Saturday, February 03, 2018

Catholicism in crisis

One long circular argument

When God comes to a fork in the road

One issue that sometimes crops up in debates over Calvinism is whether God has libertarian freedom. Could God have chosen otherwise, or are his choices determined? 

That debate isn't confined to Calvinism. It goes to larger issues like the principle of sufficient reason. Likewise, whether God can or should be able to change his mind. 

There's disagreement within freewill theism on how to define freedom. There are two basic models: leeway freedom and ultimate sourcehood. 

Leeway freedom is the ability to choose between alternate possibilities, given the same past–up to the moment of choice. In a sense, I'd say mainstream Calvinism affirms God's leeway freedom insofar as God was free to make the world, not make the world, or make a different world. God had many live options at his disposal. 

However, it's misleading to say God has libertarian freedom in that sense, for unlike human agents, God doesn't have to choose between two (or more) alternatives. In principle, he can act on both alternatives. In principle, he can create a multiverse which exemplifies multiple timelines. Perhaps he has. In that respect, God has greater freedom than libertarian freedom. 

If God's choices were determined, they'd be determined by his own reasons, and not by something outside himself. However, there's a hidden assumption behind that way of framing the issue–as if God is confronted with a binary choice: either doing A or doing non-A. But God doesn't face that limitation. It's within his power to opt for both alternatives. In principle, he can create more than one possible world. When God comes to a fork in the road, he can simultaneously go right and left (figuratively speaking). 

A new foundation

Eph 2:20 is a stock cessationist prooftext. Indeed, it may well be their favorite prooftext. Recently, I saw somebody claim "the Church is built upon foundation of apostles and prophets. It's a strange edifice if it has continuous foundations at every floor."

A couple of observations:

i) That depends on what the metaphor was meant to illustrate. For instance, is a foundational metaphor intended to symbolize priority in time or priority in rank?

Cessationists interpret the metaphor chronologically, where apostles and prophets came first, then ordinary church office is subsequent to that. Church office takes over. 

Yet that doesn't make much sense. In Pauline ecclesiology, there were many contemporaneous kinds of ministry. So it's not as if the first stage was prophets and apostles, then that was phased out, to be replaced by church office. For these were operating simultaneously.

Of course, the Apostolate wasn't an ongoing office, yet we know that, not from Eph 2:20 alone, but based on other passages regarding the normal criteria for an apostle. 

If, however, it doesn't mean priority in time, it could mean priority in rank. For instance, apostles were more authoritative than church officers. And that might be true for prophets as well, insofar as they were recipients of divine revelation. Of course, a prophet has authority insofar his revelatory claims can be verified. Otherwise, his revelations are only authoritative for himself.

And that's consistent with cessationism and continuationism alike. 

In addition, that was before the completion of the NT. So we now have a different standard of comparison. In that respect we're in a different position than the mid-1C Christians to whom Paul wrote.   

ii) We always need to be careful in how we interpret biblical metaphors. A metaphor can be developed in many different directions. Absurd consequences follow if we don't confine ourselves to the intended scope of the metaphor. 

In his recent commentary (201ff.), Stephen Baugh, who's a cessationist, points out that the function of Eph 2:20 stands in contrast to the Mosaic covenant. So the foundation of the new covenant replaces the old foundation of the Mosaic covenant. The Mosaic foundation has been torn up. Apostles and prophets are representatives of the new covenant. 

If you wish to infer irreversibility from the metaphor, what's irreversible is the finality of the new covenant. There's no going back to the Mosaic covenant. Moving forward (or upward), everything is built on the new covenant. 

And that's consistent with cessationism and continuationism alike. 

Friday, February 02, 2018

Cosmic fall

I received some interesting feedback from several commenters on this post:

What do you think of Heiser's books on the subject of fallen angels in the OT? If I recall he thinks The accuser in Job is not a devil or demon at all.

I would think the book of Job would be a prima facie counterexample. Whatever else it is, it isn't intertestamental! At least it shows the concept of a cosmic bad guy around earlier.

i) I'm inclined to date the Book of Job to the time of Solomon's international court, which had contacts with neighboring countries. A little Renaissance. I'm guessing the historical Job, while not an ethnic Jew, was a worshiper of Yahweh in the way some NT gentiles ("Godfearers") were converts to Judaism. That may also account for the Hebrew dialect Job is written in. 

ii) I don't have a firm opinion regarding the identity of the antagonist in Job 1-2. He's morally ambiguous. He clearly has no concern for Job's welfare. 

Moral ambiguity is consistent with the Devil in the sense that the Devil conceals his malevolence to lull the unsuspecting. 

iii) One hermeneutical issue is whether it's anachronistic to ID the antagonist as the devil based on NT theology. Is that retrojecting later developments into Job?

That depends in part on how we regard the Bible. Some scholars simply view the Bible as uninspired sectarian fiction. For them, the devil evolves in the same way literary characters like Faust and Mephisophiles evolve. Or Batman. 

iv) But even if we affirm the plenary inspiration of Scripture (as we should!), some conservative scholars think it's illegitimate to use the NT to interpret the OT. Rather, we ought interpret each book of the Bible according to the information available at the time of writing. This distinction crops up in debates over amillennialism and dispensationalism. 

I'm not going to adjudicate that general issue in this post. Rather, I'd like to make a narrower point in relation to Job. Let's take a comparison. At one stage of his career, Dwight Eisenhower was MacArthur's chief of staff. He went on to become a top general, and then a two-term president. 

Suppose you were reading a period newspaper report about MacArthur which mentioned Ike. You know things about Ike which the reporter didn't at the time of writing. You know about the rest of his career. You know what he became. You read the account from a retrospective viewpoint. In a sense that's anachronistic. That's not something the reporter could have had in mind. Nevertheless, it's the same person. Ike has diachronic identity. He's the same individual moving forward and backward in time. So even if there's a hiatus between the viewpoint of the reporter and the viewpoint of the reader, there's nothing wrong with bringing later information to bear when reading that earlier account.

By the same token there's nothing inherently illicit about interpreting the antagonist in Job in light of NT theology. That's assuming they are, in fact, the same individual. That would still have to be established. My point is that there's nothing illegitimate in principle about taking that later frame of refernce into consideration when we attempt to identify the antagonist in Job.

I guess another option (maybe?) is if the false prophet could have been naturally born with certain abilities a la what people like Stephen Braude say?

i) One issue is whether paranormal abilities are extraordinary abilities which some humans naturally have–or mediumistic abilities, which they acquire directly (e.g. dabbling in the occult) or indirectly (inherited from ancestors who dabbled in the occult). 

ii) In addition, the paranormal is a grab bag, so it's possible that some paranormal abilities are natural abilities while other paranormal abilities are mediumistic abilities. 

1. Could the signs and wonders that the false prophet performs simply be smoke and mirrors, without a supernatural cause? The false prophet may have gotten lucky in predicting an event, or been able to facilitate an illusion of a sign and wonder.

2. Could the false prophet perform the sign and wonder with the help of another god in the pantheon? I struggle somewhat with this solution. There are places in Deuteronomy that acknowledge the existence of other gods. At the same time, Moshe Weinfeld presents a cause in Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School that those are Deuteronomy's sources, and the author of Deuteronomy himself depersonalized the others gods.

3. Could the false prophet perform the sign and wonder with the help of a demon? I am not sure if they believed back then that demons could do miracles. My understanding is that demons could be souls of dead people who did not have a peaceful transition in the afterlife, and they mainly afflicted people rather than trying to deceive. 

Then again, doing a search, Deuteronomy 32:17 appears to equate false gods with shedim (which English translations renders as devils or demons); the word does not appear often in the Bible, and I do not know much about it offhand. It is in the same song that appears to acknowledge the existence of other gods (Deuteronomy 32:8-9).

i) It's my impression, based on cross-cultural ethnographic data, that magic is typically attributed to empowerment by an external agent. A common paradigm is temporary possession. Or dream incubation. Or incantations to compel or manipulate supernatural agents to do the bidding of the witchdoctor. A different but related example is ritual cannibalism to absorb the courage of a enemy warrior. 

Within the thought-world of the ancient Near East, I assume a successful false prophet would be viewed as a sorcerer. Someone channeling occult power. To my knowledge, that's the standard paradigm of witchcraft.

ii) In heathenism, that could be viewed as ancestral spirits, evil spirits, or "gods". In Christian theology, the taxonomy is based on a protological narrative of fallen angels, as well as an eschatological narrative regarding spiritual warfare. Pagans didn't have that narrative, so they will have a different taxonomy. 

How does the OT classify pagan numina? Given the view of Yahweh as the sole Creator, pagan numina would be at best supernatural creatures. Heavenly or fallen angels. Of course, that's a bit circular since the question at issue is the extent to which the OT has a doctrine of a cosmic fall. In that regard, a neglected text is Isa 24:21-22, which seems to allude to a "war in heaven" motif. 

How biblical is Molinism? (part 5)

You're good, kid, but as long as I'm around you're second-best

The counterfactuals of creaturely freedom which confront Him are outside His control. He has to play with the hand He has been dealt.

One of my anonymous informants in heaven's upper-level management smuggled me classified footage of the moment when the Molinist God found out he was dealt a losing hand:

Guillaume the Conqueror

The fall of angels

The OT doesn't have much explicitly to say about the fall of angels. Whether Isa 14 & Ezk 28 allude to that primordial event is contested. Scholars commonly claim that the fall of angels represents an Intertestamental development. Indeed, that Satan evolved in Second Temple Judaism. However, I'd like to consider a neglected text:

If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, 2 and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’... (Deut 13:1-2).

That raises an interesting question: what's the source of a false prophet's supernatural knowledge (foresight) and supernatural power (miracle)? In theory, he might be empowered by God. However, that runs counter to the companion passage:

But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die (Deut 18:20).

Yet if God is not the source, then by process of elimination, doesn't that leave evil spirits as the source of the false prophet's superhuman abilities? 

But in that case, were they always evil, or did they become evil. If so, that entails a declension from their original condition. 

An emancipated atheist

An atheist emancipated from the shackles of religious taboos: 

Then I learned that all moral judgments are “value judgments,” that all value judgments are subjective, and that none can be proved to be either ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ I even read somewhere that the Chief Justice of the United States had written that the American Constitution expressed nothing more than collective value judgments. Believe it or not, I figured it out for myself – what apparently the Chief Justice couldn’t figure out for himself – that if the rationality of one value judgment was zero, multiplying it by millions would not make it one whit more rational. Nor is there any ‘reason’ to obey the law for anyone, like myself, who has the boldness and daring – the strength of character – to throw off its shackles…. I discovered that to become truly free, truly unfettered, I had to become truly uninhibited. And I quickly discovered that the greatest obstacle to my freedom, the greatest block and limitation to it, consists in the insupportable ‘value judgment’ that I was bound to respect the rights of others. I asked myself, who were these ‘others’? Other human beings, with human rights? Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer? Is your life more to you than a high’s life to a hog? Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for the one than for the other? Surely you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as ‘moral’ or ‘good’ and others as ‘immoral’ or ‘bad’? In any case, let me assure you, my dear young lady, that there is absolutely no comparison between the pleasure I might take in eating ham and the pleasure I anticipate in raping and murdering you. That is the honest conclusion to which my education has led me – after the most conscientious examination of my spontaneous and uninhibited self.[1]

“Pope Francis” Bows to China with Concession on Bishops

The subhead for this story, which is behind a pay wall, is “Vatican to move to end standoff and gain authority by recognizing seven excommunicated prelates”. Essentially, “Pope Francis” is selling out the “underground” Roman Catholic Church in China, in favor of reinstating “state-approved” (but heretofore excommunicated, some “explicitly” so) bishops.

In the process, he has asked “legitimate bishops”, those in the underground Church, to step aside.

Pope Francis has decided to accept the legitimacy of seven Catholic bishops appointed by the Chinese government, a concession that the Holy See hopes will lead Beijing to recognize the pope’s authority as head of the Catholic Church in China, according to a person familiar with the plan.

For years, the Vatican didn’t recognize their ordinations, which were done in defiance of the pope and considered illicit, part of a long-running standoff between the Catholic Church and China’s officially atheist Communist Party.

The pope will lift the excommunications of the seven bishops and recognize them as the leaders of their dioceses, according to the person familiar with the situation. A Vatican spokesman declined to comment.

The decision reflects the Holy See’s desire for better relations with China—a country where Christianity is growing fast, though mostly in the form of Protestantism—and for an end to division between a government-controlled church and a larger so-called underground church loyal to Rome.

The pope’s conciliatory approach is especially stark at a moment when China is tightening its grip on religious practice under the more assertive leadership of President Xi Jinping.

Many Catholic parishioners and priests in China have shunned state control—and state-appointed bishops—to keep faith with the Vatican. Believers have been imprisoned, harassed and otherwise persecuted.

The Italian Journalist Sandro Magister this morning published a column on this very topic, citing the Cardinal/Bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun.

The Cardinal had written in his own blog: “So, do I think that the Vatican is selling out the Catholic Church in China? Yes, definitely, if they go in the direction which is obvious from all what they are doing in recent years and months.”

That conditional “if” is a hallmark of Vatican II language. It gives the Cardinal an “out” from the claim that he has criticized the Vatican. Still, it’s telling that even the conditional chastisement goes as far as it does.

This morning the WSJ noted this comment in an editorial, and continued:

Human rights in China are worsening, particularly for believers. The government is starting to enforce anti-religion laws long honored in the breach, such as restricting Mass attendance at underground churches. Christians continue to be arrested. And the government continues to tear down churches, most recently an evangelical mega-church built with $3 million in contributions from local worshippers in one of China’s poorest regions.

Some suspect that this Vatican accommodation is about paving the way for a papal visit to China, or a historic deal normalizing relations between Rome and Beijing. If so the damage will carry an even higher price, because it is difficult to imagine such a rapprochement without the Vatican’s first agreeing to break relations with Taiwan and abandon its Catholics there. The history of China shows it is adept at exploiting foreigners too eager for a deal.

Perhaps Pope Francis will be vindicated. But it’s telling that in pursuit of this accommodation he has had to shut out Cardinal Zen, who has had long, hard experience dealing with Beijing. Perhaps someone ought to remind the Vatican that the Lord’s advice was to “render unto Caesar ” not surrender to Caesar.

Napoleon famously said, “don’t interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake”. In that sense, it has been interesting to sit back and watch as “Pope Francis” has worked systematically to dismantle some of the Medieval iterations of the Roman Catholic empire.

It’s important for us to remember, however, that he is also playing with people’s lives. Lots of them.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

In God's casino

1. The Puritans, or at least some Puritans, championed an infallibilist religious epistemology which became enshrined in the Westminster Confession:

We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man's salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it does abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts (WCF 1:5).

This certainty is not a bare conjectural and probable persuasion grounded upon a fallible hope; but an infallible assurance of faith founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made, the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God, which Spirit is the earnest of our inheritance, whereby we are sealed to the day of redemption (WCF 18.2).

I believe John Owen tries to unpack an infallibilist epistemology, but I'm not going to discuss that. Let's consider some distinctions and definitions:

There are various kinds of certainty. A belief is psychologically certain when the subject who has it is supremely convinced of its truth.

A second kind of certainty is epistemic. Roughly characterized, a belief is certain in this sense when it has the highest possible epistemic status.

Some philosophers also make use of the notion of moral certainty (see Markie 1986). For example, in the Latin version of Part IV of the Principles of Philosophy, Descartes says that “some things are considered as morally certain, that is, as having sufficient certainty for application to ordinary life, even though they may be uncertain in relation to the absolute power of God” (PW 1, pp. 289-90). Thus characterized, moral certainty appears to be epistemic in nature, though it is a lesser status than epistemic certainty.

Certainty is often explicated in terms of indubitability.

According to a second conception, a subject's belief is certain just in case it could not have been mistaken—i.e., false.

According to a third conception of certainty, a subject's belief that p is certain when it is justified in the highest degree.

Of course, it would be somewhat anachronistic to apply this taxonomy to the Westminster Confession. Still, we might ask how to classify "infallible assurance" according to that taxonomy? Seems like it dovetails with all the variations: psychological certainty, epistemic certainty, indubitability, justified in the highest degree, and unable to have been mistaken. But is that true?

2. Among other things, the Westminster Confession links infallible assurance to the witness of the Spirit. One way of construing that claim is that the witness of the Spirit bridges the gap between evidence and assurance. I don't know if that's what the Westminster Divines had in mind, and since the Westminster Assembly was comprised of many individuals, there may have been a variety of views, even if they share a family resemblance.

Now it might be objected that if the witness of the Spirit is a makeweight which confers a degree of assurance that outstrips the evidence, then that's fideistic. But is it? Surely God is capable of inducing certitude. If, moreover, that mental state corresponds to objective truth, then it seems to be warranted. Indeed, it was generated by a reliable belief-forming process. So it seems to meet the condition of epistemic certainty, and goes beyond that, since it could not have been mistaken. 

3. That said, is it necessary to raise the bar that high? If Christianity is true, then it's 100% true. Now suppose, for argument's sake, that I have 60% confidence in Christianity. Although I think it's silly to mathematically quantify degrees of certainty, let's do it for illustrative purposes. And suppose 60% confidence suffices for saving faith. That means 60% confidence will get me 100% salvation. Epistemologically, it's only 60% certainty, but ontologically, it's 100% heaven! Sounds like a deal to me!

Moreover, even though I expressed the relation in artificial terms, yet if we're saved by grace, then it's not as if salvation depends on our ability to muster 100% certainty. Or if it did, and God intends to save someone, he will grant them 100% certainty.

4. Put another way, above a necesary threshold, the level of certainty doesn't affect the outcome. The promise of salvation isn't adjustable to the degree of certainty. My degree of certainty can't change reality. The ontology of the Christian faith is independent the psychology and epistemology of faith. Certainty doesn't make it any truer while doubt doesn't make it any less true. 

5. The main thing is whether we can know enough to make the right choice between Christianity and its rivals. That doesn't require absolute certainty. 

6. Finally, there's some tension between faith and certainty. There's a sense in which faith is meant to be a gamble. Where the nature of faith requires an element of uncertainty. 

For faith involves trusting another. It isn't direct knowledge, but letting someone else be your eyes and ears. And psychologically speaking, that doesn't feel as certain as seeing something for yourself. Indeed, it's supposed to be different in that regard. That's what makes it faith. If you could see it for yourself, there'd be no need to exercise faith. No need to put your trust in someone else. 

Take the prospect of dying. Most of us only die once. Most of us don't have a near-death-experience. And even if we did, that's not the same thing as Lazarus returning to life four days later. 

Most of us have no direct experience of what lies on the other side of the grave. We don't know from firsthand experience what awaits us. We don't know from firsthand experience if there's anything on the other side (apparitions of the dead excepted). 

If there is no afterlife, we won't know what hit us. And if we're hellbound, it's too late to prepare for death. 

This parallels risk assessment, where there are two variables, viz. a minor risk of major harm or major risk of minor harm. So even if you had a very high level of confidence, you might still be nervous if you have everything to lose in the unlikely event that you're mistaken. 

I don't think it's inherently unholy for Christians to have some anxieties about death, where you must put everything on the line, for faith is meant to be a kind of gamble–where you hazard everything for God. The element of uncertainty is what makes it an act of total devotion. Psychologically costly. You don't hedge your bets. You leave nothing in reserve. You put all your chips on the table, both despite and because of what's at stake. 

Mind you, God does things to make that easier. Death is unavoidable. And the evidence for Christianity is decisively superior to the competition. In that sense, it's a low-risk gambit. But it's still suspenseful.

To take a comparison, suppose your wife and kids are abducted. The kidnapper demands a ransom that's beyond your means. However, you make an arrangement with a cardsharp at the local casino. He will deal you winning cards in exchange for a cut of the winnings. That way you can raise enough money to pay the ransom.

Yet even though the deck is stacked in your favor, you still feel jittery was you wait to see the next card, and a sense of relief as dealer comes through, for there's so much on the line, and you have no direct control over the outcome. You're entirely dependent on someone else to act on your behalf in your vital interests. That forces you to live by faith.  

Fairies at the bottom of the garden

Randal Rauser is obsessed with Andy Bannister. A couple of preliminary observations before I delve into the details:

1. I think part of the disagreement is due to the fact that Rauser is a "progressive Christian" while Bannister is far more evangelical. Biblical revelation isn't Rauser's benchmark. He only believes what he can justify philosophically. 

2. There's also the function of Bannister's tweets. Obviously, he's not attempting to provide a philosophically nuanced definition in a tweet. It may be that Bannister uses provocative tweets as conversation-starters. A way of getting a rise out of atheists in order to initiate a dialogue.

Many Christians feel guilty about their failure to witness to neighbors and strangers. But one problem is they don't know how to get the conversation going. One way is to wear a cap or shirt with a provocative religious message. That will prompt some unbelievers to quiz you about the message. In that case it's the unbeliever who initiates the dialogue, and you take it from there. It may be that Bannister's tweets are ice-breakers in that regard. 

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Two views of suffering

Three lessons from the Jordan Peterson vs. Cathy Newman debate

Disarming the warrior-God

In vol. 1, chap. 7 of Greg Boyd's The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, the author catalogues what he takes to be biblical representations of divine violence. That's foundational to his thesis. 

1. In his reading of the OT, he explicitly takes the side of militant atheists and outspoken enemies of the faith like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris. He cites them in a footnote, in positive agreement. Boyd is a fifth column within Christianity. An ally with those who seek to destroy biblical theism.  

2. His examples aren't all of a piece. On the one hand, I agree with him that some of his examples depict divine violence: holy war commands, the Flood, Sodom & Gomorrah, plague of the firstborn, David's census, God sending "evil/lying spirits". I agree with him on what those passages represent.

3. That said, the specific problem is generated by Boyd's idiosyncratic, "cruciform" pacifism. Divine violence is a problem for his theology. It runs counter to his theological paradigm. He devotes 1500 pages to solving an artificial problem that he created. 

If you don't think retributive justice is wrong, then these passages aren't at odds with divine benevolence. A good God is a just God. A just God is a punitive God. 

I'm not saying that observation dissolves all the difficulties. But Boyd's objection to the OT (and parts of the NT) is predicated on his preconceived notion that God must be nonviolent. At that level, the contradiction is not internal to Scripture, but superimposed by his eccentric theology. He filters Scripture through his "cruciform" prism. In that respect, the problem isn't located in the text; rather, that's projected onto the text by his theological paradigm.

4. Over and above that are general difficulties not distinctive to his peculiar theology. I've dealt with this before. Because humans are social creatures, collective judgment inevitably harms the innocent as well as the guilty, the righteous as well as the wicked. Collective judgment doesn't imply collective guilt. 

There is, however, a sorting out process in the afterlife. God's rough justice in this life is more discriminating in the afterlife. There's a reversal of fortunes. Eschatological compensations. 

5. In addition, as I've noted on more than one occasion, everyone dies sooner or later. Whether people die by divine command or divine providence makes no moral difference that I can see. Either both are consistent with divine benevolence or inconsistent with divine benevolence.  

6. Moreover, as I've said on other occasions, biblical judgments and atrocities don't create a special problem. They don't really add anything to the theodical issue. That's because atrocities and natural disasters occur outside the text of Scripture. Even if Scripture didn't record any of this material, the theodical issue would remain because the same difficulties are paralleled in divine providence. Conversely, if we have theodical resources adequate to exonerate divine providence in the face of atrocities and natural disasters outside Bible history, then these are adequate to exonerate divine benevolence in the face of analogous examples within Bible history. 

Sure, the OT is full of grisly stuff. But that's true of human history in general. There's nothing in the OT to uniquely shock our moral sensibilities. Nothing that doesn't have analogue in human history generally. Eliminating the horrors of OT history does nothing to eliminate the horrors of secular history. The problem of evil is basically the same inside and outside of Scripture. 

A Christian is somebody who already knows that morally hideous things happen in the world, but continues to believe in God in spite of that. Evil is a given, not a newfound discovery. And it's not as if atheism represents an improvement. 

7.  On the other hand, Boyd includes other examples that reflect a malicious reading of Scripture. It's as though he goes out of his way to make it harder than it really is so that his alternative wins by default. He gerrymanders an intolerable view of divine action in the OT as leverage to his preferred alternative. 

i) He says Exod 22:29-30 & Ezk 20:25-26 teach divinely mandated child sacrifice. 

a) Regarding Exod 22:29-30, he willfully construes the command out of context. But as the law code already stated, provision is made to redeem firstborn sons (13:13-15).

Likewise, "devoting" someone to God doesn't entail human sacrifice (e.g. Num 8:16; 1 Sam 1:11). 

b) Regarding Ezk 20:25-26, I agree with one commentator's observation that:

this whole chapter [is] creating a rhetorical parody of Israel's history in order to highlight its worst side. In a context of such sustained sarcasm and irony, we cannot suddenly take a verse like this as a face-value doctrinal or historical affirmation. It is impossible to imagine, in the light of his overwhelming emphasis on the goodness and importance of God's law and on the horrific evil of child sacrifice, that Ezekiel could have seriously meant that Yahweh himself gave bad laws and commanded human sacrifice. Christopher Wright, The Message of Ezekiel (IVP 2001), 160.

ii) He says some passages (Lev 26:29; Jer 19:9; Lam 2:20; Ezk 5:9-10; cf. Deut 28:53-57) "instigate" parents to cannibalize their kids. But four of the five passages are predictive or descriptive.  

Only Jer 19:9 attributes that to direct divine action, but in context that's shorthand for the fact that by withdrawing his protection, God made Israel vulnerable to military depravation by her enemies. 

iii) He says God "caused" soldiers to rip babies from womb, according to Hos 13:16 (cf. Isa 13:16). But that passage is predictive and descriptive. Moreover, Amos 1:13 says that outrage provokes divine judgment. 

iv) He cites historical atrocities and massacres (Gen 34; Judges 19-21), yet there's no presumption that narrators condone whatever they record. In his zeal to tarnish Scripture, Boyd commits elementary hermeneutical blunders.    

v) He takes offense at the admittedly parabolic depiction in (Ezk 16:39-41), but that's written for shock value. 

vi) He trots out Ps 137:9, but even liberal commentators like Goldingay regard that as figurative. 

vii) He considers some OT depictions of God to be capricious. He makes no effort to interpret them charitably. 

Infernal espionage

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son with you I am well pleased.”

12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.

21 And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching. 22 And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes. 23 And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, 24 “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee (Mk 1:9-13,21-28).

Interesting how these things together. Jesus undergoes baptism, which inaugurates his public ministry. Satan then confronts him. I doubt that's coincidental. Christ's ministry smokes out the dark side. The kingdom of light, in the person of Christ, is a conqueror who invades the kingdom of darkness. That makes the dark side sit up and take notice.

This in turn is followed by an exorcism. The setting is striking. Why would a demoniac attend a Jewish worship service?  Do demons go to church? Would we normally expect to find demoniacs in a synagogue?

Seems likely the demon was there because Jesus was there. An infernal spy. Apparently, the dark side had minders shadowing Jesus. Keeping track of his whereabouts. Satanic surveillance. Jesus is a mortal threat to the kingdom of darkness. So the dark side dispatched covert operatives to gather intel on Jesus. Tail him wherever he went. 

They recognize his true identity before humans do. They have inside knowledge. They have a history with the preexistent Son. 

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Moral intuition and cultural conditioning

I'm both a moral realist and a moral skeptic. That's because moral realism is a position on moral ontology whereas moral skepticism is a position on moral epistemology, so they're mutually consistent. I have a streak of moral skepticism because "moral intuition" is frequently a euphemism for cultural conditioning. If I were born at another time or place, my personal and social mores might be drastically different. And that's easy to document.

I don't think that's sufficient argument for moral or cultural relativism, but then, that's because I'm a Christian, so I have a standard of comparison. The challenge is how to differentiate culturally conditioning mores from intuitive objective norms. 

Orthodox Christians use biblical revelation to evaluate candidates for moral intuition, but some "progressive Christians" like Randal Rauser appeal to alleged moral intuition to evaluate revelation. Yet in that event, he has no independent criterion to distinguish moral intuition from social conditioning. 

Biblical violence

Justin Brierley recently moderated a debate between Christian philosopher/ethicist Paul Copan and pacifist/open theist Gregory Boyd:

There's an striking comparison and contrast between the criteria of Gregory Boy and Randal Rauser:

For Rauser, moral intuitions (i.e. his moral intuitions) trump Bible ethics–in case of conflict.

For Boyd, NT ethics (as he construes it) trumps moral intuitions. He admits that pacifism is counterintuitive, but he considers that the cost of discipleship (not that he himself has paid a price). 

Two different ways to be wrong!

Seven Days in May

Seven Days in May (1964) was classic anti-war propaganda, at the height of the Cold War. The film had a fine cast. The timing may have been aimed at the Goldwater campaign. 

That was fiction. But what we're witnessing toddy is a real life Seven Days in May scenario. A coordinated conspiracy to either block a candidate (Trump) from getting elected or, failing that, to stage a palace coup, by the DOJ and FBI engaging in utterly lawless tactics. It's naked treason.

Quisling for atheism

I'll comment on this post:

I have my share of frustrations with popular Christian apologetics. I also have my frustrations with popular non-Christian apologetics. Nonetheless, Christianity is my tribe, and thus I see a special responsibility to speak out against bad examples of Christian apologetics.

In this article, I’m going to focus on one practice that really frustrates me. I speak here of the practice of cherry-picking quotes that support your chosen thesis. And the particular example I have in mind is when Christian apologists try to argue that atheism entails nihilism, and they support that claim with a sampling of quotes from prominent atheists who seem to have affirmed that view. You know, like Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre. And don’t forget that great Bertrand Russell quote in his essay “A Free Man’s Worship” about bearing up under “unyielding despair.”

i) It's revealing how often Rauser kisses up to atheists and take their side. Shows you where his true sympathies lie. 

ii) There are atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins who want people to cherry-pick quotes from their material. They go out of their way to craft catchy quotable zingers. They want people to quote those one-liners. Heck, on his original, official website, Dawkins posted readymade quotes from his writings. 

iii) There's particular value in hostile testimony. When the opposing side makes damaging admissions, it's entirely proper to point out that even their side makes concessions which frankly expose weaknesses or dire consequences of their position.

iv) Apropos (iii), this also documents the fact that it isn't a Christian caricature of the opposing position. Rather, we're getting that straight from the horse's mouth. There are atheists who accuse Christians of burning a straw man in this regard. Many atheists are blithely unaware of what candid atheists like Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Rosenberg, and Benatar say about the moral and existential implications of atheism. 

This method is presumably used over and over again because it wins points with audiences, especially Christian audiences. 

Because, from Rauser's jaundiced perspective, that's the only interpretation. There couldn't be an honorable motivation. It must just be to "wins points with audiences, especially Christian audiences."

But it is fundamentally disingenuous. If this fact is not patently obvious, imagine if the shoe was on the other foot. Picture an atheist arguing that Christianity is fundamentally misogynistic. And to make the point, she begins by quoting Augustine:

“What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother; it is still Eve the temptress that we must be aware of in any woman… I fail to see what use women can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.”

Next, she quotes Martin Luther,

“Men have broad shoulders and narrow hips, and accordingly they possess intelligence. Women have narrow shoulders and broad hips. Women should stay at home; the way they were created indicates this, for they have broad hips and a wide fundament to sit upon, keep house and bear and raise children.”

And so it goes.

The Christian apologist would rightly reply that Augustine and Luther’s misogynistic views should not be taken as an essential part of Christianity. Fair enough. But then by the same token, Nietzche’s and Camus’ nihilistic views should not be taken as an essential part of atheism.

Unless moral and existential nihilism is an essential part of atheism. Quoting secular nihilists is only disingenuous from Rauser's viewpoint. Like so many atheists, he still hasn't figured out the logical cost of consistent atheism. He fails to appreciate what's at stake. 

If you want to present a fair case against your opponent, one should begin by steelmanning their position…Similarly, the Christian apologist should begin by steelmanning atheism. That would mean he should begin by recognizing that atheism includes many individuals who defend objective goodness, meaning, and purpose. Only then would it be proper for him to attempt an argument that atheism entails nihilism despite this witness.

The fact that many atheists attempt to "defend objective goodness, meaning, and purpose" doesn't make their case is successful. Rather, it demonstrates a failure of nerve. They balk. They can't bear to stare into the abyss. 

Having initially dealt themselves a losing hand, they struggle to play that hand as best they can. They pretty-up their worst-case scenario. While that's psychologically understandable, it doesn't mean we should gag or dismiss atheists who are brutally honest. 

Existence is a curse

Cultural genocide

I'll make a few observations:

The Christian committed to recognizing the plenary inspiration of all Scripture now faces a dilemma:

Option 1: retain our moral intuitions that it is always wrong to slaughter non-combatants and thus deny that the plain reading that God commanded mass civilian slaughter is correct.

Option 2: accept the plain reading of the text that God commanded mass civilian slaughter and thus deny our intuitions that it is always wrong to slaughter non-combatants.

The Plain Reading of 1 Samuel 15: Mass Civilian Slaughter

i) According to whose moral intuitions is it "always wrong to slaughter non-combatants"? Did it violate the moral intuitions of Bible writers? Did it violate the moral intuitions of the soldiers who carried out those commands? Historically, is it universally or even generally true that killing noncombatants violates our moral intuitions? 

ii) The word "slaughter" is prejudicial. I don't deny that there are cases in which that's an appropriate word. But is killing noncombatants always equivalent to "slaughter", with its pejorative connotations?

iii) Notice Rauser's indiscriminate category: "civilians/noncombatants". But do all individuals covered by that umbrella term have the same moral status? Is it morally permissible to kill a combatant who uses a biochem weapon, but impermissible to kill a scientist who designs the biochem weapon? What makes civilian scientist sacrosanct? Isn't he morally complicit? 

What about a civilian who gives the orders? Why is it morally permissible to kill a combatant but impermissible to kill a civilian leader who issues orders to combatants? Isn't the leader more responsible (or culpable) than a footsoldier–who may well be a conscript? 

Rauser's dichotomy is morally arbitrary. He's taking intellectual shortcuts. 

You could argue that killing some types of noncombatants is morally wrong without arguing that killing all types of noncombatants is morally wrong. Or you could argue that killing some types of noncombatants is normally wrong, but sometimes there are extenuating circumstances.

iv) There's a difference between what's morally repellent and what's emotionally repellent. An action may be morally justifiable even if it's gut-wrenching. Sometimes it's morally licit or even obligatory to do things we hate. Take human shield situations. Or amputating a gangrenous limb. 

You see, the concept of genocide is a precisely defined legal concept which refers to any systematic attempt to destroy a cultural, religious, and/or social identity. And one can seek to destroy an identity without ever killing a person. Needless to say, it is small consolation that Copan’s abandonment of the plain reading still commits one to God’s commanding a legal genocide.

Is there something intrinsically wrong with destroying cultural identity? Take cultures that practice human sacrifice. Is it wrong to destroy their cultural identity?

What about the Third Reich? Was it wrong to destroy Nazi cultural identity? 

Some of my ancestors were Vikings. Vicious, ruthless pagan marauders. Christian missionaries destroyed their cultural identity. How unethical!