Missionary Diary: putting God in the philosophical dock

Josh and Susannah Apieczonek are serving with the Church Missionary Society in Lyon, France, with their three kids. They work in student and church ministry.

I cast my eyes around the room. Young men clad in the uniform of French atheist philosophy students, black T-shirts and charcoal jeans, regarded me with a mixture of interest and intrigue. Was it my accent? Was it my sketchy grammar? Was it my foggy philosophy? Gilbert* leaned forward excitedly. “It is similar to Aristotle’s use of logos, but different at the same time…”

When we first arrived in Lyon in 2018, I met a student in philosophy named Etienne. We had coffee (in the land of the best wine, cheese and bread in the world, how is their coffee so consistently bad?), and I was encouraged by Etienne’s love of Jesus and philosophy and his desire to share the gospel with his classmates. He had all sorts of great conversations with them about faith and philosophy, and his classmates realised, despite their exposure to all sorts of other ancient documents, they had never read the Bible.

So, Etienne started AperoBible, a Friday night discussion/reading group where he, another Christian friend, an older awkward Australian with a strange accent and five or six of his atheist friends, mostly young men, would eat nibbles and pizza, drink beer and wine (the Apero part) and read John’s Gospel (the Bible part, obviously). John’s Gospel starts with the Word, or logos in Greek, a crucial idea in Greek philosophy which his friends were very familiar with and provided a springboard to plunge into the gospel.

They put their disbelief to the side and really dug into the gospel.

Credit to these students, as budding philosophers, they knew how to be patient with a text that came from a different worldview. They put their disbelief to the side and really dug into the gospel. For his part, Etienne would open his apartment with great hospitality, ask thoughtful questions that helped probe the text, give background information and let Jesus speak and challenge his friends.

It’s fair to say there were many more side-tracks into Nietzsche, Spinoza, and Kierkegaard than in any normal group. After about two hours of discussion on the text, Etienne would steer the group to their personal opinion about Jesus, and another two hours would ensue. I would contribute but sit silently, amazed at Etienne’s maturity and capacity to gently guide and answer questions by pointing people back to Jesus.

We met most months for about a year, and then COVID hit, which in France meant a series of rolling lockdowns, disrupting meetings and students’ lives for almost two years. Etienne spent two years preparing for the concours, the series of essays, tests and oral debates to become a high school philosophy teacher. One of these exams is seven hours long and involves wrestling with a question like “Where are you?”. (“Hell on earth” comes to mind.) That would be enough to leave me curled up like a dead cockroach, muttering incoherently with pieces of paper strewn around the room filled with wild scrawls of indecipherable handwriting.

His father and aunt will be scornful and mocking of him if he tells them he is considering the Christian faith.

With all this going on, AperoBible disappeared from the scene. But God was still working – in particular, in Gilbert, one of the students who had been intrigued by Jesus and continued to read the Bible. He contacted a church near where he lived and has been attending for the past year or so. He is reading many Christian books and has moved from not believing in God to being very open. I’ve had quite a few coffees with him, and it’s been fascinating to hear the change in his thinking. He is struggling with the fact that his family is very atheist, and his father and aunt will be scornful and mocking of him if he tells them he is considering the Christian faith.

This year AperoBible started up again. Etienne had passed the concours on the second attempt and is now a philosophy teacher in a high school and married to Alexia. His classmates are now working as plumbers, cooks, tutors or businessmen – the normal variety of careers after studying philosophy. The group meets in the newly married couple’s apartment; with four more years of life under their belt, girlfriends are coming along for the ride and they are going through the Big Picture of the Bible, a series that moves from Genesis to Revelation. We don’t stay up as late, but we talk and connect more quickly about the impact of the Bible on our lives.

It can be frustrating when it feels like God is put in the dock and subjected to criticism.

Sometimes the group gets side-tracked by imposing modern 21st-century values on the Bible, and it can be frustrating when it feels like God is put in the dock and subjected to criticism. I struggle to restrain myself and pick wisely when to interact, justify and explain the biblical perspective. Yet this is exactly what Jesus willingly put himself through in the gospel!

Last time we looked at Ecclesiastes 2, where Solomon tries many different avenues of pleasure to find meaning in his life. Teddy, a very thoughtful Christian who preached at Etienne and Alexia’s wedding, spoke about his experience of doing the same thing, rejecting his Christian upbringing and trying in vain for years to live without God. His extraordinary atheist girlfriend at the time told him it was obvious he couldn’t live without his God, and he should quit denying this and go back to him. It was amazing watching the impact of his testimony on the group.

I am praying that God will continue to draw these former students of philosophy to the source of all wisdom, Jesus, and look forward to seeing how God will work through Etienne, Alexia and Teddy in the future.