Defending the faith in age of reason

30-01-2019 11:00 AM

Angele Reda

Watani interviews George Bassilios on Coptic Apologetics

Time was when one was born into a certain religion, embraced it without question, lived and died in it. Not many persons questioned their faith. But in modern times when children are raised to think critically and the open skies provide all there is to know about a topic, faith has become a matter of knowledge, analysis, questioning, and reaching answers on one’s own. It is even said that there can be no true faith unless it has been questioned and stood the test of doubt.

The climate of doubting religious faith and putting it to the test gave rise to Christian Apologetics, a field of Christian theology which aims to present a rational basis for the faith and, in the process, defend it against attackers or atheists.

Christian Apologetics is as old as Christianity itself; St Paul figures highly in that field.  Apologists continued to defend the Christian faith throughout the centuries till modern times. But the practice of Apologetics began in Egypt in 2005 at the hands of Fr Daoud Lamei, and the Service of Coptic Apologetics formally began in the Church in 2008 under Anba Moussa, Bishop of Youth, and supervision of Fr Matta Badie. [Watani International printed an article on the Coptic Apologetics Service under the title “Should faith run against reason” in its 12 February 2017 issue. Online, it is posted as:

Christ: focal point

Among the prominent figures of Coptic Apologetics is George Basillios. Watani talked to Mr Bassilios while on a visit to Cairo, starting with a brief on his upbringing and education.

“I was born in Cairo, immigrated to California in 1985, and have been living in San Francisco ever since. I serve as a deacon and Sunday School servant at St Antonius Coptic Church in San Francisco. I graduated with degrees in Psychology and Philosophy.  I currently work as a Senior Consultant managing business projects in the health care industry. I am married and have two boys.

“I started the ministry of Apologetics back in 2000 when still in college doing graduate studies. As a Sunday School servant, I realised the need to arm the students God had entrusted me with, with the essentials of the true Orthodox faith.  I saw how secular philosophies had led our young people to question their faith. I started to study Apologetics in order to equip myself for the task of defending the faith.  I attended several seminaries and became a student of notable apologists including Dr Ravi Zacharias, Dr William Lane Craig and Lee Strobel.  His Grace Bishop Youssef, of the southern United States, encouraged me to dig deeper into this field.  My educational background in Psychology and Philosophy helped me a great deal in this field.

“My Father, al-Qommos Bassilios Bassilios was the priest of al-Botrosiyya church in Cairo till he passed away in 1987, shortly after we immigrated to the US. He was a renowned lecturer, a poet, a thinker and writer, and I admired these qualities in him and aspire to be like him one day. No doubt, my ministry was influenced by being raised in a house where Christ was the focal point.”

Age of reason

“My early years in America helped me study my precious Orthodox faith more deeply since I found myself in a secular culture that promotes atheistic beliefs. I began reading and studying. I read every single book written by Bishop Yu’annis of Gharbiya, bishop from 1971 to 1987; as well as all the theological and spiritual books of Pope Shenouda, patriarch from 1971 to 2012; and the Early Church Fathers.  I would read every spiritual and theological material I could lay my hands on.  I also listened to and transcribed over 250 sermons in Arabic by Pope Shenouda in notebooks I still currently have.  When I was 16, I began serving in Sunday School at St Antonius Coptic Orthodox Church in San Francisco, until today.”

Watani then moved with Mr Bassilios to the significance of Apologetics.

“I believe that the ministry of Apologetics is extremely important in today’s age.  We live in the age of knowledge with distorted beliefs.  We also live in an age where we need to “reason” with our children.  We need to be equipped to give logical answers to their questions.  We also need to demonstrate that our faith is NOT blind faith but a reasonable one.

“My latest trip to Egypt in 2017 made me realise that the challenge faced by youth in Egypt, even Upper Egypt, is not very different from that faced by youth in the West.  I heard the same questions, same struggles, same challenges and same issues. I found the priests and the servants hungry and thirsty for Apologetic themes and topics.”

The ‘what’, ‘when’, and ‘how’

Who and where do we start with, Watani asked?

“We must care for EVERY stage and set up educational programmes to address the unique challenges of every stage. But I believe spiritual education about the true Orthodox faith begins at HOME. Parents must realise that their children are growing up in a different era and different world.  They need to be equipped in order to equip and educate their children from an early age so that they are anchored in the faith as they face the battle of foreign thoughts and beliefs.”

“Before we discuss our Orthodox faith with atheists or anyone else, we must adopt three principles; the ‘what’, the ‘when’, and the ‘how’. The content of the message we say is important, the timing in which we say the message is also important, but the manner or approach we use is the most important.  It must be a message of love said in a loving way.  In brief, we must say the right thing, at the right time, in the right way.  One other principle to note is that we function as instruments in the hand of God, as sowers not reapers.  We walk around throwing the seed of faith and He Himself reaps the repentant souls.”

Gift of Life

Watani asked Mr Bassilios on how he could explain ‘difficult to understand’ Christian concepts such as the need for the Incarnation of Christ and the Redemption?

“I can only explain but I cannot convince; convincing is a function of how open a person’s heart and mind are, and how he or she responds to the work of the Holy Spirit.  I have written an entire Chapter in my book Timeless Truth, (page 147), about the necessity to believe in Christ in order to have eternal life.

“In brief, Adam and Eve’s sin separated them from God, the Source of Life, resulting in death. The sentence of death, which Adam and Eve were warned of in Genesis 2:16-17 says, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’ You must die, or someone must die in your place, for your sake. This “someone” needs to meet certain conditions for him to offer his life to save ours. He has to be capable of dying, to fulfil the death sentence on our behalf; sinless, to be exempt from the sentence of death; unlimited, to offer life to everyone in the past, present and future; human, for him to assume the exact image to be restored and redeemed. He has to be a Creator for Him to regenerate and recreate a new creation.

“These five conditions are met in the Lord Jesus Christ. What we needed is someone who can restore that which we lost—life itself. And this is precisely what the Lord Jesus came to offer you and I.”

The Trinity

“Another Christian concept some find difficult to grasp is the Trinity. Attempting to fully understand the doctrine of the Trinity is a formula for failure. If I fully understand God, He no longer becomes God, I become God.  How can one understand the un-understandable or comprehend the incomprehensible?  I can only learn about God through what He revealed to me about Himself through Divine Revelation.  I learn that He exists essentially as the Father, He is a Reasonable God, the Son; and He is a living God, the Holy Spirit. Three, but One in Nature and Essence.

“St Paul said in 2 Cor 4:18 that we look at things that are unseen.  But how can we see the unseen?  We must then use a different set of eyes with which we can see that which we cannot see with our physical eyes.  These eyes are the eyes of our faith.  It is with these eyes that we can begin to see the doctrine of the Trinity. And these eyes of faith can only be functional through the virtue of humility, knowing the limitation of our mind and thought.”

Not the God we know

How do you deal with atheistic thought, Watani asked?

“I once asked an atheist to describe to me the God she denies. She gave me a description of a monstrous, narcissistic and vengeful God. I said that if this were God, I too would be atheist.  Many atheists deny a God different from the One we love and worship.  We ought to explain to them the image of the real God as disclosed in the Scriptures and exemplified in the life of the saints.

“There are several questions that atheists have no answers to:
a. Who created this universe?

  1. How can something come from nothing?
  2. How did the first life form exist, knowing that according to the Law of Biogenesis,

life cannot come from non-life?

  1. How can you distinguish reason and intelligence from material blind process?
  2. Who or what designed this intricately precise universe?
  3. What are the bases of our moral values and where do they come from?

There are many other questions that are inexplicable without the existence of a Divine Being who created the world and infused it with His Goodness and love.
“A servant of Apologetics must read and read and continue to read.  Of course he or she must first be discerning as to the source of the material.  Moreover, they must not only read the arguments for but also the arguments against.  Lastly, they must be well researched; their arguments and points must be referenced. Only then will they have weight and credibility.

Rock of atheism

“The Problem of Evil and Suffering is also called the “rock of atheism” because it is the most commonly used argument against God.

“I answered this question extensively in my book Timeless Truth (page 23). Here is a quick summary:

  1. Intellectual Reasons:  Those with intellectual barriers want to fully understand, assess and evaluate God. Because there is no way to scientifically assess and evaluate God, they conclude that He does not exist.
  2. Emotional Reasons: Evil and suffering highlight, for atheists, the alleged cruelty of God amidst the suffering of so-called innocent.
  3. Dysfunctional Upbringing: When a psychological factor infers with how one relates to God.
  4. Wilful Reasons: Some people do not believe in God simply because they don’t want to! They have no intellectual nor emotional objections to belief. Rather, they know that submitting to God would require more from them than they would ever give. They refuse to change their sinful lifestyle and come to the light.”

Finally …

“I am optimistic yet realistic.  I see that there is a shift in our culture and if we, as servants, want to properly serve our flock, we should likewise shift the way and the approach of our ministry.  We must equally focus not only on preaching but also teaching.  We must be up to date with the current issues that our youth deals with.  We must speak their language, feel their pain, empathise with their struggles, teach them about the true faith and most of all show them sincere and genuine LOVE.”

Watani International

30 January 2019

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