Lawrence*, a faculty member from a local private college, sat at a table with me recently inside a Famous Dave’s BBQ. His goal was to guide me along the journey he’d taken many years earlier of rejecting faith in Jesus for what he sees as a more scientific way of life. “You remind me of myself as a young man,” he remarked to me, not unkindly.
Lawrence is a man at ease with himself and, as our conversation unfolded, I noticed an extraordinary quality about him: he gave earnest attention to my every word, an avid listener.
He asked about the book he’d given me to read, The Logical Leap, by David Harriman. I replied that instead of skimming the text I’d actually worked through it meticulously and taken a ton of notes. And now I had many questions for him.
“Please,” he prompted me with a motion of his hand. I picked a tough question and put it in play:
Why should I begin with naturalism (an atheistic worldview) rather than God? Why not just start with God and see where it goes? I can’t think of any rule of the universe that says I have to prove God from scratch. Why not just assume God as a starting point and see what comes of it?
Lawrence seemed exasperated at this suggestion. In the atheist community, it’s unthinkable to begin an inquiry into matters of truth with anything but an empty universe. You can’t just assume the presence of God ̶ or Big Foot or the Abdominal Snowman or the Loch Ness monster or aliens. Rather, you must show the reality of such beings by providing evidence and arguments for them. You have to prove your point.
But I was doing just the opposite, which appeared to throw Lawrence off the rails. He queried me politely, taking in my responses, never interrupting. Isn’t “starting with God” simply arbitrary? How can you justify it? Isn’t it the same as starting with, say, Santa Claus or unicorns or any imaginary being? Lawrence pursued this line of questioning for a few minutes.
Time out. Now I must tell you, the reader, there was something else going on in this conversation the whole time, something hidden from Lawrence. What he didn’t know is that the Holy Spirit was present and active and speaking to the both of us. Yes, I was trying to match Lawrence as an attentive discussion partner but I was also listening to the voice of God. I had one ear attuned to the environs of Famous Dave’s and the other ear fixed on heaven. “Lord,” I kept asking, “What do you want me to say next to this fine person?”
Fact is, I’m well trained in these conversations. I do this all the time. I wrote a book** on having productive dialogue with skeptics, and I earned a master’s degree in the philosophy of religion. My goal is to be exhaustively prepared for anything and everything that skeptics may throw my way… and trust in none of this.
Therein lies the paradox of conversation with atheists. I believe my calling is to simply show up and hang around and wait for the mighty move of God. Of course, the temptation on this line of thinking is to skip the preparation altogether and just “rely on the Lord.” It’s all in his hands anyway, so why go to the trouble of training? But we must not lose hold of the paradox: of rigorous human preparation and all-out trust in the Holy Spirit. It’s both. That’s the key.
I’m reminded of the little parable nestled in the fourth chapter of Mark which tells of a farmer who scatters seed on the ground (he’s well-prepared). “Night and day,” Jesus says, “whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how” (a mighty move of God).
Lawrence has not yet come to faith, but he wants to continue our conversations. Somehow the seed of “listening” has sprouted and grown in his life, though I don’t know how. A sign, perhaps, of a coming harvest.
A question for you
Consider for a moment, who is a skeptical person in your life? Perhaps an atheist, whether friendly or not. Do you ever feel intimidated by this person? Afraid of an in-depth conversation? I encourage you to prepare as well as you can, then show up and hang around and see what happens. Refine your skill as a two-way listener ̶ with an ear to your skeptical friend and an ear to the Holy Spirit. That’s a conversation worth having.
Rick has been on staff with InterVarsity since 1981, currently serving at Macalester College and St. Olaf College in Minnesota. He completed his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Bethel Seminary. He travels to college campuses across the country speaking and trianing in apologetics and student leadership. Rick is married to Sharon and they have two children and three grandchildren. Sharon is involved in the music and women’s ministry at their church. When Rick isn’t writing or speaking, you can find him on the golf course.
The blog is an avenue for staff and student leaders to hear from the visionary leaders of Collegiate Ministries about theological formation, discipleship, chapter planting, chapter growth, and other key ministry themes for campus work.