When the Why Questions become Rhetorical

Why questions can be fruitful if they drive us to understanding, but they are fruitless if they become roadblocks to advancing our understanding.

I am not sure that I am up to the task of writing what I want to write, but I’m going to attempt it anyway. These thoughts occurred to me as I was listening to Justin Brierley interviewed by David Smalley. Brierley hosts the British show, Unbelievable! on Premiere Christian Radio, while Smalley hosts the atheist counterpart, Dogma Debate.

Both men are cut from the same cloth in the sense that they usually host people with opposing views, and they do it in a refreshingly even-handed, civil manner, giving deference and respect to both “sides” and both individuals. They are shining examples of open, intellectual discourse. I much prefer the informal and civil discussion to the formality and contrary tone of a debate.

Much of their discussion focused on the “problem of evil”. If God is all-good and all-powerful, why does He allow bad things to happen to people? Either He isn’t all-good, or He isn’t all-powerful. This is the classic problem of evil.

For David Smalley, the answer is either that “God doesn’t care, or God doesn’t exist”. If the answer is that God doesn’t care, David Smalley concludes, “God isn’t worthy to be worshiped”.

Many smart people, like Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin, have run their faith aground on these rocky shores.

As the two men discussed their respective views, and as Smalley questioned Brierley (because Brierley was the guest of Smalley in this show), I listened with interest and some mild frustration and disappointment. To paraphrase (and very poorly, I’m afraid), Smalley repeatedly asked unanswerable questions, and Brierley repeatedly tried to answer them.

I don’t blame either man. This is the condition of our finite beings. How can we know what we don’t know? The lot of a finite being is that we are left with some unanswerable questions and insufficient answers.

The atheist might say to this that the point of not knowing is precisely where theists sneak God into the conversation: the classic “God of the gaps”: response: we don’t know; therefore, God. The naturalist (not the person living off the land), reductionist would say that there is no sense assuming what we don’t know and can’t prove; therefore, we can’t believe in God. Smalley goes a step further and asks why God hasn’t made Himself obviously known if He exists? And the big question: Why didn’t God create a world without suffering?

These are an examples of the impossible questions I referenced above. How can a finite being know an infinite Being? And, if God exists, how can we get into the mind of God to know the answer?

For Smalley, I assume, these are rhetorical questions. He assumes that questions that can’t be answered are his proof that God doesn’t exist. Of course, we have many questions that can’t be answered in science as well, like what existed before the Big Bang, or how life originated, but those questions don’t dissuade scientists from holding on to their accepted principles and worldviews (whatever they are) and working toward what answers we can find.

Smalley asked many more similar questions just like the one I paraphrased above during the course of the interview. Brierley patiently tried to answer them, but he inevitably came up short of a satisfying answer, in my opinion. Brierley is a superb interviewer, but he isn’t an apologist. He admitted as much at the beginning of the interview.

Although Brierley wrote a book, Unbelievable?: Why After Ten Years of Talking With Atheists, I’m Still a Christian, in which he addressed many of the toughest questions that have been discussed on his show, it’s quite another thing to put one’s best foot forward in the give and take process of a live conversation. Smalley, likewise, admitted that his appearance on Brierley’s show wasn’t his finest moment. I am not finding fault here. 

For those who don’t know, an apologist isn’t a person who apologizes for what he believes to be true. An apologist is one who defends the basis of his belief. The English word derives from the Greek word, apologia, meaning “(‘intelligent reasoning’) – properly, a well-reasoned reply; a thought-out response….“. In this sense, David Smalley could be called an apologist for an atheistic, naturalistic worldview in the same way that Justin Brierley is an apologist for a theistic, Christian worldview – not that either one considers himself an apologist. They are professional interviewers.

But I digress and want to get back to the impossible questions. The questions include the two I have posed above – how can a good, all-powerful God allow suffering, and why doesn’t God just make Himself unquestionably known – and others. Brierley (rightfully) commented that there are no easy answers, but there are some ways of getting to an understanding.

As a matter of perspective, Brierley makes the point that the same question is meaningless on an atheistic, naturalistic worldview. Why is there evil? Why do bad things happen. On a naturalistic worldview, life is just a “brute fact”; it just is the way it is.

On a naturalistic worldview, why are somethings bad and some things good at all? Aren’t they just “what is”?

One can certainly understand why the Christian asks, “Why?!” But, I am not sure why an atheist should ask why questions (except in a rhetorical sense (to make a point). The atheist certainly doesn’t have answers to the why questions, and the atheist has no objective structure on which event to posit the question (ultimately), let alone attempt an answer.

It occurs to me, as well, that the Christian might employ the brute fact position as well as the atheist. Things are just the way they are. God exists, and we suffer. The question, then, becomes how do we understand it?

It’s like gravity. We can wish it weren’t so, but it is so;, therefore, we accept it and endeavor to understand how gravity works. To a certain extent, the question, why, is meaningless (or at least fruitless to consider). Our time is much better spent trying to understand this God who allows suffering to exist than to ask why. (I think this was, essentially, Brierley’s point in the interview, though he didn’t say it like that.)

On either worldview, the why questions can be fruitful if they drive us to understanding, but they are fruitless if they become roadblocks to advancing our understanding. If we stop our inquiry by turning the questions rhetorical, we have given up and turned back into the darkness from which we came. We don’t do this in science. We press on. We shouldn’t do this with theology.

This, of course, assumes that God does exist.

I can’t speak from the perspective of one who has done scholarly studies on the subject, but I have been thinking about these things since my college days, and before, going back about 40 years. I spend much of my free time reading, thinking and writing on these things. Therefore, I think I have some thoughtful (if not informed) perspective.

Atheists are fond of charging Christians with creating a “God of the gaps”. The argument doesn’t play well with me as I see a parallel, if opposite, tendency among atheists and agnostics. It might be characterized in the statement, “We don’t know, therefore, no God.” Perhaps, neither reflex is really justified.

But we all have to have a starting point, a cornerstone from which we build out our worldviews, a plumb line from which we level our perspective of the world, a fixed point that becomes our beginning and our end and the linchpin of the machinery of our thoughts. For the atheist, it is the assumption that this material world is all there is, and we are the product of random, evolutionary processes. For the Christian, it is that we are created in the image of God who created all that is – time, space, matter and people who are uniquely capable of exploring what is and asking the why questions.

I’m not sure that I have said, what it is that I want to say here. In some ways, every blog I write is an attempt to work out in words the glimpses of understanding that I have, and those words, and my attempts, always fall short. Kind of like the interview. It fell short for me, both in the questions asked and the answers attempted.

The questions are easier, of course.

That is our lot. That is why we need to remain humble, understanding our limitations, and remain open to understand better what we don’t know – including a willingness to understand what we don’t want to concede. This is how I see atheists – not wanting to concede a God that fills not only the gaps, but everything in between (as John Lennox has said). Atheists are people who turn the why questions rhetorical. In turning the questions rhetorical, the atheists as much on his assumptions as any person of faith – the assumption being that there is no God for which there is no absolute proof.

This is, essentially, the God of the gaps critique in reverse.

The fact is that we don’t know that our starting points are the correct ones. And since our ending points flow from our starting points, we can’t be sure that we end in the right place either.

It’s kind of like the experiment that was done on a show hosted by Stephen Hawking before he passed away in which two photos of the starry host taken at different times are juxtaposed on top of each other. We can see the movement of the stars by comparing the two photos. When we line up the same stars on the two photos, the movement looks like it emanates outward from the point of that one star we have matched up. Line up another star on the two photos, and it looks like the movement emanates outward from the other star.

Wherever one star is matched up on the two photos, the starry host seems to emanate from that point of view. It doesn’t matter which star we match up. It’s always the same appearance of movement away from that point if reference.

In the same way, each of us feel like we are the point of reference, the center of the universe. The universe really does seem to flow around me as if I were the fixed point, and the rest of the universe revolves around me. But we “know” – regardless of what we see, think and feel, and regardless of what we want to be true (or wish not to be true) – we are not each the center of the universe.



“The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you”

Werner Heisenberg

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