Tag Archives: apologetics

Responding to Non-Christian, Monotheist Critiques of Christianity

Many of us live on streets where nearly all the world’s major religions and different types of secularism and atheism are represented. We personally encounter religious viewpoints today that fifty years ago we had only read about in books. We are encouraged by the exponents of pluralism and relativism to ignore the differences and just get along. And from a personal and political vantage point this may be a good strategy. But what is true for individuals and politicians is not true for religions and philosophies. They make conflicting truth claims. From a logical point of view they may all be wrong, but they cannot all be right. I am comfortable and experienced in arguing for the truth of Christianity against atheism or for the truth of an important theological truth against a Christian thinker who denies it. But like many of you I am not all that experienced at defending the faith in discussions with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and others. And as I hinted above, our culture discourages us from anything but affirming encounters with representatives of other religions. I think, however, that Christians need to go beyond tolerance and politeness, and learn how to explain and defend our faith to our non-Christian neighbors. Let’s think today about how to respond to one particular non-Christian critique of Christianity.

Critics of Christianity attack at different points. Where they attack depends on what they assert as the alternative truth. Atheists object to the very idea of God, and offer nature or matter as a god-substitute. Non-Christian monotheist religions object to the status and role Jesus Christ occupies in the Christian faith and assert some other revelation or mediator or law as a Christ-substitute. Non-Christian polytheist religions find it easy to assimilate Christ as one appearance of god among many. Today I want to address certain objections to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. I am not concerned in this essay with those Christians who object on biblical grounds to the specific doctrine asserted in the Nicene Creed. I am thinking of rational critiques by Jewish, Islamic, Theist or Deist thinkers.

These critics assume that defeating the doctrine of the Trinity defeats Christianity as a whole. And to accomplish this goal they make use of a common (and mistaken) notion that gives their objections underserved force, that is, that the simple unity of the divine being is a clear, rational truth whereas the triunity of the divine being is irrational or mysteriously beyond reason. But as a matter of historical fact, biblical Israel’s belief in the unity of the divine being was based on historical revelation and divine action, not on reasoning from nature. The best reasoning from nature at that time concluded that the divine nature was plural, that there were many gods, some more, some less divine. There are many forces and spheres within nature, and for the ancients these different forces possessed no obvious connection. And even if you examine the writings of the Greek philosophers from Plato to Plotinus, you never find a rationally plausible system that gets beyond dualism, that is, the assertion of at least two ultimate principles; and the divine realm always includes multiple levels. The history of philosophy proves that we cannot reason conclusively from the many things of our experience to a single, simple explanation for everything, much less to a single personal God. To think at all is to relate one thing to another. If there is only one thing, we are beyond thought. Hence simple monotheism is not a clear, rational truth self-evidently superior to belief in a differentiated divine unity. That there is only one, personal God is a truth that can be known only by revelation. I think it can be rationally held once believed, but just because it can be rationally held doesn’t mean it can be rationally proved. And I’ve not even addressed the question of the identity of that one God, which, of course, can be known only through the self-revelation of God, who alone, knows who he is.

If we remove the presupposition of the rational superiority of simple monotheism, the rationalist critique of the doctrine of the Trinity collapses. The question of whether God’s inner nature is absolutely without distinction or contains internal relations is beyond rational discovery. Now we can see clearly that the more basic question at issue is, has God revealed himself in such a way that calls for thinking of God as triune? Just as Jews assert that the God who called, guided, punished and saved Israel proved himself to be the one Creator of all things, Christians assert that this same God showed himself by what he did in and through Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to be eternally Father, Son and Spirit. The real question is not whether or not this assertion is as clear to reason as is the assertion of simple monotheism. Neither one is a truth discovered by or transparent to reason. The real question is whether or not God really has revealed himself in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit in the way the New Testament declares. Judaism, Islam and Deism deny this; and this denial is the root of their objection to the Trinity and to Christianity as such. The rationalist objection is a distraction.

“Why Don’t We Hear This in Church?”

 

Last week two prospective students visited my “Christianity and Culture” class. A few days before, when they asked if they could visit the class, I told them that I would be conducting a review session for the upcoming exam but that they were welcome to join us. The class material is divided into three sections: (1) How did our world become secular or why it’s tempting to live as if God does not exist; (2) Why we should take God seriously anyway (part 1): the human condition; and (3) Why we should take God seriously anyway (part 2): God and the self.

In the review I covered all the material in section 2 in 50 minutes. The premise of this section is that living in our secular culture distracts us from those experiences that raise the question of God. But consciously thinking about those experiences can show that we cannot escape the truth that the questions of our meaning, destiny, and happiness are inextricably linked to the question of God. It is the most urgent of all questions.

After I finished the review, the two guests came up to me to express their appreciation for my allowing them to sit in the class; they also told me how much they enjoyed the material. One of them said, “Why don’t we hear these things in church?” The other expressed agreement with that sentiment. I said, “One of my main goals in life is to do what I can to raise the level of the church’s teaching, especially its teaching of the young.” My writing, teaching, and blogging—everything I do—is aimed at this goal. The question asked by these students (“Why don’t we hear these things in church?”) moves me deeply; it makes me sad and a little bit angry. And here is why.

As far as I can tell, the church is doing a poor job of teaching on all levels but especially in teaching the young. We are not even doing a good job making our people familiar with the storyline of the Bible much less its doctrinal teaching. But even if we were doing those things, it would not be enough. We live in a culture dominated by sophisticated philosophies, moral teachings, social structures, cultural practices and values that contradict subtly or openly the most basic Christian beliefs. Knowing the Christian faith thoroughly is essential to living in this world, but even that is not enough! We need to know how the secular world thinks, what it thinks, and exactly why we believe and practice Christian faith instead of accepting the world’s philosophy. We are failing, failing miserably, to prepare our children for the world they will face. And it makes me sad.

Why are we failing? I don’t claim to know all the reasons why, but I know that we are failing. One thing is certain: many of those who are supposed to be responsible for teaching the church are unaware of what is needed or unprepared to do what is necessary to meet the challenge. Do you elders, preaching ministers, youth ministers, campus ministers, children’s ministers, parents, and Sunday school teachers take your tasks seriously? It seems to me that some church leaders think that providing exciting worship services, preaching light-weight and entertaining sermons, providing family-friendly church spaces and programs, creating a network of friendships, and hiring lots of ministers to keep all these things humming will keep people coming to church services and protect them from the world. Such an approach may give the appearance of working in the short term, but it will fail over the long term. Don’t we see that if the young learn only a superficial version of Christianity in church they will be overwhelmed by the sophisticated criticisms of college professors and subtle allurements of secular culture?

And of course it’s not just the young. The process of “dumbing down” has been going on a long time. There are many young and middle aged adults that don’t know their right hand from their left when it comes to faith. You can be a sophisticated lawyer or doctor or CEO of a huge corporation but completely naïve in Christian knowledge and practice. Everyone, young and old, needs to be immersed in the deepest and most thoughtful form of Christian teaching available. In my view, Christianity is demonstrably and vastly superior intellectually, morally, and spiritually to anything the world has to offer. The church has always been the champion of reason and thoughtfulness and studiousness! But we need teachers who embody this ideal and can demonstrate the coherence and relevance of Christian faith in confrontation to secular alternatives.

Elders, preachers, and all who would teach…are you prepared? Do you know what being prepared means? Are you willing to educate yourself? I’ve been a minister for 43 years and an elder for 25 years. The process began before my time, but even in my lifetime I’ve seen elders reconceive the focus of their work from teaching, protecting, and pastoring to managing. Ministers have also become administrators and entertainers instead of teachers and evangelists. I hope this trend reverses soon. Yes, it takes time to read good books and ponder the Scriptures. But if you are going to put yourself forth as a leader and teacher of the church you have to give time to preparation. Not to do so is spiritual malpractice. It’s ecclesiastical suicide.

In C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, during his frustrating conversation with the children the professor kept muttering to himself, “Logic, logic! What do they teach them in the schools these days?” I share Lewis’s frustration with secular schools. (Don’t get me started!) They don’t teach people how to think clearly or to be thoughtful; and they teach much that is half-baked and down right false! But I am even more frustrated with the church’s education program. And so, I ask the same question as that asked by those two visitors to my class, “why don’t we hear this in church?”

 

 

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!

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.

Would You Torture a Child to Bring Universal Harmony? The Rhetorical Argument From Evil

The most potent argument challenging belief is not an argument at all. The other two arguments from evil discussed in previous posts attempt to maintain a logical form and a rational tone. Not this one! It rehearses in exquisite detail the horrors of war, the ravages of sicknesses and the savagery of human cruelty. It speaks of holocausts and genocides. It places the believer in a completely untenable position. The suffering described is so horrible, so unforgiveable that voicing any hope for redemption or for any good to come from it makes you sound like you are trivializing it.

The argument is sometimes called the “emotional” argument from evil, but I think it is best labeled the “rhetorical” argument from evil. I prefer this designation for the argument because it attempts not to persuade believers but to silence them with sarcasm or nauseating descriptions of suffering. It pictures those who believe in a kind Heavenly Father who takes care of us as fools blindly following an optimistic theory in face of its obvious refutation or as unsympathetic listeners unmoved by the most horrendous human suffering. In this setting believers are placed in the dilemma of either remaining silent and giving tacit assent to the argument or speaking and sounding foolish or cruel.

Voltaire’s book Candide is the most famous example of using sarcasm to attack belief in that God allows everything happen for a reason. The book tells the story of the misadventures of Candide and his companions as they witness and endure terrible wickedness and suffering. Dr. Pangloss is a blind optimist who believes that everything happens for the best. His constant refrain is that “this is the best of all possible worlds and everything happens for the best,” which sounds absurd in the context of Voltaire’s description of the death, dismemberment and suffering they encounter. What makes Pangloss seem foolish is not his deep faith that God will work all things for good but his silly presumption that he can see this with his own eyes and his tactless voicing of this opinion.

The most famous example of using agonizing and nauseating descriptions of wickedness and suffering against belief is the conversation between Ivan Karamozov and Alyosha his novice monk brother in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov. Ivan explains to his younger brother why he rejects God’s world and plans to kill himself when he turns 30 years of age: “Yet would you believe it, in the final result I don’t accept this world of God’s, and although I know it exists, I don’t accept it at all. It’s not that I don’t accept God, you must understand, it’s the world created by Him I don’t and cannot accept” (p. 203, Norton Critical Edition)! Ivan tells story after story of innocent children tortured by heartless adults. But the most agonizing is the story of a little girl tortured by her own parents:

“These educated parents subjected this poor five-year-old girl to every possible torture. They beat, thrashed, kicked her, not knowing why themselves, turning her whole body into bruises; finally they reached the highest refinement: in the cold, in the frost, they shut her up all night in the outhouse, because she wouldn’t ask to be taken out at night (as though a five-year-old child, sleeping its angelic sound sleep, could be taught to ask)—for that they smeared her whole face with her excrement and made her eat that excrement, and it was her mother, her mother who made her! And that mother could sleep at night, hearing the groans of that poor little child, locked up in that vile place! Can you understand that a little being, who still can’t even comprehend what is being done to her, in that vile place, in the dark and cold, beats herself with her tiny little fist on her strained little chest and cries her bloody, unresentful, meek little tears to ‘dear God’ to protect her—can you understand that nonsense, my friend and my brother, my pious and humble novice, do you understand why this nonsense is necessary and created? Without it, they say, man could not have existed on earth, for he would not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil, when it costs so much? The whole world of knowledge is not worth the little tears of that little child to ‘dear God.’”

Ivan concludes that no possible good that could be achieved is worth even one tear from that little girl. “I don’t want harmony, for the love of humanity, I don’t want it. I would rather remain with unavenged suffering. I’d rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unquenched indignation, even if I am wrong” (p. 212). Alyosha the believer is completely silenced. There is nothing to be said.

Ivan Karamosov is the literary expression of what came to be known in the mid-20th century in response to the Holocaust as “protest atheism.” Protest atheism contends that any effort to find meaning in horrendous events of suffering diminishes that suffering and dampens our enthusiasm to fight against evil. The “unavenged suffering and unquenched indignation” must be kept alive for the victims’ sake. Their suffering must not be made a means to a higher end.

As I said at the beginning of this essay, the rhetorical argument from evil is not a logical and rational argument. Now I think we can see what it is. It expresses agonized rebellion against forgetting and minimizing the suffering of the victims of the evil that human beings do to each other. And it expresses an irrevocable commitment to keep alive the determination to fight against such evil. Christian believers can and should share these concerns. We must. To believe that God will dry every tear does not mean that the tears were not cried or were cried in vain. No. Hope in God does not exclude weeping for ourselves and others who suffer. Faith that God will make all things right does not mean that we are relieved of the duty to denounce evil as evil and fight against it with all our might.

These thoughts are expanded greatly in the 25-page chapter (“The Rhetorical Argument From Evil”) in my soon-to-be published book, The Faithful Creator: Affirming Creation and Providence in an Age of Anxiety (InterVarsity Press, 400 pages). I will be saying more about his book when it is released this fall. Here is the Amazon.com link for the book:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0830840826/ref=s9_psimh_gw_p14_d1_i2?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=desktop-1&pf_rd_r=1H95ZJBR9X5X34AR2YDR&pf_rd_t=36701&pf_rd_p=2079475242&pf_rd_i=desktop

Christianity Lite? Or Is Christian Faith An Investment Strategy or Decisive Act?

In this thirty-second essay in the series “Is Christianity True?” I want to deal with a common objection to Christian belief. It goes something like this: Let us grant that the arguments made so far in this series show that it is not irrational to believe in Jesus’ resurrection and all that follows from it. Let’s even grant that the series has made a good case for Christian faith. Still, the evidence is not so overwhelming that it makes nonbelief irrational; there may be plausible alternative ways to account for the same set of facts even if we can’t think of one. In other words, the objective evidence for the truth of Christianity does not amount to proof and, therefore, cannot reasonably be translated into subjective certainty. But the decision to become a Christian is so radical, so comprehensive, so demanding, and so life changing that no one can do this without subjective certainty. But such subjective certainty goes beyond where the evidence can take you. And common sense tells us we should proportion the level of belief to the strength of evidence.

What can we say to this objection, which I will label the “proportionality objection”? Consider how the proportionality objection treats the judgment about Christianity’s truth and the decision about becoming a Christian. It assumes that the type of judgments made in mathematics and logic are ideal and ought to be the standard against which every judgment is measured. These sciences possess such clarity in their terms and lucidity in their operations that they can claim certainty for their conclusions and complete confidence for actions based on them. Other rational endeavors fall short. The type of evidence used in history, metaphysics, and theology does not possess the clarity and lucidity of mathematics and hence cannot lead to the level of certainty attained in mathematics. Perhaps so. But does it follow that to be rational we must proportion belief to evidence and hence hold back from the radical, comprehensive, demanding, and life changing decision to become a Christian? I do not believe so.

In investing in stocks, it makes sense to diversify. If you have $100,000 to invest, you would be wise not invest all of it in stock from one company. In this case it makes sense to proportion your belief and action to the evidence. But in other areas it is impossible to divide your loyalty and action. Some things are either/or, yes/no, or on/off. You do them or you don’t. You do one or the other, but not both. You can’t marry someone 98%. You can’t dive into the pool 75%. You can’t be a little bit pregnant. Some actions require 100% decisiveness even if the evidence provides us with only 98% confidence. When it comes to action we must take risks. Becoming a Christian is an action like getting married or diving off a diving board. You can’t be 50% Christian. Hence contrary to the proportionality objection voiced above, proportioning one’s Christian commitment to the evidence would not be a rational action. It would be an irrational one, since it attempts to do the impossible. It is not reasonable to apply rules taken from one area (mathematics or investing) and apply them thoughtlessly to a different area.

On a practical level, when you try to proportion belief in Christianity to the strength of the evidence supporting it, you don’t become somewhat Christian or a little bit Christian; you simply don’t become a Christian at all. The proportionality objection applied to Christianity in effect advises that since you cannot be 100% certain that Christianity is true, you must treat it as 100% false. And it does this because it fails to understand the difference between belief and action. A person may believe strongly or weakly or not at all that there are nonhuman intelligent beings living somewhere in our universe. As long as such an idea is proposed as a mere belief, something one might discuss as a curiosity or an interesting problem, it makes sense for us to place ourselves on a quantitative scale from 0 to 100% belief. But as soon as there is a call to action, we find ourselves faced with an either/or decision.  Christianity issues a call to action, and it does not allow for proportionality in our response. It’s all or nothing. And we don’t get not to decide.