The wall and the living room

In recent conversations with a Muslim friend, I found the conversation becoming somewhat repetitive and confused as my friend and I struggled to interact with each other’s arguments while wearing different hats. These different hats are those of the ‘outsider’ and those of the ‘insider’, those of the allegedly objective outside observer and the self-confessedly non-neutral religious believer. I say ‘allegedly objective’ because true objectivity and neutrality is difficult if not impossible, but I believe some progress can be made towards it. I believe that both approaches have their merits, as long as they are not confused.

The way I envisage these two roles relating can best be explained through the analogy of a house, ‘the wall and the living room’.

  • The ‘wall’ upholds the living room, and protects it from external threats. It provides enough evidence for remaining within the living room without fear of the roof coming crashing down, and its cold and rugged exterior attempts to deflect incoming challenges using the rules of discussion of the outside world.
  • The ‘living room’ has certain rules and arguments that dictate appropriate conduct given the reality of this room supported by the walls. You might think of them as the furniture that makes the living room habitable. These rules might seem strange or inappropriate to the colder world outside, but they make sense when sitting on the sofa besides a toasty fire.

To put some flesh on these bones:

  • There are certain ‘wall’ arguments which are the intellectual pillars of faith, which justify and defend the existence of the ‘living room’ of faith. An attack on these ‘wall arguments’ weakens the stability of the ‘living room’. A prime example for the Christian faith is the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus’ from the dead, which the New Testament appeals to as evidence that should help non-believers to become believers (Acts 17:31). For Christians, this belief holds up other doctrines such as the resurrection of the dead (1 Corinthians 15:12); however, the New Testament says that if disproven, the whole Christian faith would crumble (1 Corinthians 15:14-19).
  • There are ‘living room’ arguments which don’t claim to be convincing to those outside of the living room, but are the ground rules for those who would like to be inside. For example, the doctrine of the Trinity may not be very persuasive to those outside of the living room, but it is not intended to be; those inside the living room are led to the doctrine of the Trinity because of the rules of the ‘living room’, namely that the Bible is the word of God (e.g. 2 Timothy 3:16) and that it teaches the Trinity (e.g. Matthew 28:19-20, John 1:1).

The trickiest part in application will be working out what is a ‘wall’ argument and what is a ‘living room’ argument. Some examples may illustrate:

  • A Christian may rightly defend the doctrine of the Trinity as a ‘living room’ argument, and in one sense it is. It is an appropriate conclusion for those following the ‘living room’ rules, namely that Christians should follow the Bible.
  • However, if a Muslim claims that this is logically impossible, this is no longer a ‘living room’ argument. The issue is not how Christians as Christians should behave in the living room, but whether the whole foundation (‘the wall’) of the Christian worldview can be defended. The outside world weapon of ‘logic’ is being used to try and pierce the wall; will it succeed? The Christian should attempt to respond and demonstrate how the doctrine of the Trinity is logically possible.
  • It is legitimate for a Muslim to use a certain ḥadīth to explain how those within the living room should understand what the Qur’an says about taḥrīf (i.e. the doctrine of the corruption of the previous scriptures).
  • However, if a non-Muslim perceives and argues for a contradiction between the ḥadīth and the Qur’an on this topic, this is an attack on the wall, not the living room. An argument based on perceived contradiction is an ‘outside’ weapon, trying to knock a hole in the wall. An appeal to the rules of the living room does nothing to deflect the non-Muslim’s attack against the wall; bricks and not cushions are the appropriate defence. The Muslim would do well to explain how there is in fact no contradiction.

None of this is to say that every attack on the wall will be sufficient to demolish the edifice and bring the ceiling crumbling down on the living room. A Christian or Muslim can confess to have no good answer to a particular objection, but believe that the overall strength of the wall can keep the living room well-protected. A Christian or Muslim can accept that certain arguments are living room rules based largely or entirely on faith, but that this is appropriate given the strength of the walls surrounding the living room.

Let both sides be honest and clear about what they consider to be stronger and weaker ‘wall’ arguments; one can accept weaker that there are weaker points without seeing the wall collapsing. A few chipped and loose bricks need not undermine an otherwise sturdy structure. Similarly, both sides can concede that ‘in house’ arguments and rules, the soft furnishings as it were, have their appropriate place but will not necessarily bear structural weight. That is not their intended purpose.

What do you think of this framework? Do you have a better one? Share your thoughts below.

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