The most important fact about materialism is its extreme silliness. The most important fact about the education that most Christian schools provide is that it not only fails to convince the pupils that there is an overwhelmingly strong case for Christianity but fails as well to inculcate a genial and good-humored contempt for the absurd contradictions of materialism. No differences in belief are comparable in importance with those that separate theists from atheists. If the belief in God is rejected, almost surely materialism must be accepted, and, if materialism be true, then man has neither free will nor free reason.
That great nineteenth-century scientist T. H. Huxley implied inescapably in a famous address that his audience would be foolish to attach any importance to anything he said: "The thoughts to which I am now giving utterance, and your thoughts regarding them, are expressions of molecular changes in the matter of life." So—doesn’t it follow?—his thoughts and ours are totally uninfluenced by reason.
The beliefs that men profess have admittedly far less influence on their behavior than might be expected, but they have some influence. It is as irrational for a materialist to condemn Nazis for their inhuman cruelty as to condemn a volcano for erupting lava, and yet avowed materialists, such as Marxists, continue to use (and often try to monopolize) words that their philosophy has rendered meaningless, words like ought, liberty, purpose, and cruelty.
The decline of Christianity and the rise of materialism—which is now, acknowledged or unacknowledged, the dominant philosophy of our age—has coincided with a tragic decline of moral standards. For this collapse of standards Christians are at least partly responsible. "The Christian mind," Mr. Harry Blamires writes in his persuasive study, "has succumbed to the secular drift with a degree of weakness and nervelessness unmatched in Christian history. It is difficult to do justice in words to the complete loss of intellectual morale in the twentieth-century Church." And it is, of course, in our Christian schools that the counteroffensive must be planned.
The basic issue is the existence of God. The main problem is to arouse the pupil’s interest. The normal pupil is far more interested in himself than in his Creator, and it is therefore essential to convince him that he is being invited to take an intelligent interest in the problems of his own nature. Is he of any ultimate significance, or is his life destined to end forever in the grave? If God is shown to be the key to this personal problem, it would indeed be unlikely as well as unintelligent for a student to be wholly uninterested in the evidence for God’s existence.
The typical Christian educator’s approach to the matter of evolution illustrates the problem. It would be rash to assume that even those pupils whose parents are practicing Christians are wholly uninfluenced by the illusion that all the arguments for the existence of a creator have been undermined and rendered worthless by Darwinism. It is therefore important that no pupil should leave a Christian school as uninformed as ninety-nine atheists out of a hundred are about one of the major controversies in world history.
He must, to begin with, know enough to rebuke anybody ignorant enough to use the term Darwinism as an equivalent of evolution, because the evolutionary theory was promulgated in more plausible forms by Charles Darwin’s great predecessors, the Comte de Buffon, Jean Baptiste Lamarck, and Erasmus Darwin, and by many of his followers. A Christian teacher should avoid giving the impression that he is trying to force on his pupils any particular theory of the origin of species and must content himself with suggesting that they should examine for themselves the immense difficulties of any such theory.
In 1940, I was asked by a well-known publisher to act as editor for a debate consisting of an exchange of letters between an evolutionist, H. S. Shelton, and a special-creationist, Douglas Dewar. In this book, a long succession of famous scientists were quoted in the preface who, in effect, accepted evolution not for scientific reasons but, as it were, for theological reasons. One of them, Professor D. N. S. Watson, later informed a body of scientists at Cape Town that "evolution itself is accepted by zoologists not because it has been observed to occur or can be proven by logically coherent evidence to be true, but because the only alternative—special creation—is clearly incredible."
Supporting the other side, Dewar cited a volume of the authoritative Encyclopedie Française. To this volume Paul Lemoine, a former Director of the National Museum of Natural History at Paris, contributed a sensational essay entitled, " Que Valent les Théories de l’Evolution? "
Lemoine answered, in effect, that they were worth nothing. "The theories of evolution in which our student youth was cradled constitute a dogma that all the world continues to teach. But each in his own specialty, zoologist or botanist, comes to the conclusion that none of the available explanations is adequate. . . . The result of this summary is that the theory of evolution is impossible. . . . One must have the courage to say this so that future generations may direct their researches in another direction."
The really important issue, though, is not whether the origin of species can be explained by evolution (as is at least possible), but whether, if man has evolved from a primordial cell, the process can be explained by purely natural agencies. "Let us assume," the Christian should insist, "that evolution has taken place. Your difficulty, my dear atheist, is to provide any natural explanation for the major changes. How did the process begin? How did the first cell, accidentally generated, nourish and reproduce itself on a planet devoid, but for itself, of organic matter?
"The survival of the fittest explains neither why the process should have begun, since life has so little survival value compared with inorganic matter, nor the upward trend of evolution. The lower types, after all, are as well adapted to their environment as the higher types. Again, does Darwin’s ‘natural selection,’ or survival of the fittest, begin to explain the origin of the sexual act or the origin of sexual pleasure? And does any theory of materialistic evolution explain the origin of aesthetic sense, our love of art or music or beautiful scenery?"
The fact is that the uncritical acceptance of a purely materialistic evolution provides depressing evidence of the influence of a widespread will to disbelieve in the supernatural.
I shall always he grateful to the University of Notre Dame for appointing me assistant professor of apologetics. I began by setting my pupils, all of whom were alumni of Catholic schools, a short examination paper. The main question was: How would you defend the Resurrection in an argument with a skeptic? With one exception the answers were lamentable. The only member of my class whose answer was excellent said that he had had long discussions about the Resurrection with an Englishman, Mr. Christopher Hollis, who had been on the staff the previous year. "Mr. Hollis made it interesting."
The problem of the empty tomb is indeed the most interesting detective story in all literature. It is one that has been studied with intensity by generations of scholars and with positive results that the conclusions of the most modern experts powerfully reinforce. The environment and the text, the capabilities and the motives—above all the consequences—can be placed before students with increasing clarity and authority.
It is not in the least surprising that Mr. Hollis could make the problem of the empty tomb sound interesting. What is surprising is that any teacher could fail to interest a boy or girl of average intelligence in the attempt to explain how, on the strength of the empty tomb, these Galilean peasants, who were anything but heroic at Gethsemani, could have provoked a schism in their own church and within twenty years have left their mark on every town from Caesarea to Troas and within fifty years have begun to overturn the foundations of the entire Roman Empire.
The literary problems raised by the Gospels, which are probably second in interest only to those of the empty tomb, involve the historical reality of the miraculous. Are we dealing with fact or fiction, romance or reality? The great skeptical Bible scholars of the nineteenth century such as Strauss must be seen and met and conquered, and this work of apologetics is also rich and interesting for aroused students.
Further, if phenomena allegedly due to supernatural agencies had virtually ceased nineteen centuries ago with the Resurrection, the defense of Christianity would be complicated by a not unreasonable prejudice. It is therefore important to familiarize the pupils in a Christian apologetics course with contemporary evidence for paranormal phenomena. In a Catholic school some time should obviously be devoted to the better-attested miracles at Lourdes and elsewhere in the modern world.
In addition, Christians—Catholic and Protestant—have been slow to realize the relevance and importance of the results achieved by psychical research. I was an agnostic when I first began to investigate this subject. Thanks to my friendship with those eminent spiritualists Sir Oliver Lodge and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I attended many sittings with leading mediums and, although my experiences at these sittings and my own extensive study of psychical literature did not convert me to spiritualism, my prejudice against miracles was weakened. It is all but impossible for anybody who has made a serious study of the evidence to deny that extrasensory perception in general, and telepathy in particular, have been proven beyond all reasonable doubt—and that materialism can offer no explanation.
I was glad for another reason to devote two or three hours to psychical research in my own courses of apologetics. I use that word under protest because there should be nothing "apologetic" about the statement of the case for Christianity. Many young people start, as I certainly did, with a certain prejudice against Christianity because they tend to think of it as propaganda for the Christian virtues and in particular for the virtue of chastity. But it is primarily for the priest in the pulpit and in the confessional to encourage the sinner to renew his efforts to practice the Christian code.
I think the teacher of apologetics will find it easier to arouse the real interest of his pupils if he makes it clear that he is solely concerned with the Christian creed and with the contribution that Christianity has made to the solution of the most fascinating of all problems—the real nature of man and his ultimate destiny. If the teacher makes it clear that he is willing to consider evidence from whatever source about these problems, he is in no danger of being regarded as a man briefed to defend a particular thesis. Psychical research may have contributed nothing of real value to the evidence of immortality, but it has at least helped expose the absurdity of materialism.
To become a competent apologist, a sound basis of study and research is essential, but it is as true of Christian apologetics as of boxing that the art cannot be mastered from books. Sooner or later you will have to get into the dialectical ring. I therefore arranged tea parties for my Notre Dame class every Sunday to which I invited not only Christians of other communions but also a Communist. This was some years before Vatican Council ecumenism. The Methodist minister who came to more than one of these parties said, "This is the first time that anybody from Notre Dame has taken the slightest interest in any of us Protestants in South Bend."
We did not convert the Communist, but our efforts were not wholly wasted. Shortly after I left Notre Dame, one of my former students met him in a bookshop. "You’ll be surprised," said the Communist, "to see what I have just bought," and he showed him John Stoddard’s book Rebuilding a Lost Faith. "You people did not convert me to Christianity, but you put one thing across. I could see it made you feel mighty good to be a Christian. A friend of mine, a Catholic, is losing his faith, and, as I guess he’ll be unhappy without it, I’ve bought this book to help him keep it."
What can a teacher of apologetics reasonably hope to achieve? It is, of course, only the exceptional boy who will, in later life, become a dedicated apologist for Christianity, but the teacher will be unlucky if he cannot fire an occasional student with that ambition. One of my boys helped to convert twenty of his friends within four years of leaving Notre Dame. If one in a hundred of those who have received a Christian education could do as much, the whole position of Christianity in what is left of what were once Christian countries would be revolutionized.
My main ambition was to ensure that my pupils left Notre Dame serenely confident that there is a convincing reply to the strongest criticisms that can be brought against Christianity. It is in the schools that a beginning must be made to counteract the mood of defeatism that is infecting all the churches. In an increasingly secular society, the Christian who wants to be "with it" is tempted to regard his religion as a purely private, if not secret, affair and to rationalize his reluctance to influence his non-Christian neighbors overtly by such formulas as, "Nobody is ever converted by argument, but only by example."
A Catholic member of the British Parliament recently informed us that for the educated Catholic, "apologetics and polemics are out." It is apparently a suitably educated thing to canvass for a political party, but uneducated to canvass for Christianity.
The hope of the future is not the kind of pacifist ecumenism that consists in swapping pulpits and compliments in the catacombs. No, the only hope is a militant ecumenism, an effective alliance to defend Christian beliefs and the Christian code against that concerted and so far successful attempt of secularists to impose their code and culture on countries that still retain some traces of Christian influence.