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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Showing posts with label salad-bar theology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label salad-bar theology. Show all posts

Monday, July 08, 2013

Authority Matters

One of my favorite John Mayer songs is his breakout hit "No Such Thing." However, its lyrics are indicative of an increasingly acute problem in our culture: the elevation of self above any authority structure. Mayer sings "They love to tell you stay inside the lines, but something's better on the other side." Is that true?

If you think about it, everyone looks to find a source of authority for the actions and decisions of his or her life. Authority is the natural starting point when seeking to understand how anything works. When we drive, we should obey the traffic signs because they are placed by an authority that has the power to control traffic for the public's safety. The authority has the knowledge to know how fast you can corner a turn before your tires lose their grip. An authority can also offer us safety: if one ignores the authority of a stop sign, the intersection may not hold something better of the other side, but disaster!

So, one can say appropriate authorities offer each of us at least two important elements in life: instruction and safety. I use the word "appropriate" because while there may be a lot of claims to authority, there should be some basic things that qualify a source as an appropriate authority. An authority should have some degree of expertise in whatever sphere he claims to have authority over. If we are also talking about authority as a governing institution, then the authority should be vested with the power to do things such as make laws or post traffic signs.

Don Thorsen writes, "Authority pertains to the right and power to command and be obeyed."[1] This is a good definition. If I went outside my house and posted my hand-painted speed limit sign, people would most likely ignore it because I have neither the right nor the power to override the city laws.

This idea of authority becomes even more important when we look at moral laws. In matters such as life and how one should live, the ultimate authority resides in God. God has the right to command us by virtue of His being the Creator of the universe generally and the creator of mankind specifically. In Romans 1:18-22, Paul argues that through His creation God has given us a witness to Himself as creator and because of that all men are obligated to worship and obey Him. Paul also pointed to God as creator of all mankind when he addressed the Athenians (Acts 17:24) and said that they should "seek God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us."

If God is the Creator, then he would have the definitive knowledge of how the world works and He would have the proper right to set down guidelines for how his creation should behave. God would have the right of authority. Of course, if God is the creator, he also demonstrates his power to control his creation. As the author of life (Gen. 2:7, Ecc. 12:7), God has the power to give life and take it, and can do so with impunity.

Many times when I talk about things of God with people, they will say things like "I cannot believe in a God who would do thus and so." But such statements are akin to posting your own speed limit sign on your street. Just because you want to drive faster doesn't mean that you should ignore the sign or that it isn't there for reasons to make everyone safer. There is a real world out there, and dismissing it can lead to painful consequences.


[1] Thorsen, Don. An Exploration of Christian Theology. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Pub. 2008).27.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Salad-Bar Truth: When the Critic Commits the Crime

The LA Times recently ran an op-ed piece by Barry Goldman taking Americans to task for mixing and matching various belief systems. However, Goldman makes the same basic mistake that is at the root of his rebuke towards the public.

Goldman opens his op-ed piece by quoting from a recent Pew study that states:
Large numbers of Americans engage in multiple religious practices, mixing elements of diverse traditions. Many also blend Christianity with Eastern or New Age beliefs such as reincarnation, astrology and the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects. And sizable minorities of all major U.S. religious groups say they have experienced supernatural phenomena, such as being in touch with the dead or with ghosts.
Goldman then sums up the findings by writing "What is striking about the Pew study is not the prevalence of superstition and hocus-pocus, alarming as that is. It is the feeling that we are free to choose from a broad, cafeteria-style menu of superstitious hocus-pocus. Charles Blow in the New York Times called it the construction of 'Mr. Potato Head-like spiritual identities.'"

It's true that Americans DO take a cafeteria-style approach to beliefs – often holding contradictory beliefs as both being true. This has been a big problem in our culture, primarily because people just don't think through the implications of their belief system. However, Goldman completely crumbles in his analysis. He tries to make a distinction that facts are not things based on preference by referring to the story of elementary class that couldn't tell whether their pet rabbit was a male or female, so they decided to vote about the rabbit's sex. He then opines:
We no longer trust the guys in the seminaries to determine which ideas are inside and outside the community of faith. We feel entitled to make our own decisions. Fair enough; the facts with respect to spiritual matters have always been somewhat elusive. But now many of us feel entitled to decide which scientific ideas to accept. Scientists have their ideas about, say, the age of the Earth or evolution by natural selection, and other people have other ideas. According to this new view, neither has any more claim to legitimacy than the other. There is no fact of the matter."
Goldman concludes his article by saying "We used to be a nation with a broad consensus. If you had a religious question, you asked a religious leader. If you had a scientific question, you asked a scientist. Today, if you have a question (about your enthusiasm for a belief) you ask another enthusiast." Here's where Goldman shows that he doesn't know what he's talking about. He seems to think that expert consensus is the determining factor whether or not we should believe something. That position is ridiculous. If an individual holding to a belief doesn't make the thing true or not, then an expert consensus doesn't make it true either.

There have been many times where "asking a scientist" has given a wrong answer just as asking a religious leader did. Two examples I can think of right away are the science of genetics – where Gregor Mendel's findings didn't achieve widespread acceptance for some 40 years, since Mendel's theory collided with the Darwinian view of blending inheritable traits from parents – and the age of the universe, where the desire for an infinitely old universe was so strong, it caused Einstein to add a fudge factor to his equations.

Goldman really stumbles here. What he should have said was that we hold to certain ideas because we believe them to be true. We have knowledge because we have justification for a certain belief. If a belief that we hold is contradictory – either internally (such as a Christian believing in reincarnation) or externally (such as calling a male rabbit a female), then that cannot be true – we must rethink our position. Experts can help, but that presupposes that they have also critically examined their field of study. However, it may very well be that the experts are wrong. It's quite possible the public could see this and choose to reject the belief.

Rational examination and holding to a belief because its true are the golden standard. Goldman may dismiss matters of faith as "the facts with respect to spiritual matters have always been somewhat elusive." This shows that Goldman has never investigated faith matters seriously. If there is a God, then dismissing the hard work of finding Him out is like the class who would rather choose the rabbit's sex than work to find the answer. Goldman is committing the same crime he's accused us of – choosing which beliefs fit his worldview and then running with them while he sanctimoniously rebukes everyone else.

Image courtesy "RELIGIONES" by ReligijneSymbole. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
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