Reading others’ holy texts

In an ongoing “Ask Pastor John” series on the Desiring God ministry website, John Piper offers his answer to the question, “If I want people of other religions to consider the message of the Bible, should I be willing return the favor and read their holy books as well?” (Follow that link for a video as well as a transcript.)

I was excited to see this question discussed because I think it’s a very pertinent one. If you’re an evangelical Christian and you spend a significant amount of time and energy telling other people in one way or another that they ought to read the Bible — it seems most appropriate for you to give their reading recommendations a fair shake. I mean, put yourself in their shoes. They already have holy scriptures they believe in, just like you do. Why should they take yours any more seriously than you take theirs?

Obviously, not all of us have holy scriptures we believe in. Some of us aren’t part of any religion. But I still think, if you’re an evangelical Christian and you want to convert me, you’ll have a (marginally) better shot if you’ve read some other holy books and can tell me why the existence of so many of them isn’t itself an argument against devoting your life to any one of them.

John Piper seems fine with Christians reading other holy books, but he expresses that sentiment with a lot of hedging.

But if you have a serious conversation going with an intellectual person, a professor of Islam or a thoughtful colleague who takes their holy book very seriously, and you want them to consider reading the Bible, and they say, “Could we trade? We’ll talk about my holy book this week, and we’ll talk about the Bible next week.” And if you are wired to be involved with an intellectual person at that level, then yes! I think that would be good.

The worst hedge here is, “if you are wired to be involved with an intellectual person on that level.” It sounds like he is saying, “If you are just not the sort of person who is capable of intelligent debate, then no worries! You don’t have to consider alternative viewpoints!” This is confirmed by later statements, including that some people just don’t have “the intellectual wherewithal.”

I agree in part, that people who don’t have “the intellectual wherewithal” shouldn’t be expected to read and analyze every holy text put to them in challenge. But I would also say that those people shouldn’t be approaching others and asserting their own beliefs to be true. If you are not ready to answer questions and debate opposing viewpoints, if you are truly not ready to have a conversation, you should not be evangelizing in the first place. Or, I guess you could, but you should know that merely insisting you are right without any intelligent arguments whatsoever is going to be extremely ineffective and irritating.

Piper closes with what I think is a really strange point.

If you trust that what you have is honey, and somebody else says, “I’ve got another brown thing over here that is honey.” But you know you already have honey, and you can tell it is honey because you’ve tasted it. You don’t need to experiment with every brown thing that is brought to you in order to be sure that what you have is honey.

What he’s saying is probably true, but I don’t think it’s analogous at all. If I’m eating honey, and my friend tells me she has some honey too, that doesn’t imply that she thinks I am not eating honey. We could very easily both have gone to the store separately and each bought our own squeezable plastic bear full of honey. I am able to confirm pretty well for myself that I do in fact have honey, regardless of how many plastic bears (and containers of other shapes) have been filled with honey out there in the world.

The claims actually in question, though, are not like this situation with honey. If you believe in the Bible, and Amir believes in the Qur’an, and you each say your own book is true, then each of you is also necessarily saying that the other book is false. If he claims to have “honey,” and turns out to be right, then it means that what you thought was “honey” really isn’t. (Maybe you’ve been eating some other “brown thing.”) It doesn’t fit with the evangelical Christian belief system to say, “I have my honey, and Amir over there has his honey, and that’s fine.” I highly doubt that Piper is trying to promote the idea that different religions can each be true for different people.

What it really comes down to is — what makes you so sure you have honey? And what makes you sure that what other people think is honey really isn’t? Why are you right and they wrong? These are the crucial questions to answer, and you are not prepared to evangelize for your religion if you are comfortable just ignoring them.

Leave a comment

12 Comments

  1. NFQ -
    great to see you wrestling with these issues and i think you’re looking in an excellent place to find intelligent and cogent discussion from a Christian perspective.
    That said, i wonder if you feel you’ve given Piper’s post a fair representation in your blog? Seems to me you’ve left out a good deal that might more acurately reflect his position on the subject to your readers. For instance, he says, “if you said the only way to have a credible faith in Jesus is to read all the options and discover all the reasons why those options don’t suffice, then you’d spend your whole life, or at least a big hunk of it, reading all this stuff.” I think that’s a good point that fleshes out his reasonsing much more.
    Beyond that, i think your reaching to sugest he is hedging anything in his argument. His point is simply this in my opinion:
    NFQ – you believe in gravity, right? You know enough about how it works and you’ve experienced it first hand in a powerful way so that you hold that belief in gravity and would profess that belief to others, yes? Now what if i said you couldn’t hold that belief in gravity, or at LEAST shouldn’t suggest other believe in it, unless you knew all the intricate details of the earth’s axis and centrifugal force, etc. and had read all the opposing viewpoints to your view of gravity and were able to debate that with any scholar on the subject? Impossible right?
    Now there are some people who have the time and training to pull apart the Greek and Hebrew of the Bible and know all it’s intricasies (sp?) and be able to intelligently debate that with someone from another faith. But the message of the Bible, once seen and embraced, does not need a doctoral degree to understand and one can, even at a basic level, talk about why they believe what they believe without ever hainvg the ability or the inclination to debate leaders/peoples of other faiths. Am i missing something? Surely you have to apply the same standard to ANYTHING you hold to be true yourself. …so?

  2. Wesley — I am maybe not the best person for this analogy to work on, heh. I see what you are getting at, but I’m actually pursuing a doctoral degree in the physical sciences because I really care about understanding the world around me, and I really like to be able to explain how we know the things we know and why I hold the opinions I do. I could tell you a whole lot about gravity, and the (surprising) degree of current controversy surrounding it.

    Bottom line: I wouldn’t argue with someone, I wouldn’t insist that I was right and they were wrong, if I had no knowledge about the logic and evidence backing up my position as contrasted to the logic and evidence backing up theirs.

    You’re right at least that I don’t have graduate-level expertise in absolutely everything I ever discuss with people. I certainly don’t have a degree in theology, for example. But I have read the Bible, and I’ve read large portions of the Qur’an and several Hindu texts. I’ve also made an effort to inform myself about what “regular” people of various faiths believe, mostly through talking to friends and reading things like blogs online. I mean, look. If I didn’t know anything about Christianity, I wouldn’t feel at all comfortable telling a Christian that I thought Christianity isn’t true, and that I thought they should become an atheist. I certainly wouldn’t expect a Christian to be satisfied with or convinced by my message if I hadn’t educated myself about what they actually believed before declaring it to be false. Seriously — would you tolerate that in me?

    And that’s really what I think this comes down to. Is it legitimate to believe, not just that you have honey, but also that nobody else has honey — unless you’ve actually taken a look at the alternatives? Evangelical Christians don’t claim that there are lots of possible right answers and Christianity just happens to be right for them personally. They’re not claiming that everybody has honey, so they might as well just enjoy the honey they already have. They’re actually actively asserting that other religions are false, and yet (at least from what Piper has advocated) that it’s not necessary to be educated as to what those other religions actually say.

    I would say that to “have a credible faith in Jesus” you obviously don’t need to have read everything about every religion out there. That’s clearly prohibitive. But I do think you would need to have done some investigation into alternatives, especially the most popular ones, and have some personal understanding of why you picked Christianity over any of them. And certainly, if you are in a discussion with a member of a particular religion, insisting that Christianity is better than whatever they believe, you really ought to know what they believe first.

  3. I see your point NFQ and i think you see mine. the problem, firstly, is that Piper tackled the question from a certain point of view b/c the question was broad and, w/o the person there to clarify, had to take a “for instance” to answer. I think he took the position of someone looking to debate the merrits of their faith over someone else’s and engaging in a deeper debate and i think he was simply cautioning people to watch out that they don’t get in over their heads in a discussion. That was my take anyways.
    As for the honey analogy, it is certainly not air-tight. I think a better way to phrase it might be to say if you find the cure for cancer and you know it works you’re gonna want to share that with other people b/c you want them to be cured of cancer (let’s say everyone has cancer at this point for argument’s sake). To have someone then come to you and say, ‘hey, i think i’ve got an idea about how to cure cancer too’, you might show interest and even read their lit. to check it out as you had time, but you’d want to spend the most time understanding more deeply the cure and how it works and sharing it with everyone you could. Basically, when you find THE cure, you don’t go looking for another one, right? So, the Bible asserts that there is One God and Jesus asserts in His time here on earth that He is the only way to that God. Christianity is an exclusivist religion b/c the Author of all creation says there is no other way to Him. to believe in what the Bible teaches pre-supposes, in fact insists that this is the only “cure”, so to look elsewhere to, i dunno, see if you can find a better one, doesn’t follow logically.
    That said, i do study other religions (including atheism) at some depth to understand how they get where they get and why, where they got their ‘holy books’, etc. but never with the idea of looking over the proverbial “fence” to seeif the grass is greener over there. The idea that many religions are purporting today is that God is just one big mountain and every religion is just another path to the top. The Bible says we are not seeking God, He is seeking us, and that believing in Jesus’ death and ressurection on behalf of our sin is the only way to have relationship with Him. Of course, you’ll find liberals and syncretists around the ‘camp-site’ who want to soften that b/c it doesn’t sound very “nice” and “inclusive” but God and the Bible make no such effort.

    So, in regard to your last paragraph:
    a) while some might word it that way, it is my understanding in Reformed Theology that we don’t “pick” Christianity, but rather we are the ones chosen/”picked”/called by God and led to an understanding of Him through His Spirit and the Bible. This can happen in innumerable ways but always begeins the same.
    b) i would hope that any discussion with anyone who doesn’t share my faith would be done with humility and a listening ear, never even discussing who’s religion is “better”. I’m interested in knowing what other people believe b/c i’m interested in people and i want them to know and see what i see b/c i believe it is the only “cure” for what’s broken in us. I think it was Penn or Penn and Teller who said once, “if you really believe what the Bible says is true, how much would you have to hate people NOT to prosthelytize?” I agree. To use your same analogy from before, to see someone drowning in their sin (or spiritually dead as the Bible words it) it would be immoral/wrong/whatever NOT to try to help them. Jesus has already done the saving – my job as a Christian is more of a road sign pointing the way to Him.

  4. jorge alvarado

     /  August 5, 2010 at 11:09 pm

    They’re (christians are) actually actively asserting that other religions are false, …”
    Yes, but we say it not because that’s the answer we’ve come up with; but because that’s what God says (remember, christians believe what the bible teaches).
    Re: ” Obviously, not all of us have holy scriptures we believe in. Some of us aren’t part of any religion. But I still think, if you’re an evangelical Christian and you want to convert me, you’ll have a (marginally) better shot if you’ve read some other holy books and can tell me why the existence of so many of them isn’t itself an argument against devoting your life to any one of them.”
    Not necessarily. All I would need is to know what you believe from your own lips to start the debate. Different religions need different approaches. Even atheism (which is a “kind” of belief system). Has answers in the bible.
    God is the one who initiates that exchange. And it’s up to us to be ready for it. Not by knowing ALL the alternatives people have for the one true God, but by knowing His word and being able to uphold it.

  5. MS Quixote

     /  August 5, 2010 at 11:11 pm

    “Bottom line: I wouldn’t argue with someone, I wouldn’t insist that I was right and they were wrong, if I had no knowledge about the logic and evidence backing up my position as contrasted to the logic and evidence backing up theirs.”

    JS Mill does a great job with this in “On Liberty.” I tend to agree with him, and you, about this. It’s good to see you take this reasonable line. It’s quite common these days for folks not to. Nicely done.

    BTW-deeply read regarding atheism on this end, FWIW.

    “I could tell you a whole lot about gravity, and the (surprising) degree of current controversy surrounding it.”

    Hey…if you ever have the time and inclination, I’d love to read a post on this. I’ve gotten bits and pieces, but nothing significant, and it’s an interesting topic. So if you have the time some time…

  6. Aristarchus

     /  August 5, 2010 at 11:30 pm

    I think the real point here is that you shouldn’t just be reading other books because you want to be able to debate others intelligently. You should be reading them as part of actually trying to determine what’s true. If you had some sort of absolute mathematical proof that your religion is correct, you wouldn’t need to consider others to see what was true, because you would have a level of confidence in your religion that guarantees they must be wrong. That’s not how it works, however. As you said in an earlier post, the other religions have exactly the same sort of evidence supporting them, so clearly that sort of evidence can’t be the sort of infallible proof that would allow you to be certain mutually exclusive things are wrong without considering them.

  7. jorge alvarado

     /  August 6, 2010 at 12:17 am

    Aristarchus wrote:
    “As you said in an earlier post, the other religions have exactly the same sort of evidence supporting them,”..
    I don’t follow, if other religions had the exact same sort of evidence supporting them, they wouldn’t be “different” religions (or other religions).
    As a christian, I take the assertions of different beliefs and compare them to what the bible says to start the debate.

  8. Aristarchus

     /  August 6, 2010 at 12:26 am

    Jorge, that response is so bad that I have trouble believing you aren’t deliberately playing dumb. You’ve spent too long writing long comments on this blog for me to write you off as a troll, but seriously, work on your reading comprehension. When I say they have the same sort of evidence, I don’t mean the evidence is for the same belief. I mean it’s the same type of evidence. All religions have holy books that claim to be correct, a long historical tradition of people believing them, many good works done in their name, many people testifying to having deeply fulfilling experiences as a result of the religion, etc. It’s the same level of evidence. I think that’s pretty obviously what I meant in the first place, and it’s definitely clear in the post I refer to. Save everyone some time and reread things before you respond to them and make sure they actually say what you think they do, ok?

  9. @Wesley: I agree, I think we’ve reached an understanding, or perhaps agreed to disagree but understand why. :) With respect to your point (a) at the end, I would ask — to go back to the action/inaction issue — if it is God who chooses who understands him and believes in him, then why is it fair to punish those of us who don’t find Christianity believable? Surely it’s not our fault. But maybe this is too off-topic for this thread at this point, heh. Maybe I’ll write something about this separately at a later time.

    @MS Quixote: Thanks, that means a lot. I know we don’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, but it’s very encouraging to me that we agree on this much. As far as a post on gravity goes … hmm, I’ll see if I can figure out a way to work it in. :) I had been considering writing something soon about the scientific method, and it might fit well there.

    @Aristarchus: Good point. I suppose the essence of this is that religions don’t have mathematically rigorous proofs of their claims, but if they did, ignoring others’ claims would be fine. So it all just collapses to that old question about evidence again. Thanks for the reality check.

    @jorge: I’m pretty sure that Aristarchus was referring to this post which I linked above where I wrote, “…if you’ve read some other holy books and can tell me why the existence of so many of them isn’t itself an argument against devoting your life to any one of them.” If you follow that link, you’ll see my elaboration on this idea.

  10. jorge alvarado

     /  August 6, 2010 at 6:05 pm

    Aristarchus wrote:
    “the other religions have exactly the same sort of evidence supporting them”
    (in explaining the statement):
    “All religions have holy books that claim to be correct, a long historical tradition of people believing them, many good works done in their name, many people testifying to having deeply fulfilling experiences as a result of the religion, etc. It’s the same level of evidence.“
    I’m sorry if I upset you, but none of your statements relate to “evidence” at all. All you did was give us a list of SIMILARITIES among some religions, which I doubt anyone would accept as “evidence” (not even me).
    If we look at what just some religions profess:
    one religion says they believe in many gods: and another says they believe in only one god.
    one religion says they will be saved because of what they do, and another says what they do is worthless to be saved.
    one religion says there are many ways to obtain salvation; another says there is only one way to obtain salvation.
    one religion says one must look inwardly to find oneself; another says one must deny himself to find himself.
    Do you see anywhere exactly the same sort of (similarities) supporting them?. I don’t.
    We must look at what the EVIDENCE for each profession is, and go from there, either affirming it , or denying it.

    I’ll keep this post short.

  11. Aristarchus

     /  August 6, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    Wow… you really don’t get it.

    You are correct that those claims (there is one/many gods, etc.) are very different. That doesn’t mean the type of evidence for them is different. Can you give me some evidence for Christianity which is not the same sort of evidence that exists for Hinduism?

  12. jorge alvarado

     /  August 8, 2010 at 10:00 pm

    Hi, Aristarchus. Man, you’re really hung up on this “sort of evidence” stuff.
    This is as simply as I can put it; think of the “glass half-empty, glass half-full” scenario. Take out the philosophical aspect (optimist vs. pessimist). The sorts of evidence for both scenarios is the same (physical and observational).
    You are saying that, since you think (or know) the glass is half-empty, everyone has to agree with you, or they would be wrong.
    If you say the glass is half-full, then everyone has to agree with you, or they would be wrong.
    Having the “exact same sort of evidence” alone wouldn’t prove either of your affirmations.
    Now to answer your question:
    “Can you give me some evidence for Christianity which is not the same sort of evidence that exists for Hinduism?”
    Yes, if all you want is “sorts of evidence” that would be easy. But what would that accomplish?
    let’s take physical evidence (a sort of evidence): I say I have physical evidence for christianity.
    let’s take testimonial evidence (not the same sort of evidence): the hindu person says he has testimonial evidence for hinduism.
    we can add more sorts of evidence, but it would only add more time and effort.
    Now what? I answered your question.
    Let’s ask the question another way:
    “Can you give me some evidence for christianity, and some for hinduism, to prove which is true?”
    Let’s try this:
    let’s take physical evidence: I say I have physical evidence for christianity; the hindu person says he has physical evidence for hinduism.
    let’s take testimonial evidence: I say I have testimonial evidence for christianity; the hindu person says he has testimonial evidence for hinduism.
    we can add more sorts of evidence for each view, but it would only add more time and effort.
    Now comes the fun part; You, as the “judge” now have to make your decision as to who’s right and who’s wrong.
    You could say: Well, since both of you “have exactly the same sort of evidence supporting (your views),”..you are both right! (or, you are both wrong!). Silly, isn’t it?
    One couldn’t reach a veredict by looking at the kinds of evidence. One must look at the evidence itself. (my whole point).
    I know you think you believe what you wrote is true. But I don’t think you realize what you meant is not what you wrote. (I know I’ve heard that somewhere). Enough of this. Time to move on.

Leave a Reply