What are we doing, as Christians, when we philosophize about life and theology? Why do we think that life has to have some overarching meaning? Why do we so energetically ponder the nature of God when others say he doesn’t even exist? Does the God of the Bible really exist, or is he, and the Bible, nothing more than anthropomorphic illusions created humanistically to comfort us in the face of an otherwise cold, godless, universe? Is religion itself merely a means of controlling masses for political ends?
Does all that we believe and practice as Christians hang from some humanly devised skyhook, or are there good reasons to embrace it? Is our belief system truly warranted, or is it simply arbitrary and based on groundless blind faith? Why live as Christians when it is clear that much of the world is turning against us? These can all be troubling questions. Depending on who addresses them, the answers will come up variously. If we are honest, we must follow truth wherever it leads.
The Nature of Epistemology
The greatest issues of life, it seems, are epistemological in nature. Epistemology is the study of knowledge claims. That is, upon what are given knowledge claims based? How do we prove or validate what we claim to know? Epistemology is an important branch of philosophy. In some circles, its practitioners can be viewed as the enemies of all religion, not just Christianity. Others have developed a specifically Christian epistemology that supports the faith.
When we perform epistemological exercises, we are not only addressing knowledge itself, we are addressing the larger question of, “What is the nature of the reality of which we are all a part?” What can we know of the larger universe? Where do we fit in it? Does man matter? Are we merely the product of a process of mindless evolution that took place in an obscure corner of a vast universe for no apparent reason?
Philosophers have asked; if God exists at all, does he exist within time, or outside of it? Time is a product of the universe. Could time have existed before the universe was brought into being by the Big Bang? What is God’s relationship to time? If you allow it to, trying to answer some of these questions can give you a mental hernia. Yet, something inside of us compels us to seek out answers to these ultimate issues. We want to know, to understand. We have a desire to move beyond the obvious. We don’t want religion so much as we want to apprehend God himself. Our yearnings are not just to understand better the material universe. We want to know if it includes a spiritual, supernatural reality to which, or to whom, we can gain access. Is God really there? If he is, what is he like?
John Polkinghorn, who is both a scientist and a churchman, has written, “For me, the fundamental content of belief in God is that there is a Mind and a Purpose behind the history of the universe and that the One whose veiled presence is intimated in this way is worthy of worship and the ground of hope…I believe that the rational beauty of the cosmos indeed reflects the Mind that holds it in being,” Belief in God in an Age of Science, pp.1&4.
The Role of the Bible
What is the Bible? Is it, as some have suggested, “the Maker’s instruction book”? Is it an inspired, inerrant, infallible Book written by God through man? Can we learn anything about reality from it? Or is it merely a collection of sacred myths assembled down through the centuries by religious folk?
In order to use the Bible appropriately, we need to accurately understand its nature. To begin with, it is a collection of documents of various genres, written by some 40 authors over a period of about 1500 years, then edited, organized and preserved by many others. Its documents were originally written in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Broadly speaking, we have three different assemblages of Biblical documents: the Jewish (TaNaKh), the Catholic and the Protestant. We possess no original autographs of any of these documents. We have only copies of varying quality – about 5000 of them for the Greek New Testament alone. All of these copies contain errors – some accidental, others deliberate.
The Jewish canon was closed around 400 BCE by the Masorites, though other documents were added later. The first complete English Bible appeared around 1380 AD. For both Jews and Christians, Bibles are classified as “revelation.” Judaism and Christianity are often called “religions of the Book.”
The “books” contained in The Book are not identical for each faith. The Jews recognize only the TaNaKh as Scripture. That word is an acronym for Torah (law), and Nevi’im (prophets) and Ketuvim (writings) – 39 documents.
The Catholic Bible contains all these books and more. It adds the New Testament and apocryphal (hidden) writings of the intertestamental period.
The Protestant Bible contains 39 Old Testament books and 27 New Testament documents for a total of 66. It omits the Apocrypha.
Depending on which version of the Bible you accept, “revelation” may vary. Furthermore, since all these copied documents come down to us in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, we face the issues of interpretation and translation. The average American Christian cannot simply pick up a Greek New Testament and know what it says and means. We must rely on translations (unless we are Greek scholars). The same is true for Hebrew and Aramaic.
What is “Theology”?
Theology is language or reasoned discourse about God. Some have called it “faith seeking understanding.” If there is no God, then theology is centered on nothing but the idea of God. Theology presumes God’s existence. It presumes there is a divine someone to discuss. The writer of Hebrews makes a theological statement when he or she writes, “He that comes to God must believe that he is and that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). The epistemological question here is: how do we go from agnosticism to belief? To be agnostic is to claim not to know. Knowledge and belief are not the same thing. For example, I cannot legitimately claim to know that God does not exist. At the same time, saying that I believe he exists is not the same as saying I know he exists. Belief and knowing are two different things. No matter how hard I try, I cannot scientifically prove the existence – or non-existence – of God.
What I can do is provide evidence of God’s likely existence. I can then take a leap of faith in the direction of that evidence and arrive at belief. Once there, I may be able to take the next step: experiencing God. If I can experience God firsthand, I may be able to legitimately claim to know that he exists – at least for me. However, since I am existentially alone, I cannot transfer my knowing to others. They must experience uniquely what I have experienced in order to share or confirm my knowledge claim. Or, they may have a uniquely personal encounter with God that, for them, confirms his existence.
The apostle Paul gives us a way forward, “Test everything. Hold on to the good,” (I Thessalonians 5:21). The more rigorously we test our belief in God, the deeper our conviction may become. God’s actual existence is not threatened by our belief or disbelief. He either exists or he doesn’t. If he doesn’t exist, then all the theologizing and apologetics in the world will not bring him into being. If he does exist, then even the largest armies of skeptics and atheists will not be able to reason him out of existence.
A useful, if long (500+ pages) and heavy book on the subject of Christian epistemology is Warranted Christian Belief by Alvin Plantinga. It is the third book in a trilogy. He frames his first question this way, “…is it rational, reasonable, justifiable, and warranted to accept Christian belief…Or is there something epistemologically unacceptable in so doing, something foolish, or silly, or foolhardy, or stupid, or unreasonable, or in some other way epistemologically deplorable?” (p. 3).
By the end of his book, Plantinga concludes of Christian belief, “…I can only say that it does, indeed, seem to me to be true, and to be the maximally important truth,” (ibid, p. 499). For philosopher Plantinga, Christian truth is ultimate truth. To know how he arrived at that conviction, you’d have to read some of his voluminous works.
Thoughts on Intelligent Design
Subjectively, I have never (except for when I was an atheist) been able to fathom a cold universe – a universe without an overarching, guiding, intelligence. It just seems to me that life on this planet is a wonderfully intelligent process with all being interrelated. That’s just me being deductive. It turns out that a growing number of well-qualified scientists and philosophers are also beginning to see the virtues of intelligent design.
The New World Encyclopedia defines it this way: “The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.” Subjectively, that is what I have long believed. Now evidence that it is true is piling up. There isn’t room in this brief article to provide that evidence. We suggest a primer on the subject:Understanding Intelligent Design by William A. Demski and Sean McDowell.
Holding Back the Darkness
Secondly, evil is clearly present in the world. The Jewish people have long been its target – yet, miraculously, they continue to survive. Something, or someone, is holding genocidal evil in check. There seems to be some kind of global immune system preventing the virus of evil from taking over the world. Could it be God, or merely “survival of the fittest?”
The forces of genocide and democide (death by government) are global in scope, yet no matter how often millions of lives are wiped out by devilish dictators, human life continues on, Mankind survives. This suggests to me that there exist positive forces stemming the tide of evil in the world. Are we talking about “selfish genes” here – or a divine Presence that “upholds all things by the word of his power”? (Hebrews 1:3).
Where’s the Evidence?
I said earlier that faith is a leap in the direction of the evidence. It is not based on “proof” in the scientific sense, but on a conviction that there is an invisible Presence that brought the universe into existence, and that sustains it moment-to-moment. Your evidence might not correspond to mine. I believe that intelligent design offers credible evidence of the rational mind that is behind the material creation. I also believe that a great moral force for good holds in abeyance the tidal wave of evil that threats all life on this planet. God always seems to preserve a remnant no matter how many perish in the darkness. At the same time, he allows evil its head on grounds of free agency.
As Alister McGrath writes, “The debate between atheism and religious belief has gone on for centuries, and just about every aspect of it has been explored to the point where even philosophers seem bored with it. The outcome is a stalemate. Nobody can prove God’s existence, and nobody can disprove it,” Dawkins’ God, p.92.
The Epistemology of Experience
Many believe they have encountered God in their personal experience. Certainly the Bible is replete with examples of such encounters, but do similar things happen today? Books by and about missionaries are laden with stories of miracles, healings and divine answers to prayer. So why aren’t these stories compelling to skeptics — because they are viewed as “anecdotal.” They cannot be verified or confirmed except by witnesses – who could be lying. Such experiences cannot be duplicated – if they happened at all, they happened on a seemingly random basis by divine fiat. God is not a genii in a bottle who grants wishes on demand. He is utterly sovereign. He cannot be made to comply with some human demand for “proof.” He dispenses his gifts on the basis of his grace.
One thing is certain though – those who believe they have experienced God firsthand rarely need intellectual or “scientific” proof of his existence. When you see someone you’ve prayed for healed before your eyes, it’s easier to believe. I’ve seen it – several times. So not only do I have an informal, personal theology, I have a personal epistemology that has given birth to my faith in God. For me, there are more reasons to believe God exists than that he doesn’t. I believe I have experienced his existence. As I mature spiritually, I believe I can experience more and more of his presence in my life.