Saturday, March 14, 2009

One in a billion?

“Of the six billion people in the world, not one of them can walk on top of lukewarm water filling a swimming pool. What would be the chances of any one person being able to do that? Less than one in six billion. Much less,” B. Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted, 176.

I’v already commented on one aspect of this statement. Now I’m going to zero in on another aspect.

Who is Ehrman alluding to? To Jesus, of course.

And who is Jesus? Is Jesus just one more person? Interchangeable with six billion others? Or is Jesus unique?

We not talking about an ordinary person doing something extraordinary. Rather, we’re talking about an extraordinary person doing something extraordinary.

Jesus is the most extraordinary person who ever lived. Indeed, Jesus is the most extraordinary person who ever lives.

We’d expect an extraordinary person to do something extraordinary. To the extraordinary, the extraordinary is ordinary. What would be truly extraordinary is if an extraordinary person never did anything out of the ordinary.

Of course, Ehrman doesn’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God Incarnate. My point, though, is that Ehrman isn’t even addressing the text on its own terms.

Although this is not properly a question of mere probabilities, yet if that’s how you choose to cast it, then the real question is not, what are the odds of someone ordinary doing something extraordinary, but what are the odds of someone extraordinary doing something extraordinary? An extraordinary person on an extraordinary mission.

Ehrman is too stupefied by infidelity to even know how to correctly frame the question. Was he that uncomprehending back when he was a nominal Christian? If so, then would explain how he fell so far so fast.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Ehrman Corrupted

Continuing my review of Bart Ehrman’s latest book:

“What I want to show is that because of the very nature of the historical disciplines, historians cannot show whether or not miracles every happened. Anyone who disagrees with me–who thinks historians can demonstrate that miracles happen–needs to be even-handed about it, across the board. IN Jesus’ day there were lots of people who allegedly performed miracles. There were Jewish holy men such as Hanina ben Dosa and Honi the circle drawer. There were pagan holy men such as Apollonius of Tyana, a philosopher who could allegedly heal the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead. He was allegedly supernaturally born and at the end of his life he allegedly ascended to heaven. Sound familiar? There were pagan demigods, such as Hercules, who could also bring back the dead. Anyone willing to believe in the miracles of Jesus needs to concede the possibility of other people performing miracles, in Jesus’ day and in all eras down to the present day and in other religions such as Islam and indigenous religions of Africa and Asia,” Jesus Interrupted (HarperOne 2009), 172.

The most impressive feature about this argument is the fact that Ehrman seems to be impressed by this argument. Why he thinks this is supposed to be a compelling argument is a complete mystery to me.

i) What’s problematic about the notion that 1C Jews might be able to perform miracles? Other Jews could perform miracles. Moses, Elijah, Elisha, as well as Peter and Paul–to name a few.

ii) What’s problematic about the notion that pagans could perform miracles? Jannes and Jambres could apparently perform miracles (Exod 7-8). A medium could conjure up the shade of Samuel (1 Sam 28). A demonic could predict the future (Acts 16:16). Witches could strike people dead (Ezk 13:17-23).

iii) What’s problematic about the idea that miracles might occur at present as well as the past? Don’t foreign missionaries report this sort of thing?

iv) Must I be prepared to believe that Hercules can do a miracle? Not unless I believe that Hercules actually exists.

v) Yes, the feats attributed to Apollonius sound familiar. Why is that? Let’s see. Maybe, just maybe, because his biography was written long after the time of Jesus? If you think the parallels are genuine, that’s because a 3C AD biography is aping the life of Christ.

Ehrman knows that. But he’s banking on the ignorance of his gullible readers.

vi) Why does Ehrman think his argument has any teeth? Perhaps this is the unspoken assumption: miracles attest the messenger. Therefore, the miracles of one religion cancel out the miracles of another.

What about that assumption?

vii) Even in Scripture, attestation is not the only function of a miracle. A miracle may be performed as an act of mercy.

viii) Suppose, moreover, that a miracle does attest the messenger. So what? We need to draw an elementary distinction between what is what is right and what is true.

What does witchcraft attest? The reality of the dark side. The fact that demonic or diabolical spirits have paranormal powers. The fact that if you’re in league with the devil, you may acquire black magical powers.

But the fact that something is true doesn’t make it right. Suppose demonic possession confers paranormal powers on the human host? That doesn’t mean we should become devil-worshipers, does it? If Satanism works, that may mean it’s true, but that doesn’t mean it’s good. It’s still pure evil.

ix) The existence of sorcery does nothing to falsify Christian doctrine. To the contrary, this is corroborative evidence.

x) Why does Ehrman deploy such an atrocious argument? Two interpretations present themselves:

a) He’s a demagogue. He doesn’t even attempt to present good arguments for his position. He’s merely working the crowd.

b) An alternative interpretation is that Ehrman is actually dumb enough to be taken in by his own argument. That would explain his apostasy. Defective theology is so often the royal road to apostasy.

Fight Club

I’ve been asked to give an ethical appraisal of mixed martial arts (MMA) from a Christian perspective. I’m going to try to keep this article below 1,000 words. I initially told myself that I would keep it to 200 words, then 400, now finally a 1,000. What can I say, the Rolling Stones song “Ramblin’ Man” can, on occasion, colorfully describe my lack of restraint in writing.

Another Rolling Stones song goes by the title “Street Fightin’ Man,” which, in the eyes of some Christians who have tuned in to a UFC match at some point in their lives, aptly describes what they’ve witnessed. At the same time, there are other Christians who enjoy watching MMA events. The only way to resolve this moral dilemma seems to be to have both groups duke it out to see who comes out on top.

But first, here are some questions to consider.

1) Is violence inherently sinful?

2) Can a sport qua sport contain sinful properties?

3) Apropos 2, if not, then can a sport’s properties conduce a participant to sinful behavior?

4) Apropos 2-3, if so, then are some sports by nature more conducive to incite a participant to sinful behavior than others?

5) Apropos 2-4, if so, should we proscribe the sports that are most conducive to sinful behavior?

6) Apropos 2-5, what evaluative criteria will we use to give the ax to the sports most conducive to sinful behavior?

7) Apropos 2-6, if Scripture is silent or unclear on the issue, how will we develop a methodology from general revelation to serve as our criteria?

8) Finally, is the question “Does this glorify God” too narrow to serve as an evaluative guide for all human activity?

One question that we all need to ask ourselves before delving into ethical matters is, What is my position on Scripture’s role in regulating my praxis? Am I only to do what God has explicitly commanded, prescribed, or allowed? Or am I free to do what God has not explicitly prohibited? The answer to this question reveals a personal inclination more than it does an evaluative methodology for ethics. That is, it reveals which tendency – to look for scriptural justification or to look for scriptural prohibition – one leans towards.

With respect to (1), no, violence is not inherently sinful. If you need an argument for this you should be punched.

Before moving on to (2) it is necessary to establish whether MMA is a sport or not. I think yes it is based on the proposal that its shared properties with other competitive athletic activities is greater than its shared properties with “street fighting” or any other illegitimate fighting enterprise.

With regard to (2), no a sport, properly defined, cannot contain sinful properties. Sin is a personal property. So then, as (3) states it, are there some sports that are conducive to sinful behavior? That is, can some sports aggravate men to sin?

Competition, by nature, can produce circumstances that draw out certain vices like pride and unrighteous anger. Yet is anyone going to argue that the competitive dimension of sports is the problem?

A man can feel greater hatred toward his opponent in a chess-match than a UFC fighter feels towards his. The problem, therefore, seems to lie, not in the sport, but in the man. The point is that any athletic competition, or any competition whatsoever for that matter, can provoke a participant to sin.

An analogy that can have a softening effect on this discussion is the analogy between UFC and the NFL. An NFL player might be saying to himself, “I am going to absolutely demolish that receiver if he crosses my zone again” with the same intensity of anger that a UFC competitor might be feeling as he is getting ready to enter the ring. Is any Christian going to propose that we bar American football?

With that said, let’s say that we answer yes to (4). The mistake is not our answer but our perspective. If we stridently affirm a “yes” answer to (4), ex hypothesi, we are binding ourselves to answer (5) in the affirmative as well. Here we’re in difficult waters.

Since we have identified the competitive dimension of a sport as neutral, our perspective should be on the human participant and his proclivities, not on the sport’s characteristics. Our concern should be to leave it to individual conscience, not to push for collective rejection.

Not to mention the moral morass we find ourselves in when we attempt to answer (6) and (7). Let’s circumvent those questions by simplifying our evaluative criterion. Let’s say our evaluative criterion is the question “Does this glorify God?”

It becomes important at this point to define “glorifying God” in practical-theological usage. This is question (8). Depending on our definition, I can think of a hundred things I do every day that are not sinful that don’t glorify God.

I'm aware of 1 Cor. 10:31. However, this verse needs to be exegeted and not simply dropped from mid-air.

I think we are free to expand our evaluative guide beyond what glorifies God. We’ll spiritually burn out if we strive to glorify God in everything we do. Guilt will increasingly hound us until we crash and burn. “Should I have taken that nearest parking space even though that person over there looked like he needed it more? I didn’t sin, but then again, I don’t think I glorified God as much as I could have in that circumstance.”

I think few activities are inherently sinful. This is because it is the motivation behind an act that largely determines an act’s moral value.

I like MMA but prefer to watch other sports like soccer, basketball, and football with my spare time. The questions that the individual needs to ask are: 1) Do I like to watch MMA? And if I do, 2) Does watching it lead me to sinful behavior?

Ultimately, this is a matter of conscience. There are many factors involved in each person’s situation (e.g., if you happen to be hanging out with a Christian whose anger problems flare up whenever he watches an MMA event, the right choice is to abstain).

Inerrancy and textual criticism

At some point I intend to comment on some of the contradictions that Bart Ehrman imputes to Scripture in his new book, Jesus, Interrupted. For now I want to draw attention to a dilemma generated by his own position.

A contradiction involves a discrepancy between two or more passages. You can’t allege a contradiction unless the text is reliable. If the text is unreliable, then you’re in no position to say that these passages are ultimately discrepant. For all you know, the discrepancy might well be a scribal gloss.

So a necessary precondition for imputing contradictions to scripture is the essential integrity of the text. If the transmission of the text is unreliable, then any contradiction you allege is vitiated by an unreliable witness to the original text.

Therefore, the liberal has to choose between two mutually exclusive lines of attack. If he attacks the integrity of the text, then he forfeits the right to attack the inerrancy of the text–but if he attacks the inerrancy of the text, then he forfeits the right to attack the integrity of the text. One line of attack cancels out the other, and vice versa. You can pay on the way in, or you can pay on the way out, but either way, you have to pay up.

Incidentally, a parallel conundrum is generated by critics who claim the meaning of Scripture is hopelessly uncertain since Christians disagree over the correct interpretation of Scripture. If you press this issue, then you disqualify yourself from imputing error to Scripture–for the imputation of error is only as good as your interpretation. So the unbeliever is in a quandary. He likes to attack the Bible from every conceivable angle, but in the process he is forming a circular firing squad. He makes himself the target of his own incoherent stratagems.

A history of miracles

Over the next few days or weeks I plan to review Bart Ehrman’s new book, Jesus, Interrupted (HarperOne 2009). I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to review the whole thing. The basic problem with his book is that Ehrman is recycling a lot of hackneyed objections to the Bible that have been repeatedly addressed by conservative scholars. And he’s either too ignorant or too dishonest to engage the opposing argument.

Today I’ll confine myself to an analysis of his historiography:

“There is something historically problematic with his [Jesus] being raised from the dead, however. This is a miracle, and by the very nature of their craft, historians are unable to discuss miracles…But that is not why historians cannot show that miracles, including the resurrection, happened. The reason instead has to do with the limits of historical knowledge. There cannot be historical evidence for a miracle” (172-73).

“Historians more or less rank past events on the basis of the relative probability that they occurred. All that historians can do is to show what probably happened in the past” (175).

“That is the problem inherent in miracles. Miracles, by our very definition of the term, are virtually impossible events. Some people would say they are literally impossible, as violations of natural laws: a person can’t walk on water any more than an iron bar can float on it. Other people would be a bit more accurate and say that there aren’t actually any laws in nature, written down somewhere, that can never be broken; but nature does work in highly predictable ways. That is what makes science possible. We would call a miracle an event that violates the way nature always, or almost always, works so as to make the event virtually, if not actually, impossible. The chances of a miracle occurring are infinitesimal. If that were not the case it would not be a miracle, just something weird that happened. And weird things happen all the time” (175).

“By now I hope you can see the unavoidable problem historians have with miracles. Historians can establish only what probably happened in the past, but miracles, by their very nature, are always the least probable explanation for what happened. This is true whether you are a believer or not. Of the six billion people in the world, not one of them can walk on top of lukewarm water filling a swimming pool. What would be the chances of any one person being able to do that? Less than one in six billion. Much less” (176).

“If historians can only establish what probably happened, and miracles by their definition are the least probable occurrences, then more or less by definition, historians cannot establish that miracles have ever happened…Historians can only establish what probably happened in the past. They cannot show that a miracle, the least likely occurrence, is the most likely occurrence” (176).

To see what’s wrong with this argument, let’s begin with an illustration. Human beings are rational agents. One thing we do with our rationality is to make tools. Design machines. Invent appliances.

We do this for various reasons. We may do it because the machine can do something we can’t. We may do it because, even though we’re able to perform certain tasks, we find them tedious to perform, and so we delegate them to a machine. Or we may do it because a machine is more reliable. It yields a uniform result.

What makes the machine reliable is that it’s impersonal. It can’t think for itself. It can’t exercise personal discretion. It can’t change its mind or vary its routine.

Machines are designed to work within certain parameters. A device, left to its own devices, can’t operate outside specified parameters–unless it malfunctions.

Take an automatic card shuffler. Why would we invent an automatic card shuffler? One motivation is that we don’t trust the dealer. The dealer might be a cardsharp. He might be on the take.

The dealer can do things with a deck of cards that an automatic card shuffler cannot. And that’s the problem. In a high-stakes poker game, we don’t want a dealer who can stack the deck. So we may use an automatic card shuffler instead, since that gizmo is designed to randomize the order of the deck.

By the same token, we might prefer a machine count of the vote to a hand count. The machine is nonpartisan. It doesn’t discriminate between one party and another, one candidate and another, one voter and another.

Nature has a mechanical quality to it. A number of inanimate, impersonal agencies that effect various events without a thought, forethought, or afterthought.

God designed nature that way to ensure a level of stability to human existence. An ability to plan for the future. Seedtime and harvest. That sort of thing.

Now let’s draw some distinctions:

i) It would be quite illogical to infer that if an automatic card shuffler can’t do certain things, then a dealer is subject to the same restrictions. The fact that certain outcomes are impossible or improbable for an impersonal process doesn’t mean the same outcomes are equally impossible or improbable for a personal agent.

History is simply the record of what happened. While it may be impossible for natural forces to do certain things, that doesn’t mean a rational agent is just as limited in his sphere of influence.

ii) Certain patterns indicate intelligent direction or personal intervention. If one player receives a string of winning cards while his opponent receives a string of losing cards, we conclude that the deck is stacked.

Either the dealer is a cardsharp, or the automatic shuffler has been reprogrammed to stack the deck.

While that falls outside the standard operating parameters of an automatic card shuffler, this doesn’t mean it’s impossible for an automatic card shuffler to stack the deck. What it means, rather, is that, if left to its own devices, an automated card shuffler is unable to stack the deck. But it’s possible for the device to be reprogrammed.

iii) To verify a miraculous event is a step-process.

a) First, you verify the occurrence of the event. You don’t need to verify the miraculous character of the event to verify the occurrence of the event. That’s a separate issue.

b) Given the occurrence of the event, you then interpret the event. Are the internal resources of an impersonal process sufficient to account for the event? Or does the event exceed the standard operating parameters of natural causation?

It’s like a game of cards. You can verify that each player was dealt a particular hand. You can verify which cards he was dealt.

But depending on the outcome, there are cases in which cheating is far and away the most likely explanation for the outcome. The odds against that pattern occurring at random are astronomical.

The chances of that happening are only infinitesimal if the automated card shuffler is working within standard parameters. But that’s quite distinct from the chances of reprogramming its parameters. And that, in turn, is also distinct from the chances of what it can do once the machine is reprogrammed.

To infer that just because it’s improbable that an automatic card shuffler will deal a royal flush in every game–given its standard operating parameters, then it’s equally improbable that someone would reprogram its operating parameters to yield a desired result, is quite illogical. Those are separate issues. The probability of the one is irrelevant to the probability of the other.

Probability is a relative concept. Probable relative to what? In relation to what background conditions?

In this instance we attribute the outcome to the dealer’s sleight-of-hand, or–in the case of an automated card shuffler–to the hidden hand of an engineer who reprogrammed the machine.

Just as there can be probative evidence for cheating, there can be historical evidence for miracles.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Cunningham on Catholicism

The first few chapters contain a top-notch critique of traditional Catholicism, including a long, devastating review of Newman's theory of development.

No, Virginia, the world is fake

"In investigating memory-beliefs, there are certain points which must be borne in mind. In the first place, everything constituting a memory-belief is happening now, not in that past time to which the belief is said to refer. It is not logically necessary to the existence of a memory-belief that the event remembered should have occurred, or even that the past should have existed at all. There is no logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world sprang into being five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that ‘remembered’ a wholly unreal past. There is no logically necessary connection between events at different times; therefore nothing that is happening now or will happen in the future can disprove the hypothesis that the world began five minutes ago. Hence the occurrences which are called knowledge of the past are logically independent of the past; they are wholly analysable into present contents, which might, theoretically, be just what they are even if no past had existed."

Russell’s statement is sometimes redeployed by critics of creationism to ridicule the YEC theory of apparent age. I’ve discussed apparent age on several different occasions, so I won’t repeat everything I’ve said on the subject. Instead, I’ll content myself with two observations:

1.Critics of creationism co-opt Russell’s illustration to expose the absurdities of YEC. However, absurdity is context-dependent. As SF buffs know, there are lots of futuristic scenarios in which someone is fed false memories. In those situations, the individual has good reason to suspect or begin to doubt the veridicality of his memories about the "real" world. About his past.

And this is more than hypothetical. Even now it's possible to plant false memories under hypnosis. Or consider the whole "repressed memory" scam which destroyed so many innocent lives (of the accused). Deluded people sincerely claiming to be the victims of ritual satanic abuse, child abuse, &c.

These are limiting cases, but so is the hypothetical under review.

2. Ironically, evolutionary psychology is a prescription for skepticism regarding the external world. As Dawkins put it, in The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin 2006):

“The human brain runs first-class simulation software. Our eyes don’t present to our brains a faithful photograph of what is out there, or an accurate movie of what is going on through time. Our brains construct a continuously updated model: updated by coded pulses chattering along the optic nerve, but constructed nevertheless…And the same thing works for hearing” (88-90).

“It is useful for our brains to construct notions like solidity and impenetrability, because such notions help us navigate our bodies through a world in which objects—which we call solid—cannot occupy the same space as each other…Our brains are not equipped to imagine what it would be like to be a neutrino passing through a wall, in the vast interstices of which that wall ‘really’ consists. Nor can our understanding cope with what happens when things move at close to the speed of light” (369).

“’Really’ isn’t a word we should use with simple confidence. If a neutrino had a brain which had evolved in neutrino-sized ancestors, it would say that rocks ‘really’ do consist mostly of empty space. We have brains that evolved in medium-sized ancestors, who couldn’t walk through rocks, so our ‘really’ is a ‘really’ in which rocks are solid. ‘Really,’ for an animal, is whatever its brain needs it to be, in order to assist its survival. And because different species live in such different worlds, there will be a troubling variety of ‘reallys’ (371).

“What we see of the real world is not the unvarnished real world but a model of the real world, regulated and adjusted by sense data—a model that is constructed so that it is useful for dealing with the real world. The nature of that model depends on the kind of animal we are” (371).

“The nature of the model is governed by how it is to be used rather than by the sensory modality involved…Once again, the perceptions that we call colours are tools used by our brains to label important distinctions in the outside world. Perceived hues—what philosophers call qualia—have no intrinsic connection with lights of particular wavelengths. They are internal labels that are available to the brain, when it constructs its model of external reality, to make distinctions that are especially salient to the animal concerned” (373).

Reincarnation And The Church Fathers

See here.

Does Scripture teach reincarnation?

Absurd as it may seem, there are actually some folks out there who pretend that Scripture teaches reincarnation. Robert Almeder tries to make just such a case:

“There are basically four New Testament texts that Geddes MacGregor (and others) cited in favor of reincarnation. The first is from the gospel of John [Jn 9:1-3], and it concerns the man born blind whom Jesus cured,” Death and Personal Survival, 67.

“Commentators have noted that the disciples apparently thought there were only two possible explanations for blindness: either the man preexisted his body and was being punished for sin in that earlier existence, or the parents sinned and the punishment was passed on to the offspring…Jesus does not deny the doctrine of reincarnation that his disciples apparently accept,” ibid. 67.

i) He doesn’t cite any commentators who present these two exegetical options. Needless to say, if you actually consult standard commentaries on John, none of them offers reincarnation as an exegetical option.

ii) Having told the reader that there are only two possible explanations, Almeder then proceeds to totally ignore one of the possible explanations (hereditary guilt) which he himself presented.

iii) The disciples either had in mind prenatal sin or hereditary guilt. Neither explanation has anything in common with reincarnation.

iv) Even more to the point, Jesus explicitly rejects their interpretation of the event.

“The second text–also from John [Jn 3:3-7]–is stronger in that it reveals that Jesus actually taught reincarnation,” ibid. 67.

i) This is willfully obtuse. Nicodemus takes Jesus literally. Jesus corrects his misinterpretation. He explains his figurative usage to Nicodemus. He’s using birth or rebirth as a spiritual metaphor.

ii) Moreover, there’s a play on words: it can either mean “born again” or “born from above.” That double entendre reinforces the figurative connotation.

“The third text is from Matthew [16:13-14, par. Mk 8:27-28; Lk 9:18-19]. Clearly, the disciples are saying that some people believe Jesus is the reincarnation of John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. But Jesus does not correct them and insist that the doctrine of reincarnation is false; rather, he makes the point that he existed before all the prophets,” ibid. 68.

i) To the contrary, the point of eliciting these popular opinions, superstitions, and rumors is to contrast popular opinion with the true identity of Jesus. Jesus is none of the above. Rather, he’s the Son of God.

ii) Since Jesus and John the Baptist were contemporaries, it would be physically impossible for Jesus to be the reincarnation of John the Baptist.

iii) Even in theory, reincarnation is hardly the only way in which a person could return from the dead. It might take the form of an apparition (e.g. Samuel; Moses & Elijah at the Transfiguration). It might take the form of a bodily resurrection (e.g. Mt 27:52-53). Different modalities are possible. Different from reincarnation.

“Finally, also in Matthew [11:7-15]…Jesus asserts that Elijah has returned in the person of John the Baptist,” ibid. 68.

i) This is typological. Elijah prefigures John the Baptist.

ii) And if we equate typology with reincarnation, then that generates some odd consequences since types include inanimate objects as well as people. In what sense is the temple reincarnated? Does it have a soul? Is the temple reborn?

Almeder clearly began with a precommitment to reincarnation, and then attempted to superimpose that alien outlook onto the text of Scripture.

Possession & reincarnation

In Death & Personal Survival (Littlefield Adams 1992), Robert Almeder has written what may well be the most thorough and sophisticated defense of reincarnation that’s currently available.

In several respects, this is a major issue:

i) Between Hinduism and Buddhism, reincarnation is widely believed.

ii) Reincarnation entails a radically different worldview than Christian eschatology.

iii) There’s not a lot of good apologetic literature on this subject.

From a Christian standpoint, the obvious alternative explanation for alleged cases of reincarnation is possession. And, indeed, Almeder also regards possession as the best alternative explanation. He then deploys several arguments against that explanation, ibid. 53-55, 155-58.

I’ve isolated three basic arguments:

1. He accentuates the fact (if it is a fact) that cases of reincarnation involve personal continuity whereas cases possession involve personal discontinuity.

In cases of possession, the personality of the subject undergoes displacement (“total personality replacement”). In cases of reincarnation, by contrast, the subject testifies to his identity over time, from his former existence to his current existence. He’s simultaneously aware of his past life and his present life. His personality is not submerged.

I have several problems with this argument:

i) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that it really is a case of possession (pace Almeder), I don’t know why Almeder thinks the incubus would be a reliable witness. The incubus might lie about its “past life.” From a Christian standpoint, the incubus would an evil spirit of some sort–whether a demonic spirit or wandering spirit (of the damned). Not exactly a trustworthy source of information.

ii) Moreover, Almeder seems to treat possession as one-off phenomenon. But from what I’ve read, possession ranges along a continuum. There are degrees of possession. Degrees of influence or control. The “total personality displacement” model represents a limiting case of possession–but by no means the only type.

iii) Furthermore, he also cites the example of a subject who says, “I was a woman, but now I’m a man.”

But this raises serious questions of personal identity. Can you have a man in a woman’s body, or a woman in a man’s body? Does he think a human personality is essentially androgynous? It seems to me that even a Cartesian dualist has to grant the profound influence of gender on personality.

iv) In addition, the degree of displacement is not that cut-and-dried. As one writer observes, “We noted in the last chapter that subjects in reincarnation cases tend to identify thoroughly with the past personality, whereas in most possession cases the previous personality seems more parasitic and apparently displaces the normal personality. And that distinction may, indeed, be one fair, if rough way to distinguish most reincarnation from possession cases. But transplant cases don’t fit neatly in either category. In some of those cases, the original personality of the recipient isn’t displaced; instead, it’s modified in ways characteristic of the donor. And in others (sometimes in the same cases), the recipient does identify strongly with the donor, and we see the kind of personality blending characteristic of reincarnation cases. Yet in others (and again, sometimes in the same cases), the recipient (a child in these instances), apparently interacts, seemingly mediumistically, with the donor…my recommendation is that we interpret transplant cases as supplementing evidence for possession,” S. Braude, Immortal Remains (Rowman & Littlefield 2003), 243-44.

v) Finally, Almeder's case for reincarnation suffers from a deep methodological fallacy. He begins by distinguishing paradigm-cases of (alleged) possession from paradigm-cases of (alleged) reincarnation. He then draws the conclusion that the evidence for reincarnation is not reducible to possession since paradigm-cases of possession lack some of the typical features of paradigm-cases for reincarnation, and vice versa.

But isn't the specter of vicious circularity hovering in the background? Isn't the correct classification of these phenomena a necessary preliminary step in this whole debate? As such, doesn't his classification scheme take that preliminary step for granted? Almeder is beginning his discussion one step later than he ought to. By what criteria do we identify which features are distinctive to possession and which features are distinctive to reincarnation? Almeda is tacitly assuming what he needs to prove at the very outset of the discussion. So he needs to go back a step and justify his classification scheme.

Perhaps he'd counter that this objection is reversible. If we can't say whether or not reincarnation is reducible to possession, then we can't say whether or not possession is reducible to reincarnation.

But even if that were then, what then?

a) At most, we’d be left with an epistemic stalemate. He'd still have no distinctive evidence for reincarnation.

b) Moreover, even if the bare phenomenology of the case-histories underdetermines the correct interpretation, a Christian might well have resources beyond the raw data to exclude one interpretation in favor of another.

For example, if, on the one hand, possession is clearly attested in Scripture while, on the other hand, Scripture disallows reincarnation, then we’ll opt for possession as the best explanation.

2. Picking up on Stevenson, Almeda also says that, in the case of reincarnation, amnesia sets in after the age of 8. In the case of possession, by contrast, there is no automatic termination. Moreover, where possession ceases, there’s a restoration of the underlying personality.

Several problems:

i) This line of “evidence” suffers from the general ambiguities I mentioned under (1).

ii) Moreover, it’s a truism of developmental psychology that children pass through different stages of cognitive development during their formative years. So we’d expect some important discontinuities. As the risk of stating the obvious, younger kids are quite imaginative and impressionable.

iii) Furthermore, appeal to “amnesia” is a face-saving maneuver to explain away the embarrassing fact (embarrassing for the reincarnationist) that most folks don’t remember their former lives. The obvious reason is because there’s nothing to remember. No past life to recollect.

It’s no coincidence that most of the “evidence” for reincarnation comes from highly suggestive technique of hypnosis, during which the patient is asked a number of leading questions (often by a reincarnationist).

iv) Finally, amnesia isn’t distinctive to alleged cases of reincarnation. It can also be found in cases of possession (or obsession). As one writer notes, “The obvious question would then arise, what sort of relationship might be supposed to exist between the obsessing entity (the deceased Gifford), and his willing victim, Thompson? Thompson’s mental state while under the Gifford influence varied from dreaminess and mild dissociation (to which he was in any case liable) to a fairly complete automatism with (probably) a good deal of amnesia, not however quite amounting to a trance,” A. Gauld, Mediumship and Survival (Paladin 1983), 156.

3. Also borrowing a page from Stevenson, he notes that, by definition, birthmarks and birth defects are congenital. And he treats prenatal possession as synonymous with reincarnation.

It seems to me that this suffers argument from several key equivocations:

i) Prenatal possession is not the same thing as preexistence (in a former life).

ii) Ex hypothesi, reincarnation involves a single-personality to multiple-body correspondence, whereas possession involves a multiple-personality to single-body correspondence. So they’re opposite phenomena, rather than parallel phenomena.

iii) Suppose possession is sometimes congenital? After all, some writers think that psi is a hereditary form of mediumistic magic. If we treat that as a working hypothesis, then not only could these symptoms present at an early age, but if the subject is, in some measure, under the influence of an ancestor, then the memory of the subject might well tap into the memory of the ancestor. He would share the memories of an ancestor, not because he is the reincarnation of the ancestor, but because the ancestor has taken possession of his mind, to one degree or another.

And that would include acquired skills, since these are also a function of memory. At the same time, Braude denies any hard evidence for the transmission of acquired skills. Cf. Immortal Remains, 179. If so, then that’s one less evidence for reincarnation–which could, in any event, be as easily explained by recourse to possession.

The Absurd Stories Of Cruel Josephus

After citing an account of Judas' death recorded by Papias and after citing Irenaeus' false belief about the age of Jesus, Jon Curry wrote:

What we do have bodes poorly for him [Papias]. This story of Judas is absurd....

But it establishes a pattern. He is prone to this type of thing. Irenaeus is prone to give false claims on the basis of supposed apostolic tradition. "But he was refuting the Gnostics" you say. So what? I know that. But what are you trying to show? That he'll lie when he has a motive? Doesn't that prove my point? Why should we trust him when he talks about John if we know he'll lie to further his ends? (here)

Notice that Jon's conclusion about a "pattern" in Irenaeus and something Irenaeus is "prone" to is based on one example. Notice that he claims that Irenaeus was "lying", not just mistaken. And Jon connects Papias' comments about Judas and Irenaeus' error on the age of Jesus to a supposed unreliability on their part when they discuss issues like gospel authorship. In other words, he uses an error on one subject to dismiss what a source reported about a significantly different subject in a significantly different context. See the thread linked above and my comments elsewhere in this blog's archives for a correction of Jon's analysis.

Jon has criticized the character of the early Christians, often on highly dubious grounds. He referred to Tertullian as "vicious" and "wicked" on the basis of a Wikipedia article that refers to some people's belief that Tertullian was a misogynist:

We do know that many of these fathers and "saints" are vicious, wicked people. Cyril of Alexandria and Tertullian come to mind as just two examples....

For Tertullian quotes, check Wikipedia on Tertullian where they give a good example. (here)

More recently, Jon has contrasted Luke with Josephus, referring to the latter as a generally "reliable historian". He refers to Josephus as "an eyewitness to some of his reporting", and he refers to (quoting Robert Eisenman) the "plethora of details" Josephus gives us, so many details that we should "marvel" at them. Josephus "obviously wrote it all down from memory and his own experience immediately after amassing the information he presents". He commends Josephus for "recognizing that his own biases can affect accuracy". Jon quotes Eisenman referring to the "meticulous reproduction of the minutiae of day-to-day events" in Josephus, how Josephus "tells us everything he can remember within the parameters of his own necessary well-being and personal survival", giving us "an encyclopaedic presentation of events and persons in Palestine".

Though Jon and his source, Eisenman, acknowledge that Josephus is sometimes unreliable, notice how restrained they are in what they cite as unreliable, far more restrained than Jon is with the Biblical sources and early post-Biblical Christian sources, like Papias and Irenaeus. Notice that Jon and his source repeatedly trust Josephus' memory. Notice that terms like "plethora", "marvel", "minutiae", and "encyclopaedic" are used. They can't just be referring to archeological confirmation of Josephus, since archeology wouldn't lead us to all of their conclusions. And archeology is interpreted by means of other sources and other data. How do they know they can trust what's inscribed on an archeological artifact, how do they know how to interpret language inscribed on artifacts, how do they know how to date the artifacts, etc.? The comments of Jon and his source imply more than reliance upon archeology, and even archeology has to interact with other data. How does Jon arrive at his conclusions about Josephus in a manner that's consistent with the radical skepticism he applies to Christian sources?

Just as Jon can cite some scholars giving a generally positive evaluation of Josephus, I can cite scholars giving a generally positive evaluation of Luke and other New Testament authors, including scholars who aren't conservative Christians. See here.

But Jon dismisses sources like Luke by pointing to alleged errors in their writings, potential reasons they might have for lying, potential ways in which they might be mistaken, etc. In some cases, as with Irenaeus, he'll keep pointing to one error over and over again.

The same sort of approach could be taken with Josephus. The historian Paul Maier writes the following. Notice how the criticism of Josephus by Jon and his source is much more restrained. Ask yourself what Jon would do with a New Testament source with these problems. Would he speak of that New Testament source in a manner comparable to how he speaks of Josephus?

"Josephus's accuracy and reliability as a historian have been challenged repeatedly. His free interpretation of his sources and his embellishments of the biblical record have already been cited. That he had a habit of overstating for dramatic purposes is also clear. The reader must discount such hyperboles as his claim, for example, that so much blood was shed in Jerusalem during its conquest that streams of gore extinguished the fires burning there. Like most ancient historians, Josephus also had trouble with numbers...That Josephus also had a lofty opinion of himself has already been noted, and his various heroic exploits were doubtless embroidered to enhance his image. At times he is inconsistent in statements made in The Jewish War when compared with those in Antiquities, even if many of these may be understood as corrections in the latter writing on the basis of better knowledge. The discrepancies between The Jewish War and his Vita, however, are more serious. They include irreconcilable versions of a brutal incident involving Josephus's activities at Taricheae (Magdala) in Galilee, when enemies tried to attack him in his lodging. The accounts of his escape not only strain credibility but show a streak in his character that is more cruel than crafty. Josephus also shows a credulity in reporting that a ball fired from a Roman ballista hit a pregnant woman in Jerusalem, tearing a fetus out of her womb and projecting it a hundred yards. Besides such horrors were the presumed portents he reported during Jerusalem's last days: a cow supposedly gave birth to a lamb in the Jerusalem temple, visions of horses and chariots gave battle in the heavens, and the like." (The New Complete Works Of Josephus [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1999], p. 14)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Stigmata & reincarnation

I ran across an article by Ian Stevenson entitled "Birthmarks and Birth Defects Corresponding to Wounds on Deceased Persons," in which he defends reincarnation. The editor regarded this line of evidence as “the strongest proof yet of reincarnation.”

One risk of rolling out your best argument is that, if your best argument turns out to be unsound, then any fallback argument will be even less cogent.

There are, of course, many objections to reincarnation, but for now I’m going to concentrate on just one specific to this particular line of evidence.

Stevenson’s contention is that certain birthmarks and birth defects in the living paranormally reproduce the same features in the deceased. Hence, this is evidence of reincarnation.

As I read this, I can't help thinking of the stigmata. This seems to present a parallel case. It, too, would paranormally reproduce analogous physical features of the deceased.

So, by parity of argument, we'd have to conclude that the stigmatic is a reincarnation of Christ or Buddha, &c. (since the phenomenon is reported in both Christian and non-Christian cultures).

Yet I hardly think that's the most plausible interpretation of stigmata. For one thing, the stigmatist doesn't regard himself as a reincarnation of Christ or Buddha. Moreover he doesn't share the knowledge of the deceased. Furthermore, I assume that, in theory, reincarnation would only occur in one person at a time. The same soul or personality passing from one body to the next. But, in theory, more than one stigmatic at a time could exhibit the stigmata. Finally, stigmatics can be both male and female. Yet the template (e.g., Christ, Buddha) is male.

Point being: even if certain physical features in the living paranormally reproduce features of the deceased, I don't see how that singles out the same person as the template, rather than another person as the template. But if the stigmatic is not a reincarnation of the same person in a former life, then that undercuts comparable evidence for reincarnation from birthmarks or birth defects.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

As the Romans Do

Win Corduan and Francis Beckwith interact on grace, faith, and works.

The Language and Theology of the 'Free Offer'

The Language and Theology of the 'Free Offer' by Paul Helm


Richard Hawkins was a bit bedazzled as he strolled about the New Jerusalem. Of course, he didn’t belong there, and it was only a matter of time before he was apprehended by the authorities.

Needless to say, he had inside help to engineer his escape. Back in hell, everyone was on the take. Every man–or devil–had his price. It was a hellhound-eat-hellhound world down there–with a barter-based economy.

Minos ran a black-market. A shakedown operation. The damned had to deposit their wallets, watches, purses, cigars, cellphones, jewelry, &c., before crossing the Styx.

For his own part, Hawkins had a business partnership with a medium up above. She kept him supplied with contraband cigarettes in exchange for a timely apparition or two. He, in turn, saved up his cache of cigarettes to trade favors with Malacoda, a chain-smoker with a little business on the side, producing fake ID cards.

As you know, everyone in hell was required to carry ID cards. You couldn’t go from one circle to the next without passing through optical hoofprint sensors to verify your security clearance.

But ever since he got there, Alan Turing had been busy devising ways to circumvent the biometric security system. He and Malacoda went into business back in 1966. And business was good.

Of course, no one ever got the better of the Management. There was always some ulterior reason why the Management “allowed” these things to happen. You might think you were getting away with it, you might think you were outsmarting the authorities, but you weren’t. Not really. It was a trap.

Still, the damned were a shortsighted lot. Instant gratification. It’s not as if their long-term prospects were very encouraging.

With his fake ID, Hawkins was able to hitch a service elevator to heaven. It took a while for his eyes to adjust to the brilliant illumination. Should have brought along a pair of sunglasses!

However, he’d forgotten what it was like to breathe clean air. Heavenly!

He made his way to the river of life, by a little grove of shade trees, and took a sip of water. The effect was indescribable.

Everyone in hell was thirsty. All the time. Yes, someone occasionally managed to smuggle in a six-pack of beer, but that went fast, and watching the damned fight for just a sip was not a pretty sight, I can assure you. It made a pride of lions at a fresh kill seem like high tea by comparison.

After quenching his thirst, Hawkins plucked an apple. One bite and he almost swooned at the taste.

As he was recovering, he noticed someone staring at him, with a friendly smile.

“New arrival?” asked the man–with his youthful face and white robe, trimmed in angel feathers.

“Yes,” Hawkins nodded.

“Lovely garden, isn’t it?” the man asked.

“Yes, indeed!” Hawkins nodded. “Impressive the way natural selection can scale Mt. Improbable, don’t you think?"

“I beg your pardon?” the man said, frowning.

“How do you think all this got here?” Hawkins asked. “It took billions and billions of years to evolve.”

“Actually, it was made without hands,” the man answered–innocently. “You know, creation ex nihilo.”

Hawkins began to choke. It’s as if the apple went sour in his mouth. He spat it out in disgust and wiped his mouth.

“Something wrong?” the man asked.

“Don’t go telling me you think some glorified skyhook made this place?”

The man gave Hawkins a quizzical look. “If you mean God, then of course he made this place.”

“That’s a cop-out! A science-stopper! A get-out-of-jail-free card!” Hawkins snapped–quivering with indignation.

“My dear boy, if God made it, then that’s there’s point at which science ought to stop asking questions, don’t you agree?” the man asked.

Hawkins scowled. He could barely contain his contempt. He suddenly felt a deep sense of shame. How could he compromise his principles by allowing himself to enjoy a place like this? A divine stage set! It went against everything he stood for. Better to burn in hell then spend another minute in paradise!

And with that, Hawkins turned around and retraced his steps to the service elevator. As the elevator descended, the temperature ascended. The air took on that tangy, charbroiled aroma. No place like home.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Josephus And Double Standards

I think that Josephus is generally reliable, though I would add more qualifiers than Jon Curry does in his recent comments on the subject. My intention in this post isn't to dismiss Josephus, but rather to illustrate some of the inconsistencies in Jon's argumentation. He writes the following about why he thinks so highly of Josephus:

So what is the basis for the belief in the reliability of Josephus. Here is what I base my belief on.

1-Josephus gives us a detailed autobiography which informs us of the position he has attained as well as other details about his life. These details can be cross checked with his claims. We can note his biases. We can note those facts when he reports where he ought to have first hand knowledge and see how it looks (he is an eyewitness to some of his reporting). We can decide if the biases we would expect are consistent with the apparent biases in what he writes. The position he attained informs us that he would be well suited to provide the accounts about Palestine that he offers.

2-Robert Eisenmann is an expert in texts relating to the Dead Sea Scrolls community and the writings of Josephus. He writes in "James the Brother of Jesus" that Josephus "presents such a plethora of details that one can only marvel at his mind's retentiveness. He obviously wrote it all down from memory and his own experience immediately after amassing the information he presents, much no doubt from his interrogations of Jewish prisoners."

To clarify on this point, I'm not qualified to say whether Josephus relates details as Eisenmann claims, but I trust it is true and I would expect it is a non-controversial claim. I don't expect that Jason disagrees with it, so I regard it as a legitmate use of a scholar. If I knew that Jason did not agree with this claim and perhaps he does not agree that Josephus goes into this type of detail, then it would be silly for me to offer this quote. What I would need to do is present the hard evidence.

3-Jospehus discusses in detail the background political situation when he describes events, which permits more cross checking and a better understanding of events, which allows his claims to be more thoroughly evaluated.

4-Josephus in his introduction to Jewish War admits that his passions can cause him to deviate from unbiased historical reporting, and he asks his readers to indulge him in these areas where he feels a personal stake. This shows that he recognizes that his own biases can affect accuracy. Of course this is all lacking in the gospels.

I'll summarize with a quote from Eisenmann

Josephus is, therefore, inaccurate when it comes to matters having a direct bearing on his own survival; in particular, his questionable relations with revolutionaries, apocalyptic groups, and sedition, as well as his attempts to ingratiate himself with his new masters. These can be corrected by compensating for them, as they can to a certain extent in the New Testament. But his meticulous reproduction of the minutiae of day-to-day events is unparalleled. He tells us everything he can remember within the parameters of his own necessary well-being and personal survival. For this reason, we have an encyclopaedic presentation of events and persons in Palestine in this period without equal in almost any time or place up to the era of modern record-keeping and reportage. James the Brother of Jesus, 29-30.

Remember, Jon rejects the traditional authorship attribution of every New Testament document. He thinks that the early Christians were so undiscerning as to be wrong even about the existence of Jesus. He holds a low view of the textual reliability of the New Testament. Etc.

Is his assessment of Josephus above consistent with the standards he applies to Christian sources? Jon will dismiss a document like 1 Corinthians or Philemon as a forgery on grounds as frivolous as the use of the phrase "I, Paul". He argues that the New Testament text is significantly unreliable, that the gospel manuscripts we have from the second and third centuries, for example, aren't early or complete enough. He dismisses realistic and historically accurate portions of the New Testament on the grounds that forgers could write with verisimilitude. Does Jon approach Josephus in a comparable manner?

No. Compare the New Testament textual evidence to the textual evidence for Josephus outlined here. We read:

"Josephus received aid from Greek assistants (synergoi). Two of these -- the principal assistants -- are most visible in the later books, where the author seems to have handed over composition to them. Books 15-16 are the work of an assistant who also worked on the Jewish War, a cultured writer with a love of the Greek poets and Sophocles in particular. Books 17-19 show the marked mannerisms of a hack, a slavish imitator of Thucydides. In these books the two assistants have practically taken over the entire task. In the earlier books they have lent occasional assistance."

What would Jon make of such internal inconsistencies in the New Testament? Jon has repeatedly ignored the potential use of assistants by the New Testament authors, even though the practice was widespread in antiquity, and has argued against the New Testament documents on the basis of differences in writing style. Steve Mason, a scholar who specializes in the study of Josephus, also notes other types of apparent internal inconsistency (in Lee McDonald and James Sanders, edd., The Canon Debate [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002], pp. 119-121).

And while Jon criticizes Christians like me, as well as mainstream scholarship, for not interacting more with the arguments of those who deny Jesus' existence or reject every Pauline letter as a forgery, for example, he doesn't acknowledge or interact with the more skeptical views of Josephus. Steve Mason, cited above, notes "those who see Josephus as an incurable liar" (p. 120) and refers to controversies over Josephus' "literary and intellectual integrity" (p. 125). Mason takes a relatively positive view of Josephus overall, as I do, even though he notes some of the more negative opinions of others. Where would Jon stand on the issue if Josephus had been a New Testament author?

J.J. Scott writes:

"[Josephus] molds the facts of Jewish history to suit his own ends. He is notorious for his exaggeration of numbers. Parallel sections of different works have unreconcilable variants." (in Joel Green, et al., edd., Dictionary Of Jesus And The Gospels [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992], p. 393)

Scott goes on to note that we have reason to trust Josephus on some matters, despite his faults. Again, though, what would Jon make of such inaccuracies and "unreconcilable variants" if Josephus had been a New Testament author?

Remember, Jon and his primary source, Robert Price, dismiss New Testament documents as of dubious authorship on highly frivolous grounds. Think, for example, of Price's ridiculous argument for an inconsistency between 1 Corinthians and Galatians in his 2007 discussion with Gary Habermas and Mike Licona. If such an alleged inconsistency is supposed to suggest that Paul didn't write both documents as we have them today, then what are we to make of the inconsistencies in Josephus' writings?

To cite another example, what about Josephus' controversial comments on the settled nature of the Jewish canon of scripture? Many scholars believe that the canon wasn't nearly as settled as Josephus suggests. If the New Testament contained such comments on the canon, wouldn't Jon probably cite those comments as an anachronism that implies forgery? There are ways to reconcile Josephus' comments with Josephan authorship, but would Jon be so favorable toward a New Testament document that contained such controversial comments?

Jon tells us that "Jospehus discusses in detail the background political situation when he describes events, which permits more cross checking". Again, what source is he being "cross checked" with? Why does Jon consider those other sources reliable? Do they have textual records, authorship attributions, etc. that are better than those for the New Testament?

Jon writes:

Josephus in his introduction to Jewish War admits that his passions can cause him to deviate from unbiased historical reporting, and he asks his readers to indulge him in these areas where he feels a personal stake. This shows that he recognizes that his own biases can affect accuracy. Of course this is all lacking in the gospels.

As if Jon would think such a point has so much significance if the gospels did contain such comments. As if authors who don't make such comments don't realize that they have biases that can affect accuracy.

Eusebius of Caesarea begins his Church History (1:1) with references to his need for the kindness of his readers, his own inadequacy, the difficulty of his task, and the potential for error on his part. Yet, Jon takes a highly negative view of Eusebius, repeating the common skeptical "Eusebius The Liar" argument. See here.

Notice that Jon appeals to Josephus' alleged status as an eyewitness. He repeatedly refers to "Josephus", as if he accepts the authorship attributions. Where are his arguments for Josephan authorship?

I could discuss other problems with Jon's argument, but the ones outlined above are more than sufficient. Not only is he not applying the same standards to Josephus and the New Testament, but the gap between his two sets of standards is large.

Inconsistent Skepticism

Last week, I wrote a few responses to Jon Curry (here, here, and here). He's responded with more posts in his threads here and here.

He complains that my criticisms are "quibbling", "boring", etc. He's added qualifiers to his arguments that he didn't include previously. He gives us what he calls a "purely speculative" analysis of why scholars who aren't conservative Christians agree with the conclusions of conservative Christians, but he gives us no reason to trust that speculation. He continues to ignore the content of my citation from Craig Keener, both the evidence Keener discusses within that quote and the argumentation and documentation Keener provides in the work I cited. He supports his trust in Josephus by quoting an assessment of Josephus by Robert Eisenman. After disregarding his own previously stated standards for evaluating historical sources, and after failing to tell us what sources he would compare Josephus to in order to judge that he's accurate, and after failing in other ways to hold Josephus to the same standards to which he holds Christian sources, Jon tells us:

Jason writes that he agrees with me that we should be consistent in the acceptance of documents, and then goes on to offer several reasons why either Josephus or Tacitus should be doubted if we apply the same standard to them that we do to the NT. In supposedly agreeing with me one would think that my point is the need for consistency. It is not. Actually my point is sort of like the opposite. I'm saying it is better to be inconsistent and accept few spurious texts than consistent and accept many spurious texts.

Why be inconsistent? I'm consistent in accepting both Josephus and a document like 1 Corinthians or Philemon. Jon, on the other hand, would be inconsistent to accept Josephus while rejecting the others, for reasons I've explained. The fact that it's better to accept "few spurious texts" than "many" isn't an adequate defense of an inconsistent method. Jon wasn't just addressing why other people trust Josephus and how they err less often than a conservative Christian. Rather, he was giving us his view of Josephus. (And as I explained earlier, Jon has often made similar comments accepting the authorship attributions, textual transmission, etc. of other extra-Biblical sources.) If he's acknowledging that he's been inconsistent, but is giving a partial defense of that inconsistency by telling us that his inconsistency supposedly results in accepting fewer spurious texts, then why should anybody think that such a partial defense is sufficient? To err less often, as a result of an inconsistency, is still to err and to be inconsistent.

Whether the documents in question are spurious is an issue that's in dispute. I don't accept Jon's conclusions about the alleged spurious nature of documents like 1 Corinthians and Philemon. But if Jon is acknowledging that he's been inconsistent, as his comments above suggest, then we're in agreement on that point.

He goes on to say:

Are there good reasons to reject Josephus or Tacitus? Fine. Reject them. Persuade us that we should reject them. I'm open to it.

I already gave Jon reasons for rejecting such sources, using his own standards that he's applied to Christian documents. For example, Jon has often cited Bart Ehrman on textual issues, including general statements that Ehrman has made about the New Testament text as a whole. Thus, if Ehrman says that we have better textual evidence for the New Testament than for the other documents of antiquity, and Jon has been so critical of the New Testament text, then the implications for the text of somebody like Josephus or Tacitus are obvious. I've also explained that the ancient Jews produced many forgeries, which is a point that Jon often makes about the ancient Christians in order to undermine the credibility of the ancient Christians in general. I've explained that just as the patristic Christians sometimes destroyed documents, so did the Roman government. Etc. Jon isn't interacting with what I've already said.

Notice that after years of questioning New Testament documents and dismissing them on such frivolous grounds, Jon still trusts sources like Josephus and has to ask people to explain to him why he should reject such sources. And this isn't the first time I and others have pointed out Jon's inconsistency to him. Why is he so inconsistent, even after having that inconsistency pointed out to him repeatedly? And whose responsibility is it to inform Jon on issues like the reliability of Josephus? Shouldn't he do his own research? Isn't it highly irresponsible to spend years arguing against the New Testament documents in public forums, then make inconsistent claims about other documents in that context and expect other people to research those other documents for you and explain to you why you shouldn't accept them by your own standards?

Here's what Jon said about himself in a discussion with me in 2006:

"I believed for years because I was indoctrinated to believe as a young child, as are many people. I'd sing 'Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.' I'd see as Christians would beg and plead with others to convert and guilt people that didn't tow the line. That has an effect on people. I didn't want to see the inconsistencies and the unrealistic nature of the gospel accounts because like a lot of cultists I was conditioned to not see such things. It's a hard nut to crack. And maybe I'm a little slow." (here)

Some things don't change.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Dawkins' inner child

“He didn't start out as an unbeliever. Dawkins was born into a middle-class family that went to church each Christmas. At school, Anglicanism, if not rammed down the throat, was at least a given. ‘I had my first doubts when I was nine,’ he recalls, ‘when I realised there were lots of different religions and they couldn't all be right. However I put my misgivings on hold when I went to Oundle and got confirmed. I only stopped believing when I was about 15’.”

“Happily I was spared the misfortune of a Roman Catholic upbringing (Anglicanism is a significantly less noxious strain of the virus). Being fondled by the Latin master in the Squash Court was a disagreeable sensation for a nine-year-old, a mixture of embarrassment and skin-crawling revulsion, but it was certainly not in the same league as being led to believe that I, or someone I knew, might go to everlasting fire. As soon as I could wriggle off his knee, I ran to tell my friends and we had a good laugh, our fellowship enhanced by the shared experience of the same sad pedophile. I do not believe that I, or they, suffered lasting, or even temporary damage from this disagreeable physical abuse of power. Given the Latin Master's eventual suicide, maybe the damage was all on his side.”,118,Religions-Real-Child-Abuse,Richard-Dawkins

It’s striking to observe that, by his very own reckoning, Dawkins’ religious doubts coincide with the exact time in life when he encountered a pedophile priest. Inside the body of an aging Oxford Don is an angry 9-year-old who’s still lashing out at Christianity in the person of a long-dead Latin teacher.

Rupert Sheldrake

On the theological spectrum, Rupert Sheldrake is way to the left of me. However, instead of comparing his outlook to mine, it’s more instructive to compare his outlook to that of his Richard Dawkins. In terms of age, education, and nationality, they have quite a lot in common:

Rupert Sheldrake [b. 1942] is a biologist and author of more than 75 scientific papers and ten books. A former Research Fellow of the Royal Society, he studied natural sciences at Cambridge University, where he was a Scholar of Clare College, took a double first class honours degree and was awarded the University Botany Prize. He then studied philosophy at Harvard University, where he was a Frank Knox Fellow, before returning to Cambridge, where he took a Ph.D. in biochemistry. He was a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, where he carried out research on the development of plants and the ageing of cells. At Clare College he was also Director of Studies in biochemistry and cell biology.

From 1968 to 1969, based in the Botany Department of the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, he studied rain forest plants. From 1974 to 1985 he worked at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Hyderabad, India, where he was Principal Plant Physiologist. While in India, he also lived for a year and a half at the ashram of Fr Bede Griffiths in Tamil Nadu, where he wrote his first book, A New Science of Life.

[Richard Dawkins]

Born 26th March 1941, Nairobi, Kenya. British citizen

Education, Positions and Degrees
1959-1962 Balliol College, University of Oxford
1962-1966 Research Student, Oxford University (D.Phil., 1966)
1965-1967 Research Assistant to Professor N.Tinbergen FRS
1967-1969 Assistant Professor of Zoology, University of California, Berkeley
1969-1970 Senior Research Officer, Department of Zoology, Oxford
1970-1990 University Lecturer in Zoology, and Fellow of New College, Oxford
1989 D.Sc. (Oxford)
1990-1995 Ad hominem Reader in Zoology, University of Oxford
1995-[2008] Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, University of Oxford, and Professorial Fellow of New College

The fact that they have such a similar background makes the differences in their respective worldviews all the more striking. One reason may be that Sheldrake’s experience is far more diverse and cosmopolitan. Dawkins’ experience, by contrast, is pretty provincial and ethnocentric. Dawkins is a product of the old British Empire. He was born to a soldier stationed in a British colony, and he reflects the outlook of cultural imperialism.

“I was born and brought up in Nottinghamshire. My parents were Methodists (going back several generations on both sides of the fail), but they sent me to an Anglican boarding school–Worksop College, which is a Woodard school, very High Church. So I was exposed to both traditions and I found the Anglican tradition more interesting. I liked the buildings more, I sang in the choir as a chorister and I really liked church music. I come from a family of organists and my grandfather was a formative influence: he was an organist, and I used to sit beside him on the organ stool and turn the pages for him. My father had a broad and tolerant view and was, I think, a slightly reluctant Methodist; he really preferred the Anglican Church and used to go there whenever possible,” “Branded a Heretic,” R. Sheldrake, Why I am Still an Anglican, C. Chartres, ed. (Continuum 2006), 119-20.

“However, by the time I was about 13 or 14, under the influence of my biology teacher (who was also my housemaster), I had become very atheistic and antagonistic to religion. He was from a Quaker family, and regarded much of the worship in our chapel as superstition. His basic thrust was that Christianity was no better than all these primitive superstitions that we were so happy to denounce in other cultures, and that the primitive beliefs of savages were in fact far closer to Christian beliefs than most people were prepared to admit. At the time I thought that was an overwhelming argument against Christianity; I later came to see it as a remarkable strength,” ibid. 120.

“My housemaster was very against religious dogma. He saw science as a liberating force–at that stage in my life I did to, and I still believe that science can be liberating, although it’s sadly afflicted with dogmatism at the moment. By the time I was in the sixth form, therefore, I had a pretty standard atheistic, progressive, humanist point of view and, although I had to go to compulsory chapel services, I was the only boy in my year who refused to be confirmed. I saw myself as someone who’d moved beyond religion: science was the future; religion was a thing of the past,” ibid. 120.

“While I was an undergraduate and then a research student at Cambridge, I became increasingly critical of the mechanistic approach to biology. I began to think that this approach to life was much too limited. It left out all the things I found most interesting about animals and plants. The first thing that we did when studying animals and plants was to kill them. So I began to feel increasingly alienated from what I saw as scientific dogmatism and became interested in a more holistic approach,” ibid. 120-21.

“When I was 26, I spent a year at the University of Malaya, working on rainforest plants, and on the way there traveled through India. Going to India in 1968 was an amazing experience which nothing in my education had prepared me for,” ibid. 121.

“In 1974 I took a job in India, working in an agricultural institute. I had enjoyed being in the tropics, and I as not keen to go on doing reductionistic biology in Cambridge…While I was in India, it gradually became clear to me that I was much more Christian than I cared to admit. I found, for example, that my Hindu friends had very little interest in trying to change the world. I was working in an institute that was designed to help poor farmers and my Hindu friends would ask, ‘Why do you waste your time trying to help these people? It’s none of your business; it’s their own karma that they’re poor and they’re suffering.’ This was so alien to my whole way of thinking that I began to wonder why it was that I had this idea of trying to change the world and trying to help people. Then I realized that this was a secular manifestation of the Christian tradition; it was a kind of progressive humanism, but its roots were in Christianity. Quite surprisingly and rather paradoxically, I found myself being drawn back to a Christian path while I was in India and, as well as meditating, I began praying,” ibid. 121-122.

“I started going to Evensong at St John’s, Secunderabad: I loved the fact that there was a Prayer Book Evensong there in a colonial church in the tropical heat. I was confirmed in the Church of South India by a very old Indian bishop, and for a while I became organist of St George’s, Hyderbad, where there was a creaking organ and frequent power-cuts and a man round the back operating a hand-pumping system whenever the power failed,” ibid. 122.

“Most Hindus were open to Christianity as a valid religious path, but had rather a superficial knowledge of it. So it was a wonderful moment when a friend told me about Father Bede-Griffiths, and I went to visit him in South India. There I found an extraordinary community: a Christian ashram which was extremely Indian, because most Westerners who go to Indian aren’t interested in Christianity and stay clear of anything Christian. So, while Hindu ashrams were overwhelmed with spiritual tourists from the West, the Christian ashrams had few Western visitors,” 122-123.

“I do controversial work anyway and, in the scientific world, the very fact that I am a Christian adds to prejudice. The anti-Christian feeling in scientific circles is so strong that anyone who has religious views of any kind is thought to have forfeited any kind of intellectual credibility. I work on psychic phenomena and other unexplained things, and I’m interested in a holistic approach to nature. In fact, I’m interested in a holistic view which integrates things rather than compartmentalizing them, with religion on the one hand and science on the other. I became interested in a holistic approach to science when I was an undergraduate. After my first degree, I spent a year at Harvard doing philosophy, because I had concluded that science was hopelessly limited and I hoped that philosophy might help provide a wider perspective,” ibid. 125-25.

“I’ve never had anyone in the Church accuse me of heresy, whereas my experience is that it’s easy to be a scientific heretic. I’ve been proclaimed one on several occasions, notably in a most intemperate editorial in Nature, which described my first book as ‘A Book for Burning.” The editor subsequently said that I ‘deserved to be condemned for exactly the same reasons as the Pope condemn Galileo–it’s heresy.” These kinds of attitudes–the idea that science knows the absolute truth and that there is one single view of nature, which is universal and everyone in the whole world should believe in–in fact resemble the attitudes of the Catholic Church before the Reformation. Science has not yet undergone a kind of reformation and it’s still run by the equivalent of colleges of cardinals and is authoritarian and needlessly dogmatic. All of this is in stark contrast to the rhetoric of science, which is about free enquiry and fearless exploration,” ibid. 126-27.