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EPISODE 76: Kristi Mair and Reaching out in a Meta-Modern World
For a while everyone was talking about postmodernism. Kristi Mair, a gifted apologist, says we’re past that now. Now we’re Meta-Modern. And there are some great opportunities for us in our world today because of that.
Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. And I have the great privilege of being the host. My name is Randy Newman. I serve as a senior fellow for apologetics and evangelism at the C.S. Lewis Institute, and my conversation partner today is my friend, Kristi Mair. Kristi, welcome.
It’s great to be with you, Randy. Thank you so much for this invitation. It's a real joy to be able to have this conversation with you.
So if you haven't picked that up, Kristi is from across the pond, as they say. Kristi and I met several years ago when I was doing some work together with Solas Ministry, an apologetics ministry. Some of you may be familiar with Andy Bannister, and he was the founder of that. I think he’s still connected. Kristi is now a PhD student in philosophy and theology, looking at the intersection there. So today the question that matters is what do we need to know about apologetics and evangelism today? How are our things different? But before that, Kristi tell us a little bit more about your background. How did you get into these very, very rich and important topics?
Thank you for asking. Well, I think it all started for me when I first began looking into the questions surrounding Jesus and who He is. I was brought up in a Christian family, but I'm originally from Hungary, so we moved over to the UK when I was quite young, between six and ten. And my adopted dad died very suddenly when I was 11. And that left me with huge questions, about who is God? What about suffering? Can God be good in the face of such suffering? And that journey into those questions led me into a lot of anger and a lot of confusion as I encountered what I felt at the time were kind of very cliched answers and responses. And people didn't really know what to do with it, and so they were trying to give their best response, but I just felt like that was just a bit of a smoke screen and they didn't really understand their faith.
But a few years after that, I was reading through the gospels just for myself, and my mother still has in her diary that I was up late one night reading Mark's gospel, and after that, I just thought, “Yeah. I can't sit on the fence. Why I'm so angry with Someone Whom I don't think exists?”
So answer, for me, is that I saw apologetics and evangelism as the greatest form of pastoral for my own soul. And that's kind of left me with I hope a lifelong desire and passion, if that isn't too much of an overused term, to want to continue pursuing those questions. So then I had more questions, and then I kind of pursued those, and I think evangelism and apologetics really has helped me strengthen my own faith, as well as communicate it with others. So that was really the personal route into it. And then the professional route kind of came a little bit later. I was studying philosophy and theology as an undergraduate. My master's was in philosophy of religion. So that was when I started to think about, “Well, gosh. There are all these other religions, and what do I do with that as a Christian? How can I say that one is right and one is wrong? Is that right or wrong in and of itself? What about these competing truth claims? Do all religions lead up the same mountain, to the same god, or not?”
And so that's when I started to write a little bit more in that area. And then after that I worked for a mission organization. I then started my PhD towards the end of that. And now I'm a lecturer here at Oak Hill Theological College in north London, where I teach evangelism and apologetics and a couple of other things. So that was my personal route in, and then that complimented my professional, academic thinking, because I just wanted to keep pursuing those questions and ideas.
This is wonderful! And I'm embarrassed that—we met several years ago. I’ve known you for a while—I didn't know that part of your story. So how old were you when you became a Christian?
I was a teenager. I was maybe 16, 17? It was around that time.
Yeah. You know that path, from anger because of suffering, anger at God, anger at a God that maybe people say they don't even believe in that God. There’s that famous quote by C.S. Lewis. He said, “I believed that God did not exist, and I was angry at him for not existing.” He was angry at the God he said he didn't believe in for twenty years after his mother died. But you know, there are so many people in our world who are in that spot. They've seen terrible evil, real suffering. We wouldn't make light of it at all. It's real suffering, real pain, and they're angry at God, or they say they don't believe in God, and a lot of that is motivated by anger. And yet you came through that path to eventually say, “No, wait a minute. Yeah, I've seen evil but….” Am I putting words in your mouth? Is this saying too much? That even in the midst of that, it makes more sense to believe in this God, even if I still have pain and struggles and questions. Is that fair?
Yeah. Absolutely, Randy. I mean, you've probably found this for yourself as well, and thinking about C.S. Lewis, one of the things that really stood out to me as I was reading his work during that time as well, is his famous aphorism that you cannot call a straight line crooked if you don't have a concept of a straight line.
And that was one of the things that got me intellectually. I think what I was confronted with was with Jesus the God man Who suffers for us. And I couldn't escape that reality. And so that was when my intellectual questions of, “Well, how can a good God exist in the face of evil and suffering?” The incarnation and the cross just sliced right through that. And I don't know what to do with that. I just realized that I could only really suffer if a good God existed to make sense of my suffering, so I can say that this is actually evil. I can actually look it in the face and say this is evil.
So do you tell your story of faith in your book? Let me tell our readers Kristi has written a book, a really good one. It’s called More Truth: Searching for Certainty in an Uncertain World. It's nice and short, in case people like short books. I do. Do you share your story in here?
No, I'm afraid I don't. That little book was written for kind of young Christians who were starting to go along to church, a little bit involved in stuff, and then are commonly thinking, “Does Christianity make sense?” in the face of post truth and pluralism and relativism and stuff. So it's really just a little primer into that big question of, “How can we know things confidently rather than certainly?” So it kind of goes into different questions around that, rather than my own personal story. Maybe that’s something else that I could write another time. Who knows? But yeah. It’s certainly a key part of my own relationship with the Lord. Yeah.
Yeah. Well, I do want to encourage you to tell that story. People need to hear it. I'm finishing up a book that's telling a whole bunch of stories, but I tell them underneath the banners of we need to wrestle with certain questions. So I have a whole chapter about the problem of suffering, and I tell some stories of people who, because of suffering, walked away from the faith, but because of suffering, they came to faith. I mean, it's interesting. The same crisis or the same trouble or difficulty moved people in different directions. And we're getting off on tangents, but that's kind of the way these podcasts go. So, at this point, either our listeners are saying, “Yeah, I know. That’s why he drives me crazy,” or, “No, I like those little rabbit trails. Go for it!”
So several years ago, I was invited to speak about the problem of evil. How can we believe in a good God in the face of evil and suffering? And I was at George Mason University, and toward the beginning, I was trying to say a lot of times it's non-religious people who will look at religious people, whether they're Jewish or Christian or any kind of faith, and—you know. “How can you believe in a good God when there’s so much evil and suffering?” And then I said what I thought was just sort of a very obvious statement. I said, “But you know, the problem of evil and suffering is a problem for everyone. It’s a problem for people of whatever faith and no faith and atheists.” And the students started applauding. I thought, “It wasn’t that brilliant of an idea.” Actually, they didn't applaud. They all started snapping their fingers, and I wasn't quite aware that this was sort of a new, cool, hip way of applauding, and I had to look to a friend in the front row, like, “Did I just say something really bad?” No, no. That’s kind of like applause. Like, “Oh!” But, for the person who's walked away and who's angry, it's still a problem. What do we do in this world with pain and suffering? Where do we turn? And we need both help in answering the question, but we also need help with dealing with the pain. So we need an answer to the why question, but we also need an answer to the how question. How do I get through it? How do I deal with it? Anyway, I'm really sorry. I'm doing too much talking on this conversation.
No! Randy, I wanted to ask you how do we deal with it? How do you respond to that question?
Oh, my! Well, you touched on it a little bit ago. You talked about…. I think you made a distinction between confidence and certainty, and when I hear that, I think absolute certainty, I don't think it's something that mere humans can have. I think that it's very arrogant for us to think, “I have to have absolute 100% certainty.” I don't know whether God has given that to us. He hasn't given us an absolute certain answer. He has given us a very confident lots of truth so we can connect to Him, and how we deal with it is we cling to Him for hope and strength and peace, even with an incomplete answer.
I quote Tim Keller a whole lot. He has that very difficult book of his about pain and suffering, but in there—and I'm going to butcher the quote now because I don't have it in front of me—but he says that we don't have a complete and total answer, but what we do have is a Person we can cling to, a Savior Who conquered death, Who suffered in our place, and so we can know with confidence that this God will save us if we put our trust in Him, and we can have eternal life. And then Keller says, “Now, someone will respond to what I just said and say, ‘Yeah, but that's only part of an answer.’” And he said, “Yes, but it's the part we need.”
And so I live without a complete answer. I live with, “I don't understand it all. I have part of an answer.” I mean, we as believers, we who believe the Bible is God's revealed truth, well, we believe there is such a thing as goodness. There is a devil who causes all sorts of problems. We are fallen, broken, sinful people. We live in a broken world. But that doesn't explain all of it. That explains a part of it. Keller says it's half. I very often say I think it's less. I think it's a pretty small sliver on the pie chart, I'm sorry to say. There's still is a big chunk of the pie chart that I don't know, but I'm going to cling to this God because He gives me hope and strength and sustenance even in the midst of.
And for people who have lost a loved one, and they know that that loved one is now with the Lord because of their faith in Christ, that’s a tremendous comfort! Does it totally explain it? No. Does it take away all the pain? No! But it puts it in a framework where we can say life is not absurd and meaningless. Now, you have to stop asking me questions. People are going to say, “Why doesn’t he let the guest talk?” Where have you landed as you've dealt with struggles like this?
As you were just talking, actually, it just reminded me of—and again, I'm going to butcher this. I think it's Calvin who says this, and I remember it from one of my classes last year, but he says that faith doesn't eradicate grief. It sweetens it. And I think that's where I go with it, that there’s a sweetness there to grief. That faith doesn't eliminate or completely dissolve, but it enhances it in a way such that I can cry to Someone. I can lament to Someone and know that, while I don't have all the answers, those tears are being stored and counted. And one day my faith will give way to sight. And maybe this comes into that certainty question. Sometimes we think, “Oh, when we see God face to face, that's when all our questions will be finally answered,” as though suddenly inexhaustible knowledge will be given to us, and we’ll be able to look back on things and say, “Oh, yeah. That’s why this, this, this, this, and that happened.” But I just wonder if we're waiting for the wrong thing if that's the case.
That faith that sweetens grief in some ways doesn't require an absolute answer because you live the question. But that’s only on the basis that a Person there Who’s holding you with those everlasting arms Who will never leave you, Who will never forsake you or let you go. What do you make of that?
Yeah. Yeah. It’s interesting. This wasn't the direction I was thinking this was going, so this is a whole podcast about: How do we handle suffering? No, no. This is so crucial and important. And I've got another interview coming up. For our listeners, be sure to look for the conversation I have with Elise Boros. She thinks about this topic deeply and beautifully and writes about it beautifully.
But this is such a crucial question. We do have that beautiful promise that God will take away every tear, and there will be no more crying. But I think you're right. It may not be because we got an intellectual answer. I think it's because we're in the presence of a loving God Who, even as we feel pain, there’s a comfort that overshadows it. It doesn't take it away, so again that phrase Paul says: We grieve, but not like those who have no hope. There are so many people who have come at this and have landed in that place. Philip Yancey wrote the book Disappointment with God. He comes to the very end of the book, and he says, “In the end, it seems that we really only have two options. There’s disappointment with God, and there's disappointment without God.” Yes, there's still some disappointments, but the comfort and the strength is a resource that we can draw on.
Well, I can't think of a smooth transition, but…. So you're studying philosophy. You’ve had a background in apologetics. So let me just ask in this direction: How is apologetics today different than it was ten years ago, twenty years ago, or even longer ago? What are the new nuances or challenges or differences?
Yeah. Yeah. Thank you so much for asking, Randy. I love thinking about this kind of thing, and I think when I first started speaking evangelistically, it was kind of through local churches and on university campuses. This was during kind of the heyday of militant atheism, the New Atheism of Dawkins and Dennett and Harris. And there was a lot of animosity and hostility towards the Christian faith. There were particular questions that were being asked that were largely around credibility questions. But I think, as that kind of just dissolved, what we've seen is that nature obviously abhors a vacuum and that we need meaning. We long for meaning. We are, as the philosopher Aristotle said, “All men by nature desire to know.” We all want to know something, and so I think, after that, there's been a resurgence of questions around meaning and relevance and desirability, so I think what we’re seeing is a bit of a reordering. So it used to be questions around credibility. How do I know that this is true? And now it's more the emphasis on desirability. How is this relevant? Why is this good for me? So that isn't to say that credibility questions don't matter anymore, but they now come after the desirability questions. So after you have a conversation with someone who says, “Well, why is this good news to me?” Then the next question is, “Well, how do I know that this is real? How do I know this is true?” So it doesn't do away with that. It’s just a re-ordering that I've noticed in the past ten years or so. And I think, with that—I don't know if you’ve seen that. And please tell me if I'm just rambling, because you've got me on my hobbyhorse now-
I like this hobbyhorse, and no, you're not just rambling. These are really crucial things. And those two words are really important. You said the shift has gone from the starting place being credibility to desirability. The questions about credibility are still there, but they seem to come second. And the assumption is a lack of desirability. “Oh, no! I don't want any part of that. That’s just horrible!” So we need to start with assuming, “This is not desirable to them, but I want to show them how very good it is.” But keep going on that hobbyhorse. You’re on a roll. This is good, interesting, and important.
Thank you. Yeah, and I think the other thing that I'm just seeing coupled with that—and probably is coming out more and more in the social consciousness and imagination—is this move towards metamodernity, and that has been around for a little while, in the academy and in politics and stuff. But whereas we had modernity that loved the credibility questions. How about if this is true? And then postmodernity that loves the desirability questions, of “How is this good for me when there are so many truths, and it's all just power play.” Now, we're kind of in a metamodern point, which is looking back at modernity and postmodernity and saying, “Oh, actually, no. We need some grand metanarratives, and we need a little bit of learning, too.” It's like the synthesis of these two things coming together, but the catch there is that there’s this irony that's wedded to it. So you have a grand metanarrative, but you kind of know that it's a little bit fictional. So I don’t know—have you seen the latest Barbie film, Randy?
I have not. But I'm really intrigued to see how you're going to bring Barbie into this, and maybe we could figure out some way that we get a royalty on… if people listen to this podcast and then go see the Barbie film, maybe part of the… never mind. I'm sorry. No. Why are you asking about the Barbie film? This is important. How does that fit into this? Because I've read a bunch about it, and I think I know where you're going, but please go ahead.
Yeah. Well, I was just really struck by… The whole film really was just fantastic. But the opening sequence, it starts off with, “In the beginning….” And then it creates this kind of metanarrative of this world in which children played with these toys, these dolls, which were great for them, but they didn't know about anything better, beyond them. And then suddenly the Barbie arrives, and they're like, “Wow! This is amazing!” So then they start smashing their stereotypical tea sets and their dolls which are just… they're just paltry compared to the amazingness of Barbie. And then, the film kind of kicks off from there.
So there's this big story in there as well, a wider story in the Barbie film about patriarchy and men and women and how they relate to one another. And what is the purpose of life? And what about meaning and reality? What does it mean to be real? And why is that desirable? I don't want to give away too many spoilers, but it's that kind of thing. It's that metamodern desire for those grand metanarratives. But there's also that cheeky irony to it, that’s like, “But we all know this is not entirely true, but there are bits of it that you might want to hang on to.”
Well, I never thought that the new Barbie movie was a philosophical inquiry, but it sure sounds like it is. And ladies and gentlemen, a woman pursuing a PhD in philosophy endorses this film. No. People are wrestling with these very, very deep issues. And just as Paul quoted poets to the Athenian Epicureans and Stoics, we need to be able to quote the poets of our day. Now, they're not quite so much poets. They're the songwriters and the filmmakers. I think those are the two biggest poets of our day. And they ask some really good questions. Very few movies are coming up with good answers, but they pose the questions brilliantly, poignantly, painfully. So it sounds like this movie does that as well.
And there are also a bunch of books recently written by people who would identify themselves as not religious, secular. They might even identify as atheists. But they're asking these questions. And they're rejecting the very, very strict, sterile materialism, nihilism. They’re saying, “There’s got to be something else out there.” I just read this book on awe. And I'm really sorry, I’m blanking out on the author's name. He's a social psychologist. I'm pretty sure he's at University of California, Berkeley. And it's all of these areas in life that point to something bigger: Beauty, music, art, friendship. I mean it sounds like C.S. Lewis co-authored the book with him. Except that he can't land where Lewis does. It’s, “Boy, this points to something bigger, and it points to meaning,” and so he's gently rejecting meaninglessness, nihilism, absurdity, but he can't quite land on, “This seems to be pointing to a supernatural, personal God.”
But if people are willing to take the first couple of steps: Now there's something more out there. When I see a beautiful sunset, I don't just stop because biology tells me. There's something about it that causes me to say, “What’s beyond that? Why is there beauty?” So, again, these are things you're touching on. Now, your area of study, am I right? It touches a whole lot on science. Is that right? Science as a pointer to meaning?
Oh, it can…. Well, the guy that I'm looking at, Michael Polanyi. He was a premier scientist, so he started out in the sciences and then moved to philosophy later.
So I'm not so much a philosopher of science, but I've gone into it a little bit through Michael Polanyi.
Okay. All right. So let me ask you more: So you said you wrote this for young Christians, young, new in the faith. Did you also write it for a young person, meaning someone who's in their teens, 16, 17, 18? College years? Or does your audience, as far as age, go sort of broader than that?
Yeah. Thank you for asking. I think initially there was a thought of how to help a person who's younger in their faith. And that can be at any age. But I think one of the things that I've really been encouraged by is receiving feedback from all kinds of people, at all ages and stages, who have read it, and there's something in there that they just really resonated with and found helpful as we think about the meaning crisis. So, no. I think that was it's kind of USP, like this is how the publishing house wanted to market it, but I think I've written it for a broader audience, so I hope that comes through.
Nice, nice. Well, I want to go back a little bit. You said we're in an age of metamodernity. I don't know if I've heard anybody else say that before, but I'm really glad to hear it. So there was modernity, where we argued about truths and truth really mattered. And then there was postmodernity that said, “No, there is no such thing as truth, and everybody writes their own metanarrative,” but there were these screaming inconsistencies in that, of, “There is no metanarrative.” That sounds like a metanarrative. “There are no overarching truths.” It sounds like you're saying that's an overarching truth. So the conversations during that time, they were pretty frustrating, I think. We would try to point out to people that they believed in a metanarrative, and they would say, no, they wouldn't.
So now, if I'm hearing you correctly, we can say to people, “It sounds to me like we want answers about truth, but we also want answers about, ‘How does this help me? How is this desirable?’ So we want both truth and goodness.” And so we can start by agreeing with people, rather than fighting and arguing. “Yes! We want truth. And we want meaning and goodness and purpose. So here's where I found it. Here's how the gospel provides goodness and truth and doesn't pit them against each other, as things were happening for a while.” Am I close to making sense in this?
Oh, yeah. Hugely, yeah, absolutely. And I think those two things, thinking about truth and goodness, there’s also beauty, isn’t there? I mean, they're one of the classic transcendental properties of being that is in everything. And I think that the metamoderns… I was just looking at my lecture notes, actually, because I'm quoting. There’s this guy called Hanzi Freinacht who wrote a book called The Listening Society. This was back in 2017, and this is a metamodern guide to politics, and he wrote this: He wrote, “Metamodernism is qualitatively very, very different from postmodernism. It accepts progress, hierarchy, sincerity, spirituality, development, grand narratives, party politics, both thinking and much else. It puts forward dreams and makes suggestions, and yet it's still being born.” So I think it's that. There’s still [UNKNOWN 30:49] to it, but there's a stronger being to it as well, which I think wasn't…. There wasn't a stable center to postmodernity. Yeah. So I think I wouldn't want to say… I don't know what your thoughts are on this, Randy, that metamodernity kind of defines everyone and everyone's views. We’re all on a spectrum, I think, from modernity, postmodernity, metamodernity, depending on a whole range of social and cultural factors. But the rise in popularity and traction for metamodernity is definitely more visible now than it was in 2010, when it was first starting to be on the academic horizon, anyway.
I just think this is wonderful news for us, for trying to connect with nonbelievers. I think there was a period of time where it was really hard to connect, because people were saying things like, “There’s no such thing as truth.” And then we would say, “Yeah, but you know, Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.” And we just thought that that was such a powerful argument. I mean, it's Jesus's words coming from the Bible. And we just thought, “This will surely cut through.” And it does for a lot of people. But for a whole lot of people, it’s like, “Well, that may be your truth, but that's not my truth.” And it was very, very difficult to get traction, the phrase you said earlier. Whereas now, I think we can say, “There is such a thing as truth. And there's also such a thing as beauty. And wouldn't it be wonderful if we could have a coherent frame of thinking about life that celebrates the beauty and the truth and the goodness and not see these things as these watertight compartments?” I want to say those things to non-Christians I know. “Do you ever go to art museums? Well, who's your favorite artist? What do you like about that?” And then to join them in, “Yes! You’re right! Isn’t it breathtaking? Isn’t….”
Yesterday, by the way, we were setting up this room that I'm in for recording this podcast, because this is a brand new thing now. We’re doing video, as well as audio, which-
I’m the first one, Randy?
This is new for us. You’re the first one, and maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned this. I'm more nervous about this than I have been for all the others. But we came up with this idea of putting some flowers behind me. And I just love flowers. And they're all different. And I'm thinking there's going to be a different bunch of flowers each time. Flowers just so intrigue me. And, when people say, “Ah, yes. Evolution created them to be so beautiful because the bees are attracted to them and then pollination,” or whatever. Yeah, I'm sure that that's part of it, but they're just so stunningly beautiful! And different colors and shapes and yet how, when I cut them and put them in a vase, after a while, they die. There's a real ugliness to them when they die. That's also telling us something.
Anyway, so, well, we really need you to finish up this PhD thing, so you can start writing more books like More Truth for the rest of us. I think you've got a perspective that's so important in apologetics and evangelism, and I just want to encourage you, and I want to encourage our listeners and viewers, that there are some great opportunities for us today, and this approach to apologetics can help. Any last thoughts before we bring this to a close?
Oh, thank you. I think one of the things that I've been thinking about recently is… you know Simone Weil? I can never pronounce her last name-
I can’t either. I've only read a few little snippets of her, but it's amazing how often her name comes up in these kinds of discussions. So, yeah. Please say more about her.
Oh, thank you. There’s this lovely extract in her book, Gravity and Grace, where she talks about these two prisoners who are divided by a wall, and their cells adjoin one another, and the only way that they can communicate with one another is by knocking on the wall. And so the wall is the thing that separates them, but it's also their primary means of communication as well. And I think that's just… I find that really encouraging when I'm thinking about talking about Jesus and thinking about meaning and the truth and goodness and beauty, the things that we often think divide us as a wall. And there is a wall, but that wall is also the means of communication. You can tap on the other side, and people will hear and listen and respond.
Oh, man! I love that image. I love it. Thank you for bringing it up. We could talk a whole lot more, but we do need to bring this to a close. Kristi Mair, thanks so much for joining me on Questions That Matter. We'll have a bunch of show notes below of some different things we've mentioned. Please do check out our C.S. Lewis Institute website, our award-winning website, I might add. And we hope that all the resources there will be so encouraging to you as you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. Thanks so much.