This post is part of the Ideological Turing Test Challenge. Go to the tab above for an overview and remind yourself of the voting and commenting guidelines.
What is your best reason for being a Christian?
Christian doctrine has a lot of parts, so one really needs a sustained argument in several steps even to give the outline. However, I’ll say this: my best reason for being a Christian is the sublime perfection of the ethics of the Gospels. It’s because of that, because the wisdom of His teachings so far surpasses all others, that I accept Christ’s divinity and believe in His resurrection. The merely historical evidence ought to make atheists rather uneasy. The early Church had powerful enemies: why did none of them go to the tomb and dig up Jesus’s bones to prove that He had not been resurrected? (Because they couldn’t: He was risen.) Why did the apostles preach the Gospel so energetically– and presumably we must believe they did, else how did the Church expand so swiftly?– when it brought them trouble and persecution and death? Would someone really do that for a lie? Still, I would sooner believe in some inexplicable conspiracy than accept the stupendous claim that God became man, were it not for the sublimity of the Gospel teachings, which perfectly satisfy the conscience’s thirst for moral truth.
What evidence or experience (if any) would cause you to stop believing in God?
I’ll split this question into two, and give two answers to the second. (1) What evidence would cause you to stop believing in God and become a scientific materialist? (2) The question as it stands.
To (1), the answer is: nothing. Once one has seen through the fallacy of scientific materialism, there is no going back. It is a distinctively Judeo-Christian insight that the world exhibits law-like patternedness and self-regulating stability. This is an expression of God’s faithfulness. Scientists borrow this truth as a warrant for their hard work and discipline. Scientific materialists turn it into an ideology. They forget that, as Hume showed, induction itself cannot be logically proved valid, and that, as Karl Popper showed, all scientific knowledge has a merely conjectural character. It is based, ultimately, on faith: faith that the patterns will continue to hold, that the sun will rise tomorrow though it is perfectly conceivable that it will not. I support this kind of faith, generally, but one should not pretend that science offers any rational proof of the impossibility of miracles. It is science’s method to assume them away, and for some purposes that’s quite respectable, but it proves nothing. Moreover, there is no way to reduce subjective experience to material causes, to prove that the mind is merely the brain and that our thoughts and feelings are supervenient upon microphysical movements in our bodies. Scientific materialists like to appeal to Ockham’s razor, the principle of not multiplying entities unnecessarily, of accepting the simplest explanation. That’s generally a good rule of thumb, but in this case the appeal is illegitimate, for there is no simplest explanation on offer as an alternative to Christianity, since science, after all, hasn’t explained everything. And it is not really even true that it’s trajectory has been to explain more and more, so that we can extrapolate it will explain everything eventually. Its progress is decidedly uneven. It has illuminated physics and organic chemistry, but it has contributed almost nothing to our understanding of our own minds, of happiness or virtue or language; psychology and linguistics hardly even qualify as sciences (the phrase “hard sciences” is helpful here in distinguishing sciences that studying deterministic phenomena from those that do not). Scientific materialism is groundless. It is dogma rather than reason. Worse, it is compelled to deny one of the plainest facts there is, a fact which, unlike scientific knowledge, is not mere conjecture based on induction but is founded on the unshakable basis of introspective certainty: free will. Scientific materialism must insist that free will is somehow a mirage or a delusion. Then it explains human nature with evolutionary hand-waving, offering shallow ad hoc explanations of what was conducive to fitness, without the least intention of testing them, which it could not do if it tried. Christians used to have a technical term for people who grab a simplification and cling to it as it forces them to deny the obvious and drains the meaning of life: heretics. Unfortunately the medieval popes abused the term, but if you use it in that older sense, it’s a good summary of scientific materialism.
But now, what would make me disbelieve in God? First answer. Since this exercise is modeled on the Turing test, let me use that as a point of departure. A Turing test asks a person to interact with another human and a computer, and to try to tell which is which. The challenge is to design a computer that can successfully mimic a person. Now, there is a philosophical position, well-known though hardly anyone takes it, which would claim that the world has no people but only computers-that-can-pass-the-Turing-test. It is called solipsism, and a solipsist would claim that he was the only person, i.e., the only conscious being: all the other hairless bipeds walking around and talking other than me would, by this hypothesis, be mere humanoid machines. Now, how do you know that solipsism is false? The something that enables us to recognize other people (and that makes the ordinary Turing test so hard to pass) probably tends to be rather subtle and indefinable. If we said, “I knew he was a person because he did x,” the robot-makers would go to work on x and might soon learn to simulate it, and you would say, “yes, but I knew he wasn’t a robot because he did y,” and you’d still be uneasily aware that that might not be quite it, either. In the same way, the world bears witness in a thousand subtle ways that it is not a mere machine, that there is a Person, infinitely wise and good, working through it. “How manifold are your works, Lord, in wisdom hast Thou made them all” (Psalm 104:24). My belief in God would wane inasmuch as this ceased to be the case, that is, inasmuch as the world started to seem merely mechanical and uninteresting, or uncanny and evil like a nightmare or a horror movie.
Second answer: sin. And here I’d like to raise a subversive question: Is the set of people who say they believe in God the same as the set of people who really believe in God? There are probably a lot of closet atheists, who stay in church “for the community” or to teach their kids moral discipline, but are really quite consciously atheistic. There are probably others whose belief in God is mostly self-deceit. On the other hand, are there people who are nominally atheist but whose lives are suffused by the light of a glad faith in some pervasive and transcendent goodness in which they take delight and which they gladly serve? The intellectual artifact “I believe in God” is always in my mind, but my faith waxes and wanes, and it tends to be strongest when I am serving others. That is one of the meanings of “God is love,” I think: in the practice of active love towards one’s fellow man, one’s faith in God and immortality is strengthened. “The book of life is brief / And once the page is read / All but love is dead / That is my belief,” sings Don McLean. I think that expresses a powerful intuition. Let me be clear: the immortality of the soul is a truth we can derive from mere induction. We observe that our souls continue, as we observe that the sun rises every day, and so (assuming one has seen through materialism) we should expect it to continue. The question is whether this is good or bad. And without special grounds to hope for anything better, it seems bad. So much of what we take delight in is the gift of nature: sunlight and starlight, the sound of wind on the leaves, the murmur of a brook, crickets chirping in the night, ice cream, wine; and also, all our communication with our fellow men seems to be mediated through nature. What a horror to be deprived of that, to be left alone in the whirling, self-consuming, phantasmal realm of our thoughts! (That we may hope for heaven we believe only by God’s promises, but that we must fear hell, our own reasons is sufficient for us to figure out.) Only in love do we come to know, first-hand, something stronger than death, and I think many atheists have known that first-hand, too, even if they do not know, as the Christians do, the true way to articulate that.
Vis-a-vis other Christian denominations, I can’t discuss them here. They are not really so large, and it would be hard for someone not immersed in Christian living and tradition and faith to make sense of them. As for other religions, I honestly haven’t given them a lot of thought. Buddhist ideas about reincarnation seem to lack any serious evidence to support them. More importantly, their whole goal, nirvana, is akin to despair: it is peace, but hardly joy. As for Islam, it is greatly the ethical inferior of Christianity, as it has always encouraged religious violence, the murder of converts out of Islam, and so on. There is a certain beauty in the great Islamic civilizations of the past to which my heart does give an admiring salute, but even in the golden age there was tyranny, cruelty, conquest, slavery on an enormous scale, polygamy. Christians have committed sins, too, but Christianity also gives rise, again and again, to currents of moral improvement; Islam does not. Also it seems right that God is revealed in a person– Christ– rather than in a book– the Koran. And the view that Jesus is merely one of the prophets does not fit well with the historical evidence, for what we know of Jesus we know through the New Testament and there He was clearly claiming to be more than another in a series of prophets. The lazy-mindedness of Muslims’ views on Jesus, and the wickedness of much of Islam’s ethics, are more than sufficient grounds for dismissing that religion.
How do you read the Bible? Do you study the history of its translations? How do you decide which translations/versions/books are the true Bible? How does it guide you if you have a moral or theological dilemma?
My church has a lectionary which prescribes Bible readings for each day. I try to do that, though I don’t always. They only take about 1 minute. Sometimes I’m in the mood to read a particular passage and look it up. Sometimes if I have a moment to spare I open the Bible at random. The lectionary readings are somehow the most powerful for me, they tend to provoke thought, soul-searching. I don’t know why that is. It might be because the church pairs the readings from different parts of the Bible in ways that make them more meaningful. Quite often, whole passages of the Bible are opaque to me. My favorite books are the Gospels, of which I think I know Matthew best but I love them all; and the Psalms. Paul I didn’t like when I was younger, now I admire and love his writings but I’m still less familiar with them than I should be. Fifteen years ago I think I would have said I’d read 50% of the Bible. I was flattering myself. I’d hesitate to claim to have read more than 40% now. Maybe I’m still overestimating. On the other hand, some parts of the Bible I’ve read hundreds of times.
I do not believe in “Biblical inerrancy.” There seem to be some false factual claims in the Old Testament, and if you think that’s a problem for Christianity, you’re missing the point of the Bible. It isn’t an instruction manual, it’s literature. Though on the other hand, I think most of its factual claims probably are true, and “Biblical criticism” tends to be quite ridiculous in the inadequacy and presumptuousness of its grounds for doubt. I do not disbelieve its claims about miracles; if anything, I believe those more than its other claims. I am not a seven day creationist, though I’m also a skeptic about the theory of evolution in the grand sense. (Question for evolutionists: what archeological finding would falsify the theory?) If the Bible seemed to be telling me to do something my reason tells me is wrong, I wouldn’t do it, I would think I was misunderstanding the Bible. That rarely if ever happens.
Now there is a sense in which something like Biblical inerrancy seems to be embedded in the pious practice of all Christian communities. Christians in a church setting will never quote the Bible in order to disagree with or refute it. Anything read from the Bible is taken as true. However, I think this should be regarded as a kind of protocol, and that it is a mistake to deduce a dogma from it. And what is the purpose of the protocol? A friend of mine made an insightful categorization of conversations into agreement-conversations and disagreement-conversations. A disagreement-conversation is tense, competitive; people are trying to win; and the assumption is that A’s remarks will answer, refute, counter B’s. An agreement-conversation is friendly, empathetic, mutually supportive; people are, as it were, side by side, looking forward; and the assumption is that A will accept what B says and B will accept what A says. Yet people in a disagreement-conversation may agree on much, and may be learning from each other even as they argue, while people in an agreement-conversation may actually differ profoundly in their views or in the experiences that they bring to the table. Now, the Church is generally an agreement-conversation, and Christians engage only in agreement-conversations with the Scriptures. I believe the books of the Bible have been selected, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to be such as it is always profitable to engage in an agreement-conversation with, that is, to seek to understand their meaning, to obey it to one’s own experience, to obey, sometimes to try to elucidate to oneself or others, and not to argue or to deny. That’s not to say that one should never question the historicity of particular claims, but that “that’s wrong, rubbish!” is never all there is to be said, or the best there is to be said, as is often the case with other books (e.g., the writings of Nietzsche).
Reading the Bible renews and refreshes my spirit. It inspires hopes, plans, self-examination, resolutions, penitence, love, faith. It is like water to a thirsty man. If I were compelled to study it for ten hours a day, every day, and provided for in the meantime, I would rejoice.
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