But could a God like that be good? (Part 2)
Even though I teach literature and philosophy these days, my first “career” was actually in science. From an early age, I was conducting research under the mentorship of a local university. As a teen, I read scientific journals, helped conduct experiments at national laboratories, and attended international symposiums. So, when it comes to left-brained/right-brained thinking, I’m sort of amphibious.
One of the loves I’ve carried over from those early years is an admiration for a well-written scientific paper. Those of you with scientific training already know how those papers work; for those who don't, an excellent piece of research contains several critical elements. For example, an abstract contains a summary of the research, and a conclusion documents the technical findings of the project. Probably my favorite element of a scientific paper, however, is the section called “limitations.”
A “limitations” section presents a frank and accurate admission of what a study doesn’t accomplish. It says, “There are six or seven factors that limit our conclusions, and instead of hiding those factors from you, we’re going to tell you very clearly what they are.” This part of the paper captures empiricism at its finest. It’s dependent upon a sort of transparency that all true scientists love--a transparency that values human knowledge more than the egos of individual researchers.
Unfortunately, however, “science” isn’t often as pure as it should be. Just as in religion, business, and government, political and economic pressures can corrupt the purity of the scientific community. Professors need to publish to obtain tenure or to advance in university departments, meaning weaknesses in research projects are sometimes smoothed over. Graduate assistants are asked to fudge numbers, and conclusions are stretched for the sake of the “wow” factor. In a competitive world, admission of a significant gap can knock a study out of publication.
Such corruption compels scientific purists to make appeals for honesty. If any of you fellow nerds want to read the scientific equivalent of Shakespeare’s St. Crispin’s Day call to arms, a mighty good rally cry for the importance of limitations can be found here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3305390/
I thought my heart was going to beat out of my chest when I was reading that journal article because I don’t just want the scientific community to return to purity here—I want this same sort of integrity to rise up within politics, the church, the media, literary interpretation... you name it. In a world where people fudge facts while trying to gain cultural power, I ache for honest voices saying, “Here is what I think I have learned—and here’s what I don’t know yet.”
So I’d like to declare some limitations at the outset of this post. I want to be open with you about who I am and who I’m not. I want to be open with you about what these essays can do and what they can’t.
I know that some of you were excited when you read yesterday’s introduction to this series—either because you have struggled with the topics I listed or because you have friends and family who have struggled. But while I’m willing to walk with you honestly into these topics, I am not going to hand you ten points that will immediately remedy all your confusion. I just don’t have that capacity. In fact, let me tell you four things I’m not even going to attempt.
Limitation 1: I’m not going to attempt to convince every atheist to agree with me.
Unbelief is way more complicated than some Christians realize, and many atheists have walked through years of emotional and intellectual struggle before choosing to reject religion. For them, atheism isn’t a single decision; it’s a thousand decisions.
Sure, there are atheists who have grown up in unbelief and have settled into it easily. Others, however, have come to it through fierce pain, knowing that their unbelief would sever or bruise relationships that meant a great deal to them. Some atheists have spent years trying to believe through abuse or pain, asking God for rescue that never seemed to come. Some have felt lonely and disoriented, begging for one simple miraculous confirmation that would have been so easy for an all-powerful God—a confirmation He never seemed willing to give. Some atheists have been mistreated by the church. Some have broken free of cult-like pressures, and propaganda, and threats.
It would be proud and silly of me to assume that a single blog series could reverse all those conclusions rooted in memory, experience, and relationship. I’m not even going to try to do it.
If atheist readers want to see that it’s possible for a Christian to present a respectful difference of opinion, I’d like to try to give them that. But this isn’t a glitzy flood lights and big stage power debate that promises to dominate secularism and change the minds of the entire unbelieving planet here. It’s just writing by somebody who can’t help thinking too much sharing some thoughts.
Limitation 2: Secondly, I’m not going to try to convince every Christian to agree with me.
For decades, I’ve been one of those nerds who loves technical apologetics books. I’ve plowed through reformed theology, mystical theology, dispensationalist theology, Wesleyan theology, you name it...digging through so many schools of thought which collect under the banner of Christianity.
In these studies, I’ve found a lot that I consider good, beautiful, and true; however, I haven’t found a single theological label that encompasses everything I believe about the Scriptures. That’s not because I’m a relativist or a liberal. It’s because when I consider how certain theological stances emerged from specific historical contexts, I start to understand more about why the church diverged then calcified into various branches.
Often, Theology B was a response to a bad extreme in Theology A. And then, Theology C grew as a response to an extreme in Theology B. Also, sometimes conclusions A, B, or C were drawn as a result of secular philosophies that were raging at the time--philosophies that may have long since passed into obscurity.
Today, our denominations collect around the remnants of Theologies A, B, and C—but most of us are clueless about the philosophical and historical contexts in which these stances began. This lack of understanding doesn’t seem to prevent advocates for A, B, and C from throwing on their hockey jerseys and knocking out teeth. We just know our team, and therefore, we think we know who has it all wrong. The Calvinists mock diSpENSATIONALISTS. (Haw. Haw. Haw.) The Amilleniallists bash Darby and his Rapture junkies. (Haw. Haw. Haw.) Armenians mock the eisegetical hot glue needed to make the Legos of TULIP stick together. (Haw. Haw. Haw.)
For a long time, I thought it might be possible to sort all that out. Maybe it is. But as I look back over the past few decades, I feel like I’ve wasted way too much time in those particular sorts of conversations. Every now and then, I will click on my least-favorite “discernment blogger” site, just to remind me of how ugly and haughty that type of religion can get.
Lately I’ve been gravitating more and more toward salt-of-the-earth believers, people who get out into the world and live out what they do know about the gospel instead of theology nerds who sit behind computer screens 40 hours a week critiquing others. I’m just not sure Jesus has much to do with all those ego-driven Calvinist/Arminian debates on online forums that pass by the bleeding man in the ditch because they are too busy to get to the temple. Jesus said we could determine the quality of a tree by its fruit, and I’m tired of chewing on sour apples.
So, as I explore these questions, I’m going to be vulnerable and honest. I’m going to try to apply sound principles of exegesis and cite thinkers who respect the text. But I don’t expect to pass muster with every cerebral guardian of every staunch theological camp. So, if you are deeply bound to a certain team within Orthodoxy, my guess is that this series won’t be altogether satisfying for you. In such cases, you might find more of what you are looking for on one of your own denominational websites.
Limitation 3. I’m not going to claim to have definitive answers on super complicated theological questions that scholars have wrestling with for centuries.
I’m going to tell you what I think I know for sure, but I’m also going to hypothesize a little, too. When I speculate, I won’t be making definitive theological claims; I’ll be saying, “I can see how something like this might be in the realm of possibility.”
If that sort of thinking makes you nervous, this blog series isn’t for you. If you want someone who is 100% sure about everything, I’m not your girl.
Limitation 4: I'm not going to try to supersede writers you should trust more than me on almost everything.
Who should you trust more than me? Tim Keller, Christopher J. H. Wright, C.S. Lewis, Howard Hendricks, Haddon Robinson, Corrie Ten Boom. (There are more, but that’s a good start.) Any time something I write goes against these good folks, trust them more than you trust me. Actually, if I could convince you to stop reading my blog and just go read all their books, you’d probably be a lot better off.
Alright, I wrote this post yesterday, hoping that I would wake up this morning and find a way to make it shorter. But before attempting to go further, I just needed to draw some boundaries. You might not feel better about proceeding, but I do. Thanks for letting me get this part out of the way.