A Jigsaw Guide to Making Sense of the World
Many people look at this broken world and think we can't make sense of it all. However, like when were doing a jigsaw, if we want to see the big picture we don't need every piece of a puzzle. All we need is enough important parts that stand out and fit together.
Taken from A Jigsaw Guide to Making Sense of the World by Alex McLellan. Copyright(c) 2012 by Alex McLellan. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com.
My eldest daughter used to love doing jigsaws as a young girl, and one day I spoke to her about a puzzle she was working on. “Sophia, I wonder what the picture is?” She confidently responded, “Dad, it’s Cinderella!” I recognized a teachable moment and pointed out, “But you haven’t put all the pieces together.” She merely tilted her head and said, “Dad, it’s Cinderella!”
I faked a serious expression and challenged her again, this time with more emotion. “Sophia, wait, it’s not too late to change your mind. You can’t be sure because you haven’t completed the puzzle.” Sophia, who is used to her dad asking unusual questions, merely rolled her eyes the way only a daughter can. “Dad, it’s Cinderella and I’m sure because I have enough pieces in place.”
Clearly Sophia had seen the box and retained this picture in her mind. In fact, it would be easy to assume this was what she was referring to when I asked her about the big picture. But note what she said: “Dad, I have enough pieces in place.” Sophia’s attention had shifted from the box to the puzzle pieces. These were now responsible for her confidence about the big picture. My daughter had stumbled on something significant about this broken world, and I wanted to be sure she remembered it: We can know the truth—and we can know the truth without knowing everything.
I have lost count of the number of times a meaningful conversation has ground to a halt when someone shrugged his or her shoulders and said, “Well, we can’t really know because we’ll never have all the answers.” I normally agree that we’ll never find every answer to every question, but I like to get the conversation back on track. Many people look at this broken world and think we can’t make sense of it all. However, like when we’re doing a jigsaw, if we want to see the big picture we don’t need every piece of a puzzle. All we need is enough important parts that stand out and fit together.
Don’t be put off by things in life that don’t make sense or stumped by parts that don’t seem to fit. Turn your attention to what clearly stands out and start snapping things into place. While it can be frustrating to know we’ll never complete this puzzle, it’s worth the effort to try to see the big picture. When you’ve done enough to see enough, you’ll be confident you know the truth.
This is a jigsaw guide to making sense of the world, and it is a strategy that comes naturally. Transcending boundaries of age, language, intellect and culture, the jigsaw idea has connected with people around the world, and we can use it everywhere to talk about things that really matter. I’ve stood before the Scottish Parliament and used the jigsaw to make a cumulative case for the truth and reasonableness of the Christian worldview. When you hold this key to confident Christianity, you are prepared to share anywhere!
For a long time I’ve known that Christianity is more than endorsing tradition or subscribing to a religion because it offers a unique relationship with God that changes lives. I learned this firsthand as a young boy growing up in Edinburgh, Scotland. My parents, Alex and June McLellan, were unchurched and non-Christian. By the time I was three years old, my sister Paula and I joined the long list of children whose families had been fragmented by divorce. However, a few years later my parents became Christians, radically changed for the better and decided to get remarried—to each other. Witnessing this transformation got my attention and encouraged me to commit my life to Jesus Christ.
If Christianity is real, change is important, but I came to understand that change is not enough. The ultimate question is not “does it work?” but “is it true?” In my teenage years I wrestled with this question until an absence of answers made it easier to drift away from God, and this steady slide continued until difficult circumstances drew me back to faith. The sharp edges of life remind us that we cannot put off until tomorrow what we need to do today. I knew I had to decide where I stood in relation to God and his Son, Jesus Christ. I needed to switch my attention from the missing pieces of the puzzle to what I believed about the big picture. I realized my faith still stood—and stood strong—because it rang true. Therefore I was responsible to do something about it, and I wholeheartedly recommitted my life to Christ.
C.S. Lewis, one of the most influential Christian writers of the twentieth century, said, “If you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have been reasoned out of it by honest argument? Do not most people simply drift away?”1 I knew the danger of this, so I was determined to do whatever it took to strengthen my belief and add weight to the anchor in my soul: to know what I believed and the reasons I believed it. This was the first step on a lifelong journey. I knew I needed God’s help, so like the man in Mark’s Gospel I prayed, “[Lord,] I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24).
Today I am the founder and executive director of Reason Why International, traveling broadly to speak at churches, universities, schools, camps, conferences and a variety of outreach events and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. What changed? My overwhelming conviction that Christianity is true! How did this happen? I was not zapped by a supernatural bolt of understanding. Rather, I learned many good reasons to believe that a biblical perspective provides the right framework for life and resonates with reality.
Be Prepared to See It
Imagine the wonder of waking up every morning knowing you have discovered the meaning of life—and that it is good news. What would you do? Who would you tell? It may sound too good to be true, but this should be the confident claim of every Christian. Followers of Jesus Christ hold a belief that is supernaturally signed and sealed, but it is also a faith anchored in the real world. Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias has defended this message in some of the most prestigious religious, academic and political settings around the world. He notes, “God has a script. He has spoken of it in His Scriptures. Finding the script moves us closer to solving the mystery.”2
Life is mysterious, but God’s natural revelation is designed to shine light on the truth and point us in the direction of his supernatural revelation (Rom 1:20; Ps 19:1). As author Paul Little has said, “God expects us to believe in him based on comprehensible evidence. He gives us intelligent and logical reasons. He is saying, ‘Look at the natural world, even the universe or your own body and you will have ample evidence for belief.’”3
G.K. Chesterton is one of my favorite authors. A prolific and engaging writer, he has been described as a man of colossal genius, and his classic work Orthodoxy powerfully captures the role of reason in his journey to Christian faith. It also discusses the limits of responsibility when it comes to sharing one’s faith with others: “It is the purpose of the writer to attempt an explanation, not of whether the Christian faith can be believed, but of how he personally has come to believe it.”4 As a Christian, I am responsible to share why I believe what I believe with those who are willing to listen. I cannot make anyone believe anything, nor should I try. Yet like Chesterton I firmly believe that ultimate answers are within the reach of everyone who is prepared to look for them with open eyes and an open mind. We will never exhaust the wonders of this world but we can still grasp—and gasp at—the significance of the big picture.
Whenever we are disillusioned by missing pieces of the puzzle or parts that don’t seem to fit, we can turn our attention to things that do snap into place. There is a basic level of revelation that allows everyone to grasp something of the wonder of this world without ever exhausting the depths of knowledge available. Chesterton demonstrates this paradox powerfully: “The good news is so simple a child can understand it at once, and so subtle that the greatest intellects never quite get to the bottom of it.”5 We will never complete the puzzle of this world, but people of all ages and stages can do enough to see the big picture, and the jigsaw puzzle provides a simple mechanism that drives home this wonderful reality.
A Strategy That Comes Naturally
Earlier I described how my daughter was able to look at the jumbled pieces of a Cinderella puzzle and snap them into place. But what if she was able to do this only because she had seen the box? Sophia may have switched her attention to the puzzle pieces, yet it’s possible she was relying on her previous exposure to the picture to guide her. In real life we don’t have this advantage; we are not granted direct access to life’s big picture— which is the reason many people are so confused. And any illustration that offers hope of making sense of the real world must take this into consideration.
Let’s consider a situation where Sophia is confronted by a puzzle and hasn’t had access to the big picture. We’ll call this illustration jigsaw 2.0. Let’s say there was a mix-up at the factory and the Cinderella puzzle pieces were placed in a box with a picture of Sleeping Beauty on it. Sophia is given the jigsaw, but she does not have the picture on the box to guide her. Even worse, she doesn’t know she’s contending with the wrong box. This would be a frustrating experience, and the disparity would encourage her to eventually forget about the box and focus entirely on the puzzle pieces. What is curious—and crucial—is we would expect her to find a way to snap important pieces into place, perhaps enough to see the big picture begin to emerge.
Still, while Sophia lacks the right picture in her hand, she still has the right picture in her mind. She’s already familiar with Cinderella. Perhaps through sheer luck she stumbles on the fact that this is what the jigsaw represents. If so, her progress from that point on will still owe everything to having the right guide, albeit one planted in her mind rather than painted on a box. If this explains the outcome, then once again the illustration loses its luster. Skeptics will contend that in real life we don’t have access to the big picture—one painted on a box or planted in our mind.
We need to anticipate this objection and undercut it by going straight to jigsaw 3.0. This time Sophia is given a blank box with a Dinderella puzzle inside. (Dinderella is my imaginary addition to the princess hall of fame; I’m willing to develop her if Disney shows an interest.) Sophia has no previous knowledge of this character. There is no concrete image to guide her—in her mind or on a box. Yet we would still expect her to find a way to fit things together. Examining the broken puzzle would take more time, but she could still snap important pieces into place. With patience and perseverance, Sophia would do enough to start to glimpse the big picture, discovering the general nature of this new character without knowing her name or what she looks like, and this suggests that something else is going on.
Sophia has a basic level of understanding about the world—prior knowledge of the way princesses (or people) are and ought to be—and this helps her recognize particular patterns that stand out and fit together. She never really starts with a clean slate or works with a blank canvas; she has a fuzzy familiarity that allows her to look at a broken puzzle and naturally put pieces together. This admission does not undermine the jigsaw approach to making sense of the world. In fact, it provides the transition we need to illustrate why it works.
Sophia can look at a broken puzzle with a sense of the way things are and ought to be, and the jigsaw analogy suggests that we look at the world the same way. We do not start out in life with a clean slate, nor do we work with a blank canvas. We have a fuzzy familiarity with the world that helps us see that it is broken, and this allows us to put important pieces back together. There may be no concrete image in our minds to guide us, but there is a degree of awareness that makes particular pieces of the puzzle stand out and get our attention. Whether it’s Cinderella, Dinderella or making sense of the world, we have a basic ability to snap a number of important things into place, and if we can do enough to see the big picture we will have good reason to believe we know the truth.5
You don’t have to dig too deep to remind people that they do know some things are and ought to be, and some things ought not to be. But reason is never enough to convince those determined to resist a particular conclusion. I once spoke at a high school conference on ethical issues and one student was eager to speak to me afterward. He rejected my defense of absolute moral values, defiantly stating, “It all depends on the situation.” I said I appreciated that there are gray areas when it comes to ethics, adding, “But surely we can know that particular acts—for example, the torture of innocent children for fun—are absolutely wrong.” He hesitated before shaking his head. “I couldn’t say it was absolutely wrong.” This kind of steely determination to turn away from an objective moral value, one that slaps us in the face, was disturbing, but he was ready to do what was necessary to keep up the pretense of his moral autonomy.
The encounter reminded me of a story told by one of my philosophy professors. J. P. Moreland is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, and he once had a similar dialogue with a student who was holding tight to everyone’s right to do what they want. Eventually J. P. pretended to end the conversation and walk away, stopping only long enough to pick up the student’s music player on his way out the door. As the young man rose to his feet in protest, J. P. paused and asked why this was a problem.6 In practice we do not really support everyone’s right to do what they want, but we like to superficially suggest it whenever it’s convenient, using it as a thinly veiled warning for people to leave us alone.
Identifying examples of absolute right and absolute wrong is a powerful way to start talking about things that really matter. We can make a good case for the way the world ought to be and ought not to be. It is worth sounding a note of caution: this will take us into sensitive areas, so we need to tread carefully—but the fact is we need to tread. There is a natural order that we can recognize, standards above and beyond us that serve as an ultimate guide to putting things right. Even Greek philosopher Plato said, “In heaven … there is laid up a pattern for it, methinks, which he who desires may behold, and beholding, may set his own house in order.”7 So our goal should be to discern and learn from this heavenly sense of direction, snapping things into place on earth so we can see the big picture and start living in light of the truth.
The challenge is that every religion claims to grant such heavenly insight, and many peer groups will pull together to defend what is common sense, at least to them. They may even point to a few pieces of the puzzle that seem to go together and support their view. A small sample of life can give you a glimpse of the big picture but it can also distort it, and when someone has drifted off course we need to try to steer them back in the right direction. Raising questions and reflecting on critical issues encourages people to stand back and take stock, and we can share the reasons we believe our worldview fills in critical gaps and captures the big picture better than anything else. Our goal is to arrive at that “Eureka!” moment when someone starts to make sense of the world. But a number of obstacles stand in the way.
The First Obstacle: A Random World
If you were presented with a completely random assortment of broken puzzle pieces, there would be no point trying to fit things together. You could amuse yourself by creating pretty patterns, but there would be nothing reasonable or rational for you to discover. The first obstacle relates to the fact that some people look at the world the same way and come to the same conclusion. Influential atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1950, and he famously said we are simply “the accidental outcome of a collocation of atoms.”8 If this is true, the world is only a random collection of broken parts that will not make sense in any satisfying way, and it’s not worth the effort to look for ultimate answers when the world is the result of cosmic disorder. But it’s worth considering how an accidental outcome of a collocation of atoms is able to figure out that he is an accidental outcome of a collocation of atoms. As John Gray has argued, “If Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true … the human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth,”9 and the outworking of atheism is that “humans cannot be other than irrational. Curiously, this is a conclusion that few rationalists have been ready to accept.”10 Gray has written several books on politics and philosophy, and his honesty about the logical consequences of atheism is admirable, particularly since he seems to hold an atheistic outlook on life.11 One cannot help but wonder about the self-defeating nature of Russell’s statement. Chesterton remarked on this kind of curiosity (with a smile, I am sure): “Descartes said, ‘I think; therefore I am!’ The philosophic evolutionist reverses and negates this epigram. He says, ‘I am not; therefore I cannot think.’”12 However, let us be gracious and give Russell (and Gray?) the benefit of the doubt, thinking for a moment about this natural perspective, since it drives the anchor of the first obstacle deep into the ground.
Seeing the world without God’s glasses means seeing reality as a random array of broken bits and pieces and, as a consequence, our lives as insignificant pieces of a meaningless puzzle. This worldview has special prominence in our culture. Indeed, it shapes many people’s outlook on life, and if it’s true, we are simply the byproduct of a cosmic accident. I enjoy standing up in schools and being open and honest about what this means for young people today: You are a grown-up germ! What surprises me is that a secular education that preaches this with such passion wrinkles its collective forehead when students take it to heart and start acting like it. We rebuke rowdy students for behaving like animals—after indoctrinating them with the belief that they are animals. What should we expect from an evolved bacterium that has learned to survive by selfishly promoting its own ends and eradicating everything that stands in its way?
Despite this embarrassing ancestry, atheists still like to inject meaning into a meaningless existence, as the Philosopher’s Magazine cofounder Julian Baggini demonstrates: “What most atheists do believe is that although there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and it is physical, out of this stuff comes minds, beauty, emotions, moral values—in short the full gamut of phenomena that gives richness to human life.”13 A natural ability to recognize this world of wonders comes as no surprise to those who hold a Christian worldview, but the real issue is that a godless perspective has no philosophical justification for it. In other words, Baggini et al. are writing existential checks their worldview cannot cash.
I am thrilled when people have an opportunity to hear what atheism has to say, particularly when Christians can stand on the same platform and point out the logical consequences of this worldview. Atheism results in a world where there is no basis for rationality, human beings have no intrinsic value, life has no absolute meaning, and there is no hope for the future—all beliefs that strike us as deeply problematic. It is not just that these conclusions are uncomfortable; they completely contradict our experience and fall short of our expectations.
The idea that the world is meaningless does not sit comfortably with us, and this should raise a red flag. To suggest that we are simply an insignificant part of a meaningless picture troubles us and reveals something very important. We do not live like this is true, we do not want to live like this is true, and we are unable to live like this is true. So it is worth considering why we should believe this is true when we seem to be wired for so much more. Turn your attention for a moment to the Christian worldview and you discover there is a basis for rationality, every person has absolute value, life has real meaning, and there is hope for the future. When you discover that a number of important arrows are pointing in one direction, it makes sense to pay attention. Atheism, on the other hand, seems to be pointing us in the wrong direction. We need to engage those whose minds have been subtly saturated by this way of thinking to share the reasons it does not fit and is not true. Christians are called to invest their hearts, minds and souls in meeting this challenge, and when we share the good news it is tremendously exciting to see eternal hope rise from the ashes of ultimate despair.
G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis unmask the insufficiency of a godless worldview grounded in meaninglessness, pointing out, “Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do not fit this world,”14 and “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”15 We are born with the expectation that the world ought to make sense, life really means something, and we live in hope of finding ultimate answers. Naturalism, curiously enough, does not come naturally, and despite the pressure of a secular society that indirectly promotes these “values,” our internal compass stubbornly steers us in another direction. This overcomes the suggestion that there is no point in trying to make sense of the world—there is—or that we have no hope of finding ultimate answers—we do. So we are ready to move on and consider the next obstacle to a jigsaw guide to making sense of the world: what about the picture on the box?
The Second Obstacle: A World Without A Box
There are generally two ways to tackle a jigsaw puzzle: top-down and bottom-up. The top-down method is when you start with a big picture and search for puzzle pieces that correspond to it. The bottom-up approach is when you immediately start trying to snap the puzzle pieces into place. Typically you employ both methods at the same time, but when it comes to solving the puzzle of the world we will consider each in turn. The top-down approach overcomes the second obstacle (a world without a box), and we will return to the bottom-up approach when we focus on the third obstacle (a world of broken pieces).
The beauty of the top-down approach is that it addresses the concerns of someone who looks at life and wonders how to find the right guide to making sense of the world. Many people assume we live in a world without the box, yet many others are looking for the right box to fit this world. Look around and you see that there is no lack of ultimate guides on offer, but how do you know which one is the right one—if any of them are? The best way to begin is to choose one and put it to the test. Every worldview claims to paint the big picture, representing the right way to see the real world; therefore it should connect with life’s broken pieces. The more it corresponds to critical things that stand out in this world, the more we will be inclined to believe it is accurate—and truly reflects the big picture. So when you hear someone say we cannot make sense of the world because we cannot be sure we have the right guide, ask them: why not try one to see how it measures up?
All individuals have a worldview, whether or not they realize it, and it’s possible to put your worldview to the test to see what it’s made of. No one can boast of twenty-twenty vision when it comes to making sense of the world, but we can discover the extent of our shortsightedness. Francis Schaeffer was a Christian author and speaker who was responsible for starting L’Abri Fellowship, a community that has grown into an international network of study centers for those seeking answers to life’s ultimate questions. He noted, “People’s presuppositions lay a grid for all they bring forth into the external world. Their presuppositions also provide a basis for their values and therefore the basis for their decisions. ‘As a man thinketh, so is he.’”16 Internal forces are at work that taint the way we see things, so we do not approach the world directly as a blank slate, or tabula rasa,17 but neither do we have the power to “create a world or environment from scratch and then live in it,” says R. C. Sproul. “Rather we step into a world and culture that already exists, and we learn to interact with it.”18 There is an objective world out there, existing in spite of us and independent from us. And while some things are out of focus and out of reach, there are times when we can directly engage with the world and see it as it is.
We all have a worldview, but this does not mean we are locked in to a particular perspective. Any disconnect between what we expect and what we experience will raise the question: does my worldview really measure up? Earlier I pointed out the hollow outcome of viewing the human race as a byproduct of a chemical collision, and some people even suggest that it more closely resembles a virus. “The human species is now so numerous as to constitute a serious planetary malady … a plague of people.”19 If this big picture is true, our lives do not add up to much. Those who hold to naturalism do not shout this from the rooftops but it is the logical outworking of their worldview. It presents the picture on the box and suggests that it is up to us (or others) whether to assign value to human existence. We should be thankful that most atheists who hold this view do not practice what they preach.
Those with the power to promote this kind of godless ideology have demonstrated how damaging it can be. The pages of human history were deeply stained when Hitler attached his political ambition to a philosophy inspired by the writings of atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche preached Darwin’s survival of the fittest, arguing that our creed should be to ensure the evolution of human beings and the realization of their full potential through the “will to power.”20 Hitler embraced this ideology and put it into practice, combining it with his Darwinian ideals focused on survival of the strong.21 When people talk about survival of the fittest, they tend to forget the other side of the coin: eradication of the weak.22 Hitler did not, and six million people lost their lives when they were deemed worse than worthless and weeded out of the human gene pool.
Many of Darwin’s defenders argue that any social application of his theories is a misapplication, but on what basis? How can you defend the red tooth and claw of the animal kingdom and then suggest that it does not apply to us? Peter Singer is an ethicist from Princeton University who would argue that this is simply speciesism: “a prejudice or attitude of bias toward the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of another species.”23 Naturalism is a worldview that runs into trouble when we try to use it consistently as a guide to life, and our persistent belief in human life as absolutely valuable is a serious stumbling block to its success. It presents the kind of big picture that does not make sense of the world, others or ourselves, and this is a good reason to reject it and look for another to take its place.
The Christian worldview presents a radically different top-down approach. Rather than undermine the belief that human life is absolutely valuable, the biblical perspective promotes it and provides a reasonable basis for it. Every human being is made by God, for God and in the image of God. This means every person is stamped with absolute value, and it is not up to us to assign value to human beings or take it away. This cornerstone of Christian belief has motivated acts of kindness and sacrifice throughout history. Jesus himself set the ultimate standard of altruism by giving everything—literally—for everyone else. This is the kind of behavior that is generally lauded and applauded, deemed to be a good thing, even described as something we ought to do—but why? A popular cosmetics company coined a phrase that inadvertently answers this question and captures the ethos of the Christian worldview: “Because you’re worth it!”
The value of human life, in real terms, is one of the most fundamental issues we can address, and to dismiss the fact that Christianity explains it and sustains it is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. We cannot deny that there are difficult pieces of the puzzle, whatever our worldview, but the jigsaw encourages us to build on the things that do make sense and do the best we can fitting the other pieces together. If we have enough pieces in place, we can be confident we know the truth.
The Third Obstacle: A World of Broken Pieces
We now turn our attention to the third obstacle, switching to a bottom-up approach to making sense of the world. Instead of starting with the picture on the box that represents a particular worldview, we focus directly on the broken pieces of life to see whether anything stands out and gets our attention.
Just as you can look at an ordinary puzzle and pick out corners, straight edges, and colorful details, so we can naturally identify things in the real world that help us understand more about life and see it in its true context. This chapter has already considered the belief that human beings are absolutely valuable, working from the top down, and we seem to know this is true from the bottom up, without referring to a big picture. There is something special about a person that sets him or her apart from other physical things, and our natural ability to recognize this helps us build a worldview that resembles reality.
Another important piece of the puzzle that stands out and shapes our understanding relates to the world and where it came from. Consider the origin of the universe. There is good reason to believe the universe started to exist, and if it did, then the universe must have a cause.24 The universe could not have brought itself into existence, since it was not around at the time, so we need to posit the existence of something outside the universe, to be responsible. While this sounds reasonable, it is often viewed as fighting talk among those who have closed their minds to such a possibility.
When you hear the statement “the universe came into existence from nothing,” you cannot assume that truly means nothing. I encountered serious equivocation on this issue in a debate at the National Law Library of Scotland. Pointing out the problem with a universe that came into existence from nothing without a cause, one of my opponents, a physics teacher, accused me of ignorance: “You don’t understand what nothing is. If you know a bit of physics, nothing is not nothing, it’s things emerging in and out of existence.”25 I could counter that absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence. The belief that things can “emerge in and out of existence” moves beyond the test tube, since we have no physical apparatus to confirm something is out of existence, and if you mean what you say it is always better to say what you mean.
Yet many people, some physicists included, will do anything to resist the conclusion that something exists outside the physical universe. Equivocation is employed to balance the scientific evidence that suggests the universe started from nothing with a philosophical presupposition that nothing can exist outside the physical universe—to start it. In other words, you can talk about a big bang while refusing to concede there had to be a big banger. The statement “the universe started from nothing” must be subtly manipulated in light of the profound consequences. Otherwise you are effectively admitting something (or someone) incredibly powerful (and personal) was responsible. As Stephen Hawking, one of the world’s giants of science, has admitted, “Many people do not like the idea that time has a beginning, probably because it smacks of divine intervention.”26
Working from the bottom up, we know that human life is absolutely valuable, a universe that began to exist must have a cause, and particular human actions and attitudes seem to be right, that is, consider the belief that we ought to have a basic level of respect for other people. This moral value has not always been promoted, but wherever it has gone wrong it has resulted in serious damage until powerful forces emerged to try to put it right. It seems to be the way things ought to be. Philosophers may debate the merits of objective morality, but I take comfort from the fact that those who deny it continue to demonstrate it. Michel Foucault was a twentieth-century French philosopher, one of the leading lights in a movement to break free from absolute moral values, yet he could not restrain himself in reacting to the immorality of France’s war in Algeria.27 This brought him into conflict with others who shared his worldview, as they knew he was undermining his own position by indirectly suggesting we can make sense of the world and recognize the way things ought to be.
As you start putting the pieces together to make sense of this broken world, the first thing to do is always the thing to do first: start with what you do know. I was granted the opportunity to do this at the Scottish Parliament, and my confidence was not based on the belief that I know it all (I do not know it all, and I know that I don’t). I was prepared to share because I knew I could put the pieces together and make a cumulative case for the truth and reasonableness of the Christian worldview. There remain many, many things that I do not know, but what I do know clearly stands out.
Consider the universe—where did it come from? I believe in God because something from someone is more probable than something from nothing.
Consider Jesus of Nazareth—a man who lived in a remote place with little money, no political power and no military might. He never wrote a book, taught for only three years and yet turned the history of the world upside-down. I believe that the life, teaching and impact of Jesus Christ confirms he is the Son of God. Consider our experience—a desire for significance in a universe where we are less than a speck, a desire for relationship in a world that is socially broken and fragmented, and a desire for permanence in a life that is fleeting. I believe the Bible makes sense when it says we were made by God (significance), we were created to know God (relationship) and God wants us to spend eternity with him (permanence). As G. K. Chesterton said, the fact that we do not fit this world is the best evidence that we were made for another world, and Christianity offers the reason why.
It’s fascinating that in such a diverse and complex world we share an amazing level of agreement about the way the world is and ought to be. Not that we agree on everything or automatically rubber-stamp whatever appears to be the consensus. Consensus (or what we believe the consensus to be) can often take us in the wrong direction. However, particular beliefs persist and seem to have a transcendent quality; they deserve our special attention. For example, those who experience the bitter taste of injustice feel a searing pain that suggests something significant: the reversal of a universal standard. As Chesterton observed, “Reason and justice grip the remotest and the loneliest star…. On plains of opal, under cliffs cut out of pearl, you would still find a notice-board, ‘Thou shall not steal!’”28 C. S. Lewis extended this thought when he remarked, “Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five.”29 In cases where such “universal” standards break down, we generally believe these countercultures to be the result of a broken understanding, and this is reinforced when those who hold such views are willing to reject them in favor of embracing another way of looking at the world.30
The Fourth Obstacle: A World Out of Reach
We can empathize with those who think making sense of the world is a pointless exercise. The scale of the problem can be overwhelming, and that’s why some people choose to stand back and hold their head in their hands. When we don’t know what to do, sometimes it’s easier to do nothing. However, a jigsaw guide helps us overcome the fourth obstacle, grasping a world that seems out of reach. The answer? Think big by starting small. Do not be daunted; just look for the next piece of the puzzle. Take hold of what stands out in this world and then consider what comes next.
There’s a good illustration of this in the movie What About Bob? The main character, played by Bill Murray, suffers from numerous phobias and visits a respected psychiatrist who helps him move toward recovery by introducing him to his latest book, Baby Steps. Suddenly all of Bob’s greatest fears are reduced to bite-sized chunks, small enough to swallow, and he’s able to move forward and overcome them (here’s the comic twist) by breaking everything down into baby steps. When Bob leaves the psychiatrist’s office he doesn’t know how he’ll get home, but he’s willing to put one foot in front of the other, which is enough to get him where he needs to go. If we are going to make sense of the world we need to take it one step at a time. Think big by starting small, and put the pieces in place one at a time.
What does this look like? Take one important piece we’ve already identified: a universe that started to exist needs a cause. This raises the next question, or presents the next piece of the puzzle: what kind of cause? The universe that exists is incredibly ordered and complex, which makes it hard to believe that it’s the result of unguided forces.31 While it is possible that such a finely tuned universe is the accidental outcome of a cosmic explosion, science—as well as our own experience—tells us that order does not tend to come from disorder.32 Therefore, it is more reasonable to believe that some kind of intelligence is responsible, so we can fit these two things together and get a better idea about the big picture: our universe was created by an intelligence that is out of this world.
I remember meeting a medical doctor who surprised me when he said, “Hemoglobin encouraged me to believe in God.” The function of this protein in our blood shouted purpose and design, loud enough to get his attention. Even among those who eventually go a different direction, many are willing to admit that the evidence initially supports this conclusion.33 Much in this world strongly suggests that an intelligent agent is necessary to make sense of it all, and with every piece that fits together there is more reason to believe it is true.
It is exciting when you use a jigsaw guide to making sense of the world and start to see things taking shape, and I enjoy turning to popular atheist Richard Dawkins to reinforce the way things seem to fit together. A scientist with a gift for communicating with the general public, Dawkins seems to have taken on responsibility for shooting down the reasonable foundation for all religious belief. Yet even in his book The God Delusion he cannot deny the remarkable truth that the planet earth resides in “the Goldilocks zone.” In the story of Goldilocks and the three bears, the little girl wanders into the forest and ends up in the home of three bears. She decides to sample the three bowls of porridge on the table. The first bowl is too hot, the second too cold, so she turns to the last bowl and exclaims it is just right! This picture of perfection has been used to describe the earth’s position in relation to the sun, since “it is not too hot and not too cold, but just right.”34 Hence the Goldilocks zone. The science behind this is incredibly complex, and while Dawkins and others try to put it down to unbelievable good fortune on our part,35 the probability of this naturally occurring—as the product of unguided forces—is off the chart. 36
For a scientist who should always make an inference to the best explanation, Dawkins seems determined to believe in anything but God. But for those who are more open-minded there should be a growing sense that something else is going on: someone or something out there must be responsible for it all. The Goldilocks zone is a great piece of this broken world that stands out and gets our attention.
This kind of revelation stirs a sense of excitement in my soul. People are not condemned to look at the stars and wonder, “Is anybody out there?” We can make sense of the world and begin to see things clearly. There are good reasons to believe that life and intelligence out there are responsible for what we see down here. Do not look at the world and be overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. Take baby steps toward finding the solution. Think big by starting small.
Christianity is entirely reasonable and we need to share good reasons to believe it, but making the intellectual case clears away only one level of obstacles. There are still reasons to reject the big picture, and among the most powerful are moral, emotional and spiritual reasons.
Moral resistance: Multiple barriers stand in the way of someone hearing, understanding and embracing the Christian worldview. So when it comes to knowing how much is enough to see the big picture, Christians are responsible only to prayerfully and practically do their best and trust God to take care of the rest. We need to live as a good example of the truth, speak in a way that makes people think about the truth, and allow God to deal with the heart of the matter—the matter of the heart. 37
Jesus understood this better than anyone, and he exposed the underlying obstacles in his conversation with a rich young ruler (Mt 19:16-22). This man appeared to be ready to follow Jesus, having overcome the intellectual obstacles and realizing he spoke the truth; however, his instructions to “go sell your possessions and give to the poor” identified the greater issue and the real stumbling block. Instead of doing what Jesus asked, the man turned and walked away. You do not have to be rich to count the cost of following Christ because we all understand the aversion to giving up what we cling to in life. God requires us to let go and let him take control, while we are determined to hang on to our life with white knuckles. Moral obstacles are often what really stand in the way of people embracing the truth of the Christian worldview, and when this is the case no reason to believe will ever be good enough.
Hitting back in hurt: Emotions are another powerful force at work in our lives, and when we have been deeply wounded in some way it is not unusual to take this out on God. I have read the arguments of some of Christianity’s fiercest critics, and what they lack in substance they generally make up for with rage or sarcasm. A degree of knowledge about God can encourage this response, because God has revealed that he chooses to make himself vulnerable to our actions and attitudes; people can cause God pain (Gen 6:6; Eph 4:30). Among those who resist him the most are those trying to hurt him the best. C. S. Lewis was reflecting on his own experience when he said, “All that stuff about the cosmic sadist was not so much the expression of thought as of hatred. I was getting from it the only pleasure a man in anguish can get; the pleasure of hitting back.”38
Other people may be less vindictive but equally scarred by life’s circumstances. They would rather resist God if it means they can hold on to their pain or anger. Christianity offers forgiveness from God, but it also demands that we be willing to forgive others (and ourselves). When the greater attraction is holding a grudge against those responsible for our deepest hurts, emotional barriers will stand between us and doing what it takes to embrace the Christian worldview.
Spiritual blindness: Another obstacle that leads to resistance, perhaps starting out as a moral or emotional barrier, is spiritual blindness. The Bible says everyone has a natural inclination to resist God’s truth and revelation in the world (Jn 3:19-20), so you could say we are all spiritually shortsighted. No one can see the truth until God supernaturally makes the truth known. However, some people persist in denying God’s revelation (and prompting) for so long that their hearts become hardened (Ps 95:8; Heb 3:8). This is not irrevocable, since God will open eyes and reveal the truth to all those who genuinely seek it (Jer 29:12-13), but when spiritual blindness stands in the way there is nothing more you can do or say but pray.
When I was a student at seminary I found a part-time job gardening for a retired couple, and while the lady was very warm and friendly to me her husband had a strong revulsion toward Christianity. It was intense in a way I had never witnessed before. I could not even raise the subject of my studies without him hardening his expression and turning away, as if something seized him from within. There was no willingness to discuss anything related to the Christian worldview, and he made me think of a seafarer determined to remain onboard as captain of his ship even when that ship was sinking. The tragedy was that this man wasn’t in good health, and in real terms his ship was sinking, but he seemed determined to grit his teeth and resist anything I could do or say.
While I look back on this I regret never breaking through this barrier to talk about things that really matter, but I take heart from the fact that no one is out of reach of the truth. In fact, the apostle Paul, one of the greatest ambassadors of the Christian message, started out as one of its fiercest opponents. A violent persecutor of Christians, he was determined to eradicate Christian faith from the world, and there is no natural explanation for why his life completely turned around. That is why Paul’s conversion has been long regarded as a substantial evidence for the truth of.39 I can only hope that the power of God was at work in this man’s life too, able to turn things around in time.
The best worldview is always the one that resonates with reality. While some people automatically rule out anything supernatural, there is no valid reason to do so—without demonstrating an antisupernatural bias. We should be open to natural and supernatural explanations as we try to make sense of the world, and the Christian worldview draws from both realms to put the pieces together. Seeing the big picture is never enough for someone to embrace Christianity and follow Jesus Christ; however, demonstrating that it is the best way to make sense of the world will do three important things: those who grasp it will have reason to hold on to it, those who seek truth will have reason to consider it, and those who reject it will have reason to regret it (and hopefully take time to reconsider).
Putting the Pieces Together
G. K. Chesterton became convinced that Christianity was true and reflective of the real world based on “an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts.”40 Certainly Chesterton’s faith was built on more than his intellect, but this reasonable foundation gave him tremendous confidence in the truth of the gospel and enabled him to successfully share his faith with others. Chesterton effectively used a jigsaw guide to making sense of the world to anchor his belief and undercut popular arguments that life’s big questions were too hard or too heavy. On the contrary, ultimate answers are available, and while people have different levels of access to the world there is sufficient evidence—within the world and within us—to point us in the right direction (see Rom 1:20). Identify things that stand out in the world, start putting the pieces together, and when you have enough pieces of the puzzle in place you can be confident that you see the big picture.
A jigsaw guide to making sense of the world will not answer every question, but it will help you start putting the pieces together so you can make sense of this broken world and see the big picture. Listen before you leap into a conversation that counts, learn to talk about things that really matter and be prepared to share the reason why the Christian worldview resonates with reality.
Alex McLellan is founder and executive director of Reason Why International and serves as an associate with RZIM Europe.
1 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: Scribner, 1952), 109.
2 Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Other Gods (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2000), 128.
3 Paul Little, How to Give Away Your Faith, 2nd ed. (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 22.
4 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Colorado Springs, CO: Shaw Books, 2001), xxiii.
5 A jigsaw guide to making sense of the world could be described as “exploratory particularism.” See Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, ed., J. P. Moreland & William Lane Craig (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 99-102.
6 J.P. Moreland, Love Your God with All Your Mind (Colorado Springs: NavPress 1997), 153.
7 Plato, “Knowledge and Virtue” in Great Traditions in Ethics, ed. Theodore Denise, Sheldon Peterfreund and Nicholas White (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1999), 21.
8 Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” in Why I Am Not A Christian, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957), 107.
9 John Gray, Straw Dogs, 3rd ed. (London: Granta Publications, 2003), 26.
13 Julian Baggini, Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 6.
14 Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 116.
15Mere Christianity, 106.
16 Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1976), 19.
17 John Locke, the seventeenth -century British philosopher, coined this term to describe the belief that the mind at birth is a blank tablet and the only input is ideas of sensation and reflection. See Nicholas P. Wolterstorff, “The Essay” in Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, ed. Robert Audi, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 506.
18 R.C. Sproul, The Consequences of Ideas (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2000), 9.
19 Gray (quoting James Lovelock), Straw Dogs, 6.
20 Friedrich Nietzsche, "The Transvaluation of Values" in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings, ed. Louis P. Pojman, 3rd ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1998), 161-168.
21 “The Fuhrer exhorted them to have no mercy. ‘Might is right.’” See John Toland, Adolf Hitler (New York: First Anchor Books Edition, 1992), 544.
22 “Over and over he preached his pseudo-Darwinist sermon of nature’s way: conquest of the weak by the strong.” Ibid., 226.
23 Peter Singer, “All Animals Are Equal,” Morality and Moral Controversies, ed. John Arthur, 5th ed., (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall 1981), 134.
24 This presents one form of the cosmological argument for the existence of God.
25 One of my opponents, a physics teacher, made this statement during a debate at the National Law Library in Edinburgh, Scotland, October 2009.
26 Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam, 1998), 49.
27 James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 185.
28 G.K. Chesterton, The Annotated Innocence of Father Brown (New York: Dover Publications, 1998), 35.
29Mere Christianity, 5.
30 See Don Richardson, Peace Child (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2005) and Lords of the Earth (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2008) as good examples of those standards that generally reflect a broken society in need of repair.
31 “The theistic conclusion is not logically coercive, but it can claim serious consideration as an intellectually satisfying understanding of what would otherwise be unintelligible good fortune.” John Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press 1998), 10.
32 The second law of thermodynamics, or the law of entropy, confirms that order tends towards disorder.
33 “The process that Darwin discovered … does all the work of explaining the means/ends economy of biological nature that shouts out ‘purpose’ or ‘design’ at us.” See “The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality,” On the Human: A project of the National Humanities Center, www.onthehuman.org/2009/11/the-disenchanted-naturalists-guide-to-reality.
34 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam Press, 2006), 135.
36 John Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (Oxford, England: Lion Books 2007), 69.
37 I use the word heart in the biblical sense—that is it applies to the essence of the whole person, not simply the emotions.
38 C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: Harper One, 2001), p.52.
39 F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 76.