By Jim Pemberton
In the first article, I talked about the idea that we need to ask how we know something that we claim to know. In the last article, I talked about how Christians believe that there is more than one kind of substance. So to combine the two, we as Christians need to answer the question how we know that this is true. I also observed that monists, particularly the naturalists today, need to be able to answer the question how they know that there is no other substance than that which we experience.
For both of us, in order to answer the question, we need to have information from other kinds of substance. This poses a problem for naturalists since they don’t believe that there is another substance. This assumption requires two things:
- They constrain their question of how they know only to the substance we experience.
- They constrain conclusions about what they experience only to the one substance. In other words, if they believe that there is only one substance, any experience they encounter can only be explained by the one substance.
So naturalists beg the question they would hope to prove.
Is it possible to gain information from one substance about another substance? In other words, is there evidence in the material world for some kind of immaterial thing or being? There are plenty of physical analogies that indicate that this is the case. One analogy I’ll use at some length here is that of a farmer that discovers that the feed he has stored has diminished in quantity:
The farmer looks about and notices raccoon tracks in the soil near his feed bin. It’s reasonable to conclude that a raccoon has been in his feed. He hasn’t seen the raccoon. All he has is what he experiences: the difference in the amount of feed and the tracks in the soil. Let’s say the farmer’s city cousin has come to visit. He’s never seen a raccoon and suspects because of that fact that raccoons don’t really exist. Since raccoons don’t really exist, he has to explain why there is less feed and why there are tracks. Perhaps he arrives at the conclusion that the feed has merely settled and that some strange wind came by and caused the loose soil to form the appearance of tracks.
This kind of evidence illustrated here is the first line of proof for the Christian that there is substance beyond matter. But it is by far not the most compelling. The farmer in our analogy has actually seen a raccoon before. He knows for a fact that they exist. Likewise, the Christian has encountered God firsthand. This is called the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Continuing with our analogy, the farmer’s father left instructions on how to deal with a raccoon when it gets into the feed bin. Because the farmer has seen a raccoon before, he recognizes the tracks and is compelled to follow the instructions his father left him. Reality departs from the analogy here in that for us the information and instructions passed down regarding God, while they came from others before us, were ultimately ordained by the immaterial. This is called revelation. We can’t know about God unless he reveals himself to us.
He has done so both objectively and subjectively. The true and particular revelation of God as written down by his servants throughout history were written and validated in a historical context. Their existence as revelation and the certainty of their meaning are at least as objective as the history within which they are fixed. But they are subjective in that the recognition of these writings involves an openness to accepting them that cannot come from the material world. That is to say that the core information that revelation discloses is of an intimately personal nature. There a certain accusation of fault on the reader’s part. Unless the reader is willing to admit fault, the source of the revelation as being from another substance will be called into doubt in order to deny the import of the substance of the writings. I’ll leave that for now and get back to the analogy to point something else out.
All of this about a raccoon is a hard sell to the city cousin who has no experience of raccoons. In fact, he sends for his city friends who come around to see the feed and the tracks. The farmer explains that there is a raccoon that has come and done these things. The city cousin in turn argues for his natural causes for this apparent evidence. Because the city friends likewise have never seen a raccoon before, they agree with the city cousin and the poor farmer stands alone.
But at this point a neighboring farmer comes to visit and sees the crowd out by the feed bin. He’s seen a raccoon before, but it’s been a while. He sees the tracks and the feed and hears the arguments. He agrees with the farmer that there may be a raccoon, but he’s impressed with the group of city folks and how smart and learned they are. He agrees with them that maybe it was just the wind. Even though he’s never seen wind make tracks like that, he figures the city people know what they’re talking about and agrees that it’s a possibility that the wind might have made those tracks. And he also notes that only the farmer knew how much feed was in the bin before and maybe he was simply mistaken. He also notes that the instructions the farmer’s father left him didn’t really have anything to say about whether or not wind can make fake raccoon tracks.
The neighboring farmer represents Christian believers who are too easily impressed with the arguments made by the naturalists. As I asserted last time, God has used the lack of clarity on this issue, as well as other issues, to provide the soil for making his revelation known to us. Examples includes the two natures of Christ as both fully God and fully man in what we call the hypostatic union as well as the specifying of Trinitarian doctrine through the controversy involving the Arians, Nestorians, and monophysites. I won’t go into detail about this since the history is well-known to us. The point in all this is the fact that God often uses confusion to bring forth clarity. Although heresies against the Trinity and Christology persist to this day, we can recognize the truth because of the depth of the discussion. It is in this direction that I intend to direct this series.
Precisely because few have given thought to the underlying assumptions that people from each side of the debate use as the starting point to their thinking, I intend to address these assumptions and bring a few key assumptions to light. Tim Keller wrote, “All doubts, however skeptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternate beliefs.”1 His point is that all people have faith in something that they can’t prove to someone who doesn’t already share their faith. In my next article I will address this very issue and provide a meaning for faith that challenges what is common held in the secular arena as well as among some confused believers.
1Keller, Timothy (2008-02-14). The Reason for God . Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.