise do you begin the debate?

    You write, “Further, we must consider another purpose of such debates…” What debates do you have in mind? Something like Wilson and Hitchens? I take Lloyd Jones position on this; it is profitless on many levels. First, you simply do not find this approach from the apostles in advancing the gospel (see the Tyrannus citation in the post—they always withdrew when there was open hostility to the gospel). Second, to engage a fool in open hostility like this is to give what is holy to the dogs and ignore Christ’s command. Third, the existence of God is not up for debate.

    Now if you are asking about providing an answer “to everyone who asks” about the hope that is within me, that is quite a different thing. And there are certainly public platforms in which this may be beneficial. Providing an answer to someone who is sincerely wrestling with these issues, well, this is our Christian duty. But again, I agree with Jones, debating the atheist (or anyone in open hostility to our message) may be entertaining, but I have never seen it really accomplish anything. If our message is “foolishness” to the world, a debate like what was done in Collision may help affirm what a Christian already knows, but it certainly will not make Satan’s lies more exposed to those who love the darkness. The greater danger, as Christ warned, is that you may get “trampled under foot and torn in pieces.” That is not something I want to tangle with, nor should. Hope I answered your questions. Thanks for the interaction! CJG

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