Evangelizing the apathetic…
Our pluralistic, post-Christian age is “quite simply the greatest opportunity for Christian witness since the time of Jesus and the apostles.” Yet, Christians have failed to face up to many of the realities of our secular age—especially that our way of communicating the Gospel is inadequate in many cases. It is this dilemma that Os Guinness addresses in Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion.
Almost all our witnessing and Christian communication assumes that people are open to what we have to say, or at least are interested, if not in need of what we are saying. Yet most people quite simply are not open, not interested and not needy, and in much of the advanced modern world fewer people are open today than even a generation ago. Indeed, many are more hostile, and their hostility is greater than the Western church has faced for centuries. Through the explosion of pluralism in the last fifty years, our world has grown dramatically more diverse, and through the intensification of the culture warring in many Western countries, our world has grown far more dismissive of our faith. …
But this book is not just about recovering the “lost art of Christian persuasion.”
It is also about an “advocacy of the heart,” an existential approach to sharing our faith that … is deeper and more faithful as well as more effective than the common approaches used by many. … Our urgent need today is to reunite evangelism and apologetics, to make sure that our best arguments are directed toward winning people and not just winning arguments, and to seek to do all this in a manner that is true to the gospel itself. …
Guinness argues that two strategies are needed to reach people whose hearts and minds are closed. The first is “table turning,” which is generally negative.
This strategy turns on the fact that all arguments cut both ways. It therefore proceeds by taking people seriously in terms of what they say they believe and disbelieve, and then pushing them toward the consequences of their unbelief. The strategy assumes that if the Christian faith is true, their unbelief is not finally true, and they cannot fully be true to it. At some point the falseness shows through, and at that moment they will experience extreme cognitive dissonance, so that it is no longer in their best interest to continue to persist in believing what they believed until then. When they reach this point, they are facing up to their dilemma, and they will be open to rethinking their position in a profound way.
Guinness calls the second strategy “signal triggering,” and it is generally positive.
This strategy proceeds by making people aware of their human longings and desires, and what these passions point to. These are longings and desires that are innate and buried in their lives. In particular, the strategy draws their attention to what have been called the “signals of transcendence” that are embedded in their normal, daily experience. These are indicators that grow out of very positive experiences and, like beeping signals, puncture their present beliefs and point beyond them toward what would need to be true if these signals are to lead to a fulfilling destination. When people reach the point where such signals spur them to search, they become seekers and they look for answers that lie beyond their present beliefs.
The following excerpt provides a short overview of the strategy of “Turning the Tables.”
The broad negative strategy of table turning comes into its own when people are closed to God and his truth in one of two ways. First, there are the great majority of people who are spiritually closed in a general sense, in that they are fully satisfied with what they believe already. They would see themselves as contented atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, Wiccans or whatever, and they feel they have no need to look for anything else. In many cases they might not be opposed to the Christian faith, and their closed hearts could be better described as satisfied rather than hostile, though for quite other reasons they might be both satisfied with what they believe and hostile to the Christian faith too.
Second, there are other people who are spiritually closed in a different and more particular sense. They are closed because they have specific objections to the Christian faith, and therefore believe that these objections make faith unthinkable and not worthy of consideration. Examples would include Marxists, who dismiss religion as the “opium of the masses,” Freudians, who see it as a matter of “wish fulfillment,” and logical positivists, who view it as “nonsense.” (The word God, they say, is less meaningful than the word dog because the former cannot be verified through the senses.) All of these in their various ways have dismissed the Christian faith by relativizing it—those who are satisfied by their having no need for it, and those who raise objections by seeing it only through the prism of their objections.
Peter Berger counsels that the best way to counter such relativists is to “relativize the relativizers,” and so turn the tables on them. Arguments, you remember, cut both ways. Relativism would indeed be devastating if it were true, but relativism is always inconsistent, and relativists always cheat at some point. They relativize the views of others, but not their own. (“Well, of course, you’d see it that way. You’re a Westerner/middle class/older generation.”) They relativize the past, but not the present. They relativize us, but not themselves. Their relativism is always an escape, but not a solid position that can be examined. (“I was born that way. We’re wired differently. It’s a generational thing. You wouldn’t understand.”)
When confronted with such relativism, many Christians make the mistake of responding in the same way as English or American tourists traveling abroad: they “speak Christian” more slowly and loudly, pronouncing the objectivity of their claims in ever more earnest, labored and emphatic ways. And when they still fail to get their point across, they mask their frustration by issuing dire warnings of the consequences of disagreeing with them. The result is mutual incomprehension and stalemate.
[G. K.] Chesterton and Berger show us a better way through turning the tables. When it comes to belief and unbelief, we need to remember that, while no thoughts are unthinkable and no argument is unarguable, some thoughts can be thought but not lived. This point is similar to the famous notion of “unintended consequences” that is obvious throughout human history but was spelled out systematically by the Princeton sociologist Robert Merton. We humans are finite, so our unbelief, like all our purposeful actions, can never take into account all the factors that we would need to consider to make truly wise decisions. This means there will always be unforeseen and unintended consequences, so that our best ideas will often miscarry, and some may prove very damaging. When we are talking of unbelief, there will always be unintended consequences. Unbelieving beliefs will never be truly adequate because unbelieving knowledge is never fully adequate and not finally true.
This insight is what helps us surmount two barriers that lie across our path at this point. The first problem stems from the fact that every worldview, even the falsest or the silliest, is comprehensive on its own terms. This means that it not only claims to explain all reality within its framework, but it also explains the falseness of all other worldviews. Thus the Hebrews attacked idolatry as the projection of empty “nothings,” and Ludwig Feuerbach returned the compliment by arguing that faith in God itself was a projection based on nothing. So how then does someone decide between the worldviews and their competing claims?
Second, there is the added problem that every conceivable argument either has been or will be put forward by someone, somewhere, sometime. So once again, how is anyone to decide between them? Like a serpent eating its own tail, each worldview explains the other worldviews, and each argument knocks down other arguments, so we appear to be left with a dizzying vertigo and with skepticism. The Christian answer lies in the nature of truth as understood by the Bible. While it is natural that all beliefs appear meaningful and adequate to those who believe them, and so long as they believe them, all those that differ from God’s truth will always fall short in one of two ways in the end. In the bright noonday sunlight of reality, their beliefs will prove either constricting or contradictory.
On the one hand, the beliefs of unbelief become constricting when they are experienced as internally consistent but incomplete, and thus too small to explain the full range of the unbeliever’s experience of life and the world. Chesterton described this as the problem of the madman—the person who, far from having lost his reason, has lost everything except his reason. The mark of such madness is a combination of a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. On the other hand, the beliefs of unbelief can chafe when, in spite of their greater comprehensiveness, they contradict aspirations that are central to the unbeliever—which in the worst cases makes them self-refuting, a problem Chesterton calls “the suicide of thought.”
Guinness later adds a very important clarifying point about the limits of “table turning.”
Needless to say, no one comes to believe in God because of table turning or through any purely negative arguments. What they do is disbelieve what they believed before, and they then become seekers who are open to the possibility of faith. True faith itself never grows from such negative arguments. It has to be based on what is positive—first, a positive conviction of the adequacy of Christian faith, second a positive conviction of the truth of the gospel, and supremely, a positive encounter with Jesus himself.
This excerpt is from Chapter 7, “Turning the Tables,” of Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion. The entire chapter is available here, at the website of the Ravi Zacharias Ministries.
This book is “must reading” by everyone interested in bringing the Gospel to our secular age.