A Model for Apologetic Preaching

            Most preachers I talk to about apologetics and preaching agree that the two can and should go together, but few have a workable model for developing apologetic sermons. Thus, I developed an approach to preparing apologetic messages that utilizes the acrostic STEPS. Before I share the details of the STEPS model, a word about two types of apologetics: negative and positive. Nash’s definition of the two is helpful:

In negative apologetics, the major objective is producing answers to challenges to religious faith. The proper task of negative apologetics is removing obstacles to belief…. In negative apologetics, the apologist is playing defense. In positive apologetics, the apologist begins to play offense. It is one thing to show (or attempt to show) that assorted arguments against religious faith are weak or unsound; it is a rather different task to offer people reasons why they should believe. The latter is the task of positive apologetics.

Given the difference between negative and positive apologetics, I adapted the STEPS model to address each approach. Here is how STEPS works for negative apologetics.

Specify the Apologetic Challenge

            Given the concern in negative apologetics to defend the faith against attacks, the starting point in developing an apologetic sermon outline for negative apologetics is to specify the apologetic challenge the sermon intends to address. The preacher’s goal at this point is to initiate a connection with the audience based on the topic under consideration. While there is not necessarily one “right” way to do this, it may prove useful to quote an opponent of the Christian faith, followed by a question.

Tell the Critic’s Best Argument

            Having identified the apologetic challenge, the negative apologetic sermon now includes the best example of an argument in favor of the position stated in the challenge. At this point the preacher must take the time to learn and accurately represent the views of those he is engaging. God is not honored nor are the saints helped when strawmen are built and attacked. Always present the opposing view’s best argument.

Present the Answer to the Apologetic Challenge

            At this point the preacher will present what the Bible and other sources say about the apologetic challenge. The focus of the preacher turns from answering the critic to offering reasons to believe the Christian faith despite the apologetic challenge being discussed. When sharing the answer to the apologetic challenge the preacher is helping the hearer understand that the Christian faith is both reasonable and based in divine revelation.

Summarize and Transition to a Related Invitation

            It is possible to present the first four parts of the STEPS model within a sermon that is broader than just the apologetics (e.g., a message about foolishness could include a discussion of the fool’s denial of God’s existence). However, if the message is wholly apologetic, then the preacher’s last responsibility is to summarize and offer a gospel invitation relevant to the audience (i.e., if evangelism, then the gospel portion is an invitation to believe and repent, but if discipleship, then the gospel portion is an invitation to trust God more deeply; if both, then both).


And here is how STEPS works for positive apologetics.

Specify the Apologetic Topic

            In a positive apologetic message, where the goal is to present a positive case for belief, the preacher begins by specifying the apologetic topic. This approach sets the expectation with the hearer that the sermon will provide reasons to believe. It will help the preacher connect with his audience if, when introducing the apologetic topic, he avoids the language of doubt (though such language may prove helpful with negative apologetics), focusing instead on inviting the hearer into a deeper consideration of the positive case for believing.

Tell the Topic’s Significance

            After specifying the topic, the preacher gives the hearers a few key reasons why the topic is important. It will help the preacher to think in terms of doctrine and practice at this point. Help the listener understand the doctrinal significance of the topic, how it relates to overall Christian theology. Likewise, discuss how the topic generally relates to living the Christian life, to the practice of faith.

Explain the Biblical and Rational Basis Concerning the Apologetic Topic

            The topic has been presented and its significance considered, so the preacher turns to a presentation of the biblical and rational basis for believing whatever is under consideration. This is the central apologetic content of the message, where the argument in favor of the belief is put forth in clear and compelling terms. While the preacher’s goal is not to harangue his hearers and browbeat them concerning the topic, he should make an impassioned case for “the hope that is in [him]” (1 Pet. 3:15).

Practically Apply the Apologetic Topic for the Hearers

            This is where the preacher transitions from apologetic case-making to practical application. How does the apologetic topic relate to the hearers? The emphasis at this point in making apologetic realities fit real life needs.

Summarize and Transition to a Related Invitation

            As with the STEPS model applied to negative apologetics, so it is possible for the positive model to be a part of a message dealing with something not exclusively apologetic. If so, there is not necessarily a transition to a related invitation. However, if the positive apologetic message is stand-alone, then the preacher will conclude by summarizing and making a transition appropriate to the topic and audience—unbeliever, believer, or both.


            I realize it is probably easier to understand STEPS in an actual sermon. At this point, however, what is most important is the basic structure. In the next two weekly installments I will present actual sermon manuscripts, one for negative apologetics and one for positive apologetics.

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T. J. shares a passion for the moral argument(s) and brings much to his new post. He is, in his own words, a “mere Christian with genuine fascination and awe for the breadth and depth of God’s gracious kingdom.” He became a Christian in 1978, and began pastoral ministry in 1984. He has worked as a youth pastor, senior pastor, church planter, church-based seminary professor, a chaplain assistant in the Army, and a chaplain in the Army National Guard. A southern Illinois native, T. J. is a graduate of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale with a BA in Political Science; Liberty University with an MAR in Church Ministries, an MDiv in Chaplaincy, and a ThM in Theology; Luther Rice College and Seminary with an MA in Apologetics; and Piedmont International University with a DMin in Pastoral Counseling. He is currently writing his dissertation on crisis leadership in the epistle of Jude for the PhD in Leadership at Piedmont, as well as pursuing a PhD in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty, hoping to write his dissertation on some aspect of the intersection of moral apologetics and the pastorate. He is the author of several books, including God Help Us: Encouragement for Evangelism, and Thinking of Worship: A Liturgical Miscellany, as well as journal articles on liturgics, pastoral counseling, homiletics, and apologetics. He and his wife have five children. T. J.’s preaching may be heard at www.sermonaudio.com/fellowshipinchrist.

The Inability of Naturalism to Explain Moral Knowledge

© By R Scott Smith, PhD, Biola University, scott.smith@biola.edu  

There are various positions taken amongst naturalists in metaethics, and these have implications for whether or not a particular naturalist would believe we can have moral knowledge. In this short paper, first I will survey options in metaethics that various naturalists have taken and draw out those implications. Though they may differ in their metaethical standpoints, all these theorists are united around a common ontological claim – real, intrinsic, moral facts do not exist. Yet, they also think we can (and often do) know much about morality. For example, following the fact-value split, we know not only that science (i.e., today’s orthodox science, which is naturalistic) gives us knowledge of the facts of reality, but we also know that ethics and religion give us opinions, preferences, and our own constructs. But in the second section, I will take up a broader question: can we really have knowledge on naturalism? If not, then it seems naturalism would be false, for there are many things it seems we do know, including in morality. If so, then naturalism should be rejected.

I. Various Metaethical Positions for Naturalists

I. Noncognitivism: On a traditional, linguistic understanding, noncognitivists believe that moral judgments are neither true nor false. This would include two main positions, i.e., prescriptivism and emotivism (which A.J. Ayer supported). But this depiction has been criticized for at least a couple reasons by Richard Joyce, who first challenges just what a moral judgment is.[1] On his view, noncognitivism could be (1) a denial of the existence of beliefs (as mental states which could be true or false); (2) the lack of expression of a proposition (which would eliminate beliefs, which are propositions); or (3) the denial of the assertion of a belief. Overall, beliefs have no place metaethically, so there is no moral knowledge (understood as a justified true moral belief) available on this view.

Now, Simon Blackburn nuances his noncognitivism by appealing to projectivism and quasi-realism.[2] The latter is a linguistic thesis which seeks to “‘earn the right’ for moral discourse to enjoy all the trappings of realist talk,” including truth predicates in moral sentences.[3] For the noncognitivist, “stealing is wrong” really means something like “stealing – ugh!” However, for the quasi-realist, judging by the surface grammar of the sentence, it may be considered to be (or, treated as) true or false. Such sentences mimic moral realist assertions, yet do not really mean the same thing. The focus here is completely on moral discourse (a linguistic emphasis) and not about a moral property being instanced in some action (which would be a metaphysical focus) - for such things are not real. Blackburn is quite clear why: “The problem is one of finding room for ethics, or placing ethics within the disenchanted, non-ethical order which we inhabit, and of which we are a part.”[4]

But whether on Blackburn’s views, or the more traditional noncognitivist ones, there is no moral knowledge. There are no moral facts or moral judgments that can be known to be true or false. Still, that does not mean that someone like Blackburn or Ayer does not claim to know much about morality.

2. Moral Cognitivism - Subjectivist Theories: In general, cognitivists believe that moral statements are truth-apt yet disagree about the object of such statements. Of course, within this position, there has been the traditional distinction between private subjectivism and cultural relativism.

Here are two subjectivist examples. While Gilbert Harman seems to reduce moral facts to natural ones, nonetheless that does not mean that there are no moral facts. He affirms the theory-ladenness of beliefs, so that any moral beliefs we may have from making empirical observations are not due to some self-presenting, intrinsically moral property, but rather our interaction (which is conditioned by our upbringing and psychology) with just natural facts. Moral facts are mind-dependent, or our constructs; that is, in terms of a broader issue of moral realism versus anti-realism, he seems to be a subjectivist about morals (i.e., metaphysically).[5] So, we can know what moral facts are (i.e., human constructs), but we cannot know a moral reality independent of nature, for there is none.

Consider also Michael Ruse’s subjectivist ethics. For him, “the meaning of morality is that it is objective.”[6] Ruse embraces sociobiology: morality (in particular, social cooperation) just is a shared, biological adaptation. He draws upon Richard Dawkins’ “selfish gene” view, and he suggests that we may speak of genes as selfish or altruistic. Yet, that is just to employ a biological metaphor, on which “altruistic” behavior is cooperative. Further, we objectify morality, but that is an illusion that has been thrust upon us by our genes, for there is no foundation for morality independent of biology. Yet Ruse also stands strongly against behaviors such as rape, female circumcision, or Hitler’s atrocities.[7] Evidently, then, Ruse believes we can know various acts to be morally right or wrong, yet he also seems to have special access to the truth about morality itself – that it is not objective but just a biological adaptation.

3. Moral Cognitivism - Error Theory: J.L. Mackie argued that, descriptively, there are widespread differences in moral views, and their best explanation is that moral judgments “reflect adherence to and participation in different ways of life.”[8] He also argued that if there exist objective moral properties, they would be entities of a very queer sort, utterly unlike anything else that exists in the physical universe, and they would require some atypical means to know them.

But the error theorist also claims that our moral discourse trades upon institutional (and thus socially constructed) facts, not brute, physical facts. Institutional rules guide our actions and speech, so moral judgments (which are beliefs) that profess to be real and institution-independent instead are infected with error. Why? There are no intrinsic moral facts. So for the error theorist, there is no room for moral knowledge, for there is nothing truly moral to be known. Yet, we may know much about moral discourse, that such talk does not reflect a predication of real moral properties.

4. Moral Cognitivism - Ethical Naturalism: On this last set of views, moral statements are about moral acts, or objects thought to have moral value. But here, moral facts can be reduced to natural ones which can be studied by science. On such a view, we can infer that such naturalists think we can have “moral” knowledge, since we can have knowledge of natural facts via science. Yet, of course, such knowledge would not be of intrinsically moral facts.

The Cornell Realists (Richard Boyd, Nicholas Sturgeon, and David Brink) offer a variation. For them, all our observations (scientific, ethical, etc.) are theory-laden and are justified in light of their coherence with one’s whole web of beliefs. But this need not result in thoroughgoing anti-realism. For them, there are moral explanations of natural facts, and when we do this, we bring to bear our presupposition-laden background beliefs. So, for these realists, claiming that there are no moral facts lacks independent rational force against a realist’s web of beliefs. Thus, it seems we could have moral knowledge on this view, but again, it would not be of some intrinsically moral facts.

In sum, there is a spectrum of positions amongst naturalists in metaethics, resulting in different answers to the question, can we have moral knowledge? Some are confident that we can, while others are not. Yet they all seem to think there is much we can know about morality and moral discourse. Now, let us turn to examine the prospects for these (and other) knowledge claims on naturalism.

II. The Prospects for Knowledge on Naturalism

In general, given naturalism’s ontology, it seems that since only real natural facts exist in a mind-independent way, all other facts are human constructs. This line of thought fits with John Searle’s distinction between the brute facts of the physical world and the constructed facts of social reality.[9] Similarly, when addressing the reality of intentionality, Michael Tye avers to the reality of physical facts, yet explains the mental as a way of describing, or conceiving of, the physical.[10] Others seem to follow this same kind of pattern, such as David Papineau, Fred Dretske, and William Lycan.[11] Indeed, it seems to be a reasonable move, for on naturalism, the only intrinsic facts are physical ones. All else that we experience in reality (whether involving relationships, social life, economics, politics, business, sports, ethics, entertainment, or more) are due to how we conceive of, or talk about, the physical.

Daniel Dennett takes a similar line of argumentation. If we are consistent as naturalists, it means that while real brains and real physical patterns of forces exist, nonetheless things like mental states, intentions, and meanings are just attributions, or interpretations, we make from having adopted the intentional stance.[12] That stance is merely a tactic we adopt to help us predict behavior, and not to posit the “existence” of a variety of other “real” entities. For instance, consider the examples from Star Trek™, where Mr. Spock plays chess with the Enterprise’s computer.[13] For Dennett, both Spock and the computer are mechanisms, without any real intentions. Still, to help us predict what move Spock will make at a given stage in the game, we adopt the intentional stance, in which we attribute to him the intention to checkmate his opponent; thus, likely, he will make a given move. We treat the computer similarly, in that it “intends” to checkmate Spock and thus we predict it will make such-and-such a move.

For Dennett, these attributions of intentional states (and beliefs, desires, intentions, thoughts, etc.) are useful, shorthand ways of talking. They enable us to predict efficiently and reliably the behavior of intentional systems, which are systems that are amenable to treatment from this tactic.[14] It is more efficient than developing a lengthy, cumbersome description using the language of neuroscience.[15]

Now, while Dennett denies the reality of mental entities and their content, he does affirm the objective reality of physical patterns in the real world that we can detect.[16] However, Dennett also realizes that though these objective patterns are real, they always fall short of perfection. Therefore, there always will be uninterpretable gaps. Why? Here, Dennett draws upon Quine’s indeterminacy of radical translation[17] and extends it to the “‘translation’ of not only the patterns in subjects’ dispositions to engage in external behavior (Quine’s ‘stimulus meanings’), but also the further patterns in dispositions to ‘behave’ internally.”[18] Dennett realizes that there always will be such gaps entails that it is “always possible in principle for rival intentional stance interpretations of those patterns to tie for first place, so that no further fact could settle what the intentional system in question really believed.”[19]

Besides Quine, Dennett also appeals to Donald Davidson, who explains this principle in terms of its application to belief: “If there is indeterminacy [of meaning or translation], it is because when all the evidence is in, alternative ways of stating the facts remain open.”[20] Now, Dennett sees that Quine demonstrated the indispensability of intentionalistic discourse, yet for them such talk is not grounded in real mental states. So, Dennett uses Quine to support his own denial of the reality of mental entities and content: “Quine’s thesis of the indeterminacy of radical translation is thus of a piece with his attack on essentialism; if things had real, intrinsic essences, they could have real, intrinsic meanings.”[21]

So, if there were such essences, then meanings (along with other intentional states) could be determinate. There could be a single, correct answer to questions such as, What was Spock really intending to do when he made that move in chess? Or, what does Spock really believe about the moral status of Starfleet’s “prime directive”?[22] But Dennett thinks it is futile to think we can match up “mental” entities with their physical correlates. In principle, these patterns are capable of being interpreted variously from the intentional stance, and those interpretations could tie for first place. There are no deeper facts (i.e., essences) to give a determinate answer to the question, “What does it mean?”

Yet, with the language we use to describe the physical and behavioral traits of living things and other objects,[23] we take as real the entities referred to by that language. This is because we believe there are brute facts in the real world, something which can be described accurately from the standpoint of the Darwinian, materialistic story.

However, let us consider a comment Dennett makes in passing about his own views’ implications. He observes that Samuel C. Wheeler draws insightful connections between Derrida, Quine, and Davidson. Per Wheeler, Derrida provides “important, if dangerous, supplementary arguments and considerations” to the ones that Davidson and other Quinians have put forth.[24] As Wheeler notes, “For Quinians, of course, it is obvious already that speech and thought are brain-writing, some kind of tokenings which are as much subject to interpretation as any other.”[25]

Since there are no essences, there are no representations that are intrinsically about anything. Moreover, since natural selection itself is unrepresenting, there cannot be any “natural signs,” something that intrinsically would represent something else. Now, this means that for Dennett, we are left with events of “taking as,” in which we take (interpret, conceive of) some input as something else.[26] There is no room, it seems, for any aspect of the world as it is in itself to come before us and be known as it is, apart from how that input has been conceptualized.

Likewise, if any event of “taking as” cannot intrinsically represent something, then it too must be taken to be something else. Of course, that taking also must be taken as something else, and so on to infinity, it would seem, without any way to get started with these takings. As Willard argues, “Either there is going to be at some point a ‘taking as’ which does not itself represent anything (even what is ‘taken’) – which certainly sounds like a self-contradiction and is at best unlike the instances of ‘taking’ featured in Dennett’s explanations – or there is going to be an infinite regress of takings.”[27]

Now, clearly, this conclusion would apply to those things we would consider on naturalism to be our constructs, such as mental entities, morality, religion, and much more. But it also would hold for those aspects of the materialistic, real world Dennett takes to be objective. If everything that can be known (or even thought about, processed, etc.) by the brain is the result of a process with nothing but takings, since nothing is immediately given to us, then it seems there is no room for Dennett’s “brute facts” to be exempt from Derrida’s point: everything is a “text” which needs interpretation. The so-called “brute facts” also are conceptualizations, the result of the “raw stimulus” having been “cooked” by the brain’s distributed processes. Even the so-called “raw stimulus” is a taking (of something, but what we do not seem to know) as something else.

Now, it makes sense that there must be some raw stimulus; no one who takes the need for interpretation seriously, at least whom I know, denies that there is a real world. But, like all else, the raw stimulus, and even the so-called “objective” patterns, also must be takings of some things as such. They too are conceptualizations, every bit as much as anything else. Even the so-called “facts” of the objective, materialistic world of the natural sciences, would be just interpretations.

If so, then on what rational justification can Dennett privilege the third-person, objective, materialistic, Darwinian view of the real world? On his view, the language of materialism, cognitive science, etc., would be just as subject to Quine’s thesis of the indeterminacy of translation as the language of folk psychology. This is because the language of materialism is a brain-writing, which is a token, and therefore would be as much in need of interpretation as any other facet of existence.

Thus, when all the “facts” are in, there still will be alternative ways of stating them, in addition to the language of materialism and cognitive science. And, since there are no essences, there will be no deeper facts to settle any disputes that would arise. Therefore, applying Dennett’s own logic, in principle, it will always be possible for rival interpretations to tie for first place.

Now, this issue seems to arise not just for Dennett, but also for other naturalists as well, for the problem surfaces precisely because there are no essences to determine the facts of the matter. And it is not a problem just for in the areas of ethics or religion; it seems to be a problem in principle for naturalism. Without essences, it seems there would be an endless series of interpretations, without any way to get started, even with the so-called “brute facts.”

Now, this regress of interpretations may not seem problematic to some. After all, we do experience real trees, brains, moral situations, and the like. So, perhaps the ubiquity of interpretation may simply imply that while we do experience objects in reality, our access always is interpreted access.

At first glance, this reply may seem to alleviate the problem. For when we make observations of, say, a gas at a certain temperature and pressure, we still do need to interpret those observations. This is all well and fine; I have no desire to underestimate the importance of interpretation. However, that is not my point; rather, it is that without essences, there is no way to gain any “foothold” onto reality and begin to know it. An interpretation always is of something, but here, at every step, it seems that “something” ends up being another interpretation, without a way to access reality itself and even start.

III. Implications

Without essences, there are no intrinsic constraints on what is intentional or mental. Thus, we seem utterly unable to have any knowledge if the ontology of naturalism were true. The same implication applies to morality; at best we are left with a beginningless series of interpretations, such that there is no way to gain any foothold on reality, to even begin to conceive of something as moral. This means that there is no place for knowledge about morality, or of moral discourse, or even whether a particular action is moral or immoral. Also, on the fact-value split, we think we can know the facts of reality through naturalistic science, and that the deliverances of ethics and religion are just opinions. But these claims also become impossible to know on naturalism.

Indeed, every claim to knowledge becomes impossible to know, for there is no way to escape the relentless regress of interpretations. This condition simply is the natural result of rejecting the existence of essences, and it applies in morality because of the specific rejection of intrinsic moral properties, or facts. Without them, naturalism is unable to give us any moral knowledge, or knowledge about morality, despite the contentions of its expositors.

Yet, descriptively, the fact remains that many people who are naturalists do know several things, including in the field of ethics. For instance, Ruse contends vigorously that rape is wrong. Peter Singer knows it is wrong to treat animals cruelly. Those who appeal to the problem of moral evil as evidence against God’s existence know that injustice and genocide are wrong.

But these cases of moral knowledge should make us pause, for if naturalism were true, we could not them. So, it seems that a different ontology, which includes the reality of essences, must be true.



[1] Richard Joyce, “Moral Anti-Realism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-anti-realism, accessed March 21, 2013.

[2] E.g., see his Essays in Quasi-Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) and Spreading the Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).

[3] Richard Joyce, “Projectivism and quasi-realism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-anti-realism, accessed March 21, 2013 (emphasis in original).

[4] Simon Blackburn, Ruling Passions: A Theory of Practical Reasoning (Oxford: Clarendon Press), 49.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Michael Ruse, “Evolution and Ethics: The Sociobiological Approach,” in Ethical Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings, ed. Louis Pojman, 4th ed. (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2002), 661.

[7] Ibid.

[8] J.L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), 36.

[9] John Searle, The Construction of Social Reality (New York: The Free Press, 1995).

[10] Michael Tye, Ten Problems of Consciousness: A Representational Theory of the Phenomenal Mind (Cambridge, MA.: Bradford Books, 1995).

[11] For Papineau, see his Philosophical Naturalism (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1993), and Thinking about Consciousness (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002). See also Dretske’s Naturalizing the Mind: The 1994 Jean Nicod Lectures (Cambridge, MA.: Bradford Books, 1995). For Lycan, see Consciousness and Experience (Cambridge, MA.: Bradford Books, 1996).

[12] These attributions “are interpretations of the phenomena,” and they serve as a “heuristic overlay.” See his Daniel C. Dennett, “Dennett, Daniel C.,” A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind: Blackwell Companions to Philosophy, ed. Samuel Guttenplan (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1994), 239.

[13] Star Trek and related marks are trademarks of CBS Studios Inc.

[14] See Dennett, “Dennett, Daniel C.,” 239.

[15] Daniel C. Dennett, The Intentional Stance, 3rd printing (Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 1990), 233-34. Even in a “golden age” of neuroscience, we still will need the language of folk psychology.

[16] Dennett, The Intentional Stance, 40 (emphasis in original).

[17] Quine explains: “To expect a distinctive physical mechanism behind every genuinely distinct mental state is one thing; to expect a distinctive mechanism for every purported distinction that can be phrased in traditional mentalistic language is another. The question whether … the foreigner really believes A or believes rather B, is a question whose very significance I would put in doubt. This is what I am getting at in arguing for the indeterminacy of translation.” See his “On the Reasons for Indeterminacy of Translation,” Journal of Philosophy LXVII (1970), 180-81, quoted in Dennett, The Intentional Stance, 40.

 [18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid. (emphasis in original).

[20] Donald Davidson, “Belief and the Basis of Meaning,” Synthese Vol. 27 (1974): 322, quoted in Dennett, The Intentional Stance, 41(bracketed insert mine).

[21] Ibid., 319, note 8 (emphasis mine).

[22] The prime directive is Starfleet’s order to not interfere with the internal development of an alien planet’s culture. Often, it is treated as absolute, yet episodes explore if it could be overridden in certain cases.

[23] For example, see W.V.O. Quine, Word and Object (Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 1960), 221, quoted in Dennett, The Intentional Stance, 342.

[24] Samuel C. Wheeler III, “Indeterminacy of French Interpretation: Derrida and Davidson,” in E. Lepore, ed., Truth and Interpretation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), p. 477, quoted in Dennett, The Intentional Stance, 40, note 2.

[25] Wheeler, 492, quoted in Dennett, The Intentional Stance, 40, note 2.

[26] Compare Dallas Willard, “Knowledge and naturalism,” in Naturalism: A Critical Analysis, ed. J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig (New York: Routledge, 1999), 40.

[27] Ibid., 41.


Photo: "Brown Skua flies over wary Gentoo Penguins" by L. Quinn. CC License. 

Story and Truth

Holly Ordway is Professor of English and Director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius Press, 2014). She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst; her academic work focuses on imagination in apologetics, with special attention to the writings of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams.

Why Story Matters

We are all storytellers.

Our lives have a beginning, a middle, and – one day – an end. Birth announcements connect the new baby with the lives of the parents; later, graduation, wedding, and retirement announcements flag important plot points; the obituary will be a final summing-up.

Couples recount the story of how they met and fell in love. Travelers regale us with the stories of their adventures. Frustrating events become good stories when the sting has passed.

We need story. Imagine encountering a friend who seems distraught. Our first question will likely be “What happened?” We know intuitively that we must know something of the narrative to understand and sympathize properly. It’s the same when we encounter a joyful friend: we want to be drawn into the story, to be able to rejoice!

We understand our lives in terms of story, and thus story can help us understand our lives.

Stories are necessary for presenting truth in other contexts as well. In a court of law, we don’t just have a set of facts, we have the testimony of witnesses, individual stories about motives and events that make part of the larger narrative of “What really happened?” In job interviews, every candidate has a narrative of past jobs and experience, a story that is more than just items on a resume, but includes what that person has learned from those experiences.

Yet, in our increasingly post-Christian culture, the idea of story has become divorced from the idea of truth. Even though we live our lives in a context where true stories are vitally important, the connection of story with objective truth is obscured at best, obliterated at worst.

In the secular world, story is often treated as morally insignificant. Movies, books, television, and video games are all built around narrative - that's what makes them powerful - but the idea that these forms of story be challenged as to their truth seems odd at best. “It’s just a story, just a game, it’s not real” - these are the stock responses to any who express concern about what falsehoods or bad influences might be presented in entertainment media.

Paradoxically, however, our culture encourages us to consider own stories about morality and the meaning of our lives to be authoritative. Our modern culture encourages a cafeteria spirituality, in which we pick and choose our values, with personal preference having ultimate authority. “This is what’s true for me. It might not be true for you, but it is for me.” It’s impossible to argue with, and isn't that the point? Splendidly free from anything that might challenge our carefully constructed citadels of individual truth, we carry on untroubled by any suggestion that self-sacrifice rather than self-indulgence is called for.

Sadly, Christians have contributed to the marginalizing of story as a means of telling truth. Although the Scriptures are largely composed of story - narrative and poetry - many Christians, especially Protestants, view story with suspicion, as a form of lying, and have thus impovershed their imaginative lives. A few crucial figures over the past century have kept the connection between story and truth alive for Christians: most notably the Protestant George MacDonald, the Anglican C.S. Lewis, and the Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton. Their work, especially that of Lewis and Chesterton, has had a profound effect on many individuals, and is becoming more and more on the forefront of apologetics - the defense of the faith - and evangelization today. We need to carry on that good work, as a way of bringing the light of Christ to a culture in desperate need.

Story, Adrift

In order to understand what has happened to story as a mode of telling truth, and how we can reclaim story, we first need to consider what has happened to the Western worldview over the past few centuries.

In a slow process that began with the Enlightenment and has continued to the present day, the human faculties of reason and imagination have been separated, to the detriment of both.

On the one hand, reason has been given free rein, and the pursuit of knowledge using our God-given intellect has become scientism and materialism, the idea that only those things that can be empirically measured and logically figured out can be considered “true” or “real.” In the world of science, truth is held to be only that which is measurable and testable. Intangible things like emotions and spiritual truths are decidedly second-class citizens. After all, souls can’t be detected with an MRI, and love can’t be weighed and measured!

This adulation of reason without the counterbalance of imagination leads to an inevitable diminishment of the vision of what it means to be human. Our culture is showing many signs of this part of the reason / imagination divide. For instance, in a culture that embraces “scientific” ways of thinking, it becomes difficult to justify spending any extra time or money in promoting the arts, or making buildings beautiful. In older cities like Boston or Philadelphia, the public buildings from the 18th or 19th centuries – the town hall, the courthouse, the banks – have elegant, inspiring architecture. Contrast that to your local 20th century Department of Motor Vehicles.

More seriously, the fact that the human soul cannot be weighed, measured, or detected with scientific instruments has led to a creeping tendency to define human beings by what they can do, not by their innate dignity as men and women made in the image of God. The elderly and disabled, who cannot define themselves in terms of what they can accomplish, can very easily be considered a burden on society.

Narrowing the definition of truth to what reason alone can determine makes it possible for people to design functional buildings that depress the soul, and for people to talk about the suitability of ending one’s life simply because one is old and tired. With the use of reason alone, it is too easy to make categorical distinctions; a person can be a statistic, not recognized as one of the human beings that the scientist or bureaucrat interacts with on a daily basis. It is Imagination that would reveal the truth: the true connection between the imago Dei, the image of God in human beings, and each individual, unique human being.

Yet in the broader culture, unchecked imagination goes its own route to error. Ungrounded and undisciplined, a de-Christianized imagination has not led to more beauty, but to less. When less is left to the imagination, storytelling becomes shallow and limited. In order to get some sort of response, art, literature, music, and film move toward  the breaking of standards for the sake of destruction, and the rejection of limits of any kind.

Sexuality and violence, ever more of it, and ever more corrosive, become the norm for entertainment. In movies, we have gone from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho to the gore-fest of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with the same trend appearing in books. The popular young-adult series The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, is full of graphic depictions of violent injuries and gruesome death. Peter Jackson’s film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit adds violence at every turn.

The high level of sexuality in books and film, including books for younger readers, has become so much the norm that one of the things that makes the Harry Potter series distinctive is its refreshing lack of explicit sexuality and its depiction of chaste dating behavior – in other words, J.K. Rowling is notable for holding to standards that were normal up to a few decades ago.

Criticism of these trends is muzzled, however, because all of these excesses are claimed to be for the sake of art or fun, with no “meaning” behind them whatsoever. “It’s just a book” or “It’s just a movie” are the most common retorts to any expressed concern about the ideas and behavior being presented (and implicitly promoted) in the media.

We need to recover the connection between imagination and truth. Without the recognition that our values are objectively grounded in the living God, and that our flourishing as whole human beings depends on a right relationship with Him, the imaginative impulse will lead us to destruction as surely as unchecked reason.

But we are all storytellers, and the human need for story pops up wherever we look, even where we would not expect to find Story at all. In the realm of unchecked reason, skeptics tell just-so stories to explain every aspect of our lives in terms of biology and evolution. In the realm of unchecked imagination, celebrity culture allows people to participate in drama, and to have heroes and villains (if only for a fleeting moment). Even when we’re completely wrong about the way the world works, with our lives completely out of touch with the living God, we are drawn to narrative, imagery, characters – story. Such is the power of storytelling.

Story, when it is rightly used in the service of truth, can help connect reason and imagination into a healthy, God-focused whole.

A Dangerous Dead End

Redeeming story for the cause of truth means more than just slapping a Christian label on the idea of storytelling. Portions of the Christian church – most notably those that describe themselves as the Emerging or Emergent Church movement – have wholeheartedly affirmed a postmodern understanding of story. In this view, Christians have a wonderful story, one that brings meaning and joy and purpose to those who accept it, but it is a story that makes no claims, or sharply limited claims, about objective reality and objective truth.

The Emergent movement has been reacting against extremes in both the secular and Christian world. On one hand, the Emergents are rightly reacting against the harsh extreme of scientism, which has no room for human spiritual needs. On the other, they are also reacting against the extreme of cold literalism in the church, which strips Scripture of its beauty and reduces our relationship with the living God to a set of detailed doctrinal principles to affirm. The postmodern reaction against these extremes is not surprising, and indeed in many ways the postmodern Christians serve as a canary in the coal mine: the reason / imagination split can't be ignored as something in secular culture alone.

The postmodern view of story can be very appealing at first, but it fails because it does not firmly connect story to truth. If our narratives are generated and sustained by our communities, eventually differences in beliefs will fragment those communities down to the individual: my truth, my story. Either we will be trapped in the particular story we happen to be in, or we will shop around for a story we like better. Ultimately the postmodern Christian view of story disintegrates, because it acknowledges no transcendent Author of the story, and offers no way to determine if a given story is true.

Such a view is deadly, for it saps all the urgency to find the truth about spiritual matters. If Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life only for those who find that particular faith flavor appealing, then Buddhism or transcendental meditation or indulging in unlimited sex is equally valid for those who prefer those alternatives. Why pay attention to the Gospel if it is just one story among many?

Even in ordinary life, story without truth fails to satisfy. When I hear a story of my friend's life, I expect it to be true, that is, corresponding to the way things actually are. When I read a poem, I expect it to show me something true about the world, to illuminate some aspect of my experiences, or help me appreciate real beauty better. When I read a novel, I expect it to make sense, for it to add to my enjoyment of the world, or help me understand things better, even if those things are sad or terrible (since we live in a fallen world, much of what is true is rather painful to hear). Even a story read for pure escapism needs to have some connection to truth in character, setting, or plot (not necessarily all three!). Surrealist fiction does not make for good beach reading; adventure and romance stories do, because they connect with things that we do recognize as true, namely that people can have adventures and do fall in love.

On a day to day basis, we flourish when the stories we tell about ourselves and the world, including our inner narratives, are true. The self-esteem movement attempted to help children live better, happier lives by telling them stories about their own greatness. But such stories were fabricated: kids were praised even when there were no objective grounds for praise. As a result, we have an entire generation of young people who have been trained in narcissism and brought up to believe that what matters is how they feel - the story they tell about themselves - not their actual accomplishments or character.

Simply telling oneself a new story is appealing. Americans are constantly reinventing themselves. It is good to have the freedom to make a course correction in life, but it is burdensome to think that one’s identity is one’s own responsibility. Our culture produces tremendous pressure to define oneself according to other stories: workplace success, or physical beauty, or social conformity. These are powerful alternate stories, and a Christian "story" that is simply one more feel-good option among many does not stand up as a viable alternative.

We must reclaim and redeem story, for the Church and for the world to which we minister in the name of Christ. If imagination gives us story without truth, and reason gives us truth without story, what we need is Christ who is Truth in story, the living Word.

The Christian Story

Christians are the only ones who can truly reclaim story. We do not offer just one more story, but the true story that is grounded in reality.

Reason and imagination are not separate, but are two sides of the same coin – two aspects of being made in the image of the Creator God. In Holy Scripture, we see no such false division between reason and imagination.

Consider Genesis: we can make propositional statements about the truths expressed in Genesis, but the way in which  God chose to reveal these truths is in narrative. Out of nothing, God created everything that is, and He gives us a story about it: then, and then, and next, and then. Genesis is the truth behind every “once upon a time,” the reason that we thrill to a story. We make, we create, because of who God is. God Himself is the ultimate Maker, the ultimate creative artist, whose creative stamp is impressed on us.

Holy Scripture is largely composed of poetry, narrative, parables. It is filled with beautiful imagery and communicates profound truth through metaphors: consider the description of the New Jerusalem, in Revelation, or the gentle imagery of Jesus as the Shepherd.

And, pre-eminently, the Word became flesh came and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. We who follow Christ do not just know about him (with our reason), though our reason tells us many true things about him, such as the fact of his Resurrection, and the nature of his claim to be our only Lord and Savior. We also know him, directly and experientially, most deeply in the Eucharist. Such an experience cannot be fully conveyed through words, but only experienced, but the faculty of imagination helps in the process. Imagination opens the doors of our hearts, so that the Spirit may more fully enter in.

The beauty of the true Christian story is that it works at every point on the scale - as you would expect from a story that corresponds with truth.

The Christian story accounts for creation, for why there is something rather than nothing.

The Christian story accounts for the existence and nature of human beings, of rationality, of thought and language, logic and art.

The Christian story means that each of us has an absolutely secure part in the great Story, as adopted children of God the Father, an adopted brothers and sisters of God the Son, and as temples of God the Holy Spirit.

Reclaiming Story for Christ

For the Christian, the created world, which God made and called good, is full of beauty that points toward the living God. We do not create the meaning in the world, but rather discover it. We each have our own story, but it has meaning because it is part of a grand narrative that has an Author.

As Christians, we have the best story of all: the fairy tale to cap all fairy tales, the epic to top all epics, the romance of all romances, the bitterest of tragedies and the most joyful of happy endings – we have the story of a Creator God who so loved the world that He sent His only-begotten Son to die on a cross to save us. It is the best story of all – utterly captivating, thrilling, and satisfying – and also absolutely, completely true.

We need to reclaim story from those who would separate story from truth, making the one into meaningless reverie and the other into sterile ‘facts.’ It is one of the great lies of the Enemy in this day and age that storytelling is nothing but entertainment. Oh, no. The power of story is the power to tell the truth in ways that reach deep into both heart and mind; to draw the reader into the experience of knowing truth.

The account of God’s plan for the redemption of the heavens and the earth, our glorious future in the new creation, is often shrugged off by skeptics as just a story. Such a dismissal leaves us, however, with an intriguing opening. Indeed, we can say, the Christian story does sound like a fairy tale, but we have it reversed: in fact, it is fairy tales that sound like the Christian story.

Reading Redemptively

We need to recover the ability to read redemptively: to find and cultivate truth and beauty in the stories we read, watch, and share. Fiction, fantasy, poetry – too often we either disregard the power of storytelling or fear it as deception, but for human beings made in the image of the Creator God, storytelling is a profound means by which the Spirit can move and transform us.

Given that I have been talking about story, it may surprise readers to realize that most of the essays that follow focus on poetry. There is no mistake! Poetry offers us story just as much as novels do, though sometimes in different ways or in smaller, tantalizing glimpses. Above all, good poetry can help us to connect to the larger story that is our God’s work in the world. If we can read rightly, treasures await.

How can we read redemptively? The process includes recovering an understanding of how:

Literature can both reveal and reinforce worldview (one’s basic understanding of how the world works).

Imagery and symbols both communicate truth and deepen its impact on the heart and mind.

Immersion in the right kind of literary experience can refresh and renew our vision, enabling us to see the world in the light of Christ.

Reading redemptively will help us in discipleship, providing more ways in which we can grow in heart and mind in our relationship with Christ.


Photo: "old book" by T. Carvalho. CC License. 


Holly Ordway

Holly Ordway is Professor of English and Director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius Press, 2014). She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst; her academic work focuses on imagination in apologetics, with special attention to the writings of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles William

Are All Atheists Unbelievers?

In a recent online debate with an atheist, I was arguing that folks involved in such debates need to work hard to maintain a respectful attitude with their dialogue partners. It is easy and tempting to fall into contention and animus, and so all the more important to guard against it. My atheist friend challenged me with Psalm 14:1, which declares that the fool says in his heart there is no God. His suggestion was that my commitment to be respectful in dialogue was at odds with this biblical revelation, which, as applied to him, an atheist, was rather less than respectful.

Faced with this challenge, I responded along such lines as these: Although it's true that the Bible features some verses to suggest that there's a serious issue going on with atheists, I don't think this means that in a discussion today with an atheist, a Christian is obliged to think his interlocutor a fool. The Bible features quite a number of teachings, after all, including to love one's neighbor as oneself. This seems to imply, among other things, giving them the benefit of the doubt, being patient, hoping for the best for them, building friendships with them, paying heed to their perspectives, interpreting them charitably, listening to understand and not just critique. This is where I think it makes great sense prima facie from a biblical perspective to treat atheists as intellectually honest and authentic, sincere searchers for truth. They may not all be, but surely many of them are, at least in my experience.

Beyond that, isolated verses need to be understood contextually, which can take some serious investment of time—and I’m far from an exegete. Nonetheless I might identify a few mitigating factors as we interpret and apply such verses. On a biblical perspective, God is thought of as the source of reality, the locus of value, life and light and more besides. The true "unbeliever" would be, I might suggest, in light of this, not one who simply entertains intellectual doubts about the existence of a personal God, but one who rejects all that the biblical writers thought God represented—and to do so at the level of the heart. To reject God would include rejecting light—deep convictions about rightness and wrongness, for example, issuing in corrupt actions. On the classical picture of God, aspects of which came into clarity later but were built on solidly biblical ideas, as opposed to the idea of a mere contingently existing demi-god or Demiurge, God is the Ground of Being; his being and goodness are interchangeable. To deny God's being is to deny goodness itself, both metaphysical and moral.

This is all obviously relevant to the question about how God and morality are related, and relevant in numerous senses—ontological, epistemic, performative. If one takes God as the foundation of moral truth, the locus of value, the Ground of Being, to deny God is naturally to be interpreted as rejecting foundational truths, axiomatic moral ones among them. As one commentator discussed Psalm 14:1: “This is hardly to be understood of a speculative denial of the existence of God; but rather of a practical belief in His moral government.” So to someone shaped by such an understanding, a worldview according to which God functioned thus foundationally, what would be the natural way to characterize, say, someone vicious and altogether corrupt who rejected moral strictures or constraints altogether? It might be natural, frankly, to dub such a person an "unbeliever." More than natural, it might be the most accurate way to put it, as part of what true atheism entails is just such moral corruption. This is, again, not to say all professing atheists are this way, or even will inevitably be this way; rather, quite to the contrary, it is to suggest that exactly because plenty of atheists are not this way, it may take more than intellectual metaphysical speculations of atheism to qualify as true unbelief.

The point is that this language about unbelief can't simply leap the huge hermeneutical gap and be applied today with complete casualness. I am not inclined to see such verses as applying to someone like my internet interlocutor: a self-professed humanist with a deep concern for others, a love for humanity, a passion for reducing suffering in the world. I could be wrong, but I see such values as rooted in God, and his embrace of such values as a disqualification for being a full-fledged unbeliever. That he wouldn’t agree isn’t relevant; if he’s right, I’m wrong, of course; but if I’m right, he’s wrong—and not the skeptic he thinks he is. Maybe being an unbeliever is less a binary question than a continuum; or maybe it is a binary issue, but the point of no return requires more than voicing intellectual doubts about God’s existence.

As another commentator put it, “We ought . . . carefully to mark the evidence on which the Psalmist comes to the conclusion that they have cast off all sense of religion, and it is this: that they have overthrown all order, so that they no longer make any distinction between right and wrong, and have no regard for honesty, nor love of humanity. David, therefore, does not speak of the hidden affection of the heart of the wicked, except in so far as they discover themselves by their external actions.”

So, from my perspective—and this is the argument I’m trying out—I don't see my friend as having fully "rejected God," as I see (rightly or wrongly) many of those values to which he remains adamantly committed as rooted in God. Likewise with the biblical writers, for whom God represented ultimate reality and, as such, true unbelief would include such a thing as rejection of moral light. The Bible needs to be read and interpreted and applied carefully and sensitively and with profound discernment, according to sound principles of exegesis and hermeneutics. Folks have misinterpreted it before, and if someone were to interpret it today to suggest that dismissing all professing atheists as evil and foolish (more so than the lot common to men), I would respectfully suggest that he is not being sufficiently attentive to sound principles of interpretation. Intellectual speculative denial of God’s existence may not be enough to make one a true unbeliever in the sense of Psalm 14:1.


Photo: "Cross section of a trees' roots" by A Escobar. CC License.