Reaching the Happy Thinking Pagan
Posted by Ravi Zacharias on October 1, 1995
The muddied streets of an Indian city, where families crowd into tired buildings and an ancient culture prevails as it has for centuries. The ivied halls of Harvard University where the erudite elite debate postmodern ideas. Both are home to Ravi Zacharias, Christian apologist. Ravi was born into an Indian family whose ancestry is traced back to priests in the temples of South India. He struggled over the meaning of life, and at seventeen, through a crisis experience, he pledged to “leave no stone unturned” in his pursuit of truth. A short time later, that quest led to faith in Christ. In 1966, he emigrated to Canada, where he worked in business until he sensed God’s call to ministry. After college and seminary, Ravi was commissioned by the Christian & Missionary Alliance as an evangelist. But at a conference for itinerant evangelists in Amsterdam in 1983, Ravi felt God calling him to a more specific task: to reach the intellectually resistant- whom Ravi has affectionately nicknamed “the happy pagan.” Answering that call has taken him to university campuses such as Harvard and Princeton, where in open forums he lectures on the truths of Christianity.
Ravi had just returned from a university lectureship when LEADERSHIP editor Dave Goetz visited him in his Atlanta office. LEADERSHIP wanted to know what the gospel sounds like to the ears of the “happy pagan” and how church leaders can reach the people in today’s world.
Are “happy pagans” as happy as they seem?
Ravi Zacharias: The happy pagan is wrapped up in the belief that this world and the success it affords are the greatest pursuits in life. He or she feels no need for anything transcendent. Life has been reduced to temporal pursuits disconnected from all the other disciplines necessary for life to be meaningfully engaged.
Some are completely unreflective; they don’t think enough to know they have no right to be happy. They borrow on capital they don’t have. Many of these people, though, are sophisticated thinkers in their fields-scientists, mathematicians, computer engineers. They are specialists with a glaring weakness: The do not ask the questions of life itself.
What questions do they ask?
At the universities I visit, the exclusivity of Christ is raised in every open forum-“How can you possibly talk about one God or one way when there are so many good options?”
Today, sensitivities are at an all-time high-and rightfully so. Tolerance of different races and religions has been lacking over the years. But pluralism has given way to relativism. Most of the intellectual elite of this country completely disavow the idea of absolute truth.
At the Harvard forum, I established that the law on non-contradiction (that no statement can be true and false at the same time and in the same relationship) must apply to reality. As in virtually every other setting, it stirs up quite a debate, but you would assume it fundamental to rational discourse. When I did, the audience went silent for several minutes. That the laws of logic apply to reality floors people, even though they use logic to attack Christian truths.
Here’s the rub: While the average secular person will believe something without subjecting it to rational critique, he disbelieves things on the basis that they are rationally inadmissible. So he critically attacks Christian assumptions using principles of logic that he doesn’t even hold to.
But at every university where I’ve lectured, the intellectual questions eventually turn into questions of meaning. Often behind a difficult or angry question is a hurting heart; the intellect is intertwined with the heart. I always try to rescue a question from mere academic connotations.
Once a couple walked up to me after a church service and began asking questions about the problem of evil. As I began answering their questions, I happened to glance at their baby, who had Down’s Syndrome. Seeing their child, I had a whole new appreciation for their questions and the context behind them.
Nothing is as offensive as answers perceived to be mere words, uncaring of a human situation.
Which questions are the hardest to answer?
In addressing skeptics, the biggest trap is getting sidetracked into symptomatic issues. The most volatile of these, of course, are sexuality and abortion. At Ohio State University, I did an open forum on a radio talk show. The host was an atheist.
From the start, the callers were antagonistic. I could feel the tension as soon as the lines lit up. One angry woman caller said, “All you people have is an agenda you’re trying to promote.” Referring to abortion, she said, “You want to take away our rights and invade our private lives.”
Abortion had not even been brought up.
“Just a minute,” I replied. “We didn’t even raise the subject.”
I said, “Can I ask you a question? On every university campus I visit, somebody stands up and says that God is an evil God to allow all this evil into our world. This person typically says, ‘A plane crashes: Thirty people die, and twenty people live. What kind of a God would arbitrarily choose some to live and some to die?'”
I continued, “but when we play God and determine whether a child within a mother’s womb should live, we argue for that as a moral right. So when human beings are given the privilege of playing God, it’s called a moral right. When God plays God, we call it an immoral act. Can you justify this for me?”
That was the end of the conversation.
If a pilot incorrectly sets her indicators before she takes off, then the higher she climbs, the more inaccurate her gauges will read. The problem is not where the gauges are but where they started from.
What are the temptations for you as you speak to the “happy, thinking pagan”?
One is to become angry. It can be frustrating seeing how society has desacralized everything. But Jesus resisted the temptation of outrage and the quick-fix of condemnation. He spent most of his time preparing the wine skins before pouring the new wine into them. Our tendency is to start pouring the wine into skins that will only burst.
At a university in Thailand, I was speaking on “Existentialism, Marxism, Pantheism, and Christianity.” A Muslim stood up and said, “You have just insulted your God by mentioning Karl Marx and Jean Paul Sartre in the same sentence in which you mentioned Christ.”
I could feel the irritation welling up inside me. I wanted to retort, “I have done nowhere near what the Muslim world has done in stripping Christ of his deity.” But instead I paused, took a drink of water, and said, “I deeply appreciate your sensitivity. I know where you are coming from. But don’t forget you also used all three names in the sentence as you raised the question for me.”
I continues, “Did you mean to equate them by naming the three of them?”
“No,” he said.
“Neither did I. Mentioning two names in the same sentence is hardly suggesting they are equal. But I want to commend you for your sensitivity because in many cultures we have lost reverence of the name of God.”
This response paved the way for the answer.
How can preachers critique alternative beliefs to Christianity so that people will listen?
If you can make any religion look idiotic, chances are, you haven’t understood that religion. You can’t take treasured beliefs from the past and mock them.
After I spoke at Brigham Young University, a well-groomed student came to me and said, “Dr. Zacharias, you didn’t directly attack Mormonism. Was there a reason?”
“Of course,” I said. “I was assigned a subject on which to speak, and the subject was getting to the truth: Who is Jesus? I lectured on that.
“If I had been asked to deal with the differences between Mormonism and orthodox Christianity, I would have done so. But I still would have done so graciously.”
“I just want to thank you for that approach,” he said. “Two weeks ago there was a man on campus who came on his own invitation and started crying down hellfire and brimstone. He was escorted off campus.”
The old Indian proverb holds true: Once you’ve cut off a person’s nose, there’s no point giving him a rose to smell. We tend to think being kind and listening to the opposition implies we have sacrificed the message. But we need to learn how to handle critique, how to address an antagonist. Even while you wrestle with the ideas of an opponent, you must keep the dignity of the opponent intact.
Why is Christianity increasingly relegated to the margins of our society?
The attacks have principally come on two fronts. First, the academic world has made great gains in its philosophical and scientific exploits. It extrapolates those advances as giving credence to an agnostic or atheistic worldview.
Unfortunately in contrast, the questions of today’s average young person, who is the product of America’s intellectual bastions, have been virtually left unaddressed by the church. There is a danger when we give young people only a catalogue of do’s and don’ts. So in these young minds, the gospel is not intellectually credible.
Secondly, while our country’s intellectual skeptics attack us rationally, the arts attack us by appealing to the passions. Today there is no force greater in the molding of the North American mind than the invasion of the imagination by the medium of the visual.
Malcolm Muggeridge quoting Simone Weil said that in reality nothing is so beautiful as the good and nothing so monotonous and boring as evil. In our imagination, however, it’s reversed: Fictional good is boring and flat; fictional evil is varied, intriguing, attractive, full of charm.
Between intellectual attacks that pummel the mind and arts that provide immeasurable allurements, the idea of God in a pleasure-mad society is a hindrance.
One of the characteristics of postmodern thinking is its extreme relativism. How do you engage someone who doesn’t even believe in truth?
If the purveyors of postmodernism talk long enough, you will hear that the reason they disavow Christianity is because they do not see it as true. I call this their “smuggled-in epistemology”: They use the principles of logic to criticize our system but refuse to apply them to their own beliefs.
When I was asked to do a lectureship in England, the inviting body wrote a letter to me saying, “We have received one criticism of this seminar that is coming up: ‘Will you be focusing too much on reason and logic and not deal with the postmodernist mindset?'”
I smiled at that. English papers are filled with astrology, the occult, New Age thought- what years ago would have fallen under the general category of the bizarre. At the same time, Islam has made great inroads in England; Prince Charles is now patron of the Center for Islamic Studies at Oxford. Islam knows how damaging postmodern thinking is: It creates a huge vacuum often filled with something else.
Postmodernism is dangerous not only because of what it has done to the secular person but because it destroys our apologetic, our methods for determining truth. What’s happening in the West with the emergence of postmodernism is only what has been in much of Asia for centuries but under different banners. For many years, the Indian would say the same thing- “All roads lead to God because truth is never absolute.” That assumption was not in keeping with classical Hinduism but became popular.
So, too, with the way postmodernism works. The point of engagement must come through the common ground that even the postmodernist assumes in disbelieving something. As Chesterton said, “In truth, there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogma and know it, and those who accept dogma and don’t know it.” But even beyond this, the church needs to ask whether the Christian has understood the nature of truth.
Why does Christianity seem to bear the brunt of society’s anger toward religion?
The secular historian Lecky said of Christ that he was the supreme personality in history who motivated humanity to the best of ethical thinking. There has been none like him. Society itself recognizes this and hence expects of the Christian a higher standard.
But as understandable as that is, American culture, or at least the cultural elite, has become particularly vicious in its anti-Christian attacks. The whole episode of the film The Last Temptation of Christ said more about us as a culture in North America than anything in recent memory.
Israel and all the Middle East banned the film, as did India. We are long past talking about whether an unbeliever should be punished for being irreverent. It is now thought irreverent for being a believer, so said G. K. Chesterton. In the West, Islam and Hinduism could never be so mocked with impunity. The media will never engage in it because they see those as “culturally protected.” But Christianity, being transcultural, is open to such criticism.
Secularism has bred irreverence, which has come on the heels of so much pleasure, so much indulgence. This is not a sign merely of arrogance; this is a sign of emptiness. Chesterton said that meaninglessness ultimately comes not from being weary of pain but from being weary of pleasure. Hence our present meaninglessness.
How do you handle such hostility?
At the universities, much of the hostility toward me is mitigated because of my racial background; audiences seem to have more acceptance for someone who is not Caucasian. I have felt more antagonism from faculty than from students, although I did hear at Harvard, for example, that one student said, “I will not be attending these lectures because he does not pay much credence to the higher critical theories of the Scriptures. What can he say to me?”
Other religious groups are not so much hostile as suspicious; they want to see what you’re going to say about them. But if there is tension at the beginning of a lectureship, I’ve never sensed it at the end. In every setting, the response in fact is overwhelmingly gratifying.
Why is that?
We cannot go to the university with the attitude, “I’m here to deal with your tough questions…” I always begin by telling them a little bit about my life. I often tell about my struggles as a teenager. My stated vulnerability gives me an entry point. But even with a hard-edged question, I answer with graciousness. I have to earn the right to be heard every time I get up to speak.
“I’m going to defend why Jesus Christ is the only way to God,” I might say. “You may disagree with that, but if you do, make sure that your arguments counter the arguments I’m now presenting to you.”
One key is the willingness to say, “I’m not sure how well I will deal with what you’re going to say, but give me a chance. I have struggled with these issues.”
I also plead with my audience: “Let’s both agree that these matters are important. And if we both agree that they are important, let’s get more light than heat. Let’s try to find some answers because hiding behind words is not going to solve the problem.”
Whether it is in a business or academic setting, their heartwarming response is an indicator that people are hungry for answers.
How does the church reach someone whose very framework or grid doesn’t allow any common ground?
There is no doubt the task is very difficult. But opportunities are unprecedented. For example, being present in the passages of life. The church still meets people in the transition points: Marriages break down. Children commit suicide and leave helpless parents. Death and suffering are everywhere.
In India there is a saying that you can touch your nose directly or you can touch your nose the long way around. And for some people, you need to go the long way around to reach them. It’s a long road, but it’s often the only road.
From there, the intellectual questions can be addressed. In the years ahead, evangelism will increasingly become more difficult; it will be less propositional and more relational.
The Church should provide a setting where people can express their questions. In churches we live with the danger of one-way verbal traffic.
So it is legitimate to reach people through their felt needs?
Obviously Christ’s teaching is therapeutic and restorative. It is therapeutic in the sense that there are answers to our needs. Life’s difficulties make the questioner more reachable. God often enters our lives through our brokenness to show that we’re not as autonomous as we think we are.
But Christ’s teaching is therapeutic because it is true. That truth has greater implications for life than just being therapeutic. It is not just a “feel better” but a “know better” situation. Truth demands a commitment. The question of truth has to emerge; everything else hangs on it.
Somebody who responds to a watered down gospel will only make more work for someone else down the road; the hard work of discipleship has to be done. That is one danger of reaching nonbelievers solely through the medium of art. What the arts should do is create legitimate hungers that only God is big enough to fill. But at some point, art has to give way to reason. The visual has to be anchored beyond itself.
How can preaching anchor the imagination?
First, we need to give our audiences more credit- that they want to think. We assume sometimes that they don’t. It is fatal to assume that everything we preach should be on the bottom shelf, where people don’t have to reach for it. We wind up talking down to people and perpetuating the fallacious idea that spiritual pursuit is handed to you. It isn’t. You reach out; you seek; you knock; you search; you find.
Jesus spoke in parables not only to disclose truth but also to disclose the heart of the listener, to see how much that listener wants to pursue the truth. Having to reach is indispensable to spiritual maturity.
When you preach engaging the mind- keeping the idea within reach- you are complimenting your audience; they recognize they need to reach for that slightly higher level, that they need to stand on their toes to grasp what you’re saying. In reaching the heart, we can’t forget the mind. “Balance” is the key word.
What do you think is the primary role of the preacher in today’s postmodern world?
The task of the preacher is undoubtedly one of the most difficult roles in a fragmented society steeped in such a scorching secularism. Many people in the pew see Christianity as disjointed from their day to day life. They see it as one aspect of their lives, something they do in addition to everything else. Nothing is connected for them in life. There is no unity in the diversity of roles we all play.
Preaching is such a sacred trust; over the years I have learned to respect the calling more each day. I hesitate therefore to give anyone else suggestions. What has helped me in making the connection is to see a sermon as incorporating three components: the argument -or proclamation), the illustration, and the application. The Scriptures provide the truth; the arts, poetry, literature, or other current events provide the illustrations; and the application should go right to daily living. This approach helps connect ideas with concrete reality.
One of the important roles of the preacher is to be a connector. People today live in various privatized struggles; there is no unity to them. The pastor is the only person who can help them make sense of it all.
But for a pastor to connect fragmented lives takes hard work. Most professions afford the luxury on one line of thinking. If I am a biology teacher, for example, biology is my discipline and all I need to keep up with. If I am a hockey player, hockey is all I need to perfect.
But a pastor or Christian teacher today has to keep up with so many fields because the audience is so diversified, and the pastor is looked up to for wisdom in trying to connect it all. This demand requires much study. This is a tall order. With knowledge growing exponentially, it’s easy to wind up sounding ignorant.
A.W. Tozer said that we are all ignorant, only in different subjects. Some pastors might not be given to philosophical thinking, but all of us wrestle with these issues at some level. We need to rise to the level we can.
How can we better understand the way people think today?
I recommend that pastors formulate a book list representing five of the major worldviews. Take three-by-five cards and write down the fundamental beliefs of each. What are the basic doctrines of this worldview? Who are the leading thinkers advocating it?
Preachers must work hard at being familiar with the leading thinkers of our day. The ideas of Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man, for example, give firsthand insight into deconstruction, a worldview that trumpets the meaninglessness of meaning. The reading is difficult, but you’ll get a feel for our times. If one is not given to this type of content, then it is still important that we know where to direct the inquirer who struggles with these issues.
One of the names being resurrected on university campuses today is Ayn Rand, an egocentric humanist popular twenty or so years ago. I gained an awareness of that in our last couple of open forums, so I hurried back to reread We the Living and her other works.
The listener respects firsthand knowledge.
Is the gospel gaining a hearing among our thinking elite?
Yes, in all arenas we see this- political, business, academic, and the arts. We do our universities a disservice when we brand them as a lost cause. There are some frightfully honest students out there. And when their questions are respectfully dealt with, many admit their vulnerability.
Even though the search for meaning is debunked today, it is still rigorously pursued. The postmodern world is still a world where technology and means play a greater role than people and relationships. But the cries of the human heart can be smothered only so long. And in these yearnings, the search for significance and fulfillment continues.
Every generation will try to get us to change the message, but wisdom is justified by her children. We are called to be faithful to our calling in the Word. And God has promised to honor those who honor him.
If our preaching leads people to genuine worship, we will help meet the deepest longing of the heart and mind; the secular worldviews have left them bankrupt.