Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Fideists would have us going round in circles

James Moar, who attends NCBC, has sent me an email. In writing this email he is showing great intellectual integrity as he very succinctly and cogently sums up some deep challenges to Christian culture. He has given me permission to publish it here:

Hi Tim,

I'm having real issues with Christianity at the moment, mostly centred around how a world with God in it would be different from a world without God. Note that I'm not fussed about answered or unanswered prayer here, just about God's demonstrable action, something that is insisted on throughout the Bible. God does several things which are done (to quote a repeating line in Ezekiel) "so that they may know that I am YHWH". But where are these now? Incidentally, the notion that God has apparently done lots of things so that people may believe somewhat rubbishes the idea of epistemic distance. Why bring the Israelites out of Egypt to display his power if he's not prepared to display it in other ways?

There are many accounts of "answers to prayer" that have spectacular odds if they're coincidences, but consider how many prayers are made and suddenly the odds of any given one receiving some sort of answer by blind chance is much less. It's the same for general "miracles" that are highly improbable; given the amount of Christians worldwide, the odds of some of them experiencing coincidences go down a fair bit. We just ignore all the unanswered stuff (or the umiraculous stuff) because the "miraculous" draws our attention and allows us to make a story out of it.

To give a concrete example, Casanova considered himself to be watched over by some sort of divine provenance because he always seemed to get out of the scrapes he was in. But consider the amount of people who tried to live his sort of lifestyle, and the odds of one getting through it to the extent he did become much less surprising. In the same way, there was a philosopher who looked a painting of Zeus worshippers who prayed and survived a shipwreck. His response was "where is the painting of those who prayed and drowned?" We seem to blind ourselves to the true odds of something purely to give it an explanation other than chance.

So where is God in the middle of all this? My question is, as "miracles" seem arbitrary at times, so is there really anything driving them? Have we just plucked the successes from a huge experimental population and called it miraculous?

Also, people's response in "worship" at church seems somewhat artificial; people are a lot more "worshipful (handwaving, tongues etc) with songs and situations that they know. Also, those who pray out loud in services do it a lot. all this makes me think "learned behaviour" rather than the movement of the Spirit or a true connection with God. Which again leaves me wondering where God is during it all.

Any thoughts? I'm beginning to think that Christianity is just a package of group behaviours and narrative weaving based on a narrow selection of anecdotes.



I have had some contact with James, both by email and in person. I am not going to publish any outcome of our discussions until I feel that a hiatus has been arrived at. But let me just publish my provisional response to James before I got down to anything more serious:

You have laid out some serious challenges here. I hope nobody is going foist on you a "counselling" diagnosis by suggesting that you have some deep spiritual problem that needs "exorcising" and thus makes this a pretext for bypassing issues that are not just yours alone but should be questions others ought to be asking as well. I'm all for a self critical faith. Anyway, this is just to say that we can think through these things together, because you have made some very good points there. They must be taken seriously and not fobbed off as just "head knowledge affairs" that are inferior to "esoteric" spiritual knowledge of God.

What I had in mind as I wrote that first response was the fact that esoteric spiritual knowledge is often claimed to be the sacred way to rise above the sort of “profane” intellectual challenge James raises so compellingly. Having seen the way the “Jesus is in my heart” ethos is so often (ab)used to not only provide an excuse for a fideist bypass to difficult questions, but also as the thin end of a gnostic, elitist and authoritarian wedge, I deeply suspect the authenticity of much Christianity that is sells its self from a platform of a “head vs. heart” paradigm. This paradigm is often supplemented by a fundamentalist reading of the Bible, giving rise to a toxic blend of gnosto-legalism.

The created order does not have clumsy welded joins; the empirical and the analytical cannot be separated from the spiritual any more that it is possible to separate the Bible from its cosmic context: The Bible is itself an empirical object and it is so integrated with its context that Bible and cosmos form part of a seamless body of revelation. As my friend Jim Harries puts it “Meaning = Text + Context”.

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