My 2015 has, unsurprisingly, seen further exploration of the many rabbit holes of 2014. As the pendulum continues to reset, I am now in the suspect position of actually wanting to reverse some of my concluding statements from my earlier Bible shipwreck.
Therefore today, as always, everything here is nothing better than a work in progress, awaiting further refinement. If you want to continue this conversation with me in any form, I would welcome it — please reach out.
My concern today is how accepted structures of systematic theology have a habit of shutting down authentic discourse with the surrounding world.
To get us kick-started, let me present Exhibit A — you only need watch the opening 1 minute or so:
[Recognition and disclaimer are due here — Dr. Craig is a Christian apologist, and more helpfully, a very thoughtful individual. This excerpt doesn’t even scratch the surface of his extensive analytical work, and it should not form the basis of a verdict on his ideology.]
But, on with the work of the day — a critique …
The audience question, and Craig’s answer, can be paraphrased as:
Q: How do you defend the Christian belief that Jesus is the only way to God?
A: Apart from the cross of Christ, there just isn’t any other provision to solve the problem of man’s sin.
Dr. Craig takes about 30 seconds to deliver his main point, above. He then wanders onward, into the consideration of why exactly we should consider the cross to be up to this task of atonement.
To start, then, a couple of thoughts are due here:
- Craig’s reply makes totally fine sense if we have already accepted all of the other cosmic presuppositions of the Christian worldview. For that reason it is perfectly responsive to the concerns of someone who is already a Christian. To be fair, perhaps the context of the video ensured that a Christian would be asking the question. No fault here.
- Craig’s reply says nothing at all to the listener who is not already a Christian. Without the presuppositions of the Christian worldview, his answer is not conversant with the concerns of a person living outside of the bubble. Moreover, it is likely to be heard by such a person as nonsense.
These observations together frame up the main contention of this post:
Religious orthodoxies tend to enforce such a limited sandbox of acceptable ideas about reality, that they struggle to genuinely converse with anyone outside that sandbox
To show you what I mean, we will spend the rest of today looking closely at (what is very likely) the orthodox sandbox in which Dr. Craig is playing.
As we’ve said, Craig’s answer only makes good sense if it is supported by a few prior assumptions about the nature of reality, humankind, and so on. Here I attempt to list out these supporting assumptions. They are given loosely in order of most broad to most exclusive.
[Notice: I have italicized the only two ideas that are definitely shared by the original inquirer]
Dr. Craig’s Presuppositions
- Some kind of God exists.
- God can be known by humans.
- Humanity is in some form broken.
- The New Testament gives a reliable description of reality.
- Humanity’s main predicament is sin, aka a basically evil-seeking nature.
- Due to this sin, we are destined to be apart from God.
- The death and resurrection of Jesus (and our faith therein) offers us an escape from the bleak fate created by our sin. (salvation)
- There are no alternative stories or disciplines in the whole universe that can offer humans a different solution, to escape our sinful doom.
Today we are not examining the integrity of the items in this list. Instead my focus here is: Jesus Christ, just look at how many items there are!
More importantly, notice how many are not necessarily shared by the audience member who asked the question in the first place.
Even worse than that, though, is how this list of presuppositions looks so similar to a typical evangelism tract.
Defending the gospel with ‘The Gospel’
Astute readers will have already noticed what’s going on: the above is not just a list of presumptions that underlie the Christian message — it more accurately is the Christian message. The presuppositions are indistinguishable from the conclusions.
In other words, the loosely-logical progression of statements above is precisely what an average western evangelical would share with an atheist, in the act of explaining the value and truth of Christianity. It is commonly referred to as “The Gospel”.
So you’re saying, Dr. Craig’s answer to the question is essentially a restatement of this basic Gospel message? Yes. Wait a minute. This requires a double-take.
Let’s play this all back, boiled down a bit. If the list of presuppositions is basically equivalent to the Gospel message, then we could reimagine the YouTube clip above as something like this:
Question: “How do you defend the notion that [the Gospel] is the only way to God?”
Answer: “[The Gospel]”
… This type of argumentation is recognized within informal logic: it is called begging the question, and it is a form of circular reasoning … which is very bad! To beg the question, you take your conclusion, and tuck it neatly into your starting presuppositions. From there, begin your argument. Oh look! My conclusion is part of my starting assumptions! This makes it so easy to argue my case! And so on.
Now, I know I said that we shouldn’t judge Dr. Craig from this very small sample. That’s probably still true.
But shit, this man runs a website called Reasonable Faith. He should know better than this. Yikes.
The empire of Gospel, visualized
But to return to the original concern, let’s look again at just how remote Dr. Craig might be from the person who asked the question.
To see this visually, I drummed up a fun diagram for us. Imagine that we have a circle, and all the points within the circle represent all the various things that humans can believe about the universe.
Then, let’s look at how Dr. Craig’s specific presuppositions successively carve up that circle into smaller and smaller pieces of territory. Not only does he believe that God can be known, but also he says that Jesus is the only way to know him. And so forth. The eventual, clustered intersection of all these nested presumptions should succeed in showing us visually just how specific Dr. Craig’s view of the world is. And by extension, just how specific your view of the world must also be, if you’re going to parse his response as anything other than nonsense.
Yes, of course this is a venn diagram! What else could it be?
Yes, it is irritatingly complex to look at. That is the point. On the bright side, it was also irritatingly complex to build.
And yes, sure, I suppose the precise intersections of these discs might imply some pretty weird and contradictory philosophies. But, I tried to imagine the full variety of permutations. Technically, it is possible for people to believe all sorts of funny things 😀
… Anyway …
Notice the “final” proposition: Jesus alone saves. Just look at how isolated that little sandbox is, amidst the vast playground of all things that human beings can fairly believe about the universe.
Again, the original inquirer in Dr. Craig’s audience may have freely roamed across at least 75% of open territory within that playground … but Dr. Craig’s answer to the question was going to be useless, unless the inquirer happened to live in a very specific neighborhood, about 1/10th the size of that open range.
Master of a Whole (Tiny) World
Let’s take the visualization just a step further: what if these spatial slices of cosmology were actual geographic territories of the earth? If this is the case, and if we (coarsely) assume that Dr. Craig represents the basic orthodox position of the Christian worldview, then we can also say this: Christian orthodoxy believes it has mastered the whole world of cosmology; but this is only possible because it believes that there is nothing valid beyond itself.
The way this reasoning works, it is not incredibly different from a chieftain on a remote Polynesian island who believes that he is the ruler of the entire world.
When someone like the 18th-century British explorer James Cook makes first landfall on such an island, let’s suppose Cook wants to investigate this chief’s curious worldview:
Cook: “But don’t you know there are other lands and other human cultures, across the sea?”
Chief: “Of course not. We have never seen them. We have never heard of them. There is only the great mother ocean, and this sacred and special land that she created. We are and have always been the only people on it. We are sacred. The rest of the earth is sea and darkness. Obviously.
“… For that matter, you cannot be a man, so what are you — an angel or a demon?”
It’s funny because it’s true. It was then, it still is now.
The bottom line
When ideological institutions demand adherence to a basic set of standard ideas about reality, those ideas form the building blocks of all subsequent cognition within the sphere of those institutions. What can and often does follow is a debilitating constriction of creative invention and critical discourse. Within such an atmosphere, the possibility to admit sincere ignorance slowly disappears. Such toxic air also cripples the ability of participants within that sandbox to communicate sincerely with whoever might be in the surrounding playground. That is, those within the sandbox become unable to imagine a universe that is not supported by their own accepted presuppositions. This is just the same as the Polynesian chieftain, who cannot imagine or understand the wider world that James Cook inhabits.
This does much to explain why we have something nicknamed a “culture war” boiling over in North America, and why conservative Christians are some of the principal combatants in that conflict. And if the political arena is one of the many theaters for that same war, then this goes far to explain the ongoing legislative gridlock that also plagues us.
To be perfectly fair and clear, the dangers of ideological orthodoxy are not at all confined to strictly religious institutions. The recent history of the modern age should demonstrate plenty well that secular ideologies are also quite capable of giving rise to stifling dogmatism, uncritical groupthink, and general assholery.
Food for thought. Quite enough for today.
- Did you notice anything odd in there? There is a strange problem in this list. It would seem that the main evidence for believing #4 results from the faith described in #7. But simultaneously, the main reason we know anything definite about #5 thru #8, is in fact because of #4 in the first place. How did that circular loop get in there, then? This is all for another day, and another post.