A Rationalist Approaches Christianity

I am privately linking from here (below) a new essay about Christian religious epistemology, 20,700 words (if you can believe that). Here is the first paragraph:

The purpose of this discussion is to determine whether I should—whether it is rationally justified to—conduct a systematic study of natural and revealed religion, in order to decide whether I can in good conscience declare myself to be a Christian.

The question I examine is not whether Christian belief is (or can be made) rational. That is a very big question. Instead, I examine something more preliminary: Whether a person in my present position could explore Christian belief rationally despite some admitted biases, whether on various bases a peremptory judgment may be made against Christianity, what a rational procedure of exploring it might look like, whether such a procedure is consistent with my long-standing methodological skepticism, and finally, if so, whether I should in fact give up that skepticism. Inter alia I do explore what underlay and initially kindled my recent interest, and later also I share what specific (mostly philosophical) lines of thinking I have explored that gave me hope that a rational Christian belief might be possible.

The essay is here (210K, password protected); I have given some people the password. If you don’t have the password but want access, send me an email at larry (at) sanger (dot) io.

I will probably post a later version of the essay here on this blog after I get feedback.

Please add your comments on the essay here, below!






Please do dive in (politely). I want your reactions!

43 responses to “A Rationalist Approaches Christianity”

  1. Many of the things you expressed are personally familiar. 32 years ago I went through a time of doubts and questions. I was ready to walked away from everything I believed. I learned quickly that if I had questions it would not be long before the answers sought after would be found.

    Hebrews 11:1 Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

    Larry, you are wise to look at faith through epistemology. Faith has to do with substance and evidence. It isn’t an airy fairy feeling. God wants us to seek Him and He wants us to find Him because He isn’t far from us. (Acts 17:27). Thank for sharing with us as you search. I love seeing God move hearts and minds. I love how He is using your search to remind me to be thankful of how He gently teaches.

    Part 2 starting on page 48 of your essay feels very familiar! “Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview” by Mooreland and Craig, ”Christian Theology” by Millard Erikson who quotes Wayne Grudem became a jumping off point for me. Discovering answers that could be pondered or known was of great benefit in putting this Humpty Dumpty back together. Also reading Dallas Willard, Os Guinness, and Francis Schaeffer helped as it gave me an overview of problems within the Church, such as teaching what to believe without teaching why it is believable or not connecting doctrine back to the Nature and Attributes of God. These authors were able to help me understand where the holes of doubt in my faith started.

    Once God was firmly fixed as being there I started looking at what else I could know to determine whether or not Christianity/Bible should still be embraced. Did I really need a Redeemer or could I live a righteous life without Him? I investigated Christianity by dividing my questions into three segments; observing the world around me, looking critically at who I was, and what does the Bible say. Then I would ask, “Does the Bible speak the truth about the other two segments?” I understand on a personal level how important it was for you to ask your questions making sure you guarded yourself against any bias you might be tempted toward.

    Example: Roman 7:19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. And verse 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. It is the truth of who mankind is. We are fallen. I am fallen. I haven’t found another belief system that describes mankind as having this constant inner/outer struggle other than Judaism. It is the equivalent of Ex 20:17 You shall not covet… These are my struggles and the struggles of everyone I know. Even if we do not commit the sin our struggle is still there. How do we end the struggle? What I needed to end my struggle was found in Jesus our Redeemer. His sacrificial love moves me toward obedience. When I return His love I want to be kind like He is kind and I want to love and forgive like He does. When He said “I am the Way the Truth and the Life.” I knew He was speaking the Truth. What other religion authored a reason to love? What other religion ends mankind’s struggle.

    1. Nanc, thanks very much for the book recommendations. Looks like good stuff.

      When I taught philosophy of religion, and consulted with people who had taught the course before, I don’t remember anybody suggesting that I look into books like this. I don’t suppose they would have done much good back then anyway. The problem for me never has been stubborn disbelief of the specifics of Christian theology but instead an absolute commitment to methodological skepticism, which makes all unbelief possible.

  2. I went through the pages quickly on my little glowing rectangle. I did not expect the journey through your mind that you took me on. Twenty thousand words: That’s nearly half a novel! It will take time for me to think, re-read, and comment.

    I have enough to begin my discussion in response to your question, though. I have some related questions in return. Why set your sights on such a large project? Why not focus on the resurrection of Jesus first? Did he rise from the dead?

    As Paul wrote to the Corinthians (paraphrased in The Message), “If there’s no resurrection, there’s no living Christ. And face it—if there’s no resurrection for Christ, everything we’ve told you is smoke and mirrors, and everything you’ve staked your life on is smoke and mirrors. Not only that, but we would be guilty of telling a string of barefaced lies about God, all these affidavits we passed on to you verifying that God raised up Christ—sheer fabrications, if there’s no resurrection.”

    That’s where Lee Strobel started (The Case for Christ). Also Jay Warner Wallace (Cold-Case Christianity).

    It seems to me you could save yourself some time by settling that for yourself first. Start with history instead of tackling all of religion.

    1. Hey Tim my friend, I’m glad to see your reaction and your book recommendations, too.

      Why not focus on the resurrection first? I have been thinking about your question since you wrote this comment…11 days ago. That seems like a deeply important question. But if I am not quite sure that there even is such a thing as a soul—I gave some pretty good arguments a few days ago—so I am apt to continue to be quite skeptical about such matters. I know I haven’t mastered the full logical case (based in evidence) for the resurrection, but even if I had read your recommended books (I read one like it when I was in my 20s), there there are grounds to doubt any such case for any such dramatic conclusion simply because I can doubt the efficacy of my own reasoning, if nothing else. Besides, it is hard to take the argument seriously if I have not first satisfied that there have been some supernatural occurrences or other, and then some miracles or other.

  3. Charles

    I read your essay. My favorite excerpt is: “If there is one thing that a truthseeker must do, it is to be honest with himself.”

    This resonates (I think) with something I wrote in my journal not too long ago: “I can’t find God if I’m hiding from the painful truths about me.” John 3:20-21: “For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”

    1. Thanks!

      I have struggled with my own minor weaknesses and vices over the years. Lately it seems I might be getting a grip on them.

  4. I just finished reading this. I’ll reread and post smaller comments in an effort to provide requested feedback. But I wanted to get some initial thoughts down first.

    My perspective is not one of philosophy. I took a few courses here and there in college, but it is not my expertise. And I’m also what I consider a born again Christian (after living most of my life as an atheist). And worse, I’m a young earth creationist. Full disclosure. I’m also what I consider to be a rational person, well versed and educated in the sciences. I know you don’t know me from Adam, but for what my own words are worth: I’m not some uneducated science denying yokel.

    First, I would simply (and respectfully) caution you to be precise about what you know of the physical world and how you know it. Scientific theories are rarely unchallenged and it’s often only in the benefit of hindsight, sometimes even centuries, that we reach a true scientific consensus.

    I would also suggest that you consider the existence of Satan and evil more thoroughly as you examine these questions. You can likely arrive at some insight by assuming a hypothesis (eg God is real and Jesus is God) to see what sorts of conclusions you could arrive at if said hypothesis is true. But, for the sake of completeness, you should pose a similar hypothesis for Satan and evil.

    Initial thoughts: It was a good read and came across as honest and earnest. Based on my point of view, I have objections to some things (such as God’s purpose for earth) which I will address in separate posts to keep them organized for you.

    And for the obligatory Christian response: praise God! I am so happy to you are seriously considering this. The bible says that all of heaven rejoices when one person comes to Christ. I pray that the Holy Spirit keeps guiding you on this journey.

    1. Kevin, I really appreciate all your thoughtful comments. I confess I don’t know how a scientifically-trained person reconciles what he has learned (e.g., about geology, carbon dating and archaeology, paleontology, astronomy, etc.) with young Earth creationism. It seems you’d also have to be a conspiracy theorist to think we were systematically deceived about all that stuff, because, at least I thought, the evidence for basic assumptions in those fields that are contrary to young-earth creationism is abundant and hard to gainsay.

      If I’m going to believe in the Bible, then of course I’m going to have to believe in Satan and demons. Evil, that I already very much believe exists: see this.

      I agree with your methodological suggestion, i.e., that I assume the truth of some hypothesis and then infer some predictions from it in order to see how well it fits with the data.

  5. 1. Why I began reconsidering Christianity

    I just have a comment, in case you want to ponder it. Society at large, but especially in the west, denigrates Christians by far more than any other religious group. If, just for sake of argument, that the bible is true and Jesus is God, one could predict without any other knowledge that the world and society at large would hate Christians and the bible, the same text that declares Jesus would crush the institutions (and leaders) of evil.

    Of course, this doesn’t (by itself) mean that Jesus is God.

    1. Certainly, the prescient prophesies about the poor reception of God’s law (in the OT) and of hostility to Christians (after the NT) were on target.

      Yes, I’ve been noticing that Christians are greatly persecuted throughout the world, and increasingly so in the West, and this shows every sign of getting worse, and possibly much worse. If Christians simply continue being Christian, and Western society takes another step or two toward total secular libertine nihilism, those secularists will find Christianity as shocking and evil as Nazism. The irony is that Christians stand for brotherly love, humility, and meekness.

  6. (7) Reading the Bible.

    I don’t think this can be understated. The bible has been studied for thousands of years and many people have devoted their entire lives to it. As westerners (or Greek minds), much of the Old Testament meaning can easily slip by as we read the text. I believe there is absolutely nothing wrong with reading the bible. Don’t get me wrong. But using a competent study guide unveils insights that would otherwise be lost.

    One example is the flood of Noah. Noah is described as being ‘perfect in his generations’ while the rest of the world described as having ‘all flesh corrupted’. The hebrew word used to describe Noah is “tamiym” (Strong’s #8549) and does not mean sinless. This word means “without blemish” and is used for physical blemishes. It is the same word used to describe temple offerings. Rabbi’s were said to inspect every hair on a lamb to make sure it was “tamiym”. The bible states clearly that Noah was “genetically pure” and goes on to say that the rest (or most) of the world was not.

    Genesis chapter 6, properly understood, describes fallen angels coming down to earth and mating with human women to produce the “mighty men” or Nephilim. There are many tribes in the Old Testament that have these same genes, for example the Rephaim. Goliath and Og, king of Bashan are two famous examples of these bizarre creatures.

    This is important because it puts context on God’s instructions to “wipe out every man, woman, and child” of certain specific tribes. It also is important for current events. When you read through the text and do a little homework, you find that the three regions in Israel STILL in dispute to this day are the exact same regions occupied by the three tribes that the Israelites failed to wipe out per God’s instructions.

    We can talk for hours about this vast topic, but let me just say that the jews and early Christians believed this interpretation of Genesis chapter 6 until fairly recently. It fell out of favor for probably obvious reasons… I mean, it’s bizarre and many aren’t comfortable with it. Nonetheless, the basic thinking goes that the first prophecy for the coming messiah occurs in the Garden of Eden when God declares war on the seed of the serpent and says that the seed of the woman (biologically impossible, prophecy of virgin birth) would crush his head. Satan then went to work corrupting the human genome to prevent the messiah from being born.

    I don’t want to dwell on this because this is just one of many examples throughout the bible that can easily be lost by a simple reading of the surface text. The book of Ruth and the concept of the kinsman redeemer is another example. Psalm 22, written in advance about Jesus on the cross, saying “I am but a worm”, referring to the scarlet dye used in Israel, is another rich and complex study. The english TRANSLATION of names (rather than transliteration like we’re used to) of the genealogy from Adam to Noah. The numbers of the camp of Israel as they wandered the desert. Even the 4 Gospels being representative of the 4 main ensigns of the 12 tribes and the four faces of the Cherubim (man, ox, eagle, and lion) describing the 4 roles of Christ. These are all things that are more obvious to a hebrew mind than our greek minds.

    All this to say, the bible is incredibly complex and the more you research it and read the competent researchers, the more you will be intellectually satisfied.

    1. I’ll go farther than you regarding plain reading vs. reading with a study Bible: you will absolutely fail to understand the Bible if you don’t make heavy use a study Bible, or some similar in-depth tool. The more you use such resources, the better you will understand it.

      I read Matthew to my boys a year or two ago just because we have been reading from the Bible every Sunday as part of their homeschool education. But then I read it again, just in the last few days, and wow—while I understood a fair bit of this relatively easy-to-understand text the first time around, there is so much I missed because I didn’t use a study Bible or commentary. Possibly I missed more than half of what Matthew himself would have expected me to get out of it.

      “the three regions in Israel STILL in dispute to this day are the exact same regions occupied by the three tribes that the Israelites failed to wipe out per God’s instructions.”

      I’ve noticed that. Philistia = Gaza strip, Bashan = Golan Heights, corrupt Israel/Samaria northern half of the West Bank. (Of course, we do not say that Muslims are the inheritors of the pagan religion of the ancient Canaanites.)

      Ancient writers in general, but maybe especially Bible writers in particular, did not offer many introductory or context-setting remarks. They expect you to understand the context. If you don’t, you just won’t understand, period. You are doomed to get a distorted picture of what the Bible says. You cannot possibly understand.

  7. (8) Reconsidering the arguments.

    It’s great that the fine tuning argument is working for many people. Randomness, by many definitions, is the lack of any evidence of design. There are many mathematical tests for randomness that all have to do with testing for the existence of patterns, periodicities, etc. I find it very interesting that SETI scientists use this very concept to search for intelligent life, by trying to locate radio patterns amidst the white noise, but ignore it everywhere else where it doesn’t fit their bias. To be sure, most scientists have no problem with the concept of intelligent design, just as long as the designer was some advanced alien race.

    Their real problem, in most of the cases I’ve witnessed it, is specifically with the Christian concept of God.

    1. Well, a lot of New Age and Eastern religion types have no problem with gods, generally speaking. But there are plenty of atheists who are happy to heap contempt on all gods.

      Every type of teleological argument strikes the secular scientific/rationalistic mind as ridiculous. The natural world has no mysterious complexity or “coincidence” in it; everything can be explained, eventually. I am inclined to agree that everything (except existence of the universe in the first place, fundamental laws by definition, universal constants, and actual miracles) can be explained scientifically, eventually. It’s just that the “cosmos” or good order, the very lack of randomness in many aspects of the universe (not just life), itself can be taken to suggest a designing mind.

      For centuries natural philosophers (later to be called scientists) understood themselves to be exploring the mind of God.

      1. Caveat: I happily admit my bias as a young earther.

        Modern society is plagued, in my view, by the concept of evolution: that we are somehow better or smarter than our ancestors. This is exactly opposite of what the bible teaches, that is that we creation itself is corrupted. We are winding down, getting worse with time (I believe genetically as well, see human gene mutation rates)

        I try to keep this in mind when thinking about the great minds throughout our history, especially Newton. I regard Romans 1:25 as an apt prophesy for the modern age.

  8. (9) Talking to God.

    1 Corinthians 3:18 King James Version (KJV)
    Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise.

    I don’t think talking to God is foolish. I’ve heard psychologists say something akin to “if you want to know what someone thinks, don’t listen to what they say but observe how they act”. I think this is true.

    1. Yes, so now I’m just being honest with myself and announcing my habit to the world.

  9. 2. The bare possibility of Christianity

    For me (again, not a philosopher), the possibility came when I rejected my assumptions that I could not stand firm on. It seems to me that your underlying assumption is that we are beings with minds capable of rationalizing truths. That may or may not be true. But from a scientific perspective, you can postulate that the bible is true, in which case we are flawed, imperfect, fallen, easily deceived, etc. Ultimately, this is why I believe revealed religions are preferred by many. It seems paradoxical to me that people who believe there is some fundamental flaw with man could follow any other kind of religion.

    This obviously doesn’t necessarily make any revealed religion true. It just presents the problem of putting trust in anything from man.

    1. I don’t quite follow most of this.

      1. To clarify, I agree that we are indeed capable of rational thought. But, we are also flawed in many ways.

        Broadly speaking (correct me if I’m wrong), there are two types of religion. Revelation based (God Himself revealed) and natural theology. It’s precisely because we are flawed and imperfect beings, in my view, that people are attracted to revelation based religions. That is, it’s much preferred by many to have God reveal Himself to us than to have us try to divine (no pun) Him.

        For me, I ultimately had no issue with accepting that I am deeply flawed. I had plenty of issues with accepting any religion based on what someone else swears is true. This led me to look at the revealed religions of the world. Any religion based on one man claiming God revealed Himself to him was suspect. But ancient Judaism was quite different. I could not rationalize how one person could trick potentially millions of Israelites into believing that God performed miracles (like the parting of the red sea) and for the miracles to have never occurred. In contrast, one man (Mohammed, for example) claiming that God appeared to him… well, that was quite easy for me to understand.

        Back to the original comment, our own rationale might very well be flawed. And I think this basic realization is why so many people prefer revelation based religions to natural philosophy. That’s not to say that one cannot rationalize their way into Christianity. But, surely there is a sort of paradox in attempting to rationalize one’s way into believing that we cannot fully trust ourselves.

        Nonetheless, I think I rationalized myself into my beliefs, so this is not a criticism by any means, more of a testimony for a shared journey.

        1. Well, first let me get this out of the way: “rationalize” can mean “explain rationally,” but it is most usually used to mean “provide a bogus covering explanation that imitates rationality, for beliefs that really are held for irrational reasons.” I guess the stereotypical example is what a neurotic hand-washer says when you ask her why she is washing her hands.

          When I say I worry that I am rationalizing, I mean the latter sense. I have no doubt that it is possible for people to rationalize themselves into pretty much any religion.

          The question is whether I can justify any nascent Christian beliefs without merely rationalizing. In other words, can I remain fair-minded?

          It is not hard to come up with alternative naturalistic explanations for Bible stories. So, there was a Canaanite tribe that came to dominate Canaan in the late 2nd century B.C. Around the campfire, their elders passed on stories of their escape from Egypt that grew in each retelling. The great liberator was Moses, so he did the most miracles. But the “ten plagues” were actually maybe just one plague, that especially killed a lot of babies, and some livestock too, and a locust storm that happened at the same time. The historical Moses said God was punishing Pharaoh. Pharaoh didn’t actually let the people go. The people escaped in the middle of the plague and, while the Israelites made it across the Sea of Reeds (a marsh), the Egyptians got stuck, or maybe they just gave up because their army was too sick and they didn’t want to go on.

          So (goes the story), Moses went atop Mount Sinai and received the Law. In fact, Moses was just the leader of a group of wanderers who eventually settled in Canaan. Maybe, in historical fact, Moses or someone in the tribe claimed their God had promised them this land. But the law was just a tradition that grew out of priestly discourses. Eventually—but long after any historical Moses lived—someone (or several priests) wrote it all down. Around the time of Ezra (after the return from the Babylonian exile), later scribes, copying it, didn’t actually know who wrote it, but they assumed it was Moses who wrote it, so that is what they told people.

          (I’m making up this entire alternative history. But if you don’t believe in miracles, something like this seems pretty likely.)

          So. The question is, isn’t this possible?

  10. 3. The crowded spiritual ontology of Christianity

    1/ Perhaps we are biased, fundamentally. If Christianity is true, then we were made in the image of God. We are a well built machine missing the crucial engine. And we long for Him. Perhaps this notion of bias is wholly inapplicable here. Would it be rational to assume something that leads to a conclusion that disagrees with an original assumption? Wouldn’t it be like starting with x=1 and arriving with x=0?

    2/ I do not agree that consideration of the soul is a necessary requirement for proceeding while an absolute disproving of the soul might be a good reason to stop.

    It might be true that the universe (as we know it and not know it) is hyperdimensional, beyond the 4 dimensions that our 4 dimensional bodies can perceive. Many physicists and mathematicians are proposing this and some science seems to confirm it. But they have arrived here through inference, very sophisticated experimentation, and relying heavily on work of the previous century. All this to say, evidence for a soul very well could exist but be out of our reach at this time, much like evidence for subatomic particles was out of the reach of science for centuries.

    3/ A minor point, but my understanding of Christianity is that we are separated from God because He is holy and just. God pouring out His holy and justified wrath onto a willing recipient satisfies His perfect justice. Jesus knew what the fine was and He agreed to pay it. This allows God to have a relationship with us under His own law. Jesus’s final words on the cross, translated “thus it is finished” was a Greek word “tetelestai” which meant “paid in full”. It was a commerce term that was stamped on receipts. As an aside, the earth darkened for a few minutes at that time (as God the Father poured out His wrath on Jesus, the only time the Father will ever be in separation from the Son) which was recorded separately all over the known world and it could not have been an eclipse because it was Passover (full moon).

    4/ Rather than tackling all the various doctrines of Christianity, which could take many lifetimes, let me respectfully suggest a different approach: establish the integrity of the bible. If one can authenticate when the various books were recorded and prove that they have not been altered, changed, or forged since then (in itself a miracle, but beside the point), then one can seriously consider whether or not prophecy in the bible is valid. It helps to understand that the standard in ancient Israel for prophets was perfection. That is, false prophets were put to death by stoning. If it can be proven that the bible was authored by a being outside of time, then one can move on confidently with the text. (Well, to a point. The option that it is full of lies would still be on the table if the nature of God was evil, in which point He is not a God worthy of worship. For completeness, I suppose the option that we’re living inside an elaborate simulation would still be on the table as well.)

    5/ The sheer fact that God gave us written scriptures (if that be the case) strongly indicates that God expects us to be, at the very least, literate. He obviously does not intend for us to leave our brains at the church door.

    Proverbs 25:2-3 King James Version (KJV)
    It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honour of kings is to search out a matter.
    The heaven for height, and the earth for depth, and the heart of kings is unsearchable.

    1. As a philosopher, I have a hard time believing any claims that depend on concepts that seem fundamentally unexplained or incoherent. Such has been my attitude toward “God” and “soul.” The problem here is not only one of scientific evidence but also of analysis, meaning, or explication.

      There is supposed to be no hidden aspect of Christian doctrine. There is no “esoteric Christianity.” But are there mysteries that no human being has access to? If Christianity is true, then definitely.

      1. I think i can commiserate. I’m always highly skeptical of unverified claims (unverifiable claims, not as much).

        Ancient philosophers (you probably know far more about this than I do) understood the paradox of there being a just and loving God. A just God could not forgive sin. And a loving God could not punish sin. It (apparently) did not occur to them that God Himself could take the punishment (pay the fine, if you will) in order to satisfy perfect justice and perfect love. I don’t think this means that they were incapable of coming up with the concept, however. They just… didn’t think of it I guess.

        But to your point, I guess it ultimately depends on what you mean by Christian doctrine. There are plenty of aspects, I believe, about the seen and unseen world that we don’t have access to in this life. There are lots of concepts within Christianity that Christians debate all the time. But I don’t think we look at any of it as being necessary for salvation (well, some caveats I suppose). To me, it’s more of an earnest exploration to learn more about God. And I would say that all of us can agree that every mystery will one day be revealed to us.

    2. There’s a lot to respond here, and I’m not sure I have time to get to it all now, but I did want to comment on this:

      “God pouring out His holy and justified wrath onto a willing recipient satisfies His perfect justice.”

      This is something I (and a lot of people) just don’t understand. In fact, I have two questions that I never really did get satisfactorily answered.

      (1) While I can see why God might be angry at sin, I don’t see why any sort of sacrifice would go any distance toward making him less angry. Why would it? (I can think of various hypotheses about why a tradition of sacrificing got started. But the notion that an actually existing God wanted sacrifice—I don’t get it. I’ve looked this up and thought I understood it, but…I keep forgetting. It doesn’t seem that persuasive, I guess. Sorry.)

      (2) Even less do I understand why God’s anger would be appeased by him sacrificing himself (i.e., his son, but then his son is just supposed to be God incarnate). So why would it be?

      I have ideas about these questions which I think I’ll put in a blog post.

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