This is an excerpt from my novel, Cross Examined: An Unconventional Spiritual Journey.
- Rev. Samuel Hargrove is a well-known pastor and debater.
- Prof. Putnam is taking the atheist side in the debate. He’s a physics professor from USC.
- Paul Winston is Samuel’s 23-year-old acolyte. At this point in the story, he’s still shaken by the death of his fiancée in the earthquake, a few weeks earlier.
The Setting: Los Angeles in 1906, just after the San Francisco earthquake. We’re in Samuel’s church, watching his annual apologetics debate.
Samuel stressed to the audience the importance of understanding apologetics. He listed several Bible verses to support this, with special attention to 1 Peter 3:15, “Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason for the hope that is in you.” He noted that Genesis does not begin with an argument for God’s existence but instead takes this for granted, and Samuel justified this with another verse: “The invisible things of God from the creation of the world are clearly seen so that men are without excuse.”
“You want to see the hand of God?” Samuel said. “Then just look around you. These are powerful arguments, but again they satisfy only believers like most of us. Today we will put those arguments aside. The tools today are reason and logic, but these are friends of the Christian. We have nothing to fear from them; in fact, we invite critique because we must know that Christianity is valid and strong. Questioning is good. The apostle Paul said that if our faith in Christ is misplaced, then ‘we are to be pitied more than all men.’ So bring on the attack. Our fortress is built on the Eternal Rock.”
Samuel wrapped up his introductory remarks by thanking his opponent for participating. He then stated the topic of the debate: “Does God exist?” with Professor Putnam taking the negative position. The professor smiled slightly in acknowledgement and took in the audience with a relaxed face.
If Putnam didn’t yet know that he was playing Samuel’s game, on Samuel’s court, and by Samuel’s rules, he found out soon enough. Samuel asked the professor’s permission to begin the debate with an informal chat to explore the issues for the benefit of the audience. This was unexpected, but the regulars in the audience knew to expect that. Whether preaching or debating, Samuel was rarely boring.
With both men seated at the table, Samuel began by asking for the professor’s agreement to a logical statement. The professor brushed at something on the sleeve of his gray suit and identified it as the Law of Noncontradiction. Samuel threw out another one. Again the professor made a quick identification: this time, the Law of the Excluded Middle.
Samuel looked delighted as if a precocious child had answered a question above his age. “Clearly you are familiar with the laws of logic—surely much more so than I.”
“That’s only to be expected. Logic is what I base my research on.”
“Then let me ask you this: why are these laws true? Why should there be a Law of Noncontradiction?”
The professor looked up, then crossed his arms and rocked slightly in his chair. He opened his mouth, paused, and then closed it. Paul slid forward in his seat as he watched the man’s unease. Finally, the professor said, “We use logic because it works.”
“It does indeed work, but why? Why should the universe be bound to obey these laws? Surely the reason logic is true is not ‘just because.’ ”
Again a pause. The professor, slight and scholarly behind his glasses, made quite a contrast at the same table with Samuel, tall and broad and with a more-than-generous voice. In his modest tone, the professor said, “Well, logic is a convention.”
“A convention? You mean like a custom? Are the laws of logic arbitrary so that we might have one set while the French would get along quite happily with a different set—like we measure distances in feet while the French measure in meters?” Samuel turned to the audience. “Oh, I do so enjoy the spring, when the new laws of logic come out of Paris.”
Laughter swept the audience, and Paul leaned back, grinning. Putnam pursed his lips and shook his head, and Samuel raised his hands as if in submission. “I apologize, Professor. We’re just having a little chat here, so I thought you wouldn’t mind my taking the liberty. No, of course you don’t see logic to be as changeable as fashion. We agree that logic is universal. I’m simply saying that if you can’t tell me why that is the case, I can.”
The professor leaned forward and his voice rose slightly in pitch. “We’re in the same boat. Your justification for logic is no stronger than mine.”
“Not at all. You deny the supernatural source of logic, but I don’t. Logic comes from God; it is a consequence of God. The believer can point to his source of logic, but the atheist has no justification.”
The professor swept the crowd with his hand. “Look around you—atheists are logical. Atheists are rational.”
“Yes, atheists are rational, but only because they are dishonest to their own professed principles. The irony is that the atheist must borrow from the Christian worldview to reject it. Atheists deny the very God whose existence makes their reasoning possible.”
The professor took out a handkerchief and dabbed his upper lip and forehead. “Christianity didn’t invent logic. The ancient Greeks preceded the Christians and were pioneers in logic—Aristotle, for example.”
“I agree,” Samuel said. “But that doesn’t change the fact that logic is a consequence of God’s existence. Non-Christians are welcome to use it, but it comes from God.”
“Why can’t we presume that logic is transcendent—that it’s always existed?”
“It is indeed transcendent. But that doesn’t answer the question why. Why has logic always existed?”
The professor glanced up at the ceiling before continuing. “Logic just exists. It has certain properties. It’s just a fundamental part of reality.”
The professor made a growling “Rrr!” sound and said, “You don’t understand.” He paused as if collecting his thoughts and then scowled. “Reverend Hargrove, is this an interrogation or a dialogue? Will I get an opportunity to ask questions?”
“I do apologize. I have indeed monopolized the conversation. Please, Professor, go right ahead.”
Putnam rummaged through a small stack of papers, putting first one sheet on top and then another. “All right,” he said. “Why are there so many religions around the world? Doesn’t this say that each culture invents a religion to suit itself?” The audience hushed.
“The world’s many religions say that people have an innate urge to discover their Maker,” Samuel said. “This universal hunger in every human bosom points to a God who can satisfy that hunger.” Paul smiled. Another point scored, and the professor’s face showed the hit.
The professor leafed through his papers again. “Well, answer me this. The Christian God is described as a loving god. And yet we have disease and famine and war. Wouldn’t such a god put an end to this, if he existed?”
“Who knows what disasters might have happened but haven’t because of divine providence? We don’t see the headline ‘Thousands not Dead Because of Disaster that Didn’t Happen’ simply because we don’t know what God has shielded us from. Indeed, it is arrogant to imagine that we are smart enough to understand, let alone critique, the actions of the Creator of the universe. And the Fall of Adam and Eve—the original sin in the Garden of Eden—explains the imperfect world we live in.”
“Rrr!” More paper shuffling. The professor’s voice became somewhat shrill and he spoke more quickly. “Tell me this: why believe the Bible? You don’t believe Homer’s Iliad. You don’t believe the ancient books of other religions.”
“The story of Jesus was written down just a few decades after the fact, and we have perhaps thousands of ancient manuscripts of the books of the Bible. This lets us recreate the original documents with great precision. And many non-Christian historians of that period document the truth of Jesus’s life outside the Bible. By contrast, we might have a biography written centuries after the death of a historical figure such as Alexander the Great, and we regard that as truth. And when you consider that the men closest to Jesus were martyred for their beliefs, surely no one would die to defend a story he knew wasn’t true.”
“Well, history is not really my area of expertise.” The professor tapped a new sheet that he had placed on top of the pile. “All right, the Bible documents slavery among the Israelites, but God does nothing to stop the practice. Given this, how can the Bible be called a book of morality?”
“First, keep in mind that the Bible documents many customs that have nothing to do with godly living; they were simply practices of tribal people in a place and time far different than our own. As for slavery, we’d still have slavery in America today if it weren’t for people like Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, the Quakers, and others—all Christians guided by Christian principles.”
Samuel looked over for more questions, but the professor seemed spent. The silence lengthened, and Paul felt the small man’s discomfort. He couldn’t imagine being on that stage with hundreds of people staring, waiting for a mistake, enjoying his distress.
Samuel slid his chair back. “With your permission, Professor, shall we begin the debate?” Putnam yielded with a gesture of his hand, saying nothing.
Samuel walked to the podium and began his prepared remarks, a proud oration that surveyed a number of compelling arguments. Instead of doing the same when it was his turn, the professor used his time to rebut Samuel’s opening points. That’s a bad move, Paul thought. You’ve allowed your opponent to select all the arguments. He sensed that the contest was already over and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. He wondered if the professor had already used up his own points in his questions to Samuel. The result was that the entire debate would be fought on Samuel’s territory—and this was terrain that Samuel knew very well.
Paul took a personal interest in the progression of the debate, not just because he was rooting for Samuel, but because he had spent so long helping him prepare. Though Samuel was a natural speaker and an accomplished debater, he still took preparation for each debate seriously and this year had assigned Paul some of the research tasks. Samuel had thoroughly explained the various arguments from each side and critiqued their strengths and weaknesses. “You’ll be doing this yourself some day,” Samuel had said.
The professor gamely held up his end of the argument, but he was outmatched. His voice became thinner and he didn’t use all the time that was available to him. His eyes and gestures often pleaded with the crowd as if to ask for their acceptance of an argument he couldn’t quite put into words, one that seemed just out of his grasp. The rebuttals were often little more than “I don’t agree with you there” or “You’ll have to do better than that.”
Samuel wrapped up his final remarks. “Let me return to the original question, which, after all this time, still has not been answered from the atheist position: why is logic true? Professor Putnam says that I have no answer to this question, but I do—it’s just that he doesn’t like it. God created the world, and logic is a consequence.
“We can agree that logic is universal. It’s also abstract—in other words, it has no physical presence like a book or a table. And logic is unchanging, unlike the things we see around us that grow or decay over time. Aside from logic—and perhaps what is built on logic, like mathematics—we know of just one other thing with these properties, and that is God.
“Let me be clear that I respect the professor’s logical skill. He’s a scientist, and I’m sure he uses logic very well in his work. The only problem is that he must borrow from the Christian position to do so. By his own logic, logic can’t exist. In rejecting God, the atheist has rejected his source of logic and has therefore eliminated his ability to use it. Without its Christian foundation, this entire debate wouldn’t make sense.”
The professor had the last block of time, and he used it up like a football team that knows it’s beaten and is eager only to run out the clock and go home. When he finished, the moderator thanked both participants and the audience applauded. Samuel beamed at the crowd, while the professor collected his papers and stood to leave even before the applause was over.
The reporters left promptly—to file their stories, Paul supposed—but people milled about afterwards, seemingly eager to savor the night.
“Another sacrificial lamb, eh, Pastor?” said one man with a smile.
“I think this was the most impressive debate yet,” said another.
“You should call these the ‘Loose Canon’ debates. You know—’canon,’ like scripture,” said a third.
Twenty minutes after the debate had ended, the church was still half full of supporters. A few people encouraged Samuel to speak and the call for an encore swept through the crowd. Samuel mounted the podium in response to the curtain call and gave a short epilogue. As the audience took their seats, he emphasized the importance of apologetics to his ministry and encouraged everyone to be an ambassador.
Paul leaned back in his pew and smiled. It seemed to him that no one in the city knew more about the defense of Christianity than this man, and surely none could beat him.
Read more about the book and an extended excerpt from the beginning here.
Martyrdom has always been a proof of the intensity,
never of the correctness of a belief.
— Arthur Schnitzler