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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Over at Debunking Christianity, Harry McCall responds to those who claim that he and other apostates just don't 'get' Christianity with a challenge: for Christians to come up with a succinct description of what they take Christianity to be. What is it exactly that apostates misunderstand?

It goes without saying that the word 'Christianity' can have many different connotations. Here I take it the challenge is to elucidate the cognitive content of Christian theism: what beliefs does it entail about the world, human beings, about history, etc.? Which of these are necessary and sufficient for someone to be labeled a Christian, and which are still important but peripheral? Obviously there is broad disagreement over this, just as there is over what makes someone a liberal or a conservative in politics or economics, what makes someone a naturalist or materialist in philosophy, etc. This disagreement is to be expected due to the way human cognition works (see for example George Lakoff, Moral Politics, pp.3-11) and is not in itself a bad thing. Still, belief systems are not entirely in the eye of the beholder. There are concepts and beliefs which most people would agree are central to particular worldviews. For example, you would not expect to find a conservative in favor of big government, higher taxes and nationalized health care. There are certain concepts and beliefs with a greater degree of 'entrenchment', which should not be abandoned lightly if one identifies with that particular worldview.

So what is Christianity? Is there a bare minimum, a least common denominator which can allow us to answer McCall's challenge, to educate him about what he doesn't get? One of the best definitions of 'minimal Christian theism' that I have found is that of Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp: their 'proposition X' concerning Christian theism is "the proposition that, at a minimum, the person and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth provide an important, and possibly unique, set of insights into the nature and purposes of the divine reality; as well as an important, and possibly unique, means of spiritual access to that reality."

Many Christians, including myself, find this minimal articulation of Christian theism all too minimal. It correctly emphasizes the importance of the person and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, but is not at all specific as to what exactly are the insights into the nature and purposes of divine reality that Jesus provides. Nevertheless I think it is clear that one cannot be a Christian and at the same believe that there was nothing really distinctive about Jesus, that he was just a man who lived and died in a particular cultural context, a product of his times. His teaching must somehow get closer to the way things really are than that of other great teachers such as the Buddha or Muhammad. His ministry must somehow reflect the fact that he was in touch with the true potential of human beings and the real 'technology' of the Universe (where technology means an intentional application of the conditions and powers built into the fabric of reality to achieve certain ends; thus if one prays to God, and that prayer is effective, one is using technology in a certain sense).

So it all comes down to specifying the insights which the person and teaching of Jesus provides into the nature and purposes of divine reality. Again there is a considerable range of views on this, but certain concepts and propositions stand out as being held in common by the majority of thoughtful Christians: God is personal in the sense that we can meaningfully ascribe intentions and purposes to Him, He can act in this world in ways not restricted to ordinary natural processes, He raised Jesus from the dead, etc. There are a variety of good systematic theologies that develop the content of Christian theism. An especially good one which interacts fully with the scientific and historical disciplines is that of Wolfhart Pannenberg.

But having said all that (and obviously it would take much more than a blog post or even 20 to sketch even minimally what the Christian faith entails cognitively with sufficient rigor), it is not the cognitive content of Christian belief that I believe Harry McCall doesn't 'get'. Anyone with a modicum of education can spout off the Nicene creed, recite Bible verses by heart and give a decent summary of basic Christian beliefs. What I think agnostics and ex-believers perpetually misunderstand is the epistemology of religious belief, how conversion (and by implication deconversion) reorients your basic stance on the world. It is not just a matter of adding extra beliefs to an already existing personal worldview ("Flowers are beautiful and oh by the way God exists"). Accepting or rejecting theism changes the parameters of that worldview, usurps its fixed points and replaces them with new ones. This reorientation works retroactively as well, causing you to see your path toward it in a new light: Before St. Augustine, for example, converted to orthodox Christianity he saw himself as wandering aimlessly from place to place searching for the good. But after his conversion, he speaks of God providentially guiding his steps and making sure that he met the right people and had the right experiences to lead him to the truth. Ex-believers similarly lose their understanding of what made Christian theism compelling and wonder to themselves how it was that they could ever have fallen for such obvious nonsense.

Does this mean that rational conversation is impossible between believers and ex-believers? Of course not. Both sides can offer insights and arguments that can influence the other (although rarely will these arguments alone cause someone to radically change their beliefs). We can reach agreement on what certain passages of Scripture imply, or what theologians mean when they refer to God as personal. Understanding is possible. But progress will not have been made unless both sides come to a better understanding of the epistemology of conversion and how it changes one's basic cognitive stance. And on the whole, I would say that in this field theists have made more progress than atheists, at least those currently posting on Debunking Christianity. As a good starting point I would recommend that they read Basil Mitchell's Faith and Criticism and William J. Abraham's Crossing the threshold of divine revelation.

8 comments:

JD, why don't you do the responsible thing and just tell us what Christianity is for you? You surely know what it's like for you to be a Christian. You surely know what YOU believe. And you surely can defend what you believe. Surely you would not say all descriptions of Christianity by professing believers are correct, or even that these believers will be with you in heaven. Will the KKK or secular Christians like Don Cupitt be in heave with you? Big deal if you'll get into an argument with fellow professing believers about what constitutes true Christianity. Why should this bother you? And why will you openly express what you believe in your church but when asked about it by a skeptic you'll speak differently? Be consistent, okay?

Cheers.

George Weigel wrote an interesting book entitled "The Truths of Catholicism," and, in the introduction, he makes a point of saying that he's not trying to convince anyone to become a Catholic so much as help people understand Catholics. He does so by inviting the reader, just while he or she is reading, to accept the world as a Catholic sees it. I thought it was an effective idea.

Back when I still believed, I used to argue with an atheist that in order to understand why christians took certain positions, he had to look at what we believed about the world and how those beliefs have intellectual consequences on issues such as abortion and end of life decisions. He had gotten stuck on my comparing abortion to the Holocaust, and I was trying to explain to him that if you believe a fetus is a human being-- a life just like any adult-- then, naturally, you're morally obligated to object to it and try to put a stop to it.

As an atheist, I find myself wishing more people on both sides of the debate would take the time out to try and seriously look at things from the other side's perspective. Just as important as an atheist understanding the epistemology of conversion, however, is that the theist understand the epistemology of "de-conversion" (for lack of a better term).

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Blogger John W. Loftus said...

JD, why don't you do the responsible thing and just tell us what Christianity is for you? You surely know what it's like for you to be a Christian. You surely know what YOU believe. And you surely can defend what you believe. Surely you would not say all descriptions of Christianity by professing believers are correct, or even that these believers will be with you in heaven. Will the KKK or secular Christians like Don Cupitt be in heave with you? Big deal if you'll get into an argument with fellow professing believers about what constitutes true Christianity. Why should this bother you? And why will you openly express what you believe in your church but when asked about it by a skeptic you'll speak differently? Be consistent, okay?


A religious tradition; ie a means of defining and understand the basic human problematic and mediating Ultimate Trans formative Power as a means of over coming the problematic; part of the naming of the problematic would include an intellectual theological tradition; the mediation process includes an existential ontology.

you got a problem with that?

As an atheist, I find myself wishing more people on both sides of the debate would take the time out to try and seriously look at things from the other side's perspective. Just as important as an atheist understanding the epistemology of conversion, however, is that the theist understand the epistemology of "de-conversion" (for lack of a better term).


I was an atheist. I know both sides.

've said it before, and I'll say it again: I'd rather burn in hell for all eternity than spend a single nanosecond worshiping your god. Do I make myself clear?

that and offer business information right?

This has nothing to do with this post, but I was trying to send the link to your blog to a friend on facebook today, and it inserted the following into my message:

"Some content in this message has been reported as abusive by Facebook users."

Yeah...

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