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I wrote yesterday about a friend’s bad experience with a visiting evangelist at an American church. She highlighted two key areas that really bothered her about that evangelist. I am sharing it here because it reminds me of similar occurrences here. I think there is something we can learn and I want to address those two issues. First being the evangelist’s one sided preaching and secondly, the judgmental and insensitive way with which he preached his message. I reproduce my response to my friend here, with a little editing to fit the local context.
I hear you. As I was reading your response I thought of criticisms my own pastor had received for preaching the grace of God. I know it might come across as defending the other side but it is not the case at all and I hope you understand my heart. I have been on both sides in my own experience, so I feel I can offer some insight from both perspective. You see, when outsiders criticize my pastor’s preaching, although it is distressing to hear, I can understand where they are coming from and frankly, I don’t blame some of them for misunderstanding my pastor’s heart and intent. After all, they do not know my pastor like I do. I have heard him every Sunday for 12 years. Although I do not know him personally, I know much of his background, his stories, his struggles, his family and hear from people who know him personally and been on vacations, leadership retreats and teh tarik sessions with him share about their experience together. All these help me know him better and have a more complete picture of the content and intent of my pastor’s message than someone who has only heard him once while checking out the church or a few sessions during an overseas conference, for example. The reason why I highlighted this is because in order to understand the message of a person, we need to know his heart. Just like how God’s word is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us it is the power of God unto salvation. We can’t hope to understand the Bible without first knowing God. We also need to interpret it in the right context. So my point is, that evangelist may appear to not have preached the whole counsel of God because you have only heard him on one or two occasions. He may have preached about the resurrection, the Holy Spirit and other important aspects of Christian living and doctrine over the years to his own congregation where he is based but for that particular occasion, as he is a visiting evangelist, he felt led to focus on a particular area. One point of caution though, beware of ministers or ministries that do not have a home church. This is not to say that they are immediately suspicious. Just that usually little is known about the minister and there may be a lack of accountability since they do not have a regular congregation.
I personally believe God gives different gifts to different teachers. My pastor is good with preaching radical grace, Seth is good with discipleship and getting us out of our comfort zone. Likewise, other preachers are good with some other aspect of God’s complete counsel, etc etc. Together, we make one powerful body. If only we would stop tearing each other up and start recognizing our various gifting. We need not the baby out together with the bath water. There is always something we can learn even from people we don’t agree with most of the time. It is not unlikely that God may have called some to expose heresy in the church. It is a calling that will draw persecutions for sure. It is never easy to tell people they are wrong. Nobody likes that. But imagine if there really is heresy in the church and nobody exposes it, what will happen then? On whether someone is a self-proclaimed heresy hunter with the express intent to divide, damage, confuse and tear down the church or if indeed he is following God’s call to confront the brethren out of love and for the good of the kingdom, we can follow the Bible’s counsel to look for the fruits of the spirit in that person’s life. It says in Matthew 7:16, ” you will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they?”is there evidence of fruits? This leads us back to the first point above on knowing the person. Since your friend feels very positively about that evangelist and his message, why not have a talk with her and ask her what is it about the man or the message that grabs her spirit.
Among all that you’ve shared about your experience, what made me uncomfortable was not that he was putting too much focus on Jesus and the cross but that he was quick to call those who do not give the same emphasis, ignorant and unsaved, and his mocking of other ministries. I do not feel that was in line with the spirit of God. But then again, if I were to give him the benefit of doubt, he could be doing the right thing the wrong way.
Sorry, no clear answers here from me as I have not heard the man myself. Hope my sharing above helped at little.
Have a blessed weekend everyone!
This is in addition to my post on self-refuting statements yesterday. No no…..I am not going to attempt another contradiction. My brain needs a break. I just wanted to share with you another study I discovered today. It is quite similar to self-refuting statements except that now we are learning about self-refuting arguments. They call it Arguments that Commit Suicide. Haha…I like that!
Here’s are some excerpts from the article and I will provide the link to the full article later.
- Moral Relativism Self-Destructs
Whenever someone says, “You shouldn’t force your morality on me,” always ask, “Why not?” Usually the response is going to be an example of her forcing her morality on you. To make sense out of the objection, she’ll have to state a moral rule while denying any moral rules exist. Such attempts reduce to, “You’re wrong for saying people are wrong,” or more bluntly, “You shouldn’t judge, you narrow-minded bigot.”
- The “Christian” version of postmodernism fares no better. Some Christian thinkers flirt with relativism, baptizing it with religious language. “There are two kinds of truth,” they say, “God’s Truth and man’s truth. God’s Truth is absolute and can only be known by Him. We can only know man’s truth, which is limited and relative to our personal perspectives.” My question is: Which kind of truth is reflected in that statement? If it’s God’s Truth, how did they come to know what only God can know? If it’s merely man’s fallible perspective, then why should I trust such a sweeping generalization about the issue of absolute truth?
- Hinduism as a religious view also seems compromised by contradictory notions. It claims that reality as we know it is an illusion. We’re each part of the illusion and have no true individual identity. Here’s my question. If I am part of the illusion, how could I know it? How could I possess true knowledge that I don’t exist, or have any knowledge at all if I’m not real? Do the individuals in a dream know they’re mere phantoms? Does Charlie Brown know he’s a cartoon character? The Hindu concept that the world is an illusion contradicts the idea that I can have the knowledge that I’m only an illusion, rendering Hinduism self-refuting.
And this is my personal favorite!
- You Are What You Eat?
I once saw a sign in a restaurant that read, “You are what you eat.” I pointed out to the waitress that if we are what we eat, then we couldn’t be something until we’ve eaten something. But we can’t eat something until we are something. So we must be something before we eat something. Therefore, it’s not true that we are what we eat. The waitress looked a me and said, “You’ll have to talk to the manager.”
Always be alert for arguments with suicidal tendencies. Ask the question, “Does that position carry with it the seeds of its own destruction?” Don’t feel like you have to do all the work refuting a bad argument. Keep you eyes open and stay alert. When you discover an opponent’s view is self-refuting, ask a question that exploits the problem. Then let him sink his own ship.
The full article by Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason can be found here. It’s a pretty short read compared to Glenn Miller’s at ThinkTank, so it won’t take up much of your time. Go on….who knows, you might just win that argument with your spouse!
There is no such thing as truth.
Now, tell me if you think there is a problem with that statement. Or what about this one,
You can never know anything for sure.
I don’t know about you but I sure have heard such, if not similar, statements before. The problem with these statements is that they are self-refuting. So if someone tells me, there is no such thing as truth, and if I am using my brains at all, I’d say…….what, including this truth statement about truths? You see what I mean?
As you know from my earlier post, I just came back from visiting my parents. The night before I left, I browsed through my father’s modest library to see what I could find. There were stuff on politics and history but the majority were books on religion and spirituality. I spotted two intimidating volume, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha and Tibetan Book of The Living and Dying. Sorry… too deep for me. I mean, if you’ve ever read any Buddhist materials, you’d know how frustratingly confusing and difficult it is to comprehend the teachings. If you’re the Buddhism for Dummies sort, it might work for you but try going deeper and you’ll know what I mean. Or maybe I’m just not enlightened enough. In the end, I settled for an easier to digest but nevertheless concise volume written with the lay person in mind and two copies of my father’s personal spiritual notes. Well you know what, I’ve just finished that book and I tell you, I am not any less confused. The book I am referring to by the way is What Buddhist Believe by K. Sri Dhammananda.
There were a lot of hanging questions on many of the major doctrines. My intelligence must be sub-normal. Then I started learning about self-refuting statements and realize that there are other learned people out there who feel the same. Their critique is not necessarily on Buddhist thoughts but rather on systems of thought that are self-refuting. It so happens that I discovered quite a few of them in my reading of the book.
Here is a little lesson from Glenn Miller of A Christian Thinktank about self-refuting (stultifying) statements.
Let’s Start with Breakfast…
Imagine the following comical scenario.
A fellow Earthman runs up to you, with glazed and feverish eyes, and proceeds to explain how he has discovered a fundamental and absolute truth about himself. When you ask him to tell you this awesome truth, he blurts out this: “The fundamental truth is that I cannot pronounce or write the word ‘breakfast’!” You are not sure you heard him correctly, and so you ask him to write the truth down on a sheet of paper. He then writes legibly on the sheet: “I cannot pronounce or write the word ‘breakfast’.”
There is something obviously wrong here (other than the fact that the guy’s elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top floor!) and what the obvious wrong is is clear–the speaker contradicted himself in the process of speaking. He rendered his ‘truth’ ineffective–he stultified himself.
This is a special case of reductio ad absurdum — but the absurdity was that “what he said” (the words, pronunciation, the speech act itself) contradicted the “what he said” (the content, the intention, the meaning).
Now let’s generalize this type of argument.
The Nature of Self-Stultifying Statements
A self-stultifying statement is a statement that contradicts:
- the case it advances as proof (if any);
- the presuppositions inherent in the subject matter being discussed;
- the presuppositions inherent in the speech act.
Let’s illustrate these cases with a simple example.
- Case 1: Contradicting itself (“Even though a horse is black, it is not black.”)
- Case 2: Contradicting the proof (“This black horse is not black”)
- Case 3: Contradicting the subject matter (“This horse is black half of the time”–horses don’t change color often.)
- Case 4: Contradicting the speech act (“I am a black horse”–semantic acts, of the English variety at least, are not performed by horses.)
Cases 1 and 2 do not occur very often, and Case 3 often produces “standard” reductio ad absurdum refutations. Case 4, however, is not as obvious (except with the guy who couldn’t say ‘breakfast’). Case 4 requires ‘unpacking’ of the presuppositions in speaking or discourse or language or communication, to see if what is being said (explicitly in the statement) is contradicting what is being said (implicitly in the presuppositions).
One last example before we turn to history for a moment.
Try “All sentences are meaningless.” The obvious question to ask here is “including this one?” The statement (no meaning) contradicts the presupposition (sentences are adequate vehicles for meaning). The position is self-stultifying. It cannot be even stated without contradicting itself–it ‘pulls the rug out from under itself.’ This contradiction will necessarily arise from this statement, and the obvious thing learned is that it is impossible to deny that ‘some sentences are meaningful.’ This is the value of looking for self-stultifying arguments — we find undeniable truths or absolutes. We may not be able to produce an air-tight proof for the position, but the fact that they cannot be denied at all can be seen as such a proof.
This is a clear example of Type #4 (contradicting the presuppositions in the speech act). Speakers normally presuppose that their utterances convey meaning (we will explore this more when we get to Zen) before they ‘go around uttering them.’
Self-Stultification and Critical Thinking
The point of developing the ability to detect self-stultifying arguments is to be able to construct Aristotle’s ‘negative demonstrations’ of truth-claims. If an epistemological position (or political or semantic or whatever position) can be shown to be self-stultifying, then it cannot be even advanced for serious consideration. We can then proceed to draw the implications of this inability as a ‘negatively demonstrated’ absolute. This will not help us at all in verifying or falsifying any position which passes this test, of course, but as we shall see, it will narrow the field considerably, if we use it correctly.
What this amounts to is the ability to stop an argument before it launches and to draw conclusions (negative demonstrations) from that ‘stopping.’ What we end up with are absolutes–in the sense of undeniables, not ultimates–in human language!
Practice Test One (or “Fun with Sentences”) Let’s examine several examples to see this work out in various forms.
No Truth: “There is no such thing as truth.” Then, obviously, this sentence is not true, and therefore, there really might be something like truth. You should recognize this as a slight variation of the Liar’s Paradox, akin to “all sentences are false.” (This assumes that the statement is not about truth as having some type of ontological/physical/metaphysical existence; in which case our approach does not generally apply.) Implication: It is undeniable that some sentences are true.
No Certainty: “You can never know anything for sure.” Does the speaker know that for sure? If he does, then it is self-stultifying. If the speaker doesn’t know it for sure, then maybe some things can be known for sure. Implication: It is undeniable that some things can be known for sure–certainty is possible.
Sentences and Reality: “Sentences never describe reality, only the speaker’s mental states.” When we turn this back on itself, the question is obvious: does that sentence say anything at all about sentences or is it only about the speaker’s state of mind?! (You should be able to see the pattern emerging by now: any sentence saying something about all sentences is saying something about itself.) Implication: .It is undeniable that sentences can describe reality.
Generalizations: “All generalizations are false.” As a sentence of the “all X are…” form, this is itself clearly a generalization. And…we net out with a lair’s paradox.
So how is Buddhist thought guilty of this? That, I am afraid, will have to be for another time, if I do get around to it at all. It will be a time consuming endeavor to go through the book again to pick out and expose what I think are self-refuting reasoning and statements. Furthermore, I am in no way qualified, being neither an expert in Buddhism (though my whole family were brought up as Buddhist) nor Epistemology. If I do decide to take this on, it will only be from a lay person’s perspective, presented in small doses, as and when I feel the need to write about them. But since I have come this far, I feel I should at least attempt to expose one contradiction.
According to Dhamananda…
What exists is changeable and what is not changeable does not exists. [Note: He is not speaking of material things alone but thoughts, emotions, spirit, ideas, as well as words (which convey meaning and purpose) because they are all dependant on conditions which are always changing] Every written word [including that statement], every carved stone, every painted picture, the structure of civilization, every generation of man, vanishes away like the leaves and flowers of forgotten summers. All is changeable, continuous transformation, ceaseless mutation, and a moving stream. Everything exists from moment to moment. Nothing on earth partakes of the character of absolute reality. That there will be no death of what is born is impossible. Whatever is subject to origination is also subject to destruction. Matter and spirit are false abstraction that, in reality, are only changing factors which are connected and which arise in functional dependance on each other. ( extracted from pg 85-87, What Buddhist Believe)
The Buddha’s teaching is the Ultimate Truth of the world [this is also a sentence made up of words]. (pg 56, What Buddhist Believe)
Applying this logic, firstly all the above statements are changeable, therefore they are meaningless or unreliable at best. Secondly, since the Buddha exists, he together with his truth (a result of self-realization, not devine revelation) are changeable. Implication: Why should we give weight to anything or anyone who is changeable? Buddhist might argue that the Buddha is not considered being in the same realm as human beings since having achieved a permanent state of nibanna (even though they could not say what nibanna really is, they can only say what it is not). But surely they won’t deny that it was in the realm of earthly, and therefore, conditioned existence that the Buddha first began the journey towards enlightenment, therefore he is also subject to the conditions that supported his final conclusion about ultimate reality. Let’s go a little further, Imagine if Buddha had lived during Jesus’ time and they both happen to meet and Jesus shared with Buddha all those things about God and the prophets etc, or if Buddha was born a Jew in Moses’ time and therefore a witness of God’s intervention on earth, do you think Buddha might have come to a different conclusion? But the Buddhist might say, that was exactly why the Buddha withdraw himself from all conditioned experiences so that he will be unbiased in his judgement. But any judgement made from that position is already a biased one based on the condition of detachment. Suppose your neighbor withdraws into a cave to mediate on the reality of the universe and announced a few years later that he has discovered the truth about the universe. Now would you call it the great enlightenment or the great delusion? What I am trying to say is that a person living under the same limitations of space and time [which the Buddha was] cannot presume to know he/she knows the truth about the universe, especially so if they have removed themself from the daily realities of life. Even if God were to appear in front of him he’d say that it’s just an illusion because he is operating from a position of detachment, therefore it still is a biased judgement. Implication: It is possible that some things do exists which are not subject to change.
What I find most frustrating is a dismissive attitude towards people who can’t understand the teachings. They either say you’re just posing a question for the sake of splitting hairs or the questions themselves were wrongly put or you’re not in the position to understand the answer because of it’s profundity. (pg 34-35, What Buddhist Believe) Now, isn’t that a convenient way to get away with it? Well what if I say that the Buddha cannot grasp the concept of God because he is not in the position to understand it’s profundity, which implies that the Buddha was not as enlightened as claimed to be after all? Will the Buddhist accept that? No, but they’ll tell you that you do not have to accept their teachings. The Buddha expressly discouraged His followers from accepting anything they heard (even if it comes from Himself) without first testing it’s validity. ( pg 279, What Buddhist Believe) Which is what we are trying to do here. The Buddha’s teaching on kamma, non-self, salvation through self-effort and even Godlessness should be put to the test as well. But how do we test them for validity? I have included a little help below.
Now you see why this can be a time consuming endeavor. While I ponder over weather I should venture further into this, I would suggest that you read up on Glenn Miller’s very helpful essay on self-stultifying statements and another on how to decide between conflicting revelations (of truth). They help train and guide the mind to think critically in a multiple choice world.
Good luck! I need to take a much needed break now.
You may also read about my father’s spiritual journey here.
A friend of mine was at the Expo train station over the weekends on her way to her office, a 10 mins walk away. I received her feedback the next day.
“….it’s so disgusting. The place is so packed. Worse than normal rush hour traffic. How annoying. And those people look like they’re trying to compete with each other. The way they dress I mean. That’s not the way to dress for church.” she complains, shaking her head in disapproval.
Two of Singapore’s largest churches have relocated their main services to the Singapore Expo Halls due to lack of space in their own premises. As a result, human traffic has increased 10 fold every Sunday at the, otherwise quiet, Expo vicinity.
I was somewhat disappointed with her observation and remark. Although I am not from these churches, they are nevertheless part of my spiritual family and so I naturally feel the sting when someone passes judgement on them. It’s sort of like a protective reflex members of a family possess. I know among this huge crowd and dressy individuals, are people of integrity, love and grace, whose main desire and purpose for being there is to praise and worship God. They might not fit our idea of what a religious person should look like but that does not make them any less spiritual or devoted. Being religious does not equate devotion. You can dress the part without a care for God and the things of God. What is more vital is the fruit that a person bears. And that is something we can’t know till we know their heart. Certainly not by judging from their outward appearances. I do not deny there are some within that group, or any congregation for that matter, that dishonors the name of the God they serve. It is unfortunate and unfair that the entire church had to bear the shame. It could be out of ignorance that we judge people this way. As a nonbeliever, my friend might not have understood the ways of God – that God does not accept us based on externals, that the only reason these people could be part of His family is by His grace, and that His family are made up of all sorts of people at different stages of spiritual development. To an outsider, they can be an unruly and spoilt brood. But God loves them nonetheless and continues to receive them just as they are. In time, His love will transform them. So I can understand where my friend is coming from and thus be able to excuse her.
But what happens when a member of our family betrays us? I had been foolish to share my friend’s observation with a fellow believer of a different church, thinking she’d understand how I feel being from the same spiritual family. But this was her response. I’ve paraphrased them for the sake of those not familiar with the Singapore lingo.
“…but of course, it’s a well known fact that your church people are all very hiao (a crude word for vain in dialect),” she said, self-satisfied.
I was shocked and hurt. I didn’t expect her to be so careless with her words and so severe in her judgement. I reminded her that I am not from these churches but I am nevertheless bothered when people talk bad about them. Her next response was just as swift.
“…..oh please, New Creation (my church) people are just as hiao.”
At that point I know I should have kept my mouth shut. In the same breath that she judges my immediate spiritual family, she told me not to take my friends comments to heart for it was out of ignorance and not intention. Does that make hers intentional then, since she can’t claim ignorance? I felt betrayed. Misunderstood. Hurt. If criticism is needed, then let it be constructive and motivated by love. Not in blatant, self-righteous fashion that does nothing but deepen the division of the church. What God plans to do in another person’s life, and how that other person lives out God’s plan, is the business only of God and the other person. We are to encourage and help others as they fulfill God’s purpose in their lives, but we are not the creator, originator, manipulator, or policeman of that plan and purpose. God is fully capable of dealing with each person individually. If we do not stop the “my church is my church, yours is yours” mentality and start seeing all of us as one body of Christ, we’d not only grieve the Lord, who is the head of the universal church, but also play right into the Devil’s schemes – that is to cause division within the body of Christ. As a family, we should standby one another. The church is to be a place of acceptance – not acceptance of sin, but certainly acceptance of sinners. It is be a place where a person can be appreciated for being a child of God and a special creation of God.
It is common for fallen human nature to stereotype and judge. All of us are guilty of it. But it has to stop, especially for those who have known and receive the grace of God. The greatest tragedy in all this is not only that we become blind to our own faults as we’re too busy throwing stones – but also that God is made invincible, to believers as well as the world.
And the Devil and his minions will be celebrating in Hell.
Straits Times conducted a survey recently on God’s popularity here in Singapore. “God and Us” was published as a 6-page special in the local papers last Saturday. A very insightful and interesting read I must say. Unfortunately, I could not locate it online. 0therwise I would have posted the link here. It appears that 86% percent of Singaporeans have a religion and among those who do not, at least 70% believes in God. Wonderful!
However I can’t help feeling somewhat dismayed at how faith, or religion if you want to call it, has been reduced to a matter of statistics and numbers, because it is so much more than that. Reading that article gave me the impression that the main concern of churches these days and of the leaders of other faiths for that matter, is the drawing of converts. They talk about religion as though it is a business enterprise. Churches, temples and mosque are seen competing with each other in their marketing efforts to recruit members and outdo one another. I cringed when I read “…and so they go into the free market and start searching and some religions go into the market to start selling their ideas.” The success of a ministry is no longer measured by the impact they have on lives but by the number of members they managed to attract and keep. I know this may just be my perception of it and it might not be the intent of these leaders. I can’t help but suspect that this is the way most people without religion sees us. This is unfortunate and unfair. I can only speak for churches since I am Christian. I don’t deny there are some churches who are preoccupied with numbers and their aggressive and manipulative methods to draw members are a turn-off to many. What most outsiders do not realize though, is that the main objective of most churches is to transform lives, bring healing, hope and a sense of purpose to a very confused generation, through the message they carry, which is Christ himself. They are offering people a relationship with God, not some kind of club membership. Therefore it is regrettable that many people fail to see the deep and lasting work that leaders and adherents to the various faiths including Christianity are trying to bring about.
There was also a study done of why people leave a religion to embrace another and what are the determining factors of their choices. Many see religion as a matter of personal preference. They shop for religion like they shop for clothing. They choose whatever suits their needs and lifestyle. I find this troubling because truth will not alter itself to suit us. If I believe God exists when he does not, all my believing is not going to change that fact. Likewise, if you believe your good karma can save you when in fact we are all tainted by sin and only God can save us, you will still perish. My point is, believing the wrong thing doesn’t make it right. Having faith in something doesn’t make it true. There are eternal consequences involve in our choices. Someone once said,
“The root of the problem in the difference between our position and what you believe, is our extremely different perception of religion and truth. I would guess that you see these issues like a restaurant menu where everyone can choose whatever they prefer, and it’s inappropriate to tell the other diners that their choice of an entree is wrong. Our perception of religion and of truth is more like a team of doctors looking at a patient’s symptoms; when it’s a matter of life and death, they’d better get the diagnosis right instead of merely settling for personal preference!
“Oh, it looks like acne to me.”
“Well, I think it’s eczema, but you can call it acne if you want.”
“I know a melanoma when I see one, and this is skin cancer!”
“Naw, cancer’s too harsh a diagnosis, nobody likes to hear that, so I’m gonna stick with acne.”
I know this view seem narrow, even intolerant, but I think it does make a lot of sense. Religion should be something we choose wisely and after much consideration. We should ask ourselves why we believe such and such and what is the basis of our belief? Is it reliable? Have we ever stopped for a while and honestly ask ourselves if we believe the path we are on is one that leads to life? Not only life in the here and now but beyond? (of course that is assuming there is an afterlife) All of us are on a path we have chosen for ourselves, regardless of whether we have made a decision or not. Non-decision is also a choice. It means we choose not to do anything about it. Silence means consent.
We are all taking risks because none of us can be 100% sure. Life is a wager. It is only logical and wise that we wager our souls on a reliable foundation.
Let us not give up searching because finding the truth is worth all the effort.