Doodle: “Isn’t Exclusivity Intolerant?”

Francisco Pradilla Ortiz - GranadFew Christian doctrines are more vehemently scorned than exclusivity. Not only does it presuppose that large swathes of people are, and have been, very wrong about who God is, but the intolerance dogmatic beliefs engender damages any hope of establishing peace on earth. I will risk losing your readership at this point by saying that I agree with these two statements: many people are wrong about whom God is and the existence of religion prevents peace on earth. As a Christian, however, I believe in exclusivity because I am convinced that there is one God, who has made himself known in the person of Jesus Christ, see my post on cause versus revelation. In this post my aim is to prove that we cannot get away from exclusivity on matters of religion and God.

It is worth saying that your mounting distaste at this point is disagreement with Jesus, and not me, for he taught that he was the only true God and the exclusive means of attaining eternal life. I always marvel at history’s love for Jesus and the appreciation of this ideal itinerant preacher because it simply ignores what he taught; either, people are unaware of Jesus’ instruction or they prefer the repackaged and domesticated Jesus, happily remaining ignorant of what he really taught. So this post will also address the view of tolerance, which sees its role as rewriting history and redefining God in order to avoid arrogant exclusivity.

Most people today think that there are only two options when it comes to religion: the first is that all religions worship the same god and the second is that all religions worship different gods.

World ReligionsThe first view, a type of radical inclusivity, is extremely dismissive of the divine for it denies him/her/it the ability to clearly reveal itself to creation, unless of course it is part of creation. It asks us to imagine a god who either has no qualms with being completely misunderstood and misrepresented or is simply incapable of making itself known. At the same time, this view says that all religions, with their widely divergent and distinctive theologies, are in fact wrong about who god is, owing to their specificity. The way this view would have us understand god is as some sort of ‘LCD god.’ More so, the problems that arise, over and above this view’s dummied down deity, is its arrogant claim to determine what God is like, and its illogical inclusion of contradicting theologies. For the sake of tolerance, this first view ignores the diverse richness of religion and replaces diverse beliefs with an inoffensive but vague god while making the offensive claim to define what that god is like, with the controlling attribute being transcendence. The second view – that there is in fact no god – has its own set of problematic assumptions. Essentially, and similarly to the first view, it concludes that every religion is wrong and therefore assumes itself to be the only right one. Since all belief about God is misled we are to conclude that disbelief has all the answers; proper knowledge, coming threateningly close to omniscience, is afforded to this select group of people, who we are meant to see as the possessors of exclusive truth. In my opinion, both of these views model proud exclusive claims, the type of claims that they set out to deny religion.

I hope you can see from my reasoning above that in many ways exclusivity is unavoidable. While the view of tolerance might be more palatable, it is not intellectually satisfying and is at many points quite offensive to or dismissive of more nuanced theology and religions.  The irony is that those who deny exclusivity in the name of tolerance do so from an intolerant and ultimately exclusive position.

Descartes’ Foundationalism: Presuppositions & Christianity

Descartes portraitUnlike the arguments for God that Aquinas bandied, which were a posteriori, relying upon inspection of the world, Anselm’s ontological argument is classed as an a priori argument. Studying Descartes one cannot help hear a clear resonance of Anselm’s ontological argument in Descartes’ perfect being. Descartes had arrived at the perfect being, by saying that it must exist; he tried to show that the perfect being gave the best explanation of our universe (McGrath, The Twighlight of Atheism, p32). But it is more how he got there, as well as the ramifications of that process, which I am interested in discussing. Descartes, though a confessed theist, has been rightly called a swing figure in the move towards naturalism. This is not obvious from the outset because Descartes was in fact a rationalist, and his philosophical Foundationalism relied solely upon thought, and not empirical examination of our world.

Firstly we will consider his process. His establishment of being by observing that he was thinking, even if that thinking was the act of doubting, was a brand new approach to epistemology. James Sire says it is here that we see the essence of the modern: the autonomy of human reason. Foundationalism meant liberation from all ancient authorities. It is important that we realize what was happening here; Descartes made the self primary in knowing. Truth was now available through human reason, nothing else was needed. So, even though Descartes next step was to invoke the perfect being as the reason that (a) our rationalism could be trusted and that (b) study of the world can proceed, it was too late; the repercussions of his rationalism, that was prior to the perfect being, would have results Descartes he never foresaw.

Secondly I will point out where Descartes’ approach took us, the ramifications of his philosophical system. It did not take long for the criticism that Descartes’ Foundationalism highlighted to conclude that this world does not really need a perfect being to explain anything, it is perfectly capable of running itself. The primacy of reason in explanation had replaced the primacy of God, Scripture or divine revelation. The next step was naturally to question whether the perfect being was needed at all. Surely, a system with human rationalism as primary did not need God at any point; a closed mechanical and material system removed Descartes’ second step, the perfect being, and shifted to trusting reason to explain reality. Another result was the accusation that this supposed perfect being cannot explain why our world is imperfect. With Descartes’ enthronement of reason and subsequent instalment of its prince, the perfect being, came difficult questions regarding pain and suffering and whether a perfect being sufficiently deals with them.

Finally, if we look at Descartes’ Foundationalism we see that there is in fact no such thing as ‘starting from nothing’; all systems are built on assumptions. Classic Foundationalism assumed that there are basis beliefs which guarantee their own truth. Descartes was that by thinking he knows that he exists. But why reach that conclusion? He assumed that thinking was proof of existence. It was from this basic assumption that he derived non-basic beliefs: first God and secondly that God’s existence means we can trust our senses and carry out inductive study of the world. But he constructed a system that assumed senses couldn’t be trusted in the first place, and reason could. The point is that all systems come with a preset of principles, or assumptions, which justify that system. Foundationalism, or rationalism, is no different.

Blake's Newton monotypeIn closing off I want to point out, drawing mostly from my last observation, that Christians need not fear philosophy. We have grounds to interact with and ask our own hard questions about other philosophical systems. Modernism, in whichever subcategory, firmly believes in the autonomy of human reason to carry out inductive and deductive study of our world. Most prominent atheists today, such as Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, are pulling the wool over the world’s eyes when they point out that theism is based on the false presupposition that God exists. I say this because they will not, for the sake of maintaining the strength of their own argument, acknowledge that they operate within a system based on assumptions about reality. They are working from the assumption that God does not exist, that he did not create the world. So there is strong rationalism. But what reason can they provide for the amount of trust that they place in the human mind alone? And there is strong empiricism. But, again, what reason do we have for trusting in our senses alone?

Because all systems are built on assumptions and beliefs are derived from them, our task is to examine the truth of both basic and the contingent beliefs as they relate to each other and to our world. People are in pursuit of a system that is consistent with itself and our experience. I believe that Christianity holds its own. The accusation that Christianity argues from a priori is misleading if the accuser fails to admit that they have their own basic beliefs. Christians believe that God created our world; he ordered it and gave us minds to study what has been made. In that statement alone we have grounds for inductive and deductive reasoning, the study of order installed by a Creator.

Evolving beyond faith, and ethics

It never really surprises me when I come across an article in public media that rails against religion (even less so when the article vilifies Christians). It was, therefore, not exactly shocking when I was presented with an article by The Times columnist, Fred Khumalo which does just that. To be fair, it was a bit of a struggle to figure out where he stands at all when he writes both, “those of us who are of the Christian faith … ” and , “Issues of faith or religion, are constructs of the human imagination”. I came to the conclusion that the former quotation was crafted to keep the reader in suspense as to where the author stands but Mr Khumalo can hardly be accused of vilifying Christians. His article is entitled, “The Darkness that zaps us from the sky” and assumes the Dennet-like arguments that religion is a construct from our evolutionary past and he complains about the fact that some people still hold on to these myths. His complaint was, I admit, understandable; the MEC for co-operative governance and traditional affairs in KZN told a family, some of whom had been killed by lightning, “We will do an investigation with a view of trying to identify the causes of the recent upsurge of fatal lightning incidents in the province.” But the idea that atheism somehow solves the world’s problems was too much for me, so I wrote a letter to Mr Khumalo.

Good day Mr Khumalo,

I have just been presented with your article on “The darkness that zaps us from the sky”. It led me to consider the way in which intellectual climate of our day has changed the weather. You are of course, quite correct in your assertion that lightning and thunder are natural phenomena. I found the idea of lightning hawkers quite amusing. Of course, the idea is not far from the indulgences peddled by the Roman Catholic Church not long ago (which could, for example buy time off purgatory). What disturbed me about your article is what you overlooked.

As a naturalist should, you affirm, “Issues of faith or religion, are constructs of human imagination.” Faith and religion are mere concoctions of our evolutionary past that have helped our ancestors to survive and with the likes of Daniel Dennet and Richard Dawkins you argue that we should move beyond them. The only thing that I would add to this is that we should move beyond our ethics too. After all, any notions of morality are only constructs of human imagination. Moral absolutes are for those who, in their cowardice hide behind religion – an antique of our evolutionary past. The call should not be merely to stop thinking that lightning had anything to do with a supreme power who could call to account for our ethical decisions but also to abandon the idea of ethics.
Sir, your worldview doesn’t work but I am more than willing to continue the discussion.

And I sincerely hope that the discussion will continue.