Tag Archives: Knowledge

Cultural Belief

USA_EarthThere’s a common atheist objection to Christian belief that goes like this: “You just accept Christianity because you were born in America. If you’d been born in India, you’d likely be Hindu.” Well, statistically, that’s a strong possibility. But do you see any problems with this as an objection to the tenets of Christianity? First and foremost, it doesn’t address the truth claim of Christianity. Regardless of statistics, is Christianity true or not? Well, the atheist assumption here is that all religions are equally false, so they don’t actually address the only question that really matters. But if we’re trying to see if one of those religions isn’t false, then that’s a bad assumption from which to start. Secondly, the origin of our beliefs does not refute the truth of the proposition. The idea that it does is called the genetic fallacy. We can believe a true statement for bad reasons, and we can believe a false statement for what appeared to be very good reasons. Moreover, let’s turn the scenario around for a moment. The Soviets and Red China mandated atheistic education in their schools. We could just as easily say that a Chinese or Russian atheist is such only because of the culture he grew up in. Again, there would be a statistically higher probability of a person being an atheist in a country where that’s all that was taught in the schools, but it is certainly not a foregone conclusion. Clearly, it does not follow that the American Christian, the Indian Hindu, or the Russian atheist hold those beliefs only because of where they were raised. In fact, the atheists typically saying this are western, having grown up in the US where atheism is a minority view among the general population. So by their own existence as atheists, they show that the predominant culture does not determine what we believe.

Let’s look at this a little more in a different light. Suppose two people live in two different cultures that each have a certain belief about the roundness or flatness of the earth. Suppose the “Flatters” culture instructs their citizens from their youth up that the earth is flat, while the “Rounders” culture likewise instructs their citizens that the earth is – you guessed it – round. However, regardless of what either culture tells their eager young students, the earth actually is a certain shape, objectively. It may be flat, or a sphere, or some completely different shape that neither culture had considered (Ringworld, anyone?). Even if one’s culture consistently said the world is flat, you could still freely reject that false knowledge, right? Meanwhile,  if that young citizen of our imaginary realm of Rounder only believed the earth is round simply because of his culture, he doesn’t have an issue with knowledge, but with epistemology. The knowledge (i.e. “the earth is round”) is correct. It’s his epistemology – the justification for his belief – that may be lacking (i.e. “I believe the earth is round because my culture told me so and I’ve never looked for any supporting evidence”). This is why the apostle Peter tells us Christians to be able to give the reason for the hope that we have.[1] Knowing the “what” is great (for the one in the know), but understanding the “why” behind it is how you help others accept the truth you already know.

Now, if I grow up in a Christian culture, I have been given a “shortcut” to true knowledge that someone growing up in another culture might not have. This is similar to knowing that the earth is round when they think it’s flat. I have a head start compared to them, but my having a shortcut or head start doesn’t invalidate the knowledge I have a shortcut to. This brings a significant responsibility, though. Will I leave others to grope in the dark for the truth, as Paul described,[2] while I relax, content in my knowledge? To quote Paul again, “May it never be!” My friend, if you are a skeptic that’s used that objection leading off today’s post, I encourage you to set aside this shallow objection and dig deeper. And if you talk to Christians who can’t answer your question, don’t be content with that. Keep asking. Relentlessly pursue truth. If you’re a Christian reading this, know that you’ve been given a blessing not to be wasted or taken lightly. You, too, must dig deep to be ready to answer the tough questions when they come. I can’t say I’ve worked out all the answers myself, but I welcome the company of both skeptic and fellow believer on this expedition as we dig for gems of truth. 🙂

“And Jesus said, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; nobody comes to the Father but through Me.” – John 14:6


[1] 1 Peter 3:15, ESV.
[2] Acts 17:26-27, NASB.

Old Books

freeimages.com/pcst, file#1560855I came across an article recently about the top ten new books to read in the coming year, and it reminded me of a statement by C.S. Lewis about the value of old books. With that in mind, I’d like to put Lewis’s statement out there for a new generation that may not be familiar with it, and give a few examples of how his assessment of new vs. old can help us today. I’ll refrain from any attempt at a top ten list, but hopefully, you’ll come away this week with a sense of what to include in your own “must read” list for the new year. Let’s start by rejecting what Lewis famously called “chronological snobbery”: “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” He continues,

“You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”[1]

What solution did Lewis propose?

“The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not of course that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”[2]

Let’s flesh that out a little. Reading old books helps us in the following ways:

  • It helps to protect us from repeating past mistakes. We may find our “new” problem was actually already soundly resolved centuries ago if we only do some research. As George Santayana remarked, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”[3] As I’ve read more old books lately, I’ve been surprised at how many “modern” attacks against Christianity were being addressed by early Christians like Justin Martyr & Irenaeus over 1800 years ago.
  • Reading old books helps us to recognize timeless truths as we see some principles successfully applied to various situations over the ages. It eliminates the variables of time, geography and culture as we see that some things were just as true for the ancient Greeks and the Jews and the Romans as they are for us today.
  • Reading old books keeps us humble as we realize that our small contributions to history are only possible because we stand on the shoulders of giants. Yet this should also inspire us to follow in their footsteps and pick up where they left off.
  • Reading old books keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously. The long-term perspective that results from reading authors from a range of thousands of years helps us see just how silly some of our current seriously-held views are. Just as fashion trends come and go, ideological fads do too. And many of our current trendy views will seem just as ridiculous 100 years from now as parachute pants from the 80’s seem today.
  • Reading old books stretches us mentally. Yes, older books are often more difficult to read. The language tends to be more formal, and when it’s not, the slang used may be difficult to decipher without looking up some archaic words. But gold is rarely found without hard work, and there are some beautiful nuggets of wisdom hiding in some of those awkward (to us) passages. To draw a practical analogy, a lot of my professional growth as an engineer has come through trying to follow what a senior engineer had done to solve a problem that was beyond my skill set at the time. Don’t shy away from stretching yourself.

With that in mind, what will you read this year? The same faddish books that will be forgotten in a year? Or something that’s stood the test of time? Books you can read and safely let your mind atrophy without fear of any mental exercise being required? Or maybe something a little tougher to digest?  Books that will congratulate you just for showing up? Or books that will make you realize you’re in the presence of greatness, and inspire you to build on their foundation and pursue still greater heights? Books that will simply affirm your own views? Or ones that will challenge the errors you may be overlooking? Invest your reading time wisely this coming year.


[1] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (San Diego: Harvest/HBJ, 1955), p. 207-208.
[2] C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 202.
[3] George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Volume I, 1905.

 

“Breadth and Depth”

Breadth Depth“Breadth and depth” is a term used to denote the knowledge expected of applicants for the Civil Professional Engineer exam. The morning exam tests for general engineering knowledge over a wide area (breadth), while the afternoon exam wears you out in one area like structural or water resources (depth). I took an online class on structural connection design last fall from Dr. Bill Thornton, one of the leading experts in the world in that area, that reminded me of this distinction. While he is a very capable engineer in general, I probably would not have signed up for the class if he had been teaching on concrete design, or timber design. I’m sure he could’ve taught me a thing or 2 in those areas as well, but the draw of his class was that he has devoted much of his long engineering career to one specialty, structural steel connection design, and become a world-renowned expert in that area. He has exemplified having a wide general knowledge base and a thorough specialty knowledge. What lessons are there for us here?

While academic and professional learning is beneficial, and striving for the higher end of the spectrum is admirable, there is an area of learning that can yield rewards far beyond one’s career, even into eternity. In Paul’s final letter before his execution, he tells Timothy to “be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.”[1] But how do you handle accurately something with which you aren’t familiar? Your first time using any new tool, toy, computer program, or any other unfamiliar item is often pretty clumsy. How do you get better? You study it and practice it. So then, as Christians charged with the solemn responsibility to “go and make disciples of all nations”, we have to ask ourselves, are we striving to develop “breadth and depth” in our spiritual knowledge? It seems there is a spectrum of different degrees of knowledge possible, both in the secular sense (like Dr. Thornton’s career) and in the spiritual sense (like our daily walk with Christ):

  • Shallow knowledge over a narrow area – Are you an “amateur Christian?” Is this Christian life just a Sunday hobby for you? John 3:16 is powerful, but the Bible is an inexhaustible gold mine of truth being overlooked if that’s as far as you’ve explored your beliefs. God will not be a hobby for anyone!
  • Shallow knowledge over a wide area – Are you a “jack of all trades and master of none”? Do you know a lot of different Bible stories and comforting verses, but only scratched the surface in terms of meaning, significance, and connection? All those separate stories are joined up below the surface as part of God’s big story. Dig deeper!
  • Deep knowledge over a narrow area – Are you a “specialist”? So fascinated with eschatology (end-times), angels, or some other narrow field that you’ve neglected all other areas? Focus on an area of study is great for growth, but just like an athlete that only trained one arm or one leg, unbalanced growth isn’t necessarily good. Diversify!
  • Shallow knowledge over a wide area & deep knowledge over a narrow area – Are you a “hybrid”? Both a specialist and a generalist? Have you dived in and become an “expert witness” in one area (i.e. the historical reliability of the New Testament), but are still able to answer general questions outside that area? Great! Now pick a new area to grow in!
  • Deep knowledge over a wide area – If you’re in this boat, quit reading my blog and start your own! This level of knowledge is a rare and special blessing not to be kept to yourself, so start applying all that knowledge! Every generation needs a Charles Spurgeon, or a C.S. Lewis to shed God’s light on all different subjects in profound ways. Is there a point where you’ve “made it”? No, not this side of heaven. But like I said earlier, God’s Word is inexhaustible, so never stop learning!

So which one are you? More importantly, which one will you become? “To whom much was given, of him much will be required.”[2] Here in America, one can easily, relatively cheaply, and with zero risk to one’s life, accumulate a biblical reference library that many preachers in other countries couldn’t amass in a lifetime, and might very well die for if they did. We have multitudes of Christian radio stations that are illegal in other countries. The internet has opened the floodgates of study materials, podcasts, blogs, curriculum (often free), and even online degree programs. We have more ability to study and understand God’s Word and share with others than humans have had since Jesus was here to ask in person. We are… without excuse.


[1] 2 Timothy 2:15, NASB.
[2] Luke 12:48, ESV.