Saturday, February 27, 2010

Trakakis on the problem of evil

Paul Manata drew my attention to an article by Nick Trakakis on the problem of evil: "Does Hard Determinism Render the Problem of Evil even Harder?"

Before I quote some passages, I'll make a few comments:

1. I don't think formulating the principle of plenitude in hierarchical terms is the best way to describe the principle. Up to a point you can arrange the differences in hierarchical terms, but I think that misses the key principle.

The key principle is threefold: (i) there are many possibilities; (ii) many possibilities are incompossible; (iii) apropos (i-ii), many goods are incommensurable goods.

For example, we frequently think of an individual human life as a cluster of different possible timelines. If I'd been born in a different place or time, I'd turn out significantly different.

And a number of these alternate timelines might have been just as good (or better than) the life I actually had. But these are incommensurable goods. Although a number of abstract timeliness are possible, only one timeline at a time is concretely realizable.

So, at an individual level, one good excludes another good.

However, it's possible to realize alternate, incommensurable goods in a variety of different creatures with different lives. This variety cannot be instantiated within the confines of any one life, but it can be instantiated distributively in a variety of different individuals (or "things").

2. Apropos (1), for all we know, there are parallel worlds in which different scenarios play out. Or there may be some possible worlds which the saints in glory are allowed to access–like a futuristic amusement park or theme park in SF stories.

Of course, this is pure speculation. However, any treatment of the problem of evil, whether theistic or atheistic, has a speculative component. For an atheist to say there's no conceivable or plausible reason for a good God to permit the range of evils we see is a highly speculative contention.

3. He raises a stock objection to the soul-making theodicy: "For even if there are some people whose character is strengthened and transformed through the challenges and dangers they encounter, there clearly are many others who either make little progress due to dying young or even regress after finding themselves in terribly adverse circumstances."

He offers a universalist solution. But, of course, there's also a Calvinist solution. Simply put, everyone needn't be an ultimate beneficiary of evil. Only a subset of humanity (the elect) constitutes the intended beneficiary. That's perfectly coherent.

Of course, this raises questions of fairness, but he already sketched a solution under 3.4 ("Divine grace").

Contrast theodicy

In its epistemic guise, the view is that, just as we could not learn what the colour red is without experiencing the contrast between it and other colours, so too if we had no experience of evil we would have no knowledge, understanding, or appreciation of the good.

Perhaps we could not understand (or at least deeply or fully understand) what it means for something to be morally good or evil unless we had some experience of evil. Or even if we could understand what it means for something to be good or evil (without having experienced evil), we might not be able to understand or appreciate a whole range of significant goods, such as kindness, courage, patience, and even love. At the very least, then, it seems plausible that the less intense the contrast between the good and the not-good, the less epistemic access we would have to the moral fabric of reality.

The principle of plenitude

The kernel of the principle is the idea that a world containing a rich variety of beings is more valuable than one containing only one sort of creature. The natural world is thus pictured as consisting of a great hierarchy of beings, beginning at the lowest end of the scale with inanimate objects (e.g., rocks, stars), then ascending to living things that lack sentience (e.g., trees, plants), and thence to living things that are sentient but not intelligent (e.g., animals), thence to living things that are both sentient and intelligent (e.g., humans), and finally to intelligent beings that are immortal (e.g., angels). At the summit of the hierarchy stands God. And it is usually added that God has chosen to create a world of this sort because it is intrinsically better that many kinds of beings exist, rather than just one kind of being or the best kind of beings. Given this value-judgement, it is no longer obvious that God is not morally justified in creating a world that displays the variety and complexity found in the actual world.

Divine grace

According to some theologians influenced by the Calvinist tradition, every good thing that comes our way should be seen as an utterly gratuitous gift from God. No matter how hard we may work or how virtuous we may think we are, we do not deserve or merit anything from God. God is not obligated to reward or praise us, and yet he does as a matter of divine grace. This line of thought can be appropriated by the divine determinist with a view to providing further insights on God’s providential governance of the world. For if everything is an unmerited gift of God’s, then perhaps our temporal sufferings are required to make us aware of this fact. More specifically, suffering has the power to shatter one’s presumption of self-sufficiency (‘I can do this entirely on my own’) and the concomitant inflated sense of one’s moral worth (‘I deserve full recognition for having achieved this’). Our temporary sufferings are, in other words, intended to instill in us an attitude of humility as well as a sense of absolute dependence on God. This theme is a constant in the theodical literature – Pascal, for example, often talks of God withdrawing his presence from us so that we may recognize the wretchedness of life on our own – and it is a theme that the divine determinist may have recourse to when constructing a theodicy.


Hick adds, however, that any world that makes possible such personal growth cannot be a hedonistic paradise whose inhabitants experience a maximum of pleasure and a minimum of pain. Rather, an environment that is able to produce the finest characteristics of human personality – particularly the capacity to love – must be one in which ‘there are obstacles to be overcome, tasks to be performed, goals to be achieved, setbacks to be endured, problems to be solved, dangers to be met.

The aesthetic solution

Barry Whitney has developed an aesthetic theodicy grounded in the observation that ‘despite our finite, vulnerable, and precarious nature as human beings, we have an inherent creativity, an inner drive that seeks meaningful experiences.’ Whitney adds, however, that we not only have this need for meaning and value, but we also have the opportunity to experience it at every moment, even in the bleakest situations. Such an experience is described as aesthetic in character, ‘since it is the experience of intensity and harmony, and [an] experience which strives toward and incorporates unity amid diversity, harmony amid the chaos.’ On this view, a significant measure of disorder or chaos (but not complete disorder or chaos) is required if we are to enjoy the best possible aesthetic experiences which render life meaningful and exciting, rather than boring and predictable.

Freewill defense

J.L. Mackie’s response to the free will defence is worth recounting:
I should ask this: if God has made men such that in their free choices they
sometimes prefer what is good and sometimes what is evil, why could he not
have made men such that they always freely choose the good? If there is no
logical impossibility in a man’s freely choosing the good on one, or on several,
occasions, there cannot be a logical impossibility in his freely choosing the
good on every occasion. God was not, then, faced with a choice between
making innocent automata and making beings who, in acting freely, would
sometimes go wrong: there was open to him the obviously better possibility
of making beings who would act freely but always go right. Clearly, his
failure to avail himself of this possibility is inconsistent with his being both
omnipotent and wholly good.

Felix Culpa

There is the idea, implicit in the lines of the O felix culpa! hymn, that the condition of post-lapsarian humanity is in some way better than the original state of blessedness enjoyed by Adam and Eve, since the fall has made possible the greatest good of all: redemption...As Paul Helm elaborates,
The state of pardon and of renewal is one of greater worth or blessedness than
a faultless original position. Isaac Watts’ lines
In him the tribes of Adam boast
More glories than their father lost

express the thought that not only was there strict justice in the atonement, and not only is there the prospect of renewal in it, but the states of forgiveness and of renewal and all that these imply are a greater overall good than a state of primitive innocence.

A second element in the felix culpa motif that can be put to good use by the divine determinist involves the idea that the fall is intimately connected with God’s special manifestation of his love through the incarnation of Christ. On this view, the fall is either the only way or the most fitting way for us to be provided with the kind of disclosure of divine love made available in Christ’s life, death and resurrection. In line with this view, the divine determinist may add, in response to Mackie’s challenge, that a ‘fallen’ world enables God to reveal himself, and in particular his grace and mercy, more fully than in a world in which no-one needs renewal or salvation. To quote from Helm once more:
If one supposes that it is a good thing for God to display his mercy and
grace, and that both the universe and its creator benefit if God manifests his
forgiveness and grace, then this also provides a reason for permitting evil. . .
In the permission of moral evil lies the prospect of God’s own character being
revealed in ways which, but for the evil, it could not be.

Similar sentiments are expressed by Melville Stewart, who in ch. 7 of his The Greater-Good Defence: An Essay on the Rationality of Faith (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), makes much use of the felix culpa notion in building a greater-good defence for God’s permission of evil. Particularly instructive is Stewart’s reference to the biblical parable of the prodigal son (in Luke 15:11–32) as illustrating the above point regarding the manifestation of divine love in a fallen world: ‘[T]here is a special insight into the father ’s love on the occasion of the return of the profligate son. There is another dimension of love unknown by the obedient son, because there was no occasion for its manifestation in a meaningful way. Moreover, we should not be surprised that the father loved the obedient son. But love comes in a special way to the
profligate son.’ (159)


A neglected but deep flaw in the Molinist account concerns its ability to deliver the goods of free will that have been squandered by the divine determinist. The problem, specifically, is that God’s strategy of actualizing a world on the basis of information obtained from various counterfactuals of creaturely freedom – that is to say, the counterfactuals that spell out what would result from all possible combinations of creatures if they are created with libertarian freedom – turns God into a manipulator of his creatures’ behaviour and hence removes, or at least diminishes, their free will.

To see this, consider a parallel situation in which a father is deciding whether to send his son to school A or school B. The father, let’s assume, knows (with certainty or infallibly) that if he were to send his son to school A then the boy would begin associating with the ‘wrong crowd’ and would therefore take up a life of crime, whereas if his son were to attend school B he would grow into a well-educated and responsible adult. The father, in this situation, does what he thinks best and sends his son to school B, and the outcome many years later is just as he expected. I’m not suggesting that the father is in any way open to rebuke. But notice that he has carefully engineered his son’s moral development in a way that is crucially different from the kind of protection generally afforded by parents. Most parents make decisions on behalf of their children – such as which school their children shall attend, what foods they shall eat, what time they shall go to bed—in the hope or confident expectation that their children will benefit as a result. But the father, in the envisaged scenario, has no such hopes, for he knows what the outcome of each of his options (school A or school B) will be. Insofar as he relies on this knowledge when making his decision, he is manipulating or setting up his son’s environment in such a way that it becomes inevitable that his son will develop in a particular direction. Even if the son does develop freely in the environment he finds himself in, his moral and psychological growth has a contrived quality given that his father has guaranteed, in advance, that this developmental process will not be derailed, but can progress in only one direction.

There is, in addition, a further problem plaguing the Molinist account. It is an unfortunate fact about our world that there are innumerable people who regularly exercise their freedom in evil ways and as a result lead thoroughly miserable lives and die unrepentant. Let’s christen one of these unfortunate souls ‘Paul’. If God is equipped with middle knowledge and so knew exactly what would happen if Paul were created, then why did he go ahead and create Paul anyway? What goods, in order words, can be invoked to justify God’s creation of Paul? Soul-making is not an option since Paul’s life is one of moral disintegration, and a heavenly afterlife is also ruled out given Paul’s immoral character.

Open theism

But this is to reduce God to a reckless risk-taker who is content playing Russian roulette with our lives. For even if the probabilities are a mixed bag, the more free creaturely actions (or indeterminate events, more generally) that are involved, the greater the number of probabilities that need to be factored into the equation, and this of course means that the probability that any given outcome would result from the conjunction of these free actions will be so small as to afford little or no guidance-control for God. As Thomas Flint puts it,
[T]he open theists myopic God might try to guide events, might try to work out
his plan, but it is hard to see how knowledge of probabilities (if mixed) will
give him much guidance. Indeed, any long-range plan, or even any short-
range one that involves many free creaturely actions, will be such that God
will have little idea as to whether or not he can really bring it off. God will
join mice and men in the category of those whose best laid schemes gang
aft a-gley. Hence, the degree of providential control on this openist account
seems remarkably weak.

Countering the Rise of Atheism - The Evidence for Creation

On March 14, 2010, the city of Melbourne, Australia will be hosting Australia’s largest ever atheist event, the 2010 Global Atheist Convention, The Rise of Atheism, featuring Richard Dawkins and other atheist bigwigs.

As was posted earlier this year in my article titled Creationist Kooks Offer Debate Challenge, Creation Ministries International (CMI) issued a challenge to a team of leading atheists to debate the validity of the theory of evolution at the conference site and the atheists rejected the challenge. You may wonder that if the evidence for NeoDarwinian theory is so good and the case for atheism is so strong, why would some of the world’s leading atheistic scientists reject an opportunity to publicly demolish the arguments put up by doctoral level scientists from one of the world’s leading creation groups? (For details of the challenge, and the atheist response, see So, if you're in Melbourne on 3-14-2010, attend CMI's conference titled "Countering the Rise of Atheism" and learn the following:

  • Find out the arguments they didn’t want to face up to.
  • Meet Dr Jonathan Sarfati, author of the world’s bestselling creation book (Refuting Evolution) and of the Soon-to-be-released book The Greatest Hoax on Earth? Refuting Dawkins on evolution (a response to Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth: the evidence for evolution)

When? Sunday March 14, 2010, 2 pm to 6.30 pm (bonus early bird Darwin documentary 1 pm)

Where? Life Ministry Centre (Old Melbourne Rd, Chirnside Park)

Admission: Free (voluntary donation only)

See schedule here.

Why did God not allow it?

When the problem of evil is raised, the question typically takes this form: “Why did God allow it?” There are verbal variants, but that’s the basic way in which the question is generally cast.

Yet when you stop to think about it, that’s a very lopsided question. Is there some reason we typically ask, “Why did God allow this evil?” or “Why did God allow so many evils?” rather than asking, “Why didn’t God allow some evil to happen?” “Why didn’t God allow more evils to happen?”

In other words, the problem of evil is typically focused on questioning the evils that did occur, rather than the evils that didn’t occur. But surely, for every evil that happens, there are a multitude of possible evils that never happen.

I suppose that, at one level, it’s easier to consider actual evils, since there’s less to think about. You don’t have to imagine an actual evil. You only need to remember it. All of the specific details are already given in that particular, concrete instance. So it’s easier to think about what did happen than what didn’t happen.

For to think about what didn’t happen opens up vast, receding vistas of unrealized possibilities. Where do you begin?

And yet, when we ask, “Why did God allow it?” there is, implicit in that question, a comparison between what actually happened and a possible, preferable alternative. The question assumes a contrast between an actual evil and the good thing or “better” alternative which didn’t transpire.

“Why did God allow this evil?” carries with it the corollary question, “Why didn’t God bring about a better alternative by preventing the evil event?”

But if we’re going to ask, why didn’t some good take place instead of the evil that actually occurred–then we should also ask, why didn’t some evil take place instead of the good that actually occurred.

For whatever reason, we tend to take the nonoccurrence of evil for granted. And for that reason, a theodicist typically concentrates on horrendous evils or gratuitous evils. On the amount of evil, or kind of evil.

Yet evil possibilities are just as possible as good possibilities. By asking, “Why didn’t God prevent some evil or another?” we neglect to ask, “Why did God prevent so many other evils?”

Some of us lead wretched lives from start to finish, but most of us lead middling lives–with a balance of ups and downs. For most of us, things could be so much worse.

Just consider for a moment all the terrible things which might happen to you in just one day, or just one week–that never actually happened. Around every corner lurk possible evils. Just lying in wait. Crouching in unseen, possible worlds. The Bates Motel at the end of one wrong turn.

Indeed, there are horror films in which that scenario plays out. Everything that can go wrong, does go wrong.

In which, the day before, everything was going all right for the protagonist–then the next day, inexplicably, things begin to take a turn for the worse. A losing streak. A run of back luck where every “chance,” every roll of the dice, comes up snake eyes.

Men are apt to view life as a gamble in which, “as the odds have it,” you win some and you lose some. Yet, “chances are,” it’s possible to lose every time. Evil nonevents (or possible, unexemplified evils) outnumber evil real events by nearly infinite orders of magnitude. Why doesn’t that happen far more often?

Why blame God for all the bad things that do happen when God gets no credit for all the bad things that don’t happen? What's the catch?

When we count our blessings, not only should we number the good things that befell us, but all the evil things that never befell us. And, from one day to the next, that’s quite a sum. Ever so many things might have gone so very wrong, yet never did. Why not?

Friday, February 26, 2010

God as novelist

Pastor Philip Spomer

Remember we’re not talking about anything false or merely apparent. This is because God is so much greater than us. Many objections, or conundrums, which we would have were we dealing with a finite power, do not apply.

A metaphor I often use in Bible classes goes like this. Take a novel that is placed in an historical setting, say, Gone With the Wind. The time surrounds the Civil War, say six years. If its author, Margaret Mitchell, were to say that she wrote it over a period of five months, it wouldn’t make sense to object by saying that it must have been six years in the making.

Of course Gone With the Wind is a fiction, but Margaret Mitchell is only a human being. God calls forth reality even from nothing. God writes our universe from without our universe.

An extra helping of Double Dave–with chocolate syrup, chopped nuts, whipped cream, and maraschino cherries


When Edward Reiss (whom I have defended against your slanders) protested against your relentless calumnies, he was full of himself, as well. It is your standard reply to anyone who disagrees with your Profound Wisdom. It goes beyond your anti-Catholicism. Those two guys ain't Catholics, but they are fair game simply because they disagreed with you.

Just keep doing that, Steve. You're making a fool of yourself in front of everyone. Anyone with an ounce of fairness can observe what is going on here. You wouldn't have a prayer in a court case with a jury. They would see right through your nonsense and asinine word-games.

Double Dave:

There is a larger picture that is usually neglected in reacting to these Luther citations: a neglect that is probably in large part due to natural partisan attachment (and also, a polemical, and/or anti-Catholic orientation in certain quarters).

A recent example of this sort of criticism that I am "anti-Luther" comes from Lutheran apologist Edward Reiss...Prominent online Lutheran pastor Paul McCain (LCMS) also took (on 2-19-10) one of his typically fact-challenged, uncharitable swipes at me, along the same lines.

A Skull above any other

Every now and then The Skulls is rerun on TV. It’s a silly, forgettable takeoff of Yale’s Skull & Bones society.

Yet, when you think of it, the appeal of secret societies has much in common with the appeal of the Roman church. Indeed, these intersect in many striking ways. For example, Mozart’s Magic Flute incorporates quite a few Masonic motifs. To what extent is the Magic Flute an allegory of the Roman church? Musicologists spill much ink debating that issue. Mozart was both a Free Mason and a pious Catholic.

The Skulls, with its fictitious secret society, has many of the props and trappings of the Roman church. Rites of initiation. A shrine. A hierarchy. Vestments. A rulebook. The “keys.” Blind allegiance.

And loads of lurid intrigue. Murder, deception, betrayal.

The more you think about it, isn’t the church of Rome the Freemasonry of Roman Emperors, patricians, Medieval kings and Continental monarchs? And, by extension, their servants and subjects?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

50% discount on Frame festschrift

I previously posted James Anderson's article from Speaking the Truth in Love.

Here he announces that P&R is currently offering a 50% discount on the book!

"Exploiting phobias"

"While You Are Distracted by the Summit, Obama Democrats Are Targeting the CIA"

New Directions in Pooh Studies

"New Directions in Pooh Studies: Überlieferungs- und religionsgeschichtliche Studien zum Pu-Buch"

Night of the Living Bovines

Because sequels to zombie flicks are never-ending, it's easy to forget the mother of all zombie flicks:

"Seven cows, plump and attractive, came up out of the Nile and fed in the reed grass. Seven other cows came up after them, poor and very ugly and thin, such as I had never seen in all the land of Egypt. And the thin, ugly cows ate up the first seven plump cows, but when they had eaten them no one would have known that they had eaten them, for they were still as ugly as at the beginning. Then I awoke" (Gen 41:18-21).

Free Will, Evil, and Divine Providence

Here are some excerpts from Derk Pereboom's essay on "Free Will, Evil, and Divine Providence."

HT: James Anderson

The Free Will Theodicy

A potential drawback for the rejection of libertarianism is that it rules out the free will theodicy, which is often thought to be the most powerful defense we have of divine goodness in the face of evil. The free will theodicy in systematized form dates back at least to early Christianity and perhaps to Zoroastrianism, and remains the most prominent of all theodicies.

On the most common version, God had the option of creating or refraining from creating libertarian significantly free beings -- beings with libertarian free will that can make choices between right and wrong. A risk incurred by creating such beings is that they might freely choose evil and the choice be unpreventable by God. Benefits include creatures having moral responsibility for their actions and being creators in their own right. Since the benefits outweigh the risks, God is morally justified in creating such significantly free beings, and he is not culpable when they choose wrongly.

But how plausible is this as a theodicy for the most horrible evils? If it isn’t very plausible, perhaps not much is relinquished by accepting a view that rules it out. A familiar problem is that many of the more horrible evils would not seem to be or result from freely willed decisions. People being injured and dying as a result of earthquake, volcanic eruptions, diseases – including mental illnesses that give rise to unfree immoral choices -- would not seem to result from freely willed decisions, and for this reason are standardly classified as natural as opposed to moral evils. But a further objection, raised by several critics, is that even if we have free will of the libertarian sort, and many of our choices are freely willed in this libertarian sense, the consequences of those decisions are preventable by God. In general, evil consequences are preventable effects of freely willed decisions. Or, God might intervene earlier on in the process.

Given the nature of libertarian free will, short of killing them or disabling their wills, God might not have been able to prevent the Nazi leadership from deciding to perpetrate genocide, but God could have nonetheless prevented or limited the genocide, by, say, by rendering the Nazi guns, trains, and gas chambers ineffective. One answer to this is Richard Swinburne’s, that if God were to regularly prevent such evils in this way, then we would not fully understand the kinds of consequences our decisions could have, and this would have considerable disvalue. But, one might argue, God might have intervened earlier yet in the process, by, for example, healing the bad effects of childhood abuse and trauma. Or rather than intervening, God might have designed us so that we were not nearly as vulnerable to experiences of this sort, and, more generally, less vulnerable to the kinds of psychological problems that play a role in motivating evil decisions.

Swinburne has developed a thorough response to these sorts of objections. He argues that it is not just freely willed decision tout court that has the relevantly high intrinsic value, but two characteristics in addition: freely willed decision’s accomplishing what the agent intended -- what he calls efficacious free will, and freely willed decision’s adjudicating between good and evil options each of which genuinely motivate the agent – serious free will, in his terminology.

Swinburne contends that it is serious and efficacious free will that has the intrinsic value high enough to justify God in sometimes not preventing the decidedly evil consequences of immoral decisions. His account is significant, for it does not avoid a proposal for the kind of value free will must possess to sustain the role in theodicy that so many believe it has. In his view, first of all, “the very fact of the agent having a free choice is a great good for the agent; and a greater good the more serious the kind of free will, even if it is incorrectly used.” Moreover, an agent “is an ultimate source in an even fuller way if the choices open to him cover the whole moral range, from the very good to the very wrong.” And indeed, “an agent who has serious and efficacious free will is in a much fuller way an ultimate source of the direction of things in the world” than one who does not. Furthermore, in preparation for his theodicy, Swinburne contends that:

It is a good for us if our experiences are not wasted but are used for the good of others, if they are the means of a benefit which would not have come to others without them, which will at least in part compensate for those experiences. It follows from this insight that it is a blessing for a person if the possibility of his suffering makes possible the good for others of having the free choice of hurting or harming them ... and of choosing to show or not show sympathy.”11

To illustrate the import of these claims for theodicy, Swinburne discusses the example of the slave trade from Africa in the eighteenth century. About this practice he writes -- in what is by now a well-known passage:

But God allowing this to occur made possible innumerable opportunities for very large numbers of people to contribute or not to contribute to the development of this culture; for slavers to choose to enslave or not; for plantation-owners to choose to buy slaves or not and to treat them well or ill; for ordinary white people and politicians to campaign for its abolition or not to bother, and to campaign for compensation for the victims or not to bother; and so on. There is also the great good for those who themselves suffered as slaves that their lives were not useless, their vulnerability to suffering made possibile many free choices, and thereby so many steps towards the formation of good or bad character.12

One problem for this line of thought is that it finds itself in opposition to strongly ingrained moral practice when horrible evil is at issue. First, as David Lewis points out, for us the evildoer’s freedom is a weightless consideration, not merely an outweighed consideration. When the slave traders come to take your children, and you are contemplating violent resistance, we do not expect you to consider the value of the slave traders’ efficacious but immoral free will, which would be high indeed if value of this sort could have the role in justifying God’s allowing the slave trade that Swinburne suggests it does. Moreover, if he is right, then when twenty slave traders have freely decided to try to take your children, ten times as much value of the sort he describes would be at stake as when there are only two, and there would be that much more reason not to resist. Moreover, all else being equal, there would be significantly less reason to harm in self-defense an opponent who appears to have free will then one who is known to be mentally ill and incapable of free decisions. None of this has a role in our ordinary moral practice.

A further problem for the free will theodicy is occasioned by Swinburne’s view that to choose freely to do what is right one must have a serious countervailing desire to refrain from doing what is right instead, strong enough that it could actually motivate a choice so to refrain. Swinburne thinks that this point supports the free will theodicy, since it can explain why God allows us to have desires to do evil, and, by extension, why God allows choices in accord with those desires.

But this claim rather serves to undermine the force of the free will theodicy as an explanation for many horrible evils. For we do not generally believe that the value of a free choice outweighs the disvalue of having desires to perform horribly evil actions, especially if they are strong enough to result in action. For example, the notion that it is more valuable than not for people to have a strong desire to abuse children for the reason that this gives them the opportunity to choose freely not to do so has no purchase on us. Our practice for people with desires of this sort is to provide them with therapy to diminish or eradicate such desires. We have no tendency to believe that the value of making a free decision not to abuse a child made in struggle against a desire to do so carries any weight against the proposal to provide this sort of therapy.

Furthermore, were we to encounter someone with a strong desire to abuse children but who nevertheless resisted actively seeking do so, we would not think that his condition has more value overall than one in which he never had the desire to abuse children in the first place.

Moreover, I daresay that a significant proportion of people alive today – well over 90% – has neither intentionally chosen a horrible evil nor had a genuine struggle with a desire to do so – they have never, for instance, tortured, maimed, or murdered, nor seriously struggled with desires to do so. But we do not think that their lives would have been more valuable had they possessed such desires even if every struggle against them had been successful. Thus it is questionable whether God would allow such desires in order to realize the value of certain free choices. This aspect of Swinburne’s theodicy may have some credibility with respect to evils that are not horrible, but much less, I think, when it comes to horrible evils. Here I would like to emphasize that if we thought free will did in fact have the proposed degree of intrinsic value, our moral practice would be decidedly different from what it is now — in ways that, given our moral sensibilities, we would find very disturbing.

Doing and Allowing

The libertarian view would appear to enjoy a considerable advantage precisely in making possible a theodicy for the consequences of freely willed evil decisions. For it need only grant that God allows these consequences, while divine determinism seems constrained to accept that God actively brings them about. When one envisions some particularly egregious past horror, it might be especially difficult to accept that God actively brought it about. I find it very difficult to reconcile myself to such particular claims. But is it any easier to reconcile oneself to the claim that God allows that specific horror? Suppose that you are subjected to abuse by someone who hates you. If the abuser had libertarian free will, then even though God did not actively bring about the decision to abuse you, God nevertheless allowed the consequences of this decision to occur while at the same time having the power to prevent them. In the divine determinist view, by contrast, God actively brings about these consequences. Factoring in providence, on the libertarian view, God allows the abuse to occur in order to realize a greater good, while on the determinist view, God actively brings it about in order to realize a greater good.

One should first note that while it is often held that actively bringing about or doing evil is prima facie morally worse than merely allowing evil, of course it is not as if allowing evil is generally morally permissible. Rather, in comparing the libertarian and determinist theological conceptions on this issue, the important question is this. Supposing that on the libertarian position God is justified in allowing evil consequences for the sake of some greater good, would it be morally worse for God actively to bring them about for the sake of that good?

The answer to this question depends at least in part on the nature of the good to be realized. In some cases God might well be justified in allowing the evil consequences, but not in actively bringing them about. By analogy, a parent might justifiably allow a child to play with matches, foreseeing that he might well incur a slight burn as a result, while it would be wrong for the parent to actively bring about that burn. But consider, for instance, the purported good of retributively justified punishment where the evil consequences in question are actively brought about by agents other than God who are not appropriate authorities for inflicting the punishment at issue. If these evils are to be justified as retributive punishment, it would actually seem better for God actively to bring them about than merely to allow these other agents to do so.

By analogy, if Lee Harvey Oswald did in fact kill John F. Kennedy, and if Oswald did deserve the death penalty, it would have been better for an appropriate authority to administer the penalty than for that authority to allow Jack Ruby to kill him. Assuming that God is an appropriate authority for punishment, it would then be better that God actively bring about some punishment than merely allow a person who is not an appropriate authority to do so.

Consider, furthermore, the good of soul-building that John Hick discusses. Suppose God knew that someone’s character would be significantly improved morally if he suffered in a certain way, and that God were justified in allowing the person to suffer on such grounds. Wouldn’t God then also be justified in actively bringing about the suffering on those grounds?

An apt analogy would seem to be that of say, Civil War surgery. Suppose the doctor knows that the patient will not survive unless he undergoes painful surgery. It is clearly not morally worse for the doctor to actually perform the surgery himself than it would be for him to allow another doctor to perform it.

Now indeed the intrinsic value of serious and efficacious free will would not be realizable if God actively caused rather than merely allowed the consequences of evil free decisions. But several key goods could be realized whether God actively brought about or merely allowed the suffering required for those goods, and for them it would appear at least as good for God to bring about the suffering as to allow it.

Seven Days in May


“The Nixon administration was involved in break-ins and various other illegal activities long before Watergate. That is why they couldn't just let the perpetrators hang. They feared Left within the United States, and they feared losing control of the White House because they thought a more dovish President might endanger the country.”

So you say, but I haven’t seen you furnish any evidence that Nixon was motivated by national security concerns. And, from what I’ve read, Nixon tried to pin the blame on the CIA–which would be rather odd if national security concerns were uppermost in his mind.

Seems to me that your filtering events through a Seven Days in May scenario.

“The point I have been making is that you don't break international and American law to do something unless you have good reason to believe that that's the only way to protect the country from serious disaster.”

I don’t concede that the Bush administration broke the law. Maybe it did and maybe didn’t. You can quote lawyers on both sides of that issue. Obviously John Yoo would beg to differ with your assessment.

I’m more interested in your philosophy of law.

“So if you were going to waterboard a terror suspect, you would have to know in advance that there was an active terror plot that the suspect knew about, that you couldn't get the information about it out of him any other way, but you could get that information out of him by waterboarding him.”

Well that badly misses the point. For interrogation is a primary means of acquiring advance knowledge of a terrorist attack.

“To waterboard someone without justification of that degree would, in my view be wrong.”

Of course, we’re not talking about “someone”–like your aunt Mae. No, we’re talking about a terrorist.

“Here I think it is easy to commit what I call the toughness fallacy. We know that these jihadists mean us nothing but harm, so the most effective response to them is the toughest response. Let's waterboard them and get them to tell us what they know. (After all, they're Muslims, and so they've probably been reprobated anyway. Whatever we do to them is nothing compared to what God has in store for them in eternal hell, so why not give them a little foretaste of the future?).”

Do you think that’s a serious characterization of the position you oppose? Where did you come up with that, anyway?

There is no prior assumption that the harshest methods are the most effective methods.

The issue, rather, is whether we should unilaterally disarm ourselves by refusing to use effective methods simply because our methods are coercive to one degree or another.

“Unfortunately, even though that's the tough think to do, I think it's not the smartest thing to do. Experts on interrogation have argued that while you may get someone to talk this way, you are likely not to get accurate information in so doing.”

You think that people like me are unacquainted with that objection? You think that people like me have no response to that objection?

In principle, it’s no different than the tactics which the police or FBI use. They arrest a flunky. They threaten him with hard time unless he spills the beans on the boss. But if he cooperates with the authorities, he’ll get off light.

Do they assume that what he tells them is true? No. They simply treat that as a lead. They then pursue the lead to see where it takes them.

However, the suspect is motivated to tell them the truth, for if he gives them a false lead, that will come back to bite him. If the lead turns out to be a false lead, then he’s worse off than he was before. He only gets the plea deal in case the information checks out.

There’s a similar dynamic when it comes to the interrogation of a terrorist. Lying to the interrogator only buys you a temporary reprieve.

Have you even made the slighted effort to think this through, Victor? Or do you just glom onto whatever argument dovetails with your prejudice?

“Where is the hard evidence that we stopped any terror attacks this way?”

i) Well, to take one example of many, John Brennan, Obama’s chief advisor on counterterrorism, has said Bush administration policies (e.g. rendition, enhanced interrogation) saved lives.

ii) More to the point, however, is the way you’ve rigged the burden of proof. You think that, when in doubt, we should give the terrorist the benefit of the doubt. When in doubt, put the public at risk rather than the terrorist.

I don’t share your priorities.

“Special ops may like doing this, because it gets results on their end, but it might do no good or worse than no good where the terror activity is actually going on.”

Of course, the purpose of eliciting this information is to prevent certain types of terrorist activity.

“It's a little like the just war theory. When you use means that are ordinarily immoral to achieve a moral goal, it has to be the case that the means-end relationship is going to work. Otherwise, you were breaking all sorts of moral rules, not to mention international law, for nothing.”

Of course, that’s a straw man. No one is suggesting that we break the rules “for nothing.”

“No I'm probably enough of a deontologist that I wouldn't support waterboarding even if it would do more good than harm overall.”

Fellow deontologists like Jeremy Pierce don’t share your sentiments. So even if deontological ethics were the only way to go, that underdetermines your position on coercive interrogation.

“What I am saying is that the evidence suggests that we didn't have adequate reason for taking the moral risk involved in waterboarding.”

i) I don’t view that as a “moral risk.”

ii) A number of credible individuals disagree with you. Take Michael Hayden, for instance.

“Assuming that we are going to be enough of a teleologist in ethics to say that the end, in this case, might justify the means, we have to be sure that we could achieve the end by using the means, and we couldn't achieve the end without using the means.”

We almost never have “certainty” in warfare or counterterrorism. That’s an absurdly unrealistic standard. What we have are probabilities and risk assessments.

That’s the world we live in, Victor.

“In the case of the ‘underwear bomber’ people were saying it was too bad we couldn't waterboard him. But the fact is he was singing like a canary without such coercive interrogation techniques.”

i) I have no opinion on whether or not we should waterboard a terrorist. I’m not advocating a particular technique. And I expect that the efficacy of a given technique varies from one terrorist to another.

ii) Rather, my position is that we should give interrogators a certain amount of leeway to use the methods which they deem effective.

That doesn’t mean anything goes. But that also doesn’t mean we unilaterally disarm ourselves and don love beads to ward off suicide bombers.

iii) One of the problems with Mirandizing a terrorist is that you transfer the balance of power from the interrogator to the terrorist. The terrorist is now in control, not the interrogator. You have given the terrorist the right to speak or remain silent. And if he chooses to speak, he only does so on his own terms.

“Do people understand that we brutalize ourselves when we allow ourselves to torture others, not matter what the reasons?”

i) I don’t know what you classify as torture. Is sleep deprivation torture in your book?

ii) And as far as “moral risk” is concerned, I’m far more concerned with the moral risk of failing to protect the innocent from wanton death and destruction. That’s where our primary obligation lies.

iii) No one is suggesting that we coerce an individual “no matter what the reasons.”

That’s a straw man argument. It betrays your inability to have a philosophically serious engagement of the issues.

“I believe in the rule of law, but I think if there is enough evidence that breaking the law will do enormous good, then a case might be made for breaking it.”

i) Do you feel the same way about jaywalking?

You set the bar so high that you remind me of a phobic individual who lives in fear of accidentally stepping on cracks and lines in the sidewalk.

ii) Human laws are manmade rules, Victor. Enacting into law by shortsighted men who tend to be crisis-driven. Laws that fail to anticipate unforeseen circumstances.

We need to be adaptable, Victor. Do we exist for the sake of the law, or does the law exist for our sake?

A set of laws should never become a trap that prevents us from moving out of harm’s way. As if we should sit there and wait to be mowed down because we mustn’t break our own rules.

If we made it, we can break it.

This is not a game of chess or poker or hocky or football. If you lose a game, it’s only a game. If you lose your life, there is no rematch.

iii) It’s also disingenuous for you to keep retreating into the rule of law. After all, it only takes an act of Congress or judicial ruling to change the law.

If Congress legalized waterboarding tomorrow, would you still take refuge in the rule of law? No. Because you disapprove of waterboarding. So the legality or illegality of the practice is irrelevant to your actual position.

iv) Keep in mind that I don’t concede your premise (i.e. laws were broken). I’m discussing your position for the sake of argument.

“We have nowhere near the necessary evidence in the waterboarding cases.”

Once again, Victor, that’s circular. Interrogation is a means of gaining the necessary evidence in the first place–to forestall an impending attack.

Your position reminds me of epic movies about the Napoleonic wars. Units have to stand in formation on the battlefield as cannon balls mow them down. They’re not allowed to move aside when they see the cannon ball coming–cuz that would be against the rules, ya know.

Instead, they’re supposed to stand there like toy soldiers as row after row are flattened by incoming ordnance.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Presuppositionalism and Frame's Epistemology

Here is James Anderson's chapter from the Festschrift for John Frame.

The Role of the Bishop of Rome in the Communion of the Church in the First Millennium

The Role of the Bishop of Rome in the Communion of the Church in the First Millennium

Joint Coordinating Committee for the Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church

Charlemagne's coronation in 800 by Pope Leo III marked the beginning of a new era in the history of papal claims. A further factor leading to differences between East and West was the emergence of the False Decretals (c. 850), which aimed towards strengthening Roman authority in order to protect the bishops. The Decretals played an enormous role in the following centuries, as popes gradually started to act in the spirit of the Decretals, which declared, for instance, that all major issues (causae maiores), especially the deposition of bishops and metropolitans, were the ultimate responsibility of the bishop of Rome, and that all councils and synods received their legal authority through being confirmed by the Roman see. The patriarchs of Constantinople did not accept such a view, which was contrary to the principle of synodality. Though the Decretals, in fact, did not refer to the East, at a later stage, in the second millennium, they were applied to the East by Western figures. Despite such increasing tensions, in the year 1000 Christians in both the West and the East were still conscious of belonging to a single undivided Church.

The early emphasis on the link of the see of Rome with both Peter and Paul gradually developed in the West into a more specific link between the bishop of Rome and the apostle Peter. Pope Stephen (mid-3rd century) was the first to apply Mt 16:18 ("you are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church") to his own office. The Council of Constantinople in 381 specified that Constantinople should have the second place after Rome: "Because it is New Rome, the bishop of Constantinople is to enjoy seniority of honour after the bishop of Rome" (canon 3). The criterion invoked by the Council for the ordering of sees was thus not apostolic foundation but the status of the city in the civil organisation of the Roman Empire.

Fragging James White

A friend drew my attention to Peter Lumpkins’ hit-piece attacking James White.

1.Hovering in the background of the immediate dustup is the future of the SBC. Lumpkins is a diehard who views the Reformed resurgence in the SBC as a hostile takeover. If he laid his cards on the table, that’s his ulterior agenda.

2.Apropos (1), although I’m not at liberty to disclose my sources, I do have insider information regarding the Machiavellian tactics that anti-Calvinists in the SBC engage in. And I’m not using “Machiavellian” hyperbolically. They really are that ruthless, unscrupulous, and cutthroat.

So I’m afraid I can’t buy into the victimology of the anti-Calvinists.

3.The charge of cowardice is ridiculous on the face of it. White engages in formal, public debates with notable representatives of the opposing position. He also has a call-in radio show. Those are not the tactics of a coward.

Indeed, as far as cowardice goes, why doesn’t Lumpkins level his allegations in the live, public forum of the DL? He’s very brave as long as he’s talking about White, but when it comes to talking to White, with others overhearing the exchange, his valor deserts him.

4.White also has to contend with fraggers, of which Lumpkins is just another case in point.

While White is out on the frontlines, arguing down various enemies of the faith, you have professing Christians who shoot him in the back.

And, of course, enemies of the faith use this as additional ammo to attack White. They quote this stuff.

The unprovoked fragging of a Christian apologist, where someone in the camp tries to cut him down in plain view of the enemy, is mutinous to the cause of Christ.

I suppose Lumpkins would say that White is guilty of the same thing in reverse, but to my knowledge, White is responding to these attacks, not initiating the attacks.

Fraggers like Lumpkins never defend the faith themselves, yet they attack those who do. Lumpkins is just a fifth-column anklebiter who does nothing useful in his own right, but make every effort to sabotage the fine work of others.

5.As for the ethics of posting private email, if a man says one thing in public, but another thing in private–then it’s sometimes necessary to set the record straight.

Confidentially is not absolute, especially when confidentially is misused as a shield to conceal unethical behavior–like the relationship between the Don and his consigliere.

6.The issue of Caner is the issue of resume inflation. Did he pad his resume with bogus achievements? Did he get his job under false pretenses?

I’m not going to volunteer an opinion on that since I haven’t bothered to study the question in depth. But there’s nothing wrong with raising the question if there’s prima facie evidence of resume inflation.

Does Lumpkins think that Christians should engage in a cover-up? That’s the attitude of the Catholic church, which has been stonewalling the authorities for years on the priestly abuse scandal.

Is that Lumpkins’ position, to? The code of silence? The SBC version of the Mafia omertà?

7.His response is to turn the tables and accuse White of resume inflation. But even if, for the sake of argument, that were true, how does that exonerate Caner?

To my knowledge, White has never falsified his record. He never padded his resume with bogus degrees or awards he never received.

8.As to having degrees from unaccredited institutions, there are various reasons why some people attend unaccredited institutions.

i) It some cases the reason is financial. Not everyone was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Most folks don’t come from money. Their parents can’t bankroll an Ivy League education.

And since, historically, the SBC has been a working class/middle class denomination, I don’t know why Lumpkins would look down on unaccredited institutions. He sounds like a stuffy, snobby Episcopalian.

ii) Another problem is the lack of a Baptist equivalent to Westminster. Where is a Reformed Baptist supposed to study?

He can study at a seminary like WSC which is Reformed, but hostile to Baptists (i.e. Scott Clark)–or he can study at a seminary which is Baptist, but hostile to Reformed theology.

The closest thing we have to it nowadays is SBTS under Albert Mohler. But that wasn’t an option when White began his studies.

iii) Some seminaries also opt out of the accreditation system to avoid the censorship of accreditation agencies.

That has its tradeoffs, but it’s a respectable rationale.

iv) Some people do so for convenience. The programs may be more flexible, or closer to home. Or have a distance education option.

From what I’ve heard, James White did his academic work at CES because it was never his ambitious to be a college prof. or seminary prof. He wasn’t pursuing a tenure-track career. Instead, he prefers the local church as his base of operations.

Reppert, Cheney, & Nixon

Cheney says he was a big supporter of waterboarding

"When the President Does it, That Means That it is Not Illegal" - Richard Milhous Nixon.

Labels: torture

posted by Victor Reppert @ 1:50 PM

At February 19, 2010 4:51 PM , steve said...

So what's you're point? That whatever is legal is smart and moral whereas whatever is illegal is dumb and immoral?

What side were you on during the civil rights movement or the anti-war movement in the 60s?

Were you a member of the John Birch Society?

At February 23, 2010 8:20 AM , steve said...

Victor Reppert said...

“Actually, in the 60s I was pretty much a Goldwater Republican.”

So it’s been downhill from there.

“The sixties ended when I was a high school junior, and I didn't lose my faith in Republicans until the aftermath of Watergate. ”

Don’t you think that’s rather immature? You can only lose your faith in a political party if you put your faith in a political party to begin with. But why harbor such an idealistic, and easily disillusioned, view of the political process? A party is just a pragmatic alliance of the individuals who share enough in common to band together in the furtherance of their political agenda.

Both parties have their share of scandals since both parties support flawed candidates.

“The Bush Administration reminds me a lot of the Nixon Administration. Both administrations thought that our country was under threat, that it had to do what it had to do to protect America, even if it involved violating the law.”

I don’t recall that national security was Nixon’s incentive. As I recall, he was paranoid about the possibility of losing reelection to McGovern.

And keep in mind that Nixon wasn’t all that hawkish. He and Kissinger were into détente, remember?

“In fact Cheney is on record as saying that Nixon should not have been removed from office, since he was only doing what he had the right to do for the sake of national security.”

Care to provide the source and the quote?

“The only difference between Nixon and Bush-Cheney is that Tricky Dick taped himself. So now, instead of an 18 1/2 minute gap, we have millions of missing e-mails.”

Well, if I thought that I’d be prosecuted by a collaborator like Eric Holder for the “crime” of trying to protect my fellow citizens from the jihadis, then I’d be motivated to cover my tracks as well.

“It could, I suppose, turn out that the break-ins under Nixon, and the waterboarding under Bush-Cheney, were necessary to protect our country from some catastrophe.”

Of course, that’s a sloppy comparison from a sloppy philosopher.

“…and therefore have a utilitarian justification despite being violations of national and international law.”

Since I’m not a lawyer, much less a lawyer in the relevant branches of law, I, unlike you, won’t presume of venture an opinion on the legality (or not) of their actions.

However, I’d note in passing that you’re a fanatic about the “rule of law.” You act as if the law is an end in itself rather than a means to an end. A serious philosopher wouldn’t begin by asking whether or not the law was broken. Rather, a serious philosopher would begin by asking whether or not the preexisting laws were adequate to the task.

Are you such a rule-bound individual that you never question the rules? Do you think manmade rules ought to be followed regardless how stupid or counterproductive they might be? Regardless of whether they may have outlived their usefulness–assuming they ever had any?

Should we be trapped by the rules we make? Do we exist for the sake of the rules, or do the rules exist for our sake?

Aren’t those the questions a real philosopher out to ask?

“I think we have good grounds for skepticism in both cases. I think that both administrations answered the seductive call of the arrogance of power.”

Not to mention my scepticism about a smug, thankless philosophy prof. who has no answers to real-world problems, but is sure we should go after those who dared to protect us from our sworn enemies–rather than going after our sworn enemies.

Prejean's self-destructive apologetics

One can always count on Jonathan Prejean to carry his Catholic presuppositions to their logical absurdity:

“That brings me to my point. Someone who, like an Arian, a Nestorian, a Judaizer, a Pharisee, or a Calvinist, believes something logically inconsistent with Jesus Christ being divine has problems that aren't going to be fixed by appeal to Scripture, even if he ostensibly accepts their authority.”

i) Needless to say, a Calvinist doesn’t believe something logically inconsistent with Jesus being divine.

For that matter, when has Prejean ever attempted to mount a full-blown argument for the deity of Christ? All you’ll ever get from Prejean is a citation from some historical monograph on the finer points of patristic Christology.

But Prejean has admitted in the past that he can’t prove Roman Catholicism. Instead, he retreats into Mormon-style apologetics. It’s something you have to feel via the sacraments.

ii) But more to the point, this is Prejean’s ham-handed attempt at a preemptive strike. He knows that he can never defend his Catholic dogmas on the basis of divine revelation, so he attempts to preempt an appeal to Scripture by these blocking maneuvers.

Of course, to use his own example, imagine a Pharisee using that type of rejoinder when Jesus, the Apostles, NT writers, and NT missionaries appealed to Messianic prophecy to establish the claims of Jesus?

According to Caiaphas, “Someone who, like Jesus, or St. Paul, or St. John, believes something logically inconsistent with ethical monotheism has problems that aren't going to be fixed by appeal to Scripture, even if he ostensibly accepts their authority.”

Back to Prejean:

“Moreover, the very concept of ‘inspiration’ *supposes* an orthodox account of the Trinity. If one does not have a correct and consistent belief in the Holy Spirit and the mediating role of the Son, then how can one have an adequate rational understanding of inspiration?”

So OT Jews, who couldn’t define inspiration in terms of Nicene theology, lacked an adequate rational understanding of inspiration?

Does this mean they were excused from having to obey the Mosaic law or the word of the prophets?

“Certainly, Israel had reasons to believe Scripture on account of a direct, historical interaction, but that was clearly inadequate even on its own terms for all of humanity. The Christian revelation corrected this deficiency; Jesus Himself said this as well.”

So even though the NT commends the faith of gentile Godfearers and proselytes who converted to the Jewish faith prior to the Christian revelation, their reasons for believing the OT scriptures were “clearly inadequate.”

According to Prejean, they should have remained pagans.

“The same can be said of the authority of the Apostles; the reason they have authority for us is *because* they recognized Jesus Christ as God.”

Does Billy Graham have authority for Catholics because Graham recognizes Jesus Christ as God?

“…i.e., they witness what we ourselves have seen.”

i) The apostles witness what we ourselves have seen? Is Prejean having visions of Jesus?

ii) Is that a precondition for believing the apostles? Must every individual have a personal visitation from Jesus before he acknowledges the authority of the apostles?

iii) Of course, if you’ve witnessed Jesus for yourself, then why would you even need the witness of a second party?

“See my comment to David W. above. The problem with sola scriptura as a normative principle is that you can interpret it according to an incompatible Christology, in which case your very concept of Scriptural authority can be defective in the first place.”

Of course, that’s a false dichotomy inasmuch as Scriptural Christology dovetails with Scriptural authority, and vice versa.

“Likewise, if you interpret the Scriptural authors as sharing these defective premises (e.g., that there can be a human person Jesus Christ joined with the Word of God who can be worshipped as the Word of God), then you can arrive at consistent interpretations that are nevertheless wrong. You need more information than the content of Scripture to be able to usefully interpret it, which is necessary for anything to be normatively authoritative.”

i) Why do we need more information than Biblical revelation to have a correct Christology? More information would be something other than revelation. But if our Christology is based on something other than God’s self-revelation, then it’s not a revelation of God. Rather, it only tells us what uninspired men imagine that God is like.

ii) There is also the question of whether our Christology should have lots of nice refinements which go beyond what we can infer from Scripture.

Nazareth House

Nuns 'abused hundreds of children.'

What’s wrong with having lots of denominations?

Article from Gene Veith.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Prettiness is next to godliness

Perry Robinson posted the following quote on his blog:

“At the same time, in spite of these laudable efforts, [Paul Jacobs and Richard Muller] it is difficult to avoid the impresison that at a crucial level Calvin has failed to integrate his doctrine of election thoroughly with the broader trinitarian theology of revelation, redemption, and human response that we are highlighting here. For example, in Comm. John 17:9, Calvin asserts that Christ ‘commends to the Father only those whom the Father himself willingly loves.’ Here, as at many other points, the will of the Father is understood as something omniously arbitrary, rather than as being intrinsically and perichoretically related to the divine manifestation of grace in the Son. Examples could be multiplied. It appears that in spite of the helpful trinitarian direction Calvin has taken in formulating his undersanding of the divine-human relationship, at the point of the doctrine of election his normal emphasis on the thorough perichoresis of Father, Son and Spirit in the divine operations has been effectively and inexplicably suspended.”

Philip Walker Butin, Revelation, Redemption and Response: Calvin’s Trinitarian Understanding of the Divine-Human Relationship, Oxford, 1995, 168, ednt. 6.

“It may be taken as further evidence of his committment to the perichoresis of the trinitarian hypostaseis in God’s economic work that Calvin consistently qualifies the statement that ‘God is the proper object of faith’ with the immediate affirmation that access to God is only through Christ (1159 Institutes II.6.2,4; cf. III.2.6), which appears to turn the relationship around, asserting that the Father offers Christ to us ‘as the goal of our faith’). However, as we have suggested earlier, Calvin is not entirely consistent in focusing faith on God’s benevolence as expressed in Christ. His commitment to the doctrine of the ‘double decree’ (cf. 1559 Institutes III.21.1ff.) leads to the a priori exclusion of the reprobate from this Christological access to God by faith. This results at certain points in severe tension between his otherwise trinitarian paradigm of revelation, redemption, and human response and his doctrine of election. For example, in the1159 Institutes III.2.9-12, he appears to theologically justify the concept of the ‘double decree’ by making a deliberate exception to his normally characteristic insistence that the work of the Son and the Spirit be held together in the exonomy of redemption. Thus-in the attempt to explain why some who appear to believe are not ultimately saved (vf. Hebrews 6:4-6)-he can speak of a ‘lower working of the Spirit…in the reprobate.’ This stirs in them a sense that God is merciful toward them and allows them to ‘recognize his grace,’ but apparently operates apart from the effectual grace that God offers in the Son, and hence does not lead to saving faith (1559 Institutes III.2.11). It seems that Calvin never faced the omnious theological implicaitons of this move for a doctrine of the Trinity that otherwise wants to hold that God’s immanent trinitarian relations are consistently reflected in the ad extra activity of the hypostaseis. In addition, at this point he seems inexplicably to suspend his otherwise rigorous insistence on the thoroughgoing perichoresis for the doctrine of the divine decrees. Rather, he applies that paradigm only to the issue of the elect believer’s assurance of election, while the operation of election itself is apparently excempted from the consistency with God’s otherwise trinitarian nature, and left to an inscrutable divine will.”

Ibid., 189., ednt. 81.

Butin’s objection, which Perry quotes with approval, is ultimately aesthetic. He apparently finds fault with Calvin’s theology because Calvin’s doctrine of predestination spoils the elegant triadic symmetry.

Butin notes that Calvin does this in light of how he understood passages like Jn 17:9 and Heb 6:4-6.

What’s striking about this criticism is that Butin doesn’t take issue with Calvin’s exegesis of Jn 17 (or Heb 6). After all, doesn’t Jn 17 repeatedly single out the Father as the person of the Godhead who “gives” a people to the Son?

What does Butin (or Perry) think that Calvin is supposed to do in the face of this fact? Should Calvin say, Yes, Jesus–in Jn 17–assigns election to the person of the Father, but that would introduce an unsightly, asymmetrical dynamic into the Trinity; therefore, it’s better to sacrifice what Jesus said to preserve the elegant symmetry of our theological system than sacrifice an artificial symmetry to preserve what Jesus said.

Calvin was a poor theologian because he clung to the uncouth idea that what we believe God is like should correspond to…well…to what God is like. You know, God’s self-revelation.

If only Calvin brought a more artistic sensibility to doing theology. Pretty it up like a formal garden with sculptured hedges and geometrical figures.

Monday, February 22, 2010

"Ever eat a pine tree?"

"For instance, a 'literal' interpretation of Genesis 1-2 does not require the granularity of YEC but can employ a literary framework approach to discern the content."’m-neither-a-creationist-nor-an-evolutionist/

As Euell Gibbons might say, the taste of young-earth creationism reminds me of wild hickory nuts.

Two-story morality

Catholic men revere women–as long as you happen to be the right kind of women. If you’re a nun, you’re put on a pedestal. If you’re the BVM, you’re put on a pedestal.

Conversely, if a Protestant has the temerity to satirize this aspect of Catholic piety, devout Catholics react as if you were satirizing their own mother or sister.

That may sound very chivalrous and all, but it also fosters a very bifurcated view of women. For Catholic culture tends to swing back and forth between viewing women as saints and woman as whores–without much in-between.

For example, I don’t find Catholic men rising up in arms when Italian directors depict ordinary women in slutty terms. I don’t see the Vatican or the Conference of Bishops calling on the faithful to boycott Fellini films–to take one example.

If a director did that with a nun, that’s sacrilege–but if it’s the girl-next-door, well, that’s art.

I remember once reading a transcript of a radio talk show host interviewing the late Franco Corelli. I read it to see what Corelli had to say about vocal technique, as well as his professional opinion of other famous tenors.

But as it turned out, in the course of the interviewer, the host also asked him some questions about his life and career. Corelli volunteered that, as a young man, he used to frequent the local brothels. He said this without any tinge of shame or regret.

As I recall, this interview was originally broadcast live on a New York radio station. Yet there was no self-consciousness on his part that perhaps, just perhaps, frequenting with prostitutes isn’t entirely commendable behavior.

And this didn’t hinder him from recording different settings of the Ave Maria.

For him, the convent was one thing, the whorehouse another–and each had its place as long as you didn’t confuse the sign on the door.

For him, there were the “good” women (Mary, nuns), and then there were all the rest. I’m sure he’d make an exception for his own mother or sister–but not for your sister.

Catholic piety fosters a two-story morality: a nunnery or monastery on the second floor, but downstairs is another story–in more ways than one.

Beware of Catholic apologists bearing "gifted lawyers"

Mark Shea has posted a guest editorial by a "gifted lawyer."

"Triablogue’s disctintion between a 'fetishism' that regards objects as having spiritual power by virtue of 'inherent holiness' and a 'fetishism' that regards objects as having spiritual power because of 'ascriptive holiness' is very interesting. "

Of course, I never said that some objects actually have inherent holiness. Rather, I drew a conceptual distinction to illustrate that, for Catholics, what makes a priest or monk or nun a holy person is, first and foremost, the ascriptive holiness of their vocation, and not their inherent sanctity.

Nor was I myself endorsing their ascriptive holiness. I was simply describing the system on its own terms.

"Apparently so, because Triablogue asserts that 'there’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of ritual purity or impurity' and 'God has actually authorized' holy inanimate things like 'holy time' and 'holy space.'"

That would be a case of ascriptive holiness rather than actual holiness. And it must be specified by God.

"In addition to 'holy time' and 'holy space' it would be interesting to learn about other objects which Protestants believe to confer 'ritual purity.'"

I didn't address the question of whether "sacred" objects confer "ritual purity." And even if that's sometimes the case, the fact that (say), a Mosaic rite conferred ritual purity doesn't mean an extrabiblical rite confers ritual purity.

"It would be interesting to know that equally-ignorant Protestant farmers tried to feed the Bible to their cows. (Would one chapter of Luke cure, or is the entire book required?"

I never said the paper and ink of Scripture is holy. Is this lawyer simply dense?

Maybe he thinks it's a clever satire, but satire needs an element of truth to work.

"So the question remains; what is it that Protestants do with 'holy' physical things?"

I never said there were holy physical things in the church age.

"According to Triablogue, Protestants acquire 'ritual purity.'"

Except that he can't actually quote me on that. Is he just obtuse?

"What 'ritual purity' might be isn’t really explained."

If he read a standard commentary on Leviticus (to take one example), he'd understand.

"In the end, however, Triablogue rightly admits the efficacious place of rituals in Christian life and worship."

I made no such admission. And even if a ritual were "efficacious," it would only be efficacious in conferring ritual purity, not actual purity.

"...a thing or action that has spiritual/magical power."

That accurately describes the Catholic notion. But it's not the biblical notion of ritual purity.

"As Triablogue rightly admits, anyone who has even a passing familiarity with the Bible knows that rituals are efficacious in becoming pure before God."

Which is not what I said. Isn't this guy a lawyer? Don't you hire a lawyer to read the fine print? For a lawyer, his reading skills are lamentable.

"What Triablogue really means to say is that Protestant fetishes are good because they’re 'really' holy..."

Except that I didn't say that or imply that. He's such a knucklehead. Some folks are never dumber than when they try to be clever. The effort to seem clever merely exposes their ineptitude.

"First, Protestantism teaches that through the Fall man became entirely evil, the willing servant of Satan in all things, un-utrerably wicked in every thought and deed. Second, Protestantism teaches that the grace which redeems man from this evil is irresistable; when it is granted, no human being can choose to deny it or hinder its effect. Third, Protestantism teaches that Scripture inevitably leads the grace-filled to the right beliefs expressed in various credos the Westminster Catchism or Calvin’s Institutes."

A stereotypical caricature or congeries of half-truths.

"Anglican nuns aren’t relevant to Triablogue’s depiction..."

Since I'm not Anglican, so what?

"Infant baptism and the Real Presence aren’t relevant to Triablogue’s idea of perverse..."

Infant baptism and the real presence are separate issues. It's possible to affirm both, deny both, or affirm one but not the other.

"So that’s what Triablogue believes -- God has forgiven his sins, so he may whore all he likes!"

Of course, I don't limit divine grace to objective grace.

"To follow Triablogue’s line of thought, Protestants can wax eloquent over the lifestyle of John Knox or St. Paul or Martin Luther while they themselves are free to live like Henry VIII, Horst Wessel, or Elmer Gantry and Sister Falconer, christening their infants at baptismal fonts (more popery!) decorated with Adolf Hitler – all because they delegate ‘discipleship’ to ministers, televangelists and other stand-ins."

i) Of course, Protestant role models don't have the same theological significance in Protestant theology that priests, monks, and nuns have in Catholicism.

If we regard John Knox as a role model, it's not because of his institutional position, but because of his actual wisdom or sanctity (by the grace of God).

ii) Moreover, the lawyer is comparing one denomination (Roman Catholicism) with many Protestant denominations or movements. But it's fallacious to suggest that if I view John Knox as a role model, I must also view Benny Hinn as a role model.

iii) Why is he bringing up Adolf Hitler? Wasn't Hitler baptized and raised Roman Catholic? Why is that comparison my problem?

"I wonder what 'practical impact' the abuse scandals are supposed to have on Catholics, so that Triablogue can say there is none."

For starters, defrocking complicit bishops. Prosecuting complicit bishops. And reforming the institutional policies which promote this abuse (e.g. mandatory celibacy).

"The only "practical impact" I can think of is that Catholics might stop believing in their heresies, give up their fetishes, and turn to the One True Gospel of the Reformed[TM]."

Well, that would be ideal.

"Twenty-four Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist and Anglican churches and organizations whose clergy and employees were guilty of sexually, psychologically and physically abusing children."

Which misses the point. As Protestants, we aren't tied to corrupt institutions or corrupt officeholders.

"Giving up one’s faith because of scandals like Nazareth House makes sense if scandals like Nazareth House were the sum of one’s faith."

Losing faith in a corrupt institution is a good thing. That's hardly equivalent to losing faith in Christ.

"Or, like Triablogue, they think people who believes in transubstantiation, indulgences and papal infallibility are programmed to be sadomasochistic perverts or enablers of sadomasochistic perverts."

Maybe because they are enablers. Wasn't the papacy aware of priestly abuse before the story broke? Didn't the Vatican review many such cases? Didn't the Vatican have to greenlight those out-of-court settlements, with their confidentiality agreements?

" the Iron Triangle’s "sin proves heresy" paradigm.

Which wasn't my argument.

"Surely such nominally-Protestant sinners were never truly, truuly reformed believers. If they had been truly, truuuly reformed, irresistable grace would have kept them from beating and raping children, exterminating native cultures, or running suicide cults. Adolf Eichmann was raised as a Protestant? So what."

If he thinks that born-again Christians commit child rape or run suicide cults, then that's a revealing window into his theological outlook.

"The Protestant Reformation and Counter-reformation wars, starting in the 16th century, were perpetrated by those in charge of church. All sides, Lutheran, Calvinist, Catholic and Anglican, believed that one could follow Jesus and simultaneously massacre members of the body of Christ who were not part of their particular fellowship."

The papacy waged war on the Protestant movement. Moreover, was that the general view of the rank-and-file, or was that royal policy–where ambitious monarchs conscripted able-bodied men to advance their political aims?

"The American Civil War resulted in the brutal deaths of over 600,000 Americans, virtually all-claiming Christianity as their faith."

Has he ever heard of the draft? Were these all volunteers?

"The North used the Bible as justification for total war."

Was Gen. Sherman or Gen. Grant a devout Christian?

"The atomic bombing of Nagasaki annihilated the historical and spiritual center of Oriental Christianity. That bombing is still regarded as pointless overkill by all credible historians. Did you know that an all-Christian bomb crew carried out that bombing? And did you know that mission was solemnly blessed by its Catholic and Lutheran chaplains?"

Aside from the fact that that's a very lopsided version of the argument, how does mentioning the benediction of Catholic chaplains for a mission that the Catholic commenter deplores help to make his case for Catholicism?

"The on-going genocide of indigenous peoples ever since the time of Columbus are [sic] largely accomplished with the full knowledge, consent and participation of decent, "God-fearing" Christians."

You mean the Spaniards? Conquistators? Weren't they from the most devoutly Catholic nation in Europe at that time?

"The true God, whose children aren’t drunk on the blood of martyrs, is worshipped by the anabaptists -- peaceful people whom Philip Melancthon and Martin Luther wanted to exterminate."

If that is meant to exclude the Magisterial Reformation, it also excludes the church of Rome. So what did the commenter just accomplish?

" Yes, that’s your reflection in the mirror, Triablogue. How do you like you now?"

Since I don't subscribe to identity politics, it has no bearing on me personally. I don't define myself in institutional terms the way a Catholic must. Therefore, the attempt at collective guilt falls flat.

"Why not? Applying the Iron Triangle’s 'sin proves falsehood' test..."

A simpleminded caricature of my stated position.

"...a hundred thousand Klansmen marching in Washington prove that sola scriptura is just an excuse for thuggery."

That's a very odd comparison. For, by the commenter’s logic, we shouldn't judge racist ideology by incidental abuses like lynching. That would be so unfair, you know.

"As Triablogue might say, Mennonite indifference to -- even complicity in -- evil has had no practical effect on them, because they keep on being anabaptists. No doubt this represents a sickening flaw in anabaptist theology, but if it’s not indulgences or papal infallibility I’m not sure what Triablogue would identify."

Since I'm not a Mennonite, the onus is hardly on me to defend Mennonite theory and practice. And, as a matter of fact, I do think that Mennonite pacifism is deeply flawed. So the comparison backfires.

"That still leaves Triablogue with Lutheran, Presbyterian and Evangelical pastors molesting children on a shocking scale..."

He hasn't cited any statistical evidence that they do so on a "shocking scale."

And if, say, a denomination, or local church, or Evangelical college, or seminary, or individual pastor, were guilty, then the perpetrators ought to be brought to justice and (where applicable), they should also be defrocked.

Moreover, some institutions can become hopelessly compromised, at which point the faithful have a duty to pack their bags and go elsewhere.

"And Triablogue rightly admits that Protestants have fetishes in the proper definition of the word..."

Except that I didn't.

BTW, I'm not "Triablogue." Triablogue is not a proper name. Rather, it's a group blog. I only speak for myself.

"Therefore, one might wrongly conclude, Catholicism encourages devotees to believe that inflicting pain on children is spiritually-uplifting, or at least spiritually-benign."

No, that wasn't the point. The point is that Catholics revere nuns in the abstract. I was drawing attention to the sometimes drastic discrepancy between Hallmark card imagery and the sordid reality.

"Homoeroticism, pain to abuse victims, pain as a priest’s spritual experience -- it’s all tied together, plain as the nose on your face -- somehow."

Which I didn't argue.

"Protestants aren’t molesting boys because they read about David and Jonathan."

What's that supposed to me? Does the Catholic commenter share the interpretation of homosexual propagandists?

In fact, either he or Shea actually linked to an article defending that interpretation:

"Did God bless David and Jonathan, a same sex couple in romantic, committed, sexual partnership?"

Is this what Catholic apologetics has come to?

If his response reflects the work of a "gifted lawyer" who coauthored one of Shea's books, then it's time to return the gift for a refund.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Moral cretinism


“Have you actually read the passage?”

No, never read it. You see, whenever I reach the bottom of Mt 25:34, I skip vv35-40 to get straight to the fun stuff in v41–then skip vv42-45 to collect the bonus verse in 46.

“It refers to all people, to strangers even. Persecuted Christians would be included, but so would persecuted Buddhists or Atheists Yours is the arguement of a moral cretin; if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck...”

Well, that’s disappointing. Here I jockeyed for a higher ranking in the Hall of Infamy, yet all I’ve gotten for my diligent iniquity is moral cretinism. Is there something I can still do to burnish my moral turpitude? Maybe feed kittens to my pet boa constrictor?

As for who it denotes, permit me to quote one of my cretinous cohorts:

“But in the context of Jesus’ teachings, especially in the context of Matthew (as opposed to Luke), this parable probably addresses not serving the poor on the whole but receiving the gospel’s messengers. Elsewhere in Matthew, disciples are Jesus’ brothers’ (12:50; 28:10; cf. also the ‘least’–5:19; 11:11; 18:3-6,10-14). Likewise, one unwittingly treats Jesus as one treats his representatives (10:40-42), who should be received with hospitality, food, and drink (10:8-13,42). Imprisonment could refer to detention until trial before magistrates (10:18-19), and sickness to physical conditions stirred by the hardship of the mission…The king thus judges the nations based on how they have responded to the gospel of the kingdom already preached to them before the time of his kingdom (24:14; 28:19-2). True messengers of the gospel will successfully evangelize the world only if they can also embrace poverty and suffering for Christ’s name (cf. Matthey 1981). That the ‘siblings’ are here ‘disciples’ is the majority view in church history and among contemporary New Testament scholars, although those who hold ‘siblings’ to be disciples divide sharply over whether they are specifically missionaries or poor fellow disciples in general,” C. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans 1999), 605-6; cf. R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans 2007), 957-58.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose

I. Introduction

I first ran across The Exorcism of Emily Rose in a movie review in World Magazine. Unlike the two Exorcist films I recently reviewed, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is roughly based on a “true story”–the exorcism of Anneliese Michel.

Of course what, exactly, is true about the true story is a matter of interpretation. And that’s part of what makes this interesting.

Not only is the film based on the case of Anneliese Michel, but the source material for the script seems to be drawn primarily from The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel (Resource Publications 2005) by Felicitas Goodman. For instance, one of the characters (Dr. Sadira Adani) is clearly modeled on Felicitas Goodman. And other details are clearly cribbed from the book.

If that’s correct, then we have three layers to consider: the historical case itself, the documentary record of the case in Goodman’s monograph, including her ethnographic interpretation, and the cinematic adaptation of Goodman’s monograph–among other things. So this post is part book review, part film review.

II. The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel

i) Because of her access to so many primary sources materials, Goodman’s monograph remains an indispensable resource. However, there are also a number of problems with her monograph:

ii) To properly interpret the phenomenon, it’s essential to know who said what when.

a) Sometimes Goodman will attribute a statement to a particular speaker, but at other times we’re left in the dark regarding the source.

b) Sometimes she’ll make a summary statement, but leave out crucial details which are necessary to evaluate the statement.

c) Some of her material is drawn from Michel’s letters and diaries. But while Michel’s own statements supply important, firsthand evidence, that doesn’t settle the correct interpretation. For if Michel was mentally ill, then her perceptions and self-perceptions are often delusive. So while they reveal her state of mind, they don’t reveal the extent to which her perceptions square with reality.

iii) It’s also clear throughout the work that Goodman has her own agenda.

a) Goodman has a decided bias which may owe something to her Hungarian Catholic background, as well as Hungarian folklore–which she specifically references

b) Goodman was a cultural anthropologist who specialized in “trance possession.” As such, she’s predisposed to interpret the case of Michel as a genuine case of possession–in light of her cross-cultural paradigm.

c) Goodman is using the case of Michel to launch a general attack on the “scientific tradition,” which places a premium on ordinary states of consciousness as the norm.

d) Goodman takes a more than professional interest in “trance possession.” She founded a New Age type of “institute” which is dedicated to inducing states of altered consciousness. In the book she makes favorable use of Carlos Castaneda’s material. Yet Castaneda was a notorious popularizer of the occult. In the same book she also makes favorable reference to Kundalini yoga, which–once more-–is plainly occultic.

So this all creates a certain slant to her coverage.

iv) There’s a basic problem with Goodman’s ethnographic paradigm of spirit-possession. While cross-cultural studies may indeed reveal the reality of the phenomenon, they fail to reveal the reality underlying the phenomenon. They simply describe the phenomenology of “possession.” But whether these symptoms attest the actual invasion of a human host by some discarnate intelligence is a different question.

v) The distinction is more than pedantic, for in many cases there is clearly an autosuggestive dynamic in play–where impressionable subjects assume the role which their culture or subculture assigned to play. Both the precipitating factors, as well as the interpretation thereof, are shaped by their social expectations.

That doesn’t mean we can discount their testimony out of hand. But it also doesn’t mean that we can take whatever they say at face value.

vi) Michel died in 1976, at the age of 23. Diagnostic testing was less advanced back then. So it’s possible that she had a neurological condition which went undetected due to the more primitive state of medical science at that time.

Let’s review some of the symptoms and explanations which Goodman cites. She describes Michel as a sickly child (7). Followed by examples of adolescent moodiness: “There were occasions when her sisters would find Anneliese crying in her room about yet another time that she had been forbidden to go dancing” (10).

Followed by examples of loneliness and homesickness when she was sent to a sanitarium (16-17), and later went to college (50).

In addition: “For Anneliese the excitation was often so unbearable when she was a teenager that she became sick to her stomach; as the mass reached its high point she felt like she had to run out of church or else she would scream” (203).

This suggests the possibility of a mundane explanation. We’re dealing with a highly excitable, impressionable girl. A girl prone to hysteria.

Possibly, Michel was a neurotic teenage girl who never outgrew that condition but, instead, sank deeper into mental illness due to isolation. In fact, Goodman herself classifies Michel as a “hypersensitive.”

On the other hand, this doesn’t preclude a religious interpretation. For these factors may have created a susceptibility to possession or “circumsessio” (60-61).

Although she was lonely and homesick in the sanatorium, she was sent there after her first episode. So her stay in the sanitarium can’t, itself, be the precipitating event–although it might be an aggravating factor.

Likewise, there’s a reference to a “fall on the forehead” (18). That might suggest the possibility of a neurological disorder.

On the other hand, an autopsy didn’t reveal any brain damage. But this is also ambiguous. It could either mean there was no brain damage, or it could mean an autopsy was too crude a procedure to reveal subtle evidence of a neurological disorder. I’m not qualified to say.

We’re told early on that Michel’s EEG revealed an “irregular alpha pattern” (20).

Is that symptomatic of a neurological disorder–or the inference of an alien personality?

Goodman mentions that, when “possessed,” Michel emitted a “stench.” Is that paranormal, or does it have a biochemical basis? I’m not qualified to say.

Quoting a fellow anthropologist, Goodman says: “Women experience possession more frequently than men” (223).

Assuming this is accurate, that raises a question. Does this mean that women are more susceptible to genuine impression? Or that women are more impressionable? Autosuggestive?

Goodman says that at one point Michel’s “whole body seethed with heat” (82).

In principle, that might be an indication of something paranormal. However, we need more details. Was this objectively measurable, or is this a statement of Michel’s subjective impression?

Later in the book, Goodman says: “Peter measured her temperature before Fr. Renz started. It was 38.9 centigrade” (175).

But while a temperature of 102 (Fahrenheit) is feverish, it’s hardly paranormal.

We’re told that “muscle power that was close to superhuman. Peter saw her take an apple and effortlessly squeeze it with one hand so that the fragments exploded throughout the room. Fast as lightening she grabbed Roswitha and threw her on the floor as if she were a rag doll” (82).

Superhuman power would be consistent with possession. However, I don’t see that these examples are superhuman.

In reference to Michel’s corpse, Goodman relays some vague, conflicting reports about the odor of sanctity” (181).

That would be evidence of something paranormal if the reports were more consistent or better confirmed. But there’s no evidence that Goodman interviewed the alleged witnesses.

At one point, an exorcist, who had been a Chinese missionary, questions Michel in Chinese. And xenoglossy would be evidence of possession.

However, the reported response of the “demon” was: “I am not tell you anything, you damn dirty sow!” (101).

This invites a mundane interpretation. The “demon” couldn’t answer back because there was no demon. Instead, it was just Michel, and since she didn’t know Chinese, that’s all that she could say.

This would also be consistent with Michel faking possession, although I imagine it would be equally consistent with a mental patient.

We’re also told that “In one astounding instance the demon himself suggested what might be most unpleasant for him: the recitation of the Litany of the Five Sacred Wounds” (231).

I don’t see why a demon would assist the exorcist by volunteering helpful information. Seems awfully accommodating. This is more like what I’d expect a Catholic schoolgirl to say.

We’re also told that Michel was a stigmatic. If true, that would be a paranormal symptom.

However, as Goodman also reports, Michael would mutilate herself. So the “stigmata” might just as well be a case of self-injury.

At least, Goodman’s record doesn’t supply enough information to eliminate either possibility.

We’re told that “There were clouds of flies that appeared and then vanished unaccountably, and shadowy little animals that scurried about…after a while, even her family saw them come and pass” (83).

i) Assuming that this description is accurate, the fact that she “saw” it first, and others at a later time invites an autosuggestive interpretation.

ii) However, assuming that they really saw spectral animals, how does that implicate possession? Wouldn’t that be a case of “infestation”? That’s consistent with a hex, or haunting, or poltergeist.

At least, more than one paranormal explanation seems to be in the offing.

We’re told that in her later stages, she was “telepathic, knowing, for instance, who was praying for her in some other town and at what time” (236).

If true, that would be a paranormal ability. However, this statement lacks the detailed information which we need to properly assess the claim.

Who was praying for her? A friend? Stranger? Did she know this person? Did this person know her? What was the content of the prayer? And so on and so forth.

We’re also told that “She began divining” (236).

If she exhibited genuine precognition, then that would be a paranormal ability.

However, Goodman also reports false prophecies which Michel uttered. So was this precognition? Or hit-and-miss guesswork?

“He attempted to lift her from the bench, but she had become so heavy that he could not budge her…She stiffened up and become so heavy that the men had difficulty carrying her to the car” (166).

If true, then this would be the clearest example that something paranormal was afoot.

Goodman also mentions dilated pupils (19; 211). But that doesn’t strike me as paranormal.

In fairness, it can be a bit misleading to interpret each symptom in isolation. Even if each symptom could be explained in mundane terms, yet the cumulative effect of so many odd symptoms might be too unusual to plausibly suggest a mundane explanation. There’s a point at which a series of “coincidental” incidents becomes just as extraordinary as a supernatural explanation.

At the same time, we also have to examine each piece of evidence on its own merits. And from what I can tell, most of the evidence is fairly ambiguous.

We’re told that Michel “blacked out” at school (13). Then:
“That night, shortly after midnight, she woke up and could not move…A giant force was pinning her down. It pressed on her abdomen…Then, nearly a year later, during the night of August 24, 1969, whatever it was struck again, exactly as before. There was the brief blacking out during the day…And in the middle of the night that frightening paralysis” (14).

“It was then that she was struck again, on a Wednesday night, June 3, 1970” (17).

To my knowledge, this would be a classic case of Old Hag Syndrome. That, of itself, is not equivalent to possession. From my reading and observation, many individuals have experienced Old Hag Syndrome, yet that never developed into anything like full-blown possession.

Perhaps we’re to view this as a precursor to possession. And, in some cases, perhaps it is.

I don’t know what to make of the claim that she blacked out. There may or may not be a physiological explanation. It would be interesting to see a physician or psychiatrist comment on that reported experience and its relation to the subsequent experience.

Goodman cites some people who classify Michel’s experience as a case of “penance possession” (172). On this view, she suffered possession to atone for the sins of her iniquitous contemporaries.

Whether or not one regards that as a viable or plausible interpretation depends on other things:

i) Even on Catholic terms, does the Church of Rome officially acknowledge this type of experience? Or does a “penance possession” simply reflect the private option of some theologians?

ii) There’s something oddly dualistic about the spectacle of a teenage girl who becomes the battleground between Jesus and the Virgin Mary, to one side, with Lucifer, Nero, Hitler, Cain, and Fleischmann (a dissolute priest), to the other.

Surely these aren’t evenly matched opponents. If Michel was really receiving visions and apparitions of Jesus and Mary (as the book reports), it doesn’t seem like much of a battle. Wouldn’t Mary and Jesus have the devil and his minions outgunned?

In the Gospels, we don’t see a prolonged tug of war between Jesus and a demoniac. Jesus speaks, and out comes the evil spirit. Omnipotence versus creaturely might is no contest.

Likewise, if Mary really is the Queen of Heaven, then surely the Devil is not match for her.

iii) The notion of a “penance possession” assumes the insufficiency of Christ’s atonement. While that’s acceptable for Catholics, that’s unacceptable for Bible-believing Christians.

iv) For God to allow a pious Catholic girl to become the victim of possession is a pretty counterproductive way to promote her salvation or sanctification.

On another front, we’re also told that one of her exorcists (Fr. Alt) was a “douser,” with telepathic and precognitive abilities (45).

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this is true, it raises questions about his own situation. Were these occultic powers? How did he acquire them? Is this a case of the dark side exorcizing the dark side? Isn’t that a stalemate?

Early on, Goodman says: “They also talk of women in Klingenberg, women who have evil powers…They are no longer called withes these days, but there are those who are envious, who can utter a curse and imbue it with life. Long after they are dead it may sicken an innocent person or rob him of his mind, and no doctor has any cure for it. There were those in Klingenberg who thought that Anneliese was the victim of such a curse” (5).

Since black magic and possession, if real, are both paranormal phenomena, this explanation has as much antecedent probability as possession. Yet, if she was hexed, then that’s not equivalent to possession–much less a “penance possession.”

Perhaps Goodman might argue that possession was the result of her accursed state. That her curse took the form of possession. In principle, maybe so.

On the other hand, to judge by what I’ve read on the subject, these can have very different symptoms and outcomes.

So what’s my personal opinion? I don’t know enough to have a firm opinion, but this is my provisional assessment:

i) If we stipulate to the accuracy of Goodman’s presentation, then I think a malefice is a more likely explanation than possession. It better accounts for peripheral phenomena like spectral animals. And it better accounts for some features which appear to be inconsistent with possession (see above).

ii) At the same time, I think we must also make allowance for the fact that Goodman’s coverage is deficient. She’s often vague at the very point where she needs to be precise. And she’s using this case to advance her New Age agenda. So the coverage is skewed.

With that in mind, it’s possible that Michel was just a mentally unstable girl who fell into a tragic spiral of self-destructive insanity–with religious fanaticism as an aggravating factor.

I’d note that both interpretations are available to the reader from the book itself. I don’t have to introduce my own presuppositions into the discussion to offer either one.

III. The Exorcism of Emily Rose

The film is several notches above the average horror film. A thoughtful and respectful treatment of a religious theme.

In its favor:

i) The principals are all well cast. That includes a virtuoso performance of the lead. Not only does the actress have the dynamic range, but the physical plasticity for the part.

ii) It’s scarier than the average horror flick by showing less. Special effects are minimal. It relies on acting and subtle photography to create the unnerving atmosphere. It also benefits from the pitiless landscape.

iii) But the film also has a tradeoff. It tries to be very evenhanded. Open to more than one interpretation.

In large part, we see the action through the eyes of Emily. But even though we see what she sees, what are we seeing? Reality–or her hallucination?

At one level this is potentially interesting, since the audience is left to decide whether or not Emily was really possessed.

On the other hand, in playing it safe by playing it straight down the middle, it lacks the dramatic flair or tension that comes from the risk of taking sides. Studied neutrality can be philosophically interesting, but dramatically uninteresting.

The closest thing to a deal-breaker in the film is where the star witness sees a malefic apparition, which remains invisible to the defense attorney, then backs into an oncoming car–killing him instantly.

The “accidental” death of the star witness, triggered by the vision of some malefic specter, seems a tad too coincidental to happen naturally. Still, the audience doesn’t see what he sees. And being run over by a car is out of the ordinary, unlike freak accidents in The Omen. So even this preserves a measure of ambiguity.

iv) In principle, the director could turn this to dramatic advantage. After all, diabolical evil might well be ambiguous. Favor a degree of concealment. Now you see me–now you don’t!

But that would require the director to distinguish between the viewpoint of the omniscient storyteller and the viewpoint of the characters–where the storyteller knows more than the characters, and tips his hand to the audience.

Yet it seems more like the director wanted to be “fair” by presenting both sides. That makes it a bit more like a classroom lesson than a compelling drama.

This is a bit ironic inasmuch as the director found the experience of making the film quite unsettling. As he explains in an interview:

DERRICKSON: It wasn't until the initial excitement had passed that we realized we didn’t know a lot about exorcism and possession; we didn’t know a lot about courtroom procedure either. So there was a tremendous amount of research. I read maybe two dozen books on possession and exorcism, from a variety of perspectives, from skeptical psychiatric perspectives, Catholic perspectives, Protestant perspectives. It didn’t matter what the perspective was; the material was incredibly dark and deeply disturbing. To read so many of those books in a row, that was the only time I felt a little weirded out."

BOARDMAN: He actually took all the material, brought it to me, and said, ‘Look, this doesn’t bother you quite as much as it bothers me. I don’t want it in my house.’

DERRICKSON: All my exorcism tapes are in his garage!

DERRICKSON: It was interesting. I was surprised at how many documented cases are out there, how much information is available about this subject. We viewed videotapes of real exorcisms. The whole 3:00am thing—there was a number of books that talked about this idea that 3:00am was the demonic witching hour. After I read that, I kept waking up at 3:00am—exactly! It started to freak me out a little bit; that’s why it ended up in the script. For me, that was the only strange thing that happened, and that was during the research phase. Once we got into the writing, then it became creative and fun. Making the movie was real positive. We don’t have great mythological stories about the “Curse of The Exorcism.”

BOARDMAN: That 3:00am thing is a perfect example: Is that the power of the Devil or the power of suggestion? Or is it both? It was working on him, on some level.

DERRICKSON: There was one guy in New York who has this vault of stuff. Of all the things he showed us, the one Paul and I found most compelling was not a videotape of an actual exorcism or had any paranormal phenomena. It was a tape this cop had made, interviewing an Italian family in New York who were having all this demonic activity in their house. He interviews them separately, like a police officer, to see if their stories match up. It was probably the most disturbing. The level of fear that these people had, all of them—you could feel how terrified they were. By the time it was over, all you could think was, ‘They’re not lying.’

DERRICKSON: Watching Jennifer Carpenter work herself up into hysteria [as Emily], I think everybody got very energized. We actually got an R-rating on the film when we first submitted it to the MPAA. I think we cut less than, maybe, ten seconds out to get a PG-13: little things here and there, like the autopsy photos were in color; we had to make them black-and-white. They were all relatively painless. One of the things we had to cut was in the barn exorcism. When she first sits down on her knees and growls at Father Moore with hatred -- when we shot that, her face contorted so severely, it was the strangest thing I’ve ever seen. I was sitting next to Tom Stern, our director of photography, next to the monitor, and he kept saying, ‘Oh my god! Oh my god!’ It kept getting worse, until she looked like an alien. Finally, the scene was over and I yelled cut. Steve Campanelli, the camera operator, put the camera down—it was a hand-held shot—and walked over to the monitor. He was white. He said, ‘Did you see that? Did you see that? Do you know what was going through my head? I thought, she just became possessed—we got to get out of here!’ It was so great; that was one of my favorites. That was hard to cut. The MPPA was like ‘It’s too disturbing.’ I remember arguing with them: ‘So, if I had a worse actress, I wouldn’t have to cut this. That’s what you’re telling me.’ No make-up effects, no special effects. It will be on the DVD, I’m sure.

v) Another problem with refusing to present a clear viewpoint is that it makes the story artificially symmetrical. The evidence and counterevidence are evenly balanced. But real life tends to be asymmetrical.

vi) Likewise, an unbeliever plays the defense attorney whereas a believer plays the prosecutor. This is supposed to be interesting because it presents a role reversal–with the believer prosecuting the exorcist and the unbeliever defending the exorcist.

And up to a point that has some dramatic potential. The defense attorney starts out as an agnostic, but she has some “spooky” experiences in the course of the trial which cause her to take the whole notion of possession more seriously.

Mind you, this type of enlightenment bit of a cinematic cliché, but as clichés go, it retains some potency.

On the other hand, this isn’t quite as successful in reverse. For while there’s character development in the case of the defense attorney, there’s no corresponding development on the prosecutor.

The idea of making a Christian character act out of character by prosecuting the believer is a gimmick. Too clever to be clever. And it’s not a trick that improves with repetition.

In addition, this is another case where an artificial symmetry is introduced into the story. Again, though, real life tends to be lopsided and ragged around the edges. The story would benefit from less sense of being tightly controlled by the hidden hand of the director or screenwriter.

Finally, the idea of depicting the prosecutor as a devout believer is unwittingly subverted by the fact that he doesn’t come across as a devout believer, but as a militant sceptic.

In the film he’s more than a man doing his job. He’s an avenger or scourge. From a dramatic standpoint, it would be more effective to make the prosecutor lapsed churchgoer who has a personal grudge against men of the cloth due to a bad experience with the church. That would give it more edge and evident motivation.

However, I don’t wish to leave the wrong impression. Because the actors are so good, they rise above the limitations of the material. It’s better on screen than it looks on paper.

vii) One thing the film develops from the book is making the exorcist advised Emily to stop taking her psychotropic medication because it insulates her from a successful exorcism. Whatever the objective merits of that advice, it makes dramatic sense.

vii) By contrast–in the film, God allows Emily to be possessed, not as a form of penal substitution, but as an apologetic display. Her possession demonstrates the existence of the Devil–and, by implication, the existence of the Devil’s heavenly adversary.

But whatever the dramatic merits of that rationale, considered in isolation, it’s sabotaged by the noncommittal perspective of the film–which is deliberately ambiguous about the true nature of Emily’s affliction.

By treating a naturalistic explanation as equally viable, the rationale loses its clear-cut apologetic appeal.