DiaBlogue: Looking for an Argument

I must commend Alan for his diligence in following through on my recommended reading, given that I’ve only now got around to reading his last three posts — from July! To be sure, I regret that Chesterton was such a disappointment, but I will (perhaps too generously) ascribe that to the large conceptual and chronological gap between Chesterton’s age and ours.

On the other hand, McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy appears to have done exactly as I hoped: clearing away the peripheral gripes to enable us to focus on the core disputation. Together with Seeking Middle Ground (Alan’s followup to my Pursuit of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth a la The Pilgrim’s Regress) I think I may finally have a (tentative) grasp on the core of Alan’s beef with Christianity.

Have I got it right about what he thinks I’ve got wrong? [Read more] to find out…

It has been a perennial frustration (I suspect on both our parts) that we’ve never quite reached agreement about what exactly we’re disagreeing about. That is, I’ve often felt the issues he’s attacking don’t quite represent the Christianity I believe, while he’s sometimes said he “doesn’t have trouble with” the kinds of deity I’ve referred to.

In these last couple posts, though, I think I’ve glimpsed two core issues that strongly highlight the differences between our respective positions. From what I can tell, Alan objects to:

I. Ontological dependence on an omnipotent, benevolent Deity as the ultimate source of virtue and truth
II. Epistemic dependence on received Scripture as a reliable indicator of divine will

Or, in layman’s terms, that there is one holy and loving God over all the universe, and that we can usefully know Him through the Bible.

In my moments of wilder optimism, I dare to presume that these might actually be Alan’s foundational objections to Christianity. That is, if (hypothetically) Alan could be convinced that belief in these two propositions was well-justified, he would concede that Christianity as a whole (or at least my variant of it) was a well-justified.

On the flip side, I think Alan’s main thrust so far is not so much to show that those beliefs are “false”, but i) unjustified, and ii) irrelevant. As best I can tell, his position is roughly as follows:

I. Belief in an omnipotent, benevolent Deity is superfluous at best, and dangerous at worst

That is, it is entirely possible — and perhaps easier — to:

a. generate broad, useful truth claims about the universe
b. both construct and live out a meaningful system of ethics
c. build a workable, just society
by denying the existence of such a deity, rather than affirming such. In other words, there exist orthogonal belief systems which are at least as capable of producing social good and epistemic accuracy as Christianity-as-we-know-it (CAWKI).

II. Any and all purported records of encounters with divinity are due to confusion, deception, or delusion on the part of the authors

That is, Biblical stories (or, for that matter, personal anecdotes) that describe God speaking or acting in various are pure fabrications, and have no normative value whatsoever in elucidating the true nature of the universe. Sure, some stories (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount) or beliefs (e.g., in hell for the wicked) may have some inspirational value in motivating virtuous living, but to uncritically treat all of them as authoritative is unjustified, unnecessary, and quite possibly dangerous.

While not quite a Brickman, this is hopefully at least kinder to Alan that a pure Strawman — might we call it a Woodman?

Alan, do these fairly capture your position on these issues? How might you modify, elaborate or expand upon them? Would you also agree that these are central to your critique of my brand of Christianity, as represented by McLaren and Lewis?

On the flip side, I am willing to defend the following two propositions:

I. Belief in a transcendent moral purpose for the universe is as well-justified and essential for social inquiry as belief in the transcendent mathematical nature of the universe is for scientific inquiry.
II. Belief in the Biblical narrative regarding God’s role in shaping religious faith is as central and well-justified as belief in the scientific narrative regarding evolution’s role in shaping anatomically modern humans.

That is, I am not claiming perfect knowledge or irrefutable evidence, but I am claiming that the basis of my belief in God and the Bible is precisely comparable to what I hope we would both consider “settled scientific fact.”

Which leads to the question: if I am able to successfully define, debate, and defend these two propositions, would Alan agree that my faith is well-justified — whether or not he agrees?

For my part, I’m willing to let the outcome of our DiaBlogue hang on these two issues. To be sure, I’m not really expecting this to necessarily change what either of us believe, but I do hope we can at least agree about which beliefs are (and are not) well-supported by the available facts.

What do you think, Alan?