Friday, November 10, 2023

Too Hot to Handle: These Things Break Bones

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

In sharing Christ with others it is not unusual to come across an unsaved person who is honest, self-aware or willing to disclose where he is in his thinking. What is rare is to find all three in the same person.

Tom: I recently watched David Berlinski in a lengthy interview with Peter Robinson doing a very fine job of exposing the flaws in Darwin’s theory of evolution. The exchange prompted a whole train of thought on how subtle self-deception can be, and how easy it is to sidestep the most important questions a human being can ever ask.

David Berlinski on Agnosticism

Here’s Berlinski reflecting on his own agnosticism:

“Look, there’s a crucial difference to be made. A man says, ‘I believe that God does not exist,’ like a Richard Dawkins, a Sam Harris or a Christopher Hitchens. That’s an affirmation. He’s making a commitment to a certain kind of creedal system: ‘I believe that,’ just as I believe there’s no natural number between four and five ... and I think I can show that very easily.

A man who says, ‘I don’t believe that God exists’ has no skin in the game. He’s just saying that among his beliefs are not one that could be expressed as ‘God exists’. That doesn’t mean he believes the contrary. It means he has not reached that state of equipoise where he can say, ‘God exists. I believe that God exists.’ He is withdrawing his belief, and that is something that is incontestable. You can’t argue against a man who says, ‘I just don’t believe it.’ It doesn’t mean he needs persuasion or he needs proof. It’s just that in the economy of his belief system you won’t find a particular belief.

I think before one crosses the threshold of theological commitment, one has to be put together in a certain way. Pascal said very memorably, ‘Every human being has a hole in his heart that’s shaped like God.’ Well, maybe. But in some men, the hole is a whole lot smaller than others.

I don’t say this is a good thing or a bad thing, but I am mindful of the smallness in diameter of the hole I possess, and there’s just nothing I wish to change about that. That’s the way it is.”

IC, we’ve talked a lot in this space about agnosticism and atheism, so let’s say you’re the one sitting in Peter Robinson’s chair.

The Questions Which Arise

What thoughts are you having as you listen to Berlinski hold forth on the state of his own thinking about God, and how would you respond if you had the chance?

Immanuel Can: Well, my first question to him would be, “Is your ‘I just don’t believe it’, as you put it, premised on a confession of ignorance or on a claim of information?” In other words, is it the case that you disbelieve because you know nothing about it, or because you do know something about it?

Tom: Ooh, that’s interesting. Berlinski’s an intellectual, and I don’t think he’d be put off by that at all. I couldn’t begin to imagine how he’d answer, but that’s an approach I would not have thought of, which just goes to show how we’re all different.

The thing that stuck out for me about his explanation of his agnosticism is that he’s kind of backhandedly blaming it on God, which seems weak to me. He says, “I am mindful of the smallness in diameter of the hole I possess”, which implies his deficiency of belief is due to the way he is constituted, rather than any active rejection of Christ. And I call major bluff on that one. Now, how I would put it to him if he happened to be inclined to discuss the matter with me, I can’t really tell you. I always come up with the best answers a day too late ...

IC: Yes, that’s often the way.

No Skin in the Game?

Well, Mr. Berlinski says that a man who says “I don’t believe” has no skin in the game. Let me try that theory out.

Recently, there was a shooter in my city. The police cordoned off a section of the town, and tried to talk the guy out. I went by there. Now, suppose I had said to the police officer, “I don’t believe there’s a gunman.” What would he have said to me? And if I protested, “Look, I want to walk down this street, and I have no skin in this game”, what should the police have done? What would anybody who knew I was wrong do, if they had the slightest care for my life? That is why Berlinski’s plea that such a person doesn’t “need persuasion or proof” is just crazy.

Tom: Yes, exactly. Doesn’t want is not the same as doesn’t need.

IC: There are reactions appropriate to a claim. If I claim, “There’s a gunman ahead” or “there’s a judgment ahead”, then a wise man checks out the reasons for thinking it. In such cases, it’s just lunatic to brush it off with, “I withhold my belief” or “I’m not interested.” You might indeed not feel “a God-shaped hole”, but you’re likely to feel a bullet-shaped one.

Tom: Well, yes. And when Mr. Berlinski says, “There’s just nothing I wish to change about [my agnosticism]. That’s the way it is,” I’m confident he would also understand why any genuine Christian who hears that line from him is still going to take his very best shot at sharing Christ with Mr. Berlinski notwithstanding his apparent indifference to further engagement on the subject. To do anything else — to treat his professed lack of interest as his final word on the most important question a human being can consider — would be truly unloving. As Paul puts it, “that by all means I might save some.” The person who is blithely drifting into the riptide may not understand his own danger yet, but the lifeguard on the shore knows what’s happening in a way the swimmer does not.

Believing in Whom?

I was noticing this week in preparing another post how often Christian belief is expressed in scripture not as mere assent to a series of propositions, but as trust in a person. For example, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” That’s very personal. It’s not just an intellectual position. That seems to me to be the part of the Christian message that Mr. Berlinski has not yet engaged with.

IC: And do we believe him, Tom? Do we really think that at no point in Mr. Berlinski’s life has God been an issue, so that he just hasn’t really got any engagement with the question? It would be odd to think he’s never encountered it in Judaism. But it’s clear he’s also met a whole bunch of Christians. Are we to suppose that his life has been so free from difficulty and tragedy that he has never had cause to ask, “Why me?” Who has not done that?

Tom: Oh, no. I don’t believe him at all. In fact, his little bit of self-disclosure was quite confirming of Paul in Romans 1: “Although they knew God ...” To me his explanation of his position had all the squirmy evasiveness and eagerness to stake out his autonomy of a man under conviction.

The God-Shaped Hole

IC: He does not strike me as an unthinking man. I can’t believe he’s never really found an opportunity to put the question to himself, “What does all of this mean?”

Tom: You can’t avoid that question. It’s not a matter of the putative size of your “God-shaped hole”. It’s an intellectual hole. It’s an emotional hole. It’s a spiritual hole. There is something missing at every level of the human condition. If the Holy Spirit doesn’t get you in one area, he’ll definitely nail you in another, and I would bet my shirt Mr. Berlinski has known a troubled conscience in one sphere or more. I lived with it myself back in the day.

IC: Certainly he has. We all have.

So now, what’s the right angle to take in speaking to someone like Mr. Berlinski? If he claims his agnosticism is just the indifference born of ignorance, then one can say, “Well, let me suggest a new idea for you to think about.” But I suspect his response will be, “I’ve thought about that, and I don’t want to think about that.” So the next question is, “Why?” What personal issue has made this matter something he is at pains not to consider? And here we get to the truth, and to the human level of his experience.

Tom: And it’s also the level at which it is very tempting to dissemble.

IC: Yes. But here’s the right strategy to cope with that: slow down the conversation at that point. Let him think about why he’s dissembling, or not telling the whole truth. Let him feel his alienation from himself and wonder about it. The more he talks about it, the more uncomfortable it becomes to be far from the truth.

As Judge Judy says, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to have a good memory.” If you dissemble, on the other hand, you have difficulty staying consistent with your story, and it’s hard work to remember what you’ve said. Moreover, you have difficulty liking yourself while you’re doing it. The point is not to humiliate the man, but to encourage him to switch to the truth at some point by letting him tire of pretense.

Not Far from the Kingdom

Tom: That’s good. I often feel like men of this intellectual caliber are not far from where they need to be. “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” The facts are what the facts are, and they are compelling, especially to men who really understand the issues at stake. I wish we were in the position of a Peter Robinson, to have the privilege of being able to ask Mr. Berlinski the next question ... the one that never gets asked on YouTube.

But maybe there’s something we can take out of this for our next encounter with a philosophy major or a science grad who’s smart enough to realize that not everything he has been taught in university adds up. The holes in Berlinski’s self-justification screed do not require a PhD to explore effectively, do they?

IC: No. One of the brightest professors I ever met said this in one of his lectures: “At the end of the day, it’s love, not arguments, that matter — even a PhD thinks so.” And in my travels, I’ve found that’s true. There is no end to intellectual evasions, but kindness, hospitality, gentleness, generosity, sincerity and patience … these things break bones.

I dare say they might even break Mr. Berlinski’s.

1 comment :

  1. I looked at the interview video and was not too impressed. Both, Berlinski and the interviewer are knowledgeable and able to come up with conclusions and reasons for their attitudes. As always though there is that sense of lack of honesty that comes across, magnified here because they are intellectually capable. Berlinski is (should be) fully capable of discerning the approach you must take as an individual from the user manual provided by God (Bible) if you are seriously interested in exploring along those lines. And, of course, it comes always down to that, namely, it would be inconvenient to discover that God might really exist. So you pretend and offer up all kinds of spurious reasons why you should not even make an attempt. The Bible makes it clear that God is fully discoverable if you want to engage with him on a personal level. He would not hold back. The procedure, which is inconvenient for Berlinski, is aptly described in "knock and it shall be opened, seek and you shall find", etc. So Berlinski should be honest and simply say why bother since I do not want any interference in the convenient ways that I am happy with. The discussion could have ended there and the interview concluded in two minutes. What a waste of time. It is always like that, especially with those who are perceived to by hyper intellectuals. All it means is that they are happy in their little niche and don't want to be dragged out of there and any experiment that would do that will not be engaged in.