Thursday, February 20, 2020

Why be Christian rather than Jewish?

A friend asked me how I'd argued against Rabbinic Judaism. What makes Christianity right and Rabbinic Judaism wrong. The question is significant in part because Rabbinic Judaism is the only serious religious rival to Christianity. And it's significant in witnessing to Jews. 

1. I'm distinguishing pre-Christian Judaism (OT Judaism/Second Temple Judaism) from post-Christian Judaism (Rabbinic Judaism). 

2. There's a sense in which it's easier to prove pre-Christian Judaism backwards. Begin with Christianity, then prove pre-Christian Judaism in reverse. There's less evidence for Judaism, considered in isolation, than Christianity. It's easier to make a case for Christianity than Judaism apart from Christianity.

3. The evidence for Christianity includes the argument from prophecy. In many cases, OT prophecies fulfilled in Jesus or NT times. But of course, Rabbinic Jews don't think those prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus and the new covenant. This means that according to Rabbinic Judaism, the OT still contains many outstanding prophecies. Ye when centuries or even millennia pass and nothing happens, that raises the nagging question of whether these are genuine prophecies remaining to be fulfilled or failed prophecies which will never hapen.

4. In fairness, Rabbinic Jews might level the same charge regarding the Second Coming of Christ. But there's a difference:

i) The first coming of Christ gives us a downpayment or precedent. That's reason to believe there's more to come, and it's not just wishful thinking.

ii) Christianity is a global missionary religion in a way that Judaism is not. Therefore, Christianity requires centuries to achieve its goal. In the nature of the case, Christianity takes a long-range view, to save as many of the elect as God as chosen, through many generations in time and space. 

5. If we had nothing but the OT to go by, some oracles seem to be failed prophecies. For instance, the new temple in Ezk 40-48 appears to envision what awaits the exiles when they return to the Promised Land. But of course, nothing like that happened. Christianity has room and resources to accommodate that vision in a way that an OT boundary does not. 

6. There's also the question of whether it's too late for some OT prophecies to be fulfilled if they haven't come true by now. For instance:

There is only one Messiah, but there are two parts to his mission, hence two comings, but the first had to precede the destruction of the Second Temple as we learn from Haggai 2 (where God promised to fill the Second Temple with greater glory than the First Temple, yet the Second Temple did not have the Shekhinah or the divine fire or even the ark of the covenant); Malachi 3 (where the Lord Himself promised to visit the Second Temple and purge the priests and Levites); and Daniel 9 (where the measure of transgression and sin had to be filled up, atonement made for iniquity, and everlasting righteousness ushered in).

Yeshua fulfilled these prophecies, bringing the glory of God to the Temple with his own presence and sending the Spirit to his followers there, and as the Lord, visiting the Temple and purging and purifying the Jewish leadership. And the measure of transgression was filled up when the Messiah was crucified, at which time he made atonement for iniquity and ushered in eternal righteousness. And so Haggai, Malachi, and Daniel testify that the Messiah had to come before the Second Temple was destroyed.

This is why we also have two pictures of the Messiah’s coming, one meek and lowly, riding on a donkey (Zech 9:9), the other high and exalted, riding on the clouds (Dan 7:13-14). But these are not either-or pictures, they are both-and pictures. First he comes riding on a donkey, to be rejected by our people, to die for our sins, only to become a light to the nations of the earth; then he will return riding on the clouds, bringing judgment on the wicked, regathering his scattered people, and establishing God’s kingdom on the earth.

These are keyed to Second Temple Judaism. If it didn't happen before the temple was razed, then we passed the last exit on the freeway 2000 years ago. There are no future opportunities for their fulfillment. Jesus is the best and only viable candidate. 

7. Another problem is that Jews have been unable to practice the Mosaic Covenant for 2000 years. That makes for a truncated religion. But how can Judaism still be the right option if it can't be practiced, as commanded, for such long stretches of time? What Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews practice isn't Judaism as divinely prescribed in the OT, but faith-tradition reinvented by rabbis to adjust to a world without the Mosaic cultus. Yet to that extent it's just a human construct.  

It might be said that the Babylonian Exile provides a partial precedent. But that had a portable tabernacle in the form of the chariot-theophany and the Shekinah (Ezk 1; 10; esp. 11:16). The Shekinah tabernacle followed them into exile. But what's the counterpart in the experience of Rabbinic Jews?

8. Another evidence for Christianity is the argument from miracles, answered prayer, special providences, and Christophanies. But do Rabbinic Jews have the same  experience?

On the one hand I'm not suggesting that God never answers the prayers of Rabbinic Jews. On the other hand, I'm not suggesting that God always answers Christian prayer. But consider the secularized Judaism of Mordecai Kaplan. Is that conditioned in large part by the despairing experience of a God who doesn't answer Jewish prayers. Of a God who doesn't intervene in Jewish lives? Do miracles, answered prayer, and special providences cluster around Christian in a way that's not the case for Rabbinic Judaism? Michael Brown tells me that's the case. Consider evidence for an uptick in miracles when Christian missionaries break new ground on a virgin mission field, reaching the unreached. They're often opposed by indigenous paganism, witchcraft, and demonic attack. They must respond with exorcisms and healing miracles. 

And what about the role of Christophanies in church history, up to the present? Take Muslims who experience dreams and visions of Jesus, which are instrumental to their conversion. 

In the same vein it would be useful to have a representative survey comparing the experience of Rabbinic Jews with Messianic Jews. Is God more manifest in the lives of Messianic Jews than Rabbinic Jews? Michael Brown tells me there's big difference. 

9. What is the ultimate point of the sacrificial system in the Mosaic covenant? Christianity has an explanation.

John's Gospel and the Apocalypse

Due to stylistic differences, some otherwise conservative scholars think the Apocalypse has a different author than the John and 1-3 John. Some conservatives defend common authorship by saying they were written at different times of life. I don't find that terribly convincing. Another argument defending common authorship appeals to genre differences. I think there's something to that, although it's too generic. 

In defense of common authorship, Revelation, John, and 1-3 share some striking parallels. In addition, it's a more economical explanation for why early Christians acknowledged all of them as canonical and Scriptural if they share common apostolic authorship; if it's the same John in both cases rather than the apostle John and some other John, a prophet whose background was oddly forgotten by the early church. We have his book, but everything else about him has disappeared from history without a trace. Seems unlikely. Not that that can't happen to an author (who wrote Beowulf?) but early Christians would take an interest in the pedigree of the author. Why acknowledge him as a Christian prophet, speaking to and for the universal church?

I'd like to draw a distinction between inspiration and revelation. Although they can be used synonymously, it's helpful to distinguish them. When the terms are used in a more technical or specialized sense, inspiration doesn't infuse the writer with new factual information. Everything an inspired writer says may be based on naturally obtainable information. His own observation, investigation, and memory. The main thing inspiration does is to protect from error as well as providing verbal guidance. 

And the whole process may be subliminal. I don't mean the process of remembering and composing the text is unconscious, but the divine direction behind the process operates at a subliminal level. 

For the most part it takes place in a normal state of mind. The writer is aware of his body and physical surroundings. Nothing out of the ordinary in that regard. An exception might be recording long speeches. Perhaps that operates more like automatic writing, since we don't naturally have verbatim recall of long speeches.  

In direct visionary revelation, by contrast, the mind of the seer is infused with new information. A supernatural source of information. The process is conscious. The Spirit takes control of his mind and plays a movie in his head. It's like a structured lucid dream, only the content is controlled by the Spirit rather than the seer (or dreamer). So it takes place in an altered state of consciousness.  

The human mind isn't blanked out. Rather, is like an immersive spectator. His empirical surroundings are screened out. Simulated sensory perception replace physical sensory perception. 

John's Gospel originates in past observation and memory. By contrast, the Apocalypse originates in a psychological experience that lifts him out of himself.

Under the circumstances, it's not surprising that the Apocalypse is written in a rapturous, ecstatic style, in contrast to the sedate prose of the Gospel. It's hard to come back down to earth after that. Their stylistic difference mirrors their radically different points of origin. 

The demise of the BSA

Both the clerical abuse scandal and the BSA graphically illustrate one of the dangers of empowering homosexuals.

Marvin Olasky once drew a useful distinction between Classical conservatives and Christian conservatives. Classical conservative exemplify the old Roman virtues. Robert Gates is a honorable public servant, but he's a Classical conservative, which left him blindsided by the nature of the threat to the BSA. He's a Cold warrior at a time and place where a culture warrior was needed. He just wasn't up to the challenge because he fails to grasp the nature of the enemy and the kind of struggle we're in. Partly it's a generational thing. He came of age before the culture wars. And he lacks Christian discernment to adapt. It's a cautionary tale. 

Secular progressives win if they successfully infiltrate and co-opt male spaces like the BSA, and they also win if they successfully drive male spaces like the BSA out of business. Their objective is to obliterate normative masculinity and femininity. That applies to the destruction of female spaces as well (girls/women's sports).

Women at the cross

Some critics allege a discrepancy between John and the Synoptics regarding the position of the women at the cross (Mt 27:55-6; Mk 15:40; Lk 23:49; Jn 19:25). 

Since it went on for hours, there's no reason to assume they didn't budge but stayed in one spot the whole time. Since the ordeal continued for about 6 hours, is it realistic to suppose the bystanders would remain frozen in place–or move around. 

These verses are still photography, not motion pictures. Not film footage of everything everyone did for 6 hours. It's not like a cameraman follows them around with a single continuous shot (as in the recent 1917 movie). Rather, we're given snapshots of where they were and what they did at key moments. Some readers need to develop a much more flexible understanding of historical narration.

Blessed or happy in Psalm 1

Bruce Waltke on translating the first word of Psalm 1 as "happy" or "blessed":

So the word "blessed" - what does that mean? Many moderns translate it "happy". I think that's inadequate. I don't think we have a word for it.

But I point out in Hebrew that there are two different words for "bless"...So you have barak which means "to bless", and then you have this word ashrei.

The word barak means "to be filled with the potency for life". It's the ability to reproduce. So that when God blessed the creation, it was to be fruitful and multiply. Now when you carry that over to the NT, Jesus blessed the disciples. He himself never married. He's not saying to them be fruitful and multiply physically, but be fruitful and multiply spiritually. It's a different form of the kingdom. So that's the word "to bless", barak.

Now the other "to bless" is ashrei. The word used here [in Psalm 1:1]. And that word ashrei means that you have a blessed destiny. It usually refers to the future. And that future, that blessed future, is based upon your present relationship with God. The blessed person when you use ashrei may be in deep trouble at the time...This is a quote from Eliphaz in the book of Job. This would be the Greek equivalent of ashrei - makarios. He says "Blessed is the one whom God corrects". We don't think a person who is being disciplined is particularly blessed, but that's a blessed person. "Blessed is the one whom God corrects, so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty, for he wounds, but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal" [Job 5:17-18]. You have a blessed future. So be thankful that you're a blessed person because God is disciplining you to give you the celestial city. You see how that's different from the word "fill you with potency with life and victory"? It's a different word.

Or another illustration is from the Greek of the Beatitudes of Jesus. Who are the blessed? It's not the way we normally think of it. "Blessed - makarioi, plural - are those who mourn, for they will be comforted...Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you...Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven..." (Mt 5:4, 10-12). So the blessed person is a person who has this great reward in the future. That is not translated by "happy". It's totally inadequate for that. I agree the average person doesn't understand it always, but I think it carries more than just being happy.

Confusing biblical studies with theological studies

Bishop Barron's inclusivism

Ben Shapiro asks Bishop Robert Barron about salvation according to Catholicism. I don't recall Shapiro asking William Lane Craig or Ravi Zacharias this question, but it's possible I missed it. Shapiro may have asked John MacArthur, but I didn't watch that episode.

What’s the Catholic view on who gets into heaven and who doesn’t? I feel like I lead a pretty good life - a very religiously based life - in which I try to keep, not just the ten commandments, but a solid 603 other commandments as well. And I spend an awful lot of my time promulgating what I would consider to be Judeo-Christian virtues, particularly in Western societies. So, what’s the Catholic view of me? Am I basically screwed here?

No surprise Barron gives a terribly unbiblical response:

No. The Catholic view - go back to the Second Vatican Council - says it very clearly. I mean Christ is the privileged route to salvation. "God so loved the world he gave his only Son that we might find eternal life." So that’s the privileged route.

However, Vatican II clearly teaches that someone outside the explicit Christian faith can be saved. Now, they’re saved through the grace of Christ, indirectly received. So the grace is coming from Christ. But it might be received according to your conscience. So if you’re following your conscience sincerely - or in your case you’re following the commandments of the law sincerely - yeah, you can be saved.

Now, that doesn’t conduce to a complete relativism. We still would say the privileged route - the route that God has offered to humanity - is the route of his Son.

But, no, you can be saved. Even Vatican II says an atheist of good will can be saved, because in following his conscience, if he does - John Henry Newman said the conscience is "the aboriginal vicar of Christ in the soul" (it's a very interesting characterization) - it is, in fact, the voice of Christ if he is the Logos made flesh, right? He's the divine mind or reason made flesh. So when I'm following my conscience I'm following him, whether I know it explicitly or not. So even the atheist, Vatican II teaches, "of good will", can be saved.

Just a brief response for now:

1. Why bother becoming a Catholic if what Barron says is true. Heck, why bother becoming a theist if what Barron says is true.

2. Barron equivocates between "following one's conscience" and "following the commandments of the law". The two aren't necessarily the same. Especially if we're referring to the 613 commandments in rabbinic Judaism. It's not as if a non-Jew's conscience (however "intact" it may be) would necessarily tell him to follow kosher laws, observe Shabbat, and wear a tallit with tzitzit.

At best, I think, conscience might coincide with the Noahide laws, but even that's hardly a given. Does a pagan's conscience necessarily tell them not to worship an idol? Doesn't a good Buddhist (Mahayana) think he's doing right by his conscience in what he does for Buddha? Doesn't a good Muslim have a clear conscience when worshiping Allah? Yet post-Vatican II Catholicism even accepts that good people in other religions can be saved.

Or take the prohibition against murder. One could be a good communist who believes murder is wrong, but who doesn't consider killing the bourgeoisie "murder". One could be a modern American progressive Catholic who believes murder is wrong, but who doesn't think abortion is murder. That's not what their conscience tells them.

3. Perhaps Barron would reply these people have a seared conscience. A good conscience would have to align with biblical morality. But how far does that go? Wouldn't a Catholic in Barron's vein accept that worshiping a false god could somehow be done unto the true God? Similar to how Emeth in The Last Battle worshiped Tash. Yet biblical ethics would say that'd be a clear violation of the ten commandments.

4. I don't follow how Christ being the Word (Logos) made flesh means our conscience is "the voice of Christ". I don't doubt God could well speak to us through our conscience. I could even agree with Barron's conclusion that a good conscience is God's voice. However I don't see what this has to do with Christ being the Logos.

5. Of course, much turns on the phrase "of good will". What does that mean exactly? Who decides? I suspect much of this turns on Catholic natural law. All this would suggest severe faultlines in Catholic inclusivist soteriology, but I'd have to do a lengthier post about all this.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Sorry, but Catholicism is still wrong–dead wrong!

Catholic apologist Trent Horn has posted a running commentary on a video by Mike Winger:

There will be a part 2 and possibly part 3. I'll evaluate some of his statements:

The church doesn't say only the Catholic church can interpret the Bible and individual believers are not able to interpret…Catholic biblical scholars interpret the Bible, theologians, priests interpret the Bible all the time. The church has given us guardrails, however, to know specifically where our interpretations cannot go. 

1. But that boils down to the principle that the Catholic church determines what Scripture really means. It means whatever the Magisterium says it means. Priests, theologians, Bible scholars, and layman are allowed to interpret the Bible, but that's just their personal opinion. If you want to know what Scripture really teaches, it's up to the magisterium. 

So that subordinates biblical revelation to the Roman Magisterium. In practice, the Bible has no independent teaching authority. It cannot function as a check on what the Catholic church teaches. It's a dummy for the Magisterial ventriloquist. This reduces the Catholic church to an unfalsifiable cult, because the Magisterium is beyond correction. 

2. It generates a dilemma. Assuming the Magisterium is the authentic interpreter of Scripture, its teaching is unquestionable, but how do you establish that it's the authentic interpreter of Scripture in the first place? You can't appeal to Scripture to validate the Magisterum if ascertaining the true interpretation of Scripture hinges on the authority of the Magisterium. So how do you verify that the Magisterium is a divine teaching office rather than an impious fraud? 

Jesus and Mary Magdalene

A Facebook exchange:

The women were glad that Jesus had risen and went to tell the disciples. But in John, Mary Magdalene was at the tomb claiming they stole the body. How so?

If three gospel claim Mary Magdalene saw Jesus already and was told by the angels he has risen and they were glad.
But John tells a different story. She was in the tomb crying. And the angels asked,' why are you crying? she said they stole the body, I don't know where they laid him.' Two different stories.

Mark is less detailed, and makes indiscriminate statements about the women in general. By contrast, the Fourth Gospel singles out the Magdalene for a more detailed, discriminating account. That's not a contradiction but a difference between generality and specificity in overlapping accounts.

The narrators are getting their information from different women who visited the tomb. So there will be variations in what each woman saw, heard, remembered. When they went there. If they went there once or went back, as group or individually. For instance, they might travel as a group when it was still fairly dark, but have more freedom of individual movement during daylight. 

The Synoptics give a general account of what happened to the women. By contrast, the Fourth Gospel zeroes in on the unique experience of the Magdalene. That doesn't contradict the Synoptic accounts. Generalizations make room for exceptions. They are less precise because they deal with things shared in common by most participants. But the Johannine narrator spends more time on individuals. So the distinctive encounter between Jesus and the Magdalene is fleshed out. And one reason is because he probably had more information.

The Darkness Of Mark's Gospel, Paul's Weaknesses In Acts

Here's something I recently wrote on Facebook about how little light is mentioned in the gospel of Mark and how credible the other gospels are in saying much more about the theme. And here's a post I wrote about Paul's weaknesses in Acts, against the idea that Acts is suspiciously positive in how it portrays him.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Cultural genocide

Conservative Christians tend to be among the fiercest critics of cultural relativism ... except when it comes to the cultural relativism that says genocide is morally abhorrent today but it was a fine way to deal with the Canaanites.

i) Progressive Arminian theologian Randal Rauser never misses a chance to remind the world that he's 3/4 atheist and 1/4 nominal Christian. 

ii) God promised the descendants of Abraham a homeland. The Canaanites had forfeited the right to live their due to gross depravity. God held the Israelites to the same standard. If they desecrated the Promised Land, they'd be deported or exiled. God made the Promised Land an emblem of holiness. 

Under the new covenant, no piece of land is an emblem of holiness. If, however, the same conditions prevailed today that justified God's original policy, it would not be morally abhorrent to follow God's orders. 

I follow the definition recognized in international law:

any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

i) OT holy war wasn't committed with the intent to destroy the Canaanites due to their national, ethnic, or racial identity. They weren't executed because they were Canaanites. To the contrary, OT pagans were invited to convert to the one true faith. 

ii) Canaanites in the Promised Land were free to self-evacuate. The only Canaanite military targets were those who chose to stay behind and fight. 

iii) There's nothing sacrosanct about religion. Religion can be true or false, good or evil. Depends on the religion. 

There's a sense in which Christian missionaries commit cultural "genocide" when they convert Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, animists, and witches to Christianity. Some ideologies ought to be destroyed (e.g. Nazism, Communism). That doesn't single out any particular means. In some cases it can be peaceful. Rational persuasion.   

Interplanetary politics

1. From what I've read, Perelandra is the most popular entry in the Space Triology, although a few connoisseurs (e.g. Rowan Williams) prefer That Hideous Strength. Perlandra's my personal favorite in the Space Trilogy. 

Perelandra was initially Lewis's favorite until he wrote Til We Have Faces. Some literary critics agree that that's his best novel, but that may be because they think they're supposed to admire it and rank it higher than the others. For a couple of reasons, I think it's possible that Lewis himself overrated Til We have Faces. The myth of Cupid and Psyche had captivated him since he read it for the first time in 1916, when he was still a teenager. But there were many false starts. He tried to do a poetic version. He struggled with how to retell the myth for almost 40 years. His own worldview as well as the interpretation evolved over time. Cf. Peter Schakel's chapter (20) in The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis.

In addition, the breakthrough moment came when he talked it over with his future wife:

Jack has started a new fantasy–for grownups. His methods of work amaze me. One night he was lamenting that he couldn't get a good idea for a book. We kicked a few ideas around till one came to life. Then we had another whiskey each and bounced it back and forth between us. The next day, without further planning, he wrote the first chapter! I read it and made some criticisms…he did it over and went on with the next. D. King, ed. Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman (Eerdmans 2009), 242.

So he may have associated the book with his wife, which lends it a special poignancy for him.

2. Because for most readers, myself included, That Hideous Strength is a letdown after Perelandra, it raises the question of how or whether it could be better written. Another question is whether he should have ended with Perelandra. What do you do for an encore? If the final installment can't equal, must less surpass, the second entry, would it be wiser for Lewis to quit while he was ahead rather than end with an anticlimactic climax?

In fairness, it's not a bad book. It has some memorable scenes. Strokes of genius. It's prophetic. But it's not all of a piece. 

3. As every commentator explains, That Hideous Strength marks an abrupt stylistic shift from the first two installments, due in part to the newer influence of Charles Williams and spent impact of Tolkien. Tolkien was no longer a creative stimulus for Lewis, in part because Lewis had outgrown Tolkien, who was a smaller talent, and due to irreconcilable artistic visions.    

But over and above that, a change was inevitable. At a scenic level, That Hideous Strength can't compete with the extraterrestrial landscapes and seascapes of Venus and Mars, or their species. That's exacerbated by the fact that Lewis makes no pretense of astronomical accuracy. They exist in his cosmological mythos. That frees him to indulge in surreal flights of fancy unconstrained by what's physically possible. By contrast, That Hideous Strength must have a more realistic setting. After all, his readers are earthlings. 

4. One of the tensions in Out of the Silent Planet is Lewis attacking secular science and its counterpart in hard science fiction. In particular, the materialist notion that outer space is mostly deserted and dead. But as a matter of fact, that's the case. And even though Lewis didn't have the benefit contemporary astronomy, c. 2020, he must have known back in the 1930s that there was no presumption of other life in our solar system. 

Of course, this is soft SF, not meant to be accurate, but then, what does his critique amount to in that respect? It works at the level of his fictional cosmology, but it's not a refutation of the hard SF view of the universe as mostly deserted and dead. 

However, that's offset by the fact that soft SF is never obsolete, whereas the danger of futuristic hard SF is to become dated when overtaken by real events. It works if you have a dualistic view of reality, where there are spiritual agents behind the physical realm, who participate in the physical realm. Interaction between two different domains. Sacramental universe. 

5. Despite the comedown, there is some justification in the third and final installment. All three share the common theme of a primordial angelic rebellion. Against his will, Ransom is drawn into the internal affairs of Mars. Then he is summoned to Venus. The Martian guardian angel visits earth to facilitate the trip. 

In terms of dramatic logic and closure, it makes sense that events come to a head on earth. Having decisively intervened on Venus, it's only fair that heavenly angels lend Ransom a hand for a critical battle with the dark side on earth. Especially since earth is the epicenter of the cosmic rebellion. That rounds out the dramatic arc of a story that began with Mars and proceeded through Venus. 

6. In addition, it gives Lewis a pretext to reinterpret the King Arthur mythos–a theme many English poets and novelists find irresistible. Merlin fits into Lewis's philosophy of myth and magic. However, making Ransom a descendent of King Arthur is ad hoc. King Arthur has no useful role to play in a 20C setting. He's timebound in a way that Merlin is not. 

Diane Poythress on the church in China

Diane Poythress discusses her perspective on Christians in China.

Plagues, locusts, and floods

The following is an excerpt from an email from someone named Wyoming Doc who is married to a Chinese woman. Wyoming Doc frequents Rod Dreher's weblog.

I have not been able to comfort my wife in some time. I have never seen her like this. She is a profoundly educated and worldly-wise woman. However, she has now reverted to her people’s former religion of Zen Buddhism – in a way that I find beautiful and scary at the same time. Her grandmother made sure she and her siblings knew their old ways, even in the Maoist China in which she grew up.

She has made from scratch these beautiful garments for herself and our kids. She calls them “mercy garments” — I get the feeling it is something like our version of “sackcloth and ashes”. When this all started, she looked me right in the eye and said, “We Chinese have forgotten our old traditions and our blessed ancestors. They are now telling us that they have not forgotten us.” She has constructed a Buddhist shrine in our front room – pic enclosed – and every evening it is covered in votive candles – and she and the kids bow and perform rituals, and chant. It is like Gregorian chant – but a bit different.

This weekend, I saw the look from the abyss in her eyes once again. If you recall, when her fortune teller wrote her last fall, he stated that the plague would begin in the winter and that Lunar New Year would not be celebrated. The next thing he said would happen would be the complete destruction of the crops — and this would be accomplished with locusts.

You can only imagine the look in her eyes – and the gushing of tears – when Mandarin TV announced that the locust swarms from Africa had arrived in Xinjiang, were gathering strength, and had not been this bad in decades.

[Rod Dreher: The locusts really are there. Here’s today’s agricultural news.]

The Industrial Heartland is now on its knees. If this locust plague begins to spread from Xinjiang into Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia and Sichuan, that would put the Chinese breadbasket on its knees. That is where all the rice and wheat and other grains is grown. My wife’s fortuneteller by the way, stated that after the crops were ruined in the spring, the flooding would begin in the summer.

Again, my wife is a highly educated woman — a degree from their premier university — and up until now has been very secular in her life. I have this feeling that if my wife is behaving this way, it is probably going on all over China.

What is that going to mean for Xi Jinping and the People’s Republic? What would happen in America if large parts of the “Tribulation meme” inexplicably started to come true — what would that do to our cultural and civic life?

Now that China is the 2nd largest economy in the world – what effect will be had when things start to crater? What would the world be like with 1.5 billion Chinese in rebellion or even a Civil War?

[Rod Dreher: I remind you that Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak, is one of the places in China where the persecution of Christians by the Communist regime was most severe...This could be a turning point in Chinese history. The early church gained respect and affection among the Romans in part because of the compassion its members showed the sick and dying during a plague time.]

Monday, February 17, 2020

Earth and sea in Gen 1

Since the sky is usually thought by pre-scientific peoples to be a solid hemisphere literally touching the earth (or sea) at the horizon, the earth must necessarily be thought of as flat. It is impossible to conceive of the sky as a hemisphere touching the earth at the horizon, and yet conceive of the earth as a globe. If the earth were a globe but the sky just a hemisphere touching the earth, half of the earth would have no sky. The shape of the earth is accordingly explicitly or implicitly described by all pre-scientific peoples as being flat, and usually circular--a single disc-shaped continent. Paul H. Seely, "The Geographical Meaning of 'Earth' and 'Seas' in Genesis 1:10." WTJ 59 (1997), 232.

Even if, for argument's sake, we bracket the inspiration of Scripture, there are problems with Seely's generalizations:

i) He fails to distinguish between landlocked countries and coastal countries with maritime activities. 

ii) Apropos (i), the horizon is relative to the position of the viewer. It's not a fixed point but extends forward or backward as the viewer moves towards it. 

iii) Ancient mariners were aware of the North and South poles. That's hard to square with belief in a single disc-shaped contingent or celestial solid dome resting on the horizon. Empiriccal observation belies Seely's rigid schema. 

iv) Presumably, Seely believes the Pentateuch was compiled/redacted around the time of the Babylonian captivity. That raises the question of when Arctica and Antarctica were discovered and knowledge of their existence was popularized (e.g. Virgil, Ovid, Diogenes Laërtius). 

Bk I:32-51 The earth and sea. The five zones.

When whichever god it was had ordered and divided the mass, and collected it into separate parts, he first gathered the earth into a great ball so that it was uniform on all sides. Then he ordered the seas to spread and rise in waves in the flowing winds and pour around the coasts of the encircled land. He added springs and standing pools and lakes, and contained in shelving banks the widely separated rivers, some of which are swallowed by the earth itself, others of which reach the sea and entering the expanse of open waters beat against coastlines instead of riverbanks. He ordered the plains to extend, the valleys to subside, leaves to hide the trees, stony mountains to rise: and just as the heavens are divided into two zones to the north and two to the south, with a fifth and hotter between them, so the god carefully marked out the enclosed matter with the same number, and described as many regions on the earth. The equatorial zone is too hot to be habitable; the two poles are covered by deep snow; and he placed two regions between and gave them a temperate climate mixing heat and cold. 

To this end the golden Sun rules his circuit, portioned out in fixed divisions, through the world’s twelve constellations. Five zones comprise the heavens; whereof one is ever glowing with the flashing sun, ever scorched by his flames. Round this, at the world’s ends, two stretch darling to right and left, set fast in ice and black storms. Between these and the idle zone, two by grace of the gods have been vouchsafed to feeble mortals; and a path is cut between the two, wherein the slanting array of the Signs may turn. As our globe rises steep to Scythia and the Riphaean crags, so its slopes downward to Libya’s southland. One pole is ever high above us, while the other, beneath our feet, is seen of black Styx and shades infernal. 

156  And there are five terrestrial zones: first, the northern zone which is beyond the arctic circle, uninhabitable because of the cold; second, a temperate zone; a third, uninhabitable because of great heats, called the torrid zone; fourth, a counter-temperate zone; fifth, the southern zone, uninhabitable because of its cold.

Are the dead aware of the living?

1. The dead

What, if anything, do the dead know about the living? Catholicism has an elaborate mythology, as do various pagan faiths.

There's a danger when Christians leave a vacuum that others are only too eager to fill. Are there any reasonable, responsible suggestions we can give?

The Bible has little to say on the subject, although it sets necessary boundaries for pious conjecture. Some Christians think we shouldn't seek answers outside of Scripture. That's often prudent, but the Bible is not an encyclopedia. We rely on reason and evidence for much of what we believe. So it's partly a question of intellectual modesty. Recognizing the limits of speculation. In addition, some lines of speculation are more reasonable, better grounded, than others. Some lines of evidence have some evidence. While we shouldn't build a theological edifice on speculation and stake our immortal soul on theological conjectures, it's permissible to consider orthodox possibilities and sift the evidence we have. It's a mistake to vacate the field to let Catholics or pagans offer the answers. 

2. Angels

Before discussing the dead, we might say something about the angels. How much do angels know about us? Certainly angels have some knowledge of human history. Angelic history intersects with human history at multiple points.

It's possible that angels have detailed, up-to-date knowledge of what's going on here below. One issue might be how much heavenly angels know about the goings on of fallen angels. Since fallen angels are deeply involved in human affairs, if heavenly angels to some degree counteract the inference of fallen angels in human affairs, then heavenly angels must be pretty aware of what's happening on earth. 

It may also be on a need-to-know basis. A heavenly angel whom God has dispatched on a mission to earth will be briefed for his mission. 

3. The damned

One possible explanation for poltergeists and haunted houses is that during the intermediate state, one way God punishes some of the damned is to condemn them to be wandering or restless spirits. They go back to their old neighborhoods, but they can no longer participate in the life they had. They are frustrated bystanders, on the outside, yearning to get back in. 

It's a temporary punishment, a prelude to hell. I don't mean damnation is temporary, but the intermediate state is temporary, and there's a type of punishment suitable to the intermediate state of the damned. 

4. The saints

i) I mean "saints" in a Protestant sense, not a Catholic sense. I mean Christians who go straight to heaven at the moment of death.

ii) One possibility is that they have no knowledge of what's happening on earth. They put all that behind them. They remember their own life and times, but they have no new information. No updates. The only change is when one of their Christian loved ones dies and rejoins them in heaven. 

Of course, newcomers can brief the saints on the latest news, assuming that interests them. 

iii) On the face of it, the saints have no sensory awareness of what's happening on earth. They are disembodied souls.

iv) Up to a point, saints might still be interested in earthly affairs. Suppose a pious Christian mother dies. She's survived by some children and grandchildren, perhaps a sister. So she's naturally interested in their pilgrimage, their spiritual welfare. Intensely interested. 

v) Perhaps she has some telepathic awareness of when a living loved one is going through a terrible ordeal. That might be analogous to relatives to who have premonitory dreams about the death of a loved one, or a loved one in mortal danger. That mechanism might explain grief apparitions and crisis apparitions. 

vi) Or perhaps it's not telepathic. Perhaps God reveals to her when one of her loved ones is going through a terrible ordeal. And perhaps God gives her permission to appear to them in a dream or apparition to encourage them.

vii) However, there comes a point when all her loved ones have died. Some of them rejoin her in heaven and some go to hell. She may have no direct awareness of those who go to hell. But with the passage of time, it becomes evident that they must have died by now, yet they didn't go to heaven.

At that juncture it might be natural for her to lose interest in what's happening on earth. Her younger relatives were born after she died. She was never a part of their lives; they were never a part of her life. So there's no one left on earth that she personally knows and cares about. The younger generation are perfect strangers to her. For better or worse, all her loved ones are now on her side of the grave–in heaven or hell. 

viii) Due to mortality, human experience is segmented over generations. While there's some overlap between generations, most humans are separated from each other in time and space. Human experience is highly compartmentalized in that regard. Heaven is, among other things, an opportunity to play catchup. What was scattered in time and space is regathered in one time and place. The saints, who lived and died at different times, are now moving forward together. In that regard, heaven as the world's finest history department. 

What were the last words of Jesus on the cross?

Some critics say the Gospels give contradictory accounts of Christ's last words on the cross. A few observations:

i) On the face of it, this allegation is just a fallacy. It confuses the last words recorded by the narrator with the last words of the speaker. It isn't necessarily or even presumptively the last thing the speaker said, but the last thing the narrator quoted the speaker saying. That's where the narrator ends his account. 

ii) To take some comparisons: suppose I speak to a friend who died in a traffic accident the next day. I remember his last words to me. I can quote his final words to me. But it's unlikely that those are the last words he ever spoke.

Or suppose loved one is dying in a hospital. His bed is surrounded by family and friends. One of them has to leave. They remember the last thing they heard him say before they stepped out of the room. That's something they quote him saying, but it's probably not the last thing he said before he died.

Or take the "wit and wisdom" books of a celebrity. They may arrange quotes chronologically from his writings. But the last quoted statement is unlikely to be the last thing he said before he died. The book is selective to begin with. It may be his last public statement. Or his last wittism.

iii) Keep in mind that according to traditional authorship, only John was present at the crucifixion. Possibly Mark. But the other disciples had fled. Matthew and Luke probably got their information from the women at the cross. 

There's a distinction between the last thing they record Jesus saying and the last thing he said. The former doesn't entail the latter. It tells you when the narrator stopped quoting, not when the speaker stopped talking. That's where the narrator decided to wrap up his account of the Crucifixion. Maybe because he had no more information about what was said and done. 

Other than John, the Synoptics might well not know the original order of what Jesus said on the cross, if they depend on the women for their information. It would also depend on which women they consulted. For that matter, the women might not remember the original order. You don't know ahead of time if what they say the last thing they will ever say. You might expect more. 

vi) Bart Ehrman makes a big deal about mood shifts. Needless to say, someone in agonizing pain is prone to sudden mood swings. They may oscillate in and out of consciousness and lucidity. They may have moments of euphoria. They may slip back into despondency. This is realistic. 

The no-true apostate fallacy

Moreover, we must differentiate from permanent apostates people who never had genuine saving faith in the first place but merely a counterfeit faith (like Judas). In cases of counterfeit faith apostasy does not truly enter the picture. So on this view, although it is possible to apostatize and forfeit salvation, no one ever actually does so. 

An all-too-typical specimen of the desperate lengths that Calvinists will go to to salvage their a priori theological system. The No-True-Scotsman fallacy!

Wait, this wasn't written by a Calvinist, but by a high-profile freewill theist who denounces Calvinism. Fancy that! 

Cosmic deceiver?

My answer to a question:

1. We can't extrapolate from examples of God deceiving the wicked in Scripture because they carry no presumption that God deceives humans in general. Those passages are confined to a subset of humans, and not a random sample, but humans who are punished for impiety. So not every human being meets the necessary condition. As such, Scripture provides no justification for belief in universal divine deception.

2. Of course, even apart from such passages, it's possible to entertain the idea of universal divine deception. If Scripture never spoke to the issue of divine deception, even in that limited context, we could still toy with the idea. 

3. Seems to me that fallibilism is self-refuting. Some beliefs are only properly doubtful if other beliefs provide a benchmark. We find a claim dubious or unbelievable because it conflicts with a belief we find persuasive or compelling. Of course, we can still be mistaken, but I don't see how we can be universally mistaken, since erroneous beliefs presume some true beliefs as a point of contrast to provide a necessary standard of comparison. 

Put another way, how is it possible to coherently argue for fallibilism? You have to provide reasons. But if all the reasons for fallibilism are fallible reasons, isn't that self-referentially incoherent? 

4. Mind you, rejecting fallibilism tout court doesn't indicate where to draw the line. In principle, there's a spectrum ranging from mostly false beliefs to mostly true beliefs. 

5. A problem with variations on the Cartesian demon is why a being that's omniscient/omnipotent or nearly omniscient/omnipotent would take any interest and find any satisfaction in toying with and fooling creatures so vastly inferior to itself. Even if he's malevolent, what's the fun in outwitting creatures who are so incomparable below his own level of intelligence? What's the point of making creatures he can effortlessly outsmart? It's like a chess genius inventing a stupid chess computer to play with. He always beats the computer. It isn't hard. There's no challenge, no surprise, no risk of defeat. Even if the being is malicious, what does he get out of that exercise? How is that entertaining? 

6. There's also the question of whether good and evil are asymmetrical. When we hypothesize an evil godlike figure, evil is a comparative judgment. It presumes some concept of the good. It presumes an ideal from which the evil deviates.

First breath

Mayor Pete:

In an interview on CBS' "Breakfast Club," the good mayor suggested that not only is a full-term baby girl, who is in the process of exiting her mother’s birth canal, not yet a human being, but neither is that same child post-birth, when she is held in the doctor’s hands.

No, a beating heart, the sensations of pain and pleasure, and the ability to move her legs, arms, fingers and toes do not grant this infant personhood, dignity and the right to life.

None of these things matter, says Mayor Pete. A baby is not human, nor does it warrant any legal protection, until after it takes its first breath.

1. Mayor Pete is morally reprehensible.

2. What is breathing? There are several ways to answer this question. I'll simplify, but I can delve into the technical details if necessary. Minimally, or essentially, I'd say breathing is gas exchange. Mainly oxygen and carbon dioxide as far as humans are concerned. Breathing is the movement of oxygen into the body and the movement of carbon dioxide out of the body.

3. Babies in the womb do, in fact, exchange gas. Hence, on this definition, babies are breathing in the womb. Of course, babies aren't breathing with fully functional lungs like we are. The main reason for this is because (at the risk of stating the obvious) a baby's lungs are still being formed in the womb. Nevertheless the baby is breathing, oxygenating, ventilating, exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide, perfusing cells and tissues and organs.

4. As such, Mayor Pete's criterion that a baby is only a human after it takes its first breath is preposterous. The baby has been breathing the entire time.

5. Mayor Pete seems to think breathing is something that happens when one can observe the diaphragm contracting, muscles moving, chest rising, and the like. However that's a mechanistic understanding of what breathing is. Breathing strictly as mechanics. But what's the purpose of our diaphragm contracting, muscles moving, and lungs working?

To put it another way, everyone needs oxygen to live, and in newborns and adults oxygen is best obtained via our lungs, but that doesn't necessarily imply our lungs are the only means by which we can obtain oxygen.

6. Otherwise, if we consistently applied this mechanistic position, then a baby or adult who can't breathe without the assistance of modern ventilators (or in the past an iron lung) is "not human, nor does it warrant legal protection". Likewise a drowned person who can be revived with CPR but whose lungs aren't currently expanding and contracting is "not human, nor does it warrant legal protection". A newborn on a heart-lung (cardiopulmonary) bypass machine is "not human, nor does it warrant legal protection".

Is China at breaking point?

[A commenter named Wyoming Doc:] I pray for my wife – all the time. This has been incredibly hard on our family. But we will make it. What I can also tell you – based on my wife’s multiple conversations with friends back home – is that this is really beginning to stir the hearts and minds of the Chinese people. Thoughts about Xi Xinping that would have been never thought to say out loud are being said now – and the whole country seems to be galvanizing around the fact that they have been seriously let down by the Communist Party. I am not sure what will come of that – but this could not have happened at a worse time for Xi – the Hong Kong fiasco – the pork virus disaster – and the trade war with the USA – and now this – the country will soon be at the breaking point.

[A commenter named Alec:] It’s ridiculous. I’m an American living in Shanghai who just traveled across China for the New Year (to Changsha, in Hunan) and have seen nothing like this man’s relatives are breathlessly reporting. I just got back from Starbucks here in Shanghai where I did some work, and though everyone is wearing masks shops are still open and no freedom of movement is curtailed. This article is highly irresponsible.


1. I suspect one reason Shanghai and Beijing aren't as hard hit by the coronavirus is because they're farther away from central China where Wuhan is, in a country which has severely restricted travel. Also, I think it's due to the fact that the Communist Party of China (CPC) has involuntarily moved tons of doctors, nurses, and other health staff from various cities in China to Beijing and Shanghai which are their wealthiest cities. If these cities collapse, if things deteriorate enough, the CPC could collapse too.

2. Here's a dilemma. Should one hope China obtains relief from the coronavirus? Or should one hope the coronavirus overwhelms China so much that it ultimately leads to the collapse of the CPC and presumably usher in something better (it's hard to imagine much worse than the CPC)? Perhaps even some kind of representative democracy? I pray for those who are Christians in China and those who will become Christians in China.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Liar, lunatic, or Lord?

1. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis popularized a now-famous Christian argument in the form of a trilemma: Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. This trilemma goes back to a 19C Scotsman. 

I never took the trilemma seriously because it takes the accuracy of the Gospels for granted. Given the accuracy of the Gospels, it's a good argument, but given the accuracy of the Gospels, the argument is superfluous. If the Gospels are accurate, then we can dispense with the trilemma.

2. However, that objection is a tad shortsighted. For it pushes the issue back a step: if Jesus was a deceiver or self-deceived, would we have the Gospels? Would we have any Gospels? Would we have four 1C Gospels? Would we have them as written? Or, at best, would we have very different accounts of Jesus than what we find in the canonical Gospels? 

Either they were written by authors who knew Jesus or who authors who knew folks who knew him–or else they are fictional or legendary tales written by authors with no reliable information. 

If they were written by authors with reliable sources, and Jesus was in fact a deceiver or self-deceived, then the Gospels have him making supernatural claims he can't pull off. A liar or lunatic can't perform most of the miracles attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. 

So on that view, the authors was in a position to know Jesus was a liar or lunatic. But in that event, what's his incentive to write about Jesus as if he was what he claimed to be? 

Writing books promoting the Christian movement was not a career booster in the 1C. It was a public invitation to be ostracized, dispossessed, imprisoned, tortured, and martyred. 

Suppose the Gospels were written by authors who had no reliable information about Jesus. It's just hagiographic legend and pious fiction. But once again, what does the author get out of that exercise? It's not a ticket to success. It doesn't make him rich and popular. 72 virgins aren't waiting for his attention. To the contrary, he's asking for persecution–despite the fact that the Jesus of story isn't worth suffering for. 

What kind of Jesus must stand behind the Gospels to explain their existence, as they stand? That's a deeper question. 

Miracles and missionaries

1. This post is occasioned by the controversy surrounding Francis Chan's recent healing claims. But that's just a launchpad to address a broader issue. I'm discussing general principles that may not apply to that particular situation.

2. I'm reading high-profile cessationists who have a new criterion for reported miracles: unless it's caught on camera, it isn't credible. With the profusion of cellphone cameras, we should demand photographic evidence for reported miracles before we lend them credence. Eyewitness testimony is inadequate.

3. I'm all for empirical verification of miracles where that's available and feasible. But to demote testimonial evidence degrades biblical miracles.

4. From what I've read, miracles are more likely to happen in a virgin mission field, to help the Christian faith get a foothold. I also think it likely that God does more for those who have less and less for those who have more. Take folk who don't have access to advanced medical care.

5. There are different kinds of missionaries and different kinds of missionary settings. In some countries, Christianity is technically legal, but in reality Christian expression is persecuted.

In some countries, Christianity is legal but conversion is illegal. By the same token, Christianity is legal in some countries but evangelization is illegal.

This creates an underground church where native Christians and Christian missionaries practice a degree of anonymity to evade detection from hostile authorities. At the risk of stating the obvious, in closed country the authorities can use cellphone camera images to identify and apprehend Christians and missionaries. Consider the use of facial recognition technology in China. 

6. There are different kinds of missionaries. For instance, there are white-American missionaries who do temporary junkets to Third-World countries. They stick out compared to the native population. In addition, there are white-American missionaries who live in the host country.

Then you have minority-American missionaries of the same race/ethnicity as the host country. For some, these are temporary junkets. Others take up full-time residence.

They can pass for natives. It's easier for them to avoid detection from hostile authorities. Finally, you have native missionaries. 

7. But it many cases it's necessary for the missionary, Christians on the ground, and unreached people, to maintain their anonymity. In some situations, cellphone cameras will be a deterrent to missionary activity, because it exposes the identity of the participants. 

This includes prospective converts who might be open to conversion, but they're not prepared to take the risk of arrest, if their face shows up in a gov't database at a Christian gathering, and flags them to be "disappeared". So there's a disincentive to missionaries, Christians, and prospective converts blowing their cover. 

I'm just stating the obvious, and I'm struck by the naïveté of some cessationist critics. There are situations where it's reasonable to request medical verification. But we must make allowance for impediments and deterrents on the ground. We need to take the setting into account, and judge reported miracles on a contextual, case-by-case basis.