8. Review of Sources

Cloistering

I have had relatives that were Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Catholics. A curious phenomenon at some of their homes is the nearly exclusive presence of sect-specific publications. Magazines, books, even television stations. When I have thumbed through such materials, the bias and spin always proves fascinating and fairly transparent. A recent online article about the succession of Popes, published by a Catholic magazine, was astonishing in the picture it painted of the event. The cloistering effect and the distortion are unmistakable to any outsider; one could question whether those inside the group had any idea of the way the world outside actually saw them and why. Or whether they see how much the line separating fact and fiction are being flirted with – indeed, how small the ratio often is between true information and what amounts to a sort of in-group propaganda.

Having stepped outside of Christian materials a bit, it is clear that a similar bias exists in our community. The bias seems fairly equivalent, though the distortion is difficult to see from the inside. But church book tables and Christian book stores simply do not offer materials that provide outsider views that might challenge our assumptions. We already know who to trust on biblical issues, who will give us facts from our point of view. But provincial views about facts are disturbing by definition. We tend to avoid those who write from a liberal slant, those that could induce doubt, etc. In other words, we surround the subject of faith with a filter and a bias, lest the Devil gain a foothold or we find ourselves misled and deceived. That is, we guard our minds.

While this may be well and good on questions of moral pollution, we hit a critical inflection point when we guard our minds on questions of facts, data, and information because they could threaten our dogma. Guarded filtration points to an intrinsic fragility of the One Truth, which really ought to be fairly durable. More than that, all information should be welcome and should ultimately do nothing but prove out the One Truth. That this has not proven the case is a red flag. After so many red flags have been thrown, I think that we have developed an intuitive sense of the weak position we are actually in with regard to data. The mention of evidence, it is easy to notice, tends to cause autonomic seat shifting.

It is further worth pointing out how entirely inappropriate such filtration is when approaching a legitimate subject of research or knowledge, such as in engineering or the sciences. We routinely look into all available sources of information in order to ascertain the myriad points of view, the relative value of each, etc., before determining how they each effect the research to come. Ideology is not an active part of the vetting. Yet on questions where the evidential sciences could touch on faith claims – cosmology, biology, Syro-Palestenian archaeology, etc. – it is routine in religious circles to question the worldview of the author before deciding whether to hear out his facts. I had the disturbing realization that we are the subjectivists in a great many cases. The truth we will consider is often prefiltered by what our dogma permits.

But of course, I generalize on visible patterns – I have believing friends of whom these observations are not representative.

Scholars Consulted

When investigating this subject, I followed the researcher’s pattern, attempting to read all perspectives and weighing the different cases and arguments made. While I did check into authors for any credibility black marks, I did not a priori filter based upon ideology. I pursued rabbit trails and chased arguments across sources in an attempt to find new information and to hear the full gamut of viewpoints. Though the bibliography will include a complete list of works reviewed, a sample list of scholars is given here:

Denis Alexander; Bart Ehrman; Peter Enns; Francisco Ayala; G.K. Beale; Marcus Borg; John Calvin; D.A. Carson; G.K. Chesterton; John C. Collins; Richard Dawkins; William G. Dever; Darrel Falk; Israel Finkelstein; John Frame; Sam Harris; Stephen Hawking; Christopher Hitchens; Ben Witherington III; Tim Keller; John Lennox; Alister McGrath; Esther Lightcap Meek; Stephen C. Meyer; David Opderbeck; Alvin Platinga; Robert Price; John Dominic Crossan; Luke Timothy Johnson; James D. G. Dunn; Darrel Bock; Lawrence Principe; R.C. Sproul; Lee Strobel; Dennis Venema; James White; N.T. Wright; Craig Evans; William Lane Craig; William Dembski; Daniel Dennett; Douglas Wilson; David Wolpe; Richard Swinburne; Shmuley Boteach; etc.

As may be noted, the above list includes Protestants, Catholics, Rabbis, agnostics, atheists, scientists, theologians, philosophers, archaeologists and historians. On this background, the information which I summarized in the preceding sections is not particularly novel. It appears to be widely discussed by scholars in the respective subject areas, and the viewpoints are widely held, at least outside of evangelical circles: felt shocks illustrate our self-insularity, not the rarity of the information.

The Basic Stats

Table of Major Written WorksI have added this subsection to address a concern voiced by some friends, who have considered that my reversal of position must be due to a misplaced emphasis in the sources that I have consulted. That is, perhaps I spent too much time reading “the wrong people”, and so came to bamboozlement. This is a legitimate concern, but in point of fact, it does not actually bear out. I tallied basic statistics on all of the new sources with which I consulted over my year-long journey (also reflected on the Bibliography page).

Taking only the major written works, the statistics sum as shown in the first chart. As can be seen, theist sources dominate the atheist/agnostic sources by 3 to 1. Neutral sources included generic information without direct bias or commentary on Christianity one way or another, while mixed sources denote resources like debates or “five views” type books.

Table of All SourcesHowever, to extend this to all resources, including shorter articles, book reviews and critiques, Wikipedia entries, and the many debates and lectures that I have watched, the percentages shift as shown in the second pie chart.

For myself, I can find no intrinsic indictment in these statistics. Rather, it should be observed that they have been chosen from a range of viewpoints, and that they in fact favor Christian-biased sources more heavily than any other segment.

Counterpoints

To spare any possible suspense: it is easy to find scholars to countermand everything in my summary. Anyone intent on finding affirmations of what they already believe will not be long in looking for support, no matter what position they want to hold. Since I am not a scholar in these fields, I cannot claim to have the expertise to trump any of the various scholars’ viewpoints. But I can point to other scholars whom I believe mount superior arguments or who pursue investigation above dogma. The distillation at which I have arrived represents the net of my sources after serious and honest consideration.

I believe that it comes to what question is asked, and there are two major options here: (1) How can I view this information so as to support my present views? or (2) What are the facts and to what conclusions do they point? The first targets simply to affirm present dogma; it is easy to succeed there. The latter targets truth, even at the cost of self-revision; this is more difficult, both mentally and emotionally.

Were I to venture any recommendations to my fellow laymen,  I would advise reading widely and including substantial amounts of sources from outside the camp. In retrospect, I believe my own mistake until the present was making sure not to hear what those outside the bubble had to say. I would also suggest paying close attention to whether the various authors are speaking beyond their field. It is easily possible to find theologians, pastors, and philosophers giving dogmatic commentary about questions which are more properly the provinces of archaeologists, scientists, and historians.

Defining Enough

I will continue to trumpet my comprehensive deficiency of subject matter expertise in these areas. I am not a scholar of Syro-Palestinian archaeology, ancient near east languages and culture, the New Testament, evolutionary biology, or any other field that applies. I remain a layman, a professional researcher in an entirely unrelated field.

So what qualifications? On what grounds can a person consider themselves qualified to do their own thinking? When is it permissible to come to one’s own conclusions by one’s own lights?

I concluded from surveying the field that no number of degrees would give me an assurance of arriving at the right conclusions. For no matter which positions are correct, a great number of multiply-degreed scholars out there must of necessity be quite wrong. Education and expertise serve as no guarantors of correctness.

So, I have seriously grappled with the question, how much study is sufficient to the task? I have certainly not read everything available on these subjects. As I gauge it, that is infeasible. There are other authors that I haven’t yet considered. But I can say that I continued to read until the answers stopped changing. I read until I had stopped hearing major new positions on the issues of consequence. I have tried to sift the areas of open debate from the fixed points that have been conceded by all but the fringe. I believe there are sufficient anchorages to arrive at a definitive conclusion, though not the one I had hoped.

Next: [9] Personal Thesis >>

4/10/2013

© Copyright 2013

Comments

  1. So, I have seriously grappled with the question, how much study is sufficient to the task? I have certainly not read everything available on these subjects. As I gauge it, that is infeasible. There are other authors that I haven’t yet considered. But I can say that I continued to read until the answers stopped changing. I read until I had stopped hearing major new positions on the issues of consequence. I have tried to sift the areas of open debate from the fixed points that have been conceded by all but the fringe. I believe there are sufficient anchorages to arrive at a definitive conclusion, though not the one I had hoped.

    Man, this is exactly how I felt. Initially, I had information overload and really didn’t know what to think or do about it. And as you say, I had trouble coming to terms with how such educated people can continue to have such wildly different positions on these things (actually, I still struggle with that). For instance, I have a great deal of admiration for Peter Enns, but I have no idea why he remains Christian.

    A lot of what moved my needle toward disbelief were the responses by the apologists. I read some who were criticizing Ehrman by essentially saying, “well yeah, there are some problem passages, but there are a whole lot of others that aren’t problematic.” What? The fact that a number of them are problematic is problematic! And Ezekiel’s prophecy of Tyre was a big one for me. I was perplexed early on when I would see apologists claim it as an example of prophecy fulfillment, while skeptics claimed it as an example of prophetic failure. But as I studied it more deeply, it seemed to be the apologists who weren’t telling the whole story. In some cases, they seemed to be flat out lying.

    When you look deep enough, it becomes evident that the apologists don’t have very good answers for many of these problems. In fact, they often come down to “God’s ways are mysterious.” For me, that’s just not enough. Besides, we’re usually not arguing about complex theological issues, but simple things like “what time was Jesus crucified?”

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    • Enns remains somewhat enigmatic to me as well. Have thought the same thing. I have emailed him just a bit, didnt go far. Nice enough guy. Respect his honesty in reporting to the utmost.

      Honesty is a biggie. As I mentioned, at some point with the christian scholarly community, the music stopped.

      I didn’t come out of a cult background and flee to the security of orthodoxy as a young adult to have the same tactics employed again by the authorities of the church. And it was sadly the same. I’d been there. Once the music stopped, once I realized we were engaged in a collective exercise of affirmation…

      I have told some that I ceased to be interested in Christianity the moment it ceased to be True. I can go anywhere for make believe; that’s what I came out of. Won’t have it, and honestly won’t hear of it. The God I believed in doesn’t do that; we do.

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      • I couldn’t agree more. I’ve often said that I have too much respect for God to remain in Christianity or believe he had anything to do with the Bible.

        Out of curiosity, I guess your wife went through this with you? I’ve gotten the impression that you guys are on the same page…

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        • I have been a good distance ahead during it all. Probably more accurate to say we are on the same trajectory. We are both past some of the harder concessions and realizations, but she continues to read…

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      • I got you. I was only a few steps ahead of my wife, though we didn’t make that apparent to anyone for a while. Just thought it would be easier with my families if the focus wasn’t on both of us. I don’t know if that actually helped any or not.

        Anyway, I’ve been very lucky that we were able to see eye to eye on these things. I have some friends who haven’t been so lucky and are in “mixed” marriages. That would be really tough.

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        • Ditto on your sentiments. It was tough when I first talked to her about it. I wasn’t at all sure how things would be, and neither was she. I’m glad that what we have has proven stronger than this crisis.

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