Beyond Argument: The powerful witness of community

Alan and I met decades ago. We were both students at Cal Poly. I was a freshman and he was a junior. As a physics major, Alan was both intelligent and articulate. How Alan got on with his studies, however, is still a mystery to me; Alan was virtually blind. He could see well enough to get from one place to another all right, but when it came to reading it was a different story. I can still see Alan, his face two inches away from some text, arduously pecking away at each of his assignments. Alan not only got straight A’s, but he later returned to Cal Poly as a physics instructor.

Although Jewish in background, Alan was extremely skeptical of anything religious, especially Christian. He was well read and well versed, and he argued his doubt like a scientist. Alan believed that Christianity was unable to pass the methodological requirements of science. He therefore pled agnostic—there simply wasn’t enough evidence to warrant belief in God. As a fledgling freshman, I, along with several others, tried to show him how, in fact, there was ample evidence for Christianity’s truth. There were not only the facts of fulfilled prophecy and the reliability of the New Testament documents, but also the testimony of creation. Wasn’t that sufficient? Not for Alan. 

As a Jew, Alan interpreted some prophecy in ways that differed from mine. As a skeptic, he pointed out how even among New Testament scholars there were disagreements and different interpretations. And as a scientist, he challenged the possibility of miracles while at the same time pointing out the problem of innocent suffering as counter-evidence to God’s existence. Alan was not argumentative. If being religious meant commitment and decisiveness, then he wanted the assurance of truth, not a blind leap of faith.

Alan was usually happy to discuss religious subjects, which always gave us Christians some hope. But even more intriguing was how he liked to hang out with us. Alan didn’t have many friends. He was rather unattractive, much too serious, and totally dependent on others for any kind of transportation. But we tried to reach out to him as best we could. Alan knew he could come with us to the beach or on our recurrent midnight runs to Taco Bell®. We tried to include Alan in anything we were doing.

Seeing with new eyes

One evening something happened. Though I wasn’t there at the time, a bunch of friends had gotten together for a praise night on the beach. Alan came along to enjoy the sunset and roaring bonfire. By the time the evening was over, Alan had made a commitment to follow Jesus. No one had spoken to him, nor did anyone even know. The next day he came to me to tell me what had happened.

“But, Alan,” I said, “what made you decide?” “You see, Chuck,” he told me, “it came to me last night, while everyone was singing around the fire, that whenever I am around you Christians I am happy. Even when we disagree with each other, I find myself liking to be with Christians.” “But, Alan, I thought you were never going to become a believer unless there was first enough evidence.” “Yes, Chuck,” he replied, “and I still require it. But that’s precisely why I now believe. It’s how you all love each other that strikes me most. I never considered that evidence before. A good scientist, you know, considers all the facts. I simply haven’t found the love you Christians have for each other anywhere else. That’s evidence enough for me that Jesus is Lord.”

Alan’s keen mind, along with his heart, did a complete about-face. Over the ensuing weeks and months he threw himself into the life of our fellowship and all that we did together. Although he had many more questions to ask, there were no more arguments. What was seemingly lacking before now took on a completely new force. The evidence of God’s love not only awakened a transformation in Alan, but everywhere he looked he was now able to see with new eyes the fingerprints of God.

Living and loving

Did all of our reasoned and theological discussions, our apologetics, prior to Alan’s conversion make any difference? Alan never said they did. All Alan ever emphasized was how much love he felt from us, even when we strongly disagreed. This experience with Alan has stuck with me. Even after I went on for graduate studies in philosophy and Christian apologetics, and later taught apologetics at a seminary, what I learned from Alan never left me: “It was your love for each other. That was evidence enough for me.”

The battle of ideas rages furiously on our campuses. Competing ideologies, philosophies, religious beliefs and world views abound. It is difficult yet important to sort these all out. Ideas can have serious consequences, and the mind has an inherent, incessant need to put things together in some kind of coherent way. Not only this, it is also incumbent upon us, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 10, to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and to take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”

This being said, however, we mustn’t forget that our best defense for the truth we follow extends far beyond the mind. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “What is crucial is not that Christians know the truth, but that they be the truth.” As Christians we do not just have an apologetic, but, if we are faithful to the one whom we confess, we are an apologetic.

The distinction between having an apologetic and being an apologetic is not a trivial one. The strongest argument for Christianity’s truthfulness consists of the lives it produces. Jesus was quite clear about this when he said, “All people will know that you are my disciples if you love one another” (John 13:35). What the world needs most is not words, but living testaments who embody the power of his love. Thus Jesus prays: “Father, may they be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:22-23). For Jesus, the medium and the message are one.

We should never underestimate the role that embodiment plays in the rational task of defending Christian belief. By embodiment I mean the demonstration of Christianity’s truthfulness in deed, not just in word. Setting forth a reasonable defense is not just a verbal exercise. Arguments, evidence, and reasonableness can be seen as well as heard. The very life and lifestyle of Christians can communicate the rationality of faith. Saint Francis once said, “Declare the gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.” In fact, the best test of the truthfulness of Christianity lies exactly in the kind of lives it produces. The Christian story of God saving the world in Christ is ultimately judged by the kind of lives it generates.

This is precisely why the apologetic task is for everyone who professes Christ as Lord. Peter’s exhortation must be read in this light:

“Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1Pet. 3:13-16).

The “hope that we have” is not some invisible, elusive or unidentifiable posture of the heart. Rather, it is a substantiated witness of doing good, despite slander and suffering. The apologetic task is not for experts but for anyone who lives in such a way so as to provoke the curiosity of unbelievers.

This is also why our main task as Christians isn’t to conceptually prove God’s existence. Instead, we are called upon to answer for ourselves; for why we live out the kind of peace and love we do, despite persecution. We are to live in such a way, as Cardinal Suhard once put it, “that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.”

Presenting the evidence

Our main apologetic task, therefore, is to become the very thing we seek to argue for. To argue for the truthfulness of Christianity involves defending with our lives our conviction that Jesus is Lord, that he has defeated the principalities and powers that enslave this world, and that a new order, a radically new life—in the power of God’s Spirit—has begun among those whose allegiance is Jesus. Christians are not preoccupied with the possibility of God’s existence, nor with contemplating the miracles of the past. The Christian witness is concerned with the present. Christ is the risen Lord and is now known by the world through his “body” here on earth—us! By being the evidence of Christ’s rulership of love and peace, by validating the saving power of the gospel in everyday life, the world is confronted with an apologetic that cannot help but provoke amazement.

The carried-away church

When the Spirit descended at Pentecost and empowered the believers to declare the wonders of God in other languages, the crowd came together in bewilderment. “Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’” (Acts 2:12). What astonished the unbelieving crowd was not just the message, but how that message came to them. Something from God—not just a word from God but something from God himself—manifested itself in the first believers that grabbed the crowd’s attention. “With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was with them all” (Acts 4:33). Thus when Peter and John healed the crippled beggar, there was nothing the skeptics could say (Acts 4:14). The early Christians didn’t just give an apologetic, they were the apologetic.

In his book, The Substance of Faith, Clarence Jordan highlights the significance of what the early Church experienced, not just what they told: “The crowning evidence that Jesus was alive was not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.” Such people were the direct evidence of the “kingdom”—the God movement. The evidence of the resurrection was not just the empty tomb; it was also the spirit-filled fellowship.

A new language of witness

God has created a new language of witness, a language that is far more powerful than words—the language of community:

“All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:44-47).

God’s new language was embodied in a community of disciples who demonstrated the truth of the gospel they were proclaiming. The early Christians did not just have a story to tell, they were the story being told.

Never underestimate the power of a life well lived. My friend Alan was able to dispense with the arguments, but he was unable to explain away the activity of God’s love in those of his friends who believed. Our lives made an impact on his life in the here and now. It made a difference, not in theory, but in actuality. The argument of Christian love was, in the end, irrefutable.

The ultimate argument

The world has its gods, some of which are even theistically construed. What this divided world does not have, however, is God’s peace; his rule of justice and righteousness. Isn’t this the only God worth believing in?

As disciples of Christ, as God’s kingdom people, we have the opportunity to show the world, as well as those on campus, what life in his realm is like. Ideas abound, and causes come and go, but the miracle of forgiving, loving, bearing with, confessing to, serving and submitting to one another is an argument that is difficult to criticize. Are we ready to stake our lives, not just our heads, on such truth? If we are, we might find ourselves with a few more Alans in our midst.

—by Charles E. Moore

(Reprinted from Student Leadership Journal)