The cognitive philosopher Daniel Dennett (pictured left) has...
The prophet Daniel stood firm in a culture that undermined everything he stood for. Prof John Lennox explains how today’s Christians can learn from his example and bring light to a secular society
It was many years ago now, but I’ll never forget it. I was 19 and I tried to talk about my faith at a special dinner at the University of Cambridge. There was a Nobel Prize winner sitting next to me. After the meal, he invited me up to his room, with a number of other senior academics but no other students.He sat me down: “Lennox, do you want a career in science? If you do, give up these childish notions of God. They will cripple you. They will put you right out of the running.”
I felt the pressure. He was telling me: “You’ll not look good.”
There are many young people feeling that same pressure today. They’re nervous about confessing that they’re Christians because of people thinking the same thing, because Christianity is seen as anti-intellectual.
I rather nervously but firmly said to him: “Sir, what have you got to offer me that’s better than what I’ve got?” What he offered me was the evolutionary philosophy of Henri Bergson (of which you may have never heard). I said: “I’ll stick with what I’ve got and take the risk.”
It’s a story I told during my recent public debate with atheist philosopher Michael Ruse for The Big Conversation on Unbelievable?. I’ve never forgotten that day. It convicted me that, if ever I was given a public platform, I would use it to make the intellectual case for Christ to a secular society.
The biblical story of Daniel explores a cultural transition, and its effect on public profession of faith in God. Daniel came from a tiny monotheistic culture in the ancient Near East. As a teenager he was suddenly and unexpectedly taken to Babylon; an intellectual and deeply polytheistic culture. Nebuchadnezzar had invaded Judea and captured Jerusalem, and taken Daniel and his friends. Because Daniel was intelligent, fit and good-looking, he was put into the educational programme through which Nebuchadnezzar trained his elite administrators.
Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel gives us a picture of Daniel reflecting and reading a book so heavy that someone has to support it (see below). It reminds us that the man, by any accounts, was brilliant. When Nebuchadnezzar investigated him and examined him at the end of his university career – and it was very unusual for the emperor to conduct a final examination – he found Daniel to be ten times more brilliant than anybody else.
Articulating the faith
Daniel was physically transported without warning to an alien culture. We may not personally experience enforced displacement in another country, but in recent years and with increasing acceleration, we have seen the culture around us shift from being broadly monotheistic into being increasingly relativistic and atheistic – a culture that marginalises the possibility of articulating faith in God in public.
The dean of students in Babylon gave Daniel and his friends new names. They tried to homogenise Daniel and his friends by a mechanism of primitive social engineering – no one must stand out. This is exactly what is happening in our Western societies at all kinds of levels. It was a crude but very effective technique.
Nevertheless, Daniel maintained his faith in and devotion to God.
Like Daniel, we must show respect and honour amidst our protest
As I get older I meet more and more people that have maintained their faith and belief in God in the midst of our postmodern culture. They go to church and say their prayers, but they’ve long since given up any notion of engaging in public witness for God. The impressive thing about Daniel is that he not only maintained the private practice of his faith in God; he also maintained a cutting edge witness into old age. To maintain your faith in God and your public witness in that kind of situation is not easy. So what is the secret of Daniel’s stability, conviction, power and understanding? And how can we, like Daniel, remain stable in a culture that appears to undermine everything that Christians stand for?
The hand of God in history
As he speaks of his situation in his eponymous book, Daniel explains how he was completely removed from his comfort zone, precipitated into a new and very lonely situation where he had to learn a new language, new laws, new literature, new everything – yet he perceived that God had allowed it to happen. It’s very easy to see the hand of God if life is going well; we’re all experts at doing that. But to see the hand of God behind things that aren’t going well is a very different matter indeed.
In chapter 9 of the book, when Daniel is praying about the devastation of Jerusalem, which he was forced to leave, he analyses why his captivity happened. God had spoken through the prophets to the nation and told them that if they started to lose their confidence in him and his word, and allow secular thought and polytheism to eat out the heart of their commitment to God, if they started to play around with idols, they would end up in Babylon, the home of idolatry. When this occurred, Daniel saw that the word of God had come true. It was Daniel’s confidence in scripture that enabled him to overcome the great problem that history had set him.
In the New Testament Jesus is recorded as having said similar things. He warned people of the danger of compromise, of becoming intellectually, morally and spiritually disloyal to him. Those things have consequences; could they have global consequences? If there’s a moral dimension to history, then can Europe simply say “no” to God and write God out of its constitution and expect no consequences? Of course it can’t.
The Big Conversation: Science, faith and the evidence for God
In this edited excerpt of their dialogue, atheist and philosophy professor at Florida State University Michael Ruse (pictured, left) and Christian John Lennox (pictured, right) debate whether the miracles of Jesus really happened.
MR: I think the physical resurrection is totally unimportant. What is important is that those disciples on the third day, who felt they’d seen this man put to death in the most horrible way, suddenly said “our creator lives”. And that was within them. Whether there were laws to prove this is irrelevant. I take my religion much more at a spiritual level.
JL: I’m beginning to worry that you’re not an evidence-based atheist! To say that the resurrection is irrelevant, I find utterly astonishing.
MR: The physical resurrection. I did not say the resurrection was irrelevant. The resurrection for a Christian is the key moment.
JL: The word anastasis in Greek means ‘standing up again’. It is a physical resurrection, and its significance is vast. If the problem of physical death has actually been solved historically I want to know about it. To say it’s irrelevant I just don’t understand, especially from a philosopher.
MR: But John, let’s go back to some of the really important miracles… like turning water into wine. Now, do you think that Jesus really was in the wine business? Or do you think that Jesus’ presence there so filled the host with a sense of guilt and love that he said: “to hell with it, I’ve been hiding my good wines and I’m going to bring these out”?
JL: Well, of course, if you are a naturalist you’ve got to assume that. But if you’re sitting where I’m sitting this is the very first ‘sign’ that Jesus did. It’s an indicator of something much deeper.
I believe he did turn water into wine. I don’t believe it broke the laws of nature. This is God feeding a new event in. But I do think it also had a profound significance. The religious ceremony was over. It was seven day wedding and they ran out of wine – which was a social catastrophe. And Jesus brought the religious water into the middle, which would have been an increased embarrassment – “Don’t bring religion back into this we’re having fun”. And he turned the religious water into the best wine that they could drink.
It’s a powerful miracle that becomes a preached sermon because wine is a symbol of joy. Why does the joy run out of many weddings? It usually has to do with purification. And Christ was beginning to indicate what he was going to do about that.
The Big Conversation is a video series featuring world class thinkers across the Christian and atheist community. For the full debate, further videos, bonus content and the Unbelievable? newsletter visit thebigconversation.show
Two opposing worldviews
In the midst of a materialistic interpretation of how the universe came to be, Daniel held on to a Godcentred view. The Babylonians believed that the universe could be explained through the concept that primeval matter first existed, and the gods arose from it.
Many of my colleagues are atheists, some of them physicists, and they will tell me: “Look, there is evidence of great intelligence in this universe, far beyond our intelligence. Look at the fine-tuning of the universe and so on.” But if you question them further they will say: “But of course, this intelligence is natural. It has evolved from the primeval stuff of the universe just as much as any other intelligence.” In other words, they believe exactly the same about the nature of the universe as the Babylonians did. That makes this ancient Babylonian worldview deeply relevant for the 21st Century.
The central issues of the contemporary God debate in our country, and in the West in general, is between two worldviews, just as Daniel experienced. One that says we start with mass energy (wherever that came from), and the laws of nature (wherever they came from), and everything else proceeds out of that by an unguided, mindless process. And in the end it reaches up to mind and reaches up to the idea of god because no God exists.
The opposite worldview is that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1); “In the beginning was the Word”, all things came to be through him (John 1:1-3). That is, the biblical worldview starts with mind. The presupposition made by many of the institutions in this country is that the materialistic explanation is the only valid one and every other one must be quiet.
Turn to the famous story of the lions’ den. The top civil servants want to get rid of Daniel because Darius wants to promote him to the most senior position. They investigate him and send the secret police, who can find nothing against him. They say: “We will never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God” (Daniel 6:5). So they hatch a plan that leads to Daniel’s night in the lions’ den.
They go to the emperor and say to him: “We really think that you should have a focus for the nation. We’re suggesting, just for 30 days that you ban all prayer except to your majesty.”
“Oh! What a marvellous idea!”
“And, your majesty, here’s the document. Sign it. According to the law of Medes and Persians that cannot be altered and cannot be changed.”
They were doing something that’s happening all the time in the modern world. They were creating a positive law that forces a choice between that law and the law of God. It’s an example of positive discrimination; with the intent to stop Daniel publicly professing his faith in God.
What are we going to do about permissions to publicly practise the Christian faith in our setting? Today we hear talk of ‘faith schools’, by which people mean religious schools, but every school is a faith school. Some of our schools are pumping atheism all the time. What our society has failed to realise is that atheism is a belief system, every bit as much as Christianity or any of the other major religions. But they’ve cleverly pushed a false definition of ‘faith’ into society. They think ‘faith’ is a religious term for believing where there’s no evidence. They can describe me, for instance, as a ‘man of faith’ since they say I believe where there’s no evidence. This is an insult. They also imagine that they are not people of faith, they’re people of science, as if you didn’t need faith for science. Of course you do – you cannot do any science unless you believe that the universe is accessible by the human mind.
Atheism is a belief system, every bit as much as Christianity
Return with me to Daniel’s capture at the start of the book. Daniel didn’t protest against having the Babylonian education. He didn’t run away. But, crucially, he knew where to stand up and protest. He said: “I’m not going to eat the food and drink the wine.” People have speculated as to the reason for this; I think Daniel had such an insight as a teenager that he realised that if he started drinking the libations at the meals he might end up at the kind of idolatrous feast that was put on by Belshazzar in Daniel 5.
Daniel said: “Give us food that is not contaminated in that way.” And the man was terrified. He liked Daniel and he said: “Why should I risk my head with the king?” Daniel said: “Test us.”
Notice that Daniel was very gentle with this man in his protest; a lesson for how we should treat people who disagree with us as we stand up for Christ in our postmodern culture. Like Daniel, we must show respect and honour amidst our protest. Every man and woman, whether they disagree with us or not, is made in the image of God and worthy of infinite respect. “Test us,” said Daniel and his friends. And after ten days they looked better than everybody else.
Babylon had changed these men’s names, but it couldn’t change the men. Babylon always changed names; the basic philosophy of Babylon was: “Let us make our name great.” But Daniel had a Hebrew name which meant “God is my judge.” Even Daniel’s name witnessed to the fact that he believed there was an absolute morality and a transcendent judge outside space and time. There are only two ways of living: one is that we restlessly try to create our own name, as did Babylon – and as our culture calls us to do today. Or we learn to trust God for the significance of our name. Babylon may have changed Daniel’s name, but Daniel never lost his identity.