Turning the Tables
I had read biblical commentaries and books on systematic theology. But that hadn’t deepened the quality of my faith. I was like someone who had read books about France but had never visited. Or someone who had read about falling in love but had never experienced it.
“O hang the common world!” The large, somewhat sullen undergraduate couldn’t take it any longer. He slammed his fist on the table and rudely interrupted the professor’s speech.
“Let’s give it a bad name first and then hang it,” the professor went on, not realizing the mood had suddenly changed. “A puppy with hydrophobia would probably struggle for life while we killed it; but if we were kind we should kill it. So an omniscient god would put us out of our pain. He would strike us dead.”
“Why doesn’t he strike us dead?” the student asked.
“He is dead himself,” the philosopher said.1
So unfolds G. K. Chesterton’s dramatic story of Innocent Smith and the professor of philosophy at Cambridge University in Manalive—a brilliant example of one style of apologetics that we need more of today. It is a sad if understandable fact that the extraordinary popularity of C. S. Lewis in the English‑speaking world of apologetics has led to the eclipse of other great Christian advocates who deserve equal attention. And surely among the foremost would be Blaise Pascal, Søren Kierkegaard and G. K. Chesterton. Lewis himself would have been the first to admit where he relied on them, but we also need to appreciate where they each have strengths that complement Lewis’s own great arguments.
Dr. Emerson Eames in Chesterton’s story is the distinguished professor of philosophy and warden of (the fictional) Brakespeare College, Cambridge, and the world’s leading authority on pessimistic philosophers such as Schopenhauer. He had finished a busy day of undergraduate affairs and was relaxing in his rooms, and as always was open to his friends and favorite students, one of whom was Innocent Smith.
Holding his glass of port, the warden went on talking about the philosophies of pessimism until suddenly he started. Dr. Eames was looking down the cold, small, black barrel of a cocked revolver.
“I’ll help you out of your hole, old man,” Smith said with a rough tenderness. “I’ll put the puppy out of his pain, as you suggested.”
For several hours they had been discussing philosophical pessimism and logical responses to it, until something in the student had snapped. He brandished a gun and threatened to put the professor out of his misery in the very way the professor had been talking about. Quickly, the professor made a run and leapt out of the window clumsily, landing precariously on a flying buttress below his window. From there, they continued the conversation tensely, with the student brandishing his gun, ramming home the professor’s own earlier points, and the professor begging to be allowed to live.
“Let me come off this place. . . . I can’t bear it.”
“I rather doubt it will bear you,” Smith said, referring to the delicate stonework. “But before you break your neck, or I blow out your brains . . . I want the metaphysical point cleared up. Do I understand that you want to get back to life?’
“I’d give anything to get back,” the terrified professor cried.
“Give anything!” cried Smith. “Then blast your impudence, give us a song!” The startled professor obliged, singing a song of gratitude for existence. Satisfied, Smith then fired two barrels over the professor’s head and let him climb to safety on the ground.
To the professor’s great surprise when they were back together again, Smith then asked for his indulgence. “I must ask you to realize that I have just had an escape from death.”
“You had an escape from death?” the professor said with irritation.
“O don’t you understand, don’t you understand?” Smith cried. “I had to do it, Eames. I had to prove you wrong, or die. . . . The thing I saw shining in your eyes when you dangled from that bridge was enjoyment at life and not ‘the Will to Live.’ What you knew when you sat on that damned gargoyle was that the world, when all is said and done, is a wonderful and beautiful place; I know it, because I knew it at the same minute.’”2
Like his jesting Innocent Smith, Chesterton was out to drive his generation to see the consequences of the philosophical positions they were holding—philosophies that were neither true nor in the best interests of their own proponents. In Chesterton’s own words, he was trying to “hold a pistol to the head of Modern Man. But I shall not use it to kill him. Only to bring him to life.”3 Few of us could ever match GKC’s unique blend of wit, playfulness and deep seriousness, but even from this brief extract from his story, the logic of his argument should be clear. The world authority on philosophical pessimism had merely dabbled in pessimistic ideas. He had never followed his own arguments through to the end to see where they led to—and when he did, they showed him what he really believed and what it was he really treasured—life, and a very different view than the one he had been teaching.
Chesterton’s approach is an example of the first of two broad responses to the anatomy of unbelief outlined in chapter five: the broadly negative strategy of “table turning.” This strategy turns on the fact that all arguments cut both ways. It therefore proceeds by taking people seriously in terms of what they say they believe and disbelieve, and then pushing them toward the consequences of their unbelief. The strategy assumes that if the Christian faith is true, their unbelief is not finally true, and they cannot fully be true to it. At some point the falseness shows through, and at that moment they will experience extreme cognitive dissonance, so that it is no longer in their best interest to continue to persist in believing what they believed until then. When they reach this point, they are facing up to their dilemma, and they will be open to rethinking their position in a profound way.
In chapter seven, we will examine the second approach: the broadly positive strategy of “signal triggering.” This strategy proceeds by making people aware of their human longings and desires, and what these passions point to. These are longings and desires that are innate and buried in their lives. In particular, the strategy draws their attention to what have been called the “signals of transcendence” that are embedded in their normal, daily experience. These are indicators that grow out of very positive experiences and, like beeping signals, puncture their present beliefs and point beyond them toward what would need to be true if these signals are to lead to a fulfilling destination. When people reach the point where such signals spur them to search, they become seekers and they look for answers that lie beyond their present beliefs.
Why are these two strategies needed, and what is the link between them? The simple answer is that they are both needed to reach people whose hearts and minds are closed. By its very nature, unbelief in any form is not open to God and his good news, so to those whose hearts are closed, the good news is simply not good news. That of course is where apologetics comes in. It is a form of pre-evangelism that precedes evangelism for those who are not open to God and the gospel. We must never distinguish apologetics and evangelism too neatly. But in broad terms, evangelism is the sharing of the good news, and it addresses the needs and desires of those who know they are in a bad situation. And broadly, apologetics is pre‑evangelism in that it addresses those who do not realize they are in a bad situation, and therefore do not see the gospel as the good news that it is. As John Wesley advised his young preachers in his day (when the Bible still shaped the horizon of most people’s lives), “Preach the Law until they are convicted, then preach Grace until they are converted.” What is urgently needed in our far more post‑ Christian times is the creative persuasion that is the proper business of apologetics. Only so will people be opened to seeing how good is the good news of the gospel.
When we come to the relationship of apologetics and evangelism in the overall task of Christian advocacy, we have to face up to two equal and opposite errors. One is the apologist’s temptation, which is to emphasize apologetics at the expense of evangelism, and the other is the evangelist’s temptation, which is to do the opposite and emphasize evangelism at the expense of apologetics. Against the first error, we must be clear that, while apologetics as pre‑evangelism must often be used to precede evangelism, we must never divorce the two tasks. They should be joined seamlessly. The isolation of apologetics from evangelism is the curse of much modern apologetics, and why it can become a sterile and deadening intellectualism. Whenever apologetics is needed, it should precede evangelism, but while apologetics is distinct from evangelism, it must always lead directly to it. The work of apologetics is only finished when the door to the gospel has been opened and the good news of the gospel can be proclaimed.
Needless to say, many of us are better at one task than the other, and few are equally good at both. But both gifts are needed, and we should each be aware of where we are strong and where we need complementing because we are weak. Even C. S. Lewis admitted “that my own work has suffered very much from the incurable intellectualism of my approach. The simple emotional appeal (‘Come to Jesus’) is still often successful. But those who, like myself, lack the gift for making it, had better not attempt it.”4
It is certainly the business of apologetics to go as far out, and as deep down, as the people we are trying to reach and the objections we are trying to answer. Apologetics therefore raises questions and opens doors that may take it a long way from the gospel, but it does so only to pave the way for the good news. The Scriptures know nothing of an apologetics that has no interest in evangelism. The very notion is worse than a waste of time; it is damaging. Apologetics may at times be brilliant, complex and scholarly, and climb to a rarified altitude at which only a few thinkers can breathe easily. It may therefore at times appear a long way from the simplicity of the gospel, but it must never be made into an end in itself, and it should never stand by itself. As the early church boasted rightly, the message of Jesus is both simple enough for a child to paddle in and deep enough for an elephant to swim in.
Against the second error, we must always remember that when hearts and minds are closed, it is wiser to start on their grounds, not ours. In other words, it is usually a mistake to begin with the good news before the hearer is ready or able to see that it is good. Neither the negative nor the positive strategies begin by defending or possibly even mentioning the gospel itself because people are closed. The reason is that the wilder, the more skeptical or the more hostile the arguments against faith, the wiser and more effective it is to argue against them on their own grounds. In such cases, Chesterton argued, the principle stands that either we must not argue with a man at all, or we must argue on his ground, and not our own.
To some who prize evangelism and are suspicious of apologetics, that smacks of compromise and is enough to convict and sentence apologetics as an illegitimate exercise and an impostor in the world of true faith. Surely, they argue, the gospel is what saves people, so whatever is considered the gospel should be enough to reach people, and any other approach, however fancily dressed, is redundant, even unfaithful. As they see it, the point is not to persuade unbelievers but to preach to them, and if they refuse the gospel preached to them, that only shows that their minds and hearts are hardened and they are beyond God’s saving.
Faithful sounding perhaps, but that position is again too pious by half, and it has no warrant in the Scriptures. If the Bible knows nothing of an apologetics that does not lead to evangelism, it certainly knows nothing of preaching divorced from the needed work of persuasion. The two words preach and persuade, and the two ideas behind them, are indissoluble—most prominently in the tireless work of St. Paul, who was an apologist everywhere he went. He preached and he persuaded. He persuaded and he preached, and no one can drive so much as the beam of a laser between the two. Where hearts and minds are hardened, it is the task of apologetics to challenge them and help pry them open. Apologetics therefore starts where the unbeliever is and focuses on what the unbeliever believes, but only because that is what is obscuring the good news of Jesus. Only when the inadequacies of that unbelief have been exposed is the unbeliever in a place to see and hear the good news for what it is.
By Their Fruit
As we saw, St. Paul describes the heart of all unbelief as a way of “suppressing the truth.” As such, unbelief cannot be other than partly true and partly false, though each unbeliever will have responded to the tension by taking it in either of two directions. Some, usually the few, will have been more consistent in rejecting God, and therefore ended further from God and his full reality. Others, usually the majority, will have been less consistent in rejecting God, and therefore ended closer to God’s reality.
The former will be closer to the “dilemma pole,” in that to the extent that they are consistent in rejecting God, they are further from God’s reality, so sooner or later they must face their dilemma. The latter will be closer to the “diversion pole,” in that to the extent that they are inconsistent in rejecting God, they are more comfortable but closer to God’s reality, so they must find a diversion. But as stressed earlier, it is not that one is spiritually closer and one spiritually further from God. People at both poles are equally resistant to God. The difference is simply that their different forms of unbelief reject God and the gospel in different ways, so both of them require subversion either through the negative strategy or the positive strategy.
The broad negative strategy of table turning comes into its own when people are closed to God and his truth in one of two ways. First, there are the great majority of people who are spiritually closed in a general sense, in that they are fully satisfied with what they believe already. They would see themselves as contented atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, Wiccans or whatever, and they feel they have no need to look for anything else. In many cases they might not be opposed to the Christian faith, and their closed hearts could be better described as satisfied rather than hostile, though for quite other reasons they might be both satisfied with what they believe and hostile to the Christian faith too.
Second, there are other people who are spiritually closed in a different and more particular sense. They are closed because they have specific objections to the Christian faith, and therefore believe that these objections make faith unthinkable and not worthy of consideration. Examples would include Marxists, who dismiss religion as the “opium of the masses,” Freudians, who see it as a matter of “wish fulfillment,” and logical positivists, who view it as “nonsense.” (The word God, they say, is less meaningful than the word dog because the former cannot be verified through the senses.) All of these in their various ways have dismissed the Christian faith by relativizing it—those who are satisfied by their having no need for it, and those who raise objections by seeing it only through the prism of their objections.
Peter Berger counsels that the best way to counter such relativists is to “relativize the relativizers,” and so turn the tables on them.5 Arguments, you remember, cut both ways. Relativism would indeed be devastating if it were true, but relativism is always inconsistent, and relativists always cheat at some point. They relativize the views of others, but not their own. (“Well, of course, you’d see it that way. You’re a Westerner/middle class/older generation.”) They relativize the past, but not the present. They relativize us, but not themselves. Their relativism is always an escape, but not a solid position that can be examined. (“I was born that way. We’re wired differently. It’s a generational thing. You wouldn’t understand.”)
When confronted with such relativism, many Christians make the mistake of responding in the same way as English or American tourists traveling abroad: they “speak Christian” more slowly and loudly, pronouncing the objectivity of their claims in ever more earnest, labored and emphatic ways. And when they still fail to get their point across, they mask their frustration by issuing dire warnings of the consequences of disagreeing with them. The result is mutual incomprehension and stalemate.
Chesterton and Berger show us a better way through turning the tables. When it comes to belief and unbelief, we need to remember that, while no thoughts are unthinkable and no argument is unarguable, some thoughts can be thought but not lived. This point is similar to the famous notion of “unintended consequences” that is obvious throughout human history but was spelled out systematically by the Princeton sociologist Robert Merton. We humans are finite, so our unbelief, like all our purposeful actions, can never take into account all the factors that we would need to consider to make truly wise decisions. This means there will always be unforeseen and unintended consequences, so that our best ideas will often miscarry, and some may prove very damaging. When we are talking of unbelief, there will always be unintended consequences. Unbelieving beliefs will never be truly adequate because unbelieving knowledge is never fully adequate and not finally true.
This insight is what helps us surmount two barriers that lie across our path at this point. The first problem stems from the fact that every worldview, even the falsest or the silliest, is comprehensive on its own terms. This means that it not only claims to explain all reality within its framework, but it also explains the falseness of all other worldviews. Thus the Hebrews attacked idolatry as the projection of empty “nothings,” and Ludwig Feuerbach returned the compliment by arguing that faith in God itself was a projection based on nothing. So how then does someone decide between the worldviews and their competing claims?
Second, there is the added problem that every conceivable argument either has been or will be put forward by someone, somewhere, sometime. So once again, how is anyone to decide between them? Like a serpent eating its own tail, each worldview explains the other worldviews, and each argument knocks down other arguments, so we appear to be left with a dizzying vertigo and with skepticism. The Christian answer lies in the nature of truth as understood by the Bible. While it is natural that all beliefs appear meaningful and adequate to those who believe them, and so long as they believe them, all those that differ from God’s truth will always fall short in one of two ways in the end. In the bright noonday sunlight of reality, their beliefs will prove either constricting or contradictory.
On the one hand, the beliefs of unbelief become constricting when they are experienced as internally consistent but incomplete, and thus too small to explain the full range of the unbeliever’s experience of life and the world. Chesterton described this as the problem of the madman—the person who, far from having lost his reason, has lost everything except his reason. The mark of such madness is a combination of a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. On the other hand, the beliefs of unbelief can chafe when, in spite of their greater comprehensiveness, they contradict aspirations that are central to the unbeliever—which in the worst cases makes them self-refuting, a problem Chesterton calls “the suicide of thought.”
To relativize the relativists through table turning is to apply to relativists (and skeptics) the relativism (and skepticism) they apply to others, thus pushing them out toward the negative consequences of their own beliefs. With a good cigar and a glass of port in hand, Professor Eames had one attitude toward life and death in his comfortable college rooms, but quite another when grimly hanging onto the buttress while staring down the barrel of a gun. When turned on him, his philosophy of life was cold comfort.
As Berger points out, the strategy rests on two assumptions. Relativism and skepticism are different: the former claiming that truth is dependent on the person, and the latter that truth is unknowable, but they each entail a hidden double standard—they are both inconsistent and incomplete. They each pour the acids of their relativism and skepticism over all sorts of issues, but jealously guard their own beliefs. The second assumption is that there is a link between consistency and clarity. The task of countering relativism, Berger writes, is to “see the relativity business to its very end.”6 Press skepticism and relativism to their consistent conclusions and the result is surprising. Far from paralyzing thought, skepticism and relativism are themselves relativized, the debunker is debunked, and what emerges is an almost pristine realization of the importance of truth.
Again and again the lesson is simple: all thoughts can be thought, but not all thoughts can be lived. So we should never stop halfway with skepticism, but insist on pressing ideas uncompromisingly to their conclusion. When hearts and minds collide with the wall, they will have reached the limits of their position and may then be open to rethinking. In this sense reality is what we run into when we are wrong, for when we are right there is no wall to run into—only the freedom to run. “There are times,” Vaclav Havel wrote, “when we must sink to the bottom of our misery to understand truth, just as we must descend to the bottom of a well to see the stars in broad daylight.”7
Is this table turning simply a technique smuggled in by the back door at this advanced stage of the game? Far from it, for it grows from the heart of our understanding of the biblical anatomy of unbelief, and of what it takes to subvert unbelief. We can appreciate the importance of this strategy at several levels. First, turning the tables is God’s own characteristic response to disobedience and unbelief. When humans abuse, suppress and exploit the truth, God becomes the fierce unmasker of lies, the grand iconoclast tearing down idols, and the radical debunker of myths. Three times in the seminal passage in Romans St. Paul says, “God gave them over” (Rom 1:24, 26, 28). Those who rebelled against God chose to follow the lusts of their hearts, their degrading passions and their depraved minds, so God gave them over to these very things. They had chosen, and their choices had consequences. Sin was the punishment of sin. In reaping what they had sown, they had judged themselves.
This debunking theme runs throughout Scripture. “I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the level,” God declared through Isaiah. “Then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, and the waters will overflow the secret place” (Is 28:17). “I will tear down the wall which you have plastered over with whitewash and bring it down to the ground,” the Lord said through Ezekiel, “so that its foundation is laid bare” (Ezek 13:14).
And many times God does the debunking by turning the tables directly. He gives people over to what they choose. He drives people—or simply leaves people—to the logic of their own bad choices. When Israel rejected God’s kingship and wished to have a king for themselves like the surrounding nations, God’s response was “Take them at their word and appoint them a king” (1 Sam 8:22 REB). Their choice was wrong, and their choice would have disastrous consequences, but the best way to make them see it was to push them to the logic of their choice. If you insist, persist in it. Or again, the Lord says,
Israel did not obey Me.
So I gave them over to the stubbornness of their heart,
to walk in their own devices. (Ps 81:11‑12).
Go ahead if you so choose, God says, but know what you are doing and where it is leading you.
Second, the same dynamic lies at the heart of prophetic subversion. Turning the tables was exactly the prophet Elijah’s famous challenge to Israel in the ninth century. The great crowd of the people listening to the prophet were fence sitters, just as many modern people are advocates of what W. H. Auden called “Christian heresies”—they hold to beliefs that could not have come into existence except in a culture founded on the Jewish and Christian faiths.8 If Baal and not YHWH is God, then follow Baal, Elijah cried, and offered the prophets of Baal the first opportunity to verify their god. With the king and queen opposing him, and the bulk of the people sitting uneasily on the fence between the Lord and Baal, Elijah knew that pious calls to return to God would have fallen on deaf and divided ears. He had to mount the challenge on their grounds.
For if YHWH is God, then Baal is not, and the fastest way for the people to see it was to push them toward the false faith that was bound to be falsified by reality. The disproof came first and cleared the ground for the proof, for with the false falsified, the true could be verified. “The Lord—He is God! The Lord—He is God!” was the people’s conclusion with heartfelt conviction (1 Kings 18:39).
In strong contrast, one of the marks of the false prophets was that they failed to confront and subvert the lies and idols of the people. As the great lament cried,
Your prophets have seen for you false and foolish visions;
and they have not exposed your iniquity
so as to restore you from captivity. (Lam 2:14)
Third, the same logic runs down the Christian centuries, though it is not unique to Christians. Georg Lukács, the Hungarian Marxist intellectual, tried to follow the same practice. “Do not stop halfway, but follow the idea uncompromisingly to its conclusion; the sparks produced by the collision of your head with the wall show that you have reached the limits.”9 But from Jesus onward, the dynamic is crystal clear in Christian proclamation. “The tree is known by its fruit,” Jesus said—not by its seed (Mt 12:33). If you had tried to persuade the prodigal son to return home the day he left home, would he have listened? If you had spoken to him the day he hit the pigsty, would you have needed to persuade him? Always “see where it leads to,” St. Augustine advised when dealing with false ideas.10 Follow it out to the “absolutely ruddy end,” C. S. Lewis remarked with characteristic Englishness.11 “Push them to the logic of their presuppositions,” Francis Schaeffer used to say. Too many varieties of unbelief are halfway houses. Too many unbelievers have not had the courage or the consistency to follow their thoughts all the way home.
It is time for the new atheists to face that challenge. Their boast has been that from Democritus and Lucretius onwards, they are the ones who face up to the nature of reality unflinchingly, however bleak it may prove to be. Nature, Lucretius said, was breathtakingly beautiful, though blind, soulless and purposeless. But the fact is that again and again they cheat—holding that certain things were true simply because they have to be. For example, Democritus taught that the atoms were absolutely determined, so all human actions were equally determined. But Epicurus and Lucretius were also moralists, who believed in the importance of free will and human responsibility. They therefore held that the atoms must “swerve,” though only rarely and very little, if there was to be an opening for freedom. “If the atoms never swerve so as to originate some new movement that will snap the bands of fate, the everlasting sequence of cause and effect,” Lucretius wrote, “what is the source of the free will possessed by living things throughout the earth?”12
In a similar way, the painter and avowed atheist Francis Bacon insisted on giving a central place to chance and mystery. Just as Lucretius believed that the random “swerve” of the atoms kept open a space for human freedom, so it was a central article of Bacon’s faith that chance—such as a slip of the painter’s hand, a dribble of paint or a collision of shapes—injected into his work the freedom of the unforeseen that a painter could introduce in no other way. Equally he rejected all explanations and interpretations of his work. If it was clearly understood that the paintings said nothing and meant nothing, and he himself had nothing to say, each viewer had the freedom to make his own response. In short, our brave new atheists live as if such things as freedom are true because they need them to be. Put more simply, they cheat.
Last, table turning lies at the very heart of the dynamic of Christian conversion. Death comes before life, law before grace, conviction before regeneration, and so the good news is the best news ever to those who know they are in a bad situation. Looking back over his earlier pagan life with gratitude, Augustine prayed, “You were always present, angry and merciful at once, strewing the pangs of bitterness over all my lawless pleasures to lead me to look for others unallied with pain. You meant me to find them nowhere but in yourself, O Lord, for . . . you smite so that you may heal.”13
Needless to say, no one comes to believe in God because of table turning or through any purely negative arguments. What they do is disbelieve what they believed before, and they then become seekers who are open to the possibility of faith. True faith itself never grows from such negative arguments. It has to be based on what is positive—first, a positive conviction of the adequacy of Christian faith, second a positive conviction of the truth of the gospel, and supremely, a positive encounter with Jesus himself.
Hoist On Their Own Petard Yet Again
Turning the tables is especially useful when encountering skeptics in a skeptical age like ours today. In a world congenial to skepticism, skeptics love to play the skeptic’s card nonchalantly as if it were the royal flush that trumped all other cards and could not be countered. For many, it has become the skeptics’ way of hanging out a “Do Not Disturb” sign. Simply raise a skeptical objection and retire from all argument.
But of course, the simplest response is to turn such skepticism back on itself. When I studied philosophy as an undergraduate in the 1960s, an Arctic chill still hung in the air that froze any serious appreciation of faith. One source had been the Vienna Circle’s philosophy of logical positivism and the celebrated “verification principle” of A. J. Ayer at Oxford University. Only that which could be tested by the five senses could be verified as true, he insisted. Theology was therefore “nonsense,” or as it was famously said, “The word G‑O‑D is less meaningful than the word d‑o‑g.”
The trouble for Professor Ayer was that his verification principle could not verify itself—it was self-refuting. For to accept as truth only what can be tested by the senses is a principle that cannot itself be tested by the senses. So it too is nonsense by its own criteria. Ayer’s approach, he later admitted, was a “blind alley.” Years later I enjoyed a conversation with him on the train between London and Oxford, when we found ourselves the only people in the compartment. Although then retired and knighted as Professor Sir Alfred J. Ayer, he was candid about the failure of his principle. “I wish I had been more consistent,” he said to me. “Any iconoclast who brandishes a debunker’s sword should be required to demonstrate it publicly on his own cherished beliefs.”
Ayer’s false demand has both ancient precedents and modern counterparts. Celsus insisted that Christian teaching must pass the “Greek proof,” and be assessed by the philosophical standards of the day in order to show that it was reasonable. Similarly, in our more scientific age, many people demand that all claims to truth must undergo strict verification procedures if they are to be given the hallmark of truth, despite the fact that many things they trust and value could never pass such test—history and love, for a start. The same challenge could be equally thrown back to Feuerbach and his dismissal of faith as a projection, Marx and his scorn for faith as the flowers on the chains, Freud and his debunking of faith as wish fulfillment, and Dawkins and his often stated creed that all religious beliefs are only irrational. In each case the debunker’s sword appears to have morphed into a boomerang and their dismissals have recoiled on themselves. The same is true of Nietzsche and his long baleful influence on our generation. If truth is only a matter of perspective, are his own books no more than his own perspective? If truth is only an expression of a resentment-based will to power, are we to judge his own claims by his own criteria?
Logic and Life
The enormous power in table turning is obvious, but it raises questions too. An immediate one, which we will leave till a later chapter, is what if people are to push us as Christians to be true to what we say we believe? The answer, I will argue, is that we should welcome it. On the one hand, the outcome of our not living true to our faith is hypocrisy. And on the other, living in truth is the biblical way of saying that we are living the way of Jesus more closely, and therefore being faithful and becoming more like him. The more practical question here is, how in fact do we push people toward the logical consequences of their unbelief?
Some simple considerations may be helpful. First, we should always remember that the full consequences of a person’s position have to be seen in life and not only in words. It is important to take a person’s worldview seriously, but it is a mistake to confuse persons’ worldviews with them as people, or even their world-and-life view with them. The fact is that very few people are perfect, card-carrying examples of what they say they believe. Each person is their own version of their world-and-life view lived in their own way, and it is that living person we must deal with, not an idealized textbook example of a worldview. It is therefore a mistake to think that when we talk of the “logic” of someone’s position, we are referring to the strictly logical, the rational, the intellectual and the verbal. To do this is to reduce apologetics to a game of chess, with the apologist cast as the Grand Master expected to have a computer mind with brilliant set moves and a calculated strategy for checkmating all comers.
Very few apologists are like that. Even if they were, we can be sure that the people we talk to are not like that. Very few people are strictly and consistently logical, so to catch their smaller inconsistencies is merely to annoy them and put them off. Jesus spoke of “the treasures of the heart,” the things that are deep in the center of our lives that matter to us supremely and that we guard most tenaciously. Our challenge is to find the treasures of people’s hearts, and then to find contradictions that mean everything to them at that level.
Many years ago I was asked to make a case for the Christian faith at a university in the north of England. A professor lingered behind after the lecture, eager to talk further. He said that neither he nor his wife had shown the slightest interest in faith before, and their interest in talking to me had nothing to do with my lecture. Indeed, they had been notoriously resistant to students sharing their faith with them over many years. He was in his mid‑fifties and his wife was fifteen years younger.
For years, the professor said, he and his wife had practiced a very open relationship. He had slept with other women and she with other men. But then, to their surprise and delight, they had had a baby daughter. And almost immediately they both realized they did not want to bring her up with the ethics by which they had lived. “We have always had an open marriage,” he said, “but the younger generation has taken the openness further, to the point of chaos. We don’t want that for our daughter.”
I have rarely talked to a professor who was more open, but the reason was touching. In a beautiful way, both he and his wife realized that somehow they loved their little girl even more than they loved each other, and wanting the very best for her, they were open to faith as never before. The challenge of the gospel had touched the treasure of their hearts and opened them at a level never touched before.
Life, then, and not just logic, is all‑important. When the young Augustine sought out Ambrose of Milan to learn from his rhetoric, the bishop was wise enough to see that Augustine needed more than arguments to draw him to faith. He needed to live more in order to think more deeply, so Ambrose even brushed off the earnest entreaties of Augustine’s mother Monica. Later, Augustine saw the wisdom of what Ambrose had done.
My mother asked him, as a favor, to have a talk with me, so that he might refute my errors, drive the evil out of my mind, and replace it with good. He often did this when he found suitable pupils, but he refused to do it for me—a wise decision, as I afterwards realized. He told her that I was still unripe for instruction because, as she had told him, I was brimming over with the novelty of the heresy. . . . “Leave him alone,” he said. “Just pray to God for him. From his own reading he will discover his mistakes.”14
Unless we remember this point, our apologetics can sound like sophistry and logic chopping, and leave people unmoved. Sophists could answer any position and its opposite with equal conviction, and their very brilliance roused suspicion. They could make night into noon, and noon into night, right wrong and wrong right. But while minds were dazzled and left spinning, they were often unconvinced. This point matters for Christian apologists in two particular situations. One is when we make the mistake of attacking a straw man argument, and not the real position of the person we are talking to. The other is when we speak to people who are hurting. “But what does your argument prove?” Job protested to his heartless friends. “Do you intend to reprove my words, when the words of one in despair belong to the wind?” (Job 6:25‑26).
Looking for the treasure of the heart, and therefore for the consequences of logic in life, is not an assault on logic, but on its misuse. It may be that a person’s head is muddled, but more often the problem is that people’s heads are not where their hearts are, and what matters for the apologist is where a person’s heart is. The truth is that even logic can be put at the service of the crooked timber of our humanity. For logic alone can easily be made into a diversion, and can therefore become a shelter from God and his truth.
Unbelief can be extremely logical, but like an elephant trudging around and around in its moat in a zoo, such logic can be circular thinking that has got itself into a bad rut. Chesterton often came up against this vicious circle in people he engaged, and he used his wit and humor to get round it. “The moment his mere reason moves, it moves in the old circular rut; he will go round and round his logical circle.”15
After C. E. M. Joad’s conversion, he looked back on his years as a rationalist and a fierce critic of religion.
Certainly I engaged in controversies; admittedly I wrote a book on the subject, but the many words I wrote and said were not the expression of a mind engaged in thinking out those things afresh, but of a mind which was living on the deposit of thought that it had laid down in the past. I was stirring and re-applying, but not adding to the old material. In fact I was like a rentier living on the income from the capital his ancestors had accumulated, for it is as his ancestor that the middle‑aged man of forty is entitled to regard the young man of twenty who formed his mind.16
Once again, that point cuts both ways. Forty, fifty and sixty year‑old Christians may also be trudging around in the same old ruts that their younger selves laid down in their college years. But the truth is that they shouldn’t and they needn’t, for if the Christian faith is true, it will be proved true the wider and wider the experience of life it engages. But that is not so for unbelief. George Orwell wryly dismissed H. G. Wells, the rationalist, as “too sane to understand the modern world.”17 Like Augustine on the journey that later led to faith, many people do not need more fresh arguments. They need fresh air.
Questions That Raise Questions
A second consideration is that we should always use questions to raise questions. Questions have their own subversive quality, which we will explore later, but there is a special role for questions in table turning. As stressed in the introduction, far too much Christian evangelism and apologetics is based on the assumption that almost everyone is open, interested and needy—when most people most of the time are quite simply not.
Needless to say, that condemns many of our efforts (and books, lectures, seminars and discussions) to be well-intentioned but ineffectual. As Harry Blamires complained decades ago, “they cater for those who are already believers, half‑believers, or discontented unbelievers. They cater abundantly for uninstructed believers, for people on the brink of Christian self‑committal, and for those who are uneasy in their atheism, their agnosticism, and their ill‑defined theism.”18
If this is so, it means that in our age most people are untroubled rather than unreached, unconcerned rather than unconvinced, and they need questions as much as answers—or questions that raise questions that require answers that prompt people to become genuine seekers. William Wilberforce faced the polite indifference of wealthy upper-class society in the late eighteenth century. His answer was to devise “launchers”—questions and approaches that punctured the invisible social barriers of the day and goaded people to think. The most famous was his antislavery tract: the small Wedgwood plate with the head of a slave in chains in the center, and around the edge the question: “Am I not a man and a brother?” Questions, Wilberforce knew, were more subversive than statements, and with the prestige of his friend Josiah Wedgwood’s china, the little plate could raise a question that reverberated through aristocratic society.
The goal is to use questions to raise questions, and so to puncture whatever are the walls of indifference, and to do so in a style and language that speaks to the person we are engaging with. This means that we raise questions where people are. So if only a minority read serious books, we are raising questions in our serious books only for a minority. It also means that some media are better at raising questions than others, just as others are better at answering them. Films, plays, sketches, poems and cartoons, for example, are often better at raising questions than serious books, though the same books gain the edge when it comes to answering questions.
But whatever the style of the question and the medium in which it is raised, the point is the same: to probe the consequences of unbelief, and to challenge people to follow the logic of their ideas through to the end. Some Christians have won an insufferable reputation for always dispensing answers, even when no one has a question. Raise questions well, and we will be known for the searching questions we raise, to which the good news can be looked to for the only satisfactory answers. “I should therefore like,” Pascal wrote in Pensées, “to arouse in man the desire to find truth.”19
Their Prophets, Not Ours
The third consideration is that, just as it is more effective to argue on the other person’s ground, so it is wiser to argue from the other person’s prophets, rather than our own. This is not only a matter of familiarity but authority. When St. Paul was in a synagogue, he preached from the Torah, but when he addressed the Athenian philosophers on the Areopagus, he quoted pagan poets from long before Jesus—the sixth-century B.C. Cretan poet Epimenides (in whom “we live and move and have our being”) and the third-century B.C. Greek poet Aratus (“for we are indeed his offspring” [Acts 17:28 ESV]). Looking back again, St. Augustine understood the crucial role that pagan philosophers had in undermining his earlier paganism. “Traditional education,” he wrote, “taught me that Jupiter punishes the wicked with his thunderbolts and yet commits adultery himself. The two roles are quite incompatible.”20 Later, after reading Cicero’s Hortensius, he wrote, “All my empty dreams suddenly lost their charm and my heart began to throb with a bewildering passion for the wisdom of eternal truth.”21
Reflecting on how the pagan philosophers had been so instrumental in his journey toward faith, Augustine commented, “These books served to remind me to return to my own self.”22 Many centuries later, Pascal drily counseled the same course for anyone searching for God: “Make them look for him among the philosophers, skeptics and dogmatists, who will worry the man who seeks.”23
Chesterton expressed the same point in his own inimitable way. He had been struck by the “odd effect of the great agnostics arousing doubts deeper than their own.”
I never read a line of Christian apologetics. I read as little as I can of them now. It was Huxley and Herbert Spencer and Bradlaugh who brought me back to orthodox theology. They sowed in my mind my first wild doubts of doubt. Our grandmothers were quite right when they said that Tom Paine and the free‑thinkers unsettled the mind. They do. They unsettled mine horribly. The rationalist made me question whether reason was of any use whatsoever; and when I had finished Herbert Spencer I had got as far as doubting (for the first time) whether evolution had occurred at all. As I laid down the last of Colonel Ingersoll’s atheistic lectures the dreadful thought broke across my mind, “Almost thou persuades me to be a Christian.” I was in a desperate way.24
I learned this lesson when I wrote my first book, The Dust of Death, which included a chapter reviewing and critiquing the influx of the Eastern religions in the 1960s. I included the story of Issa, the eighteenth‑century Haiku poet from Japan. Through a succession of sad events, his wife and all his five children died. Grieving each time, he went to the Zen Master and received the same consolation: “Remember the world is dew.” Dew is transient and ephemeral. The sun rises and the dew is gone. So too is suffering and death in this world of illusion, so the mistake is to become too engaged. Remember the world is dew. Be more detached, and transcend the engagement of mourning that prolongs the grief. After one of his children died, Issa went home unconsoled, and wrote one of his most famous poems. Translated into English it reads,
The world is dew.
The world is dew.
The entire logic of Buddhism is in the first two lines, whereas the yearning of a father’s heart cries out in the last two lines. Over the years since then, I have met a score of people who were on the road to the East either physically or spiritually, but were stopped in their tracks and turned around by that story in my book. The brief mention of a single one of their own prophets was worth more than hundreds of pages of Christian argument, and so it often is.
Our Knees or Our Heels
What can we expect when we pray for people, and then probe and push them gently but firmly toward the place where they can see the unwelcome logic of their position? At first, we will not know where the tension in their worldview can be found. It is something we can assume because of the teaching of Scripture, but we may not be able to see it in advance. But assuming it provides an assured point of contact—the tension as the meeting point. Whatever people say about God—whether they ignore him, deny him, hate him, or scorn him—we always know two things about them: first, that they themselves are made in the image of God; and second, that they are living in the world of God’s reality. So whatever they claim, we can be sure that there is both truth and falsehood in their belief, and the tension can be found somewhere.
As we talk and the conversation goes deeper, there will come a point at which the fact of the tension goes beyond providing us with a meeting point and becomes a potential pressure point. It then reveals where the treasure of the person’s heart is and where their beliefs clash with the safeguarding of the treasure. Often, though not always, we become aware of the pressure point before they do—though it is always a matter of spiritual discernment, and it is rarely evident at the outset of a conversation or relationship.
Quite obviously, our Lord had instant discernment when he spoke to people. Again and again, the Gospels show us how he knew at once where peoples’ hearts were. For the rich young ruler, for example, Jesus knew that his great wealth was his issue, the barrier to his refusal to pay the cost of discipleship, so he put his finger on it immediately. We do not have discernment like that, so we have to take the time to get to know people, to love them, to pray for them and to listen to their stories. Then, like the builder of a stone wall who takes a stone and tap, tap, tap, taps it gently until he hits the fault line and it splits easily, we have to find the fault line in the other person’s thinking.
At some point the person will recognize the tension because it touches the treasure of the heart and it matters. The tension will then have gone from a meeting point to a pressure point to a danger point. This last term comes from Nietzsche, who observed how people refuse to face the logic of their philosophy squarely. Instead, they duck and weave like a boxer, and try to bounce off the ropes when backed into a corner of their own making. Nietzsche was impatient with such thinkers. He attacked Jacob Burckhardt because he would not look nihilism in the white of the eye. He referred to the Swiss historian’s lectures with “their profound thoughts, and their silently abrupt breaks and twists as soon as they touch the danger point.”25
If you have ever witnessed someone who is close to or at the danger point in their self-examination before God, it is a sobering moment. Only God knows when that moment truly and completely comes. We will not always know, and it is not our business to know, but it is surely the moment when, before God, they know that from then on they are without excuse. They have seen the truth, they know the truth, and they are responsible to the truth that they now know. All fig leaves are stripped away, and all alibis exposed. In their heart of hearts they know where they stand, and they are fully responsible for the decisive moment of truth. As Franz Kafka noted, it is only the biblical view of time that makes it possible to speak of the Day of Judgment in the way the Bible does at the end of history. The Day of Judgment is also “a summary court in perpetual session.”26
Needless to say, the moment of truth does not mean that everyone is persuaded by the truth, for even at that point they always have the final choice: to fall on their knees or to turn on their heels. For those who fall on their knees, it is the moment when their unbelief is shown up as inadequate, when they face up fully to the reality that shows it up, and when they accept the logic of God’s truth that points undeniably to God himself. Joad described how he hit that sober moment of truth as a philosopher: “The rationalist‑optimist philosophy, by the light of which I had done my best to live, came to seem intolerably trivial and superficial . . . unable to withstand the bleaker winds of the twentieth century. I abandoned it and found myself a Christian.”27
The opposite response is equally possible. A person can turn on their heels. Like a boxer bouncing off the ropes or a yachtsman changing tack, someone can try to evade the logic and sidestep the evident force of the truth. A feature of such maneuver is that people often go from one extreme to the other, with switched arguments and about‑turns that are baffling. Jesus himself encountered this response from his critics. One moment they said that he was a libertine, and the next that he was a spoilsport. Chesterton encountered this tactic repeatedly:
One rationalist had hardly done calling Christianity a nightmare before another began to call it a fool’s paradise. This puzzled me; the charges seemed inconsistent. Christianity could not at once be the black mask on a white world or the white mask on a black world. The state of the Christian could not at once be so comfortable that he was a coward to cling to it, and so uncomfortable that he was a fool to stand it.28
C.S. Lewis commented on the same response:
Such people put up a version of Christianity suitable for a child of six and make that the object of their attack. When you try and explain the Christian doctrine as it is really held by an instructed adult, they complain that you are making their heads turn round, and that it is all too complicated, and that if there really were a God they are sure He would have made religion simple.29
For those who fall on their knees, the prospects are bright. At that point the work of the apologist is finished and the very different, simpler and more positive work of the evangelist can take over. The good news is good news, and the party may soon be on for the return of the prodigal son or daughter. But for those who turn on their heels, and for those who squirt out evasions like a scuttle fish squirting ink to make its escape, our work is far from over, though the core objection is clearer. For these people the prospects are sober and the reason is plain. When a friend told Francis Bacon that he would prefer not to have an eternal soul than to live in eternal torment, the painter replied with a grim realism that people are “so attracted to their egos that they’d probably rather have the torment than simple annihilation.”30 At that point we as apologists must either retrace our steps and seek to do a better job at turning the tables, or we must try a different and more positive approach, as we will consider next.
Os Guinness is senior fellow of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics and a member of the RZIM speaking team.
1G. K. Chesterton, Manalive (Los Angeles: Indo-European, 2009), 73.
4C. S. Lewis, “God in the Dock,” in C. S. Lewis Essay Collection (London: HarperCollins, 2002), 37.
5Peter L. Berger, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1969), 42.
7Vaclav Havel, The Power of the Powerless (New York: Routledge, 1985), 41.
8W. H. Auden, quoted in Arthur Kirsch, Auden and Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 9.
9Georg Lukacs quoted in Istvan Meszaros, Lukács’ Concept of Dialectic (London: Merlin Press, 1972), 52.
10Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (London: Faber & Faber, 1967), 345.
11C. S. Lewis, Undeceptions (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1971), 213.
12Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe, trans. R. E. Latham (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1951), 12, 66; emphasis added.
13Augustine, Confessions 2.2, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (London: Penguin, 1961), 44.
14Ibid., 3.12, page 69.
15G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Image, 1959), 21-22.
16C. E. M. Joad, God and Evil (London: Religious Book Club, 1944), 14.
17George Orwell, quoted in Bernard Crick, George Orwell: A Life (London: Penguin, 1982), 428.
18Harry Blamires, The Faith and Modern Error (London, SPCK, 1964), 1.
19Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (London: Penguin Books, 1966), 60.
20Augustine, Confessions 1.16, page 36.
21Ibid., 3.4, page 58.
22Ibid., 7.10, page 146.
23Pascal, Pensées, 53.
24Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 84.
25Friedrich Nietzsche, letter to Gersdorff, November 1870, quoted in Erich Heller, The Disinherited Mind (London: Penguin, 1961), 70; emphasis added.
26Franz Kafka, quoted in Arthur Kirsch, Auden and Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 20.
27C. E. M. Joad, The Recovery of Belief: A Restatement of Christian Philosophy (London: Faber & Faber, 1952), 82.
28 Orthodoxy, 156-57.
29C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1943), 47.
30Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma (London: Skyhorse, 2009), 346.