Seeing is Believing, or Is It?

Feel free to ignore this article if you haven't been following our discussions on epistemology, or if you haven't been out to our weekly chats in awhile, or if you're tired or hungry - or if you have anything better to do at all. :)

But for the rest of you - here's a news flash.

I think I've finally uncovered, or perhaps merely understood, the underlying systemic reason for the decline in modern approaches to Christianity (the term "modern" describing the Enlightenment program of logical positivism) as compared to the emergent, or postmodern-flavored approaches.

Put simply, the modernist approach to Christianity will never satisfy a person today, affected by the postmodern critique, who is 2000+ years distant from the people, places and events that define the worldview.

Here are a few questions that I think make my point.

1) Did following Messiah while he was on the earth depend more on a priori knowledge, or more on a posteriori knowledge?

2) Does following Messiah now, 2000 or so years after his departure from earth, depend more on a priori knowledge, or a posteriori knowledge?

I believe the answer to #1 is "more a posteriori than a priori knowledge".

The first-century inhabitants of Palestine heard Jesus' claims, saw the signs he used to prove those claims and ultimately, they experienced him firsthand. They knew what he looked like, what he liked to eat and where he liked to hang out.

So, because of their experience with him, their belief that he was Messiah involved lots of hindsight (posterior knowledge) with some foresight (prior knowledge) involved when it came to his claims about the future.

I believe the answer to #2 is "more a priori knowledge than a posteriori knowledge".

Today, we cannot hear Jesus make claims, we cannot see Jesus perform signs to prove his claims, and we cannot experience him in-person. Thus, our belief that Jesus is Messiah involves lots of foresight (prior knowledge) with some hindsight (posterior knowledge) thrown in relative to the historical documents that tell of Jesus' life and work.

In other words, the way we come to Jesus today is substantially different than the way the first century Jesus-followers did. We come with much less certainty about the whole thing - plain and simple.

"OK", you say, "but what does this have to do with the death of Christian modernity?"

Well, I believe the modernist, fundamentalist church chant of "God said it, I believe it, that settles it" flat out ignores this simple issue.

By and large, this generation isn't satisfied that "some old book says something, so that makes it true". We can't verify Jesus' claims in any way as his first-century acquaintances could.

So then, our position is by default much more about a priori faith or hope - not absolute certainty.

Today's church ignores this by and large. It's largely stuck in a modernist "I've got all the facts nailed down, and if you don't agree - you're goin' to hell" approach that simply can't satisfy a thinking postmodern person.

Now lest someone fret about this, as I've stated many times before - this is just fine, it's as it should be, it's OK!

Because, after all, Christianity is a faith - it's a worldview that places a whole lot of emphasis on what is to come in the future.

Check out this vignette from John 20:26-31.
"After eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst and said, 'Peace be with you.'

Then He said to Thomas, 'Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.' Thomas answered and said to Him, 'My Lord and my God!' Jesus said to him, 'Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.'

Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name."
We can't touch Jesus' wounds, or in any other way verify his claims as Thomas could. But that's OK - Jesus said we're blessed as we believe without 100% verification.

It's all good!

Father, I pray for my friends and I - for the continued courage to believe in your story and in your Messiah - so that we may one day inherit your Kingdom to come.

6 comments:

Wanda said...

Interesting thoughts, but I think your analysis of the early Christians overlooks some things. Many Jews experienced Jesus in person, but they didn't all believe in him as Messiah, and for the many who didn't it was precisely their prior knowledge and expectations of what the Messiah should be that kept them from believing.
There's no for sure record of exactly how many people Jesus appeared to after his resurrection, but I'd feel pretty certain about the fact that most of the New Testament churches we have record of (those in present day Turkey and Greece) never had a chance to meet Jesus and experience him in person either.
So even in the New Testament it wasn't meeting Jesus face to face and seeing what he did while he was in the flesh that convinced most of the people who followed him.
So, as you are so fond of pointing out, it comes back to our worldview as that is what we interpret our experience through. That's what tells us whether to revere or lock away in an insane asylum the person who claims God spoke to him. I would definitely argue that we can experience God, whether our present experience is technically through Jesus or the Holy Spirit is probably a moot point to this discussion. The bigger challenges to modern Christianity are to begin to value experience again since the modern mind is concerned only with logical facts, and to understand that biblical believing is not just a mental assent or affirming the facts and having them straight, but a re-alignment of our lives with the truth of Messiah and his claims. That we live as people of the kingdom in our present circumstances because faith (our certainty of our worldview), based on past evidence, makes us certain that Jesus the Messiah is capable to fulfill all he has promised.

Mike said...

Thanks for the comment, Wanda. You know, I'm sure I have overlooked a bunch of things!

I agree with you, of course, that the first-century churches didn't have firsthand knowledge of Jesus. That's true, of course, because they were all formed after he left the planet. However, they did have access to the apostles, and to extremely recently-recorded historical information.

They "knew" about Jesus in much the same way that we "know" about Gandhi. I haven't seen Gandhi in person, but it's really easy for me to believe the stories about him - because he did his thing just 60 or so years ago and the historical writing on his exploits is still relatively fresh.

My point about Jesus, though, is that it's been 2000 years since he was on earth (and that was in a land halfway around the world from us). That's makes believing for us significantly different than believing for the first-century church.

Also, I'm interested in your statement that you "definitely argue that we can experience God".

First, I've gotta tell you that I "believe" that we can experience God, and I believe it strongly.

But you use the word "definitely".

And so then, I must ask you how you definitely know that you've experienced God? How do you know for certain that what you're experiencing is God, and not any number of other things? What proof do you have?

Please understand I'm not trying to be difficult - it's just that we've been discussing epistemology around here, and thus, such a line of questioning is warranted.

Thanks again for your insightful comments!

Wanda said...

I guess I need to learn to be a little more precise with my word choice. Let's just say that "definitely argue" means that I'm sure of the position I would argue, not that my argument would convince anyone and everyone. I'm afraid I must decline the challenge of objectively proving that I've had a subjective experience of God or anything else. Since, I'm not sure how you prove to someone that you've had a subjective experience.


As far as believing being different for us: Well, it's true we live in a very different world, so the stories about Jesus have to be set in cultural and historical context. Perhaps, a good question here is? why do we find it easier to believe the stories about Ghandi instead of Jesus (and to examine how time and culture affect it let's add some other figures (historical and legendary) for comparison: How about King Arthur, George Washington, Plato, Napoleon, Shakespeare, Ghengis Khan, Dracula, King Henry VIII of England, Christopher Columbus, Saint Nicholas, or Martin Luther)?


I think we'll come up with a few things that prejudice our belief. The big one for me is that we have images (portraits, sculptures, photos) of all of the above that are generally accepted to have really existed. We also have some sort of concrete legacy supposedly from many of them (ie we believe they really wrote that book or built that castle because their name is on it or someone told us so). We don't have many of those same "proofs" in regards to the Messiah, and that's the grounds on which many try to discredit him: that most of the stories we have about him are legendary and not factual. So do we dare say it's just the 2000 years, different culture, different country? Or is it more that we have only second hand evidence, which is exactly the same situation most of the early Christians found themselves in, albeit it may be easier to belive the person in front of you saying, "I knew him" than the 2000 year old printed page from that person saying the same thing.

Sorry if I'm hogging the blogspace. I'm just really enjoying a chance for deep intellectual conversation.

lowell said...

I remember seeing an interview with George Harrison. He was asked about his conversion to Hinduism. This is after their big tour in America in 62. So this is in the middle of the sixties. America was in religious fervor. He said he had visited a few different church services. At the same time he was hearing all these things about Hinduism from different friends who had converted. Well history tells us he went to become a life long Hindu. Later in the interview he said it was due to his experience in Hinduism compared to that with Christianity. I’ve often pondered what he had said. Knowing that many especially in Pentecostal circles talk about the sixties like they were in the Book of Acts. There is some sadness that comes over me knowing how many different supernatural experiences had occurred in different parts of the country. It also makes me question Harrison’s statement about his lack of experience. But then again maybe being a showman himself he could see through all the stage craft.

I know Paul (the messiah not the bassist for the beatles, just thought I’d clarify, Lol) says that Tongues is for the unbeliever. Miracles were performed by Christ to prove he was indeed the messiah. Signs and miracles today would certainly encourage conversion. I believe though if it occurred outside the church that this would be looked at in faith instead of skepticm. There is such a distrust for the church.

We do know that the Holy Spirit is to tug on men’s hearts to come to Jesus. That there are people who are new believers who haven’t seen one miracle. So experience would certainly help but isn’t necessary to be believer in Christ. Now the only way to back this up is with scripture. Although by many non-Christians the bible is scene as subjective and trying to refer to it as completely objective is foolish. A miracle of God would help it become more objective. The world will never see it as objective unless these miracles were tested, observed, and were able to repeat the miracle. Which I don’t think is going to happen until Jesus returns.

Mike said...

Wanda, it's my pleasure to have you here - your comments indicate that you do indeed enjoy the kind of conversations we have here. You're not hogging anything!

Lowell, you're narrowing in on the epistemological argument I'm making - keep it coming!

Unfortunately friends, I'm running to catch an airplane right now, but I'll jump back on here later when I get a few free minutes and try to do justice to your excellent comments. Thanks again!

Mike said...

Friends, I'm back from my business trip to Colorado. Man, it's tough to be out there without skis or climbing gear...

Wanda, yes - the categories of objective and subjective are what really come under scrutiny in the epistemology discussion. I'm going to do an article soon on a comparison of a few epistemologies that should further the discussion. And I like your question on believing in Ghandi vs. Jesus. I think the answer to that question is in general what I'm pointing at with this article.

Lowell, you've hit a nail on the head. "Objective" proof of Jesus' messiahship was given to his first-century followers. For us, we have only the written accounts for now. Then when he and the kingdom arrive "in-person", we'll get our objective proof. What a day that'll be!

Thanks guys!