Tag Archives: Purpose

Andy Bannister and Michael Ruse discuss how atheists find meaning in life

Two horses fight it out, may the best horse win!
Two horses fight it out, and may the best horse win!

I’m summarizing a recent episode of the Unbelievable show.

Details:

Atheist philosopher Michael Ruse joins Justin as we spend a second week looking at Andy Bannister’s new book ‘The atheist who didn’t exist’.

Its amusingly titled chapters include ‘The Peculiar Case of the Postmodern Penguin (or: Why Life without God is Meaningless). Michael and Andy debate whether it’s a problem that atheists can’t have meaning with a ‘capital M’.

Here is a summary of the discussion between Ruse and Bannister, and my comments below the summary.

The MP3 file is here.

Summary:

  • Ruse: ultimate questions are serious questions, and some religions are attempting to provide serious answers to those questions
  • Ruse: there is a psychological element to belief in God but it’s not a complete explanation, but it can apply to non-belief as well
  • Bannister: there are psychological reasons why people would prefer unbelief (quotes Thomas Nagel and Aldous Huxley)
  • Bannister: (to Ruse) what do you think would follow next if you got new information that caused you to believe in God?
  • Ruse: I’d feel scared, I’d think of all the reasons that God would dislike me, rather than any reasons why God would save me
  • Bannister: according to the Bible, God is not so much interested in mere belief, but in active trust in him
  • Ruse: without being smug, I just completed 50 years as a college professor of philosophy, and I have a sense of worth from that
  • Ruse: if God turns up, and says that 50 years of being a professor is not good enough, well, I don’t know God, I’m sorry, I did my best
  • Brierley: Andy, explain to us this story of how a penguin explained to you how he invented a subjective meaning in life for himself?
  • Brierley: (reads the story)
  • Bannister: when it comes to reading a book, the real meaning is the meaning the author intended the book to have
  • Bannister: readers can inject their own meaning into the book that has nothing to do with it, but the author gives the real meaning
  • Bannister: meaning in life is like reading a book – you can make up your own meaning, but the author’s meaning is the real meaning
  • Brierley: (to Ruse) on atheism, is there any objective meaning?
  • Ruse: “obviously, someone like myself cannot have meaning with a capital M in that sense”
  • Ruse: the real question is and atheist can find a sense of self-worth, “I find that I’m happier within myself, I can find meaning”
  • Bannister: what would you say to someone who drinks away the family inheritance and gets the same sense of happiness you have?
  • Bannister: what would you say to all the people who are unable to get “a sense of self-worth” from their career, because of where they are born, sickness, etc.
  • Ruse: I have nothing to offer them, some people are born into such awful situations that they are bound to be bad people
  • Ruse: these unfair accidents of birth, etc.,  fits with atheism better
  • Ruse: what we should do is change society so that more people can build a sense of self-worth through achievements
  • Ruse: that way, they can say to God “I used my talents” so they can create feelings of self-worth and happiness (apart from God)
  • Bannister: meaning in life cannot be answered without answering questions related to identity, value, which are rooted in the overall worldview
  • Bannister: on the Christian worldview, you have an infinite worth, your value isn’t determined by circumstances, earnings, friends, etc.
  • Bannister: your value comes from what Jesus was willing to pay to save you, namely, giving his own life for you
  • Bannister: when I travel to meet other Christians in other parts of the world, they have a happiness that should not be there if they are getting happiness from wealth, fame, achievements, etc.
  • Bannister: but when you come to the West, many people who have wealth, fame, achievement, etc. are unhappy
  • Ruse: well maybe who look after a flock of sheep every day may get a sense of self-worth from that, or from other jobs
  • Ruse: I do take Christianity very seriously, it is a grown-up proposal to answer grown-up questions – it works if it is true
  • Ruse: we don’t have to follow Nietzche’s statement that if there is no God, there is no meaning in life – we can find a middle way, we can achieve meaning in life by using our talents to achieve things
  • Bannister: I disagree with Michael, I don’t think that the meaning you invent for yourself is authentic meaning
  • Bannister: distracting yourself with amusing things and happiness is not an answer to the problem
  • Brierley: (to Ruse) are you saying that you have searched for ultimate meaning, and you are settling for subjective meaning?
  • Ruse: my subjective meaning is not second class to objective meaning, “I feel a real deep sense of achievement, of meaning, of self-worth, of having used my talents properly, and I don’t feel in any sense a sense of regret” (what matters to him is how he feels)
  • Bannister: notice how Michael keeps bringing in value judgments. e.g. – “use my talents well”, that implies that there is a right way and a wrong to use your talents, which assumes an objective scale of right and wrong, which makes no sense in atheism
  • Bannister: an atheist can sit in a sun room and enjoy the feelings of happiness generated by the light and heat of the Sun, without asking whether there is a Sun out there
  • Bannister: ultimately, at the end of the day, my concern is not whether something makes me happy or makes me feel fulfilled
  • Bannister: ultimately, at the end of the day, I think there is only one real reason to wrestle with these questions of meaning, and that is to find truth
  • Ruse: sometimes we reach a point where we cannot get to true answers to some questions, sometimes we look for truth, but then give up and confess “I cannot find it” and then move on from there

Is it possible to dispense with God’s advice on your decision-making and achieve something that affects a lot of people, or makes people like you, or makes you famous, etc., and then have that please God? “Look, God, I did something I liked that affected a lot of people, and made them feel happy as they were on their way to Hell because they rejected you”. I think a lot of celebrities, athletes and musicians have feelings that they have achieved something, but having feelings of achievement because you entertain people doesn’t mean anything to God.

So what is the standard? How you imitate Jesus – self-control, self-denial and self-sacrifice to honor God – that is the standard. If I had to choose between giving up two hours of my life to summarize this discussion for my readers, and all the fame and fortune that people who make godless TV shows, movies and music have, I would choose to make this debate summary. My goal in life is not to have fun, thrills, travel and feel happy in this world. I have a Boss. Performing actions that respect the Boss is objectively meaningful. It’s may not seem like much compared to what James Bond does in million-dollar movies, but at least I am wearing the right uniform, and playing for the right team.

I’m starting to notice that a lot of younger Christians are more interested in feeling good, having fun, being liked by others than they are in being able to know what’s true or show what’s true. Christians are no exception to this problem of finding meaning in life. A lot of us are just taking in entertainment and trying hard not to think at all.

Are Christians responsible for making plans and making good decisions?

Here’s a wonderful post on decision making and the will of God posted on Neil’s blog. In his post, Neil explains the Biblical model for making good decisions.

Excerpt:

Really short version: Aside from direct and clear personal revelation from God, you don’t have access to his sovereign will when making decisions.  Therefore you must look at other factors.  If it isn’t moral, don’t do it.  If it is moral but not wise, don’t do it.  If it is moral and wise, then use your personal preferences.

Using this model you can end up with a wise and biblical decision, but you have avoided the traps of the “God told me to ____” routine.  People who run around saying that God told them this and that convey a super-spirituality that can leave less mature believers wondering if they really have a relationship with God (i.e., “God doesn’t tell me every little thing to do, so maybe I don’t really know him.”).

He has a helpful picture posted as well:

This is actually a very important topic for me, because I like making plans and making good decisions. I like being the quarterback or squad leader of my own life. I like to pick objectives and then make plans to achieve them. (Nothing too exotic, just simple stuff like saving money or reading more books)

Actually, I really oppose the idea that God has a magical fairy tale will for each person that will make them happy and fulfilled. For me, life isn’t like that. I don’t expect God to lead me along like a child at a scavenger hunt. I expect to survey the battlefield where I am and then do something to make a difference. There are lots of things you can do that will please God. Should you focus on your career and sponsor apologetics conferences? Or should you use your spare time preparing Sunday school lessons? There are lots of good things you could do to please God. Your job is to pick the one that will be the most effective. It doesn’t matter if it makes you happy, it only matters if it’s effective and if you are good at it.

Who is Rifleman Dodd?

A while back, I was busily working my way through the U.S. Marine Corps Official Reading List, and I came across a book by C.S. Forester called Rifleman Dodd, or alternatively titled Death to the French. It’s a work of historical fiction that takes place during the Napoleonic wars. The story is about a British marksman named Dodd, who is cut off from his own lines during a withdrawal maneuver. He is subsequently left to fend for himself behind enemy lines. An ordinary man might be full of despair and forget about his mission entirely. But Dodd is no ordinary man. Not only does he find a way to survive by finding food to eat, water to drink and places to sleep, but he also tries to remember his orders and to think about what he can do to advance the cause of his General, the Duke of Wellington.

Here’s an excerpt from a gritty book review:

It’s about a green-coated British infantry rifleman in the Napoleonic Wars, an age when rifles were a novelty and most of the army was red-coated and carried muskets. Private Matthew Dodd gets separated from his regiment during a retreat and finds himself stranded behind enemy (French) lines in Portugal. With the occasional aid of some natives, but mostly on his own, he harasses the French with his rifle and tries to prevent them from building a bridge across the Tagus River. It’s a remarkable tale of survival and solitary achievement, of a rank-and-file soldier who lives by his wits and slowly learns to make plans without orders, and shows leadership qualities and a knowledge of warfare.

I think we’re in the same situation as Dodd.

There is no point in us looking for breadcrumb trails to happiness at this point. That’s not the point of Christianity. The point of Christianity is friendship with God, imitation of Christ, honoring moral obligations, self-sacrificial love for your neighbor (and even your enemies!), and dedication to the truth – whether anyone else likes you or not. It’s not supposed to make you happy, and it’s not necessarily going to be a normal life like everyone else has. Things may not work out the way you’d like them to.

We seem to be making such a big deal about compassion and forgiveness in the Christian life these days – such a big emphasis on our feelings. Almost like we have forgotten that we have obligations to our friend. A relationship doesn’t mean that one person does whatever they feel like, completely disregarding the character and goals of the other person and then is automatically granted forgiveness whenever they want it. That’s not a friendship – that’s using someone else for your own ends.

For a lot of people today, Christianity only comes into play after you’ve made a mistake and you’re feeling guilty. For example, suppose you decide to go to a party with your secular friends, then you drink too much, and you do something sexual that you shouldn’t have done. Or maybe you watched some prosperity gospel preacher on TV, then made irresponsible business decisions thinking that God would bail you out and make you rich, and you went bankrupt. Most people think Christianity is for this situation: you’re a Christian so that you don’t have to feel guilty about sin. And so that you can tell people that God forgives you, so that they can’t think anything bad about you, either. You sort of get your idea about what you should be doing in order to feel good from the culture, and God is just there to forgive it all when it blows up in your face.

But in my case, putting myself in a situation like that is not even possible. I’m more likely to try to plan to do something for God. Like, I might try to mentor a young Christian by sending them books. Or, I might try to teach a class in apologetics at my church. These are things that are for God, not for me. I’m not just being dragged along by the culture, and trying to find happiness by feeling good (e.g. – with alcohol) or being liked by non-Christians. And if my plans fail because the mentoree doesn’t grow up into anything, or nobody comes to my apologetics class, that’s when I go to God and say “I screwed up. but can I still be in your army?” And God always says yes to that. You don’t have to be the best player on the team for the Coach to like you. He already likes you.

One of the great things about being a Christian is that you can never lose your identity as a Christian by failing to do something for him that you planned to do. That’s what forgiveness is for. If you set out to do something for God’s glory, and you mess it all up, that’s OK. But I do think that, like Dodd, our ambition should not be about just making ourselves happy, or making non-Christians like us. We should be trying to make plans and carry them out for God.

That’s how I understand forgiveness. It’s not just something that’s there for you to use to fix your feelings when you’ve been irresponsible while seeking your own happiness in secular ways. It’s also there when you’re trying to do something good for God, and you fail. A lot of times in life you try your best, but you fail, and then you lose something that you really wanted. With God, when you try your best for his glory, and fail, you don’t lose your identity as a member of his team. I think that not losing your identity in Christ is even more important than not feeling guilty about selfish decision making.

So, have you got a plan to serve your General? Let’s focus more on what operations we’re planning for God than on being happy and being popular with non-Christians. Your life should not be all about you, with God just there to make your bad feelings go away. Your life should be about God’s goals and God’s interests.

William Lane Craig’s secret weapon is his amazing wife Jan

My favorite painting: "Godspeed" by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1900
My favorite painting: “Godspeed” by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1900

I’m re-posting this classic post because it was mentioned in a recent episode of the Reasonable Faith podcast.

I want to draw your attention to a talk on “Vision in Life” given by Dr. William Lane Craig. Dr. Craig is the ablest defender of the Christian faith operating today. He has done formal academic debates with all of the best known atheists on major university campuses in front of thousands of university students.

It turns out that he owes a lot of his success to his amazing wife Jan.

The MP3 file is here. (32 minutes)

This talk was Dr. Craig’s chapel address to Biola University students.

About 11 minutes into the talk, Bill describes what happened after he finished his Bachelor’s degree at Wheaton:

And so I joined the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ for 2 years, and was assigned to Northern Illinois University. And that was where I met my wife Jan. She was a graduate of the University of North Dakota where she had come to faith in Christ. And she had a similar vision for her life of evangelism and discipleship.

And as we worked at NIU together, she with gals and I with the guys, leading students to Christ and discipling them to walk with the Lord, we fell in love. And we decided that we would be more effective if we joined forces and became a team.

So their reason for getting together was because they thought that they would be more effective in evangelism and discipleship if they worked as a team.

It is at this point in the talk where Bill begins to explain just how Jan molded him into the lean, mean debating machine that travels the world striking terror into the hearts of atheists.

Bill’s first story about Jan occurs early after their marriage while he is working on his first Masters degree at Trinity:

And it was also at that time that I began to see what an invaluable asset the Lord had given me in Jan. I remember I came home from classes one day, and found her at the kitchen table with all the catalogs and schedules and papers spread out in front of her and she said, “look! I’ve figured out how you can get two Masters degrees at the same time that it would normally take to get one! All you have to do is take overloads every semester, go to all full-time summer school and do all these other things, and you can do two MAs in the time it takes to do one!”

And I thought, whoa! Are you sure you really want to make the commitment it takes to do this kind of thing? And she said, “Yeah! Go for it!” And it was then I began to see that God had given me a very special woman who was my supporter – my cheerleader – and who really believed in me. And as long as she believed in me, that gave me the confidence to dream bigger dreams, and to take on challenges that I had never thought of before.

In an article on his web site, he talks about how Jan encouraged him to do his first Ph.D:

As graduation from Trinity neared, Jan and I were sitting one evening at the supper table in our little campus apartment, talking about what to do after graduation. Neither of us had any clear leading or inclination of what we should do next.

So Jan said to me, “Well, if money were no object, what would you really like to do next?”

I replied, “If money were no object, what I’d really like to do is go to England and do a doctorate under John Hick.”

“Who’s he?” she asked.

“Oh, he’s this famous British philosopher who’s written extensively on arguments for the existence of God,” I explained. “If I could study with him, I could develop a cosmological argument for God’s existence.”

But it hardly seemed a realistic idea.

The next evening at supper Jan handed me a slip of paper with John Hick’s address on it. “I went to the library today and found out that he’s at the University of Birmingham in England,” she said. “Why don’t you write him a letter and ask him if you can do a doctoral thesis under him on the cosmological argument?”

What a woman! So I did, and to our amazement and delight Professor Hick wrote back saying he’d be very pleased to supervise my doctoral work on that subject. So it was an open door!

And in the same article, he explains how Jan encouraged him to get his second Ph.D:

As Jan and I neared the completion of my doctoral studies in Birmingham, our future path was again unclear to us. I had sent out a number of applications for teaching positions in philosophy at American universities but had received no bites. We didn’t know what to do.

I remember it like yesterday. We were sitting at the supper table in our little house outside Birmingham, and Jan suddenly said to me, “Well, if money were no object, what would you really like to do next?”

I laughed because I remembered how the Lord had used her question to guide us in the past. I had no trouble answering the question. “If money were no object, what I’d really like to do is go to Germany and study under Wolfhart Pannenberg.”

“Who’s he?”

“Oh, he’s this famous German theologian who’s defended the resurrection of Christ historically,” I explained. “If I could study with him, I could develop a historical apologetic for the resurrection of Jesus.”

Our conversation drifted to other subjects, but Jan later told me that my remark had just lit a fire under her. The next day while I was at the university, she slipped away to the library and began to research grants-in-aid for study at German universities. Most of the leads proved to be defunct or otherwise inapplicable to our situation. But there were two grants she found that were possibilities. You can imagine how surprised I was when she sprung them on me!

Both of these Ph.D experiences are also described in the talk. And the talk concludes as follows:

I am so thankful to be married to a woman who is tremendously resourceful, tremendously talented and energetic, who could have pursued an independent career in any number of areas, but instead, she has chose to wed her aspirations to mine, and to make it her goal to make me the most effective person I can be, for Christ. And she has been like my right arm in ministry over these many years. And it is a tremendous privilege to be a team with a person like that.

And you young men, I would encourage you, if you marry, to find a gal who shares your vision, not some independent vision, but who is interested in aligning herself with you, and pursuing together a common vision and goal that will draw you [together], so that you will avoid the growing separateness that so often creeps into marriages.

And now you know the rest of Bill’s story. The person you marry will have an enormous influence on the impact you will have for Christ and his Kingdom. It is up to you to decide whether that influence is going to be positive or negative, by deciding if you will marry, and if you do marry, by deciding whom you will marry.

You may also be interested in this talk given by William Lane Craig, entitled “Healthy Relationships” (National Faculty Leadership Conf. 2008) (audio here) In that talk, he offers advice to Christians who want to have a marriage that is consistent with their Christian faith.