Afterall.net is more or less an online filing cabinet of collected articles and snippets from my quest to find answers to the big questions, especially of faith and reason, plus a fair share of reflections and commentaries from yours truly, Nathan Jacobson. As such, it is my hope that Afterall.net reflects some of my core values: an honest search for the truth of the matter, an appropriate humility regarding our human abilities as truthseekers, and a profound respect for all who presume to address the question, no matter their point of view. For the sake of full disclosure, I come at the question as a Christian, inclined to think (and yes, also hoping) that Christian theism is true. However, my whole adult life my faith has been beset by doubt, and it is this unrelenting uncertainty that compels me to return to the question earnestly, again and again. Doubting Thomas, I guess, is my patron saint. And like Thomas, I really do want to know.
The name — Afterall — expresses a desire to approach the questions considered here in a way that is as expansive, informed, and open-minded as possible. In the Republic (486a), Plato speaks of the philosopher as a “spectator of all time and existence“. Hegel echoes a similar sentiment, that “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only at the falling of the dusk”. One should not foreclose on the answers to great questions prematurely, but only after having given them their due diligence, with the full view of the history of human thought and action; all the relevant issues and voices should be understood and appraised. This is, of course, an impossible ideal. Perhaps you have felt my own ambivalence toward endnotes and bibliographies. I love them: they point to a wealth of undiscovered and no doubt important material on a given subject. I hate them: they underscore just how vast and unconquerable the literature is on every subject. With every article and each book read, dozens more present themselves as necessary reading before any verdict can be adjudicated, and the expanse of what remains uncharted only grows exponentially larger with each milestone. Douglas Groothius notes:
Of course, every anthology, encyclopedia, handbook, and dictionary suffers from the constraints of abridgement. Only God, the Omniscient One, knows all things from every angle and from every context. We mortals, especially east of Eden, labor under the limits of partial knowing, ignorance, trivia, and outright errors. For us, everything is an abridgement of sorts. (Groothius, Review of Christian Apologetics: An Anthology of Primary Sources at Amazon.com (March 28, 2013))
In life, on questions of consequence, we have to arrive at provisional conclusions along the way. We cannot wait till all the evidence is in. Nonetheless, though it be a destination forever in the distance, it will serve us well to keep trekking, exploring and charting as much as possible, mindful that we may have made a wrong turn or staked our claim where it didn’t belong. If the destination we seek is truth and understanding, however, it’s not just the journey that matters. The journey is rewarding to be sure, but we need spots to tie off along the way, if only for a time.
What You’ll Find Here
The content at Afterall.net reflects my own estimation of the most plausible worldviews on offer, or at least those that press upon my own ruminations: Naturalism, Postmodernism, and “mere” Christian theism. There are, of course, a host of other religious options on offer. Based on my studies, however, none of them is credible on the whole, whatever strains of insight they possess, of which there are many. There are other sources of analysis if Islam, Zoroastrianism, or Mormonism is on your mind. So, here at Afterall.net, you will mostly find material that considers how Christian theism compares to the possibility that nature is all there is and ever was, or that our ability to know anything at all is so
limited that we are left to make up whatever suits us best. Content is organized as follows…
- Paper Trails: An eclectic collection of essays and excerpts in the philosophy of religion and related areas. Respect for Copyright prevents any kind of methodical or comprehensive anthologizing. However, a serendipitous outcome of this constraint has been the discovery of many public domain works from the early twentieth century and before, which are in many cases excellent and a reliable cure for chronological snobbery.
- The Illogic Primer: We’ve all got room for improvement in consistently evaluating and articulating arguments with cogency. The Illogic Primer acts as a ready aid to diagnose expedient or faulty reasoning in an interlocutor’s argument, or just as well, in one’s own. Originally borrowed from Stephen Downes, the Primer is evolving into its own, rich with citations and attuned to the themes here at Afterall.net.
- Clippings: Intended as a place to highlight articles and discussions of interest elsewhere on the Web, Clippings also houses my own commentary on whatever happens to be preoccupying me at the time.
- Books and Bibliography: As much as I appreciate Amazon.com for making easily available the kinds of books that only graced the shelves of local bookstores sporadically, I find their system of categorizing almost worthless. Our books stacks are, hopefully, an easier way to track new, old, and worthy books in at least the areas considered here, with an attempt to include representative works from multiple viewpoints. Marginalia also features original reflections and critique.
- <sic> Quotes: Unlike other collections, the purpose of our quotes is not to share abbreviated and unsourced aphorisms and witticisms, though many of them are wise, and some witty. Rather, the idea is to collect a wide variety of terse arguments and salient points with relevance to our subjects with full citations so that the collection can be used for research, writing, and serious reflection.
- In Development: Links and Film Autopsies are in nascent form. The links are far too haphazard for primetime. Only a couple Film Autopsies are in place. Feel free to browse, realizing that the layout and content remains rough and paltry, respectively.
Behind the Curtain
I live in Colorado, by way of South Africa, Spain, and Southern California. I received a BA in Philosophy at the University of Colorado and an MA in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics at Biola University. I pay for coffee and smokes by working as a freelance designer, wishing always that I could devote myself more fully to Afterall.net and a screenplay, “Medusa”. More of my story is here.
Philosophically, I’m most disposed to thinkers in the “common sense” tradition like Thomas Reid, G.E. Moore, and Roderick Chisholm, though I greatly enjoy and benefit from just about anything short of the most extreme forms of continental and analytic philosophy wherein the reasoning is so impenetrable as to drain out all of the fun. Spiritually, Dallas Willard towers above all others, though I appreciate the works of Philip Yancey and John Eldredge as well, especially The Jesus I Never Knew and The Journey of Desire.
In case you’re curious, here’s where I’m coming from. Despite my doubtful nature, over the years my belief in the reality of the God revealed in the person of Jesus has settled somewhat. The reasons for this are many, but three come to the fore. In brief…
- Philosophical Arguments
Depending on my intellectual mood, the chorus of traditional arguments like the Cosmological, Moral or Teleological arguments for the existence of God have some sway over my confidence that God is real, personal, and good. My confidence in the force of these arguments waxes and wanes. At times, their logic seems formidable, other times they are overshadowed by considerations to the contrary.
- The Lack of Good Alternatives
Something is true. When the prospect of Christian theism seems unlikely, I find myself considering the alternatives and find them more wanting still. To be honest, I think every worldview is susceptible to compelling counterarguments. It is by nature easier to point out the flaws in a worldview than it is to make and sustain a positive case on its behalf. I have my complaints about the Christian worldview (see below), but even more so about its alternatives. Indeed, the failure of Naturalism and Postmodernism to account for large swaths of reality — say, reason and right and wrong — are insurmountable in my judgment. So while I have my doubts and reservations about Christian theism, it is most compelling to me when it is viewed in comparison to competing worldviews.
At the core, when reason has had its say, my thinking turns to Jesus. If there is a God who has chosen to reveal himself to us, there is no more likely candidate across the broad sweep of history. I see in Jesus a person who was peerless in wisdom and insight. He was subversive and revolutionary, both enigmatic and a revelation of unexpected truths. His life of servanthood, sacrifice, friendship, and love both confounded and fulfilled our deepest hopes about the kind of God to whom we owe our being. Not everyone will judge his life and teachings as I do, but his unequaled impact on human history demands that he be reckoned with seriously.
In my thinking there is a two step progression. First, based on a whole spectrum of considerations, I take the existence of a God to be more likely than not. Reason is the predominant impetus here. The second step is more tenuous, toward Jesus. The strength of the historical evidence establishes for me, at best, plausibility. It is hope and the ethical and aesthetic allure of his life that enables me, most days, to meet that evidence half way.
On the other hand …
These personal reasons for belief are not the whole story. They are bedeviled by aspects of my experience that do not seem to square with what I would expect if Christianity were true.
- The Hiddennes of God and the Supernatural
In the Christian view, the natural world that we see, taste and touch is entwined with a supernatural, non-physical reality that is in some sense more fundamental. God is real. He answers prayers. Miracles happen. God’s Spirit dwells within those who choose to surrender themselves to him and they experience a supernatural source of strength and joy. Many Christians claim to experience this supernatural reality regularly. But what can I say? Their experience is not my experience. I have experienced a handful of transcendent moments where a presence not of this world seemed near, even a few striking, apparent answers to prayer. None of them are immune to natural explanation. I lack that (strong) “inner witness” that is apparently such assurance to William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga. For the most part, the supernatural seems so hidden as to be non-existent. Others have pointed out that if God truly wanted himself to be known, he could make it patently obvious by, for example, configuring the clouds each morning to say: “Jesus Saves”. Bertrand Russell is famous for answering God’s hypothetical request in the afterlife for an explanation of his atheism: “Not enough evidence!”. I am not troubled in principle by God choosing not to make his existence an undeniable truth. I agree with those that argue that this uncertainty preserves human freedom. Nonetheless, in practice, the hiddenness of God and the supernatural haunts me.
- The Ordinariness of the Christian Life
The Bible paints a compelling portrait of the Christian way of life. Made new, the Christian is to be characterized by joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. She is to be known by her love for both friend and stranger. But up to the present day, those who claim to follow Christ have a checkered past. Much good has been carried out by those who follow Christ, to be sure, but there have been countless travesties as well, not to mention the majority of Christians who aren’t especially wicked by any means, but aren’t exceptionally virtuous either. Where is the evidence for the promised transformation, from caterpillar to butterfly? One could try and resolve the problem by believing that most of the worst offenders weren’t in fact following Christ. And, truth be told, I can’t believe that they were. In many cases they were simply wicked men who used the religious leverage at their disposal for their own ends. But for me, this problem is not abstract nor ultimately about other people in other times. My own Christian life is not what I expected. I am surprised at the degree to which I continue to struggle with my own vices, with my own level of mediocrity. I guess I expected a switch to be flipped, a supernatural transformation which would strongly incline me to the good from that point forward. The ordinariness of Christians, myself in particular, is yet again the source of a suspicion that perhaps Christianity is not the life changing truth that it claims.
- The Psychology and Variety of Belief
Six billion or so of us populate the earth, and it would seem there are at least as many ways of trying to make sense of it all. Each of us thinks our beliefs are true. It is definitional. We cannot believe anything without also thinking it true. And perhaps nothing that any one of us believes could earn the consensus of all the rest. Two people, each of goodwill and intelligence, can come to the same question and having considered all the evidence, reach different conclusions on many matters of great import. Clearly, background beliefs and dispositions inform our judgments, and it’s difficult if not impossible to get to the bottom of them. This awareness of the multiplicity of conflicting and apparently irreconcilable beliefs is in large part the impetus for the relativism and multiculturalism that constitute the postmodern turn in the West. I resonate with its resignation to the impossibility of knowing anything with confidence. Even after weighing all the reasons to believe one way or the other about Christianity, there is a certain sense that perhaps it is a lost cause anyway. Perhaps it’s just not possible to know such a thing.
So, for the time being…
What am I to make of the fact that both reasons for and against faith impress themselves on my mind? Clearly, considering my earlier confession as a believer, albeit a doubtful one, I think reasonable belief is possible still. The first thing is, I can’t be sure. Descartes made his point that we can’t be certain of anything, save of our own self-consciousness. Fair enough. I can’t be certain that my mother or the aspen tree in my yard exist outside of my mind, and I can’t be certain that Christian theism is true. So, certainty is too stringent a criterion for knowledge in the first place. Alvin Plantinga’s concession is apropos:
In religious belief as elsewhere, we must take our chances, recognizing that we could be wrong, dreadfully wrong. There are no guarantees; the religious life is a venture; foolish and debilitating error is a permanent possibility. (If we can be wrong, however, we can also be right.) (Warranted Christian Belief, 2000, p. 63.)
Believing in Jesus is, of course, not like believing in my mother. My belief in her forms automatically and I can’t resist it. Christianity is, indeed, “a venture”, the level of uncertainty greater by far. Craig Blomberg offers a helpful take on that old Kierkegaardian cliché, that religious belief is just a “leap of faith”. This, it should be said, is not the biblical notion of faith, in which faith is essentially trust in what is unseen, not in what is unknown or unreasonable. Faith is the rejection of empiricism, not of reason. Nonetheless, on the culturally accepted understanding, though I have no interest in a “blind” leap of faith, I think a leap or a step — larger for some, smaller for others — is necessary. The evidence, in my judgment, is suggestive, but not so overwhelming that it cannot be resisted or will take you the whole way. Blomberg suggests that the evidence, in effect, gives one a running start in the right direction. Now others believe that the evidence gets you running in exactly the opposite direction of Christian faith. If so, I don’t recommend the intellectual contortions required to make the 180º mid-air turn, even if it were possible. It’s only because the evidence does get me running in the right direction that I think it appropriate, when I approach the chasm, to make that leap.