September 29, 2005

Reasonable Christianity

I found a rather interesting post on the Universist's message board. It was offered by one of their regulars, "Gnomon," in reply to a plea for help from "Naturalist," who had been engaging my readers and I in dialog here. Naturalist seemed to be surprised that I, a Christian, was using the language of logic and argumentation to make my points. Here are some excerpts from Gnomon's post along with my observations:
Many posters on this forum seem to believe that Atheists are rational and Christians are irrational. Therefore, they are flabbergasted when they run across a Christian who is just as rational as the best Atheists. I think those rational posters are deceiving themselves, perhaps to boost their feeling of superiority to those "stupid Xians".
This is a refreshing admission from a non-Christian and runs contrary to the attitudes of so many atheists who like to think of themselves as the "Brights," read books entitled From Faith to Reason, and collect quotes like "All thinking men are atheists" (Ernest Hemingway). This commenter is gracious enough to rebuke this misconception, although as you will see he simply adjusts the scope of where he believes our rational shortcomings lie.

I spend the better part of any dialog with atheists simply dispelling stereotypes about what Christianity is actually about and how the mind and rationality neatly fit into the Christian worldview. In fact, I've often been accused of being "too rational," but this is mostly by postmoderns, cultists, and "eastern" thinkers. I personally find atheists to be much more interesting dialog partners because of their strong (stated) allegiance to the principles of reason. This at least makes the dialog last a bit longer and avoids the personal offense, so often taken by new age types, when you point out flaws in their thinking. These people understand the concept of debate, whereas postmoderns and mystics see critique and disagreement as being ungracious or intolerant.
All this finger pointing and wagging is missing the point. In my experience, Christians in general are just as intelligent and just as rational as Atheists. What seems to define the difference between them is their degree of doubt. Christians can be very skeptical about the beliefs of other faiths. But they see no need to point the finger of doubt at their own beliefs.
In some areas, Christians and atheists can make common cause. When it comes to UFOs, psychics, and faith healing charlatans we are on friendly ground. But atheists lump Christianity into the same pile and they do not think Christians are willing to look their own myths and frauds squarely in the face. As an apologist, I will have to take exception with this. The objections and alleged problems are ever before my face. In fact, I expect that I could articulate most of the objections to Christianity better than most non-Christian can. It becomes quite tiresome to answer the same accusations for each unbeliever that I encounter, and it is quite frustrating to witness how pervasive these bad arguments are which are supposed to be the sensible reasons for rejecting Christianity.

But am I just rationalizing or dishonestly masking the weaknesses in my belief system? Am I just bailing a leaky boat? Well, I certainly have nothing to gain from all this if it is just a fantasy (and neither did the apostles and church fathers, who paid with their lives). I get none of the Sunday offerings, and I spend a great deal of my time and money that could be invested in more amusing pursuits. I have yet to uncover evidence of the supposed fraud or myth-building of the early church, and I have yet to find any sort of logical defeater for Christianity. Most objections amount to questions about why God would do something in a particular way, pointing out the un-Christian behavior of "Christians," or raising some conspiracy theory against the historical record. And at the very end of the trail I find that skeptics often just don't want to be constrained in their thinking and behavior by the kind of demanding and inflexible truth that the Christian God suggests. As atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel so candidly said, "I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope that there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that." This is hardly rational grounds for objection.
Atheists, and others who have lost faith, were not afraid to question—seriously question—the foundations of their own belief system. Why do you think preachers spend so much time extolling the virtues of faith? Because blind faith is not normal for adults, and it needs a lot of propping up, a lot of brainwashing.
This presumes that when you "seriously question" you discover that there are not serious answers, and so only those who do not question are safe from reason. No one is born a believer. Even those who are raised in the church at some point must grow up and take ownership of their faith, and not everyone who questions their heritage ends up turning from it. It seems a bit presumptuous to claim that only those who do are the ones who are "serious" or "not afraid." Here is the atheistic elitism rearing its head again, i.e., atheists are more earnest seekers after truth, bolder in their willingness to question, and smarter in winnowing the wheat from the chaff. With their superior mental skills I am surprised that "evolution" has not favored their kind, but, enigmatically, the vast majority of homosapiens are incorrigibly religious. But I digress.

In fact, there is something in what this fellow says about "blind faith," questions, and doubt. One of the very common reasons given for turning away from the "faith" (whether permanently or temporarily) is intellectual suffering, i.e., not getting your questions answered. Too many of our young people are indeed given no answer—even discouraged from the questions—when they come forward with their natural and childlike curiosity. Faith must not only have an object (something you have faith in), but it must also have a reason; else, why not just have faith in the Book of Mormon or the Qur'an?

Faith carried merely by the momentum of a trusted parent, pastor, or Sunday school teacher will only coast so far without the engine of reason. It is, in reality, impossible to truly believe in something "blindly," or without reason, even if you very much want to. To use Greg Koukl's example, do you think you could honestly muster up faith that there was a flying pink elephant over your head even if I offered you $100 to do so? At best, it will surely be a weak "faith" and certainly not one you'd dedicate your life to. Similarly, a Christian with little justification will be either no Christian at all (before long) or one who will be passionless in application and timid in witness. It is a shame and a detriment to the modern church that it seldom emphasizes apologetics and the life of the mind. It much prefers to build its house with the cement of emotion.

This is not to say that things like experience and intuition are invalid factors in the formation of beliefs. Not every convert comes by way of the teleological argument or a careful examination of the manuscript evidence for the reliability of Scripture. There are many saints better than I of very simple faith, yet even they have their reasons, even if they are not conscious of how to articulate them. The atheist will suggest that these reasons have to do with psychological need or fear of death, but as Nagel's above quote shows, psychoanalyzing motives can be even more damning for the unbeliever.

The reasons for faith may be only as sophisticated as the particular person or circumstances warrant. Not everyone is an academic or saddled with the same baggage of presuppositions to be overcome. And it would hardly be sporting of God to construct a path that only a genius or guru could discover. The "simple" in faith might appeal to the Gospel as having the ring of truth, or claiming that it resonates with their deepest intuitions about human nature and the world they encounter (my paraphrase). All this is in keeping with Scripture's claim that the Holy Spirit testifies to us of the truth of the Gospel. And since belief itself is, in the end, a subjective exercise, it is no surprise that the Spirit must offer us help to that end.

In the end, I would propose that the answers to almost every conceivable question are available for the asking to any who are earnest and persistent enough to seek them. For believers of simple faith, knowing the questions will win credibility with the seeker, and seeing them answered can only strengthen faith's conviction. But I think that willful unbelief is happily justified with its first "I don't know"; yet we should strive not to be that one who delivers it to them.

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September 22, 2005

Emasculating Christianity

Here's a comment I just encountered in my blog travels, which I've also heard incessantly from political liberals.

My major problem with religion is that people involve it in world affairs. I don't mind religion, only the effect that it has on people. It influences their decisions and, in many cases, controls important issues. This should not be so."
What's the use in believing something if it doesn't have any application or make any difference in your life? And something as profound as an all-encompassing worldview, which Christianity most certainly is, is only logically bound to affect the way one looks at life. Shouldn't a comprehensive worldview make a difference in the way we perceive human nature, ethics, the natural world, and the very purpose of life? It certainly does for atheists. How does it make sense that I should draw the line at my political interests and be forced to live in a state of cognitive dissonance in that particular domain?

If my worldview asserts that human life has value no matter how young, how old, or how inconvenient it is to me, and then I see one political candidate that agrees with me and one that doesn't, what should I do? If I think that gender was an intentional creation and that sexuality has a particular teleology, and I see society heading in a direction that rejects all sexual constraints, what should I do? Should I just sit on my intellectual reservation and let the world pass me by? Should I support the things that run contrary to my values? Should I just consult my magic 8 ball to decide what to do?

It seems to me that a worldview that has nothing to say in the realm of values and politics is either the same as having no worldview at all or it does not take the whole world into its view, since politics is surely part of the "world." For this reason, I think the above objection is simply naïve and incoherent. However, I think what is really being said is something more like this: "It's fine with me if you believe whatever makes you feel good, just so long as you don't let it get in my way. Don't let your beliefs cramp my style."

This seems an arrogant and hypocritical view to me. I'm sure that the connections between the non-Christian's beliefs and his advocacy and voting record can be easily traced. Are these invalid too? Shall we ask the pantheist to get her values out of her environmentalism? Shall we ask the Hindu to stay away from animal rights causes?

Even worse is that those with a secular worldview "push" it on society every bit as much as (I would contend more than) Christians allegedly do theirs. To them I would say, for the sake of parity, the following: Don't impose your non-theistic view of nature on my kids at school. Don't make me pay to kill the fetuses of underprivileged women. Don't attack public decency laws so that I can't enjoy television or the internet without losing my sanctification.

If you want neutrality, then neutral we should all be. But if that's the way of it, then we shall all sit it out like Switzerland in WWII, or we shall toss coins for every political decision. Unfortunately for the secularists, Christians won't go there, and we have the greatest reason of all to care about the direction of politics: because we believe there are real, objective, critical truths and values to be pursued. Without a theistic grounding for values, it must all necessarily be preference and social consensus.

The secularist will then answer that we Christians are just wrong about our "truth"; it is really just based on myth, malarkey, or metaphor. Well, that may or may not be so, but that is where the real debate lies, not in this insulting insinuation that we should keep our beliefs in the closet and let the world have its way with us.

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September 16, 2005

The Laws of Logic: Don't Leave Home Without 'Em

Last night at dinner I told one of my favorite jokes to the kids. It's the one about the guy who finds a genie's lamp on the beach and his first of three wishes is for something cool to drink. The genie grants him a bottle of bottomless nectar. When he realizes what an amazing thing he has he asks for two more just like it (as his other two wishes). After I let my son explain why it was stupid to wish for more of an infinite supply of something, my daughter interjected that she might wish for more simply because she would probably lose the one bottle. Then she said something I've heard her saying before: "My logic is different." By this she means to imply that her entire mode of reasoning is different from the thinking of the rest of the world. I think she is simply expressing a desire to be unique, as all humans will (particularly teens), but this time I called her on it and tried to stress how important it is not to surrender the validity and objectivity of the concept of logic.

Basically, I pointed out that her statement wasn't illogical; it was simply taking more factors into the equation and coming to a reasonable conclusion on that basis. Of course, there are even more factors that might be considered in order to determine if wishing for backup beverages would be superior to some of the other things one might wish for. I then pointed out that having a "different logic" would look a bit stranger than what she was imagining. In my best impersonation of a buffoon (which they would claim is just me reverting to my true self) I suggested that, "I'd take two more bottles, because my favorite color is blue!" This is, of course, nonsense because "blue" and favorite colors are in no way related to the situation at hand. The kid's laughter was an indication that they had gotten my point. Of course, I lost their attention long before I could make the larger case for the importance of logic within the Christian worldview, or even in attempting to frame any coherent worldview, but that's what blogs are for, aren't they.

In order for us to evaluate truth claims we must have some sort of tools for doing so. There has to be some way to measure one competing claim against another or to test a worldview for coherence. Logic is the tool that has been historically employed to do so. Logic consists of principles of reasoning, such as the law of non-contradiction, that formally describe why, for instance, Jesus can't be both God-in-the-flesh, as the Bible claims, and just a human prophet, as the Qur'an claims. To surrender the validity of logic means that we disarm ourselves in the battle against competing ideas. People with other possibly mistaken ideas cease to be the objects of tolerance, but instead merely become members of a diverse community holding equally "true" beliefs.

Eastern religions and philosophers, along with some postmodern thinkers, typically reject logic as an objective feature of the mind or the universe. For them, it is either part of the illusion that is the world, or it is simply a philosophical construction of western culture. This makes it nearly impossible to have a reasoned debate about their beliefs or the ideas of anyone toward which they are sympathetic. As Sam discovered in his philosophy class, all our rational critiques will be brushed aside as merely outmoded or provincial "western" thinking. And if we Christians join them in their rejection of logic we not only lose the ability to call some of their ideas wrong and point out why, but we forfeit any means we have of "rightly dividing" the word of God. Even if we fail to take logic seriously, we are certainly counting on God not to. When He promises us entry into heaven we are surely assuming that He means not hell.

So, how do we convince others not to surrender logic so that we can have a fruitful dialog with them about their non-Christian beliefs?

1) Point out that they always behave in everyday life as if logic were real. For example, they look both ways before crossing the street; they expect the hot water to come out of the hot faucet and not the cold; they expect people to keep their promises; and they know that if the kids are in the house, it's safe to back up the car in the driveway. Why should they then believe that contradictory ideas in the world of religion and philosophy could be true when the world gives no hint of such a notion?

2) Show the objective nature of logic and our dependence on it for every field of knowledge. Most people are willing to admit that mathematics is not merely a social construction. It is as proven to be objective as anything else we can offer. Some of the more heady realms of mathematics may be confounding to us, but who will deny the simpler and foundational principles like, 1+1=2? But mathematics itself is dependent upon logic. When we say that 1+1=2, we mean not equal to 3 or any other number or object in the entire universe. Science is equally dependent on logic for its analysis of data and the veracity of its conclusions. And even language has no utility without the underlying assumptions that logic provides.

Additionally, the principles of logic are not things that have undergone "social" revisions over time like dress styles, customs, and politics. Since the laws of logic were (as far as we know) first formally described by the ancient Greek philosophers they have not been overhauled, like social mores or scientific knowledge; we have merely expanded our understanding of logical principles and further applied them. And the fact that both theists and atheists can agree upon these principles only further adds to their credibility.

3) Point out that they have no reservations about applying logic to beliefs that they do not favor. For instance, it probably never occurred to them that it is an exercise in logic to look for contradictions in the Bible or to claim that a "good" + "sovereign" God does not add up to "evil."

4) Offer them instances of specific contradictory religious claims and ask them to make sense of them. It is one thing to say that something absurd is true; it is another thing to prove it or make sense of it. For example, I can say that I have a square circle in my top drawer, but producing it or describing it are impossible for me to do. Making sense of contradictory metaphysical ideas is equally problematic, like saying that God is a personal and transcendent being who created the universe versus saying that God IS the world and is merely an impersonal force; or saying that there is just one life and then the judgment versus saying that we reincarnate numerous times in an attempt to achieve personal enlightenment.

5) Point out that the debate itself rests upon the law of non-contradiction: Either logic is an objective standard that applies even to their own favored metaphysical ideas, or it is not. And even if you could both be right in some bizarre twist of reality, then that means that it is still valid for you to deconstruct their beliefs using logic and they must sit there in their inclusivist cul-de-sac and accept it in silence, contemplating this Zen Koan of being both right and irrational.

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September 14, 2005

Found in the Blog Fog

I've been tagged by the Universists. My first clue came when my site meter stats took a climb this evening. We'll have to keep our eyes on the comments for this post to see how much I've stirred the hornet's nest.

September 08, 2005

Soteriology on a New Orleans Flatboat

One of the major debates in the New Orleans Katrina rescue operation is whether or not forced evacuations should occur. Some people seem determined to ride out the situation, perhaps hoping things will dry up any day and that they can begin the recovery process. But what seems more likely is that the water will continue its decline toward a state of festering sewage, that supplies will not be forthcoming, and that the whole area may need to be bulldozed in the end. If these holdouts stay, there is every chance that they will either die of starvation or pestilence, and for no worldly gain in the end. So, why is there a debate? Shouldn't these people be evacuated by force for their own good?

Perhaps the reason for the debate is because our society is so oriented toward individual freedom of choice and personal rights that we founder over principles of autonomy even in the face of the mortal consequences of some of those choices. For instance, permitting the choice of a homosexual lifestyle is a sure death sentence for a high percentage of participants, tolerating tobacco use is an invitation to cancer, and "choice" in the case of abortion is guaranteed to cause fatalities (for the infants).

To be consistent with modern society's principle of autonomy I suppose we must leave the hurricane survivors to their fate, even if it means certain death; for to violate someone's rights merely for the sake of their own good is a dangerous precedent to set in our libertarian culture. If we begin to concern ourselves with the good of the individual or what's best for society, what rights in our pursuit of "happiness" might we ultimately lose? No, we must sustain our slogan, "Give me liberty to risk my death."

On a slightly different note, it occurs to me that this situation is a metaphor for salvation. According to Christianity, all souls are ultimately in peril, even while things may presently seem safe and hopeful. The Christian missionary is like the boatman who passes by the house pleading with the resident to come to safety. It is his job to convince the stubborn occupant that his situation is dire and can only end in destruction. Some are persuaded, or even eagerly awaiting such a boatman to arrive (the Arminian "seeker" or the Calvinist "elect"); some are simply stubborn or mired in their delusion (perhaps they are unwilling to leave behind their cache of looted valuables, which represents the pleasures of this world).

Each Christian should be so convicted by the plight of unbelievers that he ought to man the "rescue boats," or at least participate in equipping and enabling those who are prepared to do so. The reason that the liberal Christian is seldom missions-minded is because they either do not believe that the situation is life-threatening (there is no judgment), or that there are other avenues of escape besides their own little boat (religious pluralism).

But this evacuation situation is even more specifically a metaphor for the Arminian/Calvinist debate. Should the rescuers depend, as Arminians claim, on the resident's free will to assess the danger and their autonomy to reject the offer, even if it may cost their life? Or should the rescuer compel the resident to evacuate by way of irresistible force, ala Calvinism? More specifically, Calvinism claims that the Holy Spirit, not the boatman/missionary, is doing the compelling, and that it is by way of a transformation of the heart such that the resident steps into the boat of their own renewed will. Even though it is more subtly played out, it still amounts to a forced evacuation. So, am I justified in thinking that whatever view one takes on the evacuation in New Orleans, that it ought to be consistent with one's view on free will vs. sovereign election?

Is the freedom of our will so sacred that God should allow it to remain unmolested even though it may mean our ultimate damnation? Or is it, in fact, a good thing if we can manage to convince people of the need of their rescue? Isn't salvation an intrinsically good thing that all would desire were they in their right mind and given proper knowledge?

Arminianism would seem to suggest that preserving the freedom of the will is a higher moral good than the ultimate rescue of the individual. But perhaps salvation is worth the meddling of God, especially if the very will itself has been transformed in order to enable it such that the person desires what they have received. It's not as though the rescued person is unhappy in a forced captivity.

At this point the Arminian might agree in principle but then object because God does not do this for all lost souls. If God is going to save, then why save only some? But does this objection warrant returning to the idea that it's better to let some perish according to their own will, even if in theory all may will to perish? Is it immoral for God to insure that some are saved, whether by their will or His?

What if it were the case that all that did not will to be saved were looters and criminals? What if they cursed at their would-be rescuers and drove them away? Would any of these deserve to be saved? Would it not be a matter of grace to, in fact, do so for any? Furthermore, what if their crimes were so bad that they were deserving of the death penalty? If God is not required to save any, then is He unjust if He saves only some? And if those who are ultimately lost are swathed in their own denunciations, and clutching the spoils of their own crimes to their bosoms, then where do we find grounds for injustice?

The analogy must fail at some points, but perhaps it is useful to provoke some thoughts on this historical debate. And, of course, I am not suggesting that those poor souls wishing to stay with their homes are moral reprobates, only that my analogy applies because they ought to evacuate.

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September 01, 2005

What Mormon Archaeologists and Maytag Repairmen Have in Common

One of the advantages of working on the apologetics section of LifeWay.com is that interesting related material, produced by our Broadman & Holman publishing division, often makes it into my hands. I recently obtained a copy of the Holman QuickSource Bible Atlas, and I was looking through it with my son when a thought occurred to me.

This colorful book is loaded with images of maps, charts, archaeological ruins, geographical points of interest, artifacts, and stone inscriptions. It is a graphic testimony to the historical grounding of the biblical narratives. Much to the embarrassment of various skeptics over the centuries, archaeology has been very kind to biblical Christianity. However, the same cannot be said for one of the cults of Christianity — Mormonism — which claims to be the true and "restored" church of Jesus Christ.

The Book of Mormon (BOM) is billed as "another testimony of Jesus Christ." In it are elaborate stories of Semitic tribes making their way to the New World. It includes descriptions of their peoples, cultures, and exploits, along with an alleged post-resurrection appearance of Jesus among them. The BOM includes enough description of these things that we ought to know what to look for (and where, in some cases) in order to validate its tales. The problem is, nobody can seem to find any evidence that any of these things has actually occurred.

Is the BOM just talking about an isolated region of the Americas? I'll let it speak for itself:
And it came to pass that [the Nephites in America] did multiply and spread, and did go forth from the land southward to the land northward, and did spread insomuch that they began to cover the face of the whole earth, from the sea south, to the sea north, from the sea west, to the sea east. (Helaman 3:8)

The whole face of the land had become covered with buildings, and the people were as numerous almost, as it were the sand of the sea. (Mormon 1:7)
Unfortunately for them, none of the cities or battlefield sites has been found. No ancient documents or stone inscriptions in either Hebrew or "Reformed Egyptian" (the supposed language of the original BOM) have been found. No artifacts or coins found and none of the metals allegedly forged by these people. But it's not as though we have found nothing in the Americas. Indeed, the archaeological record is quite rich and we know quite a bit about the various people-groups across the two continents. It's just that we have not found any remains that match the BOM description of early American history (although some feeble attempts have been made).

And there are things mentioned in the BOM that ought to have still been around when westerners first hit this continent. According to the book of Mosiah (7:22, 9:9, 10:5) crops like wheat, barley, and flax were cultivated by these people. Unfortunately, these are unknown in the Americas until their introduction by Europeans. And in the book of Ether (9:18-19) there is mention of animals like cattle, oxen, sheep, swine, goats, horses, and even elephants — none of which had been on the continents for many thousands of years, if ever. Even the American Indian races themselves show no trace of their alleged Hebrew ancestry, which has been reconfirmed in modern times by DNA studies.

The bottom line is that a book like the Bible Atlas remains an unrealized fantasy for the Mormon. At best, an equivalent book would be filled with artistic conceptions. I think that we Christians are so used to making pilgrimages to holy lands, reading magazines graced by archaeological photos, and seeing biblical content echoed in secular histories that we are in danger of becoming desensitized to our rich historical legacy. When skeptics charge the Bible with being filled with mythology, it may prove difficult to confirm some of the miraculous events that they are really exercised about, but of those evidences that historical analysis can yield, we have more than enough to fill our books.

Writing in the secular publication Biblical Archaeology Review, Prof. William G. Dever of the University of Arizona concluded that the Bible's status as an authentic record of the ancient people it chronicles must be considered uncontested:
The Bible is no longer an isolated relic from antiquity, without provenance and thus without credibility. Archaeology may not have proven the specific historical existence of certain biblical personalities such as Abraham or Moses, but it has for all time demolished the notion that the Bible is pure mythology. The Bible is about real, flesh-and-blood people, in a particular time and place.

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Westminster Presbyterian Church Columbia, TN