Saturday, April 12, 2014

Christ & Buddha

Unlike Christ, our sources for Buddha are centuries after the fact. As a result, there's a wide, unbridgeable gap between the historical Buddha and the literary Buddha. We don't know what he really said and did. All we have are legendary or fictional traditions. 

Also, because humans have an innate need to believe in something greater and better than themselves, Buddhists have essentially deified Buddha. He becomes a larger-than-life figure. A surrogate God. 

However, lack of solid historical information about Buddha is inessential to Buddhism. Christianity is inseparable from the person and work of Christ. Even if Christ taught nothing distinctive, his uniquely redemptive death and unique person (as the Incarnate Son) make the medium inseparable from the message. Christ isn't just a roadmap, but the destination. 

By contrast, what's significant about Buddhism is a set of ideas. It doesn't matter who said it. With Buddha, unlike Christ, you can detach the message from the messenger. 

According to tradition, Buddha had a certain insight into the problem of evil, based on two related ideas. Life is fleeting. Everything changes. Nothing lasts.

Hence, if you become emotionally invested in something transitory, you leave yourself open to grief when it passes out of your life. 

So the way to spare yourself that kind of suffering is to practice detachment. If you don't care about having it, you don't care about losing it.

Thus, Buddha offers both a simple diagnosis and simple solution to the problem. 

There's an undeniable truth to his analysis, as far as it goes. It's a truism that the more you love something, you more you stand to lose if you lose it. And it's also true that given the evanescent nature of so much human experience, we are quite vulnerable to this type of suffering.

There are, however, some fundamental problems with his insight:

i) It's one-sided. Although impermanence can be a source of suffering, a static existence would be interminable. Humans need variety as well as continuity to be happy. 

ii) Notice that on this view, the problem of evil is essentially metaphysical rather than moral. It's grounded in the impermanence of a timebound existence. An amoral analysis of the problem of evil. 

As a result, a Samurai warrior can be pious Buddhist. Butcher innocent men, women, and children on the orders of the Shogun. 

Although there's such a thing as Buddhist ethics, that's arbitrary. For the problem of evil isn't moral evil, but impermanence. And since humans are temporary organisms, why treat them with any particular deference?  

iii) It's a this-worldly solution to a this-worldly problem. Because Buddha isn't God, he can't change the situation. He has to take the situation as a given. The best he can do is to propose a palliative. Given the situation, here's a bromide to make it feel a bit better.

The Buddhist worldview is essentially pessimistic and fatalistic. Defeatist. There's nothing you can do about your condition. That's beyond your control. At most, you can adjust your attitude. Come to terms with the situation. Make the best of a bad deal.

Given its bleak outlook on life, there's an ineluctable undertone of sadness to Buddhism. Our condition is unutterably hopeless. The best we can do is to numb the pain. 

Buddha was just a man. A creature. A mortal. A passenger in the same sinking ship. He is impotent to change the condition that gives rise to suffering in the first place. If all is flux, then even if gods are powerless to change the fabric of reality. 

This is completely unlike Christianity, where the ultimate source of suffering is due to sin rather than nature. And where the Savior has the divine power to change the situation. 

iv) At best, Buddhism avoids one type of sadness by exchanging that for another type of sadness. There's a kind of sadness that comes from losing the good you had. But there's another kind of sadness that comes from missing the good you never had. 

Both are deprivations. In Buddhism, you deny yourself a good to avoid grief when you lose it. But you still lose out in a different way. That good is still absent from your life. A felt absence.

What's worse: the absence of what you never had, or the absence of what you used to have? You can miss what you never had as acutely as what you lost. 

v) The solution is unrealistic. Suppressing our emotional needs doesn't make them go away. Indeed, suppression tends to intensify the yearning. 

And even if you could successfully suppress your innate emotional needs, that would be inhuman. That would make you less virtuous. Almost sociopathic. 

Buddhism tries to skirt a knife-edge between happiness and unhappiness. But, again, that's unrealistic. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Resurrection and miracles

"The Resurrection and Miracles" by Evan May.

God and the problem of evil

"God and the Problem of Evil" by Evan May.

Death tax

Trajectories of violence

Some "progressive" Christians try to defang OT passages about "divine violence" by claiming there's a trajectory in Scripture, where the final revelation of God in Christ abrogates the OT view. But there's a glaring problem with that strategy. Indeed, several glaring problems, but for now I'll focus on one in particular. 

As a rule, "progressive" Christians who pursue this strategy don't think God changed his view of man; rather, they think man changed his view of God. They think OT writers had a xenophobic outlook. They viewed Yahweh as a tribal God of war. By contrast, NT writers have a cosmopolitan outlook. They view the Father as a God of peace. 

But other issues to one side, we're not talking about what God is really like, but what fallible Bible writers happen to think he's like. It's not God revealing his true character to man, but a culturally-conditioned record of what Jews and Christians believed about God. 

So it comes down to a choice between fallible OT writers and fallible NT writers. It's not as if OT writers were uninspired while NT writers are suddenly inspired. In both cases, it's just a human projection. Supposedly, OT writers were mistaken, but what's the standard of comparison? Appealing to the NT won't solve the problem, for that's not a fact about God, but a belief about God. And if Bible writers can be as profoundly mistaken as "progressive" Christians think many OT writers were, what exempts NT writers? 

Indeed, many "progressive" Christians take issue with NT writers. They think Paul was sexist and homophobic. 

The same is true when they try to distinguish different strands within the OT. Conflicting opinions about God.

In theory, some theologians who believe God changes, that God acquires human understanding via the Incarnation, might say the NT represents a paradigm-shift in God's own viewpoint. He went from being a sociopath in OT times to a peacenik in NT times. Of course, that's a very unstable deity. What happens to us if he gets bored with his human pets?  


It's fashionable in some "scholarly" circles to claim that Scripture assumes an antiquated cosmography in which there's one central continent encircled by an ocean. Let's examine that claim for a moment.

What was the observational experience of people living in the Levant?  The Mediterranean is ocean they were acquainted with. 

Is the Levant a central landmass surround by the ocean? Just the opposite: a central ocean surrounded by land, viz. coastal countries, as well as landlocked countries further inland. 

In addition, liberals and outright unbelievers think Israel borrowed her cosmographical ideas from the major civilizations surrounding her. 

But Egypt, Ras Shamra, and Philistia (to name a few) are Levantine civilizations. 

Surely ancient Mediterranean mariners didn't think the Mediterranean was boundless. Both for purposes of trade and navel warfare, they knew that it was encircled by coastal countries. Some countries had fleets which crossed the Mediterranean to invade other Levantine countries, or import and export goods. The Mediterranean was well-explored. 

Apparent motion

Does Scripture teach geocentrism? Many unbelievers claim it does, and use that to disprove Scripture. A few Christians defend geocentrism. By way of reply:

i) Astronomers want to translate observations into objective third-person descriptions. But in ordinary language, a statement like "the sun goes around the earth" is shorthand for "I see the sun pass overhead." It's inherently indexical: a statement which takes the earthbound observer as the frame of reference.

That's the origin of the statement: the experience of the earthbound observer. 

To treat that as a geocentric claim involves translating it into a different kind of statement. 

ii) An observational statement about the apparent motion of the sun is not a statement about the sun moving in relation to the earth, but the sun moving in relation to the observer

Compare climbing a staircase to riding an escalator. 

When I climb a staircase, I'm in motion in relation to the staircase and the room, while the staircase and the room are stationary in relation to me. I go from one step to another step.

When I ride an escalator, I'm stationary in relation to the escalator, but in motion relative to the room. I remain on the same step moving up or down. I'm not moving, the escalator is.

Am I moving in relation to the room? That's ambiguous. In one sense, I'm motionless. I remain in the same position relative to the step I'm standing on. 

I'm moving in the sense that I'm being moved. The escalator is moving me from one location to another. So, in another sense, I'm in motion–even though I'm stationary.

That's like standing still on a revolving earth, and watching the sun shift position throughout the course of the day. 

And it does shift position from one side of the horizon to the other. Does that mean it shifts position by moving? But that's ambiguous in the same sense as the escalator. 

When I ride an escalator, does my position shift? In relation to the escalator? No. In relation to the room? Yes.

Biblical descriptions of apparent motion are consistent with more than one underlying explanation. They don't single out geocentrism. The language is not that specific. It's not a direct statement about the sun shifting position in relation to the earth, but a direct statement about the sun shifting position in relation to the earthbound observer, who is stationary on a revolving earth. At best, it's an indirect statement about the sun's shifting position, via the stationary earthbound observer.  

Suppose I'm in a valley. The sun is just above the eastern side of the horizon. I'm standing on the western side. Suppose I sprint to the eastern side. The sun is now shifting position in relation to my changed perspective. When I'm in motion, moving from west to east or east to west in the valley, the stationary sun shifts position. It's at a different angle, relative to me. 

Some people are impatient. In a hurry. They both ride and climb the escalator. They are moving in relation to the escalator while the escalator is moving them in relation to the room. 

iii) Here's an anecdote by William James, which exposes the ambiguities of relative motion:

SOME YEARS AGO, being with a camping party in the mountains, I returned from a solitary ramble to find every one engaged in a ferocious metaphysical dispute. The corpus of the dispute was a squirrel – a live squirrel supposed to be clinging to one side of a tree-trunk; while over against the tree’s opposite side a human being was imagined to stand. This human witness tries to get sight of the squirrel by moving rapidly round the tree, but no matter how fast he goes, the squirrel moves as fast in the opposite direction, and always keeps the tree between himself and the man, so that never a glimpse of him is caught. The resultant metaphysical problem now is this: Does the man go round the squirrel or not? He goes round the tree, sure enough, and the squirrel is on the tree; but does he go round the squirrel? In the unlimited leisure of the wilderness, discussion had been worn threadbare. Every one had taken sides, and was obstinate; and the numbers on both sides were even. Each side, when I appeared therefore appealed to me to make it a majority. Mindful of the scholastic adage that whenever you meet a contradiction you must make a distinction, I immediately sought and found one, as follows: “Which party is right,” I said, “depends on what you practically mean by ‘going round’ the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him to the east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him again, obviously the man does go round him, for he occupies these successive positions. But if on the contrary you mean being first in front of him, then on the right of him, then behind him, then on his left, and finally in front again, it is quite as obvious that the man fails to go round him, for by the compensating movements the squirrel makes, he keeps his belly turned towards the man all the time, and his back turned away. Make the distinction, and there is no occasion for any farther dispute. You are both right and both wrong according as you conceive the verb ‘to go round’ in one practical fashion or the other.” 
Although one or two of the hotter disputants called my speech a shuffling evasion, saying they wanted no quibbling or scholastic hair-splitting, but meant just plain honest English ‘round’, the majority seemed to think that the distinction had assuaged the dispute.

Stalinism in Sweden...

Thursday, April 10, 2014

On God and Dr. House

It's become fashionable in some theological circles to contend that God suffers (e.g. Jürgen Moltmann, Terence Fretheim). Not surprisingly, this is seeping into Arminian theology as well (e.g. Roger Olson). 

I watched the first season or so of House. Like most other TV series, I eventually stopping watching–because it becomes predictable after a while. 

The premise of House is a paradox: a misanthrope who's a world-class physician. On the face of it, isn't that counterintuitive? I mean, isn't a good doctor supposed to care about his patients? Isn't that a prerequisite? Empathy for your patient?

But the show explores the opposite viewpoint. Parents and spouses can't act in the best interests of their ailing loved one because affection clouds their judgment. They can't balance the risks of the patient's life-threatening condition with a potentially life-threatening treatment. 

I remember one episode in which the parents neglect to tell House or his team that their son was adopted. Since some illnesses are hereditary, this can be a crucial bit of information. But they fail to mention it because that would be like saying he's not their real child. As a result, they endanger their child by impeding the correct diagnosis and life-saving treatment. 

By contrast, because Dr. House isn't emotionally invested in his patients, he can take better care of them than their loving parents or spouse. He can take better care of them because he doesn't care about them. 

Of course, it isn't necessary for a physician to dislike people to be a good physician. The show is exaggerating to make a point.

God doesn't have to suffer to be a merciful God. Indeed, divine detachment is a virtue. 

Attack of the killer tomatoes

Valerie Tarico is a militant atheist who contributed a chapter to a book edited by John Loftus. She used to be a member of Debunking Christianity. She's a contributor to Salon magazine and the Huffingon Post. 

She recently published an attack on Mark Driscoll. Now, Driscoll is such a target-rich environment that a factual expose ought be sufficiently damning. Unfortunately, she didn't bother to do her homework. Ironically, one of Driscoll's leading critics has had to fact-check her error-ridden article:

This illustrates the low standards of village atheists. Even when going after a soft target like Driscoll, with his overabundance of incriminating foibles and scandals, she can't be bothered to do the necessary research. 

Child mortality

"Progressive Christians" labor to relativize "divine violence" in the Bible–especially the OT. For instance, they find it morally problematic that God would command the death of children. 
As I've noted on various occasions, their solutions fail to solve the problem they pose for themselves. If it's morally problematic for God to command the death of children, then it's morally problematic for God to allow millions or billions of children over the millennia to die from preventable causes. If the divine commands are morally problematic, they don't pose a special problem, over and above problem of child mortality in general. So it's illusory to imagine that domesticating the OT solves the problem which they raise. 
But let's approach this from another angle. Suppose there was no child mortality. Suppose no one died of natural causes. Everyone stopped aging after reaching 18 (give or take). 
If, however, humans continued to reproduce, at some point that would lead to overpopulation. And, of course, that expands exponentially. If you have 5 kids, if each of your kids has 5 kids…
Overpopulation would lead to mass starvation as well as warring over scarce resources. 
In theory, God could prevent that if, after human population reached an optimal sustainable level, God rendered humans infertile. 
Mind you, children contribute a great deal to the quality of life. A childless world would be a diminished world. 
But let's play along with the hypothetical. I don't know how long it would take, but wherever the cutoff occurred, there'd be no future generations. No more children.
Human mortality, including child mortality, creates room, both in time and space, for more children to be born. Children will be born further down the line who would not be born in a world without child mortality–or human mortality. Once the population becomes static, there's no more room for new children.
Child mortality results in the existence of heavenbound children down the line who'd never exist in a deathless world. 
In Biblical eschatology, the collective saints in glory, who comprise a subset of the human race, will be restored to the new earth. The saints in every generation, who go to heaven when they die, will resume life on earth. And the latter-day Christians have human mortality, including child mortality, to thank for that. 
One could also speculate on how many humans the earth can sustain at optimal levels. Technology can make a larger population feasible.

Fighting words

One of the current dividing lines between the evangelical right and the evangelical left (for want of a better term) is "divine violence" in Scripture. Where Scripture, especially the OT, depicts God committing, commanding, or otherwise sanctioning "violence." 
The critics deny that God said and did the violent things imputed to him in Scripture. A God who said and did those things would be morally monstrous. 
Critics also justify their complaint by saying this isn't just an academic issue. If we defend OT "genocide," we forfeit the right to condemn modern atrocities. 
Moreover, they contend that OT "genocide" has actually inspired some medieval massacres and modern atrocities. And it's been used to rationalize that action.
However, this generates a dilemma for the evangelical left. For it simply relocates the problem of evil. If God accommodated influential portrayals of himself in Scripture which have been used to justify or even inspire real-world atrocities, then how can the critics (who still claim to be Christian) exempt God from complicity in the outcome? 
And this isn't just a misinterpretation of Scripture. Many critics admit that Scripture does, in fact, representing God saying or doing those things. So you can't shift blame to the reader. It goes right back to the text. 
Having inculpated Scripture, how do they exculpate God for the real-world consequences of accommodating a "genocidal" portrait of himself in Scripture? 

Glossing the hypostatic union

This is a sequel to my earlier post:
i) One issue is whether we should take the Chalcedonian formulation as our frame of reference instead of NT Christology. Frankly, various philosophical theologians and theological traditions tend to fudge the Chalcedonian formulation. They emphasize some aspects at the expense of others. That's in large part because the Chalcedonian doesn't profess to resolve any of the philosophical challenges. So harmonizing the data remains a philosophical challenge.
Likewise, do the Latin Fathers have the same concept of person and nature as Cyril of Alexandria? Don't Boethius, Augustine, Aquinas, and Scotus each have their own concept of nature and person? 
To some extent, Chalcedonian terminology is a cipher. Different theologians, all professing to espouse Chalcedon, plug in their own concepts.  
ii) What we have in the Gospels is the phenomenology of the hypostatic union. Any exegetically accurate Christology must do justice to that phenomenology. 
There are, of course, other NT books which contribute to our overall Christology. But it's in the Gospels that we see the hypostatic union concretely exemplified. We see how it translates into action. 
But by the same token, what we're witnessing in the Gospels is the effect of the hypostatic union. It doesn't go behind the discernible effect to reveal the hidden "mechanics" (as it were) of the hypostatic union. So there's a limit to how far we can retroengineer the hypostatic union from the Gospels. 
iii) At a phenomenological level, I'd say something like a two-minds Christology is the most straightforward way to model the Christology of the Gospels. 
iv) However, this invites the objection that it's hard to distinguish two minds from two persons. Yet if Christ is two persons, that is "Nestorian." According to Chalcedonian Christology, Christ unites two natures, not two persons. 
To that I'd say the following:
v) This goes back to our frame of reference. Do we begin with Chalcedon, or do we begin with the Gospels? In terms of Protestant theological method, the NT takes precedence. 
vi) Even if (ex hypothesi) we said Christ is two persons, that's equivocal, for a divine person is not a person in the same respect as a human person. Divine and human persons have different attributes and different modes of subsistence. So it's not just like doubling a person. If we don't mean the same thing in both instances, then it's not two persons without qualification. Indeed, it can be confusing to use the same word to denote two different kinds of things. A divine "person" is not the same kind of thing as a human "person." 
vii) Also, a human mind is not a complete person. Rather, an embodied soul is a complete human person. The union of a human soul with a human body. Although consciousness can survive apart from the body, that's a significant deprivation. For instance, a human mind is greatly informed by sensory experience. Conditioned by the body. So two "minds" are not equivalent to two persons. 

Hurtado: “News on ‘Jesus Wife’ Fragment”

Update: Hurtado’s initial thoughts

To come to Prof. King’s article (the main piece in the issue), I think she takes a careful line, seeking to defend her view that the item on balance seems authentic, but trying to take account of data that require some modification of her earlier judgements, and granting in the end that complete certainty is not possible. Prominent in the modifications of her earlier view is the intriguing statement in the appended note at the end of the article that the carbon-dating (taking the dating by Tuross) now seems to demand a date sometime in the 8th century CE (not the 4th/5th century CE dating in her earlier paper). As she notes, this takes us well into the Islamic period of Egypt, and so raises the question of whether, in fact, the fragment might reflect in some way the influence of Islamic ideas about Jesus.

Certainly, as Prof. King has rather consistently emphasized all along, whatever the date and provenance of the item, it has absolutely no significance whatsoever for “historical Jesus” studies. Contrary to some of the sensationalized news stories, that is, the fragment has no import for the question of whether Jesus was married.

Instead, she continues to propose that the fragment may reflect tensions and questions about marriage, celibacy, child-bearing, and gender that emerged in early Christianity in the early centuries (indeed, to judge from NT texts such as 1 Tim. 4:1-5; and even 1 Cor 7:1-7, questions of this nature emerged quite early). But, to repeat a point, the revised date for the papyrus (mid-8th century CE) introduces other factors to consider as well.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

What if the Bible depicts a solid domed sky?

The loneliness at the heart

Why I Was Once An Atheist

Pure religion

Arminian NT scholar Scot McKnight has weighed in on the World Vision debacle:
Here are some of the highlights:
When I think of World Vision and the monies Kris and I send to World Vision (and still will send should you care to know and we are thinking of adding to our support — and believe when I say I despise the culture wars and our support of WV has nothing to do with that), I think of words from the brother of Jesus at James 1:27, words that many of the critics of World Vision’s recent decision need to read with some integrity- and soul-searching:  
  • Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. 
The critics of World Vision, if the numbers are right, may be right in their own minds about what to believe, but they won’t be right before God if they lift those donations and don’t sink them into compassionate donations toward those in need in our world. And they are surely not right if they have merely taken an opportunity to pounce on brothers and sisters though they do not care about orphans and widows (this is not just about children, folks, it is about widows, the most neglected segment in the church today — read Miriam Neff’s book about widows, please). 
What is the world? In James that word will refer most especially to power-mongering, violence, and verbal assaults on one’s brothers and sisters. Notice James 1:19-21 and then 2:5 and 4:4 and especially James 3:13-15. James, as always, has much to say. 
A good-before-God religion cares for the needy and eschews violence against one’s brothers and sisters.

This is so confused at so many different levels. 

i) First of all, it's striking that what he takes to be self-evidently true, critics of World Vision take to be self-evidently false. This reflects McKnight's insularity. There's a growing rift between the evangelical left and the evangelical right, where some positions taken by the evangelical right are simply inconceivable to the evangelical left. Members of the evangelical left belong to like-minded, ideologically self-reinforcing communities where their assumptions go unchallenged. It's a self-enclosed subculture. They can't even enter into the mindset of Christians with whom they disagree. 

ii) Notice how he equates criticism of World Vision with "violence." If you criticize World Vision management for hiring homosexual "couples," that's tantamount to practicing "violence" against one's "brothers and sisters."

a) One problem is trivializing the concept of violence, so that a "verbal assault" is equivalent to "violence."

b) Another problem is his failure to appreciate that, when World Vision management capitulated on homosexual marriage, that, in itself, is a test of their withering Christian commitment. Are they "brothers and sisters"? 

iii) Offhand, I don't know of any Bible verses which command charity towards widows and orphans outside the community of faith. Aren't such verses typically directed at Jewish widows (in the OT) and Christian widows (in the NT)? 

That doesn't mean it's ipso facto wrong to extend charity to needy individuals outside the community of faith. But McKnight is ripping these commands out of context. 

iv) Then he seems to indicate that he wants to opt out of the culture wars or compartmentalize charity towards widows and orphans from the culture wars. Evidently, he's never bothered to notice that when liberals win the culture wars, widows and widowers are among the first casualties. 

Liberals push to euthanize the elderly because seniors are a drain on the healthcare system. A development which Wesley J. Smith regularly documents at Human Exceptionalism. 

Liberals would rather see limited medical resources go to worthier causes, like insuring sex-change operations, fertility coverage for same-sex couples, building more transgender rest rooms, and developing HIV vaccines. 

And their policies are just as harmful to orphans. They are shutting down Christian adoption agencies that refuse to place children with homosexual "couples." Christian agencies which insist that children should be placed with normal couples who can model a normal father/mother, husband/wife relationship. 

Instead, liberals are now making adoptive children guinea pigs in their social engineering experiment. Forcing orphans into an unnatural environment. Classic corruption of minors.  

For that matter, it's only a matter of time before liberals have CPS remove children from their Christian biological parents. 

v) In addition, the way liberals deal with unwanted children is to kill them. Having largely won the legal battle on abortion (through judicial fiat), they are now pressing ahead on after-birth abortion (i.e. infanticide). 

vi) Furthermore, as the president of World Vision has indicated (in an interview), World Visions employees are not allowed to "proselytize." But in that event, they are treating symptoms rather than causes. After all, the problem of widows, orphans, and poverty in general, is often exacerbated by a false religion informing the culture.

For instance, when Muslims practice child marriage, that means more women and children will be widowed or orphaned, since the husband/father will often predecease them by a wide margin. Likewise, the Hindu caste system creates a culture of poverty. So does belief in reincarnation and karma, which is punitive and fatalistic. 

One fringe benefit of evangelizing the lost is to reduce certain social maladies which result from a false worldview.  

vii) Likewise, simply providing for the physical needs of the poor, when you refuse to evangelize them, is a short-term solution to a long-term problem. For they are still hellbound. 

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Obamacare death spiral

Stiletto ban

I assume those who lobby to ban guns will now mount a campaign to ban stiletto heels:

Was Samson a suicide bomber?

Did your Sunday school teacher present Samson as a hero? He was not so, says James McGrath, the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University. This act is “almost a ‘suicide bombing,’” he told me. And yet, the New Testament book of Hebrews (11:32-34), in what many ministers refer to as the “hall of faith,” portrays Samon’s act as redemptive.

i) What's funny about this comparison is how it exposes a potential rift between the religious left and the political left, even though they are usually soulmates. Many leftwing academics defend suicide bombers. They side with the so-called "Palestinians." They think the "Palestinians" have a just cause. Israel is an "occupation force." They like to tell us that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." 

ii) "Suicide bomber" has invidious connotations, based on the typical suicide bomber. Take a Muslim who rides a bus into Jerusalem, then denotes the explosive belt, killing or maiming the passengers (himself included). That's his ticket to paradise, with 72 virgins eagerly await his arrival. 

How you evaluate the morality of that action depends on how you view the Arab/Israeli conflict, Islam, Jihadist theology, the status of noncombatants, &c.

iii) In principle, there's nothing wrong with being a suicide bomber. We need to clear away the popular image that phrase conjures up. It all depends on the example. 

Suppose a terrorist state is developing a biochem weapon deep underground. They will unleash it on millions of innocents.

Suppose a "suicide bomber" infiltrates the underground factory/laboratory, the denotes an explosive belt which kills the scientists as well as destroying the samples and equipment. Because it happens underground, there's no contamination above ground.

At one stroke he spares the lives of millions of innocents. That's a noble action. 

iv) Was Samson a hero? We need to distinguish between a hero and a heroic action. Judges portrays Samson is a deeply morally flawed individual. A man who generally failed to fulfill his calling. 

However, his final action is heroic. The Philestines were mortal enemies of Israel. God providentially maneuvers Samson into a situation where he can defend Israel by striking a crippling blow against the Philistines. Samson seizes the opportunity. It's a military action. In the context of the narrative, he did the right thing. 

When to forgive?

This is a follow-up to an earlier post. I linked to this article:

A number of commenters raised theologically confused objections. In addition, Pastor Todd Pruitt (a contributor to Ref21) also fielded theologically confused objections on Facebook.

i) Let's begin with a general observation. Forgiveness, especially among humans, involves two parties: the offended party and the offending party. I'm referring to an objective offense (i.e. actual wrongdoing), not subjective offense ("I'm offended by your statement. I find that personally offensive").

Let's take an illustration. The Columbine massacre. Who is even in a position to forgive Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris? 

The only folks who are even in a position to forgiven the killers are folks who were wronged by their actions. In principle, that would include the students (and a teacher) they killed or wounded. If some of the dead students were Christian, they'd still be in a position to forgive them after the fact. Other parties who were wronged would include parents and siblings of the dead students. Or dear friends. 

Random TV viewers who tuned into the coverage aren't even in a position to forgive the killers. 

Moreover, that's just a that's just a prerequisite. A necessary condition. That doesn't mean those in a position to forgive the killers ought to forgive them. 

ii) There are commenters who fail to distinguish between unconfessed sin and impenitent sin. Confessing every sin we ever committed is not a precondition of forgiveness. The larger issue is contrition. It's not so much a matter of particular sins, but whether you view yourself as a sinner in need of forgiveness. Do you have a penitent attitude? 

iii) Some commenters cited Mt 6:15. 

a) Here there's a failure to distinguish between qualified and unqualified Scriptural statements. Many unqualified Scriptural statements are implicitly qualified. Scripture often speaks in generalities. But then we have statements on the same topic which include caveats or conditions. The qualified statements qualify the unqualified statements. 

Unqualified statements about forgiveness are like unqualified statements about prayer. You have statements in Scripture which promise that God will give you whatever you ask for. But there are other statements which specifically or logically qualify those promises. 

b) Moreover, citing Mt 6:15 to prove unconditional forgiveness proves too much, for God does not, in fact, forgive everyone. 

iv) Some commenters cited Lk 23:34.

a) To begin with, the textual authenticity of that verse is quite uncertain. For instance:

Most editions of the Bible footnote textually suspect verses. It's striking how many readers pay no attention to the footnotes. Do they not bother to read the footnotes? Do they not grasp the significance of what the footnote says? 

b) Assuming that Lk 23:34 is authentic, it only applies to unwitting sin. It doesn't cover those who sin defiantly. 

c) Unlike humans, God has the prerogative to forgive what one person did to another person. Third-party forgiveness. That's quite different than a TV viewer who  presumes to forgive Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris for what they did to someone else's kids. We aren't God. We don't have the same prerogatives. 

Monday, April 07, 2014

Olson's evolving God

I'll comment on a few statements by Roger Olson:
I don’t remember when it happened, but I remember the shock I felt when I first encountered the idea that God cannot change—as an idea I was supposed to believe as an evangelical Christian…I was shocked and dismayed to learn that evangelical theologians, by and large, rejected that simple biblical view of God and replaced it with what I have learned to call the “logic of perfection”—that a perfect being cannot change in any way or even be affected by anything that happens in his creation.

Well, if God changes, then he either changes for the better or for the worse. Even if he changes for the better, he wasn't originally as good as he could be. His goodness is evolving. 

Unless he's changing for the worse–which is not something you can rule out if God changes in reaction to new experiences. 

...but he is affected by what happens in our world and by our prayers.

God can answer prayer without being affected by prayer. 

What I “saw” early on in my theological training, however, was that those evangelical theologians who strongly touted God’s “immutability” were not very consistent about it. At least that’s what I thought I noticed in their writings. On the one hand, I was told, a good evangelical believes God is impervious to any change including having new experiences. On the other hand, I was told, it was the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, equal with the Father and Holy Spirit, who experienced the incarnation including hunger, thirst, temptation, sorrow, pain and even death. The explanation? That he experienced these things only “through the human nature he took on” through Mary.

Does Olson think God is hungry and thirsty? Does Olson think God dies? 

Clearly, those statements need to be carefully qualified. It has reference to the humanity of Christ, in union with the Son. Mysterious, no doubt, but God qua God isn't mortal, hungry, thirsty, or tempted.  

How do I know this? Well, all one has to do is not ignore or explain away the entire book of Hosea (just one example). The whole story of Hosea requires that God have emotions that require experiences God would not have without rebellious, sinful creatures. The story has no point once you extract that from it. The whole point is the pain Israel’s unfaithfulness caused God.

So Olson thinks God actually experiences the emotional swings of a cuckold husband? A God in that emotional state is hazardous to be around. Remember, we are the cheating wife in that scenario. What's to restrain God from annihilating the whole human race in the heat of the moment? Believe me, you don't want to be within striking range of an omnipotent cuckold husband in a fit of rage. Think of all those ingenious tortures the Greek gods contrive to punish hapless humans. 

Yes, Virginia, Arminianism really is synergistic!

A friend of mine proceeded to comment on two of Abasciano's statements:
"Let me add that I am also a bit skeptical of the approach that characterizes our response to God as merely not resisting. While that sounds noble and God glorifying because it seems to minimize our role and exalt God’s role, it does not seem to match the biblical picture of faith in my opinion. Biblical faith is not merely not resisting God but it is actively trusting in him."

This is clearly a shot at the 'ambulatory model of overcoming grace' that Keathley adapts from Richard Cross in Salvation and Sovereignty. I agree that characterizing our response to God as mere non-resistance is confusing when compared with the biblical witness. Of course, I'm equally pessimistic about Abasciano's alternative:

"Faith itself is not meritorious for various reasons. Just one of those reasons is that it cannot be exercised without God’s help (grace)."

Simply stipulating that God's activity is necessary for saving faith does nothing to deflect the merit problem. If the judge offers a pardon to ten criminals and only five accept, clearly the judge's offer was a necessary condition for their actual pardon. But if five accept while five refuse, the five accepters have something of which to boast: their wisdom, perceptiveness, initiative, etc. to take the offer while the others refused. They make the deciding difference here, not the judge. So the merit issue remains.

It looks like Arminianism is caught between a rock and a hard place: the ambulatory model evacuates biblical faith of any recognizable meaning, while the "God is the mere necessary condition" model leaves us with a meritorious faith over which we can boast.

Blanket forgiveness

Reinventing Christianity

Fight church

A Fight Church trailer is getting some buzz in the Christian blogosphere. I'll discuss the pros and cons, beginning with the cons:
i) The clips savor of exhibitionism. Boastfulness. A circus-like atmosphere in the church. 
ii) There's no correlation between moral toughness and physical toughness. Some men have a high tolerance for pain, but they have no resistance to peer pressure. One can be physically hard, but morally soft.  
iii) You don't have to be brave to be a MMA fighter. There are various precautions to minimize the risk of serious harm. That's quite different from being a soldier on the battlefield, where are you are at genuine and grave risk of being maimed or killed. That takes real courage. There's no referee on the battlefield. No tap-out option. 
iv) It's a mistake to equate Christian masculinity with athleticism. One can be a great athlete, but be rotten husband and father.  
v) A pastor who spends a lot of time working out at the gym and practicing his striking and grappling techniques is a pastor who's shirking sermon prep. 
vi) The clip shows a young boy who's being push into a fight against his will. He obviously doesn't want to be there. That's a mistake. 
The trailer represents one extreme. An extreme to be avoided. There is, though, an opposite extreme which should also be avoided.
i) The trailer also has a priest who represents the classic pansy response to MMA. "That isn't love–that's hate!"
Ironically, Fight Church reflects a pushback against that very attitude.
Many critics of MMA are just as critical of contact sports generally. They think its all "violent" and unchristian. 
ii) There are introverted boys who suffer from crippling shyness. This will hold them back from doing some of the things they'd rather do in life. Making a shy boy participate in a sport can force him out of his shell. Shed his initiations. Even if he hates it initially, it can be good for him in the long run. Make him conformable with his own body. Make him comfortable in his own skin. Make him comfortable around aggressive men. Make him comfortable around girls. Bolster his self-confidence. It depends on the sport. 
iii) However, it can undermine his self-confidence if he's doing it to prove something to his dad. Make the old man proud. If he feels he has to earn his father's respect or approval by winning or competing. 
Ideally, an athlete isn't really testing himself against his opponent, but against himself. He's competing with himself. Stretching himself. Discovering his limits.  
iv) In addition, you have many teenage boys who love intramural sports, especially team sports. They need the male companionship and camaraderie. They need the physicality. They need the outlet. In some cases, a team sport is more of a family to them than their real family.
I suspect that for many high school athletes, graduation is a tremendous let-down. Overnight, they lose a support system which they really needed to define themselves and maintain their equilibrium. 
Having a church host sports clubs for high school graduates (e.g. twenty-somethings, thirty-somethings), where they can continue to play the game, isn't a bad idea. Otherwise, we will lose them. 
Let's not make the mistake of overreacting to Fight Church. One extreme doesn't justify the opposite extreme. 

Bergoglio’s Gig: Distancing Himself from the Old Nag

Sandro Magister reports that there is a new book out about the life of “Pope Emeritus” Joseph Ratzinger a.k.a. “Pope Benedict XVI”.

It wasn’t long ago that Hans Küng was suggesting he would be a “shadow pope”:

Abercius And Prayer For The Dead

I received the following request in an email:

One quick request - could you perhaps dedicate a post to the "Inscription of Abercius"? It's the epitaph from a 2nd C Bishop requesting prayers to himself post-mortem.

I can't find a single protestant article online that addresses it as support for a historical "Prayer for the Dead" doctrine.

My response:

The Abercius inscription is insignificant for a couple of reasons. For one thing, Abercius had the inscription put up while he was still alive. His requests that people pray for him (not to him) may have been intended for the remainder of his lifetime, not intended to continue afterward. Secondly, even if the prayers were offered after Abercius' death, the inscription doesn't specify any type of prayer that would be inconsistent with Protestantism. There's no reason for a Protestant to oppose all forms of praying for the dead. For example, there's nothing wrong with asking that a deceased friend be remembered for the kindness he showed you or asking that his legacy bear as much good fruit as possible. What's objectionable is a type of praying for the dead that involves something like a false view of the afterlife or a false view of the individual being prayed for. The Abercius inscription doesn't specify anything along those lines.

And see here regarding the evidence against Purgatory.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Do you believe in snow?

I'm going to comment on a post by apostate atheist Hector Avalos:
Craig and other selective supernaturalists (as there are really no individuals that explain everything supernaturally)…

i) By this I take him to be insinuating that Christians are guilty of ad hoc reasoning when it comes to explaining some events by natural causes, but other events by supernatural causes.
And I think some Christians are guilty of this. In my experience, many cessationists are guilty of this. Their default explanation is naturalistic. Because Christianity commits them to belief in Biblical miracles, they make an exception to the rule when it comes to Biblical miracles, but when it comes to extrabiblical miracles, they switch to the same arguments as Hume, James Randi, Martin Gardner, Paul Kurtz, Susan Blackmore, &c. 
ii) There's an interesting parallel between some cessationists and some apostates. Many apostates are ex-charismatics. Many hardline cessationists are ex-charismatics. In both cases, their experience in the charismatic movement led them to become very skeptical about miracles. 
Hector Avaos is, himself, an ex-charismatic. A former boy-preacher and faith-healer. He's simply taken his reactionary skepticism one step further than cessationists who came out of the charismatic movement.
Of course, not all apostates are ex-charismatics, just as not all cessationists are ex-charismatics. But its frequency is striking.
iii) There is, however, nothing inherently ad hoc about a Christian explaining some events by natural causes, and other events by supernatural causes. 
a) Avalos acts as if supernaturalism entails occasionalism, where God is the only agent. If that's his position, then he needs to argue for that inference.
b) The Bible itself narrates a distinction between ordinary providence and miracles which bypass ordinary providence. God has created a world in which many things happen as a result of natural forces or natural processes. Manna from heaven doesn't obviate seedtime and harvest. 
c) Apropos (b), there's an obvious sense in which all events are ultimately the result of supernatural causation. For God created the natural agencies that make most events happen. In that respect, Christians attribute every natural event to divine agency, directly or indirectly. 
The main problem with supernaturalism is its very definition.  No one has any sound idea about what it means or how one would detect it. At least with “natural,” I can define it as whatever can be detected by the use of my five senses and/or logic. So, detection is relatively easy because I can simply ask if I can detect it with: 
A. My natural senses and/or 
B. Logic 
If the answer is YES, then it is natural. 
Supernatural, on the other hand, cannot be detected at all. Apparently, all one is saying is “supernatural = not natural or beyond the natural.” 
But how would one even detect something that cannot be detected by the natural senses and/or logic? 
If I could detect with my natural senses and/or logic, then it would be natural. 
If I cannot detect it with my natural senses and/or logic,  then it is simply undetectable or irrelevant for any explanation of an event I witness, much like undetectable Martians are irrelevant in explaining any event I witness, whether that be a murder or a resurrection.

i) To begin with, he's ruling ESP out of consideration. But that begs the question. There's abundant evidence that some people discern things apart from sensory perception.

ii) He fails to draw an elementary distinction between causes and effects. Even if the cause is imperceptible, it may be detectable or inferable from the effect. This is commonplace. 

Let's play along with his Martian hypothetical. Suppose a Martian space probe fails to detect Martians. If, however, it photographed alien technology on the surface of Mars, we'd be justified in concluding that these artifacts were invented by Martians and left there by Martians. 

iii) He assumes that logic is natural. But physicalists have difficulty grounding logic. Some resort to platonic realism, but that's a last-ditch resort. 

And to say that something is not natural, one would have to be practically omniscient because that would be tantamount to saying that we know all the natural factors that could possibly be responsible for an event, and are claiming to know that none of the factors was responsible. No one has the kind of knowledge, and so consequently no one could ever call anything non-natural.

i) Of course, the reasoning is reversible: to say that something is not supernatural, one would have to be practically omniscient because that would be tantamount to saying that we know all the supernatural factors that could possibly be responsible for an event, and are claiming to know that none of the factors was responsible. No one has the kind of knowledge, and so consequently no one could ever call anything natural.

ii) Moreover, it's not a question of eliminating every conceivable possibility, but what's the best explanation given the specific evidence, which is a case-by-case assessment.

So, even if there were a resurrection, it would not mean that it was not natural rather than due to some unknown natural cause. Unless one can demonstrate the supernatural to exist, then it is not reasonable to attribute anything to a supernatural cause.

That's quite disingenuous. Avalos doesn't believe biblical miracles happened, but explains them naturalistically. Rather, like other atheists, he doesn't believe they happened because he doesn't think events like that can or do happen. He doesn't think they're amendable to a naturalistic explanation. 

Since, the only causes we know are natural…

Begs the question.

Supernatural causes 
God’s activity 
A real resurrection 

Begs the question.

But I have never seen any god or supernatural cause produce a story of a resurrection.

That's confused. The question at issue is not what produced the account of the resurrection, but what produced the resurrection, which–in turn–gave rise to the account. 

So, why should I use a cause I’ve never seen do anything…

Why should a boy in the tropics believe a story about snow? After all, he's never seen it snow.