Applied Apologetics, A letter of Gordon H. Clark

This is my favorite letter from Dr. Clark’s collection. This is perhaps the best example of applied apologetics I’ve come across.

[Letter from Gordon H. Clark to his nephew , Feb 15, 1974]

Dear D—,

Aunt Ruth and I were immensely pleased to get your letter about Christmas time. Five pages, no less. Wonderful. [Personal content removed]

     We are happy that you are doing so well in music. In advising students I have always said that a student should go into a line of endeavor that he really likes. We all need money to live, but to me it would be torture to spend a life doing what you do not like, even for a good salary.

     You say you are more a doer than a thinker. Well, I can understand that you may not like to study and write books, you may not like cancer research and microbiology. All right: music is fine; I enjoy it.  One of my brilliant students, a girl who came to college with only two years of high school, and made A’s in all classes but mine (for I am an ogre), practiced her violin eight hours a day (or maybe only six – no wonder she got only a B in Logic); she then started to become a neuro-surgeon, and is now in McGill in Montreal, with a side job in an orchestra.

     But even in music one must be not only a doer, he must also be a thinker. Is not music based on theory? I wager Beethoven did a good bit of thinking. You speak about learning by experience. Experience is a very poor teacher. If you wish to understand scales and harmony, it is foolish to spend your time experimenting. You only repeat the trials and errors of earlier people. Books tell you about their mistakes. No one would think of making advances in cancer before learning what has already been done. Why start from scratch, when you can get a hundred years “experience” in a few weeks of reading?

     But there is something more important. Experience, even Beethoven’s, never provides you with norms of judgment. Of course, if you never heard music, experienced it, you would have nothing to judge. But you can hear music, and if you have no idea of what is good, you are left to your own uneducated reactions.  The formulation of aesthetic norms is an immensely difficult undertaking. There are easier things and better examples of what I mean.

     Without, however, leaving your field, may I speak of your constructing radio programs? You mentioned “Scattered Arts.” You also spoke of “creative programming.” Now, is it not obvious that to do these things you must have some idea of what a program should be? Experience will tell us what programs are being broadcast. You can compose a list of all the programs of a hundred stations for a week.  But the mere observation of all these data goes no distance in deciding which are better than others.  To judge quality and purpose requires more than mere experience. You must have norms.  Norms are statements of what should be; experience gives us only what is.  And from is there is no logical route to ought.

        This, of course, is where philosophy comes in. Somehow or other a thinker will try to establish norms. He must construct an argument. His critics ask, Is it a good or poor argument. And his critics must have their own norms for judging him. Observation is of no help in all this.

     If all this is so with respect to music and radio, think how much more applicable it is to politics. We can list large numbers of actual political actions taken by the parliaments of various nations; we can sometimes perhaps see whether these actions fulfilled their intended purposes; but experience can never tell whether those legislative acts and their results were good. Our country, with its Christian background, used to think that murder, torture, and kidnapping were bad. But did you notice that when Hearst’s daughter was kidnapped, and a ransom of food to the poor was demanded, the older poor in California said they would not accept it, but the younger said they would take it. Apparently the younger generation contains a greater proportion of people who approve of kidnapping, hijacking, and the violence that occurs in many parts of the world. The terrorists think terror is good. Others think that terror is bad. To decide, one needs norms. These are statements of what ought to be done; they are not lists of what has been done.

     Now, you say that you can see no clear plan in the world or life. You say you had “an intense personal relationship with Christ.” This is experience, and to tell the truth, I do not think much of it. You admit that it was largely emotion, and dependent on the “psyching up” by other people. But your state of mind then fell apart, as you yourself say, and you found too many absurdities in your environment (I am repeating some of your words), so that you could see no plan in life, and could not think a person responsible for what he does.

     The reason, I believe, is that you depended on experience. And it seems to me that experience by itself is just as chaotic as you say. What I think you should have depended on is revelation.

     The Bible reveals that all people are born sinners. They do all want to do evil, and everybody succeeds to various degrees. People are by nature, by birth, enemies of God. Naturally a world of such people produces apparent chaos. Mere looking at the world discloses no plan of history, or guide of life. But revelation does.

     As for the plan of history, the revelation says that God chose Abraham for a certain purpose; and Moses – the Exodus and its details were a contest between God and the religion of Egypt. But most important, Christ came, died, and was resurrected from the grave. These events are explained in the revelation. Everybody dies. I shall soon die. Strange as it seems to me, who remembers my high school days so well, I am an old man, and cannot live much longer. Well, Pontius Pilate died too, and so did the Pharisees. But Christ died in order to pay the penalty for the sins of those who should take him as Lord and Savior. This is the significance, and it is discovered, not in experience, but in revelation. That Christ rose from the dead assures us that his death accomplished what he intended.

     Further, on a world wide historical level, the Bible predicts that the Jews shall return to Palestine. For two thousand years that seemed impossible. What other people has preserved its identity for so long and though scattered returned to their ancient land? The significance is in revelation, even if experience tells us that the Jews are in fact in Jerusalem.

     Then on a personal level, much smaller in scope than world history, the revelation gives us the norms for life. Terror, kidnapping are wrong because God condemns them. The Ten Commandments, and the many derivative precepts, are the norms by which we ought to judge music, morals, politics, and ourselves.

     None of this comes to us by “doing rather than thinking,” or by experience and certainly not by emotion. It comes in an intelligible revelation. It comes by believing that God has established these norms and not some others.

     Atheism can establish no norms whatever. Examine their arguments and see for yourself. Atheism has nothing to offer me, who cannot last too long now. What do atheists promise for after death? They promise no more for this life either. Bertrand Russell based his life on “unyielding despair.” But he had no reason for living at all. It may be compacting the matter too much to suit some people, but I think I can properly reduce the matter to a choice is between Christianity and purposeless, absurd, chaotic despair.

               Cordially, your uncle,

               Gordon

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About douglasdouma

I am a graduate of the University of Michigan (BSME), Wake Forest University (MBA), and Sangre de Cristo Seminary (Mdiv). I've learned far more from books than in school. I'm particularly in debt to Martin Luther, Ludwig von Mises, and Gordon H. Clark for any thoughts I have.
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One Response to Applied Apologetics, A letter of Gordon H. Clark

  1. David Blythe says:

    What a wonderfully compassionate and well reasoned letter.

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