Is Christianity Unintelligible?

Thread started by James – he writes:

In it, I would like to discuss an article I found in Christian Reformed Theology and Apologetic found at http://www.reformed.org/webfiles/antithesis/index.html?mainframe=/webfiles/antithesis/v1n3/ant_v1n3_unintel.html.

This form of apologetics is part of the religious tradition from which I have emerged. And I find that this apologetic is, of all apologetics, the most persuasive. Specifically, I would like to discuss the following claim:

“For the Christian, the Absolute standard is the personal triune God revealed in Scripture. There is no higher court of appeal by which the Christian evaluates what is rational, ethical, or real. A Biblical outlook simply does not countenance any human standard of rationality to which God must answer. If God is truly Absolute, as he is presented in Scripture, then He stands as the ultimate judge over all issues in logic, ethics, reality, and knowledge. The Christian God is not in the dock being forced to answer to our finite standards. ”
Atheists must howl at this sort of stance, since it appears to beg-the-question against any atheistic claim. Yet the atheist’s howling is naive. If there were some higher standard of “reason” or “conceivability” by which both the atheist and Christian could adjudicate their dispute, then the Christian God would not be Absolute; He would be limited by something outside and above His nature. Yet the Christian does not worship some being subordinate to Platonic Forms or some alleged higher standard of reason or goodness. The Christian God is truly the final court of appeal.

“The atheist also has a final court of appeal. The atheist also bows before an Absolute standard. And just like the Christian, the atheist does not permit anything to correct or evaluate this ultimate standard, for if he did then the standard would obviously not be the final court of appeal.

“The ultimate standard for the non-Christian, in general, and Smith, in particular, is finite human rationality — or the autonomous human mind. Though this Absolute standard is often portrayed as “Reason,” it is, from a Christian standpoint, a distortion of reason. Nevertheless, this non-Christian Absolute functions in much the same manner as the Christian Absolute. Non-Christians even use religious terminology when they refer to this Absolute — ‘bowing before the bar of reason’ or ‘reason is the only guide’ or ‘we cannot dispute reason’ or ‘an offense against reason.’”

One Response to Is Christianity Unintelligible?

  1. The Atheist says:

    James,

    Interesting question! My first inclination would be to look a bit closer at some of the terms you use to frame your question. When we talk about a “standard” for example, we must talk about it with regards to something else, a standard for how we act, a standard for how we think, etc. It makes little sense to call God a standard, rather we should say that God sets standards for us, albeit perfect ones, for how we should act and how we should think. This may seem like a quibble at first glance, but it becomes important as we define our other term.

    The Christian position, as you describe it, uses the term “absolute” standard. But we can mean many different things by the word absolute and it may help to disambiguate. For instance, we don’t mean absolute in the sense that its existence is independent of anything else. If God created the standard, then the standard’s existence depends on God and it is not absolute in that sense. I think in this case, we are using the word, absolute, to mean “perfect”; that is, we are really talking about a standard that has no flaws.

    Your question deals with not just any standard, but rather a standard by which an atheist and a Christian might reason together. Then we already presume a tacit agreement between atheists and Christians that we should all reason – that reason should guide our thinking. This should come as no surprise since most of us (people with certain mental disorders excepted) share a common experience which teaches us to accept that reasoning is a reliable way to think. For example, we discover that reason is a reliable for predicting events so that we can prepare for them or prevent them, it is reliable for problem solving, etc.

    A proposed standard of reason by which a Christian and an atheist might agree is not an perfect standard. It is merely an agreed-upon standard. We agree for example that certain fallacies undermine reason, and we agree that a good standard avoids fallacy. We concede that better standards might exist, we just don’t know about them yet. We might recognize that our standards for reasoning are better than the standards that existed thousands of years ago, which should lead us to guess that future generations of thinkers will continue to improve the standard. The fact that a group of people (whether theist or atheist) agree on a standard and agree to adhere to that standard does not make the standard perfect. At any time, members of the group may agree again to amend the standard, or they might discover ways to improve the standard.

    So now we can turn to the point of the question: is there a tacit claim by atheists of an absolute standard that mirrors the Christian claim? If there is, then atheists forfeit the ability to criticize Christians for presuming an absolute if the criticism is itself based on an absolute. After unpacking some of the terms, it might be more clear that reason is no absolute standard, nor even a perfect standard; it’s simply the best one that we have, and we have it by agreement, and we agree because of a shared experience that affirms that reason is generally reliable.

    On the other hand, Christians (certain Christians) indeed claim an absolute standard (standard for what?). But by “absolute standard”, they really mean a perfect standard (standard for what?). Atheists remain in a position to criticize any claim of an absolute, or even perfect standard which has no basis, and they may do so without invoking any absolute of their own.

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