Learn About/Subscribe:
Christian Union
February 23, 2015

Making Sense of True Paradoxes

Skeel_Mag1_articleChristian Union: The Magazine recently interviewed David Skeel, the S. Samuel Arsht Professor of Corporate Law at the University of Pennsylvania. A speaker at Veritas Forums on various college campuses, Skeel is the author of several books on law. He recently wrote his first apologetics book, True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World.

How would you define apologetics?
At bottom, I think the Apostle Peter defined apologetics best, at least for Christians, when he admonished his readers to "always be prepared to give a reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15). That's how I see apologetics, as trying to explain why I believe Christianity is true, especially for those who think an ancient religion like Christianity can't possibly make sense of the complexities of our contemporary world.

Who are some Christian apologists you admire? Why?
It isn't very original to start with C.S. Lewis, but how could you start anywhere else? Lewis had a way, not just of conveying sophisticated ideas in understandable terms, but of making them come to life with unforgettable metaphors and turns of phrase. I kept Mere Christianity on my desk as I wrote True Paradox, and found it both inspiring and depressing—no one writes like Lewis did.

Among current apologists, I think Tim Keller does a wonderful job of drawing from psychology, philosophy, literature, and other disciplines, and of conveying both the richness and comfort of following Jesus. He's also funny and down-to-earth, especially in person, which are considerable assets for an apologist.

I also have learned a great deal from N.T. Wright, especially about the ways in which heaven breaks into our daily lives, and the "already-not yet" dimension of Christianity.

One the books I discovered for the first time as I was writing True Paradox was Making Sense of It All, a wonderful book by Thomas Morris that interprets Pascal for the contemporary world.

Has your training as an attorney/law professor influenced your passion for apologetics?
I think my lifelong passion for poetry and art, and my interest in science, fired my love of apologetics as much as my legal training did. But my legal training might have given me the nerve to actually write the book. Lawyers tend to think they can become quasi-experts in nearly anything—medicine, the engineering of collapsed buildings, or whatever—if they have a few weeks to read everything in sight. I sometimes think it takes some of that audacity for a non-theologian even to consider writing a book of apologetics. But I also have become convinced that issues of justice are central to apologetics, which persuaded me that legal scholars may have something to contribute.

Do you feel like the approach to apologetics needs to change in our postmodern age?
Although traditional apologetics is still essential, I do think the millennial era poses unique challenges. In the 1940s, when C.S. Lewis delivered the radio talks that became Mere Christianity, nearly all of his hearers were vaguely Christian. One of his objectives was simply to persuade them to think more seriously about the things they'd been taught in Sunday school. This strategy doesn't work quite as well in an era when most Americans aren't Christians and have never been to Sunday school.

Millennials seem to be hungry for a defense of Christianity that does two things. First, it needs to engage the narrative of scientific progress that is pervasive in American intellectual life, especially on university campuses. According to this narrative, many aspects of our existence were mysterious a few centuries ago, and God was the commonly accepted explanation. Since then, science has solved many of the mysteries, and scientists are steadily solving others. There is no need for God.

The second concern is social justice. Although they are often criticized as selfish and individualistic, millennials are far more concerned than their predecessors with questions of social justice. According to data gathered by the 2014 Millennial Impact Report, 55% of millennials choose the company they work for based on the causes it supports.

These are the kinds of concerns I tried to address in True Paradox.

As a frequent speaker at Veritas Forums at some of the nation's leading universities, why do you think it important for emerging Christian leaders to learn about apologetics?
As I mentioned earlier, I believe that each of us has a responsibility to give an account for the hope that is in us. We can't do this effectively unless we think through the kinds of questions that everyone wrestles with. The Apostle Paul speaks of being a Greek among the Greeks and a Hebrew among the Hebrews—of meeting people where they are. In the university setting, we can't meet people where they are unless we are engaged in the intellectual life of the community, because that's what universities are about. I worry that sometimes Christian leaders are spiritually engaged but not intellectually engaged. We need to be both.

What was your motivation for writing True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World?
I had hoped to write a book like this with my dear friend and brilliant criminal justice scholar Bill Stuntz, but Bill died of cancer before we could begin. About a year after Bill died, I moderated a Veritas Forum featuring John Lennox. Patrick Arsenault, an atheist, post-doc student at Penn's medical school, sent me an e-mail the next day, thanking me for asking Lennox challenging questions. I asked Patrick if he would be willing to get together for coffee to talk about these issues. After several fascinating conversations, I figured I should just start writing the book and see where it led. Where it led was True Paradox.

Even though you are an attorney, in True Paradox you write that apologetics should be more than just a "lawyerly" or "logical" argument. Can you elaborate?
Ever since Darwin on Trial, a highly influential book by Philip Johnson, a certain strand of apologetics has "cross examined" challenges to Christianity, as if apologetics were criminal trials. But truth isn't the objective of a criminal trial. When Christians use these techniques, our hearers may suspect that we are more interested in scoring rhetorical points than in pursuing truth wherever it leads. I have similar worries about simple logical arguments designed to "prove" that God exists: they often do not seem to do justice to the richness and complexity of the world as we actually experience it.

In the book, you write that apparent paradoxes are actually arguments for the existence of God and Christianity. Can you give an example or two?
One of my favorite examples—from a chapter about consciousness—is what a famous 1960 article called "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences." The author, who wasn't a Christian, marvels that mathematicians have repeatedly conjured up concepts that seemed purely abstract, and yet later proved essential to understanding features of our universe such as subatomic physics. How is it that the universe is rationally intelligible, and that our minds are somehow tuned to that rationality? For a materialist, this puzzle is very hard to explain. There was, after all, no need to understand complex numbers on the African savannah, and thus no reason to suspect from a purely evolutionary perspective that our rational speculations would give us insights into the nature of the universe. The "unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics" is much less befuddling for Christianity. Christians believe that the universe reflects the rationality of its Creator—the heavens declare the glory of God, as Psalm 19 puts it. And because we are created in the image of God, it is not surprising that our minds are somehow in tune with that rationality.

Another illustration is the transcendence we feel in the presence of a beautiful landscape or work of art, and the sense of melancholy that so often follows. Materialists don't yet have a good explanation for these powerful emotions. Some explain beauty as an accidental byproduct of evolution; others offer often far-fetched speculation—Steven Pinker has suggested we may be attracted to the kinds of landscapes that would have been good sources of food for our ancient ancestors. Christianity teaches that our sense of beauty is not an accident and it is not about bread alone. The transcendence is a glimpse of the universe as it was meant to be, and the melancholy is our recognition that the beauty has been marred.

Why do you feel it was important to cover a wide range of topics such as art, science, etc.?
I don't think it's possible to appreciate the richness and depth of Christianity without considering a wide range of topics. The cool thing about the topics I cover in True Paradox is that each is a different dimension of the same phenomenon: the fact that heaven breaks into our lives even now. Our experience of beauty and our longing for justice are glimpses of what the universe will one day be like, which suggests that the contributions we make to beauty and justice today, small and flawed as they are, may have eternal significance.