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What I don't get with Christian epistemology
June 11, 2013 Grant Robson

What I don't get with Christian epistemology

Posted in Forum Post

It seems reasonable to me to believe that there is intelligence behind our universe. I have no problem with this. In my opinion there are good philosophical arguments that can get an open-minded person at least to deism or a bare bones theism.

But the whole Christian religion hinges on the truth of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. And I can see no argument, philosophical or historical, that can get a person to this. Jesus may have been resurrected, but how can we, 2000 years later, know this? The historical arguments don’t work, for me anyway, because we don’t know how trustworthy the testimony of the gospel writers is, and even if it is trustworthy we don’t really know what it was they saw or experienced. The evidence is too flimsy.

So, how do people who call themselves Christians know that Jesus was resurrected? The whole religion hinges on this event after all, so it seems rather important to know whether it really happened or not! What could it be that could convince a person 2000 years after the event that a man was resurrected from the dead?

People have said “the holy spirit”. Well, if “the holy spirit” is responsible for this, then there’s nothing, no argument, that can convince the unbeliever since this is experiential knowledge, and apologetics seems a bit pointless.

Others have said that they believe it because the doctrines and the content of the Bible just ring true and make sense of life. Well, this may be the case, but could it not be the case that the reason Christianity as a religion resonates with human experience is because it was designed that way by the Church? I.e. to fulfill human needs. Why believe that its ringing true with human experience is because it comes from God rather than man?

I’m not hostile to Christianity. Far from it. But I have read many apologetics books and listened to many debates and talks by Christians, and I can never get beyond this resurrection issue. How can a person know such a thing?

Then again, what is truth anyway? As Graham Greene said in Travels with My Aunt: All characters once dead (…) tend to become fictions. Hamlet is no less real now than Winston Churchill. So, perhaps it doesn’t matter whether the resurrection really happened or not? Maybe the truth of Christianity is elsewhere, and the endless debate about what really happened is beside the point?

Comments (34)

  1. Kurt Jaros

    Grant, this is a nice post. And I think agree with you that saying the Holy Spirit convinces someone of the truth of the Gospel appears to be a form of begging the question.

    Two questions (one with a follow-up) come to mind for you.
    1. Are you familiar the typical resurrection argument put out there by William Lane Craig or Gary Habermas? If so, what problems do you have with the historical facts approach?

    2. Do you think your doubts concerning historiography might lead to some difficult positions such as doubting the fact concerning Abraham Lincoln’s life? Or if that’s too soon, how about Martin Luther (the Protestant Reformer)?

  2. Grant Robson Author

    Hi,
    What I’m skeptical about is the miraculous nature of some of the actions attributed to Jesus, especially the Resurrection. I’ve never seen a person resurrected, so I’d need to have a pretty good reason to believe in it. The minimal historical facts arguments of William Lane Craig and Gary Habermas are interesting, but inconclusive on their own. The gospel writers either believed or wanted to believe so much that they convinced themselves that a miracle had occurred. How one interprets this belief or desire to believe is a question of psychology or theology, but not history.

    I’ve been recommended books about the Resurrection before now by Christians, but I hold off from reading them because my issue with it is not a lack of facts, it is epistemological. What creates the belief in Christ’s resurrection in a person is not reading one person’s interpretation of a set of historical facts, because there are always alternative interpretations, and how does one choose which to believe?

    Historical facts are inherently uncertain, or at least they don’t have the tangible presence to us that physical facts do. So, something else is involved, and I suspect that it involves a person’s will: we believe because we want to believe. This is not to discredit Christianity: the will is mysterious, and several prominent atheists are on record as saying they are atheists because they don’t want God to exist. But it is to pose a perplexing and very deep philosophical question: what is the will? What forces underlie our actions and attitudes? Answer this and we’ll have edged a lot closer to the truth.

    Grant

    1. schorah.mail@virgin.net
      Chris Schorah 5 years ago

      Hi Grant
      Like Kurt, I have a lot of sympathy with your position and the honesty of your views. I came to faith through a very dramatic conversion encounter with God, which, as you say, is not transferable evidentially, people need to have their own. At the heart of the Christian faith is a restored relationship with God through Jesus, and that’s an experience, a continuing one, as you’re drawn closer to God and learn to live as a Jesus follower in His Kingdom. But, I agree, this is personal. However, I don’t agree that it’s predominantly a will issue, “ we believe because we want to believe”. I didn’t. At 35, I was in charge of my life; I didn’t want God interfering with it. But my God-encounter was so powerful it overcame my will. So we come to belief for different reasons. And that brings me to the evidence for Christianity.

      I belong to a group called Christians in Science. There are about 700 of us who are both committed Christians and research scientists. A small survey indicated that, unlike me, about 40% came to be believers first through the evidence and logic of the faith. Of course it’s then important to grow through a developing personal relationship with God, but for them the first step was the evidence.
      Now I did it the other way round, having experienced, I investigated and found that in spite of what some claim, I, as a research scientist, really do find the evidence alone compelling.
      It is so in four areas:
      1. The logic of the faith; something I think that you also see.
      2. The reliability of the NT accounts.
      3. The testimony of witnesses and the Church.
      4. The failure of persistent and vigorous attempts to discredit the faith.
      I’ve developed no. 2 a little in my 1st response to Brett Strong’s blog below on ‘the NT Jesus is a fictional character – lose the dogma’ and can provide some more information on the others if you’re interested.

      But to finish, let me consider your questions around the resurrection as a difficulty with regard to evidence. You’re right to say it’s central to Christianity and that direct historical evidence is unavailable. But it can be approached indirectly evidentially. Let me outline what I mean.
      As I indicated in response to Brett Strong, there are good investigative and historical arguments for accepting the reliability of the NT accounts in general. Indeed, the only argument against its historical reliability is that it contains implausible events – the resurrection. However, if it looks trustworthy generally, should we sceptical about this one aspect, central though it is, especially as there are good reasons for not doing so?
      1. We are dealing with the reporting of a unique occurrence, God with us on Earth. In such circumstances implausible events are what we would expect. It’s logical if the creator and sustainer of the Universe turns up in person and as a person that things would go beyond usual limits.
      2. When you look at the resurrection appearances in detail, although the event is startling, their reporting rings true: women eyewitness whose testimony is invalid in Jewish law; consistency on the central events by 6 different authors but variations in detail, just like genuine eyewitnesses; main witnesses not expecting what happened or how it developed; an amazing event requires an amazing aftermath: it occurred, the growth of the early Church against all the odds (see my question on this in my 2nd response to Brett’s blog).
      3. Finally the testimony of Christians to this day who claim to have experienced the risen Jesus in their lives. Yes, we’re back with experience and the fact that this can’t be appreciated by another person. However, some of these – mine included – when examined defy all neurological, psychological and even psychiatric explanations and therefore begin to become evidential.
      So there are ways of providing the resurrection with evidential support. Of course it doesn’t prove it happened, for that you have to have the personal testimony of Jesus actually in your life, but it does remove the improbability barrier.
      So Christianity is not without evidence, rather I consider that there’s more than enough support to be able trust it beyond the evidence and make that step of faith.
      Regards
      Chris

      1. Grant Robson Author

        Hi Chris,
        You weren’t conscious of wanting to believe, of wanting God interfering with your life. I accept that this is how you sincerely see what happened to you, but I know myself that I have little awareness of the underlying subconscious motivations that guide me in life, hence I would tend to understand your experience as there having been some subconscious desire in you to believe. With me, it’s the opposite, in some ways I’d like to believe in Jesus’ divinity, but I suspect that there may be a subconscious desire for it not to be true, or at the very least an unwillingness to surrender myself to such a truth. After all, a relationship with the creator and sustainer of the universe would not exactly be a relationship of equals! Demands would be made on me, and that makes me uncomfortable.
        Evidence and logic are not enough, they don’t produce a feeling of certainty – there’s always a possibility of being wrong – we are fallible, contingent beings and we’re trying to reason about things which transcend us, to fit the infinite into our finitude. In addition, though evidence and reasoning tell me that it is not unreasonable to believe in God, nevertheless this God is an abstraction, remote from our concerns, and therefore it’s hard to see how we could have a relationship with such a being. Yes, according to Christianity, God bridged that gap through the Incarnation, but I remain skeptical about the New Testament accounts of Jesus: what I’ve seen of the gospels feels like a developing mythology, but even if the Resurrection is true, I see no way that I can know it: it’s remote in a different way to the God of the philosophers – it’s remote in time, the witnesses are all long dead and the cultural landscape has changed since that time. I see no way to feel my way into that world and to what they are said to have experienced.
        Yes, if Jesus was God then it would expected that improbable things would happen, but one can’t reason along the lines: improbable things are said to have happened, ergo Jesus was God, logic just doesn’t work that way. I take on board the things you say about the resurrection appearances, but this, for me, could only be corroborative evidence for something I already had a prior reason to believe: I don’t see how these could lead me to believe without such prior reasons. A good fiction writer, after all, can produce lifelike, vivid descriptions of events that never happened and people that never existed, but that doesn’t mean therefore that the events in a Dostoyevsky novel, say, really happened.
        I think, if Christianity is true, it must come down to a personal experience of some sort. We can’t look at these issues completely dispassionately, people become Christians (or atheists, or even agnostics) for their own, existential, reasons, because they satisfy certain needs. There’s little we can have certainty about in life anyway, so we all rely on faith, on trust in people, institutions, and so on, to get us through life. We can never know for sure what the ultimate truth of things is, we just have to place our trust in something which makes sense of our experiences and allows us to live good lives. The feeling I have is that there is no way we can know the absolute truth, but then of course someone will object: how do I know that?! And I have no answer to that, just as no Christian or naturalist can have any completely satisfactory answer to how they know what they claim to know. We’re in the dark.
        Grant

        1. schorah.mail@virgin.net
          Chris Schorah 5 years ago

          Thanks Grant for you considered response. I agree with you that demands will be made on us in the Christian walk. It was one of my concerns as a pre-Christian. However, I had no concept or understanding of the spiritual empowering I was about to receive. I found that I was able to meet any demands, not in my own strength, but in Gods. And so I have discovered it to be more of a call than a demand. We are restored to what we were meant to be: even if for those, like me, who have received much, much will be expected.
          We also agree that the evidence and logic are not sufficient to bring us close to certainty, only encounters with God can do that (when the resurrected Jesus turns up in your life you know He’s risen). But, with respect, it seems that, to some extent, your trying to use evidence and logic to avoid such an encounter or to help you explain it away. Further, your counter arguments are not as strong as those in favor of Christianity.
          For example, whatever you may subjectively feel, CS Lewis, who was an expert in ancient legends, says the Gospels look nothing like the mythology of the times. As I’ve indicated, the NT also has many of the attributes of historically reliable accounts. The art of writing convincing fiction wasn’t invented till the 17th century!
          Further, there is no evidence that I became a Christian to meet certain needs in my life – just the opposite. Your suggestion of subconscious motives, for both of us, is an argument from silence. In any case, the actual encounter I had defies any known neurological explanation, either psychological or psychiatric.

          I can only recommend, having been on both sides of the fence, that you give God a try and genuinely ask Jesus into your life. Whilst there’s not enough evidence to force you to this (God wants us to build a relationship with Him, not demand it of us by the weight of the evidence), there’s enough rational support to make this response coherent. It meets one of your requirements; that of making enough sense to put our trust in it. So why not try following Jesus and find some committed Christians to get alongside you, and see what happens?
          Regards
          Chris

          1. Grant Robson Author
            Grant Robson 5 years ago

            Hi Chris,
            Thanks for that. So, to know God is to receive a spiritual empowering. Translated into non-religious language, that could perhaps be understood to mean that you feel, as a result of Jesus “turning up in your life”, energized and better equipped to deal well with life’s challenges. This sounds great, but of course, as you know, it’s not going to convince the non-Christian, because of course a person will feel different if they feel that God is with them.
            The hard to answer question, probably impossible to answer, is the epistemic one: how does a person know why they feel what they feel? Well, we don’t have the answers for that, we just know that we feel something. From the outside I probably can’t know, perhaps there is something about the quality of what you feel that means that you just know, in the way that we “know” that the external world exists, etc. Could you describe what it feels like to know God/ Jesus? Probably not, but that is what would be needed for us outsiders to have any chance of understanding it.
            I’d say I’m using logic and argument because I don’t know of any other way of assessing claims to knowledge of things outside my own domain of experience. It’s not that I’m trying to avoid an encounter with God – as far as I can tell I’d love to know God! – but I guess God has to want to know me too. And if I did ask Jesus into my life, and did experience something like that which you describe, the epistemic question would still arise – how do we know this is real rather than a delusion?
            I don’t know anything much about mythology. I just look at the gospel writers’ accounts and I see what looks like embellishment and development in the stories. Fiction writing as a social norm may not have become more fully developed until later centuries, but that doesn’t mean that no-one did it in earlier times, the human capacities were surely there.
            As regards the subconscious, I’d say that if current science has no explanations for your encounter, it doesn’t mean that it won’t find one some day. But really, science is irrelevant: the point is surely a commonplace one, that our motives in life are never completely clear and transparent to us, we are indeed in the dark and have to rely on our emotions as much as our reason to guide us.
            I respect your views. You may be right. I don’t know is the point. And, assuming for the sake of argument, that Christianity is true, it isn’t, in any case, up to us whether God bestows the grace upon us so that we can know him – it’s in his hands not ours. It seems that to be a Christian you have to believe first and then you know, it’s a matter of the will, and that is, for me, uncomfortably close to wishful thinking.
            Grant

          2. schorah.mail@virgin.net
            Chris Schorah 5 years ago

            Grant, you ask the question ‘how do we know the experience of God turning up in our life is real and not a delusion’? As you see from what I’ve already said, when you’ve eliminated all the possible natural explanations – emotion, cognitive dissonance, psychiatric conditions, wishful thinking etc – then what remains, however improbable, must be the answer. However, in this case, what remains, God turning up, is not improbable, because it what the Jesus promised and the early Church testified to. You say that science may yet find a natural explanation! Well that’s an argument from silence and much more wishful thinking than accounts for my experience.
            Further, the encounter changed my life, including stopping my heavy drinking – immediately: delusions can’t sustain things like that. The Bible suddenly started to make sense and it came alive, small miracles started to happen and generally there was and remains a sense of Gods presence with me. I can describe how that felt at first, as you ask – overwhelming sense of elation, peace and certainty, which suddenly appeared as I was driving the car and lasted for three days – but that is subjective and I’m not sure how it helps a third party.
            With regard to some other points. Yes, people at the time of Jesus wrote fiction (Greek and Roman mythology are examples) but it doesn’t look anything like the Gospels, which are placed in a historically accurate geographical and social/cultural context of the times. This adds to the evidence of the historical reliability of the Gospels that I listed in my response to Brett Strong.
            Finally, unlike you, I consider our relationship with God is in our hands. His grace is available to anyone, it’s up to us whether we choose to accept it or not. I wish you well in your journey with this, Grant. I don’t think the hurdles that you have in place are as insurmountable as they seem from your side. In any case, I know from my own experience that God is well able to help you over them if you ask Him.
            Shalom and blessings
            Chris

          3. Grant Robson Author
            Grant Robson 5 years ago

            Hi Chris,
            I see indeed that if a person had such an experience as you describe and all possible natural explanations have been eliminated then they may well be justified in inferring to God. The overwhelming sense of elation, peace and certainty you describe sounds wonderful, but I’d probably have to experience it myself to truly understand what you mean – words can’t describe our subjective experiences, certainly not novel ones which compare to nothing in common experience. If you truly have experienced God’s intervention in your life, then what caused it is probably not anything we can grasp and describe, as in “do x, y and z and God will appear”, though I do suspect it has something to do with the will: not, as I say, a criticism, simply a reflection of the mysteriousness of the will, from the human perspective.
            Grant

          4. schorah.mail@virgin.net
            Chris Schorah 5 years ago

            I fully agree, Grant, that God encounters are not anything you can induce through a formula and that you’d need to experience them to grasp their full impact. But reasoning through my own encounter gives me no logical basis on which to consider that it was anything to do with my will. How the sub-conscious could create an occurrence against my understanding, experience or knowledge and sustain it, dramatically, for three days is beyond my rationalizing.
            I’ll just have to go with it being God. It’s the explanation that fits the facts and it works, as I believe it could for anyone willing, honestly, to give Jesus a try: all we have to do is ask.
            Chris

  3. gracedunlap@hotmail.com
    Graceus 5 years ago

    Hi, Grant. I wrote a reply to another skeptic on RCA. You may want to read it since it addresses the same questions/objections that you have on historical methodology and miracles http://socialapologetics.com/blogs/brettstrong/christians-the-nt-jesus-is-a-fictional-characterso-lose-the-dogma/#comment-4051.

  4. Grant Robson Author

    Insofar as I can judge as a non-Christian, the crucial motivating factor that causes a person to become a Christian is not evidential, it is something that they perceive in the whole Christian way of relating to reality that speaks to the heart, that resonates deeply with the unconscious. So, the epistemic peculiarity lies in the apparent fact, if Christians are to be believed, that something rooted deeply in the unconscious of the present links our knowing mind to a 2000 year-old event that otherwise could not be known in any of the ways we are familiar with coming to know events in the here-and-now. I know my chair exists because I can feel and see it, I know my friends exist because I hear their voices and see their faces. But Jesus can not be known in these ways by us, so the epistemic act a Christian performs seems rather different from our other epistemic acts. I imagine it, as an outsider, as having perhaps that mysterious quality possessed by creativity, both scientific and artistic, in that it wells up from a place we can’t quite grasp by a process we can’t describe…

    1. schorah.mail@virgin.net
      Chris Schorah 5 years ago

      Whether it’s linking back to Jesus’ death and resurrection through our subconscious or whether it’s the power of Jesus’ Spirit present with Christians now, as He promised it would be, God encounters/awarenesses still defy natural explanations. Their ubiquitous nature among Christians indicates that, however it happens, the miraculous creation-transforming event 2000 years ago plugs believers into the power and presence of God.
      We can debate endlessly over the details of how this happens and never know the answer, because God is so transcendent and omnipotent compared to us. But we can know the ‘why’ because that’s clear in scripture. It’s to restore to God, through accepting Jesus into our lives, anyone who asks and then to help us begin to build the Kingdom of God on earth. We are spiritually reborn to become a new creation to help redeem Creation.

  5. Grant Robson Author

    Hi Chris,
    You’ll just have to go with it being God, you say. So, you’ve had certain experiences, which you judge could not come from your unconscious desires/ needs, and therefore you (your will) has decided to infer to what makes sense of it for you. That’s fair enough, but it still does involve the will. I haven’t had any “God experiences”: if I ever do then I may make the same inference as you, but I feel that until such a time as I do have such an experience I could not epistemically justify that leap of faith. So, for example, if I were to make the decision now to become a Christian, start reading the Bible and going to church, the works, then I suspect that I’d always feel at some level a fraud, because I’d be doing it without sufficient epistemic warrant. So I guess that, if it really is true that Jesus is God, then I must hope that something happens to move my will in such a way that I can feel warranted in trusting that it is true.
    Grant

    1. schorah.mail@virgin.net
      chrisschorah 5 years ago

      Hi Grant
      I’ve been away; so sorry my response is late.
      I agree that, by your line of reasoning, my will was involved – a reasoned decision was made by my mind because the evidence, from my perspective, demanded it. But that’s how we reach all decisions and understandings that we’re conscious of. There’s nothing special about knowledge of God on this point. Yet, by not allowing encounters with God (activities of the mind), scripture (the written eyewitness evidence) and contact with other Christians (the Church), you’re excluding almost all possible forms of ‘theistic knowing’ and so will probably never have “sufficient epistemic warrant” to accept God, even if He does exist and Christianity is true. Further, I doubt that you would require other forms of ‘knowing’ to have to do so much work before you accepted their truth!
      From my perspective that’s really sad because this isn’t an academic exercise of just knowing if God exists or of having eternal life in the sky when you die. A real knowing of God through Jesus (however you come to it) actually changes your life here and now. From my observation, we become people who are more fulfilled, content and peaceful than we were and better able to bring the Kingdom of God wherever we are – to be Jesus to other people.
      So unless you have an epistemological objection, I’ll continue to pray that you’ll receive a form of ‘knowing’ about God that you will be able to accept evidentially.
      Shalom
      Chris

      1. Grant Robson Author

        Hi Chris,
        No problem re delay.
        I do allow encounters with God. If you feel you’ve encountered God then I will not disagree with you. The point is merely that I haven’t experienced anything that I would see as encountering God, and that therefore I could not use your testimony as evidence for my decision-making. You could be honestly mistaken in your interpretation of what you’ve experienced, after all – I’m in no position to judge. Scripture, what I’ve read of it, has not convinced me, it doesn’t quite ring true, especially, as I mentioned just before to Todd, the regular appearances of angels and occurrences of miracles. Contact with other Christians via the Church I admit I’m cautious about, because of the psychological problem of group-think, the fact that humans are apt to adopt the beliefs and attitudes of people they spend a lot of time around. But that’s probably reason more for caution than for complete avoidance of the Church. I think also the fact that the Church in the UK is established is a barrier – they are seen as part of the Establishment. And the Catholic church has certain illiberal attitudes which put me off a bit.
        I’m certainly happy for you to pray for me, thank you! If God wants to know me, I certainly want to know him, so anything that might help is welcome! 🙂
        Grant

  6. todd.moody@gmail.com
    Todd Moody 5 years ago

    “Jesus may have been resurrected, but how can we, 2000 years later, know this? The historical arguments don’t work, for me anyway, because we don’t know how trustworthy the testimony of the gospel writers is, and even if it is trustworthy we don’t really know what it was they saw or experienced. The evidence is too flimsy.”

    The general thrust of historical apologetics is that the evidence for the resurrection is at least as good as the evidence for other historical events that we don’t doubt, such as the execution of Socrates. The skeptical response of people like Bart Ehrman and others is that if the alleged historical event is miraculous then the kind of evidence that’s good enough for non-miraculous events, like the death of Socrates, simply isn’t good enough. Indeed, no evidence of the sort that historiography can provide rises to the level of evidence for the miraculous.

    That’s the epistemological problem in a nutshell, isn’t it?

    A simplified Bayesian understanding of evidence looks something like this: Let’s say we have some information, E, that we think is evidence for the truth of some claim, C. For E in fact to be evidence for C, E must make C more likely to be true than C would be without E, given background knowledge.

    If your “background knowledge” includes the stipulation that the laws of nature are exhaustive, and the physical world is causally closed, and if you understand miracles to be intrusions into the natural order by an agency outside of it, then the “background probability” of any alleged miracle is zero. It is then pointless to talk about evidence for something already classified as impossible.

    If God exists, then it’s at least possible that the natural order is not causally closed. So to even a “bare-bones theist” the resurrection becomes a matter that is at least in principle susceptible to evidential reasoning, because theism makes resurrection possible.

    So ask yourself this: Given the possibility of resurrection, given theism, suppose for the sake of the argument that it actually happened. What might count as evidence for such an occurrence? What might the evidence look like?

    Well, these are the sorts of things that might have evidential value:

    1. Empty tomb, missing body.
    2. Reports of sightings of the one who died, by numerous people, under different circumstances.
    3. Dramatic psychological changes in at least some of those witnesses. (I think witnessing the brutal death of someone you loved and admired, and then witnessing that person’s post-mortem appearance in a credible way would have a powerful effect on plenty of people.)
    4. The absence of refuting evidence. Sure, there were people who claimed, even back then, that the body was stolen, but nobody ever produced any evidence of who stole it or what they did with it. Nobody is on record challenging Paul’s claim that many saw the risen Jesus.

    None of this amounts to proof, of course, but I do think it rises to the level of real evidence. Whether it’s enough evidence depends on a lot of factors, including just how far you’re willing to trust that bare-bones theism. I haven’t had any powerful experiences, and I fully understand the problem of warrant that you mention, Grant.

    I’m not as “advanced” a Christian as others who have replied. I have many of the same doubts and questions you have, but I decided not long ago that I wouldn’t judge myself to be a fraud as long as could make a sincere effort to grapple with whatever did happen 2,000 or so years ago. I’m confident it was something astonishing, even if I never get to the point where I feel I understand it. Maybe that decision was God moving my will, or maybe not. I simply don’t know, and I don’t need to know. After four or five decades of struggling with doubts and questions from outside the faith, but never being quite able to just walk away, I’m now struggling with them from inside. In a way, everything is still the same, but in a way it’s all completely different.

    1. Grant Robson Author

      Hi Todd,
      You make a good point when you say that you are now struggling with the doubts and questions from the inside rather than the outside. So the doubts and questions don’t go away for the Christian – you simply grapple with them from a different perspective. It indicates also that the way to belief is not through the arguments but through some sort of shift in perspective. That’s maybe why I’ve heard Christians say that when they received God’s grace the rational arguments suddenly seemed unimportant. None of us will know the truth with any certainty before we die anyway, so in a sense the striving after epistemic certainty in matters of metaphysics is futile: we have lives to lead. If the life a person lives as a Christian is a better, happier, more vital, productive and meaningful life than before they became a Christian, then this person is entirely justified in their choice: if (s)he’s wrong, what difference does it make? I’d say none.
      So, a person will be a Christian, or a naturalist, or an agnostic like me, and the prime reason underlying this choice must lie in the will rather than the intellect, maybe acted on by God via grace – I don’t know. The Resurrection cannot be proven, as you say – if it could, then there’d be no leap of faith required.
      Grant

  7. todd.moody@gmail.com
    Todd M 5 years ago

    I can only speak for myself, not for Christians in general. I know there are plenty of Christians who wouldn’t consider me a Christian, given my lack of assent to some things, but that’s not really to the point here. In any case, I agree that the striving after epistemic certainty is futile, and not just in the context of religious questions. I don’t think, however, that it’s pointless to strive for understanding without epistemic certainty.

    For many years, I held the view that, since no one can know for sure, it doesn’t really matter. But at some level I was bothered by this. It was, I think, a posture. As I said above, I couldn’t leave these questions alone. Something kept drawing me back.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not claiming that all agnostics or atheists are like this. My own father never showed the faintest interest in the existence of God, not even when he was dying. Neither was he a particularly strident atheist. He clearly wasn’t a believer, but it wasn’t something he spent much time thinking about. For me, it was different. The question of God’s existence and, more generally, “What kind of a world is this?”, was never far from my mind.

    I don’t think the various arguments make a believer out of anyone, but they do help to remove various barriers to belief. If, for example, you have a vague sense that all the arguments for the existence of God were refuted centuries ago, you’ll feel more comfortable ignoring any contemporary work on them. You tune them out. If you hold a stereotype in your mind that only certain kinds of people are believers–a kind of people you don’t admire much–you do the same. You turn away from taking a careful look at things (Please note that I’m using “you” in a generic sense, not directed at you in particular).

    From such a comfortably insulated position, it can be a shock to come across the work of people of formidable intellect, such as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, and C.S. Lewis. I knew about them for quite awhile before I actually delved into their work. Somehow I always had other things to do. When I finally did read what they had to say, I could feel the furniture in my mind being rearranged. I became aware that the arguments hadn’t all been decisively refuted 300 years ago, but had been refined and made stronger and more nuanced.

    I’d never try to persuade anyone to abandon naturalism or agnosticism because doing so will make them happier. I have no clue what will make you or anyone else happy. For me, ceasing to be an agnostic/atheist has been at times frustrating. But I simply couldn’t walk away from it all. The resurrection can’t be proven but a respectable case can be made. The same is true for God’s existence. What you or anyone else does with that depends on who you are and what you are satisfied with, and I don’t think it’s anyone’s job but yours to figure that out.

    1. Grant Robson Author

      Hi,

      As far as I’m concerned, the essence of Christianity is Christ’s atoning resurrection. If you believe that, you are a Christian. If it’s true, it certainly does matter, and we all need to know it, which begs the question: why does God make the most important thing in our lives impossible to know with any degree of certainty? Why does he make our attitudes so (apparently) contingent on historical accidents of birth, social status and upbringing? So, for example, I could probably explain my attitudes, including my agnosticism, completely with reference to my upbringing and earlier life experiences. I also have the impression that for many atheism can be traced back to negative experiences with religion in earlier life, and that many Christians have had Christian parents. How can God, who apparently loves us and wants us to know him, allow a person’s eternal fate to be so overwhelmingly contingent on things outside our control?

      God’s silence is deeply puzzling. Would you not think that he would want to communicate somehow (and unambiguously) to his creatures that their life is meaningful, that there is hope and that our moral instincts matter?

      Like you, I have always wanted to know why I’m here, whether I have any moral duties, whether life has any meaning or point to it. My parents though, like yours, are indifferent to religion, and it would seem more generally these days that for many the existential questions of life don’t appear to matter, they’re seen as “silly” questions, as Richard Dawkins has said. This makes me wonder whether the need to spend time considering such questions says more about human psychological needs than about metaphysics. After all, it does appear to be true that we can’t know for sure what we’re here for, so why spend time trying to understand? Just accept that it’s all beyond our ken, and just get on with making the best of the short lives that we have. Maybe that’s a healthier attitude. And if God does want to have a relationship with you or me, then I think we can trust that he’ll find a way.

      Yes, there are many Christian writers with first class intellects. But, having read many of them, I always hit the brick wall of faith. Christianity can not be completely rationally justified, there’s a point at which faith is required, faith in an event that supposedly happened 2000 years ago, and that’s what I can not seem to accept.

      Grant

  8. todd.moody@gmail.com
    Todd M 5 years ago

    Hi Grant,
    I have more confidence in the resurrection than in the atonement aspect of it, which I confess confuses me. I have trouble with the idea that humanity is “falled” from some higher state. So you see what I mean when I say that plenty of Christians don’t recognize me as one of them. I don’t pretend to know exactly what form the resurrection took; I think scripture is equivocal and confusing on that point. Neither do I believe that scripture is “inspired” or inerrant. I think the resurrection appearances of Jesus were not hallucinations; they were real in some sense, but not in a sense that I really understand. In some instances he seems to have had ordinary physical properties; in other instances not.

    I do not subscribe to the kind of Christianity according to which my eternal fate depends upon my assenting to a precisely defined set of propositions. I think the take-home message of the resurrection is that we have an eternal fate, but I find scripture again equivocal and confusing as to just what it is like. And I’m clearly not the only one, since the history of Christianity is replete with different interpretations of heaven, hell, and purgatory.

    As you can see, I’m not much of an evangelist. I don’t think faith is “required” of you. I think the message of apologetics is that it’s okay to take the further step of faith, and by doing so you don’t plunge over a cliff in irrationality. We all must live our lives and make decisions before all the evidence is in, and in many cases all the evidence will never be in. So we look at the evidence we do have and step out into uncertainty. It’s not as if believing in the resurrection is anyone’s first or only such step.

    The question of God’s silence is worth pondering. Is he really silent? Do you think the entire record of humanity’s encounters with the divine amounts to silence? I don’t. It’s one thing to say that he hasn’t revealed himself in a way that you or I might prefer; it’s something else to say that he hasn’t revealed himself at all.

    Some people appear to have powerful direct encounters with God. You and I aren’t among them. So have we been gypped? Do you think God owes us such apparently self-validating experiences? Isn’t it also possible that God wants us to learn to trust each other and not take the position “I’ll only believe it if it happens to me”?

    Years ago, when I was in college, I read the poetry of John Donne, William Blake, John Milton, etc. I thought to myself, these guys are either utterly deluded or they are expressing something that I can barely imagine. It’s easy enough, I suppose, to say that they were the dupes of their own overheated imaginations, but personally I can’t really believe that.

    I think God reveals himself to people, over and over, and through those people he reveals himself to the rest of us, if we’re willing to see the transformations in those people. It’s like a process of induction. Whatever happened to Paul/Saul on the road to Damascus was enough to move Jews to trust him, even though he had been one of the most loathed and feared people in their midst. I don’t think it follows that everything Paul then said or wrote was the Word of God.

    Well, I guess I’ve made my point. I’m not persuaded that God is silent.

    1. Grant Robson Author

      Hi Todd,

      The idea of humanity’s being “fallen” makes perfectly good sense to me. Many of us have a sense of falling far short of how we should and could be, of being selfish, lazy, careless etc. So, I have no problems with that. For me, it’s the Resurrection that’s the big epistemological problem: if something strange did indeed happen, how can we know it?

      Our eternal fate though does depend on whether or not we acknowledge that how we live our lives matters to more than ourselves, that we have a higher purpose. Our world-view unavoidably and often unconsciously dictates how we live our lives. To me, billions of humans have existed throughout history, as well as billions of animals: I see no evidence that the intelligence that I do believe lies beyond the universe has any interest in the trivial lives or the fates of particular individuals. I’d love to think that God cared what I do with my life, but I have no sense that he does. The Resurrection though says that God does care about us. So, there’s a mismatch here between what the Bible tells us and reality as I experience it. The Resurrection would be easier to accept if I had a sense of his presence and if I saw evidence in the world around me that God cares.

      God may have revealed himself to individual people in history. But that is not knowable by me. All we have is written testimonies of uncertain origin. I don’t think that God owes me anything, but if he loves us as Christians say he does then one would surely expect some encounters of some sort? What happened to Paul on the road to Damascus is intriguing, but we just don’t know enough to judge. Maybe he had an epileptic fit, perhaps he “embellished” his experiences, perhaps, with the death of Jesus, he saw a “gap” in the religious market, a chance to make a name for himself? Who knows? How could we know?

      Grant

  9. todd.moody@gmail.com
    Todd M 5 years ago

    ” I’d love to think that God cared what I do with my life, but I have no sense that he does. The Resurrection though says that God does care about us. So, there’s a mismatch here between what the Bible tells us and reality as I experience it. The Resurrection would be easier to accept if I had a sense of his presence and if I saw evidence in the world around me that God cares.”

    There is evidence for the resurrection; there just isn’t proof. There’s other evidence of God revealing himself, in the form of miracles. Again, it’s not proof, but you asked for evidence. And there’s the evidence of the people to whom he has revealed himself in some more direct way. You say it’s “not knowable” by you, but that doesn’t mean there’s no evidence.

    I agree, it’s hard to know what exactly happened to Paul, although it was apparently pretty remarkable. But Paul is by no means the last person to have been swept off his feet. There are many, many other accounts. Do you want to say that they all add up to…what? Delusion? That options is left open to us, but for my own part I eventually came to the realization that I couldn’t believe that.

    Not long ago, I read Finding Calcutta by Mary Poplin. I recommend it, as a good account of an intellectual academic liberal who was taken completely off guard. There are plenty of other accounts like that, going all the way back to Augustine’s Confessions. I have found that at some point I had to stop insisting on the shortcomings of the various apologetics and start listening to people’s stories. Really listening.

    I read apologetics for years and was utterly unmoved, at least consciously. It was as if I was waiting for someone to knock a hole in naturalism big enough for me to stroll through without messing up my hair. But it doesn’t seem to work like that. Not for me, anyway.

    I had to learn to listen to people’s stories.

    A few days ago, I stumbled on a reference to the late Reynolds Price, and started reading his Three Gospels. I’m finding it a very good way to encounter the Jesus narrative in a fresh way. Scripture doesn’t “speak” to me very well, so I needed this.

    1. Grant Robson Author

      Hi Todd,

      Yes, sure, there’s evidence for the Resurrection, I agree with you. I just feel that there’s something missing for me which would enable me to assent to its truth, and I think it’s something to do with the will, or the emotions.

      I wouldn’t like to say for definite that Paul was either deluded or deceptive. What I’m saying is to do with epistemology: how can we know? And it just seems to me that we can’t know: we weren’t there and I’ve not experienced anything even remotely like what he’s said to have experienced, so I have no way of judging – after all, part of how we judge things to be true involves us comparing the anecdotal experiences of others with our own, and if there’s some similarity there, then that perhaps gives us warrant to believe what someone tells us.

      Thanks for the book recommendations. Finding Calcutta may be interesting, though I don’t think I have the temperament or personality to want particularly to devote a lot of my time to helping others, if I’m honest, so this perhaps wouldn’t help me. I have ordered a copy of the Reynolds Price book though, as that looks more like something that would appeal to my turn of mind, since I’m an inveterate (perhaps pathological!) thinker. Perhaps this book will be a fresher read. Like you, I find scripture doesn’t appeal much: whenever I’ve read bits of the NT, I find it rather repetitive and replete with things which don’t ring true, primarily the almost casual way angels appear, and miracles occur. This is not how I experience the world, which makes me feel that it must surely be myth.

      There’s already a gaping hole in naturalism, so far as I’m concerned. I was never a naturalist: it always seemed an odd belief system to me. It just seems obvious to me that the universe doesn’t explain itself, that there is something necessary and nonphysical beyond the contingent natural world. Christian apologetics speaks to me in a way that secular philosophy rarely has, it has an appeal to me, but, of course, just because you like something doesn’t mean it’s true, and the big problem with Christianity for me is finding a satisfactory warrant for belief in the Resurrection. If Jesus wasn’t resurrected, then Christianity is barking up the wrong tree, to paraphrase Paul!

      Grant

  10. todd.moody@gmail.com
    Todd M 5 years ago

    Hello again. I didn’t recommend the Mary Poplin book primarily for it’s views on “helping others”, but for its account of the author’s personal transformation. But it’s not hard to find video of her telling her story, so that might be the simpler thing to do. She’s done a few Veritas Forum events over the last few years.

    I think it’s interesting that you say, ” I just feel that there’s something missing for me which would enable me to assent to its truth, and I think it’s something to do with the will, or the emotions.” I feel that I know exactly what you mean. It’s a kind of inner resistance that demands ever more and better evidence. At least that’s how I experience it. Note the present tense. It’s also why I’ve come to find more value in the experiences of actual people. They don’t do much on the “warrant” side of things, but I increasingly see that as a trap for overheated thinkers like us.

    That doesn’t mean that I surrender my powers of reasoning, far from it. It means that I cease trying to be a Vulcan about this one thing. I struggle with scripture because it’s saturated with centuries of interpretation. It’s hard to hear or read even a little bit without hearing all those echoes. I’m liking the Reynolds Price book, which includes fresh translations of Mark and John, precisely because he attempts to recover the raw crudeness of Mark, and he lays out all the questions, including the ones without answers.

    As for angels and miracles, the history of the world is permeated with accounts of angelic encounters and miracles. And if you dare, try asking people what they’ve experienced. If they trust you and feel safe, you’ll be surprised at what you hear. People tend to be silent about such things unless they feel safe with the people to whom they’re speaking.

    Another book worth reading is Extraordinary Knowing, by Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer. This book has little or nothing to do with religion, but everything to do with the cultural gag order that is in place when it comes to anything anomalous, especially among the educated.

    Miracles are more well documented. It is to the credit of the Catholic Church that they have a rigorous procedure of examining miracles. Of the thousands of miracles claimed at Lourdes, they’ve only approved 65 or so. Some of the rejected cases are as amazing as anything you’re likely to find anywhere. We live in an era during which we use terms like “psychosomatic” and “spontaneous remission” as if they actually explained anything.

    In any case, I’ve enjoyed the conversation.

    1. Grant Robson Author

      Hi,
      I listened to and enjoyed a Veritas podcast by Mary Poplin – interesting, so thanks for the recommendation, but she said little about what made her become a believer.
      Experiences of people, yes, we should listen, but also have some skepticism. There are psychological forces at work, which means we need to be cautious. But the evidential approach is inconclusive too, so it’s hard to see what would convince me, failing God’s intervention.
      Angels and miracles – well, I’ve never met anyone who experienced such a thing, so I’m naturally skeptical. But there is much that is strange about reality, so I don’t reject them out of hand. The Bible though is saturated with such things, and that to me makes it suspect: miracle claims today are sparse and very few.
      I’ve enjoyed the conversation too. I look forward to speaking to you again. Thanks for the interaction.
      Grant

  11. todd.moody@gmail.com
    Todd M 5 years ago

    “Experiences of people, yes, we should listen, but also have some skepticism. There are psychological forces at work, which means we need to be cautious. But the evidential approach is inconclusive too, so it’s hard to see what would convince me, failing God’s intervention.”

    Certainly we should be cautious, but I have to wonder: Does caution entail suspending belief unless the evidence is conclusive? I suppose that was William Clifford’s view, and it was mine too, but only in theory. I was an evidentialist hypocrite! For some things, I’d insist on caution and the need for conclusive evidence, but for other things I’d have no such requirement. Like most people, I have all sorts of political beliefs for which my evidence is anything but conclusive. In fact, if I conduct an inventory of my own beliefs, the ones for which I have conclusive evidence make a pretty short list.

    As for miracles again…well yes, there are quite a few recorded in the NT. Then again, if Jesus was anything even close to what he seemed to be saying he was, then I guess you’d expect a higher density of miracles in conjunction with his life than whatever the background rate of miracles might be. The Bible doesn’t pretend to record random samplings of events. Much of what is recorded is there precisely because it is extraordinary.

    I don’t know how sparse miracle claims are today. I do know that the relentless secularism of Western culture has made people more reticent to talk about them, but I’ve found that if you can manage to get past that barrier, people have things to tell you about.

    1. Grant Robson Author

      Hi Todd,
      Well, actually, I think what it comes down to is the following. A person will suspend taking on a belief until it becomes emotionally and existentially compelling. So, for example, I am, most certainly, by the Christian understanding of the term, a sinner. I fall morally way short of the mark. But until that fact takes on significance emotionally, it doesn’t seem to matter and there’s little impetus to act on it.

      To be a true Christian means putting God (or rather Jesus) at the centre of your life, and that means you have to have a living sense that Jesus exists and can be meaningfully related to. The God I believe in though is the one inferred via Aquinas’s 5 Ways; and this God is remote from us, an abstraction, a theoretical construct. And why would I want to put a theoretical construct at the centre of my life? To believe in this remote God seems little different in practice from being an atheist. What is needed is a change of heart, and that can only come when a person feels that God is a living reality: it requires a personal witnessing of miracles, and/ or a personal experience of God’s presence.

      It’s not just the miracles of Jesus you find in the Bible, it’s the almost casual way that miracles, and visions and angels, are strewn throughout the text. It is not a world I recognize. I don’t have any a priori objection to miracles, I just need a good reason to believe that one has occurred. Yes, people may experience such things today, maybe the secularism of today does get in the way, but it is still a barrier.
      Grant

  12. todd.moody@gmail.com
    Todd M 5 years ago

    Grant,
    I appreciate what you’re saying, as far as the purely philosophical approach to God is concerned. In fact, I’d say much the same about the Resurrection. Although a reasonable evidential case (not rising to the level of certainty, but reasonable) can be made, it’s still existentially “dry”. Even if I can take on the almost unfathomable notion of the Incarnation…what then?

    I have no personal sense of the living reality of God, and no “personal relationship” with him. My heart is too wrapped in my head. I assume that if these things are possible for me, I don’t experience them because of barriers that I myself have put in place; but I don’t know that for sure. This is why, for me personally, the closest I can come to the living reality of God is in the experiences of others. If they are all simply deluded, then so am I. I’m okay with that possibility, and I don’t expect it to go away. For me the choice is: Do I want to be inspired or do I want to avoid being wrong at all costs?

    I think you touch on something important, in your comment about the “casual” way miracles are mentioned in the Bible. Miracles, if they occur at all, are extraordinary events. That was as true in Biblical times as it is today. They’re not just signs, but “wonders” too. But although they were extraordinary back then, I don’t think they were regarded as an offense to reason, as they are often regarded today. Today, to claim to have witnessed a miracle is to risk being regarded as a mental defective, by many. But as I say, if you are willing to ask, to create a safe space for it, you may find that the world you live in isn’t as devoid of miracles as you think.

    The world that you (and I) “recognize” is a construct, carefully but mostly unconsciously defended. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to understand the power of this defense. In polite society–especially among intellectuals–we simply don’t ask or talk about miracles or angels. It’s just not done.

    Craig Keener wrote his two-volume work on miracles precisely because he recognized your point, that miracles are not part of the world you and I recognize. But they are part of the lived reality of most of the world, through all of history, nonetheless. They are there, in the footnotes of human existence. They always have been.

    Todd

    1. Grant Robson Author

      Hi Todd,

      What then? Precisely. It makes zero difference to our lives, the God of the philosophers. We need a God we can relate to.

      I was surprised to hear you admit that you, like me, have no personal sense of the living reality of God. So, you are actually in many ways in very much the same place as me. The only difference between us appears to be that you are willing to trust the testimony of others, and to risk their all being deluded, whereas I am scared of being wrong.

      It does sound though that to you this is about the quality of your life now. You want to be inspired. It isn’t that you want eternal life. And that is precisely the same with me. Eternal life doesn’t sound all that great to me. Indeed it sounds rather boring! What I do want though is to live with the abundance that Jesus promised. To live fully. And when I look at the atheist/ secular humanist lifestyle, it doesn’t attract me the way Christianity does; it is a world-view that it is hard, for me anyway, to get passionate about. How can a person feel passionate about “humanity”, if this is no more than an abstraction? Well, I can’t, for sure – any more than I can feel passionate about a “first cause” of the universe! But Jesus, yes, I can see that, if he’s for real, then there’s good reason to feel passionate about this character, and that would affect a person’s life very profoundly.

      Yes, miracles are seen as an offense to reason by many today. But this is not rational. We understand nothing about how reality truly is, our scientific knowledge is an accumulation of facts about how things have always worked in the past. There’s no reason why things must always behave in the same way though, that is an assumption. Hence it’s perfectly rational to believe in the possibility of miracles, though whether it’s rational to believe in reported actual miracles is another question. I’d love to see a miracle! Who wouldn’t? We should investigate reports of miracles, but I think it is true that the currently predominant naturalistic world-view makes that hard for many to justify. Things will change though, no world-view lasts for all that long (except Christianity, it seems, I wonder what that signifies?!), and naturalism will fade in time.

      Grant

  13. todd.moody@gmail.com
    Todd M 5 years ago

    Morning Grant,

    Yes, there’s not much difference between us, which is why I was moved to reply to you in the first place. Your comments made perfect sense to me.

    But let me say this: The God of the philosophers isn’t devoid of significance for me on a personal level. It took a while for me to get there, but having arrived I realized that even “mere theism” changes everything. It creates possibilities that weren’t there before.

    As for having no personal sense of the living reality of God, as I say, I increasingly see this as a consequence of my own internal barriers and defenses, rather than a sign of God’s aloofness. That fear of being wrong–and thus being ridiculous–is the curse of the intellectual, and it’s very powerful. I think about the early Christians being willing to face martyrdom, but it stretches me to my limits to face the disdain of intellectuals! How pathetic is that?

    Maybe the difference between us is that I choose to struggle with this. And when I survey the experiences of those who have had what they regard as unmistakable encounters with the divine, I simply cannot make myself believe that it all adds up to delusion. The only way to make such a claim, in my view, is by not really listening to these people at all, which is very easy to do.

    For most of my life, I have found it very easy to be dismissive of things I didn’t understand, and didn’t really want to understand. God and Christianity were in that category. Not only that, I found that the more education I got, the better I got at being dismissive. I became something of an expert at it! I could dismiss all apparent miracles by mumbling a few incantations about psychosomatic effects, as if I or anyone else had any real understanding of what they are.

    I’m not suggesting, by the way, that you, Grant, are as dismissive as I was (and still can be, when I don’t watch myself). I don’t think that at all, having read what you’ve written. I’m simply describing how that fear of being wrong works in me.

    There’s a wonderful saying from the 19th century Polish rabbi Menachem Mendel, who asked some other rabbis “Where is God?” They answered, “God is everywhere, of course.” Rabbi Mendel replied, “No, God is only where we let him in.” Negatively, God is everywhere except where we don’t let him in. I think that makes the point more clearly.

    Todd

    1. Grant Robson Author

      Hi again Todd,
      I’m not sure I can see that “mere theism” changes anything. I am a “mere theist”, i.e. I believe in the God of the philosophers. But it seems to be of no use to me. I am still the reluctant nihilist I seem to always have been. I suppose it at least creates some small hope that at some point God may reveal himself to us and that there is some point to our lives, albeit one that we will very probably never know. But my hope is not great.

      Yes, maybe we don’t have a sense of God due to personal failings. The Fall, as you Christians say. It could well be. But I don’t know what the remedy is for that. I live as I can, and God’s grace seems to be distributed rather unevenly: some come to know God very early in life and thus live with abundance and joy throughout their existence, while others never find God at all and live desultory lives. There seems no rhyme or reason to any of it.

      I’ve never felt dismissive of Christianity. I knew next to nothing of it before about 2005, and generally I prefer to remain silent on things I know nothing about. It was probably the abject superficiality of Dawkins’ The God Delusion which pushed me to looking more into theology. And I love reading theology, even though I lack the faith of the Christian: “Theology and Sanity” by Frank Sheed, for example, is a wonderfully clear and stimulating exposition of what Catholics believe. Writers such as Sheed make me wish desperately that I did believe!! Especially when most of the secular writers today seem so comparatively superficial. So, I hope one day God will make his presence so clear that even a skeptical person such as I can perceive him!
      Grant

  14. todd.moody@gmail.com
    Todd M 5 years ago

    Hi Grant,

    I wish I could say I had never been dismissive of Christianity, but it’s just not so. On the other hand, I managed to lead a fairly schizoid kind of life, outwardly uninterested in all things religious, but on my own time delving into one thing after another: apologetics, Buddhism, Hinduism, the Urantia Book, a Course in Miracles, and so on. I’ve read Sheed and I agree with your assessment of his writing. So, even though I was dismissive on one level, on another I could never leave God alone. I kept coming back to try to “get it”.

    I just finished a book entitled “Why Believe?” by John Cottingham. I’ve read enough books of the sort that I didn’t expect to read another, but what makes this one different is having met Professor Cottingham a couple of weeks ago in England, at an academic conference. He’s best known as a Descartes scholar, but his interests are wide-ranging and he’s also a Christian himself. His approach to the issue we’re discussing is a bit different. He starts with the fact that even in the gospel accounts of the Resurrection we are told that “some doubted,” which in turn seems to indicate that whatever happened, it wasn’t the sort of thing that no one could come away from unconvinced. But while many skeptics use this to support some purely subjective hallucination theory, Cottingham takes a different view of it. He cites Pascal (and others) to develop the view that there are some realities that we must be inwardly changed to perceive at all, but they are no less real for that. I don’t want to say more, because I’m still digesting what he says in the book. It’s not just another “reasons to believe” book, though.

    Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel had the admirable honesty to say that he’s an atheist not because of the “weight of evidence” but because he “doesn’t want the universe to be that way.” I like to think that I do want the universe to be that way, but on the other hand… maybe at some level I’m afraid of it. Am I really willing to experience God, with all that would imply? I’m not so sure. I’ve never been able to do much with the doctrine of the Fall, especially when I ask “fall from what”, but the notion that I’m in rebellion, well, I can kinda see that one.

    Todd

    1. Grant Robson Author

      Hi Todd,
      Yes, sure, I can vouch for the fact that it is hard to leave God alone once you’ve discovered the concept! That’s why atheists often compare theism to a virus. They could be right. After all, the idea of God propagated by Christianity is, in many ways, very attractive. We all surely want to feel our lives have meaning and value. And Christianity promises that. It’s one thing that makes me suspicious of it. But of course the same could be said of many world-views, and all we can do is try to assess which world-view seems to make the best overall sense of reality as we experience it.

      I read Why Believe four years ago. It’s an interesting book, for sure. I’ve just read Clifford Williams’ book Existential Arguments for the Existence of God, and that covers some of the same ground. The evidential arguments I’m well familiar with, and there’s little point me reading any more, but this idea that all humans have certain existential needs, all of which are satisfied by Christian theism is an interesting one. According to his thesis, any lifestyle other than Christianity does not meet our existential needs so well. And if so, this fact combined with evidential reasoning, would provide warrant for faith. I think he’s certainly right that there’s a large emotional component to faith, and that evidential reasoning alone will not bring a person to believe. It’s a novel approach anyway, and well defended in the book. You might want to check it out.

      I can still not get beyond the epistemological problem of the Resurrection though – just how can we know that this happened? But, thinking about it, even if someone had videotaped Jesus’ death and resurrection, it would still be insufficient to convince us – we’d assume it had been “edited”. So, I continue to believe that the will and the emotions must be what play the most important part here in convincing a person.

      To really experience God, if he exists, would indeed not feel unequivocally a good thing. It might be pretty terrifying. It would certainly force you to see things very differently. It would threaten a person’s preferred mode of living, which for most of us is probably the self-centred mode. So, we resist, keep a distance, play with clever arguments and theological speculation rather than truly submit to God.

      The Fall makes sense to me – we’re all of us clearly far from living how we could and surely should be living: with passion, honesty and love for our fellow human beings. I imagine that if a person were to really experience the Christian God – that is, as a true, living reality, who sees directly into their heart – they would feel, with shame, the full extent of their sinfulness, and a change of heart would be the natural consequence. Which of us could truly live with ourselves if we saw how we truly are? Some would say that it’s a mercy that we don’t see this. If we did, and if we are truly moral creatures, then none of us would surely think that we merited eternal life, and our consignment to hell would be accepted humbly as just deserts. But does justice truly exist? If not, then as long as we feel we can get away with it, we may as well continue to sin, because, after all, why not?
      Grant

      1. todd.moody@gmail.com
        Todd M 4 years ago

        Hello again Grant,

        I’m glad to see the site back up, and to return to this conversation. Thank you for the Clifford Williams recommendation (No relation, I suppose, to the “Ethics of Belief” Clifford Williams); I’ve bought it and will soon read it. In fact, since our last exchange I’ve been reading what appears to be a similar book, The Skeptical Believer, by Daniel Taylor. I haven’t finished the Taylor book yet, so I don’t want to make any recommendations yet. I do like the writing style.

        I agree that we cannot KNOW about the Resurrection, in the sense of “know” that I think we both would prefer. I recently turned 60, and although I’ve poked and prodded at natural theology for a long time, the entire area of scripture study is pretty new to me. I’m aware that there is a great deal of controversy about just about everything pertaining to the NT–the dating and authorship of just about all the books, except a handful of Paul’s letters, the extent to which they were creations intended to prop up a particular view of Jesus, the “suppression” of texts eventually labeled “non-canonical”, and so on–and I lack the training and time to get to the bottom of it. I’m not sure that anyone ever gets to the bottom of it, in fact.

        Daniel Taylor, in the book I mentioned, makes a point that I’ve believed for many, many years: All the arguments leak. There is no argument in natural theology for which there isn’t at least some reasonable counterargument, and that’s the case on both sides of the issue. The same is true, I think, for many disputes in scriptural studies. There is no dialectical Last Word. This is why I’m increasingly inclined to think the way forward–if there is a way forward–lies elsewhere, in the lived experience of people, their transformation, their “salvation”. I tend to think of salvation in this way, not as a rescue from death but a rescue from despair, anomie, brokenness.

        I guess what I’m getting at is that not only is it the will and emotions that ultimately move us, just as you say, but in these matters it’s not reasonable to think it could be anything else. The heart and the will are basic equipment of all human persons. If there really is a God who is in some sense, it makes sense that he would reveal himself in this way, and not just to those with the right talent and education for natural theology. For myself, however, I remain trapped in the box you describe so well in your penultimate paragraph.

        I can make sense of the Fall as a failure to be all that we could, and should be. No problem there. It’s only when I try to think of it in a temporal way that I run into trouble. Are we fallen from a prior state that we once in fact were in?

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