Published in 2016, Why Should I Believe Christianity? comes with some very enthusiastic acclaim, albeit from other Christians. Just inside the book’s jacket on the front end sheet, we find a number of plugs for the book. For example, apologetic heavyweight John M. Frame writes that “James Anderson is one of the best writers in contemporary Reformed theology and apologetics,” adding that “he has a wonderful gift for anticipating the questions in readers’ minds” and states that his book “is one of the best sources available for presenting the rationale of the Christian faith to an unbelieving reader.” K. Scott Oliphant calls Anderson’s work in the book “a masterful job” and says that his book “will be a necessary tool for anyone interested in addressing arguments against Christian truth.” Michael J. Kruger calls it a “fantastic book” and that in it “James Anderson offers one of the clearest and most compelling explanations for the truth of Christianity that I have ever read.” “Read it multiple times,” urges Kruger, “then give it to a friend.” “In this book,” writes R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “believers will find a compelling defense of the Christian worldview and the resources necessary to stand firm in a faithless age,” even though a five-star review on the Amazon.com page for the book states that Anderson’s book is “written to and for unbelievers.”
With that, here is my list:
- Does Anderson provide clear definitions for key terms relevant to his thesis (e.g., truth, knowledge, belief, certainty, universe, etc.)?
- Does Anderson explain whether or not there’s a purpose to truth, knowledge and belief, and if so, what are their purpose?
- Does Anderson identify a conceptually irreducible starting point?
- Does Anderson discuss the nature of the relationship between consciousness and its objects?
- Does Anderson discuss the nature of the concept of objectivity and relate it directly to the relationship between consciousness and its objects?
- Does Anderson inform a worldview which is based on objectively based rational principles which one can discover independently, through his own interaction with the world, and apply to the entire structure of his knowledge, or does he instead inform a worldview based on alleged historical events which no one alive today can claim to have witnessed firsthand?
- Does Anderson acknowledge man’s capacity to imagine?
- Does Anderson think it’s important to recognize and observe the distinction between the real and the imaginary in worldview considerations?
- Does Anderson indicate any concern or acknowledgement for the epistemological need to distinguish between things described as beyond the reach of the senses on the one hand, and things that might be merely imaginary on the other?
- Does Anderson acknowledge man’s ability to believe what he imagines is real?
- Does Anderson acknowledge the need for an epistemologically reliable means of distinguishing between what one believes and what one imagines?
- Does Anderson address the need for a reliable epistemological means of distinguishing between what we might be imagining from what is real? Or: of determining whether or not what we believe is in fact imaginary?
- Does Anderson acknowledge the power which imagination has over emotions?
- Does Anderson acknowledge the role that imagination plays when reading accounts of personal activity?
- Does Anderson recognize that when we get to the conclusion of any theistic argument, we still have no alternative but to imagine the god whose existence it’s offered to prove?
- Does Anderson acknowledge the epistemological need for a good theory of concepts?
- If yes, does Anderson indicate where a good theory of concepts can be found?
- If a good theory of concepts is not to be found in the bible (I’ve not found one in either the OT or NT), why not? (It speaks of animal sacrifice, dietary rules, fasting, circumcision, nakedness, adultery, war, vengeance, etc., but not concepts?)
- Does Anderson explain how one can believe that a god exists without making use of his imagination?
- Does Anderson believe that wishing makes it so?
- If not, does Anderson outline a metaphysics which presumes a relationship between consciousness and its objects that is consistent with both (a) his rejection of the view that wishing makes it so, and (b) his belief in the Christian god?
- Does Anderson explain how in the final analysis the doctrine of miracles does not reduce essentially to the view that wishing makes it so? (For didn’t Jesus wish the water into wine at the wedding at Cana? If this was not wishing, what was it?)
- Does Anderson ever appeal to something which we can only find by looking inward (as opposed to looking outward) as ultimate evidence for his god, such as the “heart” or “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit,” things which would be very difficult (if not impossible) for some else to distinguish from what Anderson may just be imagining? If so, how does he suggest that we distinguish these alleged internal sources from his imagination? (Or, does he?)
- Does Anderson understand that even if something does not exist, we can still imagine that it does?
- At any point does Anderson make a statement (especially in regard to the nature of truth) which involves an implicit or concealed appeal to the primacy of existence (such as “believing doesn’t make it true” or “wishing doesn’t make it so” and the like – i.e., statements which take for granted the fact that objects of consciousness exist and are what they are independent of conscious activity)?
Apologists may object to my questions by virtue of their affiliation with Objectivism and claim that they thus cannot constitute any basis for an internal critique. But this would land them in a trap of their own devising, given the nature of the questions I’ve laid out. Objectivism recognizes explicitly that wishing doesn’t make it so just as believing something doesn’t make it true – and for the same fundamental reason: conscious activity (e.g., wishing, believing, imagining, etc.) does NOT hold metaphysical primacy over reality. The exact opposite is the case: reality holds metaphysical primacy over conscious activity. Thus wishing, believing, and imagining are powerless against reality, and my questions are aligned directly with these fundamental facts. The attitude “Well that’s obvious and goes without saying!” indicates a readiness to shirk an important task of philosophical inquiry, namely making that which is implicitly known explicit and ensuring one’s philosophy is entirely consistent with truths of a most fundamental nature. The risk here – and enormous it indeed is – is that the nature of the relationship between consciousness and its objects lies submerged in the benthic depths of a murky sea, out of the thinker’s sight and thus out of his mind. As a result, he won’t know where he’s stepping – whether on solid bedrock, in quicksand, or on an epistemological landmine. What’s at stake is a worldview’s most fundamental assumptions, and one of the primary functions of worldview inquiry is to explore, expose and identify those fundamental assumptions, even if defenders would prefer they be kept concealed. So to object to my questions on this basis would tacitly constitute a dead giveaway that the worldview in the dock, namely Christianity, subsists on the primacy of consciousness metaphysics (e.g., wishing makes it so, imagination outranks facts, etc.) like a parasitical tick on a dog’s back.
Now wishing, imagining, and believing are all types of conscious activity which young and old alike perform volitionally. They are not the only types of conscious activity, but when it comes to analysis of a religious worldview, determining the degree of involvement in the minds of believers and their role in the believing process is of paramount importance, since we’re talking about things which are supposed to be invisible, imperceptible, beyond the universe, and in possession of qualities which are not analogous to anything which we do find in the world around us. As it’s been said before, the invisible and the imaginary look very much alike. The power of imagination is very strong, and when we imagine something, what we imagine seems very, very close to us, since it’s right there in our own minds. Moreover, in our youngest years when we haven’t explicitly grasped the proper relationship between consciousness and its objects (and most adults don’t grasp this at all consistently even later in life), imagination can profoundly influence what we believe and take to be true, its inventions seeming as though they were taking on a life of their own and taking up residence within our very egos. Consider the testimony of the grandfather of presuppositionalism himself, Cornelius Van Til who, in his paper Why I Believe in God, makes it very clear that, as a young child spending the night in the family cow-barn and devoting himself to the Christian god as a result of being scared out of his wits, his imagination played a central role in his decision-making when he chose to embrace theism. There he describes this centrally formative event in his life as follows:
Permission [to spend the night in the cow-barn] was finally given. Freud was still utterly unknown to me, but I had heard about ghosts and "forerunners of death." That night I heard the cows jingle their chains. I knew there were cows and that they did a lot of jingling with their chains, but after a while I was not quite certain that it was only the cows that made all the noises I heard. Wasn't there someone walking down the aisle back of the cows, and wasn't he approaching my bed? Already I had been taught to say my evening prayers. Some of the words of that prayer were to this effect: "Lord, convert me, that I may be converted." Unmindful of the paradox, I prayed that prayer that night as I had never prayed before.
Given the power of the imagination, our ability to believe that what we imagine is real, and our fallibility as thinkers, one would think that a worldview styled as so concerned with truth and the rudiments of its nature as adherents claim on behalf of Christianity, would provide believers the philosophical equipment necessary to distinguish between reality and imagination and ensure that their beliefs were not based on imagination or at least influenced by its inventions. I’ve not found anything in the Christian bible which does this, and I’ve examined numerous books on apologetics and defenses of Christianity as the one and only true worldview, and I’m aghast that biblical authors and modern apologists alike are so uniform in their muteness on this issue. My suspicion is that they don’t dare draw attention even to the mere possibility that what they believe could be at all intermingled with what is merely imaginary, for given the nature of their religious claims and their inevitable retreat to referencing alleged internal sources as the ultimate arbiter for their beliefs, they in fact have no way of reliably distinguishing between what they call “God” and what they are in the final analysis only imagining.
Apologists’ failure to address this strikes me as such a glaring liability in the defense of the Christian faith that it cannot be due to some mass oversight (cf. mass hallucination), but something more systemic at the core of their belief. A serious question which thinkers defending their worldview need to ask themselves:
Is the distinction between reality and imagination important? If so, how does your worldview address this distinction and ensure that what it affirms as truth is not contaminated with the imaginary?
Now if we find in defense after defense that Christian apologists ignore the distinction between reality and imagination with such regularity that one gets the sneaking suspicion that all discussion of the matter is systemically avoided, on what basis could we infer therefrom that this distinction really is important to apologists, but simply don’t have time or space to address it in their defenses? I would not infer this, nor would I encourage others to suppose that’s really what’s going on here. Quite the contrary, I think it’s because their worldview is informed to a large degree by contrivances of the imagination to begin with!
These questions are vitally important to me because I understand (a) the philosophical importance of an objective starting point, (b) the relationship between consciousness and its objects, (c) the need to found one’s worldview on reality as opposed to imagined alternatives, (d) the take-over effect of imagination when reading stories, and (e) the predatory nature religious belief has on an active imagination. Moreover, given presuppositionalism’s ostensible concern for “presuppositions,” the necessary preconditions of knowledge, the ability to “account for” one’s knowledge, etc., I’d think that of all strains of apologetics, this is where once and for all we would find apologists addressing man’s need to distinguish between what they imagine and what their religion calls them to believe, assuming they acknowledge the distinction in the first place. After all, Steve Hays has famously declared that “an imagined Jesus is just an imaginary Jesus.” But who in all of Christendom does not imagine Jesus when they read passages from the gospels, examine his speeches, sermonize his teachings, pray to him, sing to him, worship him, etc.? How do these activities undo the fact that the Jesus they imagine is imaginary? Blank out.
So while the length of my list of questions may cause some to wince (pray I don’t make it longer!), I don’t see how anyone could think the concerns overall that I raise in my questions are at all unreasonable, especially given certain off-the-cuff statements apologists have made.
For example, Christian apologist Mike Licona, in speaking about the resurrection story found in the New Testament, stated outright “I want it to be true.” Well, that’s motivation to believe something.
Elsewhere, in a public debate with Jeff Lowder, Christian apologist Phil Fernandes, in a rather unscripted moment, blurted out "I just believe that we are very good about lying to ourselves, and only accepting, uh, or interpreting the evidence the way we would like to." Here I take Fernandes to be speaking at least on behalf of himself, since he uses the first person “we” here; even if he really meant to denote non-believers, he does include himself. So it’s an admission of sorts that he is susceptible to the same self-deception he wants to accuse others of indulging.
Finally, in his book Apologetics to the Glory of God, presuppositionalist John Frame writes “A person with a wish to be fulfilled is often on the road to belief” (p. 37). And while Frame goes on to insist that religious faith is not wish-fulfillment, he does explicitly couple wishing and belief here, and he’s clearly got company.
Wanting Christianity to be true, lying to ourselves and interpreting evidences according to our preferences, getting on “the road to belief” via wishing, etc., all openly scream out “Subjectivism!” If an atheist were to make statements of this sort on behalf of their non-belief, no doubt apologists would be all too pleased to cite them repeatedly and at full volume. But in fact, statements like this not only give us a clue to some of the motivations underlying religious devotion, but also a glimpse into the operative (as opposed to professed) epistemological assumptions involved in rationalizing religious belief in the mind of the believer. If the religious view of the world does in fact assume the metaphysical primacy of consciousness (cf. wishing makes it so, believing makes it true, objects of consciousness conform to the contents of consciousness, etc.), then we would expect, when the going gets rough at any rate, to find believers appealing to subjectivist epistemology, for such appeals would at least be consistent with the assumption of metaphysical subjectivism inherent in theism. But, from what I have found consistently and without exception in my experience, human consciousness does not have the power Christians imagine their god’s consciousness has – e.g., the ability to wish material objects into existence, to alter the nature of mind-independent objects by intentions alone, etc. And not only human consciousness – indeed, no specimen of consciousness found in the world possesses any such power. But these facts do not stop us from imagining such a consciousness! If only believers would explicitly grasp the principle that their epistemology needs to be consistent with the nature of their own consciousness (cf. Dawson’s Razor)!
On a more general note, it should be clear from the questions I’ve listed above that, in reviewing books of this sort, my objective per se is not to critique its structure or writing style, gauge its tone or its use of figurative language. Rather, my focus is primarily on its content relative to the goal of vindicating Christianity given the concerns I’ve developed and raised against Christianity through my own research and writing. I already know that James Anderson is not a sloppy writer, but I also know from the writings of his which I have examined that he’s as prone to overlooking (perhaps even dismissing?) the concerns I’ve raised in my criticisms of Christianity and Christian apologetics as other apologists have been, which I find to be disappointing, though not surprising. But, perhaps James will sick one of his students on me for extra credit. In fact, if Anderson himself will not interact with my questions and points of rebuttal, I would welcome one of his students to enter into dialogue here. If Christianity is true, then there should be no fear or reluctance in doing so.
One thing which did stand out to me when I first opened the book, is the dedication Anderson gives at the beginning of the book. It reads as follows:
to Eilidh, Erin and Luke: Three proofs of God’s existence
Now unlike Anderson, I have only one child, a daughter. And, also unlike Anderson, I don’t think of my daughter as a proof of the existence of something that’s available to me only by means of my imagination. Rather, I think of her as my greatest creation, for she is in fact a bearer of not only my image, but also my name, my fatherly love, and my DNA (and I have the test results to prove that!). By referring to myself as her creator, I am not expressing hubris – I leave that to theists to do on the part of the god they imagine. Rather, I’m declaring my role and responsibility as her father, which I embrace with all the conviction and passion within me. For I didn’t just snap my fingers or make a wish and – Poof! – my daughter came into being ex nihilo as a finished product. No, quite the contrary, her development is something I have labored on, as has her mother, my wife, and as with other endeavors I take on, I face the possibility that I can fail, while determined to succeed in flying colors. For me, it’s about taking full ownership of the responsibility of nurturing, teaching and guiding my daughter with all the strength, joy and affection that is within me. There’s no sense of determinism involved here, for my daughter was not put here as a result of some cosmic design or “plan” that’s existed for all eternity, but by the choices and actions which her mother and I have deliberately taken to give her the best life within our means.
So with that, I’m off to digest chapter 1 of James Anderson’s Why Should I Believe Christianity? If I’m not back in a month, send out a search team!
by Dawson Bethrick