Tuesday, December 13, 2011

David Marshall: "The Middle Path of Truth"

I read Chapter 2 of David Marshall’s Jesus and the Religions of Man. Chapter 2 is entitled “The Middle Path of Truth: The Marriage of Faith and Reason”. In this post, I will use as my starting-point something that Marshall says on page 22:

“Are we only after mutual understanding and respect, a cheerful borrowing from one another’s astrology charts a reality that seems ‘real’ but corresponds to nothing objective in our common environment? Or do we want to find truth? If the former is all we want, we can exchange experiences, ‘give personal testimonies,’ if you will, and part as we meet. The latter, on the other hand, may involve confrontation, disagreement, raised voices: in a word, debate.”

I disagree. Why can’t sharing experiences be a way to learn the truth? Why do we have to create an environment in which one person has to be right, and another person has to be wrong? I’m not speaking in absolutes here, for there are abusive religions and belief systems that are out there, and it’s best to see their abuse as wrong. But I just don’t see what’s so great about polemics. I may be entertained and educated when I read Christian apologists debate atheists, but, to be honest, that does not feed my soul. Listening to someone tell his or her personal experience, strength, and hope, by contrast, provides me with wisdom and spiritual nourishment. And I think that the Bible, in many places, is a record of people’s experiences and testimonies. Are these things absolutely right? No. We see in Proverbs and certain Psalms the notion that this world is just and that the wicked are punished for their misdeeds. Job and Qoheleth, however, testify to something different. They’re all speaking from their own experiences. We get “truth” from hearing what different people have to say, not by pompously declaring that one voice is “right” while another voice is “wrong”.

Marshall acknowledges that all of the lasting religions of the world have some truth, for they have endured for so long. But he also does not believe that all religions are right, for they contradict each other. And he does not care for a cherry-picking approach to religion, for that amounts to treating religion is an aesthetic manner rather than hungering and thirsting for righteousness. There may be something to what Marshall is saying here. I, for example, can pick and choose what I like out of religions, but does that lead me to dismiss the hard decisions that religions may call me to make—-to stand for justice, even when there are challenges and obstacles? At the same time, I do not think that one has to be a rigid conservative Christian, one who allegedly does not cherry-pick from the Scriptures (and I say “allegedly” because even conservative Christians pick and choose, whether they realize it or not), of even a hard-care traditionalist of any religion, in order to stand for justice and to make hard choices. Martin Luther King, Jr. was quite liberal in his theology, and Gandhi drew from different faith traditions.

Marshall emphasizes the value of finding the “truth”, but my impression is that we don’t know the truth about a lot of things. Do we absolutely know what happens after we die? Can we absolutely prove that God is one who sends to hell all who do not accept Christ as their personal Savior? There is anecdotal evidence for all sorts of scenarios—-visiting heaven or hell, the soul escaping the body, reincarnation, etc. How can we say that one religion is absolutely right, while others are only partly right and partly wrong? How can we even determine that?

Overall, I did not care for this chapter, but one thing I did like about it was Marshall going into how different religions try to prove that they are right. They may appeal to miracles, or the growth and prevalence of the movement, or experience (you have to experience what we’re talking about to know that we are right). To his credit, Marshall points out the weaknesses of some of the criteria. For example, can we say that a movement is right because it is growing? Movements can expand and contract, for a variety of reasons. That doesn’t show they are right. The thing is that Christianity has used some of the same criteria to validate itself in the eyes of others. Marshall refers to miracles and tasting and seeing that the Lord is good. What sets Christianity’s use of such criteria apart from other religions’ use of them? I think that many religions can say “taste and see”: try our belief system out and see that it works for you. Maybe it will work, for many religions contain the wisdom of centuries of experience.

But Marshall will be seeking to differentiate Christian miracles from the miracles in legends later in this book. Stay tuned!

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