Tag Archives: Christian apologetics

The Mormon Missionaries I Met Today—What I Said and What I Wish I’d Said

After two weeks of much needed rain, the Sun is shining brightly in Southern California today. I spent much of the morning finalizing my class roster for the three classes I am teaching this semester. And I cleaned out my sock drawer. It’s amazing how many mate-less socks and other useless things you can find in the back and underneath the top layer of a sock drawer! Just before noon I decided to take a walk around the neighborhood. I ran 4 and ½ miles yesterday, so I planned to take it easy today.

After about a mile I looked ahead and saw two young women walking and a man walking his dogs on the other side of the street. The women greeted the man and engaged in a brief conversation, which I could not hear. I surmised that the two either knew the man or they were Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon missionaries. Since I was walking at a faster pace than they I soon caught up with the women. They greeted me and asked how I was enjoying my walk. What are your plans for the rest of the day, they asked further. I noticed the badge attached to their blouses, which identified them as associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

What I Said

After the pleasantries, I said something like, “I admire your faith, but you are very misguided in your theology.” At some point I had already told them that I had studied Christianity for 40 years and had been a professor of theology for 30 years. Mormons teach that the God of the Bible was once like us and that we can become like God is now, reigning over a world of our own. I asked them whether or not they agreed with Anselm of Canterbury who said that God is “that than which a greater cannot be conceived”? Or, paraphrasing Anselm, Do you believe God is the greatest possible being? They both said, “Yes!” I replied, “How then can you say that God was once like us? How can a being that was at one time not greater than any conceivable being become that great? Wouldn’t a God who is eternally great be greater than a being that merely becomes great after not being great?”

In reply, they urged me to read the Book of Mormon and pray to God to reveal whether or not it is true. I said something like this: You are asking people to make a decision based on a subjective feeling. Shouldn’t such an important decision be supported by facts and reasonable arguments? After all, Mormonism cannot be true unless certain historical claims are really factual. And you can’t substantiate historical facts by subjective feelings. Continuing along this line, I asked, “Don’t Mormons believe the New Testament is true? What if the theology of Mormonism is incompatible with the New Testament? Wouldn’t that count as evidence against Mormonism?” The two again urged me to pray.

What I Wish I had Said

After about 10 minutes I could tell that the two young women had given up on me and were ready to search for more open-minded subjects. As I continued my walk it came to me what I wish I had said. They wanted me to pray for enlightenment, and they said they too continually pray for divine guidance. I wish I had said this in response: “Well, I am the answer to your prayer. You asked God for guidance, and here I am. I may not know everything about Mormonism, and I may not be able to refute every Mormon claim. But I know what Christianity is, and I know Mormonism is not Christianity.”

Mormonism claims to be the original and restored Christianity, and it accepts the New Testament as the uncorrupted word of God. They claim that the teaching in the Book of Mormon is contemporary with the NT. But of course there is no trace of the Book of Mormon in the NT era. I wish I had asked this: “Can one be a good Christian without access to the Book of Mormon, with just the truth contained in the NT? If not, then we have no record of any good Christians before the Book of Mormon was discovered and translated by Joseph Smith in the early 19th. If so, then why try to convert people to Mormonism who believe and live according the NT presentation of the faith?”

There are some lessons here for Christians. But I will save those thoughts for another occasion.

 

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Christian Morality—Arbitrary, Irrational, Outdated?

The Christian vision of the moral life is often ridiculed as arbitrary, irrational, or outdated. It’s too strict! It’s too serious! And it’s unrealistic about what human beings can do! We hear such things quite frequently in the media and from our secular friends. Sometimes the voice from which we hear such challenges comes from our own hearts. As I explore the specific contours of the Christian moral life, I will keep these accusations in mind, addressing them explicitly or implicitly in every essay.

Arbitrary

Before rushing to defend Christianity it is always wise to turn the tables on the critics to discover whether or not they can defend their criticisms from the very charge they make, in this case, of being arbitrary, irrational, or outdated.  What does it mean to assert that a moral rule is “arbitrary”? The English word arbitrary is derived ultimately from the Latin word for “will” or “willful.” The decisions we make should be informed by reason and wisdom gained through experience. But we succumb to arbitrariness when we ignore or suppress reason and follow fancy or prejudice. We become impatient and decide to “take a chance.” A moral rule is arbitrary, then, when it finds its origin in the whimsical impulse of a single will. Does any aspect of the Christian vision of the moral life fit the definition of arbitrariness?

Irrational

What about the charge of irrationality? The question of the rationality of a belief or action or moral rule concerns how the belief or action or rule is held by the one who asserts it. Is it held for good reasons or poor ones? One acts rationally if one acts for good reasons and irrationally if one acts for poor ones. The question of truth or falsehood is very different issue. It concerns the relationship between the assertion and the real state of affairs. Does it correspond or not? Critics often confuse the two questions.  Are critics saying that Christians hold their moral beliefs for reasons that should not count as evidence? Or are they saying that the moral belief in question is false? Or are they simply hurling thoughtless accusations that mean no more than “I don’t like what you are saying!” or “I don’t get it!”? I suspect that in most cases the last alternative applies.

Outdated

To say something is outdated is to depart altogether from moral categories and move into aesthetic categories. Clothes, hair styles, and carpet become outdated after a while, that is, they no longer appeal to our aesthetic tastes. The process of changing tastes is fascinating. Why do some old things seem outdated while others remain “classic,” or others make a comeback as “retro”? Clearly, fashion is based on some kind of social agreement, seemingly arbitrary in origin, but perhaps subtly articulating some wish or self-image of the age. However that may be, to speak of a moral rule as outdated assumes that it was at one time in style.  And “in style” is not a moral category any more than “outdated” is. Instead of taking the trouble to argue that a moral rule that was once thought to be right, just, and good, is no longer so, the critic misapplies aesthetic categories to moral issues. It’s much easier to dismiss something as “not in style” than to argue that it is wrong. The former appeals to the public’s subjective tastes and the latter can be substantiated only by appealing to a moral law that transcends subjective tastes.

Ends, Means, and Reason in Morality

Human beings act to achieve ends. Morality seeks to guide human actions toward the right ends and right means by which to achieve those ends. Often, a moral vision proposes an ultimate or highest end toward which all actions should be directed and by which they should be measured. All other ends and means should be subordinated to that chief end.  Almost all moral systems assume that individual human beings need to be directed to ends that transcend their private interests and momentary whims and passions. The long term health and happiness of an individual is a more worthy end than momentary pleasure, especially when the immediate pleasure damages the prospect of achieving the long term end. Since no one can achieve the human end alone, the good of the community within which one lives must take precedence over the private ends of the individual. Hence most moral rules concern interpersonal relationships, and seek to promote peace, harmony, and justice within the community by limiting individuals’ pursuits of their private interests when those pursuits seriously disturb the peace of the community.  Reason comes into play in morality through the necessity of making judgments about the relationships of ends and means to each other and to the supreme end of all actions.

Christian Moral Vision—Deliberate, Rational, and Never Out of Date

Christian morality also values reason, proposes a highest end, and subordinates and orders other ends to that chief end. God is the highest good and chief end of all things. And by “God” Christianity does not mean merely a supreme being but the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ whose character and purpose has been disclosed in Jesus. This God is the highest good toward which all our striving should be directed. The second highest end is the good of our neighbor. Our private interests must be subordinated to the good of others, and the “good” of others is defined by and subordinated to the love of God. By the “neighbor” Christianity means each individual we meet and the community constituted by those individuals. How can human striving after God, loving the neighbor, and seeking our own good be harmonized? Or can they?

Christianity envisions a universal community where the highest good of each person and the whole community are harmonized perfectly and directed to the supreme good. This community includes not only human beings; it includes God and the whole creation. God’s purpose in creating will be fulfilled in the formation of this community:

“ [God] made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10).

Jesus Christ is the perfect union of God and humanity. In him, the hostility and distance between God and man has been overcome. Sin has been defeated and death swallowed up in victory. The mystery of God’s will is that God will extend and expand the sphere of Christ to include “all things in heaven and on earth.” Fragmentation and disharmony will be replaced by unity. Given God’s plan to unify “all things” in Christ it should not surprise us that unity, peace, and love are at the center of Christian morality:

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called;one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:3-6).

13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. (Col 3:13-15).

Christianity envisions a moral community that in the present age strives for the unity, peace, and love that will characterize the perfect divine/human community that God will bring about at the end. Every action that Christian morality forbids is forbidden because in works against this community. And every action it encourages promotes this community. And this ordering all things toward their end of union with God in Christ is where Christianity’s use of moral reason is most evident.

Conclusion

Perhaps a rational and thoughtful person could argue that the Christian moral vision is based on a false view of the highest good and ultimate end of human life. And we might wish to take seriously an attempt to argue that Christianity ranks goods in the wrong order. But the charge that Christianity’s moral vision is arbitrary, irrational, and outdated can be dealt with rather swiftly. Clearly Christianity’s moral rules are neither arbitrary nor irrational, since they are based on the Christian community’s experience of God’s revelation in Christ’s resurrection and its hope for a future perfect community. And, if they direct us truly to our chief end, they are certainly not outdated.

Next Time we will examine envy, covetousness, and jealousy, showing what they are, how subtly they touch all our relationships, and how they fail to embody the future unity of “all things” in Christ.

Materialism’s Sacrificium Intellectus or Atheism’s Leap of Faith

Last week we pursued the hypothesis of materialism from the starting point of our experience of the world through the senses. We experience the external world as structured in intelligible ways we can understand through common sense and natural science. But we also experience it as external, as brute facts offering only resistance to penetration by mind or body. But as we examined physical objects we discovered that we can break them apart to experience their internal order as intelligible. We ended up unable to discover pure matter by way of the senses. Every object we thought might be pure matter ended up being internally structured and therefore at least partially intelligible, that is, partly an idea. Matter, we concluded, is the abstract idea of an unintelligible, unordered, and yet real, stuff we can never experience apart from its connection with intelligible structure.

Today I want us to begin our examination of materialism at another point. We experience ourselves as creators and causes, as initiators of movement and change. We possess a first person consciousness of ourselves as actors, as free. We are able freely to create information and through our bodies shape the material world according to this information. In other words, we experience ourselves not only as passive readers of information encoded in physical objects, human made or natural, but also as active minds and wills and creative powers.

Of course, some materialists deny that we really are active minds that can initiate change and create information. We are merely part of the material process of cause and effect. But those materialists who deny freedom always base their denial on their theory, as one of its implications. They never deny that it seems to our own consciousness that we are free and creative. In my view, denying what seems self-evident to consciousness because of one’s commitment to materialist theory strains credulity and calls into question the denier’s commitment to rationality. What can you say to someone who denies what we and they cannot help but believing? I view this denial as on the level with someone who denies the existence of the external world. For our experience of freedom is as primitive and irreducible as the experience we gain from the senses. You cannot verify one by the other or reduce one to the other.

Materialists, too, must begin with trust. They must trust the senses to tell them the truth about the existence and nature of matter. Such primitive experiences cannot be verified by more basic experiences, for there are none. But in order to be a rationally responsible adherent of any theory about the external world, including materialism, you have to believe you have a mind capable of taking the data from the senses and constructing a true theory. It seems to me, then, that affirming the truth of materialism requires also affirming the irreducible reality of free and creative minds; these two affirmations are clearly incompatible.

What does it mean to say that mind and intelligibility are real? Most people have no trouble believing something is real when they can experience it with one of the five senses. More precisely, we believe things are real if there are any possible circumstances under which they can be experienced, even if those means are not yet available to us. Even more generally, we consider something real if it possesses causal power, that is, if there are any possible circumstances under which it can effect change in something else or be changed or resist being changed by something else. We cannot know a “thing” that possesses no causal power, and we do not consider it real. When we think of it this way, we can see that our minds, our ideas, and the ideas that structure nature are real. We experience their causal power. Our minds create information, which can, then, in combination with physical power, create new things in the external world. New ideas arising from our own creativity or from other minds or from natural objects inform our minds, that is, they cause change in our minds. Hence, if to be real means to possess causal power, our minds, their ideas and the ideas that give the world its intelligibility are certainly real…just as real as stuff that creates change in our senses.

I think I am on solid ground, then, when I assume that our experience of ourselves as free causes of movement and change and free creators of new information tells us the truth. Not only do we experience in our own being a mind capable of abstracting and thinking the information that structures the external world, we experience directly our minds as active and creative. Just as I experience my feelings of pain or pleasure or fear as self-evident and undeniable, I also experience myself as a free cause with the same certainty. We make a difference between the automatic unconscious processes that go on in within our bodies and our deliberate choices and acts. We know the difference between being knocked to the ground by the impact of a physical object and our deliberate act of sitting down. There is a qualitative difference between the two.

In the previous post I showed that we cannot imagine a rational way to account for the intelligible order’s genesis from pure, amorphous, undifferentiated matter. For the reasons I mentioned in that earlier post, chance can’t do the job. Other than active mind the only option is the sheer absurdity of asserting that it happened, somehow, anyway. But why choose the absurdity of spontaneous generation when we experience our own minds as free causes able to initiate change and create information and place it into a physical medium? We know this can happen because we actually do it! Hence we have a simple and rational explanation for the intelligible structure that permeates nature: Active mind is at least equally primordial with matter. We do not need to resort to an arbitrary leap of faith made necessary by commitment to the metaphysical theory of reductive materialism.

Now we have a second rational reason to reject the materialist option and its sacrificium intellectus. We can take the road that affirms the irreducible and primordial nature of mind, intelligibility, life, and spirit.

Next Week: What do we make of our experience of other minds? Are other minds real? How and where do minds meet?