Monthly Archives: August 2014

Who Bears the Burden of Proof? Is Christianity True? (Part 5)

In the discussion between believers and non-believers, who bears the burden of proof? Who must present evidence, and who gets to decide whether the evidence is persuasive? The conventional wisdom is that the person affirming a belief must present evidence sufficient to move the one who denies or doubts the belief in question. Doubters do not need to make arguments for their doubt. And the doubter decides the question. Clearly, this presumption gives the doubter and denier an almost insurmountable advantage in discussions with believers. Does the believer really bear the burden of proof?

Let’s begin with logic. Are propositions that affirm something inherently less likely to be true than propositions that deny something? Or to put it another way, is it inherently easier to know the truth of the general proposition “A” than the truth of general proposition “not-A”? Apart from knowing what is being affirmed and denied in the real world by these propositions, I can’t see any reason for preferring “not-A” to “A”. In either case, one would need to survey the logical or existential space where the referent of “A” would reside if “A” were true. The assertion “A” finds the referent of “A” present in that space, and the assertion “not-A” finds the referent of “A” absent. The task is the same in both cases.

What about real world affirmations and denials? Is there something inherent in the real world that makes doubt and denial always the more rational option than affirmation and belief? The answer is no. Everyone would agree that someone faced with overwhelming evidence in favor of an affirmation would be acting less rationally to deny that belief than to affirm it. For example, suppose I deny that my child smokes marijuana even when confronted with a video of my child actually smoking marijuana. Clearly, I would not be acting rationally in my denial. I am allowing wishes and prejudices rather than reason to determine my beliefs. Hence whether one believes or doubts and denies is determined by more than the evidence presented on behalf of belief. It is also determined by one’s beliefs about other things, one’s prejudices, and one’s values. In other words, the amount of evidence required to persuade people is determined by the entire situation in which the argument takes place.

Consider the rhetorical rules in a court of law. In a criminal case, the prosecution always bears the greater burden of proof and must convince 12 people “beyond a reasonable doubt” of the defendant’s guilt. The defense need only create reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors. Why lay this heavy burden on those affirming the proposition, “Defendant X murdered victim Y.” Are defendants always more likely to be innocent than guilty? No, that is not the reason for the burden. The reason is that our legal system presupposes that it is morally superior and socially more expedient to let a guilty person go free than to convict an innocent one. So, the side that must bear the greater burden of proof in a court of law is determined by the special situation that applies in that setting.

Someone may make the following objection to what I have said so far: to move from not believing to believing a proposition (for example, God exists.) requires evidence, but doubting or denying a proposition requires no evidence. But this is not true. You need a reason to doubt an affirmation. After all, doubting is an action. We are compelled to doubt or deny an affirmation when it conflicts with other beliefs, values, wishes, or prejudices we possess. If you doubt or deny that God exists, you do so because you sense the conflict between the proposition “God exists” and your other beliefs and values. You may doubt or deny God because you believe that “the physical world is all there is” or that “human freedom is not compatible with God’s existence.”

But this means that the rationality of your doubt and denial of God depends on the truth of your other beliefs and values, which themselves must be supported by evidence. The doubter and denier get no exemption from the need for evidence. Every argument between a believer and a non-believer always involves a confrontation between two systems of mutually supporting beliefs. Both parties affirm and both deny certain beliefs. There is no such thing as pure doubt or pure denial. To claim that one merely doubts and denies but does not affirm is to deploy a rhetorical trick. We should not fall for it.

I conclude that in the discussion about the truth of Christianity there are no general rules for who bears the greater burden of proof. There are no general rules for how much evidence is enough or what type of evidence counts in favor of Christian belief. And there is no objective third party qualified to declare when the burden has been met. The rhetorical situation in which the discussion takes place determines all these issues. Different people demand different levels and types of evidence and are moved by different arguments. In a particular phase of the discussion believers may need to present evidence for belief, but in a different phase non-believers will need to present evidence for their supporting beliefs, the beliefs that compel them to doubt and deny.

It’s as true in the argument between belief and non-belief as it is in the economic sphere: there is no free lunch. There is not even a subsidized lunch.


What is “Truth” Anyway? Is Christianity True? (#4)

Sometime in the 1960s, Jane Fonda appeared on the Dick Cavett Show.* During the show, she had an interchange with the Archbishop of Canterbury.  “Jesus is the Son of God, you know,” asserted the Archbishop. Fonda retorted, “Maybe he is for you, but he’s not for me.” The Archbishop of Canterbury replied dryly, “Well, either he is or he isn’t.” Fonda’s view of truth demonstrates why I need to speak about truth itself before we can make sense of the question, “Is Christianity True?”

“What is Truth?” It’s difficult to say what Pilate meant when he asked Jesus this question (John 18:38). Jesus had just said that he came into the world “to bear witness to the truth” (18:37). Was Pilate skeptical of all truth claims or merely doubtful of Jesus’ particular truth claims? When we hear the question, “What is truth?” we prepare ourselves for a deep and ponderous discussion conducted in an obscure philosophical vocabulary.  We have a feeling that we are embarking on an interminable journey that ends right were we began, none the wiser for our trouble. In my view, that feeling of futility says something important I want to explore.

The question, “What is truth?” calls on us to think critically about a concept we use daily without difficulty, and this request may be the source of our sense of futility. We are being asked to define and explain something that seemed obvious before the question was asked. The concept of truth is so fundamental and primitive to our thought that we can’t find terms more fundamental and primitive with which to explain it. All language presupposes the concept of truth, even the language we use to define the concept of truth. At the end of a discussion of truth we could still ask, “Is our definition of truth true?” The discussion, then, begins again at the beginning!

Adjectives and Nouns

As interesting as I find complicated philosophical discussions of the nature of truth, I want to begin by asserting that we already know what truth is. The meaning of truth is implicit in our everyday language. Let’s begin with the simple distinction between the noun, “truth” and the adjective, “true.” We learned in grammar school that a noun names a thing and an adjective modifies a noun. An adjective “modifies” a noun in that it names a particular property of the thing the noun names. As an example, consider the noun/adjective combination, “navy blue slacks.” The adjective “navy blue” names a property of the noun “slacks.” Slacks can exist in different “modes” (brown, blue, gray, etc.) and the adjective specifies the particular “mode” in which these slacks exist. Hence the term “modify” is used of the function of adjectives.

We use the adjective “true” to modify sentences that assert facts. Such sentences are called “propositions.” Only propositions can be true or false. Questions, exclamations, lone words, and fragments cannot be true or false, because they do not make assertions about reality. To put it in concrete terms, the sentence “God raised Jesus Christ from the dead” makes an assertion about reality. This sentence is either true or false. The adjective “true” modifies the assertion the sentence makes. As we pursue the question about Christianity’s truth, we must ask about the truth of a set of propositions that make up Christianity’s truth claims.

Truth and Reality

Let’s think about the noun “truth”. As I pointed out above, nouns name things. What does the noun “truth” name? It names a property of a proposition. Propositions can be true or false. A true proposition possesses the property “truth”. Hence “truth” is a property that can be present or absent in propositions. But what is this property? What is its character, considered as a thing named by a noun?

To answer this question adequately, I need to introduce another term, “reality” (or the thing itself). Implicit in language is a distinction between sentences and the things about which sentences speak. We know the difference between the sentence, “My coffee cup now sets on my desk, about one foot to my right and about an arm’s length away”, and the actual state of affairs described by the sentence. As I write, I am experiencing the actual state of affairs empirically, and the above sentence expresses my empirical experience. You are experiencing the image the sentence puts into your mind, not the empirical experience I am having. The sentence is a proposition and the real things (the desk, the time stamp, the distances, and the cup) are what the proposition refers to. It would make no sense to ask, “Are the real things true?” Truth is a property of propositions, not of things. Reality takes priority over truth, because propositions depend on reality for their truth. In my view, reality is an even more fundamental or primitive concept than truth. How do you define reality? I may try to say something about this later, but I will let it be for now.

So, what is truth? Truth is the property that exists in a proposition when that proposition corresponds adequately to reality, to the things it describes. Truth is a relationship of correspondence between a proposition and reality. Truth is not a synonym for reality, though it is often misused in this way. Hearing a proposition asserted places an idea or image of an actual state of affairs in your mind. The proposition is true insofar as the image it contains corresponds to the real things it names.

Why is this discussion about the concepts of truth and reality important in our quest to answer the question, “Is Christianity true?” It is important because misuse of these concepts is very common in religious or moral discussions. We’ve all heard such statements as the following: “Truth is what is true for you.” Truth is what works for you.” “Christianity is true for me.” “All religions are true.” Thoughtlessly accepting these statements deflates our passion for God and excuses our indifference and worldliness. I believe these thoughts on truth and reality demonstrate that statements like those above are not only thoughtless and mistaken but are downright nonsensical.

In this series, I will be asking whether the assertions Christianity makes about reality actually correspond to the reality about which it speaks. I can accept no other meaning to the question, “Is Christianity true?”

*I’ve not been able to locate the original source for the Jane Fonda story. If someone knows where I can get a video recording of this show, I love to have the information. If the story is apocryphal please let me know.

Which “Christianity” is True? “Is Christianity True?” (#3)

It does little good to argue for Christianity’s truth unless we are clear about what we mean by “Christianity”. Impressions of Christianity are as numerous as observers, and many quite different systems of belief and practice present themselves as Christianity. Christianity has been identified with western culture, democracy, and progressive morality. Some religious thinkers identify Christianity as a system of metaphysical beliefs, and others deny that Christianity asserts any metaphysical truths. It makes sense, then, to spend a little time pursuing the meaning of the term. Even if complete unanimity of opinion is too unrealistic a goal to wish for, surely no one would argue that Christianity is whatever every Tom, Dick, and Harry say it is.

Christianity can be defined descriptively or normatively. In a descriptive definition, Christianity is defined as the system of beliefs and practices cherished by people who self-identify as Christians. Descriptive students of Christianity use historical or social science methods of measurement. For Christians in the 5th century, for example, Christianity is the system believed and practiced by them. Christianity today is whatever contemporary self-identifying Christians believe and practice. Clearly, a purely descriptive method cannot supply a definition of Christianity suitable for the task of answering the question, “Is Christianity true?” If Christianity is whatever self-identifying Christians of any age believe and practice, there are many Christianities, not just one. Indeed, as defined descriptively, there are many Christianities in every age. You can find the most astonishing diversity of belief and practice among self-identifying Christians and churches even in one city. Whose Christianity are we talking about?

Obviously, we also need a normative definition of Christianity. In a normative approach, a system of belief and practice must have certain essential elements to qualify as Christianity. Apart from these elements, a system is not Christianity at all. For normative thinkers, there is no such thing as atheistic Christianity or Christianity without Christ or Gnostic Christianity. Calling such systems of belief and practice “Christianity” is mistaken and misleading. Hence an apologetic argument for the truth of Christianity cannot avoid the perpetual debate among self-identified “Christians” about the essential elements of authentic Christianity. What sense does it make to argue that Christianity is true, if Christianity possesses no essential, identifiable characteristics?

In the course of this year-long series, I will use both descriptive and normative approaches. We need both. I will attempt to clarify the essential elements of Christianity and exclude some variants as impostures. For this post, however, let me define Christianity descriptively, in very general and preliminary way. Christianity is a distinct system of religious and moral beliefs and practices that points to a transcendent divine reality that acts for the salvation of the world from evil and the fulfillment of creation’s potential. For the present, let’s leave aside the task of enumerating and clarifying those beliefs and practices and focus on this formal definition.

Christianity is more than “a distinct system of religious beliefs and practices”, but it is at least that. It is an interlocking system of beliefs that support each other, together with practices that embody these beliefs in specific actions. If Christianity were just a practical way of life or merely a set of religious feelings, the question of its truth would be out of place and unanswerable. The question, “Is Christianity true?” makes sense only if the essential nature of Christianity can be identified and if Christianity makes specific claims about reality that can be assessed in some way for their truth value. The project of answering the question “Is Christianity true?” will need to clarify those claims and examine the evidence for their truth.

Next time: what does it mean to say Christianity is true? What is truth, and what does it mean to say something is true?

Pursuing a Huge Question: Is Christianity True? (#2)

Where shall we begin to answer such a huge question? Medieval theologians used to say, “Method does not matter.” This saying makes sense when you consider that the English word “method” is derived ultimately from the Greek word “methodos”, which means “a following after” or “pursuit” or “access.” Christianity is a complex belief system, and one can begin thinking about it at any point within it. What matters is not where you begin but that you “pursue” the whole system of faith to the end.

Different people find themselves at different points in the journey from doubt to faith. For some, their faith in God is unshakable, but their belief in Jesus is tenuous. Others find Jesus’ moral teaching compelling but the church’s claims about him dubious. Still others find themselves at other places on the way from nonbelief to full faith. Ideally, this series would begin by addressing each person’s most pressing question and move from there to cover the entire system of belief. Demanding that everyone begin their quest for deeper faith at the same point would be as foolish as demanding that everyone who wants to go to New York City must begin at Los Angeles. You begin where you are. Hence there are as many beginning places and ways of “pursuing” the question, “Is Christianity true?” as there are individuals.

In this electronic medium, I cannot begin with each reader’s individual questions, which would be ideal. I must use another way, a more general method that will eventually cover all the questions in an orderly way. Two methods come to mind as possibilities. We could follow the “order of knowing” or the “order of being.” If we followed the order of knowing, we would ask ourselves, “What are the first, second, third things one needs to know in order to make the journey from nonbelief to full faith?” Do we begin with the question, “How do I know that I exist or that the external world exists?” Or, do we begin with some other question about what we need to know first? Once we settle on an order of knowing, the outline of our argument follows easily. Though this method has its famous champions, I will not take this approach.

Following the order of being, we would ask ourselves, “What is the order of reality, in order of priority, presupposed and asserted by the Christian faith?” In other words, “What must be true about the way things really are, in order of priority, if Christianity really is true?” Do I begin with the issue of the origin of the world or the first cause of everything or the existence and nature of God? Or, is some other question the best candidate for first place in the order of being? I will follow this method in this series. Along the way, I will explain why I prefer it.

I Respect Your Intelligence

Some of my most faithful readers reminded me recently that I write at a higher level than most bloggers. Yes, I do, and the reason is stated in my first post, August 8, 2013, “An Invitation to Thoughtfulness in Religion.” I really believe that most contemporary Christians do not hear deep and thoughtful teaching in their churches, and they don’t know where to begin their search for deeper understanding. This blog is dedicated to remedying this situation. My compulsion for challenging my readers to think hard is probably explained by my background. On the one hand, I am an academic theologian who teaches theology in a university. I have studied theology for 43 years and have taught it for 25 years. I also served in the ministry for 10 years before entering academia. My passion is bridging the gap between seminaries and churches, students of theology and church-going Christians. I try to avoid technical jargon. But I respect your intelligence and your desire to understand so much that I refuse to speak to you as if you were still in grammar school. I want you to experience some of the joy I have experienced in probing the depths of the Christian faith.

Next post coming soon: what do we mean by “Christianity”? And what would it mean to say “Christianity is true?”

“Is Christianity True?” Understanding the Question

This post begins year two of ifaqtheology. As I said last week, I plan to give this year to the theme of Christianity’s truth. I will take my time. I need to clear away some bad arguments, confused language, and rash and uninformed claims, some made by unbelievers and some by believers. In my view, most apologetic efforts in recent history have done as much damage as good and created as much doubt as confidence in the Christian faith. Bad arguments in favor of a good cause are worse than silence. Some arguments for Christianity overstate their case and understate the force of objections. Some try to prove too many things.

So, in the course of this year I will be critiquing certain types of apologetics as well as unfolding my own argument. I will attempt never to misrepresent our situation with respect to what we can know and what we cannot. I want to state fairly the case against belief as well as the case for belief. I want to be clear about the kind of evidence I am presenting: a claim to historical fact, a logical truth, a metaphysical truth, a practical truth, speculation, opinion, trust in the reliability of others, religious experience, and others. I want to be clear about what I am asking the reader to do in response: open their minds to alternative views, accept a conclusion as possible, preferable, probable, or true. At minimum, I want to clarify the choices we must make and what is at stake in each.

I do not plan on attempting to prove God exists or Christianity is true. Proof is a strong word that applies only to a limited number of activities, mostly in logic and mathematics. And even proofs in these areas begin with unproven axioms or assumptions. The “proved” conclusions in logic or mathematics are true only if the axioms or assumptions are really true. Logic and mathematics use clear and simple language and don’t challenge us morally, existentially or spiritually. Philosophical and theological approaches to religious questions deal with highly complex data and must use language that is far from clear and simple. And they deal with the most important, challenging and emotion-laden questions human beings ask.

What is at stake in the question, “Is Christianity true?” Already we have moved into uncertain terrain! Exactly what is this question asking? (1) Am I asking about our ability to show that Christianity is true? (2) Or, about our subjective certainty that it is true? (3) Or, am I asking about the difference for the meaning of human existence between the objective truth and objective falsehood of the claims of Christianity? Each of these interpretations is worth pursuing. In (1) perhaps you are a believer but you have limited ability to give reasons for that belief. Your inability may limit your capacity to engage with unbelievers on a rational level, but it need not dampen your faith or restrict your living of the Christian life.

In (2) your certainty is in question. How certain are you of the truth of Christianity? Your level of certainty may affect your joy and your willingness to live thoroughly as a Christian. But the question of certainty is not the same as the question of truth. Certainty is a subjective measure. People have been completely certain of things that turned out to be false. (3) This question gets at the central issue I want to address. The claims of Christianity are either true or false. If they are false, every hope, moral rule, comfort and belief that depends exclusively on their truth is also false. Likewise, if the claims of Christianity are true, every hope, way of life and belief that depends on them is also true. If you think that nothing of existential or moral consequence depends on the truth of Christianity, then you won’t be very interested in the question. It does not matter either way. But that view itself is contestable, and refuting it is a very important part of my argument.

But the question, “Is Christianity true?” cannot be limited to the particular claims Christianity makes about Jesus of Nazareth. It is true that if Jesus Christ is not the Son of God and Lord, and did not rise from the dead, Christianity is false. But Christianity also makes claims about God and the world. If there is no God, Christianity cannot be true. If there are millions of Gods, Christianity cannot be true. If God is not good, Christianity is false. If materialism is true, Christianity cannot be true. If the divine is completely unknowable, Christianity cannot be true. Hence in addressing the question about the truth of Christianity I plan on dealing with the most comprehensive issues involved in this question: Do we have reasons to think anything really exists other than matter? Does it make sense to believe in God? Where do we begin in moving from belief in God to full Christian faith?

Next week we will begin to clarify some concepts needed to think about the truth of Christianity. I find that many people have no clear understanding of such concepts as reality, truth, falsehood, fact, knowledge, opinion, fancy, subjective, objective, mythical, historical, and many others. We will think first about the qualifiers real and true.

One-Year Anniversary

This week marks the end of the first year of ifaqtheology. This blog is dedicated to “thoughtfulness in religion.” My hope at the beginning of August 2013 was that there were some people out there who would appreciate a more thoughtful approach to religious and theological questions than is generally available. I have tried to avoid oversimplifications, appeal to emotion, dramatic titles and controversy. Instead, I have taken an analytic approach designed to clarify and get to the foundational issues that must be decided. I hope that these essays have been helpful to those who read them.

I am in the process of compiling and editing the past year’s essays. 53 in all! And I am adding “questions for discussion” to each essay. In the near future I will make an announcement about how I will make these available.

The Coming Year

I plan to dedicate the coming year to the question, “Is Christianity True.” As I look back on the past year, it is apparent that the question, “Is Christianity Good” dominated my thoughts. This year I want to shift to the issue of truth. The two questions are related, because how could something false be good or something good be untrue? But I am convinced that our culture lacks the conceptual tools even to understand the question, “Is Christianity True.” Hence I believe I have to begin by talking about the concepts of reason, truth, reality, knowledge, faith, opinion, fancy, ideology, fact, and others. I also believe we live in an age that has lost the conceptual categories to conceive of anything as real that is not physical. I want to consider the question of God’s existence, the questions of different religions and theism, pantheism, deism, and other forms of belief. I will address the issue of place of the Bible in faith and the authenticity and truth of New Testament Christianity, that is, the original faith. Toward the end we must address the questions of alternative forms of Christianity and how Christians should view non Christian religions. We may even have occasion to reflect on how Christianity should be embodied in the world today.

I hope to write a weekly installment in this series. However, I may not be able to do this because I am also writing one book and editing another…as well as teaching three classes in my role of Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Thank you for your faithfulness and patience. As always, I appreciate your comments and feedback.