Of Isms and Rabbit Trails
Posted by J.M. Njoroge on July 2, 2009
Among my toughest audiences in apologetics are undoubtedly my two little boys.1 From the time words started forming on their lips, questions of various kinds have been a staple around our home—the most formidable one being, “Why, daddy?” More than any other of our appetites, I strongly suspect that thirst for knowledge and the occasional thrill of discovery have played the greatest role in shaping human history. From the vast machinery of the news media to the intricate systems of the educational enterprise, from specialized research institutions to the multifaceted world of religious devotion, human hunger for knowledge is the oil that greases the mill of civilization.
So pervasive is this drive for knowledge that it can become an end in itself, thus opening up a rudderless detour along our journey to God. This is true in religious systems that claim knowledge for a select few, with secretly guarded rituals forever hidden from the uninitiated. Gnosticism, from the Greek word gnosis, which means knowledge, was built upon the premise that there exists a category of knowledge privileged to a select few. Most Eastern religions insist that the problem with humanity is not sin but ignorance; hence, their solution to the human predicament is enlightenment, not forgiveness. Similarly, scientific naturalism stakes its fortunes on the bare, cold facts of particles and quarks; to know them is to know ultimate reality—never mind the minor detail that, logically, there is a gaping missing link between knowing how something works and the conclusion that it was not made.
But according to the Bible, at the end of our incessant pursuit of knowledge lies a Person, not an ideology or impersonal reality. God is not only the beginner of all that is; He has also revealed Himself in the earthliest of terms. Jesus was born in circumstances accessible to the lowliest of the shepherds as well as to the most majestic of kings. He spoke to large crowds in public places and was crucified outside the city walls, thereby silencing forever the voices of self-appointed guardians of alleged esoteric knowledge. In biblical terms, no pursuit of knowledge is ever complete without the discovery of Him who is the Truth; to know Him is to know not only ultimate reality but also ourselves.
Now this raises a thorny dilemma for any honest seeker of truth: how does one maintain genuine confidence in one’s knowledge claims in light of unanswered questions? Specifically, how do we continue to affirm faith in God when our knowledge project is still incomplete? Space prohibits a detailed exploration of this question, but it needs to be noted that skepticism is not a viable option. Time and sheer human frailty conspire to disabuse us of any temptation to demand exhaustive knowledge of a subject before reaching firm conclusions about it. Yet we must have real knowledge regarding a whole host of things to live through a single day. Moreover, the thoroughgoing skeptic cannot logically sustain skepticism since he or she must claim to know that one cannot know, which is self-refuting. The best we can do is to weigh the evidence available to us and then follow it wherever it leads.
Sadly, many of the reasons cited for rejecting God are usually motivated by tendentiously rigid criteria for knowledge selectively applied to the scriptures. For example, in spite of the thousands of early manuscripts that attest to the historical veracity of the New Testament documents, some still reject the Bible on the ground that the process that led to its preservation was not inerrant. Such a stringent requirement goes against our usual methods of acquiring historical knowledge and reveals the true disposition of our hearts. Not only has the original text of the New Testament been preserved in the ancient, hand-copied manuscripts, it can also be reconstructed almost in its entirety from quotations by the early Church Fathers.2
There is indeed, a place for debate on such important issues, but somewhere along the process of accumulating knowledge, there comes a time when one must realize that seeking God is more than just a logical or linguistic game. The turning point is seldom reached on the basis of the evidence alone; our will, motives and predetermined conclusions can influence what we do with the evidence. What we would like to be true can blind us from what is in fact true, thus always elevating the search for knowledge to new and inconclusive heights. As Solomon warned, “There is no end of opinions ready to be expressed. Studying them can go on forever and become very exhausting” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). If we treat the pursuit of God as a mere game of wits, we run the risk of incurring incalculable losses should we in the end lose the game.
Consequently, no honest person should shy away from wrestling with the implications of his or her conclusions. When knowledge is unhinged from the question of ultimate purpose, the result is a conglomeration of facts which are incapable of imparting wisdom. This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges we have faced since the explosion of knowledge in the last couple of centuries. Faced with the inevitable need for specialization,
The specialist put on blinders in order to shut out from his vision all the world but one little spot, to which he glued his nose. Perspective was lost. ‘Facts’ replaced understanding; and knowledge, split into a thousand isolated fragments, no longer generated wisdom. Every science, and every branch of philosophy, developed a technical terminology intelligible only to its exclusive devotees; as men learned more about the world, they found themselves ever less capable of expressing to their educated fellow-men what it was that they had learned.3
Likewise, David Hume pointed out that one cannot derive what ought to be the case from what is the case. But if a purposeful God lies behind the origin and sustenance of the universe, then what ought to be the case is already built into what is the case. The fact that we all find ourselves in a universe with objective moral imperatives and a fairly clear way of distinguishing between proper function and dysfunction is a powerful indicator of our divine origin. Since we exist in a universe infused with a powerful sense of oughtness, knowledge is never an end itself. Just because we can do certain things, it does not follow that we should do them. To recognize that we are responsible for what we do with our knowledge is to take a step towards wisdom, and to fear Him to whom we are responsible is to find wisdom. In an age when science is assumed to be the sole arbiter of ultimate truth and reality, it is important to remember that, “Knowledge is a deadly friend when no one sets the rules.”4
For those who know God, the delicate balance between placing one’s faith in God and seeking answers to questions about Him takes on a new dimension. Rather than our questions producing skepticism within us, they provide us with opportunities for growth as we learn to relate to God. This is the arena in which faith plays a prominent role. Biblically speaking, to have faith in God simply means to trust God. Faith is not opposed to knowledge; otherwise the scriptural teaching that our faith grows in proportion to our knowledge of God would be absurd. 5 Contrary to popular opinion, none of us can live without faith. Even those who claim to live by reason alone have to exercise faith in the deliverances of reason; for to justify reason through reason is to engage in circular reasoning. Thus there is nothing disingenuous about a follower of Jesus continuing to trust in him in the face of unanswered questions. As C. S. Lewis reminded us,
Our opponents…have a perfect right to dispute with us about the grounds of our original assent. But they must not accuse us of sheer insanity if, after the assent has been given, our adherence to it is no longer proportioned to every fluctuation of the apparent evidence.6
We should also note that God is not threatened by the honesty of His children in their struggles—though we may need His help to be properly honest with ourselves. From the psalmist’s impassioned pleas for the manifest presence of God to our Lord’s enigmatic cry to his Father, “Why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46), the scriptures invite us to a real life relationship with God in light of which neatly packaged philosophical or theological systems are just a means to an end. Thus believers deny the reality of their own spiritual growing pains at the expense of the scriptural invitation to an abundant, authentic life in God.
It is a solemn thought to remember that reducing apologetics to a contest in the abstract can keep us from knowing God. Determined to demonstrate the consistency of our beliefs, we can easily find ourselves on endless rabbit trails–pursuing every form of ism, striving to tie each and every loose end in our belief system, finding comfort when we succeed and frustration when we fail–all the time unaware of the beckoning arms of our loving Father who is Himself the treasure we so earnestly seek. Like Jewish leaders of old who diligently searched the scriptures but failed to recognize the One to whom they point when he stood before them in human flesh (John 4:39-40), we can perfect the art of dissecting biblical and philosophical truths with little progress in our knowledge of God–so enamored with the map that we never take a step towards the destination. As C.S. Lewis observes, “There have been men before now who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they came to care nothing for God Himself…as if the good Lord had nothing to do but exist!.”7 Similarly, J. I. Packer warns,
From current Christian publications you might think that the most vital issue for any real or would-be Christian in the world today is church union, or social witness, or dialogue with other Christians and other faiths, or refuting this or that -ism, or developing a Christian philosophy and culture…it is tragic that…so many in our day seem to have been distracted from what was, is, and always will be the true priority for every human being—that is, learning to know God in Christ.8
As long as apologetics remains a contest in the abstract, the God we meet there is a subject to be studied, a case to be argued, a conclusion to be drawn—a far cry from the God who has revealed Himself both in the Scriptures and ultimately in the Person of Jesus Christ. When the pursuit of knowledge becomes an end in itself, the conclusions we accept are decidedly driven by our most cherished passions. Just as it is possible to pursue knowledge simply to satisfy our belief in God without much concern for God Himself, it is also possible to seek it passionately precisely because we disbelieve in God. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: In our thirst for knowledge, “intent is prior to content.”9 Our finitude guarantees that there will always be gaps in our knowledge which only omniscience can fill, but God has put enough content in the world to satisfy any honest intent to find Him.
Is it pointless then to pant for knowledge? Far be it from me to suggest such a thing! This very piece of writing is an attempt to convey knowledge! And, besides, “It is God’s privilege to conceal things and the king’s privilege to discover them” (Proverbs 25:2, NLT). To be deprived of a sense of wonder and adventure in our lives is to be burdened with existence. Whenever I am tempted to disparage the passion for painstaking attention to the seemingly minutiae, I am reminded of the faithful souls who have labored for years to sift through ancient manuscripts of Scripture and then translate them into a language that I can read. We are all beneficiaries of the dedication of others in almost all areas of our lives. Worshiping at the altar of ignorance is no more pious than worshipping at the altar of mental abundance. But those whose pursuit of Truth is infused with the purity of spirit discover that, all along, the Father has been seeking such to worship Him.10
J.M. Njoroge is associate apologist at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
1 This article is an expanded version of a recent Slice of Infinity essay.
2 Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 86.
9 Zacharias, 98.