Years back, I lectured to a capacity crowd at the University of California at Berkeley. I made the case against moral relativism simply by pointing out how every day of our lives we each encounter—and ultimately violate—genuine, deep morality.
This discovery, I noted to the audience, had explanatory power since it accounts for something else we all know—the personal feelings of guilt each of us experiences. Then I asked the question I pose frequently to groups like that: “Why do we all feel guilty? Maybe guilt is just a cultural construction,” I offered. “But here’s another possibility. Maybe we feel guilty…because we are guilty. Is that option in the running?”
You may think this a bold stroke, but there was no risk for me at all. I have asked this question many times of audiences, and no one has ever stopped me afterward and told me they never experienced guilt. They knew better. More to the point for this tactic, I knew better.
Even though I had never met a single one of them before that night, there was something I knew to be true for each of them on the inside that they couldn’t keep from revealing on the outside—and they knew it, too. That insight is at the heart of a maneuver I want to introduce you to that has served me well for years.
The Inside Out tactic is not so much a specific maneuver as a frame of mind, an insight to help you maneuver confidently—even creatively, sometimes—in conversations. In a sense, you have inside information on others that they will eventually acknowledge, sometimes unwittingly, if you just pay attention.
A perfect example came from one of atheism’s most colorful apologists, Richard Dawkins. According to his naturalistic worldview, morality is just a relativistic trick of evolution to get our selfish genes into the next generation. Nothing more—“no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”1 Yet at another time he railed against the God of the Old Testament as a vindictive, bloodthirsty, homophobic, racist, genocidal, sadomasochistic, malevolent bully.2
Do you see the problem? This is not Dawkins’s naturalism speaking. Instead, it’s his commonsense moral realism doing the talking. His protest makes no sense in his minimalist molecules-in-motion world but is perfectly consistent with the world that actually exists—God’s world.3
Notice here that there is something true on the inside for Dawkins—something he knows—that he cannot help but display on the outside in unguarded moments. When he’s defending his philosophical turf, he tells the lie. When his guard is down, his humanity betrays him and he tells the truth in spite of himself.
Why does this happen?
The Inside Out tactic is based on an insight I learned from the late Francis Schaeffer that has helped me navigate more confidently in conversations with others about Christ. He called it the “mannishness of man.” Strange phrase, agreed, but a provocative notion, nonetheless.
Schaeffer’s insight is tied to this question: What does it mean to be human? Here is one answer, the response of naturalism—the worldview currently governing science. According to pop “Science Guy,” Bill Nye, we’re just “a speck, on a speck, orbiting a speck, among other specks.”4 “We emerged from microbes and muck,” Carl Sagan declared. “We find ourselves in bottomless free fall…lost in a great darkness, and there’s no one to send out a search party.”5
And they are right, of course, in a world without God. Humans are nothing but cogs in the celestial machine, cosmic junk, the ultimate unplanned pregnancy, left to build our lonely lives on the “firm foundation of unyielding despair,” as atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell put it. Nihilism—bleak “nothing-ism.”
Yet no one really believes this, not deep inside. Solomon said God has set eternity in our hearts.6 There is a better answer—a more accurate answer—to the question “What does it mean to be human?” And we all know it.
Simply put, in Schaeffer’s words, “Man is different from non-man.”7 Human beings are special, unique, unlike anything else in the created realm, “crowned with glory and honor,” as David put it.8 That is the “mannishness of man.”
At the core of our beings lies a mark, an imprint of God Himself—not on us, as if foreign and attached, but in us, as a natural feature built into our natures. This mark is part of what makes us what we are, who we are. We would not be humans without it, only creatures.
Sagan says we are cousins of apes.9 That is Mother Nature’s assessment, of course. Father says different. Because of this mark, we are not kin to apes. We are kin to the God who made us for Himself.
Because we all live in God’s world and are all made in God’s image, there are things all people know that are embedded deep within their hearts—profound things about our world and about ourselves—even though we deny them or our worldviews disqualify them.
“That which is known about God,” Paul wrote, “is evident within them; for God made it evident to them” (Rom. 1:19). That which is already on the inside—put there by God Himself—eventually shows itself on the outside—in actions, in language, and in convictions. Our “mannishness” cannot be suppressed.
This knowledge can make a big difference in our conversations. Here is my tactical application of the mannishness of man: The profound truths we all know on the inside always eventually reveal themselves on the outside. All you need to do is listen.
Sometimes the Inside Out factor reveals itself in unusual ways.
In the waning days of summer, 1997, two well-known and well-loved women died within days of each other, but the public reaction to each death was radically different. Mother Teresa passed away peacefully at 87—her death a quiet conclusion to a noble life well lived. Princess Diana died in her prime at 36—her death a tragic, “untimely” intrusion into a life filled with promise.
Why did so many react so differently to the same kind of event—a life ending, a human being dying? From one point of view—an atheistic, materialistic one—no one dies “before her time.” Death is death and arrives when it arrives. There is no timeliness for anything since there is no timetable—no schedule, no plan of how things are supposed to be. Everything just is.
In a God-less universe where all meaning is of our own making, what could it possibly mean to say someone died an “untimely” death? It means that people know better. It means they know life has ultimate purpose and deep significance that transcends private projects. In spite of their pontifications to the contrary, their mannishness gives them away.
And there are lots of things like this, if you look for them. People endorse moral relativism for convenience but then are mortified at the genuine evil that assails the world and struggle with guilty consciences for their participation in it. They deny conscious design in the universe but reflexively invoke the wonders of “Mother Nature” when overwhelmed by the magnificence of God’s world. They deny Father, so they praise Mother. Et cetera. Et cetera.
Understanding this Inside Out pattern provides a powerful technique to get someone thinking. “The truth that we let in first is not a dogmatic statement of the truth of the Scriptures,” Schaeffer wrote, “but the truth of the external world and the truth of what man himself is. This is what shows him his need. The Scriptures then show him the real nature of his lostness and the answer to it.”10
Here’s how Schaeffer’s insight can be useful for us. Listen to the way people talk. Watch for when—from their own mouths—their acknowledgment of reality intrudes on their philosophies. Then exploit that tension by asking a question.
In a world without purpose, why is Princess Di’s death a tragedy? If there is no ultimate, universal morality, how can anything be really evil? Why try to talk someone out of a suicide? If there is no meaning to life, what’s the point?
Mother Teresa finished her course, and Princess Diana did not. That is the victory and the tragedy of those events in the waning days of summer, 1997. But only because there is a divinely intended purpose—a noble end humans have been designed for that sin, sadly, cuts short.
Here is another example—kin to the one above—of the “inside” truth finding its way to the “outside.” Everyone knows something has gone terribly wrong with the world. We call it “the problem of evil,” and it prompts us to ask, “Why is there so much badness in the world?”
There is a wrinkle to this concern, though, another detail each of us also knows. The world is broken, true enough. But we are broken, too. Though humans have inherent dignity, we are also cruel. The evil is “out there,” as it were, but it is also “in here”—in us.
We are not machines that are malfunctioning, though. We are not bodies that are ailing. We are subjects who revolted, rebels who are now morally corrupted. We are guilty, and for this we must answer.
Again, each of us knows this deep down inside. It was the Inside Out point I traded on in my Berkeley lecture. We are the “others” doing those evil deeds we object to. Deep inside us is a gnawing awareness of our own badness producing a feeling we universally recognize: guilt.
In our moral wretchedness, we are also profoundly guilty. We owe. We are in debt, not to a standard, not to a rule, not to a law, but to a Person—to the One we have offended with our disobedience. And this is not good news, since our guilt has severe consequences.
Justice or Mercy
Each of us longs for justice. We speak of it often, especially when we’ve suffered injustice. That’s the inside revealing itself on the outside again. Justice is not satisfied in this life, though. It is satisfied in the next.
At the end of the Bible we find a dark passage.11 It tells of the final event of history as we know it, a great trial on a great plain where a great multitude of the accused—the guilty ones—stand before a judge. The books of death are opened, each of our moral lives laid bare for all mankind to see—the record in the books the basis for a final reckoning, a last judgment.
Before the judge stand all the beautiful, broken, guilty ones, each shut up under sin.12 Every mouth is also shut, each voice muted, silenced from any defensive appeal or any excuse.13 The record in the books speaks for itself.
Here is Sagan’s “bottomless free fall”—mankind “lost in a great darkness.” He is right about that, since we are all guilty, and no judge owes a pardon. Atonement must be made. The debt must be paid. Justice must be perfect.
There is something else, though. I did not leave the students at Berkeley in despair, abandoned under the weight of blame we all share. “The answer to guilt is not denial,” I told them. “That’s relativism. The answer to guilt,” I said, “is forgiveness. And this is where Jesus comes in.”
I have made that point many times to audiences, and every time I say those words something moves inside me. Forgiveness. Mercy. Repair. Restoration. Rebirth. New life. Hope. This is what each of our souls longs for.
Sagan is right when he says we are lost, but he is wrong when he says there is no one to send out a search party. Clearly, humans need rescuing, and we cannot rescue ourselves. Help must come from the outside. From outside of us. From outside of Sagan’s closed cosmos. From outside of this world.
And the search party has arrived. The Rescuer has come. He is the One who calls to us: “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest…for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28–29).
Our Restless Souls
Augustine of Hippo most famously described the restlessness of the human soul and also its proper place of repose. “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord,” he wrote in his Confessions, “and our hearts are restless until they can find rest in You.”
I think it’s safe to say that this restlessness, this sense of longing, this ineffable yearning to be filled—or maybe yearning to be fixed—is a universal human affliction, a malady that has nothing to do with our natural appetites, since satisfying them never sates the hunger of our hearts.
Two facts of the human condition lie at the heart of our inescapable sense of longing. One is that we are broken. We’ve already spoken of that. The second is this: It hasn’t always been this way. There remains a remnant of former beauty the brokenness cannot efface, yet something has gone missing that must be replaced. We feel a “sweet pain…a primal memory deep in our souls reminding us of the way the world started—good, wonderful, whole, complete.”14
We were made for something better, and we scrap and scrape to climb back up, to return to the heights. That struggle is central to just about every film we have ever seen and every story we have ever read. The “triumph of the human spirit,” they say—God’s image forcing its way to the surface, to the outside. The exceptions, of course, are the dark, nihilistic yarns, the dystopian tales that tell the lie that we are nothing.
Note the conflicting visions—the vision buried deep in our humanity, and the contrary vision flowing from the atheistic, nothing-ism view.
Atheism, of course, denies the guilt. It must. Without Good, there is no Bad. It also denies the beauty. Again, it must. If no God, no guided design, only biological accidents, physical parts stuck together without reason or purpose—cosmic junk. Man is nothing and his life means nothing. Atheism leaves us, once again, with naught.
No, our true longing is a hunger that atheism simply cannot satisfy, a thirst it cannot quench. Holly Ordway was an atheist who watched her soul suffer injury, corrupted by a belief that did not fit reality:
My atheism was eating into my heart like acid…. I could not have explained the source of my own rationality, nor of my conviction that there were such things as truth, beauty, and goodness. My worldview remained satisfying to me only insofar as I refrained from asking the really tough questions.15
Ordway was not drawn to God initially because of DNA, irreducible complexity, or the finely-tuned constants of the universe. Rather, she first saw God in John Keats, John Donne, and Gerard Manly Hopkins. In short, she was alerted to God by beauty.
As an atheist, she had been dining on despair for years, and she was starving. “However satisfied I declared myself intellectually…atheism…was a terrible place to live,” she realized. “It was the winter of my soul.”16
The thaw began when, as a newly-minted college professor, Ordway reread the canonical poets of English literature and for the first time realized that the soul-satisfying beauty of their verse flowed naturally and natively from their Christian view of the world—God’s world:
I sensed something deeper in the poems I was reading. I could feel power thrumming in the lines of the poems, an electricity of meaning, drawing from some source beyond my reach.17
The world of Hopkins, Keats, and Donne was a world where transcendent beauty made sense, where longing and hunger could be satisfied, where rising up from the fall was possible—a world where there was hope. Inside her, something moved—“My heart in hiding/Stirred…,” “...hope, wish day come…” (Hopkins).
A realistic hope, though, or empty wish? C.S. Lewis answers: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”18
This other world was the one Ordway hungered for. This was the understanding that made sense of the actual world she lived in. But there was also a dark side to her discovery.
The understanding of reality that made sense of beauty and meaning and hope also made sense of this world’s brokenness—both completely unintelligible in Holly Ordway’s atheism. The disturbing part for her was this: The brokenness that was real was also moral—and personal. “I considered myself a ‘good person,’” she wrote, “but in my heart I was afraid to be judged on the real self behind my outward image.”19 She was guilty, and she knew it.
French philosopher Guillaume Bignon found his own naturalistic atheism being challenged as he encountered Christ in the New Testament.20 Nevertheless, the cross confused him. “Why did Jesus have to die?” he asked over and over again as he worked through the historical accounts of Jesus’ life. It made no sense to him.
Then something completely unexpected happened. “God reactivated my conscience,” he told me. “That was not a pleasant experience. I was physically crippled by guilt, not knowing what to do about it.”
Suddenly it dawned on him, “That’s why Jesus had to die. Because of me. Because of my guilt.” He immediately surrendered all his brokenness to the only One who could repair it, giving all his guilt to the only One who could forgive. When he did, “The feelings of guilt just evaporated.”
Atheism cannot do this. It cannot explain the beauty and wonder of being human. And it has no answer to human brokenness. It cannot provide the consolation of true forgiveness. We are fallen, guilty, lost. We cry out.
Here is our remedy, stated simply in a Christmas card I received from a friend: “The birth of Christ…invites us to believe that the cries of a broken world have actually been heard—a Savior was born.”21
There are times when clever arguments evade you. That’s when a simple declaration of the truth may be all that’s needed. “Come unto me…” is an offer of meat to hunger and drink to thirst. Touch the existential nerve, the deep profound desire that throbs in every fallen human being made in the image of God.
Listen carefully in your conversations. Listen for when a person’s mannishness speaks. When they tell the truth—and they must, eventually—point it out.
My question to the audience at Berkeley was a direct application of the Inside Out tactic. I addressed those students confidently since I knew that even though a person can run from God, he cannot run from himself.
Adapted from the completely revised and expanded 10th anniversary edition of Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions, due out November 2019.