Saturday, October 09, 2010

Hard questions for Catholics

Last summer, Called to Confusion did a post entitled "I love the Orthodox too much to be Orthodox." Not surprisingly, the Orthodox didn't take that sitting down. In the course of the feedback, Perry Robinson raised some questions about Roman Catholicism that I didn't see answered. We're used to seeing debates between Catholics and Protestants, so it can be instructive to see debates between Catholics and Orthodox. It's easy for all this to be lost in the welter of 203 sometimes book-length comments, so I'll repost some highlights here:


Perry Robinson August 13th, 2010 4:56 pm :

Everyone does the best they can so to speak with adjudicating truth claims and Catholics are in no different position in doing so. They have to figure out if the claims of Rome are in fact true or not and a repetition of the claims won’t help answer that question. Your judgment regarding if you know if Rome is the true church or not is just as fallible as mine or any protestant. In order to get to the next rung, you have to pass through that hoop first.

You proffer that for those not able it is going to be a better selling point if such persons can get a definitive reading of divine revelation. I might concede that, but how do we get from it being a better selling point to it being true? Don’t we need to know that it is true first? (Zwingli’s got an amazing selling point-God audibly tells him which interpretation is right. It is far more efficient than the Catholic account.)

Second, the “host of arguments” are no different than the “host of arguments” Catholics used for centuries, and continue to use against the Orthodox-how the Orthodox misunderstand this or that term, what being is, have historically misinterpreted the data regarding the papacy, etc. The Catholic side makes the same kinds of claims and arguments...So again, getting to the “God authorized statement” isn’t bereft of the kind of philosophical, historical and theological analysis and argumentation. It is not one or the other. If it were, there wouldn’t be Summas.

I take the attractiveness that you put forward to be ephemeral and as far as most are concerned lacking in practicality. The popes rarely speak in the way you mention and there is a great body of material, some of it pressing for quite a long time. Take the debate between the Jesuits and the Dominicans. The pope didn’t answer the problem, he just forbade further condemnation. Take the death of the Theotokos, for which the Papacy has been silent for quite a long time. Why when the tradition seems fairly uniform and clear on it? In any case, the question isn’t whether the papacy is more efficient at giving normative answers but whether the doctrine is true. Shall we eschew historical, philosophical and theological argumentation in finding that out?

As for your identity questions, I don’t think your position is on superior ground. Can you show how the identity of the pope can be ascertained say **during** the Great Western Schism? Did a Pope adjudicate that question? Can you identify the See of Rome without the sitting pope as the Fifth Ecumenical Council does? How exactly did the self proclaimed “Spirit inspired” council do that? Or was the Fifth Council teaching falsely when it referred to itself (as did subsequent councils as “Spirit Inspired?”

You ask if I can identify the OC in such a way that all Orthodox will recognize my definition as normative. I think I can, but suppose I can’t. You can’t either and here is why, because your act of identification nor the recognition of it makes it normative. It would be an expression of your belief, even if true and known and not a dogmatic statement in and of itself. Further, if papal ratification is not a sufficient condition for a council to be ecumenical, can you identify what condition makes a council as such? Further, I know professing Catholics in open communion (some clerics) who won’t recognize the conditions you lay down from the catechism for identifying as such. Does that prove your account a failure? If not, then any lack of recognition of the normativity of the identification of the OC by various Orthodox won’t imply as much either on the very same basis. Where was the “identity” when Vigilius was excommunicated and the bishops professed themselves still in communion with the See of Rome, just not the pope? And how do we go about finding out that normative judgments in fact fulfill all of the relevant conditions proposed or even worse, that statements of past ages which bear few if any of the linguistic indicators used in the last 200 years or so are actually normative? It just seems more than strange that all of the major doctrines of Christianity were adjudicated and “defined” in the first thousand years and that in councils, but not the papacy.

Perry Robinson August 17th, 2010 9:29 pm :

Fallible judgments can be correct judgments. Most of our judgments are that way.

My judgment isn’t subjective if that implies that it could not be or isn’t grounded in fact and/or truth preserving inferences. The fact that I make judgments and that these judgments occur in me, doesn’t make them “subjective” except in the innocuous way that such things occur in me, the same way they occur in any Catholic who writes about the same matters. If their truth value was subjective in terms of being relativistic in that I was their truth maker or in terms of it being mere opinion in the above sense, this would wipe away all Catholic claims to truth and would engage the kind of relativism and nihilism that the recent Pope so rightly and adamantly decries. In short, you are cutting off the branch you are sitting on.

As to the questions about knowing the truth, then we are all in the same position in figuring out if say Catholicism is true or not. The facts may favor it or not, but that is something that is disclosed after investigation and not before. If reason is no aid here as you seem to be arguing, then fideism is the result. It surely looks like something any Lutheran or Jansenist would be happy with. So I think the shoe is on the other foot here. It is you and not I who embrace subjectivism of some sort. Again, I’d recommend Fides et Ratio for Catholic thinking on this matter.

Further, Catholics uses the same kinds of methods to argue for their case and most of them think we are fallible knowers too. So if I take your line I could just as easily write “why should I even care what “catholicism” is?” Why can’t I dismiss all of the Summas and commentaries on this or that theological or philosophical work that supposedly supports Catholicism in the same fashion?

You seem to argue that revelation offers itself to humanity in such a way to secure what reason cannot. Somehow this is supposed to bridge the investigative process by which one finds out that such and so is in fact divine revelation. I can’t see how what you’ve offered isn’t in fact a form of fideism.

My argument was not that if you are fallible that you can’t know that the claims of Rome are true. Rather my point was that finding out if they are true, you are in no better principled position than anyone else. Consequently, you can’t escape from the kind of theoretical reflection that you eschew in my approach.

Perry Robinson August 17th, 2010 10:56 pm :

Saying I have my “opinion” but it is not authoritative is about as argumentatively useful as my replying to a Catholic that they have their “opinion” about what the catechism means on some point, but it is not authoritative. I don’t need to be authoritative to be correct. And I never presented myself to be making an argument from my authority, so your remarks are a straw man. I can articulate a view correctly without authority. If this is not possible, then this blog itself is expressing nothing more than opinions about Catholic teaching, since no one here is a bishop or a pope.

Perry Robinson August 20th, 2010 12:42 pm :

As for the assent of faith, this simply pushes us back to the first level. We’d need to know that the claims were true, that is, someone did in fact discover such an authority to know that they in turn were divinely aided to so assent. So the assent of faith is irrelevant since I am not talking about being subject to such an authority. I am referring to prior epistemic questions.

Second, what is the arbiter of whether the pope is a heretic or not? The pope? What mechanism arbitrates when there is no pope and only rival claimants to the pope? Well, on your assertions, it can’t be a council. What are we left with but nothing?

Some councils judged the theology of the popes, such as Chalcedon, since the fraudulent texts stating that the pope is “judged by no one” had not gained currency in the East, particularly with the other Petrine Sees (Antioch and Alexandria). Leo’s Tome was judged by Cyril’s theology and not the other way around. Such councils took their position to be collectively superior to the pope (the fifth council said as much explicitly) and infallibly established that there is no other way to judge such matters, which was a direct rebuke of Rome.

I am on no more of a fishing expedition than a Catholic who goes through magisterial documents to find out what the church’s teaching is or a non-Catholic does in trying to find the truth regarding the Catholic position. Having a pope does not mean you have a pope to personally talk to on every occasion. Hence there is no “real time” papacy. The papacy is in fact quite slow moving for the most part. Catholics have to do the same kind of legwork to know and articulate their position as I am doing.

Perry Robinson August 20th, 2010 3:49 pm :

As for your sketch, what if the pope is a heretic? What if there is no pope but only rival claimants who all disagree on some theological point? Who is the arbiter then? Is there no church since there is no de facto principle of unity when the seat is vacant? I keep asking these questions because I never seem to get an answer or a very clear one. Even well respected Catholic theologians like Journet hem and haw on these questions and And Journet was no fool. Why hasn’t Rome defined these issues since there is no lack of historical precedent that made them pressing?

Further, how were the decisions of Chalcedon promulgated? Was it by a papal judgment? No. Were they sufficient? Yes. Can you point to any “universally recognized” canons or document in the first thousand years that articulates the view that a council is not ecumenical unless the pope’s ratification confers such a status on it, that is, his ratification is a sufficient condition for it being ecumenical? Please note that is different than documents stating that the acceptance by apostolic sees were a necessary condition.

If the views of all of the bishops are revisable in reference to the pope as you lay out, it seems that everyone else’s conscience can be bound, except the Pope’s. In this way the Catholic view mirrors the Protestant view in so far as the Protestants simply expand the members of the papal office through the right of private judgment. And it seems a bit like the Protestant faith where said faith is held provisionally to be our best understanding so far. This may not be the case for the pope, but it seems necessarily the case for everyone else as you’ve glossed it. And whatever value you assign to certitude, that doesn’t seem conducive to it. Further, how can the deposit of faith be in the episcopate if it cannot be lost and/or is tentatively adhered to under the pope? How is it not really just in the pope?

Practically, you write that bishops out of line with Rome will either face correction or will face excommunication. But this is not so. Plenty of bishops, not to mention priests openly hold dissenting views and practices and are never brought to account. What you articulate is an idealization and not what people on the ground in fact experience. Such a lack of church discipline is not due to Rome’s ignorance on such matters. I mean, why can’t Rome discipline those parishes that have female altar servers, when such allowances are supposed to be in the extreme have now become the de facto tradition and the norm? Would it be so hard to do? This is just one case and why I don’t take the claims of a real “dynamic presence” of an authority seriously. With such authority Rome has done no better, and in fact seemingly much worse in maintaining the liturgy-lex ordandi, lex credendi.

I grant that I must analyze texts to ground my position. The popes do the same. Were the popes wrong to do so? Second to find out if the Catholic position is true, every one must more or less do the same, as Bryan Cross writes in the “Tu Quo Que” piece. If not, then Matt 16:18 wouldn’t need Catholic exegetical arguments to prove their case. Your argument undercuts all the work of pop Catholic apologists. It would make all appeals to Matt 16:18 and all other historical data argumentatively irrelevant. Such an approach.

I am not clear why I cannot simply point to the persons at the councils who laid down those conditions to fulfill your request. How is that any different than Pastor Aeternus being laid down by the pope? Again, your conditions are too strict since you don’t have personal access to the pope and what he teaches. That is mediated through texts and through clergy lower down than he. So I can’t see how I am in any different position than you are.

You seem to think that I need an infallible person to interact with at every level if the judgment is to be authoritative at any level. But this is a condition that Catholicism can’t meet since your local priest, bishop or even cardinal are not and cannot be infallible when they “clarify” the statements of the Pope or the ordinary magisterium. It is not as if there is a whole lot more out there to condemn in terms of heresy. And it is not as if every challenge to Catholicism makes its way up the ladder to the pope and the magisterium for a judgment. Most do not since they are again, “few” in number.

If one wants to get the right interpretation of what the Catechism means, do they need to send a letter to the pope or the magisterium and get an ultimately authoritative answer? No. Such a practice is not feasible on your own principles. The papal curia may be efficient but they are not that efficient. They would direct you to, in most cases, the catechism, some other document or your local clergy.

Perry Robinson August 21st, 2010 12:12 pm :

As for “love”, most Protestants do not take it as very “loving” when the Catholic Church unchurches them and maintains Tridentine anathemas. A good bit of Catholic apologetics for the last hundred years has been no more fair, let alone “loving” than that on the Protestant side. Catholics too have had their own historical deliberate fabrications like the Nag’s Head Fable. That aside, it is not in principle unloving to say that professors of a certain view is heretical if in fact it is so. It is not in principle unloving to say that such and so is not a true Christian Church, if it is not. Catholics and Orthodox agree on the principle, just disagree on the application. Our view is more economical in that our list is of a true church is one shorter than yours. Unchurching Rome isn’t in principle anymore unloving than Rome unchurching the CofE a hundred years ago and lots of other bodies for that matter.

If you think that such attitudes undercuts the claim of the Orthodox to be the true church, then please make something like a formal argument. Otherwise, the “anti” complaints really pale in comparison to actions like the seventy plus years of papally enforced Latinization in Constantinople, things that look awfully like bribes coming from Pope Eugene at Florence and Jesuit Machinations in Russia and other places in the post-Reformation period. And the 19th and twentieth century is not without its blatant examples either. Actions speaks louder and repeated persistent and consistent actions loudest of all.

Perry Robinson August 24th, 2010 1:31 pm :

Antioch and Alexandria were seen as Petrine sees since Peter is at Antioch for quite some time and Alexandria is founded by Mark, Peter’s disciple and translator. This was the stated basis for Rome’s rejection of canon 28 of Chalcedon that it infringed on the Petrine apostolic prerogatives of Antioch and Alexandria.

A leg to stand on

“Steve over at Triablogue made a post in where he tried to flip the table on us, but such a thing is extremely difficult to do when we have the Eastern Fathers and great Church Councils under our belt.”

And I have Christ, the prophets, and the apostles under my belt. So I like my odds better than his.

“How can we be an Eastern heresy if we preserved the Truth? Unlike Steve Hays, we can actually trace most of our beliefs back to the early centuries.”

One can also trace Gnosticism and Docetism back to the early centuries.

“We can actually point not only to Scripture for our beliefs, but to great men of the Faith and to Church Councils as well! This is something he can't do!”

In my limited exchanges with Jnorm, he seems like a nice guy. But, unfortunately, statements like this reflect the mindset of somebody who’s so wrapped up in play-acting that he doesn’t know it’s just an act. He plays the role that’s been assigned to him by his adopted denomination.

However, Christianity is a revealed religion. Revealed words. Revealed works. That’s the source of Christian theology. God didn’t reveal himself to the bishops or the church fathers. They only know as much or as little as they can learn from God’s revelation in Scripture–just like the rest of us.

A tiny handful of church fathers have some recollections of the 1C. That's it.

“And so whatever he says about us, he must also say about the historic Christian Faith in general. To fight against us is to fight against the great Eastern (and early Western) Church Fathers, councils, and creeds!”

Hmm. I seem to remember a guy named Jesus who was opposed by religious establishment. I seem to remember him founding a church with 120 charter members.

Given his criteria, shouldn’t Jnorm side with the Sanhedrin?

“Also, he is not even in agreement with the semi-Augustinian position of the post-2nd-Orange Christian West. And so he really doesn't have a leg to stand on.”

I stand on the sturdy legs of Isaiah, the Apostle Paul, the Apostle John, and so on and so forth. I prefer the legs I stand on to Jnorm’s mannequin legs.

“His interpretation of the doctrine of the Trinity is far from being the historic Christian one.”

Our knowledge of God is entirely dependent on God’s self-revelation. It’s not a stipulative definition, via ecclesiastical fiat. The truth of the definition must match revealed truth.

“Yes, he is trying to flip the tables on us, but to do so is to destroy any real sense of doctrinal continuity with the past.”

Continuity with the past can also include continuity in error. And, in any case, I prefer continuity with the apostles and prophets.

“For how could he embrace, in good conscience, some of the Ecumenical creeds and non-Augustinian Fathers of the past, while at the same time calling us an Eastern heresy?”

I’m selective based on what does or doesn’t correspond to Scripture.

“What in the world does he think we believe?”


Not-so Grand Design roundup

Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow's The Grand Design has been receiving some serious criticism. Here's a list which recaps what we've posted or referenced here, I think. Please feel free to add any I've missed in the combox.

Friday, October 08, 2010

The Jesse Tree


“Depends on what you mean by "face value." I do not think that the ancients had a highly detailed and absolutely consistent view of cosmic geography with every word and phrase and item neatly in place, lacking in all ambiguities, poetry or broader usages of words and terms. To that, the answer would be "no." These were pre-scientific people. On the other hand, it certainly does appear based on what they wrote, and based on iconographic images of the cosmos in Egypt, and the Babylonian world map, and Sargon's geography, that the ancients viewed the world as flat and held firmly in place, with the heavens also held firmly in place, with the land of the gods in the sky overhead and relatively nearby (not light-years away), and in many cases creation is depicted as arising out of primeval waters that also had to be held firmly back by god(s), with a land of the dead lying beneath the earth. From what you've written it almost appears that you are saying that UNLESS I can provide you with ancient schematics or architectural diagrams of how the Hebrews viewed the cosmos, that you are going to choose to reduce every word to mere metaphor.“

You still don’t get it, do you? It wouldn’t matter if you could furnish ancient schematics or architectural diagrams, since that, of itself, fails to tell us the cultural function of those depictions.

To take a comparison, consider the Jesse Tree in Medieval art. It’s not as if this represents a literal attempt to depict heredity

“In other words you appear to be demanding more literalism and consistency and "scientific" descriptions from the texts than I am, before you will even admit that the ancients held ideas concerning cosmic geography.”

I never denied that ancient people may have held ideas concerning cosmic geography.

“But think about this. Every human culture comes up with ideas of cosmic geography. Today the geography of the earth and heavens is observed and measured more deeply than ever before via telescopes. But astronomers and physicists have not ceased to also come up with hypotheses of what may lay beyond the limits of what is presently observed. Same with the medieval world and its geocentric astronomy. [See, Edward Grant, Planets, Stars, and Orbs: The Medieval Cosmos, 1200–1687, first paperback ed. (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press), 1996, and “Journey Through the Spheres: The Cosmos in the Middle Ages,” online] All I am saying is that humans come up with ideas about the shape and structure of the cosmos all the time, they always have, including the ancients.”

Actually, the Hebrews don’t show the same astronomical interest as the Babylonians, much less the theoretical interest of the Greeks. So it’s quite culturally variable.

“But the ancients did not have the means we do today to test out such ideas. They couldn't see what lay beyond the clouds or beyond "the waters" which they believed lay "above the highest heavens." Neither could they "search out the earth below." (See the verses I cited on such matters in my chapter.)”

Yes, you keep referring to your precious chapter, as if I hadn’t written a critique of your precious chapter. But as I demonstrated on many occasions now, the ancients had the means to know that a flat-earth/triple-decker cosmography was infeasible.

When I do that, your rote response is to ignore the inconvenient counterevidence and repeat your original discredited claim.

“But neither could they prevent their minds from coming up with what may lie there and how the cosmos was shaped and structured. To them, the earth appeared firm and flat…”

Does the earth look flat? I’ve cited counterexamples, which you invariably ignore.

By the way, I am talking about pre-600 B.C. ideas of cosmic geography, not Augustine nor Basil.”

By the way, the pagan critics whom Basil and Augustine were responding to were also “prescientific people.” Yet they had the means to assess the feasibility of a triple-decker universe. 1C AD people are just as prescientific as 7C BC people by modern scientific standards.

Rock and roll


“Steve, Nobody says that an earthquake on a flat earth is the same as tiling a pizza. The earth in the Bible is "shaken" not "tilted" like a pizza.”

I’d suggest you try a novel experiment, Ed. Novel for you, that is. Why don’t you actually try to think. To think through the implications of a position. I don’t believe that’s asking too much of a free-thinker.

You attribute a flat-earth cosmography to ancient Israelites and their neighbors. Okay, then.

Try to visualize the implications of that model. If you shake a disk or tile, what happens, Ed? Well, the surface will rock back and forth, from side to side. As a result, objects on the surface will roll off the ends or edges of the disk or tile.

Just think of what happens to plates and glasses on a dinner table during a major earthquake. What happens when the floor goes up and down, Ed? Things fall off the table. Ever notice that?

Even if it just moves sideways, rapidly, things fall off the edge. Ever notice that?

This isn’t hard to visualize. If you lack the wherewithal to do that, then maybe you should find an occupation worthier of your intellectual talents, like sorting tomatoes.

“Also, the Bible says the earth is founded firmly by God, it will not be moved, but it also says that God sometimes shakes the earth, even the heavens and the earth together.”

It also compares eschatological meteors to fig-trees “shaken” by the wind (Rev 6:13). Does this mean Bible writers also subscribe to a fruitarian cosmography? Did they think the cosmos was a giant fig-tree?

Maybe you’d like to do a mock-up for us. A diagram of the cosmic fig-tree.

“So these are both great acts of God perpetrated directly by God, displays of His power. The very fact that the earth does not move is a display of God's power to the ancient mind. So was the fact that the same God who could keep the earth steady, also had the power to shake it at will.”

Bible writers also attribute rain and drought to God. As well as fertility and infertility. So what?

“That kind of language is suited to both flat earth and geocentric cosmic views, as today's Christian geocentrists also point out.”

The language of seismic activity or inactivity is equally suited to a spherical earth and a heliocentric perspective.

Ed, if you fancy yourself a rationalist, then at least be rational. I know that’s asking a lot from you. But can’t you give it a try?

“All stellar objects are also spoken of in the Bible as not only being placed above the earth after its creation but also as moving above the earth--all moved and/or directed by God, who also has the power to stop them, as in the book of Joshua, or like in Job where it says God can stop the sun, and that God directs the constellations in their movements.”

I realize that this will come as a tremendous shock to you, but the Bible was written for the benefit of earthlings, not astronauts. So, yes, Biblical descriptions of life on earth reflect the viewpoint of an earthbound observer.

“Taken together with the verses about the earth's immobility, it's plainly a flat earth and/or a geocentric cosmos in the eyes of the ancients.”

This is all you ever do, Ed. You push the reverse button on your tape-recorder, then repeat the same addlebrained argument, no matter how often you’re corrected.

The “immobility” of the earth has reference to the absence of seismic activity, and not the relation of the earth to other celestial bodies. What’s your problem, Ed? Did you stop learning at the age of seven?

“But if the earth is constantly spinning like a top and also rushing round the sun in a huge hyperbolic ring each year, and if earthquakes are the natural consequence of continental drift, and if the sun and constellations are not being directed, nor even moving at all through the sky, then how is God's power demonstrated?”

God power is demonstrated by making the world, complete with natural forces and natural cycles, as well as acting apart from natural forces and cycles whenever it suits his purpose.

“Steve, I'm not going to argue Walton's views for him. Those are his views.”

I see. So having quoted him as a high card to trump inerrancy, you now disown him when your trump card turns out to be a losing card. Well, Ed, it’s a little late for that. Casino security is on the way to take you for a little ride in the back of a company car, squeezed between two beefy guys named Bubba and Boris. I think you know how the story ends.

“I cited him because as I said in my article, a number of books had been published pretty recently, some by Catholics and Evangelicals, who agreed that Genesis 1 fits into its ancient literary environment in ways that make attempts at accommodating Genesis 1 with ‘modern science’ problematical to say the least.”

You cited him as a pressure tactic against Christians who affirm inerrancy. But now he turns out to be a fickle ally, who does your argument as much harm as good. Too bad.

“It appears they did. They weren't living in a purely metaphorical daze in which they held no conceptions at all concerning the cosmos' geography and structure, as I point out in my chapter on ‘Biblical Cosmology.’”

You keep taking refuge in your tattered chapter on “Biblical Cosmology,” as if that’s a given. But, of course, I subjected your chapter to a sustained critique. That’s why you’re currently in full damage control mode. So you can’t keep retreating into your tattered chapter, as if that’s a given.

“On the topic of what you claim is my ‘argument from authority,’ I cited multiple works not only by Walton but by others in an endnote. You ought to have viewed the list as suggested reading, including classic works on the topic, and an invitation to read further, and learn more about the ancient Near Eastern milieu of the Bible. As I said in my chapter, Catholic and Evangelical OT scholars were coming to agree with one another based on studying the ways Genesis 1 fit its ANE milieu.”

I realize it’s hard for you to keep a simple idea in your head for more than five minutes, but I already commented on your footnoted supporting material in my initial review of your precious chapter.

“Lastly, Ben at War on Error, reviewed my chapter…”

Ben and I already interacted. Did you forget that, too?

But thanks for never missing an opportunity to remind us that there’s no correlation between infidelity and high IQ.



“Numbers 16:28-34. Here the descent is clearly not metaphorical.”

True, given the genre. A historical narrative description.

“You can certainly argue that ‘sheol’ here means ‘grave’ or ‘place of physical burial’ and nothing more, but on what basis?”

It doesn’t detail a subterranean necropolis–with shades going to and fro. Rather, the offenders are buried alive by a miraculous crevasse that suddenly opens beneath them, then closes over them.

“What about the ‘spirits of the departed’ rising from their thrones in 9b? Are they metaphors? For what? Or are only the ‘thrones’ and the ‘rising’ metaphors?”

The passage exploits popular beliefs regarding the afterlife to fashion a satirical taunt-song. Beyond that, I don’t think we can say much one way or the other given the parodic genre of the passage. Although it’s consistent with belief in the afterlife, I wouldn’t say it endorses the postmortem imagery beyond the intended moral of the story: death is the great leveler.

“If you want to take the entirety of 14:9-11 as picture language meaning simply that the Babylonian Empire will be destroyed and remembered by succeeding generations as a catastrophic failure borne of overweening arrogance, you have ally here.”

Commentators are divided on whether or not it singles out a particular king, targets a stereotypical king, or personifies a kingdom.

“If you want to take some elements of 14:9-11 literally but not the spatial language of 9a, how do you decide?”

I think I’ve answered that. (See above.)

The Biblical doctrine of the afterlife is a theological construct. It isn't based on any one verse.

Some passages have more informational content than others. Some passages use concrete, picturesque language while other passages use abstract terminology.

The question at issue is not what a given passage allows, but what it disallows or what it positively teaches.

i) I've already explained the cosmographic metaphors in terms of temple imagery.

ii) Spatial metaphors can illustrate general/abstract concepts which are not dependent on the specific details of the graphic illustration. For instance, in the separation of the sheep and goats, the abstract idea of what it means for one group to be kept away from another doesn't rely on that specific imagery. Same thing with the parable of Lazarus and Dives. Or the damned who are banished from the precincts of the New Jerusalem.

iii) Likewise, mental states can be expressed in figurative terms without the underlying idea being dependent on the figure of speech. Taking "hungering" and "thirsting" for God. That uses sensory metaphors to illustrate an emotional/psychological state. And we can easily abstract the intended concept from the metaphor.

iv) Part of sound theological method is to begin with a fairly prosaic passage, like 1 Cor 15 (on the resurrection of the just), and use that as a general framework. Other passages can help to fill in some of the details. 1 Cor 15 helps to delimit the options.


“Steve, ‘positively teaches’ -- exactly. Numbers 16:28-34 positively teaches that Moses's opponents descended alive into ‘sheol.’"

i) Which is a statement about how they died, and not what, if anything, happened to them after they died. It describes their mode of execution, and not the mode of the afterlife, if any. Like a skier who accidentally falls to his death by stepping into a hidden crevasse. He’s alive on the way down.

ii) They “descended” because that was the particular method of execution in this instance. There are different ways in the Pentateuch that God executes sinners. He may send a plague, or rain down fire and brimstone, &c. yet each mode of execution hardly represents a different mode of postmortem existence.

“How do you know what the author meant by ‘sheol?’”

i) We may not have sufficient information to say. In this case the answer would depend, in part, and what else the Pentateuch may have to say (or not) regarding the afterlife.

ii) There is also the question of cultural expectations, although we have to be careful with that since the Bible is often countercultural in polemicizing against the prevailing cultural preconceptions.

“The absence of a detailed description indicates only that the intended audience would understand his point without further explanation. And the exact point is a matter of dispute.”

It isn’t clear to me what you think you’re opposing vis-à-vis my own position when you make statements like this.

“Walton, for example, believes Ps 55:15, using language almost identical to that of Numbers 16:30, refers to the realm of the dead, not just the grave: ‘It would be difficult to imagine that the psalmist hopes for his enemy to be buried alive.’ (ANE Thought and the OT, p. 320). In your favor, I don't agree with Walton that it is difficult to imagine the psalmist wishing his enemies would be buried alive.”

Different passages focus on different themes. In the case of Isa 14, it depicts death as the great leveler. In life the “king of Babylon” was high and mighty, but in death he’s been reduced to the common fate of mortal flesh.

But even in the OT there are passages that go beyond death as the great leveler to death as a reversal of fortunes. The righteous who suffered in this life will prosper in the next life while the unrighteous who prospered in this life will suffer in the next life.

“We don't have a sound basis for this distinction: If spatial language is used to describe ‘sheol,’ take it literally when ‘sheol’ means the physical grave, and metaphorically when ‘sheol’ means the realm of departed "spirits.’”

i) I don’t think there’s a general distinction to that effect. The interpretation is context-dependent.

ii) I don’t have any antecedent objection to sheol denoting a realm of departed spirits. The reason I don’t press that imagery in Isa 14 is due to the satirical genre of the passage.

iii) Scripture uses spatial metaphors to distinguish the fate of the wicked and the righteous. They go to different “places.” That’s a graphic way of indicating divergent destinies. That doesn’t mean the notion of an afterlife is figurative, but simply the imagery which is used to depict the afterlife. Different passages may use different imagery to depict the afterlife, yet they may also share common, underlying ideas. So it’s possible to distinguish the picture-language from the core concept it illustrates.

Preaching the gospel


“How is the human act of evangelism related to God's act of converting a human heart?“

Regeneration creates a predisposition to believe the Gospel, while evangelism supplies the Gospel to be believed.

“God is at liberty to convert someone apart from the evangelist's efforts, right? So does it follow that evangelism isn't intrinsically necessary to conversion?”

i) You seem to be confusing conversion with regeneration. Conversion involves a combination of regeneration and faith. God regenerates the sinner directly. In that causal sense, God regenerates “apart” from evangelism.

ii) However, God doesn’t regenerate a sinner for regeneration’s sake. That’s a means to an end. He regenerates a sinner to bring him to faith. To make him a believer. So regeneration and evangelism are ordinarily coordinated in some fashion. Regeneration supplies the predisposition to exercise saving faith while evangelism supplies the object of saving faith.

“Does the evangelist's method, intelligence, eloquence, or persuasiveness play a role in whether his audience is converted? But still, it seems most evangelists try to improve their method, education, etc. Why?”

That can be a factor in conversion, but an insufficient condition.

“What is my duty as an evangelist? To only proclaim the Gospel of Jesus? Or should I also try to persuade people to believe the Gospel of Jesus, to defend the Gospel of Jesus, to answer objections?”

You should do the best you can, given your time, abilities, and opportunities.

“Can I, as an evangelist, ‘mess things up’ so that someone whom God might have saved had I presented the Gospel in a more compelling, charismatic, scholarly, or clear way, not find salvation?”

In a counterfactual sense. But God coordinates the message, messenger, and audience to achieve his goal.

“I've heard Calvinist evangelists say things like, ‘Of course you don't understand. You're a pagan unbeliever?’ This seems rude, but would such statements be considered rude by mainstream Calvinists? Would mainstream Calvinists rebuke an evangelist who said this kind of thing?”

Some of the unregenerate will never understand because they are reprobates. Some of the unregenerate will come to an understanding after God regenerates them.

“When someone doesn't believe the Gospel after it has been clearly presented, whose fault is it? The evangelist's fault for not doing a better job or the unbeliever's fault for having a hard, unrepentant heart, or God's fault for not electing him?”

It’s ultimately the fault of the unbeliever.

“I don't know or care who Fred Phelps is. Here's my question: you said that the hyper-Calvinist position believes that you don't have to try to convince people of their truth or try to convert people because converting people is God's job. Our job is to faithfully preach the Gospel. If this is the hyper-Calvinist position, what is the standard Calvinist's position?”

i) There’s nothing special that a Reformed pastor needs to do. He has the same message for everyone in the audience. Elect or reprobate. Regenerate or unregenerate. Devout believer, nominal believer, or closet apostate.

ii) He can preach through books of the Bible. Or do topical sermons on Christian doctrine and ethics. He can teach people who Jesus is, what he did, is doing, shall do, and why. He can teach people that whoever repents of his sin and trusts in Jesus to save him will be forgiven. Since the “offer” of the gospel is a conditional offer, it can be offered to every listener. Whoever accepts the terms of the offer will receive what is offered.

iii) We also have examples of inspired evangelistic preaching in the Gospels and the Book of Acts. Those can be used as models for how to preach the gospel.

iv) Preaching needn't be specifically evangelistic to be instrumental in conversion. Expository preaching through various books of the Bible can also have that effect. There’s a place for evangelistic preaching, but that’s a matter of emphasis.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Geoplanar tectonics

According to the peerless Ed Babinski:

So the earth was what the ancients knew and for millennia in Egypt and Mesopotamian and for centuries in ancient Israel (a much younger civilization than either Egypt or Mesopotamia) the ancients were concerned with the earth being the flat firm foundation of creation. The horizon itself was viewed as a place of mystery where heaven and earth somehow met or were nearer one another. The earliest portions of The Book Enoch (a book written in Palestine between the Old and New Testaments) contain the view that heaven and earth met at the horizon, while elsewhere in the same book it seems to be implied that heaven was held above the earth mysteriously by four angels located at the far ends of the earth in the four cardinal directions).

Imagine you were living on the flat earth. Life can be pretty precarious. Every time there’s an earthquake, towns and cities slide off the tilted surface of the earth. Survivors must cling to trees as they watch hills and mountains roll over the edge like marbles on a checkerboard. Everything not nailed down is at risk. In fact, flat-earthlings have learned from sorry experience to work outside with safety-ropes tied to trees.

However, life on the flat-earth has its compensations. If you live on the coast, you can have boiled fish for dinner every day. You don’t have to catch it or cook it. Every time the sun sinks into the ocean, it serves up a wide variety of poached fish and steamed shellfish.

(There is, of course, the nagging question of who reignites the sopping wet sun every morning.)

Adventurous flat-earthlings often walk to the horizon to peer over the edge of the earth. On the other hand, sailors have to steer clear the waterfall at the rim of sea.

Adolescent boys have a rite of passage. They play a game of chicken by drag-racing their camels to the horizon, to see who blinks first. Unfortunately, a certain percentage of daredevils hurtle over the edge each year when their camels don’t stop in time.

Homeowners living on corner lots erect fences to keep their sheep, goats, and toddlers from falling off the edge.

It takes a certain amount of forethought and ingenuity to function on a wobbly square tile. Indeed, there are geoplanar engineers to help you navigate the challenges of life on the flat, tumultuous earth.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Mythmakers or photorealists?

Ed Babinski is an apostate backwoodsy fundamentalist. Not “fundamentalist” in the sophisticated, academic sense that you’d find among the current faculty at, say, Dallas Theological Seminary. But of the Hal Lindsey/Tim LaHaye variety. Although he lost his faith, he reads the Bible the same way he did in his backwoodsy days.

So, for him, it’s just “obvious” that the Bible teaches a geocentric, flat-earth cosmography.

On the other hand, you have Babinski’s cohorts. His fellow contributors to TCD. In stark contrast to Babinski’s photorealism, Carriers takes a diametrically opposing position. He assures us that “the Gospel according to Mark…was not even written as history, but as a deliberate myth…Matthew did the same thing, radically refictionalizing the resurrection narrative…thus communicating the ‘true meaning’ of the Gospel without any evident interest in historical fact. And Luke appears to have fabricated his Emmaus narrative…Even John added stories never before heard (like John 2) that seem more symbolic than true. Scholars have documented countless other examples of mythmaking in the Gospels,” TCD, 304.

Likewise, Robert Price regards the entire Christ-event as just another iteration of the dying-and-rising-savior-god monomyth.

So while Babinski makes his case against the Bible on the assumption that Bible writers earnestly meant their depictions to be taken with utmost literality, Babinski’s cocontributors to TCD make their case against the Bible on the assumption that Bible writers were calculated mythmakers who camouflaged religious symbols under the guise of refictionalized “history.”

The fate of the Canaanites

I'm going to quote part of what Jeremy Pierce recently said about the fate of the Canaanites:


I don't see holes in the patience theodicy merely because some are given more chance than others. First, it may well be that God has knowledge of what these embryos would do if given a life, and it's less severe for them to die this way or would lead to a worse fate (in terms of being evil people) if they lived. I wouldn't assume such a thing, but I also wouldn't rule it out. More helpfully, perhaps, I'd say that we need to be aware of the various possibilities for what happens to those whose lives are cut short (even aside from the embryo situation). Many Christians think they have an afterlife befitting never having had moral capabilities. So I wouldn't assume that the patience theodicy needs to consider God as being less patient with them than with Hitler.

Then there's the insistence that most Christians would have that it's only in the afterlife that the scales really get evened out anyway. Also, if everyone deserves judgment, and no one deserves patience, then it may be unfair in some strict sense to give some people more time and more chances, but it's not as if those who deserve worse than they get can complain. According to the judgment theodicy (which was the one I thought most powerful, not the patience theodicy), most people suffer less than they deserve. That's why I think it's a more powerful theodicy, not because of anything to do with God's patience or the relative distribution of the effects of God's patience. There are a host of questions that need answering before you can make the judgment that there are holes in this theodicy, and it depends very much on the particulars of the version of it that's being made, something I've been pretty silent on at this point, since I want to claim that a wide variety of views could try to make use of a punishment theodicy.

The arbitrariness charge also assumes that we know more of what's going on than we possibly could. God could have reasons related to what will occur in the afterlife, secret facts about this life that no one or almost no one alive today knows, truths about what individual people would do if they had been presented with certain counterfactual situations, and maybe even intrinsic goods that we don't have much understanding of at our level of development. God might intend certain results and thus allow benefits to someone who doesn't deserve it for reasons entirely apart from whether the person deserves it. I wouldn't expect us to see the difference as to whether this is arbitrary or calculated, but a theodicy isn't supposed to be an attempt to show what actual reasons God has, just what reasons a divine being might have in order to show that the problem of evil doesn't disprove (or make unlikely) God's existence. If there are possible explanations, then it doesn't. If there are likely enough explanations given God's existence, then it doesn't make God's existence unlikely. If what we were going for is an actual explanation, this wouldn't come close. But that's not how the problem of evil's dialectic goes.

"An awful waste of space"?

Astronomer John Byl responds to the question of whether intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe.

HT: Steve.


EDWARD T. BABINSKI: I agree "under the earth" trades on burial imagery; but such usage does not preclude additional understandings. It's not a matter of being forced to choose between totally metaphorical usage versus all other understandings. The point is that there were other understandings in Paul's day, and Paul's Hellenistic and Jewish readers were familiar with underworlds in which beings lived, i.e., the Greek Hades, the Roman Tartarus (both terms appearing in the Gospels themselves) and the shadowy Sheol of the Hebrew Bible.

That simply pushes the same question back a step. You’re assuming that Hellenistic descriptions of the Netherworld were meant to be taken at face value. Where’s the argument?

i) For instance, the Aeneid has a scene of the Netherworld, but that’s not there because Virgil believed in the Netherworld. (Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t.) Rather, that’s there because the Odyssey has a scene of the Netherworld, and Virgil is writing in self-conscious emulation of the Homeric tradition.

ii) The fact that the NT uses conventional Greek terms for the Netherworld is hardly significant. After all, the NT was written in Greek, to a Greek-speaking audience.

In our own culture, writers frequently use conventional terms for heaven and hell, whether or not they believe in heaven or hell.

iii) ”Tartarus” doesn’t occur in the Gospels. It only occurs in 2 Pet 2:4.

iv) NT writers aren’t borrowing the concept of Hades from Greek mythology. Rather, that’s a Septuagintal loanword for Sheol.

"The departed spirits tremble under the waters and their inhabitants. Naked is Sheol before Him [Yahweh]." Job 26:5-6

Job is chock-full of poetic imagery.

A witch in Endor calls up Samuel from Sheol. (She is not calling him up from his personal burial site because he was not buried in Endor.) 1 Sam. 28:3,12ff

“Where” he was buried is irrelevant. The point is the use of conventional imagery.

The dead are not simply lying dead in the earth but "under the earth" and remaining active in some sense, if only in a shadowy sense in the case of early Greek and Hebrew views of Hades and Sheol. Below are verses from Paul and Revelation that mention beings living under the earth. Consider them from the viewpoint of a first century Hellenistic convert.

Not surprisingly, you've muddled different issues:

i) The afterlife is not the question at issue. The question at issue is biblical cosmography. Try not to get your wires crossed.

ii) I don’t think there’s anything “shadowy” in the OT view of the afterlife. But in any case, that’s a side issue for now.

iii) Quoting Biblical imagery about the Netherworld proves nothing, for the question at issue is not whether Bible writers use certain types of imagery, but what that imagery signifies. You just don’t get it, Ed. You’re begging the question. Quoting Paul or Revelation does nothing to advance your argument, for the question at issue is what they meant by that imagery. Try to clear the cobwebs from your brain long enough to at least understand the question at issue.

You might as well cite Neverwhere’s “London Above” and “London Below” to prove that Neil Gaiman believes in a two-tier cosmography. But the fact that Neverwhere has a two-tier cosmography doesn’t mean that Gaiman believes a two-tier cosmography. That’s a fictitious depiction.

Also consider how a Hellenistic convert might read these verses, starting with talk of a "prince of the power of the air," and also about "descending into the lower parts of the earth"

While you’re at it, you might also consider if Hellenistic converts took that picturesque imagery at face value. I already did a post on Augustine and Basil the Great in which pagan critics lampoon details of a triple-decker cosmography as quite infeasible.

People back then could and did ask common sense questions about the logistics of this or that cosmographical model.

Sheol is typically depicted as a place to which one "goes down" (urd; see Num 16:30;Job 7:9; Isa 57:9; cf. Isa 29:4; Ps 88:3-4).

Which, once again, completely begs the question of how the authors understood that imagery. You’re not making any progress, Ed. Your wheels are stuck in the mud. Kicking up lots of mud is not an argument, Ed.

As already stated, it is not a matter of being forced to choose between totally metaphorical usage versus all other usages or understandings. In early usage Sheol is like a metaphor for the Uber-grave, but even metaphors do not preclude other meanings, depictions, definitions rather than purely "burial imagery." In fact, recognition of ideas shared by biblical and ANE sources makes the likelihood of belief in a three-tier cosmos more likely, not less so. Same goes for NT conceptions, see below.

No it doesn’t. It only pushes the same question back a step. As I already demonstrated in my review of your klutzy chapter (from TCD), ancient people were already in a position to know that a flat-earth/triple-decker cosmography is infeasible. It doesn’t take modern science to figure that out. Try to keep up with the state of the argument, Ed.

Tartarus is described as a prison with gates and sometimes personified (as was Hades, and also Sheol in the OT). The author of 2 Peter 2:4 mentions rebel angels being cast into Tartarus…

Of course, angels are discarnate spirits, so a physical “gates” and “chains” can’t really restrain them, any more than you could keep a ghost behind bars. That’s picture-language, Ed. But thanks for constantly reminding us that there's no correlation between infidelity and high IQ.

See also this new book on the afterlife, L’homme face à la mort au royaume de Juda: Rites, pratiques et représentations by Hélene Nutkowicz. Cook comments: "Nutkowicz suggests that the Hebrew people believed in amortality.

How do you know what she suggests? Have you read the book? Do you read academic French literature?

Firmer than air


“Walton's disclaimers and purely functional approach is not endorsed by all OT scholars, nor even by all Evangelical OT scholars.”

i) You somehow forgot to include that key concession in your TCD chapter, where you quote Walton and then cite five of his publications–as if whatever he says on the subject is indubitable.

ii) Your belated concession is also at odds with your previous argument from authority. Remember when you said “how do you put all of that information together from my chapter and conclude that so many Bible scholars who are experts on ANE cosmology, along with several respectable Evangelical Christian OT scholars who are likewise learned in ANE cosmology, are all missing out by not adopting your lame excuses?”

So you previously took the position that we should instantly submit to “expert” opinion. But now that you find out Walton is a double-edged sword, you suddenly switching to the view that instead of meekly accepting whatever the “experts” say on their own authority, we need to sift their arguments.

“Walton also admits in that paper that the Hebrew firmament was firmer than what we'd think of the sky today.”

i) Not “firm,” just firmer. Firmer than air. Well, that’s a rather flexible concept of solidity.

So did they think the firmament was spongy, like those Styrofoam boulders dotting the alien landscape in old Star Trek episodes? That would be "firmer" than air.

ii) When folks in the ANE took a hike up the local hills and mountains, which hold up the sky, did they find the sky was “firmer” on the summit? When they touched the sky up there, did the atmosphere feel hard–like a brassy ceiling? Could they poke their finger through the firmament? Did tall mountain-climbers bump their head against the ceiling of the firmament? Did they wear helmets whenever they went mountain-climbing?

Lost in time

Some towns or villages mentioned in the Bible are hard to locate at this late date. Unbelievers cite that to prove the Bible is unreliable.

That’s a good example of irrational scepticism. To take a counterexample, most of us use maps at one time or another to find where some place is, or chart the best route.

Yet even in the age of modern cartography, when there’s a surfeit of information, maps routinely leave out small towns or side streets.

Indeed, it can be hard to find a map with all of the pertinent information. You have to spend time combing through different maps to find the one that meets your particular needs.

Yet it would absurd to say a particular town never existed just because you can’t find it on the map.

On a related note, maps map time as well as space. Maps need to be periodically updated. What was there 5 years ago may be gone today. What wasn’t there 5 years ago may be here today. The best way to get lost in a hurry is to use an out-of-date street map.

Entire towns can become ghost towns. Cities and towns can be renamed. Or consider the fate of Petra.

The fact that we can’t correlate a few Biblical place names with identifiable sites unsurprising. What’s striking is how many we can still correlate at this late date.

Many TV dramas are ostensibly set in one place, but actually filmed in another. The film crew may gather some footage from the ostensible setting for establishing shots, then film the rest on location in a different place.

I remember a short-lived TV drama which was ostensibly set in Seattle, but actually shot in Vancouver BC. The pilot episode really was shot in Seattle. Indeed, I knew exactly where a particular scene was filmed. But after the pilot, they shifted to Vancouver.

I could tell the difference, but you’d have to be one of the locals to tell the difference.

Likewise, I remember another show which was actually filmed in British Columbia, but it had an episode which was ostensibly set in the woods outside Spokane, Washington. It looked like a temperate rain forest. Well, the Spokane area doesn’t resemble a rain forest. The episode was obviously shot in British Columbia.

Again, though, you’d have to be one of the natives (or a tourist) to tell the difference.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Hunches vs "Hard" Facts

Steve recently said:
Likewise, a great scientist has what they call "physical intuition." He "just feels" that he’s onto the right explanation, long before he can prove it. Same thing with a great mathematician.
Here's another example to illustrate Steve's point:
Every clinician with some experience develops a sixth sense about many of his or her patients. I have countless times been at a bedside when all the "numbers" were heading in the wrong direction, when the patient's vital signs were flickering dangerously, and when statistics would tell us that the patient's chances for recovery were virtually nil. EBM would have counseled one to stop. When a physician has known a patient for some time and many statistics would suggest "throwing in the towel," the physician's hunch that this patient will make it must also, in my opinion, be thrown into the equation. It is a very uncomfortable feeling to go against what is considered "standard of care" and not to throw in the towel when overwhelming evidence points to a patient's imminent demise. But it is more uncomfortable not to do so than to see a patient come to irreversible harm.

Sometimes we are fooled or swamped by wishful thinking. But sometimes we are not, and despite all evidence the patient lives. We generally call this a "hunch," but I believe that it is no less "scientific" than are the "numbers" or the x-ray. This "hunch" of ours is made up of many small things that we cannot really dissect apart: our particular experience with that disease, our having known the patient and his/her will to live and ability to fight against adversity, our knowing a patient over the years and knowing how s/he has reacted to chemical changes (within limits not all patients react the same). We have come to know how they look when confronted with some other life crisis -- how they look when all is lost and how they look when they are still struggling with a chance to win. Persons are assuredly created equal; that is, they ought to have the same chances to pursue their interests and learn to use their talents. But just as assuredly, because individuals have different abilities and talents, we do not live or die equally.

These hunches (or intuitions, if you prefer) are highly individualistic and are not something mysterious or occult. For me, they are uncomfortable because they often truly transcend reason. They consist of our integrating a large number of facts very quickly and sometimes quite substantially -- but they are not sent to us by heaven. Rather, they are a product of our reasoning from many facts that we know and which together form what Stewart Hampshire would call a compost heap[4] -- something that can no longer be separated into its component parts but one which has formed a substance all its own. One cannot practice by hunches alone; that would obviously be insane. But one ought not to reject hunches outright and merely because they deviate from the EBM of the day.

This kind of "hunch" does not lend itself to EBM, which consists of a collection of numbers allegedly having the same implication for every member within a specific group. Not only is this inhuman, but it is also truly bad patient care and is, therefore, ethically suspect. I am not suggesting that hunches necessarily should be acted upon; what I am saying is that they must figure into the equation at least to the extent that they are positive; ie, if the "numbers" tell me that this patient is moribund and I have a hunch that this may not be so, following that hunch (even when wrong) is unlikely to harm the patient. Unfortunately, what lurks behind much of EBM and rigid protocols has more to do with material profit and loss than too many would like to admit.

The obverse is very likely to occur also. If we are to use EBM humanely and efficiently, we would be compelled, I think, to allow physicians within reason to "play their hunches." Physicians who operate according to their hunches most of the time obviously (and with good reason) should be suspect -- suspect, not guilty -- of practicing poor medicine until the individual circumstances are investigated. Statistics are very helpful and sometimes critical to our understanding of a case. But we should never forget that statistics apply to groups of people and not to unique, identified lives -- namely, to a particular patient in the sickbed.


According to Richard Carrier, “Apart from just ‘feeling’ that it’s true, or being told so in a dream, or seeing ghosts or hearing voices, and other equally dubious grounds for belief today (you wouldn’t believe such things from any other religion)…” TCD (297).

I’m already commented on this once before, but I want to make some further comments.

i) To begin with, there’s nothing inherently wrong with “just feeling” that something is true. It depends, in part, on what he means by “feeling.” But to take one example, a champion poker player may “just feel” that his opponent is bluffing. And his feelings in that department are pretty reliable. After all, that’s how he got to be a champion poker player: he’s good at reading his opponent.

It would be very hard to explain how he can tell, but he’s clearly doing something right.

Likewise, a great scientist has what they call “physical intuition.” He “just feels” that he’s onto the right explanation, long before he can prove it. Same thing with a great mathematician.

ii) Why does Carrier say we wouldn’t believe someone heard voices “from any other religion”? There’s nothing in Christianity that precludes adherents of other faiths from hearing voices. For instance, Christians quite open to the possibility that the adherent of another religion might be possessed.

iii) What about ghosts? Why is that dubious? Where’s the argument?

iv) Is a dream a “dubious ground for belief today?” Would we disbelieve such a thing “from any other religion”? Why?

I already gave an example from Ruskin. Now I’ll give another example:

Which reminds me of something really strange that happened in 1953. I had come from Nîmes to sing Faust in Rouen and stayed in Paris overnight to get my costume. I had a strange dream. I was walking along a street and a man walking toward me on the opposite side crossed over and tore off the front of my dress. Half undressed and very embarrassed, I tried to cover myself. The next night I had the same dream.

I sang Faust the following evening, and in the last act, when Marguerite, now mad, is in prison for killing her baby, I wore a sort of thin nightdress that floated around me, and as I moved toward Faust, a voice from the hall exclaimed,

“What a beautiful bosom.”

It caused a murmur of laughter and embarrassed me into trying to cover the area in question with the long hair from my wig. After the performance, the dresser opened the door of my dressing room to a gentleman blushing with embarrassment, who asked my pardon for the remark that had escaped him. And it was exactly the man from my dream. In shock, I asked if he knew me, if he had ever seen me before. No.

Regine Crespin, On Stage, Off Stage: a Memoir (Northeastern University Press 1997), 260-61.

i) Is this a “dubious grounds for belief”? To begin with, the question is ambiguous. Dubious for whom? The dreamer? Or a second party who heard about the dream? Surely these are separate issues.

Suppose Crespin had the experience she relates. Should she doubt her experience? What, exactly, is there to doubt? That she had the dream? That what happened corresponded to the dream?

If a dreamer has what clearly seems to be a predictive dream, wouldn’t that be reason to regard certain dreams as a potentially reliable source of information about the future? True, you don’t know in advance whether or not a dream is truly predictive, but that’s the case for predictions generally. We only know after the fact if the prediction was true or false. A necessarily retrospective confirmation of the prospective experience or claim.

If, with the benefit of hindsight, a dream clearly seems to be predictive, then isn’t that a credible basis for believing that some dreams can furnish genuine information about the future which is unobtainable by conventional means?

ii) Or is it a question of whether the reader should doubt the dreamer’s self-witness to the dream? If so, that’s a fair question, but it’s not a question that answers itself.

iii) Apropos (ii), even on Carrier’s own terms, the reported dream is not a Christian dream. To begin with, Crespin was not a Christian. To the extent that she was even religious, she was probably a pluralist or syncretist. She dabbled in the occult.

Secondly, there’s nothing Christian or even religious about the content of the dream. The dream doesn’t purport to attest any religious or sectarian claim.

iv) In addition, it’s not obvious to me why Crespin would fabricate this incident.

a) What did she have to gain? At the time she wrote her autobiography, she was an established artist, as well as a national celebrity. This anecdote is hardly a way of making a name for herself. By then her career was pretty much behind her.

b) She wasn’t a professional psychic, like Jeane Dixon or Edgar Cayce, who made a living by claiming to have ESP.

c) I don’t think it’s the sort of thing she’d just say to sell books. For one thing, unless she was already a celebrity, no one would buy her book anyway–or even publish her book. And opera buffs would buy her book with or without this anecdote.

If anything helped to sell her book, it was the racy vignettes about her checkered love life, rather than something outré like this.

d) This is the only incident of its kind which she relates in her autobiography. I assume it’s the only example she gives because it’s the only example she had. Put another way, if she were fabricating stuff like this, why stop with one example?

v) Furthermore, her premonition has a rather allegorical character. The “fulfillment” isn’t a carbon copy of the dream. Rather, her dream was a semi-allegorical dream. Not a photograph of the future, but an allegory of the future. Partly literal and partly symbolic.

The parallels are unmistakable, but if she was making this up, why would she invent a predictive dream that is semi-allegorical rather than consistently literal?

For the aforesaid reasons, I, for one, find this a credible report. Of course, I’m open to the possibility that for whatever reason she made it up, but that’s not the most plausible explanation.

While we’re on the subject of premonitions, there’s a YouTube interview of Alec Guinness in which he says he had a premonition about James Dean’s premature demise in an automobile accident. Once again, there’s nothing religious about his claim. One might or might not discount it for other reasons, but not because it has a religious pedigree.

Beyond the Big Bang

William Lane Craig critiques the various models of the universe in his paper "Beyond the Big Bang." Although it was written years before The Grand Design, some of Craig's criticisms are still relevant to the Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mladinow book. For example, check out the Quantum Gravity Models of the universe section.

It might also be valuable to witness physicists criticize other models of the universe (e.g. the Hawking-Penrose Singularity Theorems against the Oscillating Models of the universe).

Gordon on Hawking

Bruce L. Gordon reviews The Grand Design.

HT: Clive Hayden.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

McGrath and Penrose on Hawking

William Dembski posts a video clip of Alister McGrath and Roger Penrose critiquing Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mladinow's The Grand Design.


Rubicon may be the best TV show since La Femme Nikita (1997-2001). Both shows focused on counterterrorism. La Femme Nikita was paradoxical. Section One epitomized the self-contradiction in pure utilitarian ethics: saving humanity by inhuman means. The paradox was underscored by the hard-bitten atheism of Operations and Madeline. Their fanatical devotion to achieving the goal in a world without any ultimate significance.

Rubicon lacks that razor edge. Instead, Rubicon is reminiscent of those Cold War thrillers by John le Carré: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and Smiley’s People–with their attention to the cannibalistic world of spycraft.

Watching Rubicon is like reading a novel. Something you have to give your undivided attention. Not everybody likes reading novels.

It has a novelistic eye for the mundane details of life. Art frequently edits out the mundane details of life to highlight The Big Picture. But in Rubicon, the camera will sometimes pause to show the quirky little things that people do when they’re all alone in a room or elevator. A patient, appreciative eye for the small, quiet, private moments in life. The empty in-between moments in life.

Rubicon suffers somewhat from the liberal fixation with gov’t conspiracies. Yet the world of political intrigue is one-dimensional world that only fascinates and captivates the big gov’t liberal. And it also betrays the emotional quandary of the liberal. For the liberal, gov’t can never be too expansive or intrusive, yet liberals are also consumed with foreboding about a vast gov’t conspiracy. They create the phantom they fear.

Rubicon centers on counterintelligence. The protagonist, Will Travers, has the brilliant mind of a codebreaker. A man with a knack for divining subtle, elusive patterns. And he works with two other brilliant colleagues.

But brilliant men and women are apt to be somewhat unstable to begin with, and “connecting the dots” can push them over the edge. Instead of cracking the code, the code cracks the man. The obsessive, single-minded pursuit of the codebreaker can break the codebreaker rather than the code. He may go so far into the labyrinth that he can’t retrace his steps.

It generates a dilemma. If you’re sure that something contains a hidden clue, then you’re apt to find what you expect to find. The very process of looking for hidden patterns can project illusory patterns. You end up watching your own mind at play. You lose yourself in a maze of your own imagining. Is it detection, or reflection? A complex web of deception–or self-deception?

At the same time, the world really is chalk-full of patterns. Concentric or interconnected patterns. So it can be tricky to distinguish the intentional patterns from the coincidental patterns.

Yet this can also work in reverse. Due to tunnel vision, you can miss a “hidden” pattern that’s really there because you haa a preconception of what the pattern should look like. You're so busy looking that you overlook what's right there.

What if the pattern isn’t embedded in the details. What if everything is the pattern? You can miss the pattern that's been staring you in the face because you expect the pattern to be hidden rather than overt. You’re peeling away the actual pattern as you search for an underlying pattern beneath the presumptive layers of misdirection. But what if the entire phenomenon, through-and-through, exemplifies the pattern? Put another way, what if the pattern isn’t too small to make-out, but too large to make-out?

I’m reminded of debates over the “hiddenness” of God. Debates over specified complexity. Theistic proofs that try to isolate telltale clues left in the vapor trail of God’s passing. Pulling out a flashlight to glean trace evidence in the dark.

Yet this runs the risk of tunnel vision. Treating the world like a code to be decrypted, rather than seeing the pattern everywhere you look. But is it a question of where to find the pattern? Or is it a question of where, if anywhere, the pattern is not to be found? What if everything is equally patterned? There’s nothing to discover. It’s all there, all the time. We are squinting in broad daylight.