Intellectual Sparring

“I Am Sir Lancelot” by N.C. Wyeth, 1922

Have you ever taken part in a debate, or watched one? A question is proposed. A champion comes forward from each side to show why their answer to the question is correct. In a formal debate, they’ve prepared well in advance. The debate may be oral or a written exchange. Some debates will have the audience vote on who “won” the debate. Hopefully, this isn’t just a popularity contest, with the winner decided based on their charisma or their pithy comebacks. Rather, it should be based on who has justified their view the best, who has defended their conclusion by supporting it with true premises using clear terms. Why? A conclusion that logically follows from true premises using unequivocal terms forms an airtight case. If one side can do that, they have won the debate. But is winning the debate the end goal? With our inherent competitiveness, that tends to be the case, but it shouldn’t be. As philosopher Peter Kreeft points out, the real goal should be for both sides to come to agree on the independent truth, regardless of which one found it first.[1] If you prove your point and win the debate, but nobody changes their mind, what have you actually won? What about the debate between atheists and Christians? Is it just about winning an intellectual battle? On the contrary, this issue, above all others, is far from simply an intellectual exercise or game. There are very serious implications. As Blaise Pascal wrote in his Pensées, “It concerns all our life to know whether the soul be mortal or immortal.”[2]

One danger in debating the topics such as the existence of God, the deity of Jesus, the reliability of the Bible, and so on, is that we can be lulled into seeing it as just a game – a sort of intellectual sparring, a competition to see who can win the argument and beat their rival. But these are not simply interesting questions to ponder, or tricky propositions to show off our reasoning prowess. These are truly life and death problems (greater even than life and death, if the warnings of the Bible are true). Luke tells us in Acts 24 of the apostle Paul’s journey through the Jewish/Roman legal system. There we read of Paul’s encounter with the Governor, Felix. After hearing from Paul’s accusers, then from Paul, Felix put them off and kept Paul under house arrest. Hoping to get a bribe from Paul, Felix would send for him often to converse with him.[Acts 24:26] But of course, Paul never offered the bribe Felix was hoping for, only frightening talk of “righteousness, self-control, and the judgement to come.”[Acts 24:25] Two years passed like this, and Felix was replaced by a new governor, while Paul continued to await a fair trial. Felix had at his disposal the author of almost half the books of the New Testament, and talked to him often. And yet, there was no repentance, no change. It was only a game to him.

Is that you today? Are topics like the existence of God and the historicity of Jesus Christ simply interesting topics to discuss, idle speculations, or maybe even amusing subjects of ridicule? Understand the seriousness of the stakes. Death is a certainty for every one of us, and it may take any of us at a moment’s notice. It behooves us then to do our due diligence when it comes to determining if there is another stage to life that we should be preparing for now, for we know not how soon we may be expected to pass through that door. It’d be good to learn what’s awaiting you on the other side. While strictly speaking, atheism only claims that God does not exist, it typically coincides with a materialistic view that there is nothing supernatural (i.e. beyond nature), and that there is therefore nothing of a person that survives physical death. Under Christianity, that point of physical death is simply a point on a person’s timeline that started shortly before and continues on afterward infinitely. It is only a transition and not an ending. It is a change in container (the material body), but not in content (the immaterial soul). That completely revolutionizes how we perceive difficulties, suffering and other unfairness in life, or the perceived unfairness of an unusually short life.

On the other hand, maybe you are not opposed to God, per se, like the atheist, but are simply indifferent. You see no reason to bother with the question. Consider another observation from Blaise Pascal:

“The immortality of the soul is a matter which is of so great consequence to us, and which touches us so profoundly, that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent as to knowing what it is. All our actions and thoughts must take such different courses, according as there are or are not eternal joys to hope for, that it is impossible to take one step with sense and judgment, unless we regulate our course by our view of this point which ought to be our ultimate end. Thus our first interest and our first duty is to enlighten ourselves on this subject, whereon depends all our conduct.” [3]

Don’t make the mistake of neglecting that “first duty”. A temporary agnosticism on any subject while you are investigating it is commendable; careful considerations generally turn out better than rash decisions, after all. But prolonged agnosticism is only the trap of apathy and indifference in disguise. You may say that you refuse to choose – that you are agnostic – but as Peter Kreeft has so deftly stated, “to every possible question, life presents three possible answers: Yes, No and Evasion. Death removes the third answer… Death turns agnosticism into atheism. For death turns ‘Tomorrow’ into ‘Never’.”[4] You may not have tomorrow; hence the biblical warning “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.”[Heb 4:7] Have you made the right choice? Not sure? Contact me and we can discuss any questions you have.

[1] Kreeft, Peter, Socratic Logic, (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), p. 346. “Socrates sees himself and ‘O’ [the opponent] not as a winner and a loser but as two scientists mutually seeking the truth by testing two alternative hypotheses. Whichever one finds the truth, both are winners.”
[2] Pascal, Blaise, Pascal’s Pensées, (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co, 1958),  p. 63. Kindle Edition.
[3] ibid., p. 55.
[4]Kreeft, Peter, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined, & Explained, (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1993), pp.299-300.

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