Monday, December 10, 2018

Jarrod McKenna v. James White on social justice


I'm going to quote and comment on this essay: N. N. Trakakis, "Anti-Theodicy", The Problem of Evil: Eight Views in Dialogue (Cambridge 2018), chap 4. Trakakis is a protégé of atheist philosopher Graham Oppy, and they often collaborate. In the essay Trakakis indicates that at one point the problem of evil pushed him into the atheist camp, but he now has an alternative position: anti-theodicy. 

I first encountered the anti-theodicy position in Cornelius Berkouwer. David Bentley Hart is another exponent of anti-theodicy:

It may not be coincidental that Trakakis and Hart both have a Greek Orthodox frame of reference. 

The problem of evil often strikes people as irresolvable. No adequate or convincing solution to the problem seems forthcoming, and this despite numerous and often sophisticated attempts over the centuries and from highly trained and gifted philosophers and theologians. As John Cottingham recognizes, "The opponents of theism may devise ever more dramatic presentations of the problem of evil, and its defenders construct ever more ingenious rebuttals, but one has the sense that neither side in the argument has any real expectation of changing their opponent's mind, and that in the end they are succeeding in doing little more than upsetting each other". 

But, of course, that's hardly unique to debates over theodicy. That holds true for the whole range of philosophy. Typically, opposing positions in philosophy are constantly retooled rather than eliminated. 

It is also sometimes held that the theodicist's position of rejecting even the possibility of gratuitous evil–of holding, in other words, that every evil is always connected to a greater good and that we ought to believe (or can come to know) this to be so–has the objectionable consequence of reducing us to an attitude of passivity and fatalism in the face of evil. For why fight to eradicate evil if evil is a necessary or unavoidable part or byproduct of God's providential plan for the world. 

But that's dumb, for the second-order goods include the defeat of evil. Goods that derive from the struggle against evil. It's like saying that because challenges are built into sports and games, that reduces players to an attitude of passivity and fatalism in the face of challenges. But the obstacles exist to be overcome. They don't exist for their own sake. 

The teleological or instrumentalist conception of evil presupposed in theodicies, where evil is permitted by God for the sake of some higher end, is also open to the Kantian criticism that it negates the inherent world and dignity of persons by treating them as mere means to some end, rather than as ends in themselves. 

i) But Kantian strictures are not an unquestionable given. The onus lies on the Kantian deontologist to argue for his scruples. That's not something he can simply foist on others. 

ii) While, moreover, there's a floor to human rights, below which we shouldn't go, that doesn't mean everyone is entitled to the same treatment regardless of their behavior. People can forfeit their presumptive right not to be treated in certain ways. If a suicide bomber has designs on a kindergarten, he ought be stopped by any means necessary.  

I arrived at the conclusion that various recent theistic attempts to resolve the problem–including the skeptical theist response, and freewill and soul-making theodicies–fail to provide a satisfactory answer (at least with respect to certain types of evil). Absent any countervailing evidence in support of theistic belief, or without any good reason for continuing to uphold theism, "the only rational course of action left for the theist to take is to abandon theism and convert to atheism."

i) But there's enormous countervailing evidence.

ii) Evil is only a meaningful category within a Christian paradigm.

iii) Even if some theodicies fail to provide a satisfactory answer to certain types of evil, that hardly means they should be discounted for the types of evil they do explain. And what if a combination of theodicies suffices to cover all bases?

iv) Most philosophical positions face some recalcitrant objections. That's not unique to the problem of evil. If we jettison every philosophical position that has loose ends, there'd little left to believe. Although it's a bad sign when someone must introduce ad hoc loopholes to salvage his position, if you have good evidence that your position basically true, you should keep refining it. 

[Rowe] In the light of our own experience and knowledge of the variety and scale of human and animal suffering in our world, the idea that none of this suffering could have been prevented by an omnipotent being without thereby losing a greater good or permitting an evil at least as bad seems an extraordinary, absurd idea, quite beyond belief. 

Rowe's plausibility structure isn't something he can impose on everyone else. If he find it absurd, beyond belief, that's his opinion, but not everyone shares his impression. 

It may not be coincidental that Rowe was an apostate. Ironically, Christian idealism leads some professing Christians to abandon their faith, yet they wouldn't have that idealism  were it not for the faith they abandoned. Their conclusion negates their premise. So many apostates are like time-travelers in the Grandfather paradox, who wouldn't exist in the first place because they erase the future in which they originate. 

Rowe's almost instinctive reaction of incredulity about the claims of theodicists are wont to make (we might dub it, after Harry Frankfurt, a "bullshit detector") has proven to be an invaluable resource in my journey through the thickets of evil. What Rowe is contesting, and I with him still, is the strategy of reconciling God with evil by making appeal to greater goods, whether known or known, said to be yoked some necessary but unfortunate way to the myriad evils of the world. Even if some evils can be accounted for, what almost always gets placed in the mystery category are the "hard cases"... 

I, for one, don't think the hard cases must be relegated to the mystery box. 

Covering their assets

In this video, "Church Militant" tells the ongoing story of how the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Detroit is transferring all of its real assets to a holding company (held by the archbishop, coincidentally). Such a move is apparently legal, but it would have the unfortunate effect of denying any payments to potential sex abuse victims who might sue the diocese in the wake of the upcoming state and DOJ investigations into the sex abuse scandals. The archdiocese is apparently using donation money from the Roman Catholics in Detroit to pay for an expensive law firm to effect all of the transactions as quietly as possible.

To quote Keats, this is "all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" about how the Roman Catholic Church operates. This is the same kind of CYA that is evident in the actions and activities of the murderer pope Damasus in the 4th century. This is how Romans in power have always operated. This is how the Mafia operates. This is why the federal government created RICO laws.

This is also how the Roman Catholic Church effected its "development" of its various doctrines. A brief history of how "the infallibility of the pope" was coerced by Pius IX at Vatican I will reveal similar under-the-table wheeling and dealing and arm twisting, for example. This is, in a nutshell, why there is no way that anyone should trust the official Roman Catholic Church.

P.S. Isn't Dave Armstrong (Google Alert!) from Detroit?

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Gerrymandering naturalism

Ultimately, determination of the comparative theoretical virtues of theories is a global matter: what counts is which theory does better overall, on an appropriate weighting of theoretical commitment, explanation of data, predictive accuracy, fit with established knowledge, and so forth. In particular, then, when it comes to questions about data, what matters is which theory does better at explaining total data. 

Roughly speaking, it seems to me that, while there are no particular theoretical commitments of naturalism that are keyed to data concerning the distribution of suffering and flourishing in our universe, there may be particular theoretical commitments of theism that are keyed to data concerning the distribution of suffering and flourishing in our universe. 

On the one hand, there is no natural–non-gerrymandered–sub-theory of naturalism that prompts questions, or worries, or issues related to the distribution of suffering or flourishing in our universe. On naturalistic accounts of the origins and evolution of life on earth, there is nothing surprising about the distribution of suffering and flourishing across the surface of the earth. In particular, there are no theoretical commitments of naturalism–no ontological or ideological commitments of naturalism–that are keyed to the data about the distribution of suffering and flourishing across the surface of the earth; there are no special hypotheses that naturalists introduce to accommodate or to explain the distribution of suffering and flourishing across the surface of the earth.

On the other hand, it is pretty much universally recognized that the same is not true for theism. In this case, there many be natural–non-gerrymandered–sub-theories that do prompt questions, or worries, or issues that are related to the distribution of suffering and flourishing in our universe, and, in particular, to the distribution of suffering and flourishing across the surface of the earth. If we suppose–as theists typically do, that, in the beginning, there was nothing but a perfect being–omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and so forth–and if everything else is the creation of that perfect being, then what explains the presence of evil in our universe? If we suppose–as theists typically do–that God exercises strong providential control over everything that happens and that God would prefer that we do not suffer, then why is it that we suffer as we do? 

Furthermore, it is pretty much universally recognized that there may be theoretical commitments of theistic worldviews that are keyed to the distribution of suffering in our universe. Some theists suppose that the distribution of horrendous natural evil is a consequence of the activities of demons and other malign supernatural agents; and, for these theists, the main reason for supposing that there are demons and other malign supernatural agents is that this supposition explains the distribution of horrendous natural evil in our universe. Some theists suppose that God's permission of the distribution of horrendous moral evil that is found in our universe is, in part, due to God's recognition that there are goods beyond our ken whose obtaining depends upon there being at least relevantly similar distribution of horrendous moral evil; and, for these theists, the main reason for supposing that there are goods beyond our ken whose obtaining depends upon there being an at least relevantly similar distribution of horrendous moral evil is that this supposition explains God's permission of the distribution of horrendous moral evil in our universe. Graham Oppy, "The Problems of Evil," N. N. Trakakis, ed. The Problem of Evil: Eight Views in Dialogue (Cambridge 2018), chap. 3. 

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Jesus as Priest in the Gospels

Christian persecution in the 1C

Defending Daniel

Love Gives Life: A Study of 1 Corinthians 13

"If everything happens for a reason, then we don't know what reasons are"

In this post I'm going to comment on an essay by Sharon Street: “If ‘Everything Happens for a Reason,’ then We Don’t Know What Reasons Are: Why the Price of Theism is Normative Skepticism.” In Challenges to Religious and Moral Belief: Disagreement and Evolution, eds. Michael Bergmann and Patrick Kain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), chap. 9. 

Sweet is an atheist philosopher, and her essay is a variation on the argument from evil. Here's a sample:

Friday, December 07, 2018

The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax

1. I'd like to discuss two disparate objections that share a common principle. On the one hand, atheists taunt Christians who seek medical treatment for a life-threatening condition. If you really believe in heaven, why are you afraid of death?

On the other hand, freewill theists say Calvinism is incompatible with regret. If you really believe that God predestined every event, why do you to feel disappointed or indignant at how things turn out?

These objections are wedge tactics. They share the common assumption that conflicted feelings are hypocritical in this situation. Or that conflicted feelings betray the fact that you don't really believe what you profess.

I've discussed both these objections before. Now I'd like to take a different approach.

2. That's not a reliable principle. For instance, suppose you have a teenager who commits suicide. As you're flipping through a family photo album, you have conflicted feelings when you see pictures of your late son (or daughter). You remember them at that age. You remember how you felt about them at that age. But now, in retrospect, you view those nostalgic pictures through the tinted lens of suicide.

On the one hand you are grateful to have had them in your life for as long as you did. On the other hand, there's the inconsolable sorrow. Maybe resentment.

The fact that you regret their suicide doesn't mean you regret having them at all. Although you'd rather have a child who didn't commit suicide, that doesn't mean you regret having that child. It doesn't necessarily mean you wish you had a different child. You just wish the child you had didn't do that to himself, and to the loved ones he left behind.

It's not disingenuous to have conflicted feelings–powerfully conflicted feelings–in that situation. Although you'd rather have a teenager who didn't commit suicide to a teenager who did commit suicide, you'd rather have a teenager who committed suicide to wishing they were never born.

It's malicious for atheists to allege that Christians must be insincere if they balk at death. It's malicious for freewill theists to allege that Calvinists must be insincere if they balk at evil.

3. That said, death is a test of faith. Some professing believers balk at death because they're nominal Christians. They sang hymns about heaven when death was far away, but now that they're having to come to grips with that impending and sobering reality, it reveals the fact that they were paying lip-serving to inspirational theology.

In addition, there are true believers who cling to life when it's time to let go. Their desperation exposes their weak faith. And it's a good thing that the prospect of death shakes them up. That's an opportunity to take stock and get serious about the faith they profess.

We're not saved by the strength of our faith. We've not saved by our faith. Ultimately, we've saved by grace. Faith is a candle to God's match. It's not the flickering candlelight, but the fire of God's grace, that keeps the candle burning. Not the candle flame, but the lighter. The spark feeding the flame. Even when the flame goes out, grace reignites the candle.

The absurdity of life in a Christian universe

I believe Erik Wielenberg is regarded as a highly competent atheist philosopher. A few years ago he gave a talk:

"The Absurdity of Life in a Christian Universe as a Reason to Prefer that God Not Exist" is meant to be a parody of an existential argument for God's existence. Many Christian philosophers and apologists contend that atheism entails moral nihilism, and a few atheists admit that or come close to that admission. Wielenberg is laboring to turn the tables on that allegation. Here's "the Absurdity Argument":

Claim C makes life absurd = df. Claim C's truth makes (or would make) true at least one claim C1 such that most (actual) human beings are such that if they were to accept C1 they would experience negative psychological consequences that would make it difficult or impossible for them to be happy (without also failing to accept at least one entailment of C).

1. Necessarily, if God exists, then whenever a person P experiences undeserved involuntary suffering, P is better off overall than P would have been without the suffering.

2. So: Necessarily, if God exists, then whenever a person A causes another person B to experience undeserved involuntary suffering, B is better off overall than B would have been without the suffering (from 1).

3. God's existence makes it true (or would make it true) that each of us is morally obligated to pursue the good of others.

4. Necessarily, if (i) A is morally obligated to pursue B's good and (ii) A's performing act X would make B better off overall, then (iii) A has a fact-relative reason to perform X.

5. So, God's existence makes it true (or would make it true) that C: each of us has a fact-relative reason to cause others to experience undeserved involuntary suffering (from 2, 3, and 4).

6. Most human beings are such that if they were to accept (C), they would experience negative psychological consequences that would make it difficult or impossible for them to be happy (without also failing to accept at least one entailment of (C)).

7. Therefore, the claim that God exists makes life absurd (from 5 and 6)

Let's examine some of the premises:

Men can have abortions, too!

"Jesus gave up his weekend for our sins"

From the great atheist theologian Michael Shermer. It's always a mistake when someone tries to be more clever than they are. The result is to expose how dumb they are. 

Shermer's quip is a category mistake. Jesus died to atone for the guilt of sin.* Guilt (culpability, blameworthiness) is a moral category, which makes it a qualitative rather than quantitative category. Duration is quantitative. The duration of his death is irrelevant to its atoning value. The principle isn't duration but substitution. 

*To be more precise, to atone for elect sinners.

Is original sin unjust

One objection to Calvinism is that original sin is unjust. It is unjust to punish the innocent. To punish someone for something they didn't do.

That's hardly unique to Calvinism. That's standard Latin theology. Traditional Catholic theology. Classical Arminianism. The historic rationale for infant baptism is to remove the stain of original sin. (Not my own position.)

I'd add that in Genesis, the primary punishment was losing access to the tree of life. But it's not as if that's something Adam's posterity was entitled to. 

But let's discuss the objection head-on. All things being equal, it's a miscarriage of justice to punish someone for something they didn't do. But are there exceptions?

Suppose I'm a juror. The defendant is a professional hitman. He's been indicted on a charge of capital murder. The prosecution makes a convincing case, so the jury, myself included, convict him, and he's executed.

But after his execution, an investigative reporter does a story showing that he was innocent. The cops planted incriminating evidence. 

Do I feel guilty? No. There's no doubt that he murdered many people. While it's ironic that he was falsely accused and punished, that makes up for all the times he got away with it. Indeed, it's less that he deserves. 

In what sense was he innocent? He was innocent of this particular crime, but he was guilty of this kind of crime. So even though he was punished for what someone else did, he was guilty of doing the same kind of thing on multiple occasions. This conviction takes the place of all the other times he eluded justice.  So there's a kind of moral transference. 

To approach it from a different angle: after they lost the war, the top Nazis committed suicide. I don't know the specific motivation. Perhaps they were terrified of what would happen if the Russians got hold of them.

But suppose they didn't commit suicide. Suppose they were put on trial. Is it necessary to convict them of murdering any particular Jew? If it's demonstrable that they were generally guilty of murdering Jews, is it morally necessary to prove that they murdered a particular Jew? 

I'm not saying these illustrations automatically vindicate the justice of original sin. But I'm provided counterexamples to show that there's nothing wrong in principle with punishing someone for what someone else did. 

The church and the Bible

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Journey back to Eden

1. Traditionally, Revelation is the last book of the Bible. I don't mean chronologically (although that's quite possible), but in terms of the canonical sequence in standard editions of the Bible. This seems to be a scribal tradition. Scribes must make editorial decisions about the order in which to copy the books. And that in turn reflects precedent, if they copy a preexisting manuscript. It's an interesting question when the sequence of the NT became standardized in church history. 

But even if we were starting from scratch, it's natural for Revelation to round out the canon. A logical climax to the OT and NT alike. 

2. One of the challenges facing a commentator is how to outline a book of the Bible. Narrative books of Scripture have a plot. In some cases the outline is straightforward, but in other cases, like Revelation, that figures in the overall interpretation of the book. 

One question is whether this simply concerns the internal structure of Revelation, or if the structure of Revelation is in some measure a mirror-image of Bible history, the Pentateuch or OT. To take just one example, Genesis plots a journey out of Eden while Revelation plots a journey back to Eden. But are there other parallels or mirror-images in terms of the plot?

3. There are different ways to outline a narrative. A common method is by time. By events. By the actions of agents in the narrative.

However, we can also plot a narrative in terms of motion through space rather than motion through time. Like a movie with changing scenes. Many biblical narratives are travelogues. 

In Biblical narratives, people are situated in different places. They begin in a particular place. They move from one locale to another. And the locations may be theologically or symbolically significant. Moving from one place to another may represent a change in the traveler's spiritual condition, for better or worse. Consider the different connotations of a pilgrim and a drifter. 

4. Take the three-story universe: sky, earth, sea (or netherworld). It's natural to imagine that in vertical terms because humans are earthlings for whom the sky is "up". 

However, the spatial orientation is more complex. A horizontal dimension as humans walk across the surface of the earth.

In addition, the surface of the earth isn't flat. The land has "stories". Hills and mountains, steppes, plateaus, valleys, caves, canyons, plains, and coastlines. 

Suppose you view the three-story universe as a building, and you lay it on its side. Instead of three stories, it's a single-story house with three rooms: front, middle, and back–or middle with two side rooms. 

The tabernacle complex is like a three-story building laid on its side: the courtyard, sanctuary, and inner sanctum. In addition, there's a concentric dimension: the inner sanctum is inside the sanctuary, which is inside the courtyard, which is inside Eretz Israel, which is inside (surrounded by) pagan nations and the Mediterranean sea. 

The depiction of a three-story universe is somewhat arbitrary because that reflects the viewpoint of an earthbound observer. We can easily reorient our perspective if we mentally lay it on its side. And that's a way to read biblical narratives. Where you begin. Checkpoints along the way. And your destination. 

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

"Anti-Catholic myths"

Catholic poloist Trent Horn responded to something John MacArthur said in a recent interview with Ben Shapiro:

On Sunday, Daily Wire host Ben Shapiro interviewed Protestant pastor John MacArthur for his radio show and podcast. A little while into the conversation, Shapiro asked MacArthur, “Do you think the Enlightenment was a good thing or a bad thing?”

In response, MacArthur gave a rambling answer that focused instead on the Reformation and the Catholic Church, in the process repeating numerous anti-Catholic myths.  

The apostolic fathers

Catholic apologists appeal to the apostolic fathers. The inference is that since the apostolic fathers were disciples of the apostles, their theology replicates the theology of the apostles. I'm not a patrologist, so I could be mistaken in what I'm about to say, but most Catholic apologists have no professional expertise in patristics, either. I'll make some general observations before commenting on specific figures:

1. The "apostolic fathers" are an academic construct. The list is somewhat arbitrary. 

2. There were some reliable historical traditions floating around the early church. Conversely, there were legends floating around the early church. So sifting is required. 

3. There's a big difference between an apostolic father attributing his information to an apostle and a Catholic apologist attributing his information to an apostle just because he was (allegedly) a disciple of one or more apostles. 

4. You can know someone but have little knowledge or recollection of what they believe. How many of us remember what the pastor said in his sermon last Sunday? Or the sermon a month ago? Or the sermon a year ago? How many of you remember what the pastor said when you were a teenager?

Take public school, K-12. In elementary school, I had the same teacher for a full school year. In junior high and high school, I had particular teachers for particular courses. That still meant listening the same teacher 5 days a week for a semester. And sometimes I had the same teacher for multiple courses.

Despite that extensive and intensive exposure, I only remember a few things my teachers said over the years. Most of what they said is forgotten. 

There are degrees of familiarity, from a passing acquaintance to saturation exposure. Likewise, comprehension and recollection depends on the age at which we knew someone. 

5. We need to distinguish:

i) An eyewitness of Jesus

ii) An eyewitness of an eyewitness of Jesus

iii) An eyewitness of an eyewitness of an eyewitness of Jesus

The evidentiary chain-of-custody thins out. 

Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything (unless you're a missionary)

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Bring home the bagels

Some people (and groups) are never funnier than when they're deadly serious:

Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short

One of the copycat objections to John Chau's abortive effort to evangelize the Sentinelese is that his very presence endangered their existence. However, one problem with that objection is that, to my knowledge, you can't infect someone unless you're a carrier, and he'd been vaccinated for multiple contagious diseases. 

But there's another side to the issue. From what I've read, he majored in sports medicine. So there's a comparative risk assessment. On the one hand there's the hypothetical risk that he himself was a biohazard. From what I can tell, that's a low risk.

On the other hand, there's the risk of a people-group with no access to modern medicine. Ironically, I expect most of Chau's critics insist that healthcare is a human right and clamor for universal healthcare. 

What's the average life expectancy for humans living in the wild with no access to modern medicine? What's the rate of infant mortality among the Sentinelese? Or the rate of women who die in childbirth? 

Consider infection from cuts. No antibiotics or antivirals. 

I wonder if the Sentinel islands have venomous snakes, and crocodiles. 

Mortality aside, there's quality of life issue. Absent modern medicine, consider impacted wisdom teeth, or a broken leg that doesn't heal property because it wasn't set properly. Consider life without painkillers.

For that matter, they could be wiped out by a typhoon without warning–since they don't listen to weather reports or have the ability to evacuate. 

The Gospel aside, there are great benefits for a primitive people-group to have a medical missionary in their midst. And even though Chau's abilities would be limited, had he been able to befriend them, he could bring in additional resources from the outside. 

Are the Gospels self-contradictory?

Missionary methods

Was he right or was he wrong? This is where thinking Christians need to step back for a moment and recognize that there is a distinction we have to make between motivation and method. That's not an accidental distinction. It's an important distinction.

But we also come to understand that Protestant missions during that period began to learn certain methodologies that became absolutely essential to the modern missionary movement. For one thing, even as we see the example of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, Christian missionary organizations began to send out missionaries, not one by one, but at least two by two. Understanding that some kind of team effort was important.

But I would also point to a distinction in methodology. Jim Elliot and the missionaries who were with him were part of a larger effort. They were part of a culture, of a church sending culture of missionaries. There were those who would continue the effort, who would learn from what happened to Jim Elliot and would continue to try to make contact with the tribe. There was an infrastructure, there was methodology, there was not a solitary effort because if that solitary effort had been the case in Ecuador, there would not have been the following of the team that was able eventually through persistent efforts to reach the tribe with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But we also have to understand that hard lessons have been learned throughout Christian history and in particular, in the course of modern Christian missions about how best to try to reach unreached people groups.

And to put the matter bluntly, this is not the way that most modern missions organizations would seek to reach this kind of group. That doesn't mean that they wouldn't demonstrate the same kind of courage, it doesn't mean that missionaries even today are not serving under the threat of martyrdom and often facing the reality of martyrdom. It doesn't mean that there should have been no effort to reach this unreached people group, not to mention the thousands of other unreached people groups still on planet earth.

But it's also true to understand that Christian missionaries and mission sending organizations have learned something about how, over the long term, to be even more effective in reaching these unreached people groups.

The gaping lacuna in Mohler's analysis is that he never gets around to presenting a practical alternative. What's a more effective method for reaching the tribe? Mohler repeatedly poses that question, then leaves it dangling in mid-air. He never answers the question he raised. He takes refuge in abstractions and generalities. 

Take his (at least) two-by-two rule. How would that change the outcome of the encounter with the hostile tribe? If a team showed up at the island, wouldn't the whole team be massacred? 

There's a problem when Christian spokesmen feel the need to comment on issues even though they have nothing constructive to say. Why does Mohler bother to critique Chau's methodology when Mohler has no solution to offer? 

Monday, December 03, 2018

Shake the dust from your feet!

1. I've seen a couple of critics raise a biblical objection to John Chau's ill-fated missionary encounter: he disobeyed the command to shake the dust from your feet when you are unwelcome (Mt 10:14; Mk 6:11; Lk 9:5; 10:11; Acts 13:51). That's an issue we have to seriously consider.

2. This is not a direct command to Christian missionaries, but to the Twelve. The doesn't rule out a general application, but some commands to the Twelve are unrepeatable. Moreover, even where commands have a general application, they are only applicable in analogous situations. 

3. The command to the Twelve has a specific context. It's an extension of the public ministry of Christ in Palestine. The Twelve are to go around Palestinian villages, proclaiming the Gospel to Jews.

In the Synoptic Gospels, as well as Acts, the command has explicit reference to Jews. That doesn't mean it can't have a broader application, but the application must be analogous.

These are people steeped in the OT. So they already have that frame of reference. In addition, they either know Jesus by reputation or from firsthand observation, as an exorcist and wonder-worker. So his authority as a messenger is corroborated by his supernatural feats. In addition, the Twelve are empowered to perform miracles (exorcism, supernatural healing).

That's the audience. The audience already has multiple lines for evidence for the Gospel. Their knowledge of the OT. Their knowledge of Jesus as an exorcist and wonder-worker. Their knowledge of the Twelve, as exorcists and healers. 

If, despite all that, they oppose the missionaries, then that's when the missionaries should shake the dust from their feet.

Clearly the Sentinelese tribe has nothing like that background information. They don't have a biblical frame of reference. They never witnessed missionaries performing miracles. They're a blank slate in that regard. Assuming they're religious, it's paganism. 

4. Acts 13:50-51 is an extreme case. Paul and Barnabas didn't merely encounter resistance. They were forcible expelled from the district. It wasn't physically possible for them to evangelize the Jews and gentiles in that area. They were run out of town by the civil authorities.

5. Did the Sentinelese tribe en masse oppose Chau? Did the women and children oppose his overtures? Presumably the tribe is governed by a chieftain or oligarchy of male elders. I doubt their xenophobic policy was put up for a vote. 

6. There are situations in which evangelism may be futile, and given limited resources, it's best to reallocate those resources to a more promising mission field. But throughout church history, missionaries routinely encounter initial, fierce resistance.


Recently I dreamt about a thunderstorm. In my dream I was in a strange house at night. I could hear the thunder and see flashes of lightning through the windows. Then I woke up, and there was a thunderstorm outside!

Now, there's nothing extraordinary about that kind of dream. When we're asleep we sometimes hear things which our imagination turns into a dream. 

It is, though, an illustration of how apocalyptic prophecies might depict the real world. In an altered state of consciousness, a seer perceives things in his revelatory dream or vision. And that may correspond to what will happen outside his dream or vision in a fairly straightforward sense. Rather like how I dreamt about a thunderstorm at night while there was, in fact, a thunderstorm at night, outside the my dream. A direct parallel between the real world and the dreamscape. 

Revisiting the "genealogies" of Jesus

Are the "genealogies" of Jesus in Matthew and Luke irreconcilable? Are they fictional? 

1. A Jewish objection to the messianship of Jesus is that he lacks impeccable Davidic pedigree. Related to this is the objection that a virginal conception disqualifies his claim to be a Davidic heir.

If, however, Matthew and Luke feel free to create a fictional backstory for Jesus, why would they fabricate a backstory that obscures his Davidic claims? Why invent the virgin birth, or codify a legendary virgin birth, if that delegitimates the claim that Jesus is the rightful heir of David? 

An obvious explanation is that Matthew and Luke were not guilty of confabulation. Rather, they were constrained by facts about the personal history of Jesus, even if it generates prima facie tensions in their theology. 

It would be convenient for them to invent a backstory that makes Jesus an unambiguous heir of David. For that matter, it would be convenient for them to invent a backstory that makes him a Levite. But they're stuck with the actual facts about Jesus. It's a mark of their historical fidelity that they don't concoct evidence. 

2. There's the risk of creating a nonexistent problem or contradiction by making a preliminary misstep. It may be prejudicial to classify the lists in Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 as genealogies. Although they contain genealogical elements, it may be simplistic to reduce them to a genealogical genre. 

You can have two contradictory roadmaps if, indeed, both are maps mapping the same area. If, however, they have a different function, then they can be different without being contradictory. 

3. For instance, many scholars regard the phrase in Mt 1:1 as an evocation of Gen 2:4. Yet Gen 2:4 is not a genealogy. At best it's a figurative genealogy. So that in itself is a clue about how we should read Mt 1:1-17. That should caution us against assuming that this list is meant to be a Simon pure genealogy. Based on the programmatic quotation from Gen 2:4, which introduces the list, the list may reflect a different or broader principle.

4. Although "begetting" can be literal, it can also be metaphorical. Ps 2:7 uses that language figuratively for God's regent. And it may not be coincidental that the figurative usage occurs in the context of enthronement. 

5. To my knowledge, royal succession doesn't require genetic lineage. A king can designate a successor who's not a blood relation. Although heredity and royal succession often coincide, they are separable. 

6. In Lk 3:38, while "son of" can biological in reference to Seth and Adam, it can't be biological in reference to God. Minimally, this entails a shift in meaning of "sonship" at that juncture. So Luke isn't using "son of" consistently. There's a studied equivocation. And "son of" can have a figurative sense, viz. "sons of thunder" (Mk 3:17), "sons of Belial" (Deut 13:13). 

Spooky hospitals

Assuming this is reliable, it's interesting due to the strain it puts on naturalism. It's much easier for a Christian worldview to account for paranormal phenomena, including paranormal phenomena in and around death, than the standard naturalist paradigm–with its commitment to physicalism and a closed-system universe. Nowadays, because so many people die in a hospice, hospital, or nursing home, that's an expected setting for such phenomena to occur if that kind of thing happens at all. 

Existing reports of Anomalous/Paranormal Experiences (APE) by nurses (Barbato, Blunden, Reid, Irwin, & Rodriguez 1999, Fenwick, Lovelace, & Brayne 2007, O’Connor 2003) and doctors (see Osis & Haraldsson 1977, 1997) consist of apparitions, “coincidences,” deathbed visions, and other anomalous phenomena, sometimes in relation to patients. Visions involve the appearance of dead relatives who have come to help patients and residents through the dying process, providing comfort to them and their relatives. Coincidences are experienced by someone emotionally close to the dying person but physically distant, who is somehow aware of their moment of death, or says the person “visited” them at that time to say goodbye, again providing comfort. Others describe seeing a light, associated with a feeling of compassion and love. Other phenomena include a change of room temperature; clocks stopping synchronistically; accounts of vapors, mists, and shapes around the body at death… Alejandro Parra & Paola Gimenez Amarilla, “Anomalous/Paranormal Experiences Reported by Nurses in Relation to Their Patients in Hospitals,” Journal of Scientific Exploration, 31/1 (2027), 11–28.

I have not experienced such oddities as paranormal events within hospital settings personally, but I have been made aware of quite a few reports that were experienced within the hospital setting. Oddly, this relatively increased activity does seem to be commonplace within this environment. Perhaps due to the very evident link that the environment has to mortality. A few of my friends that work in elderly care, for example, have passed on some of their own experiences whilst on the night shift.

He started by mentioning the accounts from nurses where they had witnessed actual apparitions. An example of which was a nurse who possibly witnessed the ghost of the mother of a baby she was tending to. Next up were a few examples where staff moving stretchers had heard voices, some of which called out their names. There were also reports of many doors apparently opening and closing by themselves. There were also a few reports of various electrical disturbances.

Parra then continued to provide information that, for me, suggests the possible emotional tie that nurses may develop when they care for patients. One example described how a particular nurse perceived the smell that she related directly to a patient she cared for, whilst she was taking a nap at home. It is believed that, at the point this experience occurred, the patient passed away, which could be argued to be a probable crisis apparition. There were also some examples of psi dreams, which touched on links to elderly patients who had passed away and their burial locations. This also went on to draw connections between nurses and carers who attended patients until their death; which spoke of patients who would identify family and friends in close proximity to them as they approached death. Oddly, this is one of the types of events that my own friends have mentioned whilst working in the elderly care environment.

Parra then covered an area which, once again, I had heard a few reports about. Often carers and nurses had responded to buzzers only to discover that it had originated in a room where either patients were immobilised or there was no patient present. The reports my friends had told me about fell exactly into these scenarios, too, which I find quite interesting as it places what I had seen as arguably isolated incidents into the realm of documented research that spans various hospitals and also countries. Parra expanded on one anecdote where a carer had experienced responding to a buzzer only to discover that the patient’s arms were immobilised and there was no explanation as to how the buzzer could have been activated. The next day, the same patient passed away and, even though the room was now empty, the buzzer continued to ring. These are very real and common occurrences that require further study in my opinion. Especially given what seems to be an increased frequency of events in these environments, which has been observed by professionals in many cases. In addition to this, clouds, vapour, temperature changes, light anomalies were also briefly mentioned and discussed. “Ashley Knibb reports on Dr Alejandro Parra’s recent lecture for the SPR on ‘Paranormal Events in a Hospital Setting’”. Paranormal Review, 87 (Summer 2018).

Mutually Exclusive Skeptical Claims About Christmas

On the one hand, critics often claim that something like the virgin birth or the Bethlehem birthplace is found in too few early sources. On the other hand, critics often claim that the New Testament documents should be attributed to a much larger number of authors than traditionally thought, even to the point of breaking up a single document into a lot of pieces allegedly originating with various individuals, schools, communities, etc.

But skeptics can't have it both ways. Breaking up Matthew's material on the virgin birth into multiple sources, for example, results in more sources supporting the virgin birth. As Charles Quarles notes:

"That allusion or affirmation of the virginal conception appears in multiple pre-Matthew sources should make one pause before dismissing it too lightly." (in Robert Stewart and Gary Habermas, edd., Memories Of Jesus [Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Publishing Group, 2010], approximate Kindle location 4168)

Similarly, if the gospels are going to be attributed to community authorship, multiple editions of the gospels are going to be proposed and attributed to different authors, Paul's letters are going to be attributed to several sources, etc., then the number of early sources affirming a traditional Christian view of Jesus' childhood is substantially increased. And see here for documentation that traditional claims about Jesus' childhood are much more prevalent outside the infancy narratives than people often suggest. If we attribute the documents to as large a number of sources as skeptics often suggest we should, then the skeptical objection that too few early sources affirmed the claims in question is weakened accordingly.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Ethics is not enough

Freewill theists raise two major objections to Calvinism: exegetical objections and moral objections. However, the moral objection cuts both ways.

Moral realism is not enough. You must live in the kind of world where it's possible to do the right thing. You must live in the kind of world where you're not confronted by moral dilemmas. Objective moral norms are not enough if, through no fault of your own, you find yourself in situations where you can't apply moral norms consistently. If there's a mismatch between morality and reality, where morality and reality represent divergent paths, then moral realism becomes a kind of fatalistic, Kafkesque entrapment, where you are doomed to do wrong no matter which way your turn. 

In varieties of freewill theism, God lacks sufficient control of the variables to ensure that our duties and our circumstances align. In the case of open theism, God doesn't even know where the future is headed. In the case of Molinism and classical Arminianism, the libertarian freedom of human agents limits God's options. God can only work with what's left over. Free agents may take the best options off the table. God is out of luck. 

Indeed, there are freewill theists who admit that libertarian freedom leads to moral dilemmas, because God can't coordinate all the variables to guarantee a licit choice in every situation. Yet it would be unjust for God to punish agents for wrongdoing if, through no fault of their own, no licit course of action was open to them. So God must suspend morality under those circumstances. A zone where good and evil don't apply. 

In the face of moral dilemmas, some ethicists propose threshold deontology: dire situations where moral norms are suspended. And that's the kind of train-wreck that freewill theism invites. 

John Frame has often argued that in ethics, the duties and situations must coincide (normative and situational perspectives). If you subscribe to absolute predestination and meticulous providence, then God can prearrange events to elude moral catastrophes. But in freewill theism, that's inescapable. 

John MacArthur and Ben Shapiro

I've watched most of this; it's not a bad discussion. I thought some of you would be interested to see this:

The perfect wisdom of our God

The perfect wisdom of our God,
Revealed in all the universe:
All things created by his hand,
And held together at his command.
He knows the mysteries of the seas,
The secrets of the stars are his;
He guides the planets on their way,
And turns the earth through another day.

The matchless wisdom of his ways,
That mark the path of righteousness;
His word a lamp unto my feet,
His Spirit teaching and guiding me.
And oh, the mystery of the cross,
That God should suffer for the lost
So that the fool might shame the wise,
And all the glory might go to Christ!

Oh grant me wisdom from above,
To pray for peace and cling to love,
And teach me humbly to receive
The sun and rain of your sovereignty.
Each strand of sorrow has a place
Within this tapestry of grace;
So through the trials I choose to say:
"Your perfect will in your perfect way."

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Fool for Christ

John Stackhouse 

I read a piece issued by a prominent American medium (Religion News Service) that was really badly written, a hodge-podge of fact, stereotype, and outright falsehood that almost certainly was published only because the author identified herself as both a former evangelical Christian and a Native American wrestling with her own identities as such.

There aren’t many heroes left outside superhero comics and movies, are there? Not unalloyed saints, that’s for sure. And that’s okay: No one but Jesus has been perfect, and we’re right to keep our critical faculties about us even when, and sometimes especially when, someone is presented to us in glorious robes of sanctity.

That said, I agree that it’s weird, verging on the pathological, the way even fellow Christians have sharply criticized this young man, initially assuming he was a fanatic who knew nothing about diseases (wrong), languages (wrong), tribal cultures (wrong), and the dark history of imperialism (wrong). In fact, he and his sending agency seem to have been impressively responsible on all those counts. So what’s the problem?

Then we have evangelical Christians chiding him for breaking the law in preaching the gospel to people the government had said were off limits. Excuse me? Anyone read the Book of Acts recently?

Missionary history is in fact full of stories of pioneers cut down upon first contact, only to be replaced by more who were inspired by the initial story who then enjoy success. Let me be clear that of course I am not defending any and all missionary endeavours. Some of them have indeed seemed foolish and fruitless. But I am defending the simple point that someone has to be first, and that someone may well pay the ultimate price in order to get the conversation going. That’s what John Chau did, and it’s ‘way too early to write off his self-sacrifice as foolish and worthless. Let’s just see what happens next.

Last point: For Christians, the worst thing in the world isn’t dying. It’s failing to do the will of God.

Should Missionaries Just Stay Away?

Benevolence and reciprocity

The divine hiddenness argument is a newer argument in the atheist arsenal. Atheists don't have many new arguments. John Schellenberg put this on the map in 1993. Other atheists have tweaked the argument, and his argument has undergone various permutations at his own hands. But his core argument remains the "canonical" version, the frame of reference for most discussions. Here's a recent formulation:

Suppose God perfectly loves Anna. That love would minimally involve benevolence, caring for Anna’s well-being. But it would also involve aiming “at relationship—a conscious and reciprocal relationship that is positively meaningful, allowing for a deep sharing” between them. Moreover, it would involve valuing that relationship for its own sake, and not merely for the sake of something else. Furthermore, it would never cease, and so God would always value, seek, desire, promote, or preserve personal relationship with Anna, although God would not force himself on her. At the very least, says Schellenberg, all this requires that God will always be open to personal relationship with her...even if one does not actively seek or promote personal relationship with another person capable of participating in such relationship…, one makes sure that there is nothing one ever does (in a broad sense including omissions) that would have the result of making such relationship unavailable to the other, preventing her from being able to relate personally to one, even should she then try. So for God to always be open to personal relationship with a relevantly capable created person such as Anna in a manner expressing unsurpassable love is for God to ensure that there is never something God does that prevents her from being able, just by trying, to participate in personal relationship with God...

The mechanics of the virgin birth

Jason Engwer has a new post on the virgin birth: 

Jason has been defending the virgin birth for years. I daresay few Christian apologists have written as much or more than he in defense of the virgin birth. 

1. There are two stock objections to the virgin birth:

i) It's scientifically possible. A Y chromosome is required to make a human male body. 

ii) It delegitimates Jesus as the Davidic heir.

Friday, November 30, 2018

In the long run we're all dead

This is generally good advice:

That said, I don't think the fundamental problem is lack of skill at the art of argumentation. Mind you, many people would benefit from a course in informal logic, standards of evidence, &c.

The main problem is that many people want certain results, want a particular outcome, and they don't care about the quality of the argumentation. They just want the results. The outcome is what's important, not the means. On that view, a persuasive bad argument is better than an unpersuasive good argument. It's not about true, reason, and evidence. Rather, argumentation in political discourse has a purely instrumental value, to further or secular the objective. The only value is the desired outcome. How you get there is secondary. 

Trained philosophers sometimes resort to atrocious arguments. It's not due to lack of skill. If they're sufficiently invested in an issue, a philosopher may reason just a badly as someone with no training in logic or probability theory. It's too idealistic to think this is just about honing one's skills in the art of argumentation.

If people think this life is all there is, then they are liable to be impatient about the finer points of argumentation. Time is running out to get things done. Lost opportunities can't be redeemed. There are no eschatological compensations. As John Maynard Keynes, put it, "In the long run we're all dead!" So it's now or never. 

If that's their perspective, then the priority is to achieve the goal by any means necessary, as expeditiously as possible. On that view, a convincing lie is more efficient than a complex argument. It comes down to the utility of political discourse to further the agenda.