Friday, May 12, 2006

Reaching Escape Velocity

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief. It has absolutely nothing to do with real escape velocities, so if you are looking for help on your physics homework, you are not going to find it here.

This will hopefully be a quick response to Reviving the Classics, in which Ernie responds to my last post, Am I Fundamentally Mistaken? I Think Not. I claimed that I have not been addressing only Fundamentalist Christianity, and I compared my earlier (and very short) summary of what I had described as the common elements of most brands of Christianity with his recent description of Orthodox Christianity. I further claimed that our two descriptions were not so far apart that he could call his a description of orthodoxy while calling mine a description of fundamentalism.

This is not to say that our descriptions were identical; I did not and would not claim that. Since the beginning of our dialog, there have been hints that his personal version of Christianity differs in at least subtle ways from orthodoxy, but then, after first meeting Ernie as a grad student who rode a skateboard around campus while carrying a briefcase, complete orthodoxy would be surprising to me.

Ernie posed three questions to close his post:

  • Do you accept Classical Orthodoxy as accurately representing your view of Christianity?
  • Do you accept my Relativistic Orthodoxy as also being reasonably consistent with historical orthodoxy?
  • Do you see how the differences between them at least offer the hope of addressing your concerns?

To answer the first question, there are a wide variety of beliefs held by different people under the umbrella term of "Christianity". It seems reasonable to choose a representative subset of those beliefs to, well, represent Christianity and Classical Orthodoxy fills that role pretty well. Is that my view of Christianity? I am not sure I have a single view of Christianity because it is important for my purposes to recognize the variety of Christian beliefs. I suppose that if I met somebody who called himself a Christian, those are the sorts of beliefs I would expect from him until I learned otherwise.

To the limited degree that I understand Ernie's "Relativistic Orthodoxy", yes, I can accept it as being reasonably consistent with Classical Orthodoxy. And I understand that changes to one set of beliefs or assertions may allow the resulting new set of beliefs to escape the criticisms of the old set. (This is trivially true if the changes completely replace the old beliefs.) I am not sure yet if Ernie's changes are sufficient to escape.

There remain several issues. First, Ernie can hardly expect me to evaluate his beliefs until he tells me what they are. He has begun to do this, but not in sufficient detail for me to decide how my concerns might be addressed. Answering more of the questions I posed in Psi-lent Night would be one place to start. In addition to addressing my concerns about Classical Orthodoxy, Relativistic Orthodoxy should not raise comparable new concerns. Finally, Ernie needs to provide some positive evidence for the truth of his beliefs beyond simply saying "if this were true it would solve your problems".

In addition to the questions I have already posed, I think a discussion of these two statements would be fruitful:

3a. Jesus death and resurrection enable us to meaningfully appropriate our salvation

4a. The Bible is a faithful and authoritative record of humanity's encounter with the divine

Finally, going back to the idea of orthodoxy, I wanted to bring up the approach taken by Michael Martin in his book The Case Against Christianity which I recently read. To address the problem posed by the variety of Christian beliefs, he looked at the common elements of the Apostle's Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed, the three oldest known sets of credal statements. I thought that was a reasonably good approach to take for a book like that. In this setting though, that is for this dialog, Ernie's Creed is the one we need to use.

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