Saturday, January 17, 2009

Stiff lips atop weak knees

Many unbelievers suffer from conflicted body language. On the one hand, they attack Christianity because Christians can’t face up to reality. Christians nurse the illusion of a God who cares about them. Christians nurse the illusion of a heavenly afterlife. Christianity is founded on wishful thinking.

And that’s bad. We need to grow up. Stare reality square in the face. Be unflinching in our courageous embrace of the evidence, wherever it leads us.

Richard Dawkins is a classic exponent of this doughty, tough-minded rhetoric. For example:

“If it's true that it [i.e. naturalistic evolution] causes people to feel despair, that's tough. It's still the truth. The universe doesn't owe us condolence or consolation; it doesn't owe us a nice warm feeling inside. If it's true, it's true, and you'd better live with it.”

http://www.beliefnet.com/News/Science-Religion/2005/11/The-Problem-With-God-Interview-With-Richard-Dawkins.aspx?print=true

Dawkins acts like a stern, disapproving nun who patrols her classroom with a metal-edged ruler to smite the bare knuckles of naughty, mischievous students. His calling in life is to turn boys into men. To banish our childish fears of oblivion.

That’s atheism from the neck up. The stiff upper-lip of labial atheism.

But when you shift your focus to atheism below the belt, it has an odd way of going weak at the knees. The tender joints of arthological atheism.

When Christians point out that atheism entails moral nihilism, which renders human existence meaningless, the average atheist becomes very agitated. Very defensive. He accuses you of misrepresenting atheism.

Suddenly the undaunted atheist can’t quite bring himself to accept the grim consequences of his position. He yells at you for making him look at a picture of the moral abyss.

He retreats into make-believe meaning. We project meaning onto the world. We create our very own heaven-on-earth through utopian good deeds. The triumph of the human spirit. The Ode to Joy and all that good stuff.

So we need to distinguish between labial atheism and arthological atheism. Labial atheism is boundlessly brave, heroic, and noble. But arthological atheism is timid and fanciful.

What is atheism? Depends on which part of the anatomy you’re inspecting. The upper lip or the wobbly knees? To paraphrase Scripture, “These people honor me with their lips, but their knees are far from me.”

Friday, January 16, 2009

Ergonomic ecumenism

Years ago, in the 60s or 70s (I think), I saw an episode on Sixty Minutes (I think) about a church which was sharing its sanctuary with a Jewish group. On Saturday, down went the Christian symbols and up went the Jewish symbols. On Sunday, down went the Jewish symbols and up went the Christian symbols.

Due to the chronic shortage of priests (and even nuns), Roman Catholic bishops and archbishops have been forced to close various churches in their Dioceses. In light of Catholic ecumenism, I think it would be more cost-effective if they worked out a timesharing arrangement with the Hindus and Buddhists.

We’ve all see Catholic churches with shrines enclosing statues and votive candles. And we’ve all see Hindu and Buddhist temples with shrines enclosing statues and votive candles.

Why not use the same facilities, with adjustable signage? One minute it’s a statue of Mary, a minute later it’s a statue…I mean, idol…of Kali. One minute it’s an idol…I mean, statue…of Jude, a minute later it’s an idol of Krishna. You could have digital signs with preset names (for the appropriate patron saint or patron god or goddess). Just push a button—depending on the next worshipper in line.

After all, as John-Paul II so fluently illustrated at Assisi, Catholics and pagans don’t worship a different divinity using the same statues, but worship the same divinity using different statues. So it’s all sort of interchangeable, is it not?

Secular sandcastles

“An argument frequently deployed in popular attacks on atheism is the claim that atheism makes life meaningless. Without God, without a transcendent source of meaning and purpose, human life amounts to little more than the life of a flea, so the argument goes.”

http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/2009/01/atheism-and-meaning-of-life.html

Gee, how did Christians ever form such a terrible misimpression of atheism? Oh, I remember. It’s because, in moments of unguarded candor, some secular thinkers have been telling us that life without God is meaningless. That’s one good reason.

I know that Parsons is ignorant of basic Bible scholarship. Is he equally ignorant of what his fellow atheists have said?

He follows this up with a quote from the 2nd edition of Craig’s Reasonable Faith—which goes to show that Parsons is too lazy to keep up with the competition. The 3rd edition was issued last year.

After quoting from this dated source, he then treats the reader to this outburst:

“My first reaction is that his objection seems to be motivated by a monumental degree of egotism. What possible excuse could you have for thinking that you are of such transcendent importance that you should be an exception to cosmic law and that you should survive when planets, stars, and galaxies are gone? Yes, says atheism, it is a fact: Someday the cosmos will be forced to confront the stark reality that you are no more. Amazingly, it will continue to tick along almost exactly as it did before. Your absence from the universe will matter about as much in the whole scheme of things as the removal of a single grain of sand from the Sahara. Deal with it.”

Well, my first reaction is that Parsons would make a lousy grief counselor. Imagine what he’d say to an 8-year-old who lost his mother in a traffic accident:

Look, you little twerp, you need to get over your monumental egotism. The universe doesn’t revolve around the feelings of a whinny little orphan. Do you think your mommy should be an exception to cosmic law? Someday the cosmos will be forced to confront the stark reality that you, too, will stink up the grave just—like your dead mother. Amazingly, the universal will get along just fine without you or your mommy. Your mommy’s death means about as much in the grand scheme of things as the removal of a single grain of sand from the Sahara. Deal with it!”

Beyond my initial reaction, I also have some afterthoughts. Notice that Parsons is trying to shame the reader into submission rather than reasoning with the reader.

It’s also a rather ironic exercise. Think about it. What makes Mr. Parsons so monumentally egotistical to imagine that we should frame our lives with a view to avoiding his personal disapproval?

And isn’t it rather absurd to say someone is monumentally egotistical for feeling despair at the prospect of his oblivion? After all, if Parsons didn’t exist, he’d be in no position to attack egotism, whether monumental or miniature.

I mean, if you want to put it in such terms, yes…I suppose there’s something irreducibly egotistical about wanting to exist, wanting to be me. Something irreducibly egotistical about having an ego, having a self. Shame can only be felt by the living, not the dead—if there is no afterlife.

Appeal to cosmic law begs the question of whether death is a cosmic necessity. And his statement about how nothing we think or say or do will make any lasting difference in the great scheme of things is precisely one of the reasons that atheism, if true, would void human existence of meaning.

Why does he bother to blog or teach or publish books? He is building sandcastles at low tide. How much time and effort should we invest in a kingdom of sandcastles? Isn’t the exercise inherently frivolous?

Suppose your sandcastle is an architectural masterpiece while mine is a slapdash affair. Your sandcastle is one of the seven wonders of the world. The all-time greatest sandcastle. What difference does it make? Hours of painstaking toil, flattened in minutes.

Of course, there’s a value in remembering the past. But that requires the services of someone to remember it. The dead have short memories—if there is no afterlife.

"Inauguration Day Prayer #1: John Frame"

Dan Phillips posts John Frame's answer to the question what prayer he might pray if Obama invited him to pray at his inauguration.

Earth liberation

JD WALTERS SAID:

“Global warming is real, it is manmade, and it is a huge problem. And if the corporations producing greenhouse gases lack the incentive to produce honest research on the impact of those gases, then it's up to the government to do so. I have read numerous treatments from both the 'advocates' and the deniers and it is clear that the latter are guilty of gross manipulation and distortion of the evidence.”

“And while we're playing the bulverizing game, one might ask why global warming skepticism so often comes from scientists affiliated with business-friendly and business-funded think-tanks. Clearly they do not like the idea of greater environmental controls which would chip away at their profits. If environmentalism is the religion of nature-reverence, global warming skepticism reflects the creed of the ruthless capitalist: growth, growth and more growth, whatever the social and environmental consequences of this growth are.”

This raises a number of issues:

1.I’m not a climatologist. JD is not a climatologist either.

So the general question is how a layman should respond to claims which fall outside his competence to directly evaluate?

One logical response is to suspend judgment. However, Green politicians won’t allow me to withhold judgment on global warming. They are trying to enact sweeping economic policies based on the alleged phenomenon of anthropogenic global warming. Therefore, Green politicians are forcing me to stake out a practical position on this issue.

2.Another response is to defer to expert opinion. That’s the argument from authority. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with the argument from authority. Sometimes, as a matter of practical necessity, we are dependent on expert testimony.

However, the argument from authority is only practical or persuasive if there’s a general consensus of opinion among experts in the field. If, by contrast, there’s a significant body of dissent, then I can’t use the argument from authority since the argument from authority is unable to adjudicate between rival authorities.

Why do the experts disagree? Maybe because their theories are underdetermined by the evidence.

In that case, the logical response would be for me to reserve judgment unless and until the experts arrive at a general consensus of opinion. Once again, however, the Green politicians won’t allow me to wait for a scientific consensus to form.

3.So what’s my fallback option? At this point, JD is half-right, although the way he expresses his point betrays his own particular bias. When the experts disagree, we might examine their motives. Is this pure, disinterested scientific inquiry, or do sociological factors figure in the debate? Is the evidence driving the agenda, or is the agenda driving the evidence?

4.Once upon a time, environmentalism had fairly modest and reasonable aims: clean air, clean water, safe food, national parks. But over time, it has evolved and coalesced into a radical worldview, involving elements of deep ecology, ecocentrism, ecosocialism, antinatalism, Earth liberation, &c. This is a radical, self-contained conceptual scheme.

i) It is, in part, a militant, neopagan alternative to the Christian worldview. And it would behoove a religion student to be more astute about the ideological underpinnings of this movement.

ii) It is also driven by self-hating Americans as well as envious foreigners who resent American military, cultural, and economic dominance. They want to cripple the American economy. JD’s own position clearly buys into some of this Chomskyesque outlook.

iii) It’s also driven by the same coercive groupthink and peer pressure that I see among the militant Darwinians.

5.JD’s attempt to discredit scientists who question global warming orthodoxy would be more convincing if he could show me that all of them are on the payroll of Standard Oil.

And I’d add that the argument from economic incentive cuts both ways. It can also be lucrative to promote the global warming agenda. A good way to secure gov’t grants or UN subsidies.

Chris Price On The Virgin Birth

Chris Price has a good two-part series on the virgin birth here and here. Here's his summary:

1) there are substantial differences between the narratives of Jesus’ birth and those of pagan births involving pagan deities that include but go beyond the virgin conception, 2) the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were aware of the pagan birth stories involving deities and sought to distinguish Jesus’ birth from them, and 3) the efforts of Matthew and Luke to distinguish Jesus’ birth from rival pagan accounts help explain why some early Christians did not highlight the virgin birth of Jesus in their preaching and writing.


I would add the following points to the many good observations he makes in the two articles.

Ben Witherington comments that "most scholars" think that the infancy narratives are more like Jewish infancy accounts than pagan birth legends (in Joel B. Green, et al., edd., Dictionary Of Jesus And The Gospels [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992], p. 60). Darrell Bock writes that there’s a "consensus" among scholars to reject the view that the virgin birth was derived from pagan mythology (Luke, Volume 1, 1:1-9:50 [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1994], n. 4 on p. 103).

Even a scholar as generally skeptical of the infancy narratives as Raymond Brown wrote:

"If the marital situation between Joseph and Mary [portrayed in Matthew's gospel] were not a fact and could have been created according to the dictates of Christian imagination, it is difficult to see why a situation less open to scandal was not contrived. For instance, instead of picturing Mary as already pregnant, the narrator could have imagined her as betrothed to Joseph but without child. Then he could have had the angel of the Lord appear and begin his message with 'Joseph, son of David, hasten to take Mary your wife into your home.' Everything else in 1:20-25 could follow, and there would be no hint of scandal....Matthew's world view and that of his opponents is not one in which deities have sexual relations with men or women and beget children. He is in confrontation with Pharisees and in his account of the ministry he is most careful not to give them anything they can use against Jesus (e.g., his omitting the spittle miracle narrated in Mark 8:22-26). If the situation described in Matthew is not a factual one but is the product of Christian romantic imagination, one must deem it a great religious blunder; for it gave rise to the charge of illegitimacy against Jesus that was the mainstay of anti-Christian polemic for many centuries....One may hypothesize that independently Matthew and Luke hit upon the pattern of an annunciation, the idea of a virginal conception, etc.; but it is more plausible that these are earlier ideas that each has taken over and developed in his own way. I find totally implausible that they would independently chance upon the same peculiar marital situation as a setting for the annunciation....Leaving aside formal biographies, one can make a better case that even Jews would have known (sometimes derisively) popular stories about the gods, but would they have wanted to imitate them in describing the Son of the Lord God of Israel? Most lines in the infancy narratives have patent OT parallels; it is very difficult to show that the evangelists drew upon the proposed and far more distant Greco-Roman parallels. The two evangelists could have written their infancy narratives without ever having heard or read biographies and tales composed by pagan writers; the orientation of the Gospel narratives could have come from Hebrew or LXX forms of the biblical stories of the Patriarchs, Moses, and David (enlarged by subsequent oral lore), plus some Jesus tradition and theological reflection....Two mutually hostile traditions about Jesus' birth, Christian and Jewish, came to agree on that point [that Joseph wasn't Jesus' biological father]. The Christian claim that Joseph was not the father (Matt, Luke) can scarcely have arisen by reaction to Jewish calumny - that would have been answered by saying Joseph was the father - so that, unless one wants to say that Jewish polemic about Jesus' illegitimacy was based entirely on misunderstanding, it helps to show that Christians were claiming an unusual conception....On 528-31 above I argued that although the limited NT evidence is not conclusively probative, to posit historical fact as an explanation of Matt's and Luke's agreement on the v.c. [virginal conception] is more conformable to the evidence than to posit fictional creation....[quoting another source] 'None of the proposed parallels [to the virginal conception], either pagan or Jewish, seemingly accounts for the story we find in the NT.'" (The Birth Of The Messiah [New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999], pp. 142-143 and n. 28 on p. 143, n. 41 on p. 247, 579-580, n. 318 on p. 703, 705, 707)

Celsus, a second-century non-Christian Gentile who consulted Jewish sources for information on Christianity, rejects the virgin birth account, as we would expect. But he attributes the virgin birth claim to Jesus Himself (Origen, Against Celsus, 1:28). The timing of the gospels and their sources suggests that the virgin birth claim was circulating when close relatives of Jesus were still alive. The claim may have been widely circulating even prior to Jesus' death, as Celsus suggested. If Christians for a few or several decades had been saying that Jesus was conceived by normal means, and influential church leaders like Paul had no concept of a virginal conception, as critics often suggest, why would the concept be so widespread so early on, and why would critics like Celsus and his Jewish sources think that the idea was circulating when Jesus was still alive? If it was a concept that arose in the eighties, nineties, or later, wouldn't we expect something like a half century of widespread ignorance and contradiction of the doctrine to leave more of a trace in the historical record?

The gospels of Matthew and Luke were widely used early on, as we see, for example, in Bruce Metzger's The Canon Of The New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) and Clayton Jefford's The Apostolic Fathers And The New Testament (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006). We don't find Pauline communities rejecting the virgin birth, while a Matthean community in another part of the world accepts the concept, for example. Rather, as sources like Ignatius and Aristides illustrate, both Pauline and Matthean communities accept the virgin birth and the documents that affirm it in the earliest post-apostolic generation. Luke, Ignatius, Polycarp, and other early sources who thought highly of the apostle Paul also thought highly of the virgin birth in particular and/or the gospels of Matthew and Luke in general. Why is it that so many skeptical speculations about what Paul believed aren't reflected in the early Pauline Christians and Pauline churches?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Global warming is real!

Global warming is real, it is manmade, and it is a huge problem. And if the corporations producing greenhouse gases lack the incentive to produce honest research on the impact of those gases, then it's up to the government to do so. I have read numerous treatments from both the 'advocates' and the deniers and it is clear that the latter are guilty of gross manipulation and distortion of the evidence.

http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2009/01/you-can-always-count-on-sin.html#3818188830148131193

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — The cold wave that stunned the nation's midsection expanded into the Northeast on Wednesday with subzero temperatures and biting wind that kept even some winter sports fans at home.

The wind chill hit 33 below zero during the night at Massena, N.Y., and the National Weather Service predicted actual temperatures nearly that low in parts of the region by Thursday night. The weather service said Flint, Mich., set a record low early Wednesday at 19 degrees below zero.

Vermont's Bolton Valley ski resort, where it was 10 below Wednesday morning, canceled night skiing through Friday night for fear that skiers could freeze if they were marooned on a malfunctioning ski lift.

A couple of ski areas in northern Minnesota closed for the day because of temperatures that reached 38 below zero at International Falls, with the wind chill during the night estimated at 50 below.

Maine residents braced for nighttime readings down to 40 below zero. And in the Midwest, Iowans were warned that temperatures could drop as far as 27 below zero during the night, matching a Jan. 15 record set in 1972.

Temperatures on Thursday were expected to range from 10 below zero in the far north to the low teens in southern coastal areas. Farther south, morning temperatures were in the 20s from Texas to Georgia, and along the Gulf Coast the weather service reported a low of just 28 at Mobile, Ala.

Even northern Georgia and Kentucky could see single-digit lows by Friday, with zero possible at Lexington, Ky., the weather service warned. Kentucky hasn't been that cold since December 2004.

Farmworkers in Florida, where the service forecast Thursday night lows in the teens to lower 20s, plucked ripened berries early as a precaution. Strawberry growers near Tampa and blueberry growers around Gainesville checked irrigation pumps, ready to spray fruit with water to create a protective ice coating if needed.

http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5ifTg_yfYpAykFLdY6fVBnb3NeMZAD95NBN701

In northern Minnesota, temperatures dropped to 40 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, and record lows near that were recorded in North Dakota as single-digit and sub-zero temperatures spread through a broad swath of the country's northern and central tiers.

Subzero temperatures were forecast through Friday morning. North-central Kansas and south-central Nebraska, key hard red winter wheat-producing areas, were forecast to see lows ranging for zero to -10 degrees F,
"This is the coldest weather we've seen in a few years," said DTM Meteorlogix forecaster Mike Palmerino.

http://uk.reuters.com/article/oilRpt/idUKN1447506520090114?pageNumber=1&virtualBrandChannel=0

First, we were buffeted by record-setting, hurricane-force winds. Then we were blasted by record-setting snowfall in a couple of blizzard-like snowstorms.

It will be cold, but not as cold as it was in parts of the Great Plains and upper Midwest, where temperatures hit lows of minus-40 degrees. As another Arctic front moves into the area, temperatures Thursday will be bone-chilling, with a high near 5 degrees in the afternoon and winds that could gust to 28 mph.

This region hasn't had a day where the high temperature didn't break 5 degrees since January 1994, meteorologist Jon Hitchcock said. The low Thursday night will drop to minus-5 degrees at the airport, and it will likely be much colder farther inland.

http://www.buffalonews.com/home/story/548553.html

Record Breaking Cold Expected
 
Bitter, brutal, piercing cold.  Near record temperatures with biting winds will bring a taste of the Artcic right into Chicago.  The worst of the cold is expected tomorrow evening but there will be a stretch of more than 24 hours of Sub Zero temperatures.  A windchill warning is in effect for the entire region until Noon on Friday.  Exposure to the cold should be limited.

The last nine days have already put Chicago in the record books.  An historic stretch of snow -  Nine consecutive days of measurable snow - breaks the previous record of 8 consecutive days set back in 1973.  The snow will let up for this cold blast but another storm brings snow to parts of the area late on Friday into Saturday.

http://www.myfoxchicago.com/myfox/pages/News/Detail?contentId=8252200&version=1&locale=EN-US&layoutCode=TSTY&pageId=3.2.1

Raw, subzero surface temperatures and winds driving wind chill readings to the minus-40 range settled in along a path from the Canadian border to the lower Midwest, with some cities posting record overnight lows. Records were recorded in the Michigan cities of Flint, at 19 below zero, and Saginaw, 10 below, and in parts of the Lower Mississippi Valley, where Hot Springs and Monticello, Arkansas, saw temps dip into the low 20s, a rarity, said National Weather Service meteorologist Andrew Orrison.

http://www.upi.com/Top_News/2009/01/15/Arctic_blast_b-r-r-r-rings_c-c-c-old/UPI-31241232025181/

Does "all" mean "all"?

"Universal Salvation" (PDF) by Dr. Chrys Caragounis, Professor in New Testament Exegesis at the University of Lund.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The deconversion wager

I notice that d-C has a “de-conversion wager”:

http://de-conversion.com/

This is supposed to be a clever take-off on Pascal’s wager—as if the reasoning were reversible. Let’s see about that, shall we?

“Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place.”

How does atheism define “better”? What’s the frame of reference?

“If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you.”

i) How does atheism define “positive”? What’s the frame of reference?

ii) In the short term, why wouldn’t I have something to lose? Ripping off your fellow man can be very lucrative.

iii) It’s true that, in the long term, an atheist has nothing to lose—since an atheist has nothing to gain. Put another way, since an atheist is already a loser, he has nothing additional to lose. Kinda like trying to rob a nudist of his gold cufflinks.

But, of course, that wager cuts both ways. Even if he ultimately has nothing to lose by being kind, loving, compassionate, merciful, and tolerant, he ultimately has nothing to gain by being loving, compassionate, merciful, and tolerant. Put another way, he ultimately has nothing to lose by being mean, cruel, merciless, and intolerant.

“If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.”

i) There is, not doubt, a significant lack of evidence that she even exists. In that one respect, the de-conversion wager got it half-right. So the de-conversion wager is certainly pertinent to feminist theologians.

ii) If the contributors to d-C define Christian faith as “blindly believing in creeds,” then that would help explain why they became apostates. It’s easy to lose your blind faith in creeds.

iii) How does atheism define “benevolence”? What’s the frame of reference?

iv) How are the contributors privy to the basis on which God, if there is a God, will judge our actions? I don’t quite see how a nonexistent God could tip his hand. And if God is indefinable, then it would be even harder to predict his judicial criteria.

Why is it that people who assure us that they left the Christian faith for intellectual reasons always sound so anti-intellectual?

Valuing life

1. The abortion debate has a stereotypical shape to it. It usually swirls around issues of personhood and autonomy.

What this emphasis overlooks is a more obvious prolife argument, and that is the degree to which human beings value each other. Of course, that ranges along a continuum. We don’t value a stranger in the same way we value a mother or father, brother or sister, or best friend.

But that distinction isn’t especially relevant to this debate since the parties involved in abortion are related to each other.

I daresay that, for most parents, their children are the most valuable things in life. And siblings often feel the same way about their brothers and sisters.

This is why parents and siblings freak out when they receive a call from the ER about how their son or daughter or brother or sister was rushed to the hospital after a terrible traffic accident. They, in turn, rush to the ER, and spend nail-biting hours in the waiting room, hoping for the best, but fearing for the worst.

To lose a son or daughter, brother or sister to suicide or homicide, accident or terminal illness, is one of the great calamities of life. For that matter, to lose a mother or father to old age can be equally devastating.

When there’s a report of a schoolyard sniper, parents are terrified that their kids might be the victims. If their home catches on fire, what’s the first thing they try to rescue? The furniture? No. Their kids. If their home is destroyed by a tornado, but their children survive, that’s what they ultimately care about. Given a choice, they’d far rather save than children than save their home. Many parents will risk their own lives to save the lives of their children.

If the home is destroyed, they can move on with their lives. Absorb the emotional loss. But if their children die, there’s a sense in which their life comes to a standstill.

This applies to strangers as well. When we hear a news report about a child lost in the woods, or a child that fell down a mineshaft, the whole country tunes in.

It’s bizarre that so many parents are so possessive about children after they’re born, but so callous about children before they’re born. How quickly go from being disposable to being indispensable.

2.Of course, you might say, that’s because we get to know the child after it’s born. And no doubt there’s some truth to that.

However, people are often intensely interested in family members they never knew. Suppose I just found out that I have a brother I never knew I had. Unbeknownst to me, my mother gave him up for adoption. Wouldn’t I want to meet him? Wouldn’t I me angry about all the lost years? About all the opportunities I missed in not knowing my brother? The fact that I don’t know this person is the problem. I want to get to know him. I feel betrayed because I wasn’t allowed to. His existence was kept a secret.

Women who gave up their child for adoption often want to reenter their child’s life at some point. They lament not knowing their own child.

Likewise, many adopted children go to great efforts to discover their biological parents.

3.At the same time, this raises the question of whether children are valuable because we value them, or whether we value them because they are valuable.

From a secular standpoint, nothing is intrinsically valuable. Life on earth is a cosmic accident.

However, you can’t very well use that as an argument for abortion rights or women’s rights. If nothing is intrinsically valuable, then the mother or “woman” has no more intrinsic value than the baby. If feticide is justifiable on the grounds that every child should be a wanted child, then is homicide justifiable on the grounds that every man or woman should be valued by someone else?

4.Is there nothing inherently valuable about a child that causes us to value it? Does a child have a purely arbitrary value, like china or sterling silverware?

Even when parents murder their children, they do so because they know how important children are, and they want to do the most evil, hateful, hurtful thing they can. Out of a punitive, spiteful rage, they choose a target of utmost value.

5.Of course, children are not the only things we value. And of the other things we value, we don’t apply abortion criteria, like personhood or autonomy.

For example, people value their pets. They value cats and dogs. Does a cat have to meet some threshold of personhood to be valuable?

Even if you could mount an argument for the personhood of a cat, no cat owner bothers to formulate such an argument to justify the existence of his cat.

And how does the personhood of a cat compare with the personhood of a baby?

Suppose I went to the pet store everyday and bought a new cat. I buy a new cat everyday because, as soon as I bring my new cat home, I kill it. Everyday there’s a dead cat in my dumpster.

That’s what gives purpose to my life. Meaning. Self-fulfillment.

Suppose word got out that I’m a serial cat-killer. What would that do to my reputation? Don’t you suppose the neighbors would be outraged? I’d become very unpopular in a very short time.

Suppose I assured them that I always kill my cats painlessly. Would that assuage their indignation? I doubt it.

In fact, cat-lovers would pass a law to prosecute serial cat-killers like me. Even though it’s my cat, cat-lovers would violate my autonomy.

And yet a cat is not a person, is it? I mean, what’s the IQ of a cat?

And what about a kitten? A kitten would be even less of a person than a full-grown cat.

Moreover, my cat is a perfect stranger to them. They have never formed an emotional bond with my cat. So why do they value my cat?

6.Then there’s the question of trees. Many people have a thing about trees. They like trees. They protect trees. Old-growth forest.

How do trees rate on the scale of personhood? Not very high. A tree is a poor candidate for consciousness. What’s the IQ of a tree?

There are lots of people who would wax indignant if I took a chainsaw to a magnificent oak tree. Suppose I cut it down just because I can. It’s on my land.

I don’t cut it down to make space for something. I just cut it down because I can. Just because it’s mine.

Many people would be outraged. But why? Have I wronged the tree? After all, the tree is not a person. And it’s on my property. Indeed, it is my property.

Yet I daresay many people would violate my autonomy by passing a zoning ordinance that prevents me from cutting down a magnificent oak tree.

7.Or take a Redwood forest. Suppose I’m a private developer. The world’s last surviving Redwood forest sits on my parcel of land. I bought it. It belongs to me. I can show you the title deed.

Suppose I want to clearcut the forest. I want to put a pharmaceutical factory there. It will employ many people. It will produce much-needed medications. It will benefit many human beings. It will benefit many “persons.”

Do you think I’ll be allowed to chop down the world’s last surviving Redwood forest? No. Not a chance. Not if they can stop me.

Many environmentalists and conservationists value trees more than people. After all, a Redwood will vastly outlive anyone human individual.

They want to preserve the Redwood forest for posterity. For future generations.

8.What if it were a nursery rather than a forest. What if these were merely samplings? Still, due to environmental constraints, this plot of land is the only place on earth where they could grow. Would I be allowed to pave over the samplings and build my factory? I don’t think so.

Their state of their maturation would be irrelevant to the environmentalists.

Would they take the position that every Redwood must be a wanted Redwood? Well, it’s possible that they want to preserve the Redwood forest because they enjoy it. For their personal enjoyment.

And yet the Redwood’s right to life doesn’t depend on everyone wanting it. It doesn’t depend on the developer wanting it. Yet the developer owns the forest. Why should a perfect stranger have a right to tell him what to do with his property?

A conservationist will argue that the fate of the forest is a larger concern. That the general public should have a say in its survival. As long as other people want it, it doesn’t matter what the developer wants.

And why doesn’t that same logic apply to babies? Why does the mother or father have the final say-so?

9. Why, exactly, do we punish a murderer? Do we punish him because he killed a person? Or do we punish him because he deprived the victim of his future?

Taking the life of the victim means denying him his future. What would have transpired had we not violently intervened to prevent that outcome.

10.This is not the same thing as contraception, or a time-travel scenario, in which a potential individual will never exist. Rather, we’re dealing with the potential future of an actual individual. The individual has already come into being.

Many critics of Truman think that dropping the bomb on Japan was immoral, not merely because the A-bomb killed a lot of people, but because it caused genetic damage in the survivors so that, when they reproduced, their children suffered from birth defects.

Yet, at the time we dropped the bomb, those were merely potential children. They didn’t even exist.

How is that worse than abortion, which takes the life of an actual existent?

11. There’s a prolife ad (“Vanished”) in which we see children at play. Then some of the children are phased out. These are the victims of abortion. Their future was taken from them.

If that were your son or daughter or brother or sister, would you erase him from existence?

Unlike most creatures, human beings are future-oriented. We can anticipate tomorrow. Think ahead. We’re not tied to the past or the present in the same way a lower animal is. We make plans.

Traditionally, we punish a murderer without regard for the age of the victim. If you murder a ten-year-old, you receive the same penalty as if you murder an eighty-year-old, even though the octogenarian has far fewer years ahead.

Why do we feel worse when someone young dies instead of someone old? Because someone young had his whole future ahead of him. His life was cut tragically short. He died prematurely. Before his time.

Well, isn’t abortion the limiting case of that intuition? Even if, for the sake of argument, you say the “fetus” or “embryo” or “zygote” is not a person, what difference does that make? What difference does it make when you deprive the individual of his future? Whether you deny him his future at the age of 50 or 15 or 15 months?

You deprive him of what he would have become, of what he would have enjoyed. And, if anything, the earlier in the process you make the cut, the greater the deprivation.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that he wasn’t a person in the womb. So what? By killing him, you deprived him of his future personhood. And isn’t that a tremendous deprivation?

Suppose I castrate a man. I deprive him of the opportunity to father children. I don’t deprive him of anything he had. I didn’t kill his children. But by destroying his opportunity to have children, I wronged him. Gravely wronged him.

Blogroll update

The resourceful and redoubtable Patrick Chan has just updated the blogroll. If you don’t find your name on the blogroll, it’s because you failed to reindex your bribe for the 2009 COLA. Resubmit your bribe using the new rates. For a copy of the annual escalation clause, contact the service dept.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

"Milk Cartons"

50 million milk cartons.

"Vanished"

Putting a face on the unknown children lost to abortion.

Miracles and the Metanormal

Jeffrey Russell is a leading Catholic historian. Although his position on religious epistemology is well to the left of mine, he offers a useful analysis of relationship between historiography and the miraculous. I'll be quoting some of his observations on the subject:

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To use the term 'supernatural' is to encounter the core difficulty of the history of concepts: both the vocabulary and the idea behind the vocabulary shift frequently through time. [1] Fortunately two simple points lead off. First: the popular misconnection between the words `supernatural' and 'superstition' is false, and second, the meaning of {supernatural} depends upon the meaning of {natural}. The term 'nature' is notoriously polysemous, from antiquity at least into the eighteenth century. The classical philosophical concept was that of a cosmos guided by an eternal law insuring both coherence and intelligibility. This implied a workaday distinction between expectable events and events that were not expectable under the eternal law. From antiquity through the Middle Ages to the present, the term `natura' never lost its physical sense. The scholastics were concerned both with nature in this sense and in the philosophical sense of that which is proper to any being. To simplify Aquinas' view: The {natural} in any being is what is determined by the exigencies of its essence. {Supernatural} is something that is added by God to the nature of a being. The {supernatural} is not contra naturam: it does not contradict the {natural} but supplements it. [2]

The term 'supernatural' has by the end of the twentieth century acquired far too much baggage to be handled effectively, so I propose a term that travels light and is more precise: 'metanormal.' By 'metanormal' I mean alleged events that have been placed beyond the boundaries (norms) set by academic discourse, here specifically by history.

Augustine's discussion of {miracles} set the tone of understanding of the metanormal before the Enlightenment. [3] The cosmos is a signum of Christ's activity, and the cosmos is full of signa in the universe, in the human mind, in society. What matters is the eternal signification of things and events rather than their physical context. [4]

One mode of understanding is the traditional Christian mode. It claims that Perpetua (auctor and persona) actually saw what she claimed to see. It was not a psychotic episode, but a view into a reality beyond what mortal creatures ordinarily perceive. Similarities between this and other visions of heaven do not betoken literary borrowing or topoi, or even archetypal expressions, but rather a confirmation that this is indeed the way things {really} are. This traditional mode has the advantage of grasping things much as the author of the `Passion' perceived them. It has the disadvantage of a potential naive literalism. Yet it is not necessarily naive, for the reliability of evidence and testimony were carefully weighed from Bede through Locke to Barfield and Coady. [10]

Most professional historians regard this traditional view as metanormal, that is, beyond the boundaries of their profession, and any {events} reported from such a view as inaccessible and meaningless. They regard both the view and {events} it reports as valuable only for shedding light upon {normal} social or intellectual structures. By thus leading metanormal events into the sheepfold of mentalités, historians domesticate and normalize them for their own methodological purposes.

The reason they do this is the dominance of another mode, materialist skepticism, common since the arguments of David Hume against miracles. This view, later strengthened by logical positivism, Marxism, and Freudianism, both arises from and reinforces the mentalité of late twentieth-century Western culture. This mode has the advantage of discarding naive literalism and credulity about metanormal events, but the disadvantage of forcing us to ignore a priori the enormous quantity and quality of actual reports of metanormal events observed by respectable witnesses.

Arising from the second mode was a third mode, Religionswissenschaft, sometimes called History of Religions or Comparative Religion, which offers structural or other theoretical explanations in terms of myth and cult or of analytical psychology. According to this mode, {miracles} are mythical, that is, metaphorical vehicles for spiritual truths. The advantage of this approach is that it establishes myth, like poetry, as a system of understanding independent of science and history. From Religionswissenschaft came the method of phenomenology, which the historian finds useful. The disadvantage to historians is that Religionswissenschaft withdraws the subject from its historical context, and it proceeds synchronically in a way foreign to what Arthur Danto, Nancy Partner, and others have shown to be the essence of the historical method: explicit or implicit diachronic narrative.

A similar problem exists with a fourth mode, structuralism and anthropological approaches in general, and a fifth mode, psychoanalytical studies, though all of these give historians valuable views through different prisms (for example Peter Dronke's psychological analysis of Perpetua as daughter and mother).

A sixth mode, that of the Annalistes, though emphasizing the longue durée and the cultural context, does not annihilate the human person in abstract systems. Indeed, the Annalistes' broadening of the social base of knowledge has reconstructed the humanity of many ordinary people ignored by traditional historians of ideas and events. The Annalistes offer the further advantage of attempting to find a way of taking third-century beliefs seriously and using them constructively without returning to a pre-Enlightenment view. They do domesticate the metanormal, however, for purposes {normal} to their discipline.

Myth, religion, history, and especially literature, have been influenced by a seventh mode, `deconstruction,' in one or another of its forms. For deconstructionists, meaning recedes infinitely owing to the inherent inability of language (the signifier) to reach or even to point toward the signified. This collapse of meaning, this endless devolution of nonmeaning into nonmeaning, is Dante's hell, the endless circling downward and inward into darkness and helplessness. As Nancy Partner (among others) has argued, deconstruction is counterintuitive, and everyone eventually resorts to some version of `we have to assume.' The advantage of deconstruction is that it confirms that any world view is precarious (including deconstruction itself), and that therefore what historians define as {normal} is simply a definition based on the convenience and tradition of historians and has no claim to {truth} in any but a practical sense. The historian--indeed the human being--cannot function without making some act of faith or at least act of assumption. The opposite of the endless metonymic hell of deconstruction is heaven, in which meaning opens up in endless metaphor to the infinite variety which is Meaning Itself. I AM WHO AM catches the endless lapsus into nonbeing, throws it back into being, where it dissolves in the light and warmth of the immediate Presence.

But how can historians broaden their understanding so as to include the metanormal, to bring it within their norms? The prior question is whether the cosmos has inherent meaning. The logical premise is this: we all live in the same cosmos, and this cosmos is either one in which miracles do occur (the term is fuzzy-bordered but both traditional and convenient) or one in which they do not. This is not a dogmatic statement but rather a statement of what ought to be obvious. We have no choice as to which kind of cosmos it is. If the cosmos has no miracles, we are simply wrong to believe that it does; if it does have miracles, we are simply wrong to believe that it does not. We have no way of knowing intellectually which sort of cosmos it is.

Three fundamental approaches that historians may take follow: Approach A assumes that intelligent purpose works in the cosmos and that events may occur that are beyond naturalistic explanation. The best-known kind of such events are commonly called {miracles} convenient. In Approach A Perpetua's vision of heaven, for example, may really be a view into a {reality} beyond the {natural}. It still has the potential for naiveté. Approach A, in which historians treat {miracles} as part of what happens, or may happen, in the cosmos, is now so unpopular in the academic world that it is commonly simply assumed to be false. What does the statement `Perpetua may really have seen heaven' do to epistemology? Does not history deal with {facts}? Only if {facts} are defined as propositions with a high degree of probability. If epistemology is reconstructed as the study of {understanding}, then historians can indeed deal with the metanormal and rate such events according to degrees of possibility. This leads beyond reductionism. It is at least curious that spiritual {events} are the only category of events simply set aside by historians at the outset.

Approach B assumes that the cosmos is one in which the {miraculous} does not and cannot occur. This view, however cosmeticized, has its roots in naturalistic reductionism. The rule used by historians following approach B is that the more unusual an alleged event, the more evidence is required to make it believable. For a supposed unique event, then, such as a resurrection, the amount of evidence must be infinite, and therefore any alleged unique event is ruled outside the boundaries of history. But what if such events are not after all unique; what if they are in a category that actually occurs in {reality}?

With Approach B, there is not and cannot be any historical or scientific evidence for or against miracles. This approach simply yields no data at all pertaining to the question. In spite of that, the methodological choice not to deal with {miracles} can easily slip into the purely a priori stance that we live in a cosmos in which they cannot occur. The construction of knowledge by most scientists and historians is a pure act of faith in materialist reductionism, just as completely an act of faith as one that asserts the {reality} of miracles.

B also limits options. If, in order to write historically, I must assume that a metanormal explanation for an {event} must be a priori set aside, then I limit myself to the political and social questions surrounding the miracle. Even if I delve into why John believed the reported miracle and why Jane did not, I am treating John's and Jane's minds as data. And that means that I am failing to do the most important task of the historian, namely to be in dialog with our brothers and sisters who precede us in time, respecting them and their beliefs fully and without temporal chauvinist, chronocentric condescension.

A third approach--call it C--brackets the question whether miracles exist. [11] Without affirming A, it goes farther than B in that it treats persons' experience of metanormal events as an irreducible experience that must be taken seriously in itself and not explained away. Put another way, the number over time of well attested and well documented reports of {miracles} is such that one may argue that they are not to be treated as unique and thus not to be subject to the rule that alleged unique events require an infinite amount of evidence. Now, C does not merely restate the views of persons with such experience. It engages them.

Still, we may go beyond bracketing. Bracketing, for all its virtues, has limitations. One is this: it claims to avoid both A and B, but by bracketing out explanations beyond the framework of naturalism while accepting explanations and arguments within the framework of naturalism, it proceeds practically like B. C historians, like B ones, are not allowed by the rules to discuss whether a given miracle might have occurred, or how, or what providential results it might have brought. Sometimes a C work differs from a B work only by the inclusion of a statement that although miracles may or may not occur, this does not concern the writer as a historian. Stronger proponents of C deliberately reject naturalistic reductionism by pointing out the sometimes far-fetched and tortuous arguments that proponents of B make in response to miracle stories. Reductionists, by declaring all but naturalistic explanations a priori impossible, are sometimes forced to accept the least bad explanation that fits their bias. Bracketing avoids this problem. Nonetheless, the similarity of C to B means that most scholars, assume (correctly) that it is dangerous to explore beyond these boundaries. But the boundaries are artificial. To write history, as to play football, you abide by certain rules. But we are entitled to ask whether the rules might better be changed, or, better, developed.

Another problem of C is that the bracketer wears a mask, a persona, and pretends that he or she operates in a world of ideas unconnected to his or her own deeply held beliefs, feelings, and even experience. An essential difference exists between bias and point of view. Bias is taking a position and forcing the evidence to fit it. Point of view is engaging the whole human being with the question and therefore being willing to change--not only one's scholarly position but one's own life. One must understand Perpetua's own perspective, but one must engage it with one's own perspective. It is impossible (even if it were desirable) for scholars to bracket out everything about themselves in order to attain objectivity. But there is a great difference between bias and point of view. Bias is taking a position and forcing the evidence to fit it. Point of view is engaging the whole human being with the question and therefore being willing to change--not only one's scholarly position but one's own life.

[4] The medieval terms `mirum' and `miraculum' were generally interchangeable. Miracle: Augustine's view is that a miracle is an astonishing event sent by God: De civitate Dei 4.27. De utilitate credendi 16.34: `miraculum voco quidquid arduum est aut insolitum, supra spem vel facultatem mirantis.' `Mirum' is a broader term. See Le Goff's article here: he focuses particularly on the term `mirabilia' but claims to find three categories in medieval literature: the miraculous, the marvelous, and the magical.

http://www.veritas-ucsb.org/library/russell/Miracles.html

Freedom, Determinism, and Persiflage

Persiflage has been continuing in the discussion on the post Useful Illusions, which has long since dropped off the main page. As a result, I offer this post to bring it back :-)

One thing that is clear is that Persiflage does not hold to Libertarian Free Will, even though he thinks he does. In actuality, Persiflage’s view is self-contradictory. On the plus side, however, he is looking into the matter and is at least wrestling with it (as compared to others, such as Robert/Henry, who were only interested in flaming).

So for instance, Persiflage says (in response to Paul):

There’s something about this God rewinding time thing that bothers me. It is interesting. But I wouldn’t want to base any conclusions off of my speculation about it. From a purely speculative viewpoint, if a free agent made a free choice between two options, I don’t see how, if God rewinds time, the free agent wouldn’t just make the same free choice. That doesn’t necessarily imply determinism. Why? Because he’s still actually free to choose either A or B. He used his mind to make a rational decision and to will to do one thing over another thing. God did not exert any power on his mind to force him to do one or the other. Why would rewinding time result in different choices?
The point with the illustration that Paul brought up, however, is to go against the principal of alternate possibilities (PAP). If a choice is to be libertarian, it cannot be determined in any manner at all. That is, those alternate possibilities MUST BE REAL. They cannot just be perceived, they have to be actual. And that would mean that if we rewound time’s tape, we would be unable to predict what the agent would do (even if we knew what he had done the previous “time” he went through time).

Persiflage’s rebuttal to Paul here suffers from a fatal ambiguity on the term “free.” He wants to hold to libertarian views, but for a libertarian free willer (LFW), “free” means alternate possibilities must be REAL, whereas for Persiflage “free” means “He used his mind to make a rational decision and to will to do one thing over another thing.” (This definition is actually quite close to my definition, which is that a free action is the action of an agent who does what he wants to do without compulsion or coercion.)

In any case, Persiflage’s idea that this would not “necessarily imply determinism” is false. In fact, if an agent always makes the same choice, then this just is determinism. Persiflage seems to think (based on the last two sentences of his above quoted paragraph) that determinism requires divine coercion; but this is mistaken. There are atheists who believe in determinism—that we cannot do other than our genes have programmed us to do, for instance.

Persiflage continues by stating:

Neither does the fact that God knew what choice the agent was going to make mean that the agent was not free to do the opposite. The very fact is that God foreknew both the fact that he was free to do either, and the fact that he willed to do one.
Again, Persiflage is using “free” ambiguously. If God knows what choice an agent is going to make, then that agent is most certainly NOT free to do the opposite—his future has been determined because God’s knowledge is accurate. It cannot be wrong. Persiflage’s second sentence uses the word “free” in a difference sense from the first, because in the second sentence we see that Persiflage really means that God does not compel the man to do either, He simply knows which one will occur. But a lack of divine compulsion does not make Persiflage’s position indeterminate—the agent STILL has a determined future, one that he cannot avoid, because God knows it.

In any case, it becomes crystal clear that Persiflage is not really LFW when he writes:

Is it possible, simply within your mind, to exert your will in order to make a choice between two options, when you are mistaken - and you really only had one option all along? Yes, I agree with Peter that this is possible. I’ll also agree with Paul that there is a difference between making a choice and actually having a choice. It’s possible to make a choice mentally, when you didn’t actually have one in reality. And then finally, I agree with Bnonn, that the very idea of choice does not necessarily presuppose the “principle of alternative possibility” (PAP).
Paul rightly pointed out: “Settle down and do some reading on all this. It doesn't bode well for conversation when you shoot from the hip and say things libertarians wouldn't say or don't say on this subject.” Indeed, no LFW would say “the very idea of choice does not necessarily presuppose the ‘principle of alternative possibility’” as Persiflage said.

That said, I’m glad that Persiflage is inconsistent here, because I think he’ll eventually reject LFW concepts completely :-)

One other thing. After quoting John Locke responding to Jonathan Edwards, Persiflage asked:

btw, has anyone here read Jonathan Edwards' "Inquiry respecting that Freedom of Will which is supposed to be essential to Moral Agency"? That sounds like it would be pretty mind blowing to read. It's exactly what we're discussing, and I'll have to look and see if I could use it to counterpoint what I'm reading in Locke.
I have read it, and I enjoyed it a great deal. Most of my views on the will are Edwardian in nature, actually. And I would recommend you read it, although it is, as you say, “mind blowing.” Edwards has some difficult sentences to grasp, mostly because people don’t teach how to read anything these days. However, you’ll find much to mine from a careful study of “The Freedom of the Will” (as it is commonly called).

While I haven’t looked over the whole page, it looks like the entire book is located at the Reformed Reader here.

All that said, you should also note that philosophy has moved to some more detailed and clearer examples since Edwards. Paul has studied more of them than I have and can probably offer you some contemporary philosophers who may be easier to grasp. Still, if you’re reading John Locke, Edwards should be beneficial.

Monday, January 12, 2009

When Facebook becomes a Mask

I'm watching a brazen identity theft live on Facebook.

Williams Pantycelyn



William Williams was surely one of the finest hymn writers to grace the church.

The following selections from Sweet Singers of Wales by Howell Elvet Lewis should hopefully whet your appetite for more from Pantycelyn's gifted pen:
And don't miss Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones' 1968 address, "William Williams and Welsh Calvinistic Methodism."

BTW, The Calvinistic Methodist Fathers of Wales (2 vols.) was recently translated into English and published by Banner of Truth. According to Iain Murray, for "sheer stimulus and enjoyment there were no volumes which [Martyn Lloyd-Jones] prized more than Tadau Methodistiaid...the lives of the fathers of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism. They were constantly in his hands."

Steve's five part series "Music: sacred & profane" is well worth reading, too: part 1; part 2; part 3; part 4; and part 5.

The Christian in the public sphere

Scott Klusendorf responds to Phil Johnson's critique of a point he made in an interview with Justin Taylor.

The Unity Of The Apostles

In another thread, PaulSceptic wrote:

"All the Calvinists books in the world can't save the one 'born out of due' season from the fact that he has nothing upon which to claim an apostleship but a vision of a light and a voice, and yet he calls the inner circle of the twelve (Peter, James, and John) nobodies who only 'seemed to be something' (Gal 2:6,9) and then takes another jab at them saying 'if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself.' (Gal 6:3) Ok, so who is the nobody deceiving himself into thinking he is somebody? Paul who saw a light and heard a voice he didn't even recognize as Jesus' voice and had to ask 'Who are you Lord?' or Peter, James, and John, the inner circle of the twelve who alone got to see Jesus's glory on the mount of transfiguration (Mat 17:1-2), and see him raise Jairus' daughter from the dead (Mark 5:37), and who alone he took closest to him in Gethsemane the night in which he was betrayed (Mark 14:33)? Who's the nobody deceiving himself (not to mention his followers)? It ain't Peter. It ain't James. And sure ain't John. There's only one name left."

He assumes, without argument, that men like Peter and John are in view in Galatians 6:3. And he ignores the many places where Paul speaks positively of such men. He ignores the other evidence we have for Paul's apostleship.

Regarding the common claim that the apostles or the early Christians in general were significantly more disunited than Christians have traditionally believed, see here.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Bart Ehrman On The New Testament Text

Bart Ehrman appeared with a Christian textual scholar, Peter Williams, on the January 3 edition of the "Unbelievable?" radio program. As I've said before, I think Ehrman is overestimated by many critics of Christianity. Ehrman isn't saying what some people think he's saying, and what he is saying about textual issues isn't of much significance. In the January 6 and 8 editions of his webcast, James White gave some examples of the tendency of critics of Christianity to misunderstand or misrepresent what Ehrman is saying. You can listen to White's comments on Christopher Hitchens and Reginald Finley on his January 6 webcast here. Start listening at the thirty-four minute point.

Near the end of his recent appearance on "Unbelievable?", Ehrman claims that the textual matters he's been discussing with Peter Williams are "significant issues" that "really do matter". What did they discuss? Issues like whether Jesus was angry or compassionate in Mark 1:41 and the authenticity of John 7:53-8:11. Do such issues have some significance? Yes, but not much. As Williams repeatedly noted during the program, Ehrman's conclusions on the text of the New Testament aren't much different from the conclusions of Christian textual scholarship, including Evangelical textual scholarship. Here are some examples of Ehrman's positive comments about the New Testament text in one of his recent books:

"Most of these [textual] differences are completely immaterial and insignificant....In fact, most of the changes found in our early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and away the most changes are the result of mistakes, pure and simple - slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort or another....when scribes made intentional changes, sometimes their motives were as pure as the driven snow....And so we must rest content knowing that getting back to the earliest attainable version is the best we can do, whether or not we have reached back to the 'original' text. This oldest form of the text is no doubt closely (very closely) related to what the author originally wrote, and so it is the basis for our interpretation of his teaching....In a remarkable number of instances - most of them, actually - scholars by and large agree [about what the earliest attainable text said]....It is probably safe to say that the copying of early Christian texts was by and large a 'conservative' process. The scribes - whether non-professional scribes in the early centuries or professional scribes of the Middle Ages - were intent on 'conserving' the textual tradition they were passing on. Their ultimate concern was not to modify the tradition, but to preserve it for themselves and for those who would follow them. Most scribes, no doubt, tried to do a faithful job in making sure that the text they reproduced was the same text they inherited." (Misquoting Jesus [San Francisco, California: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005], pp. 10, 55-56, 62, 94, 177)

Why is Ehrman so popular among critics of Christianity, then? Largely because of his conclusions on other issues and because of how much emphasis he places on the textual problems that do exist when discussing those problems in isolation from a larger context. Ehrman will say a lot at one point about the significance of textual problems with a passage like Mark 1:41 or Hebrews 2:9. But at another point he'll acknowledge that these textual problems don't have much effect on Christian theology and are exceptions to the rule of general textual reliability. Critics of Christianity often only hear the former type of comments that Ehrman makes, or they choose to emphasize the former while ignoring or downplaying the latter. One of the advantages of Ehrman's discussion with Peter Williams is that Williams doesn't allow the discussion to have the sort of lopsided emphasis on textual problems that we often get when Ehrman is interviewed without somebody like Williams present. I recommend listening to the program.

I want to comment on some issues that I don't think Williams addressed, though. The Johannine Comma was discussed, and Ehrman repeated his claim that this interpolation in 1 John 5 is "the only passage in the entire Bible that explicitly delineates the doctrine of the Trinity" (Misquoting Jesus [San Francisco, California: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005], p. 81). As Ehrman acknowledges during this recent radio program, Christians believe in Trinitarianism for a variety of reasons. They aren't dependent on the Johannine Comma to justify that belief. But is Ehrman even correct about the passage's significance in explicitly teaching the concept? The three Persons of the Trinity could be one in some non-Trinitarian sense. The Johannine Comma doesn't tell us much about the sense in which they're one. If the Johannine Comma is to be considered "explicit" on the issue of Trinitarianism, then why not conclude the same about a passage like Matthew 28:19? Matthew 28 doesn't use the term "one" to describe the relationship among the three, but it was written in a monotheistic context. And it occurs in a discussion of authority ("All authority has been given to Me", "in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit", "all that I commanded", etc.). An affirmation of the unity of the three Persons in such a context of authority seems to have a weightier Trinitarian implication than an affirmation of that unity in a more vague context like that of the Johannine Comma. Even if the Johannine Comma is thought to be more explicit than Matthew 28, why should we think that Matthew 28 isn't also explicit by Ehrman's standards, even if to a lesser degree? Ehrman's claim about the Johannine Comma wouldn't have much significance if the claim were true, and I don't see why we should think that it is true.

The other issue I want to comment on is Ehrman's often-repeated claim that the textual problems with the New Testament prevent us from being confident that we have the word of God, if the Bible is to be considered God's word. Since Ehrman thinks that the sort of problems we see with passages like Mark 1:41 and Hebrews 2:9 are representative of only a small minority of the New Testament text, then he seems to be saying that we lack confidence for a small minority of the New Testament. So what? If we think our conclusions about the large majority of the text are highly probable, whereas a small minority of our conclusions are no more than a low probability, how much of a problem is such a scenario? We don't need a high probability in order to believe something, and having a high probability for the large majority of the text is highly significant. How is the Bible's communication to us diminished by the small minority of problematic passages Ehrman has in mind? Not much. If Ehrman is assuming that any God who might exist wouldn't allow there to be any textual problems, then that's a dubious assumption that he'll need to justify. Christians have known about such textual problems for a long time without drawing the conclusions that Ehrman has reached. He should make more of an effort to explain why the textual problems supposedly wouldn't have been allowed by God if the New Testament were a Divine revelation. In the recent radio program he did with Peter Williams and in other contexts in which I've seen him address this issue, he's far too vague. Why wouldn't God allow these textual problems?