Dialogue with an Agnostic on the Credibility of Revelation

Dialogue with an Agnostic on the Credibility of Revelation October 3, 2015


Image by “geralt”. [public domain / Pixabay]

JD Eveland is an agnostic with whom I have had several great exchanges, free of the nonsense and foolishness that so often (sadly) occurs when Christians and agnostics or atheists interact. If all goes well, we will continue having many more dialogues. His words will be in blue.

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This seemed to be a possible point to raise a question about the derivation of a pretty complex body of belief from a fairly simple starting point.

Specifically, suppose one were to agree that there might well be some overall transcendent spirit pervading the universe. Assume that it possesses properties that would appear to us as indistinguishable from omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience (reserving the possibility that they might simply be sufficiently advanced technology. We can call this entity “God” or “gods” as shorthand. As an admitted agnostic, I can admit this into my understanding. It’s an abstraction of some value and explanatory utility, though not demonstrable by standard human empirical methods.

But here’s the question: by what chain of logic does one get from this starting point – one accepted by large numbers of people throughout history, and the basis for thousands of varieties of religious practice – to the minutiae of, say, Catholic practice? How does one even get from this starting point to the Bible (which is actually many different books loosely linked by a general idea) as a reliable source for moral guidance? In short, how does this starting point lead unequivocally to anything regarding moral conduct among human beings?

I’m not intending a confrontation here. I do respect your thoughts and ideas. I’m just trying to see what your chain of thought is, and how you bridge what seem to me to be impossibly wide chasms from one assumption or conclusion to another. Thanks!

I’m glad you’re still around! I was looking forward to more interaction.

I would say the answer to your question is that knowing this stuff requires revelation. The particulars of the Christian faith and Catholicism in particular come from that. This gives them an objective quality that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. We can say that “x is wrong” because this revelation told us so. We believe part of God’s omnipotence is the ability to share and reveal His thoughts with us in the written medium, through inspired writers. Then, of course, the question is: “how do we know that the Bible is that revelation?” We know from:

1) Its historical accuracy, proven again and again from archaeology and historiography.

2) Fulfilled prophecy, that verifies the supernatural origin of Scripture.

3) The Person of Jesus Christ, Who came to earth, performed miracles in order to substantiate that He was God. He in turn confirmed the Old Testament as inspired Scripture. His disciples and apostles — many of whom were eyewitnesses of His miracles and post-Resurrection appearances — wrote down the New Testament.

4) Internal experiential / spiritual witness of the sublimity and profundity of biblical words. God profoundly changed my life. And this is true of many millions of people. The content and message of Christianity has transformed my life and has brought peace and joy and fulfillment.

5) Christians disagree on doctrines because Protestantism has a different system of authority, called sola Scriptura, or “Bible Alone” (as the only infallible guide in Christianity). Catholics think that the Church and apostolic tradition are also infallible, and that both help interpret Scripture. I just posted an article about this Protestant conundrum a few minutes ago. I have written two entire books that critique sola Scriptura: the Protestant rule of faith [one / two]. The first was published by Catholic Answers: the largest and most influential Catholic apologetics organization.

Now, of course the agnostic or skeptic or atheist disagrees with these things all down the line, usually thinks they are ridiculous and ludicrous, etc. Each one has to be defended to the nth degree, in the eyes of folks who think empiricism is the only valid form of knowledge or epistemology. Even if they weren’t that skeptical, I agree that each one needs to be defended on its own. And there are many books and articles that do that.

I understand that. I’m willing to do some of that with atheists, but only to a point, because in my experience, people who ask these sorts of questions are never satisfied with Christian apologetic (or philosophical) answers. If one is actually resolved to their satisfaction, they simply come up with a dozen more. It never ends. It’s an ultimately futile effort, though there are atheists and agnostics who become Christians. There are several at the Patheos Catholic Channel.

Atheists / agnostics (i.e., the ones who relentlessly question) say that their questions are due to their being rational and appropriately cautious. We say it is (in these instances) due to hyper-rationality and false premises and an excessively skeptical approach that they don’t apply to other areas of knowledge.

I don’t have any problem with a moderate amount of questions, as long as there are no double standards (Christians have to absolutely prove everything they believe [according to all-important / be-all and end-all empiricism] or be considered gullible fools, while atheists need not explain any of the difficult questions on their side).

But you asked me how we logically progress from one thing to the other, and I have explained how we do that (whether you accept the particulars or not).

Thanks! Although we obviously have substantial areas of disagreement, I enjoy the opportunity for systematic discussion about these Christian issues with someone who is willing to do more than simply try to yell at me a little louder. I respect your intellect, even though we come to different kinds of conclusions.

I’m glad to see your discussion of the importance of revelation in the formation of your system. That pretty much tallies with my own assessment. We tend to disagree on your points (1), (2), and (3), although I do agree that there’s not a lot of point in our trying to trade evidence back and forth, since our criteria for accepting evidence as valid are significantly different. I’m not purely an empiricist. I also accept the general validity of the propositions derived from heuristics – that is, experience that works. An example of such a proposition would be, “The sun will rise tomorrow morning.” I have no way of establishing this proposition other than by the experience that it has risen for some 25,550 days that I’ve been around to witness it. I should note that this proposition is not in fact sustained scientifically, since the idea that the sun “rises” is contradicted by current astronomical paradigms. That doesn’t make it a less useful proposition for our daily lives.

I wouldn’t doubt your point (4), although I might also suggest that similar experiences have led others to different formulations of Christianity that are significantly less socially benign than yours – e.g., the Inquisition, Dominion theology, Kim Davis. There is no guarantee that internal experiential witness will generate peace and joy and fulfillment. It’s also true that internal experiential witness has led many to entirely different formulations of spirituality – Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. I suppose that you could argue that these are not truly internal experiential witnessings, but you’d need to establish clear criteria for distinguishing among such experiences other than whether or not they lead to your particular set of conclusions.

On point (5), I look forward to reading your article. I certainly won’t prejudge your conclusions, although I hope that your bases for preferring the Catholic option are clear. It’s always seemed to me that apostolic traditions offer a fertile ground for drawing just about any set of conclusions you wish to, through picking and choosing your sources and authorities. In that sense, “sola scriptura” offers a more definitive basis, although the Bible itself is rife with alternative interpretations and the opportunity for picking and choosing – for example, determining just which part of the Levitical injunctions remain required and which are superseded.

Clearly, our internal experiential/spiritual witness has produced differing conclusions for each of us. I’ve been exploring that witness in varying degrees for most of my seventy-two years without ever coming close to Christian conclusions, let alone Catholic conclusions. Obviously, you have no way of verifying my witness, any more than I have of verifying yours. From your perspective, there’s obviously something defective in my witness, since I haven’t come to your conclusions. From my perspective, I’m perfectly willing to acknowledge that the conclusions that your witness has generated for you are valid for you, and enrich your life. What concerns me is that I’m not sure that your perspective grants a similar validity to mine. The record of the Catholic Church in particular in terms of using the secular arm to enforce religious doctrines on the population generally is well known, although less stringent today than in previous times when the church disposed of more political power. My perspective does require me to resist intellectual coercion as well as behavioral coercion justified by no more than religious doctrine.

At any rate, thanks for listening. Perhaps at some point we can come to agreement on at least some propositions that are equally true for both of us.

I respect your intellect and spirit of congenial dialogue as well.

I don’t have time to get more deeply into the above discussion at the moment, but I did neglect to mention apostolic succession as another way by which Catholics come to believe in the particular things we do.

My past in evangelicalism showed itself a bit there. :-) They put the Bible front and center always. We actually do, too, but never separated from Church and Tradition (“three-legged stool”).

Catholics believe that the doctrines and dogmas of the Church have been passed down from the beginning, from Jesus, through the original disciples and apostles, onto the Church Fathers and onward through history, protected by the Holy Spirit.

These doctrines can greatly develop, but this means they are consistent in essence all along (like an acorn to an oak tree). Development is distinct from doctrinal evolution, in which one doctrine could actually change totally into another one that is contradictory to its own origin. Evolution of dogma has been condemned by the Church, whereas development is orthodox and has been sanctioned.

Development of doctrine, as brilliantly explicated by John Henry Newman is the biggest thing that persuaded me of Catholicism, back in 1990, after 13 years of (fairly happy and contended) evangelicalism.

Newman also wrote a superb treatment of religious epistemology, called Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. It is not unlike Plantinga and Polanyi in many respects. It can be read online.

Clearly, we do come from significantly different traditions. my family have been Unitarian-Universalists for at least four generations. Coming up in that tradition, it’s hard to consider going elsewhere. When I was a kid, a series of Army chaplains’ daughters tried to convert me, mostly because I kept winning the prize for memorizing Bible verses at summer Bible camps. I did have a period of some years when I listened to Christian radio extensively, trying to fold my brain around it. The closest I did come to non-UU was the time when I had an Episcopalian as a domestic partner, and I attended church with him for some years. I like UU hymns way better.

I’ve never been able to get closer to evangelicalism than the kind of stupified fascination usually accorded to train wrecks. Please note that I’m intending this as a pretty literal description of my reaction, not as any kind of insult. It requires modes of thinking that I simply can’t fold my brain around. If it didn’t keep impinging on my life, I wouldn’t worry about it, but it does.

UU is about as far from my associations as can be imagined, too! At least if we stick to theistic traditions . . .

The closest I came to it was when I was a practical agnostic with a high interest in the occult, from 1967-1977. I was also very liberal by the late 70s, though only in a surfacey sense; not having really closely studied it, let alone study any alternative.

But I was liberal. I had taken in all the playbook rhetoric from the media and entertainment industries and Detroit public schools and Wayne State University in Detroit (sociology major and minor in psychology), by osmosis.

We certainly are all highly influenced by what and whom we choose to hang out around. We both recognize that. And that’s good. I readily concede that I have a bias towards Christianity and towards Catholicism within Christianity.

What I deny is that what I believe is unreasonable or that I have myself come to it by denying or minimizing reason (as far as it goes).

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