Saturday, September 05, 2015

The Kind of Religion/Christianity I Do Endorse

My last post may have left the impression that I am a simple agnostic. I don't define myself that way; in fact, I have a hard time defining my faith. But I thought I'd elaborate a bit more here.

In order to get to what I do believe I first have to note what I reject and my reasons for such.

Over a decade ago, I discussed Christianity with a young evangelical fundamentalist type. He seemed a real nice fellow but offered a lot of stock, unconvincing reasons for his faith. One reason was, he claimed, the "lack of contradiction in the Bible."

Really? I did a bit of digging and found pages like this and now this. Now, the cursory apparent contractions in the Bible do not mean the good book, properly understood, really contradicts itself. I learned a good, rich, sophisticated hermeneutic can explain those contradictions away like an iron can smooth out creases in wrinkled pants.

The hermeneutic -- if it's sound -- will well use principles of logic and synthesis. Some Protestant Sola Scriptura types are fond of saying "Bible interprets Bible." One certainly must take the different (often more than two) verses and chapters of the Bible, put them together and extract non-contradictory principles from them.

But here's the 800 pound Gorilla: Even the most learned, well synthesized, non-contradictory understanding of the 66 books of the Bible don't lead to one "obvious" result. Rather, competing verses and chapters, synthesized pursuant to the canons of logic and rationality can produce results that blatantly contradict one another.

Indeed, potentially limitless understandings abound and arguably have led to thousands of different sects. And the differences aren't trivial either. (Or at least those who adhere to the contradictory results don't view the differences as trivial, but things worth going to war over).

So, for instance, the doctrine of the "atonement." It's either limited or it's universal. It can't be both. (Or at least Western logic holds it can't be both). Fundamentalist Protestant Sola Scriptura types differ. And both assert "I believe this because the Bible teaches it." The Bible apparently goes both ways on the issue.

This also illustrates there is no such thing as "Sola Scriptura." It's never "the Bible alone." It's always "the Bible plus." In the case of "Sola Scriptura" Protestants, it's at least, plus the "human reason" of the interpreter. (It could be plus a lot of things -- the magesterium, tradition, etc.)

And it's not just the doctrine of the "atonement." It's in fact, every single letter of TULIP and lots of other verses and chapters of scripture that present this problem. It's one reason I reject "rationalism" as a mechanism for solving the problem; as valuable a tool it can be, the method of the Bible + rules of reason to make sure the texts work with one another, lead potentially to such numerous contradictory understandings.

The top down approach to biblical understanding on the other hand solves this problem.  The Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are the two main players here. And indeed, I think this dynamic is a good argument on their behalf. But they still have to convince that they are who they claim to be: The "true Church" that traces back to Jesus. I'm not convinced, if for no other reason than they both can't be right. Both can argue each other to a Mexican Standoff regarding such exclusive truth claims. Were I convinced, I'd join the one who convinced me.

So instead that leaves some kind of Protestant option. But I've already concluded Sola Scriptura and the notion of the Bible plus a reasoned understanding can't settle differences in understanding. As a libertarian individualist, I'm interested in taking the notion of Protestant individuality (Priesthood of all believers) to its logical conclusion. Each individual, appealing to his own conscience in good faith, decides for himself not only how to understand the books of the Bible, but also which books are inspired and whether there are errors in them.

The way in which it was determined the Bible has 66 books instead of 73 is complicated and there isn't a clear objectively provable reason to endorse one canon over the other. Martin Luther in fact, when he was cutting out books of the Roman Catholic Bible wanted to -- if I understand the story right -- cut into the 66 until his other friends in his movement stopped him. (Luther actually did a Thomas Jefferson to the Bible, or vice versa.)

The Book of Revelation, among others, almost made Luther's chopping block. Now, I think that book is poetically interesting and well worth reading and reflecting on. But it is so trippy in the way it is presented my conscience instructs that no general principles can be derived from it. The Gnostic gospels are more valuable for ascertaining general truth principles. (And indeed, the early church fathers, though they believed in sacred scripture, did not believe in the Protestant "book of 66." Once they actually formed the consensus in the late 4th Century, the councils settled on books that numbered in the 70s).

As noted above, I reject "rationalism" as a place to settle these issues because it can't. Religion, yes, must meet the test of rationalism. If science tells us that, for instance, evolution is true, then a rationalistic religion must explain itself to meet that test. Thomas Aquinas noted that if religion and reason appear to contradict one another you have either bad religion or bad science.

There is still, alas, something beyond citing verses and chapters of scripture and testing according to the rules of rationalistic philosophy. Something mystical. And the mystical is something the individual must experience for herself in order for this truth sense to be understood and validated.

Rational argument and empirical evidence will not prove these truths. You don't "win" the argument by getting the last word in. A lot of people seem to operate this way; but such feeling is actually a neurosis. Truth is what it is regardless of who gets the last word in or what masses of people believe in. And because neurosis is an imperfection, true religion ought liberate one from such.

That's one reason I don't think Luther got it right. He was too neurotic. Neurosis, anger, depression, chaos, addiction often yield valuable outcomes, indeed brilliantly so. People worry themselves into productive responsibility. That crazy depressed but brilliant romantic artist. The Black Swan. Nietzsche, if I understand him right (as the Straussians present him) thought this chaotic energy was key to formulating creative authentic values that make life worth living.

Of all the Christian sects, the Quakers come closest. They call the internal understanding "the spirit" from within speaking. (Though I don't like how they got their name. Religious truth should make us be still, not make us quake.) Scottish Common Sense philosophers, many of them theistic and Christian of diverse, questionable orthodoxy spoke of internal conscience as a necessary truth testing monitoring mechanism (beyond what the Bible says in verses and chapters and what the external canons of reason and logic can prove and test for). And there is also a long rich tradition of mysticism in Christianity that spans from Meister Eckhart to Thomas Merton.

For the forms of worship I endorse the Quaker's. The Roman Catholics are the most top down in their ecclesiology. The Baptists are the 2nd most decentralized of the notable sects. As my friend and co-blogger Brian Tubbs, a Baptist Pastor himself, explains why lunatics like the Westboro Baptist Church (and I would add, Steven Anderson) can call themselves "Baptists":
The reality is that Baptist churches are congregationally autonomous and largely independent from one another, even if they do cooperate together in a fellowship or denominational organization. Such cooperation is voluntary and grants absolutely zero oversight authority to the cooperative body. The chuches [sic] remain independent. And this means that anyone can start a church and call it “Baptist.” Phelps would’ve had a much harder time starting a Catholic, Methodist, or Presbyterian church, because those denominations are structured differently. The ease with which hateful crackpots like Phelps can coopt the name “Baptist” is why many Baptist churches are, in recent years, dropping the name “Baptist” from their signs (and, in some cases, from their official name altogether).
Baptists so believe in the Protestant concept of "Priesthood of all believers" that they have no "Reverends." But they do have often loudmouthed "Pastors," speaking from the front and telling the flock how properly to interpret the faith and what to believe.

The Quakers on the other hand, take the notion of Priesthood of all believers to its logical conclusion. No loudmouthed leader from the top or in front or above telling us how to properly interpret religious truth. Rather silence, with each individual congregant having equal rights to speak, when it moves them.

Maybe the individual speaking is right, or not. That's for each other individual to agree with to the extent it resonates with his or her own conscience.


Bill Fortenberry said...

I like your statement that "Truth is what it is regardless of who gets the last word in or what masses of people believe in." And I would add that truth still remains what it is regardless of how many options may compete for that title. Your rejection of rationalism as a method of discovering the truth about the Bible seems to contradict your view of the absolute nature of truth. The mere fact that a rational approach to Scripture has the potential of leading to "numerous contradictory understandings" does not mean that it is unable to produce a true understanding.

Your rejection of the competing majesterium claims of the Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox church also contradicts your view of truth. The mere fact that these two compete with each in their claims to hold the truth does not in any way mean that neither of them can be correct.

Ironically, your rejection of these two methods of determining the truth seems to have led you to accept a method that produces an even wider range of possibilities than either of them. The Quakers are not the only ones who rely on an internal understanding as their guide to truth. Mormons follow a similar "burning in the bosom" which leads them to vastly different conclusions than those which most Quakers come to. I do not understand why your reason for rejecting rationalism and the concept of a majesterium would not also lead you to reject the value of the internal understanding of the Quakers.

Jonathan Rowe said...

-- The mere fact that a rational approach to Scripture has the potential of leading to "numerous contradictory understandings" does not mean that it is unable to produce a true understanding. --

I'll use what I observe from you as an example. When I see you arguing with Calvinists on the doctrine of the atonement, I see both of you citing verses and chapter of scripture and testing them according to canons of logic. ... But with no observable, provable winner.

You can of course respond with a link to an article and claims like "I proved that, and I showed that." But I've seen them hit the ping pong ball right back at you. And the ping pong match goes on indefinitely in a Mexican Standoff.

As a referee, that's how I call it.

I reject the Calvinist notion of "limited atonement" because my conscience tells me it's false.

Bill Fortenberry said...

I understand that you are letting your conscience be your guide, but the real question is how do you know if it is guiding you to the truth?

Jonathan Rowe said...

Ultimately you are looking for truth that you can "see" just as you can "see" 2+2=4. In more traditional religious sense, you would say "the spirit testifies" to the truth.

Bill Fortenberry said...

How do you know that your spirit always testifies to the truth and that it does not occasionally testify in error?

Jonathan Rowe said...

How do you know what you believe about the Bible is true?

Bill Fortenberry said...

Most of it I accept as true because I've put it to the test, and it has proven to be both accurate and consistent. There are a few portions that I have not been able to test yet, and I accept those based on the Bible's track record until such a time as I will be able to test those portions as well. The Bible instructs me to "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good," and I have done my best to apply that instruction to the Bible itself.

What process do you use in order to determine that your spirit leads you to truth and not to error?

Jonathan Rowe said...

"Most of it I accept as true because I've put it to the test, and it has proven to be both accurate and consistent."

What does it mean "to prove." That's a loaded term. If I bench press 500 pounds, I've proven something in an objective sense. If, on the other hand, I simply write a response and get the last word in, or get a last word in to the people I'm preaching to, the bullets are actually blanks. So you can simply claim the other person shot and miss, but your metaphorical bullet hit its mark.

That's what I get from you. I actually don't see from you that you have "proven" that you -- as opposed to the the Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, or Calvinists teach -- are right and they are wrong. And that the rationalistic method of argument can't in fact do it.

Further I think Jesus recognized this dynamic with the Pharisees, and Sadducees. They were very learned and virtuosos at arguing. Using the method of scripture + rationalistic argumentation they could argue Jesus to a Mexican Standoff.

Jesus had a different method. It was to speak in parable and hide the ball. There are different kinds of truths and battles. There's the way in which one argues in a court of law or Oxford style debate. Both those are battles that the Pharisees and Sadducees could beat just about anyone at. That's how I see you, Pastor Fortenberry.

The higher truth of the religious understanding is where the individual in an uncoerced calm and still manner figures it out for himself.

That's the whole point of Jesus speaking in parable. For people to have that necessary "aha" moment of discovery.

Bill Fortenberry said...

When I say that the Bible has proven to be accurate and consistent, I mean that this can be proven in the same manner in which 2+2 can be proven to equal 4. Of course there are many aspects of Scripture which are more complex than 2+2=4 just as there are many mathematical proofs that are vastly more complex. And the fact that the same Scriptural question has often produced competing proofs is also no different than the various competing proofs that are frequently offered for a single mathematical problem. Even the fact that some portions of Scripture are still "unsolved" finds an equivalence in the vast number of mathematical problems that remain unsolved such as the Hodge conjecture or Beal's conjecture.

This is simply the nature of rational thought. The same basic principles which provide reliable answers to simple problems can be combined and expounded upon to solve increasingly more complex problems, but as the problems and solutions become more complex, there is a related increase in the potential for human error thus producing competing solutions which require a great deal of effort to eliminate. Take Mochizuki's proof of the abc conjecture. It was presented in 2012 and is so complex that it is still in the process of being verified. The complexity of Mochizuki's proof increases the likelihood that he made a mistake, and in fact one such mistake has already been found and corrected, but the fact that such mistakes are likely is not a valid reason for rejecting the possibility of a rational proof for the abc conjecture.

In regards to Jesus' interactions with the Pharisees and the Sadducees, I can't recall any instance of them arguing Him to a "Mexican Standoff."

But my actual to you still remains unanswered. I still do not understand why your reason for rejecting rationalism and the concept of a majesterium would not also lead you to reject the value of the internal understanding of the Quakers. How do you determine whether your spirit is leading you to truth or to error?

Jonathan Rowe said...

"In regards to Jesus' interactions with the Pharisees and the Sadducees, I can't recall any instance of them arguing Him to a 'Mexican Standoff.'"

I'm not going to cite the verses and chapter of scripture but I think you are aware of them. The fact that you can't "see" the point tells me that you are suffering from the very blindness that Jesus accused (at least some of the key members of) the Pharisees of suffering. He'd point something out, and they'd always have an "answer" -- and the process could go on forever.

2+2=4 is a very simple elementary truth. You don't have to be an expert in any kind of complicated process to "see" it. And spiritual truth, such as the kind you believe in, is not in fact falsifiable in the sense that complicated scientific equations are. You are just claiming it so with a word salad. Since you are smarter than most folks in your flock, you'll get them to believe or follow you (until they doubt and fall away).

If an actual skeptic with a philosophical and/or scientific background bothers to put your claims under the microscope, they will refute you or at least give reason for doubt. To which, of course, you will respond with something and the process can go on indefinitely.

[I also think it ironic in that you seem to have embraced the notion of "primitive Christianity" which eschews reliance on any kind of complicated metaphysical or philosophical notions in order to discover true religion.]

"But my actual [question] to you still remains unanswered. I still do not understand why your reason for rejecting rationalism and the concept of a majesterium would not also lead you to reject the value of the internal understanding of the Quakers. How do you determine whether your spirit is leading you to truth or to error?"

Actually I think I did answer your question. And if you don't "understand" or "accept" it that's fine. These are truths you can't refute or emotionally coerce people into genuinely believing.

The answer is, these kinds of truth, objective and non-relativistic as they are, are still different.

How I know whether something is true: The spirit testifies to the truth and it resonates with my conscience. I can "see" it. Or not.

If it makes sense, I do believe in a unified theory of truth where truth doesn't contradict truth. So I do endorse rationalism, empiricism, science, etc. I believe in evolution and a universe billions of years old because scientists have proven this.

And the mystical truths that are "different" still have in some way be made to "fit" so truth doesn't contradict truth.

But the mystical understanding is still truth in a different sense. If the lightbulb hasn't been turned on, I can't argue it on. And so my pointing out all of the different contradictory understandings of the method of scripture + rationalism isn't meant to prove my understanding right, simply note the failure of that method to teach ultimate truth.

If you want to say my method fails, that's fine. My response is my method plays according to a different set of rules.

It's not "special pleading" either because my method is humble enough to understand that it's not entitled to a monopoly on words at the Pastor's Pulpit on Sabbath Day. Rather it's entitled to silence.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Re the Magesterium, I don't think you think the Pope (Bishop of Rome) is who he claims to be.

I'm not interested in proving he is or is not. Rather, what I do claim is that if you think, according to YOUR method of 1. scripture (which could mean 66 or less or 73 or more books in an inspired canon) plus 2. rationalism, you can, objectively speaking, "prove" the Pope is NOT who he claims to be, you are utterly fooling yourself.

Bill Fortenberry said...

Okay, so the mystical truths still have to be consistent with each other. This doesn't just mean that you endorse rationalism. Rather it means that you use rationalism as a means of verifying the truth claims of mysticism. Therefore, as much as you may deny it, your own epistemology resolves to simple rationalism. This is apparent even in your assertions of the opposite, for you have yet to claim that your mystical approach is correct because you feel in your spirit that it is correct. Instead you have attempted to provide rational arguments against rationalism and for mysticism. If you really relied on mysticism then you would have provided mystical arguments instead of rational arguments.

By the way, I'm not a pastor. I'm not sure where you picked up that idea, but it's not an honor that I can claim. I'm just a simple layman who enjoys studying the Bible.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I'm shocked that you aren't a pastor (I think I picked it up in viewing your public speaking at your church).

I endorse rationalism to a point, to the extent that any truth I believe in must be consistent with reality. And we CAN learn about and test reality through things like the scientific method and canons of logic.

But that method of knowing has its limits. If I thought truths that are falsifiable in this sense were the ONLY ACTUAL truths, I'd probably be an atheist. (Though I admit this kind of rationalism sometimes pulls me back into agnosticism).

Though my mystical philosophy does embrace the "black box" element of agnosticism. (Einstein's theory of relativity was true before it was discovered, but remained hidden in a black box. There are tons of black boxes still out there.)

But no, the truths that are beyond the limits of rationalism cannot in fact be "verified" by that method. I just don't think they contradict what rationalism tells us.