Whom do you trust? – 11/1/2017

Growing up, we all learn that the Earth is roughly spherical, it spins about its axis, the moon orbits the Earth, and the Earth orbits the Sun.  How do we know that?  For many years, and perhaps for most people it’s all of their lives, we know these things because we believed those who told us.  We accepted them on the basis of their authority, as parents, teachers, or voices in the media.

Out of curiosity, some look for empirical evidence, looking around, noticing the curve of the horizon, the phases of the moon, the consistency of seasonal changes . . . all of which fit into the model we were taught when young.  Some few dive deep into astronomy or astronautics or geophysics and immerse themselves in data and analysis that builds such well-grounded confidence in the model, that challenges from a flat-earther or a modern day accolyte of Ptolemy’s epicycles would appear just as foolish as the fantasies of evolutionists.

Blog 108 image - curve of the horizonWe can never escape a trust in authority as part of knowing.  “We bristle at the word authority . . . We never can remove ourselves totally from a matrix of authority . . . Not to decide, not to trust an authority, is to decide, to submit to another authority,” writes Esther Lightcap Meek, author of Longing to Know:  The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People.”  This essay is Part 2 of my review of Meek’s perspectives on epistemology, the branch of philosophy that deals with how we know what we know.

Some authorities we learn to trust, mom and dad for example, hopefully.  If we want to learn how to golf well, we would be wise to trust Jack Nicklaus to teach us, if he offered.  Yet we learn to trust most news sources somewhere between ‘not at all’ to ‘maybe, but with a grain of salt.’  During my Air Force career, I was amazed to discover that what I thought were quite reputable news sources, when they reported on some Air Force program that I was intimate with, they always got something significantly wrong.

All of us some of the time, and many of us most of the time, at least as children, fall for authoritarianism, the “compelled or thoughtless submission in the absence of any felt sense of trustworthiness.”  Government tyrannies and cults promote policies and doctrines by the submission of their subjects.  People will stick with a cult or even a ‘mainstream church’ despite a degree of mistrust of the people who make the rules.  In talking with many Roman Catholics over the years, it’s striking how much they disregard, even disrespect their church’s leadership, yet remain loyal subjects.  Their current leader, their alleged Vicar of Christ, Pope Francis, openly avows socialist and globalist policies which are, in turn, openly opposed by conservative pundits who are loyal Catholics.  Fascinating.

Ptolemy's epicycles

Ptolemy’s epicycles

Yet we do trust the knowledgeable authority of our auto mechanic, our doctor (hopefully), and the fellow who leads our Bible study.  That last fellow, though, should be the first to insist that you learn to examine by Scripture everything he teaches.  If there isn’t an absolute authority, on what ground do we stand?  Do we just go by feelings?

Meek:  “When it comes to knowing God, I trust what the Bible says.  In fact, I trust it to tell me what I’m feeling as well as what it leads to.  You’re wishing you had your neighbor’s boat?  That’s coveting.  Don’t do it, or if you do it, expect to be miserable, and expect it to lead to further trouble.”  God’s words give us true perspective on knowing reality.  Sin fights against reality.  It hurts us, it hurts others, it offends God whose reality is open to the understanding of those who stand on His word.

I recently had a spirited discussion with a Pentecostal fellow who is fully invested in his church.  He hosts a small group in his home and he teaches a large group of 2nd to 6th graders every Sunday.  I asked him to describe to me how he teaches the subject of salvation to the children.  He couldn’t answer, other than some vague ideas about helping the kids to “develop a relationship with Jesus.”  I persisted, asking how a child begins a relationship with Jesus, whether his teaching would involve issues of sin, Hell, repentance, faith, the new birth, etc.  I worked to rephrase the question several times; for example, asking how he would respond to a child who asks, “How do I know I’m going to Heaven when I die?”

The fellow never could give me a straight answer – he knew it, too.  It was clear to me that he didn’t understand the Gospel or how to teach it.  When it became clear to him that he couldn’t answer what I thought was the ultimate softball question for a mature Christian with teaching responsibility in a big church, he got angry, and with great emotion declared that he didn’t want to talk about the subject, that his spirit was grieved.

Esther Lightcap Meek

Esther Lightcap Meek

That’s the ultimate ‘out’ for the serious Pentecostal.  Strong feelings are evidence of the leading of the Holy Spirit.  How dangerous is that?  In our discussion it was evident that he didn’t know his Bible well, even on some elementary issues.  But why should he study the Bible?  If the Holy Spirit is continually leading you by feelings, who needs to study?  Pentecostalism, at its worst, is an existential leap into a feelings-based faith, disconnected from a Biblical foundation.

In a debate between two Pentecostals, the first one to declare, “The Holy Spirit gave me this!” . . . wins!  How can you possibly refute that?  The next time I get into such a discussion, I think I might try that, leading off every point with, “God told me . . .”  Before my encounter with this fellow started, his wife told me an anecdote about how they named one of their children.  She told her husband, “God gave me the name …….”  He apparently wasn’t happy about it, but she was the first one to use the winning words!

Meek:  “The God who claims the right to interpret my experience does not expect me to trust Him blindly.  The best authorities appeal to us across the whole spectrum of human experience and knowing.  They are rational, testable, and practical.  In the Bible, God calls His people to obey, but He also has given mighty acts as empirical testimony, such as making a path through the sea for the deliverance of the Jewish slaves from Egypt, and raising Jesus from the dead.  And then He invites us to live in relationship with Him and taste for ourselves the benefits of it.  I trust Him because I find Him trustworthy.”

But feelings can fool you.  I wonder how many Pentecostal (and other kinds of) preachers have suffered sexual scandals because their feelings were so intense they were sure their desires must be from God.  How could they not be?  Look at the size of our ministry, etc.  No, Scripture always trumps feelings.

False presuppositions can make you miss what’s right in front of you.  Why didn’t the pair of disciples recognize the resurrected Jesus on the road to Emmaus?  They knew that dead men don’t rise.  Whoever that guy was, it couldn’t possibly be Jesus.  “Their perception was blinded.”  But when they saw Jesus break bread and give thanks, their eyes opened, in touch again with reality, a reality that included the resurrection of the One who promised He would rise again.  That reality assured hope and guaranteed ultimate victory for them and for every believer since.  Recognizing God’s reality transforms your life.  The reality of the Resurrection changes everything, not just for an eternal future, but for today.  Today we live.  Today counts.  Let’s do something today.  What we assuredly know affects every aspect of our lives, today.

And similarly for Paul on the Damascus Road, for Peter who had spent an entire night casting empty nets, and for anyone who dares to prove God by humbling himself, repenting from known sins, and trusting Christ.  “Is it reasonable to expect that a person who comes to know God would experience little transformation?”

“Knowing is the human act of making sense of experience, connecting the dots.  It is shaping a plethora of details in and around us, alongside us and ahead of us, in pursuit of a pattern.  We access the pattern by struggling to look through the details to a farther focus.  A successful effort transforms the clues we rely on.”

Blog 108 image - defensive tackle 2Meek’s continual emphasis is on the human aspect of knowing, which goes far beyond simple logical inference or ‘proofs’ of the mathematical or legal varieties.  “It’s as if the thing is staring sarcastically down at us, as a 300-pound defensive tackle might, as it says to us, ‘You want me to take a coherence test?”  When we deal with reality honestly, simplistic ‘proof’ tests are superseded.  Logic and probability and statistical inference have their place, but most of life is a complex human interaction involving mind, heart, will, memory, conscience, and emotions.  It all works together, whether we perceive reality rightly or wrongly.  If we get it right, there is genuine satisfaction . . .

“Successful focal patterns are simple and beautiful and consistent and fruitful.”  That is, they are if what we know connects with reality, a reality grounded in God’s design for us, so that we can be fruitful.  What good is it if you know something that isn’t helpful?  Are you expert at fantasy football?  So what?

The patterns we see around us in the world, in our relationships, and within ourselves allow us to know God, though we cannot see Him.  Even the wickedness and the tragedies in the world enhance our knowledge of God, because we know that His patience leads many to repentance, and His return in the Second Coming will set things right.  As our heart yearns for peace, for righteousness, for restoration, we know that our heart’s desires are God’s, also.

It’s difficult to express truth claims verbally at times.  The patterns of reality are so much richer, so much more multidimensional, than we can typically put into linear language.  But we must try.  Going to school, learning math, writing an essay to make a point . . . all help to fine tune our skills in expressing truth, and expressing truth is essential if we are to make a difference.  Language is how you transport your thought into another’s mind.  A key to doing this well is to recognize the limitations of language.  I note that any principal doctrine in the Bible is given multiple times and in different ways.  We have four accounts of the Gospel, for example.  Another is the extraordinarily rich use of metaphors in the Psalms to express notions of God’s power and mercy and grace.  Why not just say, “God is great!”  No, to touch our hearts with a deeper appreciation of God’s greatness, He inspires His prophets to give us many perspectives.

Blog 108 image - baseball gloveOur confidence in our expression of truth claims increases as we live them.  As a boy, I really loved acquiring a new baseball glove.  The smell of the new leather – a slice of Heaven on Earth!  I imagined all sorts of imminent truth about how that glove would enable me to make great catches.  I literally slept with it the first few nights.  Yet over the next several years, as I broke in that glove, used it, understood it so very experientially . . . well, whenever I was out in center field, I was one with the glove.  If I missed a catch, it wasn’t the glove’s fault.  If I made a great catch, nobody said, “Hey, way to go, glove!”  Yet my glove was more precious to me than the happy day I first put it on.

Now, truth is objective – it certainly is to God.  And we, as believers, are to have the mind of Christ, at least striving in that direction while we walk in this flesh.  “The moral is that reality is so rich that we had better talk together if we are to stand a chance of figuring it out . . . each of us, situated as we are at different vantage points with respect to the real, can contribute unique insights.  We should expect that working together will give us a fuller picture.  And that’s where articulating and justifying our beliefs together comes into play, relying judiciously on authoritative guides, expanding our horizons, and increasing our grasp on the real.”

If, for some reason, as a youth, I had to borrow someone else’s glove, it wouldn’t have felt right.  I would snatch for that flyball with some uncertainty.  He wouldn’t have liked mine either, even though it was PERFECT – perfect for me.  Together, though, with our own gloves, we can make a great team, with our own skills, tools, and perspectives on how to use them.

Meek argues that centuries of Western philosophy have ingrained the idea that for knowledge to be certain, the personal “must be minimized to the point of elimination.  We have glorified an impersonalism and called it objectivity.  And while it is right to avoid subjectivism, conclusions skewed away from accuracy by a warped outlook, we have attempted to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.”  No, an impersonal framework for knowing is unworkable, and not actually part of the human experience.  If you insist on impersonal objectivity for the great issues of life, you’re trying to let yourself off the hook.

One simple application of this idea is the multitude of false converts, one heartbeat away from Hell, who intellectually assent to the Deity of Christ, His sacrificial death on the Cross, and the historical fact of the Resurrection.  Many attend church weekly and sing songs affirming these facts.  But they are lost until they engage as persons with these truths, immerse themselves, see the Cross as the consequence of personal sins, and the Resurrection as the only personal hope, with all its intellectual and emotional and heart-gripping reality.  Get the point?  An objective Gospel doesn’t save.  Saving truth must be embraced by the entire person, entirely, and then lived.

“The human experience regularly requires and appraises the risk of commitment to truth, to the rightness and wrongness of action.”  Esther intervened with parental authoritarian power in her daughters’ lives to insist on piano lessons.  She would not brook complaints.  Eventually, she overheard her youngest daughter tell someone that mom’s policy ‘had worked,’ meaning that they all like music and enjoy their skills.  Mom exulted at this, that the risk of her decision to guide their lives, had paid off.  Mom took the responsibility.  Mom took the risk, weighing the expense, the friction in relationships, the long drudging path.  A parent acts on her beliefs, committing to her experience, her knowledge, and how her commitment affects lives.

Meek has a wonderful way to describe presuppositional apologetics, without ever coming close to using such a term.  It might seem that there’s a backwardness to integrative pattern making.  Most tend to think that we can start with a lot of particulars and then reason toward a pattern, as from premises to a conclusion.  That’s the gist of classical or evidential apologetics, piling factoid upon factoid to make the case on creation vs. evolution, the historical validity of the Resurrection, etc.  But “in a profound and curious way, the pattern comes first.  It does not come first in time.  But it comes first in priority, and then the moment of integrative success has a kind of retroactive power . . . in working retroactively, the pattern serves normatively, after the fact, giving the clues their status and meaning as clues.  We allow it to interpret our experience.  We submit to its reality.”

This is quite a brilliant way to make the point.  God wired us for presuppositional apologetics, for standing on His self-attesting word to interpret all of reality, where the world came from, what our place is in it, who we are, that we need a Savior, and so on.  The pattern explains everything!  All the particulars fit the Biblical pattern and fit no other pattern.  (See my many essays on apologetics in the Evangelism section of this site if you want to dive deeper.)  God also wired lost humanity . . . all of us at one time or another . . . to respond to a presuppositional approach, to recognize that the Biblical worldview coheres with reality and unbelief doesn’t.  So don’t throw factoid bricks, one at a time, at the skeptic.  Throw the whole house at him, the whole worldview, and show him how his worldview is not in touch with reality, not even in touch with the way he lives each day.  (My apologetics and evangelism essays provide many examples.)  When we talk with a lost fellow, we must recognize that the particular factoids we might see as strong evidence will be resisted, unless we can show him how the particulars fit a pattern.

Patterns – worldviews – can be wrong.  Most are, yet held tightly.  Particulars that don’t fit are categorized as mere puzzles or anomalies.  Evolutionism and Calvinism, for example, are filled with such puzzles.  We can detect mistakes when our mind and our conscience are sensitive to disconnects with reality.  For example, the information packed into DNA and cellular structure shows that bio-reality is all about design, not random chemical chance.  Similarly, the reality of our free will, living moment by moment with choice, all consistent with God’s character in Scripture and our God-given conscience . . . shows that the Calvinist doctrine of Unconditional Election / Unconditional Damnation contradicts reality.

Meek points out, interestingly, that Columbus thought he had reached Asia.  Joseph Priestley discovered oxygen, but what he thought he had discovered was dephlogistated air.  He initially thought that the candle went out in its sealed space when the air was full of phlogiston, not because it was depleted of oxygen.  Copernicus did get it right that the planets orbit the sun, but he would have been shocked to hear that the orbits are elliptical, not circular.  “It took a century of worldview change to accommodate this insight of Kepler’s.”

Yet we can credit these fellows with real discoveries, cohering with part of reality, despite some mistakes.  Progress is good, not an all-or-nothing thing.  Meek cites psychiatrist David Burns, in his book, Feeling Good:  The New Mood Therapy, who describes ‘cognitive distortions’ that tempt us.  These include:  all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralization, jumping to conclusions, labeling, personalization, etc.

Joseph Priestley

Joseph Priestley

Example:  “I didn’t get an A-plus on this project, so I am worthless,” is an example of all-or-nothing thinking.  Just naming these fallacies can start one on a healthier path, thinking more realistically.  Just turn on the TV news and watch the reporters and pundits commit fallacy after fallacy.  Closer to home, most disputes among family members will be rife with such silliness.  One way to look at these problems is that they represent unwarranted pattern making.  You can teach yourself, discipline yourself, to make better patterns from the particulars of daily life, or theology, or politics, or whatever.

“The integrative effort is successful to the degree that it lays hold of an aspect of reality . . . But conceptions gone bad are keys that lock doors, obscure vistas, and disconnect us from the world.”  It’s the believer’s mission, one who is firmly tied to God’s word . . . and lives it . . . to help others see the pattern.  The Christian who loves God longs to know Him better, longs to make relationships on Earth better, and longs to help others do the same.  But you’ve got to care.  Caring is the first thing.  (1 Cor 13)

There is much more to say about Esther Meek’s insights, but I’ll conclude with her mention of C. S. Lewis, who recommended “the reading of old books,” in an essay by that title.  He observes that every age in history is blind to its own assumptions.  You can mitigate this problem by reading books from a different era.  Even though old books may exhibit the blindness characteristic of their own age, the blindness may fall into different areas from your own.  We can correct our own mistakes by considering the perspective of others.  Maturity includes growing in the skill of knowing whom to trust.  Ultimately, we have firm ground with Scripture, the ultimate judge of the writings of mere sinners.

Blog 108 image - keyholeIt seems clear to me that in this generation, more than any other in history, people, particularly the young, consume media blind to the prejudices of our age.  It’s a sick diet.  The consequences include more strife, more anger, more violence, more stupidity and fallacies, and above all, more false worldviews.  With a world tied together instantly by media, sick and destructive ideas show up on screens all through the day.  The Biblical worldview, held by fewer in the West than ever before, is a lifeboat in a raging sea of secularism and immorality.

Yet we still have the lifeboat!  We can still offer the Gospel lifeboat to one individual at a time.  We can still give someone a chance today.  Why not do just that?  Help someone to know the One who declared, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  Knowing Him is more than the world itself.

  • drdave@truthreallymatters.com

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