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Justin Brierley | Transformed Yet Steadfast

Justin Brierley discusses his experience on the Unbelievable? show and how his own beliefs have grown, changed, and continue to be formed.


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Justin Brierley discusses his experience on the Unbelievable? show and how his own beliefs have grown, changed, and continue to be formed.

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Justin Brierley has been the host of the Unbelievable? Radio Show and Podcast for almost 15 years and in doing so has been a part of conversations with Christians and non-Christians wrestling with questions of faith, and yet he has found his faith not only intact but sharpened. We talk to him about his experience on the show and about how his own beliefs have grown, changed, and continue to be formed.

  • Originally aired on October 01, 2020
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

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Transcript

Brierley:

Part of the joy of being on Unbelievable? over the years has been coming to understand that the depth really that exists in Scripture so that you don’t have to take it in a very wooden literalistic way, but you can understand the different genres of writing that exists within its pages and you can come to appreciate, you know, what can be taken as history and what should we understood in other ways. And for me that just increases the depth of my appreciation of this extraordinary document that we’ve been given, and the nature of Christianity. It doesn’t undercut it. And yet, for so many people just being challenged on say, you know, the nature of the first chapters of Genesis or whatever it might be, seems to devastate their faith. And I just think it’s a tragedy because it should never have been that way in the first place.

My name is Justin Brierley and I’m the presenter of the Unbelievable? radio show and podcast and also the Ask NT Wright Anything podcast.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. 

Justin Brierley is no stranger to conversations around controversial topics. He’s been hosting the Unbelievable? radio show and podcast for almost 15 years now, where he brings together Christians and non-Christians to discuss their mostly closely held beliefs. And he’s found a way to keep the conversations civil and intellectual. After facilitating all these conversations, he’s changed his mind about some things. But one thing that hasn’t changed is his own commitment to the Christian faith. 

Justin has had many guests on his show talking about science and faith, including origins of the earth and universe, origins of humans, and many other topics in the overlap of science and faith. We begin this show by talking about his show, about what he has learned and about how the sorts of dialogues he facilitates can be beneficial, even if they don’t always change minds. Then we turn to talking about his own beliefs, how they have grown and matured over the course of his career. We don’t entirely agree on all the nuances of the topics we discuss, but in many ways I find a kindred spirit in Justin.

Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Jim:

Well, welcome Justin Brierley. I’m very excited to interview the interviewer, as it is. As we record this in early August, the UK appears to be over the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, how have you and your family weathered these last few months?  

Brierley:

Well, it’s great to be with you, Jim, thank you for the invitation. Yes, we’ve done fine, thank you. We have very little to complain about. We’re fortunate enough to have a reasonably spacious house and a back garden for the kids to play in, so even during the kind of quite strict lockdown, we at least had a bit of space and we weren’t completely on top of each other. The main challenges have obviously been, partly, having all the kids at home and not at school and doing the homeschooling thing for the first time, which has been a challenge when you’re also trying to do a full time job as well, both the parents. So that’s really interesting. My wife’s the minister of a local church, so that’s all had to come online and that’s been a big learning curve for us and getting everything done remotely and not being able to meet in person, as we normally would. And equally, my role has meant not being able to go into London to the office and simply doing everything from the office I’m speaking to you from right now. So that’s been interesting, but also fruitful in some ways. There’s been lots of good conversations I’ve been able to record during lockdown and we’ve often discussed and talked about what this coronavirus means for the world, for the church, and so on. So it’s been challenging, but also, you know, there’s definitely been some good times, most of all which is being able to spend more time with the family, really.

Jim:

Right. Well, good. Well, for more than a decade now, you’ve been the host of the Unbelievable? program, attracted millions of listeners around the world. I’d like to ask you more about that in a bit. But maybe first we can hear some of your own personal journey. So if you would tell us a bit about Justin Brierley as a wee lad. Where are you from? What was your family like? What kind of student were you in school? Those kinds of things. 

Brierley:

Gosh. All the questions. Yes. Well, I grew up, I was privileged to grow up in a Christian family. My mum and dad were actually, interestingly, they were both children of Anglican ministers, Anglican clergy. But they didn’t really embrace faith themselves in their teens, and would have, I think, largely regarded themselves as nominal or agnostics by the time they reached University. But they both went to Oxford University and it was there that they really did embrace Christianity. They both had sort of a conversion experience really, at university. And that sort of set their trajectory. So I was born into that environment, found faith for myself in a church as a young man in my teens. That was really when faith came alive for me and went alongside an interest in the arts, drama. I’ve always—at university I was quite often involved in amateur dramatics and even led a Christian arts and drama society while I was there. So I was interested in using the arts and creativity to, you know, spread the gospel. And that led eventually to radio, to broadcasting. After I got married and, you know, was starting family life and so on, starting a career of my own, it led to me being employed at Premier Christian Radio, where I’ve been for well, gosh, probably the last 18 years now, believe it or not. But I took with me along that journe sort of an intellectual curiosity through university, and certainly a lot of questions, you know, that came up during that time, especially at university around faith and belief. 

Jim:

And is this still broadly within the Anglican tradition for you?

Brierley:

No, I mean, my parents were actually converted into a more of a non-denominational, evangelical, charismatic sort of tradition. And that’s what I grew up in myself. And so that’s where I found my feet and my faith. But my wife came from a very different tradition. She was born and bred in what’s called the United Reformed Church here in the UK, which was formed in the 1970s from the Presbyterian and Congregational churches, so it has that sort of reformed background. And so we kind of married the best of both our worlds. Me this sort of happy-clappy evangelical charismatic and her this more kind of middle of the road sort of Presbyterian, sort of congregational background. And we’ve sort of, in her ministry and in the church where we both serve, have tried to bring the best of those worlds together in some ways. And in a way, doing the show, the Unbelievable? show, and working at Premier Christian Radio, which is a very multi-denominational kind of radio station has enabled me to see a great deal of the different Christian traditions that exist and to benefit in some ways from all of them along along the way.

Jim:

So you were working for Premier Radio before the Unbelievable? program started, correct? 

Brierley:

Well, I started actually just in doing the very sort of getting trained up in the basics of radio really when I arrived. That meant eventually having a sort of co-hosting spot on the breakfast show, the daily breakfast show. So I would be making the tea and sort of being the sidekick to the main presenter. Well, that gave me though, a great insight into radio presenting and radio journalism and I started producing programs of my own. And eventually, about three years in, I said to the boss, “I’d love to begin a weekly show of my own, and I want to reach beyond just the Christian community that Premier Christian Radio reaches— which is very valuable thing and a great resource to Christians in the UK—but could we extend the conversation and bring in outsiders, you know, atheists, agnostics, people of other faiths?” And so Unbelievable? was born about three years in, in which we started having these conversations between Christians and non-Christians. And that’s where it all began.

Jim:

So your producer was immediately won over by this idea, or did it take some convincing?

Brierley:

[laughs] Well the CEO of our station, he’s still the CEO, Peter Carriage, he was happy to give it a try. And to give him his absolute credit he—you know, the show wasn’t universally popular with all of our audience.  Because as you can imagine, a lot of Christians who enjoyed their Christian radio station weren’t all that impressed when they started hearing, on a Saturday afternoon, these atheist voices coming up and critiquing religion and so on. But, you know, they would say, sometimes I get messages like, “we have enough atheists on the BBC, do we really need them on our Christian radio station?” But I think for those who enjoyed it, they really enjoyed it, because it was sort of reaching outside of the bubble as it were. And so it kind of had a certain attraction to a certain number of people. Those who didn’t enjoy it so much, I think, just learned to skip that hour and a half on a Saturday afternoon. But in a way, the funny thing is actually, it was when we started podcasting, that was when it really, you know, took off because suddenly it wasn’t just Christians listening, it was non-Christians as well, because every time I would have a reasonably well-known atheist on they might share the podcast on their blog or social media or wherever. And suddenly we would pick up a number of new non-Christian listeners who would be downloading the show each week. So it started to be listened to by increasing numbers of Christians and non-Christians all over the world and suddenly stopped being just this little London-based UK show, to having quite a wide remit of guests from all over the world who were contributing. And that was very exciting and really established a kind of completely new community and a new way of reaching beyond the confines of where we normally did as a radio station based in the UK. So that’s been where the journey has taken us over the years, and has led really to many more listeners now outside the UK then then actually in the UK.

Stump:

So let me read a couple of things that you have written about your show and get your reaction to this. So this comes from your book, we’ll talk about that more in a little bit, but in describing it you say, “at its best, the show causes people to rethink their views and make room for new ways of understanding.” So some of the pushback that you described there a little bit is probably from people who are saying, “do you really want people who are already Christians to rethink their views?” Is that part of the challenge that you face with this?

Brierley:

Possibly, yes, I think that would be where that’s coming from. But the reality is, I think we’re all rethinking our views all the time or being challenged with other points of view. And certainly, there will be various ways in which my thinking has been shaped and evolved over the course of hosting the show over well, nearly 15 years, believe it or not, that the show has been going. And so, inevitably, I think people are always on a journey of some form, whether they call themselves Christian or not. And the show is really about encouraging people to think about their journey and the intellectual issues very often that are involved whether they be a Christian or non-Christian. And so it’s been fascinating to literally be able to chart, you know, some people’s journeys as they’ve come on the show and then moved on in their thinking in one way or another and many of the listeners that I’ve engaged with over the years, who themselves have been on various journeys. 

And yes, I’m never afraid in that sense of challenging beliefs because I think that they’re always—we need to always be addressing anew the things that we believe. The overall effect for me and for many people who have listened to the show, who were Christians for many years is, in a way, I think, a greater confidence, actually, in Christianity. Because I think there’s a way in which, by having your arguments tested and honed by the opposition, as it were, you come to realize what the important elements are, what the core is that needs defending and that it has a substantial historical and evidential core, and what the things are that you can be happy to agree to disagree on, potentially, that aren’t, you know, fundamental to Christian faith necessarily, but maybe have been more cultural things that you’ve inherited in a particular Christian framework and so on. I think that’s been very helpful for me to sort of get to the core of what Christianity is, and in that way, it’s often been challenging, but also, I think, overall, a positive way of that I’ve been able to think through my faith in the years that I’ve been hosting it. And of course, many skeptics and non-Christians have been challenged to reconsider their views about the world, their worldview. It’s always a joy—of course, I am a Christian, I’m here with, in a sense, with an explicit motive to present the claims of Christianity to thinkers—and it’s a great joy when I do hear that Unbelievable? has been part of a journey of a skeptic towards Christian faith. So you do hear those stories. And that’s always very encouraging.

Jim:

On the next page of your book, you say something similar here then: “As someone who is an evangelist at heart, I’m naturally inclined to hope people move towards rather than away from Christianity when they listen—” But here’s the interesting part that I want to ask you about then because the next part of that sentence is, “but I’ve never felt compelled to ensure that the traffic only flows in one direction.” I think that’s a really interesting way of putting it. And if I may push just a bit, is it ever a good or a right thing for a Christian to walk away from faith, because they’ve been challenged in certain ways or forced to consider things that they hadn’t before?

Brierley:

Well, the way I see it is the show is only ever really hosting a conversation that’s probably already taking place at some level in people’s lives. So the reality is, most people are only a Google click away from some, you know, strong atheism or objection to Christian faith. That’s just the world we live in. And we can’t pretend we’re hermetically sealed from objections to faith. And I’d rather, in a way, Christians encountered those arguments in a forum where they will actually hear a reasonable response from a Christian thinker, which is always what we aim to do with Unbelievable?. Now, as I say, in that quote you gave, I can’t guarantee ultimately where people will go with that. It’s, you know, people are free to make their own decisions as to who they think makes the best arguments in the end, and whether these challenges to Christianity are persuasive or not. Equally, there are always going to be arguments in the opposite direction, arguments against atheism and for Christianity that that will persuade people. But yes, I don’t feel sort of obliged—you know, the safe thing, in a sense, would be to just put Christians up on air and just have that one side of the argument put out there and never hear from the other side. And you know, there is a place for that kind of a program and people simply doing apologetics in that sort of way. But I think it’s a bit more interesting when you hear both sides of the story. And it’s a bit more dangerous as well. It’s not quite as safe in that sense. But I don’t think we’re called to be wrapped up in cotton wool and safe in that sense when it comes to our Christian faith. 

You know, Paul was ready to go out into the streets and argue it out with the people in Athens. You know, why shouldn’t we be the same? And I actually think the part of the problem sometimes with Christianity is that we do have a slightly batten-down-the-hatches, bubble mentality, which unfortunately only sets up, especially our young people, for a big fall when they’re let out of that cocoon and into the big wide world, University or wherever and their beliefs get challenged and that they often just haven’t been prepared for it, sadly. And very often, because they were never given any tough questions to think about, they would be completely unprepared for the reality of how their faith would be challenged. So my hope is it’s the kind of ground where it won’t simply—it’s not the kind of place where someone’s faith is just going to be demolished, but rather that it’ll be tested but given an opportunity to hear that response and to learn from it. So, where I land on this is, you know, people are always traveling in different directions and my show might intersect with them as they’re on the way towards Christianity and it might have some, you know, effect on that journey and able to help them resolve some issues and some objections and find their way. Equally, there are people who interact with the show who are sort of on their way out to Christianity, and they don’t find that it provides the answers, you know, and there’s very little I can do ultimately on that. That’s in someone else’s hands. But all I do is try and present the arguments on both sides as best as I can and let people work it out for themselves and believe actually, that ultimately God is there in the process and doing something through it all, whether or not we see the exact results we want every time.

Jim:

Well, having watched and listened to a number of the shows over the last couple of weeks, I would observe that that approach lends a kind of authenticity and even credibility to it. That you can tell that this is not just propaganda that somebody’s trying to shove down your throat but it’s real, it’s authentic, and these are where people actually live as you say, as opposed to being in a bubble of some sort. So I applaud you very much for taking that and only ask the questions, because I’m sure you’ve, you’ve gotten that kind of feedback so I’ll give you the chance to respond to it here. 

Brierley:

Absolutely. And it’s a very valid question. And it is a great responsibility. I don’t take it lightly. I do feel a real obligation to make sure that I match people well in those discussions because ultimately it’s a very diverse audience who are listening and I want to make sure that Christianity is well represented but that we don’t, you know, represent straw men on the other side either. So it’s an important task.

Jim:

Well, one of your goals for the show has also been to promote civil dialogue between these people who may disagree with each other, right? And so what have you learned along the way, particularly as it relates to facilitating a substantive conversation but yet one that remains civil?

Brierley:

Yes. I think the problem is so often that where the conversations often take place these days are in the social media spaces and they don’t often lend themselves well to substantive or nuanced dialogue. They tend to become very shouty places. People tend to exist in their own ideological echo chambers a lot of the time and simply throw grenades out at the other side. And that’s the problem partly with the way the Internet has gone. It, you know, was supposed to be this great highway of information where we could learn to live in harmony and it doesn’t seem much like that when you actually go on Twitter or Facebook or wherever. But what I found is actually getting people to sit down ideally in person but you know, often nowadays, on a on a Zoom call or whatever, you often see a different side to people and you don’t just get the the rhetoric and the simplistic arguments that are often the fodder of a typical call-in show or something like that, where someone’s got about two minutes to make their argument and then you hear from the other extreme end of the spectrum, responding. And that’s partly the problem with modern media as well. It’s all about creating combative drama, really. No one’s too interested in the nuanced understandings in the middle. So I try to—I mean, sometimes there is combative drama on my show, but most of the time, it I’m trying to bring on people from two different perspectives on an issue, who both have, you know, who you can take seriously on both sides, but who have fundamental differences of opinion on things. 

They may not be convinced. They may not ultimately, you know, the atheist who listens may not be convinced of the arguments and the Christian likewise. But they are going to probably leave with a bit more respect for the other side and a better understanding of why that person believes what they do. I don’t think you can listen to Unbelievable? for too long and go away with the impression that Christians are just empty headed fairytale believers because you will hear substantive thinkers and in substantive dialogue with other non-Christian substantive thinkers. So again, you know, I don’t—it’s not as though we see a constant stream of people changing their mind, but I think that it often at least changes the atmosphere very often for people of the conversation. And for me, that’s a step in the right direction.

Jim:

So you wrote a book a couple of years ago, Unbelievable?, describing your experiences, and I’ve gone through it the last couple of weeks, and I kept finding myself stopping and saying, “Oh, I have to go look that up on YouTube to find that that conversation you’re talking about.” I did that several times. I wonder for you yourself, as you think back over all these shows—do you even have a number? How many shows have there been that you’ve done now?

Brierley:

Well on on the podcast, well over 600. Yeah probably approaching 700 now.

Stump:

600!

Brierley:

Yeah, probably more like 700 actually, at this point. Because, as I said, we’ve been podcasting since 2007. And you know, with a show every week, and maybe even more than that occasionally, it mounts up remarkably. And, yes, it’s very hard to choose any favorites, really.

Jim:

Yeah. So I was gonna ask you. That’s a little unfair to say, “think through the 700 conversations you facilitated.” But what at least stands out to you as some of the highlights, some of the things that you’re very proud of, or that you would point people to consistently. And maybe then on the other hand, some things that you wish had gone differently than the way they really had. 

Brierley:

Maybe I’ll start with the ones that maybe should have gone differently. There are times when I misjudge the best combination of speakers and there have been times when I’ve had people who were both just too out on the edges of that particular debate to have a constructive one because they just wound each other up and it ended up being a sort of mudslinging match. But those are very much the exception. And the vast majority of the time it is, as we said, a civil dialogue. 

And yes, I mean, among the favorites, well, it’s very hard to choose, but I’ve been particularly pleased in the last couple of years, we’ve done a very special series from Unbelievable?, called The Big Conversation, which is really where we rebooted our video channel and were able to bring in a number of really interesting thinkers on both sides of the theist and atheist spectrum. And these were really for questions about the meaning of life, science, faith philosophy and in our first season of that we were able to feature people like Jordan Peterson, Daniel Dennett, Peter Singer and a number of really interesting atheist voices opposite people like John Lennox and just a variety of Christian thinkers. In the most recent season, probably one of my favorites to sit down and compare was William Lane Craig, who’s a well known Christian philosopher, opposite Sir Roger Penrose, who’s a celebrated cosmologists obviously and developed the Big Bang theorems with Hawking and so on. And so when you just get to sit down with people who are just enjoying having a discussion and having a really interesting—one that inevitably I sometimes struggle to keep up with. But my job is to try and at least ask the questions that hopefully most of the audience are also asking and keep it at an understandable level. It’s just a joy. And so those kinds of conversations where I get to put people that you’d never normally necessarily see together and see what happens, that they are some of the great moments in the show, as far as I’m concerned.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hi Language of God listeners. Here at BioLogos we think that asking questions is a worthwhile part of any faith journey. We hope this podcast helps you to think through long held questions and consider new ones but you probably have other questions we haven’t covered yet. That’s why we want to take this quick break to tell you about the common questions page on our website. You’ll find questions like “How could humans have evolved and still be in the image of god,” “how should we interpret the Genesis flood account?” and “What created God?” Each with thoughtful and in depth answers written in collaboration by scientists, biblical scholars and other experts. Just go to biologos.org and click the common questions tab at the top of the page. Back to the show!

Interview Part Two

Jim:

Well, if we may, let’s turn and talk a bit about your own beliefs as a result of these conversations. The subtitle of your book was Why After 10 Years of Talking with Atheists, I’m Still a Christian. So you are still a Christian. But undoubtedly, these conversations have some kind of impact on you that have challenged you, that you have kept learning, that you’re still on a journey in certain respects. Is that right?

Brierley:

Absolutely. Yeah. In a way, I’ve chosen to put myself in harm’s way in hearing all the best objections against Christianity over the years. But yeah, I genuinely, I would say that as much as my faith has been challenged, it’s also been made more confident in the process. Not, I hope, in a arrogant way but in a way in which I think you can develop a deeper kind of awareness of Christianity even while shedding some of the peripheral issues that perhaps, at one time, seemed important, but you come to realize, you know, there are new ways of looking at things.

Jim:

Are there some areas about which you might say, I think we Christians need to develop better answers to this objection that I’m hearing.

Brierley:

Yeah, I would. Many areas I think. I’d say the—so often the thing that seems to scupper people’s faith, and I meet a lot of people who describe themselves as ex-Christians who come on the show, is because they were taught in the church they grew up in or the Christian culture they grew up in that there’s only one very strict interpretation of, say, the first few chapters of Genesis for instance. And if that somehow gets shown to be in question, suddenly the whole thing comes down like a pack of cards. And that’s always a great shame to me because I wasn’t raised in an environment where it had to—it was this way or no way. It was never a central issue in that kind of way. And I feel sometimes, Christians for whatever reason, have been duped into not making the main thing, the main thing. They’ve been duped into seeing some other issue as somehow being central to the truth of Christianity. Whether it be, you know, some form of young-earth creationism, or a very particular understanding of the Bible, the inerrancy of the Bible. And when that gets questioned, suddenly, the whole thing gets thrown into question. And I just think, if the church was just a little more sanguine and read a little bit wider, in terms of the ways that it’s perfectly legitimate to understand historic Christianity, scripture, Genesis and so on, it would just save all kinds of heartache down the line for so many people. Because I think you can be a very biblically committed Christian without having to take a very narrow view on some of those issues. And for me, part of the joy of being on Unbelievable? over the years has has been coming to understand the depth, really, that exists in scripture so that you don’t have to take it in a very wooden, literalistic way, but you can understand the different genres of writing that exists within its pages and you can come to appreciate what can be taken as history and what should we understood in other ways. And for me that just increases the depth of my appreciation of this extraordinary document that we’ve been given, and the nature of Christianity. It doesn’t undercut it. And yet, for so many people just being challenged on say, you know, the nature of the first chapters of Genesis or whatever it might be, seems to devastate their faith. And I just think it’s a tragedy because it should never have been that way in the first place.

Stump: 

So you noted in your book that one of the things that you have revised your understanding on is creation and evolution. Could you walk us through what some of that transformation was like for you personally?

Brierley:

I mean, in all honesty, the transformation was probably just coming to just understand better the various schools of thought that exist here. I mean, I can’t say that I was terribly aware of many of the debates and different interpretations that exist before I began Unbelievable?. And so it’s been a theological education, you know, over the last 15 years, as I’ve come to see the various viewpoints that exist. I think, you know, just on the scientific side, just having had the tremendous opportunity to have on the show all kinds of scientists working, you know, as Christians in their various fields has given me a new level of respect for the way in which, just the majesty really of creation, the way that the world is so intricately interconnected at a biological level, but also the extraordinary way in which our cosmos itself appears to be so fertile-y set up for life to exist within it, at some point. I’ve always been a great fan of you know, things like the fine tuning argument and things like that. Not because I think they are some knockdown argument for God, but I just think they’re fantastically interesting when you look at sort of the, what’s required for a universe like ours to produce life. And so all of that stuff, you know, I’ve just really enjoyed and enjoyed exploring. 

At the same time, just being able to interview just a whole range of different scholars with different interpretations of the book of Genesis and other parts of Scripture and what that means for it. And along the way, I’ve tried to put the pieces together and try to understand for myself what I think the best way of coming to terms with you know, evolution and creation is. I suppose, where I’ve landed is somewhere, I don’t know, in a kind of theistic evolution with a little bit of a swing towards some elements of intelligent design, but maybe kind of— One thing that for me is evident and cannot really be denied by anyone is the fact that we are, that there is a long history of life on Earth, you know, that is just a fact. And I don’t see any reason why a Christian should deny that. And I’ve never had any theological axe to grind on this front. I’ve always been very comfortable. It would not, in any way, bother me theologically, to know that humans are the end result of a long process of evolution. I know many Christians whom that would be a real issue. But frankly, for me, that never has been, particularly. 

Where I have felt this, perhaps where your question is leading Jim, sort of interested and sympathetic sometimes to other ways of understanding things—so the Intelligent Design movement, and I featured a lot of those proponents on my show, either in discussion with theistic evolutionists or people of another bent—is that, I suppose, just on a scientific level, I’ve seen the power of some of the arguments suggesting that just the neo-Darwinian processes alone, whether that’s powerful enough to account for the diversity we see and for some of the complexity of what’s going on. There are, I think some interesting arguments out there to suggest that if that’s the only thing going on, if it’s just that, effectively that one process of selection acting on random mutation and producing diversity of life—now obviously, it is a lot more complicated that—but it strikes me that there are other things going on. But I’m not—that doesn’t put me directly in, you know, the Discovery Institute camp or anything like that. I’m very happy to hear from them and I think there’s some really interesting ideas there, but you know, I’m not a massive fan of the potential of the God of the gaps issue that that does open up. 

And I do—I suppose where I feel like I sit now in a slightly uncomfortable way is I think there’s some creative principle at work in the cosmos. And that cannot be encapsulated purely by a mechanistic law. But there seems to be something about our universe that drives it towards this thing called life and consciousness and meaning. And for me, that’s where I see God, in the, you know, behind, you know, at work. Now, does that mean he’s literally nudging chemicals and electrons into the right configurations to get DNA going? I’m not saying that necessarily. But there seems like there’s a principle that we haven’t—no one seems to put their finger on, that seems to be going on in the background somewhere. And I’m loath to simply allow that, you know, allow the secularists to simply say, it can all be explained by blind forces of nature. I just that doesn’t strike me as what we see going on. 

Jim:

So I think where we would be in total agreement, then is to say that science doesn’t tell the whole story. Right? 

Brierley:

Exactly. 

Jim:

There’s something more in the universe that science can’t describe. And we at BioLogos wholeheartedly agree with that. And I think where the difference comes most pointedly between us and proponents of the Intelligent Design movement would be, do you put those parts within scientific theories or is that something external to science itself? Because as you mentioned the gaps issue, which I know they don’t like to be described in that way, but there’s no getting around the fact that many of the arguments stem from not having a complete scientific understanding of some process, right? Or saying at least now, for all we know, there’s no way that natural mechanisms themselves could do this. And I think we’re a little more ready to say, if we have a problem defined by scientific terms, the proper way is to look for scientific explanations for that, but there’s no way that all the problems can be defined scientifically, that there are going to exist things outside of that, for which God is the proper explanation. Right?

Brierley:

Hmm, yeah. I agree. And in a sense, I think the problem comes when Christians try to cordon off, you know, with these non-overlapping magisteria whatever, the scientific and the spiritual or philosophical.

Jim:

Yeah, that is a danger for sure. 

Brierley:

Yeah and I see God as very much imminent in creation and in a sense, you know, part and parcel of the whole thing. And so I don’t want to make sort of science its own sort of compartmentalized thing which God has no particular interest in, he just sort of set it going and left, you know, stood back to let it take its course. I think— But at the same time, I’m not a believer in a God who sort of, as I say, prodding the electrons into place, and while letting the rest of it sort of tick on in a naturalistic way. 

So I, in all honesty, Jim, I’m very much still thinking it through. And I often have conversations with people that make me think “now that’s a really interesting perspective on this, and that’s made me rethink what I thought about that.” So there’s been points in my journey where I’ve been more, much more, I would say, enthusiastic about intelligent design and then someone’s come along and I thought, okay, maybe I don’t have to go in that direction so much, to kind of give credence to this extraordinary, the nature, you know, that the fact that life does seem to be bubbling away and wanting to get going, whenever it has a chance and that sort of thing.

Jim:

Yeah. Let me ask a question this way, then, because I think there’s also sometimes a difference in even the understanding of apologetics and what the arguments themselves may be capable of. So all of us who are believers want there to be, you know, some rational case for our faith. We don’t want to commit our lives to some silly fairy tales that have no grounding in reality, right? So in your book, when you say the subtitle, Why After 10 Years of Talking with Atheists, I’m Still a Christian, I think that testifies to the ability that we have to construct a coherent system that involves Jesus Christ, the Son of God, rising from the dead. And I fully affirm that, right? But I wonder if we can look at that question from the other direction and ask why other people, maybe after 10 years of conversations with Christians, are still atheists? Do you think it’s possible to construct a coherent system that includes the claim there is no God? And before you answer that, let me emphasize, I’m not asking about a relativism of truth such that both Christianity and atheism could be true, but rather a kind of relativism of rationality, maybe, that different things might be rational in different contexts. And I’m asking about this as a possible way of explaining the fact that not everyone finds the arguments for Christianity compelling.

Brierley:

Yeah, well, I would say obviously, because I know reasonable, rational people who come to very different conclusions, even though they’re looking at essentially the same evidence. Now, potentially the difference there is that they’ve had other kinds of things going on in their life that are weighing in on the way that they interpret that evidence. So, very rarely I think, does anyone come to their conclusions purely by some neutral intellectual means. There’s always some aspect of the will and the emotion and other experiences that inform the way we think and understand things. So but yes, I mean, of course, I believe you can be a rational atheist. I think that it’s—I don’t think the evidence, even though I see it as quite strong and combinatory, of Christianity, of a theistic worldview, I don’t think it forces anyone to go that route. I don’t think it bends anyone’s arm, if you like. Rather, I’ve always felt that all we, you know, as I put it in my book, we’re simply asking what makes best sense. And I come to the conclusion that looking at all the data, both out there in the universe, and within my personal experience, and then looking at the historic data, it makes sense for me, where I’m standing from, to say that Christianity is true. I can fully understand, though, that for someone else who hasn’t had my experiences, or just doesn’t compute the data in the same way that I do, comes to a different conclusion. And so, yes, I, you know, I’m not going to stand here and say that all atheists are being willfully, you know, rejecting the truth. Now, I cannot, of course, claim to know what’s going on internally inside someone psychologically, behind the intellectual sort of exterior. But I guess in the end, God can, God knows, you know, ultimately what the foundations of what we believe are and why we believe them. And I’m happy to leave it in his hands. All I think we can do as Christians is say, “this is how I see it, this is what makes sense to me,” and present it for others to make their mind up. But yeah, I would never want to claim that atheists, in any way are being intellectually dishonest for taking the point of view they do.

Jim:

The reason I asked that is because it sometimes seems to me that there’s a sort of posture with apologetics arguments, and perhaps this is more from people in the chat rooms on the internet or in the comments section than it is some of the the leaders of the movement. And I’m not accusing you of this by any stretch of the imagination, but the kind of feeling that you get like, you must be an idiot if you don’t just see this and accept the same thing that I do. Right? 

Brierley:

Hmm, yeah, yeah. And I think that’s really sad because I think—I understand where it comes from. And what can seem blindingly obvious to one person just simply isn’t to another. And it can be very frustrating. And, you know, tempers suddenly do boil over, don’t they? But it’s curious. I stumbled across an old clip from a show recently actually which was very memorable because it was Peter Atkins, and you’re probably familiar with him, an Oxford chemist, and what probably—I don’t think he’d mind me even saying this because we’ve known each other for quite some time—but on the more dogmatic end, let’s say of the atheist spectrum. And he’s come on the show many times to discuss faith and belief and you always know what you’re going to get with Peter. But on this one show, he was just talking with a Christian involved in astrophysics, and this person, simply asked him, “well, what kind of evidence could—you say you want evidence, Peter, for the Christian God. What evidence could convince you? Can you give us any description?” And he sort of thought about it and thought about it. And he said, “well, maybe if some, you know, if I found a, you know, advanced chemical equation in the Bible that the people writing at the time could never have known about.” And we said, “okay, so that might convince you there’s something in it?” “Well, no, could just be a forgery, I suppose. So no, I probably couldn’t be convinced by that” And then I said, “Okay, well, what about, say the stars lined up to say, Peter, I’m here, believe in me. Could that be enough?” And he said, “well, no, advanced alien technology could do that sort of thing.” “And so what if Jesus appeared to you, you know, right here in the room?” And he said, “Oh, I could easily be having a brain, you know, just a funny moment in my brain, some sort of hallucination.” 

And at that point, I said to him, “well, is there anything you can think of, physical evidence that could make you potentially think Christianity might be true?” And he said, “no, I just can’t think of any.” At which point asking for evidence isn’t gonna get you anywhere if there’s literally no evidence that could change your mind. You’re so wedded, at that point, to a naturalistic worldview, that it’s not about evidence. It’s—your worldview is interpreting all the evidence, there’s only one conclusion you can come to. And when people are in that kind of position, I think you’re flogging a dead horse by trying to even talk about evidence, because at some point, if people have decided on a worldview, they will interpret the evidence to kind of go—and that runs in both directions of course, Christians and Atheists. 

So there’s a kind of point at which you have to ask yourself whether this whole thing is worth it, if people have kind of made up their minds in advance. But I think there’s enough people who are actually not in that place and who genuinely are open to changing their worldview on the basis of some evidence, and perhaps because of other experiences going on in their life. And frankly, the vast majority of Christians I know who have had some intellectual conversion to Christianity, it’s not been a purely intellectual one. There’s always a spiritual emotional component to what’s going on. And that’s why I’ve always said, I don’t believe you can, in that sense, argue someone into the kingdom, you can certainly—the intellect often has a role to play. an important role, but it’s not the only thing at play. There’s always much more going on. And for someone like Peter Atkins, bless him—and who knows what God in His grace may do. But it’s something else that Peter Atkins needs. It’s not just more evidence. There’s something else that someone like that needs.

Stump:

So this is perhaps a good way for us to wrap up our conversation here because it’s the same trajectory that your book takes. And as I was going through it, and you’re just, you’re explaining what many of these evidences for you have been and what you find compelling. I had written down in my notes even, “are people argued into accepting the gospel?” And then I got to this passage that you just quoted practically, page 196, where you answered my question with “in the end, nobody gets argued into the kingdom of God.” So you say then, as well, and perhaps we can have you conclude our time here by commenting on this a little bit, where you said, “I’d rather have Christians with imperfect theology who go and love people in the name of Christ, than believers with perfect theology whose faith is hermetically sealed from actually making a difference.” Reflect on that a little bit, particularly with respect to your show, Unbelievable? and what you’re trying to accomplish there.

Brierley:

Yeah, it’s a good way to finish out the conversation because I think so often there is a huge danger in apologetics, which is essentially what my show often deals with, that we can turn it into, really, moving counters on a board, kind of a logical exercise in winning an argument. And it’s a great temptation and it’s the great idol really that apologetics can turn into for some people, because it essentially means that we are the ones who believe that we have the power to change people’s mind. And of course, that can’t be the case. It must be a work of God, a work of the Holy Spirit. There are many factors going into it. So I think there’s just—it’s just a call for humility. And that actually, God can work just as effectively through a five year old child very often as the most, you know, sage philosopher. And to just say, in the end, you know, apologetics has its place, but it’s not the end goal. That’s not what Christian faith is ultimately about. And the danger is, you know, very often for those Atheists who the only Christian thing they listen to is my show, I sometimes worry that they think that this is what Christianity is—just intellectual people having intellectual arguments. But, you know, go to my wife’s church and you’ll see really what Christianity is. It’s about people in their everyday lives, trying to live for God and for others. And, you know, that’s the bread and butter of Christianity. And I’d much rather have a Christian who, you know, doesn’t know their cosmological argument from from their ontological argument, but is actually out there loving and serving people in a humble way, than someone who sort of believes they’ve sort of reached the pinnacle of theological, astute beliefs but very often, they can just come across as condescending, sadly, in some regards. The best apologists I know are those who spend as much time praying and loving people as they do arguing people intellectually. And for me, that’s a great challenge, because it’s not something I can claim to spend as much time doing, you know myself. So yeah, that’s really all I was trying to say in that is, you know, God uses us in a whole variety of ways. Apologetics is a wonderful tool, but let’s not assume it’s the only thing that God uses.

Jim:

Well, I believe God is using you and using your show for the good of the kingdom. So thank you for that. And thank you for talking to me here today.

Brierley:

It’s been an absolute pleasure, Jim. Thanks for having me on.

Credits

BioLogos

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the remote workspaces and homes of BioLogos staff in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

Justin Brierlaey

Justin Brierley

Justin Brierley is the host of Unbelievable?, the Premier Christian Radio show and podcast which brings together Christians and non-Christians for dialogue. He is also author of the book Unbelievable? Why, after ten years of talking with atheists, I’m still a Christian. Justin enjoys creating conversations that matter and tries to make programs and write articles that bring theology and apologetics into the real world. Justin has a wonderful wife, Lucy, who is the minister of a church in Surrey, and four amazing children.


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