Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The perils of bad apologetics

I've been following (and participating in) a very interesting discussion at Simone's blog about whether people can accept the statement that the earth was created in six days. Personally I find a six day creation hard to accept scientifically and unnecessary theologically. But it made me think about how we can paint ourselves into a corner defending a position that never needed defending in the first place. The US in particular has a huge ongoing controvery about the six day creation, and this has led to the elaboration of "creation science" and its love-child, the Intelligent Design movement. I'm hardly competent to assess the science, but it's always seemed to me that the primary argument of creation scientists is a theological one. Years ago I heard Ken Ham speak, and his basic message was that if you don't believe in the literal truth of Genesis then the whole authority of Scripture collapses and you may as well give up on Christianity.

Oddly enough, after a brief flirtation with creation science I was able to give up belief in the six day creation with hardly a blip in my faith in Christianity. I simply concluded that the first chapters of Genesis are not intended to be a scientific account.

On the other hand, I was badly shaken when I discovered the flaws in the "proofs" of the resurrection. This was a line of reasoning that had seriously convinced me and bolstered my faith as a young adult. You can find it in any number of books - "Who Moved the Stone" by Frank Morrison was a popular version of it when I was young. It uses a number of lines of reasoning. It talks about the five independent eye-witness accounts to the resurrection, as outlined in the Gospels and in 1 Corinthians, and explains that these eyewitnesses were still alive when the gospels were written so people could check. It points to the transformation in the disciples from scared witless to fearless witnesses, and askes what else could have made them so bold. It runs through the alternative scenarios - the "lord, liar or lunatic" argument where either the disciples were lying (so why would they die for a lie?), were insane and deluded (how would a bunch of nutters found a major world religion?) or were telling the truth (so Jesus must be the Son of God).

This became part of my rather feeble evangelistic strategy, with baffling results. When I gave my father "Who Moved the Stone" to read he was totally unimpressed. So were various atheist and agnostic friends I tried to convince with the arguments. Why, when the arguments seemed so watertight, could they not see it?

It took a few years for the answer to finally dawn on me. Many of you will be way ahead of me. The argument is circular, because it relies on you having faith in the accuracy of the New Testament accounts (the gospels, Acts, 1 Corinthians).

"Why would you believe these accounts are accurate?"

"Because they are inspired by God."

"Which God was that?"

"The God revealed through Jesus Christ?"

"How do we know Jesus revealed God?"

"Because he rose from the dead."

"Says who?"

You see what I mean? I learned, for instance, that the Gospels are not independent eye-witness accounts, but draw from common prior sources (oral or written) that had a sufficiently fixed form to be repeated almost word-for-word in the various synoptic gospels. I learned about the controversies over the dating of the New Testament books, and the parallel controversies over how much an early date correlated with greater factual accuracy. I learned about the process of selection, whereby certain texts were approved and copied while others were anathemised. The whole thing fairly rapidly became a lot more subject to human frailty than I had been taught.

Interestingly enough, I'm still a Christian. Not because I have found another watertight argument, but because the message of love and forgiveness, of mercy and justice, of a kingdom that is not like the kingdoms of this world, of the King who conquers a city on the back of a donkey, is a message I love.

But in the name of this message and kingdom that I love, I am wary of bad apologetics. If we teach intelligent young people to base their faith on the literal reality of a six day creation, or on the forensic evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, or some other piece of flawed reasoning, what happens when they learn enough to see the flaws? Will their faith collapse, and the baby get thrown out with the cold bathwater? Or will they have to be forever shielded from the contrary evidence, steered into only reading the "right" books, becoming averse to learning, meekly obedient to authority in a way that Jesus and his disciples clearly were not? Either way, we are not serving God, we are trying to protect him, and in the process we remould him in our own image.


Andrew said...

"but because the message of love and forgiveness, of mercy and justice, of a kingdom that is not like the kingdoms of this world, of the King who conquers a city on the back of a donkey, is a message I love."

Yep!... I am finding that the only theology I am interested in is that which causes one to become more kind and loving. If a belief brings that about, great. If it causes one to put up walls and division - bad theology regardless of the source. said...

Jon, I'm quite impressed with your blog and will be adding it to my blogroll and reader. As to this post, you have merely defined the difference between an infantile faith (fundamentalism) and a maturing faith--yours. As an Episcopalian, (former Roman Catholic) I can tell you that we emphasize that God gave us minds and expects us to use them. It would make little sense I fear for God to write such a strange document and then ask us to suspend all belief that doesn't comport with some literal interpretation of such a convoluted writing. I think you are on exactly the right track. Blessings--nice to find another excellent writer and thinker.