I was walking down the street with a homeless gay man. My college roommates and I had been letting him crash on our couch for a few weeks while he put his life together. We left my apartment and headed for the coffee shop down the street.
He walked with a limp.
It bothered me how slowly I had to walk in order for him to keep up with me. Finally I couldn’t take it any more. I was irritated.
“Sit down right here on the curb. I’m going to pray for you.”
I put my hand on his leg and commanded it to be healed in the name of Jesus.
“Get up. How does it feel?” I asked.
“It feels better!” he exclaimed. He started jumping up and down. He was immediately able to walk at regular speed, completely without a limp. He couldn’t believe what had just happened. For me, this was just normal Christianity.
We proceeded to walk to the coffee shop where we sipped our flavored coffees and inhaled the perfect aromas that wafted over to us from behind the counter. I counseled him that he needed to yield his life completely to God, give up homosexuality, and follow the Bible.
The Bible as Foundation
Through my 20s, my faith was grounded my personal experience that the power of the Bible is real. I saw miracles, received amazingly answered prayers, and had God reveal things to me that I couldn’t have known any other way.
Experientially, I knew the power of Christian faith was real.
If I encountered something in the Bible I disagreed with, I would yield my belief and conform to the Bible.
But I began to ask myself how did I know that it was true?
These Simple Questions Devastated My World
Couldn’t it be that lots of what we believe about God is wrong, but that God meets us where we are at anyway?
And couldn’t God meet other people in other religions where they were at too?
How did I know they were wrong just because I had seen miracles?
Those questions started to bother me. A lot.
I couldn’t seem to find any answers that satisfied me. If experience alone can’t prove the truth of the Bible, then there must be other good reasons for believing the Bible. But none of the reasons on offer seemed very compelling to me.
- You can look at fulfilled prophecy. But most of the prophecies in their original contexts seemed to be talking about something else.
- You can look at the historical accuracy of the Bible. But being historically accurate does not make something the Word of God. We have lots of history books which are historically accurate.
- You can look to the resurrection of Jesus. But I found that the evidence for the resurrection was not nearly as strong if I didn’t already have a reason for believing in it. And since belief in the Bible was the very question on the table, my previous reasons for believing were quickly evaporating.
I almost lost my faith.
How My Faith Was Saved
Then I encountered George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine. It reoriented my entire understanding of faith.
Drawing on the work of modern religious anthropologists like Clifford Geertz, Lindbeck observes that religions are social constructs which provide religious rules for the members of the community.
He compares doctrine to the grammatical rules of a language. Members of a religious community must be taught the “language” of the religion in order to function within the community.
He calls this a “cultural-linguistic” understanding of doctrine.
What struck me about Lindbeck’s proposal was that it was grounded in our best anthropological insights. In other words, it is very difficult to disagree with him without also completely ignoring a vast body of anthropological evidence. Religion may well be more than just a cultural-linguistic system, but it is certainly not less.
When I combined this insight with my experience of God, I came to see the Bible as a cultural-linguistic system that, regardless of whether it was true, it presented us with a covenant between God and humanity that God appears to honor.
Instead of functioning like a science or philosophy book, I began to see the Bible functioning more like the Constitution for the church. Whether it is “true” is much less important than whether we live by it.
But what if the Bible is wrong?
This new understanding of the Bible potentially placed every other religious community’s holy book on par with the Bible. After all, the Book of Mormon functions as the constitution for Mormons; the Qu’ran functions as the constitution for the Muslim community; and even Anton LeVey’s Satanic Bible functions as the constitution for a group of occultists. What sets the Bible apart?
As I thought about it, I had two realizations:
First, you don’t have to have all knowledge of every religious system in order to follow your own. You don’t have to know why another holy book is wrong, or even assume that it must be wrong, in order to follow your own holy book.
Second, a reasonable requirement of any holy book, whether theirs, mine, or someone else’s, was that it must not require its followers to do anything that is morally wrong. It can’t violate your conscience.
A Trial Case: Terrorism
The terrorists who flew the planes into the World Trade Center should have known better. It is self-evident.
They knew in their hearts that it was wrong.
If they had quieted themselves before God instead of submitting uncritically to their interpretation of their holy book and drowning out the voice of God, they would have had to acknowledge that what they were about to do was evil.
I will be the first to admit that placing conscience above scripture is far from being comprehensive or perfect. Our consciences are not always reliable guides. Just because our conscience isn’t warning us doesn’t mean that something is okay.
But the opposite is usually true: if your conscience is going off, it is a good bet that the thing in question is probably wrong.
So our conscience is the only internal guide we can have. If we don’t submit our scriptures to our consciences, what would prevent us from flying airplanes into buildings if we really believed our holy book said to do it?
The Man With a Limp
So finally I came to a place of peace with my faith. Regardless of whether the Bible is true, I came to believe that at the very least, God honors the covenant it offers. So long as it does not require me to do anything that is morally wrong, I can follow it with all my heart. I think it would be fair to challenge a Mormon, Muslim, or occultist to submit to this simple rule. Therefore I ought to be willing to submit to it also.
This whole ordeal had been the most difficult time I had ever gone through in my life until then, and I didn’t come through unchanged. Like Jacob, I had wrestled with God and came away with a own limp. Unlike my homeless friend, that limp didn’t get healed.
It was a limp that would set me up for another crisis of faith a few years later…
I had a couple of Mormon agents stop over a couple days ago. Have you ever noticed how they never go by their first name, only by their title, elder so-and-so? They seem almost like agents from the Matrix, so I just started calling them agents.
At church we just finished a video series on Mormonism, which is perhaps a bit more fundamentalistic than I am comfortable with, but it still presents a lot of good information. Anyway, I had to let them in, having just seen the videos. I wasn’t expecting them to be very open to what I had to say, but I wanted to at least try to find out why someone would believe such rubbish.
Since I have been dealing with epistemological issues recently, I was especially interested in what reasons they give for their faith. For both of the young men it all came down to, “I read the book of Mormon and I had a good feeling about it.” Only one of them had experienced the “burning in the bussom,” and that back when he was eight. The other converted from Roman Catholicism (with his mom) as a teenager. I asked questions like, “What makes your conversion experience different from a Muslim who reads the Koran and has a good feeling about it?” The only answer they had for me was that you just have to read the Book of Mormon and God will make it clear to you if you sincerely ask Him.
I am more convinced than ever that any truth-claim that is based on fideism (1)must be rejected as a claim to knowledge, and (2)leads to the logical problem of pluralism.
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So I have this dilemma. I believe I have a call to be a vocational theologian, but I have trouble recognizing theology as knowledge – at least anything more than natural theology. It’s like playing FreeCell when you get stuck, so you keep looking and looking at the board trying to figure out how to get that last ace free – then suddenly you find a way to move the cards you need to move, and suddenly half the deck’s gone. I keep struggling to find a defense of Christian theology that I think is epistemically sound.
Last semester I approached my theology professor, Kevin Vanhoozer, for an answer. “I don’t believe theology is really knowledge,” I quipped. He offered to share with me the epistemology he had developed that he felt provided a satisfactory answer. Unfortunately we ran out of time, and he invited me back a different time. I tried to meet again but missed our appointment because of traffic delays. It hasn’t worked for me to reschedule this semester, so instead I went to his article “The Trials of Truth: Mission, Martyrdom, and the Epistemology of the Cross” in To Stake a Claim (1999). I was very hopeful, but I finished the article disappointed.
Vanhoozer believes the task of the theologian is to stake the truth-claim that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” He believes that a proper epistemology must be concerned with wisdom in addition to knowledge. If epistemology is concerned with how we know the things we claim to know, then I take it he means that we should also be concerned with how we know how to apply what we know. He goes on to say that proper epistemological task is hermeneutical: to interpret the ‘text’ of reality. Following Kierkegaard he allows that the proper starting place may rightly be labeled hermeneutical fideism – we must accept the authority of the scriptures in order to understand. He cites Kierkegaard approvingly that if this were not the case, if we could make a philosophical case for the authority of scripture, then “God and the Apostle have to wait at the gate, or in the porter’s lodge, till the learned upstairs have settled the matter.”
It is exactly here that I have always strongly disagreed with Kierkegaard, and therefore with Vanhoozer. This approach would maybe work if the only other options on the table were atheism or agnosticism. (He is primarily arguing against Van Harvey, a modernist; Nietzsche, a post-modernist; and Socrates, a rationalist.) But the Christian missionary mandate forces us into dialogue with Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, or neo-Paganism. If Koranic-fideism were to produce a similar wisdom, then would that not similarly count as evidence for the veridicality of Islam? In fact, John Hick makes essentially the same argument in defense of Normative Religious Pluralism: all the major world religions produce an equal proportion of ‘saints,’ (we could call them ‘people of wisdom’), and therefore they are all equally valid religious traditions.
But Vanhoozer argues that his system can resist collapsing into normative pluralism. He notes the need for an ethical dimension in epistemology: those who interpret reality must have epistemic virtues like passion for truth, humility, and courage to stand for one’s convictions; they must likewise avoid epistemic vices, like intellectual pride or ignoring inconvenient evidence. He notes that the wrong actions can refute a truth-claim more effectively than an opponent’s counter-argument. Through a play-on-words where the Greek root of martyr means witness, He argues that the Christian truth claim is best defended when Christians witness to the truth of their faith and are consequently persecuted for it, perhaps leading to martyrdom. Martyrdom confirms the veridicality of the doctrines of Christianity but not of Socrates or fanatics, he contends, because Socrates offered no answers, only questions; and fanatics have only a desire for truth, but lack other epistemic virtues like humility.
But again, this is not a compelling defense for the particularity of the Christian faith. Christians are not the only ones who possess these virtues. Even if it can be shown that Christians have a greater proportion of ‘true’ martyrs than other religious traditions, why this is anything more than an arbitrary standard remains a mystery. But even more disturbing is the counter-argument that follows: if epistemic vices count as evidence against one’s truth-claim, then there is significantly more evidence against Christian truth-claims than there is for it.
I have been looking for an epistemological foundation for my evangelical beliefs for several years now. When I first became a Christian, I was able to dismiss all epistemological questions related to my faith because of powerful experiences with God which were based on submission to Biblical teachings, not on theological or philosophical reflection. I think that position was important during that period of my life, but after a few years I yielded to the fact that mature Christian belief should involve theological reflection if it is to resist devolving into mere superstition. Since then I have never come up with an Evangelical epistemology that I have been satisfied with.
I am currently taking a Religious Epistemology course, taught by professor Keith Yandell. The course mostly follows his book on the same topic. I am hoping to use this as an opportunity to finally hammer out my own religious epistemology. My course grade will be based entirely on a twelve-page paper, due in two weeks. I am supposed to use formal logic, which I am about as comfortable with as I was doing geometric proofs in High School (not much). I’m hoping to use this blog to sort through the issues I want to deal with in that paper, or at least to lay the groundwork in my personal thoughts so that I can write something else.
Before I begin, I shall define my terms. By Evangelical theology (E), I mean theology that is based on the authority, infallibility, inerrancy, and inspiration of the Bible. I take it that E entails the following:
E1. God exists as Trinity, one substance consisting of three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
E2. Jesus Christ is God incarnate, both fully God and fully human.
E3. Jesus Christ rose bodily from the grave.
E4. Humanity is enslaved to sin and destined to spend eternity alienated from God in hell.
E5. Jesus Christ made atonement for the sins of humanity on the cross, so that those who believe in Him will receive salvation.
By salvation I mean (a) having communion with God, and (b) receiving eternal life rather than eternal damnation.
When I first began my critical reflection, my defense of E ran somewhat like this:
1. I had powerful experiences of God after believing in Jesus. (A subject for another post.)
2. Having an experience of God entails (is dependant on) having received salvation.
3. Therefore I received salvation after believing in Jesus.
4. E entails that those who believe in Jesus will receive salvation.
5. Therefore E is correct.
There are several problems with this logic, however. First, premise 2 is based on E4 and E5, but these premises are themselves based on premise 5, which they are being used to prove. E4 and E5 would need to be supported on other grounds. Perhaps with some imagination I could reword the premises in such a way that would be logically sound. But this is not my primary concern with the syllogism.
A more critical error is that Premise 5 does not follow from 3 and 4. It is a fallacy that follows the form A entails B; B; Therefore A. For example, “Someone who has an M.Div. degree has necessarily taken at least one theology class; I have taken a theology class; therefore I have my M.Div.”
One possible way to avoid this fallacy is to change it to an argument of inference to best explanation:
5*. Based on Premise 4, E provides the best explanation for Premise 3.
But it is not at all clear that E is the best explanation. Many people in contrary religions have also had experiences of God. At the very least we would need comparisons with the explanations offered by other religions. Perhaps this is best way to proceed, but it requires significantly more knowledge than I currently have (or am particularly excited about taking the time to acquire). Instead, let me propose an alternate theological system that I shall call Soteriologically Pluralistic theology (SP), which is essentially Deism without the anti-supernatural bias. SP is based on the following premises:
SP1. God exists.
SP2. God has interacted, and continues to interact, with various people at various times (i.e. through prophecy, miracles, etc.)
SP3. Individual eschatological salvation (receiving eternal life rather than eternal damnation) is available through a plurality of religions.
SP is not pluralism in the sense that it entails that the major world religions are equally correct. Rather, it is pluralistic in the sense that salvation is not limited to a particular religion. Put simplistically, SP is the idea that God is more concerned with our deeds than our creeds.
Taking account of SP, my revised defense of E looks somewhat like this:
3. I received salvation after believing in Jesus.
4′. Belief in Jesus is a religion (namely, Christianity).
5′. Therefore I received salvation through a religion.
6′. SP entails that salvation is available through a plurality of religions.
7′. Based on Premise 6′ and Premise 4, SP and E provide equal explanatory power for Premise 3.
I began looking for another defense of my faith. Christian apologetics seem to place a large focus on proving the Premise, God exists, but the connection from theism to Christianity rests entirely on the Resurrection. This argument runs as so:
R1. Jesus rose from the dead.
R2. If Jesus rose from the dead then E is correct.
R3. Therefore E is correct.
R1 was easy to accept when I thought my argument from experience confirmed E. When I am trying to use R1 to establish E, suddenly the arguments seem significantly weaker. It is easy to believe in the resurrection if I already have good reasons for being an evangelical, but when those reasons start to break down, the resurrection seems much less plausible. It is definitely not plausible enough to become a foundation for soteriological exclusivism! And even if we accept R1, I’m not entirely convinced of R2.
In contrast, SP has several factors that make it epistemically preferable to E. It accounts for positive aspects of other world religions in a way that is difficult for E. It avoids the problem of declaring large swaths of humanity (especially those who have never heard, or those who lived before the time of Christ) to be eternally damned. Finally, it has the support of some strands of Biblical narrative, such as Melchizadek and the Magi.
Again, I ask for your comments. I am not very happy with what I have written here yet, but it’s good enough for the blogsphere.
My exams finished up today. I also had to turn in my final assignments. Thought I’d post an idea I came across as I was writing one of my papers. It is a shift in epistemology in recent scholarship. Rather than viewing knowledge as an unbiased description of the world, Kuhn, Polanyi, and others have argued that knowledge is like a map in that it is only a close approximation of reality. It can never possibly include all the information. Yet it can be judged by how well it helps to provide insight into reality itself. This view of epistemology can help us avoid pitfalls of arrogance in our quest for knowledge by reminding us that we will never be able to answer every question. And just as we have several types of maps (topographical, road, political, etc.) and several scales (just look at mapquest), there are all types of knowledge, none of which can lay claim to the whole truth.
 I encountered this idea in Hiebert, Paul G. 1996. Critical Issues in the Social Sciences and Their Implications for Mission Studies. Missiology: An International Review XXIV: 65-82.