Better apologetics (more book reviews included)

A chance following of a link from a friend’s facebook feed led to me finding the Jericho Brisance blog, on which is a section labelled “Journey”. The writer, Matt Barsotti, is there chronicling his steady realisation that the scriptural foundations of his conservative Christian belief were untenable, together with the resulting loss of faith, and he does so very well, and very movingly.

I, of course, have moved in exactly the opposite direction, though I’ve ended up with complete agreement with Matt’s sources (just not with his disillusionment). By the age of about 9, I had decided that the entirety of scripture was exactly as believable as stories of Santa Claus or W.E. Johns’ “Biggles” books. In other words, it was complete fiction, possibly enlivened by some reference to actual history (as were some of the early Biggles books). However, at around 15 (it might have been 14, I’m not now sure which side of my birthday it occurred) I had a peak spiritual experience, species mystical, and embarked on a quest to find a way of repeating it and a language in which it could be talked about (and scientific-rationalist-materialist-reductionist just didn’t do the job for the second purpose).

(Incidentally, apologies to those who have read about this bit of my story in other posts; blogposts tend to be read individually, and it needs rehearsing for that reason).

As I shortly afterwards attended a lecture on Mysticism and bought Happold’s book on the subject, much of the search for a language centered round those religions whose mystics formed part of Happold’s anthology, while the search for repetition involved various occult groups as well, plus some “native religions” and their shamanistic practices. I was adequately convinced, before long, that most (if not necessarily all) major religions provided a functional basis in which mystics could find a language of expression, and that all their scriptures without exception needed to be viewed as something other than history. Some, I found, were very keen that their mythos be regarded as fact, others (such as Hinduism) regarded their myths much more lightly, and some (generally the modern pagan revivals) were arriving at the idea that their god-images were constructs.

I spent significant time exploring most of those which were accessible to me (much aided by a period at university where faith traditions which were unrepresented in my somewhat backwoods home town were available) at least far enough to get a decent picture of “how they ticked” from a believer’s perspective, and, of course, how their spiritual practices worked – and I tried the latter. Unsurprisingly, considering my working hypothesis, I found praxes from a wide variety of sources which seemed (in a purely anecdotal sense) to improve the chances of peak spiritual experience.

Now, among Happold’s anthologised writings were a couple from St. John and St. Paul, and a couple from the Oxyrhyncus papyrii (which since Happold wrote the book have proved to be fragments of the Gospel of Thomas). The Oxyrhyncus fragments convinced me that Jesus was a mystic (or at least that the Jesus portrayed in Thomas was a mystic; if in fact he were not, there was a major mystic in the framework whose writings were attributed to Jesus). I had rather more difficulty with the apostles – they were very heavily Christ-focused, and my working hypothesis as to Jesus was that he was a human mystic with a particularly close connection with the divine, whereas both John  and Paul saw a sort of divinised figure only loosely connected with the human Jesus as being that entity with which they had connection. It took me quite a while (and a study of outright Christ-mystics such as Teresa de Avila, John of the Cross, Augustine, Thomas a Kempis) to see them as experiencing what they called Christ as what I had come to call God.

In the meantime, my favoured Christian mystics were pseudo-Dionysus, Meister Eckhart and the writer of the Theologia Germanica, who wrote of God rather than of Christ. After considerable time, however, I arrived at the concession that while I did not think that the Jesus who taught in Palestine in the first century was equivalent to that which the Christ-mystics had experienced, post mortem the way in which Jesus had survived had become so much identified with God that I could treat them as merely using an alternative term for the root of what was effectively the same experience, and at that point St. John  and St. Paul began to open up for me to some extent (an opening up which is continuing – I still have some challenges with both).

Now, reading Matt Barsotti’s account of his slow and painful exit from Christianity, I note that he does seem on occasion to have had experiences which might potentially have given him a basis to develop a strong praxis leading to deeper experience. The trouble is that he was fixed with a whole rationale for faith based on an understanding of what the scriptures are which conflicts with science, archaeology, extra-Biblical texts and historical-critical scholarship, and he found that unsustainable – as he puts it “error in line one”. I have never been in that position, having never had any of this baggage.

Sadly, on at least two occasions (many years ago now) I know that my position has served to propel someone else into a path like Matt’s, ending in a lack of any faith whatsoever – I’ll call them Sue and Steve, though those weren’t their names. I would really prefer not to be the instigator of that kind of pain and loss, particularly if (as proved to happen with Sue and Steve) the result was a collapse of faith without a replacement understanding. My problem is that I do not know of any reliable way in which a peak unitive mystical experience can be forced (merely a set of practices which seem to encourage that assuming that you have already formed the pathways to get there through a prior experience). I can’t, therefore, say “do this and you will have an experience like mine, which will be self-validating”, only “I have found that doing these things tends to improve the frequency of such experiences if you’ve had one to start with” and without that it’s difficult for me to propose with confidence an alternative way to belief.

I ask myself if there is a way to move in the same direction as Matt, but to do so with a safety net of an alternative understanding which is at least reasonably proof against modernity. In my last post, I reviewed a really rather good attempt to provide such an understanding. I suspect that that would not have done for Matt, nor for Sue nor Steve. It is not aimed at a specifically Christian belief, after all, merely at one which sees validity in a sort of theistic belief of huge generality – as one might expect from a twelve-step desire to justify “a God of your understanding”.

Also among my recent reading has been “The Evidence for God” by Prof. Keith Ward. Prof. Ward is an Anglican clergyman and a philosopher and theologian of some note, having enough earned doctorates to satisfy any two or three lesser academics. I wonder, would that have helped? In fact, I don’t think so. Prof. Ward puts forward a very convincing “on balance” argument for the rationality of belief in a personal God, using his philosophical skills to do so (and in an eminently readable fashion), but it stops short of justification of a specifically Christian faith. I move on to “The Predicament of Belief” by Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp, which I have just finished reading.

This is an excellently reasoned and equally accessible book; it passes through some of the philosophical background with rather more speed than does Prof. Ward’s, accepts the major challenges to Christian belief (which it identifies as science, the problem of evil, religious plurality, the state of the historical record (i.e. the principal area which Matt found insuperable) and finally the claim of resurrection. It’s also aimed at preserving what it calls a “minimally personalistic theism” which will allow of acceptance of the most foundational Christian positions without compromising any adherence to science or historical method, particularly when bolstered by personal experience (which any rationalist needs to accept may well be evidence for them, but is not evidence for a disinterested outsider), and to my mind does it very well indeed. It even goes so far as to put up a philosophically sustainable argument for retaining a scientific-rationalist mindset and yet preserve a form of belief in a physical resurrection, should that be thought necessary or desirable. I doubt it would suffice as a tool for evangelism, but that’s not its aim; that is to permit someone with an existing commitment to Christianity to remain within at least the “liberal Christian” fold.

I have to ask, however, whether even this would have been enough to help Matt preserve even a minimal Christian identity (or Bart Ehrman, who is perhaps the best known individual to have trodden this path, and whose books form part of Matt’s path). The problem there is that having once accepted the inadequate and, to my mind, often downright false set of arguments for conventional evangelical Christianity (and I have in mind, for instance, Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel and Nicky Gumbel as major proponents of these), to have them demolished involves a major loss of trust. I’m not sure how you would go about repairing that.

Any reader who has not so far vowed never to read my blog again (unless by chance they’re new to my thinking) is probably not going to be advancing the kind of apologetics I’ve been criticising here, but just in case some doughty soul has managed it, this is a plea to review your apologetics and try to advance the possibility, at least, that the standard evangelical model might, just possibly, not be entirely sustainable for all Christians. Just a possibility that it could be wrong (and that there are nevertheless possibly sustainable ways of maintaining a Christian faith) might be sufficient, sometime in the future, to prevent another departure to atheism or (at best) to the ranks of the “nones”.

Speaking for myself, I tend these days to be careful to avoid raising the objections to McDowell apologetics if there are signs that someone is getting too stressed by the suggestion. I don’t, after all, believe in salvation by correct intellectual conception. In addition, if someone has had any kind of spiritual experience, I strongly suggest that they hold on to that, and remember that you don’t have to understand someone in order to love them.

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