Tag Archives: leap of faith

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.

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“This I Know, For the Bible Tells Me So”

We have come to the point in our discussion of the resurrection of Jesus where we can see clearly what is involved in a reasonable and responsible decision to believe and adopt the Christian faith and life. If we’ve studied the first disciples’ recorded memories of Jesus’ life, teachings, and death, if we’ve listened to the testimonies of Paul, Peter, James the Lord’s brother, and many others to the resurrection, if we’ve been favorably impressed with the way of life of the early disciples, if we know and admire some contemporary believers, and if we are attracted to the Christian hope, I believe our decision to enter the Christian way can be reasonably and responsibly made. This transition is not best described an inference from premises to conclusion or an inference to the best explanation or a decision about the level of probability that a narrated event really happened. It is certainly not a blind leap of faith or a careless fall into wishful thinking. It is best described as the deepening of a personal relationship from respectful listening to trust and love for those who are in a position to know what we do not.

As a personal relationship of trust and love, faith makes a decisive commitment. It does not deny the possibility that it could be wrong, that it could be deceived. But it will not accept an obligation to withhold commitment while it anxiously seeks more evidence to confirm its trust. Nor does faith proportion its commitment to the weight of probability on each side. Genuine trust and love pushes aside the whispering voice of doubt that says, “But what if you are wrong?” Faith asserts in response, “I understand that I cannot know absolutely that I am right, but I believe that I am right. And I have decided and am determined to live as if I am right, even if I am wrong!” I shall have more to say about daily living in faith in future essays in this series. We are focusing here on the initial decision to believe.

Beyond the Fourth Decision Point

We have made the decisive move beyond the fourth decision point, that is, the division between mere theism and Christian faith in God. Now what? What are the implications of this decision? The first result of this move is a dramatic change in our relationship to the apostles and other early disciples. As seekers and enquirers, we treated the apostles’ writings as we would other historical documents. We gave them no advantage, no special deference, no authority above other texts. But once we come to believe that the apostles experienced Jesus’ conquest of death in his resurrection, everything changes. Now we are eager to know everything they can teach us about Jesus Christ and how we too can become his disciples. Because of their special relationship to Jesus, we accept them as our teachers, exclusively authoritative for what it means to believe, love and, hope as Christians. As a matter of historical placement, no other teachers, no other texts can guide us. But this way of understanding the authority of the Bible may seem new to many, so I want to deal briefly with that concern.

The Bible Tells Me So?

The children’s song says, “Jesus loves me! this I know, For the Bible tells me so.” A wonderful thought! Comforting to adults as well as children! But this line in the song does raise a question. Do Christians hold all their Christian beliefs simply because the Bible tells them so? Should nonbelievers be urged to believe in Jesus simply because the Bible tells them so? But why should a nonbeliever feel obligated to believe what the Bible says simply because it says so? Should believers attempt first to convince nonbelievers of the Bible’s divine authority and then argue from the Bible’s authority to the truth of everything the Bible teaches? In my view, it would be a serious mistake to place a decision about the authority of the Bible before a decision about Jesus and the apostolic testimony to his resurrection. Such a stance presumes either a culture in which the Bible is already held in high esteem or it obligates us to argue from historical and rational evidence to the Bible’s divine authority. Neither option is very promising. We no longer live in culture where we can assume that people will accept a claim just because the Bible says so. And most contemporary people view as implausible and unpersuasive arguments to the divine authority of the Bible from its historical reliability or internal coherence or its sublime teaching. Such arguments raise more questions than they answer.

As I argued above, I believe the proper basis for an individual’s recognition and acceptance of the authority of the Bible is the act of faith in the apostolic testimony to Jesus’ resurrection. Acceptance of the Bible’s authority is implicit in this act. In future posts I will continue to develop the implications of this thesis, attempting to place particular Christian teachings in their proper order in relation to the central Christian claim, that is, that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead.

A Time for Decision: Is Christianity True? (Part 11)

For the past three weeks we have been standing before first decision point on path from nonbelief to Christian faith. We must decide whether mind or matter is the ultimate reality that explains the existence and nature of everything else. Belief in God presupposes the background belief that mind is at least as fundamental as matter, and atheism presupposes that matter alone is fundamental and explains everything else. If it could be shown that matter is the final explanation for mind and all mind-like features of the universe, belief in God would be defeated. If, on the other hand, mind could be shown to be at least as ultimate as matter, atheism would be defeated.

I argued from three different experiences that it is eminently reasonable to belief that mind is as necessary to explain the world of our experience as matter is. We examined our experience of the intelligibility of the external order of nature. In our analysis we found no way to reduce the intelligible order of nature to pure, unordered matter, and we rejected chance as the explanation for that order. Afterward, we considered our experience of ourselves as initiating causes and creators of information. We argued from this experience that it is reasonable to believe that an active universal mind gives the world its intelligible order. Finally, we argued that our experience of other minds “strengthens our conviction that our minds are irreducible to matter. Hence our experience of active minds/persons other than our own reinforces the idea that a primordial, active mind orders the world.”

We could dwell here forever endlessly debating the many issues involved in the choice between mind and matter as the ultimate reality: How could mind emerge from pure matter? How can immaterial mind exercise causality on a material world? But now it is time to decide. I am convinced that further discussions would not settled the issue definitively. There is no hope that further investigation would bring forward indubitable proof one way or another and remove the necessity for a fallible decision. The best we can hope for is a decision based on reasonable and responsible judgments. And I believe the three arguments we have considered make reasonable our belief that mind is at least as ultimate as matter and make responsible our decision to act on that belief.

Since there are no definitive arguments for either side, some would argue that a stance of agnosticism and indecision is the most rational position. This argument contends that agnosticism’s subjective uncertainty and indecision corresponds to the objective situation of our lack of absolute knowledge whereas a decision to build one’s life and worldview on either alternative goes beyond the evidence. And cultivating certainty and plunging into action beyond the reach of the evidence is abandoning reason in favor of irrational impulse.

I don’t think I need to enter an extended discussion of agnosticism at this point, but I’d like to make two points in response to the argument in the previous paragraph. First, one cannot be agnostic about everything. In the argument above the agnostic makes the judgment that both the evidence for and the evidence against materialism are inadequate to justify knowledge claims and decisive actions. Now either this agnostic judgment is fallible or infallible. If the agnostic judgment rises to the level of genuine knowledge, the agnostic must abandon agnosticism at least on this issue. If the judgment in question is fallible, the agnostic loses the right to criticize atheism or theism for going beyond the evidence; for the agnostic also acts on the basis of fallible judgments. Second, some decisions are so fundamental to the act of living that they cannot be avoided or postponed. Perhaps, I need never form a definitive judgment about whether or not intelligent life exists somewhere in the Milky Way galaxy. I can think of no practical difference my opinion on the subject would make. But we cannot avoid the decision between atheism and belief in God. If we live at all or do anything at all, we must live and act on one belief or another. For these beliefs define the origin and destiny and the meaning and purpose of human life. And these limits determine everything in between, defining the distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, and the worthwhile and the useless. The rationality of every human act or decision not to act will be judged by its consistency with these ideas. In the case of agnosticism, refusing to decide is to decide to act as if we could live without acting, a huge self-deception.

But I have argued that the decision to reject materialism in favor of belief is quite rational. Once we make this decision–especially since we see that further discussion would not change the necessity of making a fallible decision–we need not look back in doubt. We can move forward to build our thoughts on the foundation of reasonable judgments and responsible decisions made at the first decision point. We can now presuppose the existence of a universal mind that manifests itself in the intelligible order of the world. This forward-looking boldness will characterize each of the decision point decisions we make on the way to Christian faith. These points are watershed moments where one must take risks to move forward into decisive action. We are being prepared for the most demanding decision of all, the move into faith in Jesus Christ.