This is the third question that I tackled for a panel on religion for our school's Faith Week.
How can we tell the difference between right and wrong, true and false?
A.Human beings are finite. Nothing can fully protect the human mind from error, including on matters of religion, ethics, scientific claims, and so forth. But we do have tests and means of weighing claims, which over time have shown their efficacy. But whatever claims we make ought to be subject to change given the best of what we know.
B.The finitude of the human condition means that the world, which we draw from to make our claims, can only be as wide as our experiences, which unfortunately is somewhat narrow. When we think of the advances made in the sciences, one key component has been the development of tools, which allow us to take in more data, and the development of theories, which are able to take in a greater amount of evidence. The widening of the world we experience, to take in more, is going to give us the ability to make claims, which will have stronger basis.
C.To achieve this wider vision of the world we cannot simply rely on ourselves but rather we should draw from a wide range of sources. One protestant thinker John Wesley proposed four such sources for Christians. The first is scripture, the New and the Old Testament. Second is the width and the breadth of the Christian tradition. For us in the mainline, both represent the accumulated wisdom of the ages, several millennia of peoples who have worked over many of the same problems we struggle with today.
D.Third, we ought to rely on reason and fourth human experience. The last two point to the fact that we will in the future continue to learn new things about this life and world of ours, dealing with new problems and situations, developing tools and ways of inquiry that will provide a wider world by which we can make claims. Thus gaining greater insight into God’s ordering activity in this world. So when a Christian, in the mainline, is working out the tough issues, we do not just go to scripture, but also to the relevant sciences, etc.
E.But to achieve a wider world, we need to be able to talk to the widest range of peoples. This points to an issue which many in the mainline Protestant church has taken up, which is the importance of interfaith dialogue. Christianity has been one historical way by which people have made sense of the world and our place within it, but other religions have done likewise and may be attentive to issues and experiences that have not been within our scope. So besides the idea of getting along, interfaith dialogue may have a chance to broaden a number of religious views about the world.
F.Another focus has been to listen to people’s experiences that have been historically left out. Women, gay and lesbians, and others who have historically not been a welcome part of the conversation which has made up Christian tradition so far, are now impacting the way we think about our faith in dramatic ways. As we broaden the range of folks who are listened to, the ability for us to make ethical and other claims about the world increases.