Jesus Among Other GodsJesus Among Other Gods
Ravi Zacharias
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No such thing as absolute truth? Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias' work is a brilliant defense of the unique truth of the Christian message. Exposing the futility of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, he also highlights his own journey from despair and meaninglessness to the discovery that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
     

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What is the hardest part about being Ravi Zacharias?

There's an old adage that says, "every job has its barns to clean," and I have no doubt its almost presumptuous to think that my challenge has been, in some ways, bigger or lesser or whatever. Its in the line of my calling that one would expect the challenges but let me position them as two among the many. One: In dealing with hard and real and even honest skepticism, as I look at that, the challenge has been to keep up with the disciplines. The many, many disciplines that we run up against that have a legitimate question to raise of the Christian faith. I mean, when you just think of all the growth of knowledge that we are surrounded by, and immersed in. From the sciences to the arts to philosophy and history and philosophy and psychology and so one…its been a full time commitment to being honest with the learning that is coming our way and to keep abreast of it. So I would have to say from the point of view of intellectual rigor and demands, you're never caught up. You're always having to stay abreast. That has been a very difficult challenge for me to cope with. I guess as an apologist, its your calling and your responsibility. But I would say that, in working then in other arenas, with Christians and so on, I have to be brutally honest here and it may even sound painful. I have no particular incident or individual or anything like that in mind but I would have to say to keep from getting cynical would be a very tall challenge in this kind of life. Because when you end up seeing duplicity and ..um…behavior and other things that are very unbecoming of a Christian, when you see them in the places that you least expect to see them, then I think you need to have a taller vision and a greater commitment to keep you going and that is to keep your eyes focused on the Lord and not on our human frailties. So what I have seen and experienced in twenty-eight years of itinerant work, I have asked the Lord to keep my commitment strong and not to become cynical with all that I have seen. So those two areas I would say… the others you may know, the travel, the challenge on the family, and keeping the body and mind fit and staying fresh, and all of those….they're not too far behind in these. But I would say that if I had to look at my life, those I expected, these two came as surprises and demands.

Where do you see the line between defending the faith (apologetics) and sharing the faith (evangelism)? How do you find the balance in your own life?

As I saw that question, I thought that it was a great one because apologetics is a multi-faceted thing. Its almost like the turn of a stone that catches the light. You have to capture the heart of every question, not just the mind of the question. If you get just the intellectual aspect of the question and loose the heart, your answer will just bounce off the listener because most intellectual questions have an emotional component to them and they carry with them an experience or something that the skeptic has seen or witnessed or whatever. The way to deal with that, I believe, more than anything else you have to, at all times, retain your composure of commitment to the individual who is raising a legitimate question. We ought not to attribute false motives. They may be there, they are in all of us sometimes when we challenge something that we don't like. But if you realize that for every person who asks the question with antagonism, there may be a hundred around who have the question with honesty and sincerity. Which means you have to answer gently, carefully, and take away the stridency of the moment that can threaten. But once you have gotten to that point of it, then the challenge part of it has to be dealt with from the point of view of offense. Where a person is raising a challenge to the existence of God, one of the major arguments, then you have to dismantle that argument. And that part of it is the offense part of it and it must not…it cannot be evaded however much you may try to get away from it. Then the counter perspective to that is the defensive part. So, for example, just because Pantheism may not be true does not necessarily mean that Christian Theism is, therefore true. There are other forms of theism, such as Islam and all, that have equal viability in the arena of dialogue. So just to dismantle and deal with a counter-perspective is not sufficient. There you have to go for the jugular of why that position cannot be right. And after that, the challenge of defending the Christian faith in that sense, I do not believe that The Faith has been completely defended until the heart of the Gospel, which is the Cross and the resurrection, have been introduced and sustained. Although at the open forums I have done in dozens of countries and scores of universities, I never leave the place without, on the last day, presenting a defense of the Cross. And what is it about the Cross that stands so supremely tall, that caused Mahatma Ghandi, and Martin Luther King and all of these people who were involved in such societal needs to recognize that the Cross was singularly unique in what it offered and what it presented. So, to me, the defense comes in the evangel of the Christian faith and that can be done after you have earned the right to be heard. Just to bring it in a vacuum I think is not wise.
Some have criticized you for being too emotional in your critique of Atheism yet they also accuse you of not being emotional enough when you deal with the problem of evil. Is that type of Catch-22 situation common? How do you deal with "traps" like that?

Yes it is [a Catch-22]. I don't know whether they base that on a momentary presentation. Sometimes in my presentation I am…I am very emotional in all of my presentations. I'm of eastern stock (laughs) and you do not speak except for with your hands and with your emotions. And to be unemotional about Atheism is to be unemotional about your children or your marriage. They are emotionally explosive issues. I mean the Atheists themselves are highly emotional about it. You watch [name unintelligible] write or read the writings of Dawkins and so on…they are passionate. My professor of philosophy at Cambridge…I mean you'd think every morning he [woke] up and thought, "what aspect of theism should I bury this morning?" He would come into class and it was almost like a tirade. So I will always be emotional about that. Now if they mistakenly think that I am not emotionally involved with the problem of evil, well then they obviously don't know me. And if it comes through that way it is certainly not intended. I mean…in my latest book I have taken, in my opening remarks, two pages from a letter that I received from a person who lost his son in a plane crash. If I recall, something like the comment that I made there was that when I read that letter it stopped my day. And I have sat in front of people with deeply troubling situations. I have walked through the tragedies of Vietnam and Cambodia and [was] raised in a country where you see lots of anguish. Yet I have said it many, many times that the most legitimate question the skeptic raises on the issue of the existence of God is the problem of evil and pain. I feel it that deeply. I do not know of any other argument that they have ever presented that even comes near to this issue. So…if it comes through as unfeeling in any presentation it is certainly not revealing of the reality. But some of them have stood on the other side of the issue on debating platforms and it's fascinating to watch how unemotional they are about the reality of evil. For Richard Dawkins and so on, that's the way it is. We are, "dancing to our DNA." Those are the words of Dawkins. I mean…that's bizarre. That is denuding the emotional component. Now… the question [of evil] is another story.

Critics have said that your argument against the problem of evil is flawed because you ignore the possibility of objective morality apart from the divine. How would you respond to this critique?

Its fascinating that they would say this. And it's not surprising. It is not surprising at all because it is the thorn in their existential side. The Atheist did away with the cosmological by trying to talk about a world that is uncaused. It just happened to be. They did away with the design argument by saying that any kind of design would look like a design if we happened to be there after the fact. Missing completely the component of the difference between aesthetic design and intelligent design. So I have three or four responses to say to them when they say, "does there have to be a God to posit an objective morality?"

1: First of all, when we talk about objective morality, then what we are saying very simply is this: That the statement that something is either moral or immoral stands trancendingly true regardless of whether I subscribe to it or not. That's basically what an objective moral law would mean. That it stands true regardless of whether I subscribe to it or not. No, if the Atheist wants to say that there is objective morality but we do not need to posit the existence of God then my threefold response is this. Number one. The very nature of morality is such that it must be based on the intrinsic value of humanity not extrinsic. Only if humanity is intrinsically of worth and value. By extrinsic I mean conveyed from the outside via culture or laws of coexistence and peacefulness and so on. Those are extrinsically conveyed. You have to make these mores and so on so that we learn to coexist and not devour each other. But objective morality, by its very nature, entails that there is an intrinsic value to humanity. But if humanity is caused by accident, there cannot be an intrinsic value. There is only an extrinsic value which we chose to convey. The surest example of this is this. By all means go to any other culture in the world. Hindu cultures, Buddhist cultures, Islamic cultures…there is a completely different sense of what is objectively moral and intrinsically good. So if objective moral values means that they are true regardless of my subscription to them, then they do not prevail in a multi-cultural society and in our global setting. But if objective moral values are true, then it is only if there is intrinsic value. There cannot be intrinsic value unless man is essentially a product of worth and not extrinsically so. So…it presupposes a theistic framework.
Secondly, I would say that all moral notions that are existentially inescapable have a personal component to them. Truth telling…guilt…forgiveness. I do not go to my dog and hope to be forgiven for something. I may make an attempt at it but I do not see it as something that the dog can morally do for me. All the laws that we make in the land, they are not made for dogs and horses and cats. They are made for human beings. We do not make laws against nature, against the environment because, here again, there is not a cognitive, personal dimension to something like truth telling and forgiveness. Which means, existentially speaking, when we talk of moral values, we talk of it as a personal….with a personal component in the equation. And if the personal component is removed, in the ultimate sense, why should it be retained in the pragmatic sense. So, whether you look at it from the essential nature of humanity to the existential experience with which we live, then the third thing is a very natural response that I would have. What is the alternative to an objective moral law given by God? All one needs to do is look at humanism's six or seven options and they self-destruct. You just need to put them against each other and they quickly trample over one another.
When I was at Oxford University in February this year, a student came up with a horde of other students and made the comment that he did not believe that objective moral values existed, that they were just contrived and thrust upon them by religious people and so on. I said to him, " are you telling me if I took a one year old baby and brought it on to this platform and took a sharp butcher knife and cut that baby up into bits I would not have done anything morally wrong?" He paused, looked at me as an intelligent fellow, a product of Oxford…he looked at me and said, "to be honest with you…I would not like what you did but I can't really say that would have done anything objectively, morally wrong." And the students just groaned around him. There is just such a compelling nature to it that it is morally an imperative within us for personal reasons and the personal connection. And if you take God away from that, there is no sustainable, single way of positing objective moral reality. You may talk about it as pragmatic…even those who challenge it say, a classic argument they will say, "is this moral law above God or is it below God?" The famous [unintelligible] dilemma. But in phrasing the question they are assuming those are the only two possibilities. And if those are the only two possibilities then we have to ask them humanly speaking, "is this moral law above you or below you?" And they have to grant that it is either above or below. And if it is below, then it is subjective, it is not objective. If it above, then it is something trancendingly true, not manufactured by us. So, the only answer, it seems to me, is that there is an eternal, moral, uncaused, personal, being from within whom comes this. And it cannot come from a finite being because we are obviously fallen and revel that we do not have the character to posit a moral law. Now let me mention a couple other [points].
2: Why does an argument against the problem of evil have to be unflawed if it is to be valid unless there is a morally compelling reason for me to take the imperative? I don't have to go for it just because it is logical. Because moral reality is not logically established, it is pragmatically established. And if it is pragmatically established, then I can just say, "yeah…so what if it is a flawed argument. I'm still going to hold to it." The only reason they are expecting me to hold to an argument that is unflawed is because they want a truth component and the truth must be morally compelling. There are one or two other ideas I could close with…

3: Even the staunchest critics, J.R. Mackie, Richard Dawkins, even they concluded that there is no rational way to talk of objective morality if God is outside the picture. So if they grant it, then those who criticize it are not listening to their own Gurus of logical thinking.

And in my way of thinking, the last thing I say is that it is an escape hatch because there is immediately that stands over against us. Just as they did away with causality and design, the last bastion would be a moral argument and the reason that we resist God in our nature is because we want to be morally superintendents of our own lives. If you can do away with the moral argument then I think that it is an escape hatch but it is not the hatch of reason. So I do not by the critique as being flawed at all.

Often it seems as if your critics read your arguments, get upset and then never deal with the issues you have presented.

That is a very real feeling. Sometimes I feel like saying, "if you really want to take this apart, why don't you come on stronger than this and give us your intellectual reasons for it?" But I understand the heart of the problem. There is an existential struggle. Why can't we come about it some other way? But as G.K. Chesterton said, " the depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable and intellectually resisted argument that we face." Empirically it's all around us intellectually. We just don't like to accept it.

I heard you were a big Chesterton fan.

Great Chesterton fan! (laughing)

How would you describe the main purpose of Jesus Among Other Gods compared to your other books?

I think that the way we have lived in the last few decades, the question of truth has become a pointed debate (does objective truth actually exist?) I think that this is the legitimate child of the thinking. Once we have done away with the notion of truth, the next thing they are going to hit at is that there is no unique claim in any of the world's religions, particularly Christianity. Even in India, there are all kinds of articles in newspapers about the "myth of Christian uniqueness". But in an intensely pluralistic society, in which we live, I run into this question more often than any other: Why is Jesus Christ unique? How can there be only one way to God? So what I have done…and I do this in the gentlest possible way because I do not want to be offensive to the other perspectives but one has to present a legitimate defense… I took half a dozen questions that Jesus answered, amongst many others, to show that no other claimant to divine or prophetic status would have answered the same way. It is to put the material into the hands of people who are asking the real questions of life and to show them that Jesus answered as nobody else did. And at the end of that, they will at least be able to see the difference and know what it is they are believing or disbelieving.

Perhaps a good follow up to that might be this: Your radio program is entitled, "Let My People Think". Do you believe that "lack of critical thought" is a problem in our society? In the Church?

Yeah…the answer to both of them is yes. I think we are paying the dues for the explosion of the visual and at the same time, the entire change of the way education is viewed today. The truth of the matter is that the average person does not know how to think critically. You ask anyone to put together a syllogism or argument in defense of a certain position and nine times out of ten it is not an argument from reason that necessarily follows. It is an argument from perspective or background or "this is the way I feel". Well a lot of people might have felt all right while the Holocaust was in session too but that was not the right way to be or the right way to live. So there is no way…very few people in the secular world today, in the non-Christian sense, are thinking. In fact, when you ask them a few questions they are sort of stymied as to why you even asked them such a question until they realize that they have assumed something that could not assume. And in the Christian world too. I think that there is a sadness to it, frankly. I think it is a toll we have not truly measured. When you…whether it is in the music today or whether it is in our preaching…if you can be only half attentive and cope with what is being said in front of you, it will not take long for the other half that was inattentive to over-power the half that was attentive because it was not compelling to the mind. Unless we can capture the mind of this generation, the emotions will be swept by every new possibility that comes. And I happen to be one who believes that the whole movement of the visual, as wonderful as it may seem, I think is going to exact a greater price than any one of us ever imagined. We are going to destroy the imagination because the word is no longer sovereign, it's the picture that is sovereign. And when the picture is sovereign there is no way to rise above the picture that is shown to you. I am convinced that the Lord Himself… If we think that the television and the media is all that it is cracked up to be, why didn't the Lord Himself chose to come at such a time when His birth and life and resurrection could be all on video? The whole world could have seen! I think that in the fullness of time He came to remind us that pictures may come and go but the eyes have their limitations but the mind and thought, with His Word, will abide forever.

Why do you often equate Atheism (the belief that there is no God) with Nihilism (the belief in nothing)?

I think that…I have often heard that too…it is mainly because when I am dealing with Atheism invariably I will deal with the Nietzchian variety of it and Nietzche, of course, was nihilistic in his own deductions on the basis of it. So when I am dealing with the Nietzchian version of it, it logically follows. But I think it also is a logical inescapibility in that: Any positing of any other way of thinking (i.e. pragmatism, empiricism, all of that) still will bear the burden of not being able to call nihilism false. Because nihilism is still an equally viable option. Solomon said it 3000 years ago, "its all vanity…vanity." He said he tried everything. And if nihilism is…and you know who calls our bluff best is the young generation. This whole Columbine idea with the preoccupation with death and blackness. What they are really doing is, in the light of what you have given to us, this is our best, if not our equally viable option. I think Chesterton's comment that the problem in disbelief in God is not that someone ends up believing in nothing but that they end up believing in anything. And if one may legitimately end up believing in anything, then I think that it is nihilism spelt in different words. So there is no way for me escape the nihilistic tug however, we tranquilize our boredom.

What are the most influential books you have read? What are you reading now?

I think the most influential books that I have read generally come from authors who introduce me to many other authors other than themselves. If I were to list a handful of writers who have had a profound impact on me I would say Malcolm Muggridge, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, the English essayist F.W. Boreham and I think that they were great experts of the language. The use of language has always been a fascination to me. I was raised in India with so many different languages around. So I would say that many of the writers of that genre who plumb the depths of social struggle and challenge and reality but come to grips with it from a Christian perspective I have been most fascinated and influenced by. Of course, I have read a wide range. I am so proud to be the possessor of several thousand volumes in my library because I'm a voracious reader and I hope, as God spares me, that I will continue to read that way. In my present reading, I think the book that I have most recently picked up which has thoroughly impressed me is on that is called Asking the Fathers and that is by Alfred Squire. He is of English stock and Cambridge…Oxford educated I think and now lives in the U.S. West Coast, he's a Dominican monk, and he has examined the thinking of the great thinkers on many, many different issues. I find that a very fascinating book to have in my possession and am thoroughly enjoying reading it. I picked it up in the U.K. I'm also reading, right now, James Davidson Hunter's The Coming Generation of Evangelicalism and a couple books on leadership. The Wisdom of Teams by Katzenbach and Smith…so I generally have two or three going.

How do you see the media infusing new connotations into words effecting the way people view things and the world?

It's a verbal form of rape because I think anytime you violate the essential nature of something that is in the realm of the sacred and protected, you plunder it and empty it of real value. And I don't think that this is being done unwittingly. In the earliest chapters of the book of Genesis God gave Adam and Eve the privilege of naming things because naming provided the parameters and definitions. If you call something a tiger you are not talking about a bird. You're talking about a tiger. That defines. So if you take that and put it into our context today…by renaming things we re-baptize them. We re-christen them and make them to be something other than what they actually are. So if you can call adultery something euphemistic, you have plundered the language. You have denuded the language and given it your own connotation. I think that it was George Will, years ago, who used to say, "any stigma can make a good dogma." And if you stigmatize something, it doesn't matter what the definition is. You have already destroyed it. You are very right…I think it is one of the great tragedies of our time and it has come hand and hand with the inability to think critically. If you can re-name something, you then change the reality of something into that which is perceived and forced it upon the mind rather than what is self-explanatory and self-defining. The loss of definitions and words and concepts is the sign of a degenerate society which will reconfigure reality to suit it's proclivities rather than let reality come upon your sensitivities as reality really is.

Well…it was wonderful talking with you.

May the Lord be with you. I've enjoyed it.