The culture of any group of people has a profound influence on the sort of propositions that they are likely to find believable. Here, I’m using culture in a very broad sense, referring to nearly all of the man-made artifacts of one’s environment: government, art, family life, media (not content, but access to various media themselves)—all of these pervasive, unavoidable elements of life shape us in such a way that some statements seem self-evidently true, others possibly true, and others still utterly impossible. These predispositions to believe (or not believe) are not rooted merely in the propositions that we already maintain. These other, non-propositional factors are called plausibility structures: they are background factors against which beliefs gain or lose plausibility.
Perhaps you’ve had this conversation: you attempt to show someone what the Bible teaches about hell, or about God’s sovereignty in salvation, or some other contentious topic. You conclude your thoroughly exegetical, well-reasoned argument, waiting for the target of your homily to humbly and gratefully accede to your position. Instead, you get a response like this: “I just can’t believe in a God like that.”
You’ve heard this before, right? What is being demonstrated here is that people, as people, are not mere proposition processing machines. Frankly, I’m not convinced that we’re supposed to be so brain-centric; other legitimate factors enter into our decisions and our believings than cannot be captured in the analysis of Major Premise, minor premise, conclusion.
Whether such extra-propositional elements ought to carry such weight, however, is not my concern; what is indisputable is that they do in fact carry such weight. Why is it that someone will confess, for instance, that he has no answer to your argument, but refuses to accept your conclusion? He is acknowledging some other source of dis-ease with your conclusion, and perhaps he can’t even identify its source.
My contention here is multifold. As I’ve argued before, Christianity cannot be reduced to the affirmation of true propositions. However, the affirmation of certain propositions is essential to Christian faith, and growth in Christian discipleship minimally demands the affirmation of a fuller, more biblical set of propositions. These propositions (doctrines, if you will) are often far from self-evident, particularly to those who minds are “set on the flesh” (Rom 8.7); further, even the converted must pray, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”
It only makes sense, then (to me, at least), that an important element of discipleship is creating an environment conducive to the growth of the faith. This obligation rests on us as individuals; even more, I contend, the conduct and culture of our churches must be shaped in such a way that the worshipers do not find our doctrines to be less believable.