Back when I knew everything
I vividly recall sitting one morning in a class called ‘Biblical Interpretation’. On the particular day I have in mind, I was especially excited about beginning a semester of Bible College, as we called it. I was listening attentively as the teacher carefully walked us through the syllabus for the course. As it turns out, the final assignment was to be a research paper entitled: Why I am a Premillennialist. If you’re not entirely familiar with the term ‘premillennialist’, no worries, this post isn’t really about that as much as it is about the ways in which we think and evaluate ideas. You see, sitting in that classroom, I had no grounds for saying why I held to such a position. I was just out of high school, and at that point in my early Christian walk I hadn’t read through the entire Old Testament (only one of my many problems, but that’s a pretty big handicap if you’re studying issues like premillennialism). Also, if this wasn’t a position that I was informed enough to offer an opinion on, how was I to conduct research with the knowledge of what my opinion was going to be in advance? I began to think that this paper was not designed to equip me to critique and evaluate, but to reinforce assumptions that I was supposed to possess.
A problem we’re all familiar with
This example may seem unique, but I think we do this more often than we would like to admit. How many times have we been trying to get someone to share a political position, agree on a theological doctrine, persuade someone of the best place to buy groceries, or help someone to understand why your diet is best- all as though these were self-evidently (matter-of-fact) right positions? We hear this sort of angle all the time: Republicans don’t care about women’s health, Democrats are all really socialists, Walmart is THE place to shop, and carbs are evil. Whatever merit these propositions may have, they can’t be treated as self-evident. Evidence needs to be put forward in support of these claims.
For all the good intentions of the paper that I was assigned, the fundamental problem was that I was asked to assume something that I needed to demonstrate through rigorous research. This is not to say that there are not matters which we do not, as it were, hold to a priori. It is safe (in most circles) to assume that we exist, that numbers are real, that the laws of logic are reliable, etc. But we do serious damage to our capacity to learn if we treat all controversial matters of life as axiomatic.
Unargued propositions = opinion
When addressing a gathering of pacifists, C.S. Lewis pointed to this very idea of someone affirming as self-evident what everyone sees as controversial. “A mere unargued conviction is in place only when we are dealing with the axiomatic.” Lewis continues to respond initially to a possible, though unlikely position for pacifism:
-that of the man who claims to know on the grounds of intuition that all killing of human beings is in all circumstances an absolute evil. With the man who reaches the same result by reasoning or authority, I can argue. Of the man who claims not reach it but to start there, we can only say that he can have no such intuition as he claims. He is mistaking an opinion, or more likely, a passion, for an intuition. Of course, it would be rude to say this to him. To him we can only say that if he is not a moral idiot, then unfortunately the rest of the human race, including its best and wisest, are, and that argument across such a chasm is impossible.
Now, in fairness to the professor who assigned the paper, if I merely restated the proposition, “Premillenialism is true because that’s obviously what the Bible teaches,” my paper would have received an ‘F’. I was required to provide well grounded arguments. However, the point Lewis made about knowing something intuitively applies here because the position of the paper was decided before the argumentation and evidence was considered.
To wrap up, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we think through issues like these. In your experience, do we prematurely commit to positions on all sorts of issues that we haven’t thought through properly? If so, what’s the big deal? If you’d like to receive updates to this blog, simply select the ‘Follow’ button below.
 C.S. Lewis, Weight of Glory (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1949), page 71.