Saturday, June 30, 2007

Why I Am a Christian: Chapter One

I thought that it might be a useful exercise to explain why I've become a Christian. What I will say does not add up to an argument for the truth of Christianity. Though I will explain why I am Christian, I do not justify my Christianity. But nonetheless I think that my story is not without interest.

The story will be told in chapters. The first is told here. It concerns my life as philosopher. Another will tell my story as teacher, and a third my story as churchgoer. (I became a churchgoer before I became Christian. For one of my habits of thought and behaviour, I suspect that this is not uncommon.) In the last, I will discuss those bedrock moral commitments - commitments that I've had for as long as I can remember - that led me to Christianity.

Chapter One: Philosopher

When I began graduate work at Purdue's philosophy department in the fall of '90, I was a naive scientific naturalist. I thought - with little in the way of genuine reflection on the matter - that the scientific inventory of the inhabitants of space-time exhausted all of being; I thought, that is, that there was nothing but what scientists, qua scientists, said there was. There were quarks, electrons, photons . . . and all the other creatures in the particle physicists' zoo, there were the thing composed of these, and there was space-time - but there was nothing else. There was no soul, no God, no heaven, no hell.

I recall vividly a drive in the Indiana countryside one Saturday. (Some of my most vivid memories are almost exclusively intellectual in nature. I recall above all what I thought, not what I did. I suppose that that reveals much about the kind of man I am.) I was alone in the car with my thoughts. In an instantaneous flash of insight, I conceived the outlines of a complete philosophical naturalism. For a reason that I cannot now explain, I was excited by it. Perhaps it was simply that such a thing was new to me.

But though I was a scientific naturalist, I was still drawn to philosophy, in particular to metaphysics. (I still self-identity as a metaphysician. It's where my philosophical heart lies.) So then I was very much drawn to the study of - to speak for a moment like Aristotle, or like Thomas - being qua being. I wanted to know how, at bottom, things hang together. I wanted to know what the most basic categories of being are, and I wanted to know how the entities in those categories were related.

In retrospect, I suspect that it was this appetite for metaphysics that was the crack in the door that finally opened up into faith. My work in metaphysics led me to take Christianity seriously, and to this day if I encounter a metaphysician who rejects Christianity out of hand, I dismiss him out of hand.

In my study of metaphysics, I became acquainted with the work of a number of great metaphysicians of the past. As my first graduate teacher of philosophy once said to me, philosophy carries its baggage along. Great philosophers of the past are never dropped from the tradition (though popularity does wax and wane). Rather, their works demand scrutiny today just as they did when written. Their works still matter, and very likely always will. The list of metaphysicians whose work I studied is long, and among the most important to me were: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, McTaggart, Plantinga and van Inwagen. (You might not know the last three. If not, you should.) It was not their theism (and all but one - McTaggart - are theists of one sort or another, and even he was a supernaturalist) that drew me to them. Rather it was their philosophical acumen and the beauty and power of the metaphysical systems they constructed. I identified strongly with these men, and with the project of metaphysical inquiry that bound them together. I made their project my own, and thus hoped to carry on the tradition - even if only in a small way - that they had begun. This proved crucial in my conversion. Because of my great respect for their work, I came to realize (slowly, ever so slowly) that theism must be take quite seriously because men such as this took it seriously. Indeed I think this as good an argument as you're likely to find in philosophy: Aristotle and Leibniz (by my lights the two greatest philosophers ever to have lived) adopted the view that P, thus P must be taken with great seriousness even if one ultimately judges it false. But Aristotle and Leibniz were theists, etc. etc.

If like me you have a love of philosophy and wonder how to bridge the gap between mere interest in religion and genuine faith, I suggest that you read the great theists of Western philosophy with this idea clearly and firmly in mind: the theism of this author informs all of his work. It is not something merely tacked on at the end. Rather the whole of their work reflects and indeed culminates in their theism.

Of course my study of metaphysics (and the other branches of philosophy, too) was not carried out in isolation. Rather it was done in the company of others. The most important to me were (in temporal order, not order of importance): Jan Cover, Jacqueline Marina (now my wife of 14 years), and the men and women I came to know when I was at Notre Dame.

The most important of my teachers was Jan Cover. He exercised a quite extraordinary influence over my intellectual development, though later we were to break. Of a more committed Christian I do not know. My conversion came after the break, but he was still instrumental in it and for this I thank him. He also exercised a quite decisive influence on my philosophical development. I suspect that much of his philosophical method and demeanor persists in me still. I suspect too that, if not for the path he set me on, I'd not now be Christian, for under his hand, I became a metaphysician.

My wife is Christian (albeit of a non-traditional sort), indeed has been for the whole of her life. She never made any effort to convert me; for she thought that our moral concurrence was of much greater importance than any theological concurrence, and in moral concurrence we were. Rather she wore her Christianity on her sleeve. This could not have failed to influence me. (Sometimes I think it a fault, but I am, if nothing else, highly influencable. I'm a little bit like Woody Allen's Zelig.) I suspect that there was a kind of Christian osmosis in our home. It seeped from her to me.

Let me end with the year I spent at the University of Notre Dame. I was a fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion from '99 to '00. While there, I was surrounded by Christians of many stripes, men and women of great acumen who were deeply committed to the faith. I did not become Christian at that time, though I suspect that if I'd stayed their influence would have won me over. But though I did not convert, still that year had a great influence upon me. I began to feel the power of the Christian world-view. There too I began to truly learn about Christianity. As a child, I was under the influence of my mother's Christianity. She was a member of the church of Christ. (I love her dearly. She's a wonderful woman. But I would that she were not a member of the church of Christ. I don't think it good for either mind or soul.) The church of Christ thinks itself the only true heir of the first century church; the rest of us Christians are apostates, it holds, and are hell-bound. But this is mere bluster. The church of Christ is but one of many small Protestant sects, one distinguished by its extreme Biblical positivism. It treats Scripture like a great storehouse of spiritual and moral truth, and thinks that all the Christian may say is already explicitly said there. Thus in the church of Christ, all that one may do is gather together texts. One does not attempt to discern how they hang together; one does not attempt to state the Bible's most important doctrines in the form of creeds, and (heaven forbid) one does not attempt to engage in scriptural interpretation if that requires that one do more than simply restate (perhaps in a folksy way) what's already said there in exactly the way it's said. In the church of Christ, one just assembles verses, without, I should add, much regard for context. The result in my case was that, when I left the church of Christ, I knew little or nothing of the essentials of Christianity. Oh, I could quote verses. I could tell you what the church of Christ thought was wrong with every other variety of Christianity. But I did not know what Christianity was, and this ignorance was not remedied until my year at Notre Dame. While there I began to read widely in Christian theology, and I came to realize just how powerful an intellectual system Christianity was. The metaphysician in me was deeply impressed. Later the metaphysician in me was to find rest in God.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

On Evidence and Irrationality

One often hears the claim that Christians are, since they do not apportion their belief to the evidence, irrational. This must be carefully distinguished from the claim that Christianity is false. Though the claim that it is false might well entail that belief in it is irrational, they are yet distinct claims. The first is epistemological in kind, the second metaphysical.

I wish now to consider the epistemological claim - that claim that, since Christians do not apportion their belief to the evidence, they are irrational.

"Consider" is perhaps not the best word. "Attack" is better. Now, one might attack the epistemological claim is various ways. One might do so as did Thomas. He would attack my means of arguments meant to establish this or that Christian truth. (For my own part, I'm suspicious that arguments such as this can be made to work against the religious skeptic.) However I won't take the Thomas path. Instead I'll take on the charge of irrationality by means of a tu quoque. (Tu quoque is a form of rebuttal in which one claims that one's opponent violates some principle that he has put forward. This leaves one's opponent with two choices: (i) take back the principle, or (ii) take back the claim or claims he's made that violates that principle.)

Call the one who wishes to defend the claim of Christian irrationality in the way I've describe "Clifford". (William Clifford famously made the charge that Christians believe where there is no evidence and are thus irrational.) I think it clear that Clifford means to endorse some such principle as this:
One ought in all cases to apportion one's belief to the evidence available.
Call this putative principle "P". Now let us ask what seems an obvious question: What is the evidence available for P? I would guess that there is none on offer. (William Clifford certainly gives us none. Nor do any of the others of whom I know give us any reason to believe it.) Indeed it is difficult to think of what might count as evidence in favor of P. Let me explain.

Evidence for the truth of some claim is a set of propositions (perhaps a unit-set) the members of which are (i) all true, and (ii) together tend to show that the claim is more likely than not. (This isn't a complete definition, but it does state two necessary conditions; and those two are all we'll need.) Now, what might a set of propositions be that would tend to show P more likely than not? They would have to be epistemological, for P is epistemological; and they would have to be, in some sense, more basic or fundamental than P. (From the more basic or fundamental we derive the less basic or fundamental.) But if P were to be true, there would be no more basic epistemological principle from which it could be derived. It is the sort of principle that, if true, is absolutely basic. There is nothing "beneath" it which has the potential to prove it true. (Or so it seems to me upon reflection. My only argument here is this: I've looked and haven't found anytying more basic than it from which it might be derived.)

So, then, here's where we're at: very likely P has no evidential support. But if this is so, P is, if true, not to be believed. For if P is true, nothing - and this includes P - is to be believed without evidence. Where does this leave us? P ought not to be believed. For P is either true, or it is false. If true, then as we've seen it's not to be believed; and if false, then (as should be obvious) it's not to be believed. Conclusion: belief in P is irrational.

This is our tu quoque. Very likely the principle brought to bear upon Christianity - the principle P - can't pass the test that it itself sets up. The upshot of all this should be clear: we must all believe something without evidence if we're to believe anything at all. (This was also argued for here in a direct way. The argument of this post is indirect and proceeds by way of refutation of the contrary opinion.) We must, as it were, all strike out into the evidential void. Does this mean we're all irrational? It does not, for as we've seen the claim that lack of evidence entails irrationality is simply not to be believed. There is of course a lacuna here. We still need it explained to us how we can rationally believe a thing when we have no evidence of its truth. But I will not attempt to fill the lacuna here. Nor will I attempt to divide propositions into those that are in need of evidential support and those that are not. These tasks must be left for another day.

We must all strike out into the evidential void and plant a flag. I've planted mine. Clifford has planted his, but refuses to admit that he's done so. He says that the evidence must dictate where one plants it, but this very claim lacks evidence. If the Christian plants his flag arbitrarily, so does Clifford.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A Tiny Little Change

I'm curious to know whether anyone noticed the change I made in the masthead. If you think you know what it is, tell me first what the change is and then second tell me why I made it.

Power and Beauty

If Christianity is a fantasy, is it a most beautiful and powerful fantasy.

The Face at 45

It was once said to me that, at 45, the face you have is the face you deserve. The bodies of the young are able to hide their sins. The bodies of adults (and adulthood does not really begin until one's powers reach their summit - 45 perhaps) bear the marks of their sins. This is why some of the old are beautiful and why some are ugly.

And Love Them Nonetheless

When I look back at my attempts at aphorism, I feel that they mostly fall flat. Let's see if I can do a bit better.

One must know all in their sins - must see their sins in them - and love them nonetheless. To do this with others is difficult. To do the same with oneself - nearly impossible.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Anscombe on the Purpose and Value of Life

"G. E. M. Anscombe" is a near-legendary name in analytic philosophy. But unlike most analytics, she is Christian; and unlike most Christian analytics, she is Catholic. In an article on birth control titled Contraception and Chastity, she says this about the purpose of life:
What people are for is, we believe, like guided missiles, to home in on God, God who is the one truth it is infinitely worth knowing, the possession of which you could never get tired of, like the water which if you have you can never thirst again, because your thirst is slaked forever and always. It's this potentiality, this incredible possibility, of the knowledge of God of such a kind as even to be sharing in his nature, which Christianity holds out to people; and because of this potentiality every life, right up to the last, must be treated as precious. Its potentialities in all things the world cares about may be slight; but there is always the possibility of what it's for. We can't ever know that the time of possibility of gaining eternal life is over, however old, wretched, "useless" someone has become.
In the middle we find this claim: every life (and Anscombe of course means "every human life") is precious because of its ability to know God. Thus for Anscombe our purpose and our value are intimately linked. Our purpose is to know God, and our value lies in our ability to achieve this purpose.

Note as well what Anscombe says about the ability to know God: it is present at every moment of life. Thus at every moment life is precious; it is precious at its start, at its end and at every point in between.

This consequence is of course to be embraced. Life is in fact precious at every moment. But that the consequence is true does not imply that the view is true; false views do sometimes have true consequences.

(If you doubt this, consider this little argument:
God, though not eternal, is the creator of all things distinct from himself.
Thus God is the creator of humanity.
The conclusion is, by my lights, true; but, say I, God is eternal and thus the premise from which the conclusion is derived is false. False claims do sometimes have true consequences.)

I do worry that Anscombe's view - that the value of life lies in a certain ability of ours, an ability that is not realized at present - is false. On Anscombe's views, our life at present seems to have its value in virtue of a certain future possibility - the possibility that we will come to know God. The value that life has at present seems parasitic upon that future possibility. Does it then not follow that, if we consider only our present state and ignore that future possibility, we find little or nothing of value? I find that I can't rest content with that conclusion. As I've heard said (though I can't now remember the source), we love children not because of what they will become but because of what they are. Are they - indeed are not we - precious as we now are? Surely we are not like a plain vase whose only value lies in its ability to be filled with a substance of value? Plain we may be in comparison to God, but are we not precious as we are? God loved the world, Scripture tells us; it does not tell us that God loved what the world might become.

Some will be tempted to say that I ignore here the corrosive effects of sin. Sin, they will say, has made us plain, perhaps even ugly, and whatever value we had before the Fall has, now that live under the rule of sin, been erased. If one accepts this, it seems quite natural to say that, though we have little or no value at present, yet the possibility remains that we will come to know God and that our value at present lies solely in that possibility.

Note a consequence of this view of our present value. If at present we have little or no value, anything may be done to us so long as the possibility of the beatific vision is not thereby attenuated. I take it that this is absurd. Not anything may be done to us. We may not be mercilessly tortured, for instance. (If you say that we may, my only reply is that I part company with you. Embrace your moral absurdity if you like, but do not expect me to do likewise.)

Last point. I do not doubt that the purpose of our lives lies in the beatific vision. But I do doubt that our value at present lies, wholly or mainly, in the ability to achieve it (or have it imparted). This of course leaves us with the question of the ground of our value at present. At present I do not know what to say to this.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Reflections on the Church of Christ: Inerrancy

I was brought up in the Church of Christ - a Southern fundamentalist sect with strongholds in Tennessee and Texas. It has much in common with Evangelical Christianity here in the states, but it is in some regards unique.

In this post and others to follow, I'll examine some of the core beliefs of the Church of Christ. As should come as no surprise to those who know my views, I find many of those beliefs indefensible. They suffer - or so I will argue - from severe logical defect.

This for me is an opportunity to examine the Christianity of my youth with an eye much more critical than it was when I was young. Only in the last few weeks have I begun to recall the details of my indoctrination. It's curious how the mind keeps things hidden from itself and then chooses to reveal what was hidden all at once. (There is much in us that we keep hidden from ourselves.) The catalyst must be my decision to begin initiation into the Catholic church. Religion has become for me not merely an intellectual curiosity (as it was before) but a very real, very insistent fact. But enough about me. Let us turn to the argument.

Bastell Barrett Baxter is one the best-known preachers in the Church of Christ. His church is the Purcellville Church of Christ in Purcellville, VA. (I should note that the name that they give for themselves is not "Church of Christ". Instead it is "church of Christ". Churches of Christ believe that they are not merely "another denomination". Rather they claim that they are the one true heir to the 1st century church and thus they are not a Church among Churches, but the sole body of Christ here on Earth. For a reason that is and always has been opaque to me, they take this as good reason not to use the capital "C".) On the Purcellvill Church of Christ site, one finds a good summary of the doctrines that unite the Churches of Christ. For instance, this is said about the Bible.

The original autographs of the sixty-six books which make up the Bible are considered to have been divinely inspired, by which it is meant that they are infallible and authoritative. Reference to the scriptures is made in settling every religious question. A pronouncement from the scriptures is considered the final word. The basic textbook of the church and the basis for all preaching is the Bible.

[The distinctive plea of the Churches of Christ] is primarily a plea for religious unity based upon the Bible . . . .. This is [a plea] to go back to the Bible; It [sic] is a plea to speak where the Bible speaks and to remain silent where the Bible is silent in all matters that pertain to religion. It further emphasizes that in everything religious there must be a "Thus saith the Lord" for all that is done.

The view here articulated is - I'll not mince words - absurd. (The argument I'll give is a slightly more sophisticated version of the one found here.) Let us go back in time to the 4th century. The Bible had not yet assumed its canonical form, and debates raged about what books to include in it and what books to exclude. Now let us ask what would have happened if the Catholic theologians who gave the Bible its final form had followed the dictum to "remain silent where the Bible is silent". If they had, they could not have produced the canonical Bible that exists today, for our Bible did not even exist then. If Baxter were to say that its various books did exist and that recourse could have been made to them, I will reply that nowhere in any book of the Bible are we told just what books should be part of the Bible. Thus if one remains silent where the Bible is silent, one could not not have gathered together the books that compose the Bible. The dictum "remain silent where the Bible is silent", if followed, would have left the world without the Bible.

Perhaps Baxter would reply that the dictum "remain silent where the Bible is silent", though applicable now, did not bind theologians in the 4th century. (Indeed I think that this is the only reply he can make.) This, however, cannot be simply said. It must be explained too. Why would that dictum have come into force only later? I can think of only one answer: the Spirit was at work in the editors of the Bible in a way that it is not now. (Surely the Christian must say that the authority of the Bible lies in the authority of its writers and its editors, and that the source of their authority lies in the fact that they were Spirit led.) But this seems an arbitrary and indefensible assumption. Moreover, it is an assumption in no way supported by Scripture - nowhere in Scripture will you find the claim that the Spirit does not now act as it acted in the 4th century. Thus if we follow Baxter and say that where the Bible is silent, we too must be silent, we must not say that the Spirit does not act now as it acted before.

Where are we left? The dictum "remain silent where the Bible is silent" simply cannot be believed by Christians. There must be a source of extra-Biblical religious authority, else the 4th century Biblical editors could not have produced an authoritative text. The source of this extra-Biblical authority should be clear - it is the activity of the Spirit upon the minds and hearts of believers.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Little Things

The way in which I view the world has begun to change. I have, after all, begun to swim the Tiber (as Bill Vallicella put it). Little things, things that before I would never have noticed, now make me happy. When with my family I walk into Mass, I see families whole and healthy. There is a father, a mother, and there are children well-behaved and respectful. The sight of this makes me happy. It reminds me that there is much good left in the world, and it gives me hope that, so long as such families exist, there is yet hope for the world.

I attribute this change in vision to the 10 weeks I recently spent in a local high school. I saw there the result of broken families. Children of broken families are poorly motivated, and they are disrespectful. The result comes as no surprise: they do poorly in school. (How do I know that the children of which I speak come from broken homes? They told me. As they came to know and trust me, they began to tell me their stories. I did not pass judgment. I only listened. And remembered. And drew conclusions.)

It looks to me as if there is a deep pathology in today's family. I see it in the children. So many are on medication. So many have little or no interest in their studies. So many take no thought for the future but seem content to live a life of ignorance and poverty. So many have little or no respect for their elders. (Should we blame them? The first and most important authority in their lives - parental - failed them spectacularly.) So many flee to those things that will harm them: drugs, premarital sex, gangs, etc. If I were to see only this, I would despair for the future of society. But I go to Mass, and I see that, with some families, all is well; and I am happy, if only for a moment.

(I do not mean to condemn all that I saw in those 10 weeks. There was much good there, too. The teachers that I came to know are extraordinary. The are like soldiers who run to a breach and againts all odds attempt to hold back the attack. Many students are as students should be: hard workers who do what's asked of them. But the pathology is undeniable.)