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My Story Part 3

August 21, 2009

So, I was now on a mountain with educated Christians of the Presbyterian stripe. We Presbyterians put a high price on being educated on everything under the sun. And me, already intellectually inclined, soaked up the atmosphere as if I were Sponge Bob Squarepants. I began to read philosophy, science, and just about anything I could get my hands on. I already knew about Lewis, but I was introduced to my favorite author and book of all time, JRR Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings. Instead of late night beer bong parties and screwing, we argued philosophy and theology late into the night. We even did this stuff on dates with girls.

And then, I decided to become a philosophy minor my sophomore year. I had been an English minor, because of my obsession with writing. But, philosophy had gripped me and wouldn’t let me go. I took every class available and read as many philosophers as you can imagine. Presbyterians, you see, don’t believe in editing our readings. And along with my study in philosophy, I was going deep into Presbyterian theology. It was the combination of those two things introduced me to two ideas that changed my life, covenant theology and presuppositional philosophy.

Both of these require posts of their own to describe, but I’ll try to some up each. Covenant theology is the idea that the whole Bible is about one thing, the story of God’s grace to sinners climaxing in the person of Christ. The theology sees the world through the lens of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration. That is, God created the world and made us in His image, we sinned, messed up the world and took a sludge hammer to the Image. Jesus came to restore us to being that image and now we can be what we were meant to be, stewards over the good creation He has made.

I can’t tell you how much that changed my life. I had been raised in a church environment that considered the world doomed for the fire. And because of that, we were taught this world didn’t matter much. The arts, sciences and thought were not really worthy pursuits for a Christian. I remember classes being cancelled in my Christian school because a “revival” had broken out in our school chapel and people just wanted to talk about their experiences. When, in reality, it was a great way to get out of class.

Now, I was being taught that God loved His creation and it was one of the reasons He sent Jesus. He wanted the Image bearers He created to come back to their original calling. Therefore, Christians could think, do science, do art, write history, take care of creation, and love people unconditionally. It transformed me as a person then and still does now.

Along with that, I picked up the philosophical system of presuppositionalism. I know, I know, I already hear everyone going nuts. But, usually I find that either people don’t understand presuppositionalism or they are reacting to what I call “negative” presuppositionalism.

Allow me to explain. There are two schools of thought in presuppositionlism. On one side, You have Cornelius Van Til and Greg Bahnsen while on the other you have Francis Schaeffer and Alvin Plantinga. Van Til and Bahnsen would argue that all knowledge comes from God and any pagan knowledge that doesn’t acknowledge this is essentially idolatry. Schaeffer and Plantinga also think that all knowledge comes from God, but they take more of Calvin’s line on it. That all truth is God’s truth and that we can appreciate truth even if it comes from a pagan source.

Ugh, even as I write the above, I know it’s a gross oversimplification. John Frame certainly presents a good picture of Van Til’s presuppositionalism. But, that’s way too much to get into here.

So, I came to accept the view that everyone had shards of truth in their worldview. The reason they had those shards is because they were created in the image of God. And because they were created in that Image, all humans, Christian or not, deserve my utmost respect and love.

But, also presuppostional thought allowed me to ask deep questions about the nature of reality, what people accept to be true or rather, assume to be true. Because this is at the heart of presuppositional thought, to get to the root of what people accept to be true without any real outside proof. For example, we all accept that science gives a good, accurate view of the natural world around us. What we don’t realize is how many questions that actually begs. This view puts a high value on the idea our sense can give us accurate knowledge of the world. We have no proof of that whatsoever. As much as we would like to think so, we can’t really prove that from a scientific point of view. A glaring example of this is the discovery of the Quantum level of reality. Everyone thought the world worked one way and we soon discovered that it, in fact, works another. Our senses told us one thing, but the reality is another. So, the question is, why do we trust our senses? Most of us would say, “well, we don’t’ really have a choice, do we?”

And that, is what presuppositional philosophy seeks to do, explore those base level questions. So, in exploring those base level questions, I realized that Christianity was the only thing that made sense to me. Christianity is the only worldview that could explain the world as it is, through science, history, and philosophy.

Ok, so, I hope you don’t mind, but I think I’m going to need more posts than four to explain all of this. I’m sorry. I thought I could do it in four. I think the next post will be why I think Christianity explains the world as it is, the post after that will be talking about Scientific, historical and emotional tensions in the Christian view of the world. Then, finally, dealing with the church. I hope this interests people.

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23 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris permalink
    August 21, 2009 2:28 pm

    Thanks for your story!

    Do I understand correctly what you are saying?: All knowledge that is gained comes from God in the sense that it is godly. And you need Christianity, because otherwise the base-questions do not make much (if any) sense.

    In my opinion (secular) science does exactly that: Ask base questions about how the world works. Trying to get to the bottom of things. Of course you can never reach the bottom, but the way down is paved by the quest for it.

    Basically i do not understand what the difference is between science and your quest for knowledge through presuppostionalism (except the god part obviously). On the one side you seek truth, and on the other side you seek god-given truth (please don’t nail me down on my fuzzy definition :-)). Could you try to clarify this point for me?

    Cheers,
    Chris

  2. August 21, 2009 3:17 pm

    Woah, I just looked up a little bit on what presuppositionalism is, and the whole thing makes my head hurt. It seems to be way up in the theoretical realm with stuff like postmodernism, except not anywhere near as annoying.

    So going from that, and what you said above, I think what it says is somehow truth has to come from God, by definition, so you assume God right at the start and base the concept of what is true off that? It seems a bit odd to me, but again I’m obviously missing all the structures that hold that thought up.

  3. Johann permalink
    August 21, 2009 5:33 pm

    In my opinion (secular) science does exactly that: Ask base questions about how the world works.

    Or, from a slightly different angle – it wasn’t theologians who discovered the “quantum level of reality”. 😉

    It does seem like you’re selling science short in this respect, Jonathan. We’ve passed beyond the natural limitations of our senses millennia ago with the discovery of magnetic attraction, and we’ve been making progressively more and more complex instruments to extend our reach into the mysteries of the universe since then. We even create things and conditions that we could never have witnessed otherwise – say, inside a particle accelerator.

    We’re not unaware of the ways in which our senses can fail or mislead us, either, and to the extent to which these questions can be studied we are studying them. A search for “auditory hallucinations” alone returns over 24 thousand articles. Of course, you could argue for the solipsistic “brain in a jar” view…but that precludes establishing the validity of any line of inquiry, including the theological. 😉

    So, the question is, why do we trust our senses? Most of us would say, “well, we don’t’ really have a choice, do we?”

    Not exactly. We do it for the same reason that (presumably) you don’t spend hours daily agonizing about whether the sun will come up the next morning – the vast majority of the time, it works. =) And when it doesn’t, we try to put in measures to compensate for it, such as blind studies.

  4. Tiranna permalink
    August 21, 2009 5:52 pm

    “So, in exploring those base level questions, I realized that Christianity was the only thing that made sense to me”

    I’m very curious how you go from such base questions to a very specific, and, in my mind, limited answer. I think that science is very capable of perpetually answering the baser questions that arrive from every answer. Though one most likely can’t reach the basest underlying truth, it seems more accurate than assuming a supreme being.

    Hoping that made some sense, I’m not a writer. Awaiting your next post 🙂

  5. Edward Lark permalink
    August 21, 2009 6:06 pm

    Of course, you could argue for the solipsistic “brain in a jar” view…but that precludes establishing the validity of any line of inquiry, including the theological.

    I can understand – to a point – he is trying to make: At the base level, even with all the blinds/protections/adjustments/etc. that we put in place to attempt to compensate for the limits of our senses, in the end even the “enhanced” data has to be filtered through our, admittedly, limited senses.

    But your comment, clipped above, illustrates why taking the idea of “our senses aren’t trustworthy” too far, gets you nothing that you can hang your hat on at the end of the road. It is possible, I suppose, that we are living in some virtual reality construct and that nothing we observe has any inherent reality. The problem with that, is that if we are in some sort of non-real construct, it is a highly consistent construct, which is indistinguishable from a fixed reality.

    Things like quantum theory are discovered because scientists, as they find more and more reliable, ways to observe the universe stumble across observations that seem to contradict the consistency of the universe as observed to that point. Instead of throwing up their hands at such observations, however, a scientific mind probes farther, examines what parts of the method or the underlying assumptions of the observer might account for the seeming discrepancy, accumulates further data to either verify or refute the observation, and formulates and tests hypotheses until it figures out how the observation fits into (or in rare cases, overturns) the prior models. Not that this does not mean that our prior observations or understandings were necessarily “wrong,” but rather that our understandings are refined over time.

    For people with a belief-centered worldview (religion/magic/etc.) the making of the seemingly inconsistent observation is not the beginning of the process, but the end. The inconsistency is taken as verification of their supernatural view of the universe – one not governed by fixed, observable and/or discoverable precepts. And since the inconsistency validates their worldview, there is no need for further study. Indeed, the incentive is for the exact opposite.

  6. Johann permalink
    August 21, 2009 7:15 pm

    For people with a belief-centered worldview (religion/magic/etc.) the making of the seemingly inconsistent observation is not the beginning of the process, but the end.

    I had a discussion with a friend a few years ago about shamanistic cultures – and yeah, that’s more or less where it ended up. “Magic” is an all-purpose answer, but it gives no explanations; the explanations of science are necessarily imperfect, but they build a foundation for further questions.

    Jonathan –

    God created the world and made us in His image, we sinned, messed up the world and took a sludge hammer to the Image. Jesus came to restore us to being that image and now we can be what we were meant to be, stewards over the good creation He has made.

    See, that always seemed bizarre to me.

    1) If your entire creation can be so profoundly screwed up as a result of someone eating a fruit, I’m sorry, but you need to go back to engineering school. The only reasonable interpretation I see here is that he deliberately set everything up to be broken this way, but for some reason Christians I’ve talked to seem to dislike that reading. 😉

    2) What does it mean that they were created in his image, anyway – why would somebody created in God’s image even be able to corrupt the world? Again, why would God design things this way?

    2a) The usual response to the above is something along the lines of the image being imperfect, or misusing free will. The question of the usefulness of free will in such a creation aside, here’s my problem with this – eating the fruit made them more like God. He says so himself: “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.” How is becoming more like God – Christians generally seem to be of the opinion that being like Jesus is a noble aspiration – a bad thing that corrupts the world?

    2b) It’s worth noting that it wasn’t the eating of the fruit that caused the corruption, but the curse that God laid upon Adam and Eve and all their descendants for doing so: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.”

    (The wording could be said somewhat ambiguous here, but this is said when he is apportioning punishments to everybody involved, and I’m pretty sure Romans 8:20 supports my reading: “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it…” – that’s not Adam it’s talking about.)

    3) If Adam and Eve had no knowledge of good and evil beforehand – in other words, no moral sense whatsoever – how were they to know that disobeying God was something they shouldn’t do? If I tell an infant who can’t understand me not to throw his toys and he does anyway, I would be insane to punish him for disobedience.

    Personally, I think the story of the Fall is one of the most morally twisted parts of the Bible. The text seems very straightforward to me – God deliberately puts the tree in Eden after he creates Adam and then lies to him, telling him that if he eats from the TOKOGAE he will die on the same day. He creates Eve, the snake tells Eve the truth (eating the fruit will not kill you, you’ll get to know good and evil and be like God that way), they eat, the fruit doesn’t kill them, they gain the knowledge of good and evil. God shows up, waxes wrathful, curses Adam and Eve and the world that they’ll live in, explicitly confirms what the snake said, expresses concern that they might want to become immortal now that they have brains, and kicks them out of the garden.

    Okay. So far, so good – story’s a bit dry on details, God is a garden-variety petty (and somewhat stupid) tyrant who, for no discernible reason, puts a gateway to his power in front of his creations and then counts on a simple lie and a warning they don’t have the capacity to comprehend to keep them away. Then they open it! He gets pissed off at them and afraid that they’ll take the next step to becoming gods themselves, and curses them forever and ever. Weird, but consistent. Wouldn’t be too out of place among some of the Greek myths, though the Greek gods seemed to have more of a sense of justice.

    But that’s not the story that Christians keep reading to me from the same text. God supposedly has no responsibility for the TOKOGAE at all. Adam and Eve knew that it was wrong to eat from it before they knew what wrong was. God was talking about a spiritual death, even though the text says nothing of the sort. God’s little aside confirming the snake’s words is conveniently omitted. And, in a spectacular example of blaming the victim, it was the act of disobedience rather than God’s curse in punishment for it that broke the world.

    I really don’t get that.

    Thoughts? Biblical resources I’m not aware of? Rotten tomatoes? 😉

  7. Andrew permalink
    August 21, 2009 7:39 pm

    The belief that God actually planned the Fall is not unknown amongst some Christians (though unsurprisingly it’s not popular these days as you note).

  8. August 21, 2009 10:29 pm

    Fascinating stuff. I don’t read a lot of detailed explanations for how people came to their faith (or I should say, the current version of their faith). It doesn’t usually involve so much intellectual work, and I don’t mean that as another tired “theists r dum” comment, more that the stories I have read tend to involve intangible events, and not so much history or philosophy. Only once have I heard someone mention “presuppositional thought” and that person was in seminary.

    I’m going to be a bit shameless here now, since you invited readers in an earlier post to share our stories. I wrote about how I became a disabled Jewish atheist here:

    http://newly-nerfed.net/2009/08/17/oy-vey-this-is-a-long-post/

  9. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 22, 2009 6:27 am

    Hey Everyone,
    Great posts and I’ll try to answer them this weekend. Lots of important points here. Don’t want you to think I’m avoiding.

  10. Andrew permalink
    August 22, 2009 2:23 pm

    As for presuppositionalism… oh dear. I personally don’t regard that as being “philosophy” at all, because it’s not interested in finding out the truth; presuppositionalists start from the principle that they already know the truth, and only need to (attempt to) justify it to others (or reassure themselves) or prove other positions wrong, which puts it squarely in the realm of apologetics.

    You don’t explicitly say, but I assume that you favour the side of Schaeffer and Plantinga over Van Til et al. That’s a start, since Van Til’s position is more of an intellectual insult than an argument; but Plantinga is not much better, and nor is what I’ve been able to find so far of Schaeffer’s philosophy (as opposed to his politics, which are another matter entirely).

    As for worldviews: the issue is not necessarily what worldview you possess, but whether you’re prepared to change that worldview when it proves to be defective (rather than denying inconvenient facts).

  11. August 22, 2009 6:30 pm

    Andrew:

    You know, that last point about worldviews is one thing I find terribly problematic with the currently-popular meme of atheists (and pagans) not having an Absolute Souce of Morals ™. It sets up a framework where inflexibility and resistance to the external (i.e., the world as it is) as a Good Thing. I don’t know that this rigidity, even in morals, should necessarily be seen as a positive, especially in light of your comment about inconvenient facts.

    That’s to say nothing of being able to determine what the morals set down by that “Absolute Source” actually are, of course, since people around the world, let alone through the ages, don’t seem to be in agreement.

  12. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 23, 2009 12:10 am

    Hey Everyone,
    In reading over these posts again, I think that all of the questions will be best answered as I continue my story.

    But, Andrew, I certainly fall into the Schaeffer and Plantinga camp. And, you make an excellant point about the willingess to change worldviews. I’m good with that.

  13. August 23, 2009 1:37 am

    Plantinga is one of the most wrong people I have ever read. Just wrong. Man, I don’t even know where to begin with all that. It would be silly to attempt to talk about his decades of work in a paragraph or two, so I won’t. Once you get into the details of what you think he got right I will likely have specific things to say.

  14. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 23, 2009 2:12 am

    I have noticed a very strong reaction to Plantinga on the atheist side, even more than towards people like Craig, etc. Why is that?

    But, Jim, I appreciate your being careful about not dismissing his work in a blog post, as PZ did in such silly fashion that just made him look dumb. Sorry, PZ, but it did.

  15. August 23, 2009 2:27 am

    So you are raised Christian, in a culture predominantly Christian, a Christian College and you write, “Christianity was the only thing that made sense to me.” Well , golly, isn’t that surprising. You’d be a good little Buddhist boy if the same had happened — good Buddhist parents, Buddhist college and Buddhist culture.

    Then you write: “Christianity is the only worldview that could explain the world as it is, through science, history, and philosophy. ” Actually, the Naturalist worldview does it much better. You are so quick to dismiss.

  16. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 23, 2009 2:32 am

    Quick to dismiss? It’s a life long process I’m trying to sum up, Sabio. I’m giving a summation of my story and the years of thought I have put into this whole process. So, I hope you aren’t suggesting I haven’t thought this through. It seems from your blog that you have gone the other way. That’s fine. It’s perfectly rational. But your argument that “You just grew up that way” is patronizing at best, condescending at worst. Just because I didn’t reach the same conclusions as you.

    This argument is completely fallacious. If you grew up in the middle east you wouldn’t be a naturalist. Is is a completely pointless arguement.

    And you are wrong. The naturalist view doesn’t do it better. I find it a stunted and narrow worldview that explains very little. Nor does it offer any meaning to our existence.

  17. August 23, 2009 2:43 am

    No, I am sure you have thought it through extremely carefully by immersing yourself in several cultures and several families to see how their worldviews can fit together by trying them on for size. You did all that so that when you said, “Christianity is the only worldview that could explain the world as it is …” you were confident in your deep insight. I am sure you thought it all out.

    The vast majority of believers believe in the religion in which they were raised, even the ones who declare that they have examined many systems and thought carefully. Thus when someone believes exactly the system they were surrounded by, it should raise our antennae , don’t you think? Sure, it doesn’t mean they are wrong, but their chance for self-deception is HUGE !

  18. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 23, 2009 2:51 am

    Well, I wouldn’t have said it otherwise. I try to make statements I haven’t thought out, or put myself in different experiences. But, as you have pointed out, personal experience can be a poor judge of truth, no matter how varied it might be.

    Sure, the chance for self-deception is a possibility. But, the fact they grew up in a particulat thought system cannot be used a standard of judgement as to whether that view is true or not. You could certainly say that said person hasn’t thought things through or that they believe something for the wrong reasons. I know plenty of Christians who are in those categories, including me at one point in my life. But, that fact alone is not a standard of judgement as to whether something is true.

  19. August 23, 2009 2:58 am

    Of course, but self-doubt on the issue should certainly proceed self-confidence which you seemed to display.

  20. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 23, 2009 2:59 am

    LOL, self confidence? Ah, the perils of Internet communication. But, the name of this society should tell you what my life is like, Sabio.

  21. August 23, 2009 3:28 am

    I guess you were speaking in a confessional way to an assumed believing audience, maybe this is the reason for the your words sounding so easily dismissive given lack of background provided.

  22. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 23, 2009 3:31 am

    Well, no, I think this is a largely non-believing audience on this blog, which I prefer. This is not meant to be a place where Christians can be soothed and coddled.

    I don’t think i spoke with any more confidence than the average atheist blogger or poster. I certainly wasn’t trying to give the impression that I have all the answers. Rather, I was sharing my story as it stood and I wanted to be as honest as possible.

    Plus, I was asked by a few atheists on this blog to give my story and my views.

  23. Andrew permalink
    August 23, 2009 7:34 am

    Some of the reaction to Plantinga may be related to his support for the ‘Intelligent Design’ movement; given that ID is a fraud designed to get religion into school classrooms rather than an honest intellectual pursuit, its supporters automatically have a black mark against them.

    The other problem is that Plantinga is intruding his philosophy into fields such as biology where real work actually happens; this never ends well for the philosopher, since in the real world it’s evidence that trumps reason, not the other way round.

    His arguments about the reliability of reasoning and perception fail in large part because he’s assuming that they are either reliable or not, when in fact it is only necessary that they be reliable enough that we can apply error-correcting methods.

    The well-known fact that perceptions are not reliable in ways that you expect if you assume naturalistic evolution is a significant obstacle to Plantinga’s theories. Perceptual and cognitive illusions are extremely common and are a significant source of insight into how the senses and the brain function together; but they don’t occur in areas in which they would reduce survival.

    Also, Plantinga argues against a straw-man version of evolution in which implausible constructs are regarded as being accessible; in fact, natural selection can only act on the range of variations that can actually occur; variations that are sufficiently improbable can’t be selected for.

    If you don’t like PZ’s style, try this post by Jason Rosenhouse instead; and especially this Fitelson and Sober paper also linked in the comments there.

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