Tuesday, December 18, 2007

All the Right Beliefs for All the Wrong Reasons

~ C Michael Patton ~@http://www.reclaimingthemind.org

Michael Patton

Sometimes it is frustrating to introduce yourself to theological issues. Most people who get deeply involved in theology quickly realize how much they don’t know. Confident seminary students enter their training thinking that they are going to breeze their way through as they have their prejudices confirmed by their soon to be impressed professors. After the first year, their countenance is soured as their confidence turns into an insecure angel (or devil) on their shoulder who says “Who did you think you were presuming God called you into ministry?” They begin to realize that they came to seminary to find out how much they did not know! Some get discouraged and leave, others harden in their categories becoming unable to learn. But the best adjust their expectations, knowing that an admission of ignorance is a fundamental foundation to learning (like my friend Jeff Wright).

There is an old dictum to knowledge. It goes something like this:

There are four types of people:

1. The one who doesn’t know, and doesn’t know that he doesn’t know. He is a fool–shun him.

2. The one who doesn’t know, but knows that he doesn’t know. He is a student–help him learn.

3. The one who knows, but doesn’t know that he knows. He is an unenlightened person–enlighten him.

4. The one who knows and knows that he knows. He is a wise man–follow him.

I would like to add a fifth:

5. The one who knows but does not know how he knows. He is naive—deconstruct him.

This fifth category refers to those who have all the right beliefs for all the wrong reasons. This is very common in theological circles. I believe that it is prevalent within Evangelicalism as a basic creedal confession takes the place of doctrinal understanding. I know of many people who confess a belief in the doctrine of the Trinity, but they really don’t know why they believe in this doctrine. I know of many people who believe that Christ rose bodily from the grave, but they could not give you even the most basic defense of their confession. Both the bodily resurrection of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity are good and right beliefs, but if someone cannot justify these beliefs, do they really believe them?

The fidest (one who defines faith as a blind leap into the dark) would answer with an unqualified “Yes.” The evidentialist (one who believes that evidence plays a vital role in faith) would say “Maybe, maybe not.” I side with the evidentialist. There is a large chasm between assent to a proposition and being convicted of that proposition. And there is a fine line between emotional conviction and conviction of the Holy Spirit. To answer the question How do you know that Christ rose from the grave? with a “I just know that I know!” answer is both insufficient and, dare I say, sinfully neglectful of our duty to engage our minds. It creates an unjustified dichotomy between the mind and the heart.

“The heart will not accept what the mind rejects.” These words are attributed to Jonathan Edwards (although I have never seen the reference). Nevertheless, I believe this is true. The one who knows but does not know how he knows is in great danger of one day losing what he knew. Why? Because the justification for this knowledge is unqualified and insufficient. Creating a dichotomy between the mind and the heart is a self-defense mechanism for those who are truly insecure about their faith. They don’t have enough confidence in their faith to subject it to the scrutiny that the mind demands. For these people, an introduction of the mind’s interrogation to their beliefs is like playing the lottery. There is a chance—a good chance—that it will not survive, so it is better not to take that chance. They simply “know that they know that they know.” Or, as some would put it, they know because they have a “burning in their bosom”—that’s enough for them.

The problem with this fidestic approach to faith is that, in the end, everyone can claim this “burning in the bosom.” No one and no belief system is disqualified from its epistemological methodology. Two people with completely different belief systems can both have this subjective confidence with hearts on fire. Both can (and often do) claim that their conviction is from the Holy Spirit. Yet one of them is wrong.

Don’t get me wrong. I do believe that there is a subjective conviction of the Holy Spirit. But I believe that the conviction that the Holy Spirit brings is based upon the objective realities of the truths He represents. These truths are not acquired by a sound method of meditation or a blind adherence to what mom and dad taught you, but by wrestling with the issues and coming to your faith on your own. There has to be a deconstruction process that allows the Holy Spirit to bring about a conviction that we can truly credit to Him. We don’t have to disassociate His conviction with our studies. It is not an either/or but a both/and. God brings about conviction through our studies. This is the medium He uses. Yet unfortunately we often justify our lazy minds by placing the blame on Him for our intellectual disassociation.

Having all the right beliefs for all the wrong reasons. This is not a good thing. The reasons provide the foundation for our beliefs. If we do not construct a method of inquiry that has integrity, our beliefs will lack integrity. If our beliefs lack integrity, do we truly believe them?

We must learn to deconstruct our beliefs. No, not in the postmodern sense of the term. Postmodernism seeks to deconstruct without the intention of reconstructing. They do this because part of their presumed construction says that we cannot reconstruct (which is self-defeating). We deconstruct so that we can truly believe. We deconstruct so that we don’t have a faith of hibernated fear. We deconstruct so that when our fortress is rebuilt, it can weather any trial, internal or external. Ultimately, we deconstruct so that we can glorify God by loving Him with all our mind.

I know that this is difficult for many to hear. I know that the proposition is a fearful one. We are much more comfortable in our naive existence. But we must graduate our faith and encourage others to do the same. We must have the right beliefs for the right reasons.

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