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Mall evangelist touts reasoning of religion

CASSIE TOMLIN/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Christian apologist Cliffe Knechtle heatedly discusses religion with chemical engineering graduate student Rohit Tripathi on the UA Mall yesterday afternoon.
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, March 24, 2005
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Religion was again the topic of discussion on the UA Mall yesterday when about 100 students gathered around a Christian apologist who was reasoning how Jesus was the son of God.

Cliffe Knechtle, campus evangelist, has been involved in campus outreach ministry for the last 29 years and said he has been invited to the UA every spring for the past 19 years.

He began yesterday's discussion with a dialogue:

"A student stepped out of the crowd and said, 'I believe in God, but I don't believe in Christ.' I said, 'Well that's great, tell me about the God you believe in,'" Knechtle said.

Labeled as a Christian apologist, Knechtle's campus outreach ministry focuses on engaging intellectual debate with students defending the logical validity of an omniscient and omnipotent God, and from there, that Jesus is the son of that God.

Eddy Pearson, director of the Baptist Collegiate Ministry at the Refuge, 901 N. Tyndall Ave., said his and other Christian groups invited Knechtle to counteract the more controversial, confrontational Mall preachers.

"In light of Brother Jed," Pearson said, "we want to bring someone who can intellectually challenge students' belief systems in a respectful way."

Like the evangelist preacher Jed Smock, who spoke on campus a month ago, Knechtle was openly fielding questions from the crowd. However, Knechtle's manner did not attract jeers, taunts or the attention of errant cream pies.

"The crowd applauds him," Pearson said. "Who does that for a Mall preacher?"

Half an hour into the forum, Deborah Frisch, professor and adjunct lecturer in psychology, jumped into the discussion by asking Knechtle, "Why do you think God's a he?"

From there, a heated debate began, ranging from ideas such as the ideals and failings of a utilitarianism society, the objectivity and subjectivity of good and evil, the deity of Jesus, the validity of the Gospel record, Pascal's Wager and President Bush.

While believing Jesus was a "very nice guy," Frisch said she doesn't believe the historical Jesus rose from the dead.

Despite Knechtle's reasoning, the issue resulted in a fundamental disagreement.

"There's no way in hell, pardon the pun, sir, that you're going to convince me that Jesus rose from the dead," Frisch said.

But Knechtle and Frisch reached a common ground, agreeing that it is part of mankind's purpose to make "this messed up world better," as Frisch put it.

"I think it's clear that God created us to love and worship God, and to love and serve each other," Knechtle said. "God has put us here ... to make this place more like heaven will be."

In a moment that seemed to catch both Knechtle and Frisch off guard, the two were visibly in silent agreement.

"OK, I can buy that," Frisch said.

Monte Jones, creative writing freshman, highly regarded the informal open forum.

"I think it's really interesting to see someone who actually knows what they're talking about in Christianity, as opposed to the people that come out here and scream at people," Jones said.

Jones said Knechtle's rebuttals are not only based on the Bible but are also based on simple facts and logic. Jones said that with Smock's approach, good intentions are lost in personal arrogance.

"I think (Smock) scares people from Christianity," Jones said.

Rohit Tripathi, an ardent Hindu and graduate student in chemical engineering, said that while his mind wasn't changed, he did agree that Knechtle was respectful in debate.

Frisch said she would welcome Knechtle back to campus for future debates and appreciated that he led a truly open conversation, which was "a very good thing."

"I am not a Christian, but I am in favor of people like Mr. Knechtle stimulating debate and discussion about religion on college campuses," Frisch said.

Knechtle, who received his bachelor's degree in history from Davidson College in North Carolina and his master's degree in divinity from the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, said he is driven by "a love for Christ, a love for people and a desire to introduce people to Christ."

Knechtle will be on the Mall today from noon to 2 p.m., weather permitting. He challenges skeptics of all backgrounds to open debate, he said, being a self-proclaimed skeptic himself.

"I believe skepticism is healthy," Knechtle said.

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