Sunday, February 11, 2007

No place for truth seeking


One of the things that I have come to understand is that Christianity does not have a place for truth seekers. This realization was gradual and painful. As a devoted Christian for many years, I thought I believed the truth. But when I eventually began to struggle in my faith and with issues such as I've described in this blog, I needed to know that I was believing the truth. But what I found, when I opened my eyes to it, was a Christian culture that was hostile to truth seeking.

This hostility to truth seeking has itself become a cause for me to distrust the truthfulness of the message. Truth need have no fear of open, honest and critical inquiry. It is falsehood and error that have need to stifle inquiry lest they be exposed. I have always wondered what is the essence of a cult? That is, what is the chief factor that enables the perpetuation of destructive behaviors of these groups? Now I think that essence is a hostility to open and honest truth seeking. Encuraging honest truth seeking would surely bring an end to any cult. On the other hand, innoculating members to truth seeking is the surest way to ensure they don't stray. It is unfortunate then that evangelical Christianity shares this trait with cults. Here are some ways that I've experienced this hostility in my time as an evangelical Christian:

I have listened to innumerable sermons, but now I realize that they are of little help for truth seekers. The goals of sermons are to convert the lost, to build the faith of the believers and instruct them on the path of righteousness. Anything that supports these goals is fair game, but on the other hand nothing that could hurt these goals will be related. This creates a strong bias in sermons preventing an honest evaluation of evidence (that is, negative evidence will never be considered or related). The greatness and benefits of faith and of Christianity are generously given. These are contrasted to the harms and evils of all other beliefs. The general method for establishing the truth of something is to use a combination of authority and anecdote. The ultimate authority relied on is the Bible, although sometimes a preacher will use a bit of his own authority. Finding a verse or chapter that supports a claim is the way to prove something. Then illustrating it with an anecdote or personal story, especially a miraculous story, firmly grounds it in the minds of the congregation. This is all effective in propagating a belief system, but does not help in looking for errors in that belief system and so is not really concerned with truth seeking.

But I cannot accept authority and rhetoric as means to finding truth. These are used more often to hide than to reveal truth. If sermons were about spreading truth, why don't people in congregations challenge a preacher if he makes a false or misleading claim? (And I have heard many false and misleading claims in sermons.) Why do evangelical preachers always dismiss or ignore historical critical analysis of the bible? For instance there is very good evidence that many of the Biblical books are much younger than traditionally thought and not written by the traditional authors. This includes very strong Biblical evidence that the Mosaic law was written centuries after Moses and was unknown to the old prophets like Samuel. Why did I never hear this ever at church, even though it is very relevant to understanding the Old Testament Law? The reason, I have concluded, relates directly to the goals of sermons which do not include expanding knowledge and understanding of the congregation and rather are much closer to indoctrination. By not expanding knowledge and understanding, preachers are actually being hostile to truth seeking.

Next, I have found that doubt is regarded as the enemy of faith and so is expunged from Christian circles. Someone who doubts or questions too much is looked at with fear and resentment "Is he still a Christian? Why can't he just believe?" people mutter amongst themselves. "Go read your Bible and pray" is the usual advice. I have learned that even the patient Christian cousellor eventually gives up addressing the doubts and rebukes the person for his doubts; in the words of James "But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind." The ideal for the Christian is to accept the gospel message on faith and cast asside doubts. The truth seeker, however, will have honest doubts and want to know the basis for belief. If there isn't a good basis, then he is not going to claim certainty.

The church is a community. Unfortunately the basis of that community is not a shared desire to know the truth, but rather a shared faith (which in practice means a shared belief in a set of doctrines). There is great pressure to maintain the common beliefs, or at least to maintain appearance of belief. If someone admits he doesn't think one of the core beliefs is true, such as the doctrine of the incarnation or that Jesus rose from the dead, then he risks losing his place in the community. He is viewed as a pagan and is no longer a true member. Christians fear that he has lost his moral basis. They pray for his salvation and try to persuade him of his error. Relationships that were once deep are now strained to the breaking. All this because someone was honest and forthright with what he sees is true and false. There is something wrong with a religion that elevates faith above truth.

What does the Christian do when he comes to some doctrine or teaching that doesn't make sense (like the Trinity or the incarnation) or is very dubious (like various miracle stories such as the one in Matthew where the dead saints rose and came into the city)? He simply accepts it based on authority of the Bible or church. In the case where things don't make sense, he claims it is beyond his comprehension, but nevertheless he still believes it even though he doesn't know what exactly he is believing. Why doesn't the Christian consider the possibility that there was a fabrication in the account or an error in the doctrine? It is because that will expose the fragility of using authority as a basis for truth; if the authority is wrong in one thing, perhaps it is wrong in another, and there is no way for us to know. That is a scary thought and so questioning authority is not allowed.

If one looks for truth in apologetics books, one will be sorely disappointed. These books are aimed at answering the question: "How can I justify my belief to myself and others?" This is very different from trying to answer the question "What is the truth?" as the former question knows the answer and just wants convincing. Witnesses and claims that support the faith are given great weight by apologists, but those that don't are attacked in various ways: like being ungodly, leading to immorality, blinded, etc. The problem is that faith is not ultimately based on reason. And so instead, the appologist seeks to extol the virtues of faith and expose the vices of everything contrary. That does not help an honest seeker.

But the greatest cudgle held above the truth seeker is the threat of hell. He better not go so far as to lose his faith, because an eternity of torment awaits him in that eventuality. Ultimately, your reasons for belief and their validity don't matter, all that matters is that you are saved. It took me many years to overcome the fear of hell. But in the end I couldn't believe something just to save my skin from the flames, I had to honestly be convinced it was true. Also I could not believe that God would send someone to hell for for honestly seeking the truth. So I escaped the mind-control, but only after years of agonizing.

6 comments:

  1. Do you believe that the truth is knowable? Is there ever a justified end to truth-seeking, beyond the "think-so, hope-so, maybe-so" that seems to pass for "faith"?

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  2. Scientific theories take us as close to truth about reality as we can get. Of course some things are harder to know that other things, and other disciplines can move us towards truth as well with perhaps less certainty.

    Daniel

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  3. Is it possible to say with certainty that we know, whether by scientific discovery or by any other method? Is it possible, ever, to cease truth seeking about a certain aspect of reality? Is "truth" more than something to be sought, but also something that is knowable, in your view?

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  4. If dm doesn't mind, I will try to answer jennypo's questions. Stating my opinion, of course, not anyone else's.

    I don't think we can say with certainty that we know anything, except if it is something that humans made ourselves. For example, we can say that we know that 2+2=4, because humans invented math to put a framework on the world around them. But anything that "nature" produced, we can't say we know everything about with certainty. For example, we can't ever know everything about an atom.

    Which leads me to think that if we say we "know" God, then God is just a human creation.

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  5. Daniel,

    I am interested in your alt-PEF website . . . .

    Christopher

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  6. My experience is that different leaders allow different length leashes. There is a range of teaching/preaching/apologetic work out there. And of course if it comes from a Christian perspective the conclusions will be that the Christian answer is the best one. This would be the case for any advocate of any idea whether it be religious, scientific, philosophical, political, aesthetic, etc. Everyone is biased, so don't expect any institution to be otherwise.

    A religious institution is filled with people who believe they have FOUND the Truth within it's system. It should be no surprise that if you are challenging their deeply held doctrines they won't want to deal with you. You'd get kicked out of a Democrat club if you started saying that maybe Republican ideas were better, right?

    Personally, I'm a questioner just like you and I've talked to my pastor a couple times about this stuff and we just agree to disagree. I'm not trying to promote my heterodox beliefs of Universalism or my epistemological beliefs about the impossibility of Knowledge and the illogical belief in certainty. It keeps me from having any leadership roles, but that's ok. Church is more than an intellectual exercise, it's a community and a chance to serve others as they attempt to better themselves.

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