For the first time ever in our blog’s 10-year history, we feature a series co-written by me, Gary Shogren; and our long-time friend, Tod Hannigan. Tod will do the heavy lifting on the philosophical end. This chapter is by Tod, who reports that, “Personally, the most difficult article I have written.”
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Dicken’s memorable opening to “A Tale of Two Cities” is an accurate representation of where we find ourselves a year or so after the pandemic began. It is the best of times because of the great progress made in vaccine development, which should give us all hope!
It is also the worst of times. Many nations, like India, are unable to keep up with the vast number of sick and dying. Vaccine supply and medical distribution problems have stressed their health systems to the point of failure and beyond. In the US as of September 8, 2021, about 75% of adults have received at least one shot, but this is not enough to reach herd immunity, which we need to achieve before the virus mutates into a more deadly variant.
Yet, a significant minority of people are not planning on getting a vaccine in the near future, or perhaps ever. Influenced by bad science, distortions, and fear-mongering politicians, they have been told that the pandemic is a hoax, and/or the vaccine is unsafe. One of the largest groups of doubters is the American Evangelical Church.
Here are just a few examples that highlight this problem:
Megachurch Pastor Guillermo Maldonado sent a clear message to his congregation. He warned them not to get the Covid19 vaccine, because it will “alter your DNA” and “prepare the structure for the Antichrist.”
Televangelist Kenneth Copeland is all over YouTube, literally blowing the “Divine Wind of God” into viewers faces as he “blows Covid away.” Outlandish? Sure, but the offerings keep coming in! Ironically, people are paying more for Copeland than they are for a COVID vaccine, which can be gotten for free. And not surprisingly, someone put together a remix video for YouTube.
Megachurch Pastor John MacArthur insisted that “There is no pandemic” as his cavernous megachurch violated public health laws, refused to wear masks, or social distance, and his congregation fell ill from the virus. But donations were up!
Gary adds on 9/9/21 – Liberty University boasted of a no-mask, no-vaccine, no-quarantine policy for its Fall 2021 semester. This policy has been disastrous and led to a campus shutdown within days. https://wset.com/news/local/liberty-university-reports-hundreds-of-new-covid-19-cases
In 2011, evangelical former Representative Michelle Bachmann said the routine administration of an HPV vaccine (which lowers the incidence of cervical cancer) was an attack on “innocent 12-year-old girls,” being “forced to have a government injection,” which might later result in “mental retardation” (sic). Scientific nonsense, sure, but not out of line with the evangelical American church. In fact, a large chunk of white evangelicals is wary of the Covid-19 vaccine.
The epidemic of unfounded fear in the evangelical church actually runs much deeper. According to Christianity Today, over 1 in 4 white evangelicals are convinced that the Q-Anon conspiracy theory is real and true. They believe that a secret cabal of Satan worshiping, baby-eating pedophiles are running the country, and that Donald Trump was chosen by Jesus to do battle against them.
A Tale of Two Cities – “Jerusalem versus Athens”
In this chapter of “Testing 4 Truth,” I am departing from a direct examination of logical fallacies, in order to highlight an important disconnect in the church. This issue is so egregious that it undermines the very relevance of the Christian church within society. Specifically, how can the Church expect people to respond positively, or even care about its truth-claims, when the church itself often can’t even recognize truth to begin with?
I am convinced that the root of this fatal flaw in discernment is related to a critical difference in how these two cities, or worldviews, determine “truth” and accept “knowledge.”
Truth and Knowledge – What are they?
As we mentioned before, the theory of truth we are using for our discussion is: “Truth is that which conforms to reality.”
This theory of truth is known as the “Correspondence Theory of Truth.” To put it another way, “Truth-is-what the facts-are.” Using this as a precept, any “truth proposition” can then be evaluated based on the evidence-for-or-against-it. By this method, we are able to improve and increase our knowledge of the world. “Knowledge” is a subset of belief, referring to beliefs that are both:
- Justified – Meaning that you have strong evidence that the belief is true.
- True – Meaning that the belief is factually accurate from an objective standpoint.
This method for increasing our knowledge and understanding of the truth does present some issues however! For example, we can be justified in our beliefs, yet the belief may ultimately be false. In addition, we can never reach 100% certainty that our beliefs are true, no matter how confidant we are in our justification! So, in our quest for truth and knowledge, we need to approach both with humility, realizing that there are limits to the methods we use to understand our world.
To bring this back into the context of our discussion, as Aquinas hypothesized from the analogical claim “God is truth,” then it is also true that “all truth is God’s truth.” Because of this, the Christian church should have a very high regard for truth. Truth is not something we should fear, it should be what we embrace!
This sounds quite reasonable. Yet, in practice, the Christian church has not always been a bastion of truth and reason. The church has in fact harbored a disdain for science and reason for centuries, and has sharpened its teeth on the bones of those who would dare challenge its view of the world. This despite the fact that historically, the Christian church has been responsible for founding many of the world’s premiere universities of higher learning! This schism has become ever more apparent over the last 300 years, as our knowledge of the world has grown exponentially, and technological innovations have improved the quality of life for so many.
A recent example of the schism between religious and evidential truths occurred in the early 20th century. The Roman Catholic Church responded to the new developments in science, history, and our understanding of the world by publishing a Papal encyclical with the subtitle “On the Doctrines of the Modernists.” Instead of recognizing the limits of dogmatism and acknowledging that many of the “Modernists” questions were valid, based on a serious study of the evidence, the church instead tried to vilify anyone who dared question it. Much like the current “Q-Anon” conspiracy theory in the Protestant church, “Modernists” were portrayed by the R.C. Church as a coordinated cabal of evil actors, having a mutual goal of destroying the church.
My Personal Kryptonite
So, why is the church of Christ, the Lord of all truth, so overcome with a strong passion against truth as demonstrated by scientific evidence? Why are so many believers enslaved in fear of conspiracy, also seemingly immune from logic and reason? This issue has been one of the most pervasive and personally corrosive questions I have struggled with over the years, because it seems so antithetical to the proposition and veracity of the Christian faith. Yet, I find it is also ubiquitous. It eats at my faith, and when not diligent, leads me towards cynicism.
A Tale of Two Worldviews – The Crux of the Problem
In our discussions, we have argued for a philosophically well-reasoned, logical approach to discerning truth from error. This view is represented by the Academy in Athens, which was ground zero for the development of both philosophy and science in antiquity. So, Athens represents evidential truth, the careful, well-reasoned, logical approach to discernment that we have been arguing for in this series. This method is self-correcting, able to provide testable predictions, understands its limitations, and is the foundation on which modern science is built.
Conversely, there is another method of discerning truth often used in the church. This involves the discernment of truth through faith and revelation. This method is represented by the city of Jerusalem, which is a sacred place for Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. This methodology can include direct revelation, such as our earlier examples of vaccine paranoia given out by modern so-called “prophets”, or through the revelation of a holy book.
Let’s be clear. Just because a truth proposition is derived from faith or revelation, this does not mean it cannot be true! For example, the truth proposition “Jesus rose from the dead.” Reasons to believe this as true should be based on reasonable evidence, not on faith alone, since by faith literally anything can be believed!
This brings me to a pet peeve regarding Hebrews 1:1, which I often hear quoted from the KJV as “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Not only is this a poor translation, but it is also misapplied. “Faith” is not, nor can it ever be “evidence.” Faith is simply belief. Strong assured belief perhaps, but still only belief.
So, in our example Jerusalem represents revealed / religious truth, the valuing of a feeling of faith over facts, and dogma over data. It offers a comfortable prison, free from questions, where we can feel smug and secure in our beliefs, without having to justify them to anyone.
A Problem of Historical Proportions
The clash between reason and faith, or “Athens” and “Jerusalem” is not new. The tension between these two different worldviews has been with us for a very long time!
In Chapter 7 of Tertullian’s (~155-220 AD) “Prescription Against Heretics,” he considers “philosophy” to be the root cause of that which undermines sound Christian doctrine. Using Paul’s letter to the Colossians as a cudgel, Tertullian boldly states that human wisdom merely “pretends” to know the truth, but in reality, only “corrupts it.” He asks, “What accord is there between the Academy (a center of learning founded by Plato) and the church?” He furthermore states: “With our faith, we desire no further belief.” For Tertullian, Christ is the capstone that makes praiseworthy all ignorance, as he himself states: “For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.” With a broad stroke, Tertullian brushes aside all inquiries of nature and mankind as “unprofitable questions.”
As we have mentioned in earlier chapters, at its root, philosophy is nothing more than study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence, especially as an academic discipline. It is from philosophy that modern science draws its worldview and methodological principles. At the time of Plato in the 4th Century BC, The Academy in Athens was a prominent location for study and learning across a broad range of subjects, including mathematics, astronomy, logic and political theory, as well as metaphysical inquiry.
Can we reconcile Jerusalem and Athens?
There have been those within the Christian church who have argued for a congruence (agreement, harmony) between “Jerusalem” (revealed / religious truth) and “Athens” (evidential truth), from Augustine and Origen, to Roger Bacon (who formalized the Scientific Method) and more. This is a critical issue, as we can see in this Venn Diagram:
Although we try, not everything we believe corresponds to reality, (ie, is true). My friend’s youngest daughter may be convinced Santa Claus has a list with her name on it, but that does not make it true. In addition, not all religious truths correspond to reality. For instance, compare the following truth propositions:
- “Ganesha is god.”
- “Jesus is god.”
Both statements are religious “truths” revealed through holy scriptures, recognized as true by the faith of millions! Besides the obvious “Well, my god is real of course, but not yours!”, in what way can either statement be actually true? The only way, is if one of them is “true” in “reality.” And if a truth proposition is part of the set of “reality,” then there should be evidence. Someone may argue that not everything in the set of “reality” may leave evidence that we can discern. Okay. In theory I agree, but where does that line of reasoning lead? To “truth”? No… it leads to the backdoor of Fantasy Land, where anything can be believed, independent of reality.
I propose to the reader, that if there is in fact no congruence between Jerusalem and Athens, this would terminally undermine the veracity of revealed / religious truth, making it merely subjective, without any objective anchor to reality. This would render all religious truth statements of zero value.
The time to believe something is when there is evidence. I think William Kingdon Clifford said it best in his work “The Ethics of Belief” (1877), “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”
This issue affects us all to the degree that we value knowledge and truth. This issue will never be resolved by labeling others, feeling superior, or being convinced this doesn’t apply to you. We are all brothers and sisters, and are all prone to the same afflictions and foibles.
The difficult truth, is that we all must be willing to challenge our beliefs, to drag out every sacred cow, and examine why we believe what we believe. We need to be sure that all our beliefs are based on the solid foundation of evidence, in order to defend our truth propositions as being a subset of reality, instead of mere fiction and make believe.
Tod Hannigan, “Testing 4 Truth, #4 – Athens and Jerusalem.”
Tod, I didn’t mean to get into a rant. I’m here to learn, and appreciate your comments. I do believe the Bible is true, but I also agree we need to do the work necessary to understand the original meaning. Thanks again.
I appreciated your comments Jay. I never thought of them as a rant! Blessings!
Good to know. A few people find me annoying in our bible study discussions. Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android
I do appreciate this article as truth seems to be a moving target in our culture today. On the other hand, in my view the examples you state in order to make your argument are not representative of the majority of evangelical Christians. As someone who is vaccinated, I respect the views of my friends who are holding off on the vaccination. Not one of them is holding off for any of the reasons you stated, indeed they would think of most of your stated reasons as irrational. There is no question that we have heard some outlandish remarks about Covid and the vaccination, and although you state examples of what many would consider are mainstream Christian Pastors, you also state examples of individuals that I would argue the vast majority of Christians, in the US anyway, are not taken seriously on almost any subject, biblical or otherwise. The often-used example you use of CT’s poll stating that “over 1 in 4 white evangelicals are convinced that the Q-Anon conspiracy theory is real and true”, is a one-off unscientific poll, taken by a politically charged organization, with no corroboration, and to the best of my knowledge, though I may be wrong, I don’t think the poll numbers were ever published. I cannot say my experience represents the norm, however, I’m involved in a number of ministries where I meet many evangelical Christians, and I don’t know of any of them, myself included, who follow Q-Anon. In fact, I don’t even think most evangelicals, again myself included, really know much about Q-Anon, but I do know that CT, along with many others has used your Q-Anon example as a political way to undermine the efforts of the political right and to discredit Christians as a whole. In the end, I would agree with your conclusion but I feel your examples do not represent the “truth of reality”, as most of us are experiencing, and your bias towards the views you hold regarding the vaccine, come across as “superior” to the very small minority of people who for their own personal reasons have decided not to be vaccinated. Also, like climate change, theology, medicine, and most other subjects, there is always more than one view of what is true. With science, we don’t often know the ultimate truth on some subjects for many years down the road. I won’t bother listing the many examples of this here; as most people reading this who are over the age of 40 are aware of this fact.
In my opinion, every Christian leader should be well-versed on the QAnon central narrative, which in a nutshell is: “The world, especially the Democratic party, is ruled by pedophiles who secretly sex-traffic millions of children. Donald Trump was just about to crush them, but they turned on him by rigging the 2020 election. And the fact that there is no, zero, evidence of a rigged election just goes to prove how all-powerful are the pedophiles. But Trump lies in wait, stealthy, to return to power.” Or alternatively, “he IS ruling the country, but Biden is his puppet or a hologram.” The fact that millions of Christians believe this is hugely important; much more shocking to me than when Joel Osteen, to use an example, said he didn’t know much about Mormonism, so didn’t want to condemn it. Studying QAnon for apologetic reasons is much more important than teaching a class on cults like Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons or Moonies, none of which are making that kind of serious inroad into American evangelicalism.
The American Enterprise Institute is hardly a leftist organization; nevertheless: Do you have other polling information?
Your point: “I cannot say my experience represents the norm, however, I’m involved in a number of ministries where I meet many evangelical Christians, and I don’t know of any of them, myself included, who follow Q-Anon.” I personally do not know any QAnon followers – rather, I probably do, but none have revealed themselves to me! – but in the end you or I would be relying on anecdotal evidence. And we would be unwittingly demonstrating Stanley’s point, that evidence based on anecdote or personal sense of a thing does not build a good case.
Nor does it matter if you or if I do not personally know vaccine doubters based on the reason Tod mentions (I myself have heard from such people), but many evangelicals are leading the Doubters, especially in the rural south. And Maldonado, Copeland and MacArthur (who is on record as being a pandemic denier, although I thought his statement on the topic meandering, self-contradictory, hard to parse) have a tremendous influence where I minister in Latin America; they are, I would even venture to guess, three of the top influencers in the Latina church.
My main crusade is to protect and strengthen our central truth-claim before the unbelieving world, which is, the resurrection of Christ. I cannot believe that all these competing truth-claims (QAnon, COVID) aren’t harming our credibility about the core message.
Todd, I’m with you up to the last paragraph, but, truth exists separate from our biases and beliefs. It may be unknowable by our physical senses, but it is what it is. I’m not a believer in the idea of a personal truth for each individual, which would be more in line with your statement of biases in my opinion. God wants His family to trust Him with our lives through our faith. You know the statement in Hebrews about faith being the things hoped for, but unseen. That’s what our declaration of Jesus’ Lordship is all about. That life requires more than a mental ascent to there being a God. If we truly want to serve Him it requires a connection outside the physical realm. As John recorded Jesus’ statement, “God is Spirit , and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” We can only do that when our recreated spirit connects with the Holy Spirit to provide the spiritual understanding of God’s will for our lives. That is the job of the Holy Spirit, who is our counselor and teacher (John 14:16-17, 26). That being said, I do enjoy studying language and word usage. The closer we can get to the original intent the better, but it will never be enough in itself to get us closer to God.
I agree 100% with you Jay! Truth exists separate from our biases and beliefs. If I gave the impression that I supported a personal “truth” for each individual as the ideal, I apologize. Truth -is- what the facts -are-.
Yet, I think it is to some degree unavoidable that we are all victims of that very thing. Not everything we believe is in fact a subset of “reality”. Which is why it is so important for us to question our personal “sacred cows”, and be open to new information. As you can see by the horrible examples at the beginning of the article, those Christian leaders honestly believe they are worshipping in spirit and truth, but in fact they are deluded.
My issue with the statement “the Bible is true”, which led to the related comments on wooden literalism and the unavoidability of interpretation, is meant to highlight that without an accurate hermeneutic model, and an awareness of our own inherent biases, “the Bible is true” communicates nothing of value.
Thank you for your thoughtful reply Jay!
To my understanding, Clifford was an empiricist. When he argued that it was wrong to believe anything without sufficient evidence, he limited evidence to that which could be observed by sense experience. If belief is limited to sense experience, we are unable to know many important truths. We know many important truths based on the testimony of people we think are trustworthy. Many beliefs of others can seem unreasonable to us, if we reject the starting premises that others use to begin their use of reason. It would be nice if we could be sure that all our beliefs are based on a solid foundation of evidence. I hope you will explain how you be sure that your beliefs are based on a solid foundation of evidence. How do you answer the problem that what we take to be a fact depends somewhat on the worldview we hold?
Thanks Stanley! Tod will be fielding the questions for this post.
What an excellent question Stanley! Thank you for taking the time to post it!
On the topic of W. K. Clifford. To see him as a strict empiricist is difficult, especially when he discusses his theories on the development of sentience, where he imbued moving molecules with a small amount of what he called “mind stuff”. (“On the Nature of Things-in-Themselves” 1878).
As you stated in your response: “If belief is limited to sense experience, we are unable to know many important truths.”
I agree with you, that our sense experience is limited. Yet, this is the only way we can experience our shared reality,, through our senses, colored by our feelings, beliefs and biases.
If there really are “important truths” to be learned beyond our ability to sense them (which I am sure there are btw!) , then I would have to ask how anyone could know these “truths”? Moreover, how would we discern between “truth” and “fairy tale”, if there is no way to evaluate these truth claims, since they don’t intersect with reality in a way our senses can detect?
I wish I had a better answer for you Stanley, but I do not see how we, created with limited intelligence and limited senses, can ever arrive at a level of 100% certainty in our pursuit of knowledge and truth about the world around us.
We can have faith that certain things are true, but we must remember that faith is a very poor road to truth, since by faith literally anything can be true.
Great question Stanley!!
Thank you for your reply. I agree that faith is not the only road to truth. Faith is the means by which we test our beliefs for truth. As a farmer, when I plant seeds in the spring, I trust that the seeds will grow and will produce a crop in the fall. I do not know if I will get a harvest. That truth will only be confirmed if I plant seeds and wait until the time of harvest. The only way I can know a truth is by living as if what I believe is true and confirming the truth of my belief through the results of my trust.
I can also test my beliefs for truth by imagining the implications of their being false. For example, if only things that can be observed by sense experience (matter in motion) are real, the human brain is real, but human minds are at best “mind stuff”. “Mind stuff” could be nothing more than a fairy tale that seems real. I reject that my mind is nothing more than “mind stuff’ because it reduces my experience of having a mind to an epiphenomenon less real than my experience. I doubt the truth of ideas that diminish the quality of life.
I do agree with Clifford that there is a moral aspect to knowledge. It is wrong to believe something on insufficient evidence. What we consider to be evidence is not only objective. There is always a subjective aspect to our choice of what we take to be evidence. If a shipowner sent a ship on a voyage, but was unwilling to go on the voyage, I would take that as subjective evidence that the owner was not confident that his ship was seaworthy and i would take it to be evidence that he was not trustworthy. There seems to be a personal aspect to truth.
I also wonder if Tertullian was rejecting the autonomous reason of Athens. Unless we start with a truth, reason can not get us to other truths. Reason always begins with some brute belief that we trust is true, but do not know with 100% certitude is true. Certainly reason is a valuable tool that we must use in our search for truth. Nevertheless, the search for truth always starts with trust in something that must then be proven true by how we live our life.
I thank you for your thoughts. It does encourage me to think about why I believe what I believe.
My starting point is always that the bible is true, God’s reality. If there is a conflict between scripture and accepted science, either facts are being misinterpreted, scripture is being misinterpreted, or both. I have annoyed more than a few of my evangelical brethren by saying we do more harm than good insisting on a literal seven day, 168 hour creation. I have a science background, and it is obvious that the majority of people in both the Athens and Jerusalem camp have very little understanding of science.
Thank you for your response Jay!
I agree with your overall assessment of the level of scientific understanding in both Athens and Jerusalem. As you infer, even scientists are often wrong! For example, I am a scientist specializing in photochemistry and polymers, though by no means an expert. But for decades, I was dead wrong about the evidence for evolution! Partly because it was not my specialty, but also because I did little to no research on the topic beyond listening to apologists misrepresent the science.
The seven literal 24 hour day topic is a real hot button for many, and I agree with your take on that as well…I see no evidence for that position, and see a significant amount of evidence against it.
I think a lot of confusion is generated by our understanding of scripture. Is Genesis a wooden, literal, complete, step-by-step explanation of how God created the cosmos needing no interpretation? Or, is God simply trying to communicate a deeper truth to a primitive people?
If a word for word strict meaning IS the correct way to interpret the book, then this could only be true in the original language, since all translations are by nature interpretations. For Genesis, which was first passed down by oral tradition, I am not sure how you can determine the “original language”.
On top of this, when we read scripture, and assign meaning to it, we are by nature “interpreting” it. Try as we might, our biases, prejudices, and indoctrinated worldview color our understanding of the authors original intent.
Because of this, as well as other issues I won’t get into here, I hold the premise “the Bible is true” as somewhat of a nonsense statement (one I have been guilty of saying way too many times! Lol). Since without context or specificity, the statement is at best merely ambiguous. It is like a Hindu saying “The Vedas are true”. That declaration only tells me about the persons religious biases, it offers nothing specific, predictive, testable, verifiable, or falsifiable having to do with our shared reality.
Thanks again Jay!