Friday, November 29, 2013

Arguing God: Worth It?

What follows is one of my Grad school papers, so apologies up front if it comes across as highly academic; it is. :-)

            In theology, it is not uncommon to ask oneself why it is valuable to posit arguments for the existence of God. “Surely God can prove himself if he so chooses”, one might say. Still there is a long legacy of these arguments and it is their perpetuation which merits some attention by modern philosophizing believers.
How Do You Know God?
            In order to discover the value in arguments for God’s existence, it is first helpful to make some observations about how one comes to know of God. First, a distinction must be made in general: all ways that people claim to be able to know that there is a God eventually distil into one of two ways of knowing. Either knowledge of God is learned or else it is directly experienced.
            In regards to learning, we can see that there are many world religions and traditions within them that claim to yield belief in God. In Christianity, specific, there are formal arguments that have been handed down by theologians and philosophers throughout history. One such argument is the teleological argument which claims that there must be a God because all creation seems to be moving toward a designated end. Another is the cosmological argument which points to the idea that there must be a source for nature and that all matter and energy originated somewhere. Arguments such as these have been handed down throughout the years without abandon and seem to be very convincing for some[1].
            The second and arguably more controversial way we know of God is through experience. The trouble with pointing to experience as a way of knowing God is that it is logically irrefutable (that is, no one can say you did not experience what you claim to have indeed experienced) and it is highly subjective (specifically, the individual’s interpretation of perceived experiences play a huge, uncontrollable factor). Thankfully, there are recorded experiences that can be looked to for comparative purposes in order to discern what is normal and what is novel. Still, experience has been one of the main ways that people tend to claim to know God.
 One famous example of this is transmitted through literature to us from famed philosopher, Rene Descartes. In his mediations Descartes essentially proposes that we can know that God exists because we exist; thus, our mere pondering is proof enough[2]. Another well known example comes from the darling of Evangelicals, C.S. Lewis who pointed to our intrinsic awareness of morality as proof of a higher power; namely, God[3]. Both of these examples take the human observation of reality to be quite authoritative and, while one could argue their validity, it is undeniable that the tradition of looking inside oneself for an answer to the question of God’s existence is well established in human thought.
The Worth of an Argument
            In order to proceed and answer the question of whether or not it is a worthy venture to develop arguments that attempt to convince people of God’s existence, we must realize that apologetic reasoning of this kind falls in the category of “learned” means for knowing God. This is so because sophisticated reasons are unlikely to simply fall into a person’s experiential world without being planted there by some means of education. So, when we look at apologetics and question the validity, we need to look at the value of tradition.
            The passing down of knowledge and culture is essential in the human experience. As foundational as traditions can be, we must also understand that ideas that are rooted in identity are the kinds of ideas that people are willing to die for[4]. Christianity especially is guilty of this charge as it was founded on a martyr and has a lifestyle of martyrdom built into it. So when we ask about logical arguments, we cannot sell short their powerful application.
            Furthermore, it seems to be that if some people will resist belief in God on the grounds that there are logical problems, then it follows that some will embrace theism if said problems do not exist. Therefore, it is reasonable to attempt to dissolve cognitive dissonance for people as a means of transmitting belief in God. This logical truth provides some cause to continue to develop apologetics. Still, it must also be said that arguments for God’s existence do best when they take on an inductive form and when they have an additive effect; that is, it has not been necessarily proven that God exists and it is rare that someone is convinced by only one argument. Finally, a person must be willing to accept the premises necessary for logical arguments to gain ground and if they refuse on principal, then it is pointless to continue any form of argumentation[5].
            One final thing can be said about the value in arguing for God’s existence with non-believers and it is this: It is true that many people are driven away from a theistic stance because of professing believers and not because of Church doctrine. I personally have had long conversations with people in which I try to debunk misconceptions of theism. One such person is a childhood friend of mine whom I will call Todd.
            Todd was raised in a physically and emotionally abusive home by legalistic parents, one of which hailed from an atheistic background and the other from a fundamentalist background. What’s more is Todd’s long experience with his neighbors who are professing Mennonites – supposedly one of the most pious denominations of Christianity. Sadly, Todd not only had witnessed these Mennonites stealing from him but also wild parties and rumored orgies. All of these experiences totaled up a much distorted picture of the Christian God in Todd’s mind. When I decided that it was time for me to leverage my lifelong friendship with Todd against his disbelief it began in the form of me inquiring about his logical reasons for doubting Christianity.
            Not surprisingly, Todd’s biggest hindrances to belief were rooted in the duplicity and perceived inconsistency of the “Christians” in his life. Along with not wanting to associate with hypocrites, Todd struggled with theodicy; after all, if God was good, why was he allowed to be marginalized his whole life? My point in disclosing Todd’s case to the reader is not to merely point to the reality that people have logical issues with theism, but to also relate that I utilized my formal education in arguing on God’s behalf in concert with my own experiences in order to help Todd begin to traverse his swamp of cynicism and jadedness towards theism and Christianity.
            Had it not been for the apologetic arguments for free will and ecclesial doctrines that were settled by much philosophizing, I would have had little to point to during my conversations with Todd. The value of intellectual pursuits in regards to discovering God is immeasurable because of the pay out; namely, the soul of a lost brother or sister. To this end, we must use all means necessary and there are few means as powerful as that of human reasoning.
Concluding Thoughts
            It is part of a Christian’s duty to attempt to spread the Kingdom of God via the good news of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. To do this, we must understand that we will face opposition and it will rarely come in the form of people attempting to discredit our experiences. As previously stated, that is an impassible mountain to traverse because the slopes of it consist of subjective interpretation. Therefore we must be prepared for any and all logical conundrums that might exist for the sake of the gospel of Christ and the mission of the Ecclesia.
            Like the parable of the prodigal son, we must be aware that people who have ran from God, believing that it is reasonable to do so, need guidance to come to the realization of the mess and depravity to which they have run and the logical validity of returning to the Father. Utilizing the traditional arguments of the Church must never take a backseat to the experiences of Christians; instead, we should strive to open the eyes of the unbelieving heart to the reasonableness of God.

Baird, F. E. (2011). Rene Descartes: 1596-1650. In From Plato to Derrida (pp. 400-404). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Evans, C. S., & Manis, R. Z. (2009). Classical Arguments for God's Existence. InPhilosophy of religion: Thinking about faith (pp. 96-97). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
Lewis, C. S. (2001). What Lies Behind the Law. In Mere Christianity (pp. 23-25). San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
McGrath, A. E. (2010). Science, Religion and Proofs for God's Existence. In Science and religion: An introduction (pp. 61-65). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Moreland, J. P., & Willard, D. (1997). Apologetic Reasoning and the Christian Mind. InLove your God with all your mind: The role of reason in the life of the soul (p. 154). Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

[1] (McGrath, 2010, pp. 61-65)
[2] (Baird, 2011, pp. 400-404)
[3] (Lewis, 2001, pp. 23-25)
[4] (Moreland & Willard, 1997, p. 154)
[5]  (Evans & Manis, 2009, pp. 96-97)

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Gift to the Emergent People: A Book Review

Hello readers!

So, upfront warning, this is a book review. Not many people care to read those, so I figured I’d throw that out there in the beginning. I will say, though, that you want to read this book.

Those who know me know that I benefit from an incredible relationship with my older brother. Aside from being indirectly responsible for my passion for theology and study, he is an academic, a Bible scholar and a Kingdom of God servant. One of the many ways that we engender Koinonia between us is by suggesting and pointing at great books that help us to develop an intellectual life as a form of worship. This is how I came across Emerging Prophet: Kierkegaard and the Postmodern People of God by Kyle Roberts. So, after reading it in its entirety in about three days, my brother asked me to write this review.

Here we go.

First, let me give some general thoughts about the book and point out some important features. This book was the product of a personal fascination with Kierkegaard on the part of Roberts and a deep need in the Emergent culture of Christianity for some structure. Roberts does a fine job of demonstrating throughout the book how Kierkegaard was, in many ways, a prophetic voice for the generation that is before us today. In his day, Kierkegaard was sorely out of place and anything but a follower of trends. As the intellectual world headed into modernism, Kierkegaard was laying the foundations for a healthy theology of sin and ecclesiology (among other things) through his titled and pseudonymous works. Roberts’ thesis is that Kierkegaard’s thought essentially anticipated what would come after what was developing before his eyes – prophetic indeed.

One of the most contributing factors of Robert’s work is how he thoughtfully crafts a parallel between Emergent cultural concerns and Kierkegaardian theological thought. One thing that can be rightly charged to Emergent Christians is an all-too-common aversion to critical thought and scrutiny in proclaiming and defending their beliefs. Specifically, we (yes, me too) can fall prey to the ease of not wrestling with the broader implications of the doctrine of the fall and human sin. Kierkegaard’s major gift is in the language and structure he gives to the innate convictions of post-modern thinkers and Roberts demonstrates this well in his writing.

I think that personally, this book was impactful in giving me the sense of a tradition. One of the most difficult things for those who identify themselves as part of the Emergent culture is the potential for a lost sense of tradition; especially when re-thinking ecclesiology in all of its complexity. Growing up in the modern-minded church with all of the cultural assumptions that goes along with that imparts a sense of identity. When one challenges the social norms (especially in the context of the church) and then bravely steps away from some of those traditions, it’s easy to feel like you might be alone or that there is no connection to history. This book allows those of us who are starting to look at the pragmatic application of our faith to be able to point back in history to a well respected philosopher and say with confidence that there are good grounds for believing what we believe and there is a tradition we can connect to.

Having said all of this, it is only fair to point out that not everything was totally agreeable to me (this is healthy, though). I feel that after reflection I had a cognitive issue with the strong language of Kierkegaard in his assertion that there are no objective truths and only subjective ones. This seems like an extreme claim based on what we experience in the world. An example: I can say with sufficient certainty that while it may be true that I, as a subject, experience my coffee, there is still actually and objectively coffee in this cup on this table. This is an objective truth with no reasonable reason to doubt it. So, I would personally take a more moderate approach and say that there are objective truths, but that they are only relevant to the extent that we experience them subjectively. This restrained claim seems to be more humble in that it leaves room for error and functionality. This point of contention aside, it is still true that Kierkegaard points out what many Emergent thinkers believe: an objective assent to a list of doctrine is insufficient to the Christian life; only subjective submission to the person, Jesus, is sufficient to impart life.

In conclusion, this book has far more gifts and spiritually forming ideas to give the Emergent generation than I could possibly espouse here. I can say from experience, however, that if you want an approachable book that will help you critically think about your faith, this is it. Also, if you want to better understand the Emergent culture, this is a great place to start (though it couldn’t be said accurately that this book contains all of the movement; that would be presumptuous). At the risk of sounding like a salesman, this book is worth the read. There is a reason I read it as quickly as I did and that reason was not to get it over with. ;-)


P.S. the ISBN number is 978-1-61097-222-2. I bought it from Amazon.