DiaBlogue: My Standard Model of Christianity

Or — as I suspect Alan is thinking but is too polite to say — “What the Hell Does Ernie Believe?”

I concur with Alan’s opinion in The Weight of Justice that “our meta-discussion … seems to be making some progress”, rather than merely going Round and Round. However, while he appreciates the relevance of my questions, he basically answered “no” to all them, implying we haven’t quite reached a meeting of the minds. 🙂

That said, I think his final comments take us in the right direction:

… the justification of Christianity that I require will be rather high, similar to what is expected for scientific theories or well-established historical events. The comparison to personal relationships [4] fails for me. Perhaps I am missing Ernie’s point, but as I see it, belief in Christianity depends on the veracity of various historical assertions and I fail to see how that compares to the knowledge we have about our personal relationships.

Ah, therein lies the rub. The embarrassing truth is that the reasons I (and I think most people) have for believing in Christianity are completely different than the ones Alan has been critiquing. And somehow this fact hasn’t really surfaced until now. Doh!

Fortunately, I think Alan is now asking the right question:

Ernie, how would you answer (4)? How would you state your fundamental reasons for belief? (I think I have an idea from what has gone before, but repeating or verifying would be helpful at this point.)

[Read more] for my attempt to explain both what I believe, and why.

Let me start by saying that I think the underlying problem is that Alan and I have fundamentally different understandings about both what Christianity is, as well as what would constitute justifiable reasons for believing in it. Worse, I’m not sure we even agree what “justified belief” looks like, despite the enormous time previously spent on epistemology.

Still, now that we’ve finally recognized the problem, we have a chance at actually solving it. So, let me do my best to communicate — in very rough terms — what it is that I mean by Christianity. I deliberately chose the term Standard Model from particle physics because that theory — while wildly successful and universally believed — is nonetheless a wonderful example of the uncertainty and incompleteness characteristic of “real” scientific theories. Thus, I feel it provides a useful benchmark for what constitutes “valid” scientific proof, rather than abstract notions of “rigor.”

To start, the first point I want to make is that Christianity is a complex belief system. That is, it is overly simplistic to say Christianity is “only” about the resurrection; that would be like saying General Relativity is “only” about the precession of Mercury’s perihelion. While that may be a seminal event providing the impetus to believe, the system itself encompasses so much more. In fact, models of Christianity typically include:

a. assumptions about ontology
b. a theory of divinity
c. assertions about past historical events
d. a system of ethics
e. psychological insights about happiness and evil
f. an understanding of scriptural authority
g. practical disciplines for ascertaining God’s will
h. an eschatology of future history
i. expectations of post-life events

I say “typically” because every faith tradition within Christianity is in a sense its own Model, and not all such Models have all the above features. For this discussion, though, it seems best to focus on my personal Model of Christianity, which for simplicity I will label Transformationalism (while I’m not the only one to use that term, I helped define it, so it provides a useful handle).

Note that this is my first, off-the-cuff attempt to summarize my beliefs in this manner, so I hope Alan will forgive any discrepancies that may later be discovered between what I actually believe, and the words I may have inaccurately chosen. For that matter, I reserve the right to change my beliefs based on additional evidence and reasoning (since that is Alan’s goal, after all :-).

Using the above dimensions (with those disclaimers), my Standard Model of Christianity asserts:

a. ontologically: that senses, reason, and emotions all reflect underlying objective reality
b. theologically: those realities are all contingent on a single divine (non-contingent) principle, experienced in three “persons” classically labeled Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
c. historically: that the character of that divine principle was manifest in a unique human being known as Jesus Christ, who was crucified on a Roman cross around 33 AD, and whose bodily resurrection was the primary inspiration for the Christian movement that erupted shortly thereafter
d. ethically, that the values of love, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice espoused by Jesus (and practiced, albeit imperfectly, by his followers) represent the ultimate standard of morality
e. psychologically: that obedience to those precepts is the optimal route to both individual and social happiness, yet that some will nonetheless willfully deny those precepts
f. scripturally: that the Bible, Old and New Testament, ultimately derives from genuine encounters with the divine as transcribed by fallible yet inspired human authors and editors, and thus provides authoritative information about God’s character and purpose
g. practically: that Scripture reading, Christian fellowship, prayer and fasting in Jesus name, worship of the Father, tithing, and other disciplines of sanctification — when done properly — provide emotional, physical, spiritual, and tangible results.
h. eschatologically: that human and natural history will eventually terminate, or more properly undergo a “phase transition” to a different state of being
i. ultimately: that how we choose to respond to divinity will have eternal, post-life consequences in proportion to what we did relative to what we knew

I realize this is insanely concise, but I trust Alan appreciates the magnitude of the problem I am undertaking! Further, I suspect Alan may be willing to concede some but not others, so we can focus our efforts on those that are most relevant.

Plus, all of that is merely a prelude to his question: why do I believe [this version of] Christianity?

The long answer is that it is an emergent belief based on both the internal coherency and explanatory power of the entire system of ideas (similar to why I believe the Standard Model of physics, or methodological naturalism). The interrelatedness of the parts means that those aspects which are historically testable and/or empirically verifiable lend credence to those that are less so, and ultimately to the whole. While alternate theories may seem to provide viable alternatives for one or two points, none of them comes even close to matching the theoretical richness, practical applicability, or widespread support of Christianity.

The short answer, though, is that I believe in Love.

I believe that Christ showed me love, and taught me to love, when I found myself beyond all human love and teaching. Not just once, but multiple times. Moreover, I have seen an encounter with Christ transform people from selfish to loving in a manner — and on a scale — that nothing else has ever been able to reproduce. Further, the most loving, courageous, and wise people I have ever known have ascribed all their virtue to Christ, and none to themselves.

Which is why the decision to follow Christ is more like the decision to marry someone than anything else. It is a belief in character, virtue, faithfulness, and hope. But most of all, it is a belief in love: that self-giving love is the most real and the most powerful thing in the universe, and that ultimately everything else is contingent on that.

For if love is “really” false, then the only alternative is nihilism, and the only way to justify that is to willfully deny everything that is good and beautiful in the universe. Which would be wrong.