Friday, May 1, 2009

Discussing the Bible (and everything else)

It is not uncommon for me to be involved with discussion groups where the subject turns to matters of religion and faith. The old adage that religion and politics are subjects to be avoided in polite company is often true, NOT because these topics are unimportant, but because people have difficulty discussing without allowing their passions to seize control. It is precisely BECAUSE these topics are so important that we must learn to discuss them intelligently, and openly, and with appropriate passion, BUT NOT to permit emotions to control the dialogue.
I have developed some “rules” to govern how this process should unfold.

As a college professor with a law background, I tend to "get down in the weeds" and force my students to critically analyze a subject. That means compelling them to explore other perspectives than the one they brought to the table initially. I urge them to support their findings with evidence. The subjects that I teach are those which usually ignite the highest levels of emotional energy: religion, politics, and patriotism. It is important for the students to learn very early in the semester that we are going to talk about these things, and that there is a way to do it and remain civil. So... on the first day of our class I teach the difference between an "opinion" ( a strongly-held belief that does not have empirical support) and a "conclusion" ( a well-reasoned result of analysis of fact, supported by evidence). Evidence must be (1) credible, (2) relevant, and (3) sufficiently "weighty" to have a bearing on the matter at hand. While everyone is entitled to an opinion, it is unreasonable to expect that “mere opinion” can or should be considered persuasive in a discussion of any topic. In other words, it is totally unreasonable for me to get angry because you do not accept my opinion of something, no matter how strongly I believe in the truth of my assertion. Strong belief, by itself, is simply not compelling.

We (Americans, Conservatives, Christians- the audience to which I am writing) need to become better skilled at the use of reason. We SHOULD be passionate in our beliefs, but it is not our passion, or at least not our passion alone, which should be persuasive when we discuss the very important issues of faith and patriotism.

THE ENLIGHTENMENT AGE ( a little history)
The period of history now referred to as “the enlightenment” spans roughly two hundred years, beginning in about 1600 and terminating with the French Revolution in 1789. It is less a movement, than a series of movements- uncoordinated but moving in generally the same direction. The very notion of “enlightenment” comes from the philosophers and academics of the time inasmuch as this is the view they held of themselves. Generally, the prominent men (and women) of the age determined to educate themselves in the use of reason, and rely less on the dogma of then existing institutions, be they ecclesiastical or secular. Philosophers and academics of the enlightenment era can be grouped, more or less, by time and geography; English Europeans were decidedly more “religious” than French Europeans, and scholars of the 17th century were more “religious” than those who came later. By “religious”, I mean that they believed that proper use of reason would lead one to understand the character and nature of God. Reason was not seen as a “challenge” to the authority of the church. Later “Enlightenment” thinkers tended towards “reasoning God right out of the equation”, believing that Science and reason would render moot any discussion of Ultimate Authority.

Because our Founding fathers were all products of the “The Enlightenment” (Early English European variety), this has greatly influenced the way we view religion in this country. Americans typically have not viewed education (and reason) as antithetical to Christianity and religion. Only recently have some been persuaded that the pursuit of scientific discovery and intellectual “reason” should only be entertained if God is eliminated from the analysis (more like later French European Enlightenment thinkers).

When I discuss matters of faith, particularly with the "faithful", I notice a disturbing lack of ability with regard to critical thinking. There seems to be a pervasive misunderstanding that “faith” somehow is the opposite of “reason” or that “scientific” analysis trumps other forms of evidence.


Scientific methodology requires, at a minimum, the following: the investigation (test) must be (1) observable, and (2) repeatable, and (3) able to control the variables in order to achieve a quantifiable (and predictable) outcome. Scientific evidence of one form of acceptable evidence. Another form of acceptable evidence is LEGAL evidence. There is a troubling trend around the world that places an artificial weight on “scientific” evidence. This is known in our own criminal system as “the CSI Effect”, in which decisions in criminal cases can ONLY be made when there exists solid, incontrovertible, laboratory proof (such as DNA). There has been an increase in cases where, although LEGAL evidence was sufficient, the absence of “Scientific” evidence (such as we see every week on programs like CSI) resulted in acquittal.

There is nothing wrong with science, as long as we realize that, although a powerful tool, it is also a limited tool. Because of the limitations of scientific methodology, there are truths that cannot be “scientifically proven” because either (1) it is not repeatable, or (2) it is not observable, or (3) the variables cannot be controlled to achieve a quantifiable outcome.

There are at least three legal standards used to determine whether the burden of proof has been met. The one with which most people are familiar through television or movies is "beyond a reasonable doubt." This is a very high standard used in criminal cases. The prosecution, seeking a criminal conviction, must prove their case "beyond a reasonable doubt."

The intermediate standard is the "clear and convincing" standard used in quasi-criminal proceedings. In such cases the government must prove that a person is liable or guilty by a standard slightly lower than that of "beyond a reasonable doubt." This is a higher standard than the "preponderance" standard required in most administrative matters.

The preponderance standard is the lowest legal standard used in civil or administrative matters. The preponderance standard is essentially "more likely than not" or "probably true" or a greater than fifty percent chance.


Many truths in the Bible are asserted. By FAITH, the Christian understands that it is GOD who is making the assertion, albeit through an intermediary such as Moses or Paul. The TRUTH of the assertion is WITNESSED by the HOLY SPIRIT in our heart(s)s (individually, and collectively, as a congregation) In American Jurisprudence, we do not convict for capital crimes without two or more witnesses, a principle found in Old Testament (Hebrew) Law (see Deut. 19:15-19). The New Testament affirms this same principle. Jesus himself used it in Matthew 18:15-20, where he instructed the disciples on how to settle a dispute in the church. The unrepentant sinning brother must be confronted with witnesses so that the judgment against him is assured to be just: "so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses" (v. 16). One of the vital ministries of the Holy Spirit is to guide us (believers) into all truth (Whereof the Holy Ghost also is a witness to us: for after that he had said before. This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them; Hebrews 10:15-16)

When discussing the Bible, it is important that people be able to distinguish between “mere opinion” and “reasoned conclusion”. Note that I have never said that “mere opinion” was not true; but it never forms the basis of an argument, even IF true. (For purposes of this article, and ARGUMENT is defined as, “A reason or reasons offered in proof, to induce belief, or convince the mind; reasoning expressed in words; as, an argument about, concerning, or regarding a proposition, for or in favor of it, or against it.” Therefore, an argument is evidence, NOT an emotional or a heated discussion. If the dialogue becomes heated, it is pretty clear evidence that reason has flown (or is about to fly) the coop.

There are at least three conditions when we SHOULD engage others in dialogue concerning scripture and doctrine. First, it is important, for the Christian, to be able to reason with unbelievers, in order to lead them into salvation. NEVER are we to do this in an arrogant, abrasive way. (But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…1 Pe 3;15, NIV) Sometimes, we must be bold and even defy the attempts to restrain our speech but it is still done in a civil, polite manner (Acts ch 4). We are NOT permitted to judge a person’s heart in this circumstance (Mt 7:1) but that does NOT mean that we are NEVER to judge other people. (see below)
Second, when we are confronted with people who seem to have already made up their minds AGAINST Jesus, or AGAINST the Bible, then almost always our response is going to include terminating our discussion, and probably even taking leave of their company. (Mt 10; 2 Ti 2:16; Titus 3:9) Let’s face it, you cannot “reason” with someone who is “unreasonable”. The inability to engage in meaningful dialogue, even on sensitive subjects, renders a person “unreasonable” in the sense I am using that term herein. Perhaps that is a temporary condition, due to an extreme emotional state, or perhaps it is a condition that simply represents an aspect of a person’s character. My mother used to say (jokingly, sort of) “My mind’s made up- don’t clutter it up with facts!) In any case, if a person has “made up their mind” about something, then move on and talk about the weather or your favorite sports team. There is NOTHING positive to be gained by trying force-feed a recalcitrant child. (you can lead a horse to water…..(NOTE* sometimes the Spirit of God may lead a Christian to boldly proclaim the TRUTH of Christ when the outcome will almost certainly be unpleasant- rejection, or even death. Read Acts Chapter 7)
In between the two extremes, we have a third opportunity (or mandate) to discuss scripture/doctrine. Sometimes we must confront a brother who is in serious doctrinal error (Gal 2:11-15; Gal 6:1; ). There will come a time when a brother in Christ will not hearken unto God and he/she MUST be confronted with the truth of scripture. (1 Pe 4:17) IF they will heed the admonition of the WORD of God, then there WILL come a judgment of the church! (Mt 18:15-19)
So what is worth really digging our heels into? What doctrine(s) of Christianity must we insist remain pure and NOT subject to individual interpretation? The list is very small, and God gives a great deal of latitude to the local church to set certain standards. (see Acts 11 and Acts 15) Beyond the basic Doctrine of Salvation, our form of worship, and ceremonialism, seems largely left up to the believers.

It is good to discuss the WORD of God. It is prudent to grapple with sticky issues of our social/economic/political world and attempt to organize our relationships with regard to the doctrines of our Christian Faith. It is quite likely that we can interact civilly with people whose faith is different than our own, when we are in harmony with respect to our social/economic/political environment. It is not necessary to remove discussions of faith and religion from the marketplace of ideas and, indeed, it is desirable NOT to try to remove those aspects of our social interactions. HOWEVER, Christians must always remember that it is God’s Holy Spirit that guides men into truth, and NOT our clever, impassioned, or even well-reasoned arguments. We must be always mindful of WHAT is important to discuss, and WITH WHOM. I suggest that EVERY time we sense an opportunity to discuss our faith, our Lord, our Scripture, or our beliefs, that we FIRST, prayerfully, consider whether (or IF) the Holy Spirit is involved. Then, we must DISCERN (a spiritual condition) the “receptivity” of the listener and adjust our delivery accordingly. Failure to understand this will almost certainly result in damaged relationships and will REDUCE the effectiveness of our ministry.
In Christ,

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