Friday, August 17, 2012

Comes Down to a Man: Part 3 of "Why Worldview?" [Jay Watts]

Comes down to a man dying on a cross saving the world; Rising from the dead, doing what He said He would do.” Clay Cross – Saving the World

The first two posts - Why Worldview? and Challenge is Unavoidable – are here and here. Now we move on to arguing part two of my general thesis. Christians ought to study worldview because our faith is rationally defensible.

Our house has massive bookshelves full of beautiful books (as well as Kindles with a growing library) many of which address the Christian worldview in some form or another and all focusing on different important components of our belief. Even the books casting a broader net establish a different launching point and every author has good reasons for why they picked their beginning subject. So where do we begin?

I made the decision to personalize the issue. When I abandoned atheism it was not for Christianity but for agnosticism. I didn't begin to believe in anything in particular but decided that some supernatural aspect of the universe was worth - at minimum - considering based on the broad testimony of supernatural events throughout human history. I probably assumed my agnosticism would be permanent, but it is hard to remember the details of those beliefs now and would hate to project convenient ideas back into the past. After a brief and unsatisfying flirtation with eastern philosophies I turned my attention to established religions and how they began. And as the quote from the Clay Cross song above so ably conveys, it comes down to a man.

The origins of religions pretty much come down to the testimony of people in history, and that is exactly what the first question is.  It is a question of history. Something happened in the past and we are going to try to determine to the best of our ability what that something was. It is difficult to do, but the people that say things like “history is impossible to know” or “history can't be trusted because it is written by the winners” are applying an unworkable and corrosive skepticism that will eventually eat up almost everything that we accept as human knowledge of the past for the sake of avoiding a moments reflection on subjects they would rather avoid. Certainly our personal biases effect how we understand history and how we assess the evidence but as Mike Licona points out in The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach:

Historians cannot obtain absolute certainty for many of the reasons that absolute certainty always eludes us in most areas. The wise person is rarely hindered by her inability to possess absolute certainty; instead she acts on probabilities. This is the way we live our lives, and we have found that this principle appears to work rather well in leading us to correct assessments. Thus when historians claim that something occurred, they are saying, “Given the available data, the best explanation indicates that we are warranted in having a reasonable degree of certainty that x occurred and that it appears more certain at the moment than competing hypothesis.”

With that in mind, let's look at some of the events in history that were foundational to competing religious claims.

Sidhartha Guatama [403-483 BCE] - a wealthy young man - becomes consumed with suffering and need for meaning. He leaves his wife – Yasodhara – on the night of the birth of their son, whom he names Rahula (shackles or fetters) and wanders for six years pursuing ascetic Brahmanism. Through intense self sacrifice he almost starves himself to death. Then sitting under a Bo tree in deep and prolonged meditation he became “awake.”

Mohammed [570 – 632 CE] took sojourns into the mountains because of his depression at the idolatrous and wicked ways of Mecca. At about the age of 40 in a cave on Mt. Hira he met whom he believed to be an angel who told him he was “the messenger of God.” His first convert was his loyal and devoted wife Khadeja.

Joseph Smith [1805 – 1844] at 15 in 1820 had his first vision in the woods after growing weary of the denominational arguments that accompanied a revival in Manchester, New York. God and Christ encouraged him that all the Christian denominations were wrong and he would establish the one true faith. He was later given the location of the gold plates of Mormon by the angel Moroni (Mormon's son). Nineteen people claim to have seen the book, eight of them declaring by affidavit to have touched the book. The book was written in a language called reformed Egyptian and could only be read with special glasses provided by the angel to Joseph Smith. The book told of a story of a lost tribe of Israel that came to America and who was later visited by the resurrected Christ. When the original translation was lost because the wife of one of Smith's early followers destroyed it out of anger at her husband, Joseph Smith recreated it through the use of seeing stones and a hat and published The Book of Mormon in 1830.

Jesus of Nazareth - after reportedly predicting his death and promising to deliver a sign of his authentic nature as the only begotten Son of God - was crucified by the Romans at the request of the Temple Priests. Days later his tomb is found empty and his followers – more than 500 of them - claim to see him alive in a resurrected body. This event confirms the truth of Jesus' claims for his followers and begins the gospel accounts of Jesus' ability to forgive sins and secure eternal salvation and a future resurrection for all who believe.

[For reasons I don't care to fully go into at this point I choose not to enter into a discussion about Moses as the central historical figure of Judaism, the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt, and the receiving of the 10 Commandments. Mostly because so many different faith traditions accept the story of Moses.]

There ought to be something immediately obvious to us all. One of these events is not like the others. The foundational events of the Muslim, Mormon, and Buddhist belief systems are different than the foundational event of Christianity. The former three hinge on the personal enlightenment and vision of an individual while the latter focuses on a public event that according to Paul in chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians can be testified to by more than 500 people. This proves little, but it does change how we approach the stories and what we can hope to know from our vantage point.

I looked at all of these testimonies and asked a few questions about them. It isn't productive to presume dishonesty in any of them at the outset as that would only lead me back to the Humean skepticism that previously dominated my life. So lets say for the sake of argument we grant that Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, and Joseph Smith all absolutely believed what they claimed. Are there plausible explanations for the events in question other than deception?

It seemed obvious to me that people spending a lot of time alone in emotional upheaval in possibly harsh elements or conditions (caves, starving under a tree, wandering in the woods of New York) could easily have had visions that are explainable in ways beyond assuming that it was actual supernatural intervention or divine enlightenment. The golden manuscript introduces a new element since others claimed to have seen it, so we are now forced to ask the unpleasant question. Is it reasonable to believe that Joseph Smith intentionally manufactured a “golden book” of some sort to strengthen his story? Is it possible that he deceived people? Is it more probable that he did so than it is that an angel gave him a book that only he could read? Unfortunately his past behavior opens him up to reasonable questions concerning his willingness and ability to deceive people on issues of supernatural knowledge.

But what about the resurrection of Jesus? How do we assess it? It isn't like the other claims. The skeptic may plead that Jesus wandered in the wilderness starving for 40 days where he claims he was tempted by the devil and came to understand who he was. How is that different from the other guys? Here we must be clear that the foundational event of Christianity is the resurrection. It is not the virgin birth or the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Paul writes about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 as the central event of our faith without which we are fools to be pitied. However charismatic and earnest Jesus may have seemed, he did not convince his followers of his identity based on the testimony of his temptation or the circumstances of his conception. They testified in their own words in historically accepted documents that they rallied around and preached the resurrection event to the world as the confirmation that God's grace was delivered through the only begotten Son of the Father, Jesus of Nazareth.

Christianity begins at the resurrection and so does our recognition of the rational foundation of our faith. We can counter the argument that all religious claims are the same at the very first consideration of our beliefs. The reported resurrection of Jesus offers us the opportunity to examine the central event of the Christian faith in a manner not open to other foundational events. Because of this difference, scholars like William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, Mike Licona, and N.T. Wright (among others) have been able to contribute to a tradition of resurrection literature that challenges the competing hypotheses through investigating broadly accepted historical facts as opposed to defending the personal enlightenment of a historical figure in their most private moments.

A brief examination - or as brief as I am capable - of some of those historical resurrection arguments will be the subject of the next post.

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