The new year is almost upon us, and as often happens, people start thinking about how they're going to read their Bible in the new year. In this way I think new year's resolutions and those types of rhythms can be helpful if we look at them in terms of establishing long-term practices. If you're looking to say, "How can I read my Bible better in 2018?" and you didn't read it much in 2017, it would probably be wise not to choose a plan that has you reading the whole Bible in a year or that has you reading for 20 or 30 minutes a day. No, find something that's more approachable that you can actually fit into your life now and maybe grow over time.
Maybe your goal is to read five minutes a day in 2018, five days a week. Give yourself a two-day buffer. Maybe in 2019 you ratchet that up to 10 minutes a day, twice as much as you did in 2018. In other words, find something sustainable.
I also think when we read large chunks of scripture at a time and we're trying to make it through the Bible in a year, for instance, we're often not paying attention to, one, the details in the text that often have a lot of meaning, but two, often the overall arc of it. We're just moving so fast, we're not able to see how it all fits together.
To that end, I have actually designed a little Bible reading plan generator. You can say how many chapters you want to read a day from the Old Testament and from the New Testament and it will take you chronologically through the Bible at your own pace. You can say, "I don't want to read on Saturdays. I just want to read on weekdays and Sunday," or however that works out, and it will stretch it out.
For instance, you may come up with a chronological reading plan that takes you through three and a half years to accomplish, but it's probably much more easily able to be accomplished than if you tried to do it in a year. Your mileage may vary, but let's try and set reasonable goals that we can achieve in terms of our Bible reading for 2018.
Now, we're going to talk today, more to the point, about some ways we can have better conversations. The last four or five, maybe six, conversations I've had with someone who had questions about Christianity or wasn't a Christian, they had a fundamental issue, a kind of impasse that we came to that, if I hadn't identified, we would have continued to talk past one another.
Now I'm sure you understand what I mean by talking past one another. Often it happens even with two people who know each other well. One thinks that the other is talking about something different than they're actually talking about, and the conversation might go on for some time, and then each person's getting slightly more confused. Then at some point you realize we're not actually talking about the same thing.
This actually occurs in a certain way or two when we discuss religion and ethics and values and things like that. I was having a recent conversation over tacos late at night. It was interesting, we were talking about the existence of God and if he exists. This person said, "I don't think he does." I said, "We can demonstrate it this way___.” Then he said, "I don't think we can know." I said, "Which is it? Is it that you don't think there's a right answer or you don't think we can know what the answer is?"
The question took the guy back for a second. That's a really helpful question to ask because you don't know the type of person you're talking with today. Most people we are going to converse with don't have a formal philosophical framework of knowledge and how they know things. They're not going to be able to say, "Hey, I'm a moral objectivist," or something like that, (and we wouldn't expect them to because that'd be kind of weird, right?)
But people often have a hodgepodge of different beliefs about how they can actually believe things. They have different types of ways they think they can know or not know what's in the world, and we have to tease those out in conversation.
Because if I'm contending for the truth of the Gospel—that Jesus Christ was fully man and fully God, came to earth, lived a sinless life, went to the cross, and died for sinners—and this person doesn't think that that's true for everyone, then they'll be like, "Yeah, yeah, that's good, that's good, that's good," and they're thinking that's good for you. That's good for you, that's not good for me.
If there's not a right answer for everyone and I'm just arguing with this person in that way, then we're talking past each other. Now some people will think you can't know, but they'll just be saying, "Yeah, I don't think that happened,” and really behind that is this idea that they just don't think you can know. We have to get some answers to these questions. You know what? The last three people I've asked this question to, they haven't actually had a quick answer. They had to stop and think about it. When I asked them, "Do you think that there is a right answer or that there's not, and, do you think we can know or not know?" they had to stop and think and go, "Hmm, I'm not sure." They'd never considered that there could be a right answer to the question, one that is true for everyone and yet that they might not be able to know it.
Now when I say “not be able to know it,” I mean not be able to know it with what their current set of tools that provide them with knowledge. If your only tools in your toolbox are scientific tools, you will not be able to come to conclusions that science can't speak to. Science speaks to the natural world and things that are natural. It has no ability to speak directly to the supernatural. If you want to detect something supernatural, you can't use, on the face of it, a scientific tool. Science is very helpful for many things. But like if you try to plant plants with a hammer, you'll find it doesn't work too well because you're using the wrong tool for the job. It's the same way with tools of knowing and how we come to gain knowledge.
When I asked this person, "Do you think there's a right answer or not to questions of ethics and morals?" they said no. I said, "Okay, that's helpful." Then I said, "Are there any things that bother you about Christianity?" They said, "Yeah, it condemns gay people to hell." I said, "Well is there a right answer there? Is it actually always wrong to condemn gay people to hell? Because a minute ago you said there wasn't a right answer, and now you're talking like there is one that's true for everyone."
This took the person back and they had to think about it. What we'll often find, and this goes back to what I said a minute ago, is that people often have a hodgepodge of beliefs that don't fit together. On the one hand they may say there aren't right or wrong answers to moral questions, and then they'll say it's always wrong to condemn gay people to hell. (Christianity does not teach that gay people are condemned to hell by being gay (if by that we mean same-sex attracted). What it does teach is that our behaviors are indicative of our spiritual state. Paul in 1 Corinthians 6 says a long list of types of people who engage in certain practices of behavior who will not inherit the kingdom of God. The Gospel is the same for the gay person as it is the straight person. There's not some special category there, and I don't think we articulate that very well. Maybe we'll think about it more in the future.)
But all of that to say, people often want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to be able to say “no right answer,” and “these things are always wrong.” We've got to push them on that. We've got to identify that in the conversation because they probably have not identified that for themselves.
Now some people will say, "You know what? I guess there is a right answer." They might want to hold onto their intrinsic intuition that certain things are always right and always wrong. We want to encourage them to hold onto that, by the way. The right answer here is not that there isn't a right answer. The correct answer to the question is yes, there are certain things that are always right and certain things that are always wrong. That's something we know by being created in the image of God. Things are always right or always wrong because they're grounded in God's unchanging character. We want to encourage that type of intuition.
However, if the person says, "Well yes, there are things that are always right and always wrong. I just don't think we can know what they are," now we have a conversation about tools of knowledge, tools of learning. How would you determine if something was right and wrong? They might say, "Well, my feelings." We'll have to say, "Okay, have your feelings ever told you incorrectly about things? Or have your feelings told you something different than someone else's feelings?"
Now the fact that two things disagree doesn't mean that there isn't a right answer. It just means that we've gotten different pointers to what that answer might be. We have to evaluate those pointers on their merits. Just like if you interviewed two kids if there was a fight, and you said, "What happened here?" and one kid says, "Billy hit Johnny in the nose," and the other says, "Billy kicked Johnny in the knee," and we might say, "Okay, well, let's look at the evidence. Does Johnny's nose look red?" those types of things. Maybe the person that supposedly kicked him in the knee was actually in a wheelchair so he couldn't kick them in the knee. We have to evaluate claims based on their evidences.
So, are feelings a reliable pointer to truth. The answer there is often no. We can't just say homosexuality is wrong, for instance, or not wrong because we feel a certain way. Because many people have even changed their feelings over their lifetimes. There was a time in society when everyone agreed that it wasn't right. We're going to scratch off feelings as a good source of knowledge.
Then we can say, is it just something we all decide on? We've talked about this before numerous times on the podcast. I'm not going to rehearse it too much here. We're going to walk this person through the idea that it can't be consensus, because consensus changes over time. And also, if no one ever thought about rape, would rape still be wrong? If there was no consensus on rape, would rape still be wrong? The answer has to be yes, it would be.
Now how would we know that? We have to come back to this idea that God has revealed morality in two places. This will be objectionable to the non-Christian, and we just have to know that. But we also have to be able to point out that they're living inconsistently otherwise. They're going to affirm that there are objective moral truths, truths that are right or wrong regardless of how people think about them, and then they're going to deny, basically, any of the proposed options for how to ground those truths.
For instance, it can't be consensus, it can't be evolution. We've talked about that before. Survival of the fittest puts me first, not other people. It can't be any type of naturalistic grounding of morality and those sorts of things. What we have to come back to is that if you want to be a moral objectivist, if you want to think that moral claims are always right or always wrong for all people at all times to whom the claim applies, that claim must be grounded based on God's revealed standards of right or wrong. God has revealed those standards to us in the form of conscience. He has also revealed those standards to us in his word more accurately and fully and descriptively.
If you want to hold onto this idea that some things are always right and always wrong, the way that you come to know that cannot just be scientific. Science can't inform us about morality. It must take into account and be based on God's revealed word.
Let's quickly recap to get a bird's eye view of where we've been here, and then we'll draw it together.
We started out having a conversation about the existence of God, where a person said, "I don't think God exists." And we said, "Is there even a right answer to that question?" They had to think about it and they had to say, "No, I don't." I expanded that and said, "Do you think there are right answers to questions of God and religion and morality?" and they said no. And I said, "Now wait a second. Is it that there isn't a right answer or is it that we can't know?" They initially would probably say, "Well there isn't a right answer." Then we ask them some question that we're pretty sure we know how they'll answer, like, "Is it wrong to mistreat gay people?" "Well yes." "Well is that always wrong? Is there a right answer to that question?" They'll probably say yes. Now some people will say no, but most people will say yes, and they should.
We're going to say, "Wait a second, is the issue that there isn't a right answer or is the issue that we can't know?" Then they'll probably say, "I guess it's that we can't know." Then we have to evaluate the different ways we could know things and then ask them, how do they know the moral things they know. Why are they so convinced that mistreating a certain type of person is wrong?
When we evaluate all the options, consensus, evolution, my personal opinion, and those sorts of things, what we'll come up with is those don't work, so there must be something else that's objective such that the answer is always right and always wrong. Then we're going to have to say, "Have you considered that the ways you've been approaching learning about what is real might not show you all the options? If we're only looking at naturalistic explanations, we will not see the full picture."
Christianity actually gives you a baseline, a foundation for understanding how things could be always right and always wrong. God is the ground for morality and he does not change. It also tells us how we can know what is right and wrong. God has created in us this moral knowledge, this conscience. He's imprinted it on us. It's a feature of him creating us in his image. More than that, he's told us in his word. That word doesn't change. It is an objective source of knowing.
At the end of the day, we're still going to have to probably talk with this person more about the fact that they believe certain things are always right and always wrong, and yet they can't explain why that is. That should point them to the fact that they are created by God in his image, and that they're living in the world denying some ways that they actually know certain things. They're living in the world and kind of out of touch with it. They're assuming certain things are available to them in their worldview that if they were consistent would not be available to them.
However, they're available in the Christian worldview. They make sense in our worldview. And we can explain why they are there and how they make sense of them.
So, two questions to have in conversation: Is there a right answer to this question? Depending on how they answer, we know how to work with that. Is the issue that we can't know or is it that there isn't a right answer? Because those are different. Something could exist and us not know about it.
I hope you get off to a good start reading the Bible or whatever type of new spiritual discipline you want to commit to, if you do, in this new year. Thanks for listening to Unapologetic in 2017. I hope you continue on in 2018. Thanks for sending in your questions. Feel free to do that even more. That helps make the podcast tailored to the people who listen. I think everyone appreciates that.
I will talk with you next week on Unapologetic.
7 thoughts on “Episode 141 – Two Simple Questions for Better Conversations”
Our study group includes several ladies who would not make it through the Bible in a year. Your "Bible reading plan generator" sounds like a great way to get them engaged but the link just reloads the article. Can you connect us?
Thank you for letting me know the link we broken. It should be fixed and here it is too: https://files.brianseagraves.com/bibleReadingPlan/
Thanks so much Brian! I have shared the link with my group and if you don’t mind, I plan to post it on facebook as well!
That sounds good to me! 🙂
If you or your group have any suggestions, I’d be glad to hear them too.
I’ve updated the generator some. It has page numbers, columns, and it will abbreviate books if you have enough chapters to save space
Nice improvements. Love it, thanks!