Sunday, December 18, 2005

Christian Beliefs II

Why place the authority of Scripture next after belief in God in order of logical significance to a Christian's set of beliefs? The existence of God is something which presents itself to us through natural revelation, through the world and our experience in the world, but apart from special revelation, i.e. the Bible, none of the claims of Christianity have any grounds for belief. Extra-biblical sources offer only scant mention of the existence of Jesus let alone anything about him of religious significance. All we would have to rely upon would be an oral tradition that would be expected to be distorted over centuries of time and hence of exceedingly dubious reliability.

So, unless the Bible, or at least the New Testament portion of it, is held to be authoritative in the life of the individual and of the church there is very little reason to believe any of what Christians do, in fact, believe. There is, apart from what's contained in the New Testament, nothing we can know that is unique to Christianity. This is, of course, why skeptics are at such pains to discredit the historical relaibility of the New Testament. They realize that in doing so they strike at the heart of Christian faith.

What, then, does the New Testament tell us that is of vital and essential importance to a Christian understanding of the world? Most fundamentally it tells us that man is burdened by a kind of spiritual affliction. It teaches us that we're out of harmony with God, alienated from him, and headed for cosmic ruin. There is about us some sort of fatal flaw that we have inherited from our earliest progenitors, something philosopher Alvin Plantinga has suggested might be called trans-world depravity, that influences us to often choose evil rather than good.

How this has come to be the Bible doesn't make precisely clear but that it is the case that man often chooses evil is abundantly confirmed by our daily newspapers.

The story we glean from the Bible goes something like this, if I can be permitted to fill in some gaps with speculation: God is characterized as, inter alia, the perfection of love. Love "desires" something to give itself to, to lavish itself upon, and so God created the world, and specifically mankind, as objects of His love, much as parents create a child to love.

God wished to live in a maximally fulfilling love relationship with man, but such a relationship requires that love be both freely given and freely requited. God could have created us in such a way that we had no choice but to love Him in return, but that would have been to create us as robots. It would have been like programming the screen saver on your computer to flash the message "I love you" over and over. Thus, God made us free to choose to love Him or not, and in so doing He bestowed upon us the essential element of our humanity and the sine qua non of our dignity, our freedom.

Our relationship to God is like the relationship of a bride to her husband. God institutues marriage between a man and a woman for many reasons but one is to illustrate for us our relationship to Him and to remind us of it every day.

Man has used this freedom badly and unwisely, however, and in so doing has alienated himself from God. The Bible suggests that we're like an unfaithful bride whose husband comes home to find her cavorting with His worst enemy. We have demanded our autonomy. As a race, we've made it plain that we don't wish to be tied down to Him. Our infidelity has alienated us from God, the source of our life, and consequently death is our fate - both physical death and eternal separation from the source of life, the source of all that is good in our existence. This is what it means to be "fallen."

Yet, though broken-hearted and crushed by our continued betrayals, God has not abandoned us. Throughout the ages He has continued to woo us, to cajole us, to try win our love back to Him.

"But," the skeptic will object, "You've given no reason, no proof, why one should believe this story or the Bible that contains it."

That's true. I haven't, nor could I. There is plenty of evidence that suggests that, at the very least, the Bible is correct in its significant historical affirmations, but the evidence is not dispositive. It doesn't amount to a logical proof. Someone who wishes to withhold belief will certainly be able to find reasons to do so.

The fundamental question is this: Do we trust the Biblical witnesses to be writing the essential truth, or don't we? If the narrative I've traced resonates with us, and if we are not already dead set against the Christian worldview, then perhaps we're willing to give the Biblical witnesses the benefit of the doubt. If we are totally opposed to the Christian story, however, if it would upset us beyond our endurance were it to be true, then we simply won't accept their testimony. Whether we accept it or not, though, is not a matter of intellect, it's a matter of the heart. It's a matter of whether we would be delighted or disappointed to discover that the story of man's redemption as related in the Bible is true.

The Christian desires it to be true and finds the evidence sufficient to warrant his confidence in it. There's no point in trying to convince someone who doesn't wish it to be true that it is, since such a person's objections are not intellectual but emotional or psychological. At any rate, for the remainder of this series on basic Christian beliefs we'll simply follow the Christian assumption that the Bible is reliable in conveying truth about God's plan to win us back to Him. The next thing we need to understand about that plan is that our physical death is not the end of our existence.

What's Heaven Like

Boston College philosophy professor and popular writer Peter Kreeft addresses himself to 35 questions commonly asked about heaven. Even if you don't agree with everything he says his answers will still make you think.

On the matter of heaven, by the way, we never tire of recommending C.S. Lewis' little novel The Great Divorce.