Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Isn't Christianity about believing without evidence?

It's a common charge from popular atheists like Richard Dawkins. Christianity is just blind faith and a disregard of the facts of history. I can sympathise with that. Christians can be overheard saying thinks like "Faith is spelled Risk" and talk about leaps of faith which can make it sound like an exercise in intellectual suicide. Jumping into the deep end when you don't know if the water is deep enough is foolish, and if you know there is no water then it's insanity.

Dawkins persistently demands scientific proof for everything proving:
Talk of scientific fact is fine as far as it goes. But not everything can be proved with science. Planetary orbits can be observed but theory of evolution probably depends at least as much on philosophy and history as it does on science. We all believe things for many reasons - sometimes we even believe true things for wrong reasons. We're complicated and messy people, attempting to make intellectual and emotional sense of the world around us. Responding rightly and wrongly to where we find ourselves.

Video: Amy Orr-Ewing - Faith vs. Reason

Often we deal with 'beyond reasonable doubt' - with historical evidence, the testimony of witnesses because most things aren't repeatable scientific experiments. Dawkins approach tends to beg the question, to put the cart before the horse. He's long since decided that Christianity is evil fantasy, and so automatically excludes any evidence that might support it. If you exclude all the evidence in favour of something you're likely to side against it.

We might well think RESURRECTION is an anomaly - Christianity would agree - but it would also say: follow the evidence. Suppose for a moment that there isn't a great conspiracy and the documents we call the New Testament today might just have something to tell us, where will that take us? I'm not immediately asking that you accept them - but just to hear their testimony and then to weigh it.

High profile Christian leader Nicky Gumbel has been on The One Show and in the Independent recently saying that he was a non-Christian law student at Cambridge and then he read the biographical accounts of Jesus and was astounded by what it found when he started to see for himself what they said. Christian after Christian tells the same story... "I didn't believe and then I read the eyewitness testimony about Jesus and everything changed." In my work with students a key practice as has been to distribute this evidence so people can take a look.

These documents, which we can trace to closer to their source than pretty much any other documents in antiquity - and which are well quoted and alluded to in many other early sources, do call for faith but they do it in particular ways. Four of the writers of these documents:
  • Peter writes a letter in which he insists that Christianity only makes sense if it is rooted in historical events, something that can't be said for many other worldviews. Christianity makes itself hostage to history.
  • Paul writes to say that if the resurrection of Jesus didn't happen then Christians are the most pitiful people. He also spent his days arguing and persuading people that Jesus was the expected Christ, arguing from eyewitnessed historical event concerning his life, death and resurrection.
  • Luke says he's carefully researched the witnesses as he prepared Paul's legal defence for the courts of Rome.
  • John says he has selected a small sample of possible evidence that we might be persuaded that Jesus is the Christ the Jews expected.
Sticking with John, the climax of his short account of Jesus' life is the famous story of so called Doubting Thomas. The story is curious because it tells us that one of Jesus' closest followers didn't seem to believe that he had risen from the dead. Actually we see that none of the men were persuaded at first. And indeed neither were the women who had gone to anoint Jesus' dead body. Despite many clear predictions that Jesus would be resurrected John is clear: we didn't believe.

Then, the women and the men (apart from Thomas) met the resurrected Jesus. Face to face with a man who had been professionally and publicly executed three days earlier. Thomas wasn't persuaded by their testimony but insisted on having the same evidence they had had. He wasn't any different to them. None of them were into blind faith but to persuasive evidence. Living 2000 years ago didn't make them stupid or naive.

John, one of those first witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus says: "We saw, we touched. And we know that you can't. And because of that we wrote it down and widely distributed this testimony in written and verbal form. We went and told everyone." John reports Jesus saying to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” -- can a case be made that there is a greater benefit to be had by responding to the testimony of the eyewitnesss than by having been in the room that day? Not, blessed at those who believe when there is no evidence, but blessed are those who respond to the evidence.

Everything rests on evidence. This isn't just a vague loyalty to a "god" but belief in the God we know when we know Jesus based on the testimony of those who met him and turned the world upside down with their message. It goes something like these images which I got from Michael Patton:

Those call for "faith" in but Christianity asks whether 'beyond reasonable doubt' you can believe what is claimed to have happened in history...
In addition to which come the world-changing implications. If death is no longer the end then life looks very different. And John says - the big claim is that this Jesus who was publicly executed by Rome's soldiers was raised from death - and so is the long expected Christ who will bring about the re-creation of this world, who invites people from all peoples and cultures to eternal life which isn't some arbitrary paradise but relationship with him and his Father by the Holy Spirit who will live in us.

And that adds to historical evidence personal experience. As John wrote to early churches: That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

I suppose you could do a scientific experiment on it in the same way that you could carry out an experiment on my marriage - but it'd feel like the wrong kind of way to examine it. There's a knowledge that is more than empirical observation. A knowledge that is experiential. The opportunity to taste and see life in a meaning-drenched universe, an intellectually rigorous, multi-sensory knowing that cuts to the heart.

The early Christians - like those who've come after them - proved, reasoned, argued. And people knew that was what was happening to them. They took the evidence of the Old Testament, the eyewitnesses of Jesus, the experience of day to day life and showed how Jesus can neither be ignored or dismissed. They told a beautiful truth. The Old Testament described such preachers as people with beautiful feet - tellers of good news, the kind of thing that can brighten your eyes, comfort you in your brokenness, meet you with Jesus.

A Christian is someone who has come to know this Jesus - and spends their life deepening that relationship one small step at a time. Would you consider the evidence, read a gospel account?

Pascal's wager says that on balance its better to believe in God because if you're right you gain everything and if you're wrong you lose nothing. In a pluralistic society the question would remain "Which god?" but that's not Pascal's point - he's exposing that we're if we were neutral then of course we'd believe, but we're not - our default setting is unbelieving... unlike Doubting Thomas who was prepared to consider the evidence. Start here?

3 comments:

  1. Luke says he's carefully researched the witnesses as he prepared Paul's legal defence for the courts of Rome.

    can you provide some references, internal or external, about Luke preparing Paul's legal defense?

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  2. Sure. I'm taking the argument from Phil Moore's commentary on Acts.

    Essentially he says "most excellent" - the title given to Theophilus is also applied to Felix in Acts 24.
    Phil also argues that the shape of the books, showing the innocence of Jesus and Paul, the repeated legal defence material (in Acts) doesn't look like just a story of the church, but more like the story of why you should acquit Paul, and how bad it would be to hold charges against him.

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  3. I'm wondering how your statement that the Resurrection was witnessed by the public fits with Acts 10:40-41, where Peter says to Cornelius and co:

    "but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead."

    ReplyDelete