Monday, May 20, 2013

Can the Pot Call the Kettle Black?

I've decided to write about something that's been on my mind lately concerning an apologetic argument often used in response to a specific objection to Christianity. I listen to a podcast called Stand to Reason now and then, hosted by Greg Koukl, which is very good. A few weeks ago this objection came up on his show and Koukl gave the typical response - I do think the response he used to the objection "works." It's logical, but I find it rather unsatisfying and I think most people who hear it do as well. And, it's an example of a larger question concerning truth. We had our first session of an apologetics course at our church this past Sunday and the same question was posed. It goes a little something like this:

Objection: "Christianity is so judgemental. You shouldn't try to tell others what to think, believe, or how to behave. Just let people believe what they like if it makes them happy. You shouldn't try to change other people's minds."

Response: "You are doing the very thing you accuse Christians of wrongly doing. You are actually trying to change my mind right now concerning what I think and believe. You, in fact, are being judgemental of myself and Christians by trying to change our behavior. If you don't think people ought to try to change other people's minds, why are you trying to change mine?"

Pretty logical right? It is. I don't think the response fails. It is perfectly sound. However, I don't think the response speaks to the actual heart of the objection and thus can be rather unsatisfying to the objector. 

Allow an illustration:
Bob is a very judgemental person. Everyone knows it. All he does is put people down, try to correct them whenever possible, has a disagreeable personality. He's not a kind person and everyone knows it. No one would argue tha Bob was not a judgemental type of guy.

Alice, however, is a very kind, forgiving, patient, mild-mannered, non-judgemental person. No one would disagree. She genuinely seeks the good of others and hopes for their good. 

Now, let's say Alice is friends with Bob. Alice cares about Bob and his well-being and knows that if Bob continues on this way he's likely to ruin his relationships. It's one of those "someone should talk to him" kind of situations. Out of love for Bob, Alice confronts him and says, "Bob, I need to tell you that you come across very judgmental. I myself think that you're a judgemental person and it's ruining your relationships. I don't mean to attack you, but out of friendship with you I thought it would be right to let you know that this is a problem and I hope to do everything I can to help you grow out of this." 

What if Bob's response to this was this: "Well, you're judging me right now! How dare you accuse me of being judgemental! You're doing the very same thing! You're inconsistent."

Just stepping back a bit, I don't think any of us would agree with Bob here. We can simply use our common sense to see that Alice isn't being judgmental, she's merely making a correct judgment, or observation based on what she sees to be obviously true. That fact that a person makes a single judgment based on the obvious facts does not make this person judgmental.

Back to the real objection at hand.

Though the above response to the objection about Christians (or, Christianity) being judgmental is logically sound, I think it can come across a bit like Bob's response to Alice. And the plain fact is that valid arguments that don't convince anyone fail to be helpful, however sound they may be. 

I think at the core of the objection is a misunderstanding, and to simply answer the objection without discerning what is really at stake won't be a complete answer. 

The core of the objection makes at least one if not all of these unjustified assertions:
1. "There really is no spiritual truth."
2. "Even if there is spiritual truth, no one can know it. So don't rock the boat for someone if they're happy."
3. "Even if there is spiritual truth, it's not important to know it. Just let people believe what they want because it doesn't really matter in the end anyway."
4. "I know that Christianity is wrong. So, I don't like the fact that your try to convince others of its truth."

Though a similar objection could be made about non-religious or non-philosophical claims, we're dealing with a spiritual matter here and we'll simply stick with that.

Let's flesh these out:
  1. "There really is no spiritual truth."
  • The very fact that the objector is opposed to others trying to proselytize strongly implies that he/she doesn't really, when we get down to it, believe that there really is something that is actually "true" spiritually at all. If he did, then he would be more concerned with discovering what truth is, not being annoyed that some people claim to know it. If he did believe in truth, he would likely be open to hearing what people espouse and if he found what he believed to be spiritually true, he'd be much more likely to dialogue with others about his and the other's worldview, hoping to share the truth with others who are misinformed (unless the truth doesn't matter, which we'll get to).
  • The objector is also claiming to know more than the Christian (and perhaps he does). The very fact that he objects to the Christian "judging others' beliefs" implies that the his own belief is more correct (and in the correct belief, no on else's belief is wrong... which doesn't make much sense).
2. "Even if there is spiritual truth, no one can know it. So don't rock the boat for someone if they're happy."
  • Simply by asserting this point, the objector is actually claiming to know the spiritual truth, namely that it doesn't exist. This is similar, in a way, to making a claim like "there exist no red baboons." The person would have to have total and exhaustive knowledge of every baboon to know that absolutely none of them are red. To claim there is no spiritual truth is to both claim superior knowledge of spiritual matters (or truth) and also that the objector knows this for certain (which is impossible). If there were spiritual truth that was unknown to the objector, he is in no place to know whether it exists or not.
3. "Even if there is spiritual truth, it's not important to know it. Just let people believe what they want because it doesn't really matter in the end anyway."
  • This assumes two things: 1. The objector knows enough about spiritual truth to know that knowing this truth does not matter (or else he would want to share it). 2. The objector has superior spiritual knowledge than those who follow Christianity. The person needs to justify how he knows what is true spiritually and also why it is the case that knowing this truth does not matter. 
4. "I know that Christianity is wrong. So, I don't like the fact that you try to convince others of its truth."
  • This is probably the strongest "from the gut" reason for the main objection that Christians ought not try to convince others of the truth of Christianity. It implies the objector knows that Christianity is false, though they haven't demonstrated this. They are merely arguing that they do not like it and that "no one is right." And, if no one is right about God than it doesn't matter which of the false religions you belong to... because they're all false. The objector is implying that he/she somehow knows that Christianity (or any religion for that matter) is false to the degree that he will defy anyone to espouse it. 
Up to now we've really only just touched on the framework of the objection and answer, but haven't delved into the full answer. I hope to have demonstrated that the objection implies one or more of the above problems inherent in the objection... but to get to the true heart of what the person is feeling is just as important. The person making this objection is most likely feeling something like this: "I may not know everything about God, or even Christianity, but I do know that if there were a God he wouldn't be judgmental and the fact that I find Christianity to be judgmental shows me it's obviously not true. It's obvious to everyone that we ought to be tolerant and respectful of others' beliefs, especially if they seem to be happy and their beliefs aren't leading them to hurt others. I'll respect your beliefs right up to the point where you start trying to tell other people what they should be believing - that's when you cross the line and I'm willing to call you out on that." 

The objector truly feels that his objection is good. Not just logical, but caring and kind. He wants people to be happy. This is where the problems with his objection come in. He assumes that either God is unknowable (and that anyone who claims to know him is a fool) or that knowing him as he is doesn't really matter too much, it's just about being a good person.* 

But, let's assume for a second that God is truly real and that he has spoken to us, that he really has revealed himself to us and told us who he is. Let's also assume that he has shared with us that he greatly desires that we know him... in fact, that he created us to know him intimately. Let's also assume that he's shown us that sin is a big deal, and that if our sin against him is not dealt with, we will remain outside of fellowship with him for eternity. This would matter. This would matter a great deal. And, for a Christian to live a life believing that this is the case, but dares not tell others about their creator and his great love for them would not only be irresponsible but cruel. 

If I had friend with a terminal, yet very treatable disease, and he was both unaware of his disease and about the cure... would it not be wrong for me to neglect to tell him about it because I know it doesn't care much for hospitals? He may kick and scream, he may even say "stay out of my business." But, if I actually cared for him I would rather "rock his boat" or offend him than let him die. Though Christians don't in any way claim to be responsible, as it were, for others' trajectory, we do believe that Jesus has come and is the giver of life. That he has provided himself as a reconciler between us and God. If Christianity is indeed true, this is amazing and important news. 

I hope that the skeptic understands that for the Christian to value another's comfort or ignorance, his aversion to conflict or of being offended is worth considering, but weighed against the amazing revelation of God in Jesus Christ as a giver of life... the decision is easy. I'd rather tell you something that's true even if you don't want to hear it, than let you continue on without knowing who God is. 

Whether the objector comes to a belief in Christianity or not, I hope that he will at least see that for the Christian it would be wildly inconsistent, bizarre, and frankly cruel to withhold what he believes to be true. 

Lastly, I think the most off-putting part of the original response to the objection is what we saw in the Bob/Alice illustration. To simply call out someone for being judgmental does not make the one doing the confronting judgmental, only that he has made a judgment. To be judgmental and to judge rightly from time to time are two different things. We intuitively know that to identify a fault by using the means of the thing the fault abuses is not to fall into the state of being a similar abuser. In this case to identify a set of beliefs as judgmental is not necessarily judgmental in and of itself. The true resolve to this dilemma is found by truly looking at the content of the "judgmentalism" that the objector accuses the Christian of possessing. 

Christians are certainly not meant to be judgmental. I would never defend our "right to be judgmental." This is not the point. But any time one knows the truth about a matter, he is in a position to identify things that are true and false about that subject.

Take math, for example. If I were to encounter a person who believed 2 + 2 = 5, I would be right to correct him and show him 2 + 2 in fact equals 4. For him to say, "you're being judgmental!" would be silly. I'm simply correcting a false understanding of what is actually true. If the truth of a matter is in fact revealed than were are able to know it and identify non-truths related to it. 

If God truly exists than he is what he is and is not what he is not. It is logically impossible for two individuals to say opposite things about him and both be correct. And, if God has revealed his characteristics to us than it is more than logical that those who do not understand him as he actually is are in error. A person with a correct understanding would not be in the wrong to identify the error and seek to share what is true (just as in the math example). There is no arguing with this logic, the only question that remains is has God revealed himself to us? This is a question worth asking and would launch us into that topic, which we can't cover here. But, we must admit that if he does exist he, of course, is free to reveal himself to us. We must simply seek to understand if and how he has done so. And so, the objector we began this essay addressing, I hope, will consider that this is the true question. 

*If the point of a religious faith is to make someone a nicer/kinder/better person for the benefit of humanity, than it would indeed be true that "whatever works for you" would be a very good perspective. If you are encouraged to be a better person through Buddhism, go for it. If you're just fine as an atheist, go for it. If it's through Christianity - that's fine. But, as Christians, we do not believe "being a good person" is the purpose of life. It's not the goal. The purpose is to know personally and glorify our creator. It is to be in relationship with him and to serve him and others to his glory. But, we also believe that sin has drastically affected the whole scenario and that reconciliation has been made through Jesus Christ alone. That's why it's a big deal that we talk about Jesus.

Note: I wanted to include a brief note about hell in the essay but felt like I'd be forcing it in where it didn't fit. So, a short note about that here -

Much of the "judgmentalism" that people see in Christianity has to do with the concept of hell and sin. And, I can understand why. Most of the "stop judging me!" sentiment comes from the fact that a person may feel judged by a Christian/Christianity when they are told that they are sinners and are heading for an eternity in what we call hell. As noted in the essay, this is what we've seen revealed to us through scripture and the life of Jesus and understand it to be true. And so, to ignore or neglect this would be dishonest and inconsistent for the believer.

But, to address the sentiment felt by the the person feeling judged: No Christian is in the place to judge you from where they stand - the authority to do so is not theirs. But the Christian does feel a desire to take God at his word and share the news with others. We live in a land of laws. It would not be "judgmental" to tell someone who has just stolen a car that this is breaking the law. It's just a fact. We believe, also that God has revealed his law to us as well, and that we have all broken it but are able to be forgiven and reconciled to him. The desire is simply to share what we believe to be both true and very important.

Whether a person comes to place of recognizing God and his word to us is another matter... the answer to whether God has spoken and revealed these truths to us the true question. 

Written: April 25, 2012

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