Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Do college students care about truth? What do they think truth is?

What is truth?

What is truth?

If I want to understand what college students think about truth, I ask my friend Eric Chabot. He is the Ratio Christi ninja at Ohio State University. He can tell you more about what college kids think about ultimate issues than probably anyone else you know.

Here is his latest blog post at Think Apologetics.

He introduces the topic like this:

Over the last ten years I have done outreach on a major college campus (The Ohio State University which has 56,000 students). I have had hundreds of spiritual conversations with students and direct an apologetics ministry called Ratio Christi Student Apologetics Alliance. It is no secret that many apologists have written books on the Truth question. In other words, the statement “we are living in postmodern times” has almost become cliche in today’s society. Hence, because of the impact of post-modernism, many seem to assume that college students are not interested in objective truth. So the supposed fallout is that people are not asking whether Christianity is true. Given my experience on the campus, I will respond to this issue. So the good news is that I am truly speaking from personal experience.

I will go ahead and give some definitions of truth here.

Eric likes to complain about pragmatism most, so he quotes a definition of the pragmatic view of truth:

#1 Truth is not “what works.” One popular theory is the pragmatic view of William James and his followers that truth is what works. According to James, “Truth is the expedient in the way of knowing. A statement is known to be true if it brings the right results. It is the expedient as confirmed by future experience.” That this is inadequate is evident from its confusion of cause and effect. If something is true it will work, at least in the long run. But simply because something works does not make it true. This is not how truth is understood in court. Judges tend to regard the expedient as perjury. Finally, the results do not settle the truth question. Even when results are in, one can still ask whether the initial statement corresponded to the facts. If it did not, it was not true, regardless of the results.

And here are a couple more definitions that he encounters from the college kids:

#5 Truth is not “what feels good.” The popular subjective view is that truth gives a satisfying feeling, and error feels bad. Truth is found in our subjective feelings. Many mystics and new age enthusiasts hold versions of this faulty view, though it also has a strong influence among some experientially oriented Christian groups. It is evident that bad news can be true. But if what feels good is always true, then we would not have to believe anything unpleasant. Bad report cards do not make a student feel good, but the student refuses to believe them at his or her academic peril. They are true. Feelings are also relevant to individual personalities. What feels good to one may feel bad to another. If so, then truth would be highly relative. But, as will be seen in some detail in the next article, truth cannot be relative. Even if truth makes us feel good—at least in the long run—this does not mean that what feels good is true. The nature of truth does not depend on the result of truth.

#6 Truth is not “what is existentially relevant.” Following Soren Kierkegaard and other existential philosophers, some have insisted that truth is what is relevant to our existence or life and false if it is not. Truth is subjectivity. Kierkegaard said: truth is livable. As Martin Buber stated, truth is found in persons, not in propositions. However, even if truth is existential in some sense, not all truth fits into the existential category. There are many kinds of truth, physical, mathematical, historical, and theoretical. But if truth by its very nature is found only subjectively in existential relevance, then none of these could be truth. What is true will be relevant, but not everything relevant is true. A pen is relevant to an atheist writer. And a gun is relevant to a murderer. But this does not make the former true nor the latter good. A truth about life will be relevant to life. But not everything relevant to one’s life will be true.

So what do students think?

The most popular view today seems to be #1 (a pragmatic view of truth) and then coming in second place is a tie between #5 and #6 (“Truth is what feels good” and “Truth is what is existentially relevant”).

Many, many, students are viewing the Christian faith as something that helps them have a better life. In other words, they are not asking whether it is objectively true. Comments like “I don’t see what difference Jesus would make in my life” and “I don’t think it is relevant whether God exists or Jesus is the Son of God” are somewhat common.

This shouldn’t be surprising given our entire culture is built on pragmatism. After all, people go to college to get a job that will work for them and help them get a good job. Furthermore, the Church has been embracing pragmatism for a long time. John MacArthur wrote an article called Church Pragmatism a long time ago. Not much has changed.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting a good job when you’re finished college, as long as when you get that job you proceed to study everything else that matters. This is especially important for Christian men, who shoulder the load of providing for a family and the people around them. But I get his point.

The rest of Eric’s post offers a solution for how Christians can deal with pragmatism. My solution is to investigate their overall worldview and then introduce evidence that conflicts with their stated beliefs. For example, the kalam cosmological argument and the cosmic fine-tuning argument. It works better if you really can speak about the scientific or historical evidence for Christianity with authority. Just say to them that it’s fine with you if they want to believe things that aren’t truth because they are comfortable with them, but sometimes that will have disastrous consequences. The best way to puncture the self-confidence that pragmatic people have is to show them that at least some of their beliefs are flat out false. They can say that they don’t care, but at least they can’t say that what they believe is true.

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Paul Copan explains some responses to postmodernism

Four articles from Paul Copan over at the UK site “BeThinking”. Each article responds to a different slogan that you might hear if you’re dealing with non-Christians on the street.

“That’s just your interpretation!”

Some of his possible responses:

  • Gently ask, ‘Do you mean that your interpretation should be preferred over mine? If so, I’d like to know why you have chosen your interpretation over mine. You must have a good reason.’
  • Remind your friend that you are willing to give reasons for your position and that you are not simply taking a particular viewpoint arbitrarily.
  • Try to discern if people toss out this slogan because they don’t like your interpretation. Remind them that there are many truths we have to accept even if we don’t like them.
  • ‘There are no facts, only interpretations’ is a statement that is presented as a fact. If it is just an interpretation, then there is no reason to take it seriously.

More responses are here.

“You Christians are intolerant!”

Some of his possible responses:

  • If you say that the Christian view is bad because it is exclusive, then you are also at that exact moment doing the very thing that you are saying is bad. You have to be exclusive to say that something is bad, since you exclude it from being good by calling it bad.
  • There is a difference, a clear difference between tolerance and truth. They are often confused. We should hold to what we believe with integrity but also support the rights of others to disagree with our viewpoint.
  • Sincerely believing something doesn’t make it true. You can be sincere, but sincerely wrong. If I get onto a plane and sincerely believe that it won’t crash then it does, then my sincerity is quite hopeless. It won’t change the facts. Our beliefs, regardless of how deeply they are held, have no effect on reality.

More responses are here.

“That’s true for you, but not for me!”

Some of his possible responses:

  • If my belief is only true for me, then why isn’t your belief only true for you? Aren’t you saying you want me to believe the same thing you do?
  • You say that no belief is true for everyone, but you want everyone to believe what you do.
  • You’re making universal claims that relativism is true and absolutism is false. You can’t in the same breath say, ‘Nothing is universally true’ and ‘My view is universally true.’ Relativism falsifies itself. It claims there is one position that is true – relativism!

More responses are here.

“If you were born in India, you’d be a Hindu!”

Some of his possible responses:

  • Just because there are many different religious answers and systems doesn’t automatically mean pluralism is correct.
  • If we are culturally conditioned regarding our religious beliefs, then why should the religious pluralist think his view is less arbitrary or conditioned than the exclusivist’s?
  • If the Christian needs to justify Christianity’s claims, the pluralist’s views need just as much substantiation.

More responses are here.

And a bonus: “How do you know you’re not wrong?“.

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Douglas Groothuis’ exhortation to Christians to study apologetics

Dr. Groothuis’ article lays out 6 “enemies” to the task of apologetics. I’ll look at the first 4.

Enemy #1: We don’t defend God’s existence and character to other people

If we really cared about God like we say we do, then we would care enough to defend his reputation in public. If we really loved our neighbor and believed that they need to follow Jesus in order to be reconciled with God, we would tell them that. But we don’t really care enough about God when his reputation is slammed in public. That’s what being a good friend to God and to our neighbor requires.

Groothuis writes:

Too many Christians don’t seem to care that Christianity is routinely ridiculed as outdated, irrational, and narrow-minded in our culture. They may complain that this “offends” them (just as everyone else is complaining that one thing or another “offends” them), but they do little to counteract the charges by offering a defense of the Christian world view in a variety of settings. Yet Scripture commands all Christians to have a reason for the hope that is within them and to present this with gentleness and respect to unbelievers (1 Peter 3:15).

Our attitude should be that of the Apostle Paul who was “greatly distressed” when he beheld the idolatry of sophisticated Athens. This zeal for the truth of God led him into a fruitful apologetic encounter with the thinkers gathered to debate new ideas (see Acts 17). It should for us as well. Just as God “so loved the world” that he sent Jesus to set us right with God (John 3:16), Jesus’ disciples should so love the world that they endeavor to reach the lost by presenting the Gospel and answering objections to the Christian faith (John 17:18).

Enemy #2: We separate Christianity from the reasons and evidence that ground it

Many Christians alter their theology in order to “get along” with other religions that conflict with ours. Instead of wrestling with the competing truth claims of other religions, some Christians just change the nature of our religion so that it is just our personal preference or cultural narrative, instead of being about truth. If the Bible claims that Jesus rose from the dead, we reinterpret that historically testable claim so that it’s only true for us. If the Bible says that the universe began to exist, we reinterpret that scientifically testable claim so that it is only true for us.

Groothuis says:

For some Christians, faith means belief in the absence of evidence and argument. Worse yet, for some faith means belief in spite of evidence to the contrary. The more irrational our beliefs, the better–the more “spiritual” they are… When Christians opt for irrationalism, they become just another “religious option,” and are classified along with Heaven’s Gate, the Flat Earth Society, and other intellectually impaired groups.

Enemy #3: We don’t take the time to study the reasons and evidence we have

We don’t make time for preparing a defense for our beliefs by leveraging the resources produced by Christian scholars.

Groothuis says:

Many Christians are not aware of the tremendous intellectual resources available to defend “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). This is largely because many major churches and parachurch organizations virtually ignore apologetics… Few evangelical sermons ever address the evidence for the existence of God, the resurrection of Jesus, the justice of hell, the supremacy of Christ, or the logical problems with nonChristian worldviews. Christian bestsellers, with rare exceptions, indulge in groundless apocalyptic speculations, exalt Christian celebrities (whose characters often do not fit their notoriety), and revel in how-to methods.

Enemy #4: We would rather be liked by people than be a friend to God

Somehow, we have gotten the idea that the purpose of Christianity is for us to be happy. Being popular and accepted by non-Christians makes us feel happy. Moral judgments are divisive, so we avoid making those. Exclusive salvation is divisive, so we avoid exclusivity. All of this so that our lives will be easier and happier.

Groothuis says:

In our pluralistic culture, a “live and let live” attitude is the norm, and a capitulation to social pressure haunts evangelicalism and drains its convictions. Too many evangelicals are more concerned about being “nice” and “tolerant” than being biblical or faithful to the exclusive Gospel found in their Bibles. Not enough evangelicals are willing to present and defend their faith in challenging situations, whether at school, at work, or in other public settings. The temptation is to privatize faith, to insulate and isolate it from public life entirely. Yes, we are Christians (in our hearts), but we have difficulty engaging anyone with what we believe and why we believe it. This is nothing less than cowardice and a betrayal of what we say we believe.

You can read the rest of the article here.

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The many meanings of the word “evolution”

This is from an essay by Stephen C. Meyer and Mike Keas. (H/T Justin Taylor)

Meyer and Keas caution people about answering questions about evolution until the term is clearly defined.

Here are their 6 meanings of the word:

  1. Evolution as Change Over Time
  2. Evolution as Gene Frequency Change
  3. Evolution as Limited Common Descent
  4. Evolution as a Mechanism that Produces Limited Change or Descent with Modification
  5. Evolution as Universal Common Descent
  6. Evolution as the “Blind Watchmaker” Thesis

Here is one that everyone accepts:

2. Evolution as Gene Frequency Change

Population geneticists study changes in the frequencies of alleles in gene pools. This very specific sense of evolution, though not without theoretical significance, is closely tied to a large collection of precise observations. The melanism studies of peppered moths, though currently contested, are among the most celebrated examples of such studies in microevolution. For the geneticist, gene frequency change is “evolution in action.”

And one that is controversial:

6. Evolution as the “Blind Watchmaker” Thesis

The “blind watchmaker” thesis, to appropriate Richard Dawkins’s clever term, stands for the Darwinian idea that all new living forms arose as the product of unguided, purposeless, material mechanisms, chiefly natural selection acting on random variation or mutation. Evolution in this sense implies that the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection acting on random variations (and other equally naturalistic processes) completely suffices to explain the origin of novel biological forms and the appearance of design in complex organisms. Although Darwinists and neo-Darwinists admit that living organisms appear designed for a purpose, they insist that such “design” is only apparent, not real, precisely because they also affirm the complete sufficiency of unintelligent natural mechanisms (that can mimic the activity of a designing intelligence) of morphogenesis. In Darwinism, the variation/selection mechanism functions as a kind of “designer substitute.” As Dawkins summarizes the blind watchmaker thesis: “Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind’s eye.”

For discussion purposes, I accept 1-4, which I think are consistent with the evidence. I deny 5 and 6 because they are inconsistent with the evidence.

It’s a good article to read to prepare yourself to discuss this with someone who is antagonistic to design. They may offer evidence for one definition of evolution that everyone accepts, then take it to be proof of a much more controversial definition of evolution. You have to get the definition clear first.

One last piece of advice. If you ever get asked this “do you believe in evolution” question – say, by a secular leftist anxious to label you as a moron – then you might consider going on the offensive, using this list of alternate science-related questions that actually affect public policy from David Harsanyi. Put your questioner on the defensive.

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William Lane Craig explains the purpose of prayer

This is from a recent Q&A from his web site Reasonable Faith.

Here’s the question:

My question is this: what is the point of prayer? Here prayer is defined as an attempt to communicate with God.

God either can read our thoughts or he cannot. If he can read our thoughts, there is surely no need to try to transmit or broadcast them to him as he already knows what they are. If he cannot read our thoughts, then any thought-based effort to contact him is futile. It doesn’t matter what type of prayer it is (eg petition, thanksgiving, repentance), there is no point in making any effort to send it up to him.

Of course, Christianity generally holds that God is omniscient and therefore able to read our thoughts, so the first of these scenarios would be the applicable one. The characteristic of omniscience makes the concept of prayer all the more redundant as it means God already knows any information that might be communicated to him, and exactly what the best thing is to do about it, so prayer could not in any way influence his decisions.

I am well aware that the Bible commands us to pray in numerous instances, but in the light of this argument this strikes me as an incredibly arbitrary thing for a good God to command, and thus makes the reliability of the Bible all the more questionable to me.

Currently it seems to me that the idea of prayer is most sensibly explained as an addictive placebo that gives people a greater sense of control over their circumstances than they actually have.

Dr. Craig’s response is long, but here is the key part:

Yes, God can read our thoughts. So how is that problematic for the spiritual discipline of prayer? You say, “there is surely no need to try to transmit or broadcast them to him as he already knows what they are.” Hold on, Joe! Seriously, do you think prayer is a matter of providing God information? You defined prayer as communication with God. You don’t communicate with another person through a third-person relationship. You enter into what has been called an “I-thou” relationship. You speak to another person, not just about that person. Your girlfriend or wife would be decidedly unimpressed if you rationalized never telling her “I love you” on the grounds that she already knows that! Anybody that obtuse is on his way to a break-up! Two people who are in love with each other want to speak to each other, to build an intimate relationship with each other.

So, sure, God reads my mind, and that enables me to pray to Him at any moment, even when audible prayers would be inappropriate. I can shoot up a thought-prayer, “Thank you, Lord!” or “God, give me wisdom!” at a moment’s notice. This is what people in a relationship do. Can you imagine anyone so obtuse as to say, “I don’t have to thank John for what he did for me because he already knows I’m grateful”? Or “I don’t have to apologize to Susan because she already knows I’m sorry”?

Moreover, did it not occur to you that such personal communication may be good for you? I-thou relationships open you up as a person, to make you a more loving, transparent, and vulnerable person. Prayer to God is the same way. God knows what is good for us and so wants us to talk to Him.

But in addition to that – yes, God can answer prayers:

You have a second, different objection to prayer: “omniscience makes the concept of prayer all the more redundant as it means God already knows any information that might be communicated to him, and exactly what the best thing is to do about it, so prayer could not in any way influence his decisions.” This is an objection to the efficacy of prayer. What the objection overlooks is that God can take prayers (or the lack thereof) into account in His providential planning of the world. Knowing that Joe would freely pray in a certain set of circumstances, God may actualize a world in which Joe’s prayers are answered; but had God known that Joe would not pray, God may have actualized something else instead. Prayers, then, are not an effort to change God’s mind. Rather God takes account of prayers in choosing which world to actualize. Prayers thus make a counterfactual difference: if I were not to pray, then something else would have been the case instead. Knowledge of this sort is called “middle knowledge,” and there’s a lot on this website about this fascinating topic.

I have to tell you that in a poll of some of my male apologist friends, we all struggle with prayer. I can’t say why they struggle with prayer, but in my case it’s just that I have trouble understanding how big God is and how much more he can do – especially when there are so many problems and I can’t work on them all myself. My personality is very practical. If something needs to be done, I do it. If something needs to be said, I say it. The best thing to do when any dragon appears is to attack it. The best thing to do when a princess is in distress is to rescue her. I do not call for help when there is anything for me to do. Prayer is like a last resort!

Having said that, I do understand that God wants to partner with me and that means that my perception of him changes as I work my way through the standard prayer practices… acknowledging who God is, thanking him for what I have, asking him for what I need, asking him to defend himself and act to make people aware of him and his character, etc. I do struggle with it, though. It’s not as easy for me to do as go to church or read the Bible. Apologetics, of course, is no problem for me! I wish someone would encourage me to pray.

I think the middle knowledge point he raised is key, though – God, prior to creating the world can factor in all of your prayers that you freely pray, because he foreknows everything you will do in the circumstances (time and place) that he places you in. So, have confidence. Even if he doesn’t answer you the way you expect, your prayers were heard.

Aside from all that, I do think that God is pleased when I pray about my concerns to him. It shows him how I am changing, and have his priorities in my mind, and not my own. If you are interested in pleasing God, then talking to him about your concerns and priorities is a good thing to do, especially as your concerns and priorities become more like his.

Filed under: Polemics, , ,

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