Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Is "Jesus rose from the dead" a self-committing proposition?

Is "Jesus rose from the dead" a self-committing proposition?

(Originally published at What's Wrong With the World. Link to original post at 'permalink' below.)

In his massive and intensively researched book The Resurrection of the Son of God (pp. 714-717) N.T. Wright states that the proposition that Jesus rose from the dead is a self-involving proposition. If it's true, he says, it matters.*

While I agree heartily with Wright that if this proposition is true, it matters, I'm concerned about a confusion that could arise from calling it "self-involving," much less (as he does on p. 717) "self-committing." And I think it is a confusion to which we at the beginning of the 21st century are particularly prone.
The confused reasoning runs approximately like this:
If Jesus rose from the dead, then the Christian God exists. If the Christian God exists, we have to love and obey him. Therefore, to believe that Jesus rose from the dead is to believe that we have to love and obey God. Therefore, to believe that Jesus rose from the dead is to be something very much like a Christian. So belief in the proposition that Jesus rose from the dead already involves being committed to God. So how is it possible to be led to believe that Jesus rose from the dead by anything like neutral evidence? The conclusion is itself not "neutral" but rather self-committing, so one can come to believe it only through self-commitment, not through an objective evaluation of evidence.
In this way, the idea that this proposition is "self-involving" or "self-committing" comes to seem like a challenge to an evidentialist approach to Christian belief.
Wright illustrates this kind of thinking in action on p. 717:
Precisely because at this point we are faced with worldview-level issues, there is no neutral ground, no island in the middle of the epistemological ocean, as yet uncolonized by any of the warring continents....Saying that 'Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead' is not only a self-involving statement; it is a self-committing statement, going beyond a reordering of one's private world into various levels of commitment to work out the implications. We cannot simply leave a flag stuck on a hill somewhere and sail back home to safety.
The most crucial slip in such reasoning comes, I believe, in an ambiguity on the words (in my reconstruction) "have to" in the sentence, "If the Christian God exists, we have to love and obey him." If these words are taken to mean "are morally obligated to," then the sentence is true. If they are taken to mean "are compelled to," then it is false.

We see an outworking of this confusion where the reasoner concludes that one cannot come to believe something by way of neutral evidence if that belief is "self-involving." How, exactly, is that supposed to follow? The confusion there is part and parcel of the very notion that belief in a proposition "involves"--especially if this is taken to mean entails--love and commitment to a person.

To see this point, let's look at a different example: Consider the proposition, "I have made vows to my wife to love, honor, and cherish her, and to forsake all others and keep myself only to her as long as we both shall live, and it would be wrong for me to fail to fulfill those vows." Does belief in that proposition entail that you are committed to your wife and that you do love her? It seems obvious that it doesn't. A man could believe that proposition, and hence feel guilty, while carrying out an extramarital affair. A man could believe that proposition and yet say, "But I don't care. I can't stand my wife. I don't want to have anything more to do with her. So it's wrong. So what? I'm outta here." He would, of course, be a very bad man if he did that, as everyone should agree, but it would be a logically possible thing for him to do. So while the above proposition about marriage vows must seem like the ultimate "self-involving" or "self-committing" proposition, and while it is certainly true that, if it is true, it matters, it does not actually entail the involvement or commitment of the person who believes it.

Sometimes I think that Christians don't keep adequately in mind the words of St. James: "The devils also believe, and tremble." James's words entirely undermine one idea floating about in Christian circles (which I am not at all attributing to Wright, by the way) that the difference between saving faith in Christ and mere intellectual assent is the degree of credence one gives to the propositions in question. That confused notion of 'faith' alone has caused a great deal of harm, because it has given people the idea that, to be true Christians, they need to gin up their faith to some sort of heightened pitch of confidence--a mental state that John Locke would quite rightly have condemned as enthusiasm. This problem is closely related to what presuppositionalists often tell evidentialists: "You can't argue someone into the kingdom of God." The evidentialist will usually look puzzled and willingly grant the point, while not understanding what the point of the point is supposed to be. The evidentialist means only to grant that you can't force someone by argument to commit himself to God. The presuppositionalist means (I think) to make tacit use of the idea of saving faith as artificially high degree of credence, so that "You can't argue someone into the kingdom of God" really means, "After you've presented him with the evidence, he still has to believe more strongly than the evidence warrants in order to have saving faith."

But if anyone can be imagined to have full confidence in the truth of the Christian faith, it must surely be the devils. Who believes more strongly in God, Richard Dawkins or Screwtape? Perhaps even more to the point, who believes more strongly in God, Joe Nominal Christian or Screwtape? Obviously, Screwtape, on both counts. So why is Screwtape in hell? Not because he doesn't "truly believe," but because, quite simply, he hates God. He fights against God, quite consciously. So the difference between Screwtape and a true Christian is that the Christian loves God, not that the Christian believes in God more than Screwtape does.

In a very important sense, then, it is simply false to say that the central propositions of Christianity are self-involving or self-committing. Believing them does not guarantee that one is committed to God, not by a long shot. Nor need one imagine a devilish person (which may be a bit hard to imagine) to see the point. James's own audience were people who really did believe in God, but James means to tell them that they are lukewarm or shoulder-shrugging believers whose faith has no relevance to their daily lives: "Show me your faith without works and I will show you my faith by my works."

One reason that we don't always realize this point nowadays, especially we who move in academic circles and in the blogosphere, is because we tend to divide the world up into "skeptics" or "infidels," on the one hand, and "believers," on the other. In the process, we tend to elide the crucial difference between believing in God and following him, which in turn can lend spurious credibility to the false conclusion that there is no way to approach the question of God's existence objectively and evidentially. In a sense, the fact that we equate "believing in God" with "loving God" is a good thing, because it means that very few people actively contemplate becoming devils: "If I believed in God, I'd hate him," is a sentiment one rarely hears, and if one did hear it, it would probably be on the lips of someone who had suffered a bereavement or who was thinking of the problem of evil. It certainly isn't a standard way of thinking. Still less do people plan to be uncommitted believers. It's hardly imaginable that anyone would say, "If I believed in God, I'd be a lukewarm Christian." All of this has its good side insofar as it means that most people perceive the fundamental fact that we ought to love, obey, and follow the Christian God with full commitment, if he exists, and that therefore the stakes in the apologetics game are high. But it is bad if it makes people deny the existence of objective evidence or think that all argument on this most important of subjects is in some way circular or "worldview-tainted," because the conclusion is "self-involving."

It is rather an odd thought, but this brings me back to something that was dinned into me as a young child in a fundamentalist church: Saving faith is not just head knowledge. It is the commitment of the whole person. It is loving and following Jesus. My teachers were doubtless not evidentialists, but their teaching indirectly, and in a surprising way, supports the evidentialist approach to apologetics.

*I want to make it clear that I do not mean to pan Wright's book. Even judging by the parts I have read (the book is so large that I have read only sections), it contains much excellent scholarship on historical issues relevant to Jesus' resurrection (particularly on views of resurrection in Jewish thought), and even in several sections much good sense. I am pitching on his notion from the end of the book of a "self-committing proposition" for purposes of this post, because it provides a particularly good illustration of a confusion that I think needs to be addressed.

No comments: