How do you decide between Christianity and some other form of theism? In the first sixteen instilments of this study we’ve limited ourselves to reasoning from what is given always and everywhere to reason. We reasoned from the appearances of the natural world given through the senses and from the mind’s knowledge of itself gained by internal reflection to the ultimate explanation for the existence and operations of these things. Using these sources, we confronted three decision points where we had to make a choice between two explanations for our experience: (1) matter or mind, (2) an impersonal or a personal God, and (3) God as a part of nature or God as wholly transcending nature. The cumulative argument of the series so far amounts to this: believing in a personal God that wholly transcends nature can be based on a reasonable judgment and a responsible decision. I do not claim to have proved this conclusion beyond all doubt. I have not presented every argument for God’s existence or attempted to refute every argument against it. But I have presented what I believe to be the reasoning mind’s own drive toward God as the only explanation that does it justice. At this point, I must let the evidence speak for itself and move on.
The Fourth Decision Point
What is the first step one must take to transition from mere theism to Christian faith? As I admitted in previous posts, I don’t think there is only one path from unbelief to Christian faith. Different people make the transition differently. The order I wish to propose here makes sense to me because it addresses some concerns of our age and considers the questions our culture asks of Christians. If you can think of a better one, by all means follow it.
How does the Christian message enter the sphere of our reason so that we can assess its meaning and make a judgment about its truth? Clearly it is not given everywhere and always with nature. Nor is Christianity built into the structure of our minds. Hence Christianity is not merely a metaphysical explanation of the workings of nature or our minds. Nor can its coherence and truth can be judged only by its conformity with these perennially present structures. From where then does the information on which we can base a rational judgment and a responsible decision about Christianity come? Is there another source for truth relevant to the question of God and the appropriate human relationship to God? Or must our knowledge of God be derived solely from structures perennially available to us in nature or mind? (Deism insists on this limit.)
Two other options come to mind: (1) divine illumination or inspiration of every individual or (2) a unique event in history, a record of which is passed on in language to those not present at the event. I do not wish to deny the possibility or even the actual event of illumination or inspiration of individuals. After all, Saul of Tarsus (Paul the Apostle) claims to have experienced the resurrected Jesus Christ in a unique vision or revelation. And others since his time right up until today have made similar claims and experienced similar conversions. But I don’t think this is the norm. Today and for centuries past, most people meet the events on which Christianity is based in the form of language, that is, reports of the founding events that claim to derive from those who actually witnessed them.
Before we look at those reports, I want us to think about history as a source of information. By “history” I do not mean history in its proper sense. The “history” of historians is a reconstructed narrative of events based on a critical assessment of the sources that claim to have access to that event. For the historian, neither events themselves nor reports of events are “history” in the technical sense. But at this point I want to use the word history loosely to mean the entire fabric of past events. Natural scientists assume that past natural events and processes—though unique in their particular time and place and order— operated by the same physical laws as natural events and processes operate today. The eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 was a unique natural event, but we assume that it can be explained by same physical laws that operate everywhere and at all times in the universe. In a sense, each natural event is new and unique; it cannot be repeated exactly. But these new and unique natural events do not reveal new natural laws. Only when natural events are brought into relationship with human and divine actions do they acquire the potential to reveal anything beyond natural law. (I will show how this works later.)
For the rest of this essay, I will use the term “history” to designate the complex flow of human actions and passions and interactions through time. In human history we see something we do not see in natural history, genuine novelty fueled by human freedom. I recognize that human beings’ free decisions are set in the context of certain stable features of human biology, psychology, and sociology and in relation to natural history. But I deny that human history can be explained wholly by such deterministic factors. Writing, art, architecture, cities, poetry, and philosophy are in part products of human freedom and not merely determinations of the laws of nature. Because of the activity of human freedom, history is the realm of the new and unique. And the most significant of those new and unique things is the unique personhood of each individual human being. There never was and there never will be another Julius Caesar, Paul the Apostle, Abraham Lincoln, or you.
Why are other people are fascinating to us? Even though each person possesses a unique identity we cannot share, we can see in their stories realizations of possibilities, free actions, and sufferings which could be ours. Each person’s life history is a revelation of something humanity could be, of what you and I could be. Hence history may embody and the study of history may reveal something the study of nature and of the mind cannot get at: the possibilities of the human spirit both to create and become something that transcends the possibilities of the ordinary course of nature. Only in human history is such a revelation possible. It cannot be known abstractly because it is the product of freedom. It can be known only in its actual realization, and since the actual realization of personal identity happens in human individuals, we can come to know it only through personal revelation expressed in their acts, creations, and language. To know persons from the past we must rely on their stories recorded and passed down.
What if one individual realized the possibilities of human nature and freedom so completely and dramatically that this person’s life became the definitive revelation of human destiny and of divine identity? This is exactly what Christianity claims for Jesus Christ.
Next week we will begin our examination of the reports through which we get in contact with the story of Jesus Christ.