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Monday, 23 August 2010

The Big Problem with Western Thinking

Christian turned atheist
I am reading a book about a Christian who turned into an atheist because he was convinced by the arguments of atheistic thinkers.

There are too many issues in the book to take up here, but the core issue, which surfaces in all sorts of other places too and reveals a big problem with all western thinking, is the issue of 'epistimology'. Let me explain.

Epistemology is the study of how we know things, how we become sure of things, the reasons we believe things. Western epistemology is almost exclusively intellectual: we are convinced of something if it can be proved with reasoning or proofs. If you can give me enough proofs I'll believe it. In other words we believe things because of mental reasoning processes. This kind of epistemology owes itself squarely to a movement called The Enlightenment (a better title would be better The Narrowing, though I am sure that name won't stick!) and the Greeks. 

The enlightenment (those that praise it prefer it to begin with a capital e) narrowed down knowing to the mind, to the reasoning processes of the mind, and that is a massive mistake. Reasoning processes play an important part in how we know things, but they are limited.

There are many ways we become sure of things which have nothing to do with logical proof. This is because being finite creatures, we simply cannot base all our beliefs on reasons - there is simply no way we can prove everything. Nowhere is this more true than in science. A scientist takes as given a thousand facts and formulae which he or she finds in the literature. Life is too short to prove each one so they take these 'on trust', they believe them not because they have proved them, but because they trust the people, the community which have established them. This is nothing short of faith - there is nothing wrong with this kind of faith provided we admit it and don't deceive ourselves.

So, apart from reasoning ourselves to the conclusion, there are other ways of knowing things are true; and faith is a prime example.

Other ways of knowing
In the New Testament  John says things like this. He says that as poor people in the church are cared for by the better off, as we care for those in need, this spontaneous and divine generosity provides evidence that we belong to the truth (when our hearts might suggest otherwise, see 1 John 3:16-20). In other words we can know through experience.

Jesus said on one occasion that people around the church will know that we are followers of his by the love they observe in the church. They will 'know' by the experience of love.

Reason, faith and experience are all ways in which we come to conviction that things are true. The enlightenment narrowed down knowing to logic and reason.

Back to the book written by the convert to atheism. If we live by the sword be die by the sword. If we live by reason we can easily die by reason. This is why reason alone is no sure foundation on which to build our lives and why it is so fickle: what if all the research on which this author has based his new-found atheism is one day found to be false or partial? Then his new found faith will lie tattered on the ground.

Reason is good and reason is important but it is never sufficient ground to believe. It turns out that even when people say it is the sole ground on which they base their belief, it isn't. The author in question abandoned his faith not merely because of reason, but also because he felt let down by Christians - a bad experience.

Christians should appreciate the wonderful minds God has given them and thank God for the gift of reason. But they shouldn't buy into the enlightenment's (inconsistent) lie that reason is King. There are many reasons we believe and some of the most important lie outside the realm of tiny little human reason. Nor should Christians imagine that people are won to Christ by naked apologetics. They are just as likely or more likely to be won to Christ - humanly speaking  - by the pure holy other-worldly example of a simple humble Christian.

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