“Which God?” Re: Sermon on worldview criteria.
Dr. Doug Matthews is perhaps one of the most popular professors at the small evangelical university where he teaches. He has served as a youth pastor, a university cabinet member, a chaplain and as a professor of theology. Last year he was voted as the professor of the year for his brilliant lectures and out-of-the-classroom concern for his students.
Despite my de-conversion, Dr. Matthews is easily my favorite professor. During my de-conversion process, I studied systematic theology and Christian beliefs under him, and he was the primary reason that I remained a Christian as long as I did.
Because of how much respect I still maintain for the man even during my post-Christian days, I was excited to find that he would be speaking in chapel last week. He gave a half-sermon, half-lecture about “Which God?” During his talk, he discussed criteria for determining which ‘god package’ students should chose and briefly outlined some reasons for his turn from skepticism to Christianity.
I am thoroughly convinced that Dr. Matthews is a man of brilliance, charisma, and sincere concern for his students. He could surpass Josh McDowell, Ravi Zacharias or Lee Strobel easily. For that reasons, I feel it is relevant to share some of his thoughts and some of my reflections. You can find his actual sermon by clicking here and finding the podcast for January 10, 2008.
The basic premise of Dr. Matthews’ talk is that there are many potential “god packages” in existence that people can choose from. He defines “god package” as the set of beliefs, holy book(s), founders, doctrines, etc (read: world view). His assertion is that individuals should closely examine the entire “god package” of the various religions before choosing one, and the heavy implication is that upon examining the various “god packages,” one cannot help but arrive at the conclusion that Christianity is true.
Dr. Matthews encourages the students in the audience that an inability to articulate your faith does not necessitate that your faith is unjustifiable. To an extent, I agree with him. The truth value of any form of claim, in this instance a metaphysical explanation, is independent of our philosophical justification of such a claim. However, I fear that the way in which this kind of thought can go is that one can take the position that it simply doesn’t matter whether or not you have justification for a given belief. Because the truth value is independent of our reasoning does not excuse coming to any form of conclusion without following a rational process. As WK Clifford once said, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for any one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”
Dr. Matthews continued to set out a series of criteria he believes should be used to examine the veracity of a given “god package.” Correspondence, Consitency & Coherence, Comprehensiveness, and Existential & Moral Relevance are the four areas he sets forth.
The first criterion is the idea of correspondence, “Does the god-belief correspond to reality?”
To illustrate what he means, Dr. Matthews shows this video in which an ice fisherman is suddenly eaten by a killer whale, the point being that although we watch the whale attack and devour the killer whale, this does not correspond to what we know of reality, namely that killer whales don’t generally attack people. So then, does Christianity correspond to reality? Dr. Matthews would argue that it does. Naturally, I disagree. Christianity is ultimately one of thousands of metaphysical attempts at explaining reality. However, many of its claims do not correspond to what we experience in reality. For example, Christians often claim that a so-called ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ is the only way to find true happiness, yet there are a proportional number of unhappy Christians as non-Christians. The bible claims that whatever you ask for in prayer, and believe for it, will be given to you, yet a very small number of prayers are actually answered.
The second criterion is consistency and coherence: “Do the ideas of the ‘God package’ hang together? The various affirmations of a “god package” must hang together and avoid contradicting one another. Again, the implication here is that Christianity, over other religious faiths is more consistent and coherent. I’m not so sure. There are countless contradictions in the Bible. The Old and New Testaments do not seem to be cohesive to me. The character of God is distinct in each testament. Old Testament writings largely ignore any idea of an afterlife while the New Testament seems to forsake world gain in favor of an eternal life (Greek thought, anybody?). The Gospels contradict each other. Throughout the ages, Christians have been largely unable to agree on even basic foundational truths of Christianity. In my estimation, Christianity is neither consistent nor coherent.
Next, comprehensiveness, “Do the ideas of the ‘god package’ explain everything well, not just one thing?” Dr. Matthews brings up Mormonism, a popular target of attack for evangelical Christians. Mormonism has a strong emphasis on family, morality and missions. These are three areas in which mainstream evangelicalism can find common ground with Mormons. However, Mormons fail to provide an adequate account of Christology, Soteriology, Eschatology, etc. To further show his point he uses this YouTube video:
In the video, the woman gets two things right: there is a counter, and she should be quiet in the library. But she fails to comprehensively grasp her situation.
So does the Judeo-Christian ‘god package’ do the best job of explaining all of the data? Dr. Matthews would point to science and the ever unfolding understanding of the Big Bang. He points out that Christianity is unique in its affirmation of a universe created ex nihilo, and that until recently scientists almost unanimously affirmed an eternal universe. With Einstein’s theory of relativity, with an understanding of the expansion of the universe, entropy of the universe, etc. it seems more and more likely that the universe as we know it had a distinct beginning. Dr. Matthews attacks the veracity of the Big Bang/Big Crunch model and thus puts forward the Christian metaphysic as superior to all others.
Of the many amateur and professional apologists turned atheists that I have talked to, most were drawn more to some formation of the Argument from Design. Perhaps it is an indicator of my own simplicity, but of the popular arguments for the existence of God, the one that held my attention the longest was the Cosmological/First Cause-type. Still yet, I am often hard pressed to grasp a universe without a beginning, or harder yet, to grasp a universe with a beginning and without a transcendent being. But invariably the cosmological argument leads to the ‘next step,’ “Who caused God?” A particular interpretation of the Genesis may allow Christianity to correlate to a Big Bang model of the universe; however, such a model in no way necessitates a transcendent cause. To postulate such a cause is nothing more than standard “God of the gaps” reasoning.
Finally, Dr. Matthews puts forth existential and moral relevance. “Does the God package bring illumination to my existential experience? To what I am experiencing? To the realities of my life?” This is the portion of the talk where I found myself in the staunchest disagreement to my former professor. He poses the rather pointed question, “Does atheism bring illumination to morality or does it undermine it?” He is quick to qualify this question by stating that you can have good individual atheists, but that the atheistic system undermines morality. In addition he indicates that a Christian worldview brings meaning to life. “The bodily resurrection, I like it!” Dr. Matthews contrasts the Christian “god package” to some eastern philosophies in this way: “they describe what happens when you die in terms of a drop of ink going back into the ocean of nothingness.” The Christian “god package” allows one to look forward to reunion with loved ones and a new physical body in which individuals will not be spirits playing harps on clouds for all of eternity. Dr. Matthews speaks of “the Eschaton” in terms of writers producing great pieces of literature and of explorers finding new and exciting places. In essence, he claims that the Christian worldview provides for existential relevance.
This to me seems to be incredibly weak. I don’t have the patience to yet again delve into the idea of morality without God, which seems like a horse that has been beaten to death (at least in my experience). But the idea that Christianity is existentially relevant seems to me to point to nothing more than a sugar pill. “Christianity is better than Buddhism because if I believe in Christianity I can look forward to an afterlife.” What? What does that have to do with the truth-claims? This seems nothing more than spiritual hedonism.
Finally, Dr. Matthews cautions against two extremes: blind faith and what he calls “reasonalotry.” Much to his credit, he is critical of Christians who tell others to “just have faith.” It takes blind faith to follow Hitler or Stalin, to find meaning in cocaine, to remain with an abusive partner or to wait for a spaceship in the tail of a comet. Instead, he points to a true understanding of faith as radical trust in response an intellectual affirmation of Christianity. Kudos!
On the other hand, he is quick to criticize what he calls “reasonalotry.” He speaks of his days as a skeptical student at Wheaton College. At one point it got back to him that someone said, “Doug Matthews worships his own reason.” He asserts that his skepticism had less to do with mind and more to do with heart/will. Further, he claims that many people who don’t believe in God do so because of poor relationships with their parents. I find that claim to be absurd. This seems to completely invalidate conclusions of thoughtful people in regards to their de-conversion. I think it fair to say that my relationship with my parents had little to do with my conversion to Christianity or away from Christianity.
In my three and a half years as a student at my university I have attended many, many chapel services. I can count the number of services that seemed to be genuinely challenging and/or stimulating on one hand. I am encouraged that the school would put forth a man like Dr. Matthews to at least admonish the students to ask questions. Unfortunately, I recognize that most all of the students are so impressed by his verbosity and knowledge that they will blindly follow in his footsteps because they assume him to be infallible.