By Samuel Cripps
I lived in Kentucky for a good while, and if you live in Kentucky for long enough, especially in Christian circles, you’re going to end up at the Ark Encounter.
For those who don’t know, the Ark Encounter is the work of Australian fundamentalist apologist Ken Ham and is frankly an impressive feat. As you walk from the parking lot, the great ship looms over the crowds beneath it, a beautiful mass of wood nestled just north of Lexington, on the fringes of the Bluegrass region of the state. The Ark replica houses a museum, purporting to show visitors exactly how Noah and his family were able to fulfill God’s command in Genesis 7:1-5 to enter the ark along with the animals. Nearby is the Creation Museum, featuring virtual reality, lectures, and exhibits aimed at showing how modern science gets it wrong. At the heart of this project is a polemical posture: a biblical counter-narrative on scientific grounds.
The way I read my experience, especially in retrospect, is that Ham wants a counterpoint to the mainstream position. He doesn’t seem to want Scripture to be an interlocutor with the secular world, but rather to set the terms of the conversation. What Ham, and apologists like him, are trying to do is to use the Bible as a guide for natural science, trying to use the primary tool of the Church to answer questions that the Bible never even asks. And while Ham may not seem like the most credible person to dialogue with on this issue, the impulse to use Scripture to resolve disputes over what seem to be scientific disparities with Scripture is one that I can sympathize with. Yet it’s an impulse that doesn’t help us in our work as apologists and evangelists for Christ’s Church, because it’s rooted in viewing science and Scripture as opposing forces.
This dichotomy is not perpetuated exclusively by Christians, though a vocal minority in the Church has certainly done its part to continue this narrative of division. The modern atheist too has taken up the strain, elevating this narrative in our culture, seeing religion as a has-been, as a backwards surrogate for what science is far better equipped to accomplish. In both cases there is the perception that science and scripture stand in antithesis. This is of course not true; a false dichotomy that pervades discussions between Church and world today; a false dichotomy that stands as an obstacle to conversion, as poorly placed as a log redirecting the flow of a river, which needs only the slightest nudge to finally dislodge it.
This can seem a bleak perspective on the modern mission field, but there is a silver lining here, a gift of sorts from the secular world to the Church in these latter days, from a surprising benefactor: Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein, an atheist, linguistic philosopher, mathematician, and logician, has given us a new way to do the work of evangelization and apologetics, and he provides an alternative perspective on what it means to engage in missional religious language in a post-Christian West.
I’m not a Wittgenstein expert by any means, but what I’ve gleaned, very basically, is this: we as people play “language games.” We play different sorts of games all the time, and these games can look like all sorts of different things. Games such as science, philosophy, and religion all have different “rules,” and those games and their “players” are not obliged to modify the rules of their game to engage with a different game.
Think about it this way. Let’s say that you’re a world-class baseball player, the best there is, and you get challenged by LeBron James to quite a different game: basketball. You’re probably going to lose that game. But does losing a game of basketball against LeBron James make you a bad baseball player? No, you’re just playing the wrong game with the wrong ball on the wrong playing field. If you, as the world’s greatest baseball player were to play LeBron in a friendly game of backyard baseball, you’d probably win. So, if this is true, and you had permission to set the terms of the game, you would pick the game of baseball every time.
The language and language games of the Church — our creeds, our faith, our Scripture — are our own, and make our terms of engagement. They’re our baseball, and we should be good at it. So, when it comes to actual apologetics, when it comes to breaking down the barriers that stand between an evangelist well-equipped with these tools and the wayward child of God, we need to learn to play our own sport instead of muddling through ones we don’t even know how to play.
Prior to even thinking about these questions, I listened to this great audiobook by an English priest named Giles Frasier. The book was part of a series from The Guardian and was titled How to Believe: Investigating Wittgenstein. In the book, Frasier highlights Wittgenstein’s use of the now-famous optical illusion known as the “rabbit-duck.” At first glance of the sketch, you’ll likely see only one of those two animals, but with the aid of a friend who has already figured out the image, or with your own shift in perspective, you’ll be able to see the other. When it finally clicks for the viewer, it can feel, as Frasier puts it, like a “revelation.” That’s a pretty apt description of what is happening in this exercise, because not a thing has changed in the image. “They are the same lines arranged in the same way,” as Frasier says. Wittgenstein calls it the difference between “seeing as” and “seeing that,” where when you first see the image and all you see is the rabbit, you say to yourself, “This is a rabbit,” but once you see both sides of the ambidextrous image, you have the wider perspective and can view it also “as a rabbit.”
Think about Acts 17, where St. Paul is standing in the Areopagus. He points at the altar to the unknown god, and says, “Men of Athens, I perceive in every way you are very religious; what therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you!” Classic brash Pauline rhetoric here, but think about what he is doing for just a second from a Wittgensteinian perspective: he’s not rearranging their lines here; he’s trying to give them a shift in perspective. Paul’s saying, “Look, you are already looking in the right direction, give or take; but look here, you’re seeing it a little sideways; let me show you.” Paul used the lines that were already in the Athenian picture and used a religious language game toward a religious end; he showed them a different perspective, and it worked. It worked so well that people, though few, joined him and believed.
The problem, according to Frasier, is that “atheists typically assume that religious people think the universe is populated by an extra set of things, and that the argument between them is whether these things happen to be there or not.” I think he’s right, and I also think this gives us a different playbook to make use of in the mission field. Any fight between science and the Christian faith is old news, because any disagreement between them ultimately stems from their misuse, because the language game of the Christian faith and the language games of science aim to accurately describe the same universe. The two move alongside each other, their teleological vectors pointing to a fuller knowledge about our universe. The difference comes in the tools and subjects that the two use to discover knowledge. Few of us faithful can find religious truths through the lens of a microscope, and fewer still could use any religious data found there as an effective tool for apologetics.
There are some of us in the Church that can, who play the role of a “Bo Jackson,” someone who can be an MVP player in a plurality of different sports. I’m thinking of people like Alister McGrath, Kara Slade, and Sarah Coakley, who can deftly weave the different language games of seemingly disparate disciplines to powerful apologetic ends. Most people, though, will be competent in either the language game of theology or of science, but not both, and perhaps neither. And those of us who are equipped primarily with other tools, whose skills are mostly in navigating the language games of the Christian faith, are still equally tasked to be evangelists in the Great Commission. Our task is to change the language game of our conversation partners.
We are trying to shift the terms of engagement from a logical debate about the crude matter of a person, to a question about why we are made of that same crude matter. As Christians, we can very comfortably acknowledge that we are made up of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen, but we should also recognize that those conversations aren’t conducted in the language of the Church — and that’s okay, because we aren’t trying to change people’s understanding of what the world is or what the universe is made of; we’re trying to shift their perspective.
The work of apologetics isn’t to appeal to a secular scientific view of the world or try to make Scripture conform to that view; the primary work of modern apologetics is simply to show that the Christian faith isn’t in opposition to scientific truths about the universe. That’s because the tools of the Christian language game are often not even asking the same questions as the language games of science; they play by different rules with different tools toward radically different ends. To remove that mental impediment is to allow for the greater paradigm shift of conversion, to remove the blinders of a tired and false dichotomy from those in our care, to gesture at the world around them and say, “Do you see now? All the lines are exactly the same, not one has been added, but do you now see the glory of God that is before you?”
Samuel Cripps is a senior Master of Divinity student at Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Nashotah, Wis., and a Candidate for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.