Steve Curless's Blog

Miscellaneous Musings
NOVEMBER 23, 2012 5:27PM

William Lane Craig, the Royce Gracie of Christianity

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It is hard to overstate the impact that William Lane Craig has had for the cause of Christ. He is simply the finest Christian apologist of the last half century, and his academic work justifies ranking him among the top 1 percent of practicing philosophers in the Western world. Besides that, he is a winsome ambassador for Christ, an exceptional debater, and a man with the heart of an evangelist. I know him well and can say that he lives a life of integrity and lives out what he believes. I do not know of a single thinker who has done more to raise the bar of Christian scholarship in our generation than Craig. He is one of a kind and I thank God for his life and work." ~ J.P. Moreland, distinguished professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology

I spent most of my adolescent and adult life as a non-believer convinced that Christianity is an intellectually indefensible religion embraced by predominately stupid or at least ignorant people who are too lazy to learn and think enough about their ridiculous faith to realize just how ridiculous it is.

Of course, I'd seen intimations of rational Christian belief from medieval theologians such as Thomas Aquinas and modern apologist writers such as C.S. Lewis and Peter Kreeft, but I never bothered to study them carefully. Then I stumbled across William Lane Craig and began watching some of his debates on YouTube with the likes of famous atheists Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, and reading his essays on his website Reasonable Faith and segments from some of his books, and I have to come clean and admit that I'm enormously impressed with this guy's intellectual brilliance and theological and philosophical erudition even though I still don't accept the conclusions of his arguments. Here is a short video of the late, great polemicist Christopher Hitchens paying his respects to Craig before his famous debate with him at Biola University on April 4, 2009. Here is the debate itself, and here is a transcript of the debate.

As far as debates with non-believers are concerned, William Lane Craig is the Royce Gracie of Christian apologists. Royce Gracie is a jujitsu master who, back in the early 1990's, challenged anyone of any size or tradition in the martial arts world to full contact matches with very few rules, and he prevailed, sometimes with shocking ease, against everyone. He would take on karate and kung fu masters far larger and stronger than he was and fling them to the ground and choke them out or make them submit, and it sometimes happened so quickly that neither they nor the viewers of these matches knew what had happened.

Royce Gracie and his Gracie family of martial artists revolutionized the way the public thinks of martial arts from seeing them as the predominantly striking and kicking affairs of Asian cinema to reenvisioning them as a multifaceted discipline that depends as much or more on refined grappling maneuvers than on brutish fisticuffs and flying kicks and brings most fights to the ground where the preponderance of fights actually end up outside the pre-Gracie era silver screen.

In the same way, William Craig has demonstrated that non-believers can't take Christian apologetics or apologists lightly and hope to refute them with shallow, timeworn objections. That is, if they're going to debate a master apologist such as Craig and not get TKO'd, they’d better diversify and elevate their game to the intellectual and rhetorical stratosphere. This means, among other things, that they must become extremely proficient debaters, learn how to present their arguments as concisely as possible, thoroughly familiarize themselves with the five essential arguments that Craig uses in every debate and have the best counterarguments to his arguments on the tip of their tongue, and frame the debate for Craig and specify the challenges he must meet instead of letting him do that to them the way he has to most or all of his other debate opponents.

Of course, one does not have to debate William Lane Craig on the world stage to study his arguments and the best ways to rebut them. And Christians who want to rely on more than “blind faith” to keep the faith and effectively meet their biblical obligation to evangelize, as well as non-believers who wish to marshal the strongest possible reasons for their non-belief and deploy them in dialogue or debate with any and all believers would do well to study the writings, lectures, and debates of William Lane Craig in particular and to research the best of Christian apologetics in general.

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Excellent writing and thinking. I think most, other than confirmed atheists, would prefer to aceept God on blind faith, if for no other compelling reason.

Someone interested in the philosophical issues related to religious belief would also be well-served by reading Alvin Plantinga's books. Plantinga is primarily a philosopher, not an apologist, though certainly many of his ideas have been drafted into the service of apologetics. Plantinga is a professor of philosophy, publishes in philosophical journals, and is taken seriously by both secular and Christian philosophers. While he often writes for an academic audience (e.g., The Nature of Necessity, God and Other Minds) he has also written books that are comprehensible by people without a background in modal logic and the techniques of modern analytic philosophy.
Lyle, I think you're right that many if not most Christians don't understand their religion very well and rely inordinately on "feeling" it. Craig argues that this makes them vulnerable to losing their faith when they're intellectually challenged by nonbelievers or when they've simply lost the religious equivalent of "that lovin' feeling." He also argues that a poor command of the teachings of one's faith and the inability to defend them from attack makes one an ineffectual evangelist.
Mishima, your Plantinga suggestion is excellent! As a matter of fact, I recently purchased his "Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism" and may do a review of it here on this blog after I read it. Plantinga is certainly one of the foremost Christian philosophers out there. Craig is also considered, from what I understand, to be a formidable philosopher and not merely an apologist. He is particularly noted for his work on reviving and expanding on the Kalam Cosmological Argument and for his work on the philosophy of time.
Steve, if you are in the mood to write a review of Plantinga's book, I would be interested in reading it. I have read a couple of other reviews, but I'm always interested in other perspectives.

Just to let you know where I'm coming from -- I think that a rational person can hold religious beliefs, including belief in the existence of God, belief in miracles, etc. That said, just because a belief is rational does not mean that it is true, and I've never seen anything in history or philosophy that can conclusively demonstrate the actual truth of a religious belief. I suppose this is why people talk about religious "faith."

Early in his career, Plantinga was responding to philosophers who held that religious belief was not only false but irrational, because a particular religious belief was about a proposition set that was either internally contradictory or described a state of affairs that was logically impossible. From what I've read by him, much of his career has been devoted to showing in one way or another that religious belief is rational and reasonable. Of course, as I said earlier just because something is rational and reasonable does not mean that it is true, though I'm sure that Plantinga would assert that his beliefs are in fact true.

And this illustrates what I think is a major difference between philosophy and apologetics. To argue that a particular religious belief is rational is the job of philosophy. To argue that a particular religious belief is true is the job of apologetics. Of course, the two fields can overlap, but in general I think that distinction holds.
Mishima, thank you for your excellent comments. I will make it a point to review the Plantinga book here after I read it, and I look forward to reading any comments you may have regarding my review.

I think my position on monotheism is essentially the same as yours. That is, I no longer believe that monotheism is a heap of idiotic irrationality, but I also believe that even though it can be fashioned into a logically coherent system, that doesn't make its conclusions true. And I happen to strongly believe that they aren't true and that there is no "personal God" of the Bible (or Qur'an) who created and oversees this universe.

Finally, I think you draw an excellent distinction between the way a philosopher and an apologist approach religion, even though, as you point out, the two undertakings can and often do overlap.