Monday, November 30, 2009

International Hot Tub: Round 3

(For an introduction to the intent and explanation of the name of this series, please see the introduction. Though this is presented as a two party debate on one level, comments and responses are still fully welcomed to all posts in the comments section as a way to help extend the debate and bring other voices into it.)

Guest Post by Andy Snyder:

Sorry this is so late; life happened. I’ll try to get the following responses up within a week of Adam’s posts.

My first issue here is why my complaint should be expressed “openly” at all. You said, “By ‘expressed openly’ I mean within the limits of human finitude but without excluding the possibility of the objectivity and freedom of God beyond those limits.” I understand you to mean the argument for Christianity can proceed if one is open to the possibility of the supernatural. I see no argument presented here which would make me open to the supernatural or any concept of God. The argument that I need to consider Jesus’ claims on his own terms is anachronistic and doesn’t take seriously the modern scientific world view. Jesus presented himself to a culture that assumed theism of one sort or another. This gave an inherent shape to the presentation of his message, as the majority of the ancient world believed in the divine. Back then the question was not, “Do you believe in God?” but was instead “What God do you believe in?” My problem of struggling with the existence of God was not something Jesus addressed in his message; therefore his gospel cannot be considered meaningfully until the bigger abstract issue of the existence of God is dealt with first.

Second, even if I’m open to the supernatural, I see no reason why Christianity should be given special consideration above all other claims of the supernatural. Couldn’t your second paragraph just as easily ended with “Enter the prophet Muhammad” “Enter Buddha” “Enter Apollo” etc? All religions are realities presented as both sensible and intelligible; I don’t understand why we should skip straight to Christianity and ignore other major claims to the supernatural.

Third, even if I consider Christianity on its own terms, I would argue its subjects (God/Yahweh/Jesus/The Holy Spirit) have been suspiciously absent for quite some time. Simply put, theophanies have a shelf life and the resurrection of Jesus has long past its expiration date. There is biblical president for this: In John it is written,

“ ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’ Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ ” (John 20:24-29)

Here Jesus reveals two things: the need for humans to experience tangible proof of his divine claims and the difficulty to marshal belief when humans don’t have that first hand experience. Most scholars date this gospel only 60 years after the time of Jesus. That the author included this saying of Jesus implies his audience, only two or three generations removed from the life of Jesus, was struggling with his claim to be God. It is infinitely harder to believe now, as we are thousands of years and generations removed from the last significant theophany Christianity attests to. Experiencing the story, the gospel, and Christ’s ethics expressed through his church 2000 years later is not a meaningful substitute for an unequivocal biblical theophany of God. You won’t apologize for this tension and that’s fine, but neither will I for claiming a victory here.

“Of course there are other ostensibly plausible interpretations of these events. You've offered a common and compelling one, the one of the linear evolution of human understanding where we go from mythology, to religion, to naturalistic science. This story is forceful and persuasive, except for the fact that it offers no proof of itself. It is just as liable to the charge of total fabrication as is any meta-narrative of human or cosmic history.” So what do you make of the microwave background, Hubble’s constant, the fossil record (the Neanderthal, Lucy), spontaneous mutation, etc? These things certainly seem to be proof or at least evidence that the development of the universe proposed through the modern scientific worldview is valid.

On the final issue of worldviews being neutral, I propose there is a common underpinning in all cultural perspectives. Although it’s not neutral, it’s at the foundation of the human experience and is therefore a universal beginning point to evaluate any and all worldviews we might hold: humans are pattern-seeking. Whether it is Native Americans noticing the migration routes of the buffalo, ancient Athenian astrologers noticing the same shapes in the heavens reoccur year after year, or even a modern theologian looking for patterns in TF Torrance’s thought, our species universally takes notice of phenomena reoccurring and gives explanations for them. I propose that a worldview should be judged on how internally consistent its patterns to understand the world are. I not going to post my criticisms on the Christian perspective, but only want to offer this as a beginning point for comparative discussion of worldviews.

Thus endeth the response…what say you?


  1. Though the modern scientific era is a different one, I think it a presupposition foundational to rejection of God to claim it (implicitly or otherwise) as something new and superior and therefore undealt with (in principle) by anyone ancient, be it Socrates or Jesus. The thing is, its premise is based upon human ability to make a conclusion at all based on the reaches of our discovery and deduction. This would be nothing new, I'm sure. In fact I think Jesus is addressing it in the very passage you've quoted. By leaving room after (and I'd argue even within) His theophanies, God is doing something (according to Christianity at least) that only God could do, and is doing it in a way that still leaves room for humanity. Were we to know God in any way other than belief it would mean we were either equal to the divine or would mean that god was nothing but human projection.

    If you want to do comparative religion, fine, but count modernist naturalism (I don't mean science, I mean the worldview excluding God on the basis of science) among them. I doubt you'll find a theism that makes as much sense of the tension (without obliterating it presumptively) than Christianity.

    This is not a new discussion thanks to the Enlightenment. This has been going on for centuries. The modern human has just found new clothes for it, and I would daresay has also found (in the scientific, industrial, technological and globalist revolutions)--along with many good things (which could each in their part give glory to a Creator)--a new mirage of human progress to bow to.

    Don't read from my answer that I don't relate to the questions, but I do find premises in them that, while calling us aptly to honest consideration of the relevance of Christ for our times, are in themselves ultimately unsatisfying.

  2. I just came into this discussion and find it very interesting. I'd just like to comment on the issue of God being able to be experienced physically. We think physically touching something is more "real" than experiencing it in some other way, but if you dissect the action of touching it becomes at least as complicated and mysterious as any other way. Our perception of touch is actually an electrical event interpreted by other electrical receivers, and it can easily be faked.
    I've thought before that if a person 1000 years ago saw the patterns that Media player shows during music, he would think he was having a religious experience.
    I'm curious what physical interaction would convince you that you had experienced God? That is, what would have to happen to make you think you had had a religious or supernatural experience rather than a mere psychological event?

  3. nuerons communicate via nuerotransmitters not electrical current just an really isn't mystyerious if you study it.(I'm sure the same goes for God I suppose)just a bunch of myelinated axons communicating with your brain with chemicals and protiens. If you want some mysterious stuff in the body look into cells in your eye near the nose...they detect light even if you are blind! crazyness...then you have special olfactory cells that can be transplanted as stem cells in the central neurvous system!!!

    and you are refering to a cognitive event..Psychological implys more than mental event

    I feel the cognitive events are probably stronger than the phsyical events for God. ie reason.

  4. Jesse, I'm not sure you're getting Steve's point. The point is that holding tangibility as a criteria for truth is problematic: even touching can't totally be considered direct experience because translation of data is involved, events happening in one place, like the tip of your finger, and messages about that event then being sent and translated through a series of media until the event is translated into a cognitive experience in your brain inches away and nanoseconds later. Plus, these experiences can be faked. All that to say, disregarding the claims of Christians about experiences with God extending from the risen Christ through the mediation of Scripture, the church, and personal life events, all because these aren't direct experiences of God and could in fact be fabrications, fails to take seriously the mediation and translation involved in all knowledge. At least I think that was the point of Steve's comment.

  5. Wow--I guess that's what I meant. Just kidding, that essentially was the point I was trying to make, that perception and interpretation is a tricky business. Jesse obviously knows far more about biological systems than I do but I caution against one thing. Naming something doesn't mean it's understood. We have all sorts of names for electrical phenomena and have advanced tremendously in our use of it--but we still don't really know what it is.
    I would like a fuller explanation of the difference between a psychological and cognitive event, not that it's really pertinent to the discussion, I'm just curious.
    And maybe I shouldn't even be commenting on this subject because I have serious doubts about whether the subject of
    God's existence can be explored through discussion.
    An analogy might be to try to descibe a taste to another person. No matter how precise your language, a taste has to be experienced to be understood. Descriptions only subsitute other tastes--"it's like", etc.
    In a similar way, I believe the presence or absence of God is an experience. Thinking, doubting, questioning, and discussing can help you get there, but only part way.

  6. I know. I'm getting really wordy reading all this Torrance. When I'm done with my PhD and I'm going to have to go back and take a basic writing course at Cabrillo or something just so I can write intelligibly.

  7. One more thing I forgot--my original question was, what physical event, or "event in the physical world" would be convincing as evidence for the existence of God? Even if we were present at the incarnation, Jesus could have been faking, or hypnotizing, or drugging or whatever.
    Of course it may be begging the question as well. The position could be taken that if God is God, He should be able to make His presence undeniably real to us. And I think He certainly can but chooses not to (at least not "undeniably"). Another discussion might explore just why that is.
    So--what would it take to convince the doubters?

  8. Can Jesse please stop throwing big words around on here in an attempt to make himself sound intelligent?

  9. Young one, you have finally arrived.

  10. After talking to Adam the other day I learned the Steve C. on this message board and Steve Campbell of La Selva Beach are one in the same person. Hey Steve, I'm glad you're on here! So I can't speak for the others but I would need a undeniable experience of God to believe again. I originally wanted a damascus road like experience, but maybe this is asking too much. I just feel I've been given the basic tools of the senses to experience the rest of reality and it seems weird that God cannot be perceived through these senses...any other non-believers want to chime in on what would have to happen to make you believe? Young One???

  11. Yes that's me, although I can't remember ever being refered to as "of La Selva Beach" before. And thanks for the welcome.
    And my question stands. You say an "undeniable experience" but do you mean you don't know what that experience would be, or that you'll "know it when you see it".
    And yes you have senses to experience reality but as I'm sure you're aware, you only experience a tiny fraction of reality with your senses. I've recently had that brought home by my hospital experience. The high doses of medication I was on right after the operation caused hallucinations--not so unusual, but the strange thing was that I had memories of doing ordinary things like walking down the hall or looking out the window that were impossible since I couldn't leave the bed. They weren't dreams either (which is a whole other interesting discussion).
    So I wonder, even you ("you" in general) had a Damascus experience could you trust it? I guess that would be part of the "undeniable" requirement. It's just that I can't think of any undeniable experience even in the ordinary world.
    I'm excited by the exploration though, because the whole subject of reality is fascinating. And whether God exists or not is clearly not a mere academic excercise.
    I would also be curious (not that it's any of my business) as to how those of us who once had faith, or thought they had, lost it.

  12. I realize I am a little late for this conversation, but I think Steve is touching on a good point.

    As a Baptist I was taught that if I was unsure of my salvation I could always refer back to the day I asked Jesus to enter my heart. The Bible says that if I confess with my mouth and believe in my heart that Jesus is Lord, than I shall be saved, and since I did that on that special day in the past, I can know I am saved.

    Of course, I accepted Jesus into my heart at the age of 4 years old, and I have often wondered if my act was really sincere. I was 4 years old after all, and my mom was encouraging me to do it. Did I really know what I was doing? Maybe I should say the prayer again just to be safe. Ok, I just said it. Now I am OK. I am sure I am going to heaven because I can clearly remember sincerely confessing with my mouth and believing in my heart that Jesus is Lord. But now I have a new problem. If my act of belief from 30 years ago is subject to doubt, how do I know that this act will not be subject to doubt in another 30 years? In 30 years I will be an old man, I might have memory issues, how will I know I am a Christian? There seems to be problem with grounding my faith in an event in the past: I can always doubt the event later.

    A larger problem with the Baptist/confession idea of salvation is that it is absent in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus did not go around Palestine collecting a list of people who would confess that he was God, rather he was only interested in those who were willing to be absolutely committed to following. He does not care about belief, the rich young ruler exhibited belief, instead Jesus wants absolute, balls out, commitment: Faith.

    It is interesting to note that the disciples exhibited Faith by following Jesus before they actually knew who Jesus was. The proposition “Jesus is God” did not become a reality for them until some time after they had already taken a step of absolute commitment. Belief is not a condition for faith, so much as a willing heart.

    I think it’s important that we draw a distinction between Faith and belief. Belief is founded on evidence and does not involve risk to the person believing. I believe it will be sunny tomorrow. I believe Aberdeen is a city in Scotland. If it turns out I am wrong on these beliefs, I might be surprised, but I won’t be upset or distressed by the falsehood of my beliefs. Faith on the other hand is grounded in hope and it is inherently risky. I have faith that my wife keeps her marriage vows. I have evidence that my faith is sound, but I don’t have proof. I really have faith that my wife does not cheat, because I hope she does not cheat. I suppose if I really wanted proof I could make her wear a camera at all times or something, but to do so would be cruel, and would essentially involve breaking my own marriage vows in not treating her lovingly. More importantly, if my faith in her is founded on proof, than it would be only as good as the proof, and there is always a reason to doubt the proof. What if she somehow just recorded over a part of the movie of her life? The reason God does not give us proof is because he is not interested in belief. Belief is only as good as the proof, and can change without consequence.

    I want to say that when we demand proof of God we are attempting to subjugate Him, but I think the reality is more that when we try to prove God we are attempting to appeal to something higher than Him, and that is the basis of the fallacy. God may be logical, but he is not subjugated by anything. If we are attempting to engage something we can prove, its probably not God.

    BTW, I am writing a paper inspired by this discussion. My thesis is: Faith in God is not established by proof. I am going to make Andy read it if I have to go to his house and force-feed him beer, but I can find somewhere to post it online as well if anyone else wants to read it.


  13. I would be both surprised and distressed if your belief that Aberdeen is a city in Scotland turned out to be wrong :)

    I like a lot of what you to say here. Proving God is something only God can do because, as you say, to point to something other than him as proof of him is to subjugate him.

    I'm a little uncomfortable with your account of faith vs belief for a few reasons. I like what you have to say about belief being too neutral while faith involves risk, but I don't think we want to treat faith and belief as having nothing to do with one another or being opposed to each other. The analogy to faith in your wife's fidelity is a bit problematic because it ends up reposing on your strength of will rather than on her actual faithfulness. When it comes to faith in God, our faith is built on hope, but that hope does in fact rest on past events, not on the past events of my faith (or belief) in God but on his acts of faithfulness in Jesus Christ. Of course, the trustworthiness of the biblical accounts of that faithfulness are what this whole debate with Andy was about and you're right that the proper approach to it is obedience not critical inquiry (at least the immediate response), but we don't want to reduce the whole situation to an existential decision on our part, like our faith rests ultimately in our decision to hope with no evidence or proof. That is far too subjective. The ultimate basis for our faith, if it is to be Christian faith at all, has to lie outside of ourselves in the faithfulness of the Father who has accomplished and revealed that faithfulness in Jesus Christ and brings us to faith in his faithfulness by the work of the Spirit.

    All of that to say, though we do not have the power to repeat God's own self-evidencing that is the foundation of our faith and hope, I don't think its right to say that God isn't interested in belief. I don't see how faith in Christ and hope in his faithfulness can have any serious meaning without cognitive belief in the message of the Gospel.

    I'd love to see your paper when you're done with it.

  14. I agree that the distinction between faith and belief is not as stark as I have painted it. There is clearly some overlap in the ideas. Let's say you removed all the overlapping area plus the faith. What you would have left is belief-sans-faith.

    I don't think God takes any pleasure in belief-sans-faith. This is the belief of demons, or the rich young ruler.

    Consider it a thought experiment. Compare the first time the disciples met Jesus (Matt 4:18-22 is what I'm thinking of) with the first time the rich young ruler encounters Jesus. Do the disciples really know who Jesus is? The text gives us no reason to think so. Still they are willing to follow, and Jesus considers them worthy to be his disciples. The Rich Young Ruler on the other hand clearly knows who Jesus is or else he wouldn't desire his blessing, but he is ultimately unwilling to follow, and so he is unworthy.

    I have more to say but I am going to give it up for tonight. I should be working on my paper.