Anatomy of Unbelief

By Louis Markos

In  Screwtape  Letters  #13, senior devil  Screwtape responds to the fears of his nephew and junior tempter, Wormwood, over the sudden, unexpected repentance, renewal, and re- conversion of his human patient. Wormwood feels sure that he has lost his prey, but Screwtape counsels him to do all he can to prevent his patient from doing any thing with his new spiritual resolve : “As long as he does not convert it into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance. Let the little brute wallow in it. Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it.”1

Os Guinness, a prolific author, speaker, and social critic who founded the Trinity Forum, serves as a visiting fellow at the Brooking s Institution, and is a guest scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies, has thankfully never allowed himself to fall prey to Screwtape’s insidious methods. Indeed, near the start of Fools Talk : Recovering the Art of Christian  Persuasion, he shares with us a promise he made to God when he graduated from Oxford : “I promised that I would always do apologetics rather than simply write about it, that I would do it before writing about it, and that I would do it more than writing about it” (38).

True to his promise, Guinness has spent a long fruitful career persuading  individuals  and  groups  of  the  truth,  goodness, and beaut y of the gospel in a world that is both modern and postmodern. In Fools Talk he has synthesized, not only all that he has read and written about apologetics for the last four decades, but all that he has learned on his feet from trying to persuade everyone, from liberal theologians to postmodern seekers to angry atheists, of the soundness of the Christian worldview and the salvific power of Christ.

What Guinness bring s to Fools Talk, and what makes it so unique among the dozens of excellent apologetics books on the market, is a keen sense of the proper place and role of apologetics. Apologetics, he insists, cannot and should not be divorced from evangelism ; the former must not be pursued as an end in itself but must ever prepare the way for the latter. Just as importantly, those who take seriously the Great Commission must never reduce their witness to a one-size- fits-all apologetic that strives after the same utility, efficiency, and repeatability as McDonald’s or Disney World.

If we are to reach a dying world for Christ,  we must spend less time polishing our presentations and more time digging into the hearts, souls, and minds of those who so desperately need the gospel. If we really did that, we would quickly realize that one of the chief obstacles to apologetics-evangelism is the fact that so many people have no idea that the y are in need of the gospel.

Of course, Guinness is not unique in noting that the lost lack a sense of their own lostness. What is unique is the way he carefully unpacks that lack in a long chapter aptly titled “Anatomy of Unbelief.” Having first exposed, in a non-curmudge only fashion, how our age is obsessed with technology, experts, formulas, and how-to manuals, Guinness goes on to put his finger on the core issue that keeps so many people from faith : “For every thinker who desires to conform his thinking  to reality, there are others whose desire is clearly to conform reality to their thinking” (80).

Behind Guinness’s analysis, there stands, by his own confession, the monumental work of Peter Berg er, Francis Schaeffer, and C. S. Lewis. I suspect that Guinness has in mind here Lewis’s penetrating insight into the difference bet ween the ethos of the Middle Ag es and that of post-Enlightenment Europe. “For the wise men of old,” Lewis writes in Chapter Three of The  Abolition of Man, “the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men : the solution is a technique.”2

Building on this prideful refusal to accept the claims of reality (and its Creator) on our lives, and then folding in to it Berger ’s keen sociological analysis of modern relativism, the more on-the-g round dialogues that Schaeffer had with discontented atheists in the 1960s and 70s, and the counter-cultural witness of the Old Testament’s prophets and  of Romans 1,  Guinness constructs a  diagnosis for understanding the nature and process of unbelief, especially as it has been trumpeted in the work of the new atheists.

The  downward journey  toward  unbelief beg ins  with a “willful abuse of truth” that seeks to suppress, exploit, and invert the truth (85). In the end, this leads to what Guinness calls “a deliberate  act of deception that ends in its own self-deception” (89). Unafraid to call this process of self-deception by its proper theological name, sin, Guinness reveals the driving motivation behind it:

If sin is the claim to ‘the right to myself,’ it includes the claim to ‘the rig ht to my view of thing s.’ And since we are each finite, ‘my view of thing s’ is necessarily restricted and simply cannot see the full picture. We therefore turn a blind e ye to all other ways of seeing thing s that do not fit ours, and especially to God’s view of things (89).

In a witty metaphor, Guinness compares apologists who tr y to win  over  self-deceived unbelievers  by  continually  restating  and repackaging their arguments to tourists who think that non-English speakers will understand them if the y repeat what the y said “more slowly and loudly ” (114).  Rather than fool ourselves into thinking the rig ht method or technique will convince willful atheists, we need to “focus on the inescapable tension and dynamic conflict inherent in unbelief ”(93.)

Once we see, really see, that, we will realize that reason alone cannot reach such people, for their willful disobedience and self- deception prevent them, despite their protestations to the contrary, from being purely neutral or disinterested. What  we as apologists must focus on, therefore, is not perfecting apologetical knock-out punches, but on g rasping “the inherent tension bet ween the truth and the falseness in all unbelief ” (95). Only then will we be able to discern the “difference bet ween what unbelievers assert the y are and who they really are” (95).

According to Guinness, unbelievers deal with this tension in one of two ways : by moving toward what he terms the dilemma pole or the diversion pole. Nietzsche offers the prime example of one who chose the dilemma pole. Unwilling to sweep the tensions caused by unbelief under the rug , and willing to say true to the courage of his (anti-) convictions, he pressed onward to the logical (and dark) end of his unbelief. He even relished in taking potshots at fellow atheists who, like those from Victorian Eng land, cravenly chose the diversion pole and pretended that there was meaning and purpose in the world despite their refusal to acknowledge the only final source of such meaning and purpose. That is to say, in the face of the survival-of- the-fittest determinism demanded by their atheism, the y, along with their diversionary heirs, continued to act as if morality, beauty, and innate human dignity were real things.

Both strategies are open to  the  unbeliever;  however, Guinness makes it clear that far more people choose the diversion pole. For every  Sartre—whom Guinness describes as  “more  consistent  to atheism and  also more cold”—there are  dozens who choose the way of Camus—who was “inconsistent but warm” (98). And yet, Guinness notes, those who  gravitate  toward  the  diversion pole, though more numerous, are less understood. And that is problematic, for the number of diversionary unbelievers has skyrocketed in our age,  thanks  to  our  media-  and  advertising -soaked world  which provides unbelievers with endless distractions from pondering the consequences of  their  atheistic  worldview. Indeed, the  kinds  of distractions once reserved only for royalty are now widely available to the middle class and even the poor.

What then are we to do to wake up such dishonest, but comfortable, unbelievers from their slumber ? What Guinness proposes lies midway bet ween Socrates’ determination to be a gadfly on the lethargic horse of state and Francis Schaeffer’s method of “taking the roof ” off of unbelievers so as to force them to confront directly the implications of the godless universe the y claim to believe in.

It is time, writes Guinness, to turn  the tables on all those new atheists who claim that the y, and not the Christians, are the ones who are willing to look reality in the face. We must force them to really  stand  face-to -face with  reality,  not  by  making  apolgetical statements or preaching sermons, but by asking questions that will prod them “to follow the logic of their ideas through to the end” (125).  Such a process is not to be taken lightly, for its goal is to lead, but not manipulate, unbelievers into seeing the truth of their situation. Such a moment is a sobering one, for, when the y reach it, the y can no long er claim ignorance. Now, truly, they “have seen the truth, the y know the truth, and the y are responsible to the truth that the y now know ” (128).

And when that  moment comes, the y must choose bet ween two very different options : “to fall on their knees or to turn on their heels” (128).  It is not within our power to determine which of these two options the unbeliever will choose. But we can, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, help to bring him to that impasse, that moment of crisis. Following the lead of Berger, Guinness holds up as the supreme biblical example of an apologist who pushed a willfully self-deceived sinner to this crisis point, the prophet Nathan (1 Sam 12).

By reframing David’s actions in terms of a story about a rich man who stole the sole possession of his poor neighbor to feed his lusts, Nathan engaged David’s conscience, his sense of rig ht and wrong that was deeper and more essential than his petty attempts to cover up his crimes. Once David was inside the story and his conscience had made it clear to him that the rich man deserved death, Nathan was able to spring the trap on David and re veal the depth of his sin and his need for repentance. As a result, David fell to his knees—a reaction which Guinness contrasts with the Sadducees, who, when Jesus exposed their hypocrisy, blinded themselves further and took to their heels.

There is much more to Guinness’s analysis that I cannot cover in this re view, but it is all undergirded by a special kind of orientation toward the task of the apologist that  needs and deserves a wide hearing . The apologetics enterprise, Guinness makes clear, is not about winning , nor is it about always being rig ht. It is about nothing more or less than defending the honor of God.

Sin, Guinness argues, is about more than disobedience. Whereas faith surrenders to God’s sovereignty over our lives, sin seeks to justify itself by putting God on trial.

Faith desires to let God be God. Sin has framed God , whether by the ultimate insult that he, the creator of all things, does not exist, or that he, the white-hot  holy One, is responsible for the evil and suffering  that humans have introduced into his good creation” (54-5).

Though  Guinness does not  mention  it,  I  cannot  help  but  be reminded  of  the  infamous paragraph  in  Richard  Dawkins’s The God Delusion in which he accuses God of every crime, cruelty, and per version that he can think of : a sort of anti-litany to the titles of the Messiah that are listed in Isaiah 9:6 and set to music so powerfully by Handel.

Along with Dawkins, a g rowing number of unbelievers have thrown down just such a gauntlet before the Holy One of Israel, seeking to frame God for their own crimes. In response to this blasphemy, Guinness throws down his own gauntlet, “Gods name must be cleared and his existence  and character  brought  to the fore beyond question” (55). That, not the winning of debates, must be the ultimate goal of the apologist.

1 C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York : Simon & Schuster, 1996), 57.

2 C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York : Macmillan, 1965), 88.

[Editor’s Note: Atheism image from Jan Matejko’s Stańczyk, 1862, found at  Wikipedia Commons.]