Thursday, October 27, 2011

Apologetics 101 Part 2: The Truth Will Set You Free

The following post continues a series that began in the Redeemer newsletter with the title, "Apologetics 101 Part 1: Mr. Spock and World Religions." This is an ongoing introduction to Christian apologetics series that will be frequently posted throughout the next year or so. Stay tuned for the remainder of the series. And thanks for reading.
What is truth? Which truth? Whose truth? Yours? Mine? This spiritual figure or that? His holy book or hers? Which religious claim to truth is the real one? Will the real religion please stand up?! Last month’s newsletter article busted the myth of religious harmony. For it is a logical impossibility that all the world’s religions are saying the same thing. It is certainly possible that they are all wrong; but it is entirely impossible that they are all true. This month’s article begins to answer the next part of the religious question: how do we know which one out of the thousands of the world religions, if any, is true?
We are right back to the question of the day. What is truth? Long before A Few Good Men hit the screen and even before Pontius Pilate uttered the words, Satan toyed with this very same question in the Garden of Eden. “Did God really say?” In other words, “Is God’s Word true and reliable?”
What is truth? That was Pilate’s question to Jesus during his interrogation.  And people have been coming up with failed answer after failed answer. Many claim the question – what is truth? – can be answered by common sense, intuition, authority, sincerity or even religious experience. As we will discover, these sources of truth are entirely inadequate responses to the question.
Here a little bit of logic goes a long way. It also happens to be useful common ground in talking with non-Christians. Which is why, when we are trying to answer the question, “what is truth?” we must avoid begging the question. This is not what kids do on family vacations: “Are we there yet?” Rather, begging the question means simply to assume the conclusion you are trying to prove. For example: “Miracles do not exist because there is uniform experience against miracles; I have never seen a miracle; therefore miracles do not exist.” Or, “We know god exists because the book says so and god wrote the book so we know god exists.” In this manner, begging the question leads to another logical error: circular reasoning.
As we continue to defend the Christian faith through a well-reasoned argument, we do well to avoid begging the question and circular reasoning. Therefore, in good order, we begin first, with exploring the answer to the truth question.
Truth is fundamental to every human endeavor. Science, Law, History, Medicine, not to mention the entire education system of Western Civilization (and the list could go on) rests on the foundation that truth and knowledge are attainable. Both intellectual (is it true?) and existential meaning (what do I need?) in life is built upon truth. In addition we should also add morality, ethics and human rights.
So, when it comes to the quest for truth, let’s test some of the examples mentioned above and see why they fail to give us an adequate source of truth in defending the Christian faith. Though hardly exhaustive, here are several common ways people claim to have the truth on their side of the argument.
·         Common Sense and Intuition.  Common sense, as we well know, is not common at all. Quite the opposite seems to be true in our daily lives. Furthermore, people of incompatible religious  positions all claim to have common sense on their side. This cannot be so. If common sense were an accurate source of truth, we all would have the same common beliefs. Intuition is similar. If our intuition was a reliable source of truth for making religious claims, we all would believe the same thing. Intuition can be wrong just as common sense is uncommon. How do you know the voice of your common sense is really the voice of God or the voice of the devil? Many people claim to receive special messages from God – messages which frequently have to do with your wallet.

·         Appealing to Authority (or multiple sources of authority).  Many claim to have authority on their side: Muslims have the Qur’an, Mormons have the Book of Mormon, Christians have the Old and New Testament, and Jews reject the New but retain, at least in some manner, the Old Testament. Making a claim to authority is not the same as establishing the truth of the authority any more than my opinions and claims to know everything about the weather qualify me to be a meteorologist. We must ask whether or not the source of authority itself is trustworthy. Just because an authority claims to be from God hardly means it is. Plenty of people on the boardwalk in Venice Beach claim the same thing but are void of all trustworthiness. Or consider that Mormon doctrine teaches that the Garden of Eden was located somewhere near Jackson County, Missouri. And that God spoke to Joseph Smith by means of special golden plates which have never been found and have no archaeological evidence whatsoever suggesting any of the places or names in the Book of Mormon actually existed outside of Joseph Smith’s brain.
Having multiple sources of authority only further complicates the problem. Every religious position has a source of authority, whether that source is a book, a person, or some kind of inner burning of the bosom. Again, we know that they all could be false, but not all of these claims to authority can be true. The question is, how do we determine which ones are false? In order to answer that we must test and examine the source of authority from the outside, with a criteria that is separate from the source of authority you are studying. This will yield an objective answer. Stay tuned in the months to come for this kind of criteria applied to the defense of the truth of the Christian faith. Because when it comes to the authority of the Old and New Testaments, we can have strength and confidence in the historical reliability and veracity both in the manner of transmission of the text and the trustworthiness of what it says.

·         Sincerity.  Many have thought that the sincerity of your faith is a good factor in determining whether or not something is true. Sincerity is not a good source for truth. Stalin was very sincere about his systematic extermination of political opponents just as Jim Jones convinced his followers that the Kool-aid they were drinking was sincerely good for them. Both examples demonstrate that you can be sincere about many things, and more importantly, sincerely wrong. Even sincerity of faith is a dangerous position to hold. Many religious teachers have said, “If you just believe enough, or pray hard enough, or are sincere in your faith, you’d know these things to be true.” How do you measure sincerity? You can’t have faith in faith. That’s nonsense. Neither is faith magic. What is critically important is the object of faith. I may sincerely believe that my pet rabbit, Milo, will lay a golden egg on Easter morning worth millions – but my faith would be foolishly misplaced. And similarly, I may sincerely doubt that Disney Land is in Anaheim, California rather than in Minot, North Dakota. In either case, neither my faith nor my doubts change the underlying facts. And facts are stubborn things.

·         Religious Experience.  We’ve all met people like this. Testimonies and personal experiences abound. However, there are just as many religious experiences as there are religions. They can’t all be right because they make mutually contradictory claims to truth. There’s another logical problem here. We can’t equate “what is” with “what ought to be.” This is also known as the sociological fallacy. Here’s an example: If we say, “65% of college students engage in x behavior,” we have said nothing of whether or not x behavior is true, much less right or wrong. Simply claiming truth on the basis of a religious experience does not in fact make it true. This is falls into the “buy it and try it” trap. “Give Jesus, or Buddhist meditation, Christian Science or the Kool-aid a try, you’ll like it. It works for me!” Religious positions require total commitment on the part the person. The question is, is it true? And this requires investigation. Something Christianity is entirely open to since it has nothing to hide, no magic pills or goofy drinks. St. Paul lays it all out on the table, read 1 Corinthians 15.

So, if all of these methods are inadequate, what then, is the best way to go about investigating a religious truth claim? And where does Christianity fit into all of this? In the coming months, this Apologetics 101 series will continue and follow up on this question leading us to explore the empirical/historical method, used by lawyers, historians and apologists to give us the best argument in defending the Christian faith. The next installment, Apologetics 101, part 3 will look at the best way to investigate any religious truth claim and apply that same method to the Christian faith.
Thankfully, when it comes to the Christian faith – what we believe, teach, confess and defend – we don’t have to rely upon the level of our genuine sincerity, the power and emotion of our religious experience, our common sense, or even circular reasoning. We have historical, trustworthy, eyewitness testimony about the life and work of Jesus who took on human flesh to suffer and die for the sins of the world. He claimed to be the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6) and backed that up by dying and rising from the dead. With that in mind, the question is not really: what is truth? Rather, who is truth? And if you get the answer to that question right, all the others fall into place.
If you’re interested in reading more about defending the Christian faith in a simple, understandable way, check out the following books:
·         Religion on Trial by Craig A. Parton, Esq.
·         The Defense Never Rests by Craig A. Parton, Esq. available from Concordia Publishing House.
·         Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.
·         History, Law and Christianity by John Warwick Montgomery.

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