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.
Dear Dr. Highfield,
I’m so glad that you’re writing this blog and working through these questions. I deeply respect you as a theologian, and you’re spot on about many/most Christian churches really drop the ball in teaching theologically robust and nutritious material from their pulpits (on that note, you might find this CNN article interesting about the preponderance of theologically vacuous “feelgood Christianity” in our teenage and young adult population in America today: http://www.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/08/27/almost.christian/index.html).
I find your first three paragraphs interesting because they seem to me to have a strong resemblance to Alvin Plantinga’s take on warrant for Christian belief and the usefulness (or lack thereof) of Theistic arguments. I certainly do not intend to box you in as a “Plantingan,” but I couldn’t help but notice certain parallels in the measured suspicion you both take towards Theistic/Apologetic argument (though Dr. Plantinga goes so far in Warranted Christian Belief as to state that he does not find any Theistic argument to be a compelling one, particularly to a non-believer). As a Christian who is more Evidentialist in the structure of his faith and for whom Theistic/Apologetic arguments in the vein of William Lane Craig and St. Thomas Aquinas were the essential keys to turning me from the brink of apostasy, I am very interested in hearing your critique of certain Apologetic arguments or modes of Apologetics that you alluded to in your second paragraph. I may have some pushback in the comments as you move forward, though I would certainly be the first to admit that not *every* argument put forth in the name of Apologetics is a sound one—and no doubt I will have lots to learn from your critiques. I’m looking forward to it!
Thomas B. Yee
Thomas: glad you will be thinking along with me this year about this great subject. As I said in my first post, I plan on carefully laying a foundation and then methodically developing my argument. I think we may agree more than you think. I certainly think summoning evidence is very important. My concern about evidentialism is not evidence as such. It is its tendency to accept the burden of proof and hence give skepticism an unfair advantage.
Dear Dr. Highfield,
Understood, and we may be in fair agreement indeed. In my approach to Apologetics, I certainly do not solely shoulder the burden of proof—I have written elsewhere to the effect that the best model to characterize the Theistic/Atheistic debate is “Argument to the Best Explanation,” where both the Theist and Atheist are equally burdened to furnish arguments to support their conclusion while undercutting the arguments supporting the other conclusion. This moves the discussion past hand-waving claims like “you can’t prove God exists” or “you can’t disprove God’s existence.” In this model, Atheism is no “default position,” as the internet Atheist community claims (at best, only Agnosticism can claim that). I have a feeling we probably agree on this point, and I certainly would join in critiquing any strain in the Apologetics community that would solely accept the burden of proof.
Why is agnosticism entitled to a default position? Agnosticism about the existence of God makes sense only because of knowledge of factors that make knowledge of God’s existence impossible. Unless you mean not agnosticism but merely “not knowing.” In my view evidentialism makes agnosticism, apart from evidence compelling belief, the most intellectually respectable position. I hope to circumvent this whole problem. We will see if I can do it.
Yes, I did have in mind a definition of Agnosticism more in the latter vein. Many non-academic Non-theists are notoriously vague about making the distinction, but I might delineate these two brands of Agnosticism as “Epistemic Agnosticism” (“one cannot know whether God exists;” Plantinga deals with this handily in Warrented Christian Belief) and “Pragmatic Agnosticism” (usually presented as a sort of “I haven’t yet seen enough evidence to persuade me in either direction”). It seems to me personally that this latter kind is more common these days, so that’s usually the one I refer to as Agnosticism simpliciter. But if I call Pragmatic Agnosticism a “default position,” it is only in the sense that it barely counts as a position. Really, it amounts more to an excuse of ignorance on the subject—on my model, once a person is adequately exposed to the arguments on both sides, s/he can no longer claim this kind of Agnosticism. I concede that Agnosticism would be a compelling viewpoint in absence of compelling evidence in Theism, but, in my evidentialist viewpoint, that is what makes Apologetic and Theistic arguments so crucial to Christianity (and in my view, Theism does enjoy such compelling evidence, and furthermore Christian belief does as well). I am certainly interested in seeing how you would propose to circumvent that issue, though.