Saturday, November 03, 2018

What is time?

Ever since Einstein, we're used to referring to the space-time continuum. It's often said that Relativity spatialized time. 

On the face of it, space seems physical in a way that time does not. Take an enclosed space like a basketball. Not to mention that finite space has measurable dimensions. Likewise, we move through space. So space seems to be very concrete. 

Mind you, pure geometry deals with abstract spaces. Likewise, dreams and video games have simulated space. 

But we don't move through time the way we move through space. In one respect, time appears to be physical. Physical states and objects undergo change. A temporal process. So it seems like time is a mode of the universe. 

Likewise, it's often said that God created time when he made the universe. He made the universe with time rather than in time. There was no preexistent time. 

However, human mental states are temporally successive. But if thoughts aren't physical, then the temporality of the mental process can't be physical, either. 

And even at the level of physics, there are theories of a cyclic or oscillating universe, where there's a series of cosmic births and deaths and rebirths. Even if those theories are false, it doesn't seem incoherent in principle to say that one universe would be earlier while another universe would be later. 

If so, then time can't just be a mode of the universe, since on that view it ceases to exist when the current universe ceases to exist, then starts anew when a new universe comes into being. But to speak of a temporal series of universes assumes an overarching timeline or relative chronology that transcends any particular universe, and carries through the changes. That's what makes the model sequential. 

However, it's possible to think of time as abstract. Take a novel or script. That has a plot. One thing happens after another. But unless it's enacted, the plot remains static. 

Perhaps, then, we should say a mental process exemplifies time, a physical process exemplifies time. On that view, time isn't essentially physical, but physical states and processes represent time or temporal relations (precedence, simultaneity, succession). 

Reflections on reincarnation

1. I rarely write about Hinduism and Buddhism because it's fairly specialized. Reincarnation is neglected in Christian apologetics because most Christian apologetics is focussed on challenges to Christianity in the West. 

2. Before addressing the specifics, I'd like to make a general observation. Not all paranormal claims are mutually consistent. Compare reincarnation with crisis apparitions. There are reports of dead relatives appearing to a loved one to warn them or give them encouragement during a crisis. But if that's true, then how can reincarnation be true? According to a standard paradigm, reincarnation involves a memory wipe. When a person is reborn, they forget their past lives. Start all over again. 

That rules out crisis apparitions. The dead relative has moved on. Been reincarnated. Started from scratch in a new body, as a baby. Immersed in a new life history. 

They don't remember their loved ones from past lives. At this point they are younger than their children. Reincarnation resets the lifecycle. Your late mother can't appear to you as your late mother. She's now a little girl. 

Reincarnation and crisis apparitions can both be false, but they can't both be true. And I think there's unambiguous evidence for crisis apparitions, whereas the evidence for reincarnation is ambiguous at best. 

3. To my knowledge, apologists for reincarnation offer three lines of empirical evidence: déjà vu, transgenerational birthmarks, and memories of a past life. 

4. Déjà vu

i) I think this is the weakest evidence. Not just weak evidence for reincarnation, but weak evidence that it's even paranormal. 

In my own life I've had déjà vu experiences. One time, sitting at a fast food joint, years ago, I suddenly had the intensive feeling that I'd done this before. I'm pretty sure that I hadn't done it before in this life. But since the establishment was built in my lifetime, it wasn't even possible for me to have been there in a past life. So whatever the explanation, it can't be reincarnation.

Likewise, I've lived in at least two consecutive locations where I had déjà vu experiences. But both of them were built in my lifetime, so that can't be chalked up to a past life. And even if they hadn't been constructed in my lifetime, what are the odds that in a past life I lived in both places–not to mention both places in succession?

iii) Moreover, the sensation I've had is more like a time loop than remembering a past life. It's not the sensation that I was in the same place in a different life, but that this life is repeating itself. 

iv) Sometimes our minds play tricks on us. That's my explanation. 

But assuming for argument's sake that déjà vu demands a paranormal explanation, telepathy is a simpler explanation. What if one person's memories occasionally leak into another person's mind? 

5. Transgenerational birthmarks

i) The claim is that babies sometimes reproduce the unique birthmark of a dead person, like an ancestor. In fact, this has become a TV trope:

ii) I haven't studied the literature in sufficient depth to know if such a phenomenon actually exists. Of course, the appeal is circular. If some babies reproduce the birthmarks of a dead person, then those aren't unique birthmarks.

iii) However, let's stipulate for discussion purposes that the phenomenon exists and demands a paranormal explanation. How would reincarnation be an explanation for replicated birthmarks? On a standard paradigm of reincarnation, the soul (mind, consciousness) transfers from the dead body to a new body. A body-swap scenario. But how would that cause any physical traces? 

iv) Why would reincarnation duplicate birthmarks rather than duplicating the body? If the body is not a double, why the same birthmarks? 

v) What reincarnation have to do with heredity? Why would someone be reborn in the body of a lineal descendent? Isn't reincarnation just the idea that the same soul is reembodied? But that's not a genetic or genealogical relation–as if, to be reincarnated, you must be a reincarnated ancestor. Assuming (ex hypothesi) that reincarnation is true, why can't the soul transfer to a body in a different family tree? To my knowledge, reincarnation is usually treated as independent of lineage. 

vi) It would be interesting to know if there's a history of witchcraft or necromancy in these families. If a baby has the birthmarks of a dead ancestor, is that a family curse? Was the baby hexed? Are the dead (damned) casting a malevolent influence on the living? 

6. Past life memories

i) Suppose for argument's sake that reincarnation is true. Suppose someone underwent 100 past lives. In fact, that's a conservative estimate. How would they remember 100 life histories? Wouldn't their recollection be hopelessly scrambled? How would they remember what they did in each life? Who they knew in each life? 

Memory has a sense of relative chronology. You remember childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle age, &c. You remember that some things happened to you before other things. 

But if you underwent 100 past lives, how could you possibly keep the timelines straight? Assuming that some people remember events before they were born, that would actually constitute prima facie evidence that reincarnation is false, since it's hard to see how you could keep all those life histories separate in your mind.

ii) An alternative explanation is that those aren't your memories. You're tapping into someone else's memories. They are invading your mind. That doesn't require all the machinery of reincarnation, so it's a simpler explanation. 

iii) To my knowledge, Hinduism has a dualist anthropology while Buddhism has a physicalist anthropology. In Buddhism, humans have no perduring soul. So how is reincarnation even possible? Who's the you that's reincarnated? Weren't you extinguished at the moment of death? A new brain and body won't be you, but a blank slate. 

Atheist bingo

The Rise of the Brazilian Evangelicals

Friday, November 02, 2018

Biblical hyperbole

This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark 300 cubits, its breadth 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits (Gen 6:15).

i) I'd like to revisit two issues I've discussed before. One objection to the historicity of Noah's flood is the claim that a wooden ship that big wouldn't be seaworthy. It would lack structure integrity.

But as I've noted in the past, we don't even know for sure that the ark was made of wood. Although that's sometimes how the word is translated, if you read commentaries you see that scholars don't know what they word means. They assume it refers to some kind of tree, but that's just a guess.

ii) Why does the flood account even state the dimensions of the ark? It could tell the same story without including that detail. One explanation is to stress the scale of the impending deluge. A big evacuation vessel for a big flood. 

However, that's also consistent with a hyperbolic interpretation. On that view, it states the dimensions of the ark in the same way that it uses other comparisons to indicate the scale of the deluge. Yet some of those phrases are used elsewhere hyperbolically. So it's possible that the ark, while a wooden vessel, was actually smaller and seaworthy. 

Every eye shall see him (Rev 1:7). 

i) Critics say that reflects a flat-earth cosmography. But as I've noted in the past, if the sign of the Son of Man hovered for one rotation period, everyone would see it over the course of 24 hours. 

ii) But another possibility is that the statement is hyperbolic. A way of saying this is a public event. There will be many eyewitnesses, but not necessarily that every human being will see it. 

iii) Actually, the "sign of the Son of Man" comes from Mt 24:30. One question is whether the sign is distinct from Jesus or if Jesus is the sign. Does it refer to seeing Jesus in the sky or a symbolic celestial harbinger that heralds his impending approach?

iv) Even if everyone doesn't see Jesus at the moment of his arrival, everyone might eventually see Jesus after he arrives. Although the Parousia refers to the physical, bodily return of Christ, it's possible for Jesus to simultaneously appear in multiple locations as a visionary Christophany. In that mode, he could even be visible to the blind. 

Is God a postulate?

Oppy is arguably the smartest philosophical atheist of his generation, so he's a useful foil:

Theoretical virtues:

Simplicity: If everything else is equal, we should prefer the theory that postulates fewer (and less complex) primitive entities.

It is clear that Naturalism is simpler than Theism: it postulates fewer kinds of entities…According to Theism, there are two kinds of entities–natural and supernatural-whereas according to Naturalism there is only one kind. Graham Oppy, The Best Argument Against God (Palgrave 2013), 7,19.

Several problems with that argument:

i) I'm not sure what he means by "primitive entities," but I assume he means something other things derive from, that's not derived from other things. If so, then Christian theism has just one primitive entity: God. But in that event, Christian theism meets the condition of simplicity. You can't get much simpler than only one primitive entity.

ii) What makes less complex primitive entities a theoretical virtue? A violin is simpler than a violinmaker. A toy is simpler than a toymaker. 

Perhaps Oppy is operating with the notion that complicated things are composed of parts. That complexity is reducible to simpler and ultimately simple constituents. A planetary biosphere is more complex than the early stages of the universe. A body is composed of parts, composed of molecules, composed of atoms, composed of elementary particles. That's a bottom-up model of reality. Reality constructed from the smallest or simplest building blocks.

But what about topdown models of creativity? Da Vinci's mind is more complex than his paintings. Bach's mind is more complex than his music. Dante's mind is more complex than his fiction. On that view, artifacts are simpler exemplifications of mentality. Instances of something more complex. 

Or take an abstract object like the Mandelbrot set. Infinitely complex, although it can be represented in finite instances. 

iii) I don't know what in particular he has in mind by supernatural entities. Plausible candidates include God, angels, demons, and ghosts. If so, his methodology is eccentric. The way we usually establish if something exists is not by whether that satisfies a theoretical virtue like simplicity, but whether there's any direct evidence, indirect evidence, or counterevidence. 

iv) Apropos (iii), supernatural entities aren't necessarily or even generally postulates. Although they can sometimes by invoked for their explanatory value, in many cases, people say that supernatural entities exist because they claim to experience supernatural entities. Not a postulate but a direct encounter. Not a posit but an observation. Now, Oppy can dispute the credibility of such reports, but it's a different category than a theoretical postulate. Realty is something we generally discover rather than intuit. 

Literacies in the Roman World

This is germane to Bart Ehrman's contention that the traditional authorship of the NT is false due to widespread illiteracy:


If sola scriptura is the problem, is the magisterium the solution?

Perhaps the major Catholic objection to the Protestant faith is that sola Scriptura "fails" to secure unanimity. It spawns "30,000" denominations. It's a "blueprint for anarchy". An infallible book is pointless without an infallible interpreter. 

Here's one way to formulate the objection: Calvinists don't find Arminian interpretations convincing while Arminians don't find Calvinist interpretations convincing. Paedobaptistis don't find credobaptist interpretations convincing while credobaptists don't find pedobaptist interpretations convincing. Zwinglians don't find sacramental interpretations convincing while sacramentalists don't find Zwinglian interpretations convincing. Amils don't find premil interpretations convincing while premils don't find amil interpretations convincing. Charismatics don't find cessationist interpretations convincing while cessationists don't find charismatic interpretation convincing. And so on and so forth. 

Therefore, we need an authoritative tiebreaker to cast the winning vote. A referee to say which side is right. 

But if that's the problem, is the Roman Magisterium the solution? No, because the magisterium simply relocates the same problem. The magisterium has failed to secure unanimity. It failed to forestall the Photian schism. It failed to forestall the Protestant Reformation. It failed to forestall the Jansenist movement. It failed to forestall the rise of modernism in the Catholic church. It failed to forestall the RadTrad backlash. 

And for the same reason: Protestants don't find the purported evidence for the magisterium convincing. They don't find the biblical prooftexts and patristic prooftexts convincing. What is more, they don't find the answers provided by the magisterium to be convincing. And not just Protestants, but Eastern Orthodox. And not just outsiders, but insiders (e.g. Jansenists, modernists, RadTrads). 

If God intended the magisterium to be the solution, why didn't he provide convincing evidence? Evidence sufficient so that everyone is persuaded by the "solution"? Just as rival Protestant groups find each others interpretations unconvincing, ever so many people both inside and outside the Roman communion find Magisterial interpretations unconvincing. 

So the Catholic answer fails to resolve the problem it posed for itself. And that's worse for Catholics since Protestants don't concede that sola Scriptura is a disqualifying objection to begin with. If, however, you're going to say that sola Scriptura is fundamentally unsatisfactory because it fails to secure unanimity, then the onus is on you to solve the perceived problem. Catholic apologists fail to discharge their own burden of proof because their alternative merely repackages the perceived problem. So they failed on their own grounds. There's no failsafe. The magisterium is just another "answer" that lots of people find unpersuasive–like answers in general. 

Conversion continuum

I'd like to make a general observation about conversions to Catholicism. Conversions range along a continuum. Theological identities are packages. Some packages have far more in common than others. 

Some conversions involve a minor adjustment in the convert's theology. Suppose a paedobaptist becomes a credobaptist or vice versa. That changes one variable, leaving pretty much the rest of his theology intact. 

Suppose a Baptist becomes a Lutheran. He has to make many more adjustments to his overall theology. 

But depending on the theological package, some variables are more central than others. The prophethood of Muhammad and Joseph Smith are cornerstones of Islam and Mormonism. If they were false prophets, then that falsifies the whole package. For the contents of the package depend on the authority of Muhammad or Joseph Smith.

A further consideration is that conversion often involves, not merely changing one or more of your theological positions, but changing your supporting arguments for or against the positions in question. 

Take the case of Luis Dizon, who recently switched back to Roman Catholicism. I believe he was a Reformed Baptist. Moreover, he's a Christian apologist, so I assume he was used to arguing for his Reformed Baptist beliefs and arguing against Roman Catholicism. Let's compare some of the contents of each package. 

I. Reformed Baptist

1. Sola Scriptura

2. The Protestant canon

3. Absolute predestination, unconditional election, reprobation

4. Definite atonement

5. Spiritual inability

6. Monergistic regeneration

7. Sola fide

8. Imputing Adam's demerit to his posterity, imputing the demerit of the elect to Christ, imputing the merit of Christ to the elect

9. Perseverance of the saints

10. Penal substitution

11. Believer's baptism

12. Exclusivism

II. Roman Catholicism

1. Apostolic succession

2. The pope as Christ's vicar on earth

3. The Magisterium as the authoritative interpreter of Scripture

4. The Catholic canon

5. Infused merit, congruent merit, supererogatory merit.

6. The priesthood

7. Seven sacraments

8. Baptismal regeneration/justification

9. Transubstantiation

10. Penace, auricular confession, absolution, indulgences

11. Indissolubility of marriage

12. Purgatory

13. Intercession and veneration of saints

14. Immaculate Conception

15. Assumption of Mary

16. Perpetual virginity of Mary (including in partu virginity)

17. Mary as Queen of Heaven, Mother of the Church, and Mediatrix

18. The Rosary

19. Renuciation of capital punishment

20. Inclusivism (Vatican II)

In each case, that's a sample. Compare the two packages. To convert from one to the other, he most now repudiate all the positions he use to believe and defend as a Reformed Baptist. Conversely, he must now believe and defend all the positions he used to repudiate. 

What is more, he must now renounce all the arguments he used to deploy in defending the Reformed Baptist position and opposing Roman Catholicism. Conversely, he must now adopt most-all of the Catholic arguments he used to view as bogus. 

Consider how artificial that is. Has he really vacated all the former arguments at one stroke? Did he eliminate them one by one? Did all the arguments he used to find convincing become unconvincing while most-all of the arguments he used to find unconvincing become convincing? Is it like reversing the domino effect, where all the dominos used to fall in one direction but now they all fall in the opposite direction? 

Surely it must feel schizophrenic to change sides so that you find yourself arguing with your mirror image. You're now resorting the same arguments whose weaknesses you used to recognize. Has your perception really undergone a complete gestalt shift? 

BTW, these aren't symmetrical alternatives. An intellectual conversion from Catholicism to evangelicalism is a lot simpler because there was no direct evidence for many Catholic dogmas. Rather, that was contingent on the authority of the Magisterium to promulgate dogma. All it takes to drop out of Catholicism is to lose your conviction in the authority of the Magisterium. Pull that one cornerstone and the entire edifice crumbles in a heap of dust. 

The Old Covenant Is Over. The Old Testament Is Authoritative.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Egypt and the flood

Every serious student of the Bible knows that there are other flood stories from the ancient Near East, particularly from ancient Sumer, Babylon, and Assyria. One brief account from Ugarit, but interestingly, none from Egypt. T. Longman & J. Walton, The Lost World of the Flood (IVP 2018), 53.

If Noah's flood happened, why are there no Egyptian accounts? Even if it was a regional rather than global flood, should we expect a notice in Egyptian records? 

i)  We only have a random sampling from Egypt. Most records never survived. And even if some records survived, there's a lot that has yet to be discovered, excavated, deciphered, and published. 

ii) Egypt is located in Africa, separated from Western Asia by the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Perhaps the flood didn't reach Egypt. And if it happened in prehistoric times, traditions might only be passed down by survivors and their descendants in affected areas–assuming a local flood.  

ii) It might also depend on when Egyptians think it happened. The ancients have a poor sense of relative chronology. If they thought it happened in Pharaonic times, royal historians might not record it because an ecological disaster like that would reflect a failure on the part of the "divine" Pharaoh to protect his country. 

Did the Nile turn to blood?

Commentators are divided on whether the plague of blood has reference to literal blood. Stuart points out that the same Hebrew word is a synonym for the color red.

Duane Garrett has a 5-point argument that it isn't actually hemoglobin. For instance, he points out that the Egyptians used sand as a filtration device to make the river water drinkable. But that would be futile if it was hemoglobin. I agree with most of his arguments. But here's one I find more dubious:

Had the whole river turned to literal blood, it would have been a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. The Nile in Egypt is almost 600 miles long. If it had all become literal blood under the Egyptian sun, the whole river would have become a thick, decaying sludge of biological waste. No potable water would  have been available for the entire population for months or even years. It is difficult to calculate how long it would have taken waters from the sources of the Nile far to the south in Ethiopia to wash away the tens of millions of gallons of blood as well as the coagulated and decomposing remains of that blood. D. Garrett, A Commentary on Exodus (Kregel 2014), 284-5. 

Although I agree with Stuart and Garrett that the miracle probably didn't mean God changed the water into hemoglobin, I don't think that's a good objection:

i) Does the account require the Nile, throughout the length of Egypt, to be affected? Contextually, the description is centered on a stretch of the Nile near the palace and thereabouts. Pharaoh and his entourage are the primary audience for this plague. To be sure, 7:20-21 describes the plague in comprehensive terms, but that's hyperbolic since most of Egypt is desert. 

ii) Even if it was more extensive, why assume that the plague is supernaturally produced but naturally resolved? If God supernaturally changes the water to hemoglobin (or whatever), the cessation of the plague might just as well or better involve God supernaturally changing it back to water. Miraculous contamination followed by miraculous restoration.

iii) Even if we grant for argument's sake that it wasn't supernaturally restored, the Nile is a dynamic system, not a self-enclosed lake. Not only is it flushed into the ocean from upstream, but I assume that in the Delta region the Nile is to some degree a tidal river, subject to coastal intrusion. So the "blood" would be diluted or replaced from both ends–provided that the affected area was fairly confined (i). 

"Right-wing violence"

They really believe this. How can they be that blindly one-sided? What about demonstrators who set fire to cars in Portland after Trump won? What about Antifa? What about the goons who firebombed Berkeley to prevent Milo from speaking there? And so on and so forth. 

Is it because they only watch leftwing "news" outlets? Is it because it flatters them to cast themselves in the role of the white hats v. the black hats? For a corrective:


This seems to be the Japanese equivalent of Old Hag syndrome:

Intermittent miracles

One of the puzzling features of the Christian life is the uneven and unpredictable distribution of divine interventions. Why does God perform a miracle for one Christian but not another? Why does God answer the prayer of one Christian but not another? 

Cessationism and continuationism represent two competing paradigms of miracles. According to cessationism, either there are no postapostolic miracles or certain kinds of postapostolic miracles don't happen. 

According to charismatic theology, or at least the dominant version I'm aware of, the reason miracles aren't more common isn't due to God's will but our lack of faith or holiness. A human impediment blocks miracles. If we had more faith, if we were saintly, miracles would be routine among Christians. 

That's analogous to people who are color-blind. They receive the same external stimuli as people with normal vision, but due to their defective eyesight, they can't process the signals. It's there, all around them, but they can't perceive it because the receiver is malfunctioning. There's a breakdown at the receiving end of the transmission, and not the signal. 

Likewise, some animals have more than 5 senses. They can perceive things we can't. So the impediment lies in us. An internal filter that screens out the signals. The stimulus is there but the percipient lacks the necessary equipment for the signal to register. 

There's a grain of truth to that insofar as miracles are more likely to happen to people who believe in them. Atheists are generally trapped in a vicious circle. They don't pray. They don't believe in God. Their friends are atheists. So they don't move in circles where miracles or answered prayer happen.

However, that's not a complete explanation. Two equally needy, desperate Christians will pray for a miracle–one may get it and one won't. 

Here's a paradigm with more explanatory power. The Christian pilgrimage is a journey through life into death and the afterlife. But that raises two questions: how do we know that we're headed in the right direction? What if we're lost? Unless the road or trail has occasional signs, we may become disoriented. 

In addition, how do we know the destination even exists? Is there gold in them thar hills? Or is this the fabled gold at the end of the rainbow? 

What if it's a legend or tall tale, like Spanish explorers on a quest to discover the fountain of youth? A map that leads to nothing?

Miracles happen often enough, to enough believers, to encourage us that we're on the right road, that the destination is real. Like unexpected signs along the trail, around a bend, over a hill. Initials carved in a tree trunk. An old campfire. Intermittent signs to indicate pilgrims who went ahead of you. 

There are multiple lines of evidence for Christianity. Some kinds are more accessible to certain people than others. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

A mighty fortress is our God

"Why the Bible is Not the Final Authority!"

I'm commenting on this article because a revert to Catholicism cited this article as partial justification for his return to Rome:

i) There's a sense in which it's not the bare text of Scripture but the interpreted Bible that has functional authority for Christians. However, that functional authority is on loan from the source. 

"Final authority" is imprecise. The Bible has intrinsic authority while creeds have extrinsic authority insofar as they remain true to Scripture. An interpreted Bible is necessarily derivative, and its authority, if any, depends on the match between the interpretation and the original

ii) In assessing interpretations of Scripture with Scripture itself, we compare different interpretations with the text as well as each other. Does the interpretation have good explanatory power? Does one interpretation have better explanatory power than another? An interpretation isn't supposed to be a filter that covers the text and supplants the text, as if we can't see the text beneath the interpretation. Rather, it's always possible to compare or contrast the interpretation with the text. In that regard, Scripture remains independent of interpretation. It doesn't disappear behind the interpretation. Scripture is still the criterion. 

iii) An interpretation of Scripture is only as good as the exegetical argument or evidence provided in support of that interpretation. It's not a coin toss.

iv) Interpreters aren't arbiters of truth. Ball's hermeneutic seems to be reader-response criticism, as if the text means whatever a reader assigns to it. That's a radical and self-refuting position which sabotages his appeal to the Westminster Confession. 

v) Exegetes aren't analogous to popes, but to play along with Ball's claim, a thousand Protestant popes are better than one Catholic pope, if it came to that. Far better to have a thousand Protestant popes, some of whom are right, some of whom are wrong, than be stuck with one wrong pope for everyone. 

If you have a thousand Protestant popes, then odds are the right interpretation will be hit upon multiple times. If, by contrast, you have on Catholic pope, then his errors are binding on everyone else. He singlehandedly leads billions of adherents astray. 

v) In addition, Catholic popes are far more likely to misinterpret the Bible because popes leverage the interpretive process by invoking their alleged authority, or secondary traditions, rather than using responsible hermeneutical methods. 

vi) By appealing to the Westminster Confession, it doesn't occur to Ball that he's simply relocated the issue by substituting an interpreted creed for an interpreted Bible. It's not the bare text of the Westminster Confession that has functional authority, but the interpreted text. The text as interpreted and enforced by the General Assembly (for instance). 

vii) Given Ball's hermeneutical relativism, there's no reason for him to prefer the Westminster Confession to the Council of Trent, Vatican II, or the Racovian Catechism. 

viii) I often consult Bible commentaries. That's not because I think Scripture is generally incomprehensible apart from commentators, but because it's prudent to double-check my impressions against the impressions of other readers. 

The less and the lightest

Luis Dizon has reverted to Catholicism:

Luis was an up-n-coming evangelical apologist with a knack for foreign languages. 

Regarding the contemporary landscape, there aren't any converts to Catholicism. Rather, there are converts to multiple choice Catholicisms. They convert to Thomism. Or they convert to an idealized abstraction. Or they convert to a museum piece. Then you have the modernist Catholicism of Pope Francis, most of the hierarchy, most of the Bible scholars. 

I wonder if Luis will still be Catholic 10-15-20 years from now if his denomination continues to liberalize. Does he have a fallback? 

By contrast, Protestant converts to Catholicism tend to come from the best and the brightest–pastors, professional theologians, and graduates from top Protestant seminaries such as Westminster Theological Seminary, Reformed Theological Seminary, Geneva College, and (in my case) Wycliffe College.

i) Even assuming that these are the best and the brightest, we have to examine the arguments. Aren't conversion stories to Catholicism pretty much interchangeable? The same canned arguments for Catholicism. The same canned arguments against the Protestant faith. Like a form letter. 

ii) To my knowledge, Reformed seminaries don't generally have courses on how to respond to Catholic apologetics.

iii) What I find striking is the reverse situation. In my experience, the best and brightest minds in modern Catholicism don't make a case for Catholicism. They don't become Catholic apologists, or write extensively in defense of Catholicism. That task is demoted to the less and the lightest. 

For instance, Peter Geach and Elizabeth Anscombe were two of the very brightest converts, but I don't think either one ever made a sustained case for Roman Catholicism. Alexander Pruss is arguably the smartest Catholic philosopher of his generation, but while he sometimes toys with ingenuous defenses of Transubstantion, I haven't seen him defend Catholicism in general. Bas van Fraassen is a brilliant philosopher of science who takes some inept potshots at sola Scriptura in one of his books, but that's about it. Copleston debated Ayer and Russell on God's existence, but despite his prolific outlook I don't recall his writing a book or essay in defense of Roman Catholicism. Indeed, towards the end of his life he was quite skeptical. 

Has Michael Dummett or Nicholas Rescher made a case for Roman Catholicism? 

Cardinal Dulles was the product of a nominal Protestant upbringing. The retro Catholicism he converted to is different from post-Vatican II Catholicism, and he documents the backpedaling in Catholic theology. 

While not in the same league as Pruss, Ed Feser is a very smart convert. But to my knowledge, Feser spends most of his time defending Thomism. Moreover, he's currently at war with his adopted denomination over the death penalty.

Karl Rahner was the great Catholic theologian of the 20C. A superior mind. But he takes the truth of Catholicism for granted. His output is devoted to revising Catholicism in response to the challenges of modernity. 

The brightest Catholic Bible scholars like Raymond Brown, Joseph Fitzmyer, John Meier, and John Collins subvert traditional Catholic positions. 

iv) Newman is an exception, but an ironic exception. Newman didn't really convert to Roman Catholicism. Rather, Newman converted (or subverted) Roman Catholicism to himself. He redefined tradition to bend Catholicism to his own predilections. He changed the thing he converted to, so that Newman's Catholicism is Newman's face in the mirror. 

v) Here's another reverse situation. Alvin Plantinga and Peter van Inwagen are certainly two of the best and the brightest. They have precious few intellectual rivals. Plantinga taught at Notre Dame from 1982-2010 while Inwagen has been there since 1995. Don't you suppose they've heard all the best arguments for Catholicism from their Catholic colleagues and gifted students? Yet that hasn't swayed them to become Roman Catholic. 

In fact, my intention from here on out is to continue to focus my efforts on combating and converting the adherents of these non-Christian ideologies and religions. 

Given the creeping universalism in the Catholic hierarchy, what's the point? Vatican II already implied that you don't even have to be Christian, much less Catholic, to be saved. If these are different paths to the same God, why convert them to your pathway? 

Ethnic Churches: A More Better Way than Bashing Them

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Scripture and creedalism

You often hear professing Christians who make ancient statements of faith like the Apostles' creed the benchmark. If something isn't in the Apostles' creed or Nicene creed, then it's secondary and optional. 

But God didn't command us to make those creeds the benchmark,. Creeds can function as useful and necessary digests of doctrine, but God commands us to believe his Word (the Bible). That's the primary frame of reference. Creeds are no substitute for faith in Scripture. That's the standard to live by and die by. 

Spiritual death spiral

It's striking how a death spiral occurs in erstwhile Christian denominations. It begins when the clergy become secularized. They no longer subscribe to biblical supernaturalism. That's reflected in their seminaries, their theologians and Bible scholars. That's reflected in their sermons. Churches become lifeless. Congregations dwindle. This can operate at a national level. Consider modern-day Europe. 

In response, the clergy just keep lowering the bar. Making Christianity ever easier to accept by requiring ever less in terms of faith and practice. But that's a failed strategy.

Paradoxically, people are drawn to demanding, sacrificial, idealistic causes. Something to get behind. Something grand to live for. They like the challenge. Difficulty is a stimulus to thought and action. 

Faith and sight

Atheists allege that (Christian) faith is belief without evidence. Faith is blind.

That's simplistic. To play along with the metaphor, humans are generally blind about the future but sighted about the past. In that sense, we can't see what lies ahead but we can see what lies behind. It's as if humans are backing into the future. Walking backwards.

So it's blind in one direction but sighted in another. And the two are related. We extrapolate from past to future. We extrapolate from the known to the unknown.

If, for instance, someone has a track record for honesty, then that's evidence that they are trustworthy. Although we don't have direct evidence for how they will behave in the future, we have indirect evidence based on their character up until now. Direct evidence for the reliability of the source constitutes indirect evidence for what the source says. So faith and sight are interrelated.

Faith isn't blind or sighted. Rather, faith begins with sight, then relies on that as precedent for what it cannot see. That's why the Bible places so much stock in remembering God's redemptive deeds. Ps 77 is a nice example.

That's not unique to Christian faith, but is a general principle by which timebound creatures like ourselves operate.

Keener on cessationism

How are Christianity and Judaism interrelated?

In one respect, Christianity and (OT) Judaism are asymmetrically related. The OT must validate Christianity. And (OT) Judaism developed independently of Christianity.

In another respect, if Christianity is true, then God inspired the OT and orchestrated OT history with a view to the NT and Christianity. In that regard they are teleologically interdependent.

Finally, that has reference to pre-Christian Judaism, but post-Christian Judaism (e.g. rabbinic Judaism) was reformulated in reaction to Christianity. Take Alan Segal's findings about how pre-Christian Judaism was open to a second Yahweh paradigm. At the time, that was within the bounds of normative Judaism. That only became heretical or intolerable after the rise of Christianity. In that respect, the asymmetry is in reverse: rabbinic Judaism is to some degree conceptually dependent on Christianity–by using Christianity as a foil and redefining Jewish monotheism to exclude what was permissible prior to the confrontation with Christianity. 

In that regard, rabbinic Judaism is analogous to the relation between pre-Reformation and Counter-Reformation Catholicism, where pre-Reformation Catholicism was more diverse. 

Conversion of the gentiles

To my knowledge, rabbinic Jews think the NT is guilty of special pleading when it subdivides messiah's advent into two comings, separated by an indefinite interval. They think that's a face-saving device to explain away why Jesus failed to do the things messiah is supposed to do. And that's an understandable objection, given their perspective. 

But here's a problem with that objection: the OT has oracles about the conversion of the gentiles. Where do rabbinic Jews put those in their timetable? It can't be something that messiah does all at once. He can't come, exact judgment all on the wicked living and dead pagans, and that's that, because there'd be no opportunity for a widespread conversion of gentiles in time and place. So don't rabbinic Jews have to space that out? Salvation and judgment can't happen at the same time when messiah arrives, since most gentiles would face judgment if it all happens when messiah comes. Doesn't that mean rabbinic Jews have a parallel issue to harmonize? They also have to spread out the work of the messiah. Don't they believe that generations of gentiles will become followers of Yahweh during the messianic age? And isn't that analogous to the interadventual church age?

How moderate are moderate Muslims?

Monday, October 29, 2018

Ethnic churches

From time to time I still run across complaints about racially homogenous churches. For instance, David Platt lamented that in his MLK 50 sermon. Platt's a humble lovable guy, but he's off-the-mark here. There are different reasons ethnic churches exist:

1. The black church has its own musical style and preaching style. A traditional Presbyterian service just isn't appealing.

2. Some ethnic churches are immigrant churches. They are conducted in the native language of the immigrants. That dovetails with immigrant communities.

3. Historically, many immigrants to American assimilate to some degree. The kids and grandkids may lose the language of the immigrant generation. 

One conspicuous exception is Latinos. The population of Latin America is about double the population of the USA. The SE and SW is to an increasing degree an extension of Latin America. As such, Latino-Americans don't need to shed their language to succeed. They can function and thrive in huge Spanish-language enclaves. Unlike some immigrant churches, Spanish-speaking churches aren't going anywhere. They're not transitional. They are here to stay. Indeed, the phenomenon will expand.

It's an interesting question whether some other ethnic enclaves like Korean-Americans and Chinese Americans may take a cue from the Latinos and maintain their native languages. 

4. Churches tend to be racially homogenous because congregations are composed of families and families tend to be racially homogenous. People-groups are apt to marry within their own race. There are exceptions, and that's more common in certain areas, but in general, people prefer to marry members of their own race or ethnicity. That's a descriptive observation, not a normative statement. 

I have no problem with interracial marriage. But as a rule, that's not how mate-selection works. It's a sociologically interesting question why that is. But so long as that's the case, a side-effect is lots of racially homogenous churches. 

Historically, some big city churches were more ethnically diverse, Take the Catholic church in NYC. But many big-city Catholic parishes are shuttered.

5. One fascinating development has been a dramatic change in the racial composition of Redeemer Church:

The multi-ethnic trajectory was harder to see in the early years. Today, Redeemer is about 45 percent Asian, second- or third-generation immigrants whose parents belonged to a wave of Koreans and Chinese landing in the city in the late 1980s and starting their own churches.

Psychiatry encounters possession

From a Catholic perspective, but still useful if you filter that out:

Lutheran exorcist

There are lots of quack exorcists. This guy seems more reputable: 

Sunday, October 28, 2018

When it's right to be wrong

A capacity for risk assessment is part of what it means to be a rational agent. Unlike animals, humans can think about the future and take precautionary measure to diminish or avoid predictable hazards. It's often permissible, obligatory, or necessary to minimize risk. 

On a related note, we sometimes agonize over making the right decision or regret making the wrong decision, not in the moral sense, but in terms of whether our choice was beneficial. Did we act in our own best interest and/or the best interests of those we care about? We sometimes find ourselves in a position where we are forced to make important and irreversible choices based on insufficient evidence. We have deadlines. The opportunity will pass. For better or worse, we must act. 

But sometimes the reverse is true. Sometimes we have an obligation to take a risk rather than play it safe. For instance, fratricide is common in royal dynasties. Although the reigning king may have designated an heir, that very action makes the heir apparent a target. His brothers and half-brothers vie for the throne. 

As a result, fratricide is not uncommon in royal families. Preemptively eliminating potential murderous rivals by striking first. If you allow them to live, they may assassinate you. And if you have young sons, they may kill those too–like a lion who takes over the tribe by killing the old lion and his cubs. 

From a secular standpoint, that ruthlessness  is understandable. But from a Christian standpoint, you have a duty not to bump off your siblings even though it's risky for you to let them live. And sometimes they will abuse that clemency. Yet there are situations where it's right to be wrong. By that I mean, even if it turns out that one of them is a traitor, you had an obligation not to snuff them out. In a sense you were wrong to trust them, to give them the benefit of the doubt, but it's better to be mistaken than to be murderous. 

Sometimes we fret too much about making the wrong decision, yet there are situations in which, paradoxically enough, we made the right decision even if it turned out badly. Conversely, there are situations in which we made the wrong decision even if it had a better outcome. Sometimes risky behavior is obligatory.

Admittedly, that doesn't make much sense if this life is all there is. But if there are eschatological compensations, if the first shall be last and the last first, then we ultimately have nothing to lose by losing in this life. 

Of course, most of us are not in line to assume the throne, so we don't face that temptation. Nowadays, European monarchies are tourist attractions, so the stakes are far lower for winners and losers than in the past. However, that's not the case for Muslim monarchies. 

But there are other mundane situations where assuming a risk is obligatory. When it's right to be wrong.