What is Christianity? Part 16

In his book Naming the Elephant (hereafter: NTE), the Christian apologist James Sire raises various objections against his previous analysis of the concept of a “worldview” that he had presented in his earlier book The Universe Next Door (hereafter: TUND).

I have reviewed three of Sire’s objections to his earlier cognitivist analysis of the concept of a “worldview” and argued that those objections were unsuccessful (see previous posts 10, 11, 12, and 13).

In post 15, I argued that Sire’s belief that the Christian worldview is true contradicts his belief that worldviews, including the Christian worldview, are “ways of life”.   A way of life can be neither true nor false, so on the assumption that the Christian worldview is just a way of life, it follows that the Christian worldview is neither true nor false.  The claim that the Christian worldview is true seems to be the most important belief to Sire, so he ought to give up the view that the Christian worldview is a way of life.

In this post I will consider some of Sire’s comments in support of the view that a worldview is a story or a “master story”.  The comments that I will now consider are all from a section of Chapter 5 of NTE called “Worldview As Master Story” (on pages 100-105).

Sire’s initial comment in the first paragraph of this section concerns the cross-cultural phenomenon of story telling:

Folklore, myth and literature around the world and from the ancient past to the present tell stories that put present human reality in the larger context of universal cosmic and human meaning.  They act as orienting patterns.  (NTE, p.100)

It is important to understand what Sire is saying about the function of stories found in folklore, myth and literature:

They put X in the larger context of Y.

In the case of such stories, X refers to “present human reality”, and Y refers to “universal cosmic and human meaning”.

It seems to me that whenever we put something “in the larger context” of something else, we are doing something that is essentially and necessarily INTELLECTUAL and COGNITIVE.  Furthermore, if we go beyond the vague and abstract phrases that Sire uses to describe X and Y here, it becomes very clear that he is talking about something that is essentially and necessarily INTELLECTUAL and COGNITIVE.

The very general phrase “present human reality” might refer to feelings, experiences, observations, or events in the lives of humans.  One example of a “present human reality” is death.  More specifically, the death of a parent or the death of a child.  The “present human reality” involved in the feelings, experiences, observations, and events concerning the death of a child can have a great impact on the human who is the parent of the child.

Religions, especially the Christian religion, provide stories to help and guide people in dealing with such difficult experiences and events.  A religious story can put such an experience “in the larger context of universal cosmic and human meaning.”  But in order for such a story to have any significant impact on a person, the story must have some meaning or significance, and the meaning or significance must have some logical relationship or relevance to the experience or event of the death of a child.  Otherwise, the story will be meaningless, insignificant, and irrelevant.

Some Christian beliefs are obviously relevant to such a difficult circumstance:

  1.  All humans die sooner or later.
  2. Death is the result of human sin and disobedience towards God, the creator of human beings.
  3. Although death puts an end to our ordinary earthly life, it also marks the beginning of another life in a spiritual realm.
  4. If one has faith in Jesus as the savior of mankind, then one can obtain eternal life in heaven, and upon death such a believer in Jesus will begin an eternal life of happiness.
  5. When a loved one dies, that is not necessarily the last time one will enjoy the company of that person, for if he or she had faith in Jesus as the savior of mankind, then that person will enjoy eternal life in heaven, and any friends or relatives who also have faith in Jesus will one day be re-united with that person in heaven.

Any stories from the Christian religious tradition that help to communicate some or all of these BELIEFS will obviously have some significance and relevance to Christian believers who experience the death of a child.  Any stories which have no connection with any of these (or other important Christian beliefs about death or loss) will be a story that either fails to have any relevance or significance, or that fails to have any specifically Christian significance.  We see from this specific example, that to “put X in the larger context of Y” is essentially and necessarily an INTELLECTUAL or COGNITIVE activity that involves connecting various beliefs to particular experiences or events.

In the remaining portion of the first paragraph in the section called “Worldview As Master Story”  Sire identifies worldviews with stories:

In short, they [stories that constitute “Folklore, myth and literature”] function as worldviews or parts of worldviews.  The worldviews of Buddhism, Hinduism and primal religion are embedded and embodied in stories.  …these are the stories by which societies interpret the universe and life around them. (NTE, p.100)

Once again, Sire’s language implies INTELLECTUAL and COGNITIVE activity: “by which societies interpret the universe and life…”  Interpretation essentially and necessarily involves the use of beliefs and the formation of beliefs.  Interpretation is an INTELLECTUAL and COGNITIVE activity.

Sire uses a metaphor here that is very similar to the previously discussed metaphor of “incarnation”.  My cognitivist analysis of the concept of a worldview fits very nicely with the idea that a worldview can be “embedded and embodied in stories”.   In other words, stories can be used to communicate beliefs, to teach or inculcate beliefs, and to reinforce beliefs.  So, beliefs and systems of beliefs can be “embedded and embodied in stories”.

But, it is also possible for a STORY to be “embedded and embodied in [other] stories”.  In fact, the idea of a “master story” suggests that a general overarching story can be incorporated into various other more specific stories.  So, it is not plausible to use my previous line of reasoning to dismiss Sire’s idea that a worldview IS a story.   Both my cognitivist view of worldviews as systems of beliefs and Sire’s proposed view that a worldview is a story fit with the metaphor of being “embedded and embodied in stories”.

Sire expresses doubt about his previous conception of worldviews, based on the idea that stories play a very important role in how we understand life and make important decisions:

Both in the works of most Christian worldview analysts–such as James Orr, James Ulthuis, Arthur Holmes and Ronald Nash–and my own Universe Next Door, worldview is first described in intellectual terms, such as “system of beliefs,”  “set of presuppositions” or “conceptual scheme.”  I want now to ask whether this is quite accurate.  Does it not miss an important element in how people actually think and act?  Isn’t a story involved in how we make the decisions of belief and behavior that constitute our lives?  Would it be better to consider a worldview as the story we live by? (NTE, p.100-101, emphasis in original)

I think the main objection I have to this comment by Sire is that stories must be interpreted and understood in order to have meaning and significance, in order to influence our thinking and behavior.  Interpretation, understanding, meaning, and significance are all essentially and necessarily intellectual and cognitive in nature.  Stories have impact and influence only if they are relevant to what we believe and what we value.

A second objection, or perhaps another way of getting at the first objection, is that at the heart of Christianity there are some non-fiction stories, and a non-fiction story IS a set of beliefs (that is organized in a certain way).  Therefore, to the extent that non-fiction stories are essential to the Christian worldview,  a “set of presuppositions” or a “system of beliefs” are essential to the Christian worldview.   The idea that the Christian worldview is a story (a non-fiction story) is NOT an alternative to the idea that the Christian worldview is a set of beliefs; rather, this IMPLIES that the Christian worldview is a set of beliefs.

There are two basic types of stories: fiction and non-fiction.  With a fiction story, such a story can have meaning and significance even though the story is not true, and it is not intended to be viewed as being literally true.  Jesus sometimes used parables to communicate his point of view.  Some parables are fiction stories, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the parable of the Prodigal Son.  Those parables consist of short fiction stories that make a significant point in a memorable way.  So, clearly fiction stories sometimes play a role in communicating a religion or a part of a religious point of view.

However, for Christianity at least, the stories that are of greatest importance are non-fiction stories.  Non-fiction stories are put forward as being true,  as something that should be viewed as being literally true.  A non-fiction story can, however, turn out to be false.  People sometimes lie to detectives who are investigating a crime, and sometimes people misremember the details of an event and so unintentionally provide false information to detectives.  The accounts or stories that these people tell the detectives are false, or are partially false, but these stories are still non-fiction; they are non-fiction because they are stories that are put forward AS being true, AS being factual, even though the stories are not true, or are not completely true.

The Gospels tell stories about the life, ministry, and death of Jesus, and they also tell stories about Jesus coming back to life after being crucified and buried.   These stories about Jesus include theological claims and about events in the life of Jesus.  Almost all Christian believers, including liberal Christians, take the Gospel stories about Jesus to be non-fiction stories.  This is clearly the case with conservative Catholics and conservative Evangelical Christians.  Liberal Christians doubt some or all of the miracles in the Gospel accounts, but they do not doubt that there was an historical Jesus, and that Jesus gathered several disciples or followers, and that Jesus taught many of the things that the Gospels say that he taught, and that Jesus was crucified by the Romans.  Liberals will often accept the miracle of the resurrection of Jesus, they just shy away from the idea of a physical or bodily resurrection.  But liberal Christians generally believe that Jesus overcame death and that Jesus is active and alive today.

In any case, very few Christians are willing to say that the Gospels are purely fictional.   Christians sometimes reject some of the details of the Gospel stories.  Christians sometimes reject some of the miracles reported in the Gospels.  But Christians usually believe that the Gospels are at least partially true accounts of the life and death of Jesus, and of the teachings of Jesus.

The liberal scholars of the Jesus Seminar, for example, are very skeptical about the contents of the Gospels, but most of them believe that Jesus was an actual historical person, and that the canonical Gospels (as well as some non-canonical gospels) contain sayings and teachings that do in fact originate with the historical Jesus.   So, although the scholars of the Jesus Seminar reject a large portion of the Gospel stories about Jesus and a large portion of the sayings of Jesus presented in the Gospels, they still view some of the stories and some of the sayings as being historical, as being more-or-less true information about the historical Jesus.

News stories are examples of non-fiction stories.  A news story can, of course, be false, or be partially false.  But a news story is presented AS being a true story, as presenting information that is literally true.  Here is a recent news story that most of us have heard:

==================

Orlando shooting: 49 killed, shooter pledged ISIS allegiance

By Ralph Ellis, Ashley Fantz, Faith Karimi and Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN
Updated 11:05 AM ET, Mon June 13, 2016

Orlando, Florida (CNN) An American-born man who’d pledged allegiance to ISIS gunned down 49 people early Sunday at a gay nightclub in Orlando, the deadliest mass shooting in the United States and the nation’s worst terror attack since 9/11, authorities said. …

Mateen carried an assault rifle and a pistol into the packed Pulse club about 2 a.m. Sunday and started shooting, killing 49 people and wounding at least 53, officials said.
After a standoff of about three hours, while people trapped inside the club desperately called and messaged friends and relatives, police crashed into the building with an armored vehicle and stun grenades and killed Mateen.
http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/12/us/orlando-nightclub-shooting/
=================

This story is composed of a series of claims:

  1. An American-born man who’d pledged allegiance to ISIS gunned down 49 people early Sunday at a gay nightclub in Orlando.
  2. This event was the deadliest mass shooting in the United States (according to “authorities”).
  3. This event was the nation’s worst terror attack since 9/11 (according to “authorities”).
  4. Mateen carried an assault rifle and a pistol into the packed Pulse club about 2 a.m. Sunday and started shooting (“officials said”).
  5. The shooting by Mateen resulted in killing 49 people and wounding at least 53 (“officials said”).
  6. After a standoff of about three hours, police crashed into the building with an armored vehicle and stun grenades and killed Mateen.
  7. During the three hour standoff, people trapped inside the club desperately called and messaged friends and relatives.

Some of these claims are qualified with phases like “officials said” and “authorities said”.  In this case, these phrases function basically as evidence for the claim in question.  The intention is to ASSERT the claim, and to back up the claim with the evidence that the claim came from a reliable authority.  So, this news story IS just a series of factual claims.  It could be the case that some of these claims are false, or that some of these claims are inaccurate, but the intention of the reporter is to present this as a TRUE story, and that means that the intent of the reporter is to assert a series of factual claims as being true claims or true beliefs about some events.  This news story is an example of a non-fiction story, and we can generalize from this example to non-fiction stories in general.  A non-fiction story presents a series of factual claims as being true claims or true beliefs about a person or animal or place or thing or event.

Thus, to the extent that the Christian worldview is concerned with non-fiction stories about the life and death of Jesus, then to that extent the Christian worldview is concerned about a series of factual claims about the life and death of Jesus that are presented as being true claims or true beliefs about the life and death of Jesus.  If the Christian worldview is primarily concerned with non-fiction stories about Jesus, then the Christian worldview is primarily concened with factual claims about Jesus that are asserted to be true claims or true beliefs about Jesus.  Sire goes on to argue that the Christian worldview involves and is primarily concerned with a story or stories about Jesus.  I will have more to say about this in the next post.

"It may have been the case that at one time and in one place that ..."

I’ve Got One Less Prophet Without ..."
"Even if it is no one person's or group's fault that a mistranslation occurs. It ..."

I’ve Got One Less Prophet Without ..."
"Luke - It looks like I got you wound up a bit. I'm glad that ..."

I’ve Got One Less Prophet Without ..."
"I have to agree. The rewards and punishments (theories of justice) that may be appropriate ..."

I’ve Got One Less Prophet Without ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment