© 2015 Bryan Dowd
Note to readers: This article, in its entirety, was first published on the FacultyLinc website. We think University of Minnesota Professor Dowd’s pen—both his ideas and the way he presents them for the reader—especially deserve the time it will take to read this three-part essay over the coming weeks. Besides being a remarkably clear thinker, he is also humble and honest, and so he wants everyone to know, “As far as I know, nothing in this paper is original.”
“Axiomatic Christianity” — what an awful name for a paper. Why not give it a name that will attract some attention like “Christianity: The Shocking Truth” or “Steal This Manuscript”? Perhaps a better name would result in wider readership, but at the time of writing, it seemed to me that wider readership would be of little benefit if the wider readership’s intelligence was insulted in the process.
I decided to write this paper several years ago, after reading many letters written to the student newspaper at the University of Minnesota – The Minnesota Daily. What intrigued me about the letters, written almost exclusively by students, was the large number of them that concerned religion. In fact, there were so many at one point that a student wrote in asking for a moratorium on letters about religion. Anyone who thinks that the University of Minnesota student body lacks interest in religion doesn’t read the Daily.
What I found interesting about the letters was that virtually all of them were about topics of current interest, rather than about the essential principles of Christianity. This is not surprising. The Daily is, after all, a newspaper and thus tends to concern itself, from time to time, with topics of current interest. Some letters complained about the Daily’s failure to cover an event sponsored by one of the Christian groups on campus. Other letters debated homosexuality, abortion, American foreign policy, and the like. The letters on current topics followed familiar lines. One writer would express an opinion about an issue and other writers would react, often quoting Biblical passages to support their position, or expressing their distaste for religion in general and the Bible in particular.
Although many of the letters were well written, occasionally scholarly, and sometimes courteous, it seemed to me that the writers often missed the forest for the trees. There was so much discussion about various social issues (the trees) that the very simple principles of Christianity (the forest) that explain why there is any such thing as Christianity to begin with, were lost in the detailed discussion of individual trees.
I found this aspect of the letters unfortunate, because I find the principles of Christianity far more interesting than their application to specific social problems. Rather than attempting to understand why so many people find the overall forest of Christian theology so beautiful, many students seemed fearful a tree might fall on them unprovoked at any moment. Their philosophy appeared to be, “We’ll mind our business, and we expect the trees to do the same.” Other writers clearly were in the tree pruning business. Their objectives ranged from “better forestry through careful pruning” to “the trees must go.”
My opinion is that any attempt to identify a “Christian position” on particular social issues is equivalent to an “advanced graduate seminar” in Christianity. At the University of Minnesota we rarely let students enroll in advanced graduate seminars without some prerequisites, and students generally don’t object to that type of guidance. In economics, we probably wouldn’t spend a lot of time arguing about the effects of a reduction in price on the consumption of goods and services with a group of people who aren’t familiar with the concept of prices, or who don’t believe in goods and services. By analogy, it might be useful to focus on the basic principles of Christianity before expending mental energy or goodwill in arguments about applications of those principles to particular social issues.
Focusing on basic principles also will help us guard against mental laziness. I’m afraid that many people who are made uncomfortable by the application of Christian principles use the misbehavior of the institutional church, the position of particular denominations on social issues, or worse yet, the personal opinions and behavior of individual Christians, to absolve themselves of any need to think further about the basic principles. That is simply intellectual sloth and poor scholarship.
The principles of Christianity should be approached with the same objectivity that we approach any other set of assertions — asking the questions, “Are the assertions true? Are they internally coherent? Are they consistent with the data? And what are the logical implications of the assertions if they are true?” I believe that the aspect of Christianity that students at the University of Minnesota would find most surprising is not that many thoughtful people find the claims of Christianity pleasant or comforting, but that they find them both true and imminently sensible. I find them so entirely sensible that I sometimes am uncomfortable using the word “faith” to describe the intellectual grasp of Christian principles. “Faith” really means “an allegiance to a duty or a person,” or “fidelity to one’s promises,” it has been so often modified by the adjective “blind” that it incorrectly has come to mean “unjustified belief.” Faith is what I need when I attempt to apply the principles of Christianity to my daily life. In this paper I try to explain why the claims of Christianity make not only Good News, but good sense, as well.
One of the important things to realize about Christianity is that it is not simply a theory or set of propositions. It is not just an idea. It is a documented history of actual people and places and events at particular points in time. Its propositions are propositions about reality. If you could sit in a time machine in Jerusalem, for example, and turn the time machine’s clock back far enough you actually would witness the same events that were recorded by the eyewitnesses in the New Testament. However, the claims of Christianity are not simply claims about historical events. They are claims about the interpretation of those events.
Interpretation of events in the life of Jesus is no easy matter, and always has been a struggle for human beings, which shouldn’t surprise us if Jesus was God. His disciples, who had the opportunity to talk to him in person, misunderstood much of what he said early in His ministry, and constantly were asking for clarification. They expressed relief when they finally understood what he meant (“Lo, now you are speaking plainly and not using a figure of speech,” John 16:9).
What are the claims of Christianity? There are several ways to approach that question. The best way is to read the Bible – Old and New Testaments. If you don’t want to do that, just read the Gospel of John and the Book of Acts. In a relatively few pages, those two contiguous books of the New Testament document the “launching” of Christianity. The Gospel of John begins before Creation (“In the beginning was the Word…”) and by the end of the Book of Acts Christianity has reached Rome and is poised to sweep the globe. If you don’t believe Christianity is true, you have to come up with some other plausible explanation for the events in Gospel of John and the Book of Acts.
Another way to approach the assertions of Christianity would be to examine the Nicene or Apostles’ Creeds. These great “personalized” summaries of the assertions of Christianity begin with “I believe …”. They do not attempt to explain why one should believe what the Creeds assert.
A third approach to the assertions of Christianity is to develop them in the same way one might develop a theory or set of propositions in any academic field. We could begin with a set of “axioms” and see where they lead us. Axioms are the assumptions or assertions that form the foundation of logical arguments. If we agree to accept the axioms, even if only for the sake of discussion, then we can begin exploring their implications. Sometimes the conclusions drawn from a set of axioms are counter-intuitive. When that happens, we can work backwards, trying to determine which axioms are responsible for the troublesome conclusions. Alternatively, we can try to discover some flaw in the logical link between the axioms and their implications. Axiomatic reasoning helps bring order and clarity to discussions about theories.[i]
A great many theologians have taken the axiomatic approach, or what looks very much like an axiomatic approach, to their discussion of Christianity. An example is “natural theology” which argues for the existence of God from everyday experience and reason. C. S. Lewis began his classic Mere Christianity by arguing that common characteristics shared by the entire human race point to the existence of God.
I start with a set of basic axioms. Interestingly, many of them are not specifically Christian in nature. The axioms could be presented as undefended assertions, an approach that is perfectly acceptable from a logician’s point of view. Instead, I offer a few real-world experiences and observations to defend their reasonableness.
Here is my suggested list of the axioms. The next blogpost will share a few short notes regarding each.
Axiom 1: God exists.
Axiom 2: God is perfect.
Axiom 3: I’m not perfect.
Axiom 4: My imperfection is a problem for both God and me.
[i] The applications of axiomatic reasoning are quite varied. In my field, the social sciences, axiomatic reasoning often is used to determine the conditions under which a certain type of reasoning is valid. In economics, for example, the Savage axioms tell us when it is valid to use expected utility theory to make decisions. If you agree with the Savage axioms, then expected utility maximization is a reasonable decision criterion. The Arrow impossibility theorem illustrates the difficulty of aggregating the preferences of individual people into a societal decision rule. If you agree with Arrow’s axioms, which appear at first to be uncontroversial, then you will have trouble finding a decision rule that aggregates individual preferences into a societal decision rule that does not violate one of the axioms for some set of individual preferences.