(Text: “Debating an Atheist“, Soli Deo Gloria, July 2, 2012)
Pastor Stephen Feinstein has just finished giving us four points which summarize what he calls the Christian metaphysical understanding of God. As it happens, the first and last of those points contradict each other, due to the implications of Trinitarian doctrine, but he seems pretty happy with it anyway.
I am not yet offering arguments showing how such a God is the necessary precondition of all intelligibility. Instead, I am simply showing that I am making a defense for the Christian worldview alone. No other religion or philosophy holds anything close to what I just mentioned. In fact, every other worldview holds to a one-level concept of reality, an impersonal ultimate (whether it be chance or Brahmin), and is committed to the epistemological autonomy of man. Christianity alone runs counter to this. And at the end of the day, only the existence of the Christian God can rightly account for all that exists.
The “only Christianity teaches this” meme is a theme that figures quite prominently in Pastor Feinstein’s argument, and up to now I’ve skipped over those quotes in order to focus on other points. But I want to take a look at it now, since he emphasizes it yet again as one of his closing points.
I can see the appeal of having Christianity be a sole source of authority. Imagine if philosophers, by applying pure, cold logic, could deduce the existence of a Christian-style Creator God given the qualities of His Creation. Or suppose that scientists, by rigorous application of the scientific method, could discover that the earth was supernaturally created in six literal days and nights. That might sound like it would be a tremendous corroboration of the Gospel, right? But think about it: if it were possible for people to discover spiritual truth without depending exclusively on religious authorities like Pastor Feinstein, then what would we need Pastor Feinstein for?
Christianity is an authority-driven worldview. Ultimately, Christianity is based on “Because I, the LORD, said so”—as faithfully delivered to us by the human authorities chosen and appointed by God, of course. Declaring that “everybody else gets it wrong” is just a way of defending that unique authority, and eliminating any competition for the priests and pastors and bishops and so on.
While Pastor Feinstein is correct about post-Nicene teaching being unique among the religions and philosophies of the world, I think it’s interesting that he’s more correct than perhaps he lets on. “No other religion or philosophy holds anything close to what I just mentioned” — and that includes Judaism (both pre-and post-exilic), and early Christianity. As we just got done seeing in Justin Martyr’s First Apology, early Christians saw Jesus as the son of God and classed him with “the other good angels” just ahead of the Holy Spirit, but definitely a whole order below God. In this respect, I think perhaps Trinitarian philosophy might be a tad more unique than Pastor Feinstein himself would be truly comfortable with.
Pastor Feinstein also adds that every other worldview holds to what he calls a “one level concept of reality.” I’m not sure what he means by that, since pretty much every religious/spiritual worldview professes the same dualistic natural/supernatural dichotomy that Christianity does. He might mean that Christianity is the only worldview that begins with a Creator God who creates everything else (although that would be a factually incorrect assessment), or he might mean that the Christian creation story is the only one that starts with a God that exists when nothing else does.
That second possibility is interesting because it might actually be true—the Christian worldview might be the only one that proposes a Creator God Who at some point was the only thing that existed. Granted, that might be because no other worldview makes the mistake of adopting such a self-contradictory definition of God. You can’t have a point in time unless time itself also exists. Time, however, is not God, but is merely a property of the material universe, which means that at any point in time where God exists, at least two things must exist: God, and the material property of Time. Thus, there cannot be any point in time where God was the only thing that existed. If Pastor Feinstein is claiming that Christianity is the only worldview founded on this particular mistake, he’s probably correct.
Pastor Feinstein refers to this non-Christian, “one-level” reality as “an impersonal ultimate,” which I think is a fair description of reality. Reality cannot be “person” if it contains the distinction between “person” and “not person,” because if reality is “person,” then every real thing partakes of that personhood to the same degree that it partakes of reality. Reality itself, though, is neither “person” nor “not person,” and thus “person” and “not person” are distinct and consistent attributes that apply to different things within reality. In that sense, it’s perfectly reasonable to describe reality as “impersonal.” But Pastor Feinstein says Christianity is unique in rejecting this “impersonal ultimate,” as though that were something to be proud of. Go figure.
He says something else strange, too: he says that every other worldview besides Christianity is “committed to the epistemological autonomy of man.” Odd phrase. Epistemology refers to the study of how we know what we know, and autonomy refers to freedom and self-sufficiency, so it sounds like Pastor Feinstein is proposing that Christianity is the only worldview that declares that our knowledge is determined by factors beyond our control. Depending on how you interpret it, that’s either something that’s not unique to Christianity, or else is another area where Christianity is uniquely mistaken. But I suppose we’ll say more about that when and if Pastor Feinstein goes into more detail about what he means.
With that being said, what we are inevitably doing is arguing over entire worldviews. I hold to the Biblical worldview as expressed in Scripture (every theological/philosophical position stated above has many Biblical proof-texts). I am assuming that you hold to a worldview that favors the ultimate reality as being that of impersonal time and chance (randomness) and that the universe and all that is in it (both inorganic and organic) come to us via macroevolution. Given that it is a battle of worldviews, we are going to have to use transcendental logic to see which worldview is even possible in the first place.
In case you’re not familiar with how “Biblical proof-texts” work, here’s an example. Let’s say you want to argue that all state executions should be performed by hanging (as opposed to lethal injection, electric chair, or firing squad). So you look up Joshua 10:26, which says that Joshua hanged some guys on 5 trees, and therefore you’ve proven that hanging is the Biblical form of execution. That sounds like fairly silly reasoning, but that’s basically how proof-texting works: you find any passage that involves words or concepts similar to the point you’re trying to make, and then you assume that the Biblical text is implying all of the implications that you think of when you use the same concepts in your own arguments, and poof, suddenly the Bible is “teaching” all the things you assume it “implies,” even though they’re not explicitly written there. All Christian worldviews are built on this kind of reasoning, which is why there are so many mutually-contradictory Christian worldviews.
Based on the statements he makes after that, I’d say Pastor Feinstein holds to the young-earth creationist Christian worldview, as opposed to the old-earth creationist Christian worldview or the theistic evolutionist Christian worldview. Apparently in some Christian worldviews, the Creator God is either not clever enough to come up with something as sophisticated and elegantly simple as Darwin’s idea, or else He lacked the wisdom to see why it would be a good idea to endow His creatures with this ingenious design, or else He lacked the ability to make it all work. Ironic that a seminary dropout like Darwin could come up with a better design for Earth’s ecosystems than an allegedly omniscient and all-wise God, but for some reason creationists prefer this sort of worldview anyway.
Meanwhile, Pastor Feinstein’s understanding of the materialistic worldview is both incomplete and distorted, at least as he presents it above. The fundamental characteristic of material reality is that it is consistent with itself, and in fact this self-consistency is the essential and defining characteristic of material reality. Remember: material reality is not just “everything that is made of atoms,” but rather everything that exists in and of itself, apart from any observer’s perception of it. Everything that is actually real is part of the self-consistent material reality, because this is what it means to exist.
All natural orderings, like time and space and the other regular properties and laws of the material universe, are simply manifestations of the fundamental and essential self-consistency of material reality. Things like “chance” and “randomness” are rather irrelevant, unless by “chance” and “random” you mean “inconsistent with real-world characteristics,” in which case they are contrary to sound materialistic thinking (as well as being untrue). If materialism is true, then we ought to expect to find a universe that has properties like a consistent relationship between causes and effects, and similar self-consistencies, including the laws of logic and math and physics. Self-consistency is necessarily inherent in the nature of reality itself, so we should find this sort of self-consistency everywhere in the real world. Randomness and chance, in the “anything could happen” sense, are ruled out by the nature of self-consistent existence.
Pastor Feinstein’s understanding of atheism seems as misinformed as his understanding of evolution and materialism.
Atheism possesses a distinct view of reality (materialism), a distinct view of epistemology (human intellectual autonomy), and a theory of ethics (whether it is evolutionary, utilitarian, etc.). This makes it just as much of a worldview and philosophy as anything else. And as a philosophy, it has problems that render it irrational. I will begin with only 4, and as the debate moves on I can bring in some others. The 4 are as follows: 1) Problem of Inductive Inference; 2) Problem of Deductive Inference; 3) Problem of the Mind/Brain; and 4) Problem of Moral Absolutes. I will not get into these now because we will have plenty of time to jump into them as we go on.
Again, atheism is absence of belief in God. There are reincarnationists who do not believe in any god(s) according to the classic Christian definition of a god, and yet they are certainly not materialists. Likewise, there are a variety of views on epistemology, and no one view is distinctly atheistic, or held by all atheists, or held only by atheists. And of course the morality you get based on reincarnation and karma is not necessarily the same as any of the many systems you can derive once you decide that morality is not dictated on high by any divine Authority, not to mention the fact that several of those moral systems are also embraced by people who do believe in god(s). Factually speaking, Pastor Feinstein is wrong concerning every single affirmation he makes regarding atheism as a distinct and describable worldview.
As for the four problems that he claims render this alleged worldview “irrational,” we have only his promise that he will tell us what he means later on, so we’ll just have to wait and see where he goes with that. Stay tuned for Pastor Feinstein’s second post, starting next week.