In the last two posts I clarified the idea of history, located the source of information decisive to the transition from nonbelief into Christian faith, and clarified the distinction between an outsider and an insider view of this source. Today I want to move us closer imagining an outsider’s actual encounter with the core Christian message and clarifying the status of the judgment demanded in this situation.
Moving from nonbelief into Christian belief requires us to believe reports of events to which we have no direct access on the word of those who claim to have had direct access. This encounter is exceedingly complex, way beyond our ability to describe fully. The following are some general categories that affect the outcome of this encounter: (1) the background beliefs, experiences, questions, and interests of the nonbeliever; (2) the relationship between the witnesses reporting the events and the nonbeliever listening to the story; (3) the nature of the events reported; and (4) the perceived advantages or disadvantages of accepting the report. Obviously, we cannot create a description of the event of hearing and believing the gospel that anticipates the details of every encounter.
Perhaps some analogies will help. Suppose I am visiting an unfamiliar city and need a prescription filled. I ask the hotel concierge for directions to the local Walgreens. I listen to the directions carefully, accept them fully without consciously examining them critically, and follow them trustingly. Or, in another analogy, when I was a child my father told me that he served in United States Navy in the Pacific during World War II. I believed him immediately and without reservation. Or again, suppose that shortly after I return home from work my neighbor rings my door bell and warns me that in my absence today she saw an unfamiliar man step into my yard and peer into my dining room window. Will I believe her or not? Will I take appropriate measures in response to my belief that these events happened? In one final analogy, suppose a stranger approaches me on a street corner as I wait for the “Walk” sign to illuminate. He tells the story of how a few years ago on a hike in the Santa Monica Mountains he spotted a group of men burying piles of cash. Sadly, they placed a huge rock over the spot so big that he could not move it. After returning from his hike the stranger drew a map to the hidden treasure, which he will happily sell to me for $100. The sign across the street flashes “Walk”. I continue on my way without any reservations about having walked away from the buried treasure and a secure retirement.
In each of these four analogies we can see at work the four general factors mentioned above. I bring to each of these encounters the whole package of my beliefs and expectations, I have some kind of relationship to the witness, the events presented for belief possess a certain character, and I have a feel for the cost of believing or not believing the reports. Each of these factors plays a part in my decision. Most of the time, we are not even aware of the processes by which we perceive and weigh these factors and come to believe.
At this point I want to return to an idea I discussed in the first few posts of this series, applying it in the present context. I believe there is more to the belief-forming process than perceiving and weighing evidences. In much modern thought about belief formation, it is presumed that being a responsible and rational person requires us to consider doubt as the initial attitude toward testimony. Only the measurable weight of testimony, the demonstrable credibility of the witnesses, and other articulable evidences can propel the mind from its initial doubt into belief. I object to this account of the transition from not believing to believing for two reasons. (1) As my analogies show, in many cases we are able to evaluate the complex factors in a rational decision to belief very rapidly. We need not and cannot articulate a detailed assessment of our processing of these factors. And attempting to do so would be as foolish as impossible. Only neurotics spend enormous time and energy attempting to articulate and weigh every factor in their decisions. To live we must take risks. (2) I think it is more descriptive of what we actually do to assume that we possess a natural tendency to believe unless there is a reason not to believe. In other words, our first inclination is to believe what other people tell us rather than doubt them. We do not have an obligation as rational persons to doubt what others say unless there is a reason to doubt.
Getting clear that we do not have an obligation to begin with doubt will help us clear our minds of unreasonable rules that bias us against the testimony of the apostles before we even hear it. It will allow us simply to listen to the witnesses’ stories with openness to being persuaded. All the four factors for belief formation will still play their part but without the extra burden of a false description of what it means to be a rational person. Of course, as my example of the treasure map shows, we can sometimes have good reasons to doubt what people say. But simply that we are being asked to trust the word of another person is not good reason to doubt.
In future posts we need to examine the reports of how the first Christians came to believe and how their testimony was received.
Programing Note: For the next month I may need to post less than once a week. My publisher InterVarsity Press wants the final edition of my book on creation and providence by January 15, 2015. That effort will require my full energies. We just settled on the title: The Faithful Creator: Affirming Creation and Providence For An Age of Anxiety.