I’ve just completed composing an email to someone I’ve been talking with off and on over the last few years. I’m going to send it, but I don’t expect much answer to it. So, I’m posting it here as an open letter for discussion if there is any interest. It is in response to an earlier conversation, so has that tone to it, but I think the points are fairly self-explanatory. – JW
I’ve started reading the book you gave me, and it has some difficult questions in it! I’ve started making some notes in response to some of the issues, and look forward to studying for possible responses to others.
I had a couple of other thoughts that have come to mind since our conversation on Monday.
1. Regarding my taking seminary classes and apologetics in particular, it troubles me that you seem to consider any religious influence towards education to introduce an insurmountable bias in the mind of the student. I think this is an unwarranted assumption, especially concerning students in a graduate-level program. The primary reason for me taking these classes is to hear and learn the best possible defense of Christianity for my evaluation of it as a coherent and complete explanation of the universe we live in. I have no interest in making straw man arguments to defeat, so what better way to learn the best available arguments in favor of a position than to study the experts on that position? It’s really the same reason I’m reading the books you recommend and not relying solely on the presentation of opposing views from Christian scholars. For what it is worth, the classes I am taking this semester have very little patently Christian content to them; one is a logic and critical thinking class using a non-religious textbook, and the other is a philosophy class, studying the reasoning of philosophers throughout history, as well as current thoughts on philosophical issues. In this latter class, Christian philosophical content is considered when appropriate.
2. I wonder if you apply the same standards of proof and scrutiny to your own beliefs that you apply towards Christianity. You’ve gone to great lengths to try to discredit the Bible and Christianity using logic, reason, and history (and I believe the objections can be answered in a cohesive and consistent manner), but have you applied each of the same tests to your own beliefs? Perhaps they could withstand the scrutiny, but I suspect you haven’t really made a real effort to do so. Forgive me if I am wrong, and I would like to hear about it!
3. One of the things that must be considered by anyone evaluating a worldview is completeness of that worldview. (I have another really good book on this subject to recommend: “The Universe Next Door” by James Sire, from which the questions below are drawn.) By completeness, I mean two things, firstly that it satisfactorily answer all of the questions that a worldview purports to answer (more in a moment), and that it answers them at least as thoroughly and more meaningfully than its competitors. Those questions that a worldview answer (whether implicitly or explicitly) are:
a. What is the fundamental nature of reality? Is it God, other types of spirit beings, only material substances, or something else?
b. What is the nature of the world around us? Was it created, is it a product of cause and effect in a closed system, or something else?
c. What is the nature of a human being? Created being? Part of God? An evolved ape?
d. What happens to a person at death? Reincarnation? Heaven/hell? Personal extinction?
e. Why is it possible to know anything at all? Created in God’s image, or consciousness evolved through survival processes?
f. How do we know right from wrong? Issued from a creator God, or evolved as a survival tool?
g. What is the meaning of human history? Realize purposes of God or gods? Prepare for some afterlife? Make a paradise on earth?
h. What personal core commitments are consistent with this worldview? Once we identify our worldview, what lifestyle choices are the most logical to adopt in light of that worldview?
These may be summarized as the questions of origin, meaning, morality, and destiny.
I stress completeness and best explanatory power as important to a worldview primarily because many of the things you describe that are part of your own worldview can be explained as a subset of the Christian worldview, some in other terms. I guess it could be analogous to someone talking on the telephone and coming to the belief that there is some demon inside the handset of their phone, talking to them. Yes, I suppose that could be one explanation, or perhaps it is something else. Evaluating the worldview as a whole gives us more answers to make a more informed logical decision about what the nature of the “voice in the phone” really is.
4. When you were talking about “closing the books”, so to speak, on considering other options than the worldview that you have decided upon, you said something to the effect of “after you’ve looked at something for so long and are continually convinced, it’s time to stop questioning it.” I related to your sentiment and initially agreed. On further reflection though, I think this is only true in the specific context of agnosticism. Since I am only human and subject to incomplete knowledge of, well, everything, I try not to stray so far from agnosticism that I consider difficult matters settled for good and ever with no other input accepted. However, I don’t reside in agnosticism; the “closing the books” came when I made a decision that Christianity answered the worldview questions better than other worldviews did. Does this mean that it is impossible that I’d be swayed away and convinced otherwise? Certainly not. I am constantly interested in hearing the best that “the other side”, whatever that may be in a particular context, may have to offer, and considering their claims for truth. The day that we close our ears to any further argument is the day that we (Christian or not) close our mind and become all your favorite words about dogmatic believers – “fundies”, brainwashed, blind sheep, spoon-fed.
5. Speaking of which, I’m also a bit disturbed by your willing admission of stereotypical categorization of church-goers as uncritical sheep who don’t want to think for themselves, and of pastors as administers of brainwashing for purposes of personal power. You admit the prejudice and that there are exceptions, but don’t seem to feel particularly bad about holding those views. I find it distasteful on the same grounds that you (as well as I) would be offended by someone saying “Women shouldn’t try to think about philosophy because they are too emotional and irrational. Oh, I know *you* aren’t like that, and a few others, but still…” Making a concession that some don’t fit that stereotype only reinforces the irrationality and bigotry of being committed to an unfounded generalization. Even if you only know of one, or a few, who don’t fit your stereotypical mold, don’t you owe it to yourself and them to find out what is different about them, and if that difference is more widespread than you think? That was something that helped me personally when I had skepticism about church leadership and about Christianity as a whole. Knowing that there are people out there whom I respect as intelligent, trustworthy individuals, some who have thought through these things more than I have, and may actually be smarter than me, but have come to believe in Christianity as the truth, makes me take pause and humbly wonder what they’ve seen that I have not. It’s certainly possible that they are have made errors in their logic or misinterpreted experiences, but I feel like I owe it to them and/or myself to find out. It’s the reason I enjoy observing formal debates on these topics; even if there is no clear winner, it demonstrates that these are issues to be taken seriously and not written off as ramblings for the weak-minded.
I hope that this is organized and coherent, long as it is, such that it will give you food for thought, even if you choose not to respond to it (as I know you’ve said you don’t like to do in email). Writing these things out like this helps me cement my thoughts and express them uninterrupted. I’m glad, of course, to further discuss any or all of these over email or in person. As with our face-to-face conversations, my intent is not to brow-beat you into any acknowledgement of defeat in some argument or other, but to understand your beliefs and my own, how they compare and contrast, and where truth may be found among them or elsewhere. I always enjoy your company and discussion and pledge to accord your views with as much charity and patience as I can when considering and talking about them!