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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Evaluating Truth

1This one's going to be a doozy. But I figure, why start small? I apologize if this seems over-long, but it's not a light subject and I've been in need of some good conversation for quite some time, so this is a bit of a release for me. Questions are at the end.

2I'm in the midst of reading the book Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth, by Harold A. Netland. While incredibly thorough in his writing, he makes no attempts to hide his bias towards orthodox Christianity and his belief that it is the only religious system which makes any sense. In his own words, "it is hoped that this book will serve as a kind of defense of Christian exclusivism," which, he concludes, is the only logical end one can attain if they are being, "faithful to the clear teaching of Scripture."

3My initial reaction was to chunk the book and use my time more efficiently playing video games, as he had already admitted that his argument would be contained within the circular logic of scripture. Also, anytime someone refers to the teachings in Scripture as "clear," I'm automatically a bit suspicious, both of their motive and their intellect. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that anyone writing about pluralism and world religions is going to be contained within their own bias. The question is, are they willing to look outside of that bias? Are they willing to attempt to step out of their own worldview and into the Other's? So I'm giving it a shot.

4After several lengthy chapters explaining the basic tenets of 5 major world religions (a very thorough and uncharicatured attempt, I must say), he finally gets to the chapter titled "Evaluating Religious Traditions" and I start to get really interested. Early in the chapter, he attempts to show some of the common tools of evaluation used in comparing religions. For instance, he examines different religious worldviews on the relief of suffering and the aiding of the oppressed (bringing about the Kingdom of God in his Christian vernacular), but determines that this cannot be used as an evaluative tool because the priority, the value of such actions is determined by each religious tradition itself. In other words, how can we hold Muslims to the Christian expectation of the Kingdom, when Muslims are more inclined to hold that each man is given his lot by Allah and that we are not to interfere? Each religion determines its set own set of values and priorities; you can't use one to judge the other.

5So then how can one evaluate religions? What absolutes can be given that are not derived from within one religious perspective? Fear not, for Netland will show us the way. Netland rightly asserts that "In evaluating a religious worldview we are concerned ultimately with the question of its truth." He then goes on to define truth as, "a property of propositions such that a proposition is true if and only if the state of affairs to which it refers is as the proposition asserts it to be. Otherwise it is false." We'll come back to this.

6The next ten pages were Netland trying to create 10 different working logic statements, or principles, which could be used to evaluate religions semi-objectively (he openly admits that it's not a perfect system, but better than most). First, he understands that if you're talking about religious systems, you're talking about the particular beliefs that make up that religious system. So he offers up this definition of a "Defining Belief," or the beliefs that are worth considering.

D1: p is a defining belief of religion R if an only if being an active participant in good standing within the religious community of R entails acceptance of p.

And then he tells us what it means for a religion to be true:
D2: A religion R is true if and only if all of its defining beliefs are true; if any of its defining beliefs are false, then R is false. (emphasis added)

So there're the criteria. If one defining belief is wrong, then we can toss out the whole thing. We'll come back to that as well. To spare your eyes and time, I will provide you with a list of the ten principles, sans Netland's elaboration and explanation of each. I'm pretty sure they're self-explanatory.

P1: If a defining belief p of a religion R is self-contradictory then p is false.

P2: If two or more defining beliefs of R are mutually contradictory at least one of them must be false.

P3: If a defining belief p of R is self-defeating it cannot reasonably be accepted as true.

P4: If the defining beliefs of R are not coherent in the sense of providing a unified perspective on the world, then R cannot be plausibly be regarded as true.

P5: Any religious worldview which is unable to account for fundamental phenomena associate with a religious orientation or which cannot provide adequate answers to central questions in religion should not be accepted as true.

P6: If a defining belief p of R contradicts well-established conclusions in other domains, and if R cannot justify doing so, then p should be rejected as probably false.

P7: If a defining belief p of R depends upon a belief in another domain (e.g., history) which there is good reason to reject as false, then there is good reason to reject p as probably false.

P8: If one or more defining beliefs of R are incompatible with widely accepted and well-established moral values and principles; or if R includes among its essential practices or rites activities which are incompatible with basic moral values and practices, then there is good reason for rejecting R as false.

P9: If the defining beliefs of R entail the denial of the objectivity of basic moral values and principles; or if they entail the denial of the objective distinction between right and wrong, good and evil, then there is good reason for rejecting R as false.

P10: If R is unable to provide adequate answers to basic questions about the phenomena of moral awareness this provides good reason for rejecting R as false.

7Again, Netland is very apparent and unapologetic with his bias. Immediately following his last principle statement (P10), Netland writes the following, "Although this cannot be argued here, I should state that the reason I believe one is justified in accepting the Christian faith as true is because it is the only worldview that satisfies the requirements of all the above criteria. Ultimately, this means for Netland that "If indeed one is justified in accepting the Christian faith as true--as I am convinced is the case-- then one is also justified in making judgments about other religious traditions on the basis of Christian teaching, and in rejecting as false those beliefs from other traditions that are incompatible with Christian faith."

So there we have it. We can now objectively evaluate and rank any and all religious systems. So now let's start with the questions! Feel free to discuss or expound upon any part of the questions, or add any of your own. I've numbered the paragraphs for easy reference. For the Principles or Definitions, simply use the references provided (P1, P2, D1, etc.).

Q1: What do we make of Netland's definition of truth provided in paragraph 5? Does the phrase "state of affairs" work for you as an attempt to define reality?

Q2: Is it right to assume, as Netland does, that if there is one "false" principle belief then the entire Religion must be false, as he asserts in D2? As a follow up, how many people do you think fully and completely believe and accept everything their religion teaches as true?

Q3: What do we make of the 10 Principles? Are they as objective as Netland would like them to be? I have serious issues with P8 and P9 because of his use of the phrase "basic moral values" and the failure to define that. Are morals developed independently from religion now to be used as the standard of comparison for those religions? And wouldn't basic moral values be completely determined by geography and cultural settings? P9 seems wrong on a philosophical level, as it requires the assumption that right and wrong exist, that good and evil are indeed factual. Seems like Buddhists are just out of luck on that one. Sorry, Mike.

Q4: I'm very curious as to how Netland thinks Christianity is the only religion that meets the standards he's created. In fact, I'm curious as to how he thinks ANY religion meets the standards he's created. So it's not in the form of a question....sue me. Does your religion hold up to these principles he's created?

Q5: What does it mean to be in "good standing" in a religious community, as provided in D1?

Q6: Just to provide a couple of questions that Netland poses but never attempts to answer, "What constitutes knowledge? Under what conditions is one justified in accepting a particular belief? Must one be able to provide sufficient grounds for, say, belief in God in order to be justified in believing in God? What would constitute such grounds? What kind of contrary evidence would falsify belief in God?"

Q7: Should I finish reading this book? The next chapters are "All Roads Lead to..." "No Other Name: the Question of Jesus," and, "Evangelism, Dialogue, and Tolerance."

I hope all are well and look forward to hearing your thoughts on this one.


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

"The grand show is eternal.  It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never dried all at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising.  Eternal sunrise, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls."
John Muir
The Wilderness World of John Muir, p 312

Dawn and gloaming.  The crisp light of sunrise and the slow farewell of the day.  For photographers, twilight is often known as the "magical hour," as it produces the softest and most dramatic natural lighting.  The true color of an object is concealed in the golden glow of the setting sun, an image painted in a dying light.   It is a time when light and shadow intermingle, with one fading into the other as the seconds pass, making each moment that the photographer hesitates a precious vision of beauty forever lost.

So it is with life and the human mind.  As we struggle to understand the world around us in all of its complexity, our perceptions of the world are painted in the dying light of the moment.  The true hues of the world lie just beyond our ability to see them.  And so ideas meld together, as light and shadow, to compose an image, an understanding, a vision of the world that our minds can comprehend and we can accept as real.  We frame these moments in words and expressions.  Most importantly, we share those words with others, making a dialogue of perspectives, a collection of images that helps us understand the larger picture before us; a mosaic of moments.

That's my hope for this blog, that it can be a place where friends and strangers can come together and examine ideas, whether we be in agreement or discord.  A place where questions can be asked, inspirations shared, and our collective images expanded.