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Seeing Is Believing, Part One - The Apologetic

Web posted on August 16, 2014

Sunday Peace

By Rev Robert Lyon

I have vivid memories from my childhood, slushing through the streets of Vancouver and gazing up into the night sky, puzzled what to make of the orderly progress of the stars. Did they point to some Heavenly Architect, or to random chance? Did the heavens really declare the glory of God, as the Bible says? Or did their clockwork regularity prove only that blind matter always behaves according to its properties? Would I one day become extinct, swallowed up by eternal darkness? Or was my life part of some grand design which, in due course, would reach its divinely appointed fulfillment?

That was back in the days when Vancouver still had six weeks of snow in winter and the night sky was not overwhelmed by the lights of the city. I had just turned ten, so I felt the problem intuitively but had no adequate words to express it. I found the words several years later in a university English class, on the last page of D. H. Lawrence's novel Sons and Lovers:

"Everywhere [spread] the vastness and terror of the immense night, which is roused and stirred for a brief while by the day, but which returns, and will remain at last eternal, holding everything in its silence and its living gloom. Night, in which everything was lost, went reaching out, beyond stars and sun. Stars and sun, a few bright grains, went spinning round for terror, and holding each other in embrace, there in a darkness that outpassed them all, and left them tiny and daunted."

Perhaps you've known that awful gloom, that daunting silence, that frightening sense of insignificance. Perhaps, gazing up at the night sky, you have felt that ultimate ambiguity in which you perceive cosmic order one minute, chaos the next, so that in an instant your emotion swings from awe to panic.

I remember, too, how in a Grade 10 science class I began to see a resolution to that ambiguity. The teacher was drawing phloem and xylem on the blackboard, explaining how the nutrient transport system works in trees. "God!" I marvelled, "I wish I'd designed that!" Then looking up at the ceiling, and beyond, I said sheepishly under my breath, "You beat me to it, didn't You!" Sunshine surged in through the classroom windows and (as John Wesley said in a different context) my heart felt strangely warmed, for here, it seemed, was evidence of purposeful design, and the purpose in that design seemed to include even me.

As I passed from high school to university, that sense of purposeful design continued to haunt me, reasserting itself during an introductory biology course. I can still see the professor describing how our kidneys cleanse the blood of waste, at great cost of energy, by compelling osmosis to work in reverse. I was on the edge of my seat, ecstatic. I turned to the student beside me and confided, "This is the best RK course on campus!" (RK was what we called courses in Religious Knowledge.) He stared back blankly.

Some time later, as I stood before that porcelain object in the room down the hall, my own kidneys working very well indeed, I felt an enormous rush of gratitude, and then of awe, towards the Creator whose thoughtful design included, for my relief, such a thing as reverse osmosis. I marvelled, too, at the divine sense of humor, for that was not a normal place to be having a religious experience.

The teacher and the prof, I ought to add, were doing only what they were supposed to be doing, which was teaching science. My truant mind, on the other hand, was focused on something outside the realm of science. That something (I did not know its name back then) is called "apologetics". It's from a couple of Greek words that mean talking back or making a reply. In normal speech it means saying sorry, but in ancient Greece it meant making a defence in court, and in religious studies it has come to mean the defence of religious opinion. The Argument from Design, which impressed itself on me during those science classes, is an example of such an apologetic.

In that sense of the word, Christian scholars (and scholars of other religions, too) have been "apologizing" for their Faith for centuries. In fact, the New Testament uses the word "apology" (an answer) and encourages Christians to have one for anyone who asks the reason for their Christian hope (1 Peter 3:15). Of course, you cannot actually "prove" the existence of God, if by "proof" you mean a watertight case that admits of no other possible conclusion. But the idea that the order of the universe should be read as design, and that this design implies a purposeful Creator, seemed so compelling to Saint Paul that he says it leaves us no excuse for concluding otherwise (Romans 1:19f).

Certainly, that was how I felt in those science classes, and that is how it seems to people of many different religious persuasions. But as powerfully as that argument (or feeling) may affect us, we have to remember that the path we take when we move from observable facts (e.g., the orderliness of the stars) to a conclusion (e.g., that a Designer-Creator exists) is not actually a proof but rather an inferential leap. Many thoughtful people, having considered the same evidence, leap in the opposite direction.

If I have learnt anything about apologetics since that first insightful, and briefly terrifying, look at the night sky, it is this: When you have exhausted the Argument from Design and all other arguments of that sort, you are still left with the question Does He or Doesn't He? Even if you conclude that He Probably Does, you cannot easily move from that generalization to any confident statement about the truth of Christianity, nor indeed of any other religion.

However, the Apostles and the church of the First Century did think that they had an apologetic that was incontrovertible. That apologetic will be our subject for the next several weeks. Let me tempt you to keep coming back for more by assuring you that the Apostles began from the premise that "seeing is believing".

Robert welcomes your questions and comments at nm@bbs42.net


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