Tuesday 27 November 2012

What keeps me a Christian?


Two things, I think, stand out.

They are almost opposites; and sometimes one is more important, sometimes the other - sometimes one fails and I am rescued by the other.

1. Christianity - as an 'intellectual system', understood by reason - is the only thing which makes complete sense of everything.

2. Personal experiences of answered prayers and everyday miracles.



Joseph said...

As one who is re-approaching the faith through the former, it is beliefs akin to the latter that most often keeps me from fully committing myself.

If prayers are answered by the channels it opens in our mind to communion with God, that I can understand; but as a petition for such and such event to occur, it still strikes me as superstitious. The idea of God intervening on the logic of the world seems inconsistent with its logic being divine. Unless, of course, divine intervention is itself a part of its logic. This seems somewhat paradoxical, however, because it then could no longer be considered miraculous.

Does the first eventually swallow the second, or is the ability to accept that which operates outside of the "intellectual system" its necessary complement?

Bruce Charlton said...

@J - This is a personal statement - I don't expect for a moment it would apply to all or even most Christians.

There are not any paradoxes in Christianity; so if things strike you as paradoxical then that is because you do not *yet* understand them.

But keep seeking honestly for the truth (so you will recognize and acknowledge it when you meet it) and you will be granted understanding.

What you need will come to you - that is promised, and therefore *will* happen - because no power on earth can stop it happening.

Samson J. said...

Unless, of course, divine intervention is itself a part of its logic. This seems somewhat paradoxical, however, because it then could no longer be considered miraculous.

You're right about this, actually: properly speaking, there isn't any such thing as a "miracle". It's good to see that you're thinking!

George Goerlich said...

While I am not wholly convinced as to the truth of Christianity, your blog and related reading (e.g. Rose's Nihilism) has convinced me of the critical importance of religion to society and life in general.

I am convinced that while society has rejected Christianity it only remains functioning because of what it has inherited from the past. Without a higher organizing purpose it eventually all crumbles. It is like removing our brain, we keep on walking and consuming for a while but will eventually decay to nothingness (perhaps this is the unconscious appeal of Zombie-related media recently?)

Bruce Charlton said...

@SJ - I'm not so sure. Some of these apparent paradoxes are due to switching between different perspectives (or metaphors) - they are mistakes in reasoning.

So from the perspective of time and the world, there are miracles; but from the perspective of God there are not, since everything is equally a product of His will.

Another example is the confusion over predestination. God knows everything from the eternal perspective outside of time; yet in this world in time events unroll and free will can act. There is no contradiction here, unless we confuse time and eternity; and imagine that eternity means that God is somehow in time but can go backwards and forwards along the timeline; or that our choices and the outcomes have already happened and therefore we have no free will or change is an illusion etc. These are just philosophical errors.

Bruce Charlton said...

@GG - that is an argument for the reality of Christianity which I find quite compelling - that when it is subtracted, this does damage. So it is not a pathological delusion.

FHL said...

I'm typing on a phone, so although I would like to say more, for the sake of my thumbs, I must be short. But I just noticed your comment to SJ and would like to note that I think you misunderstood him and that you are both in agreement. Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems that SJ was not agreeing with the part about it being a paradox, but rather the claim that miracles are actually a part of the logic of the world.

The problem arises when people such as Joseph (no insult intended, just an observation on a common mistake) confuse 'miracle' to mean 'that which is impossible' instead of something more similar to the Christian position like 'a definitively noticeable and direct act of God.'

SJ meant to highlight the fact that, yes, if God can do miracles then miracles cannot violate the logic of reality. To claim both would be a paradox, but thankfully, Christian philosophy does not. We only claim that a miracle is an action available only to God and we do not claim that it is a violation of 'logic.'

FHL said...

I have never fully understood the eternity and time dilemma. I gave the standard Augustinian reply to one of my professors once: "God is outside of time."

He replied (he's a Christian but was just testing me): "So tell me this: if God whispers to your neighbor today 'FHL will eat mashed potatoes for lunch tomorrow and not corn dogs, can you eat the corn dogs?"

I replied: "Yes."

When the professor gave me a curious look I continued: "In which case God would have told my neighbor the day before that I would be having corn dogs. What part of 'outside of time' do you not understand? Forwards is like backwards and vice-versa. You pose the question as to shake my belief in my free will by forcing me to choose between it and God's sovereignty but I can reword it to do the opposite: 'If I have the mashed potatoes and not the corn dogs tomorrow, can God tell my neighbor otherwise today?'"

FHL said...

Oh, and I must mention (ahhh... My poor thumbs...) that I don't think my reply was valid answer, it just showed the mistakes inherit in the question. The proper answer is built on faith in God and His mystery. 'How does God know the future?' Well, hell, how does God speak the entire universe into existence? It should be clear that God is operating on a whole other level than us. We only think of knowledge as coming from observation and so we think that knowledge must succeed the event (itself a bias of our own observation) but, in the same manner that God can create from nothing, perhaps He can know from nothing as well.

ajb said...

Joseph said "The idea of God intervening on the logic of the world seems inconsistent with its logic being divine."

This might be of some use:


Bruce Charlton said...

@FHL - The fact that so intelligent and well-informed (and trained) person as yourself gets into philosophical tangles (as of course do I) is precisely the point I wanted to make. To reject Christianity - which satisfied such great philosophical minds as Augustine and Aquinas - because of what seems like a philosophical paradox, is an act of arrogance or foolishness. Human reason is a feeble thing. We need it, we must use it - but it is terribly error prone when extended beyond the simple drawing of direct inferences.

And reason only reasons-from - that which it reasons from is primary; and all reasoning ultimately depends upon axioms, and the only axioms which we have any reason to believe as true are those which we believe are divine revelations.

SO that is the basis of all.

(And if revelations are denied, then there is no basis for reason - and the consequence is nihilism).

Sorry FHL- this has turned into a general argument which I will make into a post!

Samson J. said...


Thanks for responding - I've been busy, so haven't bothered, but in sum, you're right about what I meant to say. The term "miracle" bothers me (as does the term "supernatural") because it's vague and in a certain sense meaningless. I "violate" the law of gravity by picking up a rock, or a physician "violates" biology by curing a cancer, and that's not a "miracle", because we understand how it works. God cures a disease, or parts the Red Sea, via means we don't understand, and that's a "miracle"? It's a falsely invented category.

Bruce B. said...

BGC, I think your reason # 1 works well for very intelligent people. Those of us with below average or modestly above average intelligence can’t really understand the intellectual case for why Christianity has to be true. We end up being more personal and emotional.
Personally, one of the things that keeps me a Christian is that God has given me supernatural signs that have convicted me of sinful acts I have done (and, unfortunately, sometimes continue to do). I’m not a superstitious person at all – quite the opposite. But He literally called me out on my sin in a way that was quite direct and unmistakable. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to stop sinning.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - Of course you can't. Nobody can. That is the point; that is why Christ came. But by the work of Christ we can nonetheless be saved. Amazing Grace.

Alat said...


I once saw an explanation of the eternity and time conundrum that makes perfect sense to me, and that may, perhaps, be helpful to you.

Think of time as what is actually is according to modern science, just another dimension alongside the three dimensions of space - it just has the quirk that it is directional (to us, who are in time).

Now, if you walk into a room, you perceive the three dimensions of space all at once; you don't first notice the room's length, then its breadth, then its height, and then compute it in order to "see" it. You perceive it as a whole, directly and immediately. But if nothing moves, you wouldn't perceive time.

It's the same for God, with the twist that, as He is outside time, time itself is included in the direct dimensions when He "looks" at His creation.

So, if I say on 29 November 2012, "on 30 November I will not sin", and lo, there comes the 30th of November and I sin, does God knowing it would happen limit my free will in any way? Of course not. He was looking at the world and seeing, at once, like the different dimensions of space, both by pledge of 18 September and my breaking it the next day.

I don't know if this will help you and, unfortunately, I no longer remember where I saw this explanation.

Imnobody said...

I don't get the paradox of free will and eternity. I don't think there is a paradox.

"So tell me this: if God whispers to your neighbor today 'FHL will eat mashed potatoes for lunch tomorrow and not corn dogs, can you eat the corn dogs?"

No. If God sees you eating mashed potatoes for lunch tomorrow, you are going to eat mashed potatoes, but there is no paradox with free will, because GOD IS WATCHING YOUR DECISION about what to eat but not determining your decision.

For God the future is the present. He is outside time so he is watching you doing things, but this does not mean He is deciding instead of you.

Can my friends tell me what I will do before a good steak? Sure they can: they know me. Does this means they are influencing my decision because they know it beforehand? Of course not, my decision is my decision. It's only that they know me.

God knows what I am going to do tomorrow but the decision is all mine.

Am I wrong? I don't think there is a paradox and I don't know what the fuss is about? (And I mean: a big fuss: many theologians have thought about that)

Is there something that I don't get?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Im - that's my understanding too.

FHL said...

post 1 of 2

@ Alat

Thank you for that explanation. I've heard metaphors such as that before, were God sees everything as happening all at once. Sometimes they help, sometimes they just confuse me (I occasionally get this image of a man with his back turned to me sitting in front of a thousand TV screens... but that's just silly and I know that's not what you meant). But your particular metaphor certainly helps, especially because it has the added benefit (and irony) of being heavily endorsed by the most famous scientists: when Einstein (an atheist) wrote "A Stubbornly Persistent Illusion" he was not referring to religion, but time.

@ Samson J

While I would never decide to stop using the word "miracle" (so long as it is defined properly -a noticeable and awe-inspiring act of God- then there is no conflict), I must just say "Yes!"

I've thought this sort of thing for years! Almost six years ago I had an argument with a group of atheists that ended up with me snapping and saying: "What the hell do you mean by 'supernatural'? What the hell do you mean by 'natural'?! What separates 'natural' causes from 'supernatural' causes? Because with the way y'all are using the terms, it would seem to me that the only difference between the two is this: the word 'natural' is used to describe events which happen often and are commonly regarded as true, such as dehydration eventually leads to death and lightning strikes occur whenever Zeus needs to guide his chariot through dark clouds; while that which is called 'supernatural' always refers to that which none of us have seen, or would admit to having seen, such as leprechauns, fairies, and macro-evolution."

Ok, I'm being a clever-silly and playing way too fast and loose with my reasoning on this, I admit.

But I simply cannot take these atheists seriously! A unicorn is "supernatural" they tell me- what is the bloody difference between a unicorn and a horse? A horn? Are the categories of natural and the supernatural divided by horns? Here's a question: if horses evolved horns, would they be "supernatural?" If we discovered horned horses, would you admit the existence of the "supernatural?" Is a rhinoceros a "supernatural" creature? How about a platypus? It's much weirder than a horned horse, you must admit! Are you not just deciding to use the word "supernatural" to refer to anything that almost everyone disbelieves in? And if so, then what good is the word when you try to use it to refer to something that many people believe in? Remember now, you have already used the word “supernatural” consistently and particularly in the manner of referring to a thing that is commonly acknowledged to be non-existent based on common sense and popular reasoning, so why now do you make the claim that believing in the “supernatural” is irrational? Are you not just speaking in tautologies?

So I've decided to completely drop the words 'natural' and 'supernatural' from my speech completely, since they have been rendered almost completely useless.

FHL said...

part 2 of 2

@ Dr. Charlton

Thank you for your further explanation in your newest post (The Feebleness of Human Reason). I want to comment on it, but it may take me a few days to get my thoughts down. This isn't due to my disinterest, but rather the opposite. I'm currently writing a paper concerning this topic (human reason vs. Divine revelation vs. experience and in-built nature) for one of my philosophy classes (my last undergraduate paper, I graduate this December...). I've already written one on it before, but your posts inspired me to rethink my arguments.

@ Imnobody

I completely agree with the first part of your comment. I don't see how knowledge of an event can cause the event to happen. Another reply I once gave was: "Imagine a universe with humans who had free will and no God. (note: this is impossible, by the way, for reasons that may be too lengthy to describe right now, but just go with it) So you can choose what you want to do tomorrow. Now let's add an omniscient being into this universe. How does this addition remove what already existed? How does the addition of knowledge of a choice remove the choice?"

The claim that God's knowledge of the future causes the future to happen makes a huge assumption- that God knows the future based on the current situation, which implies that even if God did not exist, the current situation contains the information necessary to predict the future with 100% accuracy, thus you have no choice of what you do tomorrow- it's all been decided today.

(note: no where in the atheist's argument does God's knowledge actually CAUSE the event, but rather, God's knowledge of the future event reveals that a cause for the event existed previously. So when atheists say God's omniscience is incompatible with free-will, the actual argument they are making is that God's omniscience must be based on a deterministic universe... which is then incompatible with free-will. They're just being dicks and trying to claim that it is God and His knowledge that eliminates your free-will just because they love to hate God.)

This is what is wrong with your second part: God's knowledge of the future is not the same as how we predict the future. We look at the present and use it to imagine possible outcomes, and pick the one that looks the most probable to us. If we could do this with 100% accuracy, that would mean that we had no free will, since everything we do is decided by factors before the choice.

But we don't predict future actions with 100% accuracy, but with a strong amount yet not complete accuracy (let's just 70%). This shows that we are not completely 100% 'free', in the sense that we can do whatever whenever and completely break out of our past and our nature, but it also shows that there is an element of spontaneous free-will that is not dependent on past conditions.

God, however, knows what we will do with 100% accuracy. He doesn't even need to observe us to know- your friends know what you will do before a good steak because they've seen you eat a good steak before, but God knew what you'd do before a good steak back in the times of Moses, way before you were born. He never needed to observe you, He never needed to "get to know you" in the same way your friends did.

The best way to describe it is in the way that Alat and yourself did, and the was St. Augustine does: God is outside of time so He sees tomorrow and today an eternity ago. I will admit that I do sometimes have problems with this, but due to my style of thought and not that it is incoherent or contains a fallacy; I actually can't find anything unreasonable with it at all... but I'm not so sure God even needs to "see" us choose something before He knows about it. I just like to believe "He just KNOWS, it's part of who He is" and leave it at that.

Hello said...

I'm curious about what seems to be the common experience of most people and how that affects your #2 reason for what keeps you a Christian. What if your prayers are not answered?

When I've asked people if their prayers are answered, I most commonly get the response 'no'. So empirically it seems to disconfirm a God that replies to prayers.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Hello - Prayer is doing many things, it is the centre of Christian life. And it varies greatly in 'quality'. But there can be situations where a prayer is answered in a way that is miraculous (in timing and specificity, perhaps) and these are intended to sustain faith and give teaching (like a mini-parable) - Jesus's miracles were like this only on a much larger scale.