Sunday, January 15, 2006

Responding to a Friend's Challenge

A deistic friend recently sent me an essay by a religious skeptic by the name of Samuel Harris and asked me to respond to this paragraph from his piece:

Most people believe that the Creator of the universe wrote (or dictated) one of their books. Unfortunately, there are many books that pretend to divine authorship, and each makes incompatible claims about how we all must live. Despite the ecumenical efforts of many well-intentioned people, these irreconcilable religious commitments still inspire an appalling amount of human conflict.

My friend went on to ask:

...where is the proof that a "personal Creator" exists? Where is the proof that one or all of the various "holy books" is true? I believe in a Creator, but I see no evidence that He/She/It has communicated with man, other than through the creation itself.

The following is my response to his questions (slightly modified):

You asked if I would respond to Harris' opening statement, and I will, but I think it would be best if I tried to reply to your other questions first.

You ask for proof that there is a personal creator, but as you know, outside of mathematics and logic there really is very little, if anything, that we can actually prove. Everything we believe is based on factors other than proof - the force of induction, intuition, how well something fits with other well-established beliefs, and so on.

I don't know for sure what I base my belief in a personal creator upon, but one argument for that belief is this:

I exist. I have consciousness, intelligence, and am a complex arrangement of integrated systems that display astonishing engineering. I also am contingent (i.e. dependent upon something else for my existence), and possess the attributes of personality.

I ask myself how I can account for the existence of such an entity, and I find I have essentially two alternatives: Either I am the product of blind, unguided, unintelligent, impersonal forces that produced me purely by accident, a possibility which I find highly implausible, or I am the intentional product of an intelligent, purposeful being which is also conscious, self-aware and which is ultimately non-contingent. Moreover, since I possess the attributes of personality, it seems reasonable to impute some kind of personality to that which has produced that quality in me as well. In other words, whatever caused me, it's reasonable to assume, probably possesses the same qualities in Itself that It created.

But this is not a proof, of course. It may be that I really am just the product of time, chance and the impersonal, but I think it's intellectually justifiable to believe that I am not. I think it reasonable to believe that the ultimate cause of me and you and the universe as a whole is purposeful, extraordinarily intelligent and powerful, non-contingent, and conscious of, and concerned about, It's creation. It's reasonable to believe, in short, that the ultimate cause of human beings is personal.

I freely admit that I want there to be such a Being because, among other reasons, the existential consequences of such a Being not existing are severe: Indeed, our existence would have no real meaning, there would be no basis for morality, there'd be no hope for justice, and man would have no special worth, dignity or rights, to name a few of the consequences of there being no personal Creator. In other words, if I am wrong about the existence of the kind of Being I'm describing, then the logical endpoint is nihilism and despair.

Since I want very much for there to be such a Being (let's call It God for the sake of discussion), and since the existence of God seems to me to be highly probable for the reasons I discussed above, I find myself accepting, or believing, or hoping, that God does, in fact, exist. I find myself living my life more or less in accord with that hope. Someone else might come to a different conclusion, and I don't think I could argue him out of it. I would just ask him whether deep down he wants, or doesn't want, there to be a God. If he does want God to exist but finds himself unable to believe that He does, then I would suggest to him that there's really no reason not to believe and ample reason to believe. If his answer is that he doesn't really want there to be a God, which for skeptics, it often is, then there's nothing more that I can say except to ask him why he's not a nihilist.

Now, none of this gets at the question of special revelation and religious conflict that Harris poses in his essay. Let me keep my promise and respond to what he says in the passage you quote above. I agree with everything in it. What he asserts is true, but his implied conclusion that all religions are bogus doesn't follow from what he says any more than the fact that different political ideologies have caused horrible conflict in the world (much worse in the 20th century than religion ever caused) leads to the conclusion that they're all wrong. You and I both agree, I think, that a system that promotes freedom, democracy, property rights, and free markets is far superior to, say, communism, socialism, or fascism. The fact that these ideologies conflict with democratic capitalism doesn't mean we should not believe in freedom.

The question for me, then, is do I have sufficient warrant to believe that Christianity is essentially true? In order to answer that question I have to ask whether I have sufficient reason to think that the Bible is basically correct in what it says, and in order to answer that question, I have to come to grips with one of the two most fundamental stumbling blocks for many moderns when they read the Bible - miracles (the other being the deity of Christ). One miracle in particular is crucial - the resurrection of Jesus.

So, setting aside all the claims of skeptics about this or that error in the Bible, and the counterclaims that defenders throw into the breach, perhaps we can agree that the only thing that really matters is whether Jesus actually and literally rose from the dead. If he did then all the arguments raised against the historical facticity of the Old Testament and the objections to stories like the virgin birth, are irrelevant. If Jesus really rose from the dead then Christianity is, in almost every respect that matters, highly credible.

Of course, we can't know with certainty that Jesus rose from the dead or that he did not. Some skeptics counter that we can indeed know that he did not because miracles are impossible, but this is a weak argument. Miracles can only be impossible if there is no chance that the laws of nature could be superceded. But we can only have confidence that the laws of nature cannot be superceded if we know that there is no God. If the existence of the kind of Being I've talked about above is possible then so must miracles be possible, and, of course, the existence of God is certainly possible.

Thus we have to look at the evidence for the resurrection to determine whether it is a credible event or not. I do this here(scroll down to VI) and invite you to read what I've written there.

It seems to me that, as fantastic as the story sounds to the modern ear, if there is a personal God who cares about His creation and loves His creatures then what the gospels record is certainly possible and to me, at least, plausible. I understand that it won't seem so to others, but I can find no reason based upon human rationality for discounting it other than an a priori belief that miracles are impossible, which, as I've argued, is only the case if atheism is true. Even a deist such as yourself believes that God performed at least one miracle when He created the universe.

Anyway, I'm sorry if this is a little long-winded, but I thought your question deserved more than just a cursory answer.

Great Cloud of Witnesses

I just finished a challenging and inspirational book, Great Cloud of Witnesses by E.W. Bullinger. It is a compilation of expositional and devotional lessons based on the spiritual giants of faith from Hebrews chapter 11.

From the back cover: "Here you will come to understand faith's worship of God, faith's walk with God, faith's witness for God, faith's obedience, faith overcoming the will of the flesh and the will of man, faith waiting, faith overcoming fear, faith conquering through Christ, and faith suffering for God."

Here are a couple of passages from Great Cloud of Witnesses that contrast Abraham's "walk by faith" to the "walk by sight" of others.

"And Abram passed through the land unto the place of Sichem, unto the plain of Moreh. (And the Canaanite was then in the Land.)" (Gen. xii 6)

Here, then, we have the second exhibition of Abraham's faith. First, he obeyed and went forth. Next, he sojourned. This sojourning was "by faith." It certainly could not have been "by sight;" for there was nothing for sight but the Canaanite!

What an opportunity for faith! Faith took his eye off from the Canaanite to "the God of glory" who had appeared unto him in the land of Chaldea; and who appeared again to him as Jehovah in the land of the Canaanite.

The sphere of the stranger is the sphere of Divine communications. The statement that "The Canaanite was then in the land" (v. 6) is intended to connect that fact with the subject of God's revelation in v. 7. "Unto thee will I give this land." Here was scope for faith. It came "from hearing the word of God," and our attention is directed to this fact by the close connection of these two statements.

Abraham's faith rested on the Word of God; and his thoughts were occupied with the presence of Jehovah, instead of with the presence of the Canaanite. The eye of faith could see Him who is invisible; hence, it saw not the Canaanite who was "then in the land."

How opposite was the case of the spies, who, in a later day went up into this very land with the assurance of Jehovah that it was "a good land."

They "believed not." Hence, they saw only the Canaanites; and they said: "the people that WE SAW in it are men of great stature. And there WE SAW the giants and the sons of Anak which come of the giants; and we were in OUR OWN SIGHT as grasshoppers, as so we were in THEIR SIGHT." (Num xiii. 32, 33).

Truly they walked by sight, hence they believed not, And, because they believed not, they could neither enjoy the presence of the Lord, nor enter into His rest.

Numbers chapter 14 tells us the rest of the story and that upon hearing the people crying out to go back to Egypt, Moses and Aaron fell on their faces. Joshua and Caleb who had gone with the others to search out the land rent there own cloths and said "The land, which we passed through to search it, is an exceeding good land. If the Lord delight in us, then He will bring us into this land, and give it us; a land which floweth with milk and honey. Only rebel not ye against the Lord neither fear ye the people of the land; for they are bread for us*: defence is departed from them, and the Lord is with us: fear them not." But all the congregation bade stone them with stones.

As you probably know, by now the Lord had had enough of the peoples' antics and was going to "smite them with pestilence, and disinherit them" but Moses appealed to the Lord that He show mercy to the people, the result being that they wandered in the wilderness for forty years and that entire adult generation eventually died (or as it is rendered in the KJV, "your carcases, they shall fall in this wilderness") before the people finally entered into the land.

* manna, when out of the shade melted, though hard. Likewise the hearts of their enemies would melt away, not having Jehovah for their shadow, or defense.

The second passage contrasts Abraham's "walk by faith" with that of Lot...

Lot "walked by sight" and not "by faith." Hence, "Lot LIFTED UP HIS EYES and BEHELD all the plain of Jordan that it was well watered everywhere before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, even as the garden of the Lord" (Gen. xiii. 10).

It looked like "the garden of the Lord," even as Satan may look like "an angel of light" and his ministers may look like "ministers of righteousness" (2 Cor. xi. 14, 15). But it is not "righteousness," nor is it "light." Nor was it "the garden of the Lord," but it was the plain and "city" of Sodom, and the end of each will be destruction with fire and brimstone from heaven.

Notice the steps in a walk by sight when Lot "lifted up HIS OWN eyes" (Gen. xiii.)

  1. He beheld (v. 10)
  2. He chose the plain of Jordan (v. 11)
  3. He took the eastward position and journeyed east (v. 11)
  4. He dwelled in the cities of the plain (v. 12)
  5. He pitched his tent toward Sodom (v. 12)
  6. He dwelt in Sodom (ch. xiv. 12)
  7. He sat in the gate (as a Ruler in, and citizen of Sodom) (ch. xix.1)
  8. He shared in its calamities (ch. xiv. 12)
  9. He was miraculously delivered from its destruction (Gen. xix. 16)
This is the end of a "Walk by Sight."

On the other hand, Abraham who sojourned by faith did not lift up his own eyes; but "Jehovah said unto Abram (after Lot was separated from him) LIFT UP NOW THINE EYES, and look from the place where thou art Northward, and Southward, and Eastward, and Westward: For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I GIVE it, and to they seed for ever" (Gen. xiii. 14-16)

Lot made his own choice. Jehovah made choice for Abraham; and Abraham enjoyed it as God's gift.

Lot's choice was only for a short time. It began in calamity and ended in destruction.

Abraham's gift was "for ever." It began in faith, and will end in glory.

You'll want to read this book...more than once.