Comparing religions? Scriptures matter, even if nobody follows them perfectly

I was reading a book on presuppositional apologetics the other day. It started, as such books usually do, by differentiating between classical and presuppositional apologetics and arguing in favor of the latter. It was a thoughtful book and a good argument. However, as the author mapped out the parameters of his presuppositional apologetic, I was struck by how close his approach was to what I have read from my favorite classical apologists. In fact, the best presuppositional apologists end up sounding surprisingly similar to the best classical apologists, and vice versa. There are important differences between the two perspectives, but it seems as if some sort of metaphysical gravity draws both camps back from the extremes to which they might otherwise fly: presuppositionalists blindly ignoring any extrabibical evidence, or classical apologists attempting salvation by logic rather than Jesus Christ.

In a world where ideologies are always slippery-sloping away to their worst extremes, it is striking how, if we look at the history of the Church, this “gravity” seems to be constantly at work. It pulled the martial impulse of the Crusades back to earth, so today no part of the Church seeks to spread our faith by the sword. It checked the burgeoning ecclesiastical authority of Medieval Catholicism by restoring the solas of the Reformation. Today, it keeps Calvinists from losing human responsibility and Arminians from losing divine sovereignty.

It is, in a word, the Bible.

For a Christian who was raised assuming the Bible is the authoritative word of God, this observation may seem anticlimactic. Of course the Bible serves as a check on our human impulses and theories. Of course it is the beacon which draws us back when we start to wander, the pattern to which our ideas and actions must conform. But this is not how most Americans think. Our secular culture is increasingly puzzled by the idea of learning anything meaningful about a religion by looking to its scriptures.

I was talking recently with some friends-of-friends who were wondering out loud why some feel it is fair to blame Islam for the atrocities of ISIS when nobody acts as if Christianity was to blame for the evil of the KKK. When I suggested that it might have something to do with the difference between the Bible’s instruction to “Love your neighbor” and the Quran’s command that “when you meet those who disbelieve, strike [their] necks until… you have inflicted slaughter upon them,” the idea of understanding, let alone judging, a religion on the basis of its scriptures struck these well-educated secularists as strange, pointless, and even rude.

Forget the dusty old books, they argued. The only reasonable basis for judging a religion is the behavior of its believers. Some self-proclaimed Christians have done bad and brutal things, while others have done good and virtuous things, and some self-proclaimed Muslims have done bad and brutal things, while others have done good and virtuous things, so there’s no real difference between the two religions, regardless of what their holy books may or may not say. There’s no need to even check. To modern secularists, religious believers look more or less the same, so religions themselves must be more or less the same.

On one level, this focus on the lives of believers is appropriate. A religion should be judged by the way its adherents behave. That is why Jesus admonished his followers to “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” What believers do tells us something important about their beliefs. But behavior shouldn’t be the only criteria we use to evaluate a religion, because behavior can only tell part of the story.

Let’s imagine two families. The Joneses believe the way to discipline their children is to beat them. The Smiths believe discipline must be patient, loving, and self-controlled. Can we all agree there is a real, meaningful difference between these two views? Yet, if we spent enough time observing the Joneses and the Smiths, we would most likely see the Jones children behaving well some times and poorly at others. And we would see the Smith children behaving well some times and poorly at others. Because they are children, after all.

Now, it is true that over time the Jones children and the Smith children would change under the influence of their very different experiences. And, likewise, observing a Christian’s life over time will reveal differences from that of a non-Christian. But in a given moment, it will be quite possible to discover the Joneses and the Smiths behaving precisely the same. The thing is, people are complicated. A “good” child isn’t necessarily from a good family, and a “bad” child isn’t necessarily from a bad family. It just doesn’t make sense to judge the Joneses’ and the Smiths’ parenting solely on the basis of their children’s behavior. We would be crazy not to also consider what the parents actually believe.

Beliefs matter because they point the direction we’re going, even if we are not all the way there yet. From a postmodern perspective it makes sense to say it doesn’t matter what a religion actually teaches, because if truth is entirely in the eye of the beholder and all meaning is self-created, then religious truths truly are irrelevant. But the trouble is, most people aren’t postmodern in theory, and no one is entirely postmodern in practice. We will always be shaped by what we believe to be true. It will have a gravitational pull, even if our orbit is still wobbly. For the honest inquirer into a religion, simply observing the people being shaped will be revealing, but you can learn much more by considering the beliefs that are doing the shaping.

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