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Post Death of Christian Apologist Ravi Zacharias
Created by John Eipper on 05/23/20 4:26 AM

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Death of Christian Apologist Ravi Zacharias (David Duggan, USA, 05/23/20 4:26 am)

The death earlier this week of Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias has largely escaped notice in the popular media, which may suggest as much about the culture as it does about the Christian faith.  But in a small effort to rectify that imbalance I thought I would offer a few comments.

For those who don't know the field of Christian apologetics, I refer them to the work of CS Lewis, the Oxford Don, Cambridge professor, children's fabulist and author of the apologetes' manifesto: Mere Christianity. Without limiting its import, in Mere Christianity Lewis addresses the issue of faith in a divine being from outside, i.e., without positing the existence of a Divine. He looks at fairness, justice, love, joy, and perhaps most importantly transgression and forgiveness, and suggests that Christianity alone provides an answer to the age-old question: why is everything so screwed up?

Though not an academic in any real sense, Zacharias tried to pick up the mantle fallen from Lewis' shoulders when he died the same day that Kennedy was shot in Dallas. Undoubtedly the frequent-flyer champion of evangelists, Zacharias traveled the globe to engage audiences with his baseline message: that the Christ of the Bible was the Christ who came to him as a teenager, wracked with pain from an aborted suicide attempt, and suggested that He had a purpose for Ravi's life. Raised as an Anglican in Chennai India, Zacharias moved with his family to Canada and professed to be an atheist until this attempted suicide. After that deathbed conversion experience, Zacharias finished studies at Ontario Bible University (now Tyndale University) and later at Trinity International University in nearby Bannockburn, Illinois. He was ordained a minister in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, sort of a catch-all Protestant denomination with a strong leaning toward Pentecostal worship.

Twenty-one years ago, noting a void in the evangelical community, the NY Times Sunday Magazine ran an article: "THE PREACHERS: A special report, New Wave of Evangelists Vying for National Pulpit" (Reinhold Niebuhr's son was a co-author). Billy Graham had repaired to his mountain-top North Carolina manse, Jimmy Swaggart discredited, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker incarcerated, and nobody was apparent on the horizon. That secular high priest Sunday Times Magazine gave Zacharias an honorable mention after highlighting T.D. Jakes and Franklin Graham, Billy's once wayward child. That void remains as large as ever.

Zacharias appeared regularly at nearby Moody Church's Founder's Week preaching series, an early February annual event, and I saw him there a handful of times. With a well-worn Bible in hand, he had an engaging delivery (the subcontinent accent didn't hurt), a lot of anecdotes and a message of redemption through faith. The last time I heard him, perhaps four years ago, however, I thought he was phoning it in, relying on hackneyed examples and time-worn metaphors. Having written about my faith for about half my life (though not for a living, thank God), I can understand running out of material occasionally.

Zacharias was in his element as he engaged college students on the faith once received by the saints, and debated atheists, agnostics, and members of other faith traditions around the country. Though some in the evangelical community cringed at his playing footsie with Mormons and Roman Catholics, both of whom they widely view as heretics, Zacharias was unapologetic (pun unavoidable) that they were within the fold. At the end of his life, Zacharias had to confront allegations of having inflated his academic credentials (Oxford lecturer, earned doctorate), helping his younger brother's girlfriend get an abortion in the 1970s, and engaging in provocative text messages with a woman not his wife. While we may not always get the leaders we want, we occasionally get leaders--even with flaws--better than we deserve and Zacharias was among those (though he probably wouldn't have admitted to his flaws). Still the evangelical Christian community has lost an important spokesman and it will be some time before his likes appear on the scene. Ravi Zacharias RIP.

JE comments:  Zacharias died at 74 from a rare form of spine cancer.  Wikipedia lists 33 books to his credit.  David, I presume you've read a number of them.  How would you characterize Zacharias's theology?

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  • The Pragmatic Theology of Ravi Zacharias (David Duggan, USA 05/26/20 5:45 AM)
    John Eipper asked how many of Ravi Zacharias's 33 books I've read, and how to characterize his theology. The answer to the former is none, and to the latter though not a theologian I'd describe it as pragmatic: take the world as it is and try, as Milton said, to justify the ways of God to man. Though made by a Creator in His image, we humans have an indelible desire to have things our own way. That leads to unfortunate consequences, whether in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, the rice paddies of Vietnam, or the World Trade Center of 9/11.

    You can access probably more than 100 of Zacharias' lectures and symposia on YouTube and perhaps glean more from the 100th than the first, but the overarching message is that the greatest philosophers of the age have no more cogent answers to the fundamental questions of our existence--our origins, the cause of our present condition, our way out of that, and our destiny--than the answers provided by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses, David and Jesus, Paul, Augustine and Luther. That answer is provided by the person of Jesus Christ who rose from the dead to unite all of God's creation under His realm. In this sense, Zacharias may be likened to that great popularizer of the Western canon, Mortimer Adler.

    Like Zacharias, Adler too had a "deathbed conversion" experience. At Chicago's Northwestern Hospital, with an undiagnosed illness, Adler felt the power of prayer from his wife and the minister at St. Chrysostom's Episcopal church and came to believe that the God of "ontological perfection," the God who had created the universe, was also the God of "moral perfection" who loved him. Adler, who had debated Thomistic theology with Clare Boothe Luce as a New York City dinner companion, was drawn to Roman Catholicism's moral certainty but couldn't fully accept it until after his wife, an ardent Episcopalian (and former philosophy student of his at the University of Chicago), had died when Adler was 95. As a late-in-life second act, Adler spent his eighth, ninth and tenth decades defending the faith in philosophical terms: "How to Think About God" (perhaps a play on his 1940 "How to Read a Book") and "Truth in Religion" were written as Adler approached his 80th and 90th birthdays, respectively.

    Pragmatic theology has unfortunately a degree of solipsism to it: that is as long as I can justify my actions through scripture, squaring my life with my beliefs is a big "so what." Jesus never condemned sin as such, but rather advised his followers to "sin no more" (cf. John 8:11, viewed by many scholars as the apocryphal tale of Jesus and the woman caught in the act of adultery). If all that humans can do can be justified, can be expiated by some simple act of confession, then what is the purpose of an atoning sacrifice on the cross?

    Zacharias' response to this hypothetical is to refer to the conventional morality which may or may not be ingrained in us (socio-biologist E. O. Wilson believes it is part of our hereditary DNA). If a world can allow the horrors of Auschwitz, the banality of Vietnam, the nihilism of 9/11, then there's no exit from our earthly condition and we might as well pack it in. But if there's a glimmer, a hint of goodness in the world, a glimpse at the eternal, then we disregard that at our peril. As the priest at Dartmouth who first saw me as an individual apart from my upbringing wrote in his Christmas letter last year: "There was a Frenchman whose name I can't remember who decided that there were two possibilities; he could expect extinction at death, or he could look for the Kingdom of Jesus. He decided that he would prefer the second. I've decided the same. That's where I put my money."

    JE comments: Theology is one of my weak suits, but isn't Pascal our Frenchman? One rub according to my Methodist upbringing: wagering is a sin! Does this include betting on the existence of God?  Let's hear from the official United Methodist website:

    Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, destructive of good government and good stewardship. As an act of faith and concern, Christians should abstain from gambling and should strive to minister to those victimized by the practice.

    I'm always reminded of standard practice in the US Civil War.  Throw way your cards and dice before battle.  No one wanted to be caught dead (literally) with the tools of sin.  My maternal grandmother, a stern Methodist, wouldn't allow playing cards in her house.

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