Sam Harris Podcast with Bart Erhman – Part 6 – Postscript

I have taken some time in previous blog articles to summarize my comments about an interview of Bart Ehrman by Sam Harris. Ehrman talks about his early induction into a fundamentalist Christian world and losing his faith. He talks about the issues with biblical interpretation that led him away from belief.  I provide some comment on issues that possibly factor into his loss of faith, and the most recent articles address a modern view of miracles that avoids wrestling with evidence of the resurrection, and an observation that I share with others: that atheists and fundamentalists interpret the Bible similarly (two sides to the same coin).

One way to summarize Bart Ehrman’s story is the rejection of a rigid, wooden Christianity that imposes (or tries to impose) a “literal” meaning to everything in the Bible.  For Erhman, this is an all or nothing proposition.  Either the Bible is all literally true, or it is all literally false.

This is a false dichotomy.  It fails to appreciate nuance, different genres in the Bible, the significance of symbolical, metaphorical and allegorical meanings, context, and many other things.  It is the position of someone insisting that the Bible be read in a certain way and read through a particular lens, rather than allowing the Bible to speak for itself.

When we approach the Bible, or any literature, with our own assumptions and presuppositions, we have already begun to dictate where we will end up. Ehrman originally approached the Bible with the assumption that it was all literally true (whatever “literally” meant to him and the people who influenced him). Ehrman now approaches the Bible with the assumption that it is all literally false, and that colors the way he reads it.

Harris’s reliance on Hume’s standard for determining the proof of a miracle comes back to mind.  If we set the bar “exceedingly” high, as Hume says we should, we rig the analysis, from the start, to discount every miraculous claim.  That the standard we have set is impossible to meet is the ultimate point. They don’t believe in miracles so they don’t take evidence of miracles seriously, whatever the evidence is.

This way of approaching a subject doesn’t seem very scientific or scholarly to me.  Yet, Harris is a scientist.  Erhman is a scholar.  While skepticism is a useful tool, it needs to be employed with a dose of humility, and the same skepticism should be applied to the “hermeneutics of skepticism” employed by the skeptic.

When the interview starts, Harris talks about people failing to use skeptical scientific tools.  Harris is, generally, referring to the scientific method. The scientific method is primarily a skeptical approach, demanding proof.  There is nothing inherently wrong with that approach.  The danger, however, is that we sneak all kinds of presuppositions into our scientific approach which, by their very nature, will dictate outcomes.  This really is not what the scientific method, in its purest form, is meant to be.

Continue reading “Sam Harris Podcast with Bart Erhman – Part 6 – Postscript”

Sam Harris Podcast Interviews Bart Ehrman – Part 5 – Atheists & Fundamentalists May Be Two Sides of the Same Coin

Ehrman does exactly what we might expect of someone trying to explain something he doesn’t believe in. He grossly oversimplifies the discussion, and he compares it to something else he doesn’t believe in.

This blog piece is a continuation in a series of articles commenting on the podcast interview of Bart Ehrman by Sam Harris. We trace Bart Ehrman’s early fundamentalist experience through the “loss” of his faith and the fundamentalism that still informs Ehrman’s view of the Bible, albeit not from a believing position anymore. I explore some factors from Ehrman’s story that may explain his turn away from belief in God, and the “exceedingly high” bar skeptics set for miracles that allows them to discount the Bible without seriously considering the evidence.

Ehrman suggests, reasonably, that the resurrection is the foundation for Christian belief, but he and Harris quickly gloss over the evidence. From the resurrection, the discussion turns to focus on heaven and hell.  Erhman remarks that, when he was a fundamentalist Christian, he believed in a literal heaven and a literal hell.  He described a literal hell with traditional fire and brimstone.

I have noted, as have other people in the past, that atheists and agnostics often take the same literal approach to scripture as “fundamentalists” do.  This is an example of what I mean by that. It’s possible that hell is literal fire and brimstone, but it’s possible it isn’t. There are a number of different biblical theories about hell, even among evangelicals, and even more if we go to the more mainstream denominations.

Many Christian scholars do not believe that hell is literally fire and brimstone.  They make a good case that the language is metaphorical, rather than literal.  One of the hallmarks of a fundamentalist (as with an atheist or agnostic) interpretation of the Bible is the lack of nuance and sophistication. Both viewpoints tend to fail to appreciate and understand metaphor.

Of course, sometimes a text might be taken literally and metaphorically, and a text may have literal meaning and metaphoric meaning that are both appropriate.  A fundamentalist, though, tends to want to read everything literally, and skeptics do the same thing.

The result for the fundamentalist is a kind of belief that ignores evidence to the contrary, and for the atheist the result is total rejection of the Bible.  The fundamentalists and the skeptics ironically approach Scripture in the same way. This leads to a false dichotomy: we either must accept everything (regardless of the evidence) or accept nothing (in spite of the evidence).

Continue reading “Sam Harris Podcast Interviews Bart Ehrman – Part 5 – Atheists & Fundamentalists May Be Two Sides of the Same Coin”

Sam Harris Podcast Interview of Bart Ehrman – Part 4 – Setting the Bar Exceedingly High

An exceedingly high bar for the proof of miracles allows Ehrman and Harris to avoid a serious discussion about the evidence of the resurrection.

I have written three articles summarizing some observations I have from an interview of Bart Ehrman, the agnostic New Testament scholar, by Sam Harris, the atheist, about Christianity. In those articles, I cover Bart Ehrman’s story about losing his faith, the fundamentalism that continues to color the way Ehrman reads the Bible and the dangers of social influence as a substitute for a deep, personal relationship with God.

I covered in the first article the rather ironic claim that Harris makes about approaching a familiar subject from a new angle. When an atheist interviews an agnostic on the subject of Christianity, I don’t know what new angle he is talking about! They both come from the same angle of unbelief.

When Sam Harris asks Ehrman to describe what Ehrman, as “an informed believer” would have said was the strongest argument for Christianity, I had to chuckle. Ehrman replied that the proof of the resurrection would be the strongest argument, though, I agree. As Paul said, if Jesus was not raised from the dead, our preaching and faith is useless, and we are to be pitied.[1]

For the proof, Ehrman states only two facts: the empty tomb, and the followers of Jesus who claimed to see Jesus alive after the resurrection. (They are other “minimal facts” that even skeptics will concede.) Ehrman doesn’t expound on the two facts, other than to note that Paul alludes to a list of people in 1 Corinthians who claimed to see Jesus alive, risen from the dead, including 500 people at one time.

These two facts are certainly on the short list of key factors scholars evaluate in considering the historicity of the resurrection, but they are not the only facts to be considered. Even skeptical scholars, like Ehrman, admit a few more. (See Previewing the Minimal Facts Critique of the Resurrection.) But, Ehrman and Harris never really get to a discussion of the facts.

Before any real discussion of the evidence, Sam Harris jumps in to refute the resurrection by reference to David Hume. Hume of course is the 18th century philosopher who urged a standard of proof for miracles that, in Sam Harris’s own words, is “a bar that is exceedingly difficult to get over”. By reference to Hume, Harris says that the proof of a miracle has to be so strong that believing in anything other than a miracle would, itself, would require belief in the miraculous.

This is a type of a priori position that discounts and dismisses miraculous claims without really taking a hard look at the evidence. In essence, the position is that miracles can’t happen. They don’t happen. Therefore it didn’t happen. This “exceedingly” high bar that Sam Harris speaks about is arbitrary. Ehrman acknowledges, but glosses over, that point by saying that “believers have a different standard of proof”. This is entirely true, but it doesn’t really address the issue.

What is a proper or reasonable standard of proof?

Continue reading “Sam Harris Podcast Interview of Bart Ehrman – Part 4 – Setting the Bar Exceedingly High”

Sam Harris Podcast Interview with Bart Ehrman – Part 3 – Withering Sun

Some seed falls on hard rocky ground. It grows up fast, but its roots are shallow. When the heat of the sun comes, the plant shrivels and dies.

In previous installments, I have written two blog articles on my observations regarding an interview of Bart Ehrman by Sam Harris on What is Christianity. Bart Ehrman is an agnostic, New Testament scholar at Princeton, and Sam Harris is one of the so-called “new atheists”. In the first article, I relate portions of Ehrman’s story about his “loss of faith”, and I question whether he really had anything but a very shallow idea of faith to begin with. In the second installment, I talk about a certain wooden fundamentalism that continues to be apparent in how Ehrman sees the Bible. It’s a kind of all or nothing approach. Previously, he accepted all of it; now he accepts none of it.

Before moving on to other observations, I want to stop and raise a couple of points related to the portion of the interview already covered. First of all, I want to go back to the comment made by Ehrman about the charismatic youth leader who influenced him in a local Campus Crusade for Christ chapter. Erhman describes the “sinner’s prayer” he recited as an induction. The same youth leader urged him to go to Moody Bible Institute if he wanted to be a “serious Christian”.

Erhman was obviously influenced by this charismatic youth leader. Many of us are similarly influenced by charismatic people that we meet along the way. Some of us are influenced to do things that we might not otherwise do and which have no lasting import to us when we leave the circle of that influence.

Continue reading “Sam Harris Podcast Interview with Bart Ehrman – Part 3 – Withering Sun”

Sam Harris Podcast with Bart Ehrman – Part 2 – Wooden Fundamentalism

A rigid and wooden fundamentalism is an all or nothing way of looking at scripture that cements secondary things into the primary framework of our belief system.

This is a continuation of observations in regard to a podcast interview of self-described agnostic, New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, by the atheist, Sam Harris.  In the first installment, I focused on Ehrman’s personal story about “losing his faith” as he transitioned from high school to Moody Bible Institute to Wheaton College to Princeton Theological Seminary. Along the way, he went from fundamentalist to agnostic. In many ways, though, he never left his fundamentalist view of the Bible.

Ehrman says that he began to shed his fundamentalist views as he learned the original languages and began to read scripture in those original languages. He describes how his rigid, nonintellectual reading of the scriptures began to crumble as he discovered issues with the Bible that didn’t allow such a strict interpretation of a text considered to be inerrant.

As the interview progresses, Erhman relates that he used to believe in a literal rapture, alluding to the Book of Revelations read in light of 1st Thessalonians (being caught up in the air).[1]  Erhman comments, “I not only believed in the rapture, I knew it was going to happen in the late 80’s” (followed by a hearty guffaw).  He goes on to describe that his loss of faith was a long process, but the “rapture was one of the first things to go”.

This was Ehrman’s fundamentalism, but “the rapture” is hardly a point of “doctrine” on which even fundamentalists agree, let alone the rest of the believing world. The verses in the Bible from which the idea of a rapture has been formulated are few, and they are wrought with difficulty in the interpretation, like the visions in Revelations and other apocalyptic writings. Many speculations have been suggested[2], but the whole idea is quite ancillary to the central tenets of the faith.

A person certainly doesn’t have to believe in the rapture or in any particular formulation of the rapture to believe in God or to have faith in Jesus Christ.

We often get the peripheral things inextricably intertwined with the essential things in our minds, and it’s hard to untangle them. This is the danger of placing too much importance on peripheral things, especially peripheral things with as little biblical support as the rapture: when the peripheral things begin to unravel, they are likely to begin to unwind the essential things if we have bundled them too tightly.

Rigid and wooden fundamentalism is brittle for that very reason. It’s an all or nothing way of looking at scripture that cements secondary things into the primary framework of our belief system. We have to hold on tightly to the whole thing to keep the faith. When we allow any part of it to come unraveled, it’s likely to unravel the whole thing. The issue isn’t with Scripture, however; the issue is with the approach.

Continue reading “Sam Harris Podcast with Bart Ehrman – Part 2 – Wooden Fundamentalism”

Ramblings on Faith and Unbelief

Bart Eherman Quotation

I became a believer, and then a follower, of Jesus Christ in college. It wasn’t just academic for me, though the beginning of my life as a believer and follower of Jesus began in an academic environment and was shaped and influenced by academics. I think that’s why I like the academic pursuit of faith even now, over 30 years later.

It’s important for me to be mindful that faith is not purely an intellectual affair. I think I may differ from many people in that respect, but I need to constantly be reminded of it. Faith is a relationship with the Living God; faith is a life and heart commitment; faith triggers action and change or it isn’t real faith.

I know that the words intellectual and faith probably don’t fit together in the minds of some people. Some people see those terms as opposites. They aren’t, but they can chaff with each other at times. Intellectualism, for instance, really does get in the way of faith (more so in fact than the other way around). Faith and intellectual pursuit can be perfectly compatible unless we compartmentalize them and pit them against each other.

Faith, or the lack thereof, depends on something other than intellectual coinage.  Continue reading “Ramblings on Faith and Unbelief”