Saturday, March 08, 2014


Baptizing transgenderism

I ran across this statement on Facebook:
I don't get this Christian antipathy towards transgenderism. There's no biblical principle that genotype, phenotype and identity have to match up, and there's medical evidence that they often don't. If the Fall could result in other kinds of brain/body mismatches and biological quirks Christians accept and believe should be treated, why not transgenderism? And for those who are anti-, what's their solution for ambiguous intersex people?

I'll make a few observations:
1) Certainly the Bible doesn't treat male and female as a social construct.
2) Apropos (1), another obvious problem with this objection is that, from what I've read, transgender proponents typically contend that gender is a social construct. It's not hardwired. That's why gender is fluid. Because gender is culturally assigned, you are free to choose your gender. 
And transgender laws reflect that. They protect the individual's "self-perceived" gender. To my knowledge, antidiscrimination laws protecting the transgendered aren't based on medically verifiable conditions. 

3) Let's begin with a medical definition:
Gender identity is the sense one has of being male or female. Some people experience a significant incongruence between their gender identity and inborn physical phenotype, labeled as Gender Identity Disorder (GID); the experience is termed gender dysphoria.

With that in mind, I'd suggest there are two kinds of transgenders:
i) To the extent that some people genuinely experience that incongruence, it would be a psychiatric disorder, like lycanthropy. But, of course, the trans community hardly wants to have its condition classified as a mental illness.  
ii) But most transgenders are probably like lesbian feminists. They believe their own propaganda. Ideological brainwashing. 
I suspect most "transgender" folks are simply miserable adolescent boys or girls (or their adult counterparts) who are/were unpopular/unhappy in school. Lacked the affluence, good looks, IQ, or athletic prowess of the successful students. Because they didn't succeed as normal, but average or below average (performance-wise) humans, they can now blame it on their socially misconstructed identity. 

To take a somewhat different, but related example, back in the heyday of the repressed memory movement, you had individuals who were convinced that they were victims of sexual abuse or ritual satanic abuse. People who are emotionally vulnerable are very suggestible, impressionable, susceptible to psychological manipulation. They can be talked into believing things happened to them which never occurred.

Some alien abduction stories probably fall into this category as well. 

Preterism's Literalistic Hermeneutic

Let's yell and stamp our feet!

I'm going to comment on some statements by a blogger who consider himself to be a "gay Christian":
I've been noticing some rather harsh and disturbing language coming from so-called "Christians" on-line when referring to LGBTQ advocates: one of their favorite terms for such is "homo fascist." (Never mind that Jesus would never use such language toward LGBTQ persons -- He certainly didn't use demeaning and derogatory terms when encountering socially-despised lepers, tax collectors, or prostitutes.) A fascist regime is an oppressive, dictatorial and controlling system, whereby the rights of others are taken from them. One might suggest, then, that those who use "homo fascist" language are actually Christian fascists. 

i) To begin with, the Bible, including the NT, uses harsh language for certain groups. For instance, read what Jude has to say about false teachers.

Likewise, Rev 22:15 probably refers to homosexuals as "dogs." Cf. D. Aune, Revelation 17-22 (Word 1998), 1222-23. That's not a term of endearment. 

ii) Homofascist is analogous to other popular coinages like ecofascist and Islamofascist. 

Using language such as "homo fascist" is any notion other than merciful. After all, LGBTQ advocates do not comprise a fascist regime; they are not vying to take away the rights of anyone -- they are merely fighting for equal rights, to be treated with dignity and honor, and not be treated as objects of discrimination. They are fighting legislation that seeks to prejudice others against LGBTQ persons, unfairly discriminate against LGBTQ persons, or mistreat LGBTQ persons. 

Actually, they are fighting to criminalize Christian expression as hate speech. 

I don't mind confessing how disturbed I am lately by the silence of most conservative Christian bloggers with regard to the harassment, bullying, and violence that is being perpetrated by angry, fearful, hate-filled heterosexuals toward gay people throughout the world -- especially in places like Russia, Uganda, Nigeria, IndiaIran and Iraq. These same conservatives, so I see on their blogs, don't mind arguing over end-times views, or the present White House administration, or Obamacare, or liberals, or "the sin of homosexuality" and gay marriage, even calling gay rights activists "homo fascists"; but ask these same conservatives for even a semblance of compassion toward the violence of gays and all one hears is silence. I want to know why. 

i) There's a lot to sort out here. By my count, the blogger uses "bullying" three times in the same post. However, public school policies against "bullying" are typically euphemistic code language to make boys conform to feminist behavioral norms. This is part of the "war on boys," documented by writers like Helen Smith and Christina Hoff Sommers. An all-out assault on masculinity and heteronormativity. That's not to condone genuine bullying, but it's used to mask a radical agenda.

Indeed, it turns teachers and principals into thugs who bully normal male students.

ii) Let's also make allowance for the epidemic of fake hate crimes. That's a political tactic.

iii) Let's keep in mind the link between sodomy and child prostitution in the Third World. For instance, I've read about affluent homosexuals in the West who skirt age of consent laws by flying to Third-World brothels stocked with underage boys. So cracking down on homosexual activity in the Third World is, in part, a way of cracking down on child prostitution (not to mention child pornography). To that extent it's a good thing. There's a side to the story which this blogger is ignoring.

iv) Then there's the link between homosexuality and the AIDS epidemic in Africa and India. Because it's politically incorrect to connect the two, that linkage has been underreported in Third World countries.  Curbing homosexual activity is, in part, an effort to curb the incidence of AIDS, which includes the innocent victims of homosexually or bisexually active men (i.e. infected wives, babies, child prostitutes).  Once again, that's a side of the story which this blogger is ignoring. 

v) There's also the question of what's to be accomplished by speaking out against what happens to homosexuals in Russia, Iran, &c. Is this just to give the speaker a sense of moral satisfaction? He had a chance to vent his disapproval? For an evangelical American or Canadian blogger to denounce what happens in Russia, Iran, &c., is totally ineffectual. That's a feel-good gesture with zero effect on the offending regime.

By contrast, when evangelical bloggers comment on domestic policy in their own countries, they are trying to make a difference. Likewise, you have some evangelical bloggers in the US and the UK who comment on each other's culture wars, not because they can directly influence what another country does, but because these are parallel situations, and so the arguments are applicable to the blogger's own country even if he's commenting on another country. 

vi) Apropos (i), can anything really be done to change social policy in countries like Russia and Iran? Theoretically, there are only two options. 

a) You can invade the country, topple the regime, install an occupation gov't or puppet gov't to impose a different rule of law. But that's clearly not feasible in this situation. Indeed, we tried that in Iraq. Remember the Coalition Provisional Authority under Paul Bremer? Not exactly a signal success. 

b) You can impose economic sanctions on the offending regime. Again, though, that's not feasible. 

To begin with, effective sanctions require the coordinated support of other countries. But when some of the world's worst regimes sit on the UN security council or UN commission on human rights, any resolution will either be vetoed or toothless.

Moreover, trade with larger countries is too lucrative for sanctions to be enforced. 

He is coming soon

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place (Rev 1:1).
i) What does "soon" mean in this verse? Not so much what does the Greek word mean, but to what does it refer? 
Preterists think they have a straightforward answer: "soon" means soon in relation to the fall of Jerusalem, in 70 AD. They make fun of how futurists try to explain "soon." David Chilton quipped that you wouldn't send a futurist to buy hot sandwiches. 
The preterist interpretation isn't quite as straightforward is it appears at first blush. For one thing, "soon" depends on what you date the book. Soon would mean soon after the book was written. Of course, that itself makes "soon" a relative concept. A matter of degree. How many years must go by before it's too late? The word itself doesn't specify an exact cut-off. 
ii) More to the point, even if that's a straightforward interpretation of the adverb, the preterist buys that straightforward interpretation at the expense of a very convoluted interpretation of what Revelation says about eschatological judgment, the return of Christ, the new Eden, new Jerusalem, cessation of sin, suffering, death, disease, and grief. That's a high price to pay for a single word. Surely there's a less costly interpretation for the book as a whole. 
iii) However, that's not the main issue. Let's explore the fluidity of this adverb. Suppose a husband becomes a widower at the age of 70. Perhaps they were a childless couple. Or perhaps they had a son who died in battle. Or a daughter who died in a traffic accident. So she's all he had. After she dies, he loses the will to live. Although he's free to remarry, he feels that it's too late in the life to begin a new life. He made his life with her. He can't go back and he can't go forward. She was it for him. 
Suppose he prays that God will take him "soon." When he first begins to pray for that, "soon" means soon after she died. He prays that God will let him die shortly after his wife died. 
But suppose, to his consternation, he's still alive 5 years later. Every day, he prays the same prayer. But "soon" as shifted. Even though he continues to use the same adverb, it no longer has the same referent. At this point it's too late for him to die soon after she died. So "soon" now means soon after the last time he prayed. "Take me soon," meaning, take me soon after I ask you to end my life. "Soon" is relative to the timeframe. If the timeframe shifts, the adverb follows the timeframe. Later is still "soon" in relation to the shifting timeframe. 
iv) For the preterist, "soon" (in Rev 1:1) has reference to an event: the fall of Jerusalem. But what if soon has reference to the audience? Indeed, isn't that unavoidable? What is soon for them. For the reader. Isn't that the natural frame of reference? 
But that in turn raises another question. The identification of the audience. Which audience? 
Is it the original audience? The seven churches of Asia Minor? They are certainly included in the audience for the book as a whole. 
Preterists like to emphasize that Scripture must be meaningful or relevant to the original audience. And that's true enough. Indeed, that's a component of the grammatico-historical method. 
However, the audience for Scripture isn't monolithic. Scripture has more than one audience. God inspired the Bible for the benefit of Christians in every generation. So the audience for Revelation isn't a fixed frame of reference. In which case, "soon" lacks fixity as well. 
More so when we consider the audience for prophecy. Suppose you have an oracle that's fulfilled just a generation after the prophet delivered his oracle. Even in that brief turnaround time, there's been some turnover in the composition of the audience. Some members of the original audience have died by then, while others were born afterwards. 
"Soon" and "late" are indexical markers. Soon in relation to where you happen to be in history. Because we're born at different times and die at different times, what is soon for you may be late for me. What is soon for me may be late for you.
If Christ had returned in the late 1C, that would be too soon for subsequent generations. You and I wouldn't be here in that event.
I had a devout grandmother who, when I was a boy, used to tell me about how she was hoping that Jesus would return in her own lifetime. In her mind, the sky would part like a curtain and Jesus would descend.
But he didn't return in her lifetime. And unfortunately, she lived too long for her own good. Her final years were darkened by tragedy. Whenever Christ returns, it will be too late to spare her what she suffered in her final years. But in that respect, the return of Christ will always be too soon for some and too late for others.
v) In Rev 1:1, "soon" may mean soon for the final Christian generation. For Christian readers who happen to be alive when he comes back. "Soon" tracks the salient audience. "Soon" picks out the applicable audience. 
Every Biblical promise isn't equally applicable in time and place. Not everything that happens in Revelation happens to everyone. 
Christina Rossetti was a Victorian poet who wrote devotional commentary on Revelation. She no doubt found Rev 20-22 edifying. Promises like that give us the hope to persevere. But the situation it describes isn't directly applicable to the reader until it happens. That isn't directly applicable to the reader unless it happens to the reader. In which case it's directly applicable to the final Christian generation. 
It wasn't soon for her. But then, it wasn't meant to be. Not everything in Revelation is meant for you and me. Not directly. Revelation describes some kinds of events which happen to some Christians, and other kinds of events which happen to other Christians. Things like that happen. Every Christian isn't going to recapitulate the narrative in Revelation. That was never in the cards. You and I will find out by experience how much of that describes our own experience. 

Getting clear on Reformed determinism

Friday, March 07, 2014

Why follow Jesus?

Homosexual addiction

As I've suggested on more than one occasion, I think addiction may be a good model for homosexuality. In my observation, addiction (and recovery) ranges along a continuum. At one end are hopeless addicts. They are in and out of rehab, but never kick the habit. They try everything, but nothing works for them. Eventually they either die from a drug overdose or medical complications.

At the other end of the spectrum are ex-junkies who used to do hard drugs. They did everything. Yet at some point they are able to make a clean break with the past and never look back. Somehow they find the motivation or inner resources to put that decisively behind them. 

Then you have people in the middle. Recovering addicts. For them, it continues to be a struggle. They have good days and bad days. They occasionally relapse. But their former habit no longer controls them. They are able to reduce the problem to manageable proportions. They lead a successful life. 

I suppose it's mysterious why you have this wide variation. Certainly I'm no expert. In some cases it may have something to do with variable body chemistry or a physiological predisposition.

It may also have to do with why they got hooked in the first place. In some cases, people experiment with drugs out of curiosity, or boredom. Or because doing drugs is one of the social activities their friends are into. 

But in other cases you have people who escape into drugs to mask deep-seated psychological needs. Emptiness. Unhappiness. Feelings of personal inadequacy. They just find life unbearable. 

Going to rehab to dry out does nothing to treat the underlying problem which drove them to escape into drugs in the first place. Unless their psychological needs can be met, unless they can undergo emotional healing, they will keep returning, moth-like, to the flame.

By the same token, I doubt there's a one-size-fits-all solution to homosexual inclinations. Some homosexuals convert to Christianity. They try to "pray the gay away," but fail. They become bitter and disillusioned. They assume that if it didn't work for them, then homosexual inclination must be unalterable. They think all ex-homosexuals who claim to be happily married to a member of the opposite sex are lying to themselves. Self-deceived. An accident waiting to happen. 

And this is necessary to justify the failure of those who were unable to ameliorate (much less eradicate) their condition. The "once homosexual/always homosexual" explanation is a way to exonerate their own frustration. 

I also expect that if a person's only sexual experience is homosexual, if he's never fallen in love with a woman, then that's his only frame of reference. Heterosexual inclination is alien to him. To some extent he's an outsider because his experience has made him an outsider. He can't relate to those feelings because the die was cast by his own activity. That's all he knows. He lacks empathy. It's self-reinforcing. 

To take a comparison, some men are trapped in a self-destructive rut. Then a woman comes into their life. She "saves" himself. Five years later, they are happily married. Give years earlier, this would be inconceivable to him. Trapped in his self-destructive run, he couldn't even comprehend having a different life. There seemed to be no way out. 

Surprising things can happen. What seems impossible at one point in life may be effortless at another point in life. 

The End of All Learning: Love God with all your mind. This is our duty and should be our delight.

Beware both theological ignorance and theological arrogance:

Perhaps never in the history of the Protestant faith has the evangelical church been more shallow and superficial in its theology. Some of this theological ignorance is due to laziness in the pulpit. How much of the institutional church is comprised of weak, anemic, starving sheep languishing under idle shepherds?

Yet, much theological ignorance is not due to laziness in the pulpit, but laziness in the pew. The lazy pew yawns, “It’s Sunday, the day of rest. Don’t make me think too much.” Then of course, the lazy pew is quick to add, “But don’t bore me either!”

Alas, the lazy pew is shallow and superficial and cannot love God with the mind. Sadly, the church is never more like the world than when she is weak-minded.

To be sure, theological ignorance is an obvious, prevalent way that we fail to love God with our mind. But there is another way, less obvious and prevalent but more insidious: theological arrogance.

We could stress the difference thus: The theologically ignorant fail to love God with their mind; while the theologically arrogant fail to love God with their mind.

Theology is not God. We must never forget this. It is altogether possible to be more excited or proud concerning our theology than our God. When we love doctrine more than we love God theological arrogance ensues...

"God doesn't make mistakes"

Offhand, the only times I recall hearing this phrase is when folks defend homosexuality. How should Christians respond?

i) Open theists think God does make mistakes. At least, that's what their theology commits them to. A God who doesn't know the future will be mistaken about the future. He's bound to get some things wrong.

ii) You also have deistic evolutionists who believe God created the initial conditions, but after that, the evolutionary process takes on a life of its own. God doesn't guide it. He may still intervene in human history, but not in natural history. 

Technically, he doesn't make mistakes. Rather, he creates a trial-and-error process.

This is also true for theistic evolutionists in the sense that random mutation is an essential component to evolution, and mutation involves transcriptional errors. Technically, God doesn't make mistakes. Rather, he creates a process that's liable to replication errors. And that's not incidental to the process. That's essential to the development of life by evolution.

So even if you deny that God makes mistakes, assuming you you subscribe to evolution, then homosexual orientation could well be a mistake. Indeed, anything as statistically abnormal and disadvantageous as homosexuality is an excellent candidate for one of nature's many dead ends. 

iii) Likewise, there's such a thing as genetic defects. Homosexual apologists can't wish that away by saying God doesn't make mistakes. 

If, say, a patient is diagnosed with a surgically correctable congenital heart defect, are they going to deny the condition or refuse the operation on the grounds that God doesn't make mistakes? 

iv) Keep in mind, too, that since homosexual apologists typically claim that homosexual orientation has a physiological basis, once they allow for random mutations and birth defects, they can't very well exclude the possibility that homosexual orientation is a "mistake." 

v) Finally, let's examine the concept of a "mistake." Take planned obsolescence. It's possible to make some products more durable. But that's less profitable than built-in obsolescence. It's a designed defect rather than a design defect. The fact that it isn't as good as it could be is intentional. 

Let's take another example. Take a tactical defeat (or tactical loss). An up-and-coming poker player may deliberately overplay his hand a few times in a game to make his opponents underestimate him. He intentionally loses a few hands to make them overconfident. They think he's easy to beat. That's their downfall. 

Or this can operate in reverse. In the The Cincinnati Kid, Lancey plays an aging poker player who used to be the best in the business, but pretends to be losing his touch in his match with Stoner. Stoner is lured into thinking Lancey is past his prime. That causes him to tempt the odds, which plays right into Lancey's trap. 

Lancey's "mistakes" are calculated to embolden Stoner. That gives Stoner the opening he's been waiting for. Except it's really an ambush. Lacy lets Stoner to win just often enough to lose when he's got everything on the line. 

The fact that we live in a fallen world inhabited by a variety of sinners is not a mistake on God's part. That was his plan all along. It's a means to an end. 

Indeed, the position of the homosexual apologist is self-contradictory. If God makes no mistakes, then they can't say the Bible is homophobic. For that imputes error to the word of God. 

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Apt comparisons

I largely agree with Roger Olson's post. (Yes, even broken clocks can be accidentally right.) 

Now, I’m NOT comparing gays with pornographers or white supremacists and if you think so you don’t understand the nature of comparisons. My comparisons are ONLY for the purpose of asking whether there are legitimate limits to legal requirements to do business with people. Almost everyone I know would say there are SOME such limits.

Olson is right that many people don't understand analogies. I myself have made that point:

Olson is not making a moral comparison. Rather, he's testing whether, as a matter of principle, opponents of religious liberty protections think vendors never have the right to refuse a customer. 

But with all those caveats duly noted, what's wrong with comparing homosexuals to pornographers or white supremacists? When Christians use these analogies, critics typically wax apoplectic. How dare you compare homosexuals to pornographers! 

At that point, many Christians become defensive and begin to back down. "Of course I wasn't saying homosexuals are morally analogous to pornographers! That wasn't the point of the comparison." 

But even if that wasn't the point of the comparison, from the standpoint of biblical ethics, we should challenge the critic's outrage. Now, maybe just being homosexual isn't morally equivalent to being a pornographer. That's comparing what one person is with what another person does. So that's somewhat equivocal. 

But from the standpoint of biblical ethics, surely homosexual behavior is at least as bad as producing or consuming pornography–if not worse. 

And while we're on the subject of white supremacists, nowadays that's often something they never act on. It's just a belief or attitude. Yet it's still culpable.

We mustn't allow society to bully us into treating homosexuality as morally neutral, much less good, so that this is merely a value-free debate over the right of venders to choose their customers. We can't allow the liberal establishment to take the moral dimension of homosexuality off the table, as if that's out-of-bounds.  

Can Arminians be trusted?

T’s Ability to Deceive 

Faulkner 2000 argues that the fact that testimony comes from a person, rather than an inanimate object, is a reason to be more demanding on testimonially-based beliefs than on perceptually-based beliefs. Lackey 2006a:176 and 188 n.44 also endorses this argument. People like T can lie, but the matter in our perceptual environment cannot. See also Audi 2006:40: “[T] must in some sense, though not necessarily by conscious choice, select what to attend to, and in doing so can also lie or, in a certain way, mislead … For the basic sources, there is no comparable analogue of such voluntary representation of information.” 
One way to make the point more precise is to claim that because free actions are particularly indeterministic—that is, because determinism is false, and so the past plus laws is not enough to guarantee future free actions—the environment for a testimonially-based belief cannot be regular and law-governed in the way that the environment for a perceptually-based belief can be. Graham 2004 considers such an argument in detail. He argues, however, that the presence of human freedom in testimonial cases is not a significant reason to prefer a conservative approach. He argues that if a libertarian approach to human freedom undermines the predictability of human actions, then it would also undermine a conservative approach to testimony; if T’s actions were unpredictable, then S could never have a proper basis on which to believe that T is likely to be honest, for instance. However, Graham argues that if libertarianism does not undermine predictability—either because it is false, or because counterfactuals of freedom are nonetheless somehow true—then testimonial liberalism is not threatened by human freedom, because the environments for testimonially-based beliefs can in fact be as predictable as the environments for perceptually-based beliefs.

On a wing and a prayer

Lydia McGrew and I have been having an amicable exchange of views on a recent post of hers. Here's the comment thread:

steve said...
I think Mt 7:8-11 (par Lk 11:10-13) is an implicit restriction on answered prayer. God will only give good things in answer to prayer. But because Christians often lack the foresight or objectivity to know what is best, they may inadvertently ask for a venomous snake when they thought they were asking for bread. If God were to give us everything we ask for, he'd end up giving us venomous snakes every so often, because, when we pray for our own needs or those of others, we don't allays know the right thing to ask for. Something that's good for me may be bad for you. Something that's a short-term good may be a long-term evil.
Lydia McGrew said...
That's a very good point, but I think it sometimes takes independent reason to trust God to accept that that is always the case when our prayers are not answered. It's easy enough to imagine situations where one says, "What bad could _possibly_ come of releasing that pastor from unimaginable torture in Iran?" or whatever. "How could it possibly be bad for *anybody* if God were to heal this baby of this horribly painful disease?"

In that sense, the issue of unanswered prayer really becomes intertwined with the problem of evil. We as Christians believe that we have enough independent reason to trust God's judgement that we trust that God "has a sufficient reason" for not healing the baby or releasing the pastor when God obviously has the power to do both of those things. And in those cases we usually can only dimly conceive what that reason could be. What we conceive are guesses, and sometimes those guesses may be wrong. This is especially true when we add in the constraint, which I think is justifiable, that God does not simply _use_ people for other ends. So, for example, it can't be a sufficient reason for God not to heal the baby that the suffering of watching the baby die will help to bring someone *else* to salvation. That seems like using the baby as a mere means to an end.

All of this really means, though, that what we are looking for is not so much a solution to the "problem" of apparent promises of answered prayer but rather a solution to the apparent problem of God's allowing evil and suffering. And that translation of the one problem into the other follows from your correct response: God only gives good gifts, so it must be that what you are asking Him to do, that He hasn't done, is not really for everyone's best good.
William Luse said...
Isn't there a passage in which Jesus says that if we have faith enough we can move mountains? I wonder what kind of field day the lab-rat atheists have with that.
Lydia McGrew said...
I imagine that, if they are suave, they say that it doesn't _literally_ mean move a mountain but does mean "accomplish something very difficult" in response to prayer, and then would still ask us to test how often something very difficult was accomplished in response to our prayers.

Now, missionaries (for example) can tell amazing stories along those lines. So if all it takes are some anecdotes of very difficult things happening after prayer, that would be the answer. But the atheist (or just the agnostic inquirer) will then point out that often the difficult (and non-frivolous) thing is prayed for and not received, so the amazing stories will be put down as cherry picking.
steve said...
There are several issues here:

i) Does the experience of unanswered prayer contradict NT promises? Of course, ordinary language often resorts to hyperbole and generalities, so even if all we had were unqualified promises, in the sense of promises worded without any caveats, it would be a wooden abuse of language to assume these must be taken at face value.

ii) However, in the same Gospels which contain unqualified promises, we have statements which implicitly qualify the force or scope of the promises. God will only give good things in answer to prayer. Since, however, Christians will at least occasionally (if not frequently) unwittingly pray for bad things, some prayers will go unanswered. Although we intend to pray for good things for ourselves or others, yet short of omniscience, we can't really predict what's a good outcome.

So my observation was about the consistency of the Gospels with respect to promises about prayer.

iii) And that places the onus on the atheist or apostate. In the case of unanswered prayer, he has to show that the world would be better off had God answered the prayer. That the answer would be good for all parties concerned. And that's a very high burden of proof to discharge. He has to compared the repercussions of God answering a particular prayer to God not answering the same prayer. He has to trace out the respective chain-reaction generated by those two alternatives. And it's hard to see how he can pull that off. Or even come close.

iv) There's the further question of what justifies the Christian in trusting God in the face of unanswered prayer, or apparently gratuitous evils.

v) As for your stricture that God doesn't simply use people for other ends, that sounds very Kantian. I agree with you that God never treats anyone unjustly. However, there are some people in Scripture (e.g. Pharaoh, Judas, Pilate, Caiaphas) whom God seems to use as a means to an end. Their actions ultimately benefit others at their own expense.
steve said...
The accusation of cherry-picking is only probative if what we take to be answered prayer is merely coincidental. They stand out because we ignore or forget all the unanswered prayers. But it's really random. The odds are that every so often, we will apparently get something in answer to prayer.

However, the plausibility of that explanation depends on the details. If some outcomes are too specific, too opportune, too antecedently unlikely, then it's special pleading for the atheist to chalk that up to luck. I don't see that unanswered prayers negate the evidence of amazing anecdotes.

Indeed, could't we turn this around? Suppose most prayers went unanswered. That might mean answered prayers demand a special explanation, precisely because (ex hypothesi) it's so extraordinary.

To take a comparison, if a missile installation has multiple fail-safe mechanisms to prevent accidentally launching a missile, as a result of which that's extremely rare, and if in spite of that, a missile is launched without authorization, then that may well be reason to suspect sabotage. The backup mechanisms didn't simply fail. Rather, someone hacked into the system and overrode the protocols.
Lydia McGrew said...
I'm definitely going to bring it back to Bayes factors. E.g. I've heard a story from a family in ministry of their needing a specific sum of money. When I say "specific," I mean, including cents. As the story was told, they prayed for this sum of money and the next day received it in the mail from a donor who must have mailed it before they prayed for it. The donor said it had seemed that "the Lord was laying it on her heart" to send it.

I would say this clearly has a positive Bayes factor for the hypothesis that God anticipated their need and sent them the exact sum of money by influencing the donor's mind.

The question then is just how positive a Bayes factor it has. For example, how likely was it that this donor would send them _some_ amount of money merely through natural, personal inclination? If so, how probable is it (presumably we could do this merely with some kind of probability measure over a finite set of possible amounts) that the donor would send just _that_ amount by chance?

In general, the negative Bayes factors for the failure of answered prayer are usually going to be weaker than the positive Bayes factors for answered prayer. This is for various reasons, including the fact that God does allow the order of nature to proceed and does interventions mostly as signs. It would certainly be incorrect to stack up "answered prayer" against "unanswered prayer" and merely cross-cancel the numbers. That would be a crude method that fails to take into account that an event can be much stronger evidence _for_ something than the absence of that event is evidence _against_ that conclusion. These things are often asymmetrical.

Which is a wordy way of saying that I agree with you that the cherry picking accusation is not necessarily going to be a knockout. It depends on _what_ apparent answered prayers it is intended to offset.
steve said...
Since atheism is a universal negative (there are no divine answers to prayer), there's also the question of how many well-attested cases of answered prayer one needs to consign falsify atheism.
Lydia McGrew said...
Well, I suppose to be neutral one would have to say *apparent* answers to prayer, but yes...That would depend on the prior probability of atheism. :-)

Regarding God's not treating people as mere means, I'm going to stand by that, while stressing the word "mere." God never treated Judas or anyone else as a _mere_ means to an end. God is not willing that any should perish, but since Judas chose to betray Jesus, God used that sin for great good. That's quite a different matter from saying, "God allowed this infant to die in agony, not for any reason pertaining to the good of the child himself, but in order to bring the parents' to the end of their rope so that they would be saved." _That_ would be using the child as a _mere_ means to an end. Ultimately, though in some way we cannot understand, God must always have _that_ individual in mind in what he allows to come to that individual. Of course, God can _also_ use what happens to that individual for the good of others, but that is on top of whatever plan there is for the individual himself. Judas rejected God's plan for himself.
steve said...
This could quickly become a substantial digression from the main point of your post, so I will just confine myself to a few brief points:

i) Superficial appearances not withstanding, 2 Pet 3:9 is really not about God's benevolence towards humanity in general, but about God's forbearance for Christians in particular. As Richard Bauckham documents in his classic commentary, "God's patience with his own people, delaying the final judgment to give them the opportunity of repentance…for in Jewish thought it was usually for the sake of the repentance of his own people that God delayed judgment," Jude, 2 Peter (Word 1983), 312-13.

So your appeal to this verse is counterproductive to your contention.

ii) The intuitive plausibility, if any, of the Kantian deontological principle (i.e. "act so as to treat people always as ends in themselves, never as mere means") turns, not on the abstract principle itself, but on the use of morally or emotionally appealing examples to illustrate the principle. It seems plausible when we use a plausible illustration. For instance, your example of babies evokes the protective instinct which adults ought to feel towards the young and helpless. But it loses plausibility when we extend that to wicked adults, who are not entitled to the same deference. Substitute an unsympathetic example, and the principle suddenly becomes implausible.
Lydia McGrew said...
Actually, I disagree that the distinction between the wicked adult and the infant is merely that between an emotionally sympathetic and unsympathetic example. The distinction turns on free will and choice. There is every reason to believe that the wicked adult has had and has rejected the opportunity to receive God's grace. It is, moreover, his _chosen action_ which God is using for good despite the wicked adult's intention. Moreover, if the wicked adult were to suffer, this would be either a) punishment, which does not violate the Kantian principle but is, rather, due to the person or b) intended to bring him to repentance, which is for his own good. The infant is not committing some act which God is using for good. Rather, in the example, it is the infant's _suffering_ that is allegedly being allowed for someone else's good. Moreover, since the suffering of the infant cannot be either punishment for his own act nor for the purpose of bringing the infant to repentance, those ways in which the infant's suffering might be construed as oriented _to_ the infant as an individual (not _merely_ for the good of others, even if _also_ used for the good of others) are unavailable.

So I disagree that the example turns merely upon protection and emotion.

My strong suspicion, here, is that our different approaches to this issue arise from the fact that I am not a Calvinist and that (if I recall correctly), you are.
Lydia McGrew said...
I suppose I should also point out that the infant scenario turns on level of consciousness. Any person old enough to understand can profit from suffering through the "vale of soul-making" concept. An infant, it *appears*, cannot do so, because he cannot think and reflect, draw closer to God, and the like, because his mind is insufficiently developed for those purposes.

My own conjecture, which I put forward as a mere conjecture on which very little weight should be placed, is that God may use the "vale of soul-making" purpose for the infant in some mental realm at the moment of death or beyond death. Hence, the infant's suffering in this life may somehow contribute to his wisdom or bliss in heaven when he has been given full mental development as part of the gifts of heaven.
steve said...
A few quick points:

i) When you say "in the example, it is the infant's _suffering_ that is allegedly being allowed for someone else's good," I don't know who's alleging that. It was you, not me, who who introduced that example into the discussion. So you seem to be shadowboxing with someone else. Perhaps this is a carryover from another debate.

ii) That said, it's a tall order to argue that God was ever acting in the best interests of every individual–if that's what you mean. Both in Scripture and history, there's enormous prima facie evidence to the contrary. Of course, appearances are sometimes deceptive, but it's not as if there's a standing presumption in favor of the Kantian principle, which I must laboriously overcome.

iii) True, I'm a Calvinist. Are you suggesting that freewill theism selects for Kantian ethics?

"My strong suspicion, here, is that our different approaches to this issue arise from the fact that I am not a Calvinist…"

Well, nobody's perfect! :-)
Lydia McGrew said...
Sorry to be unclear about "alleging." I'm imagining one _kind_ of attempted answer to, "Why does God not answer our prayers to heal this infant?" That kind of answer says (alleges) that God may be allowing the infant to suffer for the sake of the parents' souls. I'm saying that such an answer seems insufficient. My problem with such an answer is that, while there is nothing wrong with the idea by itself that God uses the infant's suffering for the good of the parents' souls, that cannot be the _entirety_ of God's purpose in allowing the infant's suffering, for that would leave the good of the infant himself entirely out of accounting, treating him merely as a kind of useful tool, not as an eternal being of infinite worth: "Ah, good, here we have a being whom these adults are deeply attached to. A being, moreover, capable of great physical suffering. I shall refuse to intervene to prevent his suffering, because he will then suffer, and that will cause his parents to suffer agonizing emotional trauma, and that will help them to become closer to me." The child's own eternal worth and value is nowhere represented in that scenario, in _that_ as a full answer to the problem. In fact, God's love for the child is nowhere represented.

I'm working on the assumption that it is part of Christian theology that God loves all men whom he has made. Now, that love need not be gooey or sentimental, but what it does entail is caritas--divine love, the relentless desire for the good of the being loved. That is entirely compatible with allowing that being to suffer. What it is not compatible with is leaving the good of that being *out of account* and allowing him to suffer solely for the sake of others.
steve said...
Well, since I don't think the Augustinian-Calvinist tradition is unchristian or subchristian, I don't think it's a part of Christian historical theology (much less exegetical theology) that God loves all men. Rather, that's a subset of those Christian theological traditions which take that particular position. So we will have agree to disagree on that point.

Coitus interruptus

On Facebook, Dave Armstrong attempted to respond to a post of mine.

Right. This is now standard anti-Catholic boilerplate (also, often, radical Catholic reactionary talking points).

Ironically, Dave confirms my allegation in the very attempt to deflect it. Although he's a convert to Catholicism, he's at war with his adopted sect. He appoints himself the arbiter of who's a real Catholic. So he remains an outsider to his adopted sect. He's theologically purer than the priests and bishops of his chosen denomination. He stands apart and above. 

The topic was Onan and why he was killed. Hays cites what he thinks is top-notch Catholic scholarship: the modernist-influenced "The New Jerome Biblical Commentary" and "New Catholic Encyclopedia." He assumed (quite conveniently and according to his standard wrongheaded polemics) that liberal Catholic scholarship is orthodox.

I don't assume it's "orthodox." Rather, it's Catholic. This represents mainstream Catholic scholarship. You know, the kind that's routinely sanctioned by the Magisterium. 

I cited Fr. Brian Harrison: an actual orthodox Catholic scholar. 

Notice that Dave has to distinguish true Catholics from false Catholics within the One True Church®. He's the one drawing the lines. It's not as if the papacy put The New Jerome Biblical Commentary or the New Catholic Encyclopedia on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. No, this is Armstrong standing athwart his own denomination. A Catholic convert and layman who presumes to tell others which Catholic scholars are modernists and which are orthodox. This isn't coming down from the bishops. Armstrong doesn't trust the Magisterial accountability system.

He makes a very effective and pretty airtight biblical argument that apparently goes right over Hays' head as too complicated for him to grasp.

Let's examine Harrison's "airtight" argument, which is found here: 

Now, it has been fashionable among twentieth-century exegetes to maintain that in these verses the Bible condemns Onan's coitus interruptus only insofar as it in effect violated the so-called levirate marriage custom endorsed by the law of Moses at a time when polygamy was not forbidden.7 According to this ancient oriental practice, a man - whether he was already married or not - was expected to marry his deceased brother's wife if she was still childless at her husband's death; and the first-born son of this union was then regarded as a legal descendant of the dead man. In other words, according to those exegetes who focus their attention exclusively on this custom in their reading of Genesis 38, Onan's sin is presented here as consisting only in his selfish intent to deny offspring to his brother's widow Tamar, and not even partly in the unnatural method he employed in doing so.

i) In what sense is coitus interruptus an "unnatural" method whereas the rhythm method is natural? Both are contraceptive techniques. Coitus interruptus isn't "unnatural" in the sense that using a condom is unnatural (i.e. an "artificial" barrier device made of latex). Even if you think coitus interruptus is wrong, that doesn't make it an "unnatural method." This is one of those makeshift distinctions you get in Catholic moral theology. Tendentious terminology to prejudice the analysis. Because Catholic apologists like Harrison must retroactively defend official Catholic teaching, they are forced to resort to ad hoc justifications.

ii) Perhaps he'd say it's "unnatural" in the sense that it frustrates the procreative purpose of sex. But by that logic, when an infertile married couple engage in conjugal relations, they are having unnatural (and sinful!) sexual relations. 

But, as I hope to show, this reading of Genesis has so little to recommend it exegetically that one can only assume that its popularity in recent decades is due mainly to the modern prejudices of theologians and exegetes who see intrinsically sterile types of sexual activity as morally unobjectionable in themselves (or even as necessary at times) - and who therefore have a strong vested interest in minimizing whatever biblical evidence there may be against these practices.

As if a traditional priest and Catholic apologist has no strong vested interest in defending the status quo.

The classical Jewish commentators - who can scarcely be accused of ignorance regarding Hebrew language, customs, law, and biblical literary genres…

Actually, "classical Jewish commentators" can be utterly ignorant of ancient Near Eastern laws, customs, &c. That was long before their time. Much of that was long-forgotten. 

 - certainly saw in this passage of Scripture a condemnation of both unnatural intercourse and masturbation as such.8 

This is silly. Masturbation and sexual intercourse are hardly equivalent–or even alike. Indeed, they are practically opposites. Having sexual intercourse with a woman is scarcely the same thing, or even similar, to self-stimulation. At best, the text could only condemn one, not both. In fact, it condemns neither. 

A typical traditional Jewish commentary puts it thus: "[Onan] misused the organs God gave him for propagating the race to unnaturally satisfy his own lust, and he was therefore deserving of death."9 And this is undoubtedly in accord with the natural impression which most unprejudiced readers will draw from the text of Genesis 38.

To the contrary, the text doesn't create the impression that he did this for self-gratification. After all, coitus interruptus diminishes the physical pleasure of the sex act.

But is this first impression correct? Is the truth really more subtle? Was Onan perhaps slain merely for refusing to give offspring to his deceased brother's wife, as most contemporary exegetes maintain? In answering these questions one must take cognizance of the following significant fact: the penalty subsequently laid down in the law of Moses for a simple refusal to comply with the levirate marriage precept was only a relatively mild public humiliation in the form of a brief ceremony of indignation. The childless widow, in the presence of the town elders, was authorized to remove her uncooperative brother-in-law's sandal and spit in his face for his refusal to marry her. He was then supposed to receive an uncomplimentary nick-name - "the Unshod."10 But since he nonetheless became sole owner of his deceased brother's house and goods,11 it is evident that his offence was scarcely considered a serious or criminal one - much less one deserving of death. Death, however, is precisely what Onan deserved, according to Genesis. It follows that those who say his only offence was infringement of the levirate marriage custom need to explain why such an offence was punished by the Lord so much more drastically in the case of Onan than than it subsequently was under the Mosaic law. If anything, we would tend to expect the contrary: i.e., that after the law was formalized as part of the Deuteronomic code its violation might be chastised more severely than before, not more mildly. Indeed, while it is clear from the Genesis narrative that the practice of levirate marriage already existed in Onan's time, there is no biblical evidence that he would have been conscious of any divine precept to observe that practice.12 This problem seems to have been simply ignored, rather than confronted, by those exegetes who cannot or will not see in this passage any Scriptural foundation for the orthodox Judæo-Christian doctrine against masturbation and contraception.

Several issues:

i) Harrison's argument either proves too much or too little. If failure to honor levirate marriage is insufficient to account for Onan's demise, so is "artificial contraception." After all, tens of millions of Catholics (not to mention however many non-Catholics) practice "artificial birth control," but I don't think actuaries report a high correlation between "artificial contraception" and sudden death. Is God striking dead tens of millions of Catholics (not to mention non-Catholics) who use "artificial" conceptive methods? If so, the evidence is well disguised. You're at greater risk of death from ball-lightning than "artificial contraception." 

ii) In the case of Onan, there are two aggravating factors, both related to levirate marriage. He didn't simply refuse to observe the custom. Rather, he resorted to subterfuge. He went into the tent of his widowed sister-in-law to give the outward appearance that he was observing the custom. That way he'd avoid the social stigma of refusing to honor his dead brother. In the eyes of the community, he was doing his duty. But in reality, he was subverting the custom. His private conduct was at variance with his public conduct. So his dissimulation is culpable. 

iii) In addition, by evading his duty, his actions jeopardized the promised line. It's not coincidental that this text occurs in a book which accentuates the seed of promise, beginning with Gen 3:15. Threats to the blessed lineage are a recurring theme in Genesis. That figures prominently in the patriarchal narratives. Scholars like John Sailhamer and Desi Alexander have carefully documented that theological motif.  

It should be remembered also that we are here dealing here with a culture which so abhorred that other form of "wasting the seed" - the homosexual act - that it prescribed the death penalty for this offense.

This assumes that sodomy is morally abhorrent because homosexual men are wasting their seed. If that's the case, then nocturnal emissions would also be a capital offense. But, once again, I don't think actuaries report a high correlation between nocturnal emission and sudden death. 

Moreover, in the view of revisionist exegetes, Onan's sin is presented here as being essentially one of omission. We are asked to believe that, according to Genesis, Onan committed no sinful act; rather, that his sin was to refrain from acting appropriately toward his deceased brother because of some sort of selfish interior disposition. But why, in that case, does the text describe Onan's sin as a positive action ("he did20 a detestable thing")? Coming directly after the author has mentioned what is certainly an outward act (i.e., "spilling the seed"), these words in v. 10 plainly indicate a causal link between that sexual act as such and the wrath and punishment of God. 

Actually, v9 does report his "interior disposition": But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother's wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother.

Evidently, his motive was to secure the inheritance for himself by eliminating a potential rival. That, too, is culpable.

On the other hand if, as Judæo-Christian tradition has always insisted, "wasting the seed" by intrinsically sterile types of genital action violates that natural law to which all men, Jew and Gentile alike, have always had access by virtue of their very humanness, (cf. Rom. 1: 26-27; 2: 14), this will explain perfectly why Onan's sexual action in itself would be presented in Scripture as meriting a most severe divine judgment: it was a perverted act - one of life-suppressing lust. Indeed, over and above its prohibition by natural law, such deliberately sterilized pleasure-seeking could well have been discerned as a form of contravening one of the few divine precepts which already in that pre-Sinai tradition had been solemnly revealed - and repeated - in positive, verbal form: "Increase and multiply" (Gen. 1: 27-28; 9: 1).

By that logic, Catholic couples who deliberately evade the creational ordinance by engaging in "natural family planning" are morally equivalent to homosexuals. 

The cumulative weight of the evidence - the structure and sexual explicitness of the text itself and the much greater severity of Onan's punishment than that prescribed for levirate marriage infringements in Deuteronomy 25: 5-6 - leads us to conclude that while Genesis 38: 9-10 very probably includes disapproval of Onan's lack of piety toward his deceased brother…

Now we have a backdoor admission that his motivations were relevant after all. 

Thus, the traditional interpretation of this passage as a divinely revealed condemnation of contraceptive acts - not as a provision of mere posititve law (cultic or disciplinary) given temporarily for a specific ancient cultural context, but as a particular manifestation of that divine will for the entire human species which had been revealed through nature ever since the Creation - must be seen as supported by serious exegetical arguments.

i) Once more, the argument either proves too much or too little. If this is a "divinely revealed condemnation of contraceptive acts," then it also condemns the rhythm method. 

ii) In addition, the text only refers to a male contraceptive technique. It says nothing about female contraceptives.  

NB: The author acknowledges with sincere thanks the information, advice and criticism offered in the preparation of this article by Gerald C. Matatics, Professor of Sacred Scripture at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary, Elmhurst, Pennsylvania...

Ah, yes, Matatics–who is now a sedevacantist.