November 2015: #3 (answering questions with the framework of faith)

The third question in this post series (but the fourth post, as #2 had two parts) is:

Will any answer we give make sense without said framework?

The framework in question is the framework of faith – as understood and defined by Seventh-Day Adventists. A large body of the groundwork for this post has been laid earlier in the series, but I will endeavour to answer this question as accessibly as possible.

If a Christian were to insist that any answers to certain questions can only make sense with the framework of ‘faith,’ they have a duty to be able to explain what faith actually is! The generally-accepted idea that questions regarding certain aspects, concepts and elements of Christianity can be explained with recourse and reference to faith without an adequate explanation of what that faith looks, sounds and smells like in either theory or practice is as big an example of the general lack of credibility of Christian faith. And Seventh-Day Adventists are amongst the worst culprits in this regard.

One concept that I enjoy teaching whenever I can is that our theological logic must itself be logical. Under no circumstances are we authorised to think and act in a functionally illogical manner and claim Scriptural justification. Stay with me as I break this down.

If a person says that prayer is illogical because God cannot be seen, heard or touched, then that’s a statement which looks like an argument. If I give a cellphone to a person who has just travelled 5000 miles out of an extremely remote territory and is still confused by Western technology and say that they could talk to someone on the other side of the world with this device, how easy would that be to believe? Much easier now that they have undertaken a journey which will have blown some of their gaskets to smithereens – they now have a framework for the impossible being possible from the airplane alone! But if they are simply in their remote area and have yet to see a Land Rover, never mind a bus or a plane – then they could be forgiven for saying that you are lying when when you say that this little thing can help you talk to someone on the other side of the world.

Why? Because there is no frame of reference. It’s not ‘logical.’ Or put another way, ” it doen’t make sense!” But this supposedly logical position is itself rumbled when we realise that it is based on large-scale ignorance. And that’s why the smart thing to do is keep asking: “what do I not know about…?”

Now, a child can play with a mobile phone and then actually use a mobile phone, but not understand how it works (i.e the science behind the technology). All they know is that it works. But now I’m about to go deeper. Let’s say that you see a name/number flash on your phone. You greet the caller by name and have a conversation. You hang up, assuming that you spoke to the person whose name is linked to that number in your phone. But supposing it was not the person? You did not see them! It could have been an impostor, or maybe even a robot…

Something as mundane as using a smartphone can throw up all sorts of issues about what know, what we assume, what we believe, why we think our knowledge is true and our assumptions/beliefs are reasonable. Whole books are being written from a secular perspective along the lines of telling people that they are not as smart, as rational or as balanced as they like to think. Much of what society thinks it knows, it does not, and cannot know. So in the same way that the faith of an honest Christian is not a reason to know that the Bible is true, the empirical argument of a skeptic is less final than could ever be the case. Why?

Absence of proof is NOT proof of absence!

No person is going to be won for the Kingdom of God by argument alone, however excellent in its Biblical and rational dimensions. But it is certainly possible to give answers which make sense WITHOUT the framework of faith. The Christians may usually have no idea what those are or what they look like, but if those answers did not exist, we would have to say that faith is blind and unreasonable, because reason and logic don’t apply to God.

NO CHANCE.

God IS the AUTHOR of cognition itself. As such, he’s the author of language. That means that our capacity to use words like ‘logic’ come from Him. Don’t think for a microsecond that God cannot be found in the realm of the intellectual. He can. But he cannot be served solely in the arena of great ideas. He can only be served in the real world. Our job is to find ways to answer the hard questions about Christianity that are both real and truthful – and as such, that speak to the actual reality of people’s lives – NOT our mashed-up assumptions of those realities!

 

 

November 2015: #2b – the rejection of questions by SDAs

APOLOGIES for the paragraphing issues: nothing I try can fix them right now. But the text is correct!

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This is the second part of the second question in this series. Here’s a link to the first – for (necessary) context.

This is the question at hand:

Will any of the perplexities of life make sense without the framework of faith?

Now, this might seem like an unnecessarily large number of variant translations of a pretty well-known text, but this post is not for everyone. I’m writing it as a resource for those who are serious about getting to grips with a challenging reality. The updated KJV does use the same word as older KJV editions (yes brethren, there really is more than one edition of the KJV!) – ‘answer.’ But look at some other words that are used instead of answer:

But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and be ready always to give an answer to every man who asketh you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.
but sanctify in your hearts Christ as Lord: being ready always to give answer to every man that asketh you a reason concerning the hope that is in you, yet with meekness and fear:
But in your hearts set Christ apart [as holy—acknowledging Him, giving Him first place in your lives] as Lord. Always be ready to give a [logical] defense to anyone who asks you to account for the hope and confident assurance [elicited by faith] that is within you, yet [do it] with gentleness and respect.
But in your hearts set Christ apart as holy [and acknowledge Him] as Lord. Always be ready to give a logical defense to anyone who asks you to account for the hope that is in you, but do it courteously and respectfully.
But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear:
Instead, regard Christ as holy in your hearts. Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it.
but treat the Messiah as holy, as Lord in your hearts; while remaining always ready to give a reasoned answer to anyone who asks you to explain the hope you have in you — yet with humility and fear,
Honor Christ and let him be the Lord of your life. Always be ready to give an answer when someone asks you about your hope.
but sanctify [the] Lord the Christ in your hearts, and [be] always prepared to [give] an answer [to] every one that asks you to give an account of the hope that [is] in you, but with meekness and fear;
but set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts, being ready always for a defense to everyone asking you a reason for the hope in you,
Will the perplexities of life make sense without the framework of faith? The truth is that this question has no fixed answer. Such an answer cannot exist. In the first post I pointed out that what makes sense to one person may well not make sense to another. The traditional over-emphasis (and indeed, over-dependence) on being able to ‘give an answer’ has meant that any type of answer given to a seeker for hope and truth is deemed successful just because it was given. But one can give ‘an answer’ to a question or challenge without really addressing the question in any real way. This is why we gain much from the other translations (above) which exhort us to be ready to offer:
  • A ‘defence’
  • A ‘logical defence’
  • A ‘reasoned answer’
Let’s get to brass tacks. Before I had the privilege of studying theology formally, I spent 29 years putting up with some quite terrible platitudes, the biggest being:
Young man, converted people don’t ask such questions!
In short, prototypical Adventism has focussed so much on ‘statements’ rather than ‘arguments’ that the majority of our church members have learned that asking questions in the hope of real answers gets you no-where. It now means that this question is especially vexed because ‘the framework of faith’ is anything but a framework of Biblical faith – for the most part.
On absolute principle, it can be argued that the framework with the greatest ‘explanatory power’ is that of what we Adventists know and refer to as ‘the great controversy.’ Here’s where we go wrong: we assume that people ought to accept this framework because it makes so much sense.
‘Sense’ is going to be determined by the presuppositions already held by a given individual. If a person has a materialistic worldview, then answers which posit supernatural activity will be deemed groundless at the outset unless a route is found to connect to the foundational presuppositions. SDAs are in no position to do that because if we take the point of the previous paragraph: something may have a totally plausible explanation, but that explanation might not actually be the ‘truth’ of what is actually happening (or has/is happening). So non-academic Adventist apologetics with its myriad undercooked theodicies has gotten stuck in a gum tree with no way up or down – because the ‘faith’ being offered is not a faith with teeth, and is not faith at all. It is what I call ‘glorified acceptance.’
The process of defending the concept of the necessity of faith in a good God who cannot be known through sensory experience is absolutely impossible unless an Adventist has wrestled with very hard questions posed by the perplexities of life for themselves. I remain baffled at how we still seem to think that if we can find the right ‘answer’ we will help to win more souls to the church (not always the Kingdom, by the way). I have news for us today:
WE – SDA church members – are THE answer – GOD’s answer – to the question of the efficacy of Biblical faith when challenged by the tragedies (and lesser perplexities) of life!
Glorified acceptance is not Biblical faith and so people are indeed finding answers that make more sense to them than those offered by a conceptually toothless and spiritually inconsistent Church. The ‘answers we ourselves give are often not linked to the Truth (John 8:32; John 14:6) that alone can set us free. Result: the world will have to find that Truth DESPITE the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, not because of us. Until we change, we will continue to lose 43% of all the members we baptise.

November 2015: #2a (Faith and meaning in life’s perplexities)

Our second question in this series is as follows:

Will any of the perplexities of life make sense without the framework of faith?

Some of the introductory remarks in the first post will be very helpful to readers looking to follow the thread of thought as deeply as they can. However, the context of this question: it was asked in response to this blog post by an SDA, and it is being responded to by an SDA, so this response is very specific to the Adventist community.

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I spoke about the fact that ‘sense’ in this context is determined by the recipient of an answer. This is a fundamental element of the so-called ‘apologetic task.’ Christian apologetics is not about ‘apologising’ for the faith (sick to death of hearing folks spout that claptrap – an inevitable consequence of using words the meaning of which we don’t know!). Have a look at the following conversation:

Skeptical Friend (SF): Hey, long time! How you doing?

Seventh-Day Adventist (SDA): Hey, good  to see you! I’m well thanks, what about you?

SF: Well, I’m okay, but I’m happy to see you, ’cause I’ve got a few questions.

SDA: Okay cool, let’s sit down over here, I’ve got a few minutes. (Both parties sit down.) So, what’s up?

SF: So this business of believing in the Bible…you say that the only way to know about God is through the Bible, right?

SDA: Yeah, it’s a major part of God’s revelation, probably the most important we have now.

SF: How come?

SDA: Nature is a big way that we know God exists, and Jesus came to show us what God is like. But the skies and oceans can’t actually talk to us about God – not in words – and Jesus is back in heaven! So, we need the Bible to know who Jesus was  – and is – and what God is like.

SF: Okay, I get that the Bible is a big part of the belief system for many Christians, but I have a big, big problem with the fact that many people have died without ever reading it. And I’m still not sure that homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity. I’ve met some Christian people who see themselves that way, and they are pretty vibrant to be around! But they’re not as into the Bible as you are. I don’t know what I think…

SDA: Okay, okay, well the thing is…for the Bible to make sense, you just have to have faith.

SF: Yeah, you’re always saying that, but I still have no idea how you get faith! Where does faith come from? I once heard a story about a primary school teacher who asked her class what they thought the meaning of ‘faith’ was and a nine-year-old boy put his hand up and said, ” believing what you know isn’t true.” So, why do you believe in the Bible? How do you know its true when you can’t prove so many things?

SDA: (smiling) Well, that’s why faith is so important. I know that the Bible is true because I have faith…

SF: …but that’s my problem! I’ve been meaning to bring this up for a while, but can’t you see that just because you have faith, that faith is not proof that the Bible is true?! Your faith is not proof of anything!

SDA: Yes, but I never said it was.

SF: So how then do you know that the Bible is true? How DO you actually know? What if you’re wrong and it is all lies, or at least parts of it? I think I’m readier than I’ve ever been to say that I believe in God. But I don’t think I can trust the Bible. Of course the Bible says that it is true…because whoever wrote it wanted people to think that! But because those words are in the Bible, that’s no PROOF that the Bible – or the whole of it – is in fact inspired! And if I’m going to follow the Bible, I need to know that I can trust it. How does that happen? Why do so many Christians emphasise some bits and ignore others? I’m fed up of this, it’s just so confusing!!

[…phone rings. It’s SDA’s phone…]

SDA: …erm, sorry, I have to take this call…

So, our SDA friend managed to get out of giving an answer on that occasion. My question and challenge: how would you respond to the skeptical friend? In #2b we will consider a number of different translations of 1 Peter 3:15 and become clearer on our mission in the context of ‘contending for the faith.’

 

November 2015: #1 (God, suffering, questions, answers)

So, our November season of basic Christian apologetics for Seventh-Day Adventists is a five-part series, beginning with this question:

Is it at all possible to give answers that will make sense to those who are experiencing such tragedy if they do not subscribe to the belief in an All Powerful and Loving God?

This is a great question for a philosophically-literate theologian, but this answer needs to be readable by as many church members as possible. That said, we won’t be skimping on the rigorous thinking itself – we’ll just have less plates spinning in the air – at least, for now.

However, there are a few things which need to be flagged. Some of you will not like reading this, but historically, US education has generally focussed on the accrual of information under the misguided notion that information = knowledge. This has led to a state of affairs in which all manner of questions are assumed to fit into a category where the answer is either black (thesis) or white (antithesis). Thanks to Antonio Gramsci we have a very useful concept to help anyone understand how certain culturally-specfic values and constructions can become celebrated outside their geographical starting point: “cultural hegemony.”

I am not anti-American in any way. But I am certainly against the values of US general education, and this is where the rubber meets the road. Global Adventism still looks back to the motherland for everything to do with what it means to be a ‘good Adventist’ and the sad truth is that the overwhelming majority of economic, ecclesiological (i.e. Conferences, Unions, Divisions, the GC etc) and intellectual powerbrokers in the world church are either American or American-educated in some way. And so they will naturally work within American educational values without questioning them.

While the roots of 21st-century USA lie in Europe, Africa, Asia (shall we spare a thought for the native American Indians here?!) etc, since the 19th century the USA has been able to assert its own identity with increasing clarity and force, and now that identity has been exported as a world value to every continent. The global SDA church is an excellent example, because here in British Adventism, we now export North American Adventism at such a rate that it is no wonder our own people never get to develop world-class ministries (how often do we export to the USA?) – because if someone with an American accept and sharp cloths and and even sharper haircut does not say it, we ain’t even listening. That is with apologies to our Anglo-European brethren, who tend to frequently question American Adventism in ways that African-Caribbeans do not. And what label do African-Caribbean British Adventists tend to apply to Anglo-Euro Adventists who drink coffee and wear more makeup and jewelry than some of us (though this latest generation is changing that – fast!)?

LIBERAL.

You’re now wondering what my point is, right? Fair enough, I’ll drop the hammer. We’re quick to do that sort of thing because we assume that all conservative Adventists will think in the same ways about all of the same things. We’ve failed to clock that a person may dress like a conservative but have the theology of a liberal, and vice-versa. And there are a whole slew of Adventist speakers out there who will have some serious problems at the judgment bar of God, because not only have their slovenly habits of mind reduced them to belittling others who don’t think as they do: they have infected many others with their own prejudices. And here in the UK, the North Americans now officially do our thinking for us, so if they’re not on tap, we’re scuppered…

NOT ALL QUESTIONS CAN BE REDUCED TO “EITHER/OR!” But alas, the damage is done, and now the result is that when we’re asked serious, searching questions by people who don’t believe as we do, if the answers I’ve heard (and seen) with my own ears from:

  • Sabbath school teachers (and students)
  • Elders
  • Evangelists (in some cases, so-called)
  • Bible Workers
  • (occasionally) clergy
  • local church celebrities (including on Facebook)
  • numerous famous presenters

are anything to go by, it is no wonder that we lost 5.9 million members between 2000-2013 as a world church – and in percentage terms, of all the people we baptised in that period, we lost 43% after baptism.

British Adventists have to think like Brits to survive in the workplace, but like Americans to survive in church, and so we are appallingly badly equipped to actually make friends with those who are not like us and bring those folk to church.

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The first thing you do when someone asks you a question is to make sure you’ve understood it. That’s a way of showing that you’re actually interested in them as a person, not as a potential Adventist. Here is how I personally break down every question that I am asked: I ask what I call ‘basic’ questions as follows:

  1. What are the elements in this question?
  2. What are the presuppositions?
  3. Are there any implications? If so, what are they?

So in this case, let’s start with the elements:

  • Answers
  • Therefore, questions
  • Sense (aka coherence)
  • Experience
  • Tragedy
  • Belief (itself)
  • Belief in something (Someone) specific – a deity, in fact – who is (apparently) all-powerful and loving

Now, the presuppositions: an SDA is posing this question to other SDAs. As such, it is being taken as read that:

  • this God is real
  • He is indeed all-powerful and He is loving
  • the tragedy that people experience is real, and not a figment of their imagination
  • it is a good and reasonable thing that people should receive answers to their questions that actually make sense
  • that there may be certain questions which may be much harder to answer if the potential recipient of the answer does not have a belief in an all-powerful and loving God

Here’s an example of an incorrect assumption of a presupposition: an inexperienced analytical thinker could assume that a presupposition behind this question is that such answers might actually not exist. Two rebuffs, one on a level of principle, and one on a personal epstemic level (i.e. I know something). First, just because a question is asked, do not assume anything about what the one asking believes about the potential of any potential answer. You have no idea what’s driving the question unless you know the person and have a starting point (and even then, people mess up on that all the time!). Second, I know this person well and I know that although they’ve asked this question worded: “is it possible….” that they DO believe that it must be possible.

Are there any potential implications? Yes. This is linked to both outreach and inreach. What a person believes will have an impact on what ideas they will be willing to receive and those that they will not. So in this case, a person who has no belief in an all-powerful and loving God is not necessarily an ‘atheist’ (please, go easy on these words unless you know what you’re talking about). They may well be a theist, but not in a Biblical sense. They may believe that God is love, but that His power is limited. Or they may believe in His omnipotence, but not His love. Or they may believe that God is the sole author of both good and evil (one of my very good friends is in this category having been an outright atheist for 34 years – makes for fascinating but very challenging interactions).

I hope that someone has begun to “join the dots” in their mind whilst reading this. This is an intriguing question because with no qualifications and caveats, there is no categorical universal answer to this question. ‘Sense’ can only be determined by every individual. Something may be literally and fundamentally wrong, but if it makes ‘sense’ to a person, then it is what they have chosen to accept. We may argue that certain beliefs (like certain of those held by JWs and Mormons, for example) are beyond sanity and logic, but those faith traditions are continuing to find new members and baptise them. Moreover, when we decide to use a stupendously weak framework for an argument to support our Scriptural interpretations, and then deny another Christian the right to use that same type of argument to defend their position, we lose credibiity as well as the argument. When we decide that something makes ‘sense’ because we like it – but then deny another person the right to do the same with a doctrinal issue that we have strong feelings about, we hinder ourselves from ever being credible to certain persons who have thought more about what they do not believe that most of us have about what we do believe.

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But I know what the person meant. And the answer is: ‘yes’ – we can give answers which do make sense to people who remain living victims of tragedy who do not believe in an all-powerful and loving God. But most of you have fallen for American spiel, and you think that every question must have an answer. This is an information-based approach, where you want what you call ‘knowledge’ which could be bereft of genuine understanding. A significant number of high-profile Adventists are fully culpable for teaching many of you that you just need the right answers. Sometimes, you need to take apart the question (gently) rather than answer it.

But this is where I will finish: DO NOT EXPECT to be credible in giving answers to very challenging questions at times of great tragedy and loss to secular, educated Anglo-Europeans if you are not a person who regularly scrutinises your own thought and your own ideas. Unless you really and truly are a genuinely sweet-natured person filled with love – the kind who can be respected for being a lovely person to be around even if not much else is going on – you and I cannot expect to win in spiritual warfare on the merits of personality and sincerity alone – for one can be sweet, sincere, and totally wrong!

Secular people who actually think do know when they are talking to someone humble enough to question their own ideas and question their faith and when they’re talking to someone who just wants to be someone with the ‘right answer.’ And until you place a higher value on knowing God more through the life of the mind that He has given you, it is a waste of time searching for “answers that make sense to someone who does not believe in an all-powerful and loving God.”