This is a response to an essay by my friend Josh on his own personal philosophy. To save scrolling, I have broken this response down into three parts. This is the third. I’ve also placed a complete, printable version of the essay on my website.
If all religions base themselves on unverifiable claims of revelation from God (or gods, or enlightenment, or whatever), then arbitrary criteria are the best we can do. We should at least be honest about it. However, I do not believe that Christianity bases itself entirely on unverifiable claims. I will not comment on other religions, since I must admit my ignorance of them, however I will claim to know a little about the faith to which I hold.
While we do claim the bible as ‘inspired’, the heart of Christianity is not the bible, but Christ. We centre our belief on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus did not claim to be yet another prophet claiming to speak on God’s behalf. He did not claim to have the truth or to speak the truth, but to be the truth. The unmovable mover, the unknowable knower, the ultimate truth, made himself known by becoming a human being. ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.’ And it was not just his followers who said this about him, but Christ himself who said ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’
Now, on its own, this does not really address Josh’s concern that we cannot know anything with 100% certainty. So what if Jesus claimed to have perfect knowledge if I do not have perfect knowledge by which to judge his claim? We can never be certain that he was correct. It is still an unverifiable claim for knowledge of the divine. But Christ did not simply claim that he was the Son of God and you can take it or leave it. He also backed up his claims by predicting that he would rise from the dead. If Christ was not the Son of God, the promised king, then God would not raise him from the dead. If he did indeed rise from the dead, then God is in essence verifying Jesus’ claims.
So everything hangs on the question of whether or not the resurrection did actually happen. If Christ did not rise from the dead, then he was clearly insane, and we might as well look elsewhere for a moral code or world-view that fits well with our own particular preferences. If Christ did rise from the dead however, then we have to take Christ’s claims seriously and all that that entails.
It is at this point that Christianity is open to inspection. If we can show that the historical event of Jesus’ death and resurrection did not happen, then we can reject Christianity as false. And so, we can examine the bible as a collection of historical documents (not a history textbook, as some are fond of accusing Christians of doing). We can also examine other documents from the period and see what they have to say. Thus, Christianity is open to historical analysis.
Now, to make a sweeping generalisation, post-moderns are usually suspicious of history. ‘History is always written by the winners’, is the catch-phrase that allows historical knowledge to be called into question. We must be fair however. Certainly, historical study is not free from bias or motive, but neither is science. History is a well-established discipline with its own methods for verification. Historical discoveries are published and peer-reviewed, just as scientific discoveries are.
Now, even historical analysis does not give us 100% certainty that we are correct. Nor do Christians claim that they have 100% certain, literal knowledge of everything there is to know about God. But, if our historical investigation supports it, we can say with a degree of certainty that Christ rose from the dead, just as I can say with a degree of certainty that if I drop a sphere from a height, it will accelerate at roughly 9.8 metres per second squared. If this is true however, then I must be rational about it. If Christ did rise from the dead we must take his claim to be the only way to know God seriously. Similarly, I must reject claims that there are other ways to know God.
In saying this, I am not saying that I have 100% literal certainty that my belief is right and other beliefs are wrong. But if I am going to be rational and realistic, I must accept the consequences if Jesus did or did not rise from the dead. If not, then the lynch-pin falls out of Christianity. If Jesus did rise, then the consequence is that other religions must be wrong. In a similar way, if I accept that Newtonian physics are an accurate description of the way bodies interact for scales greater than a nanometre, then I must reject classical element philosophies that explain things using earth, air, fire and water.
In this sense, whether I find Christianity easy to accept or not because of my context and background is irrelevant. Yes, Christianity may make less sense to someone else from a very different context, but we are not making an arbitrary decision between equally tenable, but unverifiable propositions. If I were an arts student I may find the nuances of quantum physics difficult to grasp. Even as an educated engineer, I still find quantum physics difficult. But my difficulty or ease in understanding it does not take away its explanatory power. If quantum mechanics failed to explain and predict atomic and sub-atomic phenomena, then we would reject it, since its claim is to explain these things. If Jesus predicted that he would rise from the dead as testimony to his claims, then we can likewise accept or reject his claims on the historical evidence for his resurrection.
Furthermore, we must apply our ground rules of rationality, contextual understanding and humility all together. We can assert that we don’t have to take everything the bible says literally. And that is true. But when we read the bible we look at it rationally. We attempt to understand what the writer was trying to say to the audience at that time period. We place it in context. Certainly, when Jesus spoke ‘he was talking to a crowd of [J]ews and gentiles in [a] small valley in the [Middle East], 200 years ago, and was [in] a backend of the [Roman Empire]. They did not know [modern] [Asia] existed, of the [Americas], nor of the teaching of [Confucius]. There was a heavy influence of many teachings by the classical [Greek] schools, largely thanks to them [preserving] the Old testament on [Jews] behalf via the [Septuagint]. That and the technology of the [Roman Empire] being underpinned by [Greek enlightenment].’ This is all true. It does not mean however, that Jesus was stupid. When he claimed to be the Son of God, he was not claiming to be the Son of God only if you are a Jewish peasant born in the first century living under Roman occupation. Let’s not use context as an excuse to throw rationality and realism out the window.
Not everything in the bible is intended to be taken literally, but neither is everything intended to be taken figuratively. Even less is every interpretation of it equally ‘truthful’, for then we remove rationality and become relativists. We use rationality and contextual understanding to look at what the bible says for itself, while humbly acknowledging that we are finite, limited, even sinful human beings. When we do so, we find claims about Jesus that we must take seriously if we want to call ourselves Christians.
So, if I make an exclusive claim that Christianity is the only way to know God, then it is not because I am claiming 100% literal knowledge that I am right and everyone else is wrong. It is rather, that I am being rational and realistic in understanding what it says. If I am convinced that it is true, after examining the evidence, then this is a consequence of that belief. If I say otherwise, then instead of being humble, I am actually being arrogant. I use the guise of ‘context’ to trivialise and compartmentalise what they say until their words have no meaning. I take away the author’s voice and replace it with my own. I might as well be a relativist and simply go with whatever feels good.
The post-modern demand for humility is legitimate. We must be careful when making claims to knowledge of the truth. We must also be careful not to fall into the relativistic trap of making texts say only what we want them to. To do so is nothing but hypocrisy—replacing one form of arrogance for another.
- John 1:14
- John 14:6
- Please forgive me if you are an arts student.