Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Truth Without Risk?

"If God is real why doesn't he give us proof of his existence?"

Behind this question are several assumptions. One of those assumptions is addressed by Lesslie Newbigin in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society:

We have on the one hand the ideal, or shall I call it the illusion, of a kind of objectivity which is not possible, of a kind of knowledge of what we call the "facts" which involves no personal commitment, no risk of being wrong, something which we have merely to accept without question; and on the other hand a range of beliefs which are purely subjective, which are, as we say, "true for me," are "what I feel," but which are a matter of personal and private choice.

People who ask this question are looking for "proof" that will take away the element of faith and the element of risk. Newbigin makes clear that this option is not only not available when it comes to religion, but neither it is available in something as "objective" as science.

All acknowledgement of "truth" requires a personal risk.

  • Galileo took a risk when he decided that the earth moved around the sun.
  • Einstein took a risk when he said that light travels at a constant velocity.
  • Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis took a risk when he said that hand washing could prevent childbed fever.
  • Columbus took a risk when he said that he could get to China by sailing west. (He was wrong about the size of the earth, but his gamble lead to the discovery of the western hemisphere by Europe.)

While God doesn't give us proof of his existence, he does give us evidence (maybe hints is an even better word). It is up to us whether we will acknowledge that truth or reject it. Either choice entails a risk.

Something radically new has been given, something which cannot be derived from rational reflection on the experiences available to all people. It is a new fact, to be received in faith as a gift of grace. And what is thus given claims to be the truth, not just a possible opinion. It is the rock which must either become the foundation of all knowing and doing, or else the stone on which one stumbles and falls to disaster. Those who, through no wit or wisdom or godliness of their own, have been entrusted with this message can in no way demonstrate its truth on the basis of some other alleged certainties: they can only live by it and announce it. It is something given, dogma, calling for the assent of faith.
Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society

So what do you think? Does this view render traditional apologetics useless?

Pastor Rod

"Helping you become the person God created you to be"


daniel the smith said...

This was a very thought provoking post...

Working from the end up:

I don't think traditional apologetics are worthless. They have their place. I do, however, think that a steady diet of that stuff can induce a "methinks she doth protest too much" mindset in the hearers. I also think that traditional apologetics answers questions that people don't ask very much anymore (or perhaps better to say it answers questions people ask, but not the BIG questions).

As for proof of God's existence... This is a hard one to give a good answer for. As you say, there's no way to prove it. There's no way (as I used to think a long time ago) to make a case so good that any intellectually honest person would have to accept it. But how can you say that without sounding like a Buddhist (I can't prove my point, but you can't prove yours either--and logic and certainty is bad anyway)?

The best answer I've come up with goes like this: There are many ways ("narratives") to interpret the facts of the world as presented to us. While it isn't possible to "prove" one over the other, we can try to judge how effective a narrative is at explaining the world. We can also judge how internally consistent a narrative is (does it follow its own rules?). Asking these questions about a narrative can help us decide how "reasonable" it is. To my mind, that is about as much as it is possible to prove about a narrative ("worldview" if you like). From there on, a lot of subjectivity comes in: Do I like the answers this narrative gives to my questions? Would living in this narrative make me a better person or a worse one? Etc.

You say: "While God doesn't give us proof of his existence, he does give us evidence (maybe hints is an even better word). It is up to us whether we will acknowledge that truth or reject it."

I'm having some difficulty with that bit. I guess I'm thinking that unless someone first accepts or is open to the Christian story, all those "hints" will just seem like so much superstition, wishful thinking, and subjectivity to them. It also seems like we Christians have our cake and eat it too on this issue--if what I want to happen does, then God did it; if it doesn't, then it wasn't God's will and he'll do something better. That's a great way to think about life, but it certainly can't be used as evidence for anything...

Anyway, thanks for making me think. I'll stop rambling now. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on all that...

Pastor Rod said...


I think one of the things that Newbigin is saying is that once we try to "prove" the Bible scientifically, we have given science the ultimate authority. This is not to say that we dodge the issue altogether. But it does require a different approach than the church has used in the past.

The narrative "apologetic" is more or less the right approach, I think.

Of course, the "hints" can easily be explained away. I think that is one of his points. But this is also true even in a field like science.