Friday, January 30, 2015

Reaction: J Warner Wallace and The Case For Truth, Part 3

Okay, I'm watching this video, because someone said they'd be interested in my response to it. The background post is here. I'm almost certainly over-thinking the whole thing, but hey -- if they didn't want over-thinking, they should have asked someone else for feedback.

In our last installment, I went through about the first third of the fifty-two minute video. That took a long time, since I'd spend anywhere from five to twenty minutes responding to things that took Mr. Wallace no more than thirty seconds to rattle off. Naturally, I'm going to stick with the same format for this installment, because I don't have any better ideas and anyway learning from your mistakes is for wimps. Wrong and strong! Full speed ahead! Here we go...

...Picking up at the sixteen minute and thirty second mark:

17:54: Talking about objective vs. subjective truth: "I'm going to test you on this, so be ready." Laughter. "And by the way, most churches and most groups that I work with will fail the test."

18:30: Now he's comparing a mission trip to explain the only medical cure for tuberculosis with the need to share your faith. By implication, he's tying in the concepts that A) his brand of Christian faith is objectively true, and B) sharing your faith is a matter of life and death. Note that he hasn't actually established either point; he's just sort of sliding those assertions in as an aside.

20:20: He's... using a metaphor about a house to basically point out that people commonly confuse objective truth-claims with subjective truth-claims. That seems like an unnecessarily elaborate way to make a relatively simple claim. Also, this is kind of a false dichotomy. Truth claims don't just fall into objective or subjective categories; there are, for example, claims that might be objective but we don't have enough evidence, or adequate methods of testing them, to be sure.

20:50: Considering theological truth as subjective weakens the truth claim, "because opinions don't really matter, if you think about it." No. Just, no. Not everything has to be Ultimately Important to matter.

21:00: "We have to reunite this idea, and get to one total truth, so we understand that the truth claims about God are every bit as objective as truth claims about math." ::sigh:: Are you really sure you want to go there, Dude? I ask because, as you yourself have pointed out, an awful lot of the reasons that people believe are... well... personal. Subjective. Francis Schaeffer has an entire book entitled He Is There and He Is Not Silent -- which, if it were true, would be far too self-evident to require a book.

Also, I'm troubled by the idea of "one total truth". Are we trying to unite subjective and objective truths here? Because that seems... problematic. Or are we just going to discard all subjective truths as unworthy of the label of Truth, and make sure that theological claims don't get discarded with them? That seems problematic too, but in a different way. Precisely which theological claims are we going to establish as independently-verifiable objective truths?

I'm just going to mention again that I have biases, and one of them is a low tolerance for showmanship. If you have a proof that the existence of God and/or the historicity of Jesus is/are real and verifiable, quit dithering around and show me.

23:38: "Now if I made this statement about Hyundais: 'I'm so committed -- Hyundais can fly you to the moon.' Objective or subjective?" Depends on how you meant it, of course, which is precisely the problem with most so-called "literal" readings of the Bible. Yes, I could assume that you were making a claim of objective fact, which in this case is relatively easy to disprove; but honestly, a statement like that is far more likely to be hyperbole, a metaphorical expression of your enthusiasm for the brand -- what you might call a poetic truth -- which would be based on your experience with the cars, and your opinion of the cars, and therefore subjective, and therefore (according to what you said back at the 20:50 mark) valueless.

Except that this also shows why the idea that subjective claims lack value is at best incomplete, and at worst simply wrong. As a data point, "This person has had such good experiences with Hyundai cars that they're willing to say things like, 'Hyundais can fly you to the moon,'" is actually useful to know. It isn't the Absolute Truth of whether you'll like a Hyundai as much as the person who said it, but it's still a useful indicator.

I'm going to un-pause, now, and see how Mr. Wallace answers his own question...

24:30: He's written it off as an objectively false claim. And, almost immediately afterwards, he's confusing objective and subjective. "If I said to you, 'I believe Chocolate chip cookies are the best cookies in the world,' that's a subjective claim." No, no it isn't. That's an objective claim, because either you do believe that, or you don't. It's a changeable objective claim, since your belief might change if someone introduced you to a new, better cookie, but it's still objective. You have to take the qualifier away to make it subjective: "Chocolate chip cookies are the best cookies in the world" is a subjective claim.

I'm pretty sure that if I were, hypothetically, one of the teenagers listening to this talk, he'd have lost me right there. But, again, I was a weird kid.

25:00: "Now, let's take the test together. We're gonna divide all true claims into two sides. On one side we're gonna put all objective claims, on the other side we're gonna put all subjective claims." That's kind of a false dichotomy -- sort of like any idea that starts with, "There are two kinds of people in the world..." Never trust a setup like that. When you're talking about claims, you're talking about things said by people, and when you're talking about things said by people, it's almost always more complicated than that.

Grouping all claims into either subjective or objective categories (while, as I've noted, a very cop thing to do) completely ignores questions of context, irony, hyperbole, exaggeration, sarcasm, humor, and really a substantial portion of all the rich variety of ways that people use to communicate. To make this division, you basically have to pretend that those things don't exist (and, by extension, didn't exist for the people living in Biblical times or the people who wrote their stories). You have to pretend that people don't interact or behave like people, in other words. You have to assume that people only ever communicate with each other in direct, literal sentences which present clear, unambiguous claims.

That's... functionally illiterate, in most cases.

(I'm sorry. I really set out just to explain why this sort of thing might not be all that persuasive to unbelievers. Instead, I'm being... well, pretty harshly critical of what Mr. Wallace has to say. Admittedly, that's precisely why this sort of thing might not be all that persuasive to unbelievers, but it still feels like I'm shading over from pointing out areas of disagreement and into actively debunking his points. Unfortunately, I don't think I can tone down my response and still offer any sort of useful or honest feedback. So just bear in mind that I don't begrudge Mr. Wallace his Christianity, or his belief that Jesus of Nazareth was an actual historical person, or any of that; it's just that I have some serious issues with his methodology.)

I'm going to stop here. (That means that this is definitely going to be at least two more installments, as we're roughly half-way through at this point. I doubt I can cram the next twenty-seven minutes of the talk into a single post; in fact, I suspect we'll be slowing down rather than speeding up. Still, I can hope, right?)

Benchmarks for this point in the lecture:

1. I'm seeing a lot more rhetoric than logic. I mean, Mr. Wallace has laid out the problem as he sees it: young people are leaving The Church in droves (and, I suspect, the occasional Hyundai), because they're going off to college without being ready to defend their beliefs. He's suggested a solution: prepare the young people by showing them that Christianity (and specifically his Baptist, definitely-not-Mormon brand of Christianity) is objectively (and, by implication, provably) true. And then, instead of just laying out this proof -- which ought not to be so terribly difficult -- he changes the subject. We're halfway through his talk, and we haven't done more than touch on the idea that this proof exists; the entire lecture so far is basically just background and build-up.

2. The hermeneutic he seems to be laying out here (at least, so far) strikes me as... well... simple-minded, and precisely the sort of thing that falls apart immediately when you try to apply it to the way actual people actually communicate. That isn't entirely Mr. Wallace's fault; a lot of what he's saying is standard, or at least very common, Christian doctrine.

3. I mentioned in the introductory post that a lot of apologetics seem to be designed more to reinforce the faith of existing Christians than to persuade unbelievers. That's definitely the case here (which, admittedly, makes sense when you consider his audience for his particular talk). Sure, Mr. Wallace has mentioned the vital need for people (and especially young people) to share their faith at all times, and the prospect of having solid proof of the historicity of Jesus seems like it could be really helpful with that; but he hasn't offered any discussion on how to approach people about your faith, how to actually share your faith, or when to shake the dust from your heels and move on to the next metaphorical town. This talk is (I think) building up to his core point about how Christians can know that the tenets of their faith are objective true, but it's building up with an explicit emphasis on keeping Christian young people in Christianity, rather than on bringing in new converts.

On to Part 4!

1 comment:

  1. ...a lot of apologetics seem to be designed more to reinforce the faith of existing Christians than to persuade unbelievers.

    YES. That right there. "No need to look elsewhere for answers, we've got it see?" Man I was absolutely addicted to apologetics the last few years.


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