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An evening with William Lane Craig

Both Dr. Craig, who is Protestant, and I agreed heartily in our opposition to dumbed-down versions of Christianity and that authentic faith ought never to be construed as below reason but only as beyond and inclusive of reason.

Evangelical scholar Dr. William Lane Craig and Bishop Robert Barron take part in a panel discussion on Christianity and secularism sponsored by the Claremont Center for Reason, Religion, and Public Affairs (YouTube.com)

Ten years ago, when I was a visiting scholar at the North American College in Rome, I fell into a spirited conversation with one of the seminarians about the state of evangelization in America. We both were bemoaning the fact that the “new” atheists—Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others—were regularly attacking religion, and I commented that no Christian spokesman had managed to engage the enemies of the faith well on the public scene. To this, my seminarian friend responded, “Yeah, but have you seen William Lane Craig?” I admitted I hadn’t. He told me that Craig, an evangelical Protestant, was by far the most effective spokesman for the Christian point of view and that he had taken on the atheists with great intelligence, wit, and panache. That night, I looked up Dr. Craig on YouTube and watched, with fascination, his debates with the superstars of the atheist movement. From that evening on I was a fan.

This is why, when I was invited by the good people at the Claremont Center for Reason, Religion, and Public Affairs to participate in an all-day dialogue with William Lane Craig, I jumped at the opportunity. The event took place last Saturday and involved an exchange of philosophical papers in the afternoon and a two-hour public conversation in the evening. The topic I chose for the philosophical discussion was the technical question of God’s simplicity, or the identity of essence and existence in God, a teaching of Thomas Aquinas that I strongly support and that Dr. Craig vehemently denies. We and the twenty-five or so other scholars around the table spent a good hour and a half digging into the weeds of this controversy. Dr. Craig chose to speak on a topic that he has been researching a great deal in recent years, namely, penal substitution, the idea that on the cross Jesus received the punishment for sin that we deserved and hence satisfied divine justice and freed us from our guilt. I agreed that this idea can be found both in the Bible and the theological tradition but that it should be combined with a number of other models of explanation, most notably the so-called Christus-Victor theory proposed by many of the Church Fathers. In regard to both issues, fault lines did indeed open up between the Catholics and the Protestants around the table, but I believe that a fair amount of common ground was also found, especially around the issue of penal substitution.

The evening session, which played out in front of an audience of about 1,200 in person and around 25,000 watching through live stream, was a structured conversation between Dr. Craig and me. We covered a slew of topics, but for the purposes of this article I would like to draw attention only to a few.

First, we both expressed, rather passionately, our opposition to dumbed-down versions of Christianity. One reason that so many young people are leaving Christianity is that religious teachers and leaders have presented such anemic, superficial, and intellectually uncompelling versions of the faith. Therefore the needful thing, we both affirmed, is a revival of classical Christian apologetics, that is to say, an intelligent defense of the faith against its rational critics.

We also spent a good deal of time talking about religion in relation to science, for the supposed conflict between these two disciplines is often given as the number one reason that people leave religion behind. Both Dr. Craig and I insisted that authentic faith ought never to be construed as below reason but only as beyond and inclusive of reason. In fact, Craig observed that science, rightly understood, can often provide premises for apologetic arguments, and I pointed out that a religious assumption, namely the intelligibility of the universe, is the condition for the possibility of science. We came together in our emphatic rejection of “scientism,” which is the reduction of all knowledge to the scientific form of knowledge, a position that is widely held among young people but that rests upon a fundamental inconsistency. For one could never determine, on scientific grounds, the principle that only scientific knowledge counts as authentic.

One of my favorite moments in the conversation was when we were invited to ask one another questions. Dr. Craig asked me why I think it is advisable to use beauty in the evangelical enterprise. I gave my answer, the details of which I won’t bore you with now, but I noticed that he was unconvinced, even puzzled. I do think that this represented a moment when the Catholic-Protestant division emerged clearly. Luther and his followers rather consciously stepped away from the beautiful, seeing it as a possibly idolatrous distraction, and opted for a more austerely word-centered approach to the Gospel. I then asked Dr. Craig, a bit playfully, to name what he liked most and least about Catholicism. In regard to the latter, he mentioned a number of classical sixteenth-century concerns about certain Catholic doctrines, and in regard to the former, he said that he greatly admired the rich and long intellectual tradition of Catholicism, stretching back from modern times, through the medieval doctors, to the Fathers of the Church.

The evening ended much too quickly—at least as far as I was concerned. We had staked out a good deal of common ground in our shared struggle against a secularist ideology that is rigidly set against religion. But what I found most uplifting about the session was that a Protestant and a Catholic—both committed to their respective traditions—could come together in fellowship, good cheer, and mutual support. That in itself filled me with hope.

About Bishop Robert Barron 141 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

7 Comments

  1. One reason why the young abandon faith is, not that they are rational and faith is irrational, but that faith has embraced the rational and they are seeking the supernatural.

    • well maybe….but the Divinely Rational and divinized human rational are always there, the Beloved has constituted the Divine Theological Virtue of Faith after all, the problem might be that they have divorced the Divine and human realites which are in divine unity…the rational, Divine and human, is already present and embraced, the Divine supernatural is not always embraced but divorced…..

  2. We both were bemoaning the fact that the “new” atheists—Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others—were regularly attacking religion, and I commented that no Christian spokesman had managed to engage the enemies of the faith well on the public scene. … One reason that so many young people are leaving Christianity is that religious teachers and leaders have presented such anemic, superficial, and intellectually uncompelling versions of the faith. … I pointed out that a religious assumption, namely the intelligibility of the universe, is the condition for the possibility of science. We came together in our emphatic rejection of “scientism,” which is the reduction of all knowledge to the scientific form of knowledge, a position that is widely held among young people …

    Are young people aware of the dogmatic teaching of the Catholic Church regarding the intelligibility of the natural Universe and the life within it? It is as follows:

    If anyone says that the one, true God, our creator and lord, cannot be known with certainty from the things that have been made, by the natural light of human reason: let him be anathema.
    — Vatican Council I, can. 2 § 1

    If one really believes that it looks like the Universe and the life within it came about mindlessly and accidentally, then why pretend to be a Catholic? That is why I find “Catholic” educators so irritating who attempt to reconcile the Darwinian “It is only the appearance of design” with Catholicism. Of course there is an appearance of design; it was designed. That has always been evident and is more so today than ever before, as the discoveries of modern science have now rendered atheism irrational.

    One only needs to have some small capacity for objectivity and to look at the facts to understand that nature was intelligently designed. Consider these facts:

    — We now know there was only 1 chance in 10^10^123 that the Big Bang would produce a universe where life was a possibility. (See Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe) It was virtually impossible for that to have happened mindlessly and accidentally.

    — We now know that the physical dimension of life is ultra-sophisticated, digital information-based nanotechnology the functional complexity of which is light years beyond anything modern science knows how to build from scratch. As renowned philosopher of science Karl Popper observed:

    What makes the origin of life and of the genetic code a disturbing riddle is this: the genetic code is without any biological function unless it is translated; that is, unless it leads to the synthesis of the proteins whose structure is laid down by the code. But … the machinery by which the cell (at least the non-primitive cell, which is the only one we know) translates the code consists of at least fifty macromolecular components which are themselves coded in the DNA. Thus the code cannot be translated except by using certain products of its translation. This constitutes a baffling circle; a really vicious circle, it seems, for any attempt to form a model or theory of the genesis of the genetic code. Thus we may be faced with the possibility that the origin of life (like the origin of physics) becomes an impenetrable barrier to science, and a residue to all attempts to reduce biology to chemistry and physics.

    The only solution to Popper’s “disturbing riddle” is intelligent agency

    — We know of no instances whatsoever of digital information-based functional complexity coming about mindless and accidentally, nor do we have any plausible explanation of how that might happen. So how could any rational person think that life — the most functionally complex phenomenon known to us, being not only digital-information based but self-replicating as well — was a mindless accident? One can’t and remain rational. One has to have the irrational, huge, blind faith of an atheist to reach that conclusion. The “New Atheists” are defending a notion far more absurd than it would be to claim that self-replicating robotic equipment came about mindlessly and accidentally.

    It would help a lot if young people were made aware of these things in all Catholic educational institutions.

  3. I have just finished reading Stephen Phelan’s article “Poverty is not the root cause of abortion.” Great piece. He superbly articulated the real cause of abortion, mainly the adverse effect of artificial contracrption etc. But I have been inspired over the last few years to carry that truth to an even more morally culpable level. It’s root cause is the failure of the vast majority of our bishops to even mention the evils of contraception over the last 50 years. So now all humanity has another destructive evil to deal with, estrogenics. Please read Anthony Jay, Ph.D. latest. ” Estrogeneration ” Maybe we can still save our greatgrand children’s physical and moral well being! Amen.

  4. HI Bishop Barron,

    I am an avid listener to William Lane Craig and I heard his latest comments on the conversation between you two as well as read this response. I work for an Apologetics network in New Zealand.

    I agree it did seem that William Lane Craig didn’t seem to get your apologetic from beauty which is a strong theme within the Catholic church no doubt. However, I don’t think it is a clear divide between Protestants and Catholics. I know that many Anglicans are the typical leaders for Apologetics in the protestant world and many of then appeal to the beauty in creation to soften people’s hearts in seeing God’s fingerprints. Even William Lane Craig will say that for the sake of the emotional connection, to know for one’s self that God is the source of what they identify as the Good, that they ought to get out into nature or listen to amazing classical pieces of music etc.

    So I do not believe it is a divide between Catholics and Protestants (an outdated motif in my opinion), particularly between Anglicans/Evangelicals/Pentecostals/Catholics, these would all agree that the beauty of God is very powerful for bringing people to Christ.

    What Craig didn’t understand and what I suspect was not communicated in his question was how can one use the emotional recognition of beauty in the form of some kind of an argument for God’s existence. I think he genuinely wanted to know as he is always looking for new arguments to add to his arsenal of reasons to believe in God. He was looking for something probably in the form of a logical deductive argument, not an emotional appeal to the recognition of God’s work… I am not sure that your answer made it clear what the purpose of your appeal to beauty was either. Do you see it as an emotional appeal to the recognition of God? Or is it some kind of premise in an argument? Even I wasn’t sure what you thought it was. It all seemed a bit hazy.

    On another note:
    I’ve found that in my work I have made a number of the most intelligent Catholic people I’ve ever met, most wont talk about God at all here in NZ. Often, modern day protestants, even if from denominations which are traditionally reformed, hold a wide range of positions on doctrines routed in studying the church fathers. So many times when we hold our conferences, apologetic positions are presented from a wide range of Catholic positions, despite them coming from a protestant. In fact I believe most of WLC’s arguments come from a Catholic perspective too and was fascinated to read of God’s natural theology in the book of Catholic Doctrine that I was given from my Catholic Friend. I know a number who hold to divine simplicity. We even have a Catholic who writes for our blog.

    I believe Apologetics is the mission field which will unite the churches in healthy discussion where the focus is not on attacking one another, but on bringing others into a devotion to Christ and then working out their theology afterwards (however bitter that may taste in the mouths of most denominations/Catholics). At least I think the cause is better than remaining divided in this fight for God’s kingdom.

    I listen to your stuff now and again. Thanks for your work in the Catholic Church. Us apologetic protestants will continue to ask Catholics what they mean by what they say in the hopes that they might put the fire to the feat of their priests that they too might begin to teach more intellectually about defending the faith. We have a good ecumenical community in Auckland between the Catholics and Protestants who fight for pro-life issues. I enjoy the community between us all.

    Kind regards.

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