Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Predicament of Belief: Reasons for Doubt (pt.2)

[Below I continue blogging through Clayton and Knapp's new book The Predicament of Belief.  It's awesome.  It's theology that reads like a detective novel or thriller of some sort.  Go buy it on amazon and read along with me.]

Clayton and Knapp (C&K) use chapter one to explain the five primary reasons for doubting Christian claims today: 

1) Science - modern science has unquestionably made many traditional Christian claims more challenging to accept as it has continued to naturally explain the world in ways that religions, including Christianity, once explained supernaturally.  It has problematized miracles and arguments for God's existence.

2) The problem of evil - how can one still affirm an all-powerful, good God when there is so much innocent suffering in the world?

3) Religious pluralism - how does one choose a religion in the light of our intensifying awareness of so many religious options?  We seem to be born into a tradition rather than genuinely choosing a tradition.  Also, why does it seem to be so difficult for God to more clearly communicate religious truth?  We seem to be stuck in a state of confusion and conflict about the truth of religions.

4) Historical evidence/Biblical criticism - in my own words, while the Bible might be a beautiful mess, it is nevertheless a mess from the perspective of the historian and textual critic.  There are contradictions, 'lost gospels' and other problems throughout the Bible and Christian history that make a theological reading of the text more challenging than we have ever realized.

5) The central claim of Jesus' resurrection - the relevant but often differing accounts in the biblical texts make understanding this controversial claim even harder to believe.  Plus the problem of evil forces one to ask: if God intervened for the resurrection of Jesus, why not other times for the innocent who suffer?

In the light of these challenges, C&K ask whether it might just be more honest to be agnostic.  They reject this option and advocate for what they call "Christian minimalism."  This is the position that sides with theism in general and modified Christian truth claims, but also admits that the evidence that tips the scale in the Christian theistic direction for C&K is only minimally more likely to be true.  Taking the 5 reasons for doubt seriously forces us into such a position, the authors contend.  Yet they do not believe one needs to be "maximally minimalist" (they point to certain liberal biblical scholars like Robert Funk, for example). 

But isn't this 'Christian minimalism' on the verge of agnosticism?  C&K argue that agnosticism claims that one cannot make progress in considering the truth of religions.  They differentiate themselves from 'Christian agnostics' (while admitting some questions may be impossible to answer), affirming the possibility of making progress in evaluating religious truth claims in general and the religious responsibility of doing so.  They firmly reject the agnostic position that it is always wrong to hold or form beliefs that may not convince a neutral observer.  But they also differentiate themselves from 'Christian fideists' who think we can just take everything on leaps of faith.  The fideist and agnostic are equally dogmatic in their claims.  

C&K intend to move forward in their arguments with two phases: the first argues in a more general way for claims about ultimate reality (metaphysics) that are not tied to specific religious claims; the second argues for specific Christian claims in the light of the metaphysics developed in the first phase.  The first phase is intended to convince rational persons of good will (although they admit plenty will not agree, especially those who assume a physicalist/materialist position).  The second is aimed at those within the Christian tradition and will not resonate with as broad of an audience.  But both phases take seriously the five reasons for doubt.  The resulting Christian positions aim at plausibility as well as serious engagement with the bible and tradition.  Even so, not all claims will have the same degree of justification.  The way in which C&K evaluate the degree of plausibility of their arguments is one of the most interesting aspects of the book, as we will see in future posts.

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