December 20, 2010
Deism and Christian Theism
I am a former Christian. Through deep soul-searching and intellectual honesty, I have come to be sceptical of the so-called truths of the Christian doctrines, and have rejected 'revealed' religion altogether. I think it violates the free will argument for one, and I am also aware of the eager human proclivity to make claims of divine inspiration, especially in Biblical times. I have also become convinced of our evolutionary history, yet unable to reach perfect harmony in theistic evolution (a la Miller and Collins)
I am, however, unconvinced, of materialist assertions that we arrived here spontaneously by mere chance. I find the Kalam Cosmological Argument intellectually/logically compelling. This has led me in the direction of Deism (a la Thomas Paine). This has been an internally painful and lonely journey for me (losing my Christian roots); but I feel like I'm being honest with myself, and am better able to defend my belief system. Am I wrong?
Yeah, I think you are, Paul. But I’m not discouraged! The Grand Canyon separating Deism from atheism is vastly greater than the gulch between Deism and Christian theism. Once you’ve got a robust theism in place, it’s not too hard to bridge the gap to Christian theism.
So let’s begin where you are. You’re sceptical of materialist claims that we arrived here by chance. That implies, given your commitment to our evolutionary history, that you think that the evolution of intelligent life must be superintended in some way by a guiding intelligence. That puts you in the same camp as Michael Behe, whose book The Edge of Evolution I recommend, if you don’t already know it. You may also want to watch my debate with evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala on the viability of intelligent design as a hypothesis concerning biological complexity. Ayala, though an ardent Darwinian, is very candid that when biologists affirm that “Evolution is a fact,” what they are talking about is common descent. But he says that “evolution,” when defined as either a reconstruction of the evolutionary tree of life or as an account of the mechanisms that explain evolutionary change, is very uncertain and a matter of ongoing study. So your position on intelligent design is eminently defensible. You don’t say enough to explain your reservations with Kenneth Miller or Francis Collins’ views on theistic evolution for me to comment; but your Deism suggests that you do hold to some sort of theistic evolutionary account.
Moreover, you’re persuaded by the kalam cosmological argument for a personal Creator of the universe. This argument gives us an uncaused, beginningless, timeless, spaceless, immaterial, enormously powerful, personal Creator of the universe, who, as we may infer from the design argument above, designed the universe and the Earth to bring forth intelligent beings like ourselves.
Now if such a Creator and Designer exists and has brought us into existence, doesn’t that suggest to you that He would have some purpose in mind which He would want us to know so that we might achieve the ends for which He created us? This consideration ought to make us take the claims of revealed religion, or at least the claims of the great monotheistic faiths which are consistent with the existence of such a transcendent Creator and Designer, very seriously.
Your misgivings about revealed religion are too vaguely expressed for me to know exactly what the obstacle is for you. You say it “violates the free will argument.” I’m not sure what you mean. Are you equating Christianity with that minority of Christian denominations that deny human free will? If so, why not go with the majority? I think that the biblical view that people sin against God is proof positive that in the biblical view human beings are free agents before God, since God is not the author of sin.
You also express misgivings about “the eager human proclivity to make claims of divine inspiration, especially in Biblical times.” I’m not sure that such a proclivity existed in biblical times. Take the New Testament books, for example. Where will you find in the Gospels or Acts any claim to be writing by divine inspiration? There is none. Instead, we find claims to have looked into eyewitnesses testimony about the events of Jesus’ life (Luke 1.1-4; John 21.24) There just is no appeal to divine inspiration on the part of Jesus’ biographers.
So why don’t you do what most New Testament scholars do: set aside the theological conviction that the Gospels are inspired and look at them as ordinary historical documents about the life of this remarkable man Jesus of Nazareth? What you’ll find, Paul, is that we have more information about this relatively obscure man than we do about most major figures of antiquity! It’s really quite amazing when you think about it.
So what do we learn about the historical Jesus when we examine these documents critically, as we would other ancient biographical works? As I have sought to show in my published work, we discover a man who had a radical self-consciousness of being the unique Son of God and eschatological Son of Man prophesied by the prophet Daniel. Moreover, and most surprisingly, we have very good grounds for affirming that this man, after being executed by crucifixion, was buried in a tomb by a named individual, that his tomb was then found empty by a group of his women followers, that various individuals and groups on multiple occasions and under different circumstances saw appearances of him alive, and that his disciples, against every predisposition to the contrary, suddenly and sincerely began to proclaim that God had raised him from the dead. I can think of no better explanation for these facts than the one the disciples gave. But if God has raised Jesus from the dead, then we have very good grounds for thinking that the God of Israel revealed by Jesus of Nazareth is the true God.
None of this depends on divine inspiration. Whether, having come to believe in the claims of the religion revealed by Jesus, you take the logically subsequent step of regarding the Gospels as divinely inspired is a secondary question. As you consider whether the Creator and Designer of the world has revealed Himself in some way that we can know Him more fully, why not look into Jesus?