Get your free copy of 'Digital Discipleship'

×

These quotes stood out as I read Gavin Ortlund’s marvelous new book Why God Makes Sense in a World That Doesn’t: The Beauty of Christian Theism (Baker Academic, 2021), a TGC 2021 Book Award winner. (You can also read my interview with Gavin.)


Even if we possessed an exhaustive understanding of every physical event, such that no gaps in our knowledge remained, we would still not have explained where the world itself came from. Thinking that scientific advance will remove the need for a meta-cause is like getting two-thirds of the way through Hamlet and thinking that the final third will somehow replace the need for Shakespeare. (30)

If there is a Supernature, its relation to nature should be en­visioned as more like the relation between Narnia and England than the relation between any two locations in our universe. We are dealing with the possibility of a different world altogether, not just a different place in the world. (46)

The existence of a Supernature means reality is larger and grander. Peter Kreeft expresses the contrast in this way: [with] supernaturalism, there are more things in reality than in thought; [with] naturalism, there are more things in thought that in reality. (47)

[What about the multiverse theory?] To posit countless unknown worlds just to explain the one we are in turns Occam’s razor into Occam’s beard. . . . Which is simpler: an infinite number of worlds or an infinite person behind the world? (66–67)

Doing math is less like being an architect who builds from scratch and more like being an archaeologist who excavates what is already there. . . . It is difficult to explain why a finite space-time universe that is in constant flux should produce a mental realm characterized by apparently eternal, necessary truths [e.g., math]. Where did this distinct realm come from? How did the temporal produce the permanent? (77, 78)

[When it comes to music], are our brains tricked by the evolutionary process into enjoying something that has no intrinsic reproductive value? . . . [This] feels inauthentic to the experience of music. It is difficult to enjoy music while realizing, My brain is tricking me into the experience of transcendence as a result of the happenstance of evolutionary history. I enjoy this simply because it intersects with factors that helped animals survive. It seems implausible that such richness of experience could emerge from such poverty of causation—almost like a story that is greater than the world in which it is written. (93)

We can make the contrast between a theistic and a naturalistic account of music as stark as possible by describing them in metaphor. [In] a naturalistic worldview, music is like an opiate for a dying man. It is pleasant in such a way as distracts us from reality. Music is pleasant and beautiful, but reality is ultimately chaotic and dark. Thus, we like music to the degree that it pulls us away from what things are really like. [In] a theistic view, by contrast, music is like a window to an imprisoned man. It is pleasant insofar as it is a portal into ultimate reality. It is a little glimmer that there might be more out there. It is one avenue by which transcendence and ultimacy reach down to us, however drab our prison cell may be. (101)

Theism allows us to live within our humanity more comfortably. We need not distrust our deepest intuitions—our intuitions of love, of reason, of beauty. We can relax into them. The fundamental feeling that this world—and our place within it—means something is not deceiving us. We are not “accidental collocations of atoms,” as Bertrand Russell put it—we are characters in the middle of the greatest story ever told. We are not rolling a boulder up a hill with Sisyphus—we are progressing dramatically toward the final chapter. (110–11)

It looks like our world derives not only its being from some kind of transcendent foundation but also a kind of intricate meaning from it as well—much like a story derives meaning from an author. For in our world we discover truths (like math) and beauty (like music) that seem out of place within a strictly naturalistic conception of reality. Moreover, most of us live on the assumption of certain values (like love) and intuitions (like rationality) that are difficult to substantiate within the boundaries of pure natural­ism. Where do these alluringly metaphysical qualities come from? Better sense can be made out of our world, and of our experience within it, on the hypothesis that it has been ordered or structured by something ulterior to itself. . . . [And] consider that the universe includes us—people who reason and love, who feel and imagine, who create and dream, who thirst for meaning and happiness. It’s strange to think that the effect should be greater than the cause—that the personal should derive from the impersonal, that a universe devoid of meaning should produce creatures who cannot live without it. (111–12)

A worldview that allows for the supernatural provides both a more plausible and a more meaningful explanatory framework for these two aspects of moral experience. Specifically, such a worldview can (1) ground objective moral reality and (2) offer moral hope. By contrast, the story that naturalism tells is a dreadful tale in which moral drama is fundamentally illusory, for conscience is deceiving us and no Happy Ending is coming. (113–14)

If all morality is reducible to our biology, then what the Nazis did to the Jewish people is difficult to qualitatively differentiate from a shark eating a seal or a Venus flytrap liquidating a bug. Those with power exploit those without. That is simply how the biological world works. It’s how we all got here. There is no particularly obvious reason why the rules should suddenly change when it comes to our particular animal species, Homo sapiens. (142–43)

Skepticism about metaphysical knowledge verges on becoming self-defeating, since the rational faculties employed to determine that morality is driven by the evolutionary process are themselves the product of the evolutionary process. Why do they get a special exception? As Tim Keller asks, “If we can’t trust our belief-forming faculties to tell us the truth about God, why should we trust them to tell us the truth about anything, including evolutionary science?” (143 n. 73)

For Tolkien, Happy Endings can be seen as revelatory. They function as a clue about the kind of story we find ourselves in. On such a view, the feelings you get at the very end of your favorite movie or novel are a little foretaste of what is going to happen one day. Naturalism, by contrast, leaves us with a much bleaker future. Our movies are deceiving us. There is no Happy Ending, for our personal death will be the end of our consciousness, and the eventual extinction of human civilization will swallow up every memory or consequence of our lives. (157)

With naturalism, it is difficult to find a ground for ultimate moral hope. Nor is such a bleak outlook of the future particularly motivating for the pursuit of justice in the here and now. To be sure, atheists are often passionate advocates for justice, and believers sadly apathetic about justice. But which attitude is the more logical extension of the worldview? With naturalism, there will be no final justice in the universe. There is no final reward for good, nor any final redress for evil; our efforts at justice are relativized by the fact that whatever we accomplish, the consequences will eventually flatten out. With theism, by contrast, there remains the hope that moral accomplishment lives on after this world has ended. Good and evil are working their way toward an ultimate, lasting resolution. Our efforts, however tiny, might contribute to the final product. Such a perspective offers a dignity and significance to moral accomplishment, and therefore to the entirety of the human drama, that naturalism cannot provide. So [there are] two options: our longing for moral justice is either like an opiate to a dying man, distracting him from the harshness of reality, or like a window to an imprisoned man, providing a little glimpse into what reality is ultimately like. Which alternative is more satisfying, to both heart and mind? Which gains more of your respect? Which can you actually live with? (158)

Theism has no neat and tidy answer to [the problem of evil]. But one thing theism can do, which naturalism cannot, is tell you why it hurts so badly. For on theism, evil really is a perversion, a desacralizing, a “fall,” a twisting of what things should be. Theism might not tell you why wrongness is there, just yet; but naturalism cannot even tell you that it is wrong. For naturalism has no supra-physical standard by which to pass judgment; again, on such a view all feelings of the grossness of evil are an illusion fobbed off on us by the evolutionary struggle that predated us. The world simply is, and no Happy Ending is coming. (160–61)

Simply documenting reli­gious evils and then condemning religion wholesale is an instance of the fallacy of composition (inferring a truth about the whole from analysis of the parts). This logic is akin to saying, “Wendy’s, Subway, and Arby’s are terrible; therefore, fast food is bad,” or, “Baseball and golf are boring; therefore, I dislike sports.” (167)

I worry profoundly that the buoyant tone of much twenty-first-century secularism subsists by forgetting, or failing to take seriously, the brutal facts of the twentieth century. Consider this: the bloodiest chapter in the human story was simultaneously an experiment in secularism on an unprecedented scale. Humanity at its most ruthless was without gods or temples. This does not automatically prove that the loss of religious belief leads to violence, though some have argued that. But it does make it impossible to agree with those who regard religion as the cause of the violence, such that once religion is taken away, mercy and tolerance and rationality will reign unhindered. Hart marvels at this atheistic optimism: “Given that the modern age of secular governance has been the most savagely and sublimely violent period in human history, by a factor (or body count) of incalculable magnitude, it is hard to identify the grounds of their confidence.” (171–72)

The Gospels were written and circulated within the lifetime of many who would have remembered the events described. . . . Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are anchored in the first-century world of Roman politics, Palestinian geography, and Jewish religion. One can read many of the later Gnostic Gospels as more philosophical and timeless in nature; but the canonical Gospels are teeming with little details tethered to historical events (like the census of Caesar Augustus), places (like the Sea of Galilee), and people (like Pontius Pilate). Therefore, much of what the Gospels claimed to receive on the basis of eyewitness testimony (e.g., Luke 1:2) would have been, in principle, verifiable at the time of its writing. If the Gospels had concocted or dramatically warped historical events, this could have been pointed out by people still alive—just as a history book about the Great Depression published in the 1970s could be judged by people who had lived through the events described. (181)

Origins, meaning, conflict, and hope are four anchors of any good story. You might regard them as the four building blocks of any story: every story comes from someone, means something, is shaped by conflict, and then ultimately resolves. . . . The Christian story is not only a more plausible story than its naturalistic counterpart but more interesting, more elegant, more dignifying to humanity, and more hopeful. (209)

To put it simply: if you are looking for God, you will likely succeed; if you are avoiding him, you will also likely succeed. What all this amounts to is this: those who feel trapped by uncertainty, as I did in college, must ask themselves if they are quite certain about their need for certainty. For, ultimately, the demand for certainty springs from the assumption that we know what we need and that we know what we want. But do we? Hasn’t most happiness and truth already come to us through experiences that involve surprise, surrender, and risk? Perhaps certainty is overrated. (213–14)

Podcasts

LOAD MORE
Loading