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Asking the Tough Questions

A conversation with Dallas Willard
This sermon is part of the sermon series "Can Smart People Believe in God?". See series.


We're in the series called "Can Smart People Believe In God?" and we're thinking through some really important issues. Today we'll be talking with philosopher Dallas Willard, on whose book, Knowing Christ Today, this series is based. Dallas Willard has been a professor at the University of Southern California since 1965. He specializes in epistemology: the study of how we know what we know.

Dallas holds an esteemed place in the world of scholarship and academic life, which I mention because in this series we're talking about the most important questions human beings can grapple with: Is there a God? Can that God be known? What does God's existence mean for human life?

We often get so caught up in day-to-day living that we don't give hard thought to these questions, so we're going to think really seriously—not abstractly or theoretically, but accessibly—about what matters most to every single human being.

A lot of times in churches, we feel we can only talk about what we think we're supposed to believe, and then we're left with real doubts and questions. But we'd like to be a place where we can talk openly and freely about what it is that we really think and believe. I want this to be a very open conversation and one you'll find yourself thinking about for a long time. So let's begin.

John Ortberg: One of our main questions in this series is this: What is the value of right knowledge?

Dallas Willard: The value of knowledge is that it enables you to deal effectively with reality. That is the value of having knowledge. That is true whether you're flying airplanes, or operating on brains, or whatever it may be. You want more than just faith, because you can believe stuff and still be wrong. That is where knowledge comes in. It's so important for the Church to reclaim knowledge in our day. One of the greatest issues facing the Church today is whether or not we have true knowledge, not just belief.

Say a word about the difference between belief and knowledge.

Belief is where you're ready to act as if something were so, when the circumstances are appropriate. It's very important to distinguish belief from commitment. Commitment is where you're ready to act as if something is so even though you don't believe it. You see that in sports all the time.

But we want knowledge, because with knowledge you can actually represent things as they are. See, you can believe things as they aren't, but when you know something, you're able to represent it as it is on an appropriate basis of thought and experience.

I know there are big technical debates among philosophers in your field about what knowledge is, and if knowledge is possible, but I think for most of us, a definition like that makes intuitive sense. But here is a huge issue posed by one of our congregation: when comparing claims of science to religion or faith, science draws conclusions based on quantifiable data and is testable—provable—but religion goes a step beyond science and draws upon faith for its conclusions. The truth is no one knows what happens after death. Some claim to know, but it's because they have faith, not proof as it is testable. Faith, to me, is not evidence; it is possibility, known in science as a hypothesis. A hypothesis can have strong evidence supporting it, but it is still a hypothesis. I don't deny it, but I don't call it proof. Religion would tell me that I need to have faith, but now we're back where we started.
I think a lot of people have this sense that science offers testable claims and can therefore make objectively verifiable statements, whereas religion is speculation, and faith is something short of the knowledge that science brings.

You have just stated the quandary of our culture, because everything that really matters in guiding human life falls outside of science.

Go over to the university here and ask for the department of reality, or go over and ask, "Now, where is your department of the good life?" or "Who is a really good person?" or "How do you get to become a really good person?" You will not find any such department.

We don't think of those as being connected to knowledge.

That's it. So we are now living in a period where the single most important thing that can happen is for Christian ministers to reclaim knowledge in these areas which science cannot deal with because it doesn't quantify.

But the general assumption is that there is a scientific method, and that that is what establishes claims that can be considered knowledge, and anything that cannot be treated by that method does not count as knowledge.

Now, that is the point on which the thoughtful Christian will want to go back and read the first of the Ten Commandments, because what we are actually doing if we hold the scientific method as a standard above all else, is putting something in the place of God.

Method is always tied to subject matter, and in dealing with life and with reality in general, there is no such thing as a scientific method. What there can be is careful thinking, learning, and putting things together in logical ways in order to come to knowledge in these areas. The greatest need today is for Christian ministers to rise to the call to teach knowledge concerning the great questions of life: What is real? Who is well off?

Jesus addresses these questions straight out; you can't read the Gospels and get what Jesus is saying unless you understand that he is answering these questions. He answers them as a thoughtful, responsible person; he doesn't just say, "Now, make a leap of faith!"

What we call "leaps of faith" aren't leaps of faith; they're leaps of un-faith. A leap of faith is a leap made on the basis of something you actually believe, but our academic culture has developed in such a way that we're challenged to leap without belief, and then to believe without knowledge. Knowledge is what is missing in the manifold discussions of faith and science in our culture. Knowledge is not limited to science. Try making every one of your decisions by chemistry and physics. You can't do it.

And you count on knowledge. You wouldn't take your automobile to a shop that had a sign out front that read, "We're lucky at making repairs." You want people to know what they're doing. That is, you want them to be able to represent your car as it is on an appropriate basis of thought and experience. That is how life runs.

The unfortunate effect of the wars between the university and the Church is the divorcing of all real life from knowledge and instead talking about profession or opinion, or even saying you don't really know something. Now, of course, once you get out of the shadow of academic skepticism, you realize you know all kinds of things, and there are all kinds of proverbs by which you live. For instance, "a stitch in time saves nine." You know that that proverb is true, and that is why you act on the basis of it if you're in good shape and responsible. We have all sorts of true proverbs, and we know them to be true, and we guide our lives in terms of them.

And you're saying these proverbs count as knowledge even though they don't fit under the category of science?

Absolutely. The idea that you have to check them out with some of the hard sciences, or even the soft sciences, is ridiculous. No one lives that way, including scientists.

I was very struck when I read your book Knowing Christ Today by the use of the word "knowledge" and how often it comes up in the Bible. Can we know there is a God?

Yes, we can. We can know there is a God. We can't know everything about him, but we can know that he exists, and we can know certain things about him.

How does someone go about coming to knowledge that there is a God?

This varies from one individual to another. It depends on where they are. One of the things I will often ask a person who I sense to be sincere is, "Would you like for there to be a God? And what kind of God would you like for there to be?" That is the first step. Many folks really are not ready to say yes to that, because they intuitively sense that if there is a God that means I'm not first, and I'm probably responsible for a lot of things that I don't particularly want to be responsible for.

In other words, you're saying if somebody wants very much for there not to be a God, probably no evidence or arguments would be able to convince them that there is one.

That's right, because in all areas of knowledge, you have to seek knowledge. Knowledge does not jump down your throat. We're used to that in our ordinary areas, aren't we? If you want to be a medical doctor or a mathematician or a historian, you know that you have to seek knowledge. And the same thing is true of God. Some people sort of have the idea that if there were a God, they would suddenly hear a great, big, deep voice. If someone who resisted knowledge of God heard a voice like that, they would head for the psychiatrist. So the knowledge of God is something you have to seek.

So, you would say that first we each need to come to grips with whether or not we want there to be a God, and then we must become a seeker of the knowledge of God.

That's right. And you know, those of us who are Christians need to deal with that question too, because as I've heard you say, for example, the real issue is not just about whether we will get into heaven, but whether we will like it if we get there. After all, if we don't really like God, we're not going to be able to avoid him when we get to heaven. He is going to be the big deal.

We talk about this at our church—how we carry almost a cartoon picture in our heads of heaven and of God. Some of us have never given serious thought to who God really is, the way we would give thought to academic ideas.

That is where we need help from others and why we need traditions that we can read about and think through: what is God really, really like? Once you have a start on that, you can begin to talk about evidence, both biblical evidence and non-biblical. The primary evidence for God's existence is the existence of the physical world; when you begin to look at the physical world, you realize it didn't just pop out of nothing.

The primary evidence for the existence of God is the existence of the physical world.

That's right. Psalm 19:1 says, "The heavens declare the glory of God." The heavens are primary evidence. Paul revised that in Romans 1:20: "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse."

And how is that evidence for God? Because a lot of people would say, "Science tells us how the universe came into being. We used to think we needed the Bible for that, but now science has shown us."

Well, that is the point at which you keep asking questions. You respond to those people by saying, "Would you kindly show me the peer-reviewed journal or the professionally vetted textbook that shows how the universe came into being?" Where is it? That is where you have to help people begin to think seriously.

Doesn't the big bang show how the universe came into being?

No, it doesn't show how the universe came into being. Everything we know about the universe comes after that, but to show how the universe came into being, you would have to be able to explain how the big bang happened. Now, the effort to explain it in terms of God is an effort in that direction, and of course, there are all kinds of issues that have to be worked through with that, but physical stuff essentially comes from something else.

Paul, in Romans 1, talks about how the invisible things of God from the beginning of the world are seen from the things that are made. Now, you don't just accept that as authority. You say, "Well, let's think about how that works." And then of course, science serves a wonderful purpose. That is a part of how God made the world, and I personally think that there will be science and technology in heaven.

OK. Now I have a question from a congregant that has to do with both the afterlife as well as the existence of other religions. What happens to devout Jews, or other devoted practitioners of other religions, when they die?

We might well ask, "What happens to a devout Christian?"

But I think the general assumption is that to be a Christian means to believe that if you are a Christian, if you adhere to Christian beliefs, then when you die you're OK, but if you don't adhere to Christian beliefs, you're in trouble.

Are we really prepared to accept that? It's kind of like saying that everyone speaks with an accent except us. Everyone has a culture except us. We don't have a culture.

There are people who may be part of a Christian culture or engaged in church life who don't actually have an ongoing relationship with God. So when you ask, "Well, won't devout Buddhists and devout Hindus be OK after they die?" it depends on what you mean by devout. Now, I believe that everyone who deserves to be saved will be saved no matter where they are or what they do, and our Scriptures talk about that when they say things like, "God looks on the heart; man looks on the outward appearance." So if a Christian person has defined a pattern of devoutness in terms of their external behavior, profession of faith, baptism, and so forth, they may come up short. Generally, being devout is a humanly defined thing, and we have to get beyond that to a real life with God.

It's so important to understand that God is not biased about these matters. He is open and in touch with everyone in the world, for all who seek him with all of their hearts, and that is defined in terms of coming to love him—not just having the right beliefs about him—but coming to love him, and coming to love their neighbors as themselves.

I'm not in charge of who gets in and who doesn't, and I don't know who will and who won't, but I can tell you how to get in, and that is to align yourself experientially with Jesus Christ and learn to live in this world by the creative power of God, which is eternal living. I think what is most helpful is to understand that eternal life is not something that happens after you die as a reward of something you did or something you did not do.

Eternal life begins now. As you go back and read Calvin, you'll see that he tells you exactly that. There is a little, very readable book called The Golden Book of the Spiritual Life by John Calvin. It's a reduction in part three of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, and it's all in terms of eternal life. That is what made Calvinism a world-changing force. It was not his doctrine of predestination or limited atonement or all those other things; it was the reality of God and his life in the soul of the human being.

Well, here is a connected question dealing with different religions. This question comes from a Muslim: I believe in God because creation's beginning cannot be explained in any other way, but I don't believe Jesus is God. Does that belief matter, and what reason or proof is there that Jesus is God?

It really does matter. It isn't that God has a list of things that you're supposed to believe, and if you don't check those off, you're not in. But it makes a huge difference to your life whether or not you think Jesus was the divine Son of God.

God looks at our hearts. What we believe makes a huge difference to our hearts. But it isn't that we become righteous by having the correct beliefs. We become righteous by trusting God and living from him. Now, I believe the best way to do that is to learn about Christ and to put your confidence in him. That way you have the presence of God in a much more accessible form.

So I would start anyone on Christ. I'd say, "Well, okay, you don't believe Jesus is God, and I understand that there are a lot of reasons why you wouldn't possibly say that in your culture, but in Islam there is a very high regard for Jesus." So, I would start there with this person and say, "Follow up on that. Get to know not just what is said in your religion about Jesus, but do your best to find out what he has actually done, who he actually is, and most importantly, what he is doing now." I like to define salvation as participating in the life that God is now living on earth.

So really, anybody who is sincerely searching can take a next step towards God.

That is what I would encourage anyone to do. But in dealing with an individual, of course, you want to listen carefully to where they are and try to know how you can help them best. But the general advice I would give to anyone is, "Get to know Christ as best you can. Don't lay down a lot of conditions beforehand; let him validate himself to you. And if he doesn't, then that is the end of the story." We don't have anything better to offer than that.

Now, I would say that about any other religion as well. I mean, if someone wants to talk about the Buddha, well, get to know the Buddha.

You would invite people to go down any one of those paths and then compare them?

Absolutely. Just make the comparison. As Christians, we don't need to duck or dodge questions. What is will speak for itself. Just be honest.

I think a lot of people inside the Church often get anxious about doing this. People are afraid that being exposed to the wrong thing will lead them to wrong beliefs.

Well, you know, again, there are a lot of individual variations. I remember when I realized I was living as if it was more important for me to be a good Baptist than a good Christian. A lot of people are really hung up there—making sure to be a good Catholic, or a good whatever it is—and that keeps them from being open and trusting of the truth and trusting of Jesus.

If there is anything you can say about Jesus it's that he's trustworthy. Examine that and take the outcome. A lot of folks in our churches have not been taught to question; they've been taught that doubt is a bad thing. Some people believe that if you doubt, God will maybe drop you from the subscription. But doubt is a good thing when it keeps you thinking about who God really is.

So, the value of doubt is that it can stimulate you to keep thinking.

Indeed it can, and really, until you have your answers in response to a doubt, you don't have a bucket to hold your answer in. It's the doubt that gives you a place to receive the answer. Look in your Scriptures and see how much Jesus did by asking questions.

Some people get stuck, however, when they put God or faith in the permanent doubt bucket. They believe that no one knows the truth about God and about life after death, so they just put those ideas in a bucket called doubt and leave them there.

Yeah, those become dogmatic doubts. If you're going to be a doubter, be sure to doubt your doubts as well as your beliefs. We're taught in our culture to think that a person who doubts is essentially smarter than a person who believes, but you can be as dumb as a cabbage and still ask "Why?"

Believe your beliefs and doubt your doubts, as well as doubt your beliefs and believe your doubts. Knowledge grows by not only doubting your beliefs and believing your doubts, but by doubting your doubts and believing your beliefs. That involves conversations with others, listening, inquiry of various kinds, going to hear a good preacher preach, reading a book on atheism by Dawkins or someone else.

Now, not everyone has the time to pursue all of this, which is one reason why we need one another so badly; there'll be other people who can do what we don't have time to do, and that division of labor really works in the Church. I know in this fellowship there will be some people who can just go right out and pick up Dawkins' book and read it and develop an opinion on it. Other people won't want to, have no interest, or maybe don't have time. That is why we have fellowship and why it's so important for fellowship to be open—especially for encouraging young people that if they have doubts, that's good, not bad!

Here's a more personal question for you: With all that you have read and thought through, where is an area in which you would simply say, "I don't know"?

Well, in terms of this discussion, the more obvious areas would be that I don't know the ultimate nature of God, and I don't know why God exists or why he is the way he is. I actually think at some point we don't have reasons for things, and that that is not necessarily bad. If you say, "I'm broke," and there is no reason, or if your car won't run, and there is no reason, that's not good. But at some point you have to say, "I don't understand the mystery of God's nature."

Is what you're saying about God's nature different than what you believe about his character? For example, would you believe that God's character is loving?

I only understand his character in a very limited way. I do believe that he has manifested his love both in creation and in history and in personal life. Really, for the individual, it finally comes down to "What is my interaction with God?"

And one more question: If somebody were to ask you, "Why Jesus? What is it about Jesus that makes you say, 'When it comes to the big questions like God, Jesus is the One who knows'?"

Well, I say this about Jesus primarily because of my experience with him in comparison with what I know of others. It is a comparative thing, coupled with my experiences, which are of course tied to study and teaching that others have given me. I start with Jesus' character—what he has actually done—as well as the power of Jesus to help me individually to trust his love.

Well, we must come to an end in our conversation today. Dallas has offered to give a blessing to the folks with us here.

Almighty Lord, who has given us wonderful songs and verses through which to think about you, won't you enter our hearts and minds now, and by the action and presence of your loving Spirit, give light and love and guidance to everything we are and all that we do, today and forever, Amen.

John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.

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Sermon Outline:

This message consists of a conversation between John Ortberg and Dallas Willard.