Wednesday, March 26, 2008

What's so great about Christianity?


Sunday was Easter, and churches overflowed with congregants, the regular and the not-so-regular attendees. Why? Why, more than 2,000 years after Jesus walked the Earth, do they still go to church? Why do they still believe, whether faintly or utterly?

After all, the world is full of evil, tragedy and suffering. The innocent perish in concentration camps or are gunned down on college campuses. They die by the thousands in natural disasters or one by one in hospice beds. A child dies. Would a merciful God, author of the universe, allow all this to happen? Would a loving God allow bad things to happen to good people? Would a just God allow the corrupt to prosper?

These are questions that nonbelievers and believers (even on Easter) ask. Unsatisfying answers to these questions can be a major hurdle to belief.

I'm not sure every reader will find Dinesh D'Souza's answers to these and other theological questions satisfying, but it won't be for lack of intellectual rigor, rhetorical elegance and power of argument in his latest book, "What's So Great About Christianity?" His response to a recent spate of atheist tracts is a work of Christian apologetics that is a kind of updated, edgier "Mere Christianity"—C.S. Lewis' 20th-century classic.

I mention this because it's Easter and the events of Holy Week are at the core of D'Souza's answers to the questions above.

What's special about the book is that D'Souza argues on a high intellectual and philosophical plane, but his prose, clear and catchy when not downright eloquent, makes his arguments utterly accessible. Everything's handled with the kind of scholarship-based analysis that this conservative writer has brought to his public affairs commentary at National Review and elsewhere over the years.

He covers a lot of territory in the book. Christianity and science, Christianity and philosophy, the reasonableness of faith, the importance of Christianity to the West, and the (exaggerated) crimes of religion. But I found his chapter on the problem of evil the most affecting.

D' Souza offers no pat answers. There are none. He offers incomplete answers and a critical observation.

His incomplete answer is that evil and suffering have no meaning that mortals can figure. God may use evil for good; suffering may lead us to call on God's mercies and consolations and realize our reliance on God. But we just don't know. His observation: "Atheism may have a better explanation for evil and suffering, but it provides no consolation for them. Theism, which doesn't have a good explanation, nevertheless offers a better way for people to cope with the consequences of evil and suffering."

D' Souza's Exhibit A: After the shooting at Virginia Tech University last April, atheism was "nowhere to be found." Even people who were not religious used language rich in Christian symbolism and meaning.

It's hard to offer anything hopeful or curative if you think we're just material beings in a material world and have no business using terms like "evil." The odd mass murder is just as natural as the odd tsunami.

But, if we're more, why do God's people do great evil? Our free will; God did not create a race of robots. "[E]vil in the world," he writes, "is entirely consistent with a God who despises evil but values freedom."

But what about the suffering people who use their free will to choose good? Why do bad things happen to good people? His answer—the Christian answer—is that there are no good people. We're all sinners.

So is God indifferent to our plight? No, which brings us back to Easter. As D'Souza notes, God became man to take on the sins of this world, and Christ himself was no stranger to unjust suffering.

Why do the Easter people still believe? "For the Christian ... to endure evil and suffering is somehow to share the passion of Christ," he writes. "Ultimately, Christ prevailed over evil and this is what the Christian also seeks to do, at least in his own life."

Dinesh D'Souza has written an important book for the journey from Good Friday to Easter.

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