Do We Need to Understand Everything about Christianity to be Rational in Our Belief?
Maybe I'm old fashioned, but it strikes me that a problem is unlikely to be fixed until we correctly understand the cause of the problem. If I were a doctor who diagnosed a person as having emphysema when they have vascular disease, I expect that the medications that I prescribe would not be very effective at treatment of the vascular disease. In some cases, the wrong prescription can kill the patient, so it is really important to first achieve a correct diagnosis before working on the cure. The same holds true outside of medicine. I believe that the failure to properly determine the cause of the problem leads to all types of wrong solutions, and too many of today's solution begin with incorrectly determined cause.
The Ethics Center, an Australian organization that provides an open forum for the promotion and exploration of ethical questions, recently published a blogpost entitled "I RESPECTFULLY DISAGREE" – HOW TO HAVE A PROPER ARGUMENT. Since I have always been interested in having respectful arguments about the truth of the Gospel (as opposed to the usual fare that comes from discussing Christianity on the Internet), I read the post with great anticipation. Unfortunately, I was disappointed because I believe that the author fails to make a correct diagnosis of the problem that leads to disrespectful discussion. After a few introductory thoughts, the author makes the following observation:
Perhaps this is what happens when our politics and our media come to believe they can only thrive on a diet of intense difference. Today, every issue must have its champions and villains. Things that truly matter just overwhelm us with their significance. Perhaps we feel ungainly and unprepared for the ambiguities of modern life and so clutch on to simple certainties. Indeed, I think this must be it. Most of us have a deep-seated dislike of ambiguity. We easily submit to the siren call of fundamentalists in politics, religion, science, ethics… whatever. They sing to us of a blissful state within which they will decide what needs to be done and release us from every burden except obedience. But there is a price to pay for certainty. We must pay with our capacity to engage with difference, to respect the integrity of the person who holds a principled position opposed to our own. It is a terrible price we pay.Note what this author does in these sentences. He begins by providing a diagnosis of the situation which is the cause of terrible arguments. According to the author, the problem is that the present climate for discussion demands that one side be right and the other side be wrong. He continues by claiming that people cling to "simple certainties" due to the "ambiguities of modern life" which apparently overwhelm them. Clinging to "simple certainties" is what leads people to "submit to the siren call of fundamentalists in politics, religion, science, ethics", etc. The benefit from becoming fundamentalists? The advocates of the fundamentalist position don't have to think. Rather, fundamentalists can simply attack those who hold opinions different than their own.
The risk of responding to an argument like this is that a person who disagrees starts out being the person who the author is trying to discredit. The person disagreeing is automatically labeled as one of those people who believes every issue has to have a villain and a champion. Nevertheless, at the risk of being labeled merely for disagreeing, I have several problems with this author's viewpoint. Primarily, I expect that because I am a conservative Christian, this author would label me as a "fundamentalist" and I will work from that assumption. Consequently, I expect that he would see my conservative (read, "fundamentalist") religion and politics as fall-out from my inability to cope with the ambiguities of the real world. After all, it is easier to obey than to reason, right?
I think that the author has a point, except that his reasoning is backwards. As a Christian, it is not the ambiguities of modern life that disturbs me or which makes me cling to simple certainties; rather, it is my willingness to embrace the ambiguities which are found in Christianity but still embrace truth that lead me to reject the effort by secularists to cling to the simple certainties of modern society, i.e., it is the people who cannot deal with the ambiguities of Christianity who clutch onto simple (aka modern) certainties.
G.K. Chesterton, the late, great Roman Catholic author and thinker, noted that true Christianity has a sense of mysticism about it that rejects the rigid attempts of secularists to understand everything. He noted:
As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that. Thus, he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also. Thus, he believes that children were indeed the kingdom of heaven, but nevertheless ought to be obedient to the kingdom of earth. He admired youth because it was young and age because it was not. It is exactly this balance of apparent contradictions that has been the whole buoyancy of the healthy man. The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.As a Christian, I readily admit that I don't understand everything that the Bible teaches about God and I don't believe that I ever will -- but I am learning. However, I am willing to accept the fact that I am learning and that understanding God and His ways is progressive in nature. Moreover, the Bible does not answer everything (even though it provides a basis for understanding everything), and it often escapes the best efforts of theologians (or anti-theologians, i.e., Internet atheists) to understand it.
For example, with respect to the debate Chesterton raises, over time I have become agnostic in the great debate between Calvinism and Arminianism, i.e., I don't know which viewpoint is true or whether either is true. I see Bible verses that support the idea that we are all predestined and that God is sovereign over all things. I also see Bible verses where God calls us to repent of our sins suggesting that we have freewill. Yet, despite the contradiction that God is sovereign and saves us by faith which is itself a gift of God, while at the same time recognizing that God also grants us free will, I happily accept both points of view and the seeming contradiction as coming from God. So which is right? Does it really matter as long as I recognize that God is in charge and that a person must believe to become a Christian? Whether that belief comes from God or from myself is an interesting theological question, but hardly one that changes the burden on me (from my human viewpoint) to decide to follow Jesus.
On the other hand, the viewpoint that seems simplistic to me is the worldly point of view that says I must understand everything about Christianity or reject the faith if there is any part of it which I don't fully understand. The person who says, "You cannot explain these verses and therefore you must reject God," is actually the one laboring under the worst sort of thinking errors. It promotes a radical autonomy that suggests that our personal ability to understand ideas and concepts are the measure of truth. While I understand the idea, it really is not a particularly compelling basis on which to work.
Anyone who has engaged in a conversation with a broad range of people understands that people have very different reasoning abilities. Anyone who has ever had the experience of working with individuals with learning disabilities understands that not everyone has the ability to reason. And of course, there is no bright red line that a person crosses that sets apart people with learning disabilities from people who are not labeled as having learning disabilities. I have met many people (and I bet the reader has also met many people) who are perfectly functioning adults who really don't reason very well at all. Thinking through all of the people I have met, I recognize that people hold wildly different rationals for believing what they believe and their logic is often unrecognizable to me (if it exists at all). Yet, if my personal ability to understand a concept becomes the measure of truth, on what basis do I say that their understanding shouldn't also be the measure of truth? On what basis do I say that an understanding that is different than mine is the one in error?
If I say that it is me or my group that has the correct understanding of truth, isn't that simply being self-centered -- believing that my viewpoint is superior because I hold it?
For example, in astronomy we know that the universe is very, very large (I would say astronomically large, but that would be a truism). Almost daily, I see articles that pop-up on my news feed that proclaim "Scientists are puzzled by X." or "X surprised Scientists" or "Scientists are Working on Theories to Explain X." In other words, we are forever learning about the mysteries of the universe, and even when we develop theories about the universe, those theories can (and often are) proven false by further observation and testing. Looking at astronomy in the way we do religion, does the fact that I am willing to accept that I don't understand everything about how the universe works mean I need to reject those things I do know? I would hardly think so. Does the fact that science has theories like Quantum Physics which, if accurate, are barely understandable to most people mean that Quantum Physics is not real because people don't understand it? Is it not real to the people who don't understand it? In other words, is the fact that some people have a different understandings of how the universe came to exist and is maintained mean that their understanding is correct to that person because they hold it? I would hardly think anyone would answer those questions affirmatively.
If we have these constant revisions of theories about the universe, planetary science and physics -- all of which are physical things that we can observe and measure, how many more ambiguities must be contained in following God and His ways? After all, what we know about God (who cannot be measured with a spectrometer or any other tool that measures physical things) is solely the result of what He has told us about himself as well as what limited things we can determine from observing God's universe and inferring information about the maker. Can we understand everything about God using these tools? How terribly shallow God must be if we can fully understand Him and His ways.
Don't get me wrong - I believe human reasoning is good. The laws of logic can help us reason things together. Study and experimentation can help us to gain knowledge about our physical universe. Yet, I also think that when we reject God because there are things about Him that seem contradictory or which we cannot understand, that is not God's problem. It is ours. We are the created beings with limited knowledge, limited cognitive abilities and limited wisdom. Collectively, we are better than we are independently, but even collectively we cannot solve the problems of our own little world let alone understanding God.
Of course, the underlying problem with this blogger's thought process is that he thinks that he is right. In other words, he has a certainty that he is right about his viewpoint and that those that those who embrace the views of "fundamentalists in politics, religion, science, ethics" must necessarily be wrong. Of course, he gives a psychological reason which he sees as the basis for their clutching to such silly ideas, but his argument at this point really boils down to a simple assertion which can be restated as "I know fundamentalists are wrong because I'm right. Now, I just need to explain why they believe what they believe."
Sorry, but that is a simple certainty that I cannot accept because I have a God who is bigger than the author's thoughts.