Stark Raving Barking Bonkers (A Correction and Apology)

Share

Yesterday in comments Jeanette said my beliefs were “stark raving barking bonkers.” I’m here today to admit that that’s a good description of how I responded to her in comments over the past two days. I was committing the classic, contemptible apologist’s error of taking down her logic all day long — including personal aspersions on her character — without expressing the goodness and the beauty and glory of following Jesus Christ. Jeanette, I apologize for that. It wasn’t just crazy, it was really unkind of me to do it.

We may still disagree on whether my beliefs are bonkers, but I want to talk about why my actions were.

Starting in the Wrong Place Means Going the Wrong Direction

It was clear that Jeanette didn’t know what Christians believe about God. The better place to begin would have been with Christ, not with the logical argument I mistakenly took up. The logic was fine, except it started in all the wrong places and therefore went all the wrong directions.

God’s Extraordinary Revelation in Jesus Christ

Anyway, yes, I know, as Jeanette also said in that comment thread, that there’s something exceedingly strange about the idea that one man who walked the earth 2,000 years ago wearing a robe was God’s best self-revelation of all time, and that he makes all the difference to everyone who lives on our 21st century planet today. It would take an exceedingly extraordinary man to be able to bear that weight. Jesus is that extraordinary.

In his life showed himself to be the most complete and perfect manifestation of other-centered, self-sacrificial love the world has seen. Even if you believe his story is fictional, you’ll find that it’s still the most complete and perfect story of other-centered, self-sacrificial love the world has seen, including all the world’s fiction and myth. He never used his extraordinary power for his own benefit, which is true of no other person or fictional character. Part of the reason I’m convinced his story is true is because if it weren’t, then there would be no explaining how the people of the time invented it.

Historical Reasonability

He lived, he demonstrated love like no one else, then he died — and rose again. For this there is also good historical support. Every academically credible historian studying that era agrees to a definite list of basic facts:

  1. Jesus lived and taught.
  2. He died on a Roman cross.
  3. His tomb was found empty and his body never found, even though all the authorities had high motivation to find it.*
  4. His disciples believed they saw him resurrected following his death.
  5. Saul, a bitter opponent of the disciples, converted to Christianity after an experience he described as meeting the risen Christ.
  6. Several of the early disciples gave their lives for their conviction that they had known and seen the risen Christ.
  7. A movement was founded as a result of all this that continues to grow today.
  8. The earliest moments of that movement were recorded (the book of Acts) by an historian with a detailed contemporary knowledge of the world in which those events took place — too detailed, and too accurate, to have been made up by someone even a few decades later.

*Number 3 is not universally agreed upon: some historians are less willing to say there’s strong historical evidence for the empty tomb.

Other than that, this list is agreed upon by all credible historians, including atheists and skeptics. The tiny handful who say Jesus was a myth are considered cranks, and for good reason: these facts are solidly established in history.

Many explanations have been offered for these several facts, but it seems clear to me at least that, unless you come in with a question-begging prejudice against the supernatural, the most reasonable one is that the accounts are true.

Looking to Jesus

So what I should have said in that comment exchange was to start out by looking at Jesus. I’m sure Jeanette would have said she doesn’t believe in him, doesn’t believe the stories, maybe doesn’t believe he even existed. My view is that he’s worth looking at anyway: he really did exist, first of all, and he’s the single most influential individual in all history. His story is unique for its uninterrupted selfless love. It’s worth reading.

And that would have been a much better way to begin and to follow through on that discussion with Jeanette — or with anyone who doesn’t know the basic facts of the great man and God we Christians believe in and follow.

10 Responses

  1. SteveK says:

    “Jesus is that extraordinary”

    It’s frustrating to be asked for evidence of the extraordinary people and events of the past while being handcuffed to the notion that there’s no evidence for them.

  2. chapman55k says:

    @Tom

    I would like to note that the series of comments about which this post was written was very helpful in a way you might not have anticipated. My daughter is a committed Christian who got her undergraduate degree in Statistics at a large state university in the south that was not openly hostile to Christianity, at least not in most of the STEM programs. She is now a second year PhD student in Marketing at a large state university in the Pacific Northwest. About half of her classes over these last two years have been out of the Sociology and Psychology departments where virtually all the students and professors are openly hostile not only to Christianity, but also to the very idea of objective morality. And that is only the tip of the iceberg–the way social issues are addressed is truly horrific.

    The behavior they manifest toward her is not dissimilar to the behavior of the anti-Christian commenter in the series of comments you discussed in this post. I spend a lot of time on the phone with my daughter, talking about the challenges she faces and how to deal with them. She tries to keep her head low and not engage too much, but everyone can pretty much tell she is offensively different from them by the way she looks and talks so she gets confronted a lot. Our family read Greg Koukl’s book, Tactics, together as part of our family homeschool and that was a big help. She is re-reading it right now in the face of this latest term of classes she has had to endure. Fortunately it is not like that in her Statistics and Marketing classes.

    At any rate, I sent her a link to the series of comments, we discussed them and it was a big help. Our daughter knows there are answers to all these questions, but it is discouraging when she gets beat up about her core beliefs and world view every other day. To see a forum with a more even playing field and thoughtful people who respond calmly and rationally to these kinds of irrational attacks is a great encouragement. My point is that, had this discussion not gone exactly the way it went, she might not have had the opportunity to see the arguments for these truths laid out in such an effective manner. I thank everyone who participated including if not particularly Jeannette.

    On a positive note, this is her last term of classes leading up to quals, so she will only have to endure for another couple of weeks.

  3. JAD says:

    I no longer have the patience to engage with disingenuous people who are unwilling to put forth the effort to understand my POV—the Christian point of view. Jeanette in my opinion was not willing to do so. She did not present any real arguments, rather she was argumentative and offered little but self-serving and self-righteous complaints. Do you think I am right or wrong in this assessment?

    Personally I cannot deal with that kind of person without getting sucked in and dragged down to their level. Maybe you think you can, Tom, but this time it appears that you did not.

    After ten years of participating on internet forums of various kinds, I no longer to wade into the obfuscation quicksand that most of our non-theist interlocutors want to lead us.

    How can you have an honest conversation with someone who does not believe in moral truth? That is why over the past couple years, aside from some occasional glib comments, I no longer engage with these anonymous internet “know-it-alls.” Is it too much to ask for some basic honesty?

  4. Tom Gilson says:

    You’re right, JAD, I did not do it without getting sucked in.

    The answer, I think, is either to disengage or to engage differently. The different way might be to be sure the person we’re talking with has the opportunity to know what we’re talking about. It isn’t just philosophy or science or culture or morals, it’s Jesus Christ in relation to all that, and also sometimes just Jesus Christ.

    I’m not saying I know how to introduce him to every person in conversation. I’m also not saying I expect every person to agree with us on who he is. What I am saying is that I’m going to be trying to think all this through to a better solution somehow.

  5. Tom Gilson says:

    chapman55k — Thank you so much for sharing that. Wow. Thanks be to God.

  6. Tom Gilson says:

    By the way, I’m wondering whether this came out the way you intended:

    but everyone can pretty much tell she is offensively different from them

  7. chapman55k says:

    Haha. I was wondering about that when I read back through it, but was in a hurry and pushed the button even though it was awkward and probably did not get across what I was trying to say just right. I guess the point is that these people are offended because of what she is, not because she is advocating for anything or trying to convince anyone of the rightness of her position (ala JAD). She keeps her head way down and has done so ever since she got there. We kind of figured the environment was going to be like that and she planned to play it that way as her goal was to just get past this part in one piece, get her degree and get out. We just had no idea it would be as intense as it has been.

  8. scbrownlhrm says:

    Sometimes to just disengage is better than ten explanations that the premises being foisted as Christian just are not Christian premises. Like asserting that control over covalent bonds (evolution) equates to controlling the soul’s nature, which outlives the body, that asserting “unicity” (the nature of our oneness) in the former sense just does equate, in the end, to unicity in the later sense as we ground morality. Or asserting that the “Law of Moses” defines what God loves despite the fact that Scripture defines it as housing things which God hates but which are compelled to restrain death vis-a-vis Men’s heart/mindset rather than instantiate into Mankind’s nature “Moral Excellence”. Like lots of examples seen here. Stopping a thread to make a point about such compulsions is helpful. I mean, what does it take to get Non-Christians to *actually* talk about, you know, *actual* Christianity, to actually comprehend the term “metanarrative” when it comes to “Scripture”?

    Perhaps some of our Non-Theist friends are just too emotionally and philosophically committed to their own Non-Christian ideas about Christianity to allow themselves to actually learn about someone *else’s* (the Christian’s) *actual* point of view.

    Granted, I struggle with that too, but then I don’t frequent atheist websites and charge them with believing that science is evil merely because science often converges with Theistic expectations from eons ago, such as suggesting that timelessness might actually exist at some ontological seam somewhere, despite real change in the now. Or whatever. I mean, clearly they don’t believe that. They even TELL us they don’t believe THAT. So why would I engage with them with QUESTIONS that are built on THAT premise?

    A few times, maybe. But year after year…. after…?

  9. scbrownlhrm says:

    Observation:

    A hint or clue which may signal “one’o t’em sneekee fellers” is when we try to put the Non-Theist’s argument into a kind of paraphrase and state something like “this is what I think you mean” and follow that good faith effort with something like “if not can you please clarify”, and, then, such requests are met with either [A] silence or else [B] insults or else [C] an oddly timed change of topic. Once or twice maybe, as we *all* get a bit “snarky” from time to time in these little adventures, etc., but when it’s a kind of pattern, a kind of “more often than not”, well, as some fellers of’tin say, “Here’s yer’ sign…

    🙂

  10. scbrownlhrm says:

    This is a bit esoteric, but there may be more to the perpetual inclination in our Non-Theist friends to constantly foist challenges built atop Non-Christian premises and then going on as if they were actually engaging with, well, Christianity.

    Perhaps somewhere in the mix there is something like the following:

    “Perhaps, however, it is a mistake to presume good will here. It may be the case that not every party in these debates is especially willing to acknowledge the qualitative difference between ontological and cosmological questions. A devout physicalist is likely to find it not merely convenient but absolutely necessary to believe that the mystery of existence is really just a question about the physical history of the universe, and specifically about how the universe may have arisen at a particular moment, as a transition from a simpler to a more complex state within a physical system. At least, it often seems pointless to try to convince such persons that none of the great religions or metaphysical traditions — absolutely none of them — thinks of the “creation of the universe” simply in terms of a cosmogonic process, and that the question of creation has never simply concerned some event that may have happened “back then,” at the beginning of time, or some change between distinct physical states, or any kind of change at all (since change occurs only within things that already exist), but has always concerned the eternal relation between logical possibility and logical necessity, the contingent and the absolute, the conditioned and the unconditioned. And I suspect this is not simply because they are incapable of understanding the distinction (though many are) but also because they have no desire to do so. The question of being is not one that physics can shed any light upon at all, and so the physicalist has no choice but persistently — even sedulously — to fail to grasp its point. To allow the full force of the question to break through his or her intellectual defenses would be, all at once, to abandon the physicalist creed.

    Here, however, I suppose one has to exercise a degree of sympathetic tact. Materialism is a conviction based not upon evidence or logic but upon what Carl Sagan (speaking of another kind of faith) called a “deep-seated need to believe.” Considered purely as a rational philosophy, it has little to recommend it; but as an emotional sedative, what Czeslaw Milosz liked to call the opiate of unbelief, it offers a refuge from so many elaborate perplexities, so many arduous spiritual exertions, so many trying intellectual and moral problems, so many exhausting expressions of hope or fear, charity or remorse. In this sense, it should be classified as one of those religions of consolation whose purpose is not to engage the mind or will with the mysteries of being but merely to provide a palliative for existential grievances and private disappointments. Popular atheism is not a philosophy but a therapy. Perhaps, then, it should not be condemned for its philosophical deficiencies, or even treated as an intellectual posture of any kind, but recognized as a form of simple devotion, all the more endearing for its mixture of tender awkwardness and charming pomposity. Even the stridency, bigotry, childishness, and ignorance with which the current atheist vogue typically expresses itself should perhaps be excused as no more than an effervescence of primitive fervor on the part of those who, finding themselves poised upon a precipice overlooking the abyss of ultimate absurdity, have made a madly valiant leap of faith. That said, any religion of consolation that evangelically strives to supplant other creeds, as popular atheism now does, has a certain burden of moral proof to bear: it must show that the opiates it offers are at least as powerful as those it would replace. To proclaim triumphally that there is no God, no eternal gaze that beholds our cruelties and betrayals, no final beatitude for the soul after death, may seem bold and admirable to a comfortable bourgeois academic who rarely if ever has to descend into the misery of those whose lives are at best a state of constant anxiety or at worst the indelible memory of the death of a child. For a man safely sheltered from life’s harder edges, a gentle soporific may suffice to ease whatever fleeting moments of distress or resentment afflict him. For those genuinely acquainted with grief, however— despair, poverty, calamity, disease, oppression, or bereavement — but who have no ivory tower to which to retreat, no material advantages to distract them from their suffering, and no hope for anything better in this world, something far stronger may be needed. If there is no God, then the universe (astonishing accident that it is) is a brute event of boundless magnificence and abysmal anguish, which only illusion and myth may have the power to make tolerable. Only extraordinary callousness or fatuous sanctimony could make one insensible to this. Moreover, if there is no God, truth is not an ultimate good— there is no such thing as an ultimate good— and the more merciful course might well be not to preach unbelief but to tell “noble lies” and fabricate “pious frauds” and conjure up ever more enchanting illusions for the solace of those in torment.

    No need to argue over the point, however. Religions of consolation belong principally to the realm of psychology rather than that of theology or contemplative faith. At that level, all personal creeds— whether theist or atheist— stand beyond any judgments of truth or falsehood, morality or immorality, rationality or irrationality. One cannot quarrel with sentiment, or with private cures for private complaints. It probably makes no better sense to contest popular atheism on logical grounds than it does to take a principled stand against the saccharine pieties of greeting cards with “religious” themes. In either case, what is at issue is neither belief nor unbelief (at least not in any intellectually important sense) but only the pardonable platitudes of those trying to cope with their own disaffections and regrets. What makes today’s popular atheism so depressing is neither its conceptual boorishness nor its self-righteousness but simply its cultural inevitability. It is the final, predictable, and unsurprisingly vulgar expression of an ideological tradition that has, after many centuries, become so pervasive and habitual that most of us have no idea how to doubt its premises, or how to avert its consequences. This is a fairly sad state of affairs, moreover, because those consequences have at times proved quite terrible.” (From David Bentley Hart’s “The Experience of God”)