In the comments to my post on “What We Can Know, and How We Can Know It“, Alex Symczak asks:
Also, you can’t argue me into this kind of faith? It relies purely on personal revelation? Then you have no reason to think you’re following the right religion. Your justification cannot distinguish between You, or a protestant, or a Hindu, or a Muslim, or a Pagan. What makes you so special, that God gave you the correct revelation? Or are all others just lying?
This is a fair question; and the answer is that my faith doesn’t rely purely on personal revelation. There is also public revelation, which exists not simply in a book, the Bible, but in human history. Catholics do not base their faith solely on the Bible, an approach called sola scriptura, but on what’s called the “deposit of faith”, which consists in sacred scripture—the Bible—but also in sacred tradition, the history passed down from one generation to the next.
It’s common to meet the claims of tradition with an invocation of the game of “Telephone”, in which a message is passed from person to person in such a way that it becomes hopelessly garbled. But messages of importance are not passed in this way. As an example, there’s an African people, the Lemba, whose oral tradition claim;s Jewish ancestry. They look no different than the peoples around them; but their culture is clearly based Judaism. To have a minyan, a quorum for worship, you must have what in modern America is called a “Cohen”: a descendant of the cohanim, the priests. Genetic studies have showed that the vast majority of the Cohens in America do share a genetic marker; and those considered leaders among the Lemba have been shown to carry it as well. Now here’s the thing: according to Lemba tradition, the Jews came to them about 2,500 years ago.
What is considered important can be preserved.
Last week, I talked about how I personally came to believe in Christ. This week, I want to talk about some of the reasons why I think, upon reflection, that Christianity is the truth. My path to belief was based on the authority of my parents and teachers in the faith, and my personal experience. But I’m an adult now; why does Christianity commend itself to my intellect?
G.K. Chesterton remarked once that the study of comparative religion makes it appear that all religious are basically the same, especially Christianity; and that this similarity is almost wholly misleading. Christianity, and Judaism before it, are entirely unlike the faiths that went before.
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is held to be a transcendant God, the creator of the universe; he is not part of the universe. (There are philosophical reasons for believing this; I’ll save that for another time.) He is not Zeus, born of Chronos and Rhea, who lives on Mt. Olympus. Zeus is clearly a part of the cosmos, not apart from it; and this was clear to the ancients. The neo-Platonist philosopher Porphyry placed the gods in his tree of being as a subdivision of humanity: men, immortal. Most of the gods of the ancient world are more like Zeus than like the God of Moses.
The God of Abraham is not the pantheistic deity of Hinduism or Buddhism, truly to be identified with cosmos itself. Hinduism doubtless began in the same way as the Greek or Egyptian religions, but it includes a detailed and rich philosophy and metaphysics, the fruit of long and sustained reflection on the nature of reality and of divinity. This philosophy is based on those signs of God’s presence that are everywhere in the world and are opaque, seemingly, only to modern atheists. Pantheism is one way of making sense of those signs. Had Christ not come, the Greeks were on their way to a sense of the divine beyond their superhuman “gods”; they might have ended up in a similar place.
Confucianism, though called a religion, really isn’t one; it’s a philosophy and code of conduct, and has little to say about the divine.
Because God is transcendent, though, we can only infer a few things about Him from the world around us. It’s unsurprising that those not granted direct revelation carried their ideas onward in a variety of directions; reason from first principles is a dangerous game, and small errors become magnified. But suppose the transcendent God wants to reveal Himself….
The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob stands alone because He communicates with mankind in the course of history, in a way we don’t see in other religions. He choose a shepherd, Abram, and leads him to the promised land, not in remote legends, but in history. Later, Moses leads his people out of Egypt back to the promised land. The history of the Jews is real history, and it is all tied up with the actions of their God.
And then, Christ comes, the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies: God dies and returns to life. This is a pattern that we see frequently in other religions, but only in Christianity is the time and place clearly identified. We know that Christ lived; we know that he died; no serious historian disputes this.
And we also know that he rose again on the third day.
But wait, you cry! That he lived, I can accept; that he died I can accept; why should I accept that he rose again?
Again, we have history to guide us, and particularly the witness of the early martyrs, who went to their deaths for their faith in Christ’s resurrection.
To fully reveal the strength of this argument, I need to explain how martyrdom worked during the great persecutions under the Roman emperors. The problem the Romans had with Christians wasn’t that they worshipped a non-Roman god; the empire include people of many different lands, and many different beliefs, and the Romans were extremely broad-minded in these matters. They didn’t really care what you believed, so long as you were loyal to the Emperor. But the emperors in those days were accorded divine honors, and temples were built to them all over the place, especially in the remoter parts of the empire. And the way you had to show your loyalty was by offering a pinch of incense to the emperor at his temple: that is, precisely to accord a human being divine honors. The early Christians simply would not do this, saying that worship was reserved to God alone.
It simply isn’t the case that the Romans rounded up all of the Christians they could find and sent them to the lions. Instead, they rounded up those Christians who would not sacrifice to the Emperor, and gave them the choice: make the sacrifice, or die horribly. Many, many of them chose to accept the horrible death rather than to offer the pinch of incense.
Let me say that again: they could have saved their lives by buying a penny’s worth worth of incense and burning it at the emperor’s shrine. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to do; and no doubt the weaker Christians did exactly this. Anything for a quiet life.
But there were many who didn’t.
And that’s the point: they had a choice. People don’t willingly accept death in droves for a man who was merely a good moral exemplar, or for the executed leader of a failed religious movement. Failure is not motivating in that way. But they will—and they did—and they still do, in many parts of the world—accept death for the sake of Jesus Christ who died, and rose again.
So why Christianity? Because in Christianity I see the action of God in history in a way that I don’t see in other religions.
So why not Islam, or Mormonism, or the Jehovah’s witnesses? Because I see those religions as having abstracted a part of the Christian faith and rejected the rest. We know how they arose, and what influenced their founders; and they strike me as a breach with and a simplification of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But that would be another long series of posts.
This post is simply a sketch; whole books have been written about the various points I make. The essential thing is this: if a transcendent God exists, and if He chose to reveal himself to humanity, what would it look like? I submit that it would look like the history we have. We meet Him not so much by abstracting reason (though He is there, too) but by His actions—as we meet any other person.