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Why do I believe?

May 30, 2011

Every once in a while someone asks me why I’m a Christian. These people are normally other Christians and I often get the sense that they’re hoping I have some thermonuclear apologetics response that I can let them in on. I don’t. This is not going to be an article about how some variant of the teleological argument (perhaps one of my least favorite arguments) is impossible to disprove. If you take this article and use it to bring your atheist friends to their knees begging for Jesus then I’ll be quite surprised. Despite this, I have strong reasons to believe, one of which I am about to discuss.

The Bible makes explicit and implicit claims. Right at the surface there are a number of readily obvious claims, things like “Jesus rose from the dead” and “Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt”. A lot of apologetics focuses on these claims. I could probably write articles defending some of the ones I know more about. This article won’t really be one of them. Instead, I want to focus on implicit claims. These are claims that you can only find by drawing inferences. For instance, imagine I tell you three things about my friend Margaret. First, she recently bought a new car and paid for it in full. Second, her neighbor fell into hard times and was unable to pay his mortgage so Margaret paid it for him for six months. Third, Margaret established a charitable fund to provide college scholarships to underprivileged girls. There are at least three implicit claims about Margaret in these sentences: she’s got a lot of money, she’s compassionate, and she cares about women’s issues. Some of these claims are easier to find than others: all three stories suggest that Margaret has money while only one suggests that she’s interested specifically in helping women. This is the nature of implicit claims. They are always a bit harder to pin down. At the same time, implicit claims can be hugely important.

The explicit claims of Christianity are sometimes strange. A man rose from the dead. God got killed once. A prophet called fire from heaven. The implicit claims of Christianity are much more radical. This is often passed over because it’s easy to skip over both the implicit claims of Christianity and the implicit claims of the world we live in. For instance, take an ad for a beauty product. There’s an explicit claim, normally directly related to the effectiveness of the product. This segues neatly into an implicit claim that you should buy the product. This rests on two more implicit claims (which come primarily from the culture within which the ad is imbedded): that buying stuff will make you happy and that being pretty will make you happy. That second one is, itself, a huge mash-up of implicit claims including a number about the value of attractiveness in romantic relationships and the value of romantic relationships in making people happy. Finally, all of these rest on the implicit claim that what really matters is whether or not you are happy.

Christianity would say next to nothing about the explicit claim. If we look at the world as consisting almost entirely of explicit claims then Christianity isn’t really radical, it’s just strange. However, Christianity has a lot to say about those implicit claims. Buying stuff won’t make you happy. Being pretty might make you happy for a while, but it’s not a good place to find value and it won’t last. Focusing on physical attractiveness in relationships is stupid. Romantic relationships are also not the cure to what ails you. And, of course, righteousness (by which I mean to encompass both right-standing with God and embodied goodness) is better than happiness – although, ultimately, righteousness will lead to a more permanent happiness. From this view Christianity is at odds with most of the world in which we live.

The implicit claims of the Bible are expansive. They focus primarily on the nature of God and humanity but they sketch an entire alternate reality. The natural focus of human beings is the self. The focus of the Christian life is the other – both God and other humans. Time and again this reality runs up against what we want to do but Christianity claims that its way is better.

There you are. A testable claim. Of course, you have to live this claim out. That’s why it’s not going to blow your atheist sparring partner into low orbit. You can’t put it on a plate and push it across the table at someone. However, you can see its rightness. You can see that a life lived out of God’s love is a better life. You can see that the fulfillment of your own desires against what the Bible tells you hurts you. Sometimes this takes a lot of time. Maybe two decades down the road you suddenly realize that the problem in all your friendships is the anger you’ve cultivated despite the warnings of the Bible. Maybe humility didn’t look like a good idea when you started it but now, five years down the line, you really feel free when you realize you don’t feel any need to one-up someone else. Maybe prayer sounded ridiculous and you weren’t sure why you couldn’t just extract some good principles and run with them without all the hocus-pocus until you realize that you’ve gradually started running with your principles and that maybe talking to God would have kept you focused on His principles, the ones you swiped those years ago. From inside it’s pretty clear that the machine works.

From inside it’s also pretty clear that the other machine doesn’t work. It’s pretty clear that we aren’t all decent people, we’re people who are decent because that’s what works for us right now. It’s not surprisingly that oppressive governments can find people to staff the secret police, run the death camps, and torture political opponents. It’s not at all odd that most people can look the other way when other people are being hurt. There are two systems that are radically at odds but you do have to look below the surface to see that.

So let’s swing back out. Why do I believe? Because I believe those implicit claims. Because I can kick the tires and I’ve taken the test drive. But those implicit claims didn’t come out of nowhere. They came out of those explicit claims. We don’t think love wins because, hey, wouldn’t that be nice. We think love wins because love has conquered death. You can make that a metaphor if you like, something nice about how we’ll always be remembered by those who loved us, but let’s be real: that’s weak sauce. If that’s all that happened then death still wins because it’s going to get those people who remember you, too. (And, of course, there’s a book in the Bible that goes on about this in depressing detail, Ecclesiastes.) The implicit claims come out of the explicit ones. They don’t make any sense without them.

This leads us to a pretty simple conclusion. If the explicit claims are all nonsense then the implicit claims should all be nonsense, too. So let’s run the tape backwards for a minute: what does it mean that the implicit claims are true? It would have to mean two things: first, it would have to mean that the explicit claims are true. Second, it would mean that whoever put the implicit claims in writing was either very knowledgeable or very, very lucky. From inside the machine this looks like inspiration – which circles us back around to the explicit claims. Could the implicit claims be inspired and the explicit claims nonsense? I rather doubt it. What kind of author could get the harder part of writing brilliantly correct but miss the easier part? The explicit claims seem are bolstered both because they are integral to the implicit claims and because the author of both sets of claims seems trustworthy.

As I’ve pointed out, this is unlikely to sway anyone who doesn’t wish to be swayed. If you don’t believe that the walls of my house are white and won’t enter my house to see them it’s unlikely that it will matter much to you that I can see those walls and judge their color for myself. On the other hand, for me that’s very good evidence. In the same manner Christianity is, for me, a description of things I’ve verified, and, of course, a map to greater things yet to be found.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. antonio permalink
    May 30, 2011 3:21 pm

    In a way that I truly could not have done it on my own, you have managed to summarize my approach to sharing both my testimony and to sharing the gospel – I tried it, and I can tell you for myself that it works.

    I enjoy reading your work. I really do.

    Keep it up.

  2. Dave permalink
    June 3, 2011 6:45 pm

    Agreed with antonio


  1. The Power of the Implicit | The Jawbone Of an Ass

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