Monday, December 31, 2018

Ultimate questions

In his book, Confessions of a Philosopher (1997), which is a history of Western philosophy told through his own intellectual journey, Magee offers what could be a partial answer to these questions when he describes how in his late thirties, despite having a passionate attachment to life, he was driven to the edge of mental illness, even suicide, by metaphysical terror. He learned to control his terror, which, though he did not say so, recalled Blaise Pascal’s fear of “immensity of spaces which I know not and which know not me”, through reading the writings of others, notably Arthur Schopenhauer. “I think the feeling of meaninglessness is worst of all, worse than the fear of death itself,” Magee said. “The feeling that nothing matters, that there’s no point to anything. Certainly, I have experiences, in the forms of extreme existential terror, states of mind that bordered on the intolerable.” He also published a novel in which he explored his existential terror, Facing Death (1977). 

The final paragraph of Ultimate Questions, in which Magee speculates on how he might feel at the point of death, is especially haunting. “I can only hope that,” he writes, “when it is my turn, my curiosity will overcome my fear – though I may then be in the position of a man whose candle goes out and plunges him into pitch darkness at the very instant when he thought he was about to find what he was looking for.”

Saturday, December 29, 2018

The wall

We're in a game of chicken on the wall. When will the "partial" gov't shutdown end? Trump has threatened to close the border.

Most Republican leaders would blink, but he's not a conventional politician. The political risk for Republicans is that gov't shutdowns are generally unpopular. However, with the midterms behind us, the GOP is in no immediate peril, and by 2020, the shutdown will be forgotten while other issues occupy center stage. Moreover, this is a signature issue for Trump, so if he holds firm an wins, the base will rally behind him. 

But there's a political risk for Democrats, too. To begin with, many Americans oppose an open border policy. In addition, if the gov't shutdown continues, it may dawn on voters how expendable much of the Federal gov't really is. We're in the midst of a gov't shutdown, yet life goes on. It makes little appreciable difference. So why are we paying for all that extra gov't?

It's like popes who overplayed their hand by placing countries under edict to punish a rebellious monarch. But it backfired because Catholics discovered that life went on as usual with or without the sacraments. It made no discernible difference. 

What if a partial gov't shutdown sends the message that we have far more gov't than we need? It wasn't the end of the world after all. 

Composting human bodies

There's a one-upmanship among secular progressives. New York and California are the leaders of the progressive wing in the culture wars, so Washington and Oregon sometimes take the initiative to signal that they, too, are players. 

How we dispose of human bodies is symbolically significant. Symbolism isn't unimportant or all-important. For those who have the luxury, how we dispose of human bodies is an interpretation of what it means to be human. The final interpretation of what it means to be human. 

Sometimes it's not a universal statement. Sometimes it's a statement about social class. At one extreme are Pharaonic entombments. One notch down are funerals for English royalty and other dignitaries, entombed at Westminster Abbey. Papal funerals are a religious counterpart.

Then you have family crypts for the rich, or fancy sarcophagi. These are ways of signaling to the world that the decedent was more important than the lumpen. 

Christian custom favors burial in the ground. The decedent is buried with his feet facing east. This reflects belief in the resurrection of the body, as well as venerable belief that Jesus will return from the East. Thus, the dead in Christ will face the returning Savior. Whether that's accurate is a different question. 

Open casket funerals give those who weren't present at the moment of death a chance to say their final farewells. But before the age of modern embalming, the dead were buried quickly. 

Burial spawned the mythology of the Netherworld. Or perhaps the mythology of the Netherworld supported burial. Which came first?

Cemeteries have an advantage if living relatives live within commuting distance of the cemetery. We also have military cemeteries. 

Then there's the tradition of church graveyards. That's a nice tradition, although the Catholic church gamed it. 

Some cultures have the custom of a funeral pyre. Speaking for myself, I prefer the symbolism of a funeral pyre, emblematic of the soul liberated from the corpse and rising to heaven. To me, burial has the unintended symbolism of the soul trapped in a coffin. The soul chained to a particular plot of ground. But I realize the intended symbolism is the body awaiting reunion with the soul. In any case, this is metaphor rather than reality.

Back to composting human bodies. In blue states, the political class are atheists, although some may dabble new Age beliefs or pop Buddhism. For them, humans are just animals. When you die, that's it. Humans are just a part of nature. Just a product of nature. Nothing more. Earthlings from start to finish. That's the emblematic significance of composing human bodies. Like Christian burial, that, too, is a statement about human nature. A secular statement. A ruthlessly, defiantly secular statement. 

From a Christian standpoint, there is something majestic about the cycle of nature. Dust to dust and ashes to ashes. But from a consistent secular perspective, there's nothing beautiful about the cycle of nature. That's an example of a shallow, sentimental humanism that projects meaning onto something objectively meaningless. 

Does it matter how we treat corpses? It's analogous to cannibalism and necrophilia. In naturalism, it's all arbitrary. Nothing is sacred. There are no lines you may not cross. You bury your pets and compost your parents. 

Friday, December 28, 2018

The atheist bubble

RESPONSE TO COMMENTS ON NYTIMES INTERVIEW…/su…/christmas-christian-craig.html
I am delighted that our all-too-brief interview evoked such a vociferous reaction! I’ll take hostility over apathy any day!
The most striking impression I had of the many criticisms is the ignorance they evince of the whole realm of Christian scholarship, which seems to be invisible to the detractors. They seem to be blissfully unaware that there are thousands and thousands of like-minded philosophers, New Testament scholars, and scientists who share my belief in the tenets of “mere Christianity.” These scholars are active in their professional societies, publish in peer-reviewed journals and with top academic presses, and teach at our universities. Are we to regard such eminent scholars as Alvin Plantinga, George Ellis, and N. T. Wright as idiots or charlatans? Never heard of them? That alone should tell you something.
The fact is that these detractors tend to be living in a world of their own, safely sequestered, not only from Christian scholarship, but from the broad range of scholarship pertinent to the issues discussed. Some of them go so far as to castigate Mr. Kristof for daring to disturb their tranquility by invading their world with his interview. Their intellectual isolation is evident, for example, in (i) their endorsement of Jesus-mythicism, a view which, having been tried and rejected by scholars, went out with the 19th century; (ii) their adherence to scientism, a self-defeating epistemology popular during the first half of the 20th century which is now virtually universally rejected by philosophers; and (iii) their scepticism about the possibility of miracles, despite the almost unanimous recognition by contemporary philosophers that Hume’s argument is a failure.
It’s interesting that many of the detractors are fine with theists’ holding their views by faith. But they become angry when it is suggested that there might actually be evidence in support of Christian theism. Why the anger? Many of them seemed to have overlooked the modesty of my claims. I’ve argued that belief in Christian theism is reasonable. That doesn’t preclude that unbelief is also reasonable. Must we impugn the rationality of those with whom we disagree?
Many of the detractors seem to think that theistic belief is intellectually contemptible. They thereby evince their apparent lack of familiarity with contemporary debates concerning the origin and fine-tuning of the universe, which have served to make theism a viable option even among physicists. Today theism is a respected, if minority, position among professional philosophers. If you’re interested in looking at some of the contemporary developments of arguments for the existence of God, take a look at The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).
As for Christian theism, I wonder if the detractors are aware that mythology is no longer regarded as a relevant category for understanding the historical Jesus. During the twentieth century there was among biblical scholars a movement which has been called “the Jewish reclamation of Jesus.” It came to be appreciated that the proper interpretive context for understanding Jesus of Nazareth was not pagan mythology but first century Palestinian Judaism. With respect to Jesus’ virginal conception, in particular, pagan myths of gods’ assuming human form and having sexual intercourse with human females to sire offspring is precisely the opposite of a virginal conception!
How one views the virgin birth story will doubtless be affected by whether one thinks that in Jesus God has chosen to decisively reveal Himself. How we assess his alleged resurrection from the dead will be crucial here. Today the wide majority of historical scholars who have written on the topic affirm that Jesus of Nazareth was executed by Roman crucifixion, that his corpse was interred in a tomb by a Sanhedrist named Joseph of Arimathea, that that tomb was discovered empty by a group of Jesus’ women disciples early Sunday morning following his crucifixion, that various individuals and groups had experiences of seeing Jesus alive after his death, and that the original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that God had raised Jesus from the dead despite having every predisposition to the contrary. Now you may disagree with these facts, but then you need to refute the evidence that convinces the majority of scholars otherwise. These facts seem to make belief in Jesus’ resurrection and in his radical personal claims quite reasonable—unless you’ve got some overriding argument for the impossibility of miracles. Given theism, the burden of proof falls on the sceptic’s shoulders.
So I stand firmly by my claim that belief in Christian theism is a reasonable faith and would invite its detractors to look once again at the evidence in its support.

The deconversion playbook

Is Christianity dying in England?

Taking a break from church

In this article, Maxwell makes some good points. That said:

i) Losing confidence in Christianity ought to erode confidence in values generally. Indeed, the logical link between faith and value is a reason to maintain commitment to Christianity. 

ii) Especially if you're passing through a season of doubt, I wouldn't recommend reading divergent views on theodicy, since that will be disorienting at a time when your faith is already disoriented. Stick with something reliable, like Why Is There Evil in the World (and So Much of It?) by Greg Welty. Also, Leibniz and Plantinga are too cerebral for most laymen. 

iii) There's a difference between doubt and loss of faith. 

iv) As for taking a break from church when you suffer a crisis of faith, that raises a number of questions:

It depends on part on whether you're suffering from emotional doubt or intellectual doubt. I don't see how intellectual doubt is a reason to resent the company of other Christians.

By contrast, since emotional doubt involves a sense of alienation from God, that's more likely to alienate you from a sense of fellowship with other Christians. 

v) It also depends on the kind of church you attend. If it's a smaller church where everyone knows each other, then it may be too demanding to maintain the chipper facade. Sometimes we just want to be let alone. And that's more the case for introverts. 

Large churches provide more personal space for anonymity, where you can retain some aspects of worship without having to make small talk. It allows you to maintain some distance or calibrate your degree of involvement. 

I think some aspects of Christian worship, like good Christian music and architecture, can be sustaining even if you're spiritually alienated or at low ebb. The text, music, and aesthetics can still speak to you.  

vi) If someone is merely suffering from intellectual doubt, I see no reason to avoid church or Christian community. How are you better off on the outside? It's not hypocritical to attend church even if you lose your faith. Sometimes attendance is a statement of hope rather than faith. Waiting for the clouds to clear. Even if they never clear, you need to stay on the trail. The forest is not your friend. If you leave the trail, you are bound to be lost–in every sense of the word. Morally, spiritually, intellectually. In this life and the next. 

vii) Even a pastor shouldn't automatically step down if he suffers a crisis of faith. That's something he should try to work through. Perseverance is about forging ahead during the worst times. 

Admittedly, the demands of pastoral ministry can be exhausting if a pastor is in crisis. And there comes a point where it may be necessary to step down if loss of faith continues. 

viii) Apostates typically suffer from the childish illusion that intellectual honesty is an absolute virtue. Which fails to appreciate the fact that atheism can never be a genuine alternative. What are you leaving Christianity for? Nothing good or better is waiting for you if you turn your back on Christianity. Walking in the twilight of doubt is still incomparable better than walking in the darkness of a grim, godless existence. And if you think atheism isn't hopeless, you're fooling yourself.

Many apostates romanticize apostasy and act as though making a clean break is an improvement. But if you wish to see intellectual dishonesty on display, watch apostates rationalize atheism. There's no merit in taking responsibility outside the only paradigm that makes responsibility meaningful. That's just egotism masking nihilism. The problem is not lack of intellectual honesty regarding Christianity but atheism. There is no duty to be an atheist. 

ix) You ought to have Christian friends outside of church. Even if you take a break from church, that doesn't mean you abandon Christian community altogether. Your faith should always be larger than church attendance. In a sense, your faith should always be independent of church attendance. If you pass through the valley of the shadow of doubt or loss of faith, you ought to have Christian friends outside of church you can fall back on–for basic emotional and intellectual companionship. Where you don't have to play pretend. 

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Translation policy

A while back a Korean scholar asked me of he could translate my MA thesis into Korean. Naturally I gave him permission.

I say that to say this: the primary reason I'm a blogger is so that my stuff will hopefully be helpful to Christians or seekers. So the more widely disseminated the better. I don't sell anything. My stuff is free for the taking. I don't collect royalties.

So whoever wants to translate stuff of mine into Spanish, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Russian, Korean, Hindi, Farsi, Swahili, Urdu, Arabic, Malay, Lao, &c. is more than welcome. Hopefully it can benefit the global church and not just the Anglosphere. 

More Enfield Audio Digitized

Earlier this year, I wrote about funding a project with the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) to digitize Maurice Grosse's collection of audio cassettes from the Enfield Poltergeist case. Guy Playfair's tapes have now been digitized as well. I'd like to thank the SPR again, especially Melvyn Willin, who did most of the work.

There are around 100 cassettes in Playfair's collection, beginning in September of 1977. The tapes recorded in the Hodgsons' house apparently end in October of 1978, but there are some tapes of radio and television programs about the Enfield case from later years as well. He also recorded a couple of radio programs on Enfield from the first half of September of 1977, including the one that persuaded him to get involved in the case. Playfair's collection has some duplicates of the tapes in Grosse's, and some of Playfair's duplicates are better copies of tapes that have poor audio quality in Grosse's collection. So, the duplicates have proved useful. And much of the material in Playfair's collection isn't found in Grosse's. That includes, to cite a few examples, a recording of the incident in which the poltergeist ripped a fireplace out of a wall it was cemented into, Playfair's conversation with Milbourne Christopher about his visit to the Hodgsons' house as he drove Christopher back to his hotel, and Playfair's visit with Janet Hodgson when she was being examined by Peter Fenwick's team at the Maudsley Hospital.

Alan Murdie wrote Playfair's obituary in the July 2018 edition of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (vol. 82, no. 3). The closing line of the obituary is applicable to Playfair's work on the Enfield case: "Guy’s life was about finding proof and for many of us his findings succeeded in removing many doubts." (192)

I thought of what Hernani Guimarães Andrade, who had taught me all I knew about psychical research, had often said to me while I was working with his research group in Brazil. 'When spontaneous cases come up, we drop everything and go after them. They will not wait for us.' He had made it sound like a moral obligation.

I stopped searching the pages of the classified advertisements for a cheap flight to Portugal, and went indoors. Here was a colleague [Maurice Grosse] who clearly needed help, and I reckoned my holiday could wait a few days….

I rang Maurice Grosse and asked if he needed some help. He did, he said.

And so, on Monday 12 September 1977, I postponed (as I thought) my holiday plans, and went along to the 'house of strange happenings.'…

Of one thing I was quite certain: for nearly four months, the [Hodgson] family had undergone a series of experiences totally inexplicable in terms of presently known science. Incredible things had happened, and Maurice Grosse and I knew they had happened, some right in front of our eyes. But what did it all mean?

The sad part of it was that so few people seemed to be interested in finding out, and how fortunate it was that Grosse had seized upon the case with such enthusiasm, and kept going despite all obstacles. Had he not done so, I hated to think what state the [Hodgsons] might be in by now….

We arrived at Bounds Green underground station just in time for my last train into central London. It was nearly empty until it reached Piccadilly Circus, when it suddenly filled up with lively theatregoers clutching programmes, and talking excitedly about the show they had just seen. I envied them, in a way, though I too was on my way home from the show I had been going to two or three times a week for nearly six months. 'Show' is a suitable word, for it was clear that the poltergeist, whoever or whatever it was, needed an audience, and I had to admit that it had a sense of timing and a control of its audience that any professional actor would envy.

And yet, I thought, as I listened to the happy voices around me, by the time the final curtain comes down at Enfield, if it ever does, then I will have had a lot more to think about than if I had spent a night out in the West End….

I felt I had reached the limit of what I could do, by getting the facts of the Enfield case on record. From now on, it was up to the real experts.

We said goodbye and headed for our respective homes. The Enfield case might have ended, but the search for the explanation of it had barely begun. I hope that this book will encourage others to join in this search.

(Guy Playfair, This House Is Haunted [United States: White Crow Books, 2011], 30, 175, 195-96, 269)

Failure of nerve

Prayer shawls

On Facebook I got into a discussion about whether 1 Cor 11 requires all Christian women to don a prayer shawl in church. 

1. Church history is not the context of Paul's statement. Many Christians who insist that Christian women are obligated to wear a prayer shawl in church are cessationists, so the prophecy part is defunct from their perspective. Moreover, Paul's description of worship at Corinth is quite different from a typical Baptist or Presbyterian church service, so there's a danger of selectively prooftexting a position when our worship doesn't correspond to the overall pattern in 1 Cor 11-14.

2. To claim the Bible says what it means and means what it says is a simplistic hermeneutic. For one thing, Scripture has lots of satire, sarcasm, hyperbole, irony, paradox, and metaphor, so there's sometimes a significant difference between what it says and what it means.

3. It isn't necessary for Scripture to say X is culturally conditioned to know that X is culturally conditioned. To take a comparison, the parables of Jesus often use culturebound imagery. Imagery based on life in 1C Palestine. Now, the message of the parables is timeless, but to apply them today we must extract the message from the culturebound imagery.

4. One consideration that's often germane to interpreting biblical statements, commands, and prohibitions, is the implicit point of contrast. What error are they correcting or opposing?

5. Likewise, this is what gave rise to the Sabbath controversies between Jesus and the Jewish establishment. Once again, it's sometimes necessary to go behind a command to ask the purpose of the command. 

Christ's opponents labored under the illusion that they were being faithful to Scripture by mechanically obeying commands, but there are situations in which rote obedience is unfaithful because it fails to take into consideration the intention of a particular command or prohibition. 

6. Some commands and prohibitions are absolute but others must be applied in comparable terms and situations. Missionaries and translators must often deal with that. To take a comparison, there are societies that don't have bread and wine. So celebrating the eucharist would require substituting analogous foodstuff and drink.

7. Symbolism is often culturebound, so what matters is the principle. A different symbolic might be required to signal the same principle.

Dress codes often have a degree of cultural conditionality. They send different signals at different times and places. To robotically reproduce the same dress code without regard to what that signifies misses the point of Paul's argument. If it fails to retain the same symbolic impact, then that defeats the intended purpose. 

To faithfully apply biblical commands, we must apply them to analogous situations. One of the errors of the 1C Jewish establishment was failing to take into account the underlying rationale for a biblical command. The primary force lies in the rationale.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

A response to Frame's presuppositionalism

A friend drew my attention to Andrew Loke's article, ‘A response to John Frame’s Presuppositional approach to faith and reason.’ 

I don't wish to get mired in exegeting Frame's voluminous position. So I'll just focus on the ideas. What I say may well be consistent with Frame's position, but my response to Loke isn't meant to be a direct comparison. 

The Grandest Light Of History

"The birth of Jesus is the grandest light of history, the sun in the seasons of all time. It is the pole-star of human destiny, the hinge of chronology, the meeting-place of the waters of the past and the future. Why happened it just at that moment? Assuredly it was so predicted. There were prophecies many which pointed exactly to that hour. I will not detain you just now with them; but those of you who are familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures well know that, as with so many fingers, they pointed to the time when the Shiloh should come, and the great sacrifice should be offered. He came at the hour which God had determined. The infinite Lord appoints the date of every event; all times are in his hand. There are no loose threads in the providence of God, no stitches are dropped, no events are left to chance. The great clock of the universe keeps good time, and the whole machinery of providence moves with unerring punctuality. It was to be expected that the greatest of all events should be most accurately and wisely timed, and so it was God willed it to be when and where it was, and that will is to us the ultimate reason....The world must know its darkness that it might value the light when it should shine forth, the world must grow weary of its bondage that it might welcome the great Emancipator. It was God’s plan that the world’s wisdom should prove itself to be folly; he meant to permit intellect and skill to play themselves out, and then he would send his Son. He would allow man to prove his strength to be perfect weakness, and then he would become his righteousness and strength. Then, when one monarch governed all lands, and when the temple of war was shut after ages of bloodshed, the Lord whom the faithful sought suddenly appeared. Our Lord and Savior came when time was full, and like a harvest ready for his reaping, and so will he come again when once more the age is ripe and ready for his presence." (Charles Spurgeon, The C.H. Spurgeon Collection [Albany, Oregon: AGES Software, 1998], The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 30, 881-83)

Monday, December 24, 2018

The nativity accounts in Matthew and Luke

There is something akin to an undesigned coincidence in this connection between Matthew and Luke. Luke tells us that Mary, a virgin espoused to Joseph, was found with child before they came together. In Chapter 2 we find Joseph traveling with his pregnant espoused wife, and it is clear that he took her as his wife and raised the child. This raises the question: Why did Joseph take it so well? Did he not have any questions? Did he simply take Mary's word for it?

Matthew answers all of this by giving us the other side of the story--Joseph's agonized doubts and the message in a dream assuring him that the child was conceived by the Holy Ghost. This occurs between the Annunciation in Luke and the journey to Bethlehem.Thus the two stories are complementary.

– Lydia McGrew

Is belief in God like belief in Santa Claus?

Review of John Walton, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology

Will few be saved?

13 Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Mt 7:13-14).

22 He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. 23 And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, 24 “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. 25 When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ 26 Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ 27 But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ 28 In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. 29 And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. 30 And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Lk 13:23-30).

1. Will the majority of the human race be saved or damned? 

i) The two passages I quoted are standard prooftexts for belief that the majority of the human race is doomed to hell. That's what I'll be discussing in this post.

ii) There is another argument for the same position. If you combine exclusivism (i.e. one must believe in Jesus before death to be saved) with church history up until the present, then that's another argument for the proposition that the majority of the race will be damned. 

There are, however, some potential complications. There's the question of whether those who die before the age of reason are heavenbound or hellbound. There's the question of how much longer the churn age will last, and the success or failure of evangelicam worldwide.  

You also have progressives who subscribe to inclusivism and/or postmortem evangelism. That's becoming more popular. 

Even if we conclude that (i) fails to establish the claim, the claim may still be true, given (ii). But this post is about the first line of argument.

2. In addition, the traditional interpretation is a fixture of the anti-Calvinist polemic. Freewill theists routinely allege that according to Calvinism, the elect are a "chosen few". However, that's not based on Calvinism, per se. Rather, that's based in part on a freewill theist's interpretation of Mt 7:13-14–which he combines with the Reformed doctrine of election and reprobation. And to that extent it reflects a failure to distinguish between his own position and the opposing position. The critic is imputing one of his own assumptions to Calvinism. 

3. We might begin by filling in the implicit imagery in Christ's two sayings. Try to visualize the whole picturesque metaphor. 

i) Jesus seems to be using mixed metaphors, although these are closely related metaphors. The basic picture appears to be a fortified city. The city has a defensive wall with one (or more) gates. The main gate is wide. Wide enough so that several people can leave or enter simultaneously. It can accommodate several people (some mounted on horses or mules) abreast. 

ii) Matching the main gate is the broad road. The basic idea is that the broad road is the default thoroughfare. The path of least resistance. Most folks unthinkingly go with the flow. To vary the metaphor, Christians must swim against the tide. 

iii) In contrast to the main gate is the side gate. Because it's narrow, people only enter single file rather than side-by-side. 

The imagery of gates and roads trades on spatial metaphors. Two divergent paths. One leads to heaven while the other leads to hell. 

However, the narrow gate may also trade on a temporal metaphor. The main gate closes at sunset. To enjoy the protection of the fortified city, you generally had to get there before sundown. If you got there after dark, you were out of luck. Had to sleep outside. Exposed to the dangers of bandits and nocturnal predators. 

But a function of the side gate was to admit some parties who arrived after dark. Yet that wouldn't be just anyone. That would be reserved for dignitaries or friends of the sentinel. 

So an additional lesson might be not to procrastinate. If you try the main gate, but it's locked, and there's a line at the side gate, it may close before your turn comes. A lost opportunity. This is similar to the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. It was too late for the foolish virgins to make up for lost time. 

If the spatial dimension of the metaphor illustrates the need to resist conformity, the temporal dimension illustrates the need for urgency. 

Furthermore, the narrow gate may be inconspicuous compared to the main gate, so you have to be observant or well-informed to find it, compared to the indifferent, inattentive masses. 

It's possible that I'm pressing the imagery beyond what Jesus intended. However, the reason imagery is sketchy is probably because the scene was so familiar to his audience that he didn't need to draw a detailed word-picture. His thumbnail sketch would conjure a fuller picture in the minds of the listener. So I think it's safe to pencil in the implied details. 

4. This also raises the question of whether his admonition is predictive or hortatory. Is he saying for a fact that when the roll call is recited, most humans will be damned? Or is he using contrastive imagery to shake people out of their complacency? Put another way, is it like some prophetic oracles of doom which are implicitly conditional or counterfactual? The purpose of the dire warning isn't to say their fate is sealed, but to give them an opportunity to avert disaster by changing course before the clock runs out.  

5. The version in Luke might suggest that the comparison is more specific. The point of contrast is not about the ratio lost and saved humanity in general, but the difference between the few Jews who respond to Jesus compared to many gentiles who respond to Jesus. On that view, perhaps the majority of the human race will be saved, but mostly drawn from gentile people-groups. 

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Correcting a Common Platitude. . .

We are often told "we should live as if Jesus could return today."

“Perhaps today!” This is a slogan that is commonly heard in various Christian circles. A version of this is found in the popular hymn:

Jesus may come today
Glad day, glad day!
And I would see my friend;
Dangers and troubles would end
If Jesus should come today.

The problem is that it sounds nice and pious and preaches well, but the Bible never teaches that this should be our motivation.

Rather, the Bible teaches in a singular voice that we should live in light of the fact that Jesus is returning.

See my most recent podcast episode as I unpacked this.

Theologies of revival

Christian manhood

I'm going to make some comments on some material by Paul Maxwell. I only ran across him recently. He used to be a contributor to Desiring God and TGC. 

He frequently says things I agree with. However, he seem to be a self-help guru, so there's a self-promotional aspect what he says. That can be a danger if you say things to sell books and do workshops. Finding a market niche. Cashing in on the Jordan Peterson phenomenon. 

Another problem is when a thirty-something starts giving advice on how to get through life. Although that's old enough to have some life-experience under your belt, there are other pitfalls and turning-points in the lifecycle you haven't experienced. When guys who are middled aged or senior citizens listen to young guys proffer sage counsel on the journey ahead, that lacks a certain…cachet. In fairness, the same could be said for young pastors. 

There's also the impression that his philosophy of life is still a work in progress. That what he confidently says today may not be what he confidently said 10 years ago or what he will confidently say 10 years from now. A certain amount of shakedown time is often advisable. Don't give directions until you can see ahead. 

By the same token, exegesis is often primarily an intellectual skill. A younger pastor can preach through Romans or Revelation. But other books of the Bible are more existential, and it's better to wait until you're more emotionally seasoned before you preach through Job, Ecclesiastes, Jeremiah, Lamentations, or the Psalter. 

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Background on Mattis

Mattis opposed Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate change accord, decertify the Iran deal…and move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He opposes the president’s proposed ban on transgender service members.

How Should We Argue For The Virgin Birth?

Steve Hays drew my attention to a recent interview with William Lane Craig in the New York Times, part of which discusses the virgin birth. Craig's responses to the questions he's asked are of mixed quality, and I won't be responding to most of what he said. But I want to comment on his remarks about the virgin birth.

He didn't have much space to discuss the issue, and he made some good points in the short space he had. But I would have addressed the subject differently.

Better than citing the multiple attestation provided by Matthew and Luke would be to cite the fact that widespread early belief in the virgin birth is the best explanation for why the premarital timing of Mary's pregnancy wasn't more controversial in early Christian and non-Christian circles. The premarital timing of the pregnancy is highly unlikely to have been made up by the early Christians. It seems to be something that was widely known early on. So, the lack of controversy over it needs to be explained. An accompanying belief in a virgin birth, accepted by Paul and other early Christians long before Matthew and Luke were written, is the best explanation. And even non-conservative scholars often acknowledge that the gospel material on the virgin birth is derived from pre-gospel sources. For these and other reasons, we ought to conclude that belief in the virgin birth not only predates the gospels, but was even widespread in that pre-gospel timeframe. Celsus and his Jewish source(s) attribute the virgin birth claim to Jesus himself rather than portraying it as something made up a couple or a few decades later, for example.

Craig shouldn't have used the brief space he had to claim that there are no Jewish or pagan parallels to the virgin birth. The more important point is that there's no evidence of borrowing from such sources. Critics can't just allege that there are Jewish and/or pagan parallels to the virgin birth. They need to go on to the second step of arguing that the Christian claim was in some significant way derived from the sources in question. They not only can't do that, but also would have to overcome a lot of evidence to the contrary in attempting to establish their allegation. There are many explicit and implicit anti-pagan sentiments throughout the New Testament. That's not the sort of environment in which we'd expect borrowing from paganism. The burden of proof is on the shoulders of those who want us to believe that such borrowing occurred. That's a better point to make than to claim that no parallels exist, which invites critics to then bring up one alleged parallel after another. Each supposed parallel has to be discussed, after which the critic can just go look for another one. They often aren't particularly careful about claiming supposed parallels, so the potential for wasting time and misleading people is large.

Another point that ought to be made in these discussions, which Craig didn't bring up, is that a virgin birth not only wasn't expected by ancient Jews, but even diminishes Jesus' fulfillment of one of the most widely expected characteristics of the Messiah. He was expected to be a descendant of David. And a virgin birth would diminish Jesus' claim to Davidic ancestry. Why make up a claim about a Messianic figure that gives him a characteristic the Messiah wasn't expected to have at the expense of diminishing a characteristic he was so widely expected to have?

The best argument for the virgin birth is the evidence for the Divine inspiration of the documents that affirm it. But Craig doesn't bring the subject up, and his comments about issues like the historicity of the Old Testament and Biblical inerrancy weaken the case for Divine inspiration and make people who are influenced by Craig less likely to appeal to it. But we should appeal to it. Scripture is Divinely inspired, and the evidence for its inspiration is a good argument for beliefs like the virgin birth.

For more about making an argument for the virgin birth, see here and here.

"Nazi" biology

Net result

A few comments on this:

Second, certain heinous evils do not have a “net” good. 

On the face of it, even heinous evils can yield a net good. Events are causes of further events down the line. Everything adds up, for better or worse. In principle, that can be good overall. Whether the net effect is better rather than worse depends on whether God has orchestrated history so that countervailing goods offset evils so that on balance, the final result is better. 

This is otherwise called “The theological problem of trauma.” There is no “net good” of a little girl being raped. One might contrive a philosophical situation in which one had to choose between one person being raped vs. 1,000 people being raped—in which case the single rape was the relative good. 

Not a relative good but a lesser evil. 

But there are two problems with this—even if this is conceived as a relative good, it still doesn’t posit a net good. This argument fails to distinguish between what philosophers call the utilitarian good and the inherent good. The saving of 1,000 lives was a utilitarian good, but still failed to undo or justify the inherent evil of the one rape which the saving cost. This leads to the third problem. 

i) Christians can only play the hand they were dealt. Any theodicy will be wince-inducing. But if you believe in God and evil, then that severely limits the logical options. Reality dictates the available options. If reality was kinder, we wouldn't have the problem of evil in the first place. So any theistic explanation will have a hard aspect. And an atheistic explanation is harsher.

ii) It's true that if an action is intrinsically wrong, then beneficial consequences don't convert it into something good or moral. Likewise, beneficial consequences can't justify intrinsic wrongdoing. 

However, while wrongdoing can't be justified, to permit wrongdoing can sometimes be justified. There is sometimes a morally salient difference between committing evil and not preventing evil. I might not intervene to preempt an impending evil or step in to arrest an evil in progress if the effect of my intervention is to replace one evil with other evils further down the line, or eliminate some compensatory goods. 

Third, this theodicy does not solve the originative problem of evil. Let’s take the problem of having to choose between 1,000 people being raped and 1 person being raped. The argument which states that the greatest of all possible worlds necessarily includes the heinous evil of our world silently implies that God was in a Sophie’s Choice scenario before he created the world. In the novel Sophie’s Choice, the protagonist was sent to a Nazi concentration camp and was forced to choose between the murder of her daughter and her son. She chose her son. She can hardly be blamed for the death of her son. 

The Calvinist use of this Leibnizian theodicy attempts to apply the same justification to God by implying that God was in a similar situation before his free decision to create the world. Of course, if Calvin was right, God’s hand wasn’t forced in any way, and his free decision to create was not in the context of a Sophie’s Choice scenario. Therefore, the question, “Why did God allow sin in the world?” remains unanswered, and the place of a successful theodicy for Christian theology remains unanswered. 

i) I don't think there's a greatest possible world. There are greater good worlds, lesser good worlds–as well as worlds containing evil with no redeeming values. No single world history captures all the goods. Not all possibilities are compossible. By definition, every possible world has a different world history. Some goods inevitably depend on how a particular timeline unfolds. 

ii) Likewise, second-order goods necessarily presuppose evil. You can't have one without the other. 

iii) Apropos (i-ii), there are some restrictions on God's field of action. However, I don't think there's any antecedent restriction on God's ability to create more than one possible world. Perhaps God made a multiverse in which some alternate scenarios play out. That will realize a greater number of goods. 

iv) Maxwell's retreat into mystery just kicks the can down the street. God can't be absolved of responsibility for evil or complicity in evil, although he can be absolved of culpability for evil. 

v) As for Wolterstorff, if you indulge in high-risk behavior and your luck runs out, there's nothing inexplicable about the tragic result. That doesn't require a special explanation. His judgment is understandably clouded by grief, but his reaction is illogical. 

Is Calvinism Unliveable?

"Is Calvinism Unliveable?" by Prof. James Anderson.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Christian virility

An important debate on the role of masculinity in the church:

Mattis out

A few off-the-cuff impressions about the resignation of Gen. Mattis:

i) I recall reading somewhere, a while back, that initially, Mattis was a very influential advisor to Trump, but after Make Pompeo became Secretary of State and John Bolton came on board, Mattis lost influence. When you go from winning the arguments to losing the arguments, that's a time to exit. 

ii) As I recall, when Trump moved to rescind Obama's policy on transgender soldiers, Mattis tried to kill the ban by having the Pentagon conduct a six-month review. If that's true, then in that respect I'm not sorry to see Mattis leave. 

iii) In addition, I believe Mattis supported Obama's treasonous Iran deal. That's another reason not to regret his departure. 

iii) We don't know who Trump will nominate, and we don't know how well Trump will get along with his replacement. So I don't know what this means for US foreign policy. 

iv) The establishment is upset because they think Trump needs to be contained. Mattis seems like a honorable man, and he did an impressive job in cutting ISIS down to size, but his policy positions were uneven. 

Evangelical beta culture

Do 70% of Evangelicals Reject the Deity of Christ?

The Dark Knight

Recently I saw Leighton Flowers interview Andy Stanley:

There's nothing significant about what they said. These are hackneyed objections to Calvinism. What makes it significant is who said it. Andy pastors one of the two largest megachurches in the USA, so he's very influential. Not just in terms of those who attends, but as a televangelist reaching a TV audience around the world. 

Watching Andy is like watching (or reading) Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins on Christianity. Willful ignorance combined with overweening condescension. Andy is so patronizing about Calvinism, yet by his repeated admission, he's very uninformed. If you keep saying you don't know or can't imagine how Calvinists answer these questions, that's because you're not asking them. It's just like village atheists who don't bother to read evangelical philosophers and Bible scholars, then act as if they have unanswerable objections to Christianity. 

If Andy and Flowers are going to raise philosophical objections to Calvinism, the logical course of action is to read or interview Reformed philosophers. If they are going to raise exegetical objections to Calvinism, the logical course of action is to read or interview Reformed Bible scholars. 

Andy is a quintessential bigot. He constantly makes prejudicial statements about Calvinism without making a good faith effort to acquaint himself with the most competent representatives of Calvinism. He constantly stereotypes Calvinists even though, by his own admission, he rarely moves in those circles. He keeps asking Flowers for confirmation, as if Flowers is an expert witness on Calvinism. 

In this post I'm going to quote or paraphrase their statements, then respond:

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Licking Jesus

Here's a sequel to my prior post: 

In addition to his written response to Ben Shapiro's interview with JMac, Trent Horn also did a podcast, which covers more ground:

Trent Horn is a Catholic apologist and convert to Catholicism. I don't normally listen to his podcast. But in this podcast, the way he frames the differences between Catholicism and evangelicalism, and draws some points of contrast between them, makes it a useful foil. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Miracles, materialism, and quantum mechanics

Hear, O house of David

13 And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isa 7:13-14).

To critics, the Christian interpretation is special pleading. One argument for the 8C identity of the son is the claim that the sign child is something Ahaz must see or will see. There are, however, some basic problems with that argument:

i) How does a normal pregnancy constitute a sign? How would Ahaz even know which mother and child embodied the sign? Surely there were lots of candidates. Lots of pregnant women.

ii) Actually, the oracle isn't directed at Ahaz but the house of David. That's certainly broader than Ahaz and open to a longitudinal fulfillment. The house of David will witness the sign. 

iii) By way of reinforcement is the use of the second person plural in vv13-14. So, once again, the oracle isn't addressed to Ahaz but has a collective audience. 

When natural evils are natural goods

All this convective bubbling up and recycling between crust and mantle, this creative destruction and reconstruction of parts — “tectonic” comes from the Greek word for build — is Earth’s way of following the second law of thermodynamics. The movement shakes off into the frigidity of space the vast internal heat that the planet has stored since its violent formation.
And while shifting, crumbling plates may seem inherently unreliable, a poor foundation on which to raise a family, the end result is a surprising degree of stability. “Plate tectonics is a relatively benign way for Earth to lose heat,” said Peter Cawood, an Earth scientist at Monash University in Australia.
“You get what are catastrophic events in localized areas, in earthquakes and tsunamis,” he added. “But the mechanism allows Earth to maintain a stabler and more benign environment overall.”

Custom-made Christianity

I'm going to comment on some statements by John Marriott:

He's an adjunct professor in Philosophy and Intercultural Studies at Biola, and author of A Recipe for Disaster: How Parents and Churches Prepare Individuals to Lose Their Faith, And How They Can Instill a Faith That Endures (Wipf and Stock, 2018). 

As I mentioned previously, many deconverts reveal in their deconversion stories that the catalyst for leaving the faith came as a result of being disappointed with God, or at least the concept they had of him.

In reality though, they had a significantly unbiblical conception of God, one that more closely resembled the God of Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism identified by sociologist Christian Smith, than the God of the Bible. MTD holds that God exists (deism), he wants us to be happy (therapeutic), and we should treat others in ways that maximizes their happiness by being good, nice, and fair to each other (moral). If that is how we make others happy, it is reasonable to conclude that is how God makes us happy, by being good, nice, and fair. According to Smith, for American teenagers “God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, [and] professionally helps his people feel better about themselves.” But biblically speaking, this is not what God is like, nor how he acts. The conception is not mapping onto reality.

When one’s conception of God does not adequately map onto the reality of who God is, it can cause a crisis of faith. But it doesn’t have to. We can largely avoid these kinds of faith shaking disappointments by providing believers with a more biblical conception of God and what to expect as one of his followers. Without question there is great reward to be expected from following Jesus, both in this life and the next. But the rewards, which are primarily spiritual and relational, are experienced amidst a fallen world. Over and over again, the Bible tells us through stories and direct statements that this is a broken world, controlled in significant measure by a malevolent being. That suffering is par for the course. That followers of Jesus often will suffer both moral and natural evil. That God himself will allow bad things to occur, or even have a hand in bringing them to pass for reasons that may be opaque to us, but are for an ultimate good.

In that respect, they never lost faith in the Christian deity because they never had faith in the Christian deity. Their concept of God wasn't biblical to begin with.