Inside Baseball

Christian, can we talk?

Lend help, here, if you can. If you follow this site you know that it is not intended to be deeply theological, but rather philosophical about the necessity of there being a God, and not only that but that He reconciles us to Himself through Christ, in just the way the Bible says.  But, and I know I’m not the first one to ask this, is there a disconnect between Christianity as it is understood and practiced among evangelicals at this date in the United States, and the historical working out of a systematic theology that comprises basic Christianity?

Bad Religion

Ross Douthat suggests there is, and gives a number of modern heresies that we should be conscious of.  We posted on his book Bad Religion, How We Became a Nation of Heretics, reviewed here.  Among others, they include accomodationist theologies which adopt contrary materialist ideology; pernicious prosperity theology; a family of “God within” beliefs that are more akin to pantheist Eastern religions than the personal God embodied in Christ; a mix of pop psychology and Christian moral concepts, resulting in a vague soup of feel-good beliefs; and finally, a civic religion comprised of jingoistic patriotism, worship of democracy, and Christianity presented more as a tribal totem than the salvation of the world.

Gnosticism: The American Religion

May we humbly suggest that we should be on our guard about another element in the popular culture, which threatens to supplant real Christianity: Gnosticism.  Now if we were to google Gnosticism we’d read a lot about weird beliefs based on a stridently dualist point of view that results in strict ascetism, or its opposite, libidinous excess.  But the element of Gnosticism that is relevant here is the idea that one has “gnosis,” or knowing, which is an interior, experiential, unarguable knowing.  Knowing on the same level as knowing that you live and breathe.  It is the idea of a special, experiential, revelation.  Harold Bloom went so far as to express this as “The American Religion,” in his book by that name.

On Sunday morning, across the country, people go to church and look for emotional experience, or for the glory of God to be manifested in music, architecture, or clever speech.  Or they invoke pop psychology and translate the difficult message to a more palatable “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” to try to slake their thirst for authentic spiritual truth.  Often they drink in tainted water, however, and are left thirstier than before.  They may feel satisfied for the moment, but it doesn’t last.  What’s going on?

Many people, especially young people, conclude that “nothing” is going on.  In their urgent quest for authenticity, they decide that when those trappings or experiences of religion are removed, there’s just nothing there at all; that it just wasn’t true.

They may come to conclude that it’s not true because of a misguided idea that faith is based on some inward heavenly light; some special knowing; some experiential and unmistakeable revelation.  In short, Gnosticism.

What happens with this false Gnosticism is that we come to believe that interior knowing takes the place of reasoning from evidence.  If “faith” does not rest upon reason, but transcends reason, then reason must be immaterial to faith.  Therefore our belief is not based on reason, therefore evidence to support our reasoning is not necessary, therefore faith does not require evidence, therefore faith is believing despite the absence of evidence.  The strident atheists are right, they feel.

Extrapolating Physical Evidence

The subject-matter of faith is that which is unseen, as Hebrews 11 tells us.  It is faith based on evidence, but not just physical evidence.  It is faith based on a higher level of reasoning than simply processing sense impressions.

At the simplest level, we take sensory inputs and reason from it. We hear a lion growl, and we reason from that sound and our experience that danger lurks.  We investigate the constituents of water, and engage in observation and experimentation to reason that it is composed of hydrogen and water.  If we are atheists, we say that reasoning from sensory inputs is all that we do.

At higher levels of reasoning, we make inferences not only from what we see, hear, and touch, but also from abstract reasoning itself.  The very fact of existence points to a necessary creator entity, as even pagan philosophers like Plato and Aristotle held.  The nature of our consciousness implies a non-physical component to our being.  The baseline and shared orientation to desire the good, the true, and the beautiful implies an Author of those transcendent values.  Reasoning from these aspects of our being leads us inexorably to God.  Faith is based on this reasoning evidence in addition to the sensory inputs generated by the physical world around us.

We believe in what is unseen not because we believe without evidence, but because the evidence is that which appeals to our higher reasoning rather than the sensory inputs which brute beasts rely upon exclusively.


Gnosticism discourages a proper view of the evidence-based reasoning upon which genuine faith should be based, and encourages a phenomenon we observe in self-described “agnostics.”

“Agnostic” is a word many people use when they want to get out of the whole discussion.  The word “agnostic,” taken literally, means the absence of that special interior experiential knowing.  What they’re literally saying is that there is no God because they don’t have an absolute knowing of His existence, on the same level as knowing they have a body and breathe air.

That standard of “knowing” is not what really applies, however.  Ultimately it’s dismissive of any belief of any kind in any version of ultimate reality – except, of course, atheism.  A-gnostics in effect put blinders on themselves, and with their range of vision thus limited, see only the version of reality that says that what they see, hear, and touch is all there is.  Reality is thought to consist only in that which we can know in the same way we know that we ourselves exist.  It’s a way of confining oneself to lower-order evidence.  This habit of mind is abetted by the perception that Christian “knowing” is of the same kind – a special knowing rather than reason applied to evidence.

Out of The Frying Pan

So back to those young people who search openly but don’t find the special knowing they think they’re supposed to have.  Young people are particularly vulnerable to mis-guided Gnosticism-as-Christianity, for the reasons we observed in Numinous Light.  Not finding it, they tend to throw over belief in God altogether, rather than maturing to understand what faith really is.

It matters what we believe, and what we teach.

8 thoughts on “Inside Baseball”

  1. You put much emphasis on the non material evidence of God, and that faith is not belief without evidence, rather a reasonable conclusion based on “higher reasoning”. Yet the Christian faith is solely based on what is believed to be the revelation of God through the Bible. The Bible is all about material claims, and has come to exist in a very material way. To suggest that a conclusion of God best comes from higher reasoning, of non material evidence, is certainly a strong argument. But it’s seems to me to be a strong argument against the Bible. Clearly not your intent, but I appreciate the argument anyway.

    I wonder how you know that agnostics want to get out of the whole discussion, and so use the word agnostic. Do you have some special interior way of knowing?

    1. Thanks for commenting. I’m always glad to hear from you.

      I re-read your comments several times before responding, because I want to be sure I’m responding to the essence of your argument, rather than making a peripheral quibble. But this time I’m hung up on the assertion “the Christian faith is solely based on what is believed to be the revelation of God through the Bible,” and can’t get past it.

      You could be saying that just to make the contrary assertion to mine. But that doesn’t appear to be what you’re doing. Instead you appear to be saying that I’m inconsistent, and that your assertion is a given, or that you think I make it myself.

      It is absolutely not not not true that “the Christian faith is solely based on what is believed to be the revelation of God through the Bible.” In fact, among the main points of this site is that we don’t have to rely on the Bible to know that God is. Reason, I hold, takes you to the conclusion that God is real, and that materialism is a lie.

      You use the word “material” in a way that I don’t follow. So let me say what I mean by it. “Material” just means physical as opposed to spiritual things; or you might say, natural as opposed to supernatural things. “Materialism,” with the “ism,” is a constellation of philosophical outlooks that have, as their common denominator, the principle that all of reality is composed of that which is physical; that there is no supernatural.

      Now unquestionably there are material processes at work in the world. Your body is physical and the processes within it are physical processes. Theism (including, of course, Christianity) does not hold that ultimate reality consists only of the supernatural. It holds that reality is comprised of that which is physical plus that which is spiritual, and that the spiritual reality transcends the physical. Spiritual reality is distinct from the physical, but also co-exists with the physical.

      I wasn’t trying to place “higher reasoning” outside the province of the material. I was trying to place it at a level of abstraction that proves the necessity of the non-material. For example, the orientation that we all have toward the truth (e.g., the reason you and I are having this conversation) is accessible to reason, but that reasoning takes you (I believe) inexorably to a reality beyond the material.

      The Bible isn’t “all about material claims.” It’s all about non-material claims. Claims to the truth of non-material reality is the reason it exists. Some of the explicitly material claims (e.g., that Christ rose in the body, not as some sort of spiritual essence) are important, but they’re incidental to what the Bible is “all about.” Remember supernatural reality, Christianity holds, is transcendent to, not completely separate from, physical things. So the Bible relates to physical things in the form of miraculous suspension of natural laws. It’s about supernatural things though it affirms the fact of natural things and natural processes.

      Clever point about what I know about agnostics. Of course, I’m saying here that we “know” things on the basis of evidence plus our reasoning, and our knowledge isn’t perfect. I am saying this about agnostics because (a) agnostic friends have told me essentially this; and (b) this position of agnostics is the only one that stands to reason. Agnostics are agnostics because they say they don’t know whether there is a God but then they haven’t moved off of that position of not-knowing (which is why they continue to call themselves agnostic). About this question only do they hold no belief. Every agnostic I know (many) holds all kinds of beliefs. Only on this one do they require a level of proof that is not accessible to mere humans. Therefore they remain frozen in indecision only about this. What I’m suggesting about their position of agnosticism is that they falsely believe they’re in a position of neutrality, and I think the predominant reason for it is that they require gnostic-type knowing to move off of it. Which means they don’t.

  2. You start your post indicating it is not intended to be deeply theological, but rather philosophical, about the necessity of their being a God. “And not only that but that He reconciles us to Himself through Christ, in just the way the Bible says?” How are you not being deeply theological? You’re even citing scripture at points! But hey, this is your blog. Go for it.

    Neutral? If one asserts that supernatural reality, things outside the material world, are unknowable, and that their position is not one of neutrality, but a decisive conclusion they have come to based on what they have observed and what they have not observed, would you still expect them to move off of that position? Why are they characterized as frozen in indecision? Maybe they are absolutely committed to agnosticism with no claim their position is neutral.

    Is it possible for someone, who might be totally isolated from the Bible or all religions, to spontaneously come to be Christian. I don’t think so. One may accept the claims of the Bible and reason it to be true, but I don’t understand how my suggestion the Christian faith is based solely on the Bible is absolutely not not not true. Would I have been okay if I had not said “solely”?

    The Bible makes claims about the supernatural, sure. But it also makes claims about our physical existence and how our existence came to be, as well as many stories involving the physical world. And these aren’t minor claims about the material world. They are huge claims. Although science can not answer claims of the supernatural, it can answer questions about our physical world, such as the age of the universe, whether a global flood is possible, if and how we might have evolved versus popping into existence 6000 years ago, etc. Further, the Bible came to be by committee vote of men. It didn’t just float down from the heavens. So in that sense, I said it came to be in a very material way. I’m not very crafty with the language so I’m sorry I’m not very clear. And I may be just missing your point.

    1. Thanks again for commenting.

      About being deeply theological. The part you quote is me providing the most basic claim of orthodox Christianity, not “deep theology.” The point of my doing so was to go on to say that there is a form of corruption seeping into that basic Christianity, having to do with the question of how we can know anything to be true. Some Christians have this idea – I believe incorrect idea — that one must have this gnostic-type knowing of the truth of Christianity. That wrong-headed idea is felt in the culture at large, and in fact contributes to the adoption of agnostic “blinders” that I go on to talk about.

      I take your point that one can be very committed to an agnostic outlook, and I don’t disagree with that. But that’s a focus on the person’s perspective, rather than the object of that perspective. I’m not talking about the possibilities for thinking about reality. I’m not talking about the possible claims one can make about reality. I’m talking only about reality, and as to that objective reality, I’m saying there are two and only two possibilities. There is a naturalistic, mechanical universe; or there is that plus more. Only two options.

      I say agnosticism attempts neutrality because it adopts neither of those two possibilities. Even if an agnostic says that this question about ultimate reality is unknowable, rather than merely unknown, he is still by definition not committing either to there being a supernatural component to reality, or to there not being such. So he necessarily positions himself as neutral as to the reality options. He is in effect saying “I adopt neither side.” He may have what he feels are good reasons to do so. But he’s still neutral as to the two possibilities. That’s just what it means to be agnostic.

      You asked whether I would expect an agnostic to move off his position of agnosticism even if he has arrived at a decisive conclusion that the answer is unknowable. I assume by the phrase “decisive conclusion” you mean a conclusion reached in good faith after genuine deliberation.

      What I’m saying is that we have to consider what it means to say we “know” something. What I referred to in the post as a gnostic-type knowing is an interior, experiential knowing, equivalent to knowledge of one’s own existence. Contrast that with simply being persuaded to the truth of a proposition based on the strength of the evidence and the reasoning applied to that evidence.

      I characterize agnostics as being frozen in indecision because they adopt neither of the only two possibilities that exist, and they do so because they believe that this gnostic-type knowing is required for anyone to be able to adopt one of the two decisions.

      I’m further saying that with a proper understanding of what it means to “know” something, one can know that there is supernatural reality. In fact, the evidence for supernatural reality is overwhelming. Only by requiring, in addition to all that evidence, that kind of absolute sure-as-I-breathe kind of knowing, can one get to the point of asserting that the truth is “unknowable.”

      And, to come full circle, that overwhelming evidence is not “deeply theological,” in that it is accessible to all of us without even opening the Bible. That’s why the Christian faith is not based solely on the Bible.

      It also explains how it is possible for someone who might be totally isolated from the Bible or all religions to come to Christianity. In the course of making sense of reality, one would first reason that there has to be a God, and then that He is personal, and that people are manifestly sinful and “not-God;” but that there is something significant to people that makes us realize a connection to that God – a God-image, in Bible terminology. And those things would cause him, if he is persistent, to seek out revelation of God to us (like a bible of some sort, if not yet The Bible), and they would seek, in that revelation, an indication of some means by which God redeems us to himself, because of that connection. This seeking would get him to the Bible, and he would recognize it for what it is.

      I think what I wrote above responds to what you were saying about the original post. The rest of your comment has to do with the accuracy of the Bible and your earlier comment about it coming into being in a material way. I think you’re just saying there are reasons to doubt its authoritativeness because of how it was written and how you think it might be inconsistent with what science tells us.

      Honestly, I’m kind of hesitant to get into that just because I don’t want to detract from the main point of our discussion so far. So let me say a little about it, with the understanding that in my mind it is a separate discussion altogether from everything above.

      Science makes claims about the material world, because that is the only thing science is about. That is the definition of science: it is a process to explain the material world.

      The Bible doesn’t “make claims” about the material world in the same way. It certainly talks about the material world, because it is directed to material people who are alive in the material world. Its purpose is not to explain material things to us, however, but to explain non-material things (God). What it says about material things is incidental to that purpose. So it has to be read differently than you would read, say, a science textbook.

      If we were to nonetheless isolate what the Bible says about the material world, and do so in good faith, we find that it is remarkably consistent with what science seems to tell us so far. I’ll take just one example. It says that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Theologians traditionally hold that it means He created it ex nihilo.

      Science doesn’t say God created the heavens and the earth, of course, because by definition it avoids saying anything about God. But science does say that there was a beginning, and that before the beginning, there was nothing. Now what science has not done (and I believe cannot do) is give a plausible explanation for how something can come to exist from nothing. It cannot explain how natural reality could come into being apart from supernatural agency acting upon it. In fact, in my view, the state of the science requires supernatural reality.

      I’ll just touch on a couple of other things you mention. About ages of people: we only take 70 to be a normal age because that’s what we’re used to. If we all lived to be 800, we’d think 70 was weird. Science doesn’t rule out longer lives at an earlier stage of history.

      Age of the universe. The Bible doesn’t speak to this at all, in my view. It does talk about 6 days of creation, but most Christians don’t think it’s intending to say 6 x 24-hour days. I certainly don’t.

      Global flood. I think the weight of the geologic evidence is that there was such a thing. The cataclysmic changes in the earth in times past would probably exceed our imagination. But anyway, the way the Bible is written, it is clearly not intended to be understood the same way we read a geology textbook. It talks about “the whole world” or “all of mankind” or even “the cattle on a thousand hills,” and so on when the context indicates that it’s not trying to tell us something about the formation of the water and landmasses of the entire earth, or something about every human being then alive, or the precise location of cattle. That said, however, exactly what (if anything) happened at the time of the flood is not established by science, either. It’s one of those things that seems out of the normal from our perspective, but if we think about what the big bang theory is telling us, or the science of black holes and supernovas and quantum mechanics and space-time continuum, the proposition of a global flood on the earth is no big deal at all.

      “Committee of men?” Of course the Bible was written by people, though not a “committee” except in the sense that there were multiple authors for some books, we think. But even at that, they would have worked sequentially, not collaboratively. But I suppose you mean that the Bible is not God-inspired. That’s just an assertion, though, and I don’t have a reason to reject is as being exactly that.

      1. I’m a bit confused with your asserting the agnostic “falsely believes they’re in a position of neutrality”. But later state he is “still neutral to the two possibilities” and that that is what it means to be agnostic. I must be missing some nuances of what you’re are saying, but it seems contradictory. You say they are in a neutral position, but also say they falsely claim to be so.

        With respect to my poorly stated “committee of men”, I was not referring to the multiple authors as a committee, rather the men who decided which books are the word of God, and thus assigned to the Bible.

        A minor point, but I said nothing of the age of some characters in the Bible, I was mentioning the age of the entire universe as one of the examples of material claims of Bible. However, having to determine what the Bible is “intending” to say versus what it actually says, is why we can have so many versions of Christianity, such that one can choose the meaning they want. I won’t go on about specific claims made in the Bible as I think you want to avoid that for purposes of the blog. I also think once people are set in their beliefs, they will be inclined to dismiss the scientific claims as bogus or dismiss the biblical claims as bogus, depending on where they stand. So I won’t waste time.

        Thank you for your responses.

        1. Sorry, I was evidently not careful enough about signaling a change in point of view. There is no neutral, so objectively it is incorrect to say that the agnostic is actually in neutral. From his perspective, however, it may seem (as I say, incorrectly) as if there is a position of neutrality which he can occupy indefinitely. No nuances to miss, just an instance of uncareful writing.

          I see what you mean now about “committee of men.” I quite agree that people have had to undertake the task of deciding upon the canon. They have undertaken it with genuine desire for leading from God in doing it, but yes, it was a human undertaking, as is evidenced by the fact that Jews and Protestants have a slightly different canon than do Catholics.

          As for the Protestant and Jewish (as to old testament, obviously) the canonization process was in the Septuagint, which was a famously rigorous undertaking. I’ve read a fair amount of early Christian writing that was considered for the canon and not included, and some of it is pretty compelling. I came away from the exercise thinking that if there was an error, it would be an error of exclusion, rather than of inclusion.

          You’re right, there are certainly different interpretations of the Bible, and differences among Christians about it, but I would say those differing interpretations for the most part do not affect the essentials of the faith. We’re not all right, and we’ll find out what is true about lesser points by and by, but grasping and holding the essential doctrines, plus relationship with Christ, is the point of commonality among Christians.

          I would quibble with a distinction between “intending to say” vs. “actually says.” I think the only good faith approach is to try to discern what the Bible actually says. The differences of opinion should only be about what it actually says. The early chapters of Genesis are particularly susceptible to this kind of debate. I mention this because we’re so used to thinking of a sharp distinction between, on the one hand, factual empirical science, and on the other, fanciful fictional story-telling. Story-telling needn’t be fanciful, however, and it needn’t be fictional in what it’s actually trying to impart, as with Jesus’ parables. They’re obviously not intended by Him as recitations of factual events, but they are dead-on correct as illustrations of principle.

          For what it’s worth, I don’t dismiss scientific claims as bogus because they may be in conflict with an interpretation of the Bible. I am skeptical about evolution, for example, on the science. If it turned out to be true, I wouldn’t conclude that the Bible is wrong, but it would affect my understanding of what the Bible actually says. I have no beef with science, but I have a beef with ideologues who employ the word science to advance an unscientific agenda. People who go around insisting that there is “a consensus” about some science proposition, when there isn’t; or that something is “settled science,” when it isn’t. If they’re having to make that argument at all, then there must not be much of a consensus, or it must not be “settled” in some minds. It too often happens that ideological bullies invoke science, but are, ironically, acting contrary to the open inquiry and critical approach that actual science embodies. I discussed this, by the way, in a couple of posts on climate change.

          This goes beyond my post and your comments on it, but I guess this is prompted by your references to “claims made in the Bible.” From your earlier comment I think you’re still referring to material claims (like age of the earth) but again, I don’t think the Bible is making claims about those things. It’s just not about that. If it assumes something about material things that is just wrong, then we should pay attention to that. But generally, the Bible isn’t making claims about things like how old the earth is. Therefore, if it can be reconciled in any way with what we otherwise know to be true, it should be. And, we should be careful about the things we think we know to be true from science.

          Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

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