Defending Iterative Christianity

There are two goals within the Church:

  1. To produce the highest quality Christians
    1. In terms of theological and practical perfection (sanctification / holiness)
  2. To produce the highest quantity of Christians
    1. That is, to bring as many people to salvation as possible.
    2. This involves defining a minimal definition of Christianity, which Lewis does in a standard way under Mere Christianity.

These goals sometimes apparently collide, but I argue this apparent collision is in fact a complimentary interaction of two important processes, rather than a problem to be addressed through the preference of one approach over the other.

The collision is stereotypically the case of of a theological perfectionist attacking an evangelist. The evangelist uses basic argumentation which may not be theologically rich to optimize on the effectiveness of communication and the chance of conversion. The perfectionist claims this process foregoes important theology which may result either in acute or longer term problems for the Church or the individual receiving evangelical messaging.

As a caricature we can think of Dr. James White attacking Dr. William Lane Craig. This is a caricature because I’m not sure such a direct attack has ever taken place, I’m not sure Craig exactly optimizes on quantity, and I’m not sure White exactly optimizes on quality, but the point remains more or less. White has certainly criticized particular statements from Craig but I’m not sure how general or serious any of that is.

Craig will use a relatively uncontroversial but theologically minimal argument, such as the Kalam Cosmological Argument, to produce a highly defensible claim to the validity of Christianity over atheism, but he does not make much of an attempt, at least in the context of his time-constrained public debates, to train up his converts in a theologically rich way. White gets theologically deep but he is hardly optimizing on mass appeal.

What I want to claim is that both of these guys are awesome, and both of their roles are needed in the Church. I want to claim that the approach of some folks specializing in conversion then handing off for training to others is an economically appealing approach to Christian Economy. I want to say it’s OK for someone to begin as an atheist, become a Mere Christian, and engage in an ongoing process of iterative improvement, the end of which may never be obtained. I want to make this argument in a rigorous way, and rebuff those who might claim that the Mere Christian evangelical approach isn’t good enough. The argument goes this way:

  1. Making a true claim is never morally wrong.
  2. At least one theologically dry argument is true.
  3. Therefore, theologically dry evangelism is not strictly wrong.

Elaborating on point 1

Sometimes making true claims is inconvenient for some folks, of course, but it doesn’t follow that 1 is invalid. White lies, for example, may be convenient but they are not logically morally permissible. Consider that anyone who attacks claim 1 is proclaiming the negation of 1. That is, they are saying that it’s OK to lie at least some of the time. How can any argument made by such an individual be considered trustworthy?

Perhaps the most credible critique a theological perfectionist can make falls in this domain. The key in establishing the validity of my argument is to recognize that the claim, as I will outline below, however interesting, does not entail a rejection of point 1.

As we will see while elaborating point 2, partial truth does not entail non-truth, and to argue that the ilk of Craig are malicious is absurd, but one might argue that a person converted on the grounds of a theologically weak argument is set up more or less to abandon the faith when and if the theologically weak argument is defeated. This claim is not necessarily false, it’s just implausible to make credibly. Moreover, it doesn’t entail a rejection of 1. To say that there is some other course of action, B, which may be preferable to the course of action taken, A, does not entail that A is morally wrong. It simply indicates the need for further training of the converted and also points to the adoption of B. As someone who studies economics, this is reflective of opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is taken as bad in economics, but is this a moral bad? My view on this interesting point is that the execution of B would constitute a moral improvement, but it does not follow that the execution of A is morally bad.

This is one reason for which I prefer the scriptural view of morality to the economic view of morality. Scripture establishes a set of morally sufficient actions, a rather large set in fact, even while recognizing that some of those actions within the permissible set are indeed better than others. In contrast, it may be argued that economic analysis entails some action is optimal and anything less is bad. It’s worth noting that economic analysis is often flawed and realistic analysis is rife with multiple equilibria.

For the Opportunity Cost view of Morality to entail a rejection of point 1, the following would have to be demonstrated:

  1. Suboptimal action is immoral in principle
  2. Optimal action is not only in the feasible set, but MB > MC, adjusted for risk
    1. Is investing to identify a better method of evangelism more valuable then doing another round of evangelism using the current process?
    2. If Craig changes his routine, the point-estimate may improve but will it not also increase the risk of a bad performance?
  3. The effect of the alternative action can be reliably known
    1. If Craig addressed the audience differently, can you really be sure Jim wouldn’t deconvert 6 months later?
  4. The improvement must be important.
    1. Any improvement to salvation is extremely important. I’m not arguing “Jim deconverting 6 months vs 7 months isn’t important.” I think that would be important.
    2. What I’m really suggesting is that the framework of analysis has some error, so B is only identified as better than A with some degree of confidence less than 100%. The improvement must be large enough such that the analytical error is credibly dominated by expected gains. That’s what I mean by importance here. It’s similar to the “adjusted for risk” part of #2, but here I’m referring to model error in particular, while over there I’m highlighting implementation risk.

Elaborating on point 2

Here I am referring to a broad class of arguments including evidential, presuppositional, moral, ontological, and preference-oriented argumentation. Specific examples include Craig’s Kalam Cosmological argument, various forms of the Moral Argument from Craig and others, the ontological argument from Plantiga et al, the argument from reason as elucidated by Lewis and also the form given by Bruggencate (also called the Transcendental Argument or TAG), the historical argument as put forth by many folks (I really like J Warner Wallace here), and Pascal’s Wager as well as my version of the wager.

These arguments, with some exception, focus on a narrow point of theology or even no theology at all to build a case for the existence of God, and sometimes further to the particular faith of Christianity. Together, they make a powerful cumulative argument for the faith, but even cumulatively they may be taken as theologically dry, minimal, or non-rich. This does nothing to undermine their truth content.

A theological perfectionist might criticize points 1 or 2 by saying that a statement which is theologically non-rich does not proclaim the entire gospel and therefore it leaves some truth out. The claim might be made that partial truth amounts to non-truth. This line of argumentation is fallacious for a number of reasons:

  1. Full truth is not always logically transferable.
    1. In particular under time constraint as is always the case, but particularly during evangelism or formal debate.
    2. Consider attempting to precisely communicate the value of pi. It cannot be done as the value is irrational and never terminates.
    3. For scriptural backing, consider that the Bible attempts to communicate the value of pi by rounding, as it implies that the circumference of a circle is three times it’s diameter.
      1. In 1 Kings 7:23-26. Some commentary here.
  2. The standard of salvation, according to scripture, is not perfect understanding of theology.
    1. In contrast, John 3:16 concisely describes the standard of who is a Christian. As it happens this is my favorite verse in the Bible.
    2. Lewis elaborates in detail coining the term Mere Christianity.
    3. As a common sense appeal, Jesus and scripture writ large is generally seen as critical of the legalist tradition, including the Pharisees and the Judaizers.
  3. No one can comprehend the full truth of God. Scriptural backing, among other verses, include the concise Isaiah 55:8 and the detailed Ecclesiastes 8:16-17.
  4. Partial truth is not the same as non-truth.
    1. We do have to deal with the problem of manipulation or maliciousness, but that is technically another problem.
    2. To say that Joe drank the milk is not false, even if Jane asked Joe to drink the milk, so long as Joe did in fact drink the milk.

Elaborating on point 3

The understated conclusion holds logically, but it’s understated. I am really making a modest claim that at least one definite argument is true, but in fact I’d be surprised if nearly all of them aren’t true. So technically I have proven that dry evangelism is not always bad, but non-technically I am providing a framework with which we can argue that dry evangelism is frequently good.

I say dry evangelism is not strictly wrong in a modest sense. That is, it is not wrong per se or by necessity. Clearly, I make no claim that it is always preferred, or even usually preferred. Informally, I do think dry evangelism is often preferred in the case in which it actually used. I think theologically deep training is also usually preferred in the case where it is actually used. In some sense, I am arguing for the status quo.

Conclusion

I want to add something less formal and more general to the whole discussion which is not isolated to a particular point. I think iterative processes in general are highly efficient. I think specialization in labor is highly efficient. While efficiency per se is morally neutral, it has the ability to increase the output of any process for a given amount of input. It can therefore be seen as a moral multiplier on moral action. So I fall short of advocating more efficiency in every kind of human action, but I certainly advocate efficiency in the morally positive actions of the Church which include evangelism and further training of those who have already been converted.

I don’t think optimizing on quality is ideal. How many people would ever reach the goal, and where should the goal be placed? It would be placed at some level of perfectionist sufficiency which both still imperfect and also a standard of sufficiency other than the one set by scripture. After properly identifying the scripture-based level of sufficiency, which I think is consistent with Mere Christianity, I think it’s entirely proper to try and improve quantity. So the equilibrium would have a mix of both.

I’m sure the mix of evangelism and teaching we see today is in some ways improvable, but how should we go about improving it? Most processes I see today, particularly in economics, IT, and business, define a process pipeline and collect metrics to optimize flow through that pipeline. I see no reason to avoid applying this framework to the Church as well, and I think individual status as a Mere Christian is a useful conversion target in the process.

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