Wednesday, October 26, 2011

For the sake of argument...

It seems that the Philosophy of Religion has become very fashionable lately with all kinds of people stepping into the ring to declare their belief in the existence or non-existence of God with arguments that they believe to be incontrovertible and completely watertight. It is inevitable that someone will find the chink in the argument and then exploit it to demolish the house of cards on which argument rests.

The question is: do we allow our faith to be built on philosophical arguments?

There are three classical arguments for the existence of God: the ontological, the cosmological and the teleological. All three have inherent philosophical problems in drawing the conclusion that a being exists in a wholly other way to the physical universe who is deserving of the worship of all living beings. Yet Organised Religion has not collapsed under the weight of these oft-used reasons for worshipping God.

Some might say that this is because religious believers are inherently stupid and if they only thought harder, they would see that there is no God. One must be careful here: to say that the argument for the existence of God fails is not an argument for the non-existence of God (and vice versa). Others might cite the argument that people want God to exist as an emotional crutch only to have the point made that every human need has a real object, et c.

The main assumption is that it is foolish to believe in God or to have religious beliefs. The valid corollary of the Ontological argument is that if God doesn't exist then there's no point in worshipping Him - that's eminently reasonable. If there is no proof for or against, how then can they define "foolish"?

My problem with the classical philosophical arguments is that they don't begin at the right spot. I do not believe we can reason God into existence like folk have misread St Anselm. I'm much more of a radical skeptic when it comes to proofs or disproofs for the existence of God. I maintain that we know reality so insufficiently that the existence of God cannot be proved or disproved by human thought and reason. In the very technical sense of the word, that makes me agnostic - I do not know how to prove beyond all doubt that God exists and I don't believe there is such a way.

So why do I believe in God?

I speak personally and apologetically. I appeal to authority, namely to the person of Jesus Christ Whom I regard as Lord and Master. I believe that what He claims is true.

Of course, what I know of Him comes from Scripture and Tradition, i.e. from the Church. The first records of Him were written down within 30 years of His death (contrast that with centuries for Alexander the Great and other prominent historical figures) and taken from first hand sources. One may say that the Church was selective in the records that it chose for His life. I would have to agree very much that the Church was indeed very selective in what it deemed sufficiently authoritative. The texts it rejected were not contemporaneous with Christ and most extra-canonical Gospels were written long after the fact. All of the texts of the New Testament were written in the first century AD.

It seems to me that the Biblical texts satisfy the CRAVEN tests.

Corroboration: The Gospels (while like most pieces of evidence disagree on details) do indeed corroborate what Jesus taught, the miracles he did and that He rose from the dead.

Reputation: The writers of the Gospels are clearly Christian and very little seems to be known about them to assess their reputability. However, the Gospel of St John shows a knowledge of classical as well as colloquial Greek, St Luke demonstrates a scientific approach in his writing. St Paul himself as another corroborator of the Gospels certainly writes with erudition and tells the story of his own conversion.

Ability to See: if these writers are (as St Luke claims to be doing) writing down interviews with those who knew Jesus first hand within thirty years of the death of Jesus then they do have ability to make a critical judgment to what they saw.

Vested Interest: Considering that most of the people who proclaimed faith in Jesus were destined for painful and humiliating deaths, either they were deluded or felt that the truth was more important.

Expertise: the writers were adult, sufficiently proficient in Greek and privy to the early Christian communities.

Neutrality: What would this mean here? If one is setting out to record the truth, one must believe that truth which one is trying to document. So it is not viable to denounce the Gospel writers as not being neutral because of their Christianity. Again, if they did not believe it to be true, why go to execution for the sake of a lie? Is there a neutral position to take here?

This helps me to regard the evidence of Scripture as reliable.

I dare say that someone will come along and try to demolish my faith in the writers of Scripture and what the Church tells me. They may even succeed at knocking down my CRAVEN analysis, but then I've not been too intent in producing coherent arguments. All I have done is to show some justification in my belief and I do not offer it to convince anyone that I am right, though if it does so then that is a wonderful by-product of my intention. It does, however, put me very close to the basic criteria for knowledge - justified, true belief. I belief that Jesus is Who he says He is. I am justified in my belief given the evidence of Holy Scripture. Is that belief true? If the evidence is true, then yes.

However, it now needs to be demonstrated that the evidence is indeed true. That is now almost impossible to know as this happened in the past. There can be no scientific examination which will confirm the evidence either way. The historians themselves can only speak of likelihood and possibility, so there can be no definite statement from them. Probability and likelihood come with a background arena of reference which is largely but not exclusively subjective and opinionated.

So what have I actually done? I haven't produced an infallible argument for the existence of God save only to say that "God exists because Jesus tells me so". That sounds rather feeble, like passing the buck. It may even make me sound like some kind of simple-minded Evangelical (by which I mean an Evangelical who happens to be simple-minded, not that all Evangelicals are simple-minded) but it makes sense. My Christian Faith stands or falls with the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. Surely this is where the Christian Faith has to start.

What it does do is free me from the vicissitudes of Philosophical argument. It also frees me from worrying about whether my belief in Evolution is in contradiction with belief in God. It frees me to criticise and accept Science and hopefully to engage sensibly and reasonably with people of all kinds of beliefs. While it does not make me immune from criticism nor from rigorous defence, it does lift much of the weight from my shoulders rather than paralyse me in enormous and complicated arguments of self-justification. "His yoke is easy and His burthen is light" just as He promised.


edpacht1 said...

I'm with you here. There's value in the philosophical arguments as they do demonstrate the plausibility of God, that there are perfectly reasonable grounds for accepting the possibility or perhaps even the probability of God. I am quite certain, however, that none of them are proofs, and also that it is good that they are not. I don't believe in God as a result of proof, nor because the Bible says He exists (as the Bible purports to be His Word and therefore has authority only if He does exist). God is beyond those kinds of 'proof'. He is more than can possibly be imagined, and we know of Him only what He has revealed. I accept Him by 'faith' - a difficult theological proposition far indeed from 'believing six impossible things before breakfast". I make a choice to believe in Him, but I make that choice because He has called me and has revealed Himself to me - in what I see in nature (which includes science), what I hear revealed in and through His Church (including the Bible) and in His revelation of Himself in my own life.

No philosophical arguments can prove His revelation - it is His uniquely - and no philsophical arguments can prove the negative, that He distinctly does not exist. Either position is a matter ultimately of choice. I choose Him because He chose me.

Belief that He is, is really no different from belief that I exist. If you've met me, you "know" that to be a fact, but there is no way you can prove it, no way to demonstrate beyond possibility of doubt that I am more than a figment of your imagination. You have to choose whether to accept what you take as evidence or to reject it.


JamesIII said...

You've made a clear and cogent statement here, Ed. I sincerely hope that the philosophical and theological discussions never stop but in the end it is a matter of faith and revelation.

Getting a group of people to agree on the nature of God is a little like getting Anglicans to agree on what is Anglicanism. It becomes evident early in most debates that what the doubter rejects is a biased perception of the divine. Our Christian imagery and understanding is heavily influenced by the Greco-Roman world into which the faith spread. One need only look at the Sistine ceiling or read Ovid to see the influences threading through the natures of God, Christ, Heaven & Hell, angels, etc. Dante and motion pictures do not help this issue. ;-)

I have no doubt that He is often revealed in terms that we can understand, but he is perhaps just as often revealed in terms that we cannot fathom. The key for we who believe and for those who do not is an open heart, mind, and spirit. The words "ask and you shall receive" have no more potent application than in this instance.