Saturday, January 17, 2015

Playing football with NDEs

What are we to make of the Alex Malarkey situation? Unfortunately, he's being used by all sides. 

You have nominally Christian publishers and chain stores that will do anything for a bestseller. 

You have hardline cessationists who, as a matter of principle, don't believe that genuine NDEs or OBEs ever happen–much less bona fide visions of heaven and hell.

That makes Alex a theological football. In addition, he's a marital football in an acrimonious divorce. It's very hard on kids to be caught in the middle of a divorce. To be forced to choose between their mother and their father.

Aggravating that situation is the fact that he's not your average 16-year-old boy. To my knowledge, he's physically dependent on his caregivers. I believe his mother has custody. 

As a result, I doubt he's free to speak his mind. He's too dependent on the adults in his life. Under too much pressure to please a father or mother. 

I think it's unwise for outsiders to get in the middle of a nasty divorce or take sides. We don't know what was said and done behind closed doors. And custody battles are notoriously ugly. Moreover, they can bring out the worst in one or both spouses. One or both spouses may say anything for legal leverage. This isn't a simon pure case of a theological issue.  

It's not so much that I think the publisher should pull the book in light of his public retraction. Rather, I don't think it should have been published in the first place.

As a rule, I don't think young children are reliable witnesses. They are too imaginative, too impressionable, too suggestible, too malleable, too vulnerable to adult pressure. Below a certain age, I think memory is unreliable.

In the nature of the case, the story will be retold by an adult or adults. So it's filtered through them. 

In addition, I assume that his accident resulted in astronomical medical bills. There was a strong financial incentive to peddle a lucrative story. 

This doesn't mean I think children cannot or do not experience NDEs or OBEs. It wouldn't surprise me if angels sometimes appear to dying kids. It wouldn't surprise me if Jesus sometimes appears to dying kids. 

But I must suspend judgment, absent evidence that an outsider can evaluate. I didn't see what the child said he saw. 

There are cases that I think merit respectful attention. There are reported veridical NDEs and OBEs. If well-attested, these establish the reality of the phenomena. 

There are reported NDEs and OBEs by prima facie credible witnesses. Even though they may lack veridical details, if it has already been established that that kind of thing happens, and if it's reported by a credible witness, then I think these are believable. 

You also have people like hospice nurses who are in a position to report things that dying patients say they experience. If there's a pattern, then that's cumulative evidence for the reality of certain deathbed experiences. Of course, that's subject to interpretation. 

From what i've read, Alex is not a credible witness. He was too young when the accident occurred. And, at present, he lacks the personal independence to say what he really thinks, one way or the other.

That doesn't mean we should automatically discount uncanny reports by young children. But to be credible, there needs to be some corroboration. For instance:

Back home, our grandson Knox had been praying regularly for her, and he was two or thereabouts. But that night while praying for her, he stopped, and said, “She died. She is in Heaven.” They found out later that she had in fact died that night.
Outside the Bible, I judge supernatural claims on a case-by-case basis. It ranges a long a continuum. Some are incredible. Some are dubious. Some are plausible. Some are convincing. And in some cases I withhold judgment. 

Gov't of the ruling class, by the ruling class, for the ruling class

I'm going to repost some comments I left at Denny Burk's blog on the firing of the Christian fire chief in Atlanta:

steve hays January 9, 2015 at 10:25 pm #
In the pecking order of minority rights, white LGBT rights outrank black civil rights.
steve hays January 10, 2015 at 1:15 pm #
I’m aware of that, James. Doesn’t change the fact that when push came to shove, the feelings of offended LGBTs, including white LGBTs, trumped the rights of a black fire chief.
Keep in mind that black liberals conform their views to the white liberal establishment. Take Jesse Jackson, who used to be prolife, but renounced that as the price for upward mobility in the Democrat party.
steve hays January 11, 2015 at 12:57 pm #
It’s a tendentious redefinition of consent to imagine that handing out free literature “without the consent” of the recipient is nonconsensual. They don’t even have to read the book. Offering free literature which hasn’t been requested hardly violates the recipient’s autonomy.
steve hays January 11, 2015 at 11:12 pm #
What if “the law” in question (a local regulation) represents an unconstitutional infringement on the free speech and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment?
steve hays January 12, 2015 at 12:47 pm #
Do you have any evidence that he was “favoring” Christian employees?
There are tradeoffs in a free society. Liberals used to be champions of the First Amendment–like the late Anthony Lewis of the NYT.
Now people like you think citizens need to be bubble-wrapped to protect them from perceived “microaggressions.”
Originally, the Established Clause allowed states to have officially recognized denominations. Church services were held in Congress. Congress appropriated funds for missionary outreach to American Indians. I’m not saying if that’s good or bad. But that reflects the scope of original intent.
You’re indulging in an anachronistic interpretation of the First Amendment which would be unrecognizable to the framers and the 13 states that ratified the Bill of Rights.
steve hays January 12, 2015 at 12:58 pm #
Ryan, your argument is circular. I point out that the restrictions infringe on Constitutional civil liberties. You reply by appealing to restrictions on civil liberties. But that’s the very issue in dispute. Appealing to restrictions to justify restrictions is viciously circular. You can’t simply invoke the current status quo to defend the status quo without begging the question.
Here’s an example of how the Establish Clause allows for, as understood by the Founding Fathers:
steve hays January 12, 2015 at 9:42 pm #
I didn’t merely refer to something as Constitutional. Rehnquist gives extensive historical documentation in the opinion I linked to.
steve hays January 12, 2015 at 10:21 pm #
I was responding to you on your own terms, but you’re free to backpedal.
This is not an appeal to authority. I cited him for his documentation. Do you not know the difference between historical evidence and an argument from authority?
steve hays January 13, 2015 at 2:42 am #
I’ve read Posner. Basically, he doesn’t think the Bill of Rights has any objective meaning. It merely means whatever meaning judges assign to it.
steve hays January 13, 2015 at 12:43 pm #
Agreed. Judges like Posner can’t be trusted with power. No one elected judges to make social policy. That’s not their proper role.
It comes down to the question of whether we think the society should consist of a ruling class that plays the role of official adults, treating other citizens as minors who require parental permission for whatever they say or do. Unfortunately, there are a lot of Americans who wish to be treated like children.
steve hays January 14, 2015 at 1:06 pm #
“The Bill of Rights has no fixed meaning. It states broad aspirational principles that are often in tension with each other. It is the duty of an unelected judiciary–uninfluenced by the short-sighted prejudices of the masses–to balance out those tensions in a pragmatic way in view of our current circumstances.”
Our system of gov’t is based on popular sovereignty. The consent of the governed.
The electorate expresses its will through its chosen representatives. Duly elected lawmakers pass laws, responsive to their voting constituents.
It is the job of judges to interpret the law, consistent with legislative intent, in order to apply the law to specific cases.
It’s clear that you, by contrast, repudiate the democratic process. You disdain the consent of the governed.
The Constitution applies to the judiciary, too. It’s the Constitution that authorizes the scope of the judiciary. Judges aren’t supposed to be independent of the Constitution. They don’t have the prerogative to unilaterally rewrite our social contract.
You have a totalitarian outlook in which an unaccountable ruling class imposes social policy on everyone else.
“By your logic, we’d still have whites-only lunch counters.”
How did you derive that from the Bill of Rights?
“That’s why legal pragmatism is more likely to lead to justice than originalism.”
It isn’t the job of judges to produce (allegedly) just outcomes. That’s the job of lawmakers. Given your attitude, we might as well abolish the legislative branch.
“Pragmatism forces one to grapple with the facts.”
You operate with a naive positivism. But facts don’t tell you what is just or unjust.
“Originalism lets one ignore the facts and cloak one’s personal prejudices with the apparent aegis of history.”
You also have the naive notion that judges like Posner are exempt from personal prejudice.
“Originalism is merely the crutch of those whose views aren’t supported well by the evidentiary record, so they reach back into history to dredge up the evidence that suits their preferred policy outcomes.”
No, Originalism is based on the consent of the governed. A nation of laws rather than a ruling class that’s unanswerable to anyone else.
You’re a totalitarian, which is ironic for a professed pragmatist, Totalitarian regimes end badly.
“That’s the joy of being a pragmatism: You can approach each issue with no preferred outcome in mind except for a desire to let the evidence speak.”
If you really believe that, then you’re hopelessly naive. Evidence doesn’t distinguish just from unjust outcomes. You’re committing the naturalist fallacy of inferring ought from is.
Your pragmatism is the caboose, drawn by the choo choo train of your own unexamined prejudices.
steve hays January 11, 2015 at 9:05 pm #
Handing out a book compels no one to read it or believe it. This trivializes the notion of consent and compulsion.
Moreover, who was he discriminating against?

Freewill theism generates moral dilemmas

Moral dilemmasThe crucial features of a moral dilemma are these: the agent is required to do each of two (or more) actions; the agent can do each of the actions; but the agent cannot do both (or all) of the actions. The agent thus seems condemned to moral failure; no matter what she does, she will do something wrong (or fail to do something that she ought to do). 
When one of the conflicting requirements overrides the other, we do not have a genuine moral dilemma. So in addition to the features mentioned above, in order to have a genuine moral dilemma it must also be true that neither of the conflicting requirements is overridden. 
Yet another distinction is between obligation dilemmas and prohibition dilemmas. The former are situations in which more than one feasible action is obligatory. The latter involve cases in which all feasible actions are forbidden…Sophie's case is a prohibition dilemma.
And here's a classic thought-experiment in bioethics and utilitarian ethics:
The organ harvest
Another problem for utilitarianism is that it seems to overlook justice and rights. One common illustration is called Transplant. Imagine that each of five patients in a hospital will die without an organ transplant. The patient in Room 1 needs a heart, the patient in Room 2 needs a liver, the patient in Room 3 needs a kidney, and so on. The person in Room 6 is in the hospital for routine tests. Luckily (for them, not for him!), his tissue is compatible with the other five patients, and a specialist is available to transplant his organs into the other five. This operation would save their lives, while killing the “donor”. There is no other way to save any of the other five patients (Foot 1966, Thomson 1976; compare related cases in Carritt 1947 and McCloskey 1965). 
We need to add that the organ recipients will emerge healthy, the source of the organs will remain secret, the doctor won't be caught or punished for cutting up the “donor”, and the doctor knows all of this to a high degree of probability (despite the fact that many others will help in the operation). Still, with the right details filled in, it looks as if cutting up the “donor” will maximize utility, since five lives have more utility than one life (assuming that the five lives do not contribute too much to overpopulation). If so, then classical utilitarianism implies that it would not be morally wrong for the doctor to perform the transplant and even that it would be morally wrong for the doctor not to perform the transplant. Most people find this result abominable. They take this example to show how bad it can be when utilitarians overlook individual rights, such as the unwilling donor's right to life. 
Utilitarians can bite the bullet, again. They can deny that it is morally wrong to cut up the “donor” in these circumstances.
A commenter ran this hypothetical past Roger Olson. His response was:
Some acts are necessary even though wrong (sinful). My argument is that God automatically forgives necessary acts such as taking life to save innocent life. 
You are asking me to engage in casuistry. I can only say what I think I would probably do--when talking about "limit cases." And in this case I don't know. But I doubt I would condemn the surgeon in your hypothetical scenario. Have you seen "Sophie's Choice?" 

A friend compared this to the film Extreme Measures:

Even some hard-nosed utilitarians balk at murdering a healthy patient to harvest his organs to save five needy patients. But ironically, this Arminian theologian, with his kinder, gentler theology, would be prepared to murder some patients to save other patients. Take the life of one patient to save the lives of five others.

Imagine if Olson was chief of medicine at a large hospital. Imagine if the bioethics board was dominated by Arminians. Imagine if this was under a totalitarian regime in which they actually had the authority to make some patients involuntary organ donors. 

It's striking to compare and contrast Olson's position with John Frame's:
God’s Word gives us a specific promise concerning temptation in 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” This text says that no temptation is so great that the Christian cannot escape it. That is, even in the worst temptations, God gives us the resources to be faithful to him, to make right choices, to find ways of escaping from wickedness. Tragic moral choice, however, is a situation where by definition there is no way to escape. So this passage implies directly that there is no tragic moral choice. John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (P&R 2008), 232-233.
Why do Frame and Olson take diametrically different positions on bioethics? It goes to a fundamental difference between Reformed theism and freewill theism. 

As a Calvinist, Frame believes in absolute predestination and meticulous providence. Because God planned everything that happens, because he providentially executes his plan, God can and does prearrange the course of events such that a Christian will never find himself in a position where there are no morally licit options. Compare that to Olson's position (in the same post):

The underlying issue here is whether the existence of gratuitous evil undermines belief in an all-powerful and all-good God. (“Gratuitous evil” is evil that is not necessary for some greater good.) 
All these Christian thinkers argue that free will requires an environment of natural laws, predictability, risk and ability to do evil. In other words, even God cannot create a world that includes genuine moral free will and responsibility and constantly interfere to stop gratuitous evils from occurring. 
The answer has to lie in divine self-limitation.

Given Olson's "risky" view of providence, odds are that Christians will find themselves cornered by circumstances which compel them to do something immoral to avoid something even more heinous. In a world chockfull of gratuitous evils–a world that's a runaway train–Christians will be confronted with intractable moral dilemmas in which there's no right option. They can't avoid doing something morally wrong. It's just a choice between degrees of wrongdoing.

Arminians are fond of quoting 1 Cor 10:13 to prooftext libertarian freedom, but ironically it's the Calvinist who's appealing to that text whereas Olson's position cuts the ground out from under that text. Given his risky view of providence, God cannot provide an escape route for every ethical challenge. In world where moral chaos theory reigns, where gratuitous evils are inevitable, Christians (as well as unbelievers) will find themselves boxed into situations in which they are forced to commit atrocities. No virtuous alternative is available in that situation. 

As is often the case, more consistent Arminians like Jerry Walls and Roger Olson do us the favor of taking freewill theism to a logical extreme. They are to freewill theism what Alex Rosenberg is to atheism. 

Gregg Allison on Scripture and Its Interpretation

I’m working my way slowly (I apologize) through Gregg Allison’s work,“Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment”.

Throughout, Allison’s method is to show side-by side, the Roman Catholic beliefs, along with what an “Evangelical Assesment” of those beliefs might say. And he does it in the light of a methodology that he clearly articulates at the beginning.

This is necessarily a broad-brush treatment. Other than his role of the explication of Scripture, which describes in the briefest terms the “grammatical historical hermeneutic” by which most Evangelical Protestants understand Scripture, he fails, at the outset, I think, to show how Roman Catholics understand Scripture (in his text here, he makes a brief allusion to the Medieval “fourfold sense of Scripture”. But that is no longer an official methodology.)

Here is one place where he states what Evangelicals believe, without going into much detail of how Roman Catholics understand Scripture. I’ll give Allison’s overview of an Evangelical understanding of Scripture, then I’ll clarify “actual Catholic beliefs” about Scripture below:

Friday, January 16, 2015

The ending of Acts

How Calvinists do it

I don’t know how Calvinists do it. Like many bloggers Justin Taylor posted an obituary of Steve Jobs. Unlike many bloggers, he receives comments. Not three comments in, the post got this one:
I am saddened by Jobs’ passing. My prayers are with his family and friends. I don’t mean for this to be insensitive, but why would those who believe in the concept of God’s sovereign saving grace have any “hope” one way or the other that Jobs found rest in it? Wouldn’t they just want God to carry out His salvific desires in whatever way HE sees fit?
“Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?”
if God decided to NOT impart Jobs with His sovereign saving grace (he didn’t appear outwardly a believer), this only magnifies the grace that the elect receive: “that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory.”
i) One thing I notice about philosophically-inclined critics of Calvinism like Jerry Walls and Adam Omelianchuk is how often they pick on Calvinists who are not philosophically-inclined. Instead of taking on theological opponents in their own weight class, they go after easy marks.
ii) The comment he quotes was apparently made by a freewill theist (or possibly an atheist sockpuppet) who used the obituary as a pretext to attack Calvinism. But the comment regurgitates the usual uncomprehending objections to Calvinism. And you'd think somebody like Adam, who ought to be philosophically sophisticated, would discern that.
iii) At one level, there's not even a prima facie tension between a predestined outcome and hoping for a particular outcome, for if predestination is true, then we were predestined to hope for that particular outcome–whether or not what we hope for comes true. God foreordains our future-oriented hopes as well as the future itself. 
iv) Then we have the hackneyed confusion between fatalism and predestination. But in Calvinism, the actions of human agents (e.g. prayer, evangelism) is one way in which God carries out his salvific desires. 
v) Let's take a comparison. Suppose your daughter attends a small private college. You receive a frantic phone call to turn on the news. A breathless reporters says a gunman reportedly killed a number of students at the school, before he himself was shot and killed. Police are withholding the names of the victims until they ID them and notify next-of-kin. 
Should you pray that your daughter was not one of the victims? But at that point, the event is past. Either he shot her to death or he didn't. Prayer can't change the past.
The accidental necessity of the past is analogous to the fixity of the future (given predestination). And many freewill theists grant the accidental necessity of the past. 
In both cases, you can't change the outcome. That, however, doesn't mean you can't affect the outcome. Answered prayer is a factor in historical causation. Prayer is one of God's appointed means to further his appointed ends. Absent answered prayer, history would turn out differently. That applies to retroactive prayer as well as hopes and prayers about a predestined future. 
So, yes, Adam, that's how Calvinists do it. On the face of it I don't see even an apparent point of tension. 

When Malarkey is...malarkey

Don't Claim To Be Patristic While Neglecting Apologetics

In a post earlier today, Steve Hays addressed a recent example of the apologetic negligence of Roman Catholicism. While Catholics (and Orthodox) often claim to be heirs to the church fathers, the bulk of the apologetic work that the fathers took up in the ancient world is done by Evangelicals today. Responses to a modern Trypho or Porphyry are far more likely to come from an Evangelical than a Catholic or Orthodox. We see the same tendency in other contexts. If Catholics and Orthodox were as deeply rooted in history as they claim to be, they probably wouldn't be so focused on getting converts to their denomination and so unconcerned about other matters that are more important.

For some examples of the concern the earliest patristic Christians had for apologetics, see pages 36-42 and 279-84 in our e-book, The End Of Infidelity.

"we alone afford proof of what we assert" (Justin Martyr, First Apology, 20)

"I laughed in condemning him, because he called himself a teacher yet did not know how to confirm what he taught." (Rhodo, in Eusebius, Church History, 5:13)

The Arminian Peter Singer

Turns out Arminian theologian Roger Olson is a utilitarian bioethicist. The Arminian Peter Singer:

This is a major issue in contemporary ethics. I think that most people make the moral judgment that there is some sort of distinction between doing and allowing although it is difficult to pin down. However, I do not think it has anything to do with greater evil. The right thing to do might be to allow the greater evil to occur rather than doing an evil oneself.
The go-to example would be of a surgeon about to operate on a relatively healthy patient whom the surgeon discovers is a perfect match for four patients in the hospital running out of time for live-saving transplants (of different organs) and finds himself faced with a decision: do I kill the one relatively healthy patient and make it look like a surgical complication and save four lives? Or do I treat and release him and allow the other four patients to (probably) die? Most people think it would be wrong to kill the healthy patient, but not because of any greater goods or evils at issue--obviously four deaths are worse than one.

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      We disagree. See my essay (a lecture given at Baylor and posted here) "Sin Boldy: Christian Ethics for a Broken World." Some acts are necessary even though wrong (sinful). My argument is that God automatically forgives necessary acts such as taking life to save innocent life.

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          So you think the surgeon should kill the one relatively healthy patient?

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              You are asking me to engage in casuistry. I can only say what I think I would probably do--when talking about "limit cases." And in this case I don't know. But I doubt I would condemn the surgeon in your hypothetical scenario. Have you seen "Sophie's Choice?"