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Evidence for God
Wednesday, September 02, 2015
Lydia McGrew left some useful comments at the blog of a recent apostate that are well-worth reading:
August 26, 2015 at 3:29 am
This sentence probably is a good place to zero in on where I think your reasoning has gone astray: ” And if there is to be absolutely no relational value in being a Christian then I seriously question the value of believing it.”
The value of believing Christianity is quite simply that it is true. If it is true, and if we have reason to believe it is true, then we should believe it even if it doesn’t have the kind of relational value we were hoping for from it. That’s true of anything. Why should I believe in the existence of ________ if it isn’t what I was hoping it would be like to interact with ___________? Well, presumably, I should believe in the existence of ________ if it’s true that ________ exists and if I have reason to believe that. The same for, e.g., the Trinity, Jesus as the atonement for sins, the deity of Christ, etc.
Moreover, if Christianity is true, then that means one has an opportunity to a) be forgiven of one’s sins (we all need that) and b) experience the beatific vision forever after death, in comparison to which (Christianity says) everything we’ve gone through on earth, however bad, including the pain of *not* having a “relational” feeling of God’s presence, will seem like nothing when we are there.
So believing Christianity is very valuable, *if* it is true.
Which means that discovering whether it’s true is very important, even if it turns out that “relational value” is not part of the package deal.
It seems to me (and I apologize if others in the thread have said this already, but I have not had time to read the thread) that you came to believe in a particular experiential interpretation of various verses in the New Testament (I would assume more than the old) and therefore considered Christianity falsified if the expectations raised by that interpretation were not met. But perhaps that interpretation of those verses was incorrect. And if, in addition, there is a wealth of other evidence that Christianity in its broad theological outlines is in fact true, then it would be a terrible mistake to abandon it on that basis.
Speaking for myself, I virtually _never_ have anything like an experience of the presence of God, and when I have an experience that might be such, I tend to be skeptical of it. I do not consider such experiences to have important evidential value. My evidence for Christianity is quite other, and *on the basis thereof*, I cultivate the personal side of what one might _call_ a “relationship with Christ” (petitionary prayer, meditation, receiving the Sacrament, mentally “placing myself before God,” and so forth), but which has a very different “feel” from what a “relationship with God” is supposed to be like in a more charismatic context where one is constantly expecting to receive “words” from God. I think the expectation of such constant “words” is harmful, and I think that your case is a good illustration of why. I discuss some of this not only in the main post but also in the comments thread, here, where I get some pushback from a reader:
By the way, prayer for you, specifically, has been a part of my relationship with God, because of this loss of faith and the cause of it. If you think it would be of any value to you, please feel free to e-mail me privately:
August 26, 2015 at 2:56 pm
If you don’t mind, I’d like to dialogue just a bit on what you have said, including in your reply. I don’t want you to think that, because I come back to what you say or reply to it, this means that I am unconcerned about or insensitive to your very real suffering, which is far greater than what I have ever suffered. My intent is to discuss this at an evidential level, because as I understand you, you are in fact stating it (among other things) at that level. That is, as I understand you, you do believe that what you have gone through, including what has seemed to be the silence of God, has constituted a pretty strong _reason_ for you to decide that Christianity is false, and it is that that I would like to try to answer a bit.
You are certainly right that most Christians do read Scripture as describing and perhaps even promising a relational aspect to Christianity. However, it is my opinion that Christians actually err when they think that this describes a relationship in something like the ordinary, human sense–that is, a relationship where it will seem to me that the other person is responding, talking back, etc. I think we should cultivate _our_ side of a relational aspect to Christianity (as described in the post and comments thread I linked to above) while realizing full-well that we may not be able to tell in a decisive way, perhaps ever, that God is talking back to or interacting with us personally in any way that cannot be naturally explained. That possibility, even in a great many cases, seems to me quite consistent with Scripture.
You mentioned in particular the Scriptures where Jesus talks about the coming of the Holy Spirit as a comforter. As you probably know, the word “paraclete,” sometimes translated “comforter,” has a variety of meanings, including “advocate” or “helper.” It’s also the word used for Jesus Christ as the “advocate with the Father” in I John, which is of course an activity (by Jesus) that we have no particular reason to expect to “see” happening in our own particular cases. It’s something we believe is happening theologically without any experiential component for ourselves.
The other thing that is difficult about interpreting all of those verses where Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit in those discourses in John is determining what portion of it was meant for the disciples in particular and what portion applied (and if so, how) to us today. I think it would be quite a mistake to take an interpretation about how they apply to us today and to use that as evidence for rejecting Christianity if that interpretation is not fulfilled–yes, even upon the twentieth urgent, sincere plea. After all, if that isn’t (it turns out) what we were promised, then that isn’t what we should expect to receive, even with deep and urgent begging to the Father. In hindsight, I think we can see certain works of the Holy Spirit that were manifest in the disciples that don’t _appear_ to be manifest in the church now in any reliable fashion. A good example of this would be “guiding into truth” in John 16:13. My own opinion is that the John 16 passage is definitely referring to a special work of the Holy Spirit in the apostles, giving them the authority needed to “kick off” the church through special revelations of doctrines not yet fully understood (e.g., the Trinity). These made it into Scripture. Those are very personal discourses of Jesus to the disciples, and his promise to them that the Holy Spirit would come and help them was clearly fulfilled on the day of Pentecost in ways that (I believe) we don’t see today, such as their being miraculously able to speak and be understood in other tongues.
There is therefore reason to question that there is a special work of comforting or strengthening that the Holy Spirit offers to believers now that we will be able to *sense* has come to our aid in times of crisis. This is true both because a) there may have been a more tangible work of strengthening, but it may have intended for the apostles, specifically, and b) the work of the Holy Spirit even in ourselves may not be tangible to us but may be taking place nonetheless. (This latter is what I believe is often the case with the Sacrament of Communion–that it conveys objective grace that we have no sensible consolation from.)
You mention in your main post that you have been helped in your sufferings by your family. I would suggest that in your case God has come to you and offered you help in this more ordinary fashion to hold on and to get through this–that he has come to you _through_ human beings–rather than in a fashion that _appears_ to come more directly from himself. Similarly, if you have had friends who talked with you when you were going through your loss of faith and suggested to you that you need not lose your faith for those reasons, God could have been coming to you through them. The same may be true of those in this thread who have reasoned with you somewhat from the other side, including (I say with all diffidence) myself. It’s worth asking why these could _not_ be answers to your prayer, even though they do not seem like the “comfort of the Holy Spirit” in the experiential or direct sense that many Christians anticipate or ask for. Answers to your prayer in the form of offering reasons to hold on, reasons to believe that there is a God who loves you and has not abandoned you, _despite_ the lack of apparent comfort.
Now, I don’t know what you would say to this suggestion, and I don’t want to put words into your mouth. But one possible response might be that the attempted help of such friends, or the love and support of your family, all admit of natural explanations. I fully agree that this is true. But as you yourself realize, even a strong sense of the peace and comfort of the Holy Spirit, if it had come to you in one of those sleepless nights of pain when you begged God to help you, would also admit of a natural explanation. In fact, short of a bona fide physical miracle, many (perhaps most) of the things that might come to a sufferer as help in time of need will have possible natural explanations. That really shouldn’t be a problem for Christianity unless we believe that God has promised us help and comfort personally that does _not_ have any decent natural explanation, and it should be pretty clear that Scripture hasn’t promised us that.
Finally, I have not rehearsed here the various reasons that I believe Christianity is true and that I think you should believe Christianity is true. That there are such reasons is something I not only believe but would put my life on the line for. I want to just make a point _about_ those reasons without rehearsing them in this already long comment (though I’m happy to discuss them in any venue that would be helpful to you): Probability is indeed the very guide of life. There is almost never some crucial, falsifying _test_ that an hypothesis fails and is then no longer rationally believable, particularly if there is a tough web made up of a variety of reasons for believing that proposition. For example, even if you inexplicably stopped hearing from a family member at some point and never heard from him again for the rest of your life and could never figure out what in the world happened, you could well have sufficient _other_ evidence to believe that this family member did exist or had existed. (Old photographs, previous letters or e-mails from him, the memories of other people, etc.) This analogy is inexact, because as I said above I think many Christians may never _personally_ hear from God at all. What it is meant to draw attention to is the existence of a lot of evidence for the broad outlines of Christianity _other than_ God’s coming to you in the dark night of your suffering and giving you comfort at that time. If there is indeed such other evidence, and if it is strong, then you should believe that Christianity is true rather than thinking it to be falsified by the apparent silence of God in what you are going through.
I would urge you with all sincerity and urgency to consider that possibility and therefore to consider that you may be wrong now in your journey away from Christianity, perhaps because of an error in thinking regarding the way that confirmation and falsification work. Again, I’m very happy to discuss that more if you are interested or think it would be helpful.
August 26, 2015 at 10:03 pm
God could, but that doesn’t mean that he will do so or that he is _predicted_ to do so by Christianity. The fact is that we may never know *in detail* why God doesn’t do some particular good thing. For that matter, though AR humbly did not request it, it is also true that God could have directly healed him of his illness and physical pain, and we also don’t know *in detail* why God didn’t do that. The world is chock-full of wonderful, good, reasonable things that God _could_ do but doesn’t. This does not trivialize the pain felt by those who request such things and don’t receive them, but I think it should put our own ignorance into perspective and should emphasize the fact that we are not bound either to a) answer with absolute definiteness “Why doesn’t God do this?” or b) conclude that a person suffering in this way without the help requested is reasonable to abandon Christianity.
In very broad terms (not in specifics), Scripture teaches in a great many places that God purifies his own by suffering. The feeling of the absence and silence of God is itself a very real form of suffering. Therefore, if we believe (as I think should be uncontroversial) that God can use suffering in general for the good of the individual and intends so to use it when he does not remove that suffering, it would seem that this very real form of suffering can be used by God for that same purpose. C.S. Lewis discusses this concept of soul-making quite well in the Problem of Pain where he talks about the rather frightening love of God which desires to make us into amazing beings that we ourselves can scarcely conceive of.
My own belief is that if we hang onto Our Lord through these things, we will come ultimately to the Beatific Vision, which will be a form of “relational value” greater than any we can presently conceive. But that is at the end of the road, and we have to be, in a sense, _formed for it_, prepared for it. Sadly, in our fallen world, it appears that one of the principle ways God finds necessary to use for this purpose is suffering–a way often of darkness and even of his own apparent absence. That “changing from glory into glory” process can be a real bitch sometimes (if you will excuse the language). That, presumably, is what has given rise to the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, all the more so since some people (my wimpy and inexplicably fortunate self, for example), don’t seem to suffer very much in this life yet still hope to be formed into citizens of heaven and enjoyers of the Beatific Vision.
One of the most powerful passages about this from Lewis is not in the Problem of Pain (though there are good ones there as well) but in the Screwtape Letters: “Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
Let me add, Mr. Breuer, what I hope will not be too rude: I have interacted with you elsewhere and have found the process extremely lengthy and exhausting and have sometimes concluded that it was no longer profitable. My response here is occasioned by my concern for AR, not by a feeling of responsibility to convince _you_ in particular of anything that I say.
August 26, 2015 at 11:50 pm
Actually, I think it possible and even probable that God _has_ interacted with the church (or with individual members thereof) in detectable ways since the first century. I am, at most, _willing_ to be a cessationist (if that’s where the chips fall) rather than a _committed_ cessationist. Some of the stories that Craig Keener tells are _very_ difficult to explain plausibly as mere coincidences, and I have one story along these lines of my own and have heard other believable anecdotes from others. Moreover, some of these interactions involve God’s seeming to “tell” someone something and a later reason to believe that it was in fact a veridical communication. If that seems too “intellectualizing” a way of putting it, I am doing so deliberately because ultimately, AR apparently lost his faith because of the absence of such evidence, so I think it’s entirely appropriate to think of it in evidential terms.
So, no, I’m not saying that God has definitely just sent the church off with no further, detectable, even sometimes experiential, causal interaction.
What I am disputing is the idea that we should _predict_ such detectable causal interaction. I especially do not think that anyone should lose his faith because of its lack or absence, however painful or terrible such silence seems to be. Such detectable interaction is supererogatory beyond what Scripture predicts. It’s extra. It’s a joy and a wonder when it happens. But it is neither necessary to the Christian life nor a predicted consequence of Christianity such that Christianity is falsified if it does not occur in any given instance.
August 28, 2015 at 12:08 am
I don’t make the heart-mind distinction in the same way that you do. For example, my use of “detectable” includes what you would presumably call a “mind” component even in revelations to “the heart.” If God’s personal action in some instance is detectable, then that means we have reason to believe it really is God as opposed to mere emotion or wishful thinking. This is true *even if* the particular thing that happens is emotional–e.g., a feeling of peace or joy.
Also, please note that I make a sharp distinction between “not expecting” (or “not predicting”) and “expecting not” (or “predicting not”). That scope distinction *must* be observed. I do *not* say that one should *predict not* to clearly detect God’s personal, individualized interactions with oneself. I merely say that one should *not predict* that one will clearly detect God’s personal, individualized interactions with oneself. Some Christians may clearly detect such interactions frequently. Some never. Neither of these is contrary to biblical teachings, as far as I’m concerned.
August 26, 2015 at 8:48 pm
I’d like to add just a couple more things, in the hope that one or more of them will motivate a rethinking of your journey away from Christianity.
1) Your request for God’s consolation was certainly reasonable. But it doesn’t follow that God’s granting it in a recognizable form was _predicted_ by Christianity. Hence, one way to go on living as a Christian would have been to conclude that it wasn’t God’s will to grant that request and to return to it only occasionally, with the “if it is your will” proviso, rather than to continue begging desperately for it. In other words, Christianity definitely does not place upon the petitioner the burden of continuing to beg for something in agony when God does not seem to be granting it or is not granting it in the way hoped for, continually flogging one’s mind to try to imagine why God is not granting it. That would indeed be almost psychologically unbearable, but I don’t think it is required, and one reason it is not required is that the apparent reasonableness and sincerity of the request does not *in itself* create a prima facie prediction from Christianity that it will happen.
2) Relatedly: Some event can be evidence for an hypothesis, but the non-occurrence of the event may have virtually no value as evidence against it. For example, my receiving a phone call seemingly from my brother is good evidence for his existence, but my not receiving a phone call of that kind is virtually no evidence at all against his existence. This is why arguments from silence are often so weak. So we should not think that, if your receiving a sense of God’s presence when you begged for it repeatedly would be evidence _for_ the truth of Christianity (which it would, though not very strong all by itself), your not receiving it when you begged for it in anguish even thirty times _falsifies_ Christianity.
As a general matter, what I would implore you to rethink is the idea of a _prediction_ made by Christianity concerning the sort of “relational aspect” you were previously expecting. I get the feeling that there is some notion that, if Christianity cannot live up to this, it has failed and has been falsified. But we may reasonably _hope_ for such help without _predicting_ it and therefore without considering that Christianity has failed a crucial test and has been falsified if we do not receive a sense of God’s presence in terrible trials.
August 28, 2015 at 12:00 am
Okay, I appreciate that clarification; that’s helpful. I’m not offended by anything you have said. We evidentialists, I hope, are a hardy lot, not easily offended. But I am deeply concerned to answer it, so please bear with my persistence. I think what you’re saying could be cast as an attempted dilemma for Christianity: Either Christianity promises a sense of God’s presence to believers in times of terrible suffering, in which case your experience falsifies it, or it does not promise that, in which case, if Christianity is true, you consider God to be not worth spending eternity with in heaven and Christianity to be not worth caring about or being committed to.
I’ve already talked a lot about the first horn of that dilemma, and you have indicated that you’re willing at least to consider that perhaps your interpretation of various verses is incorrect and that Christianity might be true after all. So I’d like to focus now on the second horn of the dilemma. It seems to me that a major problem with that horn of the dilemma is that it does not have a sufficiently robust understanding of the Christian concepts of God, man, and heaven. In that sense one might say that the second horn only _appears_ to grant that Christianity might be true after all, because if one _really_ granted that, then one would see that _by definition_ Christianity is worth following (if true) and that eternity with God is (if Christianity is true) the ultimate goal of human life.
For example, you say, “According to Christians there will be no suffering in the new heavens and new earth so what is the benefit of a closer companionship with God in that situation?” and “if there is to be absolutely no discernable companionship with God in this life then such a thing in the next is of no use.”
This, in my opinion, demonstrates a misunderstanding of the nature of both heaven and mankind. It is a longstanding Christian teaching that “the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” Or, in Augustine’s wording, “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”
Heaven, then, is not just a sort of place that we go to, where everything is good and there is no suffering, so it might seem that there we don’t need God or companionship with God. Moreover, union with God has intrinsic, ultimate value for the human being rather than instrumental value. (E.g. Instrumental value to help one through a terrible time.) Heaven, rather, is that state of being beyond this earthly life in which the individual human being is finally what he was meant to be all along. Those enjoying the Beatific Vision are finally realizing their own true telos, and communion and union with God is the only possible way for them to do so. Man ultimately cannot flourish apart from God. God isn’t just a person whom one can evaluate and decide one can do without, like an unpleasant uncle whom you finally (understandably) decide you don’t want to have anything to do with anymore. On the Christian view, God is the source of all good. There is thus no good apart from God.
What this means is that whatever you recognize as good and beautiful in this world–the love of family and friends, the beauty of nature, peaceful sleep without pain, the kindness of strangers, all of it–has its ultimate source in God, and rejection of God is, whether you intend it to be or not, in the end a rejection of goodness and joy. A willful rejection of God is therefore personally self-destructive, even if this is not evident for a long time and possibly not until after death. In the same way, a commitment to God is the _only_ ultimate route to flourishing and joy, even if the final person God means you to be, and the consequent joy, is not manifest for a long time, possibly not until after death. There is no possible way to pick and choose and just to decide to continue to be a nice person, only without God, and order one’s life and one’s eternity accordingly, not needing God and not being interested in him.
On the Christian view, this is true in the nature of the case. It arises from the very created nature of mankind. It isn’t a harsh alternative that God made up arbitrarily because he wants to terrify people into loving and obeying him–though, in fact, the fear of losing eternal union with God _should_ be terrifying when one realizes its meaning. Because of who we are, we don’t have the option of choosing “neither of the above” when it comes to heaven and hell. We either will be made into something far more glorious than we are now, in our fallen and feeble state, or become something far less than we presently are.
This is related to another point: *If* Christianity is true, then God does actually love you and did actually have a good reason for not making himself apparent to you in your suffering. Again, that’s part of what it means for Christianity to be true–that God loves us individually and has a reason for the suffering, all the suffering, he allows into our lives, including the suffering of his own silence. What that means is that, *if* Christianity is true, you have every reason to care about it. You will (if you return and follow God) ultimately be fully reassured on this point which you now have to accept based solely on all the other reasons you have for believing that Christianity is true. There’s nobody in heaven who resents God, even secretly, for a cosmic game of hide and seek. There’s nobody in heaven who thinks of it that way. That’s what St. Paul means when he says that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us. Everybody in heaven _knows_ that God really is good and loving and has our best good in view, no matter what we suffer here below, even in his silence.
Human fathers have a far more limited scope and therefore are called upon to be involved in their children’s lives right now. Unlike God, they don’t have the option of working on the cosmic scale and allowing something terribly painful in this life for the ultimate good of the individual, or withdrawing themselves into silence and distance during their children’s hard times to teach their children a greater truth or to form their children’s souls. They don’t have that level of eternal wisdom, knowledge, or even love, and thus are not allowed to do that. But God both does and can. God, unlike a human father, can literally form the individual (if the individual will permit it) into what he was ultimately meant to be for all eternity. This is why what would indicate apathy or cruelty in a human father does not indicate that about God our heavenly Father. Or so Christianity claims.
What I mean to urge in all of this is that, if you allow the possibility that Christianity is true, you should allow the possibility that it is true in its most nuanced and compelling form. And in that form, it is not the kind of thing that anyone has the luxury of being indifferent to. In that form, Christianity claims that your choices about God are of absolute and ultimate significance for you. In that form, Christianity says that God loves you, no matter what he allows to happen to you here on this earth, and that he has a plan, the only plan, for your greatest good, and that you will, if you trust him, understand that in the end.
And what _that_ means is that it is of the greatest importance for you to decide whether or not Christianity is true. Which in turn brings us back to the evidential matters I mentioned earlier.
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