Imagine you’re on an airplane and in the course of casual introductions, you discover the gentleman sitting next to you is a quantum physicist. You share some thoughts about the compatibility between the record of nature and the words of the Bible—but it isn’t long before you realize that you’re in way over your head. The physicist’s questions exceed your ability to offer ready answers. What’s your next move?
This situation highlights a very important point for all would-be apologists: know your audience, know yourself, and have the humility to know the difference. Certainly reading Reasons to Believe (RTB) books and other apologetics materials or even taking courses through Reasons Institute or attending apologetics conferences will provide you with a good foundation—but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you’re ready to engage with someone who has a PhD in a science field. There are additional factors to consider.
Chances are you fall into one of the following three categories. Knowing which category you belong to is a critical first step in understanding how to engage scientists in an apologetic conversation.
1. An expert in the same academic discipline
Let’s go back to our airplane scenario. If you have the same level of education and technical expertise as the quantum physicist, there is a higher probability that you’ll be able to engage him on equal footing. You have invested significant time, money and energy into educating yourself at the highest levels of academia. Even then, however, a science-faith conversation may be challenging without significant knowledge of the theology and philosophy involved.
Being in conversation with a research scientist takes great discernment, as well as a good deal of practice. So don’t be overly hard on yourself if you stumble. Use it as motivation to dig deeper into the research.
2. An expert in a different academic discipline
The situation with the quantum physicist would be quite different if he were sitting next to me. I might be able to engage with him for a while on some theological questions, since that is my area of training, but when it comes to science, I’m easily outmatched. Even though I am familiar with many scientific ideas because of my experience at RTB, it would only take seconds before I’d be in over my head. Knowing my limitations ahead of time helps me avoid overstepping my area of competence and, thus, keeps my credibility with the physicist.
It’s important for all Christians to understand that our first calling is as missionaries. This is far more important than demonstrating our academic competence. For the sake of the gospel, it’s very important for us to swallow academic pride and repress the desire to “win” the conversation or shame the nonbeliever. We must know our limits and be willing to take a different approach when needed.
3. An “Average Joe”
Now let’s say the quantum physicist is sitting next to an Average Joe. This is the person with little to no technical training in any academic field. Someone like my dear mother comes to mind. She loves the Lord and is fully convinced of her salvation, but she has little in common with the physicist in terms of education and knowledge.
This category might also include the apologetics hobbyist. This person has read apologetics books and attended a conference or two, but doesn’t posses any advanced degrees in science. This category might also include the aspiring science student who is still in the beginning years of his education.
There is, however, one very important point connecting all of these “regular people” with the quantum physicist: a love for truth. And that critical foundation can make all the difference.
By knowing our audience and knowing ourselves and knowing the difference between the two, we can begin to customize our apologetics tactics. This is particularly important when talking with people who have a background in science. So, what’s the next move in the conversation between an expert and an Average Joe? We’ll return to this topic in another post to discuss some practical strategies to help keep the discussion going.
Dr. Jeff Zweerink outlines his apologetics strategy in RTB Live! vol. 16: 4 C’s of Science Apologetics (DVD). This is one of my favorite RTB messages.