Why Belief is Problematic

I wanted to continue to discuss why I use the term “abuse” in reference to much of Christianity, but before I do, allow me to back up and address what I see as the underlying issue which leads to abuse. I hope to elaborate on the issue which many Christians are going to have to face in trying to reach the world. The answer to our problems is not better apologetics; the problem is that we need to face a few realities.

This is the problem as I see it: for most veins of what I would consider to be conservative Christianity, if you do not believe that Christ died on the cross for your sins, you will go to Hell. Do I believe that Christ died on the cross for my sins? Yes, I do. Do I believe that salvation is only through Christ? Yes, I do. But saying that “salvation is through Christ alone” is very different from saying “you will go to Hell if you don’t believe Christ died on the cross.”

I have touched on this lightly in previous posts: certain Christians believe that salvation is all about propositional assent. A proposition is a formal way of talking about a specific statement. For example, “X is Y” is a proposition. Whether or not you believe a proposition is true will not affect who you are as a person. For example, a murderer might affirm the statement “killing people is bad,” but despite this, he might also love killing people. In this way, propositions are forever disconnected from morality.

James tells us very clearly: “even the demons believe—and shudder.” (James 2:14-26)

This is the sort of thing which makes “sola fide” (“faith alone”) Protestants very uncomfortable: the demons believe everything which is true about God. Think about that: all of the demons believe that Jesus died on the cross as atonement for sin. If all it took to be a Christian were assent to that belief, then even the demons would go to Heaven.

The reason the conservative position is so uncomfortable for people (other than conservatives, themselves) is that it makes it look as though God has turned propositional belief into morality. A Christian philosopher might argue that it is necessary but not sufficient to believe in this statement, that Christ died for us. Yet that still faces the same problem: God has seemingly turned something which cannot possibly moral in nature into an integral part of the defining aspect of Christian morality: whether or not you go to Heaven.

There is, however, a sound alternative within Christian tradition. This is the doctrine of inclusivism. Inclusivism states that all truth is God’s truth, and all people have access to truth within certain constraints, though they may differ in the language of how they express it. This is not the same thing as universalism, wherein all religions are equally true. This would be impossible, because religions make contradictory claims.

I understand that many may be skeptical of this sort of a claim, but I would urge you all to read the “Christianity” section of the inclusivism article I linked above. There is strong scriptural support for this claim. Inclusivism also has the support of such people as CS Lewis and even, more recently, Billy Graham, whom I list in spite of my vast disagreements with him on other issues.

Inclusivism frees us from the problem of turning beliefs into moral imperatives. The self-proclaimed atheist living in a manipulative, abusive community may reject that which he believes Christ represents, but by rejecting abuse and hatred, he may also turn toward what Christ truly is. The language is different, but the different words (Christianity for some, potentially even atheism for others) may point to the same sorts of realities — namely the reality of Christ. Remember, language is a system of signs and it does not directly represent reality as it is. If we change the words but keep the realities underlying them, we have only altered what appears on the surface.

If a man preaches Christ but stirs up hatred, God will see past his words and judge him accordingly. If he preaches Buddha or atheism but engenders love — Christlike love — then he is a child of God. God will judge each according to their own hearts, not by the words which they use or the historical facts which they claim to be true.

Belief is problematic if one’s disposition does not align with the belief. Until conservative Christianity can come to terms with this, then it will always be abusive, because it will consider all people of differing worldviews to be sinners destined for Hell, which is the ultimate moral concern. For such a view, the Muslim around the corner is not a neighbor but a threat.

We must acknowledge this, or self-proclaimed Christians will continue to turn issues of belief into morality, which will result in abuse.

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About Chris Attaway

Chris Attaway is a Christian philosopher seeking to refine the way we live through reasoning and reflection. Be sure to follow his blog, The Discerning Christian, for challenging articles which offer new perspectives on old problems.
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18 Responses to Why Belief is Problematic

  1. PTS says:

    Hey Chris, provoking post. Tell me what you think of this: “pistis”, Paul’s (and the NT’s) common word for “faith,” can just as easily be translated “faithfulness”. Its “lexical domain,” as it’s known, is “faith, trust, belief, faithfulness”. Sometimes it necessitates the notion of “belief” or “assent”, but more often, I think it denotes “faithfulness” or “fidelity to” – and given that Marriage is one of the Bible’s most common analogies for the relationship between God and His people, we shouldn’t be surprised at that. When a wife demands and expects faithfulness from her husband, she doesn’t expect him to assent to her ontological and historical factuality; she expects that he remain devoted to her, which is an active expression of commitment, etc. Also, as you may know and appreciate, “justification by faith alone” is mentioned ONCE in the New Testament, and it is condemned by the author who says it.

    • I would wholeheartedly agree with this assessment. Faithfulness as understood by the Bible and not by the Reformation resembles a relational state, not an epistemic state.

      It’s interesting: I linked this article to a group of atheists, and their main complaint was against “faith” of the sort taught by strict adherents of Luther et al, which is exactly what this sort of reasoning directly opposes. But they did raise a very good objection, that this seemingly makes the rest of scripture unnecessary. I’m not sure what I think. Do you have any thoughts on this?

  2. Not in any way Arthur says:

    Romans 1:18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen being understood from what has been made so that they are without excuse. 21 For though they knew God they neither glorified him as God or gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.

    Seems pretty clear to me. God’s existence is supposedly “plain to them” and they are “without excuse” because they “knew God [and] neither glorified him or gave thanks to him” and they have “foolish hearts [that are] darkened.”

    Doesn’t necessarily say hell, but it says God’s wrath comes to those that deny God’s existence because he makes it blindingly obvious supposedly.

    • Actually, I would use this same set of verses in support of inclusivism. If all men face this decision, then all men, in spite of their vocabulary, must make the sorts of decisions which the Christian faith requires.

      • Not in any way Arthur says:

        But it says that non believers do know because it has been made plain to them. At the very least people that claim openly that God doesn’t exist are in trouble given these verses because they spread their wickedness and godlessness. (Richard Dawkins and everyone else including me)

        To me it seems to be claiming that everyone secretly knows God exists and anyone that says otherwise has a foolish wicked heart even though they claim to be wise and they don’t believe it anyways they’re just trying to drag you into their wickedness. And these people are without excuse and deserve God’s wrath.

        It also a few verses later specifically singles out pagans (and seemingly specifically Egyptian pagans for worshiping birds reptiles and animals).

      • The world of Biblical exegesis is changing very rapidly, and the changes might end up answering some of your questions, but the point I want to stress as a philosopher, not a theologian, is that language is metaphysically empty. The words we use, even the word “God,” has no intrinsic value.

        Paul is trying to describe some sort of natural law. He does so within his own cultural context, and in doing so may have biased opinions about the nature of truth; however, that which underlies his statements seems valid to me. He is arguing that there is a universally recognizable order to the universe, that all men recognize there is something to pursue called “good,” etc.

        Of course, Nietzsche would disagree with him. There is “good,” so to speak, but not “evil,” just “bad.” This is really the only legitimate alternative I see to Christianity. It’s hard to justify a metaphysical sort of evil.

      • Not in any way Arthur says:

        This is getting a bit far afield of the original post, but 3 things:

        1. You said Paul is valid in that all men recognize Good from the natural order or things, but you said that Neitzsche disagrees and seems valid in his disagreement. This seems mutually exclusive. Either Paul is wrong and some people don’t recognize that there is such a thing as capital G Good and capital E Evil or Neitzsche is secretly deluding himself and recognizes Good and Evil but doesn’t recognize that he does. (I’m fairly certain he didn’t recognize a metaphysical sort of GOOD which is opposed to EVIL)

        2. Surely you mean Theism rather than Christianity for “only alternative to Christianity” (Christianity has some very specific claims that I assume you wouldn’t say are completely invalid to reject, such as God has a son and his name is Jesus for instance) and I assume you mean Atheism that doesn’t recognize moral absolutes as the other option that is valid. With the possible exception of polytheism this is the position of nearly every person that lives (unless of course you are eliminating Hindus and Sam Harris). I think given God exists it is perfectly valid to believe there is no such thing as Good or Evil still depending on the nature of said God.

        3. I would like a steady definition of just what the heck authority level Paul has to you. Because it seems to be basically ‘when he agrees with me’. So basically half the New Testament seems to be about on equal footing with CS Lewis, Martin Luther and Papal Authority to a protestant

      • So I’m pretty tired, and it’s hard to analyze clearly right now; however, I’ll give this a shot.

        1. Yes, only one of the two options can be correct, and you know which side I’m on. I don’t intend to provide some kind of way to distinguish how to pick a side, though.

        2. Yes, you’re correct. Also, Sam Harris is a bad philosopher — certainly the weakest of the “four horsemen.” It’s probably because he was neither British nor had a beard, which are clear signs of intellectual advancement.

        3. Thoughts on authority of the Bible’s authors are under construction right now. I would refer you to Dr. Peter Enns’ work “Incarnation and Inspiration.”

      • Not in any way Arthur says:

        The point of 1 was missed. If Neitzsche actually believes what he says he believes then Paul is wrong. That was what I was trying to drive at. I wrote that post piecewise over the course of like an hour and a half so I might have been slightly difficult to read sorry.

      • Ah, well like I said, I’m pretty tired. But yes, you’re right. If Nietzsche truly believes what he says, Paul really is wrong.

        I don’t think Nietzsche really does, though. There seems to be a sort of cognitive dissonance in his writing, like he realizes he’s a jerk and then tries to make up for it with rhetoric. Writing 8 books with essentially the same premises seems like he’s compensating.

  3. larnewman says:

    Certainly, “whether or not you believe a proposition is true will not affect your identity as a person” is false. Whether or not I believe Christianity is true very much affects my identity as a person: if Christ is not raised, we are of all men the most miserable.

    • Believing Christianity is true will only affect you if you allow it to change who you are; there are plenty of people who affirm the tenants of Christianity but do not follow it. I’ve also proved “assent to a proposition changes who you are” to be false in two separate examples: the demons believe, and a murderer can believe that murdering is bad while still enjoying murder.

      Quoting the Bible will not get you very far; you need to think critically about what I’ve said and really grapple with the arguments.

      • larnewman says:

        If I believe that my father just committed suicide, it will affect my identity as a person. We are not so impervious to reality as to disallow beliefs their effect. And watch the ad hominems broski.

        Also, your examples merely show that some beliefs don’t affect those who believe them, in two specific cases, and in specific ways that you expect them to. But your statement is a universal: “whether or not you believe a proposition is true will not affect your identity.” To prove that, you would have to prove that there was never a belief that anyone every believed that affected their identity.

      • Believing your father committed suicide will not affect you unless you maintain a particular viewpoint. It is, admittedly, an extremely common and perhaps biologically natural view, but there is nothing inherent about believing that your father committed suicide that necessitates a given reaction.

        If we say that “belief affects who you are as a person,” then all we have to do is show one case in which this is not true, which we have done. If we say “no beliefs affect you as a person,” then we have to show that all beliefs do not affect you. I believe I can argue this, as well, but the important thing is that we have shown that one particular set of beliefs — those regarding Christ — do not inherently effect God’s grace. If “faith” is assent to a belief, then God should have granted grace to the demons. This is clearly not the case, though.

  4. Great and Wonderful People's Republic of Blogistan says:

    So I guess it’s 5:29 AM and boredom has once again overtaken me. I am actually semi-excited at this article specifically. You are starting to identify some interesting points. Nevertheless, I don’t know if I would call the title “Why Belief is Problematic”; Belief isn’t so much problematic but it’s the religious preaching of those who are speaking from the ego and not from the heart.

    I think that’s the one of the fundamental flaws of 21st century American religion. Faith as it is represented in this article as a step-daughter of propositional logic, which is a by-product of western-based Scholastic mentality of the high middle ages. Coupled with a personality that appears mean and nasty, it is a dangerous mixture and will turn off a great many people..

    Let’s examine your statement “If you don’t believe in Christ, you will go to Hell”. Thanks to vivid imagery of works like Dante’s inferno and such, we imagine Hell to be an externally-imposed reality from an angry God whose unassuaged fury can only delight in the punishment of those who didn’t “hear the message” and mentally assent that X is Y (i.e. divinity of Christ). Rational people tend to reject such a mean-spirited deity, and this is where we are now. I’ve actually had a friend say I’m going to hell.

    Without denying the possibility of hell or tending toward universalism, we take note of Christ’s words “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20). Thus the true spiritual activity of man does not take place in the mental brain, but in the heart: in the very depth of man’s soul. The classical Christian tradition has always translated this (pistis) into an action – or more precisely – a lifetime of action. Thus, the great father Maximos the Confessor said “Theology without practice is the theology of demons” as you have correctly identified.

    No Christian has any business threatening another peaceful person with Hell if they do not agree with their logic right here right now. The spirit-endowed life in God does not leave us to dogmatize with sterile words of logic; but elevates us to a life beyond them. Belief in Christ should thus propel people to love all people (and even all of Creation) especially non-believers and those who are wounded by man’s fallen nature. Love does not speak the language of propositional logic.It exists by it’s own positive force, which has its origin in the Trinitarian love which Christ came to bring us – which is above heaven and earth. If Hell exists, then it will be the finally-revealed disposition of those who resisted God’s love and whose ultimate salvation will be an eternity of love which they find distasteful and painful. This is a mystery. So I think at this point we can say that “Evangelism is thus not shoving Christ down people’s throats but treating every person as if he were Christ”

    - Unimportant Person

  5. Pingback: Christians and Homosexuality: Dangers of Ex-Gay Testimonies | The Discerning Christian

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