The evangelicalism I grew up in placed a high premium on apologetics–being able to give a reasoned answer to the hope we have within us. For us, that meant defending the faith against any and all challengers. I had trite-answers-for-tough-questions which were silver bullets designed to shoot down any objection. I knew enough logic to explain to the heathen when they had committed various fallacies and I could tell you why the scientific worldview was wrong, The funny thing was whenever I engaged in apologetics I would sometimes win arguments but I didn’t win converts.
Theologian and apologist, Randal Rauser also grew up where the basic understanding of apologetics was a battle against non-Christian belief systems. However he now understands apologetics as ‘the rigorous pursuit of truth in conversation. (12)’ Thus when he gets into an apologetic argument. . .er, I mean discussion, he and his dialogue partner are mutual seekers of truth and not opponents engaged in spiritual and intellectual turf warfare.
In The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails Rauser presents a fictional dialogue which demonstrates his approach. He takes us (the Reader) to the local coffee shop, the Beatnik Bean, where he engages one of the spry young atheists into the ‘grand conversation.’ He does this by strategically placing a copy of Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion on the table. A guy named Sheridan (sporting a ‘there is a sucker born again every minute’ T-shirt) spots the book and is reeled in. And so the conversation begins.
Sheridan has issues with religion in general and Christianity in particular. He is firmly convinced that science has dispensed with the need for the God-hypothesis and he thinks that there is no more basis for belief in Jesus Christ than there is in Zeus the thunder God. As the conversation unfolds, you discover that Sheridan has had his run-ins with Christian types before (included a step-dad who came on a little strong) and is bothered by the hypocrisy he’s experienced. The conversation which unfolds between Rauser and Sheridan is far ranging, covering the geographical particularity of religious beliefs (i.e. the experience of Swedish atheists and scuba divers are both governed by significant environmental factors), God’s sovereignty and human freedom, the hypocrisy of those in the church (and outside), heaven and hell, evaluating competing religious beliefs and what ‘signposts of the divine’ can be seen in the world. Like most conversations, the topics unfold in a somewhat circular way, and Rauser and Sheridan often come back to cover the same (or similar) ground.
Rauser’s major contribution to the discussion is his insistance that Sheridan judge Atheism by the same standard and intellectual rigor that he judges Christianity and religious belief. The converse is also true. Rauser isn’t looking for special treatment for Christians and does at various points also scrutize the Christian tradition.
You may be suspicious, as I was, about whether a Christian apologist’s fictional conversation with an atheist was merely setting up a straw-man; however, the conversation that unfolds between the two men seems thoroughly plausible ( and based in actual conversations). Neither Rauser or his atheist counterpart leave this conversation converted. If any change is brought to the character of Sheridan, he is a little less dismissive of religious belief and more thoughtful about what he actually believes about God and the world.
I really like Rauser’s writing. Admittedly I may be biased. Rauser teaches at a seminary in the city I was born in (Edmonton), got a masters at the same graduate school I got mine at (Regent College) and he got a Ph.D. under one of my favorite theologians (Colin Gunton). He is witty and good humored throughout this fictional interchange and the conversational tone allows him to talk some hardcore theology and philosophy without talking over his readers head. This is not a book of apologetic answers to various philosophical and theological problems (read Peter Kreeft’s classic Handbook of Christian Apologetics if that is what you are looking for). Rather it is an example of a mode of apologetics which isn’t about trumping the competition but engaging them in a quest for truth. Not that Rauser doesn’t have good answers and ask some great questions along the way, but this is much more than an apologetic answer book
If you have an interest in apologetics or wonder how to share your faith with those who do not share your faith or religious tradition, this is a great book with some great food for thought. You need not agree with Rauser on every point (I don’t) to find him a helpful resource. This also would be an okay book to give to your atheist friend (or read it with them). Sheridan and Rauser’s conversation could be good fodder for deeper dialogue and can help believers and unbelievers alike clarify what they really believe about God and the universe.
Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.