Atheism’s “religious” significance—Part 2


Q:  What might happen if Christians first dialogued with atheists about our points of agreement, rather than disputed our disagreements?

From the average Christian, stunned silence.  Or questions like: What would be the point of that?

The point, actually, would be learning something.  And not simply something trivial about “those poor atheists” en route to witnessing to them, but something deeply true (and perhaps even essential) about ourselves as Christians.

More stunned silence, I wager.  But consider this:

Where the Bible indicates that Christians (and all people) “know in part”1 it is calling for Christians to hold confidence and humility in flexible and variable tension.  Thus “knowing in part” implies that all truth is God’s truth (and not ours, as Christians)2 and therefore that Christians should welcome truth wherever it is found (even, as Augustine notes, within “the teachings of the pagans”3).

Hence the need for “tension”: maintaining suppleness regarding how much confidence versus how much humility we apply in any given situation, with the practical upshot that we cultivate the flexibility to adjust this proportion based on new contexts and new information.

In the most general sense, the result of maintaining this tension (and not assuming that we know all that we need to know about atheists) is that we hold off our criticism long enough to listen.  And in listening we find some shocking similarities.  For example, we learn that even the most ardent atheists are concerned about the same things we Christians are.

So where Bertrand Russell vouches that “‘the good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge’ ” (of which he claims love is the greater)4, a discussion with such outsiders to Christianity embraces considerations (like love and truth) with which Christians may competently and enthusiastically engage.  Moreover, when we attain Bertrand Russell’s goals we are actually faced with “the problem of good:” having to account for and express wonder at truth, and at the reality of being loved and in love.

Next, where Christians can acknowledge that the atheist’s demand for proof of God’s existence amounts to a common need to “taste and see” God’s goodness (“common” because such experiences of God not only strengthen but create faith), Christians learn not to subordinate experience and sense perceptions to theology.5

So rather than disputing atheists with Scripture Christians can agree, in our post-Shoah world, that God’s love must “show up” in opposition to evil.  Thus instead of disdaining the human need to validate–and the created ability to perceive–goodness in our lived experience, Christians can foster dialogues about what counts as goodness in the ‘here and now’.

Last, given that “no one is born a Christian”6 and that God approaches humanity in creative and surprising ways, Christian must not insist that atheists “think like them” before these outsiders can understand or love aright.

Rather, productively dialoging with outsiders requires Christians to recognize their own conversions (i.e., the situations and understandings that enabled new experiences of God’s truth and love for them) as the gold standard that underwrites their arguments and validates their theological viewpoints.  Thus defending our Christian convictions requires not theological but personal explanation (which in turn contain theological, philosophical, psychological, historical elements and so forth).

This personal content is not superfluous but is intrinsically necessary as that which renders our philosophical arguments and theological viewpoints plausible and enticing to those outside of Christianity.

So by listening to atheists Christians first understand that they have misjudged how much we share in common with them.  Second, the conversations arising from an awareness of shared interests are less disputes fueled by our need to defend God’s truth (and to present biblical truth claims) as dialogues explaining our experiences of God’s truth and love (as our personal, embodied examples of biblical truth values).

To conclude,

When we first dialogue with them, Atheists then become people that need to be understood and loved rather than enemies that need to be contradicted, defeated, or converted.  In other words, we are able to treat them as God sees them: tremendously valuable and worthy of respect… just like us.

Christian theology ♥ modernist philosophy: Why do Christians love modernism?

The desire for absolute truth is wrong.

As I’ve sketched it in relation to Christianity, it starts as a wish for absolute access to the Bible’s truth claims, achieved by absolute openness to the Bible through unprejudiced neutrality, with a goal of providing absolute security: certainty about the Bible’s truth values.  But absolute access, absolute openness, and absolute security are all the same:

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

As I hope I’ve shown over my last number of posts, they are wrong because they are simply impossible.  And they are even more wrong for Christians because these views presuppose either the claim of being like God (which is idolatry) or a disparagement of creation (which is a key, God-given resource for validating biblical truth values).

But this is more than overblown aspirations, more than finite humans coveting the absolute.  In Christian terms, if this is sin then it is not simply a sin of commission—acting wrongly.  It is a sin of the mind and of association—choosing the wrong friends, for the wrong reasons.

Specifically, it appears that Christians have developed an entrenched affinity for “modernist” philosophy.

Thus as I argued in my last post, the quest for absolute access to truth claims via absolute, unprejudiced openness and arriving at absolute security (through certainty about truth values) is a portrait of Modernism.

Originating in 17th century Europe, modernist philosophy favoured reason over the senses, experience, tradition, etc., as the best—and only—way accurately to assess truth claims and adjudicate their truth values.  Its goal was to help people to decide on matters that concerned them, and to have certainty about the truth of their decisions.

Modernist thinkers like René Descartes, influenced by Plato, viewed knowledge as stronger (and so better) than belief.  But how could he be sure that was basing his decisions on knowledge and not just mere, unfounded belief?

Viewing reason to be the ultimate arbiter of truth, Descartes’ “method” involved doubting our customs and former beliefs until they pass the test of reason (and so can be considered true knowledge) and rejecting our emotions and passions as outrightly deceptive.  In effect, by starting anew from this neutral “view from nowhere” we would be free from false beliefs and reliant upon true knowledge alone.

The similarities with how some Christians approach the Bible could not be plainer.

So is Christianity bankrupt as a result?  Not at all—at least not on this count.  For again, these ideas are not inherently Christian.  The question is, Why have these views been so broadly (and unwittingly) embraced, and what can be done about it?

As to why, I believe that many Christians have embraced Modernism not only as a hedge against relativism but because it is easier than the alternatives.

First, the finite, contingent nature of human existence implies that we live with various tensions (knowing versus not knowing, presence versus absence, present versus past and future, etc.).  Part of our “job” as human beings, then, is to maintain a flexible and variable relationship between the poles of these tensions.  For example, on some matters we know more (and so can be more confident of our views), whereas on others we know less (and so must be more humble).

Modernism is easy because it effectively collapses the tensions into hierarchies—by following its method we avoid struggling with the hard questions of how to balance these tensions, and with the resultant hard work of possibly revising our beliefs when the balance shifts.

Second, however, Christians who embrace Modernism even collapse key tensions in the Bible!

For example, many over-emphasize how much the Holy Spirit aids Christians in understanding the Bible and under-emphasize (or ignore?) the detrimental and universal effects of sin on the same.  As a result, such Christians are often overconfident concerning how well they know the Bible.

As to what can be done, Christians clearly need to move beyond Modernism.  Next post looks at how.

Experience, creation, and interpretation

God sees things as the truly are; people interpret.

Given this, we should not be surprised to encounter a myriad of different views on the Bible’s content—its truth claims—where neither the most important of which can be stated uncontestedly nor their truth value substantiated indisputably.  For example, we have a variety of views on who the God of the Bible is (i.e., various interpretations of the Bible’s claims about God), and the very notion of God’s existence is itself deeply contested (i.e., different interpretations of the value of such claims).

At its heart, the tension here is between claims that are ultimate in nature yet whose verification is necessarily down to finite individuals endowed with limited faculties, perspectives and experiences.

But in trying to protect ultimate truth from becoming relative truth—in trying to avoid a take-it-or-leave-it model of truth where everything is down to the individual’s preferences and so, seemingly, “anything goes”—have some Christians betrayed their own, dearest beliefs?

I think that they have.

In my last post I equated this betrayal with idolatry.  For in their efforts to protect against relativism regarding the Bible’s truth claims, many Christians contend not to need to interpret (“maybe you interpret the Bible, but I just read what’s there”) or to interpret flawlessly (“my interpretations are right; theirs are wrong”).  They profess to access the Bible’s claims and truth value absolutely, or with certainty.  Yet this amounts to seeing and knowing things as only God can.  And professing equality with God is idolatry.

But there’s more.

In their efforts to protect against relativism regarding the Bible’s truth values, many Christians are often selectively suspicious of the value of experience.  So where non-Christians might conclude that Christianity is a lie because they do not to experience its claims to be true, Evangelicals often insist that non-Christians must first accept and believe in Christianity in order to understand its truth.

Later we’ll examine this view more closely.  For now I note two, glaring contradictions.

First, if a Muslim insisted that non-Muslims must first embrace Islam in order to understand its truth, would Christians do this?  I doubt it.  Second, many Christians maintain that God is quintessentially personal and that belief in God means experiencing God in and through personal relationship.  So clearly certain experiences are essential to Christianity.

And this is the second betrayal: denigrating experience actually disparages the goodness of creation.  The God of the Bible has pronounced creation “good,” and importantly so.  For our created world is the environment that provides experiences necessary to knowing God, and our own created nature (as our unique personality and viewpoint) are crucial for entering into relationship with a personal God.  Denigrating experience, which is our human perspective on the created order, calls God a liar and disowns the truth of knowing God in and through relationship.

So where does this leave us?

On the one hand, for both Christians and non-Christians, we neither have—nor can have—certainty about the Bible’s claims nor about their validity.  Indeed, I think that “certain knowledge” is a myth born of modernist philosophy.  Instead, while God sees things as they really are and knows truly, human interpret and know with varying degrees of probability and according to particular perspectives.

On the other hand, interpreting implies neither a lack of truth (as though interpretations are mere unfounded opinions) nor a weakness (as though, if we were only smarter or more Godly, when reading the Bible we would just “read what’s there”).

Rather if we who are finite must interpret, we who are finite also may interpret.  In other words, while we do not have God’s absolute / ultimate perspective (and Truth), we are not left without any perspective (and no truth).  Far from being “stuck” in a fog of relativism, the good news is that we can actually better evaluate truth claims / values by becoming more competent interpreters.  How?

I’ll examine how this may be in my next post.  Stay tuned ‘til then.