Thursday, September 13, 2018


     According to the late Barbara Tuchman, folly – the course followed by a fool – consists in knowing better but nevertheless doing worse. While some would dispute Tuchman’s definition, it has applications to several fields of human involvement. One of them, a rather disturbing one, is suggested by this article:

     Why yes, if Jesus Christ was not resurrected from the dead on the third day following His crucifixion, as He repeatedly told His disciples beforehand He would be, then every one of the billions of people who have lived who professed their faith in Him has been a schmuck, a fool, conned, etc.

     This may come as a shock to some, but St. Paul put it rather succinctly at 1 Corinthians 15:14: “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.”

     That’s the meat and potatoes of the Christian faith: Either He rose from the dead or the whole thing is a pleasant fabrication. But always there are militant atheists who’ll demand proof of the Resurrection – if they stop short there. Some will dispute that Jesus existed at all.

     Trouble is, religion doesn’t deal in proof.

     We have a great deal of evidence that Jesus of Nazareth lived, traveled extensively through Judea and Samaria, was crucified by the Roman authorities, and rose from the dead on the third day of His Passion, fulfilling the prior prophecies and confirming His divinity, but to prove that the event took place, as if it were a mathematical proposition, is beyond our power. There will always be possible explanations for all the phenomena reported in the New Testament that omit the Resurrection — including that the New Testament and all that followed in Church history is pure fiction — and they can’t be disproved either. That, plus its theological assertions, is why Christianity is a faith rather than a mathematical theorem or a scientific hypothesis.

     But that’s not what I’m here to write about.

     In Polymath, I had the young skeptic Todd Iverson approach the Christian proposition this way:

     Much of what Todd had learned about Redmond had remained opaque to him. The engineer’s unassuming carriage contrasted sharply with his nuclear-powered intellect and his colleagues’ unconcealed reverence. His material modesty, particularly his inexplicable attachment to an old pickup truck when he could surely have afforded a newer, more glamorous conveyance, was even more mysterious. But more baffling than all the rest taken together was Redmond’s unconcealed devotion to his religion. It seemed to be fixed at the center of his life.
     How anyone so brilliant could get so attached to an obvious fairy tale is beyond me.
     “Quarter for your thoughts?” Redmond said.
     “Huh? I thought it was ‘penny for your thoughts.’”
     “Time was. I’ve adjusted it for inflation.”
     “Mmph. Okay. Well, I was just wondering about...” His courage failed him.
     Redmond turned a final corner, pulled into the Iversons’ driveway, set the parking brake and turned toward him. “About me and the church, right?”
     Todd blushed and nodded.
     “Because you don’t believe.”
     Another nod.
     “And you’re smart and you know it. But by now you know that I’m at least as smart, and it flummoxes you. Because you just can’t imagine how anyone with half a brain could buy into such a load of total nonsense, much less someone who’s as smart as you.
     Todd remained silent. He fought to keep his expression from revealing his thoughts.
     Redmond smiled gently. “What would you say were the most important words in that little speech, Todd?”
     “Would you like me to repeat it?”
     Todd shook his head. “Uh, no, it’s just that...”
     “You’d rather not think about it?”
     Todd’s discomfort deepened further.
     Redmond’s smile turned impish. “Or maybe you’re a wee bit off balance from my having read your mind like a large-print book?”
     Todd started to laugh. He couldn’t help it. In a moment he’d surrendered to a gale of laughter, holding his sides against the spasms from his own guffaws.
     When he’d regained control of himself, he shook his head and caught Redmond’s eyes with his own. The engineer was still smiling gently.
     “Wasn’t it like that for you?” Todd said. “I mean, from everything I’ve heard about you—”
     “From your classmates?”
     Todd nodded. “Sideways, mostly. Some from Rolf and the others in the group. You had to have had the same reaction this stuff that I had. It can’t be true!”

     Later on, Iverson converses with a Catholic priest, and founds his skepticism thus:

     “In the matter of the Christian faith,” the priest continued, “the critical proposition is the Resurrection. If the claim that Jesus’s mortal body died, but that he returned to life three days later, presented himself first to his apostles and then to hundreds of others, and forty days after his Resurrection ascended bodily to heaven can be accepted on any basis whatsoever, then Christianity is acceptable on those grounds.”
     “And that,” Todd said slowly, “is where I’ve always hung up and walked away. Nothing remotely like that has ever happened since then, so why should I believe it happened two thousand years ago?”

     This is exactly the crux Paul of Tarsus delineated in First Corinthians: Either it really happened, or we’ve all been had.

     But that’s not what I’m here to talk about, either.

     In the comments to this Mark Tapscott entry at Instapundit, there are many statements about meaning and value: specifically, the meaning and value of human life. Believers find meaning and value in their lives, premised on their faith. Nonbelievers contend that meaning and value are available even if there is no God. But neither set grapples with the questions those two metaphysical concepts demand that we ask:

  1. Meaning to whom?
  2. Value by what standard?

     For meaning is a consequence of interpretation – and that requires an interpreter. Value is a fundamentally temporal property, arising from our nature as project pursuers; it cannot be usefully applied to supra-temporal and transfinite considerations.

     Let’s tackle value first. Consider the following fictional exchange:

Mugger: Gimme your wallet!
Victim: But all my cash is in there! What am I to do?
Mugger: I don’t care. Gimme your wallet or I’ll plug you.
Victim: (complies) But how am I going to buy dinner or get home?
Mugger: Knock it off. Five years from now this won’t matter to you at all.

     Pretty fanciful, eh? But if you’re at all typical, at some point someone who’s disappointed or wounded you has used the mugger’s exact rationale to “console” his victim. In abstract terms, he’s suggested that the victim forsake his short-term standard of value and adopt one that reaches forward five years. (Never mind that the mugger is obviously applying a short-term standard of value by practicing armed robbery.)

     If the possibility of eternal bliss in the nearness of a benevolent God is real, then there can be no useful standard of value that fits it. Its importance is literally infinite, which nothing in our temporal lives can be. No one who takes that possibility seriously can validly be called a fool for conforming his life to what he believes are the requirements for reaching it. In the recent movie The Case For Christ, believing coworker Kenny London makes that point to skeptic Lee Strobel.

     “Here’s where the chili meets the cheese, my friend. One of my heroes was C. S. Lewis, a man who began as a skeptic, much like yourself. At the end of his journey, you know what he said? If Christianity is false, it’s of zero importance. But if it’s true, there’s nothing more important in the entire universe.”

     This is also the essence of Pascal’s Wager.

     As to meaning, the case can be made that a man can find adequate meaning in his own life, as its most intimate and proximate interpreter. However, the great majority of persons who’ve lived and are alive today treat the meaning of their lives as a trans-temporal consideration. Their question is not “What does my life mean to me?” but rather “What does my life mean in the Great Scheme of Things?”

     That’s a question to which no satisfactory answer can be given without a trans-temporal Interpreter. We who pose the question that way find the true meaning of our lives in how God sees them – one of the blessings of Christian conviction that’s rarely well understood even by Christians themselves.

     Proof of supernatural and supra-temporal propositions is simply impossible for creatures trapped beneath the veil of Time. No matter how much we want it, we can’t have it. What we can have are the things that please and fulfill us in this life. Two of those things are meaning and value. Christian belief provides both, along with a not-too-onerous set of rules by which to attain something virtually everyone would like to have.

     The evidence for Christianity is copious, but it can never rise to the level of proof. Ironically, they who demand proof and will be satisfied with nothing less are just as incapable of proving their opposed contention: i.e., that there is no God and Jesus of Nazareth, whether or not He really lived, was not divine. Which is why I smile at the skeptics and reply to them that “You enjoy your religion, and I’ll enjoy mine.”

     Fools? Perhaps. But I’ve made my bet. Have you made yours?


doubletrouble said...

“The potential folly of belief is of far less consequence than that of unbelief.” (Paraphrased)
I had saved the original quote (which came from you), but it has been lost to an aged memory- could you please restate it?
It’s a good one!

Francis W. Porretto said...

Might it be from this piece?


My kids ask why G-d cannot be seen, and I've been trying to explain the concept of FAITH.

Me? I see Hashem (literally "THE NAME") in everything. But He speaks in a small still voice; you have to listen to hear - and be open to His message.

E.g., from my essay:

For various reasons, notable among them that I snore louder than a jet engine on afterburner, I was attempting to fall asleep in the recliner downstairs. It was Shabbat evening; one of the candles, which the kids helped me light, was still burning and the light was straight in front of me. Being dog-tired I was sorely tempted to break the prohibition against blowing it out. In that moment of temptation it was like G-d's small, still voice spoke to me: Those candles are the light of tradition, handed down from generation to generation for over three thousand years. They are a reminder of Judaism's deep past, and by teaching your children they become the hope of the future, forming a chain through the ages and binding you and your children to Me.

I relaxed, understanding what those candles really meant and why they are lit and never blown out, and the candle then winked out just seconds after that realization. It was as though G-d Himself then said to me Now that you understand how the lights of Shabbat connect you to Me and your whole people through past, present, and future, you can go to sleep. It was a profound moment and I felt His presence in a way that I had not before… and the sensation of that presence has never left me since.

doubletrouble said...

Nope- wasn’t that one, Fran. I’ll look through the tagged posts; I’m guess it was at least a year ago, now.