The University of Toronto is a quiet oasis in the heart of Canada’s largest city, a city buzzing with growth. It’s a unique experience, to walk around aged and stately buildings, nestled in among centuries-old trees and lush green (or white, in the winter) lawns, only to look just above the horizon to see that on all four sides of a campus looms a massive steel and glass fence, made of skyscrapers of all shapes. If the University of Toronto is at the heart of the city, Queen’s Park is at the heart of the university. As you walk through it, there are moments that can make you feel like your living a hundred years in the past, until the traffic noises wake you from your daydream, or you’re shaken back into existence by the rumbling ground as the subway passes meters underneath you at more or less predictable intervals.
I was there recently at night, when the cold was enough to sting any exposed flesh, and people’s breath went before them like a little cloud. I was walking from a Thai food place with a friend, through the rows of tiny million-dollar homes that, despite all of their gentrification in recent decades, still have a gritty feel in the winter. Road salt stains everything into a ghostly white, a kind of tie-dye pattern, though monochromatic. Students walked from bookshops and coffee shops to pubs and gift stores. As the cold seeped through thick boots into our bones, we were heading to a debate cosponsored by Wycliffe College centered on the question “Is There Meaning to Life?”
Those invited to respond were the formidable apologist William Lane Craig, accomplished philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and the now famous professor and psychologist Jordan Peterson. I was surprised, when we arrived almost an hour early, to find a line, with a thousand people already inside, laying their winter layers out to save seats for friends. We were ushered to overflow seats on the second floor.
As Craig and Goldstein took their places on stage the noise of the crowd would surge and fall, until Jordan Peterson walked out. Then the eruption was final and lasting, and for good reason. He’s become a kind of celebrity on campus, and both his admirers and detractors alike are eager to hear what he has to say.
After a brief introduction, speakers had 30 minutes or so to make a case for their view on life’s meaning, followed by some conversation between them, and finally some questions from the audience.
What struck me at first was how much this felt like a sporting event. There were a few guys a row down, muscled and tattooed, who jumped up from their seats, fists raised, clenched, as they cheered with wide-open eyes; I could see the spit flinging from their teeth as they experienced an emotional high after their favorite speaker made an insightful point.
I’ll admit that I was there to hear William Lane Craig, who for years has been a bit of hero to me. I passed many late nights watching him debate godless atheists, and seeing them sputter at his well-crafted arguments. I thought he was a genius. I still have no doubt he is a brilliant man, but I found that this night’s discussion was a disappointment.
Craig’s case was simple and logically airtight (if you only accept his premises): without God, life is ultimately meaningless, because it has no purpose, value, or significance. “The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,” and all that exists will vanish. Without God, nothing that we experienced will have any value, because it was momentary and fleeting.
Craig is right, in one sense: nothing temporal and purposeless has any eternal value. But both Newberger Goldstein, and Peterson drew attention to the dissonance of this perspective.
Peterson was the most forceful, drawing on the reality of suffering, and especially the suffering of children (here drawing from a venerable tradition including Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov and more recently Stanley Hauerwas’s God, Medicine, and Suffering). Peterson asked how one can look to a child who has the flu, or worse, is the victim of human evil — something like the horrors of Auschwitz — only to say the child’s suffering is meaningless because ultimately everything will be destroyed.
To the Christian who asserts that life is meaningless without God, Peterson simply points to the reality of suffering, touches the reality that all people see: suffering compels us to reach for meaning, even if we believe it does not exist; or more, that people who bear suffering at all bear it only because they see that life really does have meaning.
I could say a lot about this, but I want to only point out of the way that modern apologetics has failed both the Church and the world. This is no slight against Craig, who was very gracious, and is far smarter man than I will ever be. Even saying this, however, I was embarrassed by Craig’s clean lines of argument, his relentlessly logical mind, because I know I’ve tried many times to mimic it (poorly) and that I’ve been intoxicated by it many more.
Apologetics has failed because it has separated arguments for God’s existence from the lives of Christians and non-Christians and the suffering they face. It has failed because it has turned Christianity into a worldview or a belief system, rather than the daily following of the suffering Christ. It has failed because it has elevated reason and the mind while overlooking the life of our bodies in a kind of gnostic turn. Finally, it has started with arguments for God in the abstract, instead of the foolishness of the cross.
I left that debate angered and confused. My mind thudded on the long fluorescent subway ride home. How can we as Christians attempt to defend our faith without keeping the suffering Jesus at the center of it? How much more compelling was Peterson’s appeal to the suffering child? The suffering child, the suffering Son, innocent, and abandoned — in our place — is the way to tell the Christian story. And it’s never a defense, but only a fact, reality, that we utter, and leave alone.