Saturday, 12 July 2014

Reasonable Faith

So, my rather haphazard journey through the world of Christian apologetics has brought me to William Lane Craig.  The much-traveled Craig is perhaps the most prominent conservative evangelical apologist in the English-speaking world, holding debates with militant atheists in all sorts of places in between his day job as Research Professor of Philosophy at the Talbot School of Theology in Southern California.  He was even part of a widely advertised debate here in Brisbane City Hall with prominent atheist scientist Lawrence Krauss.  I couldn't get to the debate but friends who did told me I didn't miss much.

Craig is a prolific author and speaker, with over 30 books in print as well as numerous articles, scholarly and popular, and DVD's of his lectures and debates.  Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics is his attempt to bring all this together in a package.  It started life as material for his seminary courses in apologetics and was originally written as a textbook, but it has reached a much wider audience and spun off a website of the same name and various study guides and discussion forums.

As befits a university textbook this is an introductory work, summarising the ideas and arguments of Craig's apologetics in language plain enough for an educated but non-specialist reader.  There is little here that is individualistic or idiosyncratic like, say, GK Chesterton or Francis Spufford.  Nor is it a merry, populist romp through the territory like Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great About Christianity.  

In contrast to D'Souza's attempt to canvass every argument possible, Craig restricts himself to seven questions, each of which he deals with carefully and exhaustively.  For each question he opens with a historical survey of key arguments and positions on the subject.  The bulk of each chapter is spent on his own arguments, outlining and then explaining and defending a series of philosophical syllogisms, before closing each chapter with some brief advice about practical application.  He also has an overall plan: Start at the highest level of generality and work his way step by step to the specific defence of Christianity.

Craig is remarkably confident of his arguments - the book is salted with anecdotes about young students who have been converted as a result of these arguments, and with advice about their value and use in evangelism.  He clearly finds them convincing.  I am less sure.

First of all he addresses the question of epistemology.  How do we know what we know?  Is it possible to arrive at the truth through reason and investigation?  In Craig's view, the answer is "yes" - we can access the truth through reason and investigation.  In reaching this answer, Craig aligns himself firmly with the modernists against the post-modernists, regarding the latter as incoherent and dishonest.

At first I was inclined to dismiss this section as a kind of preface.  The more I think about it, the more I realise how crucial it is.  For Lane to defend the kind of conservative evangelicalism he espouses, he needs the truth to be objective and certain, to be discoverable.  It is not enough for him, like many other Christians, to accept that our knowledge is partial and hold our faith lightly.  He seeks certainty.  The alternative for him is the meaninglessness of a world without God.  In reaching this duality Craig has laid a heavy burden on himself, because modernism does not just require argument or tradition or spiritual discernment, it demands proof.  If he fails at his task, Christianity collapses.

This would daunt me but it doesn't seem to daunt Craig, who is confident that proof is at hand.  However, he seems unaware of, or at least skates across, the other limitation that modernism imposes on him.  Like the defenders of Biblical inerrancy, defenders of modernism risk being diverted from the meaning of the Christian story (which post-modernism directs us towards) to questions of its factuality, to focus on what is "out there" as opposed to what is within.  As Karen Armstrong would put it, Craig has abandoned mythos in favour of logos, at the risk of diluting and flattening our spirituality.

Anyhow, onto his evidence.  The longest section of the book, divided into two chapters, is devoted to Craig's own special subject, the cosmological arguments for the existence of God.  His favourite is what he calls the kalam cosmological argument, derived from the Arabic word for speech and originating with Islamic scholars of the 11th century CE.  This argument is very simple and is summarised in a three-step syllogism.

1. Whatever has a beginning has a cause.
2. The universe has a beginning.
3. Therefore the universe must have a cause.

He then defends this syllogism with a wealth of detail and reasoning, defending the idea that everything which begins must have a cause, then surveying the astronomical evidence for the finitude of the universe.  Craig's grasp of these arguments and of the evidence behind them is impressive, and he stays firmly in the bounds of mainstream science - indeed, the most widely accepted cosmological theory, popularly known as the "Big Bang" theory, is his biggest ally here.  Equally impressive is his ability to explain these complex questions in a way even a non-scientist like me can understand.

He cheerfully bats aside the favourite Dawkins-ite follow up question, "where did God come from" as incoherent - God is not covered by the argument because he has no beginning and therefore needs no cause.  However, this does not get him completely out of the woods because in arguing that the universe has a beginning he provides a detailed explanation of the logical impossibility of a sequence of numbers going back indefinitely in time.    To avoid this argument also being applied to God he suggests that God is outside time, but at this point the argument becomes rather question-begging.  I suspect that here we are dealing with matters so complex and abstruse that humans are simply out of their depth.

This is the strongest part of the book and the most fascinating.  Yet it only gets him so far.  This First Cause could be anything - the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Bertrand Russell's orbiting teapot or, more to the point, the Islamic Allah or the Hindu Brahma.  Indeed he ruefully comments that he has received letters from Islamic scholars thanking him for his work on this question.  To fulfil his mission as a Christian apologist he has to navigate from here to a set of arguments supporting the claim that this God has revealed himself in Jesus.

He approaches the task with typical care.  He begins by arguing, in line with his general modernism, that the facts of history are knowable in principle.  History is not simply a collection of unverifiable stories and interpretations, rewritten for each new generation.  It is a subject in which research can uncover the truth, even if our knowledge will never be complete.

Secondly, he argues that miracles are also possible in principle, although each individual miracle story requires verification.  In the process he responds to one of the favourite atheist arguments, Hume's idea that a miracle can only be accepted if the falsehood of the testimony to it would require an even greater miracle than the miracle itself.  Craig thinks this method is founded on an assumption that miracles are impossible, and believes the correct way of weighing the evidence is to consider the likelihood of the miracle having taken place against the likelihood of alternative explanations for the appearance of the tale - what he calls the "inference to the best explanation".

In his final two chapters he applies this background reasoning to the story of Jesus.  First of all, he attempts to show from both the New Testament and extra-biblical sources that Jesus claimed divinity, to be God incarnate, sent to redeem humanity.  Then he asks why we should accept this claim and his answer is because of the testimony of Jesus' miracles, and most especially the miracle of the Resurrection.  If the Resurrection took place, it vindicates Jesus' claims.  If not, there is no reason to accept them.

His final chapter, then, is a rehearsal of the evidence for the resurrection, weighed up using the framework of his "inference to the best explanation" method for evaluating miracles.  We know for a historical fact that the early church believed in Jesus' resurrection.  He thus weighs the various alternative explanations for this belief - that the apostles were deceived, that they were lying for their own gain, that the stories referred to something other than a literal physical resurrection, that they are later legends, and so forth - and finds them all wanting for various reasons.  Ergo, Jesus really did rise from the dead and the Christian God is the First Cause deduced from the cosmological arguments.

Sadly, on this subject he has little new to say.  His arguments are little different to those of the historical apologists that have come before him - Frank Morrison, say, or Josh McDowell.  He relies on the same faulty premises and hence reaches the same debatable conclusions.  It is not hard to find holes in the argument.

I have to say there is a lot to like about Craig's apologetics.  I like the depth with which he examines the questions, and the philosophical discipline he brings to the subject, particularly before he strays into history where he is less comfortable.  He is no careless amateur and this is a serious work of scholarship.

Nonetheless, I think the biggest weakness is right at the beginning, with his defence of modernism.  This commitment sets him on the course which leads to him finally attempting to "prove" that the resurrection is a historical event, because such objective proof is required in his preferred philosophical position.  What if the apostles viewed the world differently?  What if the important thing for them was the content of Jesus' message, the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the miracle and resurrection stories were merely the clothing in which this message was presented?  What if the New Testament is not a modernist anthology?

In this context, I find Craig's stories of the conversion of young students particularly interesting.  In Craig's telling of the stories, they are convinced by the power of the argument.  Of course this is possible in a superficial way.  Craig is convincing, he has studied deeply, he has great personal warmth and conviction.  An impressionable young man or woman searching for truth and meaning would be easily drawn in.

However, I would suggest they were there in the room listening to him because they were looking for a reason to believe.  They were there because of the power of the Christian story and the attractiveness of Jesus himself.  Without this, all the rest would be nothing.  The apologetic framework is only a pathway leading to that story, a means of smoothing the way, of helping people to get past the barriers and roadblocks that 21st century civilisation puts in the way.

What's important is what happens next.  Once these people (young or old) reach the point of acceptance, what kind of spirituality do we build?  Do we help people to become more Christ-like, or do we turn them into arrogant bigots?  Do we teach them to build the Kingdom of God, like Tolstoy or Walsh and Keesmaat, or to become loyal soldiers in the kingdom of Caesar?  If it is the former, then it is worthwhile.  If the latter, then all Craig's careful reasoning is just so much dust.  Ultimately, the story is everything.
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