Thursday, April 10, 2008

Does Culture Matter?

A few weeks ago in Sunday School, we watched a video* of a lecture by Voddie Baucham, who addresses the question of why we believe thusly:

"I choose to believe the Bible because it is a reliable collection of historical documents, written by eyewitnesses during the lifetime of other eyewitnesses. They report supernatural events that took place in fulfillment of specific prophecies, and they claim to be divine rather than human in origin."

Mr. Baucham, a very dynamic speaker, here makes reference to the vastly more abundant and authentic accounts contained in the Bible, compared to the much thinner support for other historical texts that we take at face value:

AuthorDate WrittenEarliest CopyTime SpanCopies (extent)
Secular Manuscripts:
Herodotus (History)480 - 425 BC900 AD1,300 years8
Thucydides (History)460 - 400 BC900 AD1,300 years?
Aristotle (Philosopher)384 - 322 BC1,100 AD1,400 years5
Caesar (History)100 - 44 BC900 AD1,000 years10
Pliny (History)61 - 113 AD850 AD750 years7
Suetonius (Roman History)70 - 140 AD950 AD800 years?
Tacitus (Greek History)100 AD1,100 AD1,000 years20
Biblical Manuscripts: (note: these are individual manuscripts)
Magdalene Ms (Matthew 26)1st century50-60 ADco-existant (?)
John Rylands (John)90 AD130 AD40 years
Bodmer Papyrus II (John)90 AD150-200 AD60-110 years
Chester Beatty Papyri (N.T.)1st century200 AD150 years
Diatessaron by Tatian (Gospels)1st century200 AD150 years
Codex Vaticanus (Bible)1st century325-350 AD275-300 years
Codex Sinaiticus (Bible)1st century350 AD300 years
Codex Alexandrinus (Bible)1st century400 AD350 years

(Total New Testament manuscripts = 5,300 Greek MSS, 10,000 Latin Vulgates, 9,300 others = 24,000 copies)

(Total MSS compiled prior to 600 AD = 230)

(Note: I observe that the last two columns don't fit on the blog. Click the link for the rest.)

Now all this strikes me as pretty compelling in its way. But I have to ask myself: if I didn't know all this, would I still believe? I would; indeed, I did: upon hearing the gospel, I simply believed, and without asking for proof or evidence beyond the power of the message itself. And furthermore, if you assented to the bare facts cited above, this wouldn't make you a Christian.

In fact, I can't account for my faith in human terms at all, nor would I try. Evolutionists hear my testimony, and reply that this is strictly a neurological phenomenon, the evolved response of our brains to (1) natural selection favoring a hypertrophied social intelligence at the individual level, and to (2) social selection favoring collective mythologies that discourage free-loading and establish ingroup solidarity at the social level. Like I always say, that's probably part of the story. But it's not the entire story; according to theShorter Catechism:

Q. 31. What is effectual calling?

A. Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.

Or the Bible itself:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

"Dead in the trespasses . . ." With respect to Mr. Baucham, dead things don't choose to believe. Dead things don't choose anything. Dead things just lie there, rotting and stinky. God is the one that calls us to and enables our faith.

I was put in mind of all this upon reading Bobvis' account of his adherence to Hinduism:

As a man of science, I believe that there are mystical experiences that are:

  1. marked by pure joy
  2. marked by blinding clarity
  3. marked by a calming sense of connectedness with the world
  4. repeatable
  5. accessible

He quotes the great Razib Khan, who writes:

Reading the Bhagavad Gita, I am struck (as usual) by commonalities between mystical philosophies rooted in a method of psychological introspection and meditation . . . . The heightened consciousness of mysticism and the sense of the One is probably reflecting underlying neurological realities.

Now, both Bobvis and Razib are smart guys. Bobvis has an above-average understanding of the fundamentals of Christianity, and Razib, truth be told, probably knows the Bible better than I do. Having said this . . . I read at the Bhagavad Gita**, and the nicest thing I can say about it is that it is not culturally accessible to me, nor did it induce any mystical experience, repeatable or otherwise. But then, I'm not really in the market for a calming sense of connectedness with the world, or even its analogue within the Christian tradition. One could fairly say, "but you haven't tried it!" Alas, I can no more summon a felt need for mystical experience than a Hindu can summon a felt need for substitutionary atonement. And since the stakes in Hinduism are otherwise fairly low (Bobvis: straighten me out on this), it will have to be an opportunity I let pass by.

I felt the same way about the Koran***: as John Derbyshire once noted, it has no narrative thread, and such profundities as it may contain were not accessible to me. So, Islam spreads by (1) demographics and (2) the sword. Like Hinduism, it's appeal outside of its native cultural mileu is, shall we say, highly limited.

Christianity arguably enjoys the broadest cross-cultural penetration, which proves . . . nothing, or a whole lot, depending on your perspective.

*Footnote: We don't usually do videos in church, which I would find very . . . Baptist.

**Footnote: I was mainly curious to find the passage allegedly quoted by J. Robert Oppenheimer at the culmination of the Manhattan project. I decided that I didn't know what "I am become death" means exactly, but I was pretty sure it doesn't mean, in context, what Oppenheimer thinks it means.

***Footnote: I was checking on all those passages about killing Jews. I am inclined toward humility about my exegetical skills on others' sacred texts, but that is the subject of another post.


bobvis said...

since the stakes in Hinduism are otherwise fairly low (Bobvis: straighten me out on this), it will have to be an opportunity I let pass by.

I think you are right. They are certainly lower than the involved in spending eternity in heaven or eternity in hell.

Per traditional Hinduism, if you do not reach Moksha (Nirvana) in this life, you are simply reborn to try again in your next life. There is no rush.

I might point out that also per Hinduism, you can reach this state through your own religion as well. Hindus do not usually convert others because they believe that other religions are capable of getting there too. Devotion to Jesus would certainly be an acceptable way for a non-Hindu to get there. In my experience, most really religious Hindus actively discourage outsiders.
I'm not surprised by your lack of a revelation from reading the Gita. Reading it is akin to reading a recipe book. Without execution, it's not going to do anything for anyone.

Rick Darby said...

I have also found the Bhagavad Gita to be somewhat disappointing as a source of spiritual inspiration. It does, however, offer a metaphor that helps to understand the relationship between life in the world and the life of spirit, I think.

But followers of Hinduism, or its somewhat Americanized version Vedanta, would not claim that you can have a mystical experience from reading any book. They would be much more likely to say that experience of God comes from practicing a spiritual discipline, such as one form of meditation or another, or some kind of yoga.

I have found the Upanishads to be more vitamin-rich than the Gita. For some insight into the Indian conception of stages of consciousness and practices that lead to ever more refined consciousness, check out Patanjali's Yoga Sutras.

If you want the experience of a westernized "church" based on Indian religion, try a meeting of the Self-Realization Fellowship or the Vedanta Society if there is a group where you live. They have some of the problems of any institutionalized spiritual organization, but you might get a sense of the inner truth of Hinduism.

But there is no problem if Hinduism or any other non-Western religion doesn't "speak" to you. Christianity is a better fit for many people raised in this culture. I'm just suggesting that inspiration is where you find it. To me, Buddhism is inspiring, although I have scarcely ever been in a Buddist temple.