Have you ever noticed that some people hold distinctly anti-Christian beliefs, but they can’t actually live with the consequences of those beliefs?
I was recently talking with a young man who mentioned that his father was not a Christian. They dialogue about Christianity, and the son’s beliefs and the father’s non-belief, which I think is actually very helpful. But more so, this was interesting, because the father had sent the son an email containing an article about how, if you’re not thinking about something, it doesn’t exist.
Now, that may strike you as a totally ridiculous idea, but let’s consider in what worldview that actually makes sense. If you hold a view of truth where things are only true if you believe them to be true, well then, doesn’t it stand to reason that if you’re not thinking about something, it’s not true, and if it’s not true, it doesn’t exist?
Well, yes, that makes more sense if we think about it from that context. Now, it’s still a totally false idea, (especially if I’m not thinking about it, pardon the bad joke), but it doesn’t actually make sense of reality, and we’ll talk about that in a minute.
First, I want to explain a little more of the context around this line of thinking, because at the heart of this is something called subjectivism. This is a view of truth where truth claims are basically just claims about people, and how they feel, and so on a subjective view of truth, something is true not because what I said reflects reality, but because I told you what I thought or how I felt. So if I think it or feel it, it’s true on a subjective view of truth.
Well, this stands in contrast to an objective view of truth, where truth is out in the world, it’s a property of its object, and we just reflect what the world is like, and so a statement is true if and only if I have actually described reality correctly. For example, if I say the tree is brown, and the tree actually is brown, well then I have told you the truth. Now, if I tell you the tree is green, when it’s brown, I have not told you the truth (on an objective view of truth). On a subjective view of truth, I have; I’ve told you what I think, I’ve told you how I feel about it, so that must be true.
Now, why does this matter? This conversation so far may have reminded you why you hated philosophy class in college or high school, but I promise you there’s a point, and the point is this: Some people want to say that moral claims are only relative to the person making them, so something’s only wrong for you, but something different could be right for me, because morality is the type of thing where we decide for ourselves. So it doesn’t matter if someone makes a different claim than me. They can be right, I can be right, because morality is not a feature of reality. Rightness and wrongness is not a feature of actions, it’s just a property of how we think about them.
Well, obviously this stands in stark contrast to Christianity. While I said some people apply this view to morality and ethics and religions, some have realized that that’s kind of an artificial distinction. Why would you just stop there? In an effort to be consistent, some people will go all the way and basically say the type of thing that “if I’m not thinking about something, it doesn’t exist.” That, you could say, is the natural ending point of this view of subjective truth. Why should we artificially limit it to moral claims? Why is truth only subjective there, but not everywhere else? So some people have taken it all the way. You may have heard the phrase “if a tree falls in the forest and a man’s not there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Well, on a subjective view of truth, the view espoused in this article I started out talking about, no, it doesn’t make a sound. There’s also no tree and there’s no forest, if no one’s there to think about them.
What’s interesting is that no one actually lives like this. Here’s a question that you could ask such a person who holds this view. “If I’m not thinking about you, do you not exist? If no one’s thinking about you, do you not exist? What if no one’s thinking about you for five minutes, and then people start thinking about you? Did you cease to exist and then come back into existence?” Doesn’t that just seem kind of, silly? Well, it is silly. If you’re not thinking about yourself, did you not exist? And more than that, if this is a person’s view of truth, why do they walk into their bedroom to get their shoes? They weren’t thinking about their shoes all day, so the shoes didn’t exist, so why didn’t they just think of the shoes in a different place that was closer to them, in order to bring them into existence at a closer place? See, no one lives like this.
I’m reminded of a story that a friend of mine told me. He was growing up, and he was in high school, and there was a kid there who tried to tell him that he should be a Christian Scientist. On their view, reality is just what you imagine it to be, so you’re kind of the only person that exists, and you’re viewing reality, which is really a projection of yourself. (There are a couple different ways to cash that out, but that’s one of them.)
So this kid tries to tell my friend that, well, “you should be a Christian Scientist,” and my friend says, “Why? I mean, reality’s as you imagine it to be, right?” and the kid said, “Yes,” and my friend, with all the tact of a high schooler, says, “Well, you’re doing a horrible job.” The kid’s like, “What do you mean?” He’s said, “Well, you have buck teeth, and your mom’s in a wheelchair. If reality’s what you imagine it to be, why did you imagine all of that?”
Now, obviously there’s a more tactful way to say that, but the point is a valid one. If reality’s as we imagine it to be, gosh, why would we imagine all the pain and suffering that’s in this world? Why would we imagine the heartache? If I could just change my thinking and change the world, then why doesn’t that actually seem to work?
Now, you may think that that encounter was not a great one from a Christian perspective, and I do think it could be improved on, but here’s the thing: God can use anything, and what’s interesting is 25, 30 years later, my friend is walking across a seminary campus, and he bumps into this guy, this same kid from high school who was a Christian Scientist, and he’s says, “What are you doing here?” The kid says, “Well, I’m a Christian now.” This was just confusing to my friend, and he said, “Well, well, why?” and he said, “Well, in part because you helped me start to realize the fact that the way I viewed the world didn’t actually work. Like, my religion, it didn’t explain reality.”
I’m summarizing that in kind of some of the terms we’ve been using, but that’s basically what he was saying. He realized he held a view of the world that didn’t actually work, and you know what? So many people do this too, and sometimes it has to do with morality. We want to say that nothing is objectively wrong in the world, but then if someone hurts someone close to us, boy, we sure act like it’s not just our opinion or our preference or our feelings that got violated. We act like something actually wrong happened.
The question becomes, what best explains that innate reaction in us? What explains the fact that we have moral intuitions? Well, the best explanation is that there’s a God who created us in His image with those, and we don’t have to acknowledge the existence of that God to still have the features that He created us with. In fact, those features point to His existence.
That’s an example of how living out of concert with your worldview can be a point that we can push on. This has been likened to kind of a point of tension, if you want to think about it. As I look at the window in my office right now, there is a crack in it, and if I wanted to make that crack worse, I wouldn’t push on the corner of the window, I would push right where the crack is, and I wouldn’t have to push hard, because there’s tension there. There’s already kind of a break in the glass. What we want to do when we talk with people about their worldviews that are opposed to Christianity and a Biblical worldview is we want to identify the point where they live in a different way than what we believe.
I don’t mean simply saying, like, “Speeding is wrong, and yet they speed,” though that would be an example. Basically, where they make a claim about the world, and then live as a denial of that. So, denying objective morality and acting like other people should live according to what they think is moral, or saying people don’t exist if you’re not thinking about them, but then writing someone a card, or thinking of your shoes in the other room, or all of those types of things that we’ve talked about. You can’t live consistently in that type of world, and what’s more, it’s not only when bad things happen.
You know, for someone who has a subjective view of truth and morality, what does it mean for something to be good? There’s no actual goodness, wholesome goodness, on a subjective view of truth and morality. So when someone says, “It was so good that we rescued all of those people who were victims of sex trafficking,” well, what does that mean? Is that just your opinion? Could someone else have held the equally valid opinion that it’s not good, and they’re two valid opinions out there? No! The person’s not going to believe that. So even the affirmation that something is good is a good springboard to point out, “Well, you don’t actually have a category for “good” in your worldview, but you know who does? I have a category for good. I think you’re right. I think it is good when we rescue people from slavery and sex trafficking. My worldview, my religion makes sense of that, but see, you’re trying to hold onto this thing, this concept that doesn’t fit in your worldview.”
This can be a helpful way of identifying this point of tension, as Francis Schaeffer called it, and pushing on it a little, kind of like the crack in the window. Our goal is not to destroy the person, by any means, so that’s where this glass crack analogy breaks down, but it is a way to get someone’s attention. They’re living out of concert with the world. It’s kind of like, if you believe there’s no furniture in a room and there’s furniture in it, when you walk through that room, you’re going to hit something. It’s going to cause some tension in your mind. We want to put our finger on those points and bring them to a person’s attention. As Greg Koukl says, we want to put a stone in their shoe. We want to give them something to think about.
You know, it’s interesting, even when I have conversations with people who are fellow Christians, we will talk about something, and they’ll make a point, something like, “Well, you hold this view and this view, and how does that work? I don’t understand.” What they’re hitting on is that from their perspective, I hold two views that don’t seem to go together. Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes I just need to further reflect on it, or build it out more, or explain it differently, but you know, sometimes I find that simply by someone identifying an inconsistency, it forces me to confront the fact that I hold at least one or more wrong beliefs in the area we’re talking about.
That’s our goal with the non-Christian too, to show them that because they don’t affirm and submit to the lordship of Christ, that they, by definition, will be living out of concert with their beliefs. Because they deny the Creator, and that they are created in His image, they will fail to be able to live in the world God has created consistently with their beliefs. You can’t deny that God created everything and make sense of the world. You can’t answer “why” questions. You can’t actually behave consistently when it comes to morality either, like we covered. Or truth: What does it mean for something to be true, if God’s not out there?
If God’s not sustaining all of creation, how can you do science? If creation is not orderly and sustained by a holy God, if, on the atheist view, everything can come into existence from nothing, uncaused, and life is the produce of random mutation and natural selection, well, there’s no consistency there, yet science is based on the idea that the universe is uniform and consistent. Well, why? If it came about randomly and life comes about randomly, then by what standard should we actually expect life and the universe to be consistent such that it can be studied by science?
Christianity makes a whole lot more sense of that, and that’s the goal. We want to be able to point out in conversation that people are inconsistent with their beliefs. This doesn’t just apply to worldview issues; it applies to gospel issues too. Some people will go the opposite direction. They’ll, for instance, say that they think everyone gets a chance to accept Christ after they die, and yet they’ll also perhaps affirm the reliability of Scripture. Well, those things don’t go together, Scripture paints a very different picture than that, and so by identifying these two beliefs that don’t go together, we can put our finger on that point of tension, push a little, use a question, and say, “How do you reconcile this belief you hold in light of the fact that you affirm what Scripture says?”
Those are just several examples that I hope are practical, that I hope help you, and I hope the story of my friend who talked with a Christian Scientist gives you some hope to realize that even though we may have conversations now that don’t go the way we would like, God can still, and will still use those for His glory in ways that we may never know.