Saturday, December 25, 2010

The life of the mother

I see that TFan has commented on a recent controversy involving a Roman bishop and a nominally Catholic hospital. For context, I’ll quote the bishop’s summary of the situation:

Then, earlier this year, it was brought to my attention that an abortion had taken place at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix. When I met with officials of the hospital to learn more of the details of what had occurred, it became clear that, in the decision to abort, the equal dignity of mother and her baby were not both upheld; but that the baby was directly killed, which is a clear violation of ERD #45. It also was clear that the exceptional cases, mentioned in ERD #47, were not met, that is, that there was not a cancerous uterus or other grave malady that might justify an indirect and unintended termination of the life of the baby to treat the grave illness.
In this case, the baby was healthy and there were no problems with the pregnancy; rather, the mother had a disease that needed to be treated. But instead of treating the disease, St. Joseph's medical staff and ethics committee decided that the healthy, 11-week-old baby should be directly killed. This is contrary to the teaching of the Church (Cf. Evangelium Vitae, #62).

For discussion purposes, let us grant the accuracy of this summation. With that in mind, TFan says:

9) A final passage also came to mind as fitting the situation.
Matthew 23:23 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.
Here's a bishop talking about going through his rote prayers - the minimal requirements of his clerical office, and yet he has just condemned a hospital that made the very difficult decision to use lethal force to defend the life of a woman from her child. Was that decision right? Ultimately God will judge, but normally lethal force is permitted in defense of life. If, in fact, the situation is as it has been reported, it appears that the woman had the right to defend herself.
10) I was also struck by the fact that the bishop's stated identity was not Christ alone, but "Christ and the Church." What he considers to be faithfulness to Christ is faithfulness to the rules of his church. However, in following the rules of his church, he's not following God's law. I'm not simply talking about his failure to allow self-defense to be a justification for killing in this case, but about the fact that he offers worship (hyper-dulia) to Mary, engages in idolatry (in the latria of what is truly bread), and seeks to be right with God (evidently) through faithfulness rather than by faith.

I agree with TFan on the religious issue. But on the ethical issue I demur.

i) The fact that someone may pose a threat to my life is not a sufficient condition to trigger the right of self-defense. Take the proverbial lifeboat situation. Suppose there are two passengers: myself, and another castaway. My fellow passenger poses a threat to my survival inasmuch as scarce supplies of food and water will go twice as fast with two mouths to feed.  My odds of survival are greatly improved if I off my fellow passenger. Yet that wouldn’t be morally warranted.

Or, to try a different illustration, suppose a sadistic hostage-taker gives a hostage a choice: he can either choose a fellow hostage to be executed, and thereby save his own hide, or else, if he refuses to choose, the hostage-taker will shoot him instead.

From a Christian standpoint, I think it would be illicit for the hostage to volunteer another hostage to die, even if that refusal will cost him his own life.

Ordinarily, the right of self-defense involves an unjust aggressor. The assailant doesn’t merely pose a threat to my life. Rather, he wrongs he in the process. And his intent is malicious.

That’s quite different from the situation of a baby in the womb.

ii) In addition, we have certain innate social obligations. All things being equal, parents have a duty to protect their children from danger. What is more, it is the duty of parents to protect their children from danger even if that endangers the parent in the process.

In other words, parents have a prima facie obligation to protect their children from harm, rather than protect themselves by harming their children.

Of course, there are hypothetical or real-life or hypothetical scenarios in which a child might become the unjust assailant. If a juvenile delinquent points a loaded gun at his mother, then he has, unfortunately, forfeited his prima facie right to enjoy parental protection. Conversely, grown children have an obligation to protect their parents from harm.

A stickier situation might be, let us say, a three-year-old boy who points a loaded gun at his two-year-old sister. The boy doesn’t know what he’s doing. He is innocent. Yet that doesn’t change the fact that he poses a mortal threat to his sister.

Still, that poses a different sort of dilemma. For a parent has a prima facie obligation to protect both kids from harm. That’s rather different than a parent protecting him/herself from the child (by lethal force, if necessary).

Of course, there are also situations in which the survival of a child is bound up with the survival of a parent–since children are dependent on their parents. Take the hypothetical case of the father who throws one child over the back of the sled to keep the wolves at bay in hopes of saving his other two kids. If the father dies, the children die. If the wolves overtake the sled, all aboard will perish

However, in situations like that, where no outcome is a good outcome, I tend to think we should acquiesce to our providential fate (as it were) and leave it to God sort it out the consequences.

Ethics in a fallen world must often deal with the paradoxical situation of risking lives to save lives. The tricky question is where to draw the line. All we can do is to apply general norms to typical situations. 

A Light To The Nations

Who would have predicted, thousands of years ago, what's happening today?

"The stories of Jesus's birth are the foundation of the world's most widely observed holiday. Christmas is celebrated by the world's two billion Christians, a number about twice that of the next largest religion, Islam. Moreover, because of the cultural and commercial importance of Christmas in Western culture and beyond, it is observed by many non-Christians as well. Indeed, no other religious holiday is so widely commemorated by people who are outside of the tradition that originated it." (Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas [New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007], p. vii)

Scripture predicts that Israel and its Messiah would have a major influence on the world, even to the point of transforming Gentile nations. Some of those predictions are applicable to our present age and have been fulfilled increasingly with the passing of time. Others are about the coming kingdom that will be established after Jesus' return, so their ultimate fulfillment is still in the future. But what we see in the world today is a foreshadowing of the fulfillment that's ahead.

One thing these prophecies and their fulfillment do is increase the plausibility of Christianity as a revelation from God. Critics often point to miracle accounts in an ancient source like Herodotus or Tacitus, or cite an alleged miracle worker like Apollonius of Tyana or Sabbati Sevi, and ask why we should believe in Jesus or Christianity and not believe in those other individuals or religions. One response to that argument is to ask what effect that individual or religion has had on the world. Popularity doesn't prove truthfulness, but it does increase the plausibility of an alleged revelation from God. It's one factor to consider among others.

"in you all the families of the earth will be blessed" (Genesis 12:3)

"The people who walk in darkness will see a great light...For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders" (Isaiah 9:2, 9:6)

"It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth." (Isaiah 49:6)

"He will sprinkle many nations, kings will shut their mouths on account of Him" (Isaiah 52:15)

"as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel...He will be great to the ends of the earth" (Micah 5:2, 5:4)

O come, Thou Root of Jesse's Tree,
An ensign of Thy people be;
Before Thee rulers silent fall;
All peoples on Thy mercy call.
(John Neale, trans., O Come, O Come, Emmanuel)

Tracking Santa

Some people think it'd be a lie for adults to tell kids that Santa exists. But the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) begs to differ:

Now, if our government is complicit in lying to kids by perpetuating the Satan Santa myth, then I suggest these Christians write to our elected government representatives - Congressmen, U.S. Senators, even the POTUS himself! - and demand they put an end to such morally corrosive and vile fabrications! We need to start an anti-Santa campaign, and we need to start now. Time is of the essence.

After all, every day more and more kids succumb to the Santa lie. Who knows how believing such lies will affect the children and lead to their moral corruption? How will it affect future generations? Will the moral filth and vice corrupt society? Perhaps it's only a matter of time before the situation collapses into one worse than that of street urchins in Victorian England such as described in a Dickensian novel. Do we want kids to end up like Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop? If so, then, by all means, please continue to perpetuate the Santa myth.

Rare Exports

Iconoclast said:
These parents [who perpetuate the Santa myth] aren't merely Christians who have fallen into the sin of lying; they are LIARS. There is no LIAR who will enter the kingdom of heaven. All LIARS will have their part in the lake of fire.

To you, it would be "overly restrictive" to raise children without stories of ghosts and witchcraft and murderers that give them "a good scare." To Christian parents, it would be sinful to raise them on these stories.
Alas! It'd be doubly worse if Christian parents raised their kids on horror stories about Santa:

Friday, December 24, 2010

Labor of Love

This song makes me choke up almost every time I hear it . . . or play it:

Paul Bunyan


Hey, thanks for showing us how pseudo-Christians justify parents' premeditated, deliberate lying to their children.

For someone who allegedly objects to “lying,” it’s revealing to see the ease with which you resort to misrepresentation to advance your cause.

I discuss the case of Santa for the simple reason that some Christians bring that up, then use it to discredit Christmas as a whole.

So I’m responding to them on their own terms. I’m using Santa as a limiting case. Since some Christians cite Santa as a worse-case scenario for all that’s wrong with Christmas, I’m evaluating the quality of their argument.

These parents aren't merely Christians who have fallen into the sin of lying; they are LIARS. There is no LIAR who will enter the kingdom of heaven. All LIARS will have their part in the lake of fire.

So Jeremiah is roasting in hell for deceiving the princes (Jer 38:24-28). Nathan is roasting in hell for deceiving David (2 Sam 12:1-7). Elisha is roasting in hell for deceiving the Syrian army (2 Kgs 16:14-20). Rahab is roasting in hell for deceiving her countrymen (Josh 2; 6). The midwives are roasting in hell for deceiving Pharaoh (Exod 1:15-21). Samuel is roasting in hell for deceiving Saul (1 Sam 16:1-5). Joshua is roasting in hell for deceiving the soldiers of Ai (Josh 8:3-8).

With so many saints in hell, it must be hard to tell the difference between heaven and hell. Is it the décor?

To you, it would be 'overly restrictive' to raise children without stories of ghosts and witchcraft and murderers that give them 'a good scare.' To Christian parents, it would be sinful to raise them on these stories.

It’s sinful to tell boys campfire stories? Sounds like liberals who try to effeminize boys by forbidding them to play dodgeball, &c.

The Bible contains stories about ghosts and witches (e.g. 1 Sam 28)–not to mention murderers of every stripe. Is it also sinful to read the Bible to your kids?

Oh, so we should lie to our children in order to give the children some healthy skepticism. If that's the case, then parents should lie MORE, not less.

I realize that you lack the emotional detachment to have a rational discussion. But I was merely responding to Clark on his own grounds. If Christian parents send their kids to public school, then their kids should acquire a healthy dose of scepticism regarding what grown-ups tell them.

Mind you, if it were up to me, I’d abolish the public school system. But Clark is a 2-Kingdoms proponent, so I doubt he shares my view.

Well, you might as well lie to your kids before they get there, because you're just throwing them to the Philistines.

Here’s an idea for you. Get some ice bags. Put them in the bathtub. Immerse yourself to cool off so that you can begin to see straight. I’m not the one who’s advocating public schools. 

Proverbs 26:28: "A lying tongue HATES the one it crushes." You would have your parents say, "Son, I lied to you because I loved you." This in and of itself is a lie. The lie just gets perpetuated.

You’d need to demonstrate that the author of Prov 26:28 had in mind something like the adventures of Davy Crockett. Just quoting the words of a Bible writer won’t prove your point, for we must take into account the intent of the writer. What was the scope of his statement? To what was he referring?

For instance, does God hate the deception of the Hebrew midwives? No.

Moreover, I didn’t cite the example of my parents to justify the practice. Rather, I cited their example as a counterexample to Clark’s armchair theory about the effect of the Santa myth on kids.

But, of course, to draw that distinction would require a hitherto undeveloped capacity for emotional detachment on your part.

Point made - practical jokes involving deception are wicked.

You’re welcome to your option, which says more about you than the ethics of a college prank (to take one example).

Not a big surprise that you are into movies.

So you also think movies are ipso facto wicked. It’s useful to see a nutty position taken to its logical extreme. Folks like you keep the squirrels well supplied for the winter hibernation.

What, exactly, do you think is wicked about all movies? The fictional element? The life-like element?

Were the parables of Jesus equally wicked?

You justify blatant immorality. That makes you just as much of an immoral pervert as the ones you justify.

As far as that goes, I think far more harm is done to the religious formation of kids by fearful, apoplectic legalists who think telling boys campfire stories or tall tales about Daniel Boone is wicked and sinful and hateful and damnable than by parents who tell their kids the Tooth Fairy left a quarter under their pillow while they slept.

But I suppose their parents will spend eternity in hell alongside the Hebrew midwives.

I guess the deeper question is whether “Iconoclast” is a sockpuppet for Richard Dawkins. 

Tall tales

To invoke the situational perspective maybe it's a matter of background. I was just listening to a radio broadcast from Omaha (one of the places where I grew up) from a secular sports-talk station. The conversation turned to a football player playing Santa. The hosts implied that the NFL star wasn't really Santa at all and that there wasn't any such thing. Callers and emailers contacted the show immediately to remonstrate with the hosts and to more or less force them to confess the Santa orthodoxy. It was a forced confession of faith at the point of a metaphorical sword. The inquisitors would have been proud. People of N. European descent take the Santa myth/lie very seriously.

I agree with you that the callers/emailers got carried away. They are too deeply invested in the Santa myth. In fairness, that’s because they don’t wish to spoil it for kids.

In my original post I did clearly distinguish between myths that are conventional and understood as such by both the teller and the hearer and myths that are enforced culturally and socially and even religiously as a kind of orthodoxy. Why doesn't that count as discrimination?

But that’s simplistic. The word “lie” carries an odious connotation. As such, the word should be reserved for truly odious conduct. One needs to draw some elementary distinctions between different kinds of “lies,” viz. white “lies,” jocose “lies,” or injurious lies.

I'm a little surprised at your language re moralizing? I thought that theology is application and that moralizing was a good thing? When did moralizing become problematic? How? Why?

I didn’t say moralizing was problematic. This is what I said: “If you're going to moralize, then you need to be morally discriminating. Draw rudimentary distinctions.  You might as well say certain pranks and practical jokes are "lies." But that trivializes the ethical connotations of lying.”

Let’s take some concrete examples:

In 2 Sam 12, Nathan must confront the sin of David. But for two reasons, that’s a tricky operation. For one thing, it can be hazardous for a social inferior to challenge the king. For the king may execute his critic.

In addition, if Nathan challenges Dave directly, that will simply put David on the defensive, which would be counterproductive.

So Nathan resorts to subterfuge. He tells a disguised parable. This stratagem has two advantages: It will catch David with his guard down. It will trick David into condemning himself.

For the parable to succeed, David must be initially taken in by the parable. He must be temporarily misled into believing this is a true story. Having drawn him in, Nathan can then deliver the punch line.

The intention to deceive the listener is a necessary condition of the ruse. But you presumably believe the prophet Nathan was justified in his tactics.

Take another example: the tall tale. This is a humorous, fictitious literary or folkloric genre. The humorous element depends on the contrast between the deadpan tone of the narrator and the mounting absurdity of the narrative.

It is most effective when the audience is initially taken in by the tale. The narrator adopts a dry, matter-of-fact tone. He acts as if this is a true story. The story progresses from realism to surrealism. That’s the point at which it dawns on the audience that this is all an elaborate hoax. The humorous effect crucially lies in the fact that this is told with a straight face, as well as the initial verisimilitude, which is just a set-up for the punch line.

Seems to me that the Santa myth falls into the same basic genre as tall tales and practical jokes. I suppose we could classify all these things are “elaborate lies” (your phrase), but that blurs important moral distinctions.

Again, we can have a debate about when this material crosses the line. But to slap the “lie” label on something like this doesn’t conduce to a useful analysis of the salient moral considerations. 

Thursday, December 23, 2010

O Tannenbaum


Reasons why I cannot celebrate Christmas:
1. Diminish the importance of the Lord's day.
2. Monuments of past by idolatry.
3. Idols themselves.
4. God commands that we work on common days and if there is no prohibition to work, such as the Sabbath, we are commanded to work and redeem the time (Exo 20:9, Eph 5:16).
5. Duet 12:29-32; Holy days such as Christmas are not simply traditional days for public remembrance, heritage or civil celebration but are synchristic acts of religious worship that combine elements of Christianity and paganism.
6. Not just a family day, but more solemn and religious than the weekly Sabbath.
7. The Lord’s Day is given to remember all of Christ’s work and has apostolic authority in it’s practice. No other day commemorating any other work of Christ is commanded or practiced by apostolic example and therefore forbidden.
8. Relics of idolatry are never to be Christianized as the Roman religion seeks. Therefore, our relationship to Christmas trees is at least analogous to what Hezekiah did to the brazen serpent that had of late been used in superstitious worship (2 Kings 18:4). He did not baptize it, he destroyed it.
9. Christmas DayThe day Jesus died is referred to as the Passover in John 18:39. This celebration begins after sundown on the 14th day of Nisan which on our calendar would be in the middle of March. According to Daniel 9:24-27 there are 70 weeks (Weeks are periods of seven years) determined for Israel. There are 69 weeks from the building of the temple to Messiah. The Messiah’s ministry is in the midst of the 70th week and an in the middle of this week he is killed and his death puts an end to the sacrificial system (Mat 27:51). Therefore, his ministry began at the end of the 69th week and continued until the middle of the 70th week, making his ministry exactly 3 and _ years in duration. Jesus began his ministry when he was 30 (Luk 3:23) years old as was tradition among the Levite priests from the command of God in the law (Num 4:3). Therefore, his death was in mid March; 6 months before mid March is mid September and three years before that is obviously mid September. He began his ministry the same time as his 30th birthday, therefore he was born in the month of September not even close to December 25th . 10. Jesus was born and in the same day was lying in a manger (Luke 2:16). After eight days he received circumcision (vs
21). Even as Mat 2:1 and the context reveal, the magi who came bearing gifts came much later after his birthday; as is added by Mat 2:11 they found him in a house as compared with his manger birth. These were not birthday gifts and it was not the first Christmas celebration.
God commands that those things that are associated with idolatry be destroyed. Duet 12:29-32, Isa 30:22, Jude 23, Exo 34:13, Duet 7:25, Num 33:52, Rev 2:14, 20 (knowingly), Gen 35:4, 2 Kings 10:22-28, 2 Kings 23: 4, 5, 6, 7 ,2 Chron 23:15, Dan 1:8, 2 Kings 16:4, 10, 2 Chron 13:9, Exo 23:13, Duet 12:3,30, Josh 23:7. The purpose of this is so these religions will be forgotten and God's people will not ensnared by them. So, we determine what needs to be destroyed by this standard: could this thing that was used for idolatry of itself remind some person to return to that idolatry or of itself be a path back to it. Historical Examples: Chrysostom had temples of idols destroyed in Phoenicia; Constantine did not destroy the temples of the idols when he came into power and because of this Julian the Apostate was able to resurrect these idolatries. [EPC, 165] Angelic Virginity They say that they do that which the fathers have done. Yet Hezekiah breaks the brazen serpent which Moses had made. [2 Kings 18:4.]

I take it from Drake’s profile that he’s a student at Greenville Presbyterian Seminary.

1. A basic problem with Drake’s argument is that it seems to be a cut-n-paste objection to Christmas which isn’t responsive to the specific arguments that Jason and I have deployed. As such, Drake isn’t bothering to engage the actual state of the argument. As such, much of what he says can be safely ignored inasmuch as his argument ignores much of what we have said.

However, I’ll touch on a few points:

2. The issue of distancing ourselves from any idolatrous connotations is complex. For instance, Gen. Booth, when he founded the Salvation Army, ditched literal observance of baptism and communion because these sacraments had acquired so many idolatrous associations over the course of church history. He was reacting to high-church sacramentalism. Was he right?

We could say the same thing about Sunday worship. Given the traditional association between Sunday worship and the Mass, should Protestants avoid Sunday worship to avoid complicity with multiplied centuries of Roman Catholic syncretism? And it isn’t just a thing of the past.

3. Are we required to work nonstop six days a week, month after month?

If a husband celebrates his wedding anniversary, is he breaking the 4th commandment?

Suppose we take this a step further. Suppose, once a month, a married couple drop their kids off with the grandparents so that they can have a day together, just to spend in each other’s company. To give each other their undivided attention. Enjoy the time together. Is that a wasteful stewardship of their God-given time?

Likewise, suppose a father has three growing sons. Suppose, three or four times a year he takes a week off to take his sons camping, so that his growing sons will have some undivided “dad time.” He wants to have that quality time with his sons before they grow up and leave home.  Is that a wasteful stewardship of his God-given time?

4. I can’t say that I ever harbored worshipful feelings towards a Christmas tree. Does Drake feel sorely tempted to bow down and worship a Christmas tree whenever he happens to find himself in the unwelcome presence of the offending tree? Must he resist an overpowering urge to do obeisance to the tree?

Paint-by-numbers piety


What's amusing about this line of logic is that it can be used against Sunday worship as well, making it something entirely optional. The result is a Christendom without any unified worship, and clear proof that Sola Scriptura doesn't work in practice.

Here's a textbook case of how a papist approaches religious issues:

i) Nick doesn’t begin with the word of God. Rather, he begins with his prejudicial notion of how things ought to be. If the word of God doesn’t conform to his antecedent bias, he then judges the word of God to be defective, and turns to the ecclesiastical divination to supplement the alleged deficiencies in the word of God.

ii) Suppose that Scripture doesn’t specify a day of worship. How does that consequence prove the insufficiency of Scripture? Notice that Nick isn’t taking his cue from what God says.

Assuming that this follows from sola Scriptura, it would be more logical, as well as more pious, to conclude from this consequence that a fixed day of worship is unimportant to God. For if that was important to God, then God would specify a fixed day of worship. But Nick doesn’t begin with God’s priorities. Nick begins with his preconception of how things ought to be. Then he goes in search of whatever gods ratify his preconception.

iii) In fact, given Paul’s remarks in Rom 14:5 and Col 2:16, the issue of Sunday worship is, indeed, an open question in theology. This is subject to legitimate debate. It’s not something that can be prematurely and arbitrarily settled by self-appointed church authorities like the pope. The pope is not entitled to prejudge what the apostle Paul (to take one example) is allowed to teach us on the subject.

iv) The question is also ambiguous. For we’re really dealing with at least two distinct issues:

a) Is weekly worship a Christian duty?

b) Is Sunday worship a Christian duty?

In principle, you could answer (a) in the affirmative, but (b) in the negative.

v) Even if (arguendo), Scripture doesn’t give us specific direction on when to worship, Scripture could still give us some general guidelines–leaving us free, within the range of those guidelines, to select one option or another.

For instance, we could infer something like weekly worship from NT ecclesiology. By definition, the church is a corporate entity. It has a communal life. But to be a “fellowship,” Christians must congregate from time to time. Therefore, Christians would need to worship together to have fellowship. To be a fellowship. And that, in turn, requires them to be at the same place at the same time.

v) This doesn’t give you a scientific formula, but what’s wrong with leaving the details a bit flexible? For instance, we live in the age of cars and clocks.

But in early times, some churches were built near tidal rivers. Churchgoers would commute by river. The service schedule was pegged to the tide cycle. For the tide determined the direction of the current. A floodtide generated an upstream current while an ebb tide reverted to a downstream current. If you lived upriver, and your church was downriver, you’d come to church on ebb tide, and leave on floodtide.

vi) To take a different example, for a time I used to attend a Messianic congregation. They worshipped on Saturday rather than Sunday. Does Nick think that’s inherently wrong?

vii) Or take the house-churches in 1C Rome. These were truly “community” churches. You attended whichever church lay within walking distance of your home. There’s no reason to think Roman house-churches synchronized their worship. Indeed, it wouldn’t even be feasible at that time and place to have synchronized worship services. They were widely separated in the already sprawling city of Rome. And it’s not as if our ancient churchgoers had a Timex or Rolex–or even church bells–to go by.

So I imagine that subsets of Roman Christians met whenever it was most convenient for all parties concerned. Each neighborhood church had its own rhythms.

Did they all meet on Sunday? Who’s to say? Some of these house-churches were of Jewish origin, so they may well have favored the Jewish Sabbath as their day of worship.

Contrary to Newman’s famous slogan, Roman Catholics are far from being “deep in history.” Rather, they have their preconceived idea of how things ought to be, and they impose that preconception regardless of history’s varied particularities. 

Early Usage Of December 25 In Christian And Pagan Sources

Chronicon Blog has been featuring a lot of articles on the December 25 date in ancient pagan and Christian sources. The author of the blog, Tom Schmidt, argues that December 25 was advocated as Jesus' birthdate by Hippolytus and may be mentioned in Clement of Alexandria. He also addresses claims of early pagan usage of the date. I've done little or no investigation of some of the issues he covers. I'm not in much of a position to judge some of his conclusions. But there's a lot of helpful information there.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

An atheist on atheism

There are bad as well as good reasons for deciding that one is, or that one should be, an atheist, and I suspect the bad reasons may be more influential. The worst reason for not believing in God (though the least obviously bad), is that there is no evidence for His existence. This is a bad reason for atheism because no-one can agree what would count as evidence. Miracles, scriptures, the testimony of priests and prophets etc, can all be contested on empirical grounds: but for some people the fact that we communicate intelligibly with one another, or that the world is ordered, or even that there is something rather than nothing, is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that there is a Creator who not only made the world but also made it habitable by and intelligible to us. Therefore the appeal to evidence, or lack of it, will always be inconclusive. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Parsing Christmas

Jason Engwer recently posted a response to James McGrath on Christmas. McGrath is a Jesus Seminar retread. McGrath's radical chic attack on Christmas was, in turn, picked up by militant apostate John Loftus.  

However, Jason's post got quickly derailed into a debate over the Puritan view of Christmas. For now I'd like to make a few methodological observations.

1. Although ostensibly defending the Puritan view, some of the critics have actually recast the issue. They've recast the issue in terms of whether Christmas is obligatory, which they deny. This, in turn, shifts the burden of proof. 

But that's not the traditional Puritan objection. Puritans stake out a far more aggressive and unyielding position.

They don't say Christians aren't obligated to celebrate Christmas.

Rather, they say Christians are obligated not to celebrate Christmas.

The nonobservance of Christmas is obligatory, rather than the observance of Christmas is nonobligatory.

Put another way, the critics are asking whether we think the nonobservance of Christmas is permissible, whereas the Puritans regarded the observance of Christmas as impermissible.

So that represents a fundamental inversion of the Puritan argument. Now, if the critics wish to distance themselves from the Puritan position, that's fine with me. But since the critics ordinarily pride themselves on their unwavering fidelity to the Westminster Standards, this introduces an awkward point of tension into their theological commitments. Do they or don't they represent Confessional Calvinism?

They clearly don't reflect Dutch-Reformed Confessional Calvinism on the status of Christmas. And it's unclear if they even reflect the Confessional Calvinism of the Westminster Divines at this juncture. 

2. There's also considerable equivocation over "Christmas."

In this discussion, opposition to "Christmas" can mean more than one thing, such as:

i) Opposition to a formal, dated holiday.

ii) Opposition to the complete package of Christmas customs, including sacred and secular traditions alike.

iii) Opposition to celebrating the birth of Jesus.

iv) Opposition to a national Christmas holiday.

v) Opposition to an ecclesiastical Christmas holiday.

The critics trade on these equivocations, oscillating between one target and another. To have a productive debate, it's necessary that the critics clarify their target. 

Incidentally, this is also pertinent to Jason's distinction between specific commands and generic principles.

TFan on X-mas

From TFan’s blog:

I've noticed that there are a number of Christmas-related posts over at Triablogue (link to said posts). I admit I have not read the posts carefully (and some are just for fun)

True, some are just for fun.

In fact, I would not have even thought to mention their posts at all, had not one kind reader privately messaged me indicating that he believed Triablogue's posts were directed at me in some way (something I could not find in my quick perusal of the tagged Triablogue posts).

None of my posts is directed at TFan. The precipitating event was a post that Jason did in response to a post by snake-in-the-grass James McGrath (which was, in turn, plugged by snake-in-plain-view John Loftus at DC).

Jason’s post generated some negative feedback, at which point I began to do some posting on the subject.

I did use Scott Clark as a foil for some of my posting.

…I have not seen any advocating the idea that the church is permitted to make December 25 a holy day of obligation or arguing that God has requested that we honor Jesus' birth with a holiday. If Triablogue were to hold those positions, I would find it pressing to engage with their posts. I trust that both non-Reformed and Reformed members of Triablogue would agree with me that no church has the right to impose on the conscience a duty to celebrate Christmas, and that God has nowhere indicated that he wishes to be worshiped by an annual feast of the nativity.

This gets to the nub of the issue:

I can only speak for myself:

i) Since the celebration of Christmas is not an implicit or explicit divine injunction, I don’t regard the celebration of Christmas as a religious duty.

ii) Different Christians find different things edifying or unedifying. Some Christians opt out of Christmas entirely. Some Christians celebrate certain aspects of the traditional Christian package, but avoid others. That’s a point of liberty.

iii) Denominations and independent churches are free associations. Within that context, members can assume voluntary obligations. That’s by mutual consent. It’s like any human compact.

By the same token, participants can change their mind. Withdraw their consent. It’s not a blood pact which the hellhounds enforce.

In that qualified sense, I supposed a holiday could be a “day of obligation.” But that’s conditional. Contingent on prior consent. It can be nullified at will–although that shouldn’t be done capriciously or frivolously.

iv) Ironically, my own position is laxer than the traditional Dutch-Reformed position, where Christmas was a “day of obligation.” In Holland, way back when, the Reformed church was the state church, and it could impose Christmas as a “day of obligation.” Or so I understand.

So that presents something of a dilemma for “Confessional Calvinists” who take Reformed tradition as their touchstone.

I myself am admittedly a Biblicist. So that doesn’t present a dilemma for my own position.

The Date of the Nativity

"The Date of the Nativity and the Chronology of Jesus' Life" (PDF) by Paul Maier.

Joyless to the world

Cotton Mather, than whom none with more zeal adored the Deity, and divine commands obeyed, was on his way to the meetinghouse when he inadvertently stepped in a temporal vortex, from whence he found himself transported to Bethlehem.

Momentarily disoriented by his precipitous journey, when a joyful band of shepherds hastened by, he accosted one of them to inquire as to where they were headed.

“To a manger in the city of David, to celebrate Messiah’s birth!”

The goodly parson stood aghast at this contagion of popery, and proceeded to catechize the errant shepherds on the Regulative Principle.

After successfully dissuading the shepherds from going to the manger, Mather beheld a shining choir of angels on the hillside, praising God in the highest. At that the goodly parson strode over to the angelic host and sternly remonstrated Gabriel for co-opting a heathenish holiday: “O alienate from God, O spirit accursed. Forsaken of all good; I see thy fall Determined, and thy hapless crew involved in this perfidious laud!”

Then the angels, duly admonished, went silent and betook a somber retreat to heaven.