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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Recently, in reading up on this neo-atheist evangelist, I was introduced to his essay, Viruses of the Mind as an innovative work. In "Viruses", Dawkins writes that religious belief, as a meme, is akin to a computer virus thereby reducing the former (which in many people's minds is a high and lofty thing) to the level of the latter (which is acknowledged by virtually everyone to be something undesirable). This is Part II of my comments on that essay. For Part I, see here and for part II see here/.

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The Second Symptom: Believing but not Seeing

2. Patients typically make a positive virtue of faith's being strong and unshakable, in spite of not being based upon evidence. Indeed, they may feel that the less evidence there is, the more virtuous the belief (see below).

This suffers from the same problem as number one: it asserts that faith is not based on evidence which is a crock. But certainly, there is some grounds for his criticism as believers are encouraged to believe without seeing. But that is a far cry from believing despite compelling evidence to the contrary. When Jesus is speaking to Doubting Thomas in John, he is not critical of Thomas for doubting Jesus rising from the dead in a vacuum. Thomas has been with Jesus since almost the beginning of Jesus' ministry. He was witness to many of Jesus' teachings and miracles, and he was told by his companions that Jesus had risen from the dead. In other words, Thomas had a great deal of background evidence that prepared him in advance of the resurrection to expect that Jesus was much more than a mere man. Yet, despite this evidence that he had, he doubted. Hence, Jesus said "Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed [are] they that have not seen, and [yet] have believed." This is not an exortation to believe without evidence, but merely a statement that most of us will not literally see Jesus with our eyes because He will ascend into heaven. Those who are able to believe without actually seeing Him will be blessed.

The Third Symptom: Accepting Mystery

3. A related symptom, which a faith-sufferer may also present, is the conviction that "mystery," per se, is a good thing. It is not a virtue to solve mysteries. Rather we should enjoy them, even revel in their insolubility.

This is a clear example of the is/ought fallacy. Certainly there are examples of mysteries in Christianity. Dawkins uses the Roman Catholic teaching of transubstantiation and the wider doctrine of the Trinity as examples of places where Christians are expected to accept the mystery and somehow not seek to understand it. But that is simply wrong, again. The teaching of the Trinity is mysterious because most Christians have a difficult time understanding it. But that is not the same thing as saying we ought to revel in the insolubility of the mystery; rather, we need to recgonize that some things that have not been fully revealed and no amount of investigation, scientific or otherwise, can make them clearer than they are.

Put another way, I am always striving to gain a better understanding of the Trinity. I am personally not satisfied that the church or anyone in the church has been able to come to the best possible understanding of the Trinity by the use of the available tools: Scripture and reason. But at the same time, I recognize that reason can only work with the evidence provided, and virtually all evidence about the nature of God (especially the Trinity) can only come from God Himself in the form of His telling us about His nature. The church would not have come to the idea of the Trinity without the testimony about His nature revealed through Jesus, the Prophets and the Apostles, but what we know is certainly not comprehensive. Regardless of how many scientific tests I run or how long I sit and ponder the nature of the Trinity, I will only be able to come as close to understanding it as God has seen fit to tell us about His nature through His word. Thus, it is a mystery and will remain a mystery.

Does that mean that I should revel in the mystery? I don't think so. Should we be trying our best to better understand God and His nature based upon what has been disclosed by using our reason? Of course. But I do need to accept the fact that it will never be fully solvable until God chooses to disclose more about His nature. Until that time and to that extent, mystery is and will remain part of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Accepting that somethings are mysteries that are beyond our ability to understand them fully is not the same as saying that Christians ought to close his mind and accept mysteries without seeking to understand them.

An Aside on Dawkins' Misuse of Tertullian

I should add that he makes hay out of the idea that Tertullian, a great early Christian thinker, said "Certum est quia impossibile est" (It is certain because it is impossible) and "It is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd". This is simply a misquotation of what Tertullian said and meant. When I need to understand what an ancient author meant without having to read the entire collected works of that author, I find it useful to go to the experts. In the case of Tertullian, there is an expert resource available on the Internet.

According to De carne Christi (On the flesh of Christ) which can be found on the great website The Tertullian Project by Roger Pearse:

Tertullian is best known by a famous misquotation from ch. 5, verse 4: 'credo quia absurdum' -- 'I believe because it is absurd.' The usual implication is that Tertullian believed in Christianity because it was absurd. Tertullian thought nothing of the kind: see the quotes page for a passage on reason from De Paenitentia 1,2. See also the articles by Moffat and Sider, online below. The real quote, followed by a personal opinion on the meaning:

Crucifixus est dei filius; non pudet, quia pudendum est.
Et mortuus est dei filius; credibile prorsus est, quia ineptum est.
Et sepultus resurrexit; certum est, quia impossibile.

The Son of God was crucified: I am not ashamed--because it is shameful.
The Son of God died: it is immediately credible--because it is silly.
He was buried, and rose again: it is certain--because it is impossible. (Evans translation).

"The argument is whether or not it is real, or whether Christ was really just a phantasm. This latter view is justified by its author (Marcion) as being less impossible, dangerous or shameful. The context is not about 'reason', but 'wisdom', meaning worldly wisdom or convention, not logic.

"The set of three phrases -- God was crucified, but I'm not ashamed, precisely because it's shameful; God died, but it's not silly, precisely because its silly; God rose again, and it is certain because it's impossible -- starts from this idea of shame and the violation conventional expectations, and runs away from there. This means we have to ask whether all three phrases are not just saying the same thing in different words.

"If we say not, we must ask whether Tertullian is really introducing suddenly, for three words, a whole new idea proper to a quite different audience -- Moffat's a 'sudden intrusion of anti-rationalism' -- rather than summarising what went before? I wonder a bit whether we are misleading ourselves with 'impossibile' thinking in terms of physical impossibility rather than moral impossibility, as under discussion beforehand?

"The popular understanding of this phrase means we have three words related neither to the chapter before or after. That cannot be right. Both sides belong to the faith side, in fact. The argument as such is scriptural, as between two people disagreeing on a point of Christian belief, not as between believer and unbeliever. Indeed the non-Christian holds views considerably less 'rational' to a modern perspective, than otherwise -- that Christ was some form of semi-physical ghost, not a man, although he looked like one. So no argument for whether or not the resurrection happened, per se, is to be expected. Still less is any discussion of the truth of the Christian religion part of this, except as regards the argument with Marcion." (Roger Pearse)

So, in what I will accept as a well-meaning mistake, it is clear that Dawkins is wrong in his use of Tertullian as an example of Christian embracing of irrationality.

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