While in Manchester I visited a training day from the evangelistic ministry, Ravi Zacharias Ministries. Called 'tackling the hardest questions', it sought answers to three tough areas: suffering, philosophy and how to handle people who don't want to listen. It featured author Os Guinness and Vince Vitale from the Oxford Centre of Christian Apologetics.
The lovely Os was a good choice for a talk on understanding suffering and evil. We don't have all the answers, he says, encouraging people not to pretend that they do. His life began in extreme suffering; his missionary parents caught in the Chinese famine of Henan which killed Os' two young brothers and nearly killed him and his parents too, amid the 5 million who died within three months. 'It was in the nightmare of that famine that my faith in God became unshakeably real,' said Os.
He cited Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Ultimate Meaning (as distinguished from the better known and similarly titled book) saying that those who consider Auschwitz a reason to disbelieve in God did not experience the terrors of the camp, for those who did often discovered faith rather than lost it.
If you've no idea what philosophy is all about, you might be interested to know that in recent decades, belief in God has become much more mainstream.
Arguments from philosophers such as Richard Swinburne and Alvin Plantinga have persuaded a quarter to a third of academic philosophers into faith, according to Vitale. In fact, the atheism that has been popularised by Richard Dawkins and friends draws its ideas from science and philosophy of the early 20th Century, not the most recent thinking, he says. Biblical scholarship has also been transformed, from the liberal scholars who questioned the authenticity of the Bible to today's academics who are much more likely to hold orthodox beliefs in line with most evangelical thinking. In other words, reason is not opposed to Christian faith, and may in fact lead directly to it.
And finally Os returned with a discussion about talking to people who are not open to our beliefs. He discourages Christians from forcing their faith onto others, but instead to inquire into the thoughts of others. If we believe in the truth, we can be sure that ultimately discussion and really listening to them could lead them to see any inconsistencies in their views that don't add up. But the most important thing is to love them, he says.
Even if you don't consider yourself an evangelist, I'd recommend this type of event. Thinking through our beliefs and the questions people have about it helps our own faith, I think. There's a tendency for some people to bury their head in the sand, afraid that looking at this stuff will challenge their faith. But I've found it deepens mine and increases my understanding of the Christian worldview. And as a Christian with a mercilessly inquiring mind, it's a joy to spend time with other people who are also thinking about this stuff.