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Infatuation with the ‘New’: A Defense of the Old

While getting preparing the release of my collection of letters from Antony Flew for release on Kindle, I was re-reading the comments on Amazon for Flew’s  book There is a God.   One of them reminded me of a topic that has been gnawing on me for awhile.

One comment said:

There is not a single argument Flew offers that is even remotely original. In fact, it is largely composed of re-hashings of the “fine-tuning” design style arguments already offered by a myriad of thinkers.

Another said,

“It offers essentially nothing new to the standard litany of intelligent design arguments–kalaam cosmological (first cause) argument, fine tuning, irreducible complexity, etc. Other people have written out these arguments more articulately and in more depth than Flew.

Or one more:

This book offers nothing new in the way of “evidence” for God, and even on purely philosophical grounds it’s not very interesting or compelling.

It is not actually my purpose to take these reviewers to task individually because my purpose is not to speak to Flew’s book or beliefs.  I will say, however, that many reviewers expecting such things did so irrationally.  The book was put forth to be autobiographical.  (This again, is corroborated in my letters from Flew.)  It’d be like being surprised that G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy didn’t present a systematic argument for theism and Christianity… when he himself regarded it not as such, but rather his own spiritual autobiographical- how he got the point where he was at… not that you have to follow him or arrive in the same way or even be all that impressed.

I would like to suggest that if Flew had produced an ‘original’ argument that was ‘new’ this would not be as good as we might suppose at first glance.  Imagine this:  a person- former atheist, always a Christian, it doesn’t matter who- produces a new argument for Christian theism that is completely compelling, thus removing all reasonable doubt standing in the way of one becoming a Christian.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  Even if this were the case, many atheists are on record as saying that even if God exists as Christians present him, they want nothing to do with them.  They would prefer hell in its most horrific depictions and would even show themselves the way to the door.  (They are on record saying this, but if you say that they say this, they are prone to get upset with you).  But that is a different story.

Think rather this:  any new argument that shows that Christian theism is actually true means that any argument for atheism put forth from time immemorial was necessarily false.  A new argument basically means that everything you thought was reasonable before… wasn’t.   What then of your current thought patterns?  How do you know that they are trustworthy and reliable?

The problem clearly works the other way around.  If all these years you’ve been a Christian theist because of what you deem as inferior argumentation by atheists and suddenly a new argument emerges that convinces you of atheism, you must adopt the whole package, and that necessarily means regarding all of your previous arguments for Christianity against atheism as necessarily false… for none of them can obviously be true if all along atheism was correct.  And if you now come to this point, where you’ve been duped all these years by sophisticated (perhaps) but definitely false arguments, how confident can you really be in your new conviction?

The persistent and constant quest for something ‘new’ is in my estimation something fraught with dangers.  Instead of ‘progress’ it tends instead to lead to sensationalism and self-deception.   If you wait long enough, you will eventually hear of some new thing that supports something that you happen (or want) to believe.  New studies about whether or not coffee is bad for you are constantly emerging.  Or wine.  Or beer.  Or vaccines.  Or human evolution.   We humans are always bored with the status quo and easily ensnared by the titillating siren call of ‘change.’   We have even been observed choosing the path of ‘change’ and ‘progress’ even if reason and evidence suggests the change will destroy us.      Never satisfied with a sensible incremental change that may actually be warranted, the clamor is for a complete overthrow of the ‘old.’  Again, even if that means our ruin.

There has never been a time in human history in which ‘new’ arguments or ‘new evidences’ and ‘new paradigms’ can be thrust before us with such rapidity.  At least a hundred years ago you had to wait a year or so between ‘new advances’ and you could take some time to soak them in (if you so chose to do… not all did!).  Today, the media makes a killing off of putting one new thing in front of us in the morning and yet another- often contradictory- new thing in front of us in the afternoon.  And we lap it up like fools.

Compared to how effectively the ‘new’ tickles our fancy, the studious, ponderous, follow-up investigation is rarely considered newsworthy.   So for example, the media can splash the ‘discovery’ of the ‘Gospel of Judas‘ and the ‘Lost tomb of Jesus‘, poking holes again in Christianity, and never follow up when the mature analysis shows how these things not only fail to do any such thing; indeed, very old reasons are already on the books for seeing such things as ridiculous.  The ‘Lost tomb of Jesus’  was discredited immediately, without media fanfare… the ”Gospel of Judas’ and its central contention was already known to us since c.  180 AD.  (see more of my own reflections on these items here)

I have given examples regarding issues concerning Christianity because as an apologist, I am sensitive to those types of examples, and I think I have a legitimate beef, noticing that Christianity gets singled out to some extent because any stick is good enough to beat it with.  In a society filled with lots of Christians, controversy sells.  But that said, this pattern is not confined to Christianity.  The refutation of the constantly offered ‘new’ rarely comes and our worldview (if we’re not careful) ends up as a hodgepodge of different ‘facts’ gleaned from sensationalized headlines.  Then we call ourselves informed.

This has even infected academia, the place where theoretically speaking we could have hoped for mature analysis to take place.  But you can’t count on that, either.  It’s ‘publish or perish’ and it is only with reluctance that new evidence for old claims or beliefs are published.   Even there- or maybe especially there- one must be prepared to dig deeper to make sure that the claims stand up to old, reliable, measures of truth and truth detection.

I do not have any objection to the notion of ‘new evidence.’  I certainly think that sometimes we have to make judgments based on information on hand and that these judgements may have to be revised if further information is presented.  This requires, however, that our previous judgements be arrived at properly and thoroughly.

However, we must distinguish between ‘new evidence’ and ‘new illustrations.’  The great tragedies of the 20th century give us plenty of new illustrations to use in our debates about the nature of reality but they don’t really amount to new evidence.  In point of fact, the metaphysical front lines were established centuries and centuries ago and have not changed and probably won’t- by their very nature.  The fact that we can create this new thing, an atomic bomb, doesn’t address the old problem, of whether or not it is morally justified to employ a superior weapon.  It is a difference of scale, not of category, and the category is not a new discovery at all.

‘New’ arguments would actually serve to put into doubt humanity’s epistemological foundations.   To return to Flew’s book, I think what we see there is something we see in many cases- it isn’t a question of ‘new’ evidences or ‘new’ arguments, but a new perspective on what weight we give old evidences and arguments.  I think that is a mark of sanity and maturity;  I for one would view any ‘new evidence’ or ‘original argument’ or ‘innovative idea’ with great suspicion, especially if it implies we were all off our rockers before it was offered.

To my fellow Christians:  I am especially suspicious of new doctrines that fly in the face of the old ones.  I am less suspicious of new doctrines that do not contradict the old ones, but still nervous.  Any innovative ‘new’ way of thinking that is derived from the Scriptures had better be thoroughly vetted.   ‘New’ isn’t bad, but due to how easily it tantalizes us, we should proceed with caution.