Introduction: Scepticism or cynicism
I heard this story on the radio.
An atheist is driving down a city street, desperately looking for a parking space. The multi-storeys are full. The parked cars are jammed nose to tail along the pavements. Around the roads he goes. There’s nothing.
He has an important business meeting. It is with a client about a major deal. His future depends on it and he is already late. To send a text and plead he couldn’t park would look really lame. In his extremity he does the only thing he can think of.
He suddenly finds himself praying: ‘O God, please find me a parking space. I’ll go to church, I’ll do anything. Please give me a parking space!’
Suddenly, a car pulls out in front of him and there is a space, just perfect. The atheist’s response is, ‘Don’t bother God, I just found one.’
A sceptic is someone who looks at evidence to support whatever is being claimed before he or she accepts it. By contrast a cynic is best described as someone predisposed to reject claims, either before the evidence is heard or in spite of
whatever evidence is produced. You could say a sceptic has a discriminating but open mind, whereas a cynic has a prejudiced and closed mind.
We live in the post-Christian society of the Western world and for many people, like the atheist whose prayer was apparently answered when looking for a parking spot, no evidence is going to change what they really think about God. They are locked in to cynicism.
A current popular outlook on life tells us that there is no such
thing as the truth. Everything is actually simply a matter of individual viewpoints, personal opinion. We only think of the North Pole as the top of the world because the science of cartography happened to begin in the Northern hemisphere. If it had begun in the Southern hemisphere, we would probably see the world as the other way up. Or again, we have whole university departments protesting that white males may see something one way, but black women will see the same thing totally differently.
The idea is that there is nothing that is true for everybody; individual perception dominates everything. Therefore, according to this stance, we ought to be suspicious when anyone says, ‘I want to tell you the truth’ or ‘Can I share this truth with you?’ Such people maintain that there is no truth and that any truth claimant is trying to get you to think like them – in other words to control you, to bring you under their power. With this outlook, the conclusion is that it is actually better to have a closed mind. It is better to be not just a sceptic, but a cynic. Just shut yourself off and think your own thoughts. If you don’t listen to other people, you can’t fall for their lies.
However, this outlook holds out a rather bleak prospect for the world. Harmony and progress have always proceeded by way of trying to understand the other person’s point of view – recognising what it is like to stand in their shoes. But this philosophy would tell us not to bother as it is an impossible task. With no common truth, people are inevitably driven apart. Also of course, the idea is contrary to the way life is. Two plus two equals four for everyone – whether we would like it to make five or not. The law of gravity applies to everybody – so don’t walk off a cliff. Listen to your French teacher and you will learn to communicate with French people. English history only makes sense if you acknowledge that there was a woman named Queen Victoria who reigned from 1837 until 1901. Such things are true for us all.
What I am trying to do here is to push back against the cynical flow. Not everything is merely a matter of opinion. I am encouraging you to accept that there is such a thing as common truth and it is worth pursuing. Evidence – scientific, historical etc. – is to be taken seriously. Don’t see conversation with others about truth as a threat. It is worth listening to people – not uncritically, keeping your wits about you – because you can learn what is true. Yes, question people. Not everything people say is true. Use your critical faculties. You don’t have to believe them. But at least give others a hearing. I am encouraging you to be a sceptic but not a cynic. An open mind is better than a closed one.
Truth about God?
But you might be thinking – ‘Yes I can accept that there is universal truth in such areas as mathematics, science, languages or even history, but isn’t everything people say about God just their opinions, simply speculation at best?’
The stance of classical Christianity is that it is precisely the common truths we find in fields like science, history and more that lead to a compelling, strongly convincing – that is, cogent – belief in God. That may surprise you. But Christianity has always been a thinking religion which encourages the pursuit of truth wherever it is found. It has cogency.
C. S. Lewis was an Oxford don, an expert in Medieval literature, who wrote the famous Chronicles of Narnia subsequently enjoyed by many children. As a young man in the trenches of the First World War he was a firm atheist. He was scared witless by the horrific conflict in which he found himself caught up. But he wrote to a friend, ‘I never stooped so low as to pray.’ For him, unlike our atheist in need of a parking space, not even the foul trenches, bloody wounds and deafening howitzer shells exploding were going to shake him out of that mindset of cynicism about all things religious.
And yet, at Oxford, befriended by J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings, they began to talk together about Christianity. And as they talked, and as Lewis read and thought deeply for himself about their conversations, it wasn’t that he was bamboozled into accepting Christianity, but rather that the truth of God’s existence and of the reality of Jesus Christ became so obvious to him as to be undeniable.
It was not even that he liked the idea of becoming a religious person. He didn’t – at least to begin with. It was simply that he realised that God was truly there. The logic was utterly compelling. He wrote, ‘In the Trinity term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed; perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert on such terms.’
Later Lewis was to write: ‘I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen; not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.’3 In other words, not only does Christianity make sense itself, it makes sense of our world. Christians would say that it is actually the foundation for common truth.
So, I am inviting you to be as sceptical as you like, but, like Lewis, to engage in a conversation about Christianity. What is written in this book is one side of the conversation; your own thoughts as you read are the other. See where it leads you ...
by John Benton