Sunday, 6 December 2015

Engaging with atheists and agnostics

In this essay I discuss the great challenges that Christians face in sharing the gospel with the people of our time - especially in the context of statistics that show a dramatic change in the belief-systems of people in the Western world. I present intellectual tools that I developed in this regard and show how they might assist Christians in reaching out to an ever-more skeptical world.

As Christians, we are called to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to all people. Since Jesus sent out his disciples two thousand years ago, Christians have been trying in various ways to reach all people, both in their own communities and in far-away countries, with the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. Our age, however, presents us with particular challenges in this regard. Western society, which has traditionally been Christian, is changing in fundamental ways and more and more people do not believe or are agnostic regarding the existence of God. The question is: How do we effectively reach people with the gospel in this climate of change?

Before trying to answer this question one should first of all be aware of the magnitude of the challenge. A study that appeared in the Washington Post earlier this year [1], shows that atheism has grown a lot over the last few decades in the Western World. In large regions of Western Europe the percentage of people who regard themselves as non-religious or atheists are about 50% or more. The Western European countries that top the list are the Netherlands (66%) and the UK (66%), followed by Germany (59%), Switzerland (58%), Spain (55%) and Austria (54%). These do not include European countries to the north and east, like Sweden (76%) and the Czech Republic (75%). This is the situation in spite of the fact that countries like the Netherlands and Germany have strong Christian, especially reformist, traditions and in the case of the Netherlands one even finds a Bible-belt running through the country.

Another study by the Pew Research Center [2] shows that even in the USA, which has traditionally been regarded as one of the countries with the highest percentage of Christians, the situation is changing. Christians have declined sharply as a percentage of the population in the period 2007 to 2014, namely from 78.4% to 70.6%. Although the group of unaffiliated Christians have increased (presumably Christians who do not go to recognized denominations) with nearly 7%, most of the denominations have seen a drastic decline in numbers. Mainline-protestant has declined from 18.1% to 14.7%, Catholics from 23.9% to 20.8% and Evangelicals from 26.3% to 25.4%. In the same period those who regard themselves as not religiously affiliated, agnostic or atheistic have grown from 16.1% to 22.8%.

Clearly Christians are doing something wrong!! Although there are various reasons for the current situation, it seems that in most Western countries an enormous divide appeared between the Christian and agnostic-atheistic sections of society who live next to each other, but (to a large extent) do not interact with each other. Although part of the problem may lay with Christian attitudes (their behavior being perceived in negative terms), there is definitely also a problem regarding the packaging of the gospel. In many ways, it seems that the general public do not think that the Christian worldview is sustainable and that the Bible cannot be regarded as a trustworthy account of events in our scientific age. These are the issues with which I deal in this essay.

The various missional approaches

It is often said that the call to missions starts with God. There are various ways in which this call may be unpacked in theological terms. What I am interested in this essay, however, is not that issue, but the practical manner in which the church live the great commandment. In this regard we can distinguish between various approaches to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ to others. My question is: Are these approaches effective and what must the church do to change the tide?

Traditionally the missionary call has been interpreted as taking the gospel to all nations - especially to those who are not part of the Christian world. In this context various tools have been developed to effectively reach the unreached peoples of the world with the gospel. As such it was and is necessary to learn a different language, be culturally sensitive, translate the Bible, live in far-away communities etc. This traditional approach may be called the "missionary" approach. Since this approach focuses on countries and geographical areas outside the traditional Christian world, it does not really concern us in this essay.

During those times when the name "Christian world" still applied to their home communities (which in general does not hold for the Western world any more), Christians also felt the need to take the gospel to those in their own community who have not yet come to know the Lord Jesus as their personal Savior. In this regard these Christians observed that being a Christian in name is not the same as being a Christian in the true sense of the word (having a personal relationship with God through the indwelling Spirit of God). In this context there are also various tools that had been developed to reach one's neighbor in the context of the same (rather homogeneous) society, especially through church as well as interdenominational outreaches. This approach may be called the "evangelistic" approach. Over the last few decades this approach has become more and more ineffective - in many Western societies it has become extremely difficult to get strangers to attend such outreaches [3].

The main reason for this difficulty is that Western culture has changed dramatically over the last few decades. In this regard one may say, in philosophical terms, that society has moved from the modernist to the post-modernist paradigm. This does not mean that the majority has necessarily accepted the post-modernist ideology; it merely means that the manner in which especially young people but also many older people interact with each other and the wider world, has changed in a fundamental manner. The old structures and mindset - which were rationally inclined, hierarchical, strict, accepting of traditional ideas and values and closed to other views - have changed to those that are open, inquiring, skeptical, relational, networking, socially-connected through all sorts of media etc. Since this cultural shift only involves a part of society, one can say that there are now (to a large extent) two culturally distinct groups in the same society, namely the older generation (and those that associate with them) and the new post-modern generation. The problem for Christian outreach is this: How to reach this post-modern generation? It seems that the traditional evangelistic tools does not work in this context!

This issue is not new and there have been many voices as to the manner in which this generation may be reached with the gospel. In general various approaches have been developed that involve a new kind of community life as well as different ways to engage with one's neighbors in a non-intrusive and culturally suitable manner. This includes all sorts of practical ways in which people may become involved around some area of shared interest, for example through engagement in communal projects. The people who are reached in this manner may include a broad spectrum of persons, some of whom may not be religiously affiliated, although maybe not atheists or agnostics. On the whole we may call all these approaches that engage the post-modern person "missional" approaches. These approaches have limited success and although some high-profile books have appeared discussing these efforts, in general they have not had a major impact on the changing tide.

Once people have decided to call themselves atheists or even agnostics they have made up their minds and it is very difficult to effectively reach them. There are, nonetheless, Christians who engage these people, using various apologetic tools, including arranged debates between Christian and atheistic scientists, books that argue for the faith, conferences, discussion forums etc. Some congregations focus in their services and outreach on agnostics and atheists, but this may lead to other aspects of church life not being effectively given attention to. Reaching atheists and agnostics, who have made a conscious decision in this regard, is not easy.

Effective outreach

How do we effectively reach agnostics and atheists? In my mind the answer is to reach people before they have made their decision in this regard. There are many people who sit on the fence - they observe the wider context in which all sorts of conversations take place in the public and social media. They are sensitive to these issues, but they are still undecided. Even those who present themselves as not religiously affiliated may not yet have made a final decision regarding faith. They may have some problem with the tradition Church or traditional Christians, but they are not necessarily against the idea of believing in God.

In my view the main problem is that the postmodern world provide people with many possible and seemingly viable alternative narratives regarding our human existence. Why should they believe the Christian narrative? Not only have Christians in the Western World often behaved very unchristian (being arrogant and self-righteous on social media etc.), they have also been compromised (in taking certain discredited political and eschatological positions) and their positions have often been simplistic and even anti-intellectual. The general public are often confronted with a Christian narrative that does not make sense to them since it stands in direct contrast with the general scientific perspective that has become widely accepted in society (for example, regarding the age of the universe etc.). How can one expect people to believe the Christian narrative if they do not think that it makes sense? It is not good enough to present your own interpretation as "the Bible says so" when people do not believe the Bible to be a trustworthy source of information.

There are especially two important areas in which Christians have in general not been convincing. These are in presenting 1) the Christian worldview as a realistic and sensible reading of reality (what the world is like) and 2) the Bible as a trustworthy source of information. Often the general public is presented with a false dichotomy: either one accepts the young earth view or one has to accept the neo-Darwinist theory of evolution (which is anathema for most Christians). The general public may not have strong views regarding neo-Darwinist evolution, but in general they do accept that science has shown that the cosmos is very old. Confronted with this choice, they do not only choose against the Christian worldview (regarding it as unrealistic), they also reject the Christian believe that the Bible is God's Word - to them it is merely an old religious book without relevance to our current age (which teaches such nonsense as the world being a few thousand years old). So, how can they believe in the Biblical message of salvation if they do not consider the Bible to be trustworthy?

The main reason why this simplistic view often overshadows the conversation, is that many Christians are not convinced that the alternative Christian narratives truly adhere to Biblical teaching. Many Christians think that any other view than the young earth one necessarily brings the Fall into disrepute (and therefore Christ's redemption) and opens the door for accepting neo-Darwinist evolution which negates God's role as creator (even when this is packaged as "theistic evolution"). The idea that God used this process in his creation is not acceptable to them because it is random (i.e. insofar as genetic mutations are concerned) and mechanistic, without any clear design involved.

What is necessary, is a two-fold approach: 1) To develop good alternative Christian narratives that are consistent with the Bible as God's inspired Word, 2) which are not in conflict with science (not due to a forced reading in this regard but because this is a good and sensible reading). Since God revealed Himself both in Scripture and nature, the hermeneutical study of the Biblical text and the scientific study of nature should not be in conflict! Although paradigms (like the traditional Christian one) are very resistant to change, the dramatic ineffectiveness in spreading the gospel today in Western society may eventually force change.

In my own approach I develop intellectual tools that incorporate both these concerns. Although Christians often steer clear of "intellectualism" and philosophy, there cannot be any doubt that a good intellectual framework grounds effective practical outreach. Both reason and faith are important in practical Christian living [4]. This does not mean that all Christians should become "intellectuals"; rather, it means that such tools can play a significant role in presenting the gospel in a sensible manner to the people of our day. We should remember that St. Paul engaged with the philosophers of his day and knew a lot about the contemporary philosophy of his time (see Acts 17:15-34; Titus 1:12). Although philosophy may never replace the gospel of salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ or good Biblical teaching (see 1 Cor. 3:18-20), we should use it in suitable contexts to argue for the trustworthiness of the Biblical worldview and Scripture.

My main focus is to present the Christian worldview as a (even the most) realistic view of reality (in contrast with the mechanistic/deterministic view which is preferred by atheists) and the Bible as a remarkably trustworthy source of information. In this regard I reworked the approach of the well-known philosopher Immanuel Kant in such a manner that it provides the philosophical basis (or rational grounding) for such a Christian worldview (Kant himself was a Christian). Although all belief-systems have a strong emotional component, I am here primarily concerned with the rational grounds for holding such beliefs.

Kant's conception of a "noumenal realm" is central to my approach. The name is derived from the Greek word for mind, namely "nous". According to Kant this realm is beyond the reach of the human senses and we can therefore only think about it with our mind. This realm forms an essential part of his metaphysics; we can think of it as an intellectual reworking of the idea of the spiritual realm. Although it is often asserted that the noumenal realm should only be understood in moral terms, this is not correct - it forms an integral part of Kant's philosophy of science (in his Critique of the Power of Judgement). I argue that in scientific context the noumenal realm finds its realization (in the most basic sense) in the quantum realm (see [5] for a more detailed discussion). This means that in the context of the quantum realm scientists have effectively for the first time began to engage with the spiritual realm (although they do not yet recognize it). 
Immanuel Kant


The metaphysical implications of this approach are far-reaching and show that the mechanistic (i.e. atheistic) view of the world is unsustainable (even insofar as evolution is considered as a mere mechanistic approach). The strength of this approach lies (among other things) therein that it provides a solution to extremely difficult problems in science, namely how to explain and reconcile determinism and spontaneity and how to solve the so-called "measurement problem" (these problems in quantum physics are about 100 years old!). This is achieved when mechanism is ascribed to the "classical world" where the space-time theories of relativity apply (which agrees with the Kantian conception of "nature") and spontaneity to the pre-measurement "quantum world" (which agrees with the noumenal realm).

Insofar as the Christian worldview is concerned, one of the implications of my approach is that mechanistic evolution must be complimented by design. Kant's approach incorporates two aspects in biological evolution, namely mechanistic causes (as is nowadays described in neo-Darwinian evolution) as well as spontaneous causes (which in the Kantian view signify design at the noumenal level which underlies all material expression). Although we stand at the beginning of this line of quantum-biological research, it seems that we would eventually be able to describe such design in terms of quantum effects [6]. My approach overcomes the drawbacks that plague other apologetic approaches to the no-design problem of neo-Darwinian evolution (for example, in Intelligent Design [7; 8]).

Other implications of my approach in this regard are (among others) 2) that free will can be substantiated (without which adherence to God's Law is nonsensical), 3) that human existence goes beyond the physical realm (Kantian metaphysics accepts the existence of the soul), 4) that noumenal intuitions, which go beyond the reach of sensible intuitions, become realistically possible. This means that divine revelation or natural theology can be argued for on a solid philosophical basis; this has traditionally been a problematic area of Kant's philosophy. In general this approach establishes good reasons for belief in God [8].

Insofar as the Bible is concerned, my approach to interpretation also follows a Kantian angle. I argue that all good interpretation requires both our conceptions (our horizon of interpretation) as well as the presentations of reality in the text (the horizon of the author) [9]. This means that we should not force our conceptual approach onto the text; rather, we should listen to the voices of both the author as well as the tradition in which s/he was embedded as presented in the text [10]. Problems of interpretation arise when we approach the text simplistically, using our current manner of understanding the world as point of departure (neglecting the horizon of the author). This may involve both modernistic or post-modernistic approaches which force our cultural context (as is done by many lay readers) or a scientific worldview (as is done in Biblical Criticism) onto the text. My approach navigates between the rocks of modernism and postmodernism.

In the context of discussions about our human existence, our interpretation of the Book of Genesis is especially relevant - in fact, the manner in which we understand this book determines our understanding of the rest of the Bible! It is important that we read the book with the ancient context in which it originated in mind (this provides the horizon of the author). But what context is relevant? I argue [11] that the Mesopotamian material in the book (especially Gen. 1-12) should be read in an ancient Sumerian context (i.e. not in a neo-Babylonian context as is assumed in Biblical Criticism) for the simple reason that we have every reason to take the Biblical story regarding Abraham's journey from ancient Sumeria (Ur) to Canaan serious. This implies that the Mesopotamian source material for the book was handed down in Abraham's family since the time when they left that country (I call this approach the "Sumerian hypothesis" [12]).

Again, the implications of this approach are substantial. I show that although we should not force a scientific view onto the text (or a mere mythological one, for that matter), the creation story nonetheless forces us to understand the "days" in which God made the cosmos as "periods" of creation, which can be viewed as agreeing with the current scientific view regarding the age of the earth [13]. Furthermore, good hermeneutical principles allow us to take Adam and Eve as real personages who lived about six-thousand years ago (even though this can obviously not be proven), but not that they were the very first people or parents of the whole human race (for a detailed discussion, see [14]). They are important because we may regard them as the earliest remembered people with whom God had a relationship.

I also show that, although the fallen human condition is very much part of the garden story, a good interpretation of the text does not support the idea that they and all of nature became fallen due to their disobedience; rather, their disobedience revealed the fallen human condition which goes back far beyond their own time (as does death - there is abundant archaeological evidence for that!). This reading does not undermine Christ's work on the cross as the answer to that condition; rather, it establishes that within the context of a credible reading of history [15]. As such, my approach provides a solid but also comprehensive interpretation of Genesis 1-12 which does not only carefully analyze the ancient context, but which is also (as can be expected) in line with our scientific understanding of the world. Other interpretations which argue for an old earth, typically focus on the creation account in Genesis 1 but do not engage with other important issues like the talking serpent, the Fall, etc. for which answers should also be provided. Scientific explanations (like Reasons to Believe) also do not take the ancient context in which the text originated into account.

In my approach to the Bible, I believe that neither the naturalistic approach (as is found in Biblical Criticism) nor the simplistic approach (often associated with traditional Christian interpretation) makes sense. The first regards the Bible as a mere book among other books; the other as if it is written only for children (without any understanding for the ancient context from which it originated) [16]. The first removes all aspects of God's supernatural involvement in human history from the Bible; the other requires blind faith in the face of highly unreasonable claims. What is necessary, is a balanced approach that use good hermeneutical tools [17]. In this manner the trustworthiness of the Bible as a source of information can be established. In my view we would not be able to turn the tide without a balanced approach - that steers clear of both these extremes. We need both good intellectual tools which establish the credibility of the Biblical worldview and the Bible as God's Word as well as good practical application in the context of godly lives.

Conclusions

In this essay I discuss the dramatic change in society's attitudes over the past few decades. On the whole, it seems that the so-called "Christian world" is not Christian any more. In most Western countries the percentage of atheists and agnostics have increased to such an extent that they now constitute the majority of the population. Even in the US, which has always been considered a Christian country, the percentage of people considering themselves as Christians have declined significantly whereas the percentage of those who view themselves as agnostic, atheistic or non-religious have increased a lot over the past few years.

The question is: What should the church do? I discuss four current approaches and show that on their own they are unlikely to change in the trend. They may work in communities where they are still applicable - but the world is changing and in a few years we might find that they run aground in many communities which are now still open and accessible. What is needed is a new approach (complimenting the others) which establishes the Christian worldview as a realistic and sensible reading of reality and the Bible as a trustworthy source of information. This would only succeed if traditional Christians accept interpretations of the Biblical text that accentuate the ancient context in which it was written and which are neither in conflict with science nor undermine the Bible as the divinely-inspired Word of God. In fact, it affirms that!

I also present my own solution to the problem. This involves the development of intellectual tools that are grounded in a Kantian philosophical approach. This approach allows us to engage with science (through a reworking of Kant's philosophy of science) but also with the Biblical text (through a reworking of Kant's epistemology to establish good hermeneutical principles). As such it involves a unified approach within the framework of a single Kantian metaphysical framework which is consistent with the Christian worldview. It shows that all mechanistic or naturalistic approaches to the world and the Bible are highly reductionist. And it confirms that the Biblical worldview can better account for reality (explored through science) than the atheistic one whereas the divine inspiration of Scripture is manifest in the fact that reading the text using good hermeneutical principles compliments (rather than contradicts) our scientific understanding of the world. I believe that the acceptance of this approach would add to our ability to effectively reach the people of our day with the gospel, especially those who have not yet decided and silently observe the conversation in the market place of ideas.

I therefore encourage readers to read the other essays on my blog that focus in more detail on these issues and also to tell others about it. They are welcome to share it with their pastors and other Christian leaders and philosophers. It will take time for Christians to consider and debate this approach before accepting it, but I believe that eventually they would see that without good intellectual tools we will never be able to effectively reach the people of our day and age. This imply that we would have to leave simplistic approaches behind and be open-minded like the church in Berea (Acts 17:11). May the Lord give us wisdom in this.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2015/04/14/map-these-are-the-worlds-least-religious-countries/
[2] http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/
[3] Some evangelical Christians are praying for revival. They believe that the answer is that God through his mighty power moves in society. This is definitely important if we want to reach the world for Christ, but this is surely not all that we should do! Revivals are sparse in our day; I do, however, believe that in the end time we will see more of that.
Mc Loud, W. 2015. Introducing a Kantian Interpretation of Quantum Physics, in accordance with Kant's Philosophy of Science in the Critique of the Power of Judgment, reinterpreted and reworked with special attention to the supersensible realm. Masters thesis. UCT. Cape Town.
[6] I previously wrote in the essay "Darwin's Doubt" [7] that "[i]t is possible that we will eventually find that evolution has a quantum component, i.e. that leaps in biological evolution have their grounds in the quantum world where they would arguably seem to be at home". Shortly afterwards the authors of Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology (2014) suggested that quantum processes may indeed play a role in genetic mutations – implying that a mechanistic approach to evolution may not be sufficient.
[7] Click on Darwin's Doubt
[8] I plan to write about ten essays on the implications of the remarkable fit between Kantian metaphysics and our scientific understanding of the world for the Christian-atheist conversation. 
[9] In the context of interpretation the "presentations of reality in the text (the horizon of the author)" do not engage with ancient reality as it was "in itself" (i.e. we do not have access to the mind of the author or all the details of his time) in the same manner that in the context of epistemology (the study of knowledge) the presentations of reality in our senses do not give us access to reality as "it is in itself" (especially not of the quantum realm). However, in the same manner that such presentations in our senses are sufficient to obtain objective knowledge (see my next essay in this regard [8]), the presentations of reality in the text allows us to establish sensible interpretations (meanings) of the text. In the same manner that we can proceed to better understandings of nature when more empirical data becomes available which fit more sophisticated conceptual frameworks (take, for example, the move from Newtonian mechanics to Einsteinium physics), we can also obtain better readings of the text when the context in which we place the text (for example, my "Sumerian hypothesis"; see [12]) solves problems that plague other assumed contexts (the "neo-Babylonian hypothesis" used in Biblical Criticism).
My approach to interpretation agrees with that of Gadamer contra Derrida in that it acknowledges distinct interpretations (instead of a continuous play of interpretation). I proceed beyond Gadamer in that my approach allows for rational criteria (basic principles of hermeneutics) which establish a threshold between "better" interpretations and bad ones (see [17]). Furthermore, in my view we can make "truth" claims only insofar as we can make determinate judgements; we cannot proceed beyond interpretations insofar as we are restricted to mere reflective judgements (in the Kantian sense; see [18]).
[10] I allow for two kinds of determinations, namely a priori determinations (i.e. of concepts) as well as a posteriori determinations (i.e. presentations of the real in the text). These are synthesized in interpretation.
[11]  In my book Abraham en sy God (Griffel, 2012)
[15] Click on Reconsidering The Fall
[16] The Bible can be read on two levels: 1) Such that children and simple people can understand it and come to faith in Christ 2) Such that scientists and educated people in general can understand it in the context of its ancient historical setting and believe it because it is a trustworthy source of information that has been written with integrity (although it has obviously not been written from a modern scientific perspective). To reconcile these might be a major challenge for any pastor - but without both we stand no chance to reach the people of our day for Christ. The trustworthiness of the Biblical text grounds our faith that the Bible is divinely inspired as is clearly stated by some of its authors. Although we as Christians would believe the Biblical text even in the face of supposed inconsistencies, we have a duty to study such problems and show that the text is indeed trustworthy in line with the proclamations regarding its divine inspiration (2 Tim. 3:16; Acts 17:11); it is exactly its trustworthiness (which follow when we use the right contextual tools instead of the modernist approach which discredited Biblical Criticism [19]) which shows that the claims that it is the Word of God is to be taken serious (i.e. that it does not merely contain "words about God").
[17] I developed such tools in the essay Can we still believe the Bible? A hermeneutical approach

Dr Willie Mc Loud (Ref. wmcloud.blogspot.com)

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