Are you acquainted with Thornton Wilder (1897-1975), author of Our Town, The Eighth Day, and The Bridge of San Luis Rey? If not, you have really missed something.
Wilder was one of the most underrated American writers of the 20th century. (Virtually no one, for example, is aware that the characters in the musical Hello Dolly were created by Wilder: the musical was in fact adapted from his play, The Merchant of Yonkers.) It is incredible that an Ernest Hemingway – who killed himself, thereby justifying his pagan philosophy of autonomous individualism – should have received plaudits galore, including a Nobel Prize in Literature, whilst the critics generally regarded Wilder as a novelist and playwright of secondary rank, even though he won no less than three Pulitzer Prizes.
Perhaps the main reason for Wilder’s lesser treatment at the hands of the critics was his non-politically-correct lifetime preoccupation with theodicy: the search for God’s hand in history and human life. The Eighth Day, for example, is an epic novel expanding on the theme of our Lord’s genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3; Wilder argues that each generation and each life may be part of a plan, unknown to those within it, leading to positive ends beyond their imaginings.
I recently attended a dramatic version of The Bridge of San Luis Rey in a Paris suburban theatre. The play was not great shakes, reminding one a bit of amateur, off-Broadway productions, but it could not obscure the power of Wilder’s theme, that of “justifying the ways of God to man” (to use Milton’s felicitous phrase). The story, set in the Peru of the 18th century, is based on an actual historical event: the sudden and totally unexpected collapse in 1714 of a celebrated rope bridge in the Andes, and the death of the five persons who were crossing it at that moment.
A pious and rationalistic friar sees this as a laboratory example to vindicate God’s hand in history: he will investigate those five lives, in order to demonstrate why they were fated to die when they did. I shall not go into the results of Brother Juniper’s research, which were far from unambiguous and which led to the friar’s own condemnation and death at the hands of the Inquisition; nor shall I critique Wilder’s solution, based on a sadly weak concept of love in human relations. But I do want to say something about the apologetic issues posed by the novel.
Ought one to see in this story — soon to be a major motion picture — an indictment of apologetics as such: a recognition of the impossibility of our proving the truth of the faith? Does apologetics, like Wilder’s Brother Juniper, inevitably arrive at a dead end, with the (intellectual) death of the apologist? After all, Juniper failed to realise that the number of factors in each human life and in history in general are so great that only rarely are we privileged to see the historical drama as God sees it. We therefore lack the perspective, in most instances, to understand the divine plan in given lives (including our own).
Certainly, The Bridge of San Luis Rey offers a powerful critique of certain styles of apologetics — but not of apologetics per se. Juniper was a deductive rationalist who wanted to provide a mathematically perfect proof of God’s action in history by way of an ideal laboratory example. His apologetic inadequacies can be paralleled among (1) the rationalists, such as Descartes, who see apologetics as a perfect deductive system; in point of fact, apologetics always depends on inductive and therefore probabilistic evidence to support the faith once delivered to the saints; (2) the presuppositionalists, who think that one can logically deduce the ways of God from first principles, whereas Christian truth must be discovered from the investigation of revelatory claims; (3) the Thomists (in evangelical circles, the so-called classical apologists), who attempt first to arrive at God’s existence and character by analysing nature and natural phenomena, instead of focusing on the case for special revelation; (4) the charismatic apologists, who try to defend the faith from present, personal experience, instead of concentrating on what God has accomplished in Jesus Christ; and (5) the philosophical apologists, who deal with questions of God-in-eternity rather than approaching the apologetic task christologically. There is enough solid historical evidence to establish Jesus’ deity by way of his resurrection from the dead, even though there is rarely enough perspective by way of natural theology to determine why the collapse of a given bridge should have killed only certain individuals and not others.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a warning not to do bad apologetics, but it is also an encouragement to do the kind of courageous defence of the faith which is so badly needed in a secular world. The “bridge” is not (pace Wilder) “love”, but it suggests the need lovingly to show a passerelle from the purposelessness of non-Christian existence to the plenitude of life in Christ, where — Matthew 10 informs us — “the very hairs of your head are all numbered” and “not a sparrow shall fall to the ground without your heavenly Father.”
* * *
This issue of the Global Journal again has a strong apologetics bent. We make no apology (!) for this, since the usual situation in evangelical circles is to place most if not all stress, not on how to reach the questioning unbeliever but on internal church matters, the Last Things, or the inner life of the already converted (“How Can I Be Blest Out of My Socks?,” etc.).
Two of the articles appearing in Vol. 5, No. 1 treat gospel truth from the standpoint of the historic Anglo-American common law.
Professor Andrew Phang, Professor of Law & Chairman of the Department of Law of Singapore Management University, analyses in depth the natural law foundations of the thought of Lord Denning, the greatest English judge of the 20th century. Denning, not so incidentally, was Honorary President of the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship of the United Kingdom until his death at the age of 100; your editor is one of the Honorary Vice-Presidents of that body. Part Two of Professor Phang’s article will be published in our next issue.
Henry Hock Guan Teh, and advocate and Solicitor from Malaysia, offers readers of the present issue a related paper titled, “Legal Apologetics: Principles of the Law of Evidence As Applied in the Quest for Religious Truth.”
A third article analyses in terms of meaning and effectiveness one of the most influential apologetic arguments in the history of the church: “Pascal’s Wager: Logical Consistency and Usefulness as an Argument for the Existence of God.” Its author? Doctoral candidate in theology Robert Peterson–which should serve as an encouragement to other graduate students to submit their magna opera to the Global Journal for possible publication . . .
— John Warwick Montgomery