Tuesday, November 01, 2005

A Response to Ernie's Post Modern Faith in Jesus

Ernie pointed us to his recent post here. He was some thought-provoking things to say, and you will want to take a look at it before continuing here.

First, Ernie is pretty accurate in saying that I am rejecting a fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity on empirical grounds, that what I used to believe has (in my view) been proven false. I do recognize that I cannot on those grounds rule out every possible version of God, and I do recognize that there are alternative sets of beliefs, still based at least roughly on the Bible and still called Christian by their adherents, that are less susceptible to those disproofs. I alluded to that here, about half way down, when I stated that disproving conservative, fundamentalist Christianity was easier due to its stronger claims.

Second, I will admit to being a little surprised at how little Ernie is claiming as empirically knowable. It raises the question in my mind how much difference there is between what he lists there and what (or how much) he believes is true beyond that. This does not have anything to do with the testability of what he has proposed; I am simply curious because what he stated represents a much more liberal position than I expected from him. Similarly, I think Ernie does well to point out the pitfalls that accompany ascribing omnipotence and omniscience to God. And as with other statements of liberal Christianity, once we have stripped it down so far, I wonder if there is enough left to be worth believing, as opposed simply to studying.

But the main point, I guess, was to look at a set of propositions that Ernie believes can be supported emperically:

a. There is a God -- that is, a source of information, power, and will external to the physical universe

b. That this God has revealed Himself in numerous ways to numerous people (not necessarily just Judeo-Christians), providing insights, leadership, and occasionally miracles beyond those accessible to mortal men

c. That communities which respond to these revelations by 'worship' (submission) live healthier, happier, and holier lives that those who denigrate or deny such revelations -- in proportion to the character of the God they worship

d. That the revelation of truth contained in the person and actions of Jesus Christ is vastly superior to anything claimed by any individual before or since; and that to create a Jesus myth would require wisdom equal to (or greater) than that ascribed to Jesus himself

e. That Jesus himself, whatever may have been added by legend, explicitly characterized himself as a representative of the above-mentioned external God

f. That *someone* and *something* -very unusual- happened in the first century AD that gave birth to the Christian movement, in a way that allows enormous diversity yet amazing continuity across both space and time.
I have some of questions and concerns about these as potentially falsifiable statements.

With regard to (a), this seems to imply a non-physical reality to which we are (somehow) connected. Do we have any empirical evidence that such a non-physical reality exists? What tests can we perform that could prove that it does not exist? If we have no possibility of disproving its existence, then we cannot know it to be true in even the scientific sense (which is a tentative kind of knowledge anyway). Also, how can we show that there is only one god? Why not more than one?

Similarly, for (b), I do not understand how we are going to establish that the god proposed in (a) has revealed himself in numerous ways to numerous people. How can we distinguish insights and leadership from this God from purely natural insights and leadership? The subject of miracles is a bit bigger. I will have to come back to that.

In (c) we have some possibilities. For instance, many kinds of health can be measured more or less objectively. Happiness is a bit more subjective, and I think we will have trouble establishing a measure of that for communities throughout history. As for "holier", I am a bit worried on this one, because I think you could say that anybody that was not holy was not responding to the revelations, so that it is a bit circular.

I have another criticism of (c). People's beliefs can and usually do affect their lives, even when the belief itself is false. So when you say that "communities that respond to these revelations" have certain characteristics, you need to recognize and account for the effects of the beliefs. I would not find it particularly surprising if communities that generally hold to various religious beliefs would treat each other better or worse according to what they believe. I am concerned about how much we can infer about the truth of their beliefs on that basis.

(I suppose some people might say that if the beliefs produce social good, maybe we shouldn't worry so much about whether what they believe is true. Unfortunately, religion has also been the vehicle for a tremendous amount of evil in the world, even when the religion supposedly advocates better things. Also, beliefs only produce those good effects when they are actually believed. I, at least, cannot pretend to believe simply in order to get the benefits of belief, such as they are. Finally, I think it very likely that there are better results possible based on things that are true, when that can be known.)

In (d), Ernie refers to the "revelation of truth contained in the person and actions of Jesus Christ" and claims that this revelation is superior to anything claimed before or since by anyone else. I am unsure whether Ernie intends this to be superiority in quality (so that the revelation most closely matches some ultimate truth) or superiority in quantity (there were more true things revealed through Jesus than anybody else) or superiority in importance (there were more important true things revealed through Jesus), or perhaps something else entirely. For any of the possibilities I have listed, I wonder how we will determine this superiority without knowing "the truth" that is to be the standard for measurement.

With regard to (e), I do not expect to much controversy about whether Jesus characterized himself as some kind of representative of God. I know there are many people who would argue that divinity was not something that he claimed for himself. (Note that we do not have anything written by Jesus himself. We have only words that others claim were said by Jesus. I do not want to get into all of that here, but just wanted to point out why people might argue that Jesus did not claim divinity for himself even though it might seem that way from the gospels.) I would note that many other people have characterized themselves as various kinds of representatives of God, and some of them were not very nice people. So I do not really understand how this proposition gets us anywhere.

Finally (and I apologize for the length of all of this, but Ernie started it :-), in (f) we are looking at the emergence of Christianity itself, something that was "very unusual". Some unusual things do happen. Many do not. We cannot place too much emphasis on the one unusual event that did happen. I could just as easily characterize the birth and growth of Mormonism as very unusual. The implication seems to be (but maybe I am misunderstanding Ernie's point) that the emergence of Christianity was so unusual that one could not reasonably explain it without appealing to a supernatural cause. But I do not find anything that unusual about it. Many religions have "lived" and "died", some bigger, some smaller, some lasting longer, some less so.

(I confess I do not understand what Ernie meant when he said "in a way that allows enormous diversity yet amazing continuity across both time and space". Can you help me out on that one, Ernie?)

Overall, I wonder if I am missing Ernie's point a bit, because I do not see most of his propositions as very testable, and the others have (to me) questionable significance. I also dispute Ernie's statement that
... each of these propositions is more consistent with the available evidence than its contradiction, i.e. at least "relatively true.", and that they all support each other. In other words, if you can at least believe either "f" or "a", you ought to be able to infer the rest without difficulty.
I especially fail to see that there is a logical chain of inference in either direction, let alone both directions. To me, saying that you can infer the rest from either (a) or (f) means that once you have established the truth of one of those, that the other must necessarily be true. Put another way, (a) would be a sufficient cause for (b), and (b) would be sufficient for (c), and so on. The way it looks to me, (a) is necessary but not sufficient for (b), (b) is necessary but not sufficient for (c), and (b) is also necessary but not sufficient for (d). (d), (e) and (f) and perhaps others seem to be leading to some other as-yet unstated conclusion.

What am I missing or misunderstanding?

1 comment:

Dr. Ernie said...

Hi Bucky,
Okay I've posted my reply at:


Thanks for the feedback; I apologize for any confusion, and look forward to continuing the discussion.