A few weeks ago I preached a sermon called “You Can Trust the Bible.” Like I’ve always done in talks like this I laid out a simple path: 1) You can trust the Bible textually. 2) You can trust the Bible historically. 3) You can trust the Bible personally.
With the first point I showed how the copies of various books of the Bible are so plentiful and precise that we can know with nearly perfect confidence that the words in our Bibles are the words originally written by the authors. With the second point I showed how the Bible stands up to repeated attacks on its historical value, proving itself more accurate over and over. This makes sense because the authors have such an incredible advantage over modern people in terms of knowing what actually happened (i.e. they saw it happen).
After making those two points, I pulled in for the clincher, “That’s why you can trust the Bible and give your life to Jesus.” Christians in the audience loved it. I got lots of pats on the back from those in our family.
But then I got some texts from people who weren’t so convinced. “How can I believe a book that endorses slavery?” “How can I trust a book that is so backward about women?” “How can I trust a book that damns homosexuals?”
Nearly every book I read in college and seminary about how to “prove” the Bible took my two steps. But modern people expect another step. They have a different standard for evaluating a religion. They want to know if they can trust it morally.
Modern people expect to know if they can trust every moral claim about a religion or philosophy before they jump into it. Think about this for a minute. Why do they have this expectation? I’ll give two reasons, but I’ll only focus on the second.
1) Religions and philosophies aren’t chosen these days because they’re true but because you agree with them. People chose a religion as an endorsement of the philosophy they already hold. It’s like getting a historical, cultural stamp of approval that backs up what you already believe.
2) They want an answer to this question because this is how modern religions and philosophies are evaluated.
I’m finding that more and more of my non-Christian friends approach spirituality in a semi-Buddhist way, so I’ll use that religion to make my point.
Buddha was an agnostic. He didn’t make claims about God; in fact he said it was a waste of time to desire to know what God is like. In his opinion, caring about God too much hinders you from real enlightenment. What matters is living right, thinking right, and feeling right. The patterns of feeling, thinking, and living that you develop will give you personal peace. But Buddha didn’t claim that he got his stuff from God. No, he thought hard and came up with this philosophy. He then told people to follow him by thinking hard. The only test he offered people for evaluating whether or not Buddhism is “true” is personal experience. Huston Smith (the most famous professor of world religions) summarizes Buddha’s approach and includes a few quotes from the sage himself:
“On every question personal experience was the final test of truth. ‘Do not go by reasoning, nor by inferring, nor by argument.’ A true disciple must ‘know for himself.’”
Not every person in the West thinks just like this. Not everyone connects their line of reasoning to Buddhism. But there are similarities among hard-working pragmatists, socially progressive secular humanists, well-meaning agnostics, generous atheists, and sweet and carefree New Agers. Ultimately they want to find a life-philosophy that helps them be good not bad, be good enough for ‘god’, or feel good today.
So, when I go on and on about historical arguments for the Bible and its factual nature, people yawn. Other people seem interested but unaffected on a spiritual level. The textual question doesn’t matter to them, nor does the historical question. They want the moral, life philosophy, personal peace, ‘be good’ question answered.
It’s an important question. And in the next post, I’ll explain how Christianity actually answers it.
Huston Smith, World Religions, 98. Quotes from Woodward, Some Sayings, 283.