My Current Beliefs
What do you do when you're a confused Christian who's trying to live and work with other Christians? If you're me, you try to sort out your confusion by writing about it, and then you foolishly post it on your website for reference, without regard for consequences. The consequence you do care about is that at least you'll know where you stand, and then you can strategize about how to interact with other people about belief.
This essay is an update to my 2005 beliefs summary and my essay on agnostic Christianity (here's the severely abridged version).
For convenience, I'm organizing this discussion by the traditional categories of systematic theology. But systematic theology covers a lot of topics under those categories, and I'll only be addressing the topics that are important to me.
Here's a 500-word overview. I've emphasized the parts that my conservative evangelical friends can appreciate:
Though in practice I still believe in the basic Christian notion of God, I'm vague on the details, and the arguments for God seem weak. The cosmological argument proves little. Evolutionists have a strong position. Fine tuning assumes that humanity is a goal, though maybe the argument can work, but it proves little. The moral argument assumes an objective morality, when noncognitivism seems more likely. The ontological argument assumes absolute definitions of greatness for properties that seem subjective. The transcendental argument is an appeal to consequences and assumes particular positions on several philosophical issues. Proper basicality seems complicated and wrong, but I haven't investigated. Plantinga's evolutionary argument might work. Miracles need extraordinary evidence, and even then we can't rule out unknown laws of nature. Mystical experiences could be caused merely by the brain, since it's still so mysterious. But to be responsible, philosophy of religion needs to consider all concepts of God, not just the Christian ones.
Religious authority is hard to establish. The Bible's teachings are fragmentary, its statements ambiguous. Its interpretations vary widely. It has problems of history and composition that aren't convincingly resolved. I see it as human writers trying to interpret life and history in light of their ideas of God. But I still see it as a beneficial source of challenging ideas that should shape my perspective. The church seems like a similarly messy source of authority, but I haven't investigated it. The Orthodox idea of the Church Fathers as authoritative based on their closeness to God intrigues me.
I take Jesus more seriously than the rest of the Bible. I haven't investigated very far, but I think the Gospels probably got him mostly right. His teachings confuse me, and he seems less patient than I'd expect or want. Arguments for his bodily resurrection seem strong. I pray to him and assume he's in heaven interacting with the Father and the world.
As for the rest, Christians agree on practically nothing, but I believe the following based on a mix of habit, experience, hearsay, logic, desire, and a residual attachment to the Bible as a source of theology. The Holy Spirit acts on people's minds to convict and inspire. I thank him for the good in my life. Sometimes I think of specific thoughts as being messages from him. The church is God's adopted family, represents him, and has no prescribed structure. People are saved when they ally themselves with Jesus. I think of the atonement as substitutionary and justification as imputed, and I vaguely believe in a traditional hell, but my mind is open. I hope God can achieve universal salvation, but I don't count on it. I'm unclear on the soul's existence, since the brain is so tied to the mind, but certain near death experiences intrigue me. I don't know when or how Jesus will return, so I treat the present world as if it'll continue indefinitely, though I do imagine a new creation in the hazy future.
In systematic theology, the prolegomena covers general issues you should take care of before getting into the details of specific theological topics.
A central issue for me is faith and reason--how they relate, which of them "wins" (if either), what our obligations are to each.
My belief spectrum
I have a growing skeptical side when it comes to religion, alongside my skepticism about everything else. My basic problem with belief is that the more I learn about how people think, the clearer I see how shaky and vulnerable human thought processes are. We get confused easily, except that a lot of the time we confuse our confusion for clarity, and we're confidently wrong.
On top of this, I see that everything we think about God and the spiritual realm comes through human beings, whether they're religious authorities or our own minds. So I end up with the fundamental question, what makes us think we're not confused or even deceived about spiritual things?
Yet I grew up in Christianity, specifically conservative evangelicalism, and I'm not ready to toss it all out the window. So I've ended up with two basic mindsets on each religious topic, a believing one and a skeptical one, and I switch between them based on the situation. So in this article I'll talk about both points of view I have for each issue. Really I'll sometimes have a range of perspectives, some more believing and some more skeptical.
Thresholds of belief
Some believers get offended when you question their beliefs. From a rational perspective this doesn't make much sense. Shouldn't people who value truth want to follow the pursuit of truth wherever it leads? Even if you think you've found the truth, it might be irritating to realize you still have more thinking to do, but should you object to it in principle? It seems like you should get over your irritation and get on with the pursuit.
The one objection I can come up with that makes sense to me comes down to a question of loyalty. The objection is that the believer who's veering towards apostasy hasn't given their initial beliefs enough of a chance. How dare they jump ship at the first opportunity?
It seems to me there's always some threshold to accepting or rejecting an idea, and the person who's asking a doubter to hang onto their first beliefs is asking them to move their rejection threshold further away, maybe an infinite distance away. This idea of a movable threshold seems helpful as I think through all the issues I'll be discussing in this essay.
Beliefs as obligations
Some have made a theological argument for this perspective of belief as an obligation. In Apologetics to the Glory of God, John Frame argues that Christians (and all other people) have a duty to believe God as part of their overall duty to obey him. They should make their beliefs impervious to change by adopting Christian presuppositions as their foundation. This argument feels both right and wrong to me, so I keep it in mind as something to address.
Beliefs as wagers
Another concept that's helpful to me is the idea of belief as a form of gambling. When you decide to believe something, whether consciously or unconsciously, you're saying you're willing to risk claiming it's true. I like Rachel Held Evans' take: "I am a Christian because, at the end of the day, the story of Jesus is the story I’m willing to risk being wrong about." So with each of these religious issues and the possible positions on them, some key questions I'll be asking are what risks of belief I'm willing to take, on what basis, and for what rewards.
Beliefs as experiments
A related perspective I'll use is that a belief is an experiment. You treat it as if it's true for the purpose of seeing where it gets you. If it ends up not working out as expected, given your threshold, you can trade it for another one, though doubtless with some kind of difficulty.
Types of belief
As I consider the conflicting religious ideas that swirl around in my head, I find I need to decide what counts as a belief. When you hear the word "belief," you might think it means "firm conviction," but many of my ideas that feel something like beliefs don't fit that description. They range from conviction all the way to speculation. Where's the cutoff point for including them here?
Well, different kinds of belief will be more or less relevant to my goals in writing this essay, so I'll look at those briefly. Partly my goal is to have a starting point for moving toward several other broad goals: feeling more ideologically settled, interacting with Christians and non-Christians, thinking about issues of concern (based on my more settled ideology), and doing good. But largely my goal in this essay is to be open and express my ambivalent inner reality without unduly worrying the Christians I care about. I think I can approach that goal by starting with the places I'm closest to my Christian friends' beliefs.
So generally speaking, for each section I'll cover the following types of belief-related ideas:
- ideas I believe out of habit
- ideas I'd like to believe
- ideas I believe in practice
- ideas I aim to believe in practice (ideals, you could say)
- rational arguments that convince me for and against various ideas
- areas of argument I'd like to investigate
- threats to my rationality
To highlight the ways I agree and disagree with my religious community, I'll comment on the statements of belief of various organizations I've been involved with. These are a good starting point because for the most part I've agreed with them in the past. I've moved around from one evangelical denomination to another, so my main source will be one that represents conservative evangelicalism in general, Wheaton College, where I did my bachelor's and master's degrees.
I won't list specific ideas I'm open to believing, because that would take too long. Really I'm open to being convinced of just about anything, as long as it falls under my core ideals of reason and empathy. I'm much less open, for example, to views holding that only the strongest people should survive.
Some people might want to convince me by asking me to just believe whatever they do. But as much as I like to make people happy, I'll have to push back, at least in my head. This is because everybody's point of view is different, and everybody's point of view feels natural to them. How am I to decide between them? I need good reasons, so we have to be prepared for some hard work.
Where does our information about the religious realm come from? Christianity holds that it's from a divine revelation, and the question they debate is where that revelation is located. Among Christians, Protestants say it's the Bible. Catholics and Eastern Orthodox say it's primarily the church.
Although I haven't moved away from Protestantism, my Christian side is inclined to agree that revelation is grounded in the church. For one thing, the church (meaning God's people) produced the Bible, which is an argument I've heard from Catholics, and it seems plausible to me.
For another, there's the question of the canon. The Bible doesn't tell us which books belong in it. That came from the church, although even then it's not a tidy matter. There was no council that declared it, and different branches of the church have different canons (see Craig Allert's A High View of Scripture?).
And finally, most of the Bible's books were written within some context, and they don't record everything it seems we'd need to know about that context. It seems natural to think some of that context is contained in the church's traditions. To illustrate, I know you couldn't get a complete picture of my beliefs and ideas from my writings, and we have more of my writings than, say, Paul's. Paul wrote his letters mainly to churches where he'd preached, so it's plausible he told them things verbally that he didn't bother to write in the letters. But maybe those things were preserved by the church.
I don't know how the Reformers conceptualized sola scriptura, but maybe they should've treated it as an experiment. After the Protestant church's half century of trying it, I don't think it's worked all that well. Christians can agree on very little, but especially Protestants, or at least they're very vocal and strident about their disagreements (see Christian Smith's The Bible Made Impossible). If God wants unity, couldn't his revelation have been a little clearer and less messy?
What's the relationship between the divine and human sources of the Bible? If we plot them on a spectrum, there are four views I normally think of. On the fundamentalist end there's the dictation view where God told the human writers exactly what to write. Next is the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, a conservative evangelical document which basically says God allowed the human writers some freedom, but within that range he ensured they said everything he wanted and nothing that conflicted with it. On the left there's the view that the Bible is the work of human theologians grappling (fallibly) with the divine events they'd encountered. And on the very left is the skeptical view that the Bible is a purely human book. I don't know where the Catholic and Orthodox views land.
At this point I'm hovering around the theologian view. I'd like to believe there's something divine going on, but the Bible does seem like a very human book, with conflicting facts and perspectives, culture-bound viewpoints, legend-like material, and even indications of propaganda (see Kenton Sparks' Divine Words in Human Words). Rather than wrenching my mind to harmonize and rationalize all its apparent foibles with less than satisfying results, I'd rather experiment with the idea that the Bible is mostly human but grown from some divine seeds.
On this issue the two basic questions for me are (1) what kind of pattern the Bible displays, something more human or something more divine, and (2) whether some other consideration overrides that pattern of evidence, such as the argument that the Bible doesn't lie because God doesn't (which is very inadequate, in my opinion, because it assumes a lot about God's agenda in giving us the Bible).
I haven't even begun to examine how faithful to the church's origins its extrabiblical teachings might be or what would make us think they're true. I have doubts it's a tidier affair than the Bible.
Traditional Protestants will be wondering, if we dilute the Bible's authority like this, how do we do theology? I don't know, but the trajectory hermeneutic is appealing to me.