Saturday, August 04, 2018

Grudem on ethics

Wayne Grudem has published a new book on Christian ethics. I haven't read it, and I don't intend to, although I've read two of the entries which were originally written for festschrifts. Grudem is an exemplary Christian gentleman and helpful popularizer of Reformed theology. I'm sure his new book on ethics has a lot of fine material, but I don't think he's qualified to write a book on ethics. He should leave that to Christians with keener minds and greater subtlety–like Bill Davis and John Frame. 

I'm going to comment on some of the annotated entries in his new book (see below). I agree with him that Christians aren't confronted with absolute moral dilemmas, although he and I sometimes disagree on what's sinful. Case in point: his position on lying. I've posted responses to him on both topics, so I won't recycle that.

What I wish to note in this post is points of tension in his overall position. For his position on some topics comes into conflict with his position on some other topics. Take his absolutist prohibition on lying compared to his position on war. But military deception is an essential stratagem in warfare. And self-defense sometimes involves the same principle. So his absolutist position on lying has unwittingly pacifistic implications.  

And this spills over into abortion and euthanasia. Consider the sting videos exposing Planned Parenthood. Likewise, once doctors are required to practice euthanasia, it's hazardous to be too forthcoming about your symptoms if those point to a medical condition which makes you a candidate for involuntary euthanasia. Or a patient you represent, if they lack the competence to speak for themselves. 

So Grudem's position is shortsighted and incoherent. His misplaced scruples impose conditions that sabotage some of his other positions. 

“Tell the truth and pay the price”

This is a pretty good speech about the power of narrative to shape culture, and how “the left” has pretty much got a lock on untrue narrative. The title is “Tell the truth and pay the price” — I’m not able to embed it here, because it’s not on YouTube — but you should watch this if you can.

Rome's clouded crystal ball


After the introduction, I'm going to provide extensive documentation for major reversals in Catholic theology. But I'll anticipate a few objections:

1. A Catholic might object that I'm burning a straw man. Sure, Catholic doctrine changes. No one disputes that. Some changes represent a development of doctrine. In other cases, the tradition wasn't infallible to begin with. 

2. I'm aware of those caveats. For starters, Unam Sanctam is as good a candidate for an infallible claimant as anything. The pope uses stock formulae for promulgating dogma. On top of that, his position was ratified by two ecumenical councils. So if that's not irreformable, there are no better candidates. 

3. Another problem with the caveat is that it renders the public teaching of the Catholic church untrustworthy. For centuries, Rome inculcated certain beliefs. Cultivated those beliefs in the minds of the faithful. If that can be set aside, then there's no reason for the faithful to have any confidence in the public teaching of the church. It's driving by means of the rearview mirror rather than the windshield. 

4. A Catholic might object that because there are sometimes multiple strands of Catholic tradition, a development may represent the development of a particular strand of transition. 

And it's true that because Catholic tradition is so pluriform you can probably be consistent with Catholic tradition by selectively developing one particular tradition. Take modification of the extra Ecclesiam nulla salus principle by appeal to the tradition of invincible ignorance. Those who lack Christian faith through no fault of their own.

Problem is, that nullifies Unam Sanctam and its conciliar counterparts. It requires submission to the pope. It specifies pagans and Jews among the hellbound. It ties that to lack of access to the sacraments. You can't widen that by development. You can only recant it. Yet it has a stronger claim to dogma than invincible ignorance. 

5. Some of these are issues of utmost consequence. Why should anyone trust a denomination that backpedals on such fundamental issues?

6. There are two ways Rome can annul a position. One is to formally revoke it. The other way is to let it lapse. Die of neglect. The latter strategy saves face, but the effect is the same. Invalidate the status quo ante in practice. 

7. When Rome adopted Newman's theory of development, it substituted a different paradigm of tradition in midcourse. Like winning a game retroactively after you lost the game. You simply change the rules, then apply them retroactively. There were the rules going in. You lost. But you win by changing the rules after the fact. 

The historic definition of tradition was a theological criterion. To change the criterion is cheating. A tacit admission that you didn't measure up by your own yardstick, so you replace it with a rubber ruler.   

Catholicism under the dome

1. Infallibility is a principle in Catholic and Protestant theology alike, although the locus of authority is different. 

2. Catholic apologists object that having an infallible Bible is pointless without an infallible interpreter. Likewise, Protestants are stuck with a fallible canon. How can you be certain that your interpretation is right? How can you be certain your canon has the right books?

But one problem with that line of argument is that it either proves too much or too little. For traditional Protestants, the circle of infallibility is drawn around the Bible. For traditional Catholics, the circle of infallibility is drawn around the extraordinary magisterium or ordinary universal magisterium. But in principle, the circle can always be wider. In that respect, the boundaries are arbitrary. Wherever you draw the circle, a larger circle could be drawn. Why is the pope only infallible when he speaks ex cathedra? Why not all the time? Why aren't bishops infallible? Or priests? Or the laity? Or Christians generally?

If the ideal is certainty, then enlarging the circle of infallibility enlarges the scope of certainty. So the logic of the Catholic argument exceeds the boundaries of Catholicism. The logic of the argument doesn't stop with the extraordinary magisterium or ordinary universal magisterium. 

According to Catholicism, Catholics can and must get along just fine without infallible certainty most of the time. Protestants simply draw a narrower circle. 

3. In addition, the Catholic ideal is a mirage. Catholics take refuge in a visible church, but dogma is invisible. Thanks to the doctrine of development, the circle of infallibility is drawn in undetectable ink. Catholics can't see what's inside the circle and outside the circle because the line is invisible. Imperceptible because future developments may revise or reverse the public teaching of the church. No one, including the pope, knows where the circle is drawn because present-day popes don't know what future popes will teach or retract. 

Catholic apologists don't believe in the Catholic church as it actually exists, but in a stainless abstraction. A hermetically sealed city under a dome, like domed cities in science fiction.  

4. I don't concede that Protestants have a fallible canon. That's hard to say because the evidence for the canon includes internal evidence, viz. authorial ascriptions, cross-references. If Scripture is infallible, then internal evidence for Scripture is infallible. 

5. In Calvinism, infallibility isn't confined to the Bible. Rather, an infallible God stands behind infallible Scripture. Rather than having an infallible church, we have an infallible God. Rather than having an infallible church, we have infallible providence.  Although the elect are fallible, God infallibly guides the elect to heaven. 

A Catholic might object that that's just my personal belief, but ultimately our personal beliefs will always be the starting-point and endpoint. We can't escape our own minds. That's the filter. Catholics are not exempt. 

Friday, August 03, 2018

Saving Catholicism from the pope

In the shadow of death

I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.

The world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better, it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.

Many of them have asked me how it is possible to face death without the certainty of an afterlife. I can only say that it hasn’t been a problem. With reservations about "feeble souls," I have the view of a hero of mine, Albert Einstein: "I cannot conceive of a god who rewards and punishes his creatures or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I—nor would I want to—conceive of an individual that survives his physical death. Let feeble souls, from fear for absurd egotism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoting striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature." Carl Sagan, “In the Valley of the Shadow,” Parade Magazine (March 10 1996).

That's boilerplate secular humanism. But was Sagan really that nonchalant about oblivion? 

Some aspects of the treatment were extremely painful, but there’s a kind of traumatic amnesia that happens, so that when it’s all over you’ve almost forgotten the pain. The Hutch has an enlightened policy of self-administered anti-pain drugs, including morphine derivatives, so that I could immediately deal with severe pain. It made the whole experience much more bearable.

"I’m afraid I have some bad news for you," the physician said. My bone marrow had revealed the presence of a new population of dangerous rapidly reproducing cells. In two days, the whole family was back in Seattle. I’m writing this article from my hospital bed at the Hutch. Through a new experimental procedure, it was determined that these anomalous cells lack an enzyme that would protect them from two standard chemotherapeutic agents—chemicals I hadn’t been given before. After one round with these agents, no anomalous cells—not one—could be found in my marrow. To mop up and stragglers (they can be a few but very fast growing), I’m in the midst of two more rounds of chemotherapy—probably to be topped off with some more cells from my sister. Once more, I have a real shot at a complete cure.

In fact, he underwent three bone marrow transplants, despite the excruciating pain of his treatment. Isn't that the behavior of someone terrified of death? Someone desperately clinging to life? His brave words say one thing, but his actions send a different message. 

How to paint yourself into a corner

Convert to Catholicism and Catholic philosopher Ed Feser:

For another thing, if the Pope is saying that capital punishment is always and intrinsically immoral, then he would be effectively saying – whether consciously or unconsciously – that previous popes, Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and even divinely inspired Scripture are in error. If this is what he is saying, then he would be attempting to “make known some new doctrine,” which the First Vatican Council expressly forbids a pope from doing. He would, contrary to the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI, be “proclaim[ing] his own ideas” rather than “bind[ing] himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word.” He would be joining that very small company of popes who have flirted with doctrinal error. And he would be undermining the credibility of the entire Magisterium of the Church, including his own credibility. For if the Church has been that wrong for that long about something that serious, why should we trust anything else she teaches? And if all previous popes have been so badly mistaken about something so important, why should we think Pope Francis is right?

That was before Francis made it official by rewriting the Catechism. 

Catholic pacifism

This is a sequel to my previous post:

1. Ross Douthat characterized the change in Catholic policy on the admission of divorced Catholics to communion as a elite crisis. I don't know whether the change regarding capital punishment will precipitate another crisis, but I'd say this is more of a rank-and-file issue. The doctrinal issues surrounding the readmission of divorced Catholics to communion are arcane and artificial. Only theological junkies care about that. By contrast, the reasoning behind the death penalty is much more accessible to the laity. 

2. Gen 9:5-6 only directly authorizes capital punishment for murder. Yet the Mosaic law contains many capital offenses. In some cases, those may have a different rationale, such as the cultic holiness of Israel. In other cases, they may be an extension of the same principle: actions which desecrate divine image-bearers. 

3. In relation to the new Catholic position, it isn't necessary to take a position on the degree of continuity or discontinuity between the Mosaic law and the new covenant. For the immediate question isn't whether any of those penalties remain mandatory, but whether they were ever morally permissible to begin with. If “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, then the Mosaic death penalties were always unwarranted. 

Of course, many Catholic bishops, theologians, and academics are happy to grant that the Mosaic law was fallible and errant. Problem is, why should "the Church" be infallible if the Bible is fallible? Why should ecumenical councils or ex cathedra papal pronouncements be infallible if the Mosaic law is fallible and errant? 

4. If “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, then that seems to rule out lethal force in self-defense as well as lethal force to protect other innocent lives, for taking human life, regardless of the situation, is an attack in the inviolability and dignity of the assailant. 

Christian ethicists typically think that humans have a prima facie right to life which they can forfeit by certain actions. An armed intruder breaking into a private home forfeits his prima facie immunity to suffer harm.

However, the new official position of the Catholic church treats the dignity of the assailant as equal to the dignity of the victim. That's absolute. Nothing the assailant does can lower his inviolate dignity.

5. This approach erases the distinction between guilt and innocence, which is the essence of justice. The very concept of just punishment requires a distinction between a wrongdoer and a victim who was wronged. Justice is supposed to treat like cases alike and unlike cases unalike. It subverts the essence of justice to treat innocents and assailants equally. 

Papal eraser

1. Pope Francis has rewritten the Catechism to forbid capital punishment across the board. Here's the official announcement:

And here's the newly worded position in the CCC: 

Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Ross Douthat on the death penalty vis-a-vis Francis

Ross Douthat 
And life imprisonment under many penal conditions seems more contrary to human dignity than the death penalty.

But the bottom line is that this is another example of how Pope Francis has consistently exposed the tensions in the post-Vatican II conservative position, and pushed the JPII synthesis into intellectual crisis.

Now Francis is going further, doing something dramatic enough to be described as "development of doctrine" or a "new paradigm" -- but still preserving a touch of deniability on the definitiveness of the change, in which continuitarians can take refuge.

Another way to see this is that on both the death penalty and divorce, the JPII synthesis stretched the claim of continuity -- with a prudential anti-death penalty arg that *sounded* absolute, and a liberal annulment policy -- without making a formal break.

Which is also the effective pattern in other arenas -- like divorce -- where Francis has sought to shift a teaching without formally using the language of reversal. You can argue that constant teaching remains constant, but no normal person listening to popes would think that.

But anyone arguing for continuity has to recognize that at the very least this kind of shift turns the traditional teaching into a sort of hermetic secret, available to ppl who read extremely carefully but invisible in the normal public teaching of the church.

So you could argue -- and some will -- that we're still stopping sort of reversal, that the church is still emphasizing modern conditions to make a prudential argument rather than an absolute one -- even though some of its language is absolutizing.

Now we have new language that seems to go further, describing the death penalty as "inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person," and urging its worldwide abolition.

How gay rights reinforces elite power

Life with Trump

How should social conservatives position themselves in relation to Pres. Trump? There are roughly three options:

i) Defend everything he says and does

ii) Constantly tear him down for his latest juvenile tweet

iii) Withhold comment

1. I don't take Trump's statements seriously. What I take seriously is what the Trump administration does. That's the focus of my assessment. That's my priority.

2. Trump's character flaws are conspicuous, well-documented, and deeply engrained. Since he's unlikely to change, it's unnecessary to comment on every juvenile tweet. Since Trump is a known-quantity, there's no point in constantly remarking on what we already know about him. That doesn't advance understanding. It's mechanical repetition. 

And it's not a good stewardship of time. I have better things to do with my time than stay up-to-date on his latest twitter wars or offhand comments at a press conference. 

It's like atheists who freak out over the latest natural disaster that kills a lot of people. "Where was your god?" Every time that happens, they press the rewind button and play the same prerecorded accusation. 

But if we already have theodicies in place to account for moral and natural evil, the latest natural disaster doesn't affect our rationale. It's unnecessary to readjudicate the existence of God every time another natural disaster strikes, or some atrocity, because we've already got that covered. Our theology makes allowance for that. It's not surprising. To the contrary, it's to be expected.

3. It's like pouncing on every impolitic statement Gen. Patton makes, or brewing over the possibility that Ike had an extramarital affair with Kay Summersby. If your priority is surviving WWII or the Cold War, it's counterproductive to constantly tear down your best generals. 

It's not a choice between supporting whatever they say and do or opposing everything they say wrong. Sometimes you don't have to say anything. Withholding comment isn't the same thing as defending them. 

Fact is, criticism is more effective if you reserve it for important things. Otherwise, if you're a chronic faultfinder, people tune you out even when you have something worthwhile to say.  

What's in play

Regarding this debate:

It may be in part a generational thing. I think religious Jewish conservatives of the Prager/Medved generation (as well as secular Jewish hawks like Henry Kissinger, Charles Krauthammer, and Richard Perle) are more cynical. They have lower expectations about politics and politicians. So they settle for less. They're more pragmatic. If you're too idealistic, you lose. You end up with nothing. 

A Jewish conservative of Shapiro's generation might be more confrontational. That may be in part because you didn't have the culture wars when Prager/Medved et al. came of age. I think culture warriors like Shapiro regard the more concessive strategy as a failure. When we compromise, the Left wins. So Jews like Shapiro and Levin (who's older than Shapiro but younger than Prager/Medved) are pushing back hard with all they've got. 

There's a parallel with the Holocaust. The old Jewish strategy was accommodation. Go along to get along. But the end of that road was the Shoah.

Younger Israelis look down on Holocaust survivors because they didn't fight back. They were too passive. Too nonresistant. 

Younger Israelis regard the Warsaw uprising as an inspirational model. If you're doomed, at least take as many of the enemy with you to the grave. 

I think that's why Israel breaks out the brass knuckles when necessary. Israel can't count on the "international community" to protect Jews. Indeed, much of the "international community" is rooting for the Muslims, or just doesn't care if Jews are wiped off the face of the map. So you have to be tough as nails to survive.  

Both sides have a reasonable position, and it's hard to say ahead of time which strategy will succeed or fail. A successful strategy at one time or place may be disastrous at another time or place. 

On the one hand, I agree with Shapiro that we always need to retain our critical detachment. We can't let political leaders be the ideological leaders. We need a definition of conservatism that's independent of political leaders.  

On the other hand, many on the Left who think social conservative are hypocritical for supporting the Trump administration don't know what hypocrisy is. They have no grasp of Christian ethics. They measure Christians by a yardstick that's not a Christian yardstick, then accuse Christians of inconsistency. 

Many of these critics are impervious to correction. They're fanatically invested in their narrative. Although we need to explain ourselves, it's futile to imagine that will win over all the critics. They demand nothing short of wholesale capitulation. 

Pleiotropic genes

A brief exchange I had on Facebook:

Dennis Venema recently claims that one evidence for whale evolution is "genes for air-based olfaction (smelling) in whales that no longer even have olfactory organs." Other questions aside, does each gene have a single function, or can the same gene have multiple functions?

My point, of course, is that if the same gene can perform two or more functions, then the fact that some animals have a gene with a "useless" function, that doesn't entail that it derives from a distant ancestor which had that function, viz. land mammals to marine mammals. For the same gene may have another useful function.

That's a very good question. Many genes are pleiotropic i.e. they have multiple functions. I wasn't sure whether that was the case for odorant receptors but this paper suggests that they are present elsewhere as well: 

Reinventing Catholicism

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Ecological equilibrium

A critic might object that creationism (be it old-earth or young-earth) is ad hoc in this respect: if a particular ability confers a survival advantage, why does an organism ever lose that ability? Conversely, if an organism has an adaptive potential that confers a survival advantage, why does that ever remain undeveloped? 

Of course, if an organism is in an environment where the ability ceases to be beneficial (e.g. eyesight in caves), then it's understandable why it might become vestigial. But what about situations where it will still be advantageous, yet that ability is lost? 

The problem with that line of objection is that it treats species in isolation. But the frame of reference is what is good for the ecosystem, and not what's optimal for any particular species. The goal is to maintain the equilibrium of the ecosystem. 

Predators should succeed often enough to main replacement rate. Prey should elude predators and propagate often enough to maintain replacement rate. Likewise, if herbivores are too competitive, they will overgraze and thereby damage the ecosystem. It's not just a relationship between predators and prey, but fauna and flora. Plants and herbivores. 

So we're dealing with a dynamic system that has to be flexible. Adjust to changing variables. At one time or place, predators may need to be more proficient, while at another time or place they may need to be less proficient, to maintain the balance of nature. It's important to have potential abilities. Sometimes those need to be developed. At other times they need to atrophy. 

I'm not a biologist or zoologist, but that's my layman's explanation. 

Whale evolution

I was asked to comment on this:

For me personally (as a geneticist) comparative genomics (comparing DNA sequences between different species) has really sealed the deal on evolution. Even if Darwin had never lived and no one else had come up with the idea of common ancestry, modern genomics would have forced us to that conclusion even if there was no other evidence available (which of course manifestly isn’t the case). For example, we see the genes for air-based olfaction (smelling) in whales that no longer even have olfactory organs.

I'm not a Cetologist, but neither is Venema. Speaking as a laymen, a few observations:

i) Both old-earth and young-earth creationism make allowance for adaptation and loss of function. For instance, blind cave fish are consistent with creationism. 

ii) From what I've read, one of the challenges facing macroevolution isn't loss of information but the source of new information necessary to generate new organs and body plans. 

iii) I guess what Venema is angling at is that whales have vestigial genes for air-based olfaction because their distant ancestors were land animals. Put another way, the assumption seems to be that marine animals never had any need of air-based olfaction, since their natural element is water. But is that true?

Years ago I saw a nature show in which a killer whale was cruising the shoreline of an island breeding ground for penguins and seals. It doesn't take much imagination to see how air-based olfaction might be useful for a marine predator whose diet includes semiaquatic prey that spends on some time on the beach. Likewise, I saw a nature show in which polar bears hunt beluga whales that surface for air in breathing holes in sea ice. Once again, it doesn't take much imagination to see how air-based olfaction might be useful to sniff out polar bears. That might be too late in the case of breathing holes, but ice flows also have shifting stream-like openings, where it might be useful to sniff out prowling polar bears. And even if there's loss of function in extant species, it might have conferred a survival advantage in the past. 

iv) But even if that's an explanation for why beluga-like or orca-like whales once had air-based olfaction, why whales in general? To take a comparison, I have many organs and body parts, not because I'm human, but because I'm mammalian. By the same token, a dormant capacity for air-based olfaction might be part of the cetacean package, even if it's potential utility is confined to particular species or adaptations. 

v) Finally, here's an overview of the massive hurdles facing whale evolution: 

Jonah and the submarine

Atheists routinely say any naturalistic explanation, however far-fetched, is more likely than any supernatural explanation. For a reductio ad absurdum of that principle, consider the claim that Jonah was swallowed by an ancient alien submarine!

Of course, the book of Jonah doesn't say the fish had bronze ribs. That's from an unrelated, mythopoetic passage in Job 40:18.

The haunting of old Epworth rectory

Apparitional evidence is a neglected line of evidence in contemporary Christian apologetics. Although it doesn't necessarily prove the Christian faith directly, it debunks naturalism. Moreover, some kinds of apparitions intersect with Christian theology. 

A striking example involves the Wesley clan, made retroactively famous by John and Charles Wesley. When their father pastored a church in Epworth, the parsonage was assailed by poltergeist activity. This is recorded in Adam Clarke's, Memoirs of the Wesley Family. Clarke quotes primary source documents from the parents and siblings of John and Charles. So we have multiple independent attestation. 

In theory, some of the auditory phenomena might be naturally explicable if attributed to malicious neighbors pranking the Wesleys. However, there's also physical (visual, tactile) phenomena inside the parsonage, witnessed by members of the household. These are firsthand reports, by multiple observers: 

I know not whether it was in the morning after Sunday the 23d, when about seven my daughter Emily called her mother into the nursery, and told her she might now hear the noises there. She went in, and heard it at the bedstead, then under the bed, then at the head of it. She knocked, and it answered her. She looked under the bed, and thought something ran from thence, but could not well tell of what shape, but thought it most like a badger.

Several nights the latch of our lodging-chamber would be lifted up very often, when all were in bed. One night, when the noise was great in the kitchen, and on a deal partition, and the door in the yard, the latch whereof was often lifted up, my daughter Emilia went and held it fast on the inside : but it was still lifted up, and the door pushed violently against her, though nothing was to be seen on the outside. 

After nine, Robert Brown sitting alone by the fire in the back kitchen, something came out of the copper hole like a rabbit, but less, and turned round five times very swiftly. Its ears lay flat upon its neck, and its little scut stood straight up. He ran after it with the tongs in his hands; but when he could find nothing, he was frighted, and went to the maid in the parlour. 

The next evening between five and six o'clock my sister Molly, then about twenty years of age, sitting' in the dining room, reading, heard as if it were the door that led into the hall open, and a person walking in, that seemed to have on a silk night-gown, rustling and trailing along. It seemed to walk round her, then to the door, then round again: but she could see nothing. She thought," it signifies nothing to run away; for whatever it is, it can run faster than me." So she rose, put her book under her arm, and walked slowly away.

In the morning she told this to my eldest sister, who told her, "You know, I believe none of these things. Pray let me take away the candle tonight, and I will find out the trick." She accordingly took my sister Hetty's place; and had no sooner taken away the candle, than she heard a noise below. She hastened down stairs to the hall, where the noise was. But it was then in the kitchen. She ran into the kitchen, where it was drumming on the inside of the screen. When she went round it was drumming on the outside, and so always on the side opposite to her. Then she heard a knocking at the back kitchen door. She ran to it; unlocked it softly; and when the knocking was repeated, suddenly opened it: but nothing was to be seen. As soon as she had shut it, the knocking began again. She opened it again, but could see nothing: when she went to shut the door, it was violently thrust against her; she let it fly open, but nothing appeared. She went again to shut it, and it was again thrust against her.

Till this time, my father had never heard the least disturbances in his study. But the next evening, as he attempted to go into his study, (of which none had any key but himself,) when he opened the door, it was thrust back with such violence, as had like to have thrown him down.

But my sister Hetty, who sits always to wait on my father going to bed, was still sitting on the lowest step on the garret stairs, the door being shut at her back, when soon after there came down the stairs behind her something like a man, in a loose nightgown trailing after him, which made her fly rather than run to me in the nursery. 

If you would know my opinion of the reason of this, I shall briefly tell you. I believe it to be witchcraft, for these reasons : About a year since, there was a disturbance at a town near us, that was undoubtedly witches ; and if so near, why may they not reach us ? Then my father had for several Sundays before its coming preached warmly against consulting those that are called cunning men, which our people are given to ; and it had a particular spite at my father. 

Beside, something was thrice seen. The first time by my mother, under my sister's bed, like a badger, only without any head that was discernible. The same creature was sat by the dining room fire one evening; when our man went into the room, it run by him, through the hall under the stairs. He followed with a candle, and searched, but it was departed. The last time he saw it in the kitchen, like a white rabbit, which seems likely to be some witch...

One thing I believe you do not know, that is, last Sunday, to my father's no small amazement, his trencher [wooden plate] danced upon the table a pretty while, without any body's stirring the table. 

When I was there, the windows and doors began to jar, and ring exceedingly…Before I was out of the room, the latch of the back kitchen door was lifted up many times. I opened the door and looked out, but could see nobody. I tried to shut the door, but it was thrust against me, and I could feel the latch, which I held in my hand, moving upward at the same time. I looked out again: but finding it was labour lost, clapped the door to, and locked it. Immediately the latch was moved strongly up and down: but I left it, and went up.

The bed on which my sister Nancy sat was lifted up with her on it. She leapt down and said, "for surely old Jeffrey would not run away with her." However, they persuaded her to sit down again, which she had scarce done, when it was again lifted up several times successively a considerable height, upon which she left her seat, and would not be prevailed upon to sit there any more. 

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

How to talk your way out of a ticket

The standard way to talk your way out of a ticket is to be a pretty girl. The décolletage does the talking. That works just about everywhere except the Bay Area, where a pretty girl has about as much sway with the average SFPD officer as a crucifix with a Hassidic vampire.

Paul Washer has another technique, which might work for men:  

Is God a Moral Monster? A Conversation with Dr. Paul Copan

Left Behind

40 Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left (Mt 24:40-41).

This is a stock prooftext for the pretribulational rapture. There are, however, problems with that inference:

i) In the pretrib scheme, as I understand it, Jesus first comes for his people (the rapture), followed by the great tribulation (7 years), followed by the Second Coming proper. But the text in Mt 24 doesn't separate a rapture from the Parousia, with the great tribulation in-between. So a pretriber must interject that distinction into the text. 

That doesn't disprove his position. He can claim that his position is a synthesis of many different passages. But that means he's plugging Mt 24:40-41 into a larger frame of reference. He can't derive a pretribulational scheme directly from vv40-41. But in that case it can't be a prooftext for the pretrib position. Rather, it takes that reference frame for granted. So the appeal is circular. 

ii) That still leaves the question of what event vv40-41 represent. Hard to say for sure since the imagery is rather vague. Based on the comparison with Noah's flood (vv37-39) as well as angels rounding up the elect (v31), the imagery might suggest God evacuating the elect from the danger zone. Those "left behind" face the judgment. The elect are physically separated from the wicked. Sequestered for their own protection. For instance, Noah's family was taken into the ark to protect them while the wicked were left outside to drown.

iii) Then there's the question of how literally to take the implicit imagery. Does all this happen on earth? Are the elect evacuated to a refuge somewhere on earth while the damned are exposed to judgment elsewhere on earth? Are the elect transported to a parallel universe containing an Edenic earth while the original earth becomes a global hellhole?  

Thugs and she-bears

Atheists love to quote this passage. One complication is the age-range denoted by ne’arim qetanim, which is ambiguous. cf.

For instance, Solomon uses that descriptor to characterize himself in 1 Kgs 3:7. Perhaps he's waxing hyperbolic since he certainly wasn't a little child when he became king. He was probably a young adult. So there's no presumption that 2 Kgs 2:23-25 refers to preadolescent boys. They act like juvenile delinquents. The size of the group suggests street gang.  In context they seem to be young thugs. But we can't be too precise one way or the other. 

The text itself is hyperbolic inasmuch as two bears couldn't maul all 42 boys. It's not as if they'd stand there, waiting to be mauled, one by one. Rather, they'd scatter in all directions, running for their lives. 

I'd add that bears are larger in North America and smaller in hotter climates. It's misleading for a reader to conjure an image of a grizzly bear or Kodiak bear. In addition, due to sexual dimorphism, she-bears are significantly smaller than their male counterparts. 

So the reader needs to avoid exaggerating what happened. They learned a very painful lesson. I think the point is that the she-bears lunged at the youths. Some may have been injured, but the point was to send a message. All of them didn't have to be injured to get the message. I don't think the reader is meant to visualize 2 bears systematically hunting down 42 boys, one after another. Rather, I think we should visualize the bears rushing the boys, the boys running away in different directions, the bears chasing some of them, overtaking and injuring some of them, which gives the other boys time to get away.

Square one

An atheist attempted to refute my post:

No. The village atheist has no burden of proof. All he needs do is say "convince me". 

It's not my responsibility to convince anyone. No doubt an atheist would love to control the debate by appointing himself the arbiter, but what he's prepared to believe is not the standard of comparison. 

Square one must be non-belief. That's the default. 

Does that refer to Christianity in particular, or is that meant to be a general statement about epistemological starting-points? Is non-belief in anything and everything square one? Is non-belief in other minds, the reality of the past, or an external world the default position? Is the onus on me to convince you that we're not trapped in the Matrix? Is the onus on me to convince you that the world didn't spring into existence five minutes ago, complete with false memories?  

We don't need to give reasons for rejecting Christianity.  

Either God exists or he doesn't. If God exists, but you make non-belief your default position, then your starting-point is in error. Shouldn't square one be the reality? Shouldn't square one be whatever the evidence points to? Not some abstract, fact-free non-belief.  

So give us that evidence. 

As if I haven't done that in 14 years of nonstop blogging. 

How did you arrive at the conclusion Christianity was right. 

Actually, it doesn't matter how I arrived at that conclusion. I might have different reasons for being a Christian than I had for becoming a Christian. 

But it's not for atheists to have to justify non-belief.

So the onus is not on atheists to justify non-belief in Last Thursdayism or solipsism? What about non-belief that chain-smoking is hazardous to one's health? 

Monday, July 30, 2018

Suicide in Scripture

1. Christian arguments against suicide typically cite biblical examples of suicide which allegedly cast suicide in a baleful light. Six or seven examples are given:

i) Abimelech (Jdg 9:52-54
ii) Samson (Jdg 16:28-31)
iii) Saul (1 Sam 31:3-5)
iv) Saul's armor-bearer (1 Sam 31:4-6; 1 Chron 10:4)
v) Ahithophel (2 Sam 17:23)
vi) Zimri (1 Kgs 16:18-19)
vii) Judas (Mt 27:3-5)

2. There's disagreement on whether the death of Samson counts as suicide. On the one hand, people who think suicide is wrong, and think Samson did the wrong thing, classify his death as suicide. On the other hand, people who think think suicide is wrong, but think Samson did the right thing, don't classify his death as suicide. So there's some circularity in how they categorize his action. 

3. Strictly speaking, the death of Abimelech is assisted suicide. That's what Saul requested, but his armor-bearer refused. 

In at least four of the seven cases (Saul, Saul's armor-bearer, Ahithophel, Zimri), the man took his own life to avoid falling into enemy hands. And there may be two reasons to avoid that fate:

i) Death by torture

ii) Ignominy 

4. In the case of Abimelech, it was to avoid ignominy–although he may have feared being captured alive. Even if he had a mortal wound, he might linger, and be further humiliated or tortured. 

5. Samson may have had more than one motive:

i) Seize the opportunity to perform a decapitation strike.

ii) Redeem his ignoble condition through a noble death. 

6. Who knows what exactly was going on in the mind of Judas. 

7. One problem with appealing to these examples is the fallacy of transferring the character of the agent to the character of the deed. But the fact that evil men sometimes commit suicide doesn't entail that suicide is evil–anymore than the fact that men sometimes commit murder entails that all homicide is murder. 

8. These passages don't moralize about suicide per se. And there are readers who wouldn't conclude from reviewing these passages that suicide is wrong. There are warrior cultures and honor/shame cultures where, under some circumstances, suicide is regarded as a dutiful deed. For instance: 

The second selection is Josephus’ account of the siege of the fortress of Masada. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the fortress—built in a seemingly impregnable position at the top of a massive rock promontory on the western shore of the Dead Sea—became one of the last outposts for the Jewish nationalists known as the Zealots. On May 2, 73, during a major offensive by the Roman army, 960 Zealot revolutionaries under the command of Eleazar chose to commit mass suicide rather than to yield to the Roman attack. Eleazar’s arguments favoring suicide are counterparts to those Josephus had used against it: voluntary death gives liberty to the soul; it preserves honor and protects the pride of the Jewish nation; it spares one’s family and oneself from slavery and torture if captured. Incited by Eleazar, each husband killed his wife and children and was then killed by the next man in line; the last man willingly killed himself. Only two women and five children, hiding in the underground aqueducts, survived to tell the tale.

A man call Razis, a member of the Jerusalem senate, was denounced to Nicanor.  He was a patriot and very highly spoken of, one who for his loyalty was known as Father of the Jews.  In the early days of the revolt he had stood trial for practicing the Jewish religion, and with no hesitation had risked life and limb for that cause.  Nicanor, wishing to demonstrate his hostility towards the Jews, sent more than five hundred soldiers to arrest Razis; he reckoned that this would be a severe blow to the Jews.  The tower of his house was on the point of being captured by this mob of soldiers, the outer gate was being forced, and there were calls for fire to burn down the inner doors, when Razis, beset on every side, turned his sword on himself; he preferred to die nobly rather than fall into the hands of evil men and be subjected to gross humiliation (II Maccabees 14:37).

Shinju—meaning “sincerity of heart”—refers to double or multiple suicides, whether pairs of lovers, mothers and children, or entire families. It is sometimes called “companionate” or “companionship” suicide. 

Bushido, “the Way of the Warrior,” Japan’s traditional code of military culture and chivalry...the code of Bushido had taken honor as central and had held that to protect it, the samurai warrior was, among other things, to be prepared to commit suicide. Wounded or defeated warriors were expected to kill themselves; to be taken alive as a prisoner was a great dishonor. The late medieval epic Taiheiki recounts 68 separate occasions of warrior suicide involving a total of 2,140 men.

Seppuku is distinct from the other principal form of suicide recognized in traditional Japanese culture, shinju, or “love suicide” [q.v., under Chikamatsu]. Performed as an act of military honor…seppuku has sometimes been compared to the Roman custom in which a defeated general falls on his sword, though apparently more strongly expected and frequently practiced. One modern commentator notes that “the samurai tradition of suicide to save one’s honour may have lost Japan many fine generals who would otherwise have lived to fight another day.” 

The Indians in general are, besides, so sensitive, that, for a little too bitter a reproach, it is not unusual to see them poison themselves with water hemlock and do away with themselves.

The Gaspesians, however, are so sensitive to affronts which are offered them that they sometimes abandon themselves to despair, and even make attempts on their own lives, in the belief that the insult which has been done them tarnishes the honour and the reputation which they have acquired, whether in war or in hunting.

Njal’s Saga, or the “Story of Burnt Njal” (probably written between 1275–1290), the longest and most highly acclaimed of the Norse sagas, is the story of two warring families. In the selection presented here, a complex plot reaches its climax as Njal, a wise and peace-loving father, when he learns that he and his family are surrounded and outmanned by their enemies, allows himself, together with his wife, sons, and a grandson, to die violent deaths by fire rather than suffer a continued existence in shame.

Other examples include Seneca and Mencius. Depending on your cultural background, having irredeemably disgraced himself, Judas did the right thing. Likewise, for a soldier to let himself be captured brings dishonor on himself and those he represents. The way to avoid that shameful fate is to die an honorable death by taking his own life. 

From the standpoint of Christian ethics, killing yourself to preserve your reputation is an illegitimate justification. You may have a Christian duty to endure unjust stigma. Indeed, in Scripture, there's an inversion of values where an undignified death by worldly standards is a dignified death by godly standards. (However, it doesn't follow that there's an obligation to endure vivisection.) 

Yet that underscores my point. Taken by themselves, biblical examples of suicide don't indicate the moral status of suicide in general. Rather, they must be assessed in light of a theological reference frame we bring to those passage. But in that event the appeal is circular if said passages are used to create a theological reference frame which is, in turn, used to evaluate the same passages.