Tag Archives: belief

If You Redefine Christianity, it’s Ridiculous

redefineIn my time discussing apologetics, I’ve encountered two types of atheists:

1. Those who don’t, at the end of the day, believe religious claims, but consider theism a respectable position worthy of serious consideration.

2. Those who know almost nothing about theism outside of wild distortions and straw men.

One such distortion, that comes up semi-regularly, is the patently false claim that Christianity holds that “God sacrificed himself to himself”. Usually, it is followed with intimations that God threatens people with Hell, as well as the insistence that this is the basis of Christianity.

With all due respect to those who believe such claims, this is borne of a deep ignorance of the facts.

Personally, I don’t believe that there is anything wrong with being ignorant, so long as one is willing to learn. Its entirely possible that the second sort of atheist could become the first sort simply by availing his or her self of the writings of actual theologians.

Those that do will find that, according to Christian theology, Christ was indeed a sacrifice, but not remotely “to himself”. That is, he was not a ritual sacrifice, but rather a sacrifice in the same sense that a soldier might sacrifice his life in battle.

Such a person would not be sacrificing “to” something, but rather “for” something (such as freedom or some other cause).

Christ, according to Christians, sacrificed himself to bridge the infinite gap between a perfect God and a finite, fallible species. This wasn’t remotely because God, personally, wanted a sacrifice, it was because (among other things) the distance was so great.

Bridging such a gap, and forgiving great wrongs, is always extraordinarily painful. It is always an act of sacrifice.

It is also well within mainline Christian teachings that Christ died not merely to suffer for us, but to suffer with us. That is part of bridging the gap in any relationship, after all. I’ve even read essays from black Christians who claim that they love Christ not so much because he died for them, but because he was, in effect, lynched. He knew what it was like to suffer under an unjust socio-political system.

Much, much more could be said, but it already seems obvious enough that the common internet meme is far too glib.

It is less so, however, than the even more common claim about threats of Hell. I can’t imagine that the idea that Christianity is a religion of forgiveness is an obscure fact. Yet I run across people who confidently claim that the threat of Hell is the motivation for good behavior to be found in Christianity.

But, as I’ve already written about the actual motivator, I’ll simply respond by wondering how someone who doesn’t seem even to know that Christianity offers forgiveness can claim to know anything at all substantial about the religion, let alone seen through it.

These kinds of claims are no part of what Christian theologians have claimed. Much less are they the basis of the religion. One can believe, or disbelieve. But, what one can’t do, if one is to be rational, is claim that these silly straw men have anything to do with Christianity.

Life, the Universe, and Everything

Everything we know is rooted in experience.
If this is a simple conclusion, I can only say that it is easy to forget. In the midst of arguing over philosophy and science, religion and worldview, there creeps in an assumption that some ways of knowing are completely divorced from direct personal experience.

Experience Precedes EverythingThere is no exception. We may say that we accept something, not due to experience, but due to science. But why should we accept science unless it reflected experience? The person born without any functional sensory organs has neither a concept of the physical world nor a rational reason to believe in one.
This is not to say that experience cannot be misunderstood. Certainly, there are contradictions between the content of our lives and the content of our dreams. In such a case, we must either call one to be false, or believe that the two experiences occurred on different planes of existence. Depending on how one defines the terms, either approach could be used in the case of dreams.

All this is to say that I see no reason to discredit my experience of moral truth, of beauty, or of meaning in life simply because they are not scientific. My sensory experience is not confirmed by science; rather, science is confirmed by it.
So far, so good. The controversy is in seeking to explain the existence of such things. Personally, I know of no theory which covers the experience of reality more completely or elegantly than certain forms of theism. The concept of God makes sense out of such a (when I think about it) strange combination of experiences.

Many object, of course. Lately, it has been the fashion to respond that materialism can explain the psychological reasons why I might come to believe in these things. This may or may not be true, but is beside the point. Materialism can explain none of these things as extant. It does no more to explain the existence of the universe than the existence of objective moral values. It gets out of the latter only by denying their existence, and is left simply to avoid the question of the former.
There seems no more reason to deny that morals exist, however, than to deny that the universe exists. Both are experienced, and, when I am done pondering cartesian questions, I am prone to trust my experience over a possibility asserted without support.

Roots of MoralityOthers object that these things can be accepted as brute facts without need for an explanation. I suppose that this is true, in the same sense that one can accept “things fall” as a brute fact without bothering about a theory of gravity. Clearly, this does nothing to undermine the credibility of any explanation. On the contrary, it becomes immediately obvious that an argument based on avoiding thought is both weak and, in some sense, dishonest.

The most astonishing of currently fashionable responses to this argument, however, is the demand for an explanation of God himself. This is a variation on the “who designed the designer” argument. It strikes me as obvious that one need not explain a thing in order to realize that it explains something else. Indeed, demanding an explanation of the explanation leads immediately to an infinite regress. And an objection that works equally well for all explanations, regardless of content, is no objection at all.

Rather, it seems that, in all forms of experience, we are left with the fact that finite and contingent reality (which is the whole of our experience) is based on absolute, infinite reality. It is both intuitive and rationally inescapable that all experience with reality points to something greater: the physical universe to immense power, moral truths to ultimate good, beauty to sublimity, and meaning to divine purpose.

One can escape this only by demanding, based on one’s own worldview, that some category of these experiences is invalid. So long as one realizes that this claim is arbitrary, one is allowed it. For my part, I am inclined instead to believe that our experiences are of something real. It follows from this that they do point, in their own finite and meandering way, to something far greater than any of us can now imagine.

What is Your View of Reality?

The simplest, most basic questions tend also to be the deepest and most difficult to answer.
Though many accuse philosophers of pointless rambling on such abstract questions, I think it is a matter of simple fact that what we believe all but dictates how we behave. The man who steps out his front door, and sees a passing crowd of his fellow human beings will not react the same manner as his companion, who sees an ignorant mob.
It could even be argued that the world one sees is the essential part of one’s character. That being the case, it is worth it to dig a little deeper into the question.

In my view, one of the more troubling positions in our culture is materialism. That is, the idea that only the physical exists. When I step out my front door, I don’t see only a crowd of physical people. I see spiritual beings. I think this has an effect on how I treat them.
I also see ethics. The idea that morals are simply what society says is right or wrong doesn’t carry weight with me. I have no experience with that at all. Rather, I see a world where some things are truly good, and some are evil.
Of course, I’m not for a moment saying that one must see things as I do to be a good person. I mean only that I see a world that is not empty, but filled with love and meaning.
It strikes me as odd, then, that we are so quick to try to destroy the views of others. Yes, I can certainly understand the desire to share our own views, to get people to see our truths – this helps us connect to and understand one another. I can also see the basic desire to state what one believes to be the truth.
But neither of these, unfortunately, fully explains the forceful, often vitriolic, nature of debate.
There is definitely an element of pride, on all sides, in arguments over belief. Even more than that, I think, there is a certain justification project. One feels affirmed in a belief after winning a debate, and I don’t expect that the most deeply confident are tempted to mock or scorn opponents. Rather, this is an act for a superficially intense, but shallow, belief.
If this seems a harsh judgment, I can only say that it is made with empathy. I, too, have been in such a place, and I can find no better explanation as to why we might relish the idea of casually, even recklessly, devastating the dearest beliefs of another human being. Even in the unlikely event that we are as right as we think, this is cruel.
And here we have the state of so much of what I have seen across the web. One-upsmanship and attacks abound, and still it is an effort to abstain – to not try to educate, to not try to argue a point.

Looking back at so many failed attempts at convincing others, I wonder if, perhaps, I should have been less interested in trying to convince them of my beliefs, and more concerned with understanding the stakes for both of us. Ultimately, a glimpse of the deepest beliefs of another is a sacred thing.
For me, to deny God would be to deny every part of me that says there is more to this life than atoms slamming against each other.
While one may, perfectly reasonably, disagree, I can’t imagine why someone would wish to rip that idea apart overnight – and can only conclude that those that do simply do not understand how deep the thought goes. It is the frame on which all the greatest part of my soul rest, and I find that I do resent anyone that would hammer at it without respect for those things which it supports.
And, perhaps, this is why respect is so badly needed. Without it, there can be no depth of understanding, and change, if it comes at all, is bound to be catastrophic.

Are we Post-Modern?

Postmodern DemotivatorThis is a question I wouldn’t have thought to raise myself, but, having heard it, I did find myself intrigued. The speaker in question pointed out that no one is post-modern about reading the directions on a medicine bottle – that science should be accepted, and the non-scientific is meaningless. As such, he claimed that our current cultural perspective is very modernist.
Of course, this struck me as an oversimplification. While it is true that modernist thought emphasizes the importance of scientific discovery, it does not allow for the disregard of meta-narratives that occurs within post-modernism. This is a difference which, I feel, is very relevant to our culture.

The most succinct way I’ve heard it put is, unfortunately, also the most cynical:
No one is post-modern on issues (s)he really cares about.

I’ve often had the thought that post-modernism is, for most of us, more an excuse to avoid debating what is true than something we actually believe. It’s simply much easier, and superficially pithy, to say “you do it your way and I’ll do it mine” than to hash out the differences. Even agreeing to disagree means at least two things. (1) Stating directly that you think a person is wrong, and (2) hashing out a seemingly limitless pile of arguments regarding truth.
Neither of these things are comfortable, and I can definitely understand the appeal of stating that there is no truth.

But is “there is no truth” a true statement? While this is hardly the mantra of philosophically sophisticated proponents of post-modernism, it is a common implication from laypersons. Our culture seems to house a disturbing indifference toward the idea that there is no truth – no objective ethical standards, and no ultimate narrative of life and its meaning.
Personally, I do find it hard to believe that anyone truly accepts these ideas. The closest I’ve come to accepting them have been among the most horrific times in my life. Nor do I think it likely that the oppressed peoples of the world will be nearly so amiable to moral relativism as those of us who are complicit in that oppression.

I think I do, in fact, believe that our commitment to post-modernism is largely a matter of courteous talk. Try though we might, we believe certain things to be true. Rather than deconstructing our own beliefs for the sake of another belief (in post-modernism), I’d much rather that we simply found a way to separate “your claim is false” from “I judge you to be inferior”.

Were we able to do that, all this talk of there being no truth, or multiple truths, would become unnecessary.