An Epistemological Problem…

-Chapter Twelve

– A number of years ago I was sitting in my living room with a bunch of college kids and an atheist was sharing his doubts regarding the existence of God, namely, an argument that sounded much like one David Hume posited in the 18th century; wherever people claim a supernatural occurrence, the claim when investigated more often than not has a simple “natural” explanation. As Hume said,  

“A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature … When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened”  

Thus, if someone was sick and became healed, Hume would say this is nothing more than that which happens every day (in fact every hour and perhaps every minute) throughout the world and is nothing more than nature taking its course. Hume would ask, why should we believe it was ‘God’ who ‘healed’ the person and not merely nature taking its course? The atheist college student expressed quite succinctly his same understanding that the supernatural simply never occurs in time and space, and it was while he was talking that I realized something of particular note; there is no true Christian response that can refute the atheist’s position.  

You see, a great deal of Christian apologetics have been written and recorded which supposedly debunk the atheist position that the supernatural does not exist in time and space, yet none of them come close to adequately proving the supernatural. From Saint Augustine in the early days of the church, to John Calvin in the Reformation, Jonathan Edwards in the Great Awakening, and apologists of the 20th century such as Lewis and more recently, Evangelical authors like Josh McDowell and Lee Strobel. Many Christian men and women ‘believe’ they have offered an open and shut case in defense of miracles, the supernatural, and the existence of God. Yet upon further reflection these arguments are nothing more than a horde of assertions that rest entirely on beginning with the premise that God is there and He is not silent. The issue that we truly face is one of epistemology. Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know in relation to facts and opinions. In the context of whether or not the supernatural occurs; if one begins with the notion that the supernatural is possible, than the door opens for such a belief, but if someone begins with the premise that the supernatural is not possible, than the door closes. It is similar to asking a progressive and conservative their opinion on who won a particular presidential debate; in every post-debate discussion I have ever read or watched of U.S. politics, the progressive camp always maintains their candidate won the debate, and the conservative camp maintains the opposite. It is a rather silly pedantic exercise to ask partisans to analyze their camp’s position since they will most assuredly see what they want to see, as is always the case. Thus, the epistemological framework regarding the supernatural in both the Christian camp and the atheist camp is often entirely opinion based, as opposed to objective based.  

It was as I was talking to atheist college student that a realization came to me; nothing I (or God) could say or do would ever be proof to him that God exists. After all, were I to suddenly turn water into wine, or levitate upon water in front of him, how could he be sure I wasn’t merely performing an illusion that he didn’t know the secrets behind as opposed to performing a miracle via the ‘power’ of an invisible God. And what if God himself (if God exists) were to speak to him from the metaphysical world or raise a dead person back to life; how could the atheist know that it was indeed “God” raising the dead, or whether it was merely an alien, or perhaps even just me using very sophisticated medical technology he wasn’t aware existed. It is in fact the epistemology of the atheist that has disproved the very existence of God; God cannot exist because there is nothing God can do to prove his existence to the atheist who believes no one (and no God) can ever be trusted, after all, there is no way to know if someone or some God is merely pulling a fast one. The epistemological framework with which the atheist begins, precludes him (or her) from ever being able to honestly consider the idea of God existing. This is no small point, and it is a point that droves of Christian apologists appear to miss completely; you cannot argue an atheist into believing in God since the atheist cannot believe in God based on their epistemological starting point.  

Not only is this a present reality we face here in the 21st century, we also see this concept at work in the very life of Jesus himself, although not in the form of atheists, but in the personage of his friends and neighbors (Jews who believed in God) that he grew up around in Nazareth. So let us set the stage for what should have been Jesus triumphant homecoming weekend; his ministry was going gung ho, miracles were being performed, the sick were being healed, water had been turned into wine, and Jesus decided to make a quick stop to his hometown to say ‘hello’ to the people who had known him since childhood when he worked as an apprentice under his father Joseph the carpenter. But an odd thing happened, even though Jesus was at the top of his game and people everywhere were following him like he was the next coming of the Messiah, when he arrived to his hometown and visited his old hangouts, he suddenly stood face to face with people who didn’t buy into his program at all; his old friends, neighbors, and acquaintances gave him the cold shoulder. We read in the gospel,  

“But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief” [Matt 13:57-58] 

Jesus came face to face with people who had an epistemological starting point that prevented them from considering any other options; they believed that there was no way in hell or heaven that the Messiah could have grown up alongside them all those years, “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” they said to themselves, “Isn’t this the dude that grew up in Nazareth? Nothing good comes from Nazareth! The Messiah can’t be the son of a carpenter, that simply isn’t an option we can accept as viable”. Now it is not my intention in this chapter “to prove” that Jesus was indeed the Jewish Messiah. The simple point I wish to convey is that suppose for instance Jesus was indeed the Jewish Messiah; if his hometown buddies had an epistemological starting point that precluded the Messiah from having grown up in Nazareth, then no amount of miracles or followers that Jesus showed up with could “prove” to them otherwise. Their epistemology set the stage for a close mindedness that could not be objectively reasoned with or against.  

Thus, if Jesus had his own limitations when it came to communicating truth to others, how does the average follower of Christ expect to win over an atheist whose very starting point precludes him (or her) from ever believing in the existence of God? If Jesus (who Christians believe is God) cannot prove himself to his friends and neighbors that he is who he says he is, how is the disciple of Jesus supposed to prove God to the atheist?  

One of the difficulties when talking about these issues is that it is often difficult to navigate the line between people’s differing epistemological views on religion, metaphysics, and atheism. More often than not people come to the table in these discussions with their minds already made up. Now, their mind is not made up because they have spent a lifetime of study, considering at great depths the various elements connected to their worldview, but rather they are quick to form opinions based on very little thought or evidence. The average person is very opinionated, but not well thought out, Neil Postman puts it this way,  

“In America, everyone is entitled to an opinion, and it is certainly useful to have a few when a pollster shows up. But these are opinions of a quite different order from eighteenth- or nineteenth-century opinions. It is probably more accurate to call them emotions rather than opinions, which would account for the fact that they change from week to week, as the pollsters tell us” (Amusing ourselves to death) 

Western philosophy (our worldview) trains people to believe that they are entirely right about what they believe unless someone can prove them wrong, and it makes for quite a few difficulties in dialog. One of the most common logical fallacies that occurs everyday throughout Western Society is shifting the burden of proof; rather than defending their own beliefs based on study, reflection, and great depth of thought; the average person expects everyone else to ‘prove them wrong’. Imagine a child that comes to every discussion thinking they are ‘right’ about everything; the parent would have to argue with the child on even the most simple of subjects. And as you and I know, children most definitely do not know everything; they need to be taught.   

The philosopher Rene Descartes said 

“Some years ago I was struck by how many false things I had believed, and by how doubtful was the structure of beliefs that I had based on them. I realized that if I wanted to establish anything in the sciences that was stable and likely to last, I needed – just once in my life – to demolish everything completely and start again from the foundations”.  

Whether it is possible to “just once” in our life demolish everything and start from scratch epistemologically may be a tall order, but if we are able to at least begin seeing our preconceived notions and biases it may be a good starting point to understanding universal truths. Francis Schaeffer, one of the most influential Protestant thinkers of the 20th century was very adamant about his position on this subject and suggested that Christians, just like Atheists, are just as quick to form opinions based on emotion, rather than study and reflection; “how can Christians expect atheists to be open to being wrong, but they themselves will not be open to being wrong” he asked. Thus, while an atheist cannot “prove” God does not exist, the Christian must understand that just like Jesus, they cannot “prove” that God does exist to someone who’s epistemological starting point precludes the possibility that a metaphysical world exists.  

Therefore, the first premise in understanding the debate over God’s existence cannot involve proving His own existence. Just as Jesus could not prove himself to his Nazareth hometown, neither is God able to prove himself to the atheist. For some people it might sound like blasphemy to suggest that God cannot do something, but that is merely shortsighted thinking. After all, there is no serious Christian who believes God can destroy the entire universe or that God can lie. The Christian believes God’s nature precludes him from doing certain things, after all, if the God of the bible lies, then the entire construct of Christianity comes crashing down, as nothing God says or does can ever be trusted. While Christians for centuries have had no problem saying “God cannot lie” and “God cannot destroy the entire universe”, it has just taken awhile for Christians to realize that there are also a whole host of other things that God cannot do as well, and proving himself to an atheist is simply one of those things to be added to the list.  

For some people the concept of there being things God cannot do is difficult to accept, because even the parent who says, “I could never kill my child” has in the darkest corners of their mind the doubt that perhaps under a bizarre circumstance they could do the very thing they express is impossible. There tends to be doubt in the back of our mind concerning the idea of God not being able to do anything and everything. History is rather full of people who believed certain things could never happen and were proven wrong, I’m sure Dr. Lee DeForest truly believed it when he said, “Man will never reach the moon regardless of all future scientific advances”. 

So how then do we believe that God cannot prove himself to an atheist? After all, the studious bible student is immediately drawn to the narrative of Saul on the road to Damascus who was struck blind by the light of God and went from being a Christian killer to the most important apostle in the early church. Thus, in the face of the Road to Damascus story we face a very basic question; Isn’t this an example of God “proving” himself to a non-believer? To answer that we must consider one of the more popular logical theorems in thinking which in Latin is called Modus Tollens and means “the way that denies by denying”. Essentially, the idea behind Modus Tollens is that there are certain premises behind what we truly believe, and looking at things in reverse helps to confirm them. For instance, if it is true that when “Kenneth is on a walk along the river he is happy”, then if “Kenneth is not happy, he must not be walking along the river”. Modus Tollens is a type of double negative that helps philosophers establish certain premises. In the case of Saul the Christian killer, the true premise of his nature was not, “Saul denies that Jesus is the son of God under all circumstances”, but rather, “Saul denies that Jesus is the Son of God unless a light from heaven blinds him”. You see, it is not until we identify our true starting point that we begin to understand what we truly believe. The parent might believe in their heart, “I would never kill my child”, but what happens if their child has a gun and is about to murder all of their siblings and the only way the parent can save the other children is to kill the one child? Suddenly what the parent “truly” believes is, “I would never kill my child unless they are about to murder my other children”.  

Most of our “true” beliefs are in many ways beyond our grasp. It may take a lifetime to truly understand what is in the depths of our heart and mind. Suffice to say, for the atheist college student that I was sitting with, seeing water turned into wine or a man walk on water was not proof enough to believe in God; God cannot prove himself under those conditions to that particular student. That is not to say that belief in God is forever beyond the grasp of that student, perhaps it is, or perhaps the student has simply not truly discovered his real starting point.

Thankfully, the best is yet to come.

*Stock image Caleb George

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