Randal Rauser is a theologian and Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary. He also contributes to the fields of philosophy and apologetics. He is the author of over ten books, numerous academic articles, and he blogs regularly at randalrauser.com
Many thanks to Dr. Rauser for agreeing to participate in this interview!
First, to start out on a lighter note: if you could meet any historical figure, and ask them any one question, who would you meet and what would you ask them?
I’d meet Jesus, of course! I’d need to think carefully about what to ask him, however. Hmm, I’d probably want to ask him when he’s going to return, but I suspect he wouldn’t provide a direct answer to that one. So I’d settle for a quick synopsis of the Trinity: I know what the church has said, but it would be great to hear it in Jesus’ own words!
What made you want to study philosophy/get into apologetics?
There were a few factors. For starters, I remember my grade 6 teacher told me I’d make a great trial lawyer because I love to argue. In short, I have a natural disposition for formulating arguments and seeking to persuade people, and that internal disposition makes philosophy and apologetics a natural fit.
Second, I was raised in a conservative evangelical church in which evangelism was a big part of the Christian life. (For more on that, you can see my book What’s So Confusing About Grace?) Given my interest in argument, by the time I was in high school I was seeking to evangelize by formulating arguments for Christianity and responding to objections. Back then I was a young earth creationist, and I remember having extended debates with fellow students on the age of the earth, the universal flood, and Darwinian evolution.
Finally, I took my first apologetics course in 1994 at Trinity Western University with the evangelical apologist Paul Chamberlain. William Lane Craig visited our class and not long after that, my friends and I were spending our Friday evenings consuming beer, pizza, and Craig debate videos. And I never looked back!
If you could go back to the early days of your philosophy/apologetics career, what is one thing you would do differently?
Interesting question. As It happens, I’m just finishing a book called Tentative Apologetics: A Manifesto which aims to provide a rather extended answer to that question. With that in mind, forgive me if I answer with two things.
First, every apologist is familiar with 1 Peter 3:15: “Always be prepared to give a reason for the hope within, but do so with gentleness and respect.” But it’s one thing to know the verse, and it’s another thing to get its message into your DNA. Like many folk, I have often failed on the gentleness and respect part. Pulled into the heat of debate, tempers have flared, the rhetoric has crackled, and the entire exchange went off the rails. I now know that it is far better to win a friend than an argument, and I do my best to ensure that my exchanges with others present a rigorous case for Christianity while also cultivating friendships, or at least mutual respect. As I recently put it in a tweet, the apologist should be the kind of person that other people want to agree with.
Second, I would want to give my earlier self a more nuanced and generous conception of Christianity. For example, as I said above, I was a young earth creationist in high school and I exerted a lot of effort in trying to persuade others that the earth was 6 thousand years old and that there was a global flood. I now view those efforts as misguided, not only because I think those views are incorrect, but also because I don’t think they are that important to Christianity even if they are correct. I think apologists should focus for the most part on defending essential Christian beliefs. Too often we end up majoring on peripheral issues.
Who are some of your greatest heroes in philosophy/apologetics?
I’m an iconoclast by nature, so I am resistant to recognizing heroes or even mentors. No doubt, that is indicative of my own individualism and insecurity, such as it is! I can say, however, that Alvin Plantinga had the biggest impact on my intellectual formation. I took a course with Plantinga in 1998 and later focused on engaging his work in my doctoral dissertation. (A later version of that work was published in 2009 as Theology in Search of Foundations with Oxford University Press.) His defensive approach to apologetics which focuses on removing defeaters to Christian belief and defending the rationality, justification, and knowledge status of Christian belief apart from argument shapes my own approach.
I was also deeply impacted by my doktorvater, the theologian Colin Gunton (d. 2003). What most impacted me about Colin’s approach to theology was that as a British theologian he was free of the binary opposition between evangelicals and liberals that shapes theology in North America. I wouldn’t call Colin an evangelical by North American standards but he surely wasn’t a liberal. And that freed me to pursue theology outside of the limiting categories and expectations of my North American context.
What is one significant critique you have against contemporary apologetics?
I’m going to give two.
First, Christian apologists are often guilty of straw-manning their opponents. To avoid that danger, make it a practice of steel-manning the views of others. That involves presenting their views in the strongest and most charitable form possible. Knocking over strawmen constitutes a pyrrhic victory which undermines the credibility of the apologist in the long term. One way to get into the habit of steel-manning is by doing devil’s advocate debates in which you commit to defending a view you do not in fact hold. I did this a couple years ago on the British radio show Unbelievable when I defended atheism while atheist Michael Ruse defended Christian theism. Now that’s a great way to get to know the other side!
Second, there are too many amateur apologists who have never read any theology, biblical studies, or hermeneutics. It’s important, however, to expose oneself to a broad and sophisticated set of Christian ideas so that one appreciates the richness and complexity of the worldview they are aiming to defend. So read widely to ensure you are not making elementary mistakes or you could end up expending your apologetic efforts in propping up an errant provincial fundamentalism rather than the Christianity you profess to believe in.
What do you see the purpose of apologetics as being?
Apologetics is a defense of one’s beliefs and we do it both to strengthen the faith of those who hold Christian belief and to persuade non-Christians of the truth of Christian belief. I like to call it discipleship for the Christian mind and evangelism for the non-Christian mind.
In your view, what should the role of philosophy be in the life of the Church?
That’s a huge question. Let me narrow it to analytic philosophy, an approach to philosophy that is concerned with concise definitions and clearly articulated arguments. Analytic philosophy can be very helpful as a handmaiden to theology by providing tools to define theological terms clearly and concisely, identifying logical tensions between beliefs, and seeking means to resolve those tensions.
What is the most convincing argument for theism to you?
Moral arguments from moral obligation and moral knowledge. In short, I believe that we recognize that we have moral obligations to act and the best explanation of those obligations is that they are issued from an appropriate authority, namely God. And I also believe that human beings are equipped with an innate ability to intuit or perceive basic moral value and obligation. But how would a blind evolutionary process equip us with such an extraordinary cognitive capacity? I believe the best explanation for this ability is that there is a God who equipped us with moral perceptual faculties because he wants us to gain moral knowledge and live in accord with it.
I provide my own case along these lines in my book An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar authored with atheist apologist Justin Schieber.
What is the most convincing argument for atheism?
Some version of the problem of evil, I suspect. It isn’t hard to see how God could have morally sufficient reasons to allow some degree of evil. But the amount, distribution and intensity of evil seems to be excessive or gratuitous, beyond that which would be required to achieve any commensurate good. Consider, for example, the topic of natural evil, in particular the evidence of predation, carnivory, parasitism, mass extinction, and the unimaginable agony of countless billions of animals long before human beings ever appeared on the scene. What morally sufficient reason could God have for creating and sustaining this kind of world?
If you weren’t a philosopher, what would you want to be?
Well, technically my day job is Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary in Edmonton, Canada. Should I ever leave the academy, I’d bring my philosophical passions with me. And where might I end up? Perhaps working in a used bookstore or maybe a Walmart greeter!
If you could only recommend one book for studying philosophy or apologetics, what would it be?
I’d be inclined to recommend a good history of philosophy because that’s a great way to inoculate oneself against provincialism and to introduce the big ideas and perennial questions that drive the philosophical pursuit. With that in mind, I’m going to suggest Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. At first blush, that might seem like a surprising recommendation: after all, Russell was an atheist who had a clear prejudice against Christianity. For example, he dismisses Thomas Aquinas as not a real philosopher and that’s crazy. Having said that, Russell was undoubtedly a great writer and as one of the progenitors of analytic philosophy, he also strived to write with clarity and concision. His book is justly recognized as a modern classic and you can find it in many used bookstores. (It’s still in print too, of course.) Finally, his own prejudices are generally not hard to spot, and that can make him a valuable interlocutor. It’s always valuable to become acquainted with the way other people see things: as iron sharpens iron, right?
What advice would you give to students who have aspirations in the fields of philosophy or apologetics?
Do it because you love it, not because you hope ever to draw a salary from it: teaching and research positions in the field are harder to come by than a bucket of fried chicken at a vegan rally. And always keep in mind that your ultimate goal should be not simply the defense of your personal beliefs, but the pursuit and defense of truth, whatever that may be.
Thanks again to Dr. Rauser for his time and for all the work he does!