Monday, April 1, 2013

Doubt, Belief, Faith

I got a new book in the mail today: The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, Faith, by Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp.  The latter is president of George Washington University, and I don't know anything about him other than what it says on the flap of the book.  The former--Philip Clayton--is a well known Christian philosopher from Claremont University in California.  I've spent a bit of time with him personally, and I always come away from our encounters with new respect for him, though not always agreeing entirely.  He was the main speaker at the conference I recently attended in Seattle, and I went out to supper with him at Thai Fusion, just down the hill from the campus of Seattle Pacific University (on the recommendation of Terry Linhart).  Because of our conversation and the talks he gave at the conference, I ordered the book when I got home.

For Amazon purchases of books that are more than six months old, I often explore the used providers.  Sometimes you get a deal; sometimes you get a book full of blue highlighter.  This time I was not disappointed.  I got a "like new" copy of the book for less than half the new price.  It came as advertised, and I dipped into it this afternoon and this evening.  I may end up writing a series of posts on it as I read through it.  I think it is important.  At any rate, here is one post on it.

***Warning:  If you are a Christian who has no doubts about the claims of Christianity as traditionally conceived, read no further.  Go on with your life and don't bother with books like this or blog entries like this.  Seriously.  It is not my intention to plant seeds of doubt.  But for those who occasionally have some doubts, read on with an open mind.

Clayton--like a lot of people I have met lately--finds himself in an uncomfortable no-man's-land between the fundamentalist-minded folks who hold onto a cartoonish version of faith that is read off the flannel graphs of Sunday School, and the liberal revisionists who seem to throw out the baby with the bathwater in attempting to keep their faith current and relevant.  I think the conflict comes primarily from the fact that the human authors of scripture believed very different things about the way things are than we do today, and the divine author of scripture didn't seem to feel the need to correct them on these matters.  So God's revelation to us comes strained through their worldview, and too often we confuse their worldview with God's revelation.  They believed the earth was the center of the cosmos, that history was not primarily about recounting facts, that slavery was inevitable, that women were not citizens, that demons were the cause of epilepsy, that the earth was only a few thousand years old, that the kidneys were the seat of emotion, and so on.  Some people think that we should still believe some of these things, since they are right there in the Bible.  I suppose that most of those people stopped reading after the warning given above.  If you kept reading, though, you are probably among the group of us who thinks that the modern world has caused us to change our minds about many (if not all) of those things.  So what are we to do?

Clayton thinks that the first thing to do is to own up to the sources of our doubts--to name them and to face them squarely.  And no softening the blow.  Let's acknowledge the strongest case there is to be made that might make us think that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is just wrong, that Richard Dawkins and his ilk are right, and that we've been massively deluded.  Here is Clayton's list of the top five reasons for doubting the core of Christian beliefs from chapter one:

  1. Science.  "Over the course of roughly the last three centuries, the modern era has been deeply influenced by scientific methods, results, and ways of thinking" (5).  The world as we understand it today is vastly different than the world that people believed in pre-1500.  Does this cast doubt on the kinds of explanations that Christianity has offered?
  2. Evil.  The problem of evil cannot be waved aside by appeals to free will.  Evolution has exacerbated the problem, but it was there long before Darwin.  If you don't think there is any problem with kinds and amount of evil we find in the world, then you're not thinking hard enough.
  3. Religious plurality.  When adherents to other religions all lived in far off lands, it was easier to think that they were all just deluded or crazy.  Now that they are in our neighborhoods, it appears that there is roughly the same level of delusion and craziness among them as there is among us.  How can we claim we're right and they're all wrong?
  4. The state of the historical evidence.  Here Clayton has in mind the issues associated with taking the Gospels (and biblical documents in general) as historical.  Look at the different accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection.  Obviously the difficulties associated with the reliability of eye witnesses were not exempted just because they wrote under inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  And how were the documents of the New Testament assembled?  Not by unbiased people, but by those who were concerned to advance a particular understanding of Christianity.
  5. The claims of resurrection.  Is it really reasonable to believe that Jesus's corpse came back to life, that it passed through walls, and that it ascended up into the sky?

Different people find different of these more problematic.  And even the same person (me for example) finds some problematic some days, and others on a different day.  Clayton's book is not a straightforward evidential apologetics book that purports to show why these aren't really problems.  Nor does he sweep them under the rug and pretend they aren't there.  Instead, he aims to engage these and to show what committed Christian belief looks like in spite of them.

I'm anxious to see where the argument goes.  How about you?  

2 comments:

Anthony Parrott said...

I look forward to your posts if you continue to review/critique/go through the book.

Sam Ochstein said...

Jim, can't wait to (1) Order this book and read it for myself, and (2) Read your blog posts and thoughts about this. I am one who is definitely in that "uncomfortable no-man's-land" between the fundamentalists and revisionist liberals. I find myself drawn to how Brian McClaren and Greg Boyd often frame this important conversation as seeking to find a "third way" (i.e. a Kingdom way). But that, of course, implies that other ways are not really Kingdom ways. And it also does't really get to the heart of the difficult questions raised by the interplay of science, philosophy, culture, and religion. I look forward to your future thoughts!