I was just asked how I respond when my religious beliefs conflict with what I believe on the basis of other sources of information. I think this is a common experience (certainly common for me), and that many people wrestle with it in different ways. My short answer is that I do what I do whenever any two beliefs of mine conflict. But that answer itself presumes certain views regarding the nature of religious beliefs and knowledge, and there are perhaps some slight differences worth exploring. Here are a few thoughts about how I approach the issue, and ways I think are dead ends. (more…)
The Bible is amazing. The God who created all the universe and each tiny flower in a mountain meadow decided to communicate with people in their own language, and to inspire people to write it down for future generations to read! Even the Bible talks about about invaluable and awe-inspiring the Scripture is. God gave the law through Moses, and after he re-hashed it all to the Israelites in the plain of Moab (Deuteronomy means “second [statement of the] law”), Moses said, “They are not just idle words for you—they are your life” (Deut 32:47). God spoke through Isaiah, “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word” (Isaiah 66:2). When Jesus quoted a difficult passage of the psalms, he parenthetically remarked, “And the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). The Bible is fully authoritative, life-giving, and amazingly clear (indeed, often far too clear for our comfortable self-deceptions). I do not think we can speak highly enough of God’s gracious gift of Scripture. But it is possible to speak inaccurately of it.
“Sola Scriptura” is one of the five Reformation “solas” (the plural ought to be solae, or rather soli, since one of them is masculine). It is called the “formal principle” of the Reformation, meaning what distinguishes Protestant theology’s method from the theology of Roman Catholics. But “sola Scriptura” has come to mean many different things to different people. It seems to me that some of these meanings are true, but some of them are false. We must evaluate these meanings in turn. (more…)
Earlier today President Trump used Twitter to accuse President Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower in the month leading up to the election. This accusation is shocking, but for different reasons to different people. Some people are outraged at how the previous president misused his power against the American people. Others are outraged at how the current president is misusing his power against the democratic system. These two groups are divided by divergent ideas of what is plausible, and shocking claims like this leverage the plausibility gap to make American society even more polarized. (more…)
A friend asked me a bit ago whether my day job (trying to understand the Middle East, including Islam and Muslims) wasn’t counterproductive for me as a Bible-believing Christian, or whether it was an attempt to “know the enemy.” In truth, it is neither. Of course, I believe that Christians should explore all fields of knowledge to understand the world in the light of God’s revelation. But I also do not think of Muslims as “the enemy.” Since this latter point is apparently highly contentious at the present among conservative Christians, I thought it might be useful for me to explain my reasoning. (more…)
I haven’t blogged in a while, largely because I have been busy with other things, but I have been watching US politics rather more than previously, and not liking what I am seeing. The polarization of the two-party system has been expressed in isolated discourses with minimal cross-over, in which vocal members of each group express outrage and ridicule at the other group’s viewpoints, mock the appearance of representatives of the other group, engage in ad hominem (and ad familiam) attacks, and do all this while expressing outrage that members of the other group should treat them in the same discourteous manner. Civility seems to be nearly extinct. If the American way of government is to be saved, and I must admit great appreciation of the freedoms to which we have grown accustomed, we must reclaim civil discourse, not only in the sense of discourse about issues related to the civilian society, but also discourse which is civil in tone, even when disagreeing strongly. (more…)
The philosophy professor whom I mentioned in my last post made a fascinating argument against using religious experiences to draw theological conclusions. I partly agree with it, and partly disagree with it, so I thought I would post it here and take it apart.
His basic argument was that people of many logically incompatible religions have strong religious experiences, on the basis of which they conclude that their respective religions are correct. But since they cannot all be correct (since they contradict each other), religious experience seems not to be a reliable method for inferring which is the true religion. Instead, he suggested, people who grow up in a religion typically develop positive emotions for the places, people, and objects associated with that religion, and these emotions then lead to experiences of God’s love, for example, or of the truthfulness of one’s own religion, experiences which may reflect nothing more than a lifetime of developing positive associations.
He described a discussion he had with two Mormons, in which he invited them to make the case for why he should come to believe in Mormonism. With a caveat that it might sound crazy, they described the burning in their bosom which confirmed to them that the Book of Mormon was true. The philosopher, far from being surprised, expressed that these sorts of experiences are exactly what he would expect for someone in their positions. Instead, and I’m sure much to the consternation of this pair of Mormon missionaries, he denied that such an experience lends support to the truth of their religion. People of other religions equally experience feelings which in their view confirm their beliefs, and those experiences are neither more nor less genuine, and neither more nor less confirmatory, than the burning in the bosom of the Mormons. (more…)
I recently heard a philosophy professor present a talk entitled, “Why I am not a Christian.” The title, of course, is taken from Bertrand Russel’s 1927 talk on the same subject, though the professor I heard was not nearly as hostile to Christians as Russell. Nevertheless, in common philosophical fashion he went beyond the apparently autobiographical scope of the title to claim that no one else anywhere is warranted to believe either in the existence of God or in the extraordinary claims made in the Gospels about Jesus. As he reviewed philosophical arguments for the existence of God and scriptural appeals to faith in Christ, he repeatedly said, “I have not found compelling justification,” and he took that to imply that neither had anyone else. There were various other elements of the talk that struck me (and upon which I may at some point comment here), but the assertion of categorical lack of rationality for certain conclusions is something I am wrestling with. (more…)
Teleology is both the hope of Christians and the bane of historians. As a professional historian, I have publicly railed against teleology for the edification of my students. As a practicing Christian, I have publicly thanked God for his teleology and used it to comfort those who are hurting. That sure looks like a contradiction. It struck me as odd recently, as I was buried under a mountain of undergraduate papers and final exams to grade. I don’t think it’s a contradiction, but exploring why not has clarified for me what historians are trying to accomplish, and the basis on which Christians formulate their understandings. (more…)
Marc Bloch, a twentieth-century Jewish historian of medieval France, once wrote, “Christianity is a religion of historians.” He meant not only that Christian scripture and liturgy recount and commemorate historical events, but also that according to Christianity the fate of humanity played out (and continues to play out) within historical time. While it is not true that all Christians are historians, I find as a professional historian that my understanding of the past greatly enriches and deepens my faith. But as a professional, I have been trained to think in certain ways about the past, and sometimes those ways of thought seem to conflict with my faith. What is a Christian historian to do in such cases?
The issue of homosexuality has been prominent in church discussions for several years now, long enough for most parties to be sick of the issue and incredulous that other people don’t see the matter as seems obvious to them. In many ways, the debates have resembled the debates about American slavery in middle third of the nineteenth century: both sides dug in and called the others non-Christians, and almost every denomination split over the issue in the period leading up to the American Civil War (and indeed, the Southern/Northern Baptist split remains to this day, even if the Northerners changed their name to “American Baptists” with all the arrogance of military victors). The disagreements over sexuality persist, in part, because both sides have been making really stupid arguments which are easily caricatured by their opponents. Conservatives have been accused by liberals of simply reacting with a knee-jerk “yuck” and seeking to justify their irrational prejudice with appeal to the Bible and tradition. Conservatives in turn have accused liberals of throwing out all that characterizes Christianity in their desire to kowtow to the current cultural trends. (more…)