Why do I believe? Part 3 – Parsing the question(s)

Transparent cross superimposed over a question markI made a statement at the end of a previous post on this subject, that needs a little explanation.  I said “I believe, and will attempt to show in future posts, that a preponderance of the evidence supports the existence of God, and that further evidence pushes me to the Christian interpretation of what that God does and wants.”   Tucked into this sentence is a point I need to clarify, which will seem self-evident to some readers and completely novel (even offensive) to others.  It is this:  The truth of Jesus does not necessarily follow from acceptance of Theism.

There is a common error among many Evangelical Christians (and some others) I have known, that the opposite of Christianity is atheism, and conversely the opposite of atheism is Christianity, as though faith is a merely a single, bivalued choice.  The claim is silly on the face of it, and it results in such ridiculous claims as calling Muslims or Hindus as atheists simply because they don’t believe in “the God of Christianity.”  We Christians aren’t the only ones to make such dumb assertions; I’ve run across some statements by radical Muslims that were pretty parallel, and I’ve also encountered some atheists who seem to think that if one card is plucked from the Christian stack the whole house must tumble (a point, amusingly, that they share with the “Answers in Genesis” types).

I suggest rather that the question of the existence (or not) of God is an independent one from the choice of Christianity as a faith practice.  As a different choice, it needs to be resolved on different evidence.  There certainly can be overlap…as CS Lewis and Josh McDowell (among others) have pointed out, there are claims in Christianity that would be necessarily false if in fact there is no God at all.  But the converse–that if there is a god then Christianity is necessarily true–is nonsensical.  “The heavens declare the glory of God…” says the Psalmist David (Psalm 19:1), but they don’t actually show us God’s name.  Societies throughout time, in fact, have looked at the heavens and concluded they must be created by someone(s) worthy of glory, but they have come up with wildly different notions about who that someone might be.  This is why I was careful in my Belief Matrix post, to discuss the spectrum between Thesim and Atheism, and not to bring the many variants of Theist belief into the question.

I acknowledge that plenty of people have come to their conclusions about God through a specific encounter with Christianity (or, as some would characterize it, with Jesus himself).  If one is attracted to Jesus and takes all of Jesus’ claims seriously, theism certainly comes with the package.  I certainly know of many who were attracted first to the life and behavior of one or more followers of Jesus, and came to their perspective on the divine through learning from those people whose lives they admired.  I rather suspect the same may be true of some Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others as well.  I do not mean to suggest that the systematic way that I’m approaching this subject is in fact a path for anyone to convert (remember I said at the outset that this series is an attempt to explain where I am, not to convince anybody else).  It is, however, important to recognize that underneath a claim of faith there can be a number of things that are being represented as true:  things which, while they may cohere into a system of sorts, do not necessarily follow from each other in an inseparable chain.

As I alluded in my Epistemology post, I don’t think that there’s a clear line of reasoning that I can lay out, starting with one or two assumptions, adding a bunch of facts and observations, inferring some logical points and coming to a conclusion of faith in Jesus Christ.  For me it’s a series of disparate elements coming from orthogonal directions which, taken together, nudge me in a certain direction.  But I still think there is value in separately examining the evidence for and against Theism, and the evidence for and against Jesus specifically, if for no other reason than that people have been all too careless in lumping them together.  This is what I will turn to in the next few posts.

There is one final issue I should highlight here though.  I’ve had a couple off-blog conversations with people who’ve suggested that by highlighting what I do or don’t “believe” in this series, I’m missing the point.  They are partly right, as anyone who’s read my work over time will know, I’ve made the case before myself.  Discipleship–that is, living like Jesus in community with others who want to live like Jesus–is far more important than correct doctrine.  In this series, I suppose I’m partly allowing myself to be drawn into the “doctrine” question even though I really do consider it to be of secondary importance to the lordship of Jesus and what that means (ought to mean?) for our lives.  Nevertheless, to those who say to me that none of this matters if you just (1) meet Jesus, or (2) look at Jesus’ disciples, I have to respond that first of all, I haven’t “met” Jesus in the way the (1) folks are talking…I’d like to, but I haven’t (this post may be helpful here).  Secondly, if I had to rely only on what I have been able to “come and see” of those who claim his name, I don’t think I’d be a Jesus follower at all.  What I have seen, far too frequently, is either antithetical, or at best tangential, to the claims of Jesus himself.  Consequently, I need a different evidentiary path to explain why I haven’t just chucked it all by now (which I haven’t).  It is that path–my own weird, convoluted path–that this series is exploring.

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