Saturday, May 20, 2006

Dark Forebodings

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

In The Weight of Justice I answered some questions that Ernie had posed, and in turn posed on of the questions back to him, basically asking for his fundamental reasons for belief. His response can be found at My "Standard Model" of Christianity.

I first want to clarify something that I think Ernie may have misunderstood. When I said that "belief in Christianity depends on the veracity of various historical assertions", I was not saying that those historical assertions are the entirety of Christian belief. Ernie provided good examples of other sorts of beliefs that are part of a Christian belief system, and I agree that those sorts of beliefs do compose most Christian belief systems. I would suggest, though, that some assertions are fairly central to Christianity; again, the resurrection would be an excellent example. Paul at least seemed to think so, since in I Corinthians 15:14 he says "and (X)if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain." So I am not convinced that my idea of what Christianity is is so different from Ernie's. I will return to some of the other elements of the belief system in a moment.

Ernie also said:

The embarrassing truth is that the reasons I (and I think most people) have for believing in Christianity are completely different than the ones Alan has been critiquing. And somehow this fact hasn't really surfaced until now. Doh!

I more or less agree with this. I think many people do have different reasons for believing than what I have been critiquing. I also think that those other reasons are insufficient to overcome the problems that I claim exist. I explored one of those other reasons back in Making Change when I discussed the evidentiary value of changed lives. (I guess that means I have been critiquing some of those other reasons as well.)

Ernie included in his Christian meta-model nine categories of beliefs. These are not necessarily exhaustive, but at least generally representative. Ernie then provides additional details for each category, building his "Standard Model of Christianity". His claim is that there is sufficient internal coherency, explanatory power, and historical and empirical evidence to prefer this theory to competing theories.

The Standard Model of physics fame is a very successful theory, even if it is incomplete. Ernie calls it "wildly successful" and he probably knows that better than I do. While I do not expect that Ernie meant to imply that his (or any) Standard Model of Christianity was similarly successful, I want to emphasize this dissimilarity. The Standard Model of physics is universally acknowledged (by physicists) because it is so successful; there is convergence in belief because of vast empirical evidence that supports the model and secondarily due to aesthetic considerations like symmetry and (comparative) simplicity. The great variety of beliefs all included under the umbrella term "Christianity", indeed the very fact that Ernie and I have to be careful to define what it is we mean when we say "Christianity" are indications that no corresponding convergence or success is associated with a Standard Model of Christianity, never mind that skeptics have generally not been convinced.

Ernie does state that the various components of his belief system are interrelated and that "those aspects which are historically testable and/or empirically verifiable lend credence to those that are less, and ultimately to the whole." In saying this, it sounds like he agrees with me that historical evidence is important to his belief system, but I expect he places greater weight on other "empirical" considerations, especially various experiential factors. For instance, back in The Universe, And Three Examples Ernie said "I trust the Bible because it explains the divinity I observe, not vice versa." In fact, back in Altimeters for Divinity he said, "... Alan appears to evaluate Christianity in historical terms, whereas I judge it on empirical grounds."

Ernie ends with a "short answer" to the question "why do I believe [this version of] Christianity". (Humorously, his short answer is longer than his [overview of his] long answer.) This short answer revolves around love and Ernie's belief that "self-giving love is the most real and the most powerful thing in the universe, and that ultimately everything else is contingent on that."

As I sat and reviewed what Ernie has said, both here and previously, I am now struck by just how far apart we are. Stunned, almost. I have sat here for at least half an hour trying to figure out how to move forward, obviously with little success.

Ernie, if you had stopped at your (short) long answer, I would have asked you to elaborate on how the various parts of your Standard Model of Christianity do interrelate and which parts contribute most strongly to the which others and to the whole. I might have asked you to try to describe how much inaccuracy and uncertainty you can tolerate in historical claims. I might have asked you to explain more fully your views on the Bible. Given your (longer) short answer, the answers that I anticipate bode ill for further progress.

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