April 13, 2016

The Defense Never Rests: A Lawyer's Quest for the Gospel – a critique and reflections

My pastor recommended The Defense Never Rests some time ago as a kind of Lutheran alternative (or perhaps supplement) to C.S. Lewis.  I am rather new to Christianity, having spent five decades, more-or-less, as an atheist.  On its face, I was skeptical of the idea that the author, Craig A. Parton, had succeeded in making a substantial proof of the truth claims of Christianity.  If anyone had succeeded in doing that, I presumed, it would probably have made news.  While Mr. Parton’s arguments haven’t entirely shaken me from that initial suspicion, his book is nevertheless a worthy effort.

The book divides into roughly four sections.  The first is a sort of religious biography of the author himself.  Christian readers may find much in this section to relate to.  Even as a recent convert, I found material there that struck a chord.  However, if you are a hardened atheist and looking for the meat of Parton’s arguments, you might do well to tear the book approximately in two, and give the first half to some Christian relative – preferably one that has run away screaming from a liberal church.

The second section is a brief compendium of positions regarding apologetics in the abstract.  If one has an interest in apologetics as a discipline, this section provides some good introductory material.

The third section is the substance of the author’s argument, which I will talk about at more length.

The fourth section consists of ruminations about alternative apologetic material for those more likely to be persuaded by their emotions than their intellects – people whom Parton calls, somewhat awkwardly, “the tender-minded”.

There are also a number of appendices, as one would expect in a scholarly work.

My primary interest is in critiquing Parton’s core arguments and contrasting them with my own experience of faith.  I will summarize Parton’s arguments for those who have no intention of reading the book, but no summary is really adequate.  By all means, buy the book and read it for yourself.  Then you can skip my insultingly brief summary.

Parton begins boldly, making it clear that he is going to make his case for Christianity entirely on the secular naturalist’s terms.  He sets out to prove the reliability of the Gospels as historical documents, showing that their provenance is as good as, or better than, most other documents from the ancient world.  He then examines the writers of the Gospels as witnesses, showing, by various means, that they do not exhibit the characteristics of liars.  On this basis, Parton concludes that resurrection itself is proven to have occurred – by the standard of being reasonable though not beyond all possible doubt.  From the resurrection, he concludes Christ’s divinity, the veracity of his statements, and, by extension the truth of scripture as a whole.  It is a good case, overall.  It might prevail in front of a jury of a dozen average, unbiased people – if such a group of people could be found.

Personally, while I find the arguments reassuring, my own faith springs from other sources.  I give the author credit for attempting to take on materialism on materialism’s own ground, but, having spent a very long time in that camp, I can still imagine the objections from that quarter very clearly.  While I have sworn an oath never to advocate on the Devil’s behalf (as Mr. Parton probably has himself) I don’t believe it is an affront to God to speculate about the Devil’s counterarguments.  With respect, then, I will now dust off my atheist hat and put it on – being careful to remove it again once I am done, and make my closing comments from a much more comfortable Christian perspective.

First, there is a principle in inductive logic, dating back at least to David Hume, that proving extraordinary claims requires extraordinary evidence.  If I tell my wife I parked the car in the garage it is reasonable for her to believe me based merely on the fact that I do not lie as a matter of course.  On the other hand, if I tell her I parked an elephant in the garage, it would be prudent for her to have a look.  From any non-believer’s perspective, Christ’s resurrection is certainly an extraordinary claim.  By the usual inductive standards it should require a bit more than a lack of evidence of deliberate deceit.  Even if the documents and the witnesses look quite good, the evidence is probably insufficient to overcome the sheer uniqueness of the event.  I say “probably” because, to the best of my knowledge, this standard doesn’t have a quantifiable test.

The way the standard is supposed to work is that the “strange” assertion has to compete against all the existing “knowledge” that its acceptance would overturn.  So, if you want to prove that Santa Claus exists, you have to overturn your audience’s present knowledge about the flight characteristics of reindeer.  You have to persuade them that their parents, who may have eventually admitted to buying them Santa’s Christmas gifts, were either delusional or liars.  Et cetera.  By that standard, an intelligent atheist with what he assumes is a fairly extensive knowledge of how the material world works will simply balk at Parton’s argument.  Evidence just sufficient to convince a jury to acquit or convict will probably not do.

Now, balking at Parton’s argument certainly doesn’t disprove Christ’s resurrection either.  All manner of events occurred in the ancient world that we cannot now prove happened.  The evidence to either prove or disprove them conclusively has eroded with time.  What we are left with in this particular instance is a miserable epistemic dichotomy.  If you begin with a Christian worldview, the body of evidence for Christ’s resurrection looks fairly conclusive.  If you begin with a secular naturalist worldview – it just isn’t enough.1

Another argument Parton offers for the resurrection that falls a bit flat is Frank Morrison’s examination of the respective motivations of the Romans, the Jewish religious leaders, and Christ’s disciples.  Morrison argues that hiding Christ’s body would have been counterproductive for all three parties.  It would have undermined the authority of both the Romans and the Jews (the Sanhedrin) to give credence to the idea of Christ’s divinity.  The disciples, on the other hand, would have only helped to make themselves martyrs to a religion they would have known to be grounded in a lie.  Therefore, since none of these parties would have profited from hiding the body, Christ must have actually risen.  Sadly, this argument is simply a false dilemma.  Since the first of three Jewish revolts against the Romans occurred a mere thirty-three years after the Crucifixion, it is reasonable to assume that there were people in Judea in Christ’s time who would have been well-motivated to undermine the credibility of both the Romans and their Jewish collaborators.  While we have no record that Jewish revolutionaries removed the body, we cannot reasonably expect such a thing to have been carefully recorded.  We have no proof, but the mere possibility is enough the break the power of the dilemma.

Beyond the credibility of the resurrection itself, I would expect determined atheists to have difficulty with Parton’s sudden leap from the resurrection to the veracity of Christ’s words.  It does not follow that a being with supernatural powers (or perhaps a being who has merely been acted upon by supernatural powers) must always tell the truth.  I do not claim the Greek gods were anything but myth, but the people who believed that those gods existed also believed that they were profligate liars.  Here on Earth, power and truthfulness often have quite an inverse relationship.  I certainly do not believe Christ lied, but I do believe there is no strictly logical connection between supernatural power and veracity.  Satan, who has considerable power, is the king of deceptions.  Linking Christ’s resurrection to the necessity of his truthfulness is probably an unintentional instance of begging the question.  Again, I think the whole persona of the trinity is so well ingrained within the lifelong Christian’s mind that he leaps rather quickly from the resurrection to the veracity of Christ’s words, then to the veracity of scripture in its entirety – but for the non-believer new proofs are required at each step.  One can believe in the resurrection without, by logical necessity, believing the whole of Genesis.

I will take my atheist hat off now, take an aspirin, and pray that I have not incurred the Lord’s displeasure.  My final objection fits well enough within the Christian sphere.

Before Mr. Parton begins his case proper, he dispenses with the idea of a sort of “try-it-you’ll-like-it” approach to Christianity.  I will not argue with the cited philosopher, Anthony Flew, because a penetrating discussion of his position would be an essay in itself.2  In any case, I think I can make my point without resorting to that.  I believe that by rejecting the “try-it-you’ll-like-it” approach entirely, Parton is, at least by implication, narrowing the path to belief a little too much.  Although he goes on to discuss alternate approaches to faith for the “tender-minded” near the end of the book (via music or literature, for example) I was left with the impression that he believes the historical/legal approach is somehow better or more complete than any other.  I do not believe this is true.

The reason for my own belief, as best as I can express it, is disappointingly circular.  I believe because I can.  Let me unpack that.  If you told me I had to believe in Santa Claus to make everybody happy and to fit in with the world around me, I could easily pretend to.  I could figure out what reality + Santa Claus would have to be like, and talk to believing adults the way that I currently talk to believing four-year-olds.  But I could not actually believe in Santa Claus.  There are no hoof prints on my roof.  The stocks of toys on the shelves in the local Walmart dwindle suspiciously in late December.  Sure, I could act the part, eventually quite automatically – but belief is not a choice.  My experience of Christianity is nothing like that.  Somehow, midway through the Catechism I attended with my wife, I simply found that I believed.  In the beginning, I had only suspended disbelief – the way one does when one is watching a movie.  Then, there it was, unbidden and unexplained, – faith.  Now, this sort of phenomenon does not fit neatly into either of Parton’s categories.  I had certainly not been “tough-minded,” bowing only to substantial evidence, but I hadn’t been “tender-minded” either – bowing to some aesthetic event.  The Holy Spirit, in my case, planted faith inside my head with all the awe-inspiring drama of a mailman putting a letter in a mailbox.  It was just there – an anomalous presence in an otherwise fairly analytical life.  Now, with guidance this kernel of belief has gone on to make all sorts of far-reaching changes to the way I understand the world, and I struggle with all sorts of problems like any other wretched sinner – but faith itself wasn’t something that I put there or could have put there by my own effort.  This is not merely the regurgitation of Lutheran doctrine – it is my actual experience.

What is important about my experience of faith is that it is utterly worthless as a piece of evidence for anyone but myself.  The contents of my head are not open for public scrutiny.  A materialist skeptic could shrug my statements off as some mild form of mental illness – as a delusion pure and simple.  I could not prove such a person wrong.  It is perfectly possible, too, for a fellow Christian to doubt my faith.  None of that concerns me very much.  If I cared, I could as easily impugn a skeptic’s motives for being dismissive.  It is a common enough human tendency to bolster one’s own beliefs by attributing the beliefs of others to various defects, either in themselves or in their environment.  I believe what I believe.  God is known to each of us individually and in perfect silence – or he is not known at all.

From a broader perspective, the whole project of apologetics is something of an enigma.  Surely it is a good thing to bring people to Christ, and to strengthen our fellow Christians in their faith.  Some are drawn to that work, which can take a variety of forms.  Different people find different obstacles to the possibility of belief, and are amenable to different kinds of argument or persuasion.  Dr. Parton seeks to influence people with rigorous, rational minds, and there is an audience of people who will find his words helpful – myself among them.  Nevertheless, with deference to the author, all attempts at apologetics are attended by an air of pathos.  What, after all, is the apologist doing?  The apologist can ultimately bring no one to faith.  According to the scripture itself, only the Holy Spirit can do that.  Well, then the apologist can prepare the ground – make the work of the Holy Spirit a bit easier.  Without a doubt, apologists, teachers, pastors, friends, and all manner of other people cultivate the soil of faith – playing their deliberate or unwitting roles as the Holy Spirit’s instruments.  Yet, whatever we may do, none of us has any right to the smallest particle of pride.  God can plant faith in the heart of the hardest skeptic in the most unlikely circumstances if he so chooses.  He can grow a rose in granite.  Without our help.  Without breaking a sweat.  The best apologist is no better than a child bringing a badly made peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich to his father.  God, I imagine, must smile at us and love us – but more for the poignant sincerity of our effort than for our inevitably inadequate assistance.

For all my criticism, I personally think Parton makes a pretty good butter-and-jelly sandwich by the meagre measure of his human capability.  What more do I have any right to ask?

1 The evidence for early human evolution presents the same sort of case in the opposite direction:  To the secular naturalist the anthropological evidence proves the theory – but to the biblically-oriented Christian it is too much to ask to infer a human ancestor, sometimes complete with behavior, from a mere handful of broken and badly worn bones.  The “extraordinary evidence standard” (for lack of a better term) is not a law of nature but simply an acknowledgement of a common heuristic.  Generally speaking, people prefer to live in a world that is reasonably explicable.  If you abandon your worldview at the slightest provocation, or worse – fill it up with contradictions, you doom yourself to a life of unending chaos and confusion.  Thus, people are pigheaded in their own defense.  By their nature, they prefer to “know” a coherent fabric of falsehoods than to “know” nothing at all.

2 Briefly, Flew’s parable is a straw man.  Christians, at least since the Crucifixion, have not asserted the demonstrable, physical presence of a “gardener,” then retreated by degrees as evidence was found lacking.  They asserted the non-corporeal, untestable omni-presence of God from the Church’s beginning.  They did not assert this arbitrarily, to defend their weak position, but asserted it on the sometimes quite uncomfortable basis of immutable scripture.  While this presents its own philosophical problems, it is fundamentally different from Flew’s metaphor.