When Postmodern Pastors Do Philosophy

noargBishop Berkeley (d. 1753) once suggested that the surest way to refute atheism and defend religion was to deny the existence of matter. It stands to reason. The atheist holds that there is no God, and matter is all there is. Therefore, if there are no material objects, atheism couldn’t possibly be true. Exactly so. However, we’ve never met anyone who didn’t consider this idealistic cure far worse than the materialist disease. John Wilkinson, youth pastor and author of No Argument for God (IVP, 2011), seems to have taken a page directly from Berkeley’s playbook.

In an article entitled “A Defense of Skepticism” (Relevant magazine, 8 Sept 2011), Wilkinson proposes a “new take on apologetics,” one in which we can “be comfortable in our own irrational skin…Illogical…Unreasonable…Absurd.” We must confess, an irrational, illogical faith doesn’t make our skin do anything but crawl. But what we fail to understand, says Wilkinson, is that neither faith nor reason claims to be logical; they’re both on the “same uncertain ground.” Hence there’s no need to worry that Christianity is illogical and can’t be defended. The same thing is true of reason.

We seem to forget logic was not discovered in the universe somewhere. It is not The Force. Reason and logic are products of creation, the software our brains use to make sense of things here on this earth. We invented things like science, math and time…Our ‘logic’ is just a way of feeling our way through this world. In the end, it is a story just like any other…In reality, reason and faith are both rooted in story.

Inventive Christianity

We invented logic, science, math, and time? As philosophers, we’re naturally curious how (as a pastor) Wilkinson arrived at this spectacular conclusion. We don’t see an argument here let alone a footnote; it seems to be a mere assertion. But let that pass. Let’s start by accentuating the positive. We do think science is the result of human creative activity. Science, after all, is the study of the natural world; it involves crafting hypotheses, carrying out experiments, acquiring confirming/disconfirming evidence, and the like. These are things we do. But what science studies—namely, the hard and heavy world of planet and stars—that we haven’t had a hand in creating at all.

Or have we? Consider Wilkinson’s claim that we have invented time. It’s difficult to take this seriously, especially if time is a feature of the external world. We’re quite happy to agree, of course, that we have invented time pieces (as Paley says, watches require watchmakers); but time itself? That is an enormous leap. On the standard view, time is the measure of change (motion). A year, we say, is the length of time it takes the earth to revolve around the sun; a day is how long it takes the earth to rotate on its axis. Perhaps what Wilkinson has in mind is this. Since we decided that’s what a year and a day are, we are in fact the authors of time. But this is deeply confused. What we did was merely to call those periods of time a ‘year’ and a ‘day’. And we could just as well have called them something else—say, a ‘parsec’ and a ‘codec’—in which case there would have been 365 codecs in a parsec. But it’s obviously a grand mistake to think that we brought about those temporal periods by affixing labels to them.

On the other hand, swimming against the tide, is the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (d. 1804). He thinks of time as merely a form the mind imposes on raw, unstructured sensation; things aren’t really in time so much as we represent them to ourselves as being so. Could that be what Wilkinson means to say? If so, he needs to know that (by similar reasoning) Kant pays the same compliment to existence, space, object, property, cause, and effect. All of these are just structured ways the mind processes reality. Reality—whatever it is; you can’t know on his  view—doesn’t contain any of these things. Rather, we human beings play the role of God, constructing the world of objects and their properties in space and time. Obviously, no proper Christian can believe this, though we must say it is a tremendous money saving device. Why spend billions of dollars firing the Hubble Space Telescope ‘into’ space, when space isn’t ‘out there’ to begin with? Nothing could be more foolish. Better to give all those billions to Italy or Greece—or even better, the poor. (It goes without saying that there aren’t many Kantians at NASA.)

Dismantling Christianity by Invention

No matter how you look at it, this bald assertion about our inventing time is in trouble. Well, what about mathematics and logic? Did we invent those too? Here things go rapidly downhill. If Wilkinson is right, there are no laws of logic or mathematics; everything is a matter of sheer convention. We see three major problems for this line of thinking

The Status Problem

Laws of logic and mathematics are paradigms of necessary truths: propositions that are true and could not have been false. Here are a few examples:

(1)  7 + 5 = 12

(2)  A is A  (law of identity)

(3)  A is not non-A  (law of noncontradiction)

(4)  If p implies q and p is true, then q is true (modus ponens)

According to Wilkinson, none of these propositions has the status of a law—something that holds universally and as a matter of necessity. In fact, on his view, they all have less status than the law of gravity, which we are quite sure he doesn’t think we invented. You can’t change that law, but the “laws” of logic and mathematics are all subject to revision. For they are based on convention. As the Oxford philosopher A. J. Ayer (d. 1989) once said, propositions such as (1)-(4) “simply record our determination to use words in a certain fashion” (Language, Truth and Logic [Dover Books, 1952], p.84). That’s it. But we could have assigned different meanings to the terms and symbols (e.g., ‘7’, ‘5’, ‘+’) used in (1)-(4), in which case we can only say that (1)-(4) are contingently true (they could have been false). Like the rule that says, “Don’t lick your knife while eating lunch with the Queen,” they are matters of convention. To deny them isn’t contradictory; it’s simply unconventional.

If this is what Wilkinson is thinking, he has undoubtedly confused sentences with the propositions they express. Perhaps it’s true, as he says, that “We have a numbering system based on 10 ‘digits’ (literally ‘fingers’) because we have 10 fingers.” But all that shows is that the system of characters and symbols we use for expressing mathematical truths is arrived at by convention. It doesn’t show that the propositional truths expressed by means of those symbols are in any way dependent on us. The proposition expressed by the sentence ‘2 + 2 = 4’ was around (and true) long before we human beings happened on the scene.

Why is this important? Well, take (3) on our list—the law of noncontradiction (LNC). And now suppose it’s just a convention. Is that really all that bad? Well yes, actually, it is. It means that there is no real difference between p and not-p; both could be true at the same time and in the same way. In other words, to affirm ‘p and not-p’ merely flouts convention; it’s not contradictory, though, because there are no contradictions. Here is an illustration. In 2 Corinthians 10:5, Paul reports:

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

Here Paul did the truly impossible. Think about it: on Wilkinson’s view, you really can’t demolish any argument designed to undercut the knowledge of God. To do that you would need to contradict something about the argument—either one of its premises or its logical form. Even worse, if LNC doesn’t hold—and hold necessarily—then there isn’t any real difference between a pretension and a non-pretension, an idea that precludes knowledge of God and one that doesn’t, a thought that obeys Christ and another that does not.

Wilkinson says that Paul “agreed with skeptics that faith is irrational,” and in Corinth showed us a better way: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). But you see, on Wilkinson’s view, there can be no difference between knowing Christ and failing to know Christ (!)—hence no difference between being saved or not, between heaven or hell—because there is no real difference between p and not-p. Ironically, then, it doesn’t matter whether we tell reason’s story, as he calls it, or faith’s story. He prefers the latter. But there can be nothing wrong with telling reason’s story instead. Without LNC, it’s all the same.

(As an aside: Please don’t ask us what ‘faith’s story’ is. We cannot tell you. What we do know is that while postmodern Christians do their best to avoid putting the definite article ‘the’ in front of ‘faith’, Jude exhorts us to contend—not for faith—but rather “the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (1:3). That we can tell you about.)

The Scope and Self-Referential Problems

There’s two ways to turn off your bedside light. One is to reach over and flick the switch. The other is to have the power company shut down the grid for your entire area. That will certainly take care of your problem, but it will also wreak havoc with everyone else’s lighting. In effect, that is precisely what Wilkinson has done. In response to a few attacks on the rationality of theism, he moves immediately to a denial of reason and logic altogether. That will show those rationalists a thing or two. It’s Berkeley all over again. However, because the scope of his denial of logic is universal, it takes out everything in its path, including Wilkinson’s own position.

Notice, first, that if Wilkinson is right, no valid, truth-preserving argument can ever (or has ever) been given. A valid argument is one in which it isn’t possible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false; there is no ‘leakage’ of truth from premises to conclusion. Modus ponens—(4) above—is one of many argument forms (logical laws) that ensure validity. On Wilkinson’s view, modus ponens is conventional, not a law of logic (there are none), and therefore not a valid argument form. Hence, we can’t use “laws” of logic to extend our knowledge. No one can—not scientists, mathematicians, historians, psychologists, or theologians. In fact, theology is impossible; we can’t deduce things from scripture (since there are no valid argument forms), nor can we bring our exegetical findings into coherence (since LNC isn’t necessary).

But then what are we to make of Wilkinson’s own arguments? (Yes, he propounds a few himself.) Here’s a list of the more obvious ones:

  • Most people don’t like arguments; arguments don’t bring people to faith; therefore, arguing for Christianity is a problem.
  • Reason and logic are human creations; therefore, reason doesn’t encompass the existence of God.
  • Paul admits that the gospel is foolishness to the Greeks; therefore, Paul believed that faith is irrational.
  • Our logic is a human-centered story; therefore, the skeptic about religion should be skeptical about the reason they use to reject religion.
  • Faith’s story defies logic in a myriad of ways; therefore, faith’s story “demonstrates its divine source.”

What we can’t figure out is why Wilkinson would include these arguments in his article in the first place. As he says, “most people don’t like arguments,” and he himself is averse to the sort of “intellectual ping-pong” they engender. It certainly seems as though he is attempting to convince his reader of something, and further that these arguments are his means of doing that.

But why should we be persuaded? Even if the premises of these arguments are true, there are no truth-preserving logical laws that would prevent truth from “leaking out” by the time we reached his conclusion (i.e., the part that comes after the “therefore”). In other words, Wilkinson’s denial of logic undercuts the very argument(s) he uses to deny reason and logic. It’s a completely self-refuting position. He can’t persuade anyone that he is right, or demonstrate that those who disagree are wrong. All he can do is tell us about his impulses to accept or reject the various claims he makes. But suppose what is in fact the case: I have different impulses. What then? Even if I found myself with an impulse to embrace his ‘premises’, why ought I to embrace his ‘conclusions’ if I lack the relevant impulse? We can’t see that Wilkinson has anything like an adequate answer here. And even if I had the impulse to accept his ‘conclusions’, why should I obey it? As C. S. Lewis once asked,

why ought we to obey instinct? Is there another instinct of a higher order directing us to do so, and a third of a still higher order directing us to obey it?—an infinite regress of instincts? (The Abolition of Man [Macmillan, 1944], p.48)

The answer, of course, is that there isn’t. The only way to terminate an infinite regress of impulses is with something that isn’t an impulse, preference, or attraction—that is, a reason that underwrites the fact that I ought to believe these conclusions having once believed the premises. And we’re afraid nothing less than a law of logic or rational thought will do.

In the end, reason and logic aren’t things that should threaten us as Christians. Indeed, they can and must be cultivated. For as even the hymn writer Isaac Watts (d. 1748) points out,

It is the cultivation of our reason by which we are better enabled to distinguish good from evil, as well as truth from falsehood; and both of these are matters of the highest importance, whether we regard this life, or the life to come…It is by this means we discover our duty to God and our fellow-creatures; by this arrive at the knowledge of natural religion, and learn to confirm our faith in divine revelation, as well as to understand what is revealed. Our wisdom, prudence, and piety, our present conduct and our future hope, are all influenced by the use of rational powers in the search after truth (Logic: The Right Use of Reason in the Inquiry After Truth [Soli Deo Gloria, 1996], p.2).

It’s probably not a bad idea either to remind ourselves just who it was who first said “‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the LORD” (Isa 1:18). What a tragedy if, in flirting with “the basic principles of this world” (Col 2:8), we succumb to the hollow postmodern temptation to so revile reason—“the glory of human nature”(Watts, p.1)—that we make the LORD’s gracious invitation impossible.

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