Archive | Epistemology

The Emptiness of Reason

boring-class

I am an emotional guy. I can’t believe I can say that so easily. Four years ago I could not have admitted to this. In fact, four years ago, I may not (ahem . . .) have been so in touch with my softer side. Now I realize just how much emotions control me. I can cry at the drop of a hat, music can take me wherever it desires, and I feed off the emotions of others (both good and bad) much more than ever. I wake up each morning and the first thing I do is take an assessment of where I am emotionally (and you thought I was going to say “pray”).

Having come to terms with this, I have had to do a lot of backtracking. Much of this involves a reassessment of my life and who I am, how I process things, and how I believe. Yes, I said “how” I believe, not “what” I believe. The what of my belief is the same. While I am somewhat comfortable saying I have stumbled many times, fallen flat on my face a few, and have a whole new set of spiritual limps and scars to show people, my faith is in-tact. In fact, though I may not look it, these things have only served to strengthen my faith a great deal.

I used to believe that all problems could be solved by reason. I think I prided myself in my intellectual vigor. I don’t think I have ever been that smart, but I loved the vigor, the questions, and the way reason could give me so much confidence in my life and faith.

Dealing with Doubters Before

In the past, when I dealt with those who doubt, I would go straight to the arguments. Reason, intellect, and syllogisms. With these I would (or so I thought) easily dismantle any foe who had the audacity to carry a flag of unbelief. Then, I would pat the sad Christian on the head and say, “See how ridiculous your doubting is? Now go and doubt no more.”

Visiting the School of Doubt Myself

Since then, at some time in the past, without my consent, I was enrolled in the school of doubt myself. I don’t know where it came from or why it was my new instructor, but I thought I knew how to get rid of it. “Ha! Are you kidding? You don’t want me as a student. I am in the business of converting your former pupils.” But, for some reason, my arguments, reason, and intellect proved ineffective in expelling me from this school. At this time, I could not overcome my doubt with reason. It was not as if the arguments were not strong enough, it was that my emotions stood in the way. My “feelings” were in control. As I struggled to get back to my former level of confidence (as that was my goal), I found that this confidence was fueled by something other than my intellect. I discovered that my emotions were so much more powerful than my reason. Continue Reading →

Why I am Not Completely Certain Christianity is True

Indubitable: adj – Beyond the possibility of a doubt; unquestionable

I don’t believe the Christian faith is indubitable, but I do believe that it is true.

I tell this story when talking about the bankruptcy of requiring indubitability before you believe something (Yes, I’ve told this before):

I play this game with my kids that drives them crazy. Sitting in the room, with no one but us, while they are not looking I will slap them on the rear-end and act like I did not do it. They turn and say, “Daddy! I know you did that.” I say, “I did not.” “Then who did it?” they respond (thinking they have settled the issue with this one question).  I say, “A guy ran in the front door and slapped you and then ran out.” They look at me like I am crazy and exclaim, “Daddy! We know you did it.” “Look!” I respond to their skepticism, “The front door is not locked. It is possible that someone could have come in since the door is not locked.” Upon further looks of skepticism, I force them go check the door to see if it is locked. Once they see it is unlocked, I have won the day. I have poked a hole and their certainty and even caused them to confirm it by checking the door. No longer possessing the indubitably that I have required for their epistemic verification, they now have lost poise in their former confidence. In other words, I tricked them into thinking that one has to be absolutely certain about something before it can be believed.

Ideas about the value of certainty are currently on the theological stage of debate. With the intellectual challenges of the so-called “new atheism,” some Christians are opting for a fidist approach to the faith (ignore the evidence, just believe). Others, however, are responding to their challenges with precise and cutting vigor. However, many are on wild goose chases checking doors to see if they are locked and becoming frustrated, even doubting, when they find that the door is not locked.

Objection: “You can’t be certain that Christianity is true. One scholar has proposed Christianity borrowed from other ancient religions to get its story.”

Response: Oh great. Yes, most people don’t believe this, but what if this one scholar is right? What does this mean for my faith?

Objection: “You can’t be certain Christ rose from the grave since his body might have been stolen.”

Response: I supposed this could be true. Though there does not seem to be any evidence for this, it might have been stolen. What does this mean for my faith?

Objection: “It would seem you have a problem since there are two angels in one resurrection account and only one in the other. Which one is it?”

Response: While they both agree that Christ rose from the grave, should I continue to believe when these two accounts cannot agree on this most basic detail?

Objection: “Stephen Hawking said that a black hole could have created our universe out of nothing.”

Response:  I have no idea what this means, but what if Hawking is right? He is a very smart man.

Often, a skeptical world will will provoke us with the reality that we cannot be indubitably certain about any of our beliefs because of the infinite amount of alternative possibilities.  No matter how unlikely these alternative possibilities are we find ourselves spending time defending against positions that are well beyond tipsy in their stability. When people poke “holes” in our beliefs with arguments that are no better than “look, the door is not locked” we find ourselves missing the big picture, backed into a corner seriously discussing the security of the door.

How do we get here? Glad you asked. Continue Reading →

Why I Am Not Completely Certain Christianity is True

Indubitable: adj – Beyond the possibility of a doubt; unquestionable

I don’t believe the Christian faith is indubitable, but I do believe that it is true.

I tell this story when talking about the bankruptcy of requiring indubitability before you believe something (Yes, I’ve told this before):

I play this game with my kids that drives them crazy. Sitting in the room, with no one but us, while they are not looking I will slap them on the rear-end and act like I did not do it. They turn and say, “Daddy! I know you did that.” I say, “I did not.” “Then who did it?” they respond (thinking they have settled the issue with this one question).  I say, “A guy ran in the front door and slapped you and then ran out.” They look at me like I am crazy and exclaim, “Daddy! We know you did it.” “Look!” I respond to their skepticism, “The front door is not locked. It is possible that someone could have come in since the door is not locked.” Upon further looks of skepticism, I force them go check the door to see if it is locked. Once they see it is unlocked, I have won the day. I have poked a hole and their certainty and even caused them to confirm it by checking the door. No longer possessing the indubitably that I have required for their epistemic verification, they now have lost poise in their former confidence. In other words, I tricked them into thinking that one has to be absolutely certain about something before it can be believed.

Ideas about the value of certainty are currently on the theological stage of debate. With the intellectual challenges of the so-called “new atheism,” some Christians are opting for a fidist approach to the faith (ignore the evidence, just believe). Others, however, are responding to their challenges with precise and cutting vigor. However, many are on wild goose chases checking doors to see if they are locked and becoming frustrated, even doubting, when they find that the door is not locked.

Objection: “You can’t be certain that Christianity is true. One scholar has proposed Christianity borrowed from other ancient religions to get its story.”

Response: Oh great. Yes, most people don’t believe this, but what if this one scholar is right? What does this mean for my faith?

Objection: “You can’t be certain Christ rose from the grave since his body might have been stolen.”

Response: I supposed this could be true. Though there does not seem to be any evidence for this, it might have been stolen. What does this mean for my faith?

Objection: “It would seem you have a problem since there are two angels in one resurrection account and only one in the other. Which one is it?”

Response: While they both agree that Christ rose from the grave, should I continue to believe when these two accounts cannot agree on this most basic detail?

Objection: “Stephen Hawking said that a black hole could have created our universe out of nothing.”

Response:  I have no idea what this means, but what if Hawking is right? He is a very smart man.

Often, a skeptical world will will provoke us with the reality that we cannot be indubitably certain about any of our beliefs because of the infinite amount of alternative possibilities.  No matter how unlikely these alternative possibilities are we find ourselves spending time defending against positions that are well beyond tipsy in their stability. When people poke “holes” in our beliefs with arguments that are no better than “look, the door is not locked” we find ourselves missing the big picture, backed into a corner seriously discussing the security of the door.

How do we get here? Glad you asked. Continue Reading →

An Anatomy of Faith

Why do we believe certain things and not others? I know, I know . . . we are Christians. Therefore, we have a slam dunk answer to that softball question. It’s the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit takes the Word of God and activates it in our lives. While this is certainly true, there are often details that He works through. After all, the Holy Spirit uses many mundane things to bring about our faith. He uses our minds, godly influences, our circumstances in life, and deep conviction.

When I became a Christian, I was very young. I don’t remember a time when I did not believe in Jesus. So, I don’t have any grand conversion story. I just believed what my mother taught me from birth. And as I grew up, I wanted everything she had taught me to be true. She was my guide, serving for a long time (even until today) as a sort of referred conviction. I believed because she believed. And I wanted her to be right. Statistics tell us that this is almost always the case. For many of us, it is the case that we believe what we grew up believing. If you were reared as a Buddhist, you will likely be a Buddhist.  If your parents were Muslim, chances are you will be a Muslim. Atheists produce atheists, Hindus produce Hindus, agnostics produce agnostics, and . . . Christians produce Christians.

I remember what John Hannah, my Historic Theology prof at seminary, said one time in class, “We are going to teach you all kinds of great and wonderful things. But, in the end, you are just going to believe what mommy and daddy told you.” There is a lot of truth to this. None of it makes anything right or wrong. The objection that we just believe what our parents taught us, or that our culture defines our beliefs, while important in understanding how we believe things, only says so much. It does not address the rightness or wrongness of said beliefs. Perhaps we only believe what our parents taught us. . .and perhaps they are wrong (as is implied in the objection). Then again, perhaps they are right. The objection only speaks to our epistemology (a big word which simply refers to how we know or believe what we know or believe).

With this in mind, I want to introduce a graphic I constructed to help work through what can be a very complicated issue.

photo

The three circles at the bottom represent three primary sources of influence. The first is REASON (or the INTELLECT). The second is EXPERIENCE. And the last is TRADITION. Each of these has a different level of influence on each of us.  They, in turn, feeding into the circle that represents our EMOTIONS. Our emotions then feed our WILL. And from here we make our choices or take actions.  Your emotional disposition at any given moment will determine your choice.

For example, I talked about the influence our parents have on us. Tradition, as we will later see, is much more complex than just what mommy and daddy taught us, but for me, as a child, this was pretty much it. I did not use too much reason or experience in making my choice for Christ. Mom told me it was true, therefore it was true. After all, I had no reason not to trust my mother. At that time, my chart would have looked like this:

Tradition

Continue Reading →

Why I Lack Certainty About Christianity

Belief does not come easy for me. I have a little “unbeliever” who has set up camp in the back of my mind, and he has no idea when, or how, to shut up. He is always questioning everything, from the stories I hear to the beliefs which tie me down emotionally. (I borrowed this idea from Daniel Taylor’s The Skeptical Christian. Taylor is possibly the most profound and honest writer I have ever read.) This unbeliever’s goal is to make me less certain about my beliefs and, in doing so, render me spiritually impotent and sterile. I have found many ways to tame this unbelieving beast, but I have also come to the conclusion that he will never totally shut up.

There are not many things about which I have absolute certainty. What I mean by “certainty” is very important here. I do not mean that there are only a few things about which I am convicted as to their truthfulness. Nor do I mean that there are just a few things I am obligated to evangelize. What I actually mean is that there are very few things about which I have indubitable knowledge of. (Perhaps the use of that word did not help…I just like to say the word “indubitable.”) Indubitability implies that one cannot be wrong. It is akin to infallibility. It is perfect and incorrigible conviction. However, none of us really have access to this type of certainty.

In dealing with doubters over the years, I have found that this reality has been the fountainhead for much anxiety in people’s faith. It is not that a lack of perfect certainty is the cause; rather, the cause is the belief that they are supposed to have perfect certainty. Once people begin to have doubts about their faith (or some aspect thereof), especially those who have grown up in very conservative traditions, many begin to doubt their faith altogether, thinking, “How can I have faith, if I have doubts?” It is not that conservative doctrines themselves are at fault; it is the idea that has been preconditioned into their thinking, that belief always and completely casts away doubt. The solution is very often as simple as convincing individuals that faith and doubt will always exist together, which is okay.

Some people say that they have no doubt at all, and they never have. I have difficulty believing assertions such as this, though I suppose they might be true for a very small number of individuals. However, at this point, I think it would be valuable for us to distinguish between “certainty” and “certitude” (Daniel Taylor introduced me to this concept, but I don’t know if the distinctions he made are embedded in the specific definitions of the terms). “Certainty” is the more objective type of conviction. It is the idea that one cannot be wrong due to conclusion of objective facts and evidence. “Certitude” is an emotional conviction that people have, which does not necessarily require evidence. It is the feeling of certainty, but not certainty itself. Most people I come across, who believe that Christians must be certain about their faith, are really talking about certitude. Certitude is good, but one can have certitude that is wrong. Therefore, people can have a strong level of “certitude” without possessing absolute “certainty” about it.

Let me put it another way: No matter how certain you believe you are about some truth, (assuming that it is true) God is even more certain than you are. Most people are comfortable with this idea. For me to say that God has greater assurance about what is true than you do is without question. Similarly, to say that you and I don’t possess perfect faith is generally acceptable to most of us. This allows you and me the opportunity to grow in our faith, and by doing so, grow in our conviction concerning this faith. Assuming this is the case, our “certainty” is not really certainty, but certitude.

As you must know by now, I like charts. Let me try this (those of you who have been through The Theology Program will be familiar with what follows). It’s called “The Chart of Certainty:”

Chart-of-Certainty Continue Reading →

Finding Trustworthy Scholars

Right now, in my home office, I have material about the Crusades all over the place. It is a paradise to me. I have notes and random thoughts scribbled on various pieces of paper, DVDs, self-made maps, and my precious notebooks which, in theory, contain the most articulate expression of my teachings – before it all gets transferred to PowerPoint for the didactic finale. It is a mess, but I love it.

As with most of my studies, I have a lot of people I rely on to get the information I need. After all, I was not present at the Crusades, so my job is to find the best sources to tell me exactly what happened. My favorite source has been Thomas Madden. He is a modern writer on the Crusades and he is easy to follow. He also seems to write objectively. But I have other sources as well. Of course there is Jonathan Riley-Smith, who is a standard-bearer in this field. As well, Thomas Asbridge provides great work that reads like a novel. Then there is Maalouf’s work which helps me see things through Muslim eyes. And there are others. But all of these are modern writers. We call these “secondary sources.” In order to be more objective, one should also consult “primary sources.” These are works from writers who were actually there. For this, I have an excellent work called The Crusades: A Reader. This is a compilation of dozens of first-hand accounts of the Crusades from Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim sources. I even have on my Kindle is a biography of Alexios I, written by his daughter, called The Alexiad.

Here is a picture of some of my sources (please note: I do not endorse all of these works, but most are very good):

books-on-the-crusades

I have been at this study since I started teaching on the Crusades a few months ago. Yet, I am far from an expert on the Crusades. In fact, were I to keep this up for the next few years, expert status would still be far off. I will never be an “authority” in this area. I don’t have the brain power or the time. Therefore, I will always rely heavily on others for an understanding of the Christian Crusades, and I am content with this. Continue Reading →

On My Journey to Become Charismatic

Theological opinions are hard to change. Once they have set in, they are usually there to stay. The theological glue that makes ideas stick early in your studies is, for better or worse, rock solid. It must be that same stuff they use on your teeth. I have one fake tooth glued to the root of the old tooth. I can’t believe that sucker is still holding. Strong stuff.

Ironically, I am in the business of changing theological opinions. Well, that is not entirely accurate. Sometimes – a lot of times – it is just solidifying opinions, rather than changing them. However, I don’t change my own opinions too much. In terms of my basic theological confession, I am pretty much the same person I was twenty years ago. I can still sign the same confessions (even though some of them cause me to raise an eyebrow or two).  I am still Protestant, Evangelical, Calvinist, dispensationalist. I believe in inerrancy, I hold to a pre-tribulational view of the end times, and I believe in dunking rather than sprinkling. I am a complementarian, a traducianist, and a memorialist with regard to the Lord’s supper. Heck, I even believe in a young earth! The point is that I rarely change my positions. Life is just more comfortable that way.

Don’t get me wrong. I have actually tried to change some of these opinions. I really want to change some of these opinions. What I mean is that many times, I find the view that I don’t hold to be more palatable or, for lack of a better word, more likable than the one I do. For example, I really want to be a charismatic. I desire so deeply to believe in and experience that miraculous divine intervention the way that charismatics do. I salivate as I look at their worship, hope, and engagement with God. However, though I have studied, argued, prayed, talked to the right people, and prayed some more, I am still not a charismatic (and doubt I will ever be).

The funny thing is that I know I am wrong about so much. When I stand before God, I expect to be surprised at how many of the things I taught, preached on, blogged about, wrote books about, and shouted from mountain tops were wrong. Obviously, I don’t know which ones these are or I would change them now. However, for the most part, I don’t think I will be in too much trouble. The best I can do is believe that those things I will be wrong about were sincere. In other words, I believe that the things I might end up being wrong about are difficult issues that “could go either way.” Continue Reading →

The Danger of Theological Novelty

Not long ago, I met with an old friend of mine who is a “swinger.” For those of you who don’t know, swinging is when both partners in a committed relationship agree to have a sexually open relationship. This guy was married and came in to talk to me about – you guessed it – marital problems. The idea behind “swinging” is that things never become mundane. Sexual monogamy, according to swingers, is nothing more than confining yourself to sexual boredom. Being with the same partner becomes cliché and uneventful. Swinging keeps things fresh and novel at all times so the high produced by provocation is always maintained.

As problematic and destructive as marital swinging is, that is not what I am writing about. I want to talk about what I call theological swinging. This is, in my opinion, one of the greatest problems in theology today (and probably of any day). Let me explain.

Before going to seminary, I was given a set of books by my pastor. At the time he was, to me, the smartest person living on planet Earth. I salivated to get a peek of his notes each week. I wanted to record everything he said. And just to get to see his library – the source of the very sun! – was just about too much excitement for me to handle. That is why I was speechless the day he gave me two books, one blue and one red. I knew these were precious books to him due to the amount of notes and stickies that covered the dog-eared pages. What were they? Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Volumes 1 and 2 by Josh McDowell. Upon receipt of these books I read them over and over. The wisdom and knowledge that filled the pages was almost too much excitement for this 20-year-old wannabe apologist to take. It was so provocative to me. The provocation came not from learning the Gospel for the first time, but from seeing with my own eyes, for the first time, an attempt to defend Christianity. “Are you kidding me?!” I said each time I read about a new topic. This guy, Josh McDowell, must be a giant of the faith, demanding respect from everyone. He was my new hero.

It was not until I hit seminary that I found out the “truth.” You see, at seminary, among all the students “in the know,” I came to find out very quickly that these kinds of works are frowned upon. I came to find out that McDowell’s apologetics were called “pop” apologetics. In essence, pop apologetics is cliché defense of the faith performed by cliché apologists. Translation: it was naive. It was not kosher. If and when I quoted someone like McDowell in a conversation with fellow students, there would be some snickering. The idea conveyed was that there were certain works, written by certain authors, that were “little league” and not respectable. Whether is was Lewis Sperry Chafer, Josh McDowell, Wayne Grudem, or R.C. Sproul (all of whom were my self-proclaimed mentors until that point), they were, at best, milk from the breast of my mother; at worst, they were naive teachers who simply parroted the simple and sheltered faith of evangelicalism. If you wanted to run with the “big boys” you had to read yourself some Barth, Multmonn, Hauerwas, or one of the liberation theologians such as Boff or Gutierrez. Why? Because, quite frankly, they did not fit the “stupid” evangelical mold. These were the “cool” people to read. They were the trump cards that, when played, left other students feeling inadequate and inferior. I thought I could read Dwight Pentecost’s Things to Come and be prepared for any discussion on eschatology. Who knew that quoting Theology of Hope by Jürgen Moltmann at Dallas Theological Seminary would be more prestigious than Pentecost? Who knew that saying that you had been reading A Theology of Liberation would score you more points than reading Basic Theology by Charles Ryrie? Who knew that the greatest danger for any Christian leader was to be labeled cliché? Continue Reading →