Every year when All Hallows Eve comes around I look forward to It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown. Clever wit. Humor and fun-loving characters. Nostalgia. Charlie Brown has it all. But it’s not all tricks and treats when it comes to this cartoon classic.
The Great Pumpkin also happens to be a great illustration for evaluating and making truth claims, something all world religions, and even atheists, make on a regular basis. The Great Pumpkin has been used by some as an argument against Christianity. It is entirely characteristic of character caricatures made to mock Christian faith while dismissing the actual truth claims. A few other notables include: Antony Flew’s parable of the “Gardener,” the various manifestations of Grilled Cheesus, Daniel Dennet’s tea pot and, of course, Richard Dawkins’ favorite, the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Poor Linus; he anxiously waits, hoping to finally see the Great Pumpkin rising out of the pumpkin patch, bearing gifts of candy and toys for all the children. How does Linus approach the truthfulness of the Great Pumpkin? How does he know the Great Pumpkin actually exists? On what basis does Linus determine the truthfulness of his claim that the Great Pumpkin will come to the pumpkin patch he sits in? Listen to his explanation:
Each year, the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch that he thinks is the most sincere. He’s gotta pick this one. He’s got to. I don’t see how a pumpkin patch can be more sincere than this one. You can look around and there’s not a sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.
Unfortunately for Linus, sincerity of faith does not determine truth, religious or otherwise. One can be very sincere about many things but that does not in and of itself mean that it is true. What is of the utmost importance is the object of one’s faith. I may zealously believe that one of the Redeemer’s Preschoolers could drive me safely from Huntington Beach to the Grand Canyon. But, my faith would be terribly misplaced. Or, on the other hand, I may have serious doubts that Martin Luther really did write the Ninety-Five Theses and start the Lutheran Reformation. In either case, however, neither my faith nor my doubts change the underlying facts.
Religious truth claims are a dime a dozen. And you can find as many methods for determining the answer to “what is true?” as you can find people making truth claims. Here is a quick review of a few popular ways people argue for the truthfulness their respective assertions:
a) Common sense and intuition. Common sense isn’t really that common. Not to mention people who believe incompatible things all claim to have common sense on their side. And if intuition were a suitable source of truth, then this article wouldn’t need to be written because we would all have the same religious convictions.
b) Authority. Be careful. Just because you make a claim to an authoritative source doesn’t mean it’s true. Many people use this argument to their detriment: “fill-in-the-blank holy book is the Word of God because it says it’s the Word of God;” that’s circular reasoning. Another example: try citing Wikipedia in your scholarly journal paper. The trustworthiness of the source of authority needs must be evaluated.
c) Religious experience. This usually involves some kind of subjective experiential or testimony-drive claim to truth. Experience and sincerity are kissing cousins; they both require no objective means of investigation or evaluation. There’s no way to tell if you had a vision of the Holy Spirit or just bad sushi at lunch. Another example: “Go ahead. Try the kool-aid; you’ll have a religious experience.”
So, how does one evaluate truth? How do you know what you know? The highfalutin word for this is epistemology; and now you can impress all your friends. When it comes down to it, there are three main categories of truth claims: analytic, synthetics and nonsensical/meaningless.
1) Analytic truth claims. These truth claims are true by definition, like a math equation, 2+2=4. Or, “all unmarried men are bachelors.” There really isn’t any need to test the truth claim. Why? They are by definition true, 100% certainty. Religious claims do not fall into this category of truth claims.
2) Synthetic truth claims. Here, claims are considered to be true of false after the facts have been examined, the evidence weighed and the case deemed probable or improbable. This is how you do simple things like, cross the street and more complex things such in the fields of science, history and law. For example: Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7th, 1941; The tallest man in the world is 9 foot 11 inches. There is one religious truth claim in this category. Care to guess?
3) Nonsensical/meaningless truth claims. This does not mean, “It has no meaning to me.” Rather, it lacks content or substance. These claims to truth are neither true nor false. There is no way of proving or disproving them. For example: all evil and illness are an illusion; Santa Claus (sorry, kids); the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Great Pumpkin (sorry, Linus), and phrases like: “It’s Tuesday so it must be Belgium.” This is where atheists want to place all religious truth claims. Are they right? Well, yes and no. Every religion, save one, falls into this category.
Regrettably, many Christians also fall prey to this same type of logic. Christians need answer one basic question: what would make you stop believing in your religion? Is there any set of circumstances and evidence, which if proven true, would overthrow your religious truth claim? Both the religious person and the atheist must answer this question. How would the Christian answer? Some have replied: “No. There’s nothing. I’ll have faith no matter what they say.” Really? Even though they may be well intended, they’ve just placed Christianity in the one category it doesn’t belong, the meaningless, nonsensical category of truth claims. This is where atheists bring up the worn out parable of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. “There’s an invisible flying spaghetti monster on the other side of this wall and he really wants you to believe in him or else he’s going to throw beef meatballs at you. You see, it’s nonsense just like your god. Therefore, you shouldn’t believe in any god; all religions are fairy tales.”
The basic problem with this parable is that it fails to take the Christian truth claim seriously. Christianity is unique. It is a synthetic truth claim (point #2 above) because it hinges on one event that occurred in history, in reality, approximately 2000 years ago. And that means it can be investigated. It is falsifiable. This is what St. Paul is writes in 1 Corinthians 15; the Christian faith stands or falls on the Jesus’ death and resurrection from the grave. This is what separates Christianity from the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Grilled Cheesus, the Great Pumpkin, the Muslim or Mormon Jesus, Brahman and Santa Claus. Christianity centers around the fact that God entered time and space; He became tangible. God took on human flesh in the person of Jesus (John 1). “That which was from the beginning, which we have HEARD, which we have SEEN with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have TOUCHED—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” – 1 John 1:1. This is the Christian truth claim. Your Christian faith does not rest on meaningless claims, silly cartoons, or even emotional feelings, as good as they might be; it’s founded on the fact of Jesus’ substitutionary death for the world – and for you – on the cross and His glorious resurrection from the dead. Knowing that we can have a blessed All Hallows Eve and Reformation Day. Christianity doesn’t pass out tricks or treats, just the facts.