Ellis Potter Interview Transcript
The following transcript is from an Apologetics 315 interview with Ellis Potter. Original audio here. Transcript index here. If you enjoy transcripts, please consider supporting, which makes this possible.
BA: Hello, this is Brian Auten of Apologetics 315. Today, I’m speaking with Ellis Potter. Ellis is the pastor of the International, English-speaking Church of Lausanne in Switzerland and former member of L’Abri Fellowship. He was born in California and was a Zen Buddhist for many years before becoming a Christian. And he has lectured and preached all over the world but his main area of ministry work has been in Eastern Europe for the last 20 years.
Today I will be asking Ellis about his conversion from Buddhism, his interaction with Francis Schaeffer and his approach to Apologetics. So thanks for speaking with me today, Ellis.
EP: Glad to be with you, Brian.
BA: So before we talk about your story – What sort of ministry work are you currently involved in?
EP: Currently I am pastoring the church in Lausanne. I live in Basel and it’s a 3-hour commute but I only work 20% for the church. I go two weekends a month and one of the reasons for that is because my work involves a lot of travel and I go as you said to Eastern Europe and in a couple weeks I am going to go to Australia and I will go to Norway in October and in December to Romania and in January to Hawaii and there are a lot of places to go and I lecture and preach in churches and lecture at universities and in schools of various Christian organizations.
BA: Now there are a lot of different things we could talk about today and lets start with your past experience with Zen Buddhism. You were a Buddhist monk and you got acquainted with Francis Schaeffer’s work at L’Abri and you ended up converting to Christianity. Now could you tell our listeners about your overall journey?
EP: Yes, I grew up in California in a Christian family and a church but the Christians that I knew were not very interested in dealing with the questions that I had about various things. So I began to shop around and I tried and became involved in a lot of different religious organizations and philosophies and finally settled on Zen Buddhism for a variety of reasons.
One is that Zen Buddhists are always interested in absolutes. They want to know the bottom line and the outside parameter of things. They are not relativists. They are not Situationists. They want to know the whole story and that was attractive to me because I did too. And also actually they were the only group I’d ever had contact with that does not sell jewelry and that seemed very noncommercial and clean and somehow purer to me. So I became a Zen Buddhist and was for several years and then at the end of that time, I left everything and lived in a monastery for a while.
And then I travelled because Zen Buddhist monks generally travel. They go to other monasteries and have different experiences in the world. And I came to Europe, not knowing if I was going to go on to Japan. But I began in Europe and when I was in Europe, I met an old friend from California who was a Christian at the time and who had heard of Francis Schaeffer and L’Abri and wanted to visit. He travelled with me and we had a lot of interesting experiences. And then he wanted to go to L’Abri and said I could go with him if I wanted to. And so I did.
And we went in 1975 in November and I stayed there about 3 weeks or 4 weeks and I didn’t like it very much because people talked while they ate and it was noisy and I was used to lots and lots of silence in a monastery and it didn’t seem very spiritual somehow to me. And so I went to Italy for 4 months and I studied the Japanese tea ceremony in Rome and visited monasteries and then I got tired of trying to speak Italian and my friend was still at L’Abri and I wanted to see him and I also thought that the ideas I had heard at L’Abri were so dangerously wrong that someone should go and help these people.
So I went as a missionary of Zen Buddhism to L’Abri and became a student because that seemed to be the best way to make contact and find out what they were all about. And I was a student in L’Abri for 3 months and then I became a Christian very much to my surprise and stayed and worked and helped in L’Abri for the next 18 years.
BA: If some of our listeners are like me, they are familiar with Francis Schaeffer, his work and they’ve heard about L’Abri and – “Oh. That L’Abri – that’s what Francis Schaeffer started.” But I didn’t know what that actually was until I was able to sit down with you and ask you what it was and how that place works. So can you explain to our listeners who may not know, what is this place L’Abri and what’s so special about it?
EP: Yes, well it’s actually a number of places in the world by now. And they are communities of Christians who live together in families and also single people and there are two main principles of the work.
One is to be a shelter, which is what the word “L’Abri” means in French and to be there for whoever has need. And the other is to be an evidence in the world of the existence of God and His working in the world by living by faith in a kind of a radical way. So L’Abri does not advertise and it does not recruit and it does not raise funds, which is counterintuitive for most Christian organizations in the world. But its been going for 55 years without any fund-raising and so people in L’Abri think that God actually wants it to exist, because the finances keep happening by miracle.
And people come to L’Abri to be students. Although L’Abri is not a school. There is no course of study. The study is individual and tutorial. And people work with a tutor. They live in community and they eat together with other people. Once a day there is what’s called a formal meal or discussion meal, where people talk about whatever they want to talk about with a staff worker of L’Abri at the meal. It is sort of like a seminar with food. And then there are lectures, not necessarily in a course of study but the subject of the lectures are decided upon the basis who is there studying and what they might need at that time. And the students study half a day and work half a day in the community. This is a part of the L’Abri experience. To work in the kitchen or the garden and to be with other people and to live the Christian life, not just in an academic way but in a practical way of being together in community and needing and serving each other.
There are L’Abri’s in England and Switzerland and Brazil and Canada and America and Australia and Holland and Sweden and various places and there is a very good website where people can find out much more about it.
BA: So you are at L’Abri and you were still a Buddhist and what started to happen to shift your thinking or challenge your direction.
EP: I asked a lot of questions and Francis Schaeffer was alive and working there in the community at the time and he was very generous with his answers to my questions and it was a gradual process of working through a number of issues and one of my questions was about Epistemology. It was about how do we know and my basic question was “Can human beings have a relationship of knowledge with something outside of that human being which is valid and stable?” And in Buddhism, you would say “No. The relationship is unity and being.”
And that there actually isn’t anything outside the self or outside the Buddha nature. And that is a very strong absolute way of considering reality that’s very attractive in lots of ways. And what I was hearing about at L’Abri was that there were relationships in reality and on an absolute level as the basic framework. And so that was my basic question and the way God worked with me was to remember a song that I had sung in college from an operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan and the beginning of the song is “Who are you who ask this question?”
And so I asked myself, who is asking all of these questions that I was asking. And the Buddhist answer to that questions would be “Asking is.” The Christian answer is “I am asking. And I am asking what is outside of myself in relationship.”
And that began really to strike me as more basically true about my situation and my experience of myself and my environment because I couldn’t remember a time ever when I was not asking questions. It was really a basic part of who I am and who I always have experienced myself to be. And in Christianity as the Bible presents it, we never lose that. We always have the reality of asking questions and relating. So in Christ, the asking is validated and stabilized and perpetuated and enlivened, whereas in Buddhism it comes to an end in unity and so it seemed to me, yes a person could believe a Buddhist view (a person can believe anything) but that it took more faith to believe that than to believe in the Christian understanding of reality.
And I had always been a bit suspicious of faith because people really can believe anything and one of the main reasons I became a Christian is because it became clear to me that it takes less faith to believe in Christianity than it does to believe in anything else.
BA: So in your dealings with Francis Schaeffer on your journey to Christianity, how did he influence the way you approach apologetics in your own questioning nature.
EP: After I became a Christian and I was living and working in L’Abri, I was able to observe Francis Schaeffer’s apologetics and it influenced me a great deal. Francis Schaeffer’s apologetics were presuppositional. They weren’t circumstantial or emotional or experiential or particularly academic. They were presuppositional. They were not beginning with the emotional moral condition of a person. They were dealing with how the person saw reality. What did they presuppose were the criteria and the shape of reality and beginning a discussion on that level and that was useful to me as a non-Christian to begin on that level because it is a very human level. It is not a particularly religious level or cultural level. It is a human level that applies to people all over the world in every different culture.
And also it was very interesting to me that Francis Schaeffer did not have a method of apologetics and he used to tell us that we must not have a method, but that we must be servants and that we must go in the way that the people need to go, that we were trying to serve and not trying to get a person to fit into our method or program or 10 steps or whatever it might be but to become all things to all men and to be flexible and to speak to different people in different ways and that has stuck with me through the years.
BA: In one of your lectures, you talk about Apologetics being a function of love. So would you mind unpacking that idea just a bit?
EP: No. I would be happy to. God is love and when we belong to God and are His children in the fullest sense through Jesus Christ, then our main function is love … is serving, reaching out, going out, caring for others and making choices that promote and support the reality of the people that we are relating to. So it seems to me that the main function of the Christian life is to love and apologetics can be one of the functions of that love. It can be part of the love – one of ways that that love expresses itself. It is sort of a subset as it were, that love. Love is the larger category and however we study or practice apologetics, I think that the goal or the aim of apologetics should be to serve the function of love and that if we lose that, we lose everything, like Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians chapter 13, that if we know everything and we win all the arguments and if we don’t love, then it is just noise. It is just an empty game.
So the goal of studying and learning and practicing and daring and reaching out is not to win or to even convince, but to love and to serve and to support and to enable and to invite people into their actual reality as God has made them to be.
BA: It is similar to something that I heard J.P. Moreland say that apologetics is just helping people and you know, you are loving them and you are helping them and you are walking alongside so to speak.
Now another one of these ideas you talk about is categorics. Could you define that and its role?
EP: Yeah, in the Greek court system, at the time the New Testament was written, there was the apologia and the categoria and the categoria was the accusation. It was the presentation of the categories of law and crime and violation and these kinds of things. And then the apologia was the defense against the prosecution of the categoria and it seems to me that it might be wise not to put the whole weight on the idea of defense because the Great Commission is “Go ye into all the world” not “Build ye a castle and defend it.” And the going into the world involves the categorics of serving the world with the categories of reality – of making suggestions, of asking questions about whether the basic categories of reality are personal or mechanical, relational or in some sort of a chemical functioning. Whether there is only unity or also diversity in reality. You see those basic categories of reality, so when we offer and suggest and invite people into considering the basic Biblical categories of reality, then I would call that more categorics as part of evangelism, of reaching out, of going into the world to make disciples and then the defense, the apologetics is also very necessary, because people will object and attack and ridicule and be frightened about the categories of Christianity and will try to dismiss them and there needs to be a level of defense that I would say, its an active passivity and that the active part is more, the categorics, the providing the categories for the world that needs them. And then the more passive part would be the apologetics, the defending when people make objections about those categories.
BA: From your experience with Francis Schaeffer, to what extend did he employ that in say what he would call “taking the roof off”. Can you explain that concept and how it relates to this topic?
EP: Well I think what he meant by taking the roof off is that he would open up a conversation in the broadest, deepest levels possible, that he would invite a person to think issues through in a contextualized way, down to the bottom and out to the edges. And that he wouldn’t want to leave a person a shelter of prejudiced presuppositions or cultural background or assumptions that are not validated and cannot be sustained or defended. He would take the roof off so that people would have to go really radically back to basics and rethink the various functions that they had about reality.
BA: One of the things that is like the signature of L’Abri is that element of community and you got that interaction with people that is allowed to go deeper as you say, so that for instance, Francis Schaeffer can really ask deeper questions and challenge belief systems at a deeper level. How do you think that Christians can have that same sort of mindset, where they are not just thinking of people as single encounters but relationships are deep enough that those things can be explored?
EP: Yes. Maybe I can illustrate it with a little story. I was invited to lead beach evangelism in Australia a few years ago. And wasn’t something I had ever considered doing and I didn’t want to do it, but I ended up doing it and I said, “Well. You have to do it my way” and they said, “Ok. We are tired of doing it our way. We want to do it your way.”
So I went and I said, “Ok. We are going out and we are meeting people on the beach and you have two goals to reach. And the first goal is in meeting people and in talking with them, to see them again. That’s a primary goal. So whatever you say, whatever you do should not violate the possibility of seeing the person again. And the second goal is during the encounter and discussion, to raise the questions that can be only answered by Jesus.” You notice that the goal is not to give the answer. We know that Jesus is the Answer.
But one of the first two goals is not necessarily to give the answer but to raise the question and to see the people again. So the questions that can only be answered by Jesus are questions of identity, meaning, purpose, guilt, forgiveness, goals, eternity – these kinds of questions can only truly, really be answered by Jesus and kept in focus by Jesus. And so this is where we want the discussion to go. Initially not necessarily to provide answers for those questions, but just to invite the person to begin to consider those questions and involve themselves in working with those questions and then we can pray for the person and support the person, remembering that our first goal is to see the person again.
BA: I think that is really helpful and refreshingly different.
EP: We had a t-shirt for this Beach Evangelism. I have never worn a text on my clothing in my life, but they made this text for me, because I was using it. They made at-shirt with this text on it and it said across the front of the t-shirt, “Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast'” (John 21:12a). And that was the theme of our whole evangelistic week, it was “Come and have breakfast”. And people saw this t-shirt and had questions like “Is that in the Bible?” “Wow. Did Jesus really say that?” Well then you get very interesting discussion. And you can ask “What do you think about a God who likes to have breakfast with you?”
For me the questions are essential in apologetics and evangelism and when I consider who was the first person who needed to be evangelized? It was Adam. And who was the one who evangelized Adam? It was God. You look in the third chapter of Genesis, you see God’s method of evangelizing and it was a series of questions – it was not statements.
So His first question to Adam is “Where are you?” And it is a very deep and wonderful question, that God knows everything. He is not looking for information. He knows where Adam is. The question is a gift so that Adam can realize for himself, where he is. And this is the kind of gift that we should be giving to the people that we meet. The really valuable questions that happen to come into an encounter with themselves and to consider who they are and where they belong and how they fit and what their meaning is.
So when God asks, “Where are you?” and we ask, “Where are you?” it means where are you psychologically? Where are you in meaning? Where are you in purpose? Where are you in hope? Where are you in fear? Where are you in our goals? Where are you in your frustration? Where are you in general? Now Adam’s answer was very true and accurate and very sad. He said, “I am in nakedness and fear and hiding.” So that’s not very positive, but it’s true. So it was very valuable for Adam to realize where he was. And then God asked Adam, “Who told you? Where did you get this information? What are your sources and are they reliable?” And that can be our second question. Who told you? Did your mother tell you? Did your pastor tell you? Did your professors tell you? Did the advertisers tell you? How did you get this idea about where you are? And do you trust the sources?
And then the third question is, “Have you eaten? Are you guilty? Have you brought this problem upon yourself or are you only a victim?” And here Adam’s answer was very bad and very wrong. He did not say “Yes. I have eaten.” He said “I am a victim. I am a victim of the woman and I am a victim of you because you gave her to me.” And so he is declaring his innocence. Then he is totally lost because he is not innocent. But you see the guilt comes last.
The first question is “Don’t you know you are a sinner?” The first question is “Where are you?” And the second question is “Who told you?” And then “Are you responsible?” “Are you guilty?”
It seems to me that in the foundation of the early chapters of Genesis, this is the method that God uses and shows us. And perhaps we should adopt various forms of this method of God in our own apologetics and evangelizing.
BA: You are kind of giving great advice here so if you are speaking to the next generation of apologists, what else would you tell them along these lines?
EP: Well I would say apologetics tends to have a flavor of academics about it and in that sense it has been in some ways pushed in a corner by the Enlightenment rationalistic humanism which believes that truth is only objective and that the Bible has to jump through objective truth claim hoops in order for anyone to accept it as objective as true, but it seems to me that truth is not only objective, that there is subjective truth, that there is accurate truth and that there is non-accurate truth in life and in the Bible.
What I would advise people is “Yes. Do the study. Learn the history. Learn the literary criticism. Learn the archeology. Learn all of these things as God calls you and gives you opportunity. But don’t isolate themselves from the subjective aspects of truth and the non-accurate aspects of truth. So in the Bible it says there was a Babylonian Empire and Nebuchadnezzar was the king. That is accurate truth and if you do research and you find out there never was such an empire or anyone named Nebuchadnezzar then there is a problem with the Bible. But when you do the research, you find out that the Bible is accurate. So that’s the accurate part of truth.
But the Parables of Jesus are not accurate. You cannot do research and find out the name of the mother of the prodigal son. You cannot find out the name of the prodigal son because he never existed. He is not accurate and the story isn’t even finished, but it is true. It’s true, true.
It’s not inaccurate. Accuracy just isn’t the point. The point is life and truth. And it isn’t that accuracy isn’t important but it shouldn’t fill the whole screen. It’s not the only thing that we need to take into consideration when we are dealing with people and when we are dealing with God’s personal truth.
So in our own contemporary existence, if you want to build a true bridge, you have to build it accurately or it’s not true, but you cannot fall in love accurately. The process is chaotic, but you can truly fall in love. So you have the true bridge and the true love and you have a very interesting situation, if you fall in love on a bridge. You see how they fit together?
That would be a piece of advice I would love to give to people who want to learn and to progress in serving as apologists and evangelists – is keep those two parts of God’s truth together – the accurate and the non-accurate in a complementary whole and not just going all in one direction or all in another direction, which human beings tend to do. They tend to either be legalistic and scientific and mathematical or they tend to be mystical, experiential and emotional. But it seems to me that God’s truth is the whole truth of both sides held together by the power of the Word of Jesus Christ.
That should be our goal for living and our goal for serving and caring and inviting people into God’s truth.
BA: Well, Ellis, I want to thank you for speaking with me today. It has really been interesting and I bless you in your ministry.
EP: Well thank you Brian. It was good to talk with you and God bless you and all the people who might listen to the conversation.