Apologetics in the Workplace: Notes on Justice from a Book of Quotations

I carry with me a little pocket book of quotations I have collected over the years. This little book provides me with apparently innocent opening gambits in the game of trying to defend the place of faith in the practice of medicine. Of course, I not only want to defend but also to enlarge the Kingdom.

The key to practicing apologetics in the workplace is to learn the art of asking questions. The two greatest exponents of this art were Jesus and Socrates, whose questions were always aimed at opening the minds of others. If you find yourself usually making statements rather than asking questions you have probably lost the initiative. Never make a statement when you can ask a question, even if you end up answering it yourself.

Start with Common Ground

In this article I would like to focus primarily on the issue of the universal desire for justice and fairness (at least when we feel aggrieved) in order to demonstrate a method of apologetics that can be used effectively in the workplace. Even the most radical moral relativist shouts for justice under personal threat!

To start with, I pose this question: “What do we mean by justice?

The responses are usually uncertain and self-serving. Lawyers are surprisingly not good at answering!

Here is where my little book of quotations becomes very useful.

Would you,” I ask, “be interested in a comment on justice in medicine by a very wise man?” The answer is usually yes. I then quote Paul Ramsay: “Justice, fairness, righteousness, canons of loyalty, the sanctity of life, hesed, agape, or charity are some of the names given to the moral quality of attitude and action owed to all men by any man who steps into covenant with another man.1

In other words, justice is not merely a question of what is legal (for example, it was legal for Nazis to execute Jews in WWII Germany), but of what we owe to one another. All our activities, professional, familial and communitarian are based on the tacit and unjustified assumption that our ideas of justice, honesty, integrity, and reliability are ours by right, a part of what it means to be human.

When we demand justice, it is exceedingly rare to hear anyone say, “I don’t accept your idea of justice.” Rather, they argue that they have not actually been unjust or that we are making excessive demands. This assumption poses a major opportunity for Christians in medicine, law, business, politics and education, as it is obviously not true that all people everywhere have the same ideas of justice. Certainly, standards of justice are rarely maintained at high levels.

We need look no further back than the past 50 years during which time there have been 30 to 40 horrendous civil wars being waged at any given time. Man’s natural inhumanity to man has never been more undeniable.

Focus on Foundations

The fact is, we are practicing our professions without consideration of the fundamentals, without foundations, without well-thought-out principles. Carl Henry expressed the hubris of our society very well: “No historian or scientist actually proceeds without presuppositions. Empiricists always operate on presuppositions they cannot prove. . . . The scientific and historical approaches to meaning thrive on secretly negotiated lend-lease arrangements on which non-Christian scholars arbitrarily refuse to pay overdue interest and they ultimately deny any indebtedness to the theistic view.2

We often fail to make a Christian apologetic impact because we join combat on the opposition’s terrain, where the primary focus is on process with little, if any, attention to the foundations. Our strategy must be to raise our opponent’s level of awareness of and discomfort about this oversight. Why should I be just, kind, truthful, or loyal when it is not to my immediate advantage? That is the question with which our unbelieving colleagues must wrestle. Given an appropriate opportunity, they are usually open to such discussion.

An Illustration from the Classroom

Just recently, one of my colleagues gave me the opportunity to address his graduate biochemistry students on the subject of research ethics. Although the lecture was scheduled for one hour, the discussion went on for over three hours with one student asking whether I could find twenty minutes for further discussion in private. What was it that had interested these students who would normally be anxious to return directly to the laboratory after the formal lecture was over? I had asked them to think about the question of personal meaning.

As the presentation coincided with the annual evaluation of the graduate students’ work by the faculty, I found no difficulty in commencing my lecture with a question: “Do you feel that the selection process for the ‘best work’ has been fair?”

There was general agreement amongst the students that the evaluation process had, indeed, been “fair.” This consensus, however, was beside the point, for my main objective in posing the question was to launch a discussion about the presuppositions underlying the question—presuppositions that they had tacitly accepted, as no one had asked what I had meant by fairness.

Next we spent a few minutes in circular arguments, where different words were substituted for fairness: justice, non-biased judgments, equal opportunity, and so forth. Still no one suggested that fairness implied an agreed-upon standard. All had taken for granted that such a standard existed and that everyone knew what it was. But, in truth, they did not know what it was or where it came from. These were students who spent hours of every day fussing over standards and controls! Not one of them would dream of starting an assay without a defined standard, yet each one assumed that no such standard is required in order to measure just behavior.

Why,” I asked, “should I not favor students I like or who are related to me?

Because, because, because!!!!

Expostulations abounded, but no reasons were forthcoming.

We all assume that justice is understood by everyone,” I explained, “and, although we are sure that we know what it is, we have a great deal of difficulty explaining it. Indeed, for some from other cultures, giving jobs to their family members over more competent fellow citizens is not seen as wrong.”

A Sample Dialogue:

The following discussion ensued:

Professor: Where do laws come from?
Student: Well, people make them.
Professor: Do they make them or discover them?
Student: Make them.
Professor: Does everyone make them or just some people?
Student: Well, politicians make them.
Professor: So only a few people make them?
Student: Yes.
Professor: On what basis do they make them?
Student: Well, they are always thinking about re-election, and various lobby groups  pressure them and sometimes bribe them.
Professor: Not much real consideration for justice then?
Student: No.
Professor: So what about the judges who strike down laws? On what basis do they do that?
Student: On the basis of the law.
Professor: So they strike down law on the basis of law?
Student: That doesn’t sound right.
Professor: They maintain that some laws are supreme. In the United States these laws come from the Constitution and in Canada, the Charter of Rights. The problem is that both these documents are relatively brief and require interpretation. How do the judges decide on their interpretations?
Student: I don’t know.
Professor: Let me give you an example from one judge’s interpretation of the basis for a women’s right to an abortion. “Everyone,” he said, “has [the] right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mystery of human life.”3
Student: That’s a bit vague.
Professor: Yes, we know we cannot define our own standards in chemistry, but Supreme Court judges tell us we can decide for ourselves whether a developing baby lives or dies, on the basis of our own definitions of existence, meaning, the universe and the “mystery” of human life.

This dialogue often goes much further, but for now let me simply indicate the next question: “Since a woman’s right to abortion only became real because a few judges agreed that it should, upon what basis did they reach this decision?”

Cite Secular Sources Where Possible

As an apologetic principle, it is always best to allow an unbeliever to make the Christian case. Arthur Leff, who taught law at Yale for many years, understood the problem and was a lucid writer, an unusual attribute in an academic.

Here is his brilliant description of the human dilemma with respect to justice: “I want to believe—and so do you—in a complete, transcendent, and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct as how to live righteously. I also want to believe—and so do you—in no such thing but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do but to decide for ourselves individually, and as a species, what we ought to be. What we want, Heaven help us, is to simultaneously be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it . . . .”

After posing the human dilemma so clearly—Is justice discovered or invented?—Leff weighs the “prose and cons,” before closing with an astounding conclusion: “All I can say is this: It looks as if we are all we have. Given what we know about ourselves and about each other, this is an extraordinarily unappetizing prospect; looking around the world, it appears that if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel. Neither reason, nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us ‘good,’ and worse than that there is no reason why anything should. Only if ethics were something unspeakable by us could law be unnatural and therefore, unchallengeable. As things stand now everything is up for grabs.”

However, since neither Leff nor anyone else can live with this stark and meaningless world, he adds a last sentence: “Nevertheless: napalming babies is bad. Starving the poor is wicked. Buying and selling each other is depraved. . . . There is in this world such a thing as evil.”4

Use Illogic as a Foil for Truth

Leff was well trained. He knew that if the argument were technically correct (which it was) but the conclusion unsustainable, the only possible explanation was that the wrong premise had been chosen. He could not bring himself to accept this.

However, illogic is illogic. If you find an unbeliever willing to stay with you this far, the door may be open for you to offer a far more logical explanation for humankind’s apparently innate sense of justice. Any ensuing dialogue will ultimately lead to the question of the meaning of life.

For example, you might revise Leff’s last paragraph to say: “It looks to me as though we are not all that we have. Our desires for justice, truth, beauty and love are genuine echoes of a reality with which we have almost lost contact. This precious reality, that the animals do not have, must be a gift. These immaterial yearnings are more precious than the whole material world and are reason alone to bow the knee in awe.”

Our much-maligned forebears knew this, as C.S. Lewis pointed out: “For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality (God) and the solution was wisdom, self-discipline and virtue. For the modern mind the cardinal problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men and the solution is a technique. The pursuit of happiness in the modern sense is therefore self-indulgent. Man’s conquest of nature must always be some man’s conquest of other men using nature as the means. But these powerful people no longer think of God and God’s laws as objective reality so they are controlled not by God’s supernatural ideals but by the natural forces of their own heredity and environment. Thus, man’s conquest of nature turns out to be nature’s conquest of man.”5

The strange paradox is that when we choose to deny our creatureliness we also lose our ability to make sense of life. Many of our colleagues, especially students, are intuitively aware that their generation faces a crisis of meaning that expresses itself in the inability to commit to anything in a deep way. They need someone to help them understand the roots of this crisis, and how it can be resolved.

I hope that this brief essay will encourage you in your effort to help those who are truly seeking to find honest answers to the most perplexing issues of life and practice. For only as believers and unbelievers engage in a truthful dialogical process can the false foundations of modern pseudo-scientific reductionistic medicine be exchanged for truth.

1. Ramsay, Paul, The Patient as Person, Yale University Press, 1970,   preface xi-xiii.
2. Henry, Carl, God, Revelation and Authority, 1976 [Vol. 1, p. 231 in the original series]. Crossway Books republished the set in 1999.
3. The U.S. Supreme Court, 1992, Carey v. Planned Parenthood.
4. Leff, Arthur, Lecture: “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law,” Duke Law Review, 1979, pp. 1229-1249.
5. Lewis, C.S., selections from “The Abolition of Man” and later talks.