Lessons From War in a Battle of Ideas

his text is adapted from a message delivered at Georgia Tech this summer to approximately 400 Christian faculty who attended “God and the Academy,” a conference hosted by Christian Leadership Ministries and RZIM. Although abbreviated, it appears as the spoken presentation.

Lostness wears many different faces, and the focus of our attention, as we are gathered together, is to look at this arena we call the academy, where there is a celebration of the mind and the intellect. As the years go by, it is becoming harder to understand how to bring the simple truths of the Gospel into such highly focused arenas of thought. What I would like to do is first to come to grips with the face of the attack that appears on the outside, and then move to the heart of the battle that lies beneath. There is a difference. If we understand both the face and the heart, then we can get to the truth and not lose sight of the person who stands on the frontlines of the charge.

A few years ago Paul Johnson, the English historian, wrote a book called The Intellectuals which received mixed reviews. Covering the lives of people like Shelley, Sartre, Russell and Nietzsche, Johnson ends with these lines: “Above all we must remember at all times what intellectuals habitually forget: that people matter more than concepts and must come first. The worst of all despotisms is the heartless tyranny of ideas.”

I borrow those lines because I am holding in my hand the June, 2000 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. If you haven’t read it, I urge you to pick it up. The cover story is called “Harvard and the Makings of the Unabomber: The Boy Ted Kaczynski. The Culture of Despair. The Experiment.” Alston Chase is the author of that lead article. Chase, who got one Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton and another Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Michigan, traces Kaczynski’s journey from intellectual optimism to intellectual despair. Chase happened to be a classmate of Kaczynski’s at Harvard and discloses some extraordinary insights into what actually happened in higher education during the sixties, not the least of which was that the Judeo-Christian ethic that was actually called for in the curriculum was left either ignored or was attacked by most of the teaching faculty. In this outstanding analysis, these are his closing comments: “The real story of Ted Kaczynski is one of the nature of modern evil. Evil that results from the corrosive powers of intellect itself, and its arrogant tendency to put ideas above common humanity and by this process of abstraction to dehumanize our enemies.” There you have it. The forgetting of the person and majoring on the thought.

He goes on to relate the experiments to which Kaczynski was subjected, such as the Murray experiment, which he describes as, “Vehement, sweeping and personally abusive. Attacks were made assaulting his subjects’ egos and most cherished ideas and beliefs.”

As I read his choice of words, it was not hard to recognize the metaphor of battle—“attacking,” “assaulting,” and “enemies.” With that in mind I have framed the title for my talk to you today, “Lessons From War in a Battle of Ideas.” I want to bring to you the understanding of where the battle really lies and what the face of the challenge looks like.

I chose this metaphor also because of a recent experience. This summer we were in France for a speaking engagement and visited the beaches of Normandy. My 19-year-old son is quite an ardent lover of the history of warfare and wanted very much to visit Normandy. So we went to the various beaches—Juno, Utah and Omaha—and as we walked through the museums and cemeteries we were quite gripped by the reality and cost of the D-day landing and of the battle of Normandy. It gave us all pause to think of how the world was shaped and rescued by the bravery of those who were willing to pay with their lives. There were many lessons I took away from there and from my reading of historian Stephen Ambrose’s powerful books on the subject. May I underscore just three of the lessons.

The first was this. As the forces touched the sands, they were told that no matter how severe the attack or how relentless the barrage, they had to keep moving. The worst thing they could do was to stand still. “Don’t just stay there and hug the ground. Keep moving even under a rain of bullets or there will be left only two kinds of people. The dead and the about to be dead.”

What a lesson that is for us at a time when the Gospel is under such assault in the academy. We dare not stand back and hug the ground either; we must keep moving. Questions abound. Challenges pervade. Mockery reigns. Caricatures are aplenty. Culture is awash with confusion. There is a cloud of cynicism hanging over us. We dare not sit back and become immobilized. We must move forward.

There is a second lesson that was learned and that I think we, as fellow Christians coming from so many different disciplines, will understand. One of the ploys the allies used when they descended onto the French countryside was lifelike rubber dummies that were attached to parachutes and had firecrackers built into them, so that they exploded as they hit the ground or were fired upon. Hundreds of thousands of these dummies were dropped simultaneously in various locations in order to draw German fire. Many of the Germans spent valuable ammunition on these soldiers descending by parachute, not realizing that they were really shooting at rubber dummies. The actual attack was taking place elsewhere while these mock paratroopers were exhausting the arsenal and the artillery of the German attack.

I shook my head in disbelief seeing the obvious application for Christendom. I wonder when we stand before God, whether the most painful moment may be when we hear how much of our time we wasted shooting at rubber dummies, how much energy of soul and mind we expended on distracting issues and people, while the real plunder was taking place in unguarded nerve centers.

The third lesson was from this incident: A commanding officer coming onto the beach issued orders to one of his captains. He pointed to a farmhouse in which were barricaded a handful of German soldiers whose shooting was taking a heavy toll on the Allies. There were indeed several such solidly built old Norman houses that were providing points of assault for the German troops. When asked to attack one of these houses and take it, the captain, full of fear, said to his commanding officer, “I do not know how to take a building like that.” The commanding officer looked at him rather shocked and said, “You don’t know how to take a building?” And he replied, “No, sir.” The officer said, “Give me three or four of your men, a couple of grenades, keep shooting and watch. This is the only time I’m going to show you how to take a house occupied by an armed enemy.” Remarking on this incredible confession by the captain, Steven Ambrose, in his book on D-day, said this, “The bigger question lies in how a person could have become a captain and not know how to take a building.” The captain was quite skilled in handling the open spaces, the big beach areas, but he did not know how to capture one small building in which there was enough firepower to destroy them.

What a lesson for us in our theological training! So much of our study has been to enable us to take some of the open spaces, the masses, when many have been left untrained in how to take the strongholds and bastions where ideas that are antithetical to the Gospel reign. The academy is one such place, in which young Christians and maybe even faculty find it a fearsome task for which we are unprepared.

All these lessons aside, an ingredient that ultimately played a vital role in the victory of the Allies was their intelligence gathering—knowing how to differentiate between what is true and what is false. Winston Churchill put it in these words: “The most valuable thing in the world is the truth; in fact, it is so valuable that it is often defended by a bodyguard of lies.”

With this as a backdrop, let us look at the face and the heart of the battle in which we are engaged.

First and foremost is this face that stands before us, unblushingly strident in its bold autocracy. You see, once upon a time the ramifications of anti-theism or atheism or agnosticism were at least understood for what they are and were kept either covered or artificially adorned. On rare occasions they were even admitted with a healthy warning. For example, Darwin, writing in his earliest speculations on the origin of species, expressed concern that the philosophical ramifications of this understanding could be dire. And he shuddered at the possibility of how “nature red in tooth and claw” could engender horrific carnage in the years, decades, and centuries to come. Darwin understood the logical implications of the worldview. Even Nietzsche, as bold as he was and as unapologetic as he was about doing away with God, realized that the playing field was stripped wide open and that the consequences could be rather staggering.

But the modern and postmodern attacker of the Creator is cavalier about such entailments. Let me explain what I mean here. Listen to the words of Richard Dawkins from Oxford, gladly declaring the philosophical ramifications of naturalism. Here there is no fear—just plain affirmation. This is what he says:

“There was a well-known television chef who did a stunt recently by cooking human placenta and serving it up as a paté, fried with shallots, garlic, and lime juice. Everybody said it was delicious. The father had several helpings. A scientist can point out as I have done that this is actually an act of cannibalism; worst since cloning is such a live issue at the moment, because the placenta is a true genetic clone of the baby. Science cannot tell you if it is right or wrong to eat your own baby’s clone, but it can tell you that is what you are doing. Then you can decide for yourself whether you think it is right or wrong.”

What does one say to this bizarre, light-hearted dismissal of what would have been at one time unthinkable? Can you believe this fearless, almost sickening, “So what?” attitude? That is at the face of the mockery. I want you to notice the smuggled in sovereignty. On the one hand, Dawkins has just finished telling you that science cannot tell you whether what you are doing is right or wrong. But, science covertly arrogates to itself the authority to tell you that you alone determine what is right or wrong.

What is actually transacted here is the evicting of religion or even of philosophy from any role and locating the single vision of life in either chemistry, biology or physics. This gives science explanatory power—autocracy—over all of life itself.

Elsewhere, Dawkins says, “There is at the bottom of it all, no good, no evil, no purpose, nothing but”—and how do you like this value-added term?—“blind pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music.” The dance of the naturalist is the dance of DNA. No good! No evil! Do they really believe this?

This is what they wear as a face in public debate. But, while the façade is that of the intellect, the real battle is that of the spirit or the heart. Listen to Thomas Nagel, professor of philosophy, New York University:

“In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions… in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself.…I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and naturally, hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

That is it, in black and white. The skeptic has uncovered the real point of his or her prejudice. They do not want a world with God in it. They do not want the categories of good and bad, only the categories of useful and useless. Such power-mongering over the intellect has taken younger minds prisoner. When I finished an open forum at Cornell University, packed with over a thousand students, a young woman came to the front literally in tears. She said, “Every waking moment I am living with naturalistic assumptions. You are presenting an ultimate paradigm shift. How can I possibly make that kind of a change in the atmosphere in which I am living?”

We are in a battle.

There is a second challenge: It is a disposition that points to the immoral while delegitimizing morality at the same time. I don’t know if I’ve been in an open forum anywhere when there has not been a student or a professor who has stood up and talked about all of the atrocities that have been committed in the name of Christianity. And it is not just in the West that you hear this. Now you hear the refrain even more in the East. The Hindu critic’s version of Christianity is caricatured from the days of the British Raj. But if one represents Hinduism or Islam or atheism’s brutalities by their militants then the terms of engagement change.

It was Mahatma Gandhi who once said, “I like their Christ, and I don’t like their Christian.” And there is no doubt that when you go to the historical records you see this black eye that Christendom has and to which it must own up. Yet the truth of the matter is that a few things are forgotten. Atheism has engendered greater carnage than “Christendom” did in its politicized exploits. And at least one can say that when atheism entered into such ideas and practiced them, it was the logical outworking of some of their beliefs. When politicized Christianity did what it did, it was in violation of the teaching and the very person of Christ.

For the sake of time, and to be brief, let me say this. When the skeptic rails against the “immorality” of Christianity and at the same time attacks our moralizing, is there possibly something so deep and pervasive here that to even mention it might shock our sensitivities? Is this not so much a battle of morality as much as it is a battle to legitimize immorality?

In brief, is it possible that somewhere in the deepest recesses of the human heart, we are really not battling the mind as much as we are fighting for the place of the body? One’s right to his or her sexual proclivities and passionate indulgences may well be the real reason the Gospel is despised in the academy.

Just in case you think I am stretching a point, the truth slips out from the mind of the skeptic. Aldous Huxley acknowledged it when he wrote his book Ends and Means: “We objected to morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom.” Now bear that in mind.

I must at least give them credit for recognizing this titanic urge within the flesh. This is at the heart of so much within the struggle of being human. You and I have normal drives. But how much more lawless can we become than to want the freedom to do whatever we want do, whenever we want to do it, and in any way we please? Do we not end up plundering pleasure itself? Every life struggles with this. But there is a world of difference in reasoning through it. At least in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, He gives us the restraint and the power to resist those temptations and keep the expression sacred and fulfilling.

But these parameters are shunned by the voices of sexual freedom. We must understand the slide from thought to life. First we saw the face that challenged us so clearly; a face that was strident, while at the same time a face that was actually engaged in a battle of the heart. Now we see a face that moralizes with the mind but really is battling for an amoral use of our sexual passions and drives.

The indulgence of the body naturally leaves one hungering for the spirit. And so, the third challenge I want to bring to you is that the academy, albeit, giving grudging recognition of spirituality, denies intellectually any absolute for the spiritual.

All around, we hear the language of spirituality, just keep it eastern and universalist, please! The Dalai Lama, Deepak Chopra on PBS?—yes. Jesus Christ?—no. Now, I agree that in a legitimately pluralistic society we must be able to hear these perspectives and they must be given the freedom to share those views. But we must have the opportunity to also hear the counter-perspective of Christ.

My heartache in all of this is, Why are these views accepted with cultural protection, while the Christian faith is openly debunked and mocked? So we hear a language that endorses spirituality, while intellectually denying the supernatural—more particularly, certainly, the Christian faith.

But once again, that is only the façade. What is really being brought in through the back door is a divinization of the counter-culture and the deification of the self. This is all important to understand. Let me try to pull this down to the predicament.

If you turn to the Hindu scriptures and the Upanishads, you will read something like this: A father meets his son after a twelve year absence when the son had gone away to study and understand what the self is all about. The son upon his return says that he is none the wiser. So the father decides to teach the son. In the Chandogya Upanishad, the sacred scriptures of the Hindus, there is this passage. The father points to a tree and says, “What do you see there?” The son names the kind of tree it is. The father asks, “What do you see hanging from its branches?” And the son says, “I see fruit hanging from its branches, father.” The father says, “Go and bring me that fruit.” And the son goes and brings the fruit, and the father says, “Break this fruit open completely.” The son breaks it open. The father says, “What do you see now?” He replies, “I see seeds, seeds everywhere!” He says, “Break open one of those seeds.” And the son breaks open one of those seeds, and the father looks at him and says, “What do you see now?” The son says, “I see nothing, I see absolutely nothing.” And the father looks at him and gives him that famous line from the Upanishads; “Out of the nothingness that is inside the seed came this whole marvelous structure of this tree. Out of such nothingness, son, sprouts your life.” “Tat tvan asi”—‘thou art that.’

That is the essential nature of yourself. Out of that invisible essence emerges and flowers your individuality.

This kind of reasoning sits very well with science because no person lies in the realm of the ultimately real. The self is swallowed into oblivion. Isn’t it fascinating that with all of our scientific progress, the truth of the matter is that the value of the person is ultimately lost. Now, in the words of Paul Johnson and Alston Chase, philosophers and thinkers are pleading that we must have an interest in people, not just in ideas. I hope you have taken note. When you move into an escape in eastern philosophy, you find a marriage of the minds between scientific extrapolation and mystical verbosity—that there is an essence really of nothing in the essential self. You end up with some fluid idea of ultimate reality which then ultimately is absorbed into that impersonal absolute idea of Nirvana, and the self no longer exists as we know it.

If there is one thing I see so fundamentally different from the Gospel of Christ to anywhere else you turn in the pantheistic worldviews, it is this: Jesus identified the individual so clearly and called upon that individual for communion with the divine in an “I- You” relationship. Eastern pantheism eradicates that individuality—that is why there is only one capital “I” and no “I-You.” The self is lost.

The net result in this battle is that in an effort to exalt the self in an autocracy and an autonomy, we have ended up in a society that has no value for the self at all. Is it little wonder that a man like Ted Kaczynski did not think he was killing people; he was only killing an idea? Intellectualism has lost its way in exalting ideas and devaluing people.

How do we respond?


Number one is this: If at the heart of the battle is a struggle of where to anchor morality, then for the Christian, life must be inseparable from the Word.

If there is one apologetic struggle I live with, it is this question: Why is it that so many people who talk of a supernatural transformation show so little of the transformed life? Why, when we talk so much about the work of the Holy Spirit in the regeneration of a life, is it not so obvious to the unbeliever any more, who does not see the change, but only hears our language? Somehow we must come to grips seriously in the academy with the possibility that we no longer need to convince the average student of the aimlessness with which the majority of people live. But somewhere that student maybe desperately needs to see a life that is consistently lived in its proclamation and in its deed.

Consider Sir Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons, when he was imprisoned for not supporting his king in an immoral venture. His daughter comes to him and says, “Dad, why don’t you at least in words say it is okay? You don’t have to really mean it in your heart. Just verbally affirm what the king is doing. We can have you back. They will let you out of this prison.”

Sir Thomas More looks at his daughter and says, “Meg, you don’t understand! You don’t understand what it means to give your word.” He says, “When you give somebody your word, it is like taking your life and holding it in your hands. You are cupping your life in your hands when you are giving them your word. And should you let that word fall through, you will look down and not find yourself there.”

If there is something the secular world longs to see, it is that the apologist, the philosopher, the economist, the mathematician, the scientist—who claims the name of Christ—lives the truth that is avowed. Whatever discipline you come from, if that life of yours can show the quality, my brother, my sister, then as they are enchanted by the brilliance of the mind that God has so mercifully given to you, they will see the power of a life that is so beautifully lived in accordance with the character of that God.

Henry Nouwen, who wrote The Return of the Prodigal Son, gave up his teaching position at Harvard in order to work with the mentally handicapped in Toronto. His book was based on the impact Rembrandt’s picture of the Prodigal Son had upon his life when he had gone to St. Petersburg and stared at that picture for three hours. Henry Nouwen said, “You know, I have preached an awful lot about the forgiving father, the receiving father. I’m not sure I have fully been engulfed in that myself to understand this kind of love.” He said he went to work with the mentally handicapped, “not because I had something to teach them, but because they had something to teach me.” He wrote of one of the young women at the institution who would always stand at the door welcoming each new person. She would often have some saliva uncontrollably dribbling from her mouth. But she would reach over and embrace the visitor, give them a kiss and welcome them into that place. Henry Nouwen said, “It had been a long time since I understood what it was to receive such unconditional love.”

Ladies and gentlemen, life must be inseparable from the Word. The love we have received must be shown.

Secondly, hope is to be inseparable from death. As we talk about the hope for the university, as we talk about all of the possibilities, my plea is that we need to bear in mind that God not only wants us to proclaim the triumphs and the victory that He gives, but—and here’s what I want to say to you as candidly as I can—may we never forget the heart of the Gospel, which is the cross of Jesus Christ.

Mahatma Gandhi said it clearly; there were many things in the Vedas he wished he could remove. There were many things about the Christian faith he did not understand, said he, and some he did not like. But, he said, the most powerful truth in the Christian Gospel is unmatched anywhere else: It is the cross of Jesus Christ. Indeed, Martin Luther King, Jr., in one of the most colorful sermons he ever preached, marveled at the beauty of the Cross. If we forget that, we have forgotten the heart of the Gospel.

Some time ago, I was reading an article by a highly respected scholar at Oxford. He is the director of an interdisciplinary study of religion in relation to science. In what I must deplore, he pleaded with the church to change. “To be truly evangelical,” he wrote, “the church of the next millennium will need a theology that will necessarily have to be genuinely liberal and even radical, particularly in its relation to a worldview shaped by science. For Christian theology to have any viability, it may well have to be stripped down to the newly-conceived essentials, minimalist in its affirmations; only then will it attain that degree of verisimilitude with respect to ultimate realities which science has to natural ones, and only then can it command respect as a vehicle of public truth.”

I’ve got news for this scholar. What he wants is a Christianity that is evidently not Biblical. This alone tells you how they really view Biblical truth.

The Cross may still be foolishness at face value to the sophisticated academic. But may I say something? When I speak at an open forum in universities worldwide, the greatest silence in the audience comes in the last twenty minutes of two days of presentations, when I take them back to the Cross before taking them to the empty tomb. And as that Cross is expounded in the silence in the auditorium, the hearts of men and women are listening eagerly to this counter-perspective of Jesus Christ that stands so unique and so awesomely powerful.

Indeed, in all of our hope, let us not forget the death. The death on the Cross.

Lastly, the struggle is inseparable from the triumph. Yes, these are hard days. And in reality, this is nothing new. Therefore, I also believe that somehow in the midst of all of this, God is still going to help us to look to the glorious possibilities.

Ladies and gentlemen, he has placed you in the academy. He is giving you an audience that will make a world of a difference some day.

I’ve been to Athens many times. When I was there last, I noticed something I had never seen before. We had just come from Mars Hill and were walking along the main street by Mars Hill and the Areopagus. It is a beautiful setting, rich in history—the Parthenon, the Areopagus. Indeed, the stones speak. As we were walking on that street I suddenly caught sight of the street sign. I couldn’t believe what I was reading! So I called my friends’ attentions and said, “Look at the name on this road opposite Mars Hill! Look at this major street, look at what it is called: Dionysius Areopagetos—Dionysius the Areopagite!”

I wanted to jump for joy and ask every tourist if they knew that name. You see, when Paul went to Athens, the Bible says in Acts 17 that some scoffed, some said they would hear him another time, and some of them believed. One who believed was Dionysius the Areopagite. And two thousand years later, the street bears his name. He became the Bishop of Athens. How incredible!

Someday, somewhere, a great mind will be proclaiming the Gospel for Christ’s sake and his or her name might mark a pathway. Behind it may well be your name because you spoke and lived the Gospel that pointed the way to that young man or woman.

My heart is burdened for the academy, and how glad I am that men and women like you are there. How wonderful it is that we can gather together to find out how we can bring the name of our Lord Jesus to a society that brings the face of a challenge to us, while the battle is really that of the heart. Let us not hug the ground; let us not shoot rubber dummies; and let us learn how to take strongholds and rescue the attackers, that the name of Christ may be honored again in places of education. The mind is a sacred trust but must not be severed from the heart and from the truth. May God richly bless you.

MGM Ministries-Article Source: rzim.org/read/just-thinking-magazine/lessons-from-war-in-a-battle-of-ideas / – ( Accessed in May 2020 )