To start, we’d like to apologize for taking a while to get to the third installment of this series. As you can imagine, the last weeks of the semester are very stressful and busy, particularly for those geniuses who are writing theses like C. Marshall.
C. Marshall: I take no issue with one way that you use #1. The rewarding nature of pious life apart from Christ does not strike me as that strange from a Christian point of view. That said, as I’m sure you realize, by admitting the intrinsic, natural reward that you get from living a life of community and service to others, this does mean that you’ll have to build a case for Christianity on more than its fulfilling life of humility and compassion. Your positioning Christ at the center of this “spectrum” of holy living might make sense but that will be a conclusion, I’m assuming, that we’ll reach through other avenues (like Scripture or the Resurrection as you later point out).
You have proposed, but by no means proved, that actively living out the life described by Christ would be the most fulfilling experience one could possess. I don’t think it’s fruitful to try to empirically examine that claim. I’m fine to just point out that there are many very fulfilled Christians and many very fulfilled people of other or not faiths, and leave it at that. So again, as I’m sure you realize, pointing again and again to the fulfilling lives of Christians will not be enough for me. It’s entirely conceivable that Christianity entails false propositions but leads to a life that is fulfilling for entirely naturalistic reasons.
Yet it seems as though Christians often rely on religious experience to motivate conversion. People (including you), when they hear about my spiritual struggles, often ask me if I have ever really lived as a Christian. I’m assuming that means living as the Gospels prescribe—and while it’s no short order to decipher how exactly that is, I’m assuming it means living a life of humility, service, and community. And that in this process I will come to know God personally and directly, aside from all of this tortuous intellectualizing.
Doesn’t this present an epistemological problem? I would imagine that you are not a Protestant because of specific intellectual problems you have with Catholic teaching, because I’m sure you can see that many Catholics are very fulfilled and faithful Christians. But have you ever tried living as a Catholic?
Or ditto with other religions? How many religions should I try living? How many lifetimes would that take? It’s not just an epistemological quandary, but a methodological nightmare. Why should I privilege Christianity?
Jordan Monge: I don’t think Christians should use fulfillment from “living out” Christianity as sufficient epistemological evidence for the authenticity of its metaphysical truth claims. The problem is rather that most people do not deny Christianity because they have thought long and hard about Christ’s resurrection. Instead, they say something like, “Well, it’s foolish to save sex for marriage, so that’s why I disagree with Christianity” or “I don’t really think lust is that bad; Jesus must be wrong if he makes a big deal about it” or “I just really dislike the idea of hell.”
The problem is that most non-Christians (and even many Christians) live as slaves to sin. We struggle to stay pure or to serve the poor or to obey our parents, so we begin to rationalize our actions even though we know that they are wrong. Once this rationalization has taken place, THEN we say, “well, premarital sex isn’t really that bad, so Jesus must be crazy.” Sometimes it takes living something out in order to appreciate the truth behind it. Once you stop having sex, you realize the true love that can be found in a pure dating relationship. Once you start serving the poor, you appreciate how valuable it really is. But these are ethical notions that you can only truly appreciate once you’ve stopped being a slave to sin.
Obviously, I would recommend that everyone try to follow the commands of Jesus, simply for the reason that I think it’s the best way to live your life. But if someone said, “I wholeheartedly believe that Jesus is right for every ethical statement he makes, but he’s just so wrong about this whole “being the Son of God” business,” my response would be to discuss the “Son of God” business and not the ethical claims. The ethical claims wouldn’t be the issue.
I think I can do the same thing with other religions. I can look at their metaphysical claims about Joseph Smith or Mohammad or the world being on the back of a turtle, and reject their ethical claims on the basis of bad metaphysical claims. For the record, I have read parts of the Qur’an as well as parts of the Book of Mormon, although not the full text of either. Yet I didn’t read the whole Bible before becoming a Christian – I figured which parts of it were important and which metaphysical claims were key, and addressed those. And I never lived as a Catholic, but you’re correct in assuming that I have other doctrinal, theological reasons for rejecting Catholicism.
To put all this another way: if a religion is true, then, if we follow that religion, we will lead a fulfilling life. Logically, we let”R” symbolize “if a religion is true,” “F” symbolize “we follow that religion,” and “L” symbolize “we will lead a fulfilling life” to get the paraphrase R ⊃ ( F ⊃ L). However, this statement is not equivalent to L ⊃ ( F ⊃ R) or “if we live a fulfilling life, then if we followed a religion, that religion must be true.” (My deductive logic professor would be pretty upset with me for changing the wording a bit, but you get the idea.
In order to demonstrate that antecedent “R” is false for a particular religion, we must find the consequent “( F ⊃ L)” false. In order to find “F ⊃ L” false, however, you must have a case in which the antecedent “F” is true and the consequent “L” is false. That is, you have to live out the teachings AND find that it does not lead to a fulfilling life. Most people, however, just say, “well, I don’t think it’s more fulfilling because x claim is silly” even though they haven’t trying to live out what Christianity claims about x. And that’s not a good way to go about criticizing Christianity logically. So if you want to criticize the ethics, go live it out and then you can try disproving the ethics. But if you take issue with other metaphysical claims, let’s have a serious discussion about those. I’d say that about almost any religion, not just Christianity.
If someone tried to assert L ⊃ ( F ⊃ R) – that a fulfilling life demonstrates the truth of a religion – I would strongly disagree. And if a Christian tried to argue this, I’d ask them to reconsider their logic. You could create a new religion, call it Christianiticalism, that held all the same beliefs as Christianity with the addition of the statement “DNA is made with uranium instead of oxygen”, and it would probably lead to an equally fulfilling life for any non-scientist. Yet its ability to offer a fulfilling life would not mean that “DNA is made with uranium instead of oxygen.”
So I don’t think you and I are in too much disagreement here. Note that I would ask you to consider living out Christianity in part because I have found Christianity much more fulfilling than atheism. As your friend, I want you to lead a fulfilling life and I believe that if you follow his teachings, then the truth will set you free. But you cannot simply be looking for comfort, you also have to be looking for Truth. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.”