I often counsel and offer spiritual resiliency to those struggling with difficulty in their lives. Lately, I’ve found myself using a good deal of “street level” apologetics. That is, I find myself having to hold the door open to possibilities that some have found impossible due to upbringing and culture. My goal isn’t to “convince” anybody, rather, I simply want them to consider the possibility that there are answers to the questions they might have and that, at the very least, they haven’t thoroughly studied the other side of their objections. A typical conversation (shortened) might go like this:
“Hi Chaplain Snyder, my name is Joe Airman, I don’t believe in God because I’m an atheist/agnostic. But I’m struggling with stuff.”
“Hi Joe, I’m a chaplain, and I do believe in God and that’s where my wisdom comes from. But I still care about you no matter what you believe and I have 100% confidentiality so let’s talk. How can I help you today?”
Joe & Ch Snyder talk about…stuff…confidentially…
“Thanks for talking with me Ch Snyder. This has been a real help, just talking all this over with someone. . .”
“Well Joe, I suppose that’s about it, then. I would understand if you do mind and feel free to turn me down, but I’d like to pray to God on your behalf, if you’re ok with that.”
I pray and then on his way out the airman pauses and says,
“I know you think that there is a God, but really, I just don’t understand how you can believe all the stories in the Bible! How do you handle the arguments for things like creation when they compare to science! To me, this is why I can’t believe in Christianity…it seems to contradict pretty obvious things, like the age of universe!”
Realizing that the counselling session is obviously not over, I sit down and try to answer some of this airman’s concerns about how science and Christianity work. One example of an objection of people who believe that science and Christianity cannot coincide is that the age of the universe is quite obviously old. Airmen will ask me what I think of all the evidence supporting this. Now, at this point I cannot answer every scientific argument. I neither know enough about the science nor have time to talk about each point even if I did. My job at that point becomes to open this airman’s mind up to the possibility of another answer. So I’ll say…
“Let’s do a thought experiment. A famous artist has painted a painting. The painting is of a ship with sails, one of the old ones, maybe a Spanish galleon. This ship is sailing through rough waters. You can tell because it is majestically crashing through the waves at night. You know it’s night because the moon and stars can be seen past the various masts and sails. As you look closer you see people on the deck. One sailor is directing others to adjust the rigging. He has gray hair and next to him is a boy running along the far starboard side of the ship. There are other details, but let’s stop there. Now, I want to ask you a few questions about this painting. First, how old is the painting? Now if you judge by the boat, the Spanish Galleon, the painting depicts a time between the 16th and 19th centuries. Second, how old are the people in the painting? The one person has gray hair so he must be older—somewhere between 40 and 65 probably. The other, due to his athleticism and size is probably a boy, maybe 13-15 years old. How old is the moon and stars in the painting? Well, I guess you’d have to go with the age of our moon circa 4.5 billion years.”
But my next questions changes the perspective a bit when I ask about the age of the actual pigment on the paper. How old is all the paint? Well, that would depend on when the artist created the painting! Perhaps 400 years? A little less? When you look at the moon, stars, ship and people from this perspective, how would you determine the age of all these things?
Ok. Now for a different question. I ask if the airman likes the painting. Does he like the way the ship is in motion, the spray of the water, the way the humans are carrying themselves, the way the moon and the stars are depicted? Since you know it is a work of art, isn’t that a much more appropriate question to ask about the painting?
Here’s my point. If there is a creator and if he did create the universe and everything in it like the painter did with this ship: Galaxies and planets, stars and moons (all with their light already in transit and visible from the Earth,) and people and plants and animals and all the things you see, then we should trust his version of how this all came to exist. Now, I don’t know how old the universe is. For us, (the people in the creative painting of this universe,) it would be difficult to tell if the painting was created last week or 6000 years ago or 13.772 billion years ago give or take 50 million.
The conclusion to my thought experiment is this; From inside the universe, one has to exclude the possibility of the painter in order to trust his data on the age of the universe. But if one starts with the painter, he can appreciate the beauty and complex brush strokes of the painting itself. It can lead towards an appreciation and apprehension of the invisible God—his divine intellect, and power and eternal nature (Rom 1:20).
In this way, by analogy, I can open up the door both to Joe Airman seeing his own inherently circular bias based on the limited perspective of his brain and also open the door to talking about God, who is the main reason for reasoning in the first place. After opening this door it is much easier to talk about philosophical considerations. We can talk about aesthetics, the story of evolution and the story of God—creation, fall, redemption, consummation—, the idea of love (scientific vs. biblical ideas), the idea of evil (morality, is it really only culturally determined), and etc.
The ultimate goal of all of apologetics (e.g., the above “possibility apologetics”) is an offering of the gospel—the place of all spiritual beginnings. All apologetics are used to bring someone face to face with the painter of the universe and the story of the good news. The real issue with all of us humans is a heart that does not want to acknowledge God as God. We would rather use our faculties for moral evasion. We’d rather suppress the glory of the painting because we don’t want to acknowledge the painter. In that suppression we reject the one who could tell us not only how we came to exist and how long we’ve existed, but more importantly we also reject who we are as a people (identity) and the reason for our existence (purpose). It’s within those last to places where spiritual resiliency can best grow and take its shape in the life of anyone (airmen or not :).