Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Hey Christian, Go Read Something! [Serge]

Recently a received a kids Christmas catalog from Christian Book Distributors (here it is online). As I thumbed through it, I was surprised at what I found, or more specifically what I did not find. I saw page after page of DVDs, CDs, Christian jewelery (a guitar pick on a chain labeled "pick Jesus" was a standout), T-shirts, sweatshirts, and occasionally, a book or two. In fact, I decided to count - on the first 37 pages of this catalog from a Christian bookstore, there were approximately seven pages of books. On the other hand, there were over seven pages of DVDs and over ten pages selling sweatshirts and T-shirts. It seems as Christians, we are far more likely to buy our kids a shirt that says "rooted in faith" than to give them the tools they need to defend their faith in the face of a hostile culture.

Contrast this to what our kids will see at the local Barnes and Nobles. Sure, there may a small section of DVDs, CDs and gifts, but mostly they will be see books. Lots of books. They may not be able to buy a T-shirt with a quote from Richard Dawkins, but they will see the God Delusion prominately dislayed. Of these two options, Chritian and secular, which do you believe our curious children will take more seriously? Which do you believe will influence our kid's worldview more?

Let me be clear that I do not fault the Christian bookstore here - they are a business. I'm glad they exist, and hope they make a profit to stay in business. It is not their fault that Christians are more apt to buy a DVD they can feel safe to stick into the player than to read JP Moreland. The problem lies with us. How seriously do we study our faith? How have we grounded our worldview? Do we really seek to follow Christ and be his disciple? Is this committment to the truth the kind of thing we wish to advertise on a T-shirt?

For Christmas this year, do your child a favor. Buy him of her a challenging book. Read it with them and discuss it afterwards. Take the time to challenge your kids about worldview issues after they consume secular media. This will last far longer than a T-shirt or a guitar pick.

18 comments:

  1. You encourage the reading of challenging books. But I wonder if, in doing so, one had better stick to books by J.P. Moreland and the likes - proponents of the orthodoxy, as it were.

    Otherwise there is the concern that our beliefs could change. And if our eternal salvation depends on certain beliefs, then that risk of changed belief doesn't seem worthwhile. This is the cost, but also the reason, for maintaining our radical conservatism through purchasing only those books that we already agree with, and otherwise buying the Christian CDs and jewelery).

    Thus, why not rather advise: read challenging books but only those that challenge the beliefs of the non-Christian (unless you wish to gamble your soul for the sake of the intellect).

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  2. Hey anonymous.

    You seem to have seriously misjudged the basis of my faith. It is impossible for me to gamble my soul for the sake of my intellect, for my intellect is part of my soul. Speaking as one with 12 years of post-high school education prior to becoming a Christian - nothing has developed and challenged my intellect as my education in apologetics. I am a follower of Jesus Christ not because my salvation is based on that belief, but because I am convinced that it is true. If I was convinced that such a belief did not correspond with the truth, then I would not have that belief.

    This year there were two books in particular that I read that have greatly increased my belief that Christianity is true. They were the God Delusion by Dawkins and God is not Great by Hitchens. I taught a short class on these books at my church and encouraged my students to read them as well.

    Lastly, anon - is your use of the word "our" in your comment really true?

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  3. Hi Serge,

    In fact, one can gamble with one’s fortune for the sake of fortune itself. But so as not to confuse, instead of “intellect” we can say “understanding” or “knowledge”. A Christian, it seems, can gamble with her soul for the sake of gaining understanding or knowledge.

    It is wonderful and uplifting that folks like yourself, and others at LTI, are willing and able to read books challenging the Christian faith and the cherished sentiments that we are accustomed to associate with that faith. For the sake of non-believers, fetuses and other believers, your work is very helpful (as are your brave declarations). But you must remember that you had “12 years of post-high school education prior to becoming a Christian.” You mustn’t infer that what isn’t a threat to your faith won’t be a threat to someone else’s. Your faith isn’t really the concern.

    But consider a believer who doesn’t have the 12 years of post-high school education already under his belt. Are you so sure that his attempt to understand the hardest challenges to the Christian faith will leave his faith intact? It is of course wonderful that some do maintain their original faith through a truly challenging education. Again, these people are an inspiration and can do great work. But for every one of these sturdy souls, there are many who fall by the wayside. So although we can point to some folks (even some at LTI) whose own beliefs are steadfastly resistant to argument of any kind, this doesn’t mean that every Christian will be like this.

    Here then is the question that it seems you must ask yourself. In advising believers to read “challenging books” (without the qualification I recommend), are you taking heed to the eternal welfare of him/her whom you advise? Is your heart that of a shepherd, or are you more like the general, concerned to win the battle even at the cost of losing individual soldiers?

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  4. I appreciate the opportunity to explain things a bit further. Your qualification in substituting "understanding" or "knowledge" for intellect is not helpful or clarifying in the least. My mind (which is also part of my soul) seeks knowledge and understanding, and part of that journey necessitates being able to critically evaluate my beliefs. I believe this is an important skill for anyone, and not a skill which I was taught during my formal education as you have noted. It is my experience that evaluating your beliefs critically allows you to discard the one's in which there is little evidence for, and believe more strongly in the ones that are true. As I've taught others, and certainly in my own life, exploration of so-called "evidences" that God does not exist have been wonderful in confirming that he does.

    I am not afraid of the truth, and I have found few followers of Christ who are. One who has a belief system in which they are afraid of finding out what is true is unworthy of belief.

    BTW, I have found no one here at LTI whose beliefs are "Steadfastly resistant to arguments of any kind". You will have to be more specific I suppose. I, however, have found that my colleagues here are resistant to arguments of the "poor and unconvincing" kind. Which, I would suppose, you would agree we all should be.

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  5. Tony, is that you? I could be wrong, but some of your stuff sounds kind of familar.

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  6. From what I understand by following Michael Hyatt's (Thomas Nelson CEO's) blog, small Christian bookstores have to make up for their inability to compete with the larger chains by selling the higher margin "junk" (my word). I would love to support CBD, but every time I need a book, I can always find it on Amazon cheaper.

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  7. Serge,

    I apologize for confusing you with the gambling metaphor. The point is actually quite simple. I suppose you accept something like the following two claims (but correct me if I’m wrong):

    (1) Eternal salvation depends upon one’s belief in the Gospel.

    (2) The study of challenging arguments may lead someone to change his/her beliefs.

    An instance of (2) is the study of arguments that, in one way or another, challenge a person’s belief in the Gospel. Do you accept that the study of such arguments can sometimes lead a person to lose his/her belief in the truth of the Gospel? If so, then the study of such arguments can lead to a person losing his/her salvation (see (1)). Now, if such a person was studying these arguments the sake of knowledge or understanding, then he/she can lose his/her salvation in the pursuit of knowledge or understanding.

    What can we now infer? Well, how about this: insofar as a person can lose his/her salvation in the pursuit of knowledge or understanding, it is possible for a person to risk his/her salvation for the sake of knowledge or understanding (and, in particular, for the sake of knowing or understanding the arguments that challenge, in one way or another, his/her belief in the Gospel).

    Can you follow this? (By the way, what did you study for those 12 years, if you don't mind?)

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  8. Anonymous,
    Consider an atheist who doesn’t have the 12 years of post-high school education already under his belt. Are you so sure that his attempt to understand the hardest challenges to atheism will leave his belief in that worldview intact? It is of course wonderful that some do maintain their original faith in atheism through a truly challenging education. Again, these people are an inspiration and can do great work. But for every one of these sturdy souls, there are many who fall by the wayside and become theists after leaving the radicalism of their youth behind. Even at the academic level, there are defections (Anthony Flew, for example). So although we can point to some folks (even some over at infidels.org) whose own beliefs are steadfastly resistant to argument of any kind, this doesn’t mean that every atheist will be like this.

    Here then is the question that it seems you must ask yourself. Do you think atheists should read “challenging” books? If so, are you taking heed to the welfare of him/her whom you advise? After all, if atheism turns out to be true, religious belief in the afterlife robs us of the only happiness we’ll ever experience—the happiness of here and now. On the other hand, if there is no god, I can have sex with whoever agrees to drop their pants, pile up as much money and pleasure as I can acquire, and ditch the bitchy wife if I can do it without losing my butt financially. (The only thing that might make those things “wrong” is if it decreases the happiness of other interested parties, but there’s no Hell to fear.) It seems denying ourselves these present joys in hopes of a future rewards is devastating if atheism turns out to be true.

    So, let me ask: Given you think atheism is more likely true than theism, and given the devastation religious belief hurls upon the individual’s present happiness—the only happiness he’ll ever get—are you willing to do whatever it takes to stop it, including banning the sale of religious books, or are you just trying to sound impressive? Do you truly care for those lost souls who forfeit their present joys for an allusive pot of eternal porridge?

    Richard Dawkins is willing to step up and suggest prosecuting parents who teach their kids religion. How about you?

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  9. "religious belief in the afterlife robs us of the only happiness we’ll ever experience—the happiness of here and now. On the other hand, if there is no god, I can have sex with whoever agrees to drop their pants..."

    Anon #2, Your views of religious belief are overly pessimistic, and your ideas about atheism are perverse. Thus, neither the religious person nor the atheist can take your premises seriously. Otherwise, your idea would be interesting. Don't let this discourage you.

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  10. Anon,
    My take on religion (assuming atheism is true) is perverse? I don't think so. Your own guys don't think so. You may want to try reading them before posting here. For example, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens explicitly say religion poisons everything. Thus, your beef isn't with me; it's with your people.

    Moreover, the news from Gallup surveys ought to concern you. Paul Copan writes that despite recent claims that the number of atheists has risen sharply, the evidence reveals something else: “what most people who say they have no religion mean is not that they are irreligious, but that they have no church.”

    He continues: "The percentage of atheists in America revealed by, say, Gallup polls and the Baylor Survey, shows a tenacious consistency over the years: 1944: 4%; 1947: 6%; 1964: 3%; 1994: 3%; 2005: 4%; 2007: 4%. I found it interesting that the majority of children born into an irreligious home end up joining a religious group—most often a conservative denomination."

    Ouch. Seems like you atheists better be careful about encouraging an open-minded investigation of competing views. Better make sure your disciples only read the guys named above, or, other proponents of the orthodoxy, as it were. Otherwise, there is concern their beliefs might change.

    In the end, your own words can be thrown back at you. If religion is as destructive as your guys say, then the risk of changed beliefs (atheism to theism) doesn't seem worthwhile. This is the cost, but also the reason, for maintaining your secular fundamentalism through purchasing only those books that atheists already agree with, and otherwise buying Darwin fish for your cars and copies of "Skeptical Inquirer" for your coffee tables.

    Thus, why not advise: Atheists should read challenging books but only those that challenge the beliefs of Christians (unless you wish to gamble on religion wrecking everything for the sake of the intellect).

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  11. Anon,
    You offer this to consider:

    (1) Eternal salvation depends upon one’s belief in the Gospel.

    (2) The study of challenging arguments may lead someone to change his/her beliefs.

    Then based on your supportive argument you say that if Serge encourages Christians to study for the sake of being prepared to answer challenges to their faith he unavoidably encourages them to risk their faith.

    You are absolutely right if by belief you mean the rational acceptance of the truth claims of the Gospel. But I do not know any Christians that would define belief in Christ in this manner. When Christians say that our faith is rational we are not saying it is merely rational or exclusively rational. We are saying our beliefs are rational among other things. Primarily any faith in God and Christ worth having is personal.

    Atheism made no claims over me as it is impersonal by nature. I chose to believe in atheism based on what I knew about this world. When God claimed to be my father, I checked Him out. My salvation was not through intellectual recognition of the historical, philosophical, and theological case for God and His existence. It was when I accepted the nature of our relationship that I became a Christian.

    Now suppose I have kind loving parents and someone comes along and tells me that they are not my family. And for the sake of this discussion let’s assume that this claim is false and that the people who identify themselves as my parents are in fact my parents. One can respond to this in several ways. I may immediately say, “I don’t care what you say they have been there with me and for me throughout my life. Further, I greatly resemble my father, so I am willing to rely on my experience in this relationship as testimony of its truth and not pursue this conversation further.”

    But I might also say, “Alright, I’ll look into it.” Maybe I resent my parents or maybe I love them and want to defend our relationship, but the point is I honestly investigate the claims of the skeptic. The skeptic is very intelligent and makes some great points that completely destroy some of my presuppositions. Do I immediately disown my parents? I certainly hope not and that our relationship has built a level of commitment that I am willing to pursue a full and rigorous understanding of the issues raised by the skeptic. Another point is that my investigation in no way threatens the truth of the relationship. I cannot find anything out that will make them not my parents and however I decide to respond to the information that I find they will always be my parents. Even if I should ultimately reject experiencing the relationship at any level they are forever my parents.

    That is how it works with God. I do not think that people in a relationship with God are shook from their faith by the introduction of challenging ideas as often as some people might like to believe. For one, a mere intellectual acknowledgement of Christianity is insufficient to be categorized as a saving faith. (See James 2:19) The “Christian” that believed Jesus was God and then takes a class with a college professor that winsomely says, “No Jesus is not God” and responds by proclaiming “My faith was a lie!” is not representative of the faith enjoyed by most believers I know. Most of them could tell you dozens of personal stories that testify to the relationship they enjoy with God. Alos, He is Lord of our lives and when we cease to acknowledge that He becomes no less Lord. We simply become disobedient and perhaps even rebeliious in rejecting communion and fellowship with God. How and to what extent true Christians will ultimaely be held responsible for rejecting this relationship is an issue of debate among believers.

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  12. Anonymous,
    You raise an interesting question, but I don't think it's quite the either/or option you propose--namely, that we either read challenging books and risk losing our faith or we stick only to what our own people write so we can save our faith. There are degrees of persuasion in-between.

    For instance, I read authors whose views I don't share on abortion. Sometimes these authors force me to refine my views and tighten my case, but in the end, I remain convinced that my overall case is a good one and better explains the evidence as we know it.

    I did the same thing with theology as a teen and then again, later, as an adult. I was raised Seventh-Day-Adventist and came to realize in high school that Adventists had it wrong on the doctrine of justification. Several speakers and authors convinced me of this. However, I did not throw faith out in general, but modified my existing beliefs to better fit reality as I knew it. Later, in my late 30s, I moved away from certain beliefs of charasmatic Christians and embraced more of a reformed view. Again, certain authors and speakers whose views I did not initially hold played a key role. But I did not throw out theism or Christianity because I read challenging authors. I simply refined my views.

    With atheistic writers, I've found it helpful to ask, "Do they make at least some good arguments against the case some Christians present for God's existence?" If so, I should stop using bad arguments and use good ones instead. That's what I mean by refining my views.

    But none of these authors has so far caused me to chuck my foundational belief in theism.

    I suspect that's true of other thinkers who don't share my theistic views. For example, more than one philosopher has said he cannot account for the emergence of non-material minds from purely physical processes. To cite one, John Searle writes that “the leading problem in the biological sciences is the problem of explaining how neurobiological processes cause conscious experience.”

    I suspect Searle is still not a theist, but his model was modified by objections raised by theists.

    Both theists and atheists must answer the same basic worldview questions: How did we get here? What is the nature of human beings? What happens at death? What is our duty?

    Given niether sided can claim certitude, we're left with inductive models--meaning both sides must make inferences to the best explanation. Hence, in debates over atheism/theism, the burden of proof will shift back and forth as each side first makes claims, then evaluates them in light of reasonable objections. The side that best explains the evidence carries the day.

    All this to say, your claim about reading challenging books doesn't seem to allow for any modification of one's existing view, only an outright rejection of it.

    That does not seem right to me.

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  13. Thanks for the feedback. Here's the three-step version of the argument I offered:

    (1) Eternal salvation depends on one’s belief in the Gospel.

    (2) The study of arguments that, in one way or another, challenge one’s belief in the Gospel may lead someone to change his/her belief in the Gospel.

    (3) Therefore, the study of arguments that, in one way or another, challenge one’s belief in the Gospel may lead one to lose his/her eternal salvation (from 1, 2).

    To avoid the conclusion (i.e., (3)), you have three options: reject the truth of (1); reject the truth of (2); or reject the validity of the argument. For this last option, you must accept that (3) can be false even if (1) and (2) are true.

    Jay Watts and Anon#2 both accept the conclusion, and they try instead to get comfortable with it. Anon#2 tries to get comfortable with the conclusion by (unconvincingly) arguing that atheists face a parallel problem. Jay Watts tries to get comfortable with the conclusion by limiting the force of (2). He maintains that there is a special way to “believe” in the Gospel such that one’s belief is immune to loss through study of challenging arguments. Serge’s testimony to the contrary, Jay Watts seems to be saying that his belief in the Gospel is in fact “resistant to arguments of any kind” since it is not based upon “rational acceptance” or “intellectual recognition.” Jay seems to be suggesting that he believes the Gospel due to some sort of psychological necessity. And, just as arguments won't have any effect on certain beliefs that a person holds psychotically, arguments can’t have any effect on Jay Watt’s belief in the Gospel.

    Alternatively, we might read Jay Watts as denying (2). The illustration Jay Watts gives suggests that he believes that there are in fact no arguments that are challenging to his belief in the Gospel (that all “challenges” amount to silly denials of some self-evident truth, or something like that).

    SK offers some tangential thoughts, but doesn’t actually challenge the argument I’ve offered. SK only points out that the study of challenging arguments sometimes doesn't lead one to reject one’s beliefs. But this is neither here nor there. The worry of (2), and the conclusion to which it leads, persists.

    Thus, the most hopeful option is Jay's, on my second interpretation of him. Likely the sentiment Jay expresses here is emboldened by the bravado of certain educated (but I would argue irresponsible) folks like Serge. I should mention that J.P. Moreland himself is much more cautious. I have personally heard him rebuke a church goer who expressed similar bravado in the comfort of a church. Moreland pointed out that such assertions of confidence (e.g., "there aren't any challenging arguments to the truth of the Gospel") would - at most - only attract laughter in the lecture halls of the USC philosophy department. I have heard Moreland warn a friend of mine against studying philosophy in any graduate school before first getting an MA in apologetics at Talbot/Biola. Moreland, it seems, is appropriately concerned about the challenging arguments that my friend would have encountered. I'm suggesting that Serge should have similar tact.

    If my argument stands, then challenges to one's faith in the Gospel ought to be approached by the believer with extreme caution, perhaps as a bomb squad might approach an explosive devise. Perhaps the devise is well-made or perhaps not. But let novices have a look only after such devices have been fully dismantled. Without accepting the qualification I suggest, Serge is sending the children over a minefield.

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  14. Let's review Anonyn's argument:

    (1) Eternal salvation depends on one’s belief in the Gospel.

    (2) The study of arguments that, in one way or another, challenge one’s belief in the Gospel may lead someone to change his/her belief in the Gospel.

    (3) Therefore, the study of arguments that, in one way or another, challenge one’s belief in the Gospel may lead one to lose his/her eternal salvation (from 1, 2).

    Anybody catch the weasel words and phrases? Here they are: "may" and "in one way or another" in P2 and P3. These terms are so vague as to render the argument suspect. The study of the exclusive nature of the gospel along with the unflexing demands of Christ may cause (and does cause) many to turn away in horror. Pastors will tell you that many people profess "faith" until they actually learn what Jesus said. Does that mean Christians should stop preaching the complete gospel, including the truth of our sinfulness and God's wrath against sinners? Jesus himself drove people away from belief, especially those who were self-rightouess. He called them sons of their father the devil. I think the gospel itself, far more than anything Dawkins or Hitchens writes, drives people from faith and weeds out those who think they have saving faith, but don't. Paul said the gospel offends. So, should pastors stop preaching it because the message of the cross will cause some to fall from their stated (but wasted) faith?

    There are theological problems with P1 and P2 as well. First, believers are not "saved" by mentally assenting to the right beliefs (the Devil believes the right theology) but by the finished work of Christ on their behalf. Their trust in that finished work comes only after they are made alive in Christ (Eph. 2). In other words, God makes the first move and regenerates the person who then trusts in the saving work of Christ. Simply believing theological truths absent the supernatural work of God is not sufficient for salvation. Thus, P1 does not accurately reflect Christian theology.

    P2 is also problematic in that it ignores a key biblical doctrine embraced by most protestants: the preserverance of the believer. True believers will not reject their faith because God keeps them.

    So, while Anonyn is correct that the study of challenging arguments may cause a non-beleiver who merely assents to certain gospel truths to later reject those same truths, a true believer, while certainly capable of struggling with questions he can't fully answer (like "why did God let cancer kill my wife?" or, "why did my kid blow his brains out?), will not ultimately jettison his faith. He can't because God keeps him.

    Thus, Anonyn begs the question: the conclusion to his case only works if he assumes true believers can lose their salvation, a position most protestants reject and one Anonyn must argue for.

    That is to say, his argument needs additional premises to fly and therefore is not deductively valid. It's also not sound, for the reasons cited above.

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  15. By the way Anonoyn (Tony?), I'll give you the last word. But you did miss one thing. I did not accept the conclusion of your argument the way you think I did--that is, using your definitions of believer, etc; I simply used your language and changed the terms "christian" to "atheist" to show that the same thing could be said about atheists. Thus, your argument isn't really saying much, and certainly does nothing to prove theism is false.

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  16. Anon#2, you are rejecting some fairly plausible premises on the basis of something that's far more dubious. That is, you reject either the claim that salvation depends upon one's faith in the gospel, or that a believer can lose his/her faith in the gospel. This sort of move is called "biting the bullet."

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  17. Anon,

    To say that faith is not merely rational is not to degenerate belief to an impenetrable psychotic condition but to recognize that a relationship with a real God is beyond the cute and evasive intellectual games that those who wish to avoid Him play. It is rational and ALSO a relationship. If I misunderstood a rational component of my relationship to God or factual information about His creation my belief in Him and saving faith is not lost as I discover new truths because it is not merely intellectual recognition of truths that saved me. God is an active agent in the relationship.

    Here is an exercise for you to try on future comments. You say, “Hi, my name is _____ . Here is what I believe and why.” Then we will respond as if we were talking to an adult. If it becomes clear that we just disagree then we can do so and move on as grownups often do.

    Or you can feign some deep concern for the people of faith who are being risked unnecessarily by wicked and dangerously bold men like Serge and dance around declaring your views or your purpose all the while never giving an identity and be ignored.

    I honestly do not care either way but remember that your comments are posted as a courtesy and not out of necessity. You keep insulting Scott and Serge who have tried to honestly engage someone who apparently is not seeking honest and open engagement and we can just cease to publish your comments.

    God bless,
    Jay

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  18. Anoyn (Tony?),
    Seriously, is that the best you can do? I show that the premises of your argument are unsound and that your argument is question-begging.

    And you reply that I'm biting the bullet?

    Come back when you are serious. To quote Jim Rome, I'm out.

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