Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Are You SURE You're an Agnostic?: The Need for Dialogue-Evangelists

In an article titled "Preaching to the Secular Mind" (Journal of Biblical Counseling, Fall 1995) Tim Keller proposes that churches include more pre-evangelistic apologetics in their preaching, classes, and overall ministry. I really like one of the ways he suggests that this be done. He suggests that every church commission a cadre of "dialogue-evangelists" who work either one-on-one or in groups with regularly attending seekers. Here's how he envisions their role:
These persons must be trained much more thoroughly than lay evangelists were in the past. For example, they will need to be trained in apologetics and will engage in lots of such pre-evangelism discussions. They will give seekers books to read that address their intellectual problems or spiritual condition. They will occasionally form "seeker groups" that meet for two to four evenings to discuss the Christian faith. An individual evangelist should try to maintain relationships with one to five non-Christians who are coming to the church.
Keller thinks that as the culture becomes more secular, a presuppositionalist apologetic will be most effective; particularly what John Frame calls the "offensive" side of presuppositionalist apologetics which Keller describes as follows:
Offensive apologetics shows the non-Christian that the problems of his own position are far, far greater than any weaknesses in the Christian position. Offensive apologetics is highly personal and interactive. Instead of making the non-Christian sit still for a long chain of reasoning, it goes right in and begins to ask questions in a Socratic way. It reveals the arbitrary and (usually) unconscious nature of their own faith assumptions and the inadequacies of their own world views.
This approach is incremental and will not likely lead to on the spot conversions. It can, however, leave someone thinking and perhaps they will, at a later time, be readier to give Christianity a patient hearing. By pointing out the unbeliever's willingness to embrace contradiction, we can try to help him see that his rejection of Christianity is not really motivated by a concern to preserve logic and rationality but by his determination not to have God over him. Thus, an initially philosophical conversation can lead naturally to a discussion about the nature of sin and its effects on the mind.

Here's a partial log from an online exchange I had with a self-professed agnostic that I think illustrates the apologetic method Keller commends:

Dubious: Belief in a god is superstitious and narrow-minded.

KP: I take it you're an atheist.

Dubious: Actually, I am agnostic.

KP: And what do you mean by that?

Dubious: Well.......I’m still waiting on proof that any gods exist or don't exist. And if the Judeo-Christian god does exist I would not worship him.

KP: Why is that?

Dubious: The god of the old testament is a god of war. I am a pacifist. I don’t like the thought of bashing babies’ heads against rocks or killing "everything that liveth."

KP: And where do your ethics come from?

Dubious: Why does it need to stem from a god? I am raising very kind, polite children without having to subject them to a boogeyman.

KP: You didn't answer my question.

Dubious: You’re right. I get it from my own heart and head.

KP: So, in other words, there are no acts that are inherently wrong?

Dubious: Yes, exactly.

KP: So, the things you object to about the OT portrait of God are not wrong. It's just that you don't like them, right?

Dubious: That is right. They considered them proper at the time.

KP: But isn't that to assume that God didn't tell them to do these things?

Dubious: No, it doesn’t. That is only what the bible says. The Israelites may have made the decision on their own and attributed it to a god. I was not there I don't know.

KP: Although you identify yourself as an agnostic, don't you function as an atheist?

Dubious: Yes, primarily. But I am open to the fact that one or more gods do exist. I like proof.

KP: Then you’re not really beginning from a stance of neutrality, are you?

Dubious: I start from the available facts.

KP: Although you present yourself as open-minded, in fact, you’re already inclined toward the belief that there is no God.

Dubious: Yes I am. Everything I have seen leads me to believe there is no god; that god is a crutch for those who can't handle reality, i.e., death, responsibility for one’s own actions, the unknown.

KP: Then you're not really an agnostic, after all. To whom would one be responsible if there is no God? And how do you know what "reality" is?

Dubious: One question at a time. You are responsible to yourself, your children, society on the whole - trying to make the world a better place.

KP: And who determines what is "better"?

Dubious: I knew you would bring that up. I personally just do the best I can by my own standards.

KP: If morals and values are in fact person-relative, then there really is no state of affairs that is objectively "better" than any other. So how do we unite in this goal of making the world a "better" place?

Dubious: Point taken. Nothing is quite as good as we would like it to be.

KP: But according to your philosophy, nothing is "good" at all. It is only good for ME.

Dubious: We make the world a better place by being tolerant of others.

KP: Why is tolerance a virtue? Why is that any better than intolerance? You can't seem to escape speaking of values as though they had some objective existence; as though there is some fixed standard against which all else is measured.

Dubious: An act of kindness to another is good for all.

KP: But what determines what "good" is? And why should we seek what is good for all?

Dubious: I personally seek it because I want to. (It seems like I did these rounds in Philosophy 101.)

KP: So, others are not wrong if they don't choose to seek it; if they want to seek the pain of others?

Dubious: If the person receiving the pain wants it. If not, then the person is pushing their own ideals on another.

KP: And what's WRONG with that?

Dubious: I guess I do believe in a universal standard of sorts.

KP: That was my point.

Dubious: You win.

KP: Your proposed relativism is unlivable. On a daily basis you act as though what the Bible says about there being true good and evil is true. But this is inconsistent with your functional atheism. For in a materialistic universe, there could be no such thing as a universal standard of morality.

Dubious: I don't believe in true good and true evil as in the bible.

KP: What I meant was, you believe that there is objective good and evil; there are universal standards of some kind.

Dubious: There really isn't a standard; only what I believe the standard should be. Back to that reality thing.

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Mike said...

I like the concept, but the term "Offensive apologetics" is very unfortunate.

KP said...

We need not stumble over the term as long as we're clear about what is meant.

Neither Frame nor Keller are advocating that Christians seek to be morally offensive. The adjective is referring to strategy. Certainly, we must be ready to offer a defense in the face of objections. But we should also be prepared to take the initiative by asking others to defend the perspectives from which they offer their objections. With God's help we can be offensive in this manner while not being offensive in the other.

"Offensive" seems to be a very fitting description for the activity of "destroy[ing] arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God" (2 Cor. 10:4b-5a).

Ken Abbott said...

Did "Dubious" contradict himself at the end? He admitted that he believed "in a universal standard of sorts" but his final recorded statement is that no such standard exists, "only what I believe the standard should be."

KP said...

Yes, Ken, Dubious did. I think he was aware of where the dialogue was going and reverted to his originally stated relativism.

YnottonY said...

I admit it. I have to laugh everytime I see a presuppositional approach effectively employed. It's like reading Jesus' arguments with his critics. After their folly was exposed and the truth was accurately expressed, they "dared not ask him any more questions." I love when you include some of your past online exchanges on your blog to illustrate your point and proper apologetical method. Good work ;-)