Empiricism, You’ve Got Some ‘Splaining to Do
I recently took part in a Facebook conversation about morality in which one of the participants said they preferred to avoid overtly religious rhetoric and Christian presuppositions in debates with non-believers. Full disclosure: I was a hard-headed atheist in my youth, and to this day I greatly appreciate it when a Christian refrains from using a debate as an excuse for proselytizing. Simply telling a skeptic that he can’t be a good person unless he accepts Jesus in his heart is both unhelpful and riddled with logical errors. So I absolutely understand refraining from the use of theological jargon. I don’t, however, understand the misguided desire to avoid “Christian presuppositions.” This is intellectually problematic and symptomatic of a broader willingness among Christians to all too quickly yield ground to secular ideology.
The first problem we must deal with is the not uncommon idea that Christians aren’t allowed to engage in philosophical discussions. Let’s forget for a moment that many giants in Western thought like Augustine, Aquinas, and Pascal, were Christians. Not long ago, I was researching Notre Dame professor and philosopher Alvin Plantinga, and I came across a skeptic’s blog post which argued that because Plantinga is a Christian, his philosophy should be disregarded altogether. This is, of course, an easily-identified ad hominem fallacy. We accept or reject arguments based on their merit, not the speaker’s character. The fact that the Earth is a sphere is still true even if it’s Adolph Hitler teaching it. The religious identity of the likes of Plantinga, John Lennox, William Lane Craig, or even C.S. Lewis, does not affect the validity of their arguments. It may affect which arguments they decide to make, but not the validity of that argument. We can’t be dismissed before we open our mouths.
Still, Christians are often on the defensive in the world of secular thought. We are put under intense pressure to supply immense proof for every minuscule claim. Our “Christian presuppositions” are rejected out of the gate. Given this hostile climate, it’s not surprising that Christians are keen to avoid bringing those presuppositions to the table. Here’s our other problem: although many pretend it is, secular thought is not neutral ground. This cannot be emphasized enough. Everyone brings loaded presuppositions to the table. Both naturalists and supernaturalists have their own disputable interpretive framework. We cannot be fooled into thinking that the onus is entirely on Christians. When someone says “evolution disproves God,” they stand atop a great tower of their own presuppositions. I don’t mean to say Christians don’t need to construct good arguments for the fundamentals of our beliefs. I am saying, however, that our opponents are every inch as responsible as we are for defending the foundations of their beliefs. Take some bricks from that tower. See how well it holds up.
The desire to maintain neutrality is understandable given how sensitive conversation about religion is. There is no neutral ground, however. There are no “belief-free zones”. The a priori exclusion of one line of thinking presupposes that line of thinking is invalid, which itself is problematic. We don’t need to hide our beliefs, however. While we should have solid arguments to defend those beliefs, we don’t need to hide them. In fact, I will go one step further and say that we can’t hide those beliefs. The Gospel is the core of reality. It permeates all truths. I cannot make a true philosophical statement without also making a true theological statement. “Truth is knowable.” I can know that a statement is objectively true. I can also know the one who calls himself Truth. “The universe is finite and had a beginning.” In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.1 “Morals aren’t relative.” Be ye holy; for I am holy.2 Even when we refrain from quoting theology texts and the Bible in our debates, when we aim for truth we aim for God. That is an unmistakable direction. Christians must not pretend otherwise.
Look, I’m not an alarmist. I don’t see the decline in church membership as a sign of any particular generation’s moral depravity. The end of American Christendom doesn’t worry me. I’m not terribly shocked when a public figure calls believers idiots. I’m not bothered by these things. I am, however, bothered by the increasing propensity of Christians to leave their beliefs at the intellectual door simply because the secular world tells them to. Brothers and sisters, you don’t have to proselytize in your debates, but you must remember that in a very literal sense you have the Truth within you. You cannot act in truth without acting in Truth. Don’t let anyone tell you to check your philosophical baggage at the door. After all, they brought in theirs. Why can’t you?
2. 1 Peter 1:16
Image courtesy NASA Goddard Space Flight Center at Flickr Creative Commons under (CC BY 2.0). This is a glimpse of the Comet ISON from the Hubble telescope.