Sunday, June 13, 2004

Why I believe-1

The natural mind sees God in nothing,
Not even spiritual things;
The spiritual mind sees God in everything,
Even natural things.
—Robert Leighton

I. Insight & Hindsight

Why am I writing this? For several reasons.

Over the years, I’ve had a number of college and seminary students approach me to ask me how I’d field this or that objection to the faith. In responding, my answer was naturally shaped by the form of the question. And this is fine as far as it goes. But that doesn't really represent how I’d frame the questions and prioritize the issues if I were offering a positive defense of my own faith. And so I’d like, for once, to take the initiative in setting the terms of the debate from my own point of departure.

Secondly, I’m at a point in life where it is worthwhile to take stock of my reasoning. I became a Christian as a teenager, and I’m now a middle-aged man. So I’ve passed through the most of the major phases of life, in consequence of which my outlook is pretty settled.

In addition, I’ve read widely and deeply in the fields of philosophy, theology, apologetics, philosophy of religion, science, philosophy of science, Bible criticism, comparative religion, comparative mythology, and atheism.

I doubt that there are any major arguments pro or con that I’m not acquainted with, so I don't anticipate any intellectual revolutions in my thinking. Having sifted through all this material, it’s time to distill it down to a few core questions and answers.

In that regard I need to say in advance what I do and do not intend to cover in this essay. On the one hand, I don’t plan to rehearse all the traditional arguments for the Christian faith. This omission doesn’t necessarily imply a rejection of such reasons. Many of the arguments I’m leaving out of consideration enjoy considerable merit.

Among the better literature in defense of the faith, I'd mention: R. Adams, Leibniz: Determinist, Theist, Idealist (Oxford, 1994); G. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Zondervan, 1982); G. Berkeley, Alciphron; Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, R. Adams, ed. (Hackett, 1988); M. Behe, Darwin's Black Box (Touchstone, 1998); C. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (IVP, 1987); W. Brown: In the Beginning (CSC, 2001); J. Byl, God and Cosmos (Banner of Truth, 2001); G. Caird, "The Study of the Gospels," ExT (1975-76), 137-41; W. Dembski, No Free Lunch (Rowan & Littlefield, 2001); J. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God (P&R, 1994); P.Helm, Faith with Reason (Oxford, 2000); Objective Knowledge (IVP, 1989); The Divine Revelation (Crossway, 1982); B. Metzger, "Methodology in the Study of the Mystery Religions and Early Christianity," Historical and Literary Studies (Eerdmans, 1968), 1-24; J. Newman, A Grammar of Assent; A. Plantinga, "A Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments"; God and Other Minds (Cornell, 1967); Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford, 2000); C. Van Til, Why I Believe in God (P&R, n.d.); K. Wise, Faith, Form, and time B&H, 2002); J. Woodmorappe, Noah's Ark (ICR, 1996); W. Young, Foundations of Theory (Craig Press, 1967).

But I don't want to swamp the reader in a sea of technicalities. I'd like to keep this essay at the level of popular reading and personal reflection. So I’m confining myself to arguments that I myself find especially appealing and compelling. The treatment is admittedly idiosyncratic.

Conversely, I don’t plan to parry a lot of stock objections to the faith. This is a needful and beneficial exercise. But it would make the essay ten times longer and twice as technical if I went down that winding path. Besides, I've dealt with that elsewhere ("I'm glad you asked!") In addition, one way of fielding objections is to offer positive reasons for faith. Finally, I have delegated some of the detailed argumentation to footnoted literature for the benefit of interested readers.

Finally, there’s a difference between reflective and prereflective reasoning. There are many things we apprehend as a matter of tacit knowledge that we’ve never tried to prove. And the effort to formalize our reasoning cannot capture the full range of evidentiary support: what it gains in slim rigor it loses in density and detail—what Newman dubbed the illative sense. The exercise is of value, but not without attendant tradeoffs.

Philosophers spend a lot of time trying to tease our tacit knowledge into articulate form. The hardest things to prove are the most obvious things. For if they’re already obvious, then what more can you say? And if someone can’t see the obvious, how can you make him see it? As Gordon Clark once observed, "philosophy doesn’t deal with unfamiliar things; it deals with familiar things, and that is why it puzzles you," Gordon H. Clark: Personal Recollections (Trinity, 1989), 68.
Thus the attempt to prove what we already know can readily foster a misleading impression. For our conviction may be a many-layered thing, built up—like a painting—of many brush-strokes. You can’t reduce a painting to a series of brush-strokes. For what makes it a painting lies in the overall composition, and in the texture, and in the interplay of light, shade and color. The effort to peel back the layers and identify every stroke of the brush leaves you with less than the sum of the parts.

So my point is that trying to justify what we believe isn’t always an easy thing. In fact, the more fundamental the belief, the harder it may be to explain and defend because it deals with such familiar things—things so basic to our understanding of the world within and around us that it may never occur to us to justify our belief in such things inasmuch as they are what enable us make sense of the world. Without it we couldn’t make sense of anything at all. And in that respect, some beliefs are self-warranting insofar as they supply the warrant for lesser beliefs.

II. Why I believe in anything
When the average Christian is asked why he believes in God, he may be stumped. For purposes of this paper, I'm operating with an Augustinian doctrine of God, viz., God is a personal agent, of infinite wisdom and might, subsisting outside time and space. I have defended this position in "God of the Fathers," All Things in Subjection, M. Selbrede, ed. (Ross House, forthcoming). In this same volume I've also presented my Christian philosophy. Cf. "Trinity & Symmetry."

It seems like a natural enough question, so why is it so hard to offer a simple and straightforward reply? One problem is that to pose such a question is to plunge into the river at midstream, rather than crossing at the riverbank.

You see, we prove or disprove the existence or the truth of one thing by assuming the existence or truth of something else. Suppose, for example, someone asked you why you believe in time or space? Wouldn’t you be taken aback by such a question? For ordinarily, questions of fact are not nearly that large. If you ask me whether I believe in the lunar landings or the Loch Ness monster, such things and events, if they happen to exist or ever happen, take place within space and time. The spatiotemporal framework is taken for granted. But if you ask me to justify the framework itself, then I may be at a loss in even knowing how to broach an answer, for the question is so big and broad that it leaves me without a point of reference.

So we normally ask whether something exists in space, but not whether space exists. We ask whether something occurred in time, but not whether time occurs. The reason we usually don’t give a reason for believing in space and time is that space and time supply the background conditions for reasoning about most other things and events.

And it’s that way with God. We don’t prove the existence of a Creator in the same way we prove the existence of a creature. For God, if there is a God, is not merely an object of truth, but the origin of truth; not just another being, but the ground of being and wellbeing. God is the author of time and space, and the ground of goodness and truthfulness, necessity and possibility.

III. Why I believe in God

1. The Semiotic Universe

I’m impressed by the symbolic dimension of the sensible world. By this I mean that I find it remarkable how the material order supplies an endless stream of metaphors for the moral order. That is, of course, the stuff of poetry.

But because it comes so naturally to us, we may not stop to consider how unnatural it is if nature were all there was. Why are certain sounds (major/minor) and shades (light/dark), lines (backward/ forward) and curves (upward/downward) freighted with moral significance?

Indeed, this dimension is multidimensional. Consider the mimetic and synesthetic plasticity of music. We associate certain progressions and intervals with visual cues. And these carry the same moral and emotive overtones. The symbolic overlay of one medium onto another represents a higher-ordered significance.

And this semiotic potential figures forcibly in the language and communicative power of Scripture. Consider how much spiritual sense is contained and conveyed by such simple and mundane metaphors as: arm, ash, birth, blindness, blood, body, bone, bread, breath, brotherhood, cedar, childhood, city, cloud, darkness, dawn, day, deafness, death, desert, dew, dirt, dog, dove, dream, dung, eagle, ear, earth, eye, fat, fatherhood, fire, firstfruit, firstborn, fish, flesh, flood, foot, fountain, garden, gem, goat, gold, grape, grass, hand, head, heart, heaven, honey, husband, king, lamb, land, leaven, leprosy, light, lightning, lily, lion, lip, locust, milk, moth, motherhood, mountain, nakedness, neck, night, oil, pearl, rain, rainbow, river, rock, root, rose, rust, salt, sand, season, seed, sheep, skin, sleep, smoke, snake, sonship, sparrow, sun, thistle, thorn, tongue, tree, valley, vine, vineyard, water, weed, wife, wind, wine, wing, and wolf, to name a few. The Fourth Gospel has been dubbed the "book of signs" for the way in which earthly things exemplify heavenly things, and shadow forth a better country.

There is no natural explanation for this rich, referential dimension on secular grounds. It doesn't confer any survival advantage. But this makes perfect sense if the material order was made by God to manifest his perfections and pantomime a moral order.

2. The Cryptographic Universe

The classic conundrum of knowledge lies in the hiatus between the subject of knowledge and the object of knowledge. For the mind doesn’t enjoy direct access to the external world. In order to receive information from the outside world, such input must be encoded.

For example, a sensible object reflects light. So the surface texture is encoded as electromagnetic information, and transmitted to the eye, where it is reencoded as electrochemical information and transmitted to the brain.

But the match between input and readout is ineluctably teleological. Like a lockbox with one key to open and another to close, the system must be designed so that the constituent parts operate in conjunction. No random process could run through every conceivable combination or solve for all possible permutations.

3. The Narrative Universe

I'm also impressed by the narrative direction of the sensible world. Solomon says that God has planted eternity in our hearts (Eccl 3:14). This intriguing and enigmatic image. comes on the heels of his statement that God has made everything beautiful in its time, and is followed by his statement that man is unable find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. So the entire verse is finely sprung on a delicate dialectic between time and eternity.

We register the narrative dimension in the natural world of time, space and light. The backlighting of late afternoon and forelighting at the end of a dark tunnel or leafy trail convey a sense of motion through time—of time past and time future, verging on the "stillpoint of the turning world"—in Eliot's evocative phrase. Lighting likewise serves to signal the divisions of the day and seasons of the year, while autumnal or Post-meridian shades, in turn, signify the life-cycle. Streams and rivers further furnish a universal emblem of time's passage. ( The B-theory of time denies the objective flow of time. However, I'm only concerned here with the phenomenology rather than the ontology of time.)
Such natural narrative associations form the basis of arts. A story has a plot, and the quest genre is the Ur-genre of all literature. A play follows a dramatic arc. Opera and oratorio have a narrative format. The symphonic and sonata forms have a narrative quality. A church nave evokes a journey, while the stained-glass triggers diurnal and seasonal associations. Some Cathedrals augment this effect with a labyrinth in the crossing. A film has a storyline. Every movie is a journey of the imagination. Even still photography and still-life painting try to freeze a passing moment.

The Bible owes a great deal of its perennial appeal to its narrative power. The story of redemption is the story of stories and story within stories as we follow the progress of the woman's seed, from the Protevangel promise, and all the way through the history of the prediluvians, postdiluvians and Patriarchs, the Exodus, wilderness wndering and Conquest, the monarchy, captivity and Restoration, to its culmination in the Advent of Christ and coming Consummation.
God has encoded his subliminal message in sight and sound. For God is the great storyteller, for both Word and World are divine speech-acts (Heb 1:1-2; 11:1). The universal theme of art and universal appeal of nature lie largely in their token of travel through time and space to a waiting eternity.

4. The Animal Kingdom.

Solomon admonishes the sluggard to go and study the ways of the ant (Prov 6:6-8; cf. 30:25-28). And, indeed, the complexity of insect behavior is very difficult to account for on the basis of raw materialism. How do bug brains no bigger than a milligram execute such complicated and coordinated activities, viz., flying, milking aphids, spinning webs, constructing hexagonal chambers, building underground cities, communicating by code language (the waggle dance)? Even primates don’t do anything half as clever. If mental-events are identical with brain-events, what is the neurological basis for their ingenious behavior?

Of course, social insects exhibit a sort of corporate intelligence, but that doesn’t explain their coordination. What overarching factor is choreographing and combining their individual efforts? For example, how does the relative complexity of building a beehive compare with constructing a geodesic dome? An evolutionist would attribute the latter achievement to our advanced brain development, yet the same explanation is hardly available in the former case.

Insect behavior reminds me of remote-control signaling, viz., toy cars, boats, planes, drones, robots, &c. If their actions and interactions are being directed by a superior, external intelligence, then I can account for the intricacy of their behavior, but to reduce it to the amount of hardware and/or software that nature can cram into the skull of a bug strains my own capacity for credence.

5. Natural Selection

Darwinists often appeal to natural selection as an alternative to teleology. Natural selection is often touted as a major evolutionary mechanism. But, from what I can tell, it only operates on periodic variations within preexisting and stable species. That doesn't approach macroevolution. White rabbits beat out brown rabbits in wintertime because they blend in against the snow and survive to multiply. Conversely, brown rabbits beat out white rabbits in summertime. And this explanation is fine as far as it goes.

But in order to lodge his claim, the Darwinist must assume a surreptitiously God’s-eye standpoint. For natural selection is oblivious to the survival value of camouflage and other adaptive strategies. Only an intelligent observer can appreciate this stratagem. But how could a bottom-up (evolutionary) process solve a problem that only a top-down perspective can grasp? The naturalist must stand outside of natural selection to perceive the (pre-) adaptation of practical means to tactical ends.

6. The Possible

The real world doesn’t appear to exhaust all possibilities. Indeed, there seems to be an infinite number of variations on the actual world. So what was it that selected for the instantiation of this particular state of affairs out of the plenum of possibilities? Such a selection process must have recourse to some sort of personal intelligence in general, and a mind of at least commensurate amplitude in particular. The answer, with respect to possibility and infinity alike is the divine mind (see below).

7. The Infinite

It has been said that mathematics is the science of the infinite. Equations imply other equations, multiples imply divisibles, &c. In a system of internal relations, all of the relations must obtain for any to obtain. 2+2=4 because 1+1=2 and 4-2=2. And hence, in a system of infinite internal relations, the infinite must be actual rather than potential. Cf. J. Burgess & G. Rosen, A Subject with no Object (Oxford, 1997); B. Hale, Abstract Objects (Oxford, 1987); J. Katz, Realistic Rationalism (MIT, 1998); C. Wright, Frege's Conception of Numbers as Objects (Aberdeen U Press, 1983).

Mathematical entities also appear to be mental entities. What else could they be? The number three doesn’t have an address. It doesn’t subsist in time and space. It doesn’t come and go. 2+2 don't become 4.

But if numbers are mental entities, then they must inhere in an infinite and timeless mind—the mind of an eternal and omniscient God. Cf. R. Davis, The Metaphysics of Theism and Modality (Peter Lang, 2000); B. Leftow, Divine Ideas (Cornell, forthcoming); A. Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity (Oxford, 1974); A. Pruss, Possible Worlds (U of Pittsburgh 2001); G. Welty, An Examination of Theistic Conceptual Realism (Oxford: MPhil thesis, 2000); Theistic Conceptual Realism (Oxford: DPhil diss., forthcoming).

8. The saints

By this I do not mean the communion of saints or the cult of the saints, in which a saint is a Christian of supposedly supererogatory merit or wonder-working power. Rather, I merely mean those humble, ordinary believers whose quiet, faithful, loving lives are a silent witness to the life of grace in the soul. This is both less and more than mere goodness. There is a piety particular to the Christian faith — a piety above and in spite of any natural virtue or absence of virtue. A theistic proof can be a person no less than a thing or formal argument. Such a person is a living proof of the living God, of grace embodied in a vessel of clay, of a power surpassing nature and superior to nurture.


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