Thursday, June 30, 2005

Conversations with Angie: Some weakness in the free will theodicy


Usually, the way people attempt to refute the free will argument is to say that God could have created a world where people are free to choose between good and evil, and yet they only choose good. This rebuttal doesn't work, because, as (6) shows, people would not truly be free if they could only do good.

However, this rebuttal does reveal a weakness in the free will theodicy. Just because something is POSSIBLE doesn't mean it is ACTUAL. All it means is that it COULD be actual. So it is possible for God to create a world with free creatures who only do good. If God created such a world, though, it could not be by design. What I mean is that God could not, by an act of his will, cause the world to have free creatures who never do evil. If they never did evil, it would be because of their OWN decision--not God's. So if they HAPPENED to do evil, this would not be a failure on God's part. God can only will to create a world with free creatures--he cannot will them to only do good. I'm not sure if I'm being clear here, so let me know if you follow this.

There's another weakness in the free will theodicy. As I said before, there are two kinds of evil--moral evil and natural evil. The free will theodicy only accounts for moral evil. It doesn't answer the problem of natural evil.

There are some theists who will try to make the free will theodicy account for natural evil. They do it by appealing to the butterfly effect. Do you know what that is? That's basically the idea that everything in the universe is interconnected in a cause and effect relationship. Have you ever heard the story about how a horse shoe was lost because a nail was lost, and since the shoe was lost, the horse was lost, and since the horse was lost, the battle was lost, and since the battle was lost, the war was lost, and all on account of a single nail? Well, the butterfly effect is the same. A buttefly flapping its wings can set off a causal chain that eventually results in a hurricane that wipes out thousands of people. But since the interrelatedness of everything is so complicated, it's impossible to predict how one single event can ripple through the rest of the cosmos. We're doing good just to predict the weather a few days in advance. Some theists will argue that it's possible that natural evil can be caused by our free will acts, and they appeal to the butterfly effect in order to explain how. While I'm willing to grant the possibility, I doubt the plausibility. That is, it's possible, but it doesn't seem likely. However, it only needs to be possible in order to demonstrate that there's no contradiction between the claim that "God exists" and the claim that "natural evil exists." You see, if there WERE really a contradiction, then it would NOT be possible to account for natural evil by appealing to the butterfly effect and human decision.

[deleting some stuff]


Conversations with Angie: Angie on evil and freedom

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Conversations with Angie: The free will theodicy


The most common way theistic philosophers have responded to the problem of evil is by giving a theodicy. A theodicy is an attempt to give a reason for why there is evil in the world that is consistent with the existence of God. The most famous theodicy is the free-will theodicy. I'm sure you've heard this one before (and I suspect this is what you think "most Christians would say"), but it goes something like this:

1. God is good.
2. God only brings about good states of affairs. (follows from 1).
3. Free will is a good state of affairs. (Arguments are usually given to support this premise, but I'll spare you.)
4. Therefore, God brings about free will (follows from 2 and 3)
5. Free will consists of the ability to choose between good and evil. (This is a definition.)
6. If God created a world where people could only do good, then they would not be free. (follows from 5)
7. Therefore, God creates a world where both good and evil are possible. (follows from 4 and 6)
8. If something is possible, then it can be actualized. (This is just the definition of "possible.")
9. Therefore, evil can be actualized (follows from 7 and 8)
10. If God prevents something from happening, then it cannot be actualized. (This is the definition of "prevent".)
11. Therefore, God does not prevent evil from happening. (follows from 9 and 10)

to be continued...

Conversations with Angie:  Some weaknesses in the free will theodicy

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Conversations with Angie: The problem of evil stated


Okily dokily, this is the next part of your email I'm going to respond to:

"And, I find myself unable to believe that a truly good God would let the world be as it is. I know exactly what most Christians would say in response to it."

First, I'm curious to know what you think most Christians would say. I mean I'm a Christian, and I'm not even sure I know what most Christians would say. But I guess since you have more of a church background than I do, you'd be in a better position to know. Second, I'm curious to know if my response turns out to be what you think most Christians would say.

Before I respond, I want to mirror back to you what I take your reasoning to be. The world, as it is, contains a lot of evil and suffering. But God is good. If God is good, he would not want there to be evil. If he's powerful, he is able to rid the world of evil. If he's intelligent, he knows how to rid the world of evil. But since there's still evil in the world, either God doesn't exist, God isn't all good, God isn't all powerful, or God isn't all knowing.

This is the most popular argument in the history of philosphy against the Christian idea of God. It's called the problem of evil. It's usually formulated something like this:

1. If God exists, evil does not exist.
2. Evil exists.
3. Therefore, God does not exist.

In this argument, "God" is understood in the Christian sense, having omniscience (all knowing), omnipotence (all powerful), and omnibenevolence (all good).

Basically, the whole crux of the argument is that there's some contradiction between the claim that "God exists" and the claim that "Evil exists." That's basically what the first premise implies. God and evil cannot coexist. If there's evil, then there's no God. If there's God, then there's no evil. But since it's obvious that evil does exist, it follows that God does not.

Evil is understood in the broadest possible way. Traditionally, there are two kinds of evil--natural evil and moral evil. Moral evil is basically the sort of evil that results in human decision. Natural evil consists of things like hurricanes, volcanoes, and basically acts of nature that cause people to suffer. I guess even accidents would fall under natural evil.

to be continued...

Conversations with Angie: The free will theodicy

Monday, June 27, 2005

Conversations with Angie: the meanings of fatherhood


[deleting stuff]

Before I go on, I just want to make sure there isn't any misunderstanding about what I meant when I said God's role as a judge may, in some cases, be inconsistent with his role as a father. I would agree with people who say that anything God does is consistent with his nature, and I would add that I don't think there's anything internally inconsistent with God's nature. I just mean that in particular situations, God's nature dictates that he act in his role as a father, and in other situations he must act in his role as a judge. In some situations, he can't do both at the same time. That's all I meant by saying the roles can be inconsistent with each other in some situations.

The question was once put to me how I could reconcile God's justice with his mercy, since the two attributes seemed to be inconsistent with each other. Justice requires that God must punish people for wrongdoing, but mercy requires that God must NOT always punish people for wrongdoing. That seems like a clear case example of a contradiction, right?

It seems to me that both attributes were reconciled on the cross. Justice dictated that God demand payment for sin, but Grace dictated that God did not require us to pay for our OWN sins. I heard an analogy one time where this judge who had a reputation for giving stiff penalties sat on the bench one day and saw his son standing in front of him. His son was guilty, and everybody was curious to know if he would be lenient with his son. He ended up giving his son the maximum fine, but then he took off his robe and went to pay the fine for him.

You also have to understand that while humans are usually fathers in one sense, God is a father is different senses. In a sense, we are all children of God, because we were all created by God. God is a father to everybody in that sense. But in another sense, only believers are called sons of God, so God is a father to them in a different sense than he's a father to everybody else. Israelite kings were called sons of God in an even more special sense than the whole nation of Israel, so God is a father to them in a different sense. And then it is said that Jesus is the ONLY begotten son of God, so God is a father to Jesus in a different sense than he's a father to everybody else.

The reason I make this point is because I think the "father" analogies people make with God are misguided. For example, Jehovah's Witnesses will say, "Would a loving father punish his own son or daughter in hell?" I usually give one of two responses to them. I either say, "Would a loving father wipe his son or daughter out of existence?" which is what JW's believe as an alternative to hell, or I say, "God destroyed the people of Sodom and Gomorrah with fire. Would a loving father do that to his children?"

That kind of argument is perfectly pursuasive to somebody who is already a Christian and feels compelled to believe the Biblical report. But for a non-believers, I'm sure it's very unpursuasive. A non-believer might just say, "Well this is just evidence that the Biblical record about God is contradictory. On the one hand, it shows God capable of wiping people out in brutals ways, but on the other hand it says God is a loving father. They can't both be true, therefore, Christianity isn't true. Or at the very least, the Bible can't be inspired by God."

There are two reasons I don't find that argument pursuasive.

First, it presses the father analogy too strongly. A father, in the literal sense, is somebody who has natural children--concieved in a natural way. God isn't a father in that sense at all. "Father" is just an analogy to explain how God relates to people in certain situations, and the analogy applies differently in different situations. In other situations, God relates to people, not as a father, but as a judge or some other capacity. These are all just human ways of talking about the various ways God relates with and interacts with people.

Second, the people who used the "father" analogy were perfectly familiar with the full range of God's character and yet obviously saw no contradiction in it. So they could not have intended to carry the same implications in their use of "father" that some people want it to carry in order to argue that there's something inconsistent about the Christian idea of God. It seems clear to me that those who use the father analogy to argue for an inconsistent God are pouring a meaning into "father" that was not intended by the authors of the Bible.

Jesus used father analogies to argue for God's willingness to answer prayer. He said, "Who among you, if his kid asked for a piece of bread, would give him a rock?" So the father analogy can work, but any analogy can be pressed beyond its intention, and I think that's what happens in a lot of these father type arguments against God or against judgement or whatever.

[deleting more stuff]


Conversations with Angie:  The problem of evil stated

Friday, June 24, 2005

Conversations with Angie: Are God's roles inconsistent with each other?


I wasn't debating. Just discussing. :)

I think you're right, and we'll have to agree to disagree. In any case, we won't be able to arrive at a definitive answer.

I do find it interesting, though, that you said:

"Basically, 'Father' is just one role God has among many. God is also king, judge, ruler, etc. He fills all of these roles. His role as a judge may, in some cases, be inconsistent with his role as a Father."

I've never heard a Christian say that God's various roles could be inconsistent with each other. Usually, I've heard that we may not understand why He does something in a particular way, but that all of His actions, in any role, are consistent with His nature/being.

So, on to the next point!

How did your test go today?


Conversations with Angie:  The meaning of fatherhood

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Will suicide send you to hell?

Will suicide send you to hell?

Let’s take a break from the Angie conversation. This is a question several people have asked me over the last couple of years, so I thought I’d write a blog about it.

Most Christians recognize that suicide is wrong, but there’s a few historical observations that are kind of interesting. It seems that a lot of Jews in the first century actually thought suicide was, in some cases, an honorable way to die. Josephus writes about two mass suicides in The Jewish War. In both cases, the Romans were about to capture a group of Jews and probably execute some and sell the others into slavery. Rather than being captured, they decided to commit suicide instead, because it was the honorable thing to do. I remember reading somewhere that Christians were thought to be an odd group because they refused to ever commit suicide.

But anyway, I think suicide is wrong, because it involves the unjustified taking of human life. I don’t want to argue that point, though. Let’s just assume it’s wrong and go from there.

It seems from reading the New Testament, that absolute perfection is required to avoid judgment. But none of us are perfect. That’s why we need Jesus. He lived a sinless life, and when he died for our sins, his righteousness was credited to us. We are declared righteous because of him.

If it’s true that perfection is required, then any sin at all can send us to hell. If suicide is a sin, then suicide can send us to hell.

But the question is, will a person who commits suicide necessarily go to hell? Or can they be forgiven?

The only unforgivable sin mentioned in the Bible is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, so it would seem that suicide is forgivable. If so, then suicide will not necessarily send a person to hell.

Why do people raise this issue, though? I think it’s because when a person commits suicide, they have no opportunity to repent. If they succeed, they then die. They can’t even ask for forgiveness. Since they lack these opportunities, then they will go to hell for their sin.

Here’s why I don’t buy that argument. Everybody sins, right? That includes Christians. Every single Christian sins sometimes. Let’s suppose some Christian who is otherwise in good standing commits a sin. Let’s say he tells a lie. And let’s suppose further that just as he gets this lie off his tongue, a sniper from out of nowhere shoots him in the head and kills him. In that case, he dies immediately after (or while) committing a sin, and has no opportunity to repent or ask forgiveness. If the reasoning above is sound, then it would follow that this person will go to hell. But that seems absurd. If it is absurd, then the reasoning above must also be absurd, since it’s the same reasoning.

Here’s another way to look at it. If the reasoning above is sound, then it follows that a person loses his salvation every single time he sins. Think about it. If a person who sins goes to hell because he lacks the opportunity to repent, then it follows that he loses his salvation each time he sins until he repents. That, too, seems absurd.

So basically, I don’t think a person who commits suicide necessarily will go to hell.

But there is another question people sometimes raise. Would a person who was truly saved every commit suicide? If you say no, then it would follow that the person would go to hell, not just because they committed suicide, but because they were unsaved. The act of suicide is not, by itself, what causes them to go to hell, but it may be an indication that they will go to hell, because it tells us that they were not saved. They wouldn’t have committed suicide if they were not saved.

I’m not sure I entirely buy that one either. If you read 1 John, you definitely will get the impression that a truly committed Christian would not live in continual sin. It follows that if some person is living in continual sin without any desire or inclination whatsoever to straighten up and fly right, then we are within our epistemic rights in questioning their salvation. But you also get the impression from 1 John that even devout Christians will sin at some point, and that’s why we have an advocate.

What doesn’t seem evident in 1 John or anywhere else is how low a Christian might stoop. Should we assume that a Christian might perhaps lie or even steel, but a true Christian would never commit adultery or murder? If so, what justification could we offer? On what basis would we draw a line between things a Christian will do, and things no Christian would ever do?

To commit suicide, a person only needs to reach a hopeless state of despair for a very brief period of time. We are all different. We all handle stress differently. Though I think suicide is inconsistent with Christianity, so is lying. But it doesn’t seem totally absurd that a Christian could, in some circumstances, reach such a state that would render them capable of either. So I don’t think a person who commits suicide will necessarily go to hell.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Conversations with Angie: answer to Angie on prayer


By golly, you're debating with me! LOL

You make some good points, and the points you raise are exactly why I don't find these answers very satisfying myself.

I especially think your point about lack of faith is valid. The "lack of faith" response to unanswered prayers is the least satisfying of all to me. Exactly how much faith is "the faith of a mustard seed"? And exactly what did Jesus mean by "moving mountains"? The whole thing sounds like you can accomplish quite a bit with a small amount of faith, but I've gotta be honest with you and admit that my faith in the efficacy of prayers is pretty small.

The only thing I have to say about your response to "sin in our lives" is that it seems to assume God is a machine. The output of a machine is completely predictable. A given input should produce a predictable output. But God is a person, and as a person, God must make judgment calls. Since (1) we all sin, and (2) sin can hinder our prayers, it follows that (3) God must make judgment calls about his willingness to answer prayers in spite of sins. Since his responses are a matter of judgment calls, rather than mechanistic reactions to stimuli, I don't think the "sin in our lives" answer is without some merit.

To an extent, I think we'll have to agree to disagree about the "God's sovereign will" response to unanswered prayers. While answering that "God's ways are above our ways and understanding," may not exactly be satisfying--especially when you really want to understand--I nevertheless think it's legitimate. Why should we EXPECT to know everything? Not even parents explain everything to their children. Sometimes, "Because I said so," is about all the response a kid can get out of his parents. That response may be terribly unsatisfying to the kid, but it would be hasty to assume the parent doesn't have good reasons just because the parent chooses not to explain them to the child. Often, the whole reason parents refuse to explain things to their children is because they know the explanation would simply not be understood by the child. In the same way, I think it would be hasty to assume God has no good reasons for his lack of response just because we happen not to know what they are.

Praying that God reveal his sovereign will to us doesn't solve the problem; it just postpones it. It may not be part of God's sovereign will to reveal his sovereign will to us, so that prayer would justifyably go unanswered as well.

I was talking to a friend of mine about unanswered prayers last week, and he made the point that sometimes prayers are answered, but not in the way we asked, or in our timing. Again, none of these answers are completely satifying. To be satisfying, they'd have to answer all of our questions. My whole position is that we don't need all of our questions to be answered. All we need to know is whether or not it's possible that there are good reasons for why our prayers are not answered. As long as it's possible, unanswered prayers only amount to a probablistic argument against Christianity at best.

Regarding God as our Father, I think I said something about that in a previous email. Basically, "Father" is just one role God has among many. God is also king, judge, ruler, etc. He fills all of these roles. His role as a judge may, in some cases, be inconsistent with his role as a Father. We shouldn't expect, then, for God to behave just as any earthly Father would behave.

All of this sort of leads in to the next part of your email I wanted to talk about, which is the problem of evil. Why does a loving God allow, and sometimes cause, so much suffering? Is there a contradiction between the existence of suffering in the world and the existence of an all good and powerful God? Coming soon in an email near you!


Conversations with Angie:  Are God's roles inconsistent with each other?

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Conversations with Angie: Angie on prayer


I've heard all of these arguments before. Actually, I'm sure I've presented/discussed them with others before. But I agree with you: they are very unsatisfactory.

1. Lack of faith

This I don't buy at all. The Bible says that if we have the faith of a mustard seed, we can move mountains. I'm thinking that if someone has enough faith to pray, then they have faith the size of a mustard seed, at least.

2. Sin in our lives

No human is completely without sin. So, if sin prevents the answer of prayers, no one's prayers would be answered. Some people argue that it's not that one commits a sin that prevents the prayer being answered, but it's a sinful lifestyle and/or a lack of submission that result in the prayer going unanswered. I suppose this is the argument that could be made regarding the friend you mentioned. She was living with her boyfriend, and because of her sinful lifestyle and failure to submit that area of her life to God, her prayers were not being answered. But is her sin really any worse than the person who thinks lustful thoughts, and whose prayers are being answered? No, because even the lustful thought makes one guilty of fornication.

Also, many people who are not walking with God claim that he answers their prayers, and is always faithful to do so. They have some faith in God, but no conviction. Yet, they will claim that he answers their prayers. If it is true that living a sinful life prevents your prayers being answered, then many who claim that their prayers are always answered shouldn't be receiving those responses, right?

I think that whether one perceives their prayers as being answered or going unanswered depends almost solely on the way that they believe.

3. God's will

Obviously, if you ask something that is contrary to God's moral law, He will not grant it. It would be a violation of His character.

Regarding God's sovereign will -- I suppose people often pray for things that are not in line with His plan. But at the same time, many people pray to ask that he reveal his will to them so that they'll know how to pray/act, and this prayer often goes unanswered.

I've found that when the possible explanations have been exhausted in this type of discussion, people will simply end by saying, "Well, it is beyond us to understand God or His ways. We're just humans. His understanding and wisdom is far beyond us, etc., etc..." Once I could rest in that, but not anymore.

Above all, the lack of response to prayer bothered me b/c it didn't correspond to what I had been taught regarding the human relationship with God. Paul said in Romans that we received the Spirit of Adoption, that we may call him Father. And in many other places, it says that we can call on him as a father and that he will care for us as a father. Ignoring prayers and needs does not sound like fatherly care to me.

I guess that's it for now...


Conversations with Angie: Answer to Angie on prayer

Monday, June 20, 2005

Conversations with Angie: Biblical reasons for unanswered prayers, part 3


Besides these three Biblical reasons for why prayers might not be answered, there are other reasons that seem pretty obvious. Suppose there's this stock, call it XYZ. Several people buy that stock hoping it will go up in price. But then there's another group of people who want to short the stock.* The people who buy the stock are praying it goes up, and the people who short the stock are praying it goes down. Obviously, the stock can't both go down and go up at the same time, so some prayers are going to go unanswered. Likewise, when any two people are praying mutually exclusive prayers, they can't both be answered.

To summarize about my views on unanswered prayers, I share your discomfort with them. They are one of my major causes for doubt. But they are not enough to shake my belief in Christianity because (1) there are possibly good reasons for why they aren't answered whether I know what those reasons are or not, and (2) the doubt they cause is not nearly enough to overcome the reasons I have for thinking Christianity is true.


*I don't know whether or not you know what that means, so I'll explain it just in case. When you short a stock, what you do is borrow the stock from somebody else, and sell it. Say the stock is worth $20, so you now have $20 in your account. Then you sit back and pray that the stock goes down. Let's say it goes down to $10. At that point, you buy the stock back at $10, and give it back to the person you borrowed it from. Now you've got $10 profit. So you can actually make money on stocks when they go down.

Conversations with Angie:  Angie on prayer

Friday, June 17, 2005

Conversations with Angie: Biblical reasons for unanswered prayers, part 2


Praying according to God's will is, I think, probably the major reason prayers don't get answered, but it's still not very satisfying to me. There are two senses in which a thing can be "according to God's will." There's the moral sense and the sovereign sense.

God's moral will consists of his moral requirements. In that sense, prayers such as, "God, would you please send me a prostitute?" are probably not going to be answered. Likewise, prayers such as, "God, I know I shouldn't have done what I did, but would you please help me to avoid the consequences?" may not be answered, because reaping what we sow is part of God's design for the universe. There are some cases that God will cut you some slack, but we shouldn't expect it in situations like that. God disciplines those he loves. I can speak from personal experience when I say that reaping what you sow can straighten out your lifestyle, as painful a process as that may be.

It's a little more tricky with God's sovereign will. God's sovereign will is basically what God has determined to do, and his will can't be thwarted. God has a master plan for the universe that is, for the most part, hidden from us. If God is enacting some kind of master plan, and our prayers are inconsistent with that plan, then obviously, they're not going to be answered. The unsatisfying thing about praying according to God's will is that we don't always know what God's will is. In Romans, Paul says that when we don't know what to pray for, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us. Often, it's impossible for us to know the long-term consequences of things, and we just have to trust God's sovereignty. That, I think, is why appeals to the hidden soveriegn will of God as a response to unanswered prayers are unsatisfying. It just seems inconcievable that God would be silent in our desparate times of need, especially when we can't think of any good reason for his failure to act.

Let me give you a Biblical example that may illustrate my point. You remember the story about how Joseph's brothers threw him in a well, then sold him into slavery, all because they were jealous of him? Well, I imagine in a situation like that Joseph was probably praying. "God, please don't let me be sold into slavery. Just let me make it back home to dad, and I'll never wear this coat of many colours again." Now I don't know what was going through Joseph's head at the time, but it doesn't seem unreasonable that he might've prayed something like that. Maybe he didn't, but even if he did, God probably would not have answered that prayer. The reason is because God allowing Joseph to be sold into slavery was all part of a larger master plan that nobody could've forseen. In the end of that story, when Joseph is second in command in Egypt, and his brothers realize who he is, they were begging for forgiveness. Joseph said to them, "You meant this for evil, but God meant it for good." Joseph being sold into slavery was all part of a big plan to deal with an upcoming famine, and save a lot of lives. Of course that raises other obvious questions like, "Well couldn't God have just prevented the famine?" Sure, but before we can start coming up with alternative plans for God, we have to first know the WHOLE picture. Otherwise, how do we know where the famine fits into it?

to be continued...

Conversations with Angie:  Biblical reasons for unanswered prayers, part 3

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Conversations with Angie: Biblical reasons for why prayers aren't answered, part 1.

Angie and I exchanged a few more emails talking about our church background and such. Her answer to my last email was basically to say this:
In answer to your question, yes, I followed your argument (at least I think I did :). As for what I think of the methodology... I'm not entirely sure, but I will say that I'm not entirely at ease with it. In my experience, church leaders tended to de-emphasize reason (although not intelligence) and emphasize faith, so sometimes it's difficult for me to reconcile certain arguments with faith.
At some point I sent her an email dealing with the issue of faith and reason, but I'm skipping that, too. I went on to give some Biblical reasons for why some prayers aren't answered.

Okay, I guess I'll get back to the prayer thing. As I said, there's a few Biblical reasons for why our prayers might not be answered, and as I also said, I don't find them particularly satisfying.

There are three reasons off the top of my head--lack of faith, sin in our lives, and not praying according to God's will.

Regarding lack of faith, I find this one to be a little paradoxical. What is to be the basis of our faith in future prayers if past prayers haven't been answered? It seems like before there can be grounds for our faith in prayer, we first have to have prayers that have been answered. But according to the Bible, faith must come BEFORE prayer, not AFTER. That bothers me.

Regarding sin in our lives, this one make a little more sense to me. A lot of us want to think of ourselves as basically good people, because we're grading ourselves on a bell curve. If we are as good as anybody else, then we're alright. But the Biblical standards of morality are pretty high, and keeping God's law is so important that John equates our obedience to God with our love for God. A friend of mine who had been living with her boyfriend for a couple of years was complaining one day that God doesn't answer her prayers. I guess in her mind, living with her boyfriend wasn't so bad. I mean she wasn't committing murder or anything. She wasn't hurting anybody. But Paul said in 1 Corinthians that we ought to flee from sexual immorality, because while all other sins are committed outside the body, those who sin sexually sin against their own bodies, and our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Granted, none of us are capable of moral perfection, but in 1 John, you can see that what is expected of us is a much cleaner life than most of us are living. If anything, I probably ought to be surprised that God answered ANY of my prayers. I'm far from being a model of the ideal Christian life. He has answered some, though. I guess the objection that is most often raised to this argument is that a loving God surely wouldn't judge us. But if God doesn't hold us to any standards, who will? If God has no standards he expects us to live by, then for all practical purposes, there ARE no standards, except the ones we invent, and we can change those whenever we feel like it. But what do those standards have to do with God? God isn't just the big teddy bear in the sky. He's not just our loving Father. He's also the creator and sustainer of the universe. He's the king, the ruler, the governor, etc.

to be continued...

Conversations with Angie:  Biblical reasons for unanswered prayers, part 2

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Conversation with Angie: How I deal with problems I can't solve

Angie and I went back and forth a few more times on the issue of certainty and reasonableness, and some clarifications were made on both sides. I want to skip that and move on to the next part. I wanted to start with the most difficult issue for me, which was God's apparent unresponsiveness to prayer.


[deleting some stuff]

This is what you said: "And, if what the Bible says is true, why do prayers, needs, etc., so often go unanswered and unmet?"

I relate with this more than anything else you said. God's apparent unresponsiveness to prayer is one of the major causes for doubt in me. Now I can't claim that I've never had prayers answered before, but when you compare reality to some of the things that are said in the Bible, it doesn't seem to match up. For example, Jesus said that anything we ask in his name will be done for us. Does that correspond to reality? There seems to be a disconnect, even if you grant the answers I HAVE received to prayer.

The Bible gives several reasons for why our prayers may not be answered, but I'll be honest with you in saying that I don't find those answers very satisfying. Since I don't find those answers very satisfying, of course I can't hope to satisfy YOU with them. Before I go into them, let me tell you, in general, how I deal with objections to Christianity that I just can't answer.

Imagine one of those balance scales with a tray on either side suspended by a tiny little chain connected to an arm that rests on a fulcrum. I'd draw you a picture if I could, but I think you get the idea. On one side of the scale, you pile all the reasons for why Christianity is probably true. On the other side, you pile all the reasons for why Christianity is probably not true. If the case for Christianity is stronger than the case against, then the scale will tilt toward affirming the truth of Christianity. And if the case against is stronger, the scale will tilt the other way.

Do you see how this sort of flows from what we were talking about before? I don't require absolute certainty, which could only be had if there were an irrefutible argument for Christianity and no arguments at all against Christianity. I only require that Christianity is more reasonable than not--that is, the case for is stronger than the case against.

With this epistemological method, it isn't even necessary for me to be able to refute all of the arguments against Christianity. If I could refute any of them, I could take them off the scale. But even leaving them on the scale, and agreeing that they do count against Christianity, my belief in Christianity is still rational since the weight of the case against Christianity cannot overcome the weight of the case for Christianity on the other side.

Put simply, I base my beliefs on what I DO know rather than what I DON'T know. I may not be able to tell you why God didn't answer a prayer, or why some evil happened, but I don't need to answer those questions in order for me to be rationally justified in believing that Christianity is true.

So that's basically how I deal with arguments against Christianity that I can't answer.

The only exception to this method is the rare instance of an irrefutable air-tight argument. You could pile on the arguments for Christianity all you want, but all it takes is one irrefutable argument against Christianity to outweight them all. This works the other way, too.

Let me give an analogy to explain what I mean. Let's suppose we want to know if it's true that "all crows are black." To find out, we go out in the wild and look at as many crows as we can. The more black crows we observe, the higher the probability is that the claim that "all crows are black" is true. We can never know with 100% certain that it's true unless we could observe every crow that exists, and even then, whose to say the next crow won't be born white? But the more we observe, the closer to certainty we become. Now all it takes to disprove the claim is one white crow. You could have ten million black crows on one side of the scale proving that all crows are black, and yet one white crow on the other side of the scale will outweight them all and prove the claim that "all crows are black" is false.

So far, I have yet to discover any such argument either for or against Christianity, so the truth of Christianity lies in the realm of possibilities. There are reasons for and against, and I simply weigh the evidence and find Christianity more likely to be true than not. Do you follow me so far?

As unsatisfying as some of the Biblical reasons are for why prayers aren't answered, as long as it's at least possible that there are legitimate reasons, the argument against Christianity from unanswered prayers is not air-tight. It's only a probabilistic argument. At best, it makes Christianity less likely to be true. And let's face it; if there ARE legitimate reasons for why prayers aren't answered, they would have to be God's reasons, since God is the one who answers prayers. If they're God's reasons, it shouldn't surprise us at all that we don't happen to know what they are.

All I've done in this email so far is to give you the method I use in answering your prayer concern. I meant to actually go through some of the Biblical answers, but since it took so long just to explain my epistemological method, and since I have to get ready for work, I'll save the actual answering for another email. I want to know what you think of the method and if I explained it clearly.

By the way, it just makes my day that you are so willing to discuss these things with me. I'm enjoying it. Anybody who can get my brain working is alright with me!


Conversations with Angie:  Biblical reasons for why prayers aren't answered, part 1

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Conversations with Angie: More on certainty and reasonableness


With that in mind, I think this next part can easily be cleared up. You said:

>With this in mind, I'm not sure that I understand why you say, "Belief in
>Christianity is reasonable to me in the sense that it's a justified belief that
>falls short of absolute certainty."

By "belief," all I mean is that I think it's true. To believe something means to think it's true. If I believe there's milk in the refrigerator, all that means is that I think it's true that there's milk in the refrigerator.

"Justified," means I have reasons why I think there's milk in the refrigerator. Maybe it's because I remember putting milk in the refrigerator, and I'm the only one who lives here.

To fall short of absolute certainty doesn't mean that I think Christianity is only half way true or something. All it means is that I don't know beyond all doubt that Christianity is true. To have a justified belief just means to hold a belief for good reasons. I have a justified belief that there's milk in the refrigerator because I think it's true, and I have some REASONS to think it's true. But I nevertheless COULD be wrong, so I'm not absolutely certain--that is I don't know it beyond all doubt. Do you see what I mean?

Basically, I don't know beyond all doubt that Christianity is true. However, I do THINK it's true, and the reason I think it's true is because there are what seem to me to be good reasons to think it's true.

Moving on to the second point--about why you demand certainty. From what you said, it sounds like you were neither certain (in the epistemological sense) that Christianity was true, nor that it was false. In fact, you didn't even seem to hold a belief one way or the other. You were 50/50, so you could've gone either way. Eventually, the scales tipped in favor of denying that Christianity is true. But even then, I didn't get the impression that you knew beyond all doubt that Christianity was false. It seems to me, if I'm understanding you right, you still think it's as least possible, be it ever so unlikely, that Christianity MIGHT be true. Is that right?

If so, suppose the scales had tipped in the other direction. Instead of thinking it more likely that Christianity is false, you thought it was more likely that Christianity was true. At this point, you don't know beyond all doubt that Christianity is true, but you THINK it is because it seems more likely than not. What would you have done? Would you have remained a Christian?

And now to the final issue--about being dedicated to non-Christianity as oppossed to Christianity. All I mean by "dedicating your life" to something is simply living consistently with it. I don't mean you shout it from the roof tops or invest all your time promoting the idea. You agreed with me that you either are a Christian or you're not. It's in that sense that you either dedicate yourself to being a Christian or to not being a Christian. You live consistently with one point of view or the other. It sounds to me like you have given up actually being a Christian. I assume you no longer worship God since you don't believe in God. You probably don't pray to God. You don't trust in Jesus for your salvation. You're living your life consistently with the belief that Christianity is not true. In that sense, you've dedicated your life to not being a Christian. That's all I meant. It was probably a bad choice of words on my part. I chose those words because I apparently misunderstood how you were using them in your first email.

And now before going to bed, I think I'll pray that we understand each other so I can go on to the other parts of your email I wanted to talk about. Let me know something. And have yourself a holly jolly Wednesday.


Conversations with Angie: How I deal with problems I can't solve

Monday, June 13, 2005

Conversations with Angie: Ontological and epistemological certainty


On second thought, maybe I'll sleep better if I answer this first.

>First, I'd like to point out a seeming contradiction in your email.

It's always a good idea to point out somebody else's contradiction, because contradiction is a sure sign of error. If I contradicted myself, then I was wrong in one situation or the other. Heaven forbid!

The contradiction you see is that on the one hand, I think that if Christianity is false, then we shouldn't believe it, and if it's true, then we SHOULD believe it, and everything else is irrelevent. But then on the other hand, I say it's not necessary to be absolutely certain that it's true.

I think you have probably misunderstood what I've meant by "certainty" and "absolute certainty." The reason I think that is because of what you said next. You said, "Truth implies a certainty. If truth exists, and if something is true, then it is one hundred percent true, whether I believe it or not." It may surprise you to know that I completely agree with you, 100%. However, you are obviously using "certainty" in a different sense than I am.

You seem to be using "certainty" in the ontological sense. Ontology has to do with being, reality, the way things are, etc. However things are, you are absolutely right to say that our beliefs don't matter. If Christianity is true, then it's true whether we believe it or not. Certainty, in that sense, just has to do with the ontology of truth.

Truth is correspondence with reality. For example, if I say, "There's milk in the refrigerator," and if, in reality, there actually is milk in the refrigerator, then the statement is absolutely true. If there is no milk in the refrigerator, then the statement is absolutely false. So regardless of what we believe, there either is or there isn't any milk in the refrigerator. The claim that there milk in there is either true or false, regardless of my beliefs.

We are talking ontology here--the actual contents of the refrigerator. Ontologically speaking, you're right that "truth implies certainty." It's certain in the sense that it is actually true. It is CERTAINLY true, you might say.

But that's not the sense in which I've been using the word "certainty" or "absolute certainty." I've been using those terms, not in the ontological sense, but in the epistemological sense. Epistemololgy has to do with knowledge, beliefs, justification, etc. Christianity may be absolutely true, but that says nothing at all about whether or not I'm aware that it's true. It may be true, and I think it's true. Or it could be true, and I think it's false. Or it could be true, and I just don't have an opinion one way or the other.

If I said, "Christianity is certaintly true," that would mean something completely different than if I said, "I'm certain that Christianity is true." Notice that the subject is different in each case. In the first statement, the subject is "Christianity." In the second, the subject is "I." In the first statement, "certainty" is used in the ontological sense. In the second, it's used in the epistemological sense. In the first, the certainty applies to the truth of Christianity. In the second, the certainty applies to the strength of my belief.

Do you see what I mean now? When I say that it's not necessary to be absolutely certain that Christianity is true, all I mean is that it's not necessary to know beyond all doubt that Christianity is true. There's very little at all we know beyond all doubt. All that's necessary is that you THINK Christianity is true with some degree of confidence. I BELIEVE that Christianity is true, but I don't KNOW beyond all doubt that Christianity is true. Do you see what I mean?

That is perfectly consistent with what I said before--that the only relevent factor to consider is whether or not Christianity is true. If I think it's true, then I'll be a Christian, and if I think it's not true, then I won't be a Christian. Hopefully that clears things up, and there's no more contradiction.

to be continued...

Conversations with Angie:  More on certainty and reasonableness

Friday, June 10, 2005

Conversations with Angie: Angie responds

You must keep in mind that I'm cutting out some emails. I'm also cutting out parts of emails. I just want to stick to the meat of our conversations. Here's Angie's response:


I've taken so long with this response that you've a right to expect something incredibly insightful and full of depth! I'd like to accommodate, but to be honest, my thoughts are kind of jumbled. Hopefully I can make sense anyway.

First, I'd like to point out a seeming contradiction in your email. You say: "It seems to me (and you seem to agree) that there's only one thing that's relevent to whether or not a person should be a Christian, and that's whether or not it's true. If it's true, then they should be, but if it's not true, then they shouldn't. It's as simple as that. A person has only to find out if there are any good reasons to think it's true. Everything else is irrelevent."

Then, later, you go on to talk about how it is not necessary to be absolutely certain that it's true. While I agree with much of what you said - obviously we live everyday with many uncertainties - I can't quite buy the argument in relation to Christianity. Truth implies a certainty. If truth exists, and if something is true, then it is one hundred percent true, whether I believe it or not.

With this in mind, I'm not sure that I understand why you say, "Belief in Christianity is reasonable to me in the sense that it's a justified belief that falls short of absolute certainty." What I mean to say is, despite your fleeting thoughts of doubt, at your core, you do believe that Christianity holds the absolute truth. And, if you're like others I've known (including myself), you attribute those doubts to your human nature, all the while believing that God is true and absolute and all-knowing, etc. In other words, you believe with certainty that Christianity is true, and that this truth exists apart from your struggles with doubt.

If that didn't make sense, ask me to clarify, and I'll try. For now, I'll move on to the next point.

You asked me to clarify why I require so much certainty. This is the response that took me so long. I thought about it a lot, and could not come up with an answer. I guess I eventually realized (by examining the evidence that I'd seen) that I had to admit that Materialism is just as likely to be true as Christianity. I would not go so far as to say that all belief systems are just as likely to be true, but I felt that Materialism was. I was in a place where I honestly could not conclude that one was more likely to be true than the other. I thought, "It's quite possible, even likely, that they are right, and God does not exist. Of course, it's possible that God does exist, and they're wrong, too." So I was kind of stuck right in the middle. At that stage, I continued in my congregation and basically tried to pretend that I still felt conviction, because it was my life. All of my friends were in my congregation and I was comfortable there. Beyond comfortable, I loved it. Eventually, though, I admitted to myself that I was thinking more and more that it is more likely true that God doesn't exist, and that I couldn't force myself to believe. I became very tired of pretending that I still believed. I felt very false and very hypocritical. So I began to distance myself from my congregation and my friends.

A final comment on your statement: "After all, it's impossible to be neutral. You either dedicate your life to being a Christian or to not being a Christian. You can't be a Christian and not be a Christian at the same time and in the sense." I disagree. Everything is not black and white and as clear-cut as we would like. I agree that you can't "be a Christian and not be a Christian at the same time..." I know it doesn't work - I tried it! But no one dedicates their life to not being a Christian. What does that even mean? I no longer believe that Jesus was the Messiah. I no longer believe that he was raised from the dead. But that doesn't mean that I've now dedicated myself to being the antithesis of a Christian. I never made a decision saying, "Now I'm going to be a non-Christian." I simply let go of a belief that was no longer alive in me. Now, I'm just trying to live my life as well as I can.

And now, I'll be off to sleep. If I wait any longer, I won't be able to get up for work tomorrow!

Take care.

Conversations with Angie:  Ontological and epistemological certainty

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Conversations with Angie: The need for certainty


I do think you might've misunderstood what I meant by "reasonableness is enough." You said reasonableness is not enough for you since there are lots of beliefs that are reasonable. By "reasonable," I don't just mean that Christianity isn't absurd or that Christianity might possibly be true. I would agree that lots of beliefs are reasonable in that sense of the word, and I would agree that that kind of reasonableness is not a sufficient reason to dedicate one's life to a belief. What I mean by "reasonable" is that there are good reasons to think Christianity is true, even if those reasons aren't necessarily conclusive. Belief in Christianity is reasonable to me in the sense that it's a justified belief that falls short of absolute certainty.

Let me give an analogy to explain what I mean. I said before that there is very little I know with absolute certainty. If you've ever read David Hume's book, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, you'll know what I'm talking about. Hume demonstrated that there's little if anything at all that we can know for certain, simply because there's always the possibility that we're wrong. For example, it's possible that we're all dreaming. Maybe we're plugged into the Matrix with probes in our heads. Maybe we're brains in vats being stimulated. In that case, we can't know with absolute certainty that anything we're experiencing in the world is real. However, just because these scenarios are possible broadly speaking, that doesn't mean they're reasonable to believe. It seems much more reasonable to believe that our senses are generally reliable, and that there really is an external world, and we're pretty much experiencing it the way it is. That's what I mean by "reasonable." Our belief in the external world is a justified belief, and it's reasonable even though we can't be 100% certain that our belief is true.

I think you're right to say we're opposites in the sense that I don't require absolute certainty before I'll dedicate my life to something, whereas you do. But I must admit that I don't understand why you would require that kind of certainty. Maybe you can explain that a little more in your next email. Now I'll grant that my belief in Christianity is not quite as strong as my belief in the external world, so let me make another analogy that may better explain why I don't see things the way you do.

Let's say you go to eat at a restaurant. We've all seen those shows on TV, and we've all heard those stories about how people will put all kinds of nasty things in people's food and drinks. With that in mind, we obviously can't be certain that when we eat out, somebody didn't blow snot in our food or something. If we knew for certain that they DID, then we probably wouldn't eat the food, right? But we DO eat the food, even without absolute certainty. The possibility of somebody putting something nasty in our food isn't nearly as unlikely as the possibility that we're plugged into the Matrix, and yet we still eat. We eat it because we find it reasonable to believe that nobody put something nasty in our food.

In fact, we make decisions every single day on less than absolute certainty. We get in our cars every day not knowing with absolute certainty that we won't get in an accident and get killed. We marry people, dedicating our lives to them, without knowing with absolute certainty that they won't cheat on us, abandon us, or get cancer the next week. We do these things because our beliefs outweight our doubts. As much as we'd like absolute certainty, we don't need it.

I don't see why religion should be any different. I agree with you that there's no point in being a Christian if you don't think Christianity is true. But what I disagree with is that you have to be 100% sure that Christianity is true before dedicating your life to it. After all, it's impossible to be neutral. You either dedicate your life to being a Christian or to not being a Christian. You can't be a Christian and not be a Christian at the same time and in the sense. You either are or you aren't. So if you require 100% certainty that Christianity is true before being a Christian, shouldn't you also require 100% certain that Christianity is false before NOT being a Christian? Very few people (if any) are 100% sure either way. Even some of the most famous atheist philosophers don't claim that kind of certainty in their disbelief in God.

The only things I'm 100% certain of are basic things like the laws of logic, that 2+2=4, that I exist, that I'm having sensory perceptions, and things like that. With everything else, I have a measure of belief and doubt. With the external world, I've got about 99.99% belief and 0.01% doubt. With other things, I may have 60% belief and 40% doubt. But even with 51% belief, that's still a belief that the thing is true rather than false, and although the belief may be loosely held and not strong at all, I think we ought to live according to what we think is true rather than what we think is false. So even if my belief is only 51%, I ought to live consistently with that belief.

It's hard for me to say exactly how strong my belief in Christianity is, because there are several claims that, together, constitute what I take "Christianity" to be, and the strength of my belief in some of those claims is stronger than the others. For example, I'm more certain that God exists than I am that Jesus was raised from the dead. I believe them both, but my belief in God is stronger.

In the next email, I guess I'll tell you what I take those basic claims of Christianity to be and give you some idea of how strongly I believe them. It will be part of my answer to some of your reasons for doubting Christianity.

In my last email, I told you there were some things you said that I could relate with, so I'll also go into those in my next email.

Maybe one of these days, I'll get around to telling you why I think Christianity is true. In the meantime, I'm going to Canton this morning. Those Rice Crispy treats last night sure did make me thirsty!


Conversations with Angie: Angie responds

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Conversations with Angie: The one thing that matters

We exchanged a couple of emails in which I wanted to make sure I wasn't going to put her on the defensive if I gave in to the urge to respond. She gave me the go-ahead and seemed interested in what I had to say. Here was my first response (the first part of it anyway):


LOL It sounds like I've become predictable! Seriously, though, I'm going to try not to turn this into an ephphatha/WeirdBrake style debate. I appreciate your willingness to talk to me about this, though. It's one of my favourite things to talk about.

I started responding to part of your email last night, but it was getting so long, I decided I would save the rest for later. The last thing I'd want is for you to fall asleep while reading or to be overwhelmed and never have time to get back with me because doing so takes too much time.

I'm not really sure how much detail I should go into. I could probably write a book if I wanted to, but then you wouldn't want to read it. I guess I'll just have to be selective about which of my thoughts to mention.

The first thing I want to say is that I agree with your point when you asked, "If it [Christianity] wasn't true, what was the value of dedicating my entire life to pursuing its ideals?" I admire your attitude here, because it's been my observation that "truth" usually has little to do with why most people either accept or reject Christianity. It seems to me (and you seem to agree) that there's only one thing that's relevent to whether or not a person should be a Christian, and that's whether or not it's true. If it's true, then they should be, but if it's not true, then they shouldn't. It's as simple as that. A person has only to find out if there are any good reasons to think it's true. Everything else is irrelevent.

More often than not, though, people base their decisions on irrelevent things--things that have no bearing on whether or not Christianity is true. Some become Christians because it gives them a sense of belonging, or it gives them the warm fuzzies. Some reject Christianity because they find Christians to be hypocritical or fake. Neither the warm fuzzies nor the hypocritical Christians are at all relevent to whether or not the basic claims of the Christian worldview are true. So I can't help but respect your position since you seem to recognize this fact.

to be continued...

Conversations with Angie:  The need for certainty

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Conversations with Angie

Last year, I was having a discussion on a message board about determinism, our ability to reason, and the soul. Somewhere along the line, I mentioned that reason had a lot to do with why I was a Christian. One of the participants, Angie, thought that was pretty interesting, because reason had everything to do with why she stopped being a Christian. We exchanged a few emails. In one of them, she summarized some of her main reasons for rejecting Christianity. For the next several months, I responded to each of her reasons. With her permission, I'm going to spend a few blogs (maybe a lot of blogs) reproducing some of the emails we exchanged. I'll begin with the email she sent me explaining her reasons for rejecting Christianity.

That's me! Sam, you probably thought I wouldn't bother since it's been a while, but I am interested in continuing the conversation started on PMs a while back. First, I'll try to answer your question:

I know you're a little uncertain right now about what to believe, but is there anything specific that caused you to think Christianity wasn't true? Or was it just lack of reasons to think it was true?

Well, it was kind of a slow and gradual process. On one hand, I was studying
biblical literature - reading commentary from Christians and non-Christians, and learning about the "integrity" of the biblical texts. I found that it wasn't as I had learned, and had been edited various times throughout history, which I felt negated the claim that it is complete as is, and completely inspired of God.

Second, I began reading up on ancient cultures of the Middle East, and found
that many biblical stories have equivalents (or parallels, or just very
similar stories) in other ancient near eastern cultures. Along with this, I learned that most of the names for God in the bible were the names of gods in several of the cultures that were present in that part of the world. Adonai, for example, was the name of a Sumerian god, and was adopted into the Hebrew language/culture. El Shaddai was the name of a Canaanite god. Now, I know a Christian would argue that this is true only because God was revealing Himself to humanity throughout history, but I don't buy that. I also saw the many similarities that the biblical God had with these other gods...

Another issue ... it only ever felt true, or even believable, when I was surrounded by my Christian friends and avoided such materials as the reading I mentioned above. Now, some might say that if that's the case, I never really believed in the first place, or that my faith wasn't deep enough, or whatever. Perhaps one of those is true, but I doubt it. It's mostly based on things I learned and experiences.

And, I find myself unable to believe that a truly good God would let the world be as it is. I know exactly what most Christians would say in response to it. And, if what the Bible says is true, why do prayers, needs, etc., so often go unanswered and unmet?

I'm not 100% convinced that it's true, but then again, there's very little I AM 100% convinced of, but I maintain a degree of belief and/or doubt. I figure certainty isn't necessary. Reasonableness is enough.

Again, we were like opposites: as I was struggling with so many doubts, I felt I had to know for a certainty if it was true or not. If it wasn't true, what was the value of dedicating my entire life to pursuing its ideals? Reasonableness was not enough for me, because I found that there are a number of belief systems that are reasonable.

I hung on for over two years in this state of limbo, remaining involved with my congregation, etc., until one day I admitted to myself that I just didn't believe anymore. It was really difficult - and scary. I don't really know how to live any other way, so for the most part I do as I did. But sometimes I miss it. Mostly I missed the community I was a part of in college. My closest friendships ever were ones that developed in that community, but we all live far from each other now. I haven't even told them yet.

Well,... I guess I'll be off for the moment...


Conversations with Angie: The one thing that matters

Monday, June 06, 2005

About the bows I make

Safiyyah made the brilliant suggestion the other day that I post something about my bows and about how I make them. I am only too happy to do so being as how I'm so obsessed with it. You must understand, though, that I've only been doing it for a year, and I'm no expert. I've made several different kinds of bows without necessarily mastering any particular kind.

I don't know how to post pictures on here, so I'm just going to give some links.

My really cool bow This was my second attempt at a fiberglass laminated bow, and it turned out pretty well. I made this bow for my brother.

Bamboo bow This was my second attempt at an all bamboo bow. I made it for a neighbor. This link also has a little about the process by which I made the bow.

Experimental bow This was an experimental bow. I was working with different shapes to see what would happen. I was not too happy with how this one turned out, but I'm posting it anyway, because this thread goes through the steps of building this bow. Another person wanted to know how to use the "inner tube method" for gluing up a laminated bow.

Fairie bow Here is a minature bow I did out of a piece of hickory just for the fun of it.

Mouse trap I used the same minature bow above to make a better mouse trap.

Friday, June 03, 2005

religion or relationship?

I’m sure you’ve all heard people say, “Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship.” Why do people say that? Well, of course they understand Christianity to involve some sort of relationship. By atoning for our sins, Jesus put us in right relationship to the Father. As Paul put it, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). So Christianity does involve some kind of relationship.

But why deny that Christianity is a religion as if “religion” and “relationship” are mutually exclusive? Couldn’t Christianity be a religion that consists of a relationship? The answers I have heard usually involve a peculiar definition of the word “religion.” They’ll say something like, “Religion involves man-made ceremonies and institutions; Christianity is a personal relationship with the living God.”

As I’ve said before in an earlier blog, words are defined by their use. People do not use the word “religion” to refer strictly to man-made ceremonies and institutions. The word is often used to refer to devotion to a high power or spiritual beings (sometimes dead ancestors). That devotion certainly consists of relationships (or at least supposed relationships). By that understanding of “religion” Christianity is a religion. Prayer, worship, and devotion to God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ make it a religion by the ordinary use of the word.

The Bible also uses the word “religion” in a positive light, which makes it all the more strange that Christians would object to having Christianity called a religion. For example, in James 1:27, it says, “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Religion in this context seems to be understood as a practice that exemplifies godly behavior.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

ontology and epistemology

Last week, I was having a conversation with a friend about apologetics, and I mentioned that I wasn't 100% certain that Christianity was true. She was surprised by that. For some strange reason, every time I said, "I am less than 100% confident that Christianity is true," she heard me say, "I am confident that Christianity is less than 100% true."

The reason I'm writing this blog is because I had a conversation last fall with somebody who had this same misunderstanding. In both cases, I had a really difficult time explaining the difference in a way they could understand. I figured since two people who don't know each other both had the exact same misunderstanding, the fault must be with me. I just want to throw out some thoughts on the subject, though.

I think the confusion comes in not distinguishing between ontology and epistemology. Epistemology has to do with our knowledge or belief about something. Ontology has to do with the thing itself. There is a difference between reality and our beliefs about reality. Reality is some particular way, and whatever way it is, it is 100% so. My beliefs about reality, however, may not be based on conclusive evidence. Many of my beliefs about reality are based on probabilities.

If there are cookies in the cookie jar, for example, then it's 100% true that there are cookies in the cookie jar. But that doesn't mean everybody knows for sure that there are cookies in the cookie jar. A person may suspect there are cookies in the cookie jar, because he smells cookies in the air and figures somebody must've recently baked some and put them in there. But it's also possible that cookies were baked and eaten, and there are no cookies left. But that's unlikely since there's only one person living there. So this person believes there are cookies in the cookie jar, but there's room for doubt. Their belief that there are cookies in the cookie jar is less than 100% certain.

When I say I'm not 100% certain that Christianity is true, all I'm saying is that I'm fallible. I could be wrong. Christianity is either true or it's not true, but I can't know with absolute certainty which it is. David Hume once said that a wise man proportions his beliefs to the evidence. The stronger the evidence, the stronger we should believe. I'm pretty confident that Christianity is true, but it's possible that I'm mistaken.

Whether I believe something or not has nothing to do with whether it's true or not. A thing can be true even if I think it's false. A thing can be true even if I don't know whether it's true or false. A thing can be 100% true even if I only suspect that it's probably true.