Thursday, August 28, 2014

Problems of an Unexamined Faith


Everyone has a worldview and a set of presuppositions — it can’t be avoided. But not everyone understands what their worldview entails or that they have presuppositions, much less what those presuppositions might be. Over the years, I have met a lot of people — including many Christians — who seemed to be like that.

Presuppositions and worldviews are not just things that are taught in school through formal education. Formal education is probably the least of it, because we are enculturated and conditioned toward them in thousands of ways. Sometimes the conditioning is overt, and sometimes more subtle, as beliefs and values are shaped. And most people do not bother to examine what they believe or why they believe it.

We are conditioned by a mélange of worldviews. It becomes like a cafeteria line where people select some of this and a bit of that with a helping of the other and often come up with a custom blend that is at odds with itself at important points because they are based on presuppositions that are mutually contradictory.

A good question to ask when there is discussion or disagreement over important matters is, “Why do you say that?” or “How do you know?” It usually does not take very long before you’ve reached the point where one does not have a clear answer — and that is usually the point of their presupposition. Of course, if we are going to use this strategy, we need to be prepared to answer the same sort of questions ourselves and to identify the point where our own presuppositions begin. (We should be prepared for that anyway, even if only for our own benefit and understanding.)

G. K. Chesterton said, “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” But, of course, people often close their minds on things that are not substantial but, rather, on things that are convenient — personally, culturally, intellectually, emotionally, or even religiously convenient. Yet, they would usually consider themselves to open-minded and receptive to new idea. Often enough, those who disagree get dismissed as close-minded troglodytes who just don’t “get it.”

We must always be aware of the presuppositions that are at work in our worldview. If we have an unexamined or little examined faith, or one that we maintain out of convenience, others will soon see through us and we will come off as propagandist. And that is closed-mindedness at its worst — arrogant, dogmatic, defensive and prideful.

Several years ago, I was in a series of discussions with people of a scientific bent. The topic was evolution, and the views of the participants often turned out to be a matter of scientism, empiricism and philosophical materialism. It was only with great difficulty that any of them were willing to admit to having presuppositions. And those who did tended to view their own presuppositions as the universal default, the rock-bottom ones that every “open-minded” person would naturally have if not for the brainwashing “superstitions” of Christianity or other religions. With other people with whom I have dialogued, the case was not so much that they denied having presuppositions when such were pointed out to them, but that they had been unaware of their presuppositions in the first place.

I find a similar situation with Bible-believing Christians when it comes to their interpretations of Scripture. They do not recognize that they are actually interpreting Scripture. They think they are simply reading it and seeing what it says, and that doing so requires no interpretation at all. And being unaware that they are interpreting Scripture when they read it, they are also unaware of the particular set of hermeneutics (principles of interpretation) they are using and how their understanding of Scripture has been conditioned by 2000 years of Church history, as well as by secular history, culture and a variety of other factors.