Argument from Transcultural Plausibility (ATP): or, "How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love John Loftus' Favorite Argument
Perhaps John Loftus will be famous some day, like the ancient polemicist Celsus, for formulating a challenge that led to a interesting argument for the Christian faith. John calls his challenge the "Outsider Test for Faith. (OTF)" Perhaps history will know it as the Argument from Transcultural Plausibility (ATP).
The idea is not, of course, original with John. He asks, if his argument is no good, as some people say, why do critics like Victor Reppert and myself keep bringing it up?
Speaking just for myself, I find the idea of looking at Christianity from the viewpoint of other traditions fascinating. I lived many years in different Asian countries, and have been studying world religions and the history of missions for decades. I'm fascinated by how Christianity originated in a highly parochial and defensive Jewish culture, then found a way to transcend Jewish culture and become the dominant faith of the Greco-Roman, then other worlds.
As someone else points out, G. K. Chesterton also asks us to look at Christianity from the outside, in a great book called The Everlasting Man. Eleven years ago, I wrote as follows, in a book called Jesus and the Religions of Man, meant as an updating of Chesterton's classic:
"What should a Christian say to an idealist setting out on a journey? Seek the good in every spiritual tradition and cherish it; but don't be naive. Allow yourself to become desperate enough to be heretical, and even desperate enough to be orthodox. Give credit where credit is due, bu talso blame where blame is due. Take ideals seriously enough to live by, even die for. But be careful to whom you open your heart. Follow each star to the place where it leads. Then come and look again in a town called Bethlehem."
I don't want to take anything away from John: I appreciate him bringing the subject up, and in an interesting way. But that's the Outsider Test for Faith in a nutshell.
I explained some problems I have with the way John formulates OTF, as an argument against Christianity, in an earlier post.
In my last post, though, I did a bit what might have seemed a bit of an about-face, accepting John's conclusion that we should look at our own faith (whatever that is) from an outside perspective, at least for the sake of the argument. I then discussed the various difficulties involved in transmitting faith from one culture to another, and made a few modifications to OTF. I call the modified version the "Argument from Transcultural Plausibility" (ATP).
ATP takes into account the real-world challenges of convincing people in foreign cultures, speaking different languages, and with defense mechanisms against foreigners as subtle as the Great Wall of China, to swap their deepest beliefs for a "foreign religion." I argued that Christianity has actually done remarkably well, considering all the challenges. If there's anything to ATP, it might be seen as an argument FOR the Christian faith, and, possibly, against secular humanism.
But is there anything to ATP? Or is it based simply on the logical fallacy of Ad Populum? John suggests I am making some such mistake:
"David Marshall's latest critique of the OTF confuses the success of a particular religion with passing the OTF, which, if correct, would make contradictory religions true by virtue of being successful."
In other words, I am supposedly saying that Christianity must be true, because it is so popular. In that case, what about Islam or Marxism, which also caught on in many diverse cultures?
Can we reasonably deduce anything about the truth of Christianity from the fact that people in thousands of different cultures have come to believe in it, even at great risk or cost, or at the price of their own lives? Don't people often die for lies?
One does not want to be caught in public committing logical fallacies. But I do see two potentially viable arguments for Christianity based on the ATP:
(1) The first argument is based on a fulfilled prophecy.
One of the most dramatic and significant stories in the OT is the story of Abraham taking his son Isaac to a hill in the region of Mt. Moriah to sacrifice him. Richard Dawkins sees in this story "child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defense: 'I was only following orders.'" Jews read in it as the story of how human sacrifice, which had been common around the world, began to end. God was saying, in effect, "This, I don't need." Christians see the lamb who substituted for Isaac as a figure of Jesus, who would ultimately die (perhaps on this very same hill) for sinful humanity.
But notice how the story ends. After the angel appears and the lad is dramatically spared, God promises Abraham:
"I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens . . . And in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you obeyed my voice."
This is quite a promise to make a Bedoin herder who lived in a tent in the wilderness 3500 years ago! Of what Pharoah of Egypt can we say all nations of the world have been blessed because of him? Can we say it of Alexander the Great?
Many mighty empires have disappeared without a genetic trace since this promise. But the Jewish people have not. And no one can deny they have had an often positive impact on the world -- for instance, some 30% of Nobel Prize winners have been Jewish.
Jesus was the most famous "seed" of Abraham. The universal spread of his teachings, and their impact, marks a stupendous fulfillment of this ancient promise.
Admittedly, Islam also claims in some sense to be a religion that arose from "Abraham's seed." (Though don't tell anyone in the Muslim world I said this, but I tend to see Mohammed as more of a bad seed.)
(2) As philosopher John Hick points out, people reasonably see a claim as more plausible if "great figures in the past" came up with something similiar. At any rate, he notes, “it is encouraging to find that one’s hard-won view of things was also the view seen by other and greater minds in earlier ages."
Aristotle agreed. He distinguished between two kinds of valid knowledge: Science, (which meant, broadly, what we know based on intentional empirical study) and Wisdom. As a source for the latter, Aristotle encourages us to "attend to the undemonstrated dicta and opinions of the skilful, the old, and the wise."
We do this every day, in classrooms, on the Internet, in conversations with friends. "Implicit faith," said Dr. Johnson, is the source of most of what we know.
An argument might be made that the sum total of wise men and women who tested Christianity from the perspective of different cultures, and found it passed, or that parts of it they knew best passed, makes it more reasonable to believe in Jesus Christ. There are some "Christians" who embarrass us. But clearly, the Christian faith is rendered more credible by winning the fervent allegiance of the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Kepler, Solzhenitsyn, and Pascal.
But some converts impress me even more. Those are the men and women who fervently love great non-Christian civilizations and cultures. They know it as well, study it with passion, and interpret it with genius. They then take the OTF, and determine that not only does Christianity pass, but that the Gospel renews the wellspring of their civilization.
In the Greco-Roman world, I think of Justin, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Augustine, in particular. There may be others, but these are the "skillful, the old, and the wise" I know, whose arguments for the Christian faith still impress me.
There are some of the same quality in India. One of the great reformers of India, Ram Mohan Roy, a father of modern India, wrote a pamphlet exerting some of Jesus' teachings, under the title, "The Principles of Jesus, the Guide to Peace and Happiness."
How does the Gospel look to "outsiders" like Roy, Keshab Chandra Sen, Krishna Banerja, and (yes) Gandhi? Obviously most Indians did not convert. It would have been difficult for them to do so, especially while India was occupied by often ravenous English imperialists! But the Gospel deeply affected India.
My own field is China. Perhaps the three most revered leaders in all China's long history are Emperor Tai Zong who helped found the great Tang Dynasty about 618 AD, the wise and noble Emperor Kang Xi who set the Qing Dynasty on its foundations in the late 16th Century, and Sun Yat-sen, who overthrew the Qing Dynasty and began the Republican era.
Remarkably, these three "wise, old, skilful" Chinese leaders interacted with three great branches of Christianity: Nestorian (eastern), Catholic (Jesuit) and Protestant.
Tai Zong read some of the works of Nestorians who arrived in China in 635 AD, and wrote a "blurb" for the Nestorian stele later found outside of Xian. He seemed to like what he understood of it (judging by textual products of that period, the translation was probably less than stellar). He also sponsored the church financially.
Kang Xi was educated, in part, by Jesuit priests. He seemed to believe in God, and liked and respected the Jesuit missionaries. In his early years he was a big help to Christians. (And they were a help to him!) Unfortunately, due to the bossy stupidity of some Catholic missionaries, and a foolish pope, Kang Xi came to feel threatened by these foreigners, and was forced to outlaw Christian evangelism -- though he did not much enforce the law. It was not the Gospel that pushed him away (though he he was not a convert), it was European arrogance (along with Chinese pride) that kept the Gospel at a distance.
Sun Yat-sen, like many 19th Century Asian reformers, was himself a Christian. Despite all the cultural barriers, despite the signs that read "dogs and Chinamen keep out," despite the saying, "One more Christian, one less Chinese," the father of modern China took, and passed, the ATP.
Such great lovers of Chinese civilization as Lin Yutang, John Wu, and many thinkers behind the Tiananmen protests of 1989, ultimately turned to Jesus not as a repudiation of their cultural heritage, but as a fulfillment of it.
If God intended to bless the world through Abraham's seed, as prophesied, one would expect the life of Christ to make a noticable impact on the world. And if one wants to get "outside one's own culturally-influenced head" and see if the Christian faith remains plausible, the thought experiment John suggests (and G. K. Chesterton before him) may be a great way to do so. I think, when both questions are considered fairly, Christianity passes ATP, and this may indeed give us two more legitimate reasons to believe it is true.