Category Archives: Apologetics

Should Believers Worry that Extra-terrestrial Life Really Exists?

As you may know from recent news releases, astronomers are excited to find 7 new earth-size planets orbiting around a star 40 light years from us. Of course 40 light years puts them way beyond our reach. It would take a space ship constructed with our current space technology 800,000 earth years to reach it. The main motivation for space exploration has always been our curiosity about ourselves, our origin, nature and destiny. So, we search for extra-terrestrial life or at least planets that could support life. Some people of faith are a bit skeptical or anxious about that possibility. So, I want to calm your fears.

What would it mean if space explorers found proof of extra-terrestrial life? Many people of an atheist bent would conclude that discovery of life elsewhere would disprove divine creation and prove that life here happened by chance. I suppose the argument would have to run like this: since we have another example of the evolution of life in the universe, we know that life on earth is not so unique and improbable that it requires a miracle to explain it. Instead, life tends to arise wherever in the universe conditions are right. And those conditions are not limited to earth. Hence we must assume that life arose on this planet by chance when the conditions made it possible.

Is this the only, or even the best, way to draw out the implications of such a discovery? I think the opposite is true. As long as earth life is the only instance of life we know, we could plausibly think of it as a freak accident unrelated to any purpose. Physical law made it possible, but chance made it actual. In truth, if we found life elsewhere it would make less plausible the idea that life on earth was a chance event. If we discovered that the universe was teaming with life, it would completely destroy the idea that life on earth came about by sheer chance. Why? Because it would demonstrate (at minimum) that the universe has a built in tendency to produce life, ultimately intelligent life. The occurrence of life could never again be attributed to pure chance. We would know it to be matter of law! The law of life would be as much a part of the universe as the law of gravity or any of the other fundamental forces. At its origin, the universe would have been programmed to produce life, to produce us. Producing intelligence is the universe’s goal. And when you and I think and dream and pray, we are enjoying the activity the universe has been aiming at from its origin! Our experience of our own minds is the most powerful telescope or microscope conceivable. It is a window into the beginning and end of all things.

But how could intelligence be the law and goal of the universe unless Intelligence was also present at the origin of the universe? As long as we think of the initial laws of our universe as mere regularities in a material universe—a rather unimaginative viewpoint—we did not have to raise the question of divine creation. But when intelligence comes to be considered an inbuilt aim–as the discovery of instances of ETL would force us to conclude–this explanation will no longer work.  Intelligence is not a mere regularity but a real thing indicating the presence of a mind. If the goal of producing intelligent beings is part of the initial conditions of the universe, the only explanation of this fact I can imagine is that a super intelligence programmed it that way.

Hence far from believers have something to fear from the discovery of extra-terrestrial life, we should rejoice at its discovery and say to our atheist friends, “See, we told you this universe was created by Life for life, by Intelligence for intelligence.” It is the atheist who should hope that we are alone.

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LOOKING FOR GOD IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES

For 30 years or longer I have been trying to figure out what makes skepticism, indifference and atheism plausible and belief in God difficult for some people.  I am sure there are many reasons and the relative strength of each varies from person to person. But one stands out to me. The external, physical/material world seems so real to us that we have a hard time imagining anything real that is not also external and material. This sentiment is expressed by a saying making the rounds on Facebook: “I worship nature. Don’t laugh. At least I can prove it exists.” I laughed anyway.

During his early adulthood, under the instruction of the Manicheans, Augustine of Hippo also experienced this difficulty:

When I wanted to think of my God, I knew of no way of doing so except as a physical mass. Nor did I think anything existed which was not material. That was the principle and almost sole cause of my inevitable error. ..If I had been able to conceive of spiritual substance, at once all their imagined inventions would have collapsed and my mind would have rejected them. But I could not [Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick, (Oxford 1991), pp. 85, 89].

And speaking of the philosophers of his day, who focused on external appearances, Augustine says,

They can foresee a future eclipse of the Sun but do not perceive their own eclipse in the present. For they do not in a religious spirit investigate the source of the intelligence with which they research into these matters (Confessions, trans. Chadwick, p. 74)

Baron Holbach, author of The System of Nature (1770) and patron of Paris’s atheist and freethinking community, attempted to explain the whole world and every event within it in material terms. His fundamental assumption seems to be that the true nature of things is revealed only in empirical experience. Empirical experience works by physical contact between our bodies and other bodies. We know things only in their external relationships to us and other things. Reality consists exclusively of external bodies set in relation to other external bodies. Holbach then interprets all our internal experience, which we do not experience empirically through the senses, in keeping with his external view of knowledge. We know that our minds, ideas and concepts possess no reality beyond the physical forces that bring them about. God is a creation of the human imagination, which itself is a product of the motions of matter.

As you can see, Holbach falls into an error similar to the one Augustine complained the Manicheans made, that is, that reality can be known truly only as external bodies and the images that represent them. Augustine saw through this error when he realized that we have internal access to reality as well as external access. Limiting knowledge of reality to how things appear from an external viewpoint severely limits and greatly distorts our understanding of the world. Holbach, the Manicheans and the nature worshiper mentioned above forget that the internal power by which we know the external world also knows itself and all its contents. And the mind knows itself and its contents not by physical contact with external surfaces but by knowing itself directly. Inside the world of the mind, nothing is external and material. Nothing takes up space or weighs anything. Nothing breaks down into smaller material bits.

In Augustine’s view, the Manicheans, and by extension Holbach and all metaphysical materialists, should have given priority to the knowledge gained by our mind’s experience of itself. Privileging an external point of view makes an inferior, indirect and obscure access to reality the judge of a superior, clear and direct access. It dismisses our sense of certainty that our minds are real and possess freedom and causal power over our bodies in favor of an analogy drawn from our external observation of the interaction of assumedly mindless bodies. It rejects our internal experience of immaterial ideas, logical laws, concepts and relations and forces them into the pattern we derive from external observation, that is, they must be material bodies externally related to each other, despite our invincible inclination to believe otherwise.

What a difference there is between the two systems (Atheism and Christian Theism)! Christian theism asserts that the appearance of humanity and all that goes with it—mind, reason, freedom, self-consciousness, moral intuition, and all that is made possible by them—reveals the true nature of the ultimate reality behind all appearances better than the externality, unintelligibility, inertness, and mindlessness of matter. And this truth comes to light in our experience within ourselves of ourselves and in fellowship with other human beings. The idea of matter is derived from sense experience’s discovery of opacity and obscurity in its vision of the world in contrast to the clarity of ideas and the self-identity and self-transparency of the mind in its act of thinking and self-reflection. Atheism (at least the most common contemporary forms) views the mindless externality of matter as disclosing the true nature of what we wrongly think we know on the uniquely human level: mind, qualities, freedom, consciousness, self-consciousness, reason, intelligibility and moral intuition.

Here is a stark choice. Both views make knowledge claims. One must choose. But the irony is that in choosing materialism I give revelatory priority to something I know externally, obscurely and indirectly over what I know directly and clearly by virtue of the process of thinking. I assert that the ultimate and underlying reality from which thinking, ideas and concepts derive is itself unthinking, obscure and unthinkable. Don’t miss this: ironically, if not in complete self-contradiction, materialism is a theory that conceives and thinks of thinking and concepts as secondary qualities derivative of matter, which is the complete absence of mind and intelligibility! According to their theory, the very power (mind) and its instruments (ideas and concepts) by which materialists formulate, defend and explain the philosophy of materialism, need to be resolved into their (material) components in order to get a clear idea of what they really are. What an absurdity! Mind and the idea of ideas are obscure and complex whereas the idea of matter is simple and clear? Of course the idea of matter is simple and clear but the idea of matter is in the mind. But matter itself is defined by being external to the mind and obscure to the eye of the mind. So, in the theory of materialism I am basing my understanding of all reality on something that can be known only as unknowable and obscure. Surely there is some kind of incoherence here!

But everything changes if with Augustine we give priority to internal experience. The way we know our minds and their contents becomes the model for our knowledge of the external world. We experience the world not only as external, material and obscure but also as internal, ideal and transparent. Through our senses we receive into our minds information (not simply dumb physical impacts) embodied in the world. This information becomes internal to our minds; only then do we possess knowledge of the “external” world. Assuming that this information truly exists in the world apart from the work of our minds, we can ask from where it came. Or, since we know from our internal experience the creative and shaping power of mind and ideas, we can ask about the nature of the Mind that thinks and creates the world I experience as intelligible but not as the product of my or any human mind.

The apostle Paul was not making idle conversation with the Athenians when he quoted the Cretan philosopher Epimenides: “For in him we live and move and have our being.” Unlike the young Augustine, Holbach and today’s nature worshiper, Paul looked around at the world and saw in everything the marks of the divine Mind, and he felt surrounded, indwelt and empowered by the Spirit of the living God. Our task, Paul says is to “seek him and perhaps find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:27). And it helps to begin your search in the right place.

ANNOUNCING the publication of “Christianity–Is It Really True? Responsible Faith In a Post-Christian Culture”

I am excited to announce the publication of the book that includes 48 revised and edited essays from last year’s series “Is Christianity True?”

Perhaps you know an undergraduate or graduate student who could benefit from reading it. Perhaps you want to lead a small group on this theme. Perhaps you simply want a copy for yourself.

If you enjoyed the series I hope you will recommend the book to your friends. I set the price near the minimum allowed by Amazon.com, $8.95.

It is available also in Kindle. $3.49.

Read the PREFACE, which describes the contents and aims of the book:

Preface

This book is second in a series of books I’ve written in weekly installments on my blog ifaqtheology (Infrequently Asked Questions in Theology). It contains in revised form the 48 essays I wrote between August 2014 and July 2015 on the question, “Is Christianity True?” I hope that publishing them in printed form will make them accessible to individuals and groups that want to study the topics of Christian evidences and Christian apologetics. I have long felt that the most popular works on evidences and apologetics don’t quite get it right. As a whole they try to prove too much and do not take adequately into account our fallibility. They underestimate the role of the will in belief. And they too readily accept the burden of proof, which puts the case for Christianity at a decisive disadvantage. They do not take the best logical and rhetorical path from nonbelief to full Christian faith. Specifically and most disturbingly, they attempt to prove the Bible’s authority independently of faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. In this book I develop a different understanding of the path to faith, a different vision of the role of the will in belief and a different way of establishing the authority of the Bible.

Part One sets out the ground rules for Christian evidences. The chapters in this section will clarify the purpose, methods and limits of evidences. We will ask who bears the burden of proof and what conditions must be present before an inquirer can make a reasonable judgment to believe the Christian gospel and a responsible decision to take up the Christian way of life. We define such relevant terms as truth, reality, certainty, knowledge, faith and opinion. Finally, we will map the path from nonbelief through four decision points to full Christian faith.

Part Two takes us through the four decision points we must traverse on our way to full Christian faith. First, we must decide between atheism and belief in God. I argue that this decision depends on our choice between matter and mind as the most fundamental explanation for our world. Is the beginning and end of all things spirit or matter, life or death, intelligible or unintelligible, mind or machine? Having decided that believing in God is the most rational choice, we now confront the second decision point where we ask, “Is the mind that is evident in the intelligible order of the world impersonal or personal?” If we opt for a personal God, a third decision point confronts us with the choice between thinking of God as the highest aspect of nature or as transcendent over nature. Is God supernatural or natural? Is the world God’s creation or God’s body? The issue can also be framed as a decision between theism and panentheism, which is the idea that God is an aspect of the world neither wholly different from world nor fully identical to it. If we accept theism as the best answer to this third question, we come to the fourth decision point at which we must decide whether to remain mere theists or move into full Christian faith. At this crossroads we are required to discuss the possibility and actuality of a revelation of God in history. At the moment of decision we must assess the evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and reflect on the meaning of this event for the nature, identity and significance of Jesus.

Part Three marks the transition into a new phase of the argument for Christianity’s truth. The previous chapters presented an affirmative case for making a reasonable judgment for Christianity’s truth and a responsible decision to become a Christian. But now we must deal with some misunderstandings and objections to Christianity. The positive side of the argument is often called “Christian Evidences” and the defensive side is often called “Christian Apologetics” or “Defense of Christianity.” The necessity of the defensive phase of the argument rests first on the propensity of people to misunderstand what Christianity actually is and what it really teaches. How can we make a reasonable judgment or a responsible decision about Christianity unless we possess an accurate understanding of its teachings? Some people find certain versions of Christianity incredible or morally offensive or insufferably superficial, and hence hesitate to accept them. Others adopt a form of Christianity that is defective when compared to the original form taught by Jesus and the apostles. It is questionable whether one has really made an authentic decision about Christianity if the form they know is not the real thing.

The second reason for the pursuing the defensive phase of the argument arises from the barrage of objections that nonbelievers hurl against Christianity. Some raise objections to the existence of God, theism or divine revelation. They raise the problem of evil or assert that the world needs no explanation beyond itself. Others object to the moral teachings of the Bible or deny its historical accuracy. Some offer objections to the reliability of the apostolic witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus or object to the very possibility of miracles. The list is endless. And even if one thinks the case I made in the first phase of the argument is very strong, one may still be disturbed and caused to doubt by the many objections that are raised. Hence I want to reply to some of the most potent objections. Some of these objections may turn out to be based on misunderstandings of Christianity. But some may accurately represent Christianity and yet still suggest reasons to doubt or reject it.

How to Read This Book

I wrote this book as a sustained and step-by-step argument, and reading it from beginning to end may be the best way to get the most from it. But I think there are several points at which readers could enter the argument without getting lost. If you are not interested right away in the question of methods in apologetics, you could skip Part One and move directly to Part Two, which develops the four decision points on the way to full Christian faith. And even within Part Two, you could read the chapters on the fourth decision point, which focuses on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, without reading the first three. Or, you could begin with Part Three, which deals with objections to Christian faith. No matter where you begin, I hope you will read the whole book so that you can see the big picture argument.

Why I Find “Liberal Christianity” so Boring

I’ve been trying to put my finger on the essential difference between Liberal Christianity and traditional or orthodox Christian theology. In the previous post I mentioned several important differences. Liberal theology denies miracles, rejects the incarnation, reinterprets the atoning death of Jesus and accommodates to the ever-changing moral views of de-Christianized progressivism. These are real and significant differences, but is there one fundamental difference that unites these differences? Yes there is, and I think I’ve got it.

The apostolic faith and its faithful articulation in orthodoxy assert that in the existence and activity of Jesus Christ an ontologically real interaction between God and the world took place. By “ontologically real” I mean that God acts causally to change the being of world, to change the way it exists. In miracles, God actually works on the existence of the lame, the blind and the dead to change their real, physical being. In the resurrection of Jesus, God actually renewed the life of Jesus’ dead body and brought Jesus to a new mode of existence. In the incarnation, God actually united the humanity of Jesus to Himself in a way different from all other human beings. The eternal Son of God, the Word, who was with God and was God, became flesh and lived among us (John 1:1-14). In the death and resurrection of Jesus, something actually happened between God and humanity that changed humanity’s status from being condemned to death to being set free for life. God really counts and actually makes Jesus’ sinless faithfulness ours.

In Liberal Christianity, real divine action, causality and change are missing. For Liberal theology, God does nothing. Every action, every cause and every change in the world is exclusively human. The significance of miracle stories is their metaphorical meanings. They teach moral lessons or ideas about God’s benevolence or justice. Nothing physical actually changes. All change occurs in the human subjective reaction to a symbol. Jesus’ body was not transformed ontologically from death to life, from mortality to glory. No. The resurrection is a metaphor for the rightness of his cause. And the rightness of his cause is the really important thing, the essence of Christianity. How we know that his cause was right apart from the real bodily resurrection Liberalism leaves obscure, but the Liberal answer is obvious: we know it because of our own moral insight. Jesus Christ is not really the ontological union of God and man, as the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation teaches. The incarnation is a metaphor for Jesus’ complete devotion to God. He is united to God in love. And we too can be united to God in love. Jesus’ death and resurrection was not really God acting causally to change the being of sinful humanity. No real change occurred. Jesus died “for us” only in the sense that he died serving a good cause that we also judge to be a good cause. His faithfulness unto death serves as an example of devotion to God and highlights the importance of his moral and religious cause. But his death is no more a divine act of atonement than the deaths of other martyrs. Its power for salvation is limited to the inspiration it provides for others to serve good causes.

Why this ontological shyness? Why such hesitancy to make assertions about real, effective divine action in the world? Two reasons come to mind. The first reason is a historical connection. Liberal theology traces its lineage back to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. In his epoch-making book Critique of Pure Reason, Kant argued that theoretical reason cannot reach beyond the world to speak about God. Reason’s competence is limited to relationships within the world and it cannot speak about God’s relationship to the world or the world’s relationship to God. We cannot speak about God as the cause of the world or of any event within the world. For Kant, the only legitimate way to form an idea of God is through our own moral sense. God is a postulate, an hypothesis, required to make sense of our moral experience. Kant famously said that he had destroyed reason “to make room for faith.” Proofs for God, miracles and all the other orthodox doctrines are vulnerable to rational critique and disproof. But the moral sense is immediately present and cannot be denied. It is a secure basis on which to ground faith in God and the moral life. Liberal theology exists because it accepts Kant’s critique and it is afraid to let faith in God or the value of a religious and moral life depend on rational proofs or historical reports of miracles.

The second reason for its ontological shyness follows from the first. Liberal theology wants to insulate itself from rational critique of divine causal actions, such as those cherished by orthodoxy. It wants Christianity to be founded on a source of knowledge that is universally available and rationally unassailable. It does not relish having to defend the ontological aspects of apostolic and orthodox Christianity. Hence it downplays their importance. In reading Liberal Christian theologians you will hear a recurring theme, that is, the desire to rid Christianity of vulnerability to rational critique. According to Schleiermacher, the religious significance of Jesus’ accomplishment does “not depend upon a visible resurrection or ascension, since of course Christ could have been raised to glory even without these intermediate steps: and so it is impossible to see in what relation both of these can stand to the redeeming efficacy of Christ…Hence we may safely credit everyone who is familiar with dogmatic statements with a recognition of the fact that the right impression of Christ can be, and has been, present in its fullness without a knowledge of these facts” (The Christian Faith, p. 418).

In dealing with the resurrection of Jesus, Harnack distinguishes between the “Easter message” and the “Easter faith.” The Easter message focuses on the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances while the Easter faith “is the conviction that the crucified one gained a victory over death.” Harnack is anxious to show that the Easter faith does not depend on the Easter message. He is not willing to allow faith in Jesus’ message “to rest on a foundation unstable and always exposed to fresh doubts.” We can believe that Jesus achieved the victory over death without believing that “deceased body of flesh and blood came to life again.” According to Harnack, “Whatever may have happened at the grave and in the matter of the appearances, one thing is certain: This grave was the birthplace of the indestructible belief that death is vanquished, that there is a life eternal” (The Essence of Christianity, p. 162).

The late popularizer of Liberal Christianity in America, Marcus Borg (1942-2015), continues the theme begun by Schleiermacher. Borg explains his view: “Rather than focusing on “what happened,” this approach [Borg’s reinterpretation] focuses on the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament. What did it mean for his followers in the first century to say that God raised Jesus from the dead? Believe whatever you want about whether the tomb was really empty, whether you are convinced it was or uncertain or skeptical—what did Easter mean to his early followers? The answer to the question of meaning is clear. In the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, the resurrection of Jesus has two primary meanings: “Jesus lives” and “Jesus is Lord.”…Focusing on the empty tomb reduces the meaning of Easter to a specular event in the past. It makes the resurrection of Jesus vulnerable to skepticism…This alternative way of understanding Easter sees the Easter stories as parables—parables about Jesus. That is, it understands these stories metaphorically” (Speaking Christian, pp.111-112).

In these three examples of Liberal Christian theology you can see clearly their anxiety to remove any need to believe a miracle or to believe that God actually acted in history to change the being and existence of humanity and the world. Everything is about the “meaning,” and references to God’s actions are just metaphors. The “meaning” of miracle stories, which function like metaphors, is always something in humanity, a human possibility for morality or mystical experience. It never means God’s action in the past, present or future. The Liberal “truth” of Christianity is always a “truth” that can be validated by experiences universally present in human beings. There is no real need for faith in the witness of Paul, Peter, James the Lord’s brother and the others. No real need to submit ourselves to apostolic authority for instruction about what it means that God raised the crucified Jesus from the dead.

But why does Liberal Christianity want to make itself invulnerable to critique? Why does it wish to make it so easy to be a Christian? Here is my hypothesis. Schleiermacher, Ritschl, Harnack, and others realized that enlightenment rationalism and the progressive moral vision were going to marginalize Christianity and the institutional church in western culture. Christianity had been the dominant cultural force in the west for over a millennium. What a frightening prospect to envision living a post-Christian culture! The Liberal project centers on making sure that Christianity and the institutional church are not marginalized. For Liberal theology, the moral influence of Christianity is its most important contribution to western culture. It seemed essential to its survival. Hence to Liberals sacrificing the ontological doctrines seemed a reasonable price to pay to maintain Christianity’s moral influence in a culture on the move. However, as I argued in the previous post, accommodation to post-Christian progressive culture keeps Liberal Christianity on the run breathlessly trying to keep up. Eventually, it will have to give up the pretense of exerting any Christian influence on culture. As I also said in the previous post, Liberal Christianity has no prophetic message for progressive culture. And for this reason most people don’t find it interesting or challenging or redemptive. The health of Liberal churches depends on receiving a continual flow of fallen fundamentalists and wavering evangelicals looking for a comfortable stopping place on the way to atheism and secularity.

Marcus Borg wanted to reconstruct Christianity so that it would not be “vulnerable to skepticism.” I understand that desire. When I was a child the truth of God, Jesus and the Bible were as evident as the Oak trees and corn fields I could see from my bedroom window. As a child, I never questioned the faith of my parents and my church; I never even thought of questioning it. However when I learned more about the diversity of belief in the world and especially when I learned about atheism, skepticism, historical criticism, and other challenges to faith, my untroubled certainty was brought to a troubled end. I faced a choice. I longed nostalgically for the clarity, certainty and undisturbed confidence of childhood. Doesn’t everyone? Liberal Christianity appeals to this desire. It promises to stop the progression toward atheism and nihilism. It offers, as you can see in Harnack and Borg, return to an untroubled faith invulnerable to skepticism and rational criticism. Just give up whatever cannot be validated by subjective experience and you will rest secure in the self-evident truth of Christianity! You can still attend church and celebrate Christmas and Easter. You can enjoy ceremony and sacrament. You can relish your enlightened superiority over fundamentalists. You can employ the Christian vocabulary of sin and salvation, justice and love, redemption and hope and the love of Jesus—all without taking any risks of being refuted by facts and rational arguments. As this series makes clear, I rejected this path. I came to see clearly that my childhood faith, the faith of my parents and the faith I was taught in Sunday School had a much greater warrant as true Christianity than so-called “invulnerable” Liberal Christianity. I realized that Liberalism’s invulnerability was purchased at the price of its utter vacuity.

Indeed Borg is correct that asserting a real bodily resurrection makes Christianity vulnerable to falsification. The apostle Paul knew this. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile…we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:17-19). But the bodily resurrection also grounds the claims of Christianity in objective reality, in an unambiguous act of God. In contrast, Borg’s metaphorical understanding of the resurrection is grounded only in a subjective decision to connect Jesus to human aspirations. Hence Liberal theology is vulnerable to the charge of wishful thinking and making an arbitrary decision to attach subjective meaning to Jesus without a rational warrant. It is vulnerable to the critique that it possesses no real knowledge of God, that its claims about the kingdom of God, God’s benevolence, justice and love are really human aspirations and characteristics projected onto an imaginary God. Liberal theology may look tempting to doubting evangelicals and fleeing fundamentalists. But it must look pathetic, nostalgic and sentimental to atheists and other post-Christians…and orthodox Christians.

In this year-long series I have defended orthodox and apostolic Christianity. God really acted in Jesus Christ to conqueror sin and death. God really raised him from the dead and reconciled the world to himself through the suffering and death of Jesus. The tomb is indeed empty. “He is not here. He has risen!” The apostles are our teachers. I will not revise this message just to maintain power and influence in contemporary western culture. I am not interesting in making it easy for others or myself to believe in Jesus Christ and cheap to become his disciples. I am intensely interested in original, ontologically robust Christianity. Apostolic Christianity is as exciting as it is demanding, as deep as it is costly. Liberal Christianity is as boring as it is indulgent, as empty as it is cheap.

Note: This week’s post marks the end of the year-long series that addressed the question, “Is Christianity True”? I am in the process of revising and publishing all 48 of these essays in a book tentative entitled, The Case for Christianity: Essays on Faith and Reason for a Post-Christian Culture. I will let you know when it becomes available. Perhaps some of you will want a copy for yourself or to give away. Next year’s theme will be “A Catechism of Mere Christianity for a Post-Christian Culture.” More about that next time!

“Liberal Christianity”—Neither Liberal Nor Christian!

We are nearing the end of our year-long series on the question “Is Christianity True?” One more topic remains to be covered. So far in the series I have attempted to show that we can make a reasonable judgment to believe the Christian gospel and a responsible decision to take up the Christian way of life. Early in the study, in the third essay, I made it clear that by “Christianity” I meant the original faith attested in the New Testament. It is that faith I contend is true. And I responded to outsider critics in defense of this faith. But now I want to deal with those who “defend” Christianity by revising it to make it fit within modern thought and culture.

In the 17th and 18th Centuries many western intellectuals came to believe that Galileo’s and Newton’s scientific discoveries made it impossible to believe in divine revelation and miracles. God made the world and gave it its laws, and there is now no reason for God to interfere. God gave human beings the power of reason as a light to guide their way, and reason is as sufficient for religion and ethics as it is for science and practical life. The first thinkers to adopt these ideas had little use for Christianity; they saw no value in tradition, church and worship. Religion could be reduced to living a moral life outside the church. These are the so-called Deists.

But early in the 19th Century something new came on the scene, liberal Christianity. Liberal Christianity accepts most aspects of the deist critique of orthodoxy. Along with Deism, Liberalism rejects miracles understood as supernatural events in which God reverses, interrupts or sidesteps natural law. Hence it rejects or reinterprets in a non-miraculous way the Old and New Testament miracle stories, including Jesus’ nature miracles (resurrections, healings of leprosy, walking on water) and most significantly Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Liberalism rejects the apocalyptic elements in Jesus’ teaching and in the rest of the New Testament. And it rejects the substitutionary doctrine of the atonement. But unlike Deism, Liberal Christianity gives Jesus a central role as a religious and moral example and it retains a place for the church, clergy and worship in individual and social life.

During the 19th Century two major forms of Liberal Christianity developed. The first form emphasizes Jesus’ religious experience and was pioneered by German theologian and preacher Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), who is universally acknowledged as “the father of modern theology.” According Schleiermacher, Jesus experienced a deep God-consciousness so intense that it overcame all resistance from the flesh. Jesus’ God-consciousness differs from other people’s experience in that he was able to inspire that consciousness in others. Only in this way is Jesus our redeemer and savior. The church is the community that cultivates this consciousness and passes it on to others. Christian doctrines derive, not from inspired words revealed by God and recorded in the Bible but from the feeling of absolute dependence on God that Jesus inspires. In Schleiermacher’s now classic work on theology The Christian Faith, the Berlin theologian reinterprets every Christian dogma and doctrine in Liberal way, that is, as reducible to the religious feeling of absolute dependence. For Schleiermacher, Christianity is not the religion about Jesus but the religion of Jesus.

In the late 19th and the early 20th Centuries, another Liberal tradition became dominant. This tradition was begun by Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889) and continued by Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) and Wilhelm Herrmann (1846-1922). It focuses not on Jesus’ religious experience but on his moral example. For Ritschl and his followers, Christianity is based on Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom of God, which calls on people to embody perfect righteousness on earth in a community. Jesus inspires us to believe that the cause of the kingdom will prevail over all resistance. Like Schleiermacher, Ritschl rejects miracles, the resurrection of Jesus, substitutionary atonement, the incarnation and other orthodox doctrines. Jesus is a human being who so identified himself with the purposes of God that he functions as the revelation of God in human form. He is not God in his being, but he reflects God in his character and actions. He “saves” by inspiring us to live according to the higher standard of love of God and neighbor.

The moralism that Liberal Christianity emphasizes is not personal holiness, that is, sexual purity, personal honesty and the absence of individual vices. It leaves this to the holiness churches and fundamentalist movements. The Liberal churches of the late 19th and early 20th centuries focused on bringing Jesus’ message of the kingdom to bear on modern social problems: poverty, capitalism’s exploitation of the working class, alcoholism, war and women’s suffrage. Later Liberal churches continued this tradition, adding the campaign for civil rights for African Americans, women’s liberation, environmental justice, gay rights and “marriage equality” for same-sex couples. In other words, Liberal Christianity follows and reflects the trajectory of what the consensus of the progressive element in culture takes for moral progress.

Now let’s address the assertion contained in my title. Is liberal “Christianity” Christian? Of course, it claims to be Christian, and it seems judgmental and rude to deny that claim. But surely it is not judgmental and rude to ask liberal Christians what they mean by the noun “Christianity” and the adjective “Christian”? What are the faith affirmations of liberal Christianity and what are its denials? The liberal Christianity I described above affirms Jesus as a paradigmatic religious man or a profound moral teacher and an extraordinary moral example. And orthodox Christianity also affirms these beliefs. But liberal Christianity denies that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, that he was the eternal Son of God incarnate, that he the performed miracles recorded in the Four Gospels, that he died as an atoning sacrifice for our sins and that he was raised bodily from the dead. Liberal Christianity rejects much of the moral teaching of the New Testament because it conflicts with modern progressive culture.

But these rejected doctrines and moral teachings were part of the original, apostolic Christianity. Many of them are confessed and taught in the New Testament as absolutely essential. It’s obvious that in the New Testament era such “liberal” Christianity would have been rejected as unbelief or heresy and moral laxity. Does anyone doubt that had the Paul, John, Peter, James or any of the Apostles encountered someone teaching the liberal view of Jesus and morality that they would have denied it the name “Christian” and rejected it as “a different gospel–which is really no gospel at all” (Gal 1:6-7)? Call it what you will, “ecclesiastical deism” or “progressive religion” or something else. But if the original, apostolic faith is the norm for what qualifies as Christian and what does not, liberal Christianity is not Christianity at all but something else. But is apostolic Christianity really the norm for Christian teaching for all time? This is a decisive question. I affirm that it is, and I suppose liberal Christianity denies it.

My title also questioned Liberal Christianity’s liberalism. How so? The word “liberal” is related to the words, liberty and liberate. Hence liberal Christianity claims to be free and freeing. But from what is liberal Christianity free and from what does it promise liberation? From doctrinal orthodoxy, tradition and a strict and ridged moral code! How does it get free from those authorities? Does it assert anarchy or a latter day revelation? No. Liberal Christianity gets free from orthodoxy by selling itself to de-Christianized progressive culture. To stay relevant and on message it must jump on board with whatever progressive culture designates as the next area ripe for moral progress. Liberal Christianity has no place to stand to critique progressivism. It cannot appeal to tradition or the Bible or the divine authority of Jesus; it cannot even appeal to reason. It is always running to catch up with the next bold effort to liberate somebody from tradition and oppressive social institutions. And its vestigial Christian baggage, as light as it is when compared to orthodoxy, slows it down so that it always behind the curve.

Liberal Christianity “defends” Christianity by giving up its most powerful and liberating teachings. It’s an army that defends its homeland by surrendering the capitol, the best farmland and the most defensible heights. And in doing so it becomes powerless to challenge the world at the place where it most needs to be confronted, where it is most in rebellion to God. Like the ventriloquist’s dummy, it has nothing of its own to say. It looks to its master for what to say next. And so I conclude that liberal Christianity is neither Christian nor liberal. It’s not even interesting.

The Sins of Christians: Evidence for Christianity’s Immorality?

In this week’s post I want to continue the theme of moral objections to Christianity. Last week I argued that most moral objections to Christianity can be reduced to fundamental disagreements about the final authority for moral truth and the ends moral behavior should seek. The specific issues discussed by the culture at any particular time are merely occasions for the clash of contradictory fundamental perspectives. The view I called “de-Christianized progressivism” rejects all moral authority beyond the individual’s sense of fittingness and any goal other than individual happiness as understood by the individual. In contrast, Christianity affirms the ultimate moral authority of the Creator, who is the absolute standard of right and good, and views the goal of human action and relationships as the creature’s correspondence in character and life to the Creator as revealed in Jesus Christ.

De-Christianized progressivism appeals to a different source of moral knowledge than that to which Christianity appeals. It cannot accept that individuals need any moral guidance other than their own experience and feeling. After all, if the goal of human life is to maintain a feeling of wellbeing and happiness in the present moment, who knows better than I when I am happy and what makes me happy? But Christianity mistrusts untrained and immediate human impulses. Human beings are sinners in need of forgiveness and spiritual transformation. It asserts that individuals’ consciences need divine revelation, community discipline and tradition as sources of moral guidance.

If people holding opposite sides of these contradictory moral visions clash over issues such as those that excite our culture today without clarifying their deeper disagreements, they cannot possibly understand each other and will simply talk past each other. And since they cannot appeal to the same authority and do not seek the same goal, they cannot even reason with each other. Instead of asking why they cannot reason together about an issue and letting this question drive them to their deeper disagreements—and perhaps agreements on another level—they shift from reasoning to fighting. Opponents begin to view each other as irrational, insincere and evil. Words become weapons instead of vehicles for ideas. Carl von Clausewitz (1790-1831) observed in his book On War, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” Unhappily, von Clausewitz’s aphorism describes only too well the current debate about morality. Christians as well as non- or post-Christians are often guilty of shifting too quickly from reasoning to fighting. And I will have something to say about this in future posts. But here I am dealing with objections to the moral vision of Christianity from its critics.

Many critics illegitimately confuse Christianity with the thought and behavior of churches and individuals who claim to be Christian. Clearly, there is a conceptual difference between the essential teaching and moral vision of the original Christian faith and the practice of individual Christians and institutions that call themselves churches. Lay Christians and clergy have done and do bad things. Bishops acted like secular lords, amassing wealth and building magnificent palaces at the expense of the people while neglecting their duty to care for and teach the people. “Christian” princes conducted wars against other “Christian” princes. So-called “witches” and heretics were burned alive. Christian churches sought power in alliance with the political order. Clergy abused and still abuse their trusted positions by molesting children, living in luxury and seeking honor. Indeed, Christians and so-called “churches” do bad things, horrendous things, and they deserve to be exposed and denounced.

And it is precisely by the teaching and example of Jesus Christ and the original Christian faith that they are most decisively exposed and denounced! De-Christianized progressivism cannot possibly be as radical in its criticism. For it possesses no coherent principles by which to criticize such abuses. Non- or post-Christians also seek wealth, desire power and work to satisfy their lusts. And why not? They cannot appeal to moral law or divine judgment or the teaching and example of Jesus to redirect their lives toward the truly good and right. This life is all there is, and it is precarious and short. Carpe diem! Hence their criticism of the behavior of Christians and Christian institutions boils down to criticizing them for not living up to the teaching of Jesus and the original Christian faith, that is, it boils down to an accusation of hypocrisy. They don’t raise any independent criticisms. So, it cannot escape notice that an argument from hypocrisy to the falsehood of the ideals by which hypocrisy is exposed and denounced is self-contradictory. If the Christian moral vision is false, the charge of hypocrisy is evacuated of its moral content. How can hypocrisy be a moral failing if the system within which hypocrisy is condemned is itself false?

Surely it is obvious that failure to live up to an ideal does not disprove the ideal. A bad Stoic does not prove that Stoicism is bad. A bad math student does not prove that mathematics is bad. Nor does a bad Christian prove that Christianity is bad. Hence merely rehearsing the sins of Christians and so-called “Christian” institutions does not constitute a good argument against Christianity’s moral vision. A good argument, that is, a rational argument, against Christianity’s moral vision would, first, need fairly and accurately to describe that vision. Second, it would need to judge Christianity’s moral vision defective according to an alternative moral vision, which as a system can claim as good or better grounding in moral truth. I do not accept expressions of emotion or sentences that begin with “I feel” or “everyone knows” or “we have discovered” or “history will show” as rational arguments.

I challenge the critics of the Christian moral vision to make an argument that meets these two requirements. Only then can we even have an argument. I predict I will be waiting a long time.

Is Christianity Morally Offensive?

I find it so interesting that many of the most strident opponents of Christianity attack it for its moral teachings. If you didn’t know better, you’d expect these opponents to oppose the Christian moral vision with a coherent and profound moral philosophy based on an altogether different and better foundation. After all, to oppose and replace the religious and moral tradition that created the western world and shaped its moral intuition for over a thousand years is a pretty ambitious agenda. And since the objections I have in mine come from contemporary western people, you would think they would have given serious consideration to how they could escape the influence of the system they now criticize. Do you return to pre-Christian sources? Do you draw on non-western traditions? Do you attempt to derive a new morality from modern natural science? Only Friedrich Nietzsche and a few other adventuresome thinkers attempted to return to pre-Christian paganism. And most modern objections to Christian morality would apply doubly to pagan morality. Nietzsche criticized Christianity for its compassion for the weak, hardly politically correct today. Most non-western moral traditions are as conservative as or more so than the Christian tradition. And science can only describe the way things are. It cannot tell you how they should be. No, there is no alternative for modern progressives who think they have advanced beyond Christianity.

Self-conscious secularists and progressives and throngs of thoughtless people who echo them decry Christianity’s prohibition of sexual activity outside of a marriage between one man and one woman, divorce, suicide, abortion, and homosexual activity. There have always been people who practice these things and who justify them in various ways. But lately we see a new hostility toward Christian moral teachings that views them, not just as backward, but as evil.  What accounts for this new hostility toward Christianity for its teaching on these subjects? The most obvious reason for the new aggression is political. The Christian moral vision dominated western society for many centuries.  In the United States it has only recently become feasible for de-Christianized progressivism to turn the tables and become the dominant philosophy of culture. Christian churches and the Christian moral vision are what stand in the way of this transfer of power. Hence much contemporary criticism of Christianity can be explained by its political aims. But a deeper issue concerns me more than the struggle for political domination.

Why do secular progressives hate Christianity for its views of marriage, divorce, suicide, abortion, and homosexual activity? I do not believe that it is simply because of what Christianity permits or forbids. In truth, it is Christianity’s denial that individual human beings have the right to decide for themselves what is good and right. Christianity teaches that we do not own ourselves and we must give an account to our Creator for what we do and how we use our lives as well as how we treat others. For de-Christianized progressives, Christianity’s denial of their autonomy is deeply offensive. But instead of challenging the Christian moral vision with a coherent and profound moral philosophy, progressives appeal to the flattering but obviously false notion that individual human beings can be their own gods, determining good and evil for themselves. Perhaps Christianity’s exposure of this fiction explains the intensity of progressives’ hatred.