Friday, August 14, 2015

How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test: The Inside Story (Intro)

My latest book, How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test: The Inside Story, may be the best I've written yet.  It has been compared by thoughtful reviewers to "Mere Christianity" and "Orthodoxy," which as a life-long fan of C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton, is praise I treasure highly.  I believe the book has the potential to change how people look at the world, so that they recognize God's fingerprints upon history.  I don't believe you'll look at the story of the human, or the great spectrum of civilizations, the same, after you've read The Inside Story.

So far, most readers seem to have agreed.  All reviews by scholars have been extremely enthusiastic.  For instance, Dr. Ivan Satyavrata, an accomplished Indian theologian who has researched the relation between Christianity and Indian thought, wrote:

Marshall’s undertaking is breath-taking in its scope, as he brings together an amazing array of factual evidence from history, literature, religions and an unbelievable diversity of other sources in a brilliantly woven case that effectively invalidates the sceptical claim that people of faith live in a `closed door’ universe that could never survive the rigorous intellectual scrutiny of the `Outsider Test’.  Marshall is uniquely gifted as a writer – his careful scholarship, depth of insight and logical analysis is matched only by his illustrative genius as he skilfully blends inspired prose and vivid imagination in a much-needed, readable counter to the contemporary assault of the new atheists.  This is a book you will not want to put down once you begin to read it, and a `must-read’ for any thoughtful follower of Christ.  It has immense value both as a apologetic and pastoral tool - to help demolish obstacles to faith among genuine sceptics, and to encourage the weak and equip the strong within the community of faith.

I am now going to post the Introduction and first two chapters here.  If you like what you read, please do get a copy of the book, and read on.  

The book's few critics unintentionally prodded me into posting the first part of the book this site. 

Skeptics have also posted a few reviews on Amazon.  The most prominent atheist to review the book so far was John Loftus himself, who was its (partial) target.  He gave the book one star, and has trash-talked it on his popular "Debunking Christianity" site.  (Including, again, this morning.)  

Reasoned and informed disagreement with my thesis is very welcome.  But the problem is, Loftus has mainly "disagreed" by misrepresenting my arguments.  Especially, he has repeatedly claimed that the first of my four arguments for how Christianity passes the Outsider Test, is simply its raw success.  

Here's how Loftus represents my first argument in his review on Amazon:

"The first test is that it's to be considered evidence that a religion is true if it convinces many people in many cultures throughout history.  Yet, several mutually exclusive religions pass this test.  Buddhism (an atheist faith), Islam, Mormonism, Scientology, and even Hinduism pass this test, as even Marshall acknowledges.  Here then is a good solid reason to reject Marshall's first test.  Any test for truth which allows mutually exclusive religions to pass it cannot be a good test for truth.   These religions cannot all be true. Therefore this test is faulty to the core."

Loftus is terribly confused, here.  

First, I never say Hinduism or Scientology pass the first form of the test that I actually describe in the book.  

Second, Loftus has grossly misstated my argument.  It would have been better if he had quoted my exact words, to avoid misrepresenting me.  I will give the whole argument in this and the following two posts, so that skeptics who have not yet read the book can cite my actual words, next time.  

In the following post, pay especially attention to the sixth from the final paragraph, which I have highlighted in bold red.  Here is where I state my actual thesis.  Use the copy-and-paste function next time, John.  That way you won't need to distort my argument.  (Or was intellectual rather than physical convenience your real reason for altering it?)  

Third, evidence in favor of something is, of course, not the same thing as proof.  For instance, if you know someone named "Bruno" kidnapped the Lindbergh child, that makes it more likely that a given man named Bruno was involved, but it does not make it probable that any given Bruno you come across committed the crime.  Likewise, several sports teams make it into the playoffs, which is a test of their ultimate viability as champions -- but it does not mean they will be the champs.  

Similarly, I argue that several religions pass a preliminary and simple form of the OTF, which is however not so simple as Loftus describes it.  There is no incoherence in saying there are therefore several possible winners, or that this form of the test makes Christianity more likely to be true.  The Gospel "makes it into the playoffs" by gaining credit from (as Aristotle put it) the "skilful, old, and wise" of many different times and places. 

Fourth, I also argue (Loftus forgets to mention this), that there are several reasons even mentioned in this part of the argument why Christianity does better in meeting the first "outsider" challenge, than these and other rival faiths (I also include Secular Humanism and Marxism.)  

And fifth, this is I point out the weakest of four arguments.  Why do Loftus and his fellow skeptics focus on it so much?  All I am doing here is taking Aristotle more seriously than John Loftus.  Loftus asks for an outsider perspective -- and I point out that history provides a few hundred million such perspectives, which we should listen to.  But I admit from the beginning this argument is the "warm-up band:" the best, I strongly believe, come in later chapters.  

With all that said, here's the Introduction.  Enjoy. 



How Christianity Passes the “Outsider Test for Faith”
(The Inside Story)!

David Marshall


Would a caribou run so swiftly if wolves had never chased its ancestors?  Would a halfback bother lifting weights if he expected no linebackers to stand between him and the goal?  Or might he be as thin as a sprinter in the 100 yard dash?  Biologists believe that what doesnt kill us can make us stronger collectively, if not individually, by culling the herd of the slight, dim, and slow.

Critics of the Christian faith may sometimes serve the same function.  If the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, as the Church father Tertullian said, well-directed taunts from its critics help keep the weeds down.  Persecution prevents the unrepentantly worldly from pretending to convert, and advertises the faith of heroic believers.  Hearty outside criticism likewise helps believers weed out venal televangelists, debauched priests, bogus science, simplistic exegesis, and glib answers to tough questions.  For helping in this way to keep the Church healthy, its critics may deserve sincere thanks of Christians.

At times, skeptics also help believers by reminding us of good arguments for our faith that we have forgotten.  Not on purpose, of course.  They suppose they have come up with a clever new argument that is going to écrasez l'infâme, crush the villainy, as Voltaire put it.  But as Sir Francis Bacon pointed out long before Voltaire was born, while science (understanding of the world based on systematic and repeatable empirical study) may at first seem to undermine Christian faith, deeper knowledge often brings us back to God.  Sometimes the very stones tossed in anger at the church gate, pile up around its base to form its most formidable defense. 

John Loftus doesnt look like a wolf on the prowl, or a Viking storming a windswept Irish abbey.  Usually shown in his trademark cowboy hat with a goofy grin on his face, Loftus appears affable and approachable, and writes with a colloquial, “ah shucks” frankness.  But taking down Christianity is his ambition.  He calls his web site, “Debunking Christianity,” and that is the almost invariable theme of daily posts there.  It is also the theme of his books, with titles like The End of Christianity, The Christian Delusion, and Christianity is Not Great, coauthored with like-minded skeptics like the Jesus myth historians, Richard Carrier and Robert Price, Peter Boghosian (author of the best-selling Manual for Creating Atheism), and Hector Avalos, a Religious Studies professor at Iowa State University who argues that Christianity tilled the soil for the Holocaust.  Loftus sees himself as a missionary for atheism, and there is no denying his zeal or promotional talent: his next book will reportedly be entitled, “Jesus is a Moral Monster.” 

But Loftussignature argument is what he calls the Outsider Test for Faith.  In its simplest form, the “OTF” is just the contention that Christians should be as skeptical about the faith in which they were (presumably) raised, as about, say, Islam or Inca worship of the Earth Goddess Pachamama.  We should step out of the well we’ve been living in all our lives, like the frog in the Chinese parable, and take in the broader world.  Loftus believes that if Christians dare to view their religion from an objective, outside perspective, they will abandon it in droves.  So the OTF is also presented as an argument against Christianity. 

Nor is Loftus alone in doing so.  The OTF has become a standard argument against Christianity, wielded for a variety of purposes, like a screw driver with which one turns screws, opens paint cans, beats drums, stands burglars down, or whisks debris out from under the fridge.  British philosopher A. C. Grayling uses the argument anthropologically: “The fact that different religions claim that their god or gods have different requirements in these respects should be evidence that religions are man-made and historically-conditioned.”[1] Greta Christiana lends the OTF a metaphysical twist: “If God (or any other metaphysical being or beings) were real, and people were really perceiving him / her / it / them, why do these perceptions differ so wildly . . . The explanation, of course, is that God does not exist.”[2] Socratic gadfly Peter Boghossian uses the OTF to deflate the intellectual value of spiritual experience: “A lot of people feel some religious belief in their hearts, Buddhists, Muslims, Mormons, people who think the Emperor of Japan is divine.  But they can’t all be correct.”[3]  In a debate with William Lane Craig, philosopher Walter Sinnott-Armstrong wielded a psychological interpretation of the OTF to play religions off against one another.  Boghossian also develops this form of the argument:

“Different people with different religious beliefs have different experiences that seem to come from different gods, even though the experiences seem quite similar from the inside.  Indeed, the majority of them must be wrong, if only Christian experiences are correct, as traditional Christians claim.  It follows that religious experience in general cannot be reliable, according to the Christian perspective itself.”[4]

The challenge of pluralism is of course not new to Christians.  Nor did the first Christians necessarily see “religious experience” as quite the Zero-Sum Game Boghossian and Sinnott-Armstrong make it out to be.  News about Jesus captured the hearts of early “outsiders” to the Jewish tradition, like Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Augustine, precisely because like a bridegroom waiting at the altar for her true love, they found that the Gospel consummated deep yearnings within their own ancient philosophy and mythology.  In the 2nd Century, already, Justin described Socrates, Plato, Pythagoras, and Xeno as “tutors to Christ,” who prepared him for that morning on an eastern Mediterranean beach when he met a man dressed in philosopher’s robes who told him about Jesus.  John Calvin echoed St. Augustine, and St. Paul, in writing of a “divine sense” in the human breast, that points us to the One True God. 

Which reminds us that the OTF is actually older than Christianity itself.  In Chapter Five of the Institutions of the Christian Religion, Calvin noted that the Epicureans long ago argued that the “endless quarrels” of religion were sufficient reason to dismiss them all:

“This endless variety and confusion emboldened the Epicureans, and other gross despisers of piety, to cut off all sense of God.  For when they saw that the wisest contradicted each other they hesitated not to infer from their dissensions, and from the frivolous and absurd doctrines of each, that men foolishly, and to no purpose, brought torment upon themselves by searching for a God . . .” 

Calvin replied by distinguishing awareness of God, which was experienced in many traditions, from “frivolous and absurd doctrines,” which he saw as the human contribution to religion. 

But positive appreciation of world religions can also bring people to Christ.  In the early 20th Century, G. K. Chesterton explained his own experience of conversion by telling how a sailor discovered England under the misconception that it was an island in the South Pacific.  This adventurous but incompetent sailor thus experienced the “fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again.”

That is my experience as well.  I have spent most of my adult life far from the Christian ghetto, in the secular academy, communist China, Buddhist Taiwan and Japan, in post-Christian England, and swimming in a sea of ancient religious texts.  I have also taken a personal and academic interest in the process by which much of the world went from “outside” to “inside,” that is, the history of Christian missions.  Like Chesterton’s sailor, the further I left Christendom behind, physically and intellectually, the more the facts seemed to bring me back to Christ. 

For those of us who grew up in the Church, great biblical themes often become the background Muzak to our lives, and their very familiarity obscures them.  His enemies never found him a bore, Dorothy Sayers noted, but Jesus followers “have declawed the lion of Judah and made him a house-cat for pale priests and pious old ladies."  At best, the Outsider Test should remind us to look for Jesus in the wild, not on flannel graphs and music stations that advertise how “safe” their programs are for children.  Safety and sterility are not boons promised us in the gospels. 

While I see great potential value in the OTF, because I think it helps demonstrate the truth of the Gospel, Loftus’ version of that argument demands serious revision.  There are logical problems, there are factual problems.  The most essential problem with Loftus’version of the OTF, I will argue, is that Loftus views the world outside the well in which he was raised – the great religions, what the Bible says about them, how the Gospel has spread across six continents and what it has accomplished for all the human race, including western skeptics and those they love – superficially, like a tourist.  Loftus himself is a native-born and sheltered resident of Christendom and the skeptical philosophe that is its rebellious step-child.  It is thus the tame house-cat that he and other “pious old ladies” of the New Atheism almost invariably tangle with, not the lion. 

The “Outsider Test for Faith” should be more than a rhetorical exercise.  It should be about the total human experience of searching for ultimate truth.  The test should reflect that great real-world experiment that has sifted beliefs, including both Christianity and Secular Humanism, by persecution and prosperity, by reason, morals, and imagination, as every great mission faith has been cross-examined over centuries by seekers within cultures tucked into isolated mountain valleys and remote South Pacific islands, and spread across continents.  The Gospel has been interrogated by Pharisees, other-worldly Gnostics, stony-hearted Stoics, sumptuously-dining Epicureans, Germanic barbarians, Norse raiders, Islamic iconoclasts, Advedic mystics, courteous neo-Confucian literati, paradoxical Taoists, Freudians, Nazis, Objectivists, Marxists, existentialists, Yanomami tribesmen, Mormons, New Agers, feminists, and followers diverse schools of scientism, just to get started.  Christianity has prospered under those siftings in unique ways.  Listening to the stories of those who came to Christ from diverse backgrounds -- even the few we will have time to tell here -- will bring us not just back to orthodoxy, but to a deeper appreciation of what God has been doing for the human race through this Jewish teacher, and for a possible solution to the challenge of intellectual diversity. 

While the Outsider Test is not the only way to test the credibility of the Gospel, I will argue that the questions it raises, when corrected for bias and informed by history and the study of human nature, can be valid and useful, and shed needed light on the story of humanity.  I will argue that Christianity passes four different forms of the OTF with flying colors, rendering the Christian message more credible in light of the useful challenges our skeptical friends set:

(1) The test of history.  In a straightforward sense, Christianity has attracted more believers from more ethnic, cultural, and intellectual clubs than any other religion.  If the OTF shows anything empirically, it shows that Christianity must possess remarkable reserves of plausibility, to have convinced so many people, of so many kinds, asking so many vital questions, and risking so much (in some cases) to follow Jesus. 

(2)  The test of prophecy.  From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is abuzz with promises that the Good News would spread to the “ends of the Earth.”  Those prophecies have come true, demonstrably and shockingly.  (Think how improbable they must have seemed on a remote hill in the Levant, or on a fishing boat bobbing up and down on the Sea of Galilee along the ethnic outskirts of an ancient empire that was soon to decline and fall).

(3) The test of impact.  In Genesis 12, God tells Abraham, “All peoples of the earth will be blessed through your seed.”  This promise has also come true, I will argue.  Despite our famous hypocrites, of whom I must sometimes confess to being one, and the cruelty of history in general, Christianity has not acted in human society as some sort of “poison” or “virus” as many radical skeptics maintain.  Even limiting our scope to observable effects on this planet, the Christian message has dramatically bettered the lives of people around the world in numerous ways, even in non-Christian countries.  It has served as a universal agent of reform, a seed that grows into a tree that yields succulent and life-giving fruit.  (Yes, a good deal of rotten fruit, too – which is why we need our critics, Christ’s kingdom is “not of this world,” and competition among churches can be a good thing.) 

(4) While Christianity first reaches new ethnic worlds as an “outsider” faith, a remarkable transformation often occurs.  The history of missions is like the Grimm story of the man whose lover was held by a witch’s spell in a castle.  He dreamed of a red flower, and on waking, searched until he found that flower.  He then visited the castle and touched the captive maidens with this blossom, breaking the spell and freeing them all.  One reason the Gospel caught on so widely is because the story of Jesus, who falls asleep and then wakens, affirms and fulfills sacred prophetic dreams, then liberates us from bondages to which peoples around the world stand in thrall. 

More prosaically, on the simplest level, Christianity provides a larger map of the world that embraces insights recognized by great pre-Christian teachers: Isaiah, Moses, Socrates, Plato, Zeno, Confucius, Lao Zi, the authors of the Poetic Edda and of the Vedas.  It summarizes and fulfills not just the Jewish “Law and Prophets,” but the highest ideals of Axial teachers who laid the foundations of the world’s great civilizations.  It also answers riddles, puzzles, even prophecies, that troubled the mind of Neolithic man. 

Seekers after truth in every tradition should thank skeptics like Loftus and Grayling for bringing such questions up again!  These matters have been on my mind a long time.  I first formulated a primitive version of the OTF in my 2000 book, Jesus and the Religions of Man, several years before Loftus started writing about it.  But we need to be reminded more often than taught, as C. S. Lewis put it.  We also need to be challenged.  Despite their intent to harm Christianity, with their critiques, Loftus and his allies bring to light an astounding set of facts about history, the promises of God, the hopes and fears of humanity, and how they are met in the life, teachings, deeds, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  Their challenges also gives me an excuse to recount what might be called the “Second Greatest Story Ever Told” (though to be frank, I doubt it has ever been told quite as it will be in these pages), the story of an “outside” faith that turned out again and again to fulfill truth at the heart of great traditions, transforming them from within.

Now here's Chapter One. 

[1] Grayling, The God Argument, 24
[2] Christiana, Why are you Atheists so Angry, 97  
[3] Boghossian, Manual for Creating Atheists, 114
[4] William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, God: A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist, 39

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