I was invited to attend this seminar by Char and I went for it with heightened expectations given the apparent renown of Ravi Zacharias as proclaimed by my Christian friends. While it wasn’t as insightful as I had hoped it would be, the seminar did provide some food for thought.
Some qualifications before I launch into my reflections: I have accounted for the inevitable use of rhetorical devices and the brevity of certain expositions necessitated by the nature of such time-limited seminars. Having read some of Zacharias’ writings (as well as what critics have to say), I’ll also borrow from these penned thoughts to fill in any perceived gaps. These reflections are essentially arrived at from my beliefs as a hopeful and curious Deist (i.e. I believe in a non-interventionist, supernatural Creator but not in organised religion) who is searching for a reasoned faith to hold on to, and I ask for your forbearance and willingness to correct me or share with me your thoughts if I have inadvertently revealed my ignorance.
On ‘Absolute Truth’
Ravi Zacharias began the seminar by elaborating on the concept of ‘truth’, which he compartmentalises into ‘philosophical truth’, ‘existential truth’ and ‘moral truth’. He went on to say that truth may be determined by correspondence and coherence (of systems of thoughts) and that it may be tested by logic, relevance and empirical evidence. He also substantiated these points by reference to poems, song lyrics and real-world examples.
While it was an impressive display of memory and rhetoric, I felt that it could have been more relevant if he had couched these points within the ongoing debate between cultural relativism and moral absolution. To put it briefly, the secular view is that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are relative concepts which are determined situationally and contextually by contemporary culture and society. Accordingly, in post-modernist fashion, it is postulated that all kinds of beliefs, values, lifestyles and standards are equally valid.
On the other hand, the opposite view is that there exists certain absolute standards by which our actions may be judged against, such as a divine mandate which provides for ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. This view has been popularised by CS Lewis in Mere Christianity (1952), where he argues for a Moral Law, which can be distinguished from herd instinct and social convention because Moral Law is akin to a meta-instinct or standard, against which various herd instincts or social conventions are judged (I don’t entirely agree with Lewis’ comparison but I must admit that his analogies are rather poetic).1
In fact, the issue of cultural relativism and moral absolution seems to be alluded to during the ‘live’ Q&A segment where a student from NUS queried if cultural influences should affect one’s interpretation of the Bible. Zacharias replied by first acknowledging the issue of cultural relativism before stating that the Scriptures should be seen as revelation from God rather than interpretation by Man (not entirely satisfied with this answer as it requires the audience to take a leap of faith towards believing that there exists a God in the first place). He went on to provide a humorous account of how the Eastern father would more likely demand the prodigal son to grovel in apology rather than receive him with grateful and open arms. Thereafter, he claimed that it is such cultural differences that would enrich one’s reading of the Bible.
I was perplexed by his unsatisfactory response as I was looking forward to any insightful comments he may have about the debate given his earlier referencing to cultural relativism. Perhaps the disappointment was more acutely felt because I’ve read his arguments for absolute truth in The End of Reason (2008), which are predominantly premised on the moral bankruptcy of an atheistic lifestyle (update: this is not a view I subscribe to) as opposed to positing a positive case for theism. In fact, one critic argues that Zacharias’ views on atheism may be flawed and one-dimensional as he seemed to assume that atheists share a worldview despite the fact that atheism is largely characterised by “its denial of a [theistic] worldview… [and] not by its adherence to certain beliefs”.
Ultimately, even if I am not inclined towards atheism, I feel that the opposite of the Christian belief in God should not necessarily be framed as unbridled hedonism as Zacharias suggests in both his book and seminar (e.g. when he brought up the example of Oscar Wilde to demonstrate the destructive pursuit of pleasure that is apparently fuelled by atheism).
On Interpretations of the ‘Absolute Truth’
Further, even if I were to accept that absolute truth exists, my follow-up question would be whether interpretations of this absolute truth should also be deemed true. For instance, do the varying interpretations of the Bible by different Christian denominations necessarily form part of this absolute truth? In particular, what should I make of the contentious nature of prosperity gospel and such churches’ literal interpretations of the Bible to support their doctrinal teachings e.g. “seed faith” covenant in which donations are perceived as the “seed” which would grow in value and be returned to the donor in miraculous ways?
This issue appears to be raised through an anonymous question posed during the seminar, where the author framed it in a more crude manner by asking whether belief in the ‘wrong’ denomination would send one to hell. Zacharias’ answer, in summary, is that we have to be discerning of the distinction between form and substance and that unity in the Christian faith need not be equated with uniformity across the various denominations. While he also focused a lot on ‘theological integrity’ being the key distinguishing factor, his failure to unpack what ‘theological integrity’ really means left me unconvinced.
Additionally, while the form-substance dichotomy may be a useful distinction in foundational aspects of the faith such as belief in the resurrection of Christ, what happens in situations where the form shades off by imperceptible degrees into the substance such that the line becomes blurred? After all, wouldn’t the determination of the form of contributions or tithe to be given back reflect quite substantively the nature of the church’s doctrinal teachings?
A large part of my reluctance to believe in organised religion also lies in how religious institutions appear to be largely directed by the visible hand of Man such as charismatic pastors or authoritative figures i.e. the Pope. Perhaps I may have also been influenced by my Catholic roots, from which my skepticism to the varied interpretations of the Bible was birthed when I continually see how interpretations of the Bible appear to change (sometimes quite drastically) according to how liberal-minded the Pope is (see Pope Francis’s controversial views on re-marriage, homosexuality, evolution, etc).
In fact, I don’t find an issue with differing interpretations per se. The more important question I am grappling with is wherein lies the authority which decides whether an interpretation is right or wrong, especially since the only ‘true’ authority, one might say, is divine in nature?
Finally, my view that interpreting the Bible is largely subjective and, thus, may not hold fast to the ‘absolute truth’ (if it exists) also stems from the fact that much can be lost in translation when we consider the lacuna or gaps inherent in such an exercise. Using the classification Roy Zuck in Basic Bible Interpretations (1991) came up with, these gaps may be:
A Time Gap: we can’t exactly e-mail Paul and ask him about his letter to the Galatian Christians.
A Geographical Gap: not many of us grew up in the part of the world in which the Bible was written.
A Cultural Gap: when is the last time you ate meat offered to an idol (as in 1 Corinthians 8)?
A Language Gap: if you think 17th century English is difficult (as in the King James Version), how about 3000-year-old Hebrew, or 2000-year old Greek?
A Literary Gap: you won’t find Parables on any recent best-seller lists. The Bible has many literary forms and figures of speech we may not be familiar with.
A Spiritual Gap: God’s thoughts are infinite, our minds are finite; get the picture?
In any case, the seminar definitely provoked much thinking and served as a platform for discussion amongst my friends, and for that I am glad to have attended it.
1 “Now this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them. You might as well say that the sheet of music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one note on the piano and not another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard. The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys.” – Book 1, Chapter 2 of Mere Christianity.