“Let them at least understand the religion which they oppose before they oppose it.” This quote has been attributed to Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician, physicist, inventor, and believe it or not, a noted theologian. As a teenager he began to invent mechanical calculators. He made significant contributions to mathematics and physics, working with vacuums and hydraulics. A computer language was named after him—which I studied in college. His quote about thoughtfulness is great advice for us in our day. Think about it my friends! “Let them at least understand the religion which they oppose before they oppose it.”
Everyone has, what are called, “plausibility structures” in their minds. These are a set of philosophical (and often experiential) pre-commitments that help people discern what is likely to be true. So when you hear that little green Martians have taken over the capital, you think that is unlikely to be true because it doesn’t fit with your preset “plausibility structures.” You’ve never seen Martians. You doubt they exist. If they did, it’s inconceivable how they might travel here. And plus, you have other theories as to what is really wrong with congress! So the “Martian theory” doesn’t fit.
Well, our culture has so shaped our “plausibility structures” that if someone has not been raised with any Christian influences then the gospel sounds very implausible, unlikely to be true. Just think of the several ideas necessary just to begin to understand the gospel:
· Existence of God
· Holiness of God
· Human sinfulness
· Accountability for sins
· Basic historical understanding of Jesus’ life
· An understanding of atonement
· The claim that Jesus was raised bodily
· What is faith (alas it is not vacuous wishing, but trust in the specific claims of Christ)
· What is repentance
Of course these things can be explained. But if you have a completely different worldview without any exposure to at least some of these ideas, it’s a lot to take in at one time. So much so, that one’s “plausibility structures” can push someone to hasty conclusions that not only is the gospel implausible but outright wrong. We call this an epistemological barrier to perceiving the rational veracity of the gospel. The gospel is true. But it doesn’t look that way to them; it doesn’t jive with major parts of what they already believe to be true (or at least true-ish). So they conclude it’s not true. Then, of course, issue of whether they will commit to follow Christ can’t even be broached.
Another problem is that they also interpret the above concepts inside their preset worldview, and of course they don’t sense in that system of thought. So in the end they may never even understand what exactly we are trying to say by them. Nor, what it is they are rejecting.
That is why we at ITS take “Cultural Apologetics” so seriously. Apologetics are a response to specific reasoned-objections to Christianity. And we should do that. But Cultural Apologetics is not looking at nonChristian objections one by one. Rather, it is an investigation into why people would have those specific objections. For example theodicy (the problem of evil/suffering) is a bigger apologetic issue today than is was a couple hundred years ago. Why? We should certainly have good answers to “the problem of evil.” But it is equally important to understand why is that a bigger issue today? Do we suffer more today than a couple hundred years ago? No, in the West we suffer less! So Cultural Apologetics is an attempt to understand long-standing philosophical and societal trends that create those epistemological barriers to the plausibility of the gospel. It is a look at the questions behind the questions.
Understanding out audience better will help us communicate more clearly and help people remove these epistemological barriers and so pave the way to the plausibility of the gospel. Of course everyone needs (as Jonathan Edwards put it) "A Divine and Supernatural Light" to shine into their hearts (Edwards was talking about Matthew 16:17, but see also 2 Corinthians 4:1-6). And we pray to that end. Our job is, as Pascal advises us, "Let them at least understand..."
- Brent Huber is an elder at Christ Community Church in Carmel, and serves on the ITS board.