On Religious Debate

I was reading in Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion that the first thing that people have to accept when they read the Bible is its authority. Later, things like literary analysis and historical proof aid those who believe. Thus says the Calvin:

“Unless this certainty, higher and stronger than any human judgment, be present, it will be vain to fortify the authority of Scripture by arguments, to establish it by common agreement of the church, or to confirm it with other helps. For unless this foundation is laid, its authority will always remain in doubt. Conversely, once we have embraced it devoutly as its dignity deserves, and have recognized it to be above the common sort of things, those arguments–not strong enough before to engraft and fix the certainty of Scripture in our minds–become very useful aids.” (Calvin, Institutes, 1.8.1)

It is easy enough to argue the existence of God. Many people will assent to the existence of God, but it takes consent to obey God, to follow God, to worship God. One kind wonders who speaks the truth about God and wander about aimlessly. A second kind follow a decrepit momentum and nominally identify themselves with the majority religion around them. A third kind dedicate themselves to the study and practice of their given religions and seek to bring others to their own understanding of the divine.

For the first group of people, I would say that protracted skepticism is unhealthy, and the desire for peace must not smother the quest for truth. For the second group of people, I would say that you might want to pay more attention to the invisible. For the third group of people, I hope you are right.

There are scholars who read religious and philosophical texts to seek out the truth. There are cut-rate documentarians who read Plato to find what he says about Atlantis, and they read the Bible to see what it says about the Antichrist and the end of the world. There are theologians and philosophers who read in order to enrich their own faith and see how to refute their opponents.

For the erudite scholars of religion, I would say that you have to find a way to a systematic cosmology so that you do not perish in the swamp of protracted inquiry. For the cut-rate documentarians, I would say that you have corrupted the History Channel and the Discovery Channel to the point where redemption may be impossible. Please, stop it. Your documentaries might be “interesting,” but they do not deliver truth. For the philosophers and theologians, I would say that it is good to read outside of your own traditions. Diversity is enriching and opposition strengthens you and forces you to better articulate your own positions.

Religious debate boils down to a push of pikes between distinct systems of belief. What people believe informs what further teaching they will accept; persuasion never works against those who are solidly convinced. Reason cannot banish God to nonexistence, and argument cannot call him into existence. The search for evidence to authenticate one’s own positions indicates a healthy intellectual life, but golden bullets for debate are met with platinum armor.

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