Monday, January 19, 2009


In the field of communication, we make a big deal out of cognitive complexity. Cognitive complexity is the ability to understand the thoughts and opinions of other people. It's not the same thing as empathy, although the concepts are similar: it's understanding another person's reasoning, not their emotions. (And that's an oversimplification of empathy. But I'm going to plough ruthlessly on.)

I've been reading a book the past couple of weeks that's stretched my cognitive complexity in a delightful way: Why The Jews Rejected Jesus, by David Klinghoffer. He makes a pretty thick, complex argument about the relationship between Christians and Jews, but on the way to his conclusion, he stops repeatedly to develop the support, scriptural and otherwise, for the Jewish position that Jesus was not the Messiah. And I have to say, the guy's pretty good. In isolated cases, he's downright compelling. In others, his blind spots are all over him. He complains about how Christians veer back and forth between precise readings of Old Testament prophecy and loose, metaphoric understandings, but he never seems to notice the same variation in his own references. His, of course, are part of the oral Torah, and thus are all perfectly sound interpretations. Of course. One of the big thrusts of his claim is that Christians misunderstand the Old Testament because they study it only after they've encountered the New Testament, and view it through that prism. He admits that the same in reverse is true for Jews, but since they don't regard the New Testament as meaningful in the first place, it's no great downfall to be unable to understand it.

One of the places where he's downright compelling is where he goes back through some of the citations in the Gospels of Old Testament prophecy, especially from Matthew, and points out how sloppy they are. They're the worst kind of prooftexting, the kind that we would never tolerate in a Sunday School or Bible study. They pluck out two or three words, a random detail, and completely ignore the thrust of the passage. And sonofagun if he isn't absolutely correct. When I landed on that realization, it sent some ripples through my world. I haven't had any serious questions about my faith in a very long time, so the fact that he scored a hit put me in a frame of mind that I thought I'd left way, way behind.

My settling down had a lot to do with a realization I arrived at over the summer, after I listened to a recording of Alan Jacobs' biography of C. S. Lewis, The Narnian. Jacobs drew a lot of it from Lewis' own writings, and one passage in particular focused on a span of a few months or years when Lewis made himself a regular guest at the Socratic Club, an Oxford debating society. On those occasions, he'd let the other club members lay out their arguments against God's existence, or against Christianity, and he would then swing into action and demolish them. But Jacobs reports that Lewis stopped this pretty abruptly, and wrote in his journal that every time he was able to prove something about God, he felt his faith weaken.

I've thought for years, and the idea is not original with me, that God doesn't lock the door. There is room inside every scrap of proof for the determined nonbeliever to wiggle free. There is comfort and ease for the person who wants to total up all of human existence and say "Just the product of random chance." It is part of the remarkable genius of God's creation that His signature is all over it, but someone who wants to find no God in any of it can put that world together out of their perceptions, with His permission.

God's position on evidence and proof is difficult to pin down. The Bible is full of good, sound reasoning, but also contains intermittent reminders that reasoning isn't going to get us everywhere we want to go. God's thoughts aren't our thoughts. Both Christ and the apostle Paul made the point that God put much truth beyond the reach of our reasoning abilities, and that things are arranged to permit us to reason our way in completely the wrong direction. In the same way a toddler doesn't have to construct syllogisms to prove that Mom and Dad will still provide food, clothing and love tomorrow, same as today, a child of God doesn't have to prove what they live by. Still, there's a proffer of proof, a teasing of proof, a taste of proof, in the case built in each of the four Gospels. And Christ almost seems to play "get away - closer" with the entire question, sometimes supplying proof, sometimes changing the subject, sometimes teaching that a desire for proof is a symptom of the problem.

I think it's probably a good sign that I continue to make like Jacob and wrestle with the question. I never regard the matter as settled, because settled matters can be ignored, but an ongoing wrestling match is a magnet for attention. Not only that, but it's surely the trajectory of all branches of learning, from science to the humanities to the most obscure branches of trivia, that the most fundamental, bedrock teachings show cracks and imperfections as we learn more and build more on top of them. Those cracks just spotlight the limitations of our intelligence, the flaws in our perceptual apparatus and reasoning skills, not that truth itself has changed or become obsolete. So why should it trouble me that the proofs offered at Christ's arrival show the same slippage? And it's especially telling that these slippages point me back to relationships, to the positioning of the critic against the text. David Klinghoffer is a devotee of the Torah, so his starting assumptions will aim him in a direction from which the New Testament is going to look hostile and threatening. To him, that's a stumbling block: to me, it tells me more about him, and therefore how to love him better, and it also tells me more about the text itself. So the simple matter of interpreting the text by reading its passages against one another isn't the entirety of the enterprise.

These are wandering thoughts, and I don't think there's any real likelihood that they'll cohere and quiet down anytime soon. But it's very enjoyable, especially for an argumentation dork like myself, to probe around in the crags and jags inside of my framework of reasoning and notice that something too simply called out as a flaw is actually a lesson. And I know I'm not done learning those lessons, and that I'm not anywhere near exhausting them. Probably not in this lifetime, actually.

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