Saturday, May 13, 2006

Hillbilly atheism

Dawson Bethrick has responded to Jason and I. For now I’ll confine my remarks to what he says about me.

Who, exactly, is this Bethrick anyway?

He makes the following claim about himself: “I am a Man, and I think with my own mind.”

May I say that I find this patriarchal and homophobic usage deeply offense. As a San Franciscan he ought to understand that by assigning himself to a specific gender, this will make transgender readers feel excluded from the dialogue.

Such usage borders on hate-speech. He clearly needs to attend a sensitivity seminar to elevate his social consciousness.

In addition, his appeal to “thinking” with his own “mind” represents a throwback to folk psychology. Any astute, card-carrying materialist would know better.

So I apologize to my enlightened Christian readers for subjecting them to yet another hillbilly atheist.

“We must not forget that the book of Acts itself puts the words ‘heavenly vision’ into Paul's mouth when it portrays him as recounting his conversion experience to King Agrippa (Acts 26:19). Thus it is up to the author of Acts to clarify whether his story's purported experience by Paul was ‘an objective vision or appearance’ or ‘a subjective vision or appearance.’ The details given in Acts are too scant and inconsistent with themselves to allow us to make this clarification with much confidence.”

Keep in mind that I was originally responding to Dagood, whose case is based on the subjective interpretation.

So, assuming for the sake of argument that Dawson is right on this point, he has just hamstrung Dagood’s whole case. His argument is with Dagood, not me.

Let me thank my cobelligerent for joining forces with me in our common cause to disprove Dagood.

“Naturally the apologist does not want it to be considered subjective, but in the cartoon universe of theism, everything is ultimately subjective anyway.”

I haven’t see any cartoons since I was a little boy. So, to judge by his standard of comparison, Dawson must either be a precocious four-year old or a retarded adult.

“Steve may say to me that, since I am persuaded that, like the gospels, Acts is more legend than history in the first place, that I therefore cannot rely on Acts 26:19 to support the visionary proposal. But if Acts is more legend than history, then the stories of Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus are brought into serious doubt anyway.”

This is a dilemma for Dawson, not for me.



As Earl Doherty points out in response to Gary Habermas' statements to Lee Strobel on page 234 of The Case for Christ, we actually have in the New Testament "a wealth of invention" (Doherty) where Habermas chooses to see "a wealth of sightings of Jesus."

Each writer sat down to provide 'proofs' of Jesus' rising in the flesh," explains Doherty, "and they all quite naturally come up with anecdotes of their own, which best explains their incompatible variety. (3)


All he’s done here is to give us Doherty’s opinion. No supporting argument or corroborating evidence is brought forward to substantiate this claim.

“Anxious to dispel the subjective implications of phrases such as "heavenly vision" used by Acts to describe Paul's sighting of Jesus, Steve exclaims…”

This is a prejudicial and tendentious characterization of the phrase.

It’s “heavenly” because Jesus ascended to heaven. So, in order for him to appear to Paul on earth, he must leave heaven. That would actually imply the objective character of the “vision.”

Likewise, the Greek word doesn’t carry any specialized sense of a “subjective” vision as over against an “objective” vision. We could easily use another synonym, like “sighting.”

“But does Paul ever distinguish between the nature of his sighting of Jesus and the sighting of Jesus he says these others enjoyed?”

As I said before, he describes his encounter as a public event.

“On the contrary, it remains ambiguous and unspecified, thus allowing believers to uncritically read gospel details into what they read in Paul.”

i) Again, if true, this undercuts Dagood.

ii) In addition, the reasoning is reversible. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this is what Christians do, dubitantes do the exact same thing, only in reverse order. They (mis-) interpret Paul as reducing the Resurrection to a spiritual (i.e. ethereal body), and classify his Damascus Road encounter as a subjective vision, then they uncritically read the “Pauline” details back into Luke and John.

“Apologists need to understand that, while they want to put the onus on the New Testament's critics, the onus is really on the New Testament itself to shore up the very areas where they claim its critics habitually default.”

No, both sides assume a burden of proof.

“The whole point of this chapter is to repeatedly stress the physicality of the glorified body even though the chapter nowhere uses the word 'physical' (at least not in any of my translations)”

i) So Bethrick is dependent on English translations. He can’t read 1 Cor 15 in the original?

ii) He is also confusing words with concepts. A concept can be present without a particular word to designate the concept.

1 Cor 15 has been extensively exegeted by the likes of Thiselton and Wright. It isn’t necessary for an apologist to reinvent the wheel each time.

“ Not to mention the fact that this position needs to be reconciled with what we read in I Peter 3:18, which speaks of Jesus as "being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit." It is hard to read this statement as coming from one of Jesus' own disciples who, according to the gospels, met face to face with a physically resurrected Jesus.”

If he spent anytime with the standard commentaries he’d see that this verse has reference to the fact that the corpse of Christ was reanimated by the Holy Spirit.

It refers to the agent of the Resurrection, not the composition of the body.

“Steve may counter that Paul spoke of Jesus having been resurrected in the flesh, but Paul himself indicates that there are different kinds of flesh, that "all flesh is not the same flesh" (I Cor. 15:39), which leaves open the possibility that Paul may have reserved the use of the term 'flesh' in some circumstances to refer to some spiritual, non-physical "substance" which is to be distinguished from the tissue, bone and organs of living organisms. So this is at best inconclusive.”

i) And the examples given by Paul are all of material entities.

ii) Moreover, Paul is not saying that one kind of flesh is another kind of flesh. Just the opposite.

He merely draws our attention to both the continuities and discontinuities between the mortal body and the glorified body—the chief of which being that the glorified body is immortal.

“Moreover, Paul insists that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (I Cor. 15:50), which suggests that the physical bodies we have are not analogous to the resurrected bodies that believers should expect to awaken in once they are resurrected.”

This is an oft-refuted canard. Only someone wholly ignorant of the exegetical and apologetic literature would continue to exhume this objection.

Paul is merely using a Hebraic idiom to express the fact that mortality cannot inherit immortality.

“All these issues point to just some of the many serious ambiguities that plague the New Testament record, thus inviting endless contests between conflicting interpretations and wide-ranging speculations. (I'm glad these aren't my problems.)”

They’re only ambiguous if, like Bethrick, you don’t know NT Greek or basic linguistics or the standard exegetical literature.

“To be sure, there have been many efforts over the centuries to codify an authorized interpretation, but this endeavor is about as effective as trying to harvest wheat on the dark side of the moon; and no matter how much effort is applied to this ambition, the early record is still what it is: laden with incompatible variances and unyielding ambiguities.”

This is a backhanded admission of defeat on Dawson’s part. He attempts a preemptory dismissal of the existing answers to his objections without bothering to actually argue them down. Not a one.

“Concerning reported sightings of the Virgin Mary, Steve hedges when considering the question "Do we reject Marian sightings?" giving no firm answer one way or another.”

“Hedging” is another prejudicial and tendentious characterization. I don’t go beyond the evidence I have. That’s a rational precaution.

“I agree: some reports are more credible than others, and some reporters are more credible than others. But here we might inquire as to what criteria Steve consults in determining whether a report is "more credible than others," or in determining when one reporter is "more credible than others." Obviously the writers of the New Testament meet his criteria, while what he has written strongly suggests that his contemporaries (or near contemporaries) who have claimed to have been visited by the Virgin Mary, do not meet his criteria. What are those criteria? Heaven knows! But he does give some indication here:”

He devotes several sentences to the claim that I offer no criteria, only to admit, in the concluding sentence, that I do. Apparently, Bethrick doesn’t know where he’s going. He sits down at his keyboard and starts writing and keeps on writing without thinking through what he’s going to say before he says it.

“If it is valid to ask how those who claim to have experienced a visit from the Virgin Mary "know what Mary looks like," we should also ask: How did Saul of Tarsus know what Jesus looked like?”

Several problems with this question:

i) It does nothing to validate Marian apparitions.

ii) Even if it were valid, it would do nothing to invalidate Luke or John.

iii) Odds are, Paul did know what Jesus looked like. On a standard chronology of the NT they were probably in Jerusalem at the same time of year. Jesus and Paul were contemporaries. Paul studied in Jerusalem. His sister lived in Jerusalem. Even if he wasn’t living in Jerusalem year round, he would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for all the major feast days. And Jesus came to Jerusalem for major feasts days as well.

Jerusalem was a small town, centered on the Temple. Jesus was a public speaker and a celebrity. His visits to Jerusalem were centered on the Temple. If Paul was living in Jerusalem at the time, he’d visited the Temple at least daily. If he was in town for a feast day, he’d visit the Temple at least daily.

Jesus drew a crowd. Jesus was controversial. It’s almost inevitable that Paul would have seen and heard Jesus preach.

iv) This is reinforced by that fact that Paul was involved with the initial persecution of the Jerusalem church.

v) Of course, at the time, Paul thought that Jesus was a Messianic pretender. It took a Christophany to turn him around.

“Steve says that "Jesus was seen by his contemporaries," but this may be read as saying far too much. That one is a contemporary of another, does not indicate that either has seen the other or knows what the other looks like.”

The historical record of Christ contained in the NT consists of either eyewitness observation or eyewitness testimony. That’s the point.

This assumes, of course, the traditional authorship and dating of the NT documents. Others have made that case, and I’ve made it myself in other venues, so I needn’t repeat myself here.

“For instance, both Steve and I are contemporaries, but I would never be able to pick him out from a crowd. Nor would he be able to do the same with me. Today we have cameras which record faithful images of our physical features, such that I could pass my picture to Steve via e-mail, and then he very well might be able to pick me out of a crowd. But cameras were not around in 1st century Palestine, so Jesus' "contemporaries" (an expression which takes the gospels as history) didn't even have this benefit.”

i) Photography is beneficial if you haven’t seen someone for yourself. But that overlooks my point.

ii) In addition, we will often accept someone else’s testimony. The police will have a friend or relative ID a body for them.

Or a detective will show the photo of a missing person to various individuals, to see if they recognize the picture.

Here a second party takes the word of a witness for purposes of identification.

“ The ‘no one knows what she used to loo like’ approach is certainly applicable in considering claims involving inanimate objects, such as that the burnt markings on a tortilla are the image of Mary. But a sighting of the Virgin Mary is usually claimed to involve an encounter with the real McCoy, though perhaps only in spirit form, which can enable direct communication, sometimes even dialogue (such as we find in Acts' versions of Paul's firsthand encounter with Jesus). And if the apparition identifies itself as the Virgin Mary (just as whatever it was that appeared to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus allegedly identified itself as Jesus), then there's no need for face recognition based on prior knowledge of "what she used to look like when she was walking the earth two thousand years ago" in the first place. The apparition could very well have introduced itself as the Virgin Mary, and the person experiencing the vision, whether subjective or otherwise, might very well be prone to believing it.”

This line of argument poses a dilemma for Bethrick. If he uses one objection, he can’t use another, for they cancel each other out.

i) If it’s sufficient for the apparition to identify itself to the eyewitness, then this will suffice for the Damascus Road encounter.

If) If facial recognition is needed, then this will also suffice for the Damascus Road encounter (for reasons given above), but not for Marian apparitions.

iii) Let us also remember that while the absence of genuine dominical apparitions is a defeater for Christianity, the presence of genuine Marian apparitions is not a defeater for Christianity.

So these are not symmetrical propositions. If Mary did appear to Bernadette or Lucia Santos, that does not falsify the Christian faith.

iv) At the same time, the lack of facial recognition is not the only undercutter for Marian apparitions. I mentioned others, which he conveniently ignores.

“Regardless, Steve makes it clear that he is committed to taking the New Testament - including significantly the gospels - as historically accurate on its say so…How these apologists' belief in the bible amounts to anything better than ‘it's true because I want it to be true,’ is not at all clear.”

i) To begin with, I, like many other Christians, am an adult converts to the faith. We don’t believe it’s true because we want it to be true.

a) Many of us did not want to be true.

b) And if wishful thinking were the operative motive, then many of us would have converted at a much earlier age.

ii) Wanting something to be true and believing it to be true are two very different things.

I want it to be true that I’ll see my dead father again. This doesn’t make me believe that I’ll be seeing him again.

I want it to be true that I have a Swiss bank account with a few billion dollars tucked away for a rainy day. That doesn’t make me believe it.

I want it to be true that my favorite movie star will show up at my doorstep tomorrow with a marriage proposal. That doesn’t make me believe it.

iii) There are many considerations which evidence the Bible. Part of this is psychological realism. All writing has an autobiographical dimension, even biographical writing. A biographer reveals a good deal about himself in the course of writing about others.

That’s at the narrator’s level. Then there’s also the narrative level. Do the figures within the narrative speak and act in a way that’s realistic?

This is not something we can quantify, but we have no need of doing so. If you’re a good judge of character, you can size someone up. We are human. So we know what it means to be human. We understand human motives and passions from the inside out.

We can detect their bias, as well as the source of their bias.

The capacity to identify with another, to relate to his situation, to sniff out blinding bias or mendacity, is something without which a social life would be impossible.

iv) If we assume Markan priority, then there’s also the exceedingly conservative use made of him by Matthew and Luke, which shows their highly reliable handling of dominical tradition.

And if you’re a Matthean prioritist, you can easily adapt the very same argument.

v) There’s also the way in which an account does or does not dovetail with our other sources of information about that time and place—although those sources are subject to the same assessments and adjustments.

“But what the witnesses that Paul speaks about in I Cor. 15? For instance, what "biographical material" do we have in the case of the 500 who Paul claims saw the risen Jesus? Even though this is among the earliest post-resurrection sightings of Jesus reported in the New Testament, Paul mentions it only in passing, not even telling us who any of these 500 might have been or where the sighting may have occurred. Apparently this doesn't matter, because the gospel details are read into the accounts we read in Paul's and other early letters, such that "by the time we arrive at the Resurrection, we know a good deal about the character and quality of the reporters." Were I to take so much for granted in my criticism of Christianity, apologists would try to make a field day of me.”

This is a model of confused reasoning:

i) Dawson is the one who’s reading into my statement certain things I never said or implied. I made no attempt to correlate the 500 witnesses in 1 Cor 15 with the Gospels. There’s a way to do that, but that’s hardly germane to my immediate point.

ii) Dawson is also reading into my statement a popular apologetic strategy which begins with 1 Cor 15:5-8, plus a redacted pre-Markan passion narrative.

I never used that argument.

iii) As far as Paul’s appeal is concerned, the salient point is not whether we are in a position to know who the 500 were, but whether the Corinthians were. Paul is deliberately staking out a claim which would leave himself exposed to falsification if untrue.

iv) Then there’s the matter of Paul himself. Is he a credible character?

For reasons summarized by Cranfield, I’d answer in the affirmative, and firmly in the affirmative.

Cf. C. E. B. Cranfield, On Romans and Other New Testament Essays (T&T Clark 1998), 144.

“Indeed, the sighting of Mary at Fatima is so better documented than the unattested and conflicting reports that we find in the New Testament's epistolary record, that the two are essentially incomparable.”

i) My case was never limited to the epistolary record.

ii) Bethrick offers no evidence of conflicting reports.

iii) Is Fatima “so much better documented”? Actually, there are conflicting reports of what was seen. Cf. S. Zimdars-Swartz, Encountering Mary (Princeton 1991; reprint 1992), 82-83.

“This merely puts the onus to prove a negative squarely on Steve's shoulders. Otherwise he risks asserting from his own ignorance while standing on New Testament invention.”

i) I am under no standing duty to prove that Mary never appeared to Bernadette or Lucia Santos or anyone else. Since she never appeared to me, the onus is hardly on me to disprove anyone else’s experience.

ii) Due to the brevity of life, we prioritize our beliefs. Some beliefs are far more important than others. So we invest our time in proving or disproving our priority-beliefs.

iii) Does the onus fall on Bethrick to disprove every UFO?

iv) The Resurrection is infinitely more important than Marian apparitions. And the Resurrection is logically independent of Marian apparitions. Their truth would not falsify the Resurrection.

“ It is not difficult to suppose that the individual(s) who saw Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich would agree that their sighting was not a purposeful event. If one can suppose that turning water into wine or causing a fig tree to wither is sufficiently purposeful for an incarnated deity to take trouble to effect, one can with as much imagination consider that an apparition in burn marks, water stains, tree knots, etc., to be just as purposeful.”

i) It’s no trouble for an omnipotent deity to effect a miracle.

ii) If Bethrick spent anytime with the standard exegetical literature, he’d see that cursing the fig tree and turning water into wine were, indeed, significant events.

“A mind inebriated on religious faith has already stepped onto the wild-card grounds of make-believe. Surely if apologists had something more substantial than special pleading and rash dismissals, they'd be screaming it instead of these paltry offerings.”

A mind inebriated on irreligious faith has already stepped onto the wild-card grounds of make-believe. Surely if unbelievers had something more substantial than special pleading and rash dismissals, they'd be screaming it instead of these paltry offerings.

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