Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The logic of Christian belief


I was cruising the spiritual Web tonight and found the following on a "Q & A" page about the Bible as the Word of God:

Question 4: Are Christians guilty of circular reasoning?

A: A charge that is frequently leveled against the Bible is that Christians argue in circles. The charge goes that Christians claim the Bible as the inspired Word of God and as proof, quote a passage from the Bible that says so. This type of argumentation is known as begging the question, or circular reasoning. It is based on assuming something to be true, using that assumption as fact to prove another assumption and using the "proved" assumption to prove your original assumption!

Some Christians (and many non-Christians) do argue in circles, but about the Bible they certainly don't need to.

Instead of assuming the Bible is the Word of God, we can begin by demonstrating that the Scriptures are reliable and trustworthy historical documents. This is confirmed by applying the ordinary test of historical criticism to the Scriptures. After establishing that the Bible is a valid historical record, the next point is realizing that Jesus Christ claims to be the unique Son of God and that He bases this claim on His forthcoming resurrection from the dead.

Next, we examine the evidence for the resurrection contained in this historic document and find that the arguments overwhelmingly support the contention that Christ has risen from the dead. If this is true, then He is the unique Son of God as He claimed to be. If He is indeed God, then He speaks with authority on all matters.

Since Jesus considered the Old Testament to be the Word of God (Matthew 15:1-4, 5:17, 18) and promised His disciples, who either wrote or had control over the writing of the New Testament books, that the Holy Spirit would bring all things back to their remembrance (John 14:26), therefore we can insist, with sound and accurate logic, that the Bible is God's Word. This is not circular reasoning. It is establishing certain facts and basing conclusions on the sound, logical outcome of these facts. The case for Christianity can be established by ordinary means of historical investigation.

(From Answers to Tough Questions About the Bible)


It's curious to me that a logical defense of Christian belief would be so illogical. The way I read it, the author above seems to argue that the Bible is a trustworthy source of information because it holds up to historical scrutiny. What kind of historical scrutiny? Well, all the author can say is, "Instead of assuming the Bible is the Word of God, we can begin by demonstrating that the Scriptures are reliable and trustworthy historical documents. This is confirmed by applying the ordinary test of historical criticism to the Scriptures. " Elsewhere on the same website, the author references "one liberal scholar" named John A. T. Robinson and we are told, "The evidence points out that the documents were not written long after the events, but within close proximity to them, and people wrote them during the period when many eyewitnesses or people acquainted with the facts were still living. The inescapable conclusion is that the New Testament picture of Christ can be trusted."

I am not sure how "inescapable" this conclusion really is. If one were talking about any other document—a New York Times news article or a biography of Thomas Jefferson—then it would be reasonable to assess the factual basis of that document by comparing it with other works on the same topic. For example, if the news article contained factual statements that were not present in or contradicted by other news articles on the same topic, one would question the veracity of those statements and seek to independently verify the statements with reference to other reports. However, the authors of the Q & A at www.needhim.org make no attempt to assess the veracity of the Biblical accounts by comparing them to contemporary sources (e.g. the writings of the first century writer Josephus, who wrote about the First Jewish War). Instead, the authors seem to look only to compare the factual statements in the New Testament with one another: "It is important to remember that two statements may differ from each other without being contradictory. Some fail to make a distinction between contradiction and difference."

I respect the fact that Christianity and belief in the message of Jesus have been very helpful and inspirational to many people. However, speaking only for myself, I have always struggled with any belief system—including the Jewish faith of my upbringing—that depends so much on premises which cannot be independently verified or subjected to rigorous analysis. Honestly, one of the things that caused me to turn to Buddhist practice as a way of expressing my spiritual self was the Buddha's famous instruction about belief:

“Believe nothing because a wise man said it.
Believe nothing because it is generally held.
Believe nothing because it is written.
Believe nothing because it is said to be divine.
Believe nothing because someone else believes it.
But believe only what you yourself judge to be true."

(Kalama Sutra, AN 3.65)

Teachers of Buddhist thought going all the way back to Gothama Siddartha himself encourage their students to think critically about ideas and to subject their assumptions to rigorous analysis. Attachment to one's closely-held beliefs without such questioning is discouraged in Buddhist practice, whereas I think many systems of belief (including most forms of Christianity) encourage practitioners to take a "leap of faith."

Perhaps I am overreacting and taking the whole www.needhim.org thing too seriously.

I don't know.

With metta,

D.S.

4 comments:

david Diskin said...

Hi ,

Found your blog from one of your comments on the Buddhist blog.

This post is interesting, beliefs are very limiting. A great teacher once told me, remember the Buddha never said the word "Buddhism" , he only spoke about reality.

Religions are just socio-groups, but each can promote and enable love, peace these kinds of things.

So I think it's just important to keep on a positive quest for the nature of reality. As Jesus said ,my favorite Jew, (I'm jewish by heritage as well) " judge not" he also said "fear not".

These are 2 of the purest and most powerful words of the dharma you will ever hear.

one love,

david

Dharmasattva said...

David,

Thank you for your note. Yes, I have given thought to my post and perhaps there is little too much shenpa in what I said. I try to keep an open mind and heart but sometimes the constant assault of negative vibes gets to me.

Keep reading :-)

With metta,

D.S.

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