Religion on Trial
Religion on Trial, by Craig A. Parton. Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2008. 96 pages.
Craig Parton received his M.A. in Theology and Law from the Simon Greenleaf School of Law, and his Juris Doctorate from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. He is a trial lawyer and a partner with a major law firm located in Santa Barbara, California. Author of two previous books on apologetics and the Christian faith, he is also the United States Director of the International Academy of Apologetics and regularly teaches and lectures on the subject of religious truth claims.
One might be forgiven for thinking that times have never been worse for the Christian church. A mood of anti-religious bias with no distinction as to doctrine and scant regard for the truth is sweeping the land. All religions are the same, the thinking goes – all equally harmful, all equally backwards and benighted and damaging to rational human progress and society. Sneering militant atheists and agnostics with chips on their shoulders throw all faiths of every sort onto the same common ash heap. In its more benign forms, people want to think that all religions are equally valid, that all paths lead to God – whoever He/She/It/They might be. So people are free to pick and choose what to believe, and from what tradition or religion. This thinking infects our young people. It shapes the conversations we have on doorsteps and in living rooms with prospects. We may even catch it subtly warping our own thinking from time to time, because all people are children of the age in which they live.
At times it can be frustrating trying to have an effective answer for the hope that we have. Our arguments and our logic are of an entirely different kind than those outside the church, because we have the mind of Christ. Our Spirit-created faith leads us to an entirely different worldview than many with whom we come into contact. So how will we maintain a faithful confession to those who are apathetic or suspicious of Scripture’s heavenly teaching? Where does our intensive study of the Scriptures and our careful shielding and cultivation of our own personal faith let us down as we interact with those who immediately disregard any arguments based on faith?
Parton outlines one potential approach in his book, Religion on Trial, and it is audacious: to prove spiritual realities using only the rational tools of observation and logic. He seeks to determine whether any of the world’s religions “can withstand a closer examination using as our guide the evidentiary methods developed in law, history and science”, and then if any religion passes muster by those tests, if its claims are “testable by all serious inquirers using methods that have been employed in other fields dealing with truth claims” (xiv). That is a hard line to walk, but by putting his feet down carefully and always backing up what he says, Parton in the end does a credible job of defending the Christian faith. He does this by doing what every good trial lawyer must do: make claims to stake out a position and then back them up with evidence. In the process, he shows us how we might appropriate elements of his approach for our own ministries.
He begins by ruthlessly narrowing down the field of contenders for the title of “the true religion” by pointing out one basic but oft-overlooked fact: all religions cannot be the same because not all religions teach the same things. The world’s religions might all be false, but they can’t all be true. “Fundamentally the fact of the incompatibility of the world’s religions is a logical incompatibility…” (2). Their varying claims make it impossible to lump them all together. Without labeling it as such, Parton focuses on doctrine first, and that is by design. Human beings share basically similar wishes, hopes, fears, and patterns in thought and action, so naturally they will produce similar religious practices through history in a variety of places. However, “any effort to gloss over these differences [in teachings] by focusing on similar practices is exceedingly dangerous, and is a basic misunderstanding of the religions of the world in the first place” (2).
This focus on teachings first will sound like welcome echoes of our confessional Lutheran approach, but those chomping at the bit to make a stand like Luther at Worms will need to take a seat and cool down. Parton reaches for other things besides the divine Word, upon which we might instinctively be inclined to rely. After dismissing personal experience, multiple sources of authority, common sense, and sincerity of faith as reliable proofs for truth in religion, he chooses his weapons: logic and the empirical method.
Logic is reliable because “you cannot function in the world without employing logic…without logic you would not know if you were talking to a human being or to an avocado. In the same way, without logic there would be no way of discerning if you were hearing the voice of God or the voice of Frank Sinatra. To reject logic is to reject the possibility of gaining knowledge…” (21-22).
The empirical method has proven reliable because it’s the method used in medicine, science, and law. Juries, doctors, and researchers all regularly formulate hypotheses and test them against the evidence – and often much rides on the outcome of their inquiries. Throughout the book Parton regularly reminds us doctors and juries make life-or-death decisions using such methods, accepting that they still fall short of total accuracy. He even frankly admits this at one point. “We now see that any truly historical religious claim, even if evidence exists for it, will never reach 100% certainty” (34). It might make us queasy to hear talk like this applied to the Christian faith, but we need to remember who Parton is writing for – skeptics and those who are concerned with meeting them on their own terms. We can see and understand his point in saying this. After all, he is speaking from a worldly point of view, but Jesus did say, “Touch me and see that it is I myself” (Lk 24:39). The evangelist Luke still did investigate what had happened concerning Christ’s life so that he might set it all down accurately. We should not let the impossibility of 100% certainty in this world (humanly speaking) deter us from presenting the Christian faith to skeptics, or from confessing what we believe.
At this point Parton makes perhaps the most startling claim in the whole book. He notes that nearly all religious claims are utterly unverifiable. This declaration left me both extremely uncomfortable, and also very glad that he had said this. I was uncomfortable because I saw at once what a statement like that could do in the hands of a hostile opponent. If we started discarding things that seemed unverifiable to us from Scripture, we’d have next to nothing left.
On the other hand, I appreciated his honesty in saying this. Any Christian, whether layman or pastor, has wondered, “How do we know we’re so right, and everyone else is wrong?” Parton is correct, and not just about religions like Islam and Mormonism. The amount of Christian doctrine that must be accepted as articles of faith can be almost disturbing at times. Nevertheless, where Parton takes his argument after this shocking statement ensures that he stays on the high ground.
From here he proceeds to examine the veracity of the Gospels and the reality of Christ’s resurrection. True to his method, he uses means developed for other disciplines – in this case, the study of history – to determine whether or not the Gospels are accurate and trustworthy. There follows a brief primer on textual criticism (welcome for those who never had known this evidence for the New Testament, or those who have forgotten) along with a brief look at the methods used by historians. Not surprisingly, he concludes that the New Testament is the best-attested and most reliable witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ than anything else we have.
The last part of the book consists of almost a grab bag of apologetic answers, as Parton shows why the resurrection of Christ matters and why we can trust in it, along with tackling topics such as the problem of evil and old standbys such as “everybody’s got their own interpretation.” He concludes with a short look at some of the fringe benefits Christianity has brought to the world, in terms of improving the human condition and easing suffering, and so on. This was appreciated because many mindlessly denigrate Christianity today, and it’s useful to have a stock of answers or examples ready to use when talking with such a person.
Perhaps that’s the ultimate value of this book. Parton provides one approach, or a collection of approaches, that might be used when talking with skeptics, prospects, or the unchurched, most of whom are going to voice some variation on the points he raises. Parton builds his case with solid logic and argumentation, which at times almost is his undoing as well. We all well know that anything that can be proven with logic can be disproven, or at least made to appear disproven with logic. We might be hesitant to rely on reason and logic to the extent that Parton does in this book. Yet he keeps his use of logic within Scriptural bounds, and his thorough presentation of the New Testament’s reliability, along with his ultimate guiding focus on the resurrection of Jesus, ends up proving that the power that God exercises through his Word is the same power that raised his Son from the dead. Parton focuses on the validity and the significance of Christ’s resurrection at some length. What he doesn’t say, however, and what the Christian will want to add when discussing this in person with someone, is that if Jesus really did rise from the dead, then he truly is God and everything he says is trustworthy. Christ’s resurrection is properly the cornerstone of our faith. We who are used to hearing about it so often can benefit from having its enduring importance affirmed from an unexpected quarter.