What We Believe

True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World, by David Skeel. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 2014, 175 pages, $15.00, paper.

We are witnessing a veritable renaissance of Christian apologetics. Religious book catalogues from many perspectives advertise more and more titles on apologetics. Schools and institutes dedicated to training apologists can be found throughout the world. There is a multiplication of both institutions and online resources dedicated to this discipline. Some are quite specialized, such as the Zwemer Center for Muslim Studies in Columbia, South Carolina. Others are more wide-ranging, such as the Oxford Centre for Apologetics. Perhaps the long hibernation of apologetics, due in no small way to the theology of Karl Barth, is over.

The causes for such a renaissance are mixed. Certainly factors such as the rise of Islamism and the vocal boldness of the so-called “New Atheists” have stimulated responses from their opponents, Christian or not. Perhaps also the post-everything culture of our times has meant greater freedom for believers to state their views. One trend which promises to have an important future is the post-secular movement. It could be an opportunity to speak of the impossibility of consistent materialism. Also, the fact that today, unlike a few decades ago, many of the most prominent philosophers are professing Christians, has given a boost to apologetics.

Not all of this renaissance is positive, at least from my point of view. Some of its advocates employ methods and arguments that are either irrelevant or simply heterodox. Some of the material is good in some parts, but not so good in others. Some of it is creative, some is humdrum.

David Skeel’s new book is anything but humdrum. It is imaginative, full of learned allusions, and elegantly written. The basic thesis of the book is that the Christian faith is commendable because of its complexity. While, to be sure, the heart of the Christian message is simple: Jesus Christ is God, and he died and was raised from the dead to secure our reconciliation with God (12), we should not shy away from complex issues such as the Trinity and the problem of evil. If the resurrection is the central sine qua non which makes Christianity different from any other view, there is also laudable paradox. The introduction sets up the problem. Most skeptical arguments against the faith suffer from a wrong kind of simplicity. But so does much of contemporary apologetics, making its narrow arguments a “grand distraction” in the larger theater of the world.

Thus, Skeel believes that both arguments for the faith, as well as many arguments against it, are fatally simplistic. In pleading for the plausibility of complexity of the Christian faith he is in good company. G. K. Chesterton argued in Orthodoxy (1908) that complexity is not an enemy but a friend of true religion: “When once one believes in a creed, one is proud of its complexity, as scientists are proud of the complexity of science.” It may not be coincidental that Chesterton often made use of paradox in his apologetics. Similarly, C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity (1952), asserts that it is no good looking for a simple religion, since reality is not simple.

Still in the introduction, Skeel rehearses a debate between the brilliant Christian philosopher William Lane Craig and the atheist physicist Lawrence Krauss. Craig basically used one of the traditional theistic proofs. With a great deal of deference and respect for Craig our author declares his rationalist strategy to be “counterproductive.” His use of a pure syllogism which moves from the assertion that everything that exists has a cause to the explanation for the existence of the universe being God may be logically valid, but it is not persuasive, because it does not take into account our human inclinations beyond the narrowly logical, particularly the artistic and moral sensibility. Skeel also points out that to call the first cause God may resonate well with our Judeo-Christian sensibilities, but it is not a necessary connection. Logical arguments, such as Craig’s, will be perceived by many non-Christians as simplistic and even manipulative (25).

A second popular kind of apologetics Skeel respects but finds lacking in impact is the “courtroom model.” A lawyer himself, Skeel has an insider’s understanding of the method consisting of putting both unbelief and the Christian faith on trial. He reviews the remarkable work of Philip Johnson whose book Darwin on Trial (1991) likely set off the current interest in Intelligent Design (ID). Johnson accuses the presumption that evolutionism is true to be disingenuous because it rests on very thin evidence. And yet, says Skeel, despite establishing that evolutionism can be reasonably doubted, very few are really persuaded. In a courtroom the lawyer must only demonstrate the absence of indisputable evidence, not the actual innocence of the accused. After all, strictly speaking, truth is not the objective of a criminal trial, but only the presence or absence of reasonable doubt. People believe in evolutionism because they want to, and it would take far more than a Johnsonian strategy to dissuade them.

It works the other way. A parallel procedure in the defense of the Christian faith is also weak principally because it does not allow the Christian faith to speak from the strength of its own evidences, which are far more than a few measurable proofs. Materialists and other skeptics bound by the scientific method will accept only measurable or quantifiable evidence. Intangible factors such as love or grace are not interesting to them. Even the growing consensus for a universe with a beginning, rather than the eternality of matter, may be a victory in a particular battle, but hardly the end of the war (32–34). Skeel does not consider apologetic efforts such as Craig’s or Johnson’s to be altogether without value. He only finds them narrowly “cosmological” rather than able to solve the truly great puzzles of existence, such as our sense of beauty, and the universal acknowledgement of morals and law.

If not cosmology, where should the Christian apologist begin? Skeel’s answer is human consciousness. In this he is not alone. Although they are possibly not aware they are doing so, some of the apologists in the Talbot School, particularly J. P. Moreland (The Soul: How We Know It’s Real, and Why It Matters),[1] utilize an argument from human consciousness. In his own way so does the unique Francis Spufford (Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense).[2] Actually, a proper understanding of human consciousness is an important component of Cornelius Van Til’s apologetics, though in a very different manner than Moreland, Spufford, or, for that matter, Skeel (a subject for another occasion).

The rest of True Paradox is an exploration of how to recognize and engage a series of features that preoccupy our souls with the Christian message: beauty, suffering, justice, life, and the afterlife. The author handles them with great sensibility and is greatly persuasive. We do not have space in this short review to go over all of them. I have read and re-read the book and plan to read it again, as it contains riches and beauties which indeed commend the Christian faith in a way the limited tactics of pure logic and pure courtroom tactics cannot.

At the same time there is a serious problem with Skeel’s approach of true-because-paradoxical. His evidences are mostly presented without a foundation. To put it technically, he rarely acknowledges the transcendental conditions whereby anything, including his views on the Christian faith, can have meaning or value. As a Christian he obviously believes in revelation and in the authority of God’s self-disclosure. Indeed, he often alludes to the biblical basis for his conclusions. But he almost never forthrightly sets them within the worldview which begins with a self-attesting Christ. As a result we are given extremely attractive arguments for the validity of the Christian religion, many of which I have used myself in different settings. But at some point the intelligent interlocutor is going to ask, Why paradox? Why these criteria? What are your foundations?

A couple of samples will have to suffice. The first chapter is a study of how ideas and idea-making tend to verify universally acknowledged moral standards. Not because they all state the same values in the same way, which clearly they do not. But because they acknowledge, even when arriving at different applications, that humans all know what is fair and just, deep down in their conscience. Materialist accounts of our ideas cannot explain why this is so. Skeel does not engage naively in a pure form of natural law. He does come around to heralding the Christian account of our moral awareness. In a nice part of this discussion he shows how the biblical standards are, on the one hand, stricter than those of materialist relativism, and, on the other hand, more liberating than those, say, of Middle Eastern law. Still, the Christian approach turns out to be true because it passes the test of the paradox: ideals must be plausible to all people everywhere, and yet they must critically put into question the wisdom and practices of various societies (49). But why should we accept this test? Ironically, the same objection to Craig’s use of syllogism could be launched against this sort of neutral criterion: it lacks a transcendental anchor.

The same sort of procedure characterizes Skeel’s argument from beauty. In the excellent chapter “Beauty and the Arts” he shows great sensitivity and deep acquaintance with aesthetics. But as he deconstructs the materialist account of beauty he can only manage to say that to dismiss the subjective experience of beauty is “something deeply unsatisfying” (67). And his retort to the pantheist view (that it fails to perceive the paradox of why some things are beautiful and others are not) is this: “But it seems more likely that the universal experience of beauty as real but incomplete, as something we know only in glimpses, is not mistaken” (73). To be fair, he does get around to presenting the Christian alternative as a “teaching,” one that celebrates the paradox of complexity and tension within a good art object. He even helpfully alludes to the New Critical view of the need to reconcile opposites in a poem as proof of its integrity, something parallel to the paradox of the Christian faith. But in the end, his claim is only that “Christianity provides a uniquely satisfying explanation of why we find these particular qualities as alluring” (79).

Earlier I stated that Skeel’s evidences are mostly presented without a foundation. The word mostly is an important qualifier. He does here and there allude to underpinnings. In his chapter on justice he discusses human rights. He admits that many materialists can be deeply committed to human dignity, as are believers in different religions. The principal difference, though, “is the foundation of these beliefs. While materialists may allude to the “trappings of consciousness,” such as our ability to choose, as the basis for human rights, Christians believe in something deeper: “Our dignity comes from being loved by the God who created the universe,” which truly makes for equality in a way materialists cannot justify (127).

Actually, throughout the book Skeel invests a good deal of time simply describing the biblical account of whatever particular point he is trying to argue, even making it quite clear that this is what he strongly believes. In his lovely chapter on life and the afterlife he counters the “cosmic bribe” critique of materialists with several strongly biblical emphases to the effect that the heavenliness of heaven is not principally its particular joys (although looking forward to those joys hardly discredits the faith, as long as they are used to frame life on earth, not as merely sensuous rewards for good works). Rather, the central experience of heaven is the enjoyment of permanent reconciliation with God.

Readers of this review should not get the wrong impression. I have not said that the neglect of more clear connections to the transcendental foundation is a fatal flaw in the book. It would be ungrateful and ungenerous to dismiss the power of this book because the author does not more often explicitly connect each of his arguments to the authority of revelation, at least as often as he might. In his own way he makes it clear that the connection is there. But he is diffident about it. What we need today, if I may be so bold, is a renaissance of Christian apologetics that is both transcendentally (biblically) based and also persuasive. By reworking some of the arguments in True Paradox so that they are well founded, not spoken louder, like someone trying to make himself understood to a foreigner, but spoken wisely and persuasively, we would have an even better presentation of the gospel. Skeel’s is already very good. It could be even better.


[1] J. P. Moreland, The Soul: How We Know It’s Real, and Why It Matters (Chicago: Moody, 2014).

[2] Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (New York: Faber and Faber, 2012).

William Edgar is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America serving as Professor of Apologetics and Ethics at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant, February 2015.

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