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EPISODE 59: Why God Makes Sense in a World that Doesn’t

For some people, a more emotional or affective approach to evangelism and apologetics connects better than a more cognitive or philosophical method. Gavin Ortlund helps us explore this different approach.

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Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. I'm your host Randy Newman, and I'm delighted. Today I have as my conversation partner, Gavin Ortlund. Gavin, welcome to Questions That Matter.

Hey. Thanks for having me, Randy.

Let me tell our listeners, Gavin is the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Ojai. That's in Ojai, California. He has a PhD in historical theology, has a seminary degree, an M Div, from Covenant Seminary, and he's written a book that's the topic of our conversation today, a fascinating title and a very important and much needed book. It's entitled Why God Makes Sense in a World that Doesn't. And the subtitle is “The Beauty of Christian Theism.” Let’s start here, Gavin. Who did you have in mind as an audience for this book? Who are you praying and hoping will read this book?

Yeah. There were a couple of different types of readers I had in mind. I think the foremost would be the struggling Christian, so someone who perhaps is either open to Christianity or has a Christian commitment, but is wrestling through that in some way. I've had a lot of friends who have deconstructed their faith, and I have a lot of friends who are in the process of kind of working through some doubts or anxieties. And I've been through two seasons in my life where I had to work through some questions and points of angst in my faith, and I know what that can feel like. And the particular approach to apologetics I'm taking in this book is one of the things that's really helped me in those times. I hope it can be helpful for others. So that was the main type of reader. Of course, I'd also be thrilled if those who have no Christian commitment or connection would read the book and benefit from it, and I'd also be grateful if Christians who simply want to grow in their evangelism and in their apologetics could benefit from the book. But I really had in mind that first type of person. I hope it will help people like that or anybody who reads it, I hope.

Yeah. Oh, that’s very encouraging to me. But just to make sure that our listeners know what you mean, what what do you mean about deconstructed? What what do you mean by that term?

Yeah. This is a big term these days and kind of a buzzword, and it can mean so many different things, but in this context, I'm simply thinking of friends who have left Christianity, often in kind of a gradual process, so they have just slowly come to question the Christian claims. And maybe it starts with some issues, but it ultimately ends with a decisive rejection of Christianity. There are lots of people I know who go through deconstruction of a different kind. It's not a rejection of the faith. Maybe it's a pruning or refining process of some particular aspect of the faith. So the term is used in different ways, but that's what I have in mind here.

Well, do you mind sharing with us a little bit about your own struggle? Because you said that this book flows out of some wrestling and internal struggles, but I'm guessing you wouldn't use the word deconstruction for your own struggles. Or would you?

It just depends on how it's defined, I suppose. I mean, it could be a mild form of deconstruction at times, though I would actually use that word for other things I've experienced, where, for example, perhaps growing up I had a particular understanding of a particular doctrine. And then, in the process of study and travail and life, things get sort of unraveled a bit, and you have to rethink it through. I think sometimes Christians can have a stigma or a negative association with anything like that, but in my observation, there can be different expressions of those kinds of experiences. I mean, C.S. Lewis himself went through some struggles after his wife died, and if you read through A Grief Observed, he's very honest. Or we see in the Psalms. To have true faith, I don't think means we'll never struggle. In fact, I respect people who can be honest to say sometimes we work through things at a deeply personal level.

But for me, there were just two seasons where I would use the word angst to describe it. There wasn't really anything deconstructed, actually. The things I was working through, I ended up coming through on. One of these was in college, when I was really struggling with the doctrine of hell and just kind of a classical situation of, I had lots of non-Christian friends, I deeply loved these people, and it's a pretty bracing doctrine to consider, and I just had to work through that and study it, more accurately understand it, and just bring that before the Lord. And there were just lots of questions I was working through.

The other was more recent, in the past six or seven years, in light of a feeling of disillusionment about kind of the current state of the church. And just, again, just angst. That’d be the best word. Not a full-blown doubt. I wouldn't use that for my experience, though I think some Christians can go through that, perhaps. Mine was more just angst. And so that is behind the book, because I have found apologetics to be a refuge. I have found it to be like when you're walking up a steep staircase and there's a railing you can put your hand on and it stabilizes you so you don't fall. For me, apologetics has been like that. It's just been a help amidst those seasons of working through particular questions and points of angst.

Now, maybe this isn't your situation, so this is my situation: I find that I am helped tremendously when I don't demand absolute 100% certainty, when I can live with, “Oh, that's highly probable.” It's a very high level of confidence, but not necessarily 100% absolute certainty. Is that an aspect that you dig into in the book?

Yes. Very much so. So the three characteristics I lay out in the introduction to the book: A focus on beauty, a focus on narrative, and then the employment of abductive arguments. That third characteristic corresponds to what you just asked about. And then I sum up the whole book with appeals to the philosopher Blaise Pascal, and a little bit also of Soren Kierkegaard, to leverage some of their insights to exactly this point. And this has been helpful for me personally as well, that, in various ways, we should not expect total mathematical certainty. That wouldn't be realistic. The better question is what’s the best outcome? What's the best conclusion? What's the best course of action? And so that is implicit in the argumentation all throughout. And then that's actually the conclusion of the entire book. The whole book is an argument for God's existence, but it's an abductive argument. I'm saying it's far more probable that God exists than not. So I'm not concluding on a point of certainty. And like you, I've found that that can often be helpful, though I leave wiggle room, too, for different people to have different experiences and different apologists to take different approaches.

Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I like that. That tone comes through in your book. And I think this is ironic, but in so many situations, I find myself thinking, when I'm talking to someone or I'm trying to wrestle with… or if someone's wrestling with doubt, I sometimes think I might accomplish more by attempting less. What I mean is I don't argue for 100% absolute certainty without any doubt whatsoever, because all they have to do is think of one little doubt, and then they say, “Well, then forget it. I don't have your kind of faith.” And what I want to try to say is, “Let me tell you about my faith. My faith has got all sorts of doubts in it.” So if I can try to argue for, “This makes more sense than not believing.” And I think that that's a theme woven through your book. Let's go in another direction here. Your title of the book is Why God Makes Sense in a World That Doesn't. So why doesn't this world make sense apart from God?

Yeah. I think what's implicit in that title is that we do live in a world that's very confusing, and philosophers often speak of the problem of divine hiddenness. And this is a real formidable objection, to contemplate that the existence of God is not always and equally obvious. There are times where life is extremely confusing. And because the Christian explanation for this, in large part, is that we live in a fallen world, and so the world doesn't make sense. You think of a book like Ecclesiastes and all these insights in this book about how the world isn't fully intelligible. There's always this sense of slipperiness. You can't fully get your mind around it. Well, the Christian faith—that's one of my favorite books in the Bible. Because it captures this sense, and it tells you—when I was in college, to go back to my first time of angst, I really resonated with some of the existentialist philosophy I was reading as a philosophy major. And it was talking… this sense of being hurled into the world,  hurled into existence.

And this is what I come to in the conclusion, the sense of unfairness. Like, “Here I am, but I don't have the tools to make sense of this world, so what do I do with that?” And one of the things I'm arguing there is that Christian faith is an appropriate response to that circumstance. But it's also okay to just acknowledge life is confusing no matter what outlook we take. Life is confusing and chaotic.

Yeah. I'm sitting here thinking, “Gee, I wish we would have gone to college together,” but then maybe we would have been bad for each other. I don't know. Before I came to faith…. Well, you said you really got into some existentialist philosophers. Like who, for example?

So Sartre and Camus are the big two, especially Albert Camus. And I talk about him in the book a good bit, just his image of rolling a boulder up a hill and it rolling back down in The Myth of Sisyphus, and that's his image for life. So I could go on about that, but I won't.

Yeah. Well, I won't let you because I didn't bring a big enough bottle of Prozac. So I read those two, also, and found them amazingly despairing. And so instead, I turned to some other existentialist philosophers. I put them in that category rather loosely. They were Woody Allen and Kurt Vonnegut. So Woody Allen’s movies and Kurt Vonnegut's novels just helped me laugh at the absurdity of life. But the problem is, after you're done laughing, there's this emptiness that is so despairing. So, for me, coming to faith was, “Oh! Life isn't absurd and meaningless! Isn't that just wonderful?” And, yes, Ecclesiastes is also one of my favorites.

Well, let's pursue this, a little bit about what you just said about beauty. Well, let me outline the book a little bit for our listeners. You've got basically four major arguments and four key chapters. You have the cause of the world, why something is more plausible and much more interesting than nothing. You have the meaning of the world, why things like math, music, and love make more sense if there is a God. Third, the conflict of the world, why good and evil shape the plot of every story you've ever heard. And then fourth, the hope of the world. And you pursue the topic of Easter and the resurrection, why Easter means happiness beyond your wildest dreams. So all of these are very… they can be very heavy philosophical categories: Origins, meaning, struggle or conflict, but you make it very accessible. Let's go after this bit about beauty. And it's in your chapter on why things like math, music, and love make sense if there is a God. I don't know if I've ever seen those three put together in one chapter. I was very grateful for it. But why is that? Why do those things make more sense if there is a God?

Yeah. The way that I'm trying to frame the book, and again, this comes out of what I've seen to be helpful for me and then also in dialogue with others, is just as you put it there, using these classical theistic proofs in a narrative frame. So situating a classical theistic argument as one part of what makes a good story. So just as we're saying nihilism isn't a good story, I'm arguing it's less plausible, but it's also just less interesting as a story of what is going on around us. And the Christian faith is a great story. It’s a dramatic story, it's a meaningful story, it's a hopeful story, and it's a beautiful story. So it's not just more plausible, it's that it's more beautiful and more desirable. And I think that's really helpful to see. So math, music, and love are examples within the category of meaning. And there the broader category would be teleological arguments or arguments for design. I'm basically arguing it looks like the universe is designed, that it means something, it has purpose.

And so these would be examples. These were really fun to get into. I never thought that they would work. I'm very skeptical of triumphalist apologetics, and so I'm usually trying to be modest in the way I cast things. But in each case, in reading philosophers of music, in reading philosophers of math, and then in thinking about the nature of love, I was struck in each case by how much more mysterious each of these three things are without the idea of something supernatural. And usually the argument comes down to you have to explain these phenomena—this is especially true for music and love—by purely evolutionary factors. We find love good and we find music beautiful simply because it helped animals survive. And if you tease through the implications of that, what I argue is there's particular features of music and love that are very difficult to account for just by that mechanism, whereas the Christian worldview has all kinds of tools to make sense of the sense of transcendence and enchantment that are conveyed to us through music and love. And I wield these modestly as abductive arguments, but I think that they can be helpful for people. So we can unpack those further if you want. But that's just a brief overview.

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Well, I want to make an observation. I mean, you obviously respect and read philosophy a tremendous amount, but your training formally is not in philosophy, and your book doesn't feel like it's written by a philosopher. I really hope that that's not insulting. I find that philosophers, they think in certain categories, and that's very, very important. But then they connect with people who also think in those categories. And you're writing more narratively, more as a storyteller or more as a… like a fellow questioner. Am I reading it correctly?

Yes, I think so. And I'm sharing personally how I've worked through these arguments, trying to be really honest and sincere with the reader. That's a good faith effort I can make to the reader is to say, “I am not going to try to be impressive. I'm going to try to be honest and not pull any punches but put it all out on the table.” And I even have some journal entries that I share in the book of, “Here’s what I came to that I wrote in my journal,” back in whatever year. I did write it hoping it would be accessible. I was trying to make it so that it's philosophically precise and responsible but still accessible to a general readership. And that's a tough balance, but that's what I was aiming for.

Yeah. Well, you know, I've had an ongoing conversation for quite a while with a man who was a professor of philosophy for many years, and I think I've convinced him to read your book and then discuss it with me. And I've told him, “Okay, this is not a philosophy textbook and it's not written by a philosopher, but it's written by someone who respects philosophy tremendously. So he's up for it. And I'm really excited about the possibility of these kinds of conversations, especially with just this argument of this makes so much more sense in a world that, without God, it's very, very difficult. Maybe it's impossible to find a meaning and a coherence. And why do we love music so much? And why does math work as well as it does? Do you want to say more about music or math, either of those? I think you were going to-

Sure. I could just outline a little bit more fully, so people who might be listening to this and just curious how these arguments work a little bit. And with math, the basic argument—again, I was skeptical going into it, but I was impressed as I got into it—is that there's just certain features of math that are better explained if there is something beyond nature, if there's something beyond physical nature. And among those would be its permanence, the fact that it seems to contain necessary truths, its beauty, and its usefulness or applicability to the physical universe. So just to draw that out just a tiny bit, the permanence of math. Math seems to contain necessary truths. Not everyone believes this, but most people historically have and still do today, that two plus two equals four would still be true even if the physical universe vanished. If all physical things ceased to exist, it seems like two plus two would still equal four, because what else could two plus two equal? And it seems to be a necessary truth. And the question just comes up as, well, where does that come from? What would sustain it? Why would it be that?

In other words, math is just one window into this larger reality of there are certain truths that seem to not be dependent upon physical reality. And that just raises the question of where do they come from? And the classical theistic instinct has been to say eternal truths entail an eternal mind. That's a sensible way to think, that math is the thoughts of God. On naturalism, it's more mysterious. I don't argue that you can't be what's called a mathematical realist. I just say it's more mysterious. You don't really have the tools to explain that as well, so we could unpack any of that more.

The music argument is drawing from the fact that music seems to convey meaning in this transcendent way that philosophers of music really puzzle over. Musical meaning, it doesn't operate at the rational level, but music seems to be able to communicate transcendence and other forms of meaning. And on a naturalistic worldview, it's really hard to make sense of that, because music is explained reductively by evolution. It's just a matter of what helps animals survive. So it's just sort of tricking our brain into—whether it be pattern recognition or some other thing that had survival value for our animal ancestors. On a theistic worldview, music is seen as the language by which God made the world. And I talked about that, from Lewis and Tolkien and others. It's just such a more enchanting worldview, and it seems to have more explanatory power for how we experience music.

I can't remember if I've shared this on other podcast recordings I've done, but my favorite composer was is Antonín Dvořák, and he was a very strongly religious man, a devout Catholic, and he just loved the beauty of the world. He loved listening to birds. He just loved the beauty. And for him, it was kind of an act of worship. And he learned a great deal and admired Johannes Brahms. But Brahms was an atheist, and it was so baffling to Dvořák that Brahms could write such beautiful music but not connect it to God. And he was deeply disturbed about it. And there's a point in one of the letters that he wrote, or maybe it was a journal, of, “What a brilliant mind, what a brilliant master, and yet he believes nothing!” It was just such a puzzle for him, and it was so very difficult. And I've read some of those same articles or arguments that music is only for evolution and the survival of the fittest. And I just think, “Man, it sure is beautiful for something as basic as that, and it sure goes on for a long time in such beautiful, wild directions.” But, anyway. So I was really glad to see you talking about music in there. Let's talk a little bit about the good and evil chapter and why it is that good and evil is the theme of every great story, no matter who it is who's written it.

Yeah. This is the idea that J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote The Lord of the Rings, talks about as sub creation, and his idea is that we tend to tell stories that reflect The Story, reality, creation because we're made in the image of God. And so this is one framework by which we can look at movies, novels, other stories we tend to tell. Storytelling is like the most basic human activity. Somebody once said there are cultures that don't have the wheel, but there's never been cultures that don't have stories. Stories are how we make sense of reality. And movies are a big form of storytelling in our culture, but the thing that's so interesting is every story has the same basic plot, just about, in the rough outline, good and evil fighting. And usually good is disadvantaged, and there's great struggle and sacrifice, and usually good wins in the end. And it's so common, we don't even think about it. We just take it for granted. But if you pause and say, “Well, why should it be like that? Why should there be good and evil, as opposed to just two different powers struggling? And why should it have this kind of eschatological component, where the good, what he calls, the denouement, where good wins at the end, and there's this resolution at the end?” And we all know that feeling at the end of a movie when all the threads come together. And Tolkien is saying that's because we have this implicit awareness of what our world is like and what's happening. That’s what's going on in our world. And a Christian perspective can account for that, whereas a naturalistic perspective has to say, unfortunately, our perception of good and evil as real and objective categories is an illusion also fobbed off on us by the evolutionary process. It's tricking our brains just because that has survival value. And there is no happy ending, there is no ultimate resolution that's coming. So there's a sense of illusion and hopelessness if you really think through that worldview, and that's…. It's hard to live with that. It really is crushing, if you think about it.

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Yeah. I just finished reading a novel by Neil Gaiman. You know that name? Have you read any of his-

I’ve heard the name, but I can't really pull up who that is off top of my head.

Well, he writes, I guess, in the realm of fantasy is probably his genre. And this was a recent book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It was recommended by Russell Moore on a podcast that he did, and I have a friend who's really into that genre of fantasy and good versus evil. And as far as I can tell, Neil Gaiman is not a religious person. He's certainly not a Christian. In fact, he was strongly influenced by C.S. Lewis, and he loved CS Lewis's Narnia books until he found out that Lewis had what he called a hidden agenda, which was a Christian agenda. And almost everybody I tell that to, they laugh. Hidden? It wasn't very hidden at all. So he's a great writer and a beautiful storyteller, but it is this classic struggle between good and evil and with a fair amount of mystery and things left open ended. But even the open endedness is pointing in the direction of good ultimately triumphing. And I think we need to become good at the kind of argument that Tolkien made to Lewis about, well, if you find all this beauty in this mythology and story, maybe it's pointing to a grander story. The difference is the grander story is true. And you unpack that for us, I think, really well in this book.

And even just to comment on that briefly, even the category of story is itself more friendly to theism than atheism, because on atheism, we're not really in a story. A story implies meaning. It implies coherence and structure, but there really is no meaning or structure to the world on a naturalistic perspective. And that really is pretty crushing, it seems to me.

Yeah. Now there is this painful moment, though. Let's say someone who has… let's say they've been raised in a Christian home, but then they deconstructed their faith. They had too many doubts, too many questions, they ran away from it. Someone gave them your book, and they read it, and they became convinced intellectually that, “Yeah, I think actually the Christian view does make more sense. The non-Christian, nihilist or meaningless or atheist, it doesn't make sense. I can't make sense out of it.” But then they do have to wrestle with something beyond just these ideas of repentance and brokenness and, “Oh, I've been wrong. It's not just that I’ve been wrong about my understanding of a larger story. I've sinned, I've rebelled.” And you point to that toward the end of your book. But isn't that a, I don't know, a huge stumbling block for someone?

Yes. It seems to me that, for all of us, and each of us can speak of our own soul first because all of us are in the same position before Christ, of needing humility before Him. That is the first. And we never want to speak of someone else needing humility before ourselves. All of us should humble ourselves before the Lord and recognize this is the great stumbling block. This is the great barrier. Do we have humility before God? And are we able to humble ourselves to acknowledge our need of his forgiveness? That is the great offense of the gospel, and the great encouragement I would give for people, if anyone's listening to this who finds himself in a position where maybe they're wrestling with something like this, is that God is so responsive to humility when we humble ourselves before Him and acknowledge our need for forgiveness and help. The Bible says He draws near to the humble. He gives grace to the humble. And so I just want to encourage people: He’s far more gracious and kind than you could possibly fathom.

Oh, well said! And yes, he who humbles himself will be exalted. I think what we fear is, “Oh, if I humble myself, he's going to crush me.” He who humbles himself will be crushed. And there's this powerful dynamic of no, no, no, Jesus took all the crushing, so that when we humble ourselves and come to Him, we can be lifted up. And so it's a humbling that leads to salvation, and salvation is a lifting up and a turning to gratitude and worship.

So I'm glad we arrived there in this conversation. I do need to draw this to a close. Any other last things you want our listeners to know about this book? I really hope it's the kind of thing that we give to people who have walked away and say, “Listen, this isn't the typical book that's trying to convince you with standard arguments. This is particularly to those who have thought about it, wrestled and walked away, and need to wrestle again.” But any other last, I don't know, insights from you about this?

Well, I just hope it will help people, and it is for those people especially, but it's also for someone who might be looking in and saying, “I'm open, but I'm not….” This would be another demographic, someone who's considering. They’re not totally closed, but they're not yet committed, and they're kind of looking in the window, so to speak. But it really could be for anyone, I hope. But I just hope it would help people think through the emotional implications of the gospel. These are relevant to the consideration of its truth. If you go from atheism to Christian theism, if you go from nihilism from, let's say, naturalism to Christianity, it seems to me the emotional change you've gone through is from despair to infinite relief and joy. In the book, I compare it to finding out the person you've fallen in love with actually loves you back. How does that sound?

Yeah, good.

Or as a little boy waking up, and you can't remember what morning it is, and then suddenly hits you that it's Christmas morning. The flood of joy. That's what's at stake, and I just hope this book will help people feel the implications.

Yes. Good. So this is a book of emotional apologetics. Is that fair? Is that okay to use?

Yes. I would say it's in the realm of apologetics that is particularly emphasizing aesthetic and emotional dimensions to that, and not as a contrast to intellectual apologetics, but as one piece to go along with it.

A complement to. Yeah. Although I think that's very good that you didn't title the book Emotional Apologetics. I don't think that's as good a title. So Why God Makes Sense in a World that Doesn’t. I really hope, I pray, that the Lord will use this book for people who have walked away or people who, like you say, are on the outside looking in and they're wondering, “I don't know if there's any meaning. I don't know if it makes sense.” And then this book and you can come along and say, “Well, actually it does, and here's why, and here's how, and here's how good that can feel.”

So thank you for writing this. And even though it had to come through your own angst and wrestling, those are some of the best works. So, Gavin Ortlund, thanks for joining us. To our listeners, we really hope this helps you grow in discipleship of the heart and mind. We hope all our resources at our website point you to the Lord, so that you love Him more and more with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. Thanks.

Brought to you by the C.S. Lewis Institute and the Questions That Matter Podcast with Randy Newman.

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