John Lennox at the Oxford Union – inspirational, when he sets himself free

As I announced here that I would, I am shining an analytical spotlight on The Oxford Union debate, This house believes in God. It took place in 2012, around the end of October or beginning of November if the poppies are anything to go by.  Professor John Lennox was speaking for the motion.

Wow what a fabulous, uncompromising opening! Anaphora comprising four elements, the first of which is “I believe in God.” How hugely refreshing to hear someone openly scorning the right-on, apologetic, desperate-to-be-fashionably-agnostic, wishy-washy, mealy-mouthed mumblings that usually are the alternative to downright denial. Regardless of my own beliefs – which here do not matter – I love it when a head rises this far above any parapet. True to the first Cardinal Rule in my book, he has something to say and he is damn well going to say it. This man will take no prisoners.

Lennox addresses the matter from a standpoint of pure logic and reason – as befits a professor of mathematics. No one should be foolish enough to try to tell him that he is clinging to an irrational superstition. On the contrary he professes astonishment that any rational human should not believe in God, because rationality itself is self-evidently a divine gift. The comprehensibility of the universe is manifestly a direct result of its having been designed by the same divine hand that created the brain that comprehends it.

He quotes numerous eminent thinkers down the ages to reinforce his case; and this brings me to a question I was once asked during a master-class. What’s the difference between quoting people and argumentum ad verecundiamI replied that in a sense it was the same as the difference between research and plagiarism. If your research is restricted to just one source from which your argument is slavishly reproduced it is plagiarism. If you have several sources, from which you draw a range of threads in order to help assemble (or illustrate) your own original work then it is research. In short, standing on the shoulders of giants is not enough: you must still scan the resultant horizon for yourself. Lennox’s citing of great thinkers is more to illuminate than support his theme. And he produces some corkers!

There’s a section in the sixth and seventh minutes where he presents mathematical proof that atheism is illogical. It is all so counter to the bien pensant fashion of our age that I bask in it.

He turns his attention from the universe to ethics, and quotes a colleague in the Russian Academy of Sciences. “We thought we could abolish God and maintain a value for humans. We found we couldn’t, and we murdered millions.” That’s a powerful opening for a powerful section!

The whole speech is very powerful, but it could so easily be even more so. This is where I ram my rhetor hat down over my ears, and regular readers know what I am going to say. Too much of what he speaks he reads. Reading some of those long quotations is fine – in fact it is more than fine. That is the best way to deliver them, even if you know them by heart. It is when he is reading the rest of it that it bothers me. With all the delight that the speech gives me I just want him to learn how to sectionalise and stream his material in order to reduce his paper-dependency to zero. I was wondering how to persuade you, the reader, how much better it would be if he did, when he supplied his own demonstration.

At 11:42 his elbow goes down onto the dispatch box; and this seems to trigger around half a minute of more personal and passionate speaking that makes his notes temporarily redundant. It’s as if he has gone into high-definition, and it’s so exciting! I start feeling desperate for him to do it again, and at 13:10 he does.

He has addressed the knotty conundrum of evil and pain, and we feel an auxesis coming. The more it warms up the less he looks at his paper. Passion is beginning to pour out of him and at 13:25 he removes his spectacles – how symbolic is that! This is his peroration and where before he was merely very good now he is magnificent. Now he is not so much shooting from the hip as speaking from the soul, and I want to cheer. His final words are, “God is real, and worthy to be trusted.”

He could have delivered all of it without paper – he’s perfectly capable of it – and, apart from the quotations, I wish he had. The interesting thing is that a couple of times, when he was reading, he stumbled over his words. When he was shooting from the hip he never did. How often have I sweated to persuade trainees that speaking without notes (if you do it right) is actually more secure! For our part, in the audience, we watched slightly as if through a glass darkly till he set himself free. Yes, I know, I’m quibbling; but that is what I do.

Well! What a start for this debate! I find myself not caring who wins this: I just want more argument of this quality. Let us see whether we get it.

One thought on “John Lennox at the Oxford Union – inspirational, when he sets himself free

  1. Pingback: Dan Barker wears eye-catching braces at the Oxford Union God Debate. | Rhetauracle

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