Apologists Behaving Badly: Dan Story Part Two

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I have previously written about some of the problems I see with Dan Story’s overall apologetic approach. As I stated in my first post on this subject:

…while I appreciate Story’s sincerity and faith, I have been disappointed with some of his specific arguments/claims made in regard to 1) the exclusivity of Christian truth and 2) criticism of other religions and/or philosophies.

In this post I hope to expand on some of my earlier criticisms and also highlight several areas in which I think Story’s lack of engagement with non-Christian religions is apparent.

All book quotations are taken from:

Story, Dan. Christianity on the Offense: Responding to the Beliefs and Assumptions of Spiritual Seekers. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1998.

Early in his book Story makes the following statement:

The Christian worldview, like any other worldview, stands or falls according to its own internal and external consistency—not on the fallacious nature of other worldviews. Consequently, the ideal way to defeat conflicting worldviews is not to strike them down one by one but to show the veracity of Christianity with regard to how it corresponds to reality and passes the truth-tests outlined in the previous (sic) chapters.

Here then, Story tells us that the way to establish the truth of Christian faith is not to demonstrate the “fallacious nature” of other worldviews. He follows this up with several chapters attempting to demonstrate the “fallacious nature” of other worldviews.

Also, I believe Story does his Christian readers a disservice by stating:

In the following chapters, I will compare Christianity with its chief competitors, not just to show the bogus nature of the non-Christian views, but to verify the Christian position by demonstrating that it alone is internally and externally consistent and corresponds to reality as universally understood and lived out.

Story insults his readers twice in this paragraph. First, he sets up the absurd idea that he, Story, is capable of showing that Christian faith “alone is internally and externally consistent and corresponds to reality as universally understood and lived out.” This statement is pure nonsense. If what Story claims were true, then there would be no need for faith in Christianity. As Kierkegaard argued, we maintain our Christian faith because it is absurd and certainly not because it is a demonstrable representation of reality.

Second, is his dismissive and arrogant statement about the “bogus nature of the non-Christian views.” I imagine that readers of Story are faithful Christians seeking to grow in their faith and understanding of not only their own religion, but opposing views as well. But rather than engage in a useful and productive examination of competing — but often very similar – views, Story denies his readers the opportunity for real understanding. He leaves them unprepared for any realistic engagement with competing views.

The errors in this book are so voluminous that it would be impossible to list them all. Story condemns:

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses
  • Secular Humanism
  • Mormonism
  • Naturalism
  • Pantheism
  • Postmodernism

In each case Story clearly shows his surface understanding of these faiths/philosophies and proceeds to present caricatures of each. For purposes here I will briefly discuss Story’s misrepresentation of Pantheism.

Pantheism is the view that God and the Universe are one and the same and that any differentiation made between two objects is subjective and arbitrary. In relation to humankind, Pantheism asserts that there is no distinction made between an individual and the universe itself. The individual is, as Carl Sagan once observed, the Universe becoming conscious of itself.

Very few would claim Pantheism explicitly. Rather, pantheistic ideas underly many schools of Buddhist thought, Chinese philosophy, and is at the root of the oldest religious literature we possess, the Hindu Upanishads. (Although it should be noted that Spinoza offers up a compelling Western argument for a pantheistic view in his Ethics.)

To this, Story claims:

One of the significance results of this view, and one that forever separates pantheism from Christianity, is that God is not sovereign over the lives of people. He does not intervene in human affairs through miracles and answered prayer. We are left alone to deal with the struggles of life and to work out our own salvation.

First off, to discuss Pantheism while employing the Christian “He” to describe God, Story has already gone off the rails. If you approached a Japanese Zen Buddhist in 1250 AD and started talking about 1) God and 2) how “He” is sovereign, you would very likely receive a reply akin to: “What the hell are you talking about?”

Story makes no effort here to discuss Pantheism on its own terms. No attempt to establish understanding before launching into an incoherent critique. How can God “intervene in human affairs” when the pantheistic view is that there is no differentiation between, well, anything? These ideas are generally — and widely — discussed in terms of “dual” or “non-dual” and the various religions underpinned by some form of pantheistic outlook have discussed these ideas for centuries. The terms “dualism”, “non-dual” or similar variants are not to be found in Story’s book. Odd, given that even the most basic and introductory literature on pantheistic religions discuss these ideas early and often.

Of course, Story is also incorrect in claiming that pantheists “are left alone to deal with the struggles of life and to work out our own salvation.” Not only do pantheistic religions have no concept of “salvation” in the Christian sense but also, pantheistic religions do NOT believe we are “left alone” to go through this life without divine help and compassion. This claim is patently false. I am left to wonder what primary sources Story relied on in writing his book. It seems that he must have only used secondary sources; and bad ones at that.

Story continues:

The goal of humanity is to recognize this. Our lives should be spent focusing on becoming united with God, not on the joys of living and serving God in the here and now. This is done by meditation and purging the body of all earthly cravings. We do not need to be concerned about our own welfare or, for that matter, the welfare of other people. After all, pain and suffering and material things are maya.

I would like to know what pantheistic religion teaches anything that even remotely resembles this statement. By using the phrase “becoming united with God” Story demonstrates his ignorance of the difference between Pantheism and Panenthism. In Pantheism, there is no ultimate differentiation; the Universe is God. Panentheism is the belief that God exists within everything in the Universe. This is an incredibly important distinction — with massive implications in Eastern thought — and for Story to make such an elementary mistake is simply another demonstration of the contempt he has for his readers.

I also have to wonder if Story has ever met a Buddhist or a Hindu. By writing: “we do not need to be concerned about our own welfare or, for that matter, the welfare of other people” — Story once again demonstrates his understanding of pantheistic religions is hopelessly faulty. Does Story really expect other Christians to take his work seriously when he shows such little regard for accuracy? Story is too busy showing Pantheism to be “bogus” that he can’t be bothered by how it is actually understood and practiced by those who accept the view.

And of course we can’t ignore the fact that Story uses the term maya. This is very much a Hindu-specific term and idea (although it is accepted by some Buddhists) and so to apply it Pantheism generally — and without serious qualification — the term simply doesn’t make any sense.

There is much more that could be said about Story’s presentation of Pantheism but we’ll conclude with:

Pantheism offers no verification for its truth-claims other than philosophical subjectivism—personal opinion.

As Pantheism could be termed as materialistic idealism it is, perhaps, one spiritual outlook that is in harmony with demonstrable science. Can the same be said of some Biblical truth claims or even the very existence of a transcendent personal God?

And lest we forget, Story expects us to accept the following claim as demonstrable and self-evident:

The evidence for the authenticity, reliability, and authority of the Bible is overwhelming. In fact, the Bible alone among the world’s religious documents can verify its truth-claims with concrete, verifiable evidence.

This is absolute nonsense. The central metaphysical truth-claims of the Bible are non-demonstrable. If Christianity were self-evident faith wouldn’t be required. And yet, faith is the very essence of Christianity.

Christians deserve better than this. Story’s brand of apologetics is 1) overconfident, 2) poorly researched, 3) disingenuous and 4) more likely to harm Christian faith than to help it.

Anything short of real engagement with non-Christian views isn’t apologetics. It is simply rhetorical word games.


Detached Engagment

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When I first began studying Buddhism I had a very difficult time understanding the concept of non-attachment.  I could easily see how attachment to wealth, power, status, etc. all lead to ultimate frustration because all things are impermanent.  There is nothing permanent in the world that we can latch onto. Our futile efforts to do so lead us to false views as we cling to that which will eventually be no more.  At the same time, however, it is equally clear that certain attachments bring us happiness.  Our family relationships.  Our interest in philosophy.  A scientific curiosity about how the world works.  Was the Buddha suggesting that we eschew *all* attachments; even our attachment to the very concepts of happiness or peace itself?

Over the past several years, due to my experience with lay Buddhist practitioners, speaking with various monks and nuns, and by participating in Buddhist services, I have come to realize that my understanding of attachment was deeply flawed.  The Buddha was not advocating a Sangha wherein monks, nuns, and laypersons purged all sense perceptions or feelings of happiness and sadness.  Nor did he teach that personal relationships be sterile and unfeeling.  Rather, the Buddha understood and acknowledged the reality of the human condition.  We feel.  We form relationships.  We ultimately pass on.  So detachment is not to eschew the very nature of the human condition — as if somehow this abject reality could be overcome.  Rather, detachment means to fully engage life pursuing wisdom as outlined in the Noble Eight-fold Path.  All the while understanding that all is impermanent.  That nothing we do can prevent the realities of misfortune, poverty, sickness, and death.  

Such a view is not fatalistic.  It is liberating and reinforces the notion that today — this very moment — is an opportunity to experience the joys and sorrows of living.  We can do so unwillingly of course; kicking and screaming along the way in an attempt to make permanent that which ultimately fades away.  But, even our attempts to prolong moments of great joy will eventually prove futile; creating within us a sense of disappointment and frustration.  Rather than cling to that which cannot be held, grasped, or put under our control, we should engage the world in wisdom.  With an understanding that it is possible to embrace the realities of human experience — both good and bad — while remaining detached from any notion of control.  

Addicted to Disputation

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The Brahmajala Sutta, a part of the traditional Buddhist Pali Canon, is a discourse on the Dharma, its virtues, and culmination.  It is also largely a discourse of negation.  That is, in addition to affirming certain doctrines, the Buddha spends considerable time in laying out views that are incorrect and do not align with a proper understanding of the Dharma. The text itself bears the marks of an oral tradition with verses and phrases repeated, compounded, and then repeated again.  In this form the sutta was passed on by members of the Sangha long-before being written down.

Throughout this lengthy discourse the Buddha explores both metaphysics and the mundane; touching on practices, viewpoints, and behaviors that the Buddha, because of his understanding and wisdom, eschews.  The focus is on negating many of the things we may believe make us holy/wise/worthy/righteous etc…  This is not to say reality, wisdom, and holiness themselves are negated.  Rather, the concept that holding these views in themselves is somehow meritorious.  The Buddha (Tathagata) assures his listeners that while he does indeed hold certain metaphysical and moral views:

These viewpoints thus grasped and adhered to will lead to such-and-such distinctions in another world.  This the Tathagata knows, and more, but he is not attached to that knowledge.  And being the unattached he has experienced for himself perfect peace, and having truly understood the arising and passing away of feelings, their attraction and peril and the deliverance from them, the Tathagata is liberated without remainder.

To the Buddha, any view held in the abstract is of no value and as such, he felt no need to defend his direct experience.  He didn’t believe anything.  He knew it by experience.  His teaching was that all were capable of “knowing for [themselves] perfect peace, [truly understanding] the arising and passing away of feelings” on the path to liberation.

In my view, such spiritual self-confidence comes as a result of faith.  Not faith in abstraction, but in one’s own divine experience.  When we feel confident in our own views, there is little need to “defend” them because ultimately, there is nothing to defend.  If I place my hand over a flame, I understand heat from experience and no argument or quibbling over theory can detract from that direct knowledge of flame/heat.

Yet when it comes to spiritual matters we often find ourselves becoming defensive and protective of our beliefs in the abstract.  As if we are trying to convince others — and perhaps ourselves — that some abstract notion is indeed accurate or “true.”  There is nothing inherently problematic with discussing diverse views.  However, there is always the temptation to engage these discussions as if they were some sort of sport or competition.  Again, believing that if we can establish the rational, theoretical, or philosophical superiority of our particular beliefs, we have accomplished something of value.  The entire notion is absurd.  But we persist in passionately advocating for things which are ultimately of little importance.  Of us, the Buddha said:

Whereas some ascetics and Brahmins remain addicted to disputation such as: ‘You don’t understand this doctrine and discipline — I do!’  ‘How could you understand this doctrine and discipline?’  ‘Your way is all wrong — mine is right’ ‘I am consistent — you aren’t.’  ‘You said last what you should have said first, and you said first what you should have said last!’  ‘What you took so long to think up has been refuted!’  ‘Your argument has been overthrown, you’re defeated!’ ‘Go on, save your doctrine — get out of that if you can!’ the ascetic Gotama refrains from such disputation.

Wisdom, I think, is to be found in refraining from “addictive disputation” as we focus on the underlying, real, and substantive reasons and motivations behind our spiritual or religious practice.  Arguments over and contention caused by disparate views serve only to distract us from exercising real faith and engaging the substance of our spiritual lives.