Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Thursday, June 26, 2014

How do you know you're right?

Christadelphians believe they have THE TRUTH. For a minority religion that very few people in the world have even heard of, that's a very bold claim. Not only do they claim to have the truth, they claim that compared to all of the world's more popular religions (and also compared to the many people who are not religious) they are the ONLY ones who have the truth. Their small numbers do not bother them, for they will happily point to quotations such as Matthew 22:14 "many are called, but few are chosen". Ironically, pretty much every other Christian denomination also points to these same quotations as evidence that they are the chosen ones.

So I want to know how this works.

To make things easier, for the purposes of this post, let's assume that the Bible really is the word of God. All Christian denominations have differing and often contradictory beliefs. They cannot all be right. Either all but one are wrong, or they are all wrong.

Christadelphians, how do you know that you have the truth?

Now before you launch into your standard apologetics and try to convince me of your beliefs, I'm going to ask you to re-read the title again slowly. Take a moment to let it sink in.

I am not asking you to sell me your religious beliefs, leaving me to decide whose beliefs are the right ones. No, that lets you off the hook far too easily. It also puts the burden on me and to be honest I'm not convinced that any religion is true.

Rather, I'm asking how YOU know you're right.

While you're thinking about your answer, let me offer some food for thought...

Communication is a contract between speaker and listener
If God created all humans, and wants all humans to be saved, and if God wrote the bible expressly for the purpose of teaching all humans about him (and telling them how they can be saved), how could it be that 99% of all humans past and present do not understand the truth about God (regarding the doctrine of the trinity for example), and do not understand how to be saved?

How could so many people misunderstand the nature of God, and the purpose of God? Is it because they are all less intelligent? Should it even matter if they were less intelligent? If God really did know the end from the beginning, then surely he knew that so many people would misunderstand the Bible, and yet he still went ahead with it and didn't see the need to fix it. Please help me understand this...

If I am trying to communicate with you, and I am fully aware that you have not understood, will not understand, or perhaps have not even heard what I said, wouldn't your lack of understanding be my fault?

If I then punished you for your lack of understanding, would I not be unjust?

The interpretation problem
Whether the bible is the word of God or not, it must still be interpreted by fallible humans. The same goes for any direct message from God, whether revealed via visions or relayed in person.

Either the human(s) who physically wrote God's words in the Bible interpreted their message, or if they wrote God's words verbatim, then the reader will interpret the message. As any study of reading comprehension will tell you, different people will interpret things differently. Interpretation is coloured by environment, background, culture, language, and all of these things change according to where we live and the time period we live in.

Even when we understand our audience well, we can still sometimes have difficulty communicating effectively. The problem gets a lot worse when we are talking about things written some 1900+ years ago, in a culture we are not familiar with, sometimes in a language no one speaks any more, and often has gone through several periods of editing and translation.

He said, she said
Almost all of the differences between Christian denominations at some point will come down to a difference in interpretation. Some of these differences concern fundamental Christian beliefs. There are cases where different people will be swayed by different arguments, leading to contradictory viewpoints. If two rational, intelligent people can be convinced of two opposing ideas (one each), how should less rational people choose between them? Is it morally justified for God to reward one and punish the other?
Of course, we all like to think we are the more rational ones, and that the reason others are wrong is clearly because they have believed a lie. But what if we are the deceived ones? What if we are not rational enough to know we have been deceived? How could we possibly know?

Perhaps God only wants to save the smart ones? 2 Peter 3:9 suggests this is false.
So help me understand how an all-powerful, all-knowing God could have failed so miserably to get a clear message out to people?

Could it have been less ambiguous?
I have been told that difference in interpretation is inevitable and unavoidable, and that the burden is on us to discover the true message of the Bible. Apparently God is not at all responsible for our failure to understand and agree on what the Bible is telling us.

It may be true that some differences in interpretation are unavoidable, but surely it could have been made a lot clearer than it is. After all, we read in 1 Cor 14:33 that "God is not the author of confusion, but of peace". (this is rather strange when compared to Matt 10:34 but I digress).

The evidence that it could have been written much more explicitly can be found in the BASF (though one might well argue that the BASF actually makes things much more complicated). However, the mere presence of, and reliance on the BASF demonstrates that Christadelphians feel it necessary to rewrite the central message of the Bible in language that is more explicit. If humans can do it, why couldn't God do it?

In other words, why is a statement of faith even necessary?
Hint: I'll tell you why - it's because the Bible is too ambiguous without one.

In essence, since there are many things in the Bible that can be, and indeed have been, interpreted multiple ways, Christian denominations feel the need to formulate a statement of faith, to limit these interpretations to just a single one.

The question is, which one?