Beyond the Battle: Another Approach to Apologetics (a book review)

The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and other Apologetic Rabbit Trails by Randal Rauser

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.

Vocation, the Chrysalis and Labors of Love

As I sit sipping my second cup of french press coffee I have some time to reflect on my life and the shape it has taken. Last year’s Labor day was not a day off for me, but one among many as I was unable to get a job. Today, I am home from work and have enjoyed the lazy morning. Later I will climb down the embankment in our backyard to see if I can forage enough blackberries for blackberry jam. But for the moment I sit enjoying my coffee in the midst of the chaos that three active children create.

This is not how I imagined life. I graduated seminary a couple of years ago and envisioned that when my wife finished up her degree we would step into pastoral ministry somewhere, in some context, hopefully urban. Frederick Buechner has written somewhere, “Vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.” I feel most alive doing ministry: preaching, visitation, praying with and for people, communicating the gospel. And I see the need to pastor, to shepherd God’s people into deeper relationship with God and care for one another and their communities. But then I couldn’t find a job as a pastor and while I have had opportunity to preach occasionally, my present occupation does not even allow me to even worship regularly at my church. I work at a hardware store in a small town on the verge of Canada in Northwest Washington. I am not doing with my life what I feel I was made to do.

This doesn’t mean I hate my job. Stocking shelves is physical work and certainly feels cathartic. It feels good to do something productive with my time. I also like helping people find what they need. I guide customers to the mystical land of nuts and bolts and other odd fasteners, scan the shelves quickly and then dig my hand into a drawer and pull out a jam nut or a cap screw and say, “Here, this should do it.” Of course I feel far less confident when people ask me questions about their plumbing or why their jerry-rigged solutions to what-have-you don’t work. But I like being invited to brainstorm creative solutions for people.

A friend asked me recently how it feels living where I am and doing what I am doing. I had a one word answer: stuck. This is an in-between-time and as an old prof of mine put it, “I feel muddled in the middle.” I am a caterpillar who has spun a chrysalis (called Blaine, WA) and I wait, unable to move and immersed in utter darkness (the sun is shining but this is the NW, the darkness cometh). I wait and wonder, when will I emerge? What will I become? Or will I ever become?

I admit, some of my stuckness is my fear and inaction. I have applied to churches, been weighed and found wanting (I didn’t get the job). I know if I am to move on from here, it requires risk and my life has become too safe. I likely will find a place where I can do what I was made for, but the road to get there will mean more rejection, more failure, more occasions for self-doubt. But I am feeling a little thin-skinned and fragile at the moment. this is part of life in a chrysalis.

So I wait and enjoy the time I have, watching my children grow and take on new challenges (my oldest daughter starts Kindergarten this week!!! OMG!!!). I savor the sweetness of late summer blackberries and the yield from my garden plot. I struggle to love my wife as we both wait and long for the what next. In the chrysalis we grow, learning patience, humbleness and how to be gentle with ourselves. One day we will soar. Until then we labor quietly here with love.