Thank you for an exciting 6 AM breakfast! I always feel like our time in person is too short. 🙂 I’d like to continue my attempt to explain why I can’t suspend judgment about the Bible. I’m still sleep-deprived (so no promises on how this will come out) but let me start with an analogy.
Let’s imagine two people – we’ll call them Russell and Pascal 🙂 – who are each similar to us both in character and in how they think but neither of them have evaluated any theological claims yet. It seems that you feel like one of them thinks in a little more binary manner and is more skeptical than the other, and I’m probably naturally more skeptical of that conclusion :). So here’s the hypothetical situation. Let’s imagine that as adults (who already have their basic modes of processing the world in tact) they’re each given a book that describes a God. The book might be the Bible, or it might be some other religious book. For this thought experiment we can’t know what book it is (we’re behind a “veil of ignorance”). What we want to do is to reach one of the following conclusions about what we think they should do:
- completely trust the book’s description
- reject at least some portion(s) of the book.
We don’t know anything about the book other than the following. It contains some supernatural claims which can’t be tested but which do have an impact on what they will believe, how they will live their life, and what they will live for. It also contains some claims which command that they love the God with all their heart and worship him faithfully. Finally, it promises great rewards if they believe in the key tenants of the book and great punishments if they do not.
We’d love to learn more about the specific claims but this is all we have to start with. One thing our alter-selves would probably like to do is see if the God described accords or conflicts with reality in any significant ways. Since they are like us, they agree that Truth is Truth, 1 = 1, and if there is a true God, he will likely not make nature the “Devil’s workshop” (playing tricks to confuse us by creating one set of logic for our minds to reason with for making sense of reality while simultaneously requiring that we find confidence and coherence in breaking through to a second conflicting logic in order to be saved).
Before committing to love and follow this God faithfully, our hypothetical-selves would probably evaluate the claims made in their book to see if they accord with reality. Errors they find may have a simple explanation if they could understand the meaning the author’s intended. Upon examination they find a large number of errors, a few which remain unresolvable in any logical context and appear to be unambiguous contradictions. If they’ve committed to belief before realizing these issues, it may be different, but Russell and Pascal are each skeptical and trying to be objective. They’ll want to know if the book paints a logically coherent concept or even logically possible concept of “God” before either of them become emotionally invested in the belief and devotion to that God.
Here are some of the claims they see – and they are without specific details in order to help us focus on the logic rather than motivated reasoning due to how we feel about the claims. To serve this purpose we’ll use the term “quality X” which possesses the following characteristics. “Quality X” is well defined in the book so there is very little room for ambiguity in its meaning. The book also makes it clear that the God’s nature never changes, thus timing is not a factor in the claims.
Claim 1: This God possesses quality X
Claim 2: This God does not possess quality X
This appears to be a contradiction. If we agree that timing and ambiguity about the meaning of quality X are not factors, then it is a contradiction. As we know, the law of noncontradiction states that both claims cannot be true in the same sense at the same time since they are mutually exclusive.
Given the background information that claims 1 and 2 are said to be held in the same sense at the same time, then according to the principle of noncontradiction:
If we accept one of the claims as true, the other claim cannot be logically true while preserving the principle of noncontradiction. Therefore we must either reject the principle of noncontradiction or reject at least some portion of the book (conclusion 2 above). This dichotomy holds whether or not we attempt to “reserve judgment” on either claim. If we accept one of them, the other must be rejected or we must choose to give up logic in order to preserve our belief in the infallibility of the book.
If we accept neither claim, we are accepting conclusion 2 above by rejecting at least some portion of the book.
If we accept both claims as true, or possibly true by reserving judgment, then we can completely trust the book’s description (“claim 1 above”), but we are doing so in violation of the fundamental laws of logic in the form of the principle of noncontradiction. That conclusion would necessitate the further conclusion that belief in this God is in conflict with the laws of science – which is in opposition to “Truth is Truth” and “God is not trying to deceive us.” Claims about God’s deceptive actions are also in conflict with claims about his character, but that’s another issue.
When someone sees an unambiguous contradiction and decides to “suspend judgment,” I understand. The faith encourages that. However, it seems that suspending judgment about one end of a contradiction is still a judgment whether or not we face it. It does not get someone out of the logical problem. In a contradiction, either we accept that both claims are true and thus reject logic, or we reject at least one of them and thus distrust a portion of the set of both claims (thus my diagram this morning). Reserving judgment sounds like sticking my head in the sand and refusing to look at either conclusion. I can and do reserve judgment for the vast majority of what appear to be Bible contradictions, because most do have a potential explanation in some context (which we aren’t always privy to). However, most of those are distractions because people tend to assume that doubters are always talking about them instead of the meatier issues that remain unresolved and seem unresolvable. Distractions do add up though, and even without direct contradictions the number of smaller errors seem vast enough to force me to distrust that the Bible is infallible and wholly inspired by a perfect being.
If this book does seem to contain unambiguous contradictions, I don’t think we’d advise Russell and Pascal to reject logic. We might advise them to distrust portions of the book, but they’d probably be in a better place to judge it than we are – having not grown up with it. Some of the unambiguous and contradictory claims about God’s character from our own Bible (replacing quality X with “evil”, for example) have caused many facing the issue to conclude “I don’t know, but I trust.” I want to explain why I can’t choose that answer. I can’t “just trust” that the claims are all accurate because I cannot bring myself to believe that a God who exists possesses qualities that are not just logically incoherent, but are actually logically impossible in our current reality. I don’t think that means such a God could not exist (not actually impossible). I just think it means I shouldn’t try to persuade myself to abandon logic in favor of belief in such a God. God can be beyond logic, but it’s less likely that He is in direct conflict with the logic he made than it is that the claims someone made about him are mistaken.
We can’t talk honestly about contradictions without making sure there’s no wiggle room in the meanings, and some people disagree there which enables them to suspend judgment. If there is wiggle room, I just can’t see it right now. If I could, I’d give the Bible the benefit of the doubt. The only hypotheticals I can come up with to keep God’s actions entirely not-evil (according to the Bible) involve Him being controlled by other God-like forces in His higher reality in order to justify his actions in ours. But that would still leave many deceptions of purpose in the Bible. It’s just not likely. Understand that I’m definitely not saying, “God is evil.” I am saying that the Bible’s claims about God’s character are inconsistent. Therefore, I can’t fully trust that the set of all claims accurately reflect a God that exists.
Why do we suspend judgment about the Bible so often and not the Quran? A sufficient explanation may be that we were taught to love, trust, and believe in that God-concept with heart, soul, mind, and strength before we learned about contradictions, logic, our own reasoning failures and biases (The Problem), etc. Once we’re in love with God-concept-Y and believe that everything rests on our ability to maintain our belief despite evidence it becomes very difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of our alter-selves in this thought experiment – even one meant to help us evaluate the claims afresh without the prior emotional commitment. For the longest time I could not bring myself to admit that I distrusted the Bible for fear that my solid ground would reveal itself as a landslide to oblivion.
My aim is absolutely not to convince you. I want to explain “my way of thinking” that led to my doubt. Do I agree with you? Yes! I feel uneasy when I hear “I suspend judgment but I trust the entire Bible is infallible or trustworthy, useful, etc.,” because if there is really an unambiguous contradiction in this reality, I can’t find a way to believe that those things can all be true without rejecting our basic principles of logic. However, if you and J (CC) find that it resonates more with you to believe that some version of God described in the Bible exists – one who performed many similar actions and possesses similar qualities, intents, desires for us – if that connects with you and you can believe it, I support and envy you. Such belief pulls at me from an incoherent ephemeral place. Perhaps it will solidify someday. If you think that the Bible is logically consistent throughout, if only we can find a way to choose to trust it – I can’t get there. We’re just in a different place. 🙂
Gentleness and respect,