Doodle: “It Doesn’t Matter What You Believe as Long as You’re Sincere”

Our world loves to trade in platitudes when it comes to questions about truth, morality, and tolerance. For example the statement, “exclusivity is intolerant” sounds gracious and diplomatic, understanding and inclusive, even if in reality it is a thoughtless and logically inconsistent statement. Another cliché, which I want to briefly tackle in this post, says, “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere.” In other words, if someone earnestly believes something then who are you to tell them that they are wrong? This statement supposedly draws the line between arrogant fundamentalism and tolerant inclusivity. But in the points below I want to challenge this platitude, which essentially claims that sincerity trumps truth.

It is inconsistent

What I mean is that no one actually thinks that you can believe anything as long as you are sincere, and that no one consistently abides by that position. To swap the words around: most of us agree that sincerity does not equal truth or validate what is false. Very few people believe that the holocaust was a good thing yet Hitler’s zealous sincerity is undeniable. Thus British philosopher John Hicks has said, “To say that whatever is sincerely believed and practised is, by definition, true, would be the end of all critical discrimination, both intellectual and moral” (McGrath, Bridge-building). No one defends defunct truth claims, such as bride burning in India or the daily human sacrifices carried out by the Aztecs. We simply do not consistently hold to the claim that people can believe whatever they want if they are sincere. When we say that we reveal intellectual laziness and logical inconsistency, which leads into the next point.

It prizes ignorance at worst, and apathy at best

What I really suspect is behind the sincere faith argument is indifference and an unwillingness to engage critically or endeavour to reach conclusions about truth. It says more than, ‘We can’t really know,’ and means something closer to, ‘I don’t care.’ When I state that people can believe whatever they want to I gain the license to give no thought to what I believe. Therefore it is an active decision to live ignorantly in the dark, though it appears enlightened and tolerant. The postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty writes, “Nobody except the occasional university first year believes that two incompatible opinions on an important topic are equally good”. Believing that sincerity trumps truth is the decision to remain ignorant, a refusal to engage thoughtfully, and ultimately rests on apathy. 

It is arrogant and offensive

ApologeticsThe implication of this position is ironically intolerant. Hidden in the statement is the insinuation that everyone else has got it wrong. All those shades of truth in the world, theological statements, philosophies, world views, and belief systems are wrong, or maybe right in part. As Christian apologist Alister McGrath says, “It is not individual religions that have access to truth; it is the western liberal pluralist.” When I smugly suggest that you can believe anything granted you are sincere I am making a value judgment on what you believe: it is insufficient, inadequate, and incomplete. My position of radical tolerance supplants your position, with a condescending dismissal. Because the statement says, It does not actually matter what you believe. Whatever beliefs you hold, build your identity and meaning around, are irrelevant.

It is a dogmatic faith position

Finally, the statement has an underlying theological position, reducing any concept of God to a sort of LCD (which I have written about in the post linked above). Timothy Keller writes in The Reason for God, “Ironically, the insistence that doctrine do not matter is really a doctrine itself. It holds a specific view…touted as superior and more enlightened than the beliefs of others. So the proponents of this view are guilty of the very thing they forbid in others.” This belief – contained in the statement we are discussing – undermines most of what many people believe. When someone claims that people can believe anything as long as they are sincere what you should hear is that there is no truth. You also should not miss the note of patronising dogmatism, which side-lines all other beliefs and makes sincerity more important than someone’s actual position.

Galatians: Faith in Christ or the Faithfulness of Christ

Nestled in the tightly argued and exegetically demanding section of Galatians 2:15-21 we read this: “A person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (2:16, ESV; similarly NIV). But if you use another translation, such as the NET, you would have read this: “No one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.”

Codex Sinaiticus - Comma JohanneumThe first translates the Greek to mean that we are made right with God through placing our faith in Jesus Christ. However the latter renders the verse to mean that we are justified, declared righteous, by the faithfulness of Christ. There is a technical linguistic term for each of these, respectively: the objective genitive and the subjective genitive. For example, the phase ‘the love of God’ can mean: our love for God (objective genitive) or God’s love (subjective genitive). Usually context would inform our reading of the phrase. The same is true in Greek. Only in this instance translators are divided, with most admitting that the Greek cannot be argued definitively in favour of one or the other. So which is it?

I would be foolhardy to harbour any notions of settling a debate in which both sides boast the support of formidable scholars. But we must do business with the text and its context. Before offering my trifling opinion, it is worth stating that we would lose nothing theologically if we translated every instance solely one way or the other. For there are passages that unambiguously develop the significance of Christ’s obedience (Romans 5:19; Philippians 2:8) and that emphasise our faith in Christ (Galatians 3:1-5; Ephesians 2:8-9). I would also add, a point made by Carson, in his superb essay Approaching the Bible, we misconstrue how language works if we attempt to read a text while entertaining the whole semantic range of words or phrases (which is what the Amplified Bible sets out to do). In our reading of Galatians we must settle on a translation.

Mihaly MunkacsyWorking through the first half of Galatians I have became convinced that the subjective genitive fits more naturally with its surrounds. At first I thought it was simply a matter of avoiding repetition, since the next phrase in 2:16 straightforwardly reads: “We also have believed in Christ Jesus.” But as Schreiner rightly responds, ‘Instead of thinking these verses are redundant, we can read them as emphatic, stressing the necessity of faith.’ The reason I am more in favour of reading 2:16 as “the faithfulness of Christ” is tied to my understanding of an issue central to the letter: the works of the law. Paul is tackling readers who were confusing faith alone with a faith augmented by obedience. As I have written elsewhere, 1st century Jews did not view religion as either grace or works; so it follows that the Jewish believers at Galatia struggled to distinguish between sola fidei and faithful obedience. Therefore it is not unlikely that Paul’s emphasis extends beyond faith in Christ alone to the faithfulness of Christ alone.

These posts are meant to be short, so let me conclude. The wonder of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone is that the quality of my faith depends less on my grip and far more on the object: Christ. This challenges us to shift confidence away from ourselves and solely onto Jesus Christ, the one with whom the Father was pleased. I need that reminder, as the Galatians did, because my own faithfulness, obedience, and even my faith in Christ can subtly become the reason for my confidence, when it should never be anything other than his obedience and death on my behalf.

Technology: Saviour or Servant

Molech and RorshachSince first seeing the film in 2009 and subsequently as well as hurriedly reading the graphic novel, I have found The Watchmen fascinating. Few stories, in my opinion, so cleverly provide the backdrop for philosophical conversation, raise such interesting questions about morality, and underline the sense of hopelessness often experienced in our human condition. But my purpose in mentioning The Watchmen is not to unpack its many vivid themes; I simply want to point out one of its more poignant episodes to introduce this post. Following the death of the Comedian, Rorschach is bent on tracking down the “mask killer” and breaks into the home of the former arch-villain Molech, now Edgar Jacobi, an aged and dying man. After discovering illegal cancer medication Rorschach asks Jacobi what kind of cancer he is suffering from, and his response is almost heartbreaking: “Well, now, y’know that kind of cancer that you eventually get better from? Well, that ain’t the kind of cancer I got.”

Those words were in the back of my mind as I prepared a talk on technology for the teenagers at my church. I made the point that when it comes to cancer we have led to believe it is only a matter of time until we can cure all forms, for technology’s march is unrelenting. We might even think, If the fictional Jacobi lived in our 21st century then he most likely would not be living his long defeat. But let me state a highly unpopular possibility: we may never eradicate cancer. Unfortunately that is the reality facing all of us who inhabit a creation bound to decay, groaning for redemption. Please do not think I am for a second making light of cancer and the immense suffering it causes, for those with it along with those who stand by them and are often left behind. Let me also say that this is not a post about cancer. However, I think it is a presumptuous and proud view endemic to many of us, which is convinced it is only matter of time before cancer is conquered by medical research. Furthermore, I worry that many of us fall into the trap of ascribing a godlike attribute of unassailability to technology, that which we have made with our own hands; we begin to worship the created rather than the Creator.

Essays on Anthropology As Elaine Graham says in her essay, The “end” of the human or the end of the “human”?, “For some commentators, the advent of new technologies will protect us against physical disease and vulnerability. Technologies, long the means of enabling humanity to compensate for physical limitations by providing instruments of comfort and utility, now offer the opportunities to overcome the limitations of the flesh entirely.” In the same paper Graham paraphrases the prominent atheist David Noble, doing his best parody of a preacher, exclaiming how new technologies are “instruments of deliverance…possessors of the power to transport us their users into a sacred realm of ‘transcendence,’ free from the encumbrances of the flesh.” She notes how the arrival at this new religious cult, which even reproaches “techno-pagans” (Erik Davis), is traceable to the Enlightenment mood, or secular humanism, “In its emphasis on personal liberty, free enquiry, and self-determination.” What we are seeing is, “A distortion of modernity’s faith in the benevolence of human reason, producing the hubristic belief that humanity alone is in control of history.” Technology, etymologically meaning “craft” or “skill”, has been transfigured from servant to Saviour; technology that was once held in our hands, now has many lying prostrate at its feet.

The great danger in this modern assumption of unassailability is not merely that it disappoints our faith in it, but that it subtly derails our faith in the Creator God. Paul to the Romans, which I have alluded to above, writes that our present sufferings are incomparable with the glory to be revealed, our hope of redemption that is now unseen. Technology might never eradicate cancer; it will never bring about redemption and glorification. And we must resign ourselves to that first clause, lest we fall into the trap of believing it might offer us the latter. Elaine Graham rightly asserts the distinguishing mark of humanity as a species is the imago Dei, “Understanding of human creativity as participation in divine creativity.” Technology is a gift from our Creator, who has made us like him, to be creators. We are endowed with dreams that become designs and ultimately realities. Yet Graham concludes that we cannot forget that our creativity is framed within our creatureliness and interdependence, “This offers a necessary reminder that our technologies are ultimately not our own, that our inventions, like the whole of creation, make sense only when offered up as part of a larger, divine purpose.”

I have addressed two related idolatrous attitudes in this post, so I will conclude by trying to pull them apart. The first is the hubris of modern secularism, which tries to convince us that humanity controls history, as the masters of our fate and captains of our souls. This is closely tied to the second, more beguiling, attitude that is overawed by the apparently inevitable progress of technology. It is this second attitude that is incredulous at my statement: “We may never eradicate cancer.” And I think it is this attitude many Christians living in the 21st century undiscerningly adopt. We will do well to remember that we cannot set this groaning creation free from decay and futility, regardless of how far our technology takes us.

Hey, Parents, Leave Them Teachers Alone

faitheducationI recently came across an article1 in which the idea of education that is self-consciously ideological has again come under fire. The ideas are not new or even surprising, what I did find surprising was that these recurring ideas, which rest on patently fallacious reasoning, continue to be promoted. I decided, therefore, to take the opportunity to outline the argument’s main flaws.

Firstly, the idea that when taught something that I don’t believe I am being oppressed. This is all too common an argument in our society; even the biggest, most vocal groups lay claim to the poor persecuted minority card (strangely, it’s never the actual minority groups that get any kind of hearing). Surprisingly however, it is not oppression to be taught something with which you disagree, in fact, it’s really okay to disagree. It only becomes oppression when it’s not okay to disagree. So the atheist in church who is made to say the creed, is oppressed. Likewise, the Christian who is required to find “(ultimate) meaning in activity” in her Occupational Therapy studies is oppressed. To claim that you’re oppressed because you or your child or a friend of a friend is taught something with which you disagree is the academic equivalent of pulling the race card. None of the major groups are innocent of this and we’re not going to make any progress in inter-ideology dialogue if this is the way we interact.

Secondly, the idea that “secular” somehow means neutral. The myth of neutrality has been well debunked and yet again and again people claim that they are somehow able to soar above their own minds; their upbringings, experiences and opinions, that they are somehow able to escape having to interpret anything. When looking at the world, a Christian must see intentionality, an Atheist must not. What Modernism has shown us (and, in so doing, undermined itself) is that there is no fact that escapes the need for interpretation. Education teaches us to interpret the world around us (or at the very least, spoon feeds us interpretations). Education that is secular then, is anti-everything that isn’t secular. Islam is not secular, Christianity is not secular, Shembe is not secular. A secular education teaches an ideology. Promoting “secular” education is exactly the same as promoting any other flavour of ideological education. It’s not neutral, all education is ideological and we can’t escape that so we need to figure out some other way of dealing with it.

intelligenceThirdly, “secular” doesn’t have a monopoly on the ability to think or be intelligent. There are brilliant minds that come from numerous different ideological backgrounds, many are not secular. We can have dialogue in which we call each other stupid and blinkered and there will be just as much ammunition against the secularists as against anyone else. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking any particular ideology enjoys the subscription of all the intelligentsia (or, that we automatically jump a few IQ points by adhering to any particular ideology).

Where do we go from here though? If it’s true that we escape none of the ideological biases by having “secular” education, what solution is there? I am not sure that anyone has an adequate answer to the question. In the interim however, isn’t it better to know what you’re going in for than for schools to glibly tell you that they’re going to be “neutral”? Let’s allow the schools to tell us what they’re going to teach our children so that we know what we want to correct when our children get home in the afternoons and let’s realise that it’s not the state’s job to raise everyone’s children in the way we want ours raised.

Finally, imagine a school in which all the teachers are Christian but the school calls itself “secular”. Knowing why your children come home wanting to pray or thinking that God made the world would then be inexplicable and likely evoke some heated reaction. What we must realise is that the likely reaction of seeing to it, in court if necessary, that teachers deny their own understanding and interpretation of the world – their ideology – in order to teach your children, is in fact oppression.

1. See http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2013-04-17-hey-teacher-leave-them-kids-alone/#.UXD2HIaXezQ. I have not attempted to respond to this article in particular but to the thought patterns in general. While writing this up I also discovered this somewhat amusing article: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/7951358/Richard-Dawkins-faith-schools-should-not-be-allowed-to-opt-out-of-religious-education.html

How a friend becomes a hero

I’ve just gotten back from visiting a friend who has recently been told by doctors that there is nothing more they can do to help him. His story goes back a long way, but basically he has a long-term, life threatening illness, which has taken a severe turn against him. As we sat in his lounge, sipping on our hot chocolate, his wife and him told me about the past few weeks — since they heard from their doctors.

What struck me was that I sat with a husband and wife who were facing grim realities. But that was exactly it. They faced them. There were no trite superficialities. There were no spiritual platitudes. They were honest about what was happening. And they were honest about how they were feeling. They weren’t sure what was going to happen. But they were fighting to love and trust their Father.

Steve is the bravest, most other person centered and worshipful man I know. He is the clearest picture of what God is like that I’ve seen in this world. For one of the few moments in my life, I was able to catch a glimpse of how I think Jesus would have faced his suffering.

I thank God for the work that he has done through Steve’s suffering. What a blessing he is to the church. What a blessing he is to me.

Tonight was such an incredible reminder of what we’re actually on about. Theology isn’t a set of truths which align into spectacular coherence. Christianity isn’t a way with life which offers the most meaning and purpose. It is so much deeper. It has to be. Only something deeper could enable someone to face death the way Steve is. God’s love and grace rip into the very core of our being and connect with our innermost selves!

Only who God is can lead us to profound trust. Only what he has done, to deep love. Only what he is doing, can move us to the kind of certain hope that Steve has. Redemption is real. And the God who redeems changes our whole reality.

I leave you with this song. It captures something of what happened inside me tonight.

– – – – –

But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.

Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled:

   “Death is swallowed up in victory.
    O death, where is your victory?
    O death, where is your sting?”

For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ.

So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.