EPS Article Library
Convergence: Philosophy Confirms Christianity
by Timothy McGrew
In my contributions to this volume, I argue for two central claims: that we can (and ought to) observe the same standards of evidence in questions about Christianity that we would (and ought to) observe in any other historical inquiry; and that if we do, we will find in the end that the public evidence for Christianity points to something fully compatible with our best philosophical reasoning.
The other contributors disagree. Oppy thinks that the public evidence points instead toward naturalism; Moser dismisses appeals the public evidence, which in his view does not yield any significant reason to believe in a God worthy of worship, in favor of a personal existential encounter; and Oliphint denies that anyone except a Christian can evaluate the evidence rightly.
Each of them is, I think, responding to something right. To Oppy I would grant that some pieces of public evidence, considered in isolation or viewed in soft focus, point toward naturalism. But our responsibility is not to jump to a conclusion on the basis of a casual glance at part of the available evidence; it is to arrive at the best conclusions we can based on a careful consideration of all of the evidence available. And that evidence is very rich, much richer than most skeptics or even most Christians commonly believe.
I certainly agree with Moser that Christianity involves more than a mere intellectual assent to propositions. One need have no very deep acquaintance with the New Testament to realize that Christians are called to a relationship with their Creator. But an intense private religious experience is something else. It is rather like the white stone mentioned in Revelation that has a new name written that no man knows except the one who receives it. Moser seems to think that such experiences are normative for all Christians. I cannot agree with him here. And speaking as someone who has never had such an experience, I am grateful for the abundance of public evidence, evidence that I believe Moser severely underestimates.
Not everyone is willing, of course, to look at the evidence and draw the appropriate conclusions. All of us have preferences, preconceptions, and aversions that tend to color our evaluation of evidence, and those biases are particularly apt to crowd in on us when we are trying to consider religious questions. If Oliphint were content to draw our attention to this point as a difficulty, I would heartily agree with him. But in my opinion he exaggerates this very real difficulty into an impossibility. And here I am faced with a curious irony. I believe that the evidence both of philosophical reflection and of proper biblical exegesis strongly favors the evidentialist position that I espouse. In particular, I believe that many people are able, with good will and without first capitulating on the substantive issues, to see past the biases they bring to disputed questions and acknowledge the weight of the evidence. I aspire to be such a person myself. And I should very much like to persuade Oliphint on this point. But his persistence in his own position strikes me as an instance of the sort of evidential intransigence that he attributes to all non-Christians.
In my contributions to this volume I have tried to outline some neglected lines of evidence and argument. I hope that interested readers will follow up on the references I have given, as I am persuaded that they are all worthy of serious investigation. Rather than restate those suggestions, I want here to highlight a few points that seem often to be misunderstood or misevaluated.
Most of the arguments that I find persuasive are either broadly inductive or else make use of uncertain premises that stand themselves in need of empirical support. In approaching the matter this way, I am deliberately stepping away from one tradition in natural theology according to which arguments for the existence of God are deductive in form and proceed from premises that are either intuitively or demonstratively certain. That tradition has able advocates, and I am not interested in criticizing it. My objective here, however, has been to exhibit the kind of arguments that I find most persuasive. Those arguments form what is commonly known as a cumulative case.
A consequence of this approach is that the individual arguments may not be designed to establish, by themselves, the full range of the divine attributes or even a subset that would guarantee that there is a God worthy of worship. Moser, in particular, thinks this is a grave problem with a cumulative case of the kind I have sketched. So do many skeptics. But sometimes they reconsider and withdraw the criticism. Joseph Barker, a prominent Victorian freethinker who underwent a crisis of doubt and returned to the Christian faith, said after his reconversion that in hindsight he saw the design argument as a stepping stone to belief in the Christian God – one that he had, as a skeptic, irrationally refused to use. I think the metaphor is a good one. Most of these arguments are stepping stones, available for those who are willing to use them, and are none the worse for their playing such a modest role in the overall case. This is, after all, the way in which we unhesitatingly reason in everyday life. We seek explanations, put together varied pieces of information, and make use of overlapping non-deductive inferences. It would be odd if such reasoning were subject to some special sort of problems just here but not elsewhere.
Some people are worried by an evidential approach because they think that, judged by such a standard, most ordinary people are not justified in their religious beliefs. I have some sympathy with those who have this worry. Many theists (including some who are professional philosophers) could have better reasons than they in fact do for believing in God. On the other hand, I am not nearly as pessimistic about the average believer’s epistemic state as some critics seem to think an evidentialist should be. Take, for example, the question of the trustworthiness of the Gospels. There are many marks of authenticity and touches of realism in them that frequently do – and should – elicit even a casual reader’s assent. The transparent candor with which the writers record embarrassing details about the apostles (see, for example, the boastfulness of the disciples in Mark 14:31, their cowardice in Mark 14:50, their stupidity in Mark 6:52, their incompetence in Mark 9:18, and their absence without leave at the empty tomb in Mark 16:1-8) is one of these touches. The inclusion of unexplained allusions (such as Jesus’ use of the term “Boanerges” in Mark 3:17) is another. Ordinary readers without special philosophical or philological training are quite competent to pick up on such marks of authenticity. They may well be reasonable in sticking to their convictions even if they are somewhat inarticulate when pressed for the grounds of those beliefs.
I have less sympathy for those who criticize the evidential approach from a theological standpoint. Though the Bible offers us salutary warnings about the dangers of an overweening confidence in our own intellectual abilities or the scope of our knowledge, neither Scripture nor a sound systematic theology affords the slightest ground for despising reason itself. And this is as it should be. For without reason, we would be at a loss to adjudicate the competing claims of proposed revelations.
Even to talk of adjudicating such claims is to run afoul of some theological critics who object that it is blasphemous to speak of judging the Word of God when we should rather say that the Word judges us. But this is at best a mere play on words. When we are rightly persuaded that a revelation has come from God, we are indeed in no position to pass judgment on the Almighty. But we have both the right and the responsibility to examine carefully the credentials of a proposed revelation, lest we should embrace a clever fraud. Piety is a vital thing in its proper place and directed toward its proper object. But it is not a substitute for technique.