Saturday, January 26, 2019

The greatest conceivable being

St. Anselm famously defined God as the greatest conceivable being. That's foundational to his ontological argument–whatever the merits of the argument.

That represents a drastic break with paganism. Zeus is assuredly not the greatest conceivable being. But it also stands in contrast to open theism. We can contemplate a God who knows the future. That's a greater conceivable being than a God who doesn't know the future. Ironically, the human mind is able to imagine a greater God than the God of open theism. So what does that tell you about open theism? Shouldn't God be even greater than we can imagine–greater by far–instead of less than we can imagine? 

Rage against the light

It's interesting to see the different pathways that people take into Christianity. And it's sadly ironic that Woolf was so furious about Eliot's conversion to Christianity. She acts like this is a great betrayal. Yet it's not as if she was the happy humanist. To the contrary, she was suicidally depressed, with bouts of psychosis, throughout her life:

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was a close friend of T.S. Eliot's but his conversion to the Anglican Church was met with outrage. She wrote to her sister Vanessa Bell in February 1928: "Then I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with poor dear Tom Eliot, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic, believes in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was really shocked. A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is. I mean, there's something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God." Once Eliot had found God, his contemporaries thought he was deluded and found his ignorance of social problems ongoing in England in favour of the Church strange with The Times Literary Supplement calling him "kind of a traitor." But for Eliot, there was no dramatic change, only "an expansion or development of interests." Eliot's situation immediately after 1927 echo the words of his new found saviour: "And you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved" (Matthew 10:22). Was Woolf right to shun her friend's faith so aggressively? To some extent, her resentful attitude was not surprising or even new-found. Suzanne Hobson understands that for Eliot's generation "questions of religion and spirituality went far beyond the question of whether to attend church. That particular decision was often just the beginning of an individual's journey along the many byways of religion in the twentieth century." Whereas Pericles Lewis notes that religion and God were a dying, if not dead, concepts: "In a simplified retrospect, the Victorian era appears as the age of faith and its crisis - "the disappearance of God" (in the words of J. Hillis Miller) or "God's funeral" (the title of a poem of Thomas Hardy's and a recent study by A. N. Wilson) - while the twentieth century has already learned the lesson of the death of God and has no further need for Him." Friedrich Nietzsche's revolutionary phrase "God is dead" would have been natural and known to all in society during the early twentieth century, whether they believed it or not. Lewis adds, "Works like Ulysses, The Waste Land, and To the Lighthouse all share an impulse towards the re-enchantment of the world; they express the desire for a new form of spiritual experience independent of the Christian God and appropriate for the modern age." God was most likely driven out of the twentieth century by ideas of Enlightenment thinkers like Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), and Charles Darwin's (1809-1882) theory of Evolution (On The Origin of Species, 1859), which were both strengthened in the preceding centuries. Even the growing philosophical schools of the twentieth century, like Logical Positivism, helped shroud the image of God. However, Lewis correctly identified that with the constant attention God and theology received in the twentieth century, "If God died in the nineteenth century, then he had an active afterlife in the twentieth." It was in this vein of God's "after afterlife" that Christians like C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) and Karl Barth (1886-1968) flourished. It is perhaps noteworthy to point out that Eliot and his contemporary, C.S. Lewis, shared somewhat of a similar story as they were both raised in religious traditions they did not enjoy: Unitarianism and Church of Ireland; both embraced non-religious thinking when they left for university: philosophy and atheism (or paganism); and finally, they both converted to Anglicanism in 1927, and 1931, respectively. In Surprised By Joy, Lewis understands his conversion having occurred like this: "I was driven to Whipsnade [Zoo] one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. "Emotional" is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the most important events. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake." This quote however, does not take into account the numerous instances before 1931 when Lewis had been getting 'Christianized' by J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) and Hugo Dyson (1896-1975).
Unlike Lewis's mild conversion story, Eliot's story consisted of more drama. Gordon notes that Eliot visited Rome in 1926 with his brother and sister-in-law. What transpired there stunned Eliot's kin. He fell down onto his knees before Michelangelo's Pietà and adored it. It is not recorded how his kin reacted to this - other than being surprised - but had this been in front of his older generation, Eliot would have been mocked and scolded. Gordon understands that Unitarians were not keen on bowing the knee for any occasion. Eliot's cousin' wife, Mrs. Charles William Eliot, was said to have "wrote censoriously to a friend who had joined the Episcopalian Church: 'Do you kneel down in church and call yourself a miserable sinner? Neither I nor my family will ever do that!" But Eliot seemed to admire this gesture of worship through degradation. The young Eliot was raised in the upper-class religious tradition of Unitarianism, which was founded by his grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot in 1834. Eliot said of his grandfather, "The standard of conduct was that which my grandfather had set out: our moral judgements, our decisions between duty and self-indulgence, were taken as if, like Moses, he had brought down the tables of the Law, any deviation from which would be sinful." Manju Jain and others state that the young Eliot "referred to himself as having been brought up "outside the Christian Fold, in Unitarianism"". Robert Crawford further acknowledges Eliot as proclaiming, "The Son and Holy Ghost were not believed in, certainly; but they were entitled to respect." Cleo McNelly Kearns understands that Unitarians held "a long tradition of resistance to the more hierarchical and mystagogic forms of the religious life, as well as to the rebarbative dogmas and internecine quarrels of their Puritan and Calvinist forebears." Gordon emphasises the strict nature of Unitarianism, as evidenced by Charles William Eliot's wife words earlier. Gordon claims, "The religion taught by William Greenleaf Eliot was strict rather than spiritual. He was not concerned with perfection, or doctrine, or theology, but with a code that would better the human lot." It seemed that Unitarianism wanted to prepare man's exterior for the Divine, rather than the important action of preparing man's interior, which the Divine is more concerned about as Isaiah said, "All flesh is grass, / And all its loveliness is like the flower of the field / The grass withers, the flower fades, / Because the breath of the LORD blows upon it" (Isaiah 40: 6-8). When Eliot fell on his knees before the figure of Mary cradling the wounded and dead body of her son, Jesus Christ, Eliot's interior was touched by the Divine, undoing the years of fruitless exterior preparation Unitarianism did for him. Jain further shows that in the early nineteenth century Unitarianism established their power further by gaining control of religious institutions in New England, the centre of Unitarianism in America being Harvard Divinity School. Harvard had strong Calvinistic ideas, but in 1805, Henry Ware was elected to the Hollis Chair which ushered out Calvinistic ideas present at the School and replaced them with Unitarianism. With such a strong presence of Unitarianism at Harvard, why did Eliot choose to study there if he wanted to escape the clutches of the tradition? Was it because it was a family tradition, since his grandfather and cousin studied there and maintained a strong presence in the institution? Or perhaps despite its Unitarian theology, did Eliot want to immerse himself into Harvard's renowned philosophy department which contained eminent scholars like William James, George Santayana and Josiah Royce? The latter seems more feasible, though the former cannot be disregarded, as it may have been that he was awarded a place at Harvard because he was an 'Eliot'. During this "golden age of American philosophy", Eliot had a golden ticket in the form of a place at Harvard to study under the best, with even Bertrand Russell claiming that Harvard had the finest school of philosophy in the world until James, Santayana and Royce left their positions.
When Eliot came to England, Anglicanism was not the primary religion which interested him. According to Kearns, after studying the Indic religions and learning Sanskrit at Harvard, Eliot developed an intense desire for Buddhism. However, Lewis states that it was both, Buddhism and Hinduism, which Eliot wanted to pursue, not just Buddhism. England gave Eliot a freedom, America never could: the freedom of faith. Kearns states that "Religion meant for him [Eliot] not just and not even primarily a system of beliefs but rather the sum total of the ritual, cultic, and related social practices of a given society, each of them in more or less functional relation to the others." The Buddhist magga or path seemed to be the road Eliot was destined for before his 1926 Pietà moment. What was it then about Buddhism that attracted Eliot to it? Kearns understands that, "Buddhism attracted Eliot for its profound recognition of the pain inevitably associated with human desire, and its insistence that all merely personal self-identity is constructed upon lack, and has no essential subsistence except as a provisional, sometime enabling, though often blinding illusion." However, Eliot never officially converted to Buddhism in his life but maintained a lifelong fascination with the tradition with Kearns suggesting that "Four Quartets for instance is in some respects a great poem of Buddhist wisdom, able to render extremely subtle concepts such as that of sunyata or divine emptiness in such memorable images as the lotus rising from the empty pool." This is strongly supported by Staffan Bergsten's view that after conversion Eliot saw the Indian religions as forming a "preparatory stage or an introduction to the full Christian revelation, and although not wholly compatible with the revealed truth, they contain many philosophical elements that can be embraced by a Christian." This shows that Eliot held onto his Buddhist views even after conversion and may have wanted to integrate the ideals of the Indian religion into Western Christianity. So, why did Eliot not convert to Buddhism? Firstly, it may have been for a practical reason as he was unable "to make much of Oxford's Buddhist Society." Secondly, and on a deeper level, "that Eliot did not "become" a Buddhist, a devotee of Robert Graves's pagan goddess, a Hindu or even (like Ezra Pound, Irving Babbitt, and I.A. Richards) a Confucian, was due to the pragmatism and sophistication with which, after his philosophical investigations, he tended to treat all such decision." Jain agrees with this view.
One person who, like Woolf, was a thorn in Eliot's acceptance of Christianity was, Ezra Pound. Gordon notes that when Eliot met Pound in 1914, "Eliot was writing quasi-religious poems." As impressed as Pound was with Eliot's poetic brilliance, he was dismissive of his religious poetry and growing inquisition into Christianity as Gordon states, "Eliot's preoccupation with questions of Christianity, theology, and evil was undercover because he remained in doubt.In July 1917 he acknowledged that life was poor without religion, but as yet he was unconvinced it was the greatest of all satisfactions and so worth the effort." Pound may have been the reason that Eliot did not turn to Christianity sooner than 1927. "Christianity has become a sort of Prussianism, and will have to go," Pound thought, adding, "It has its uses and is disarming, but it is too dangerous. Religion is the root of all evil, or damn near all." On another occasion Pound was seen to be attacking monotheism: "I consider the Metamorphoses [by Ovid] a sacred book, and the Hebrew scri ptures the record of a barbarian tribe, full of evil." When Eliot eventually took up the offer of Anglicanism as the cure for his cultural despair, Pound commented, "His diagnosis is wrong," and added, 'His remedy is an irrelevance.' In 1927, when Eliot converted to Anglicanism, his contemporaries and scholars today agree that it was as a last resort. Gordon claims, "Eliot accepted the morality of damnation, and could not save himself without help. It seems that at this time he felt no fervour, and was driven to the Church almost as a last resort." Kearns agrees with this view. Donald Davie understands that "when it came to deciding what Christian sect he should join, it was of the utmost importance to him that he choose what should seem to be not a sect at all but a nation norm, its normality shown in that it was backed by the secular and institutional forces of the nation-state." Conversion was not solely about joining an organization but about finding an identity which had been distorted by Unitarianism, Eastern religions, myths and personal problems. It also symbolised a release of self-control and be driven by the Divine, or as Gordon states, Eliot assumed himself "prepared to close the gap between human frailty and superhuman perfection." This gap could only be eliminated by the Church of England as "Eliot saw in the English Church decency, common sense, and a moderation that, he felt, might provide a corrective to the faddist modern mind." The gap which Eliot described further is morphed into a wide and deep river in a letter addressed to W.F. Stead. After Eliot's first confession took place in December 1928 he told Stead that "he had finally crossed a very wide and deep river, never to return". After his conversion, Eliot was said to uphold typical Anglican beliefs and act in accordance with them. Bergsten states that Eliot's emphasis laid on the Incarnation of Christ, which is a major theme in Four Quartets, is a well-known characteristic of Anglican theology. Eliot professed: "I take for granted that Christian revelation is the only full revelation; and that the fullness of Christian revelation resides in the essential fact of the Incarnation, in relation to which all Christian revelation is to be understood." Along with the importance of the Incarnation, Eliot grew a strong respect for sexual purity. "Lust seemed to him the most corrupting of all sins and, as a young man, he wished the flesh could be denied, burnt away by that refining fire he so often invoked," claimed Gordon. Soon after his conversion he wrote savagely that those who 'suffer the ecstasy of the animals' [Marina, SP, p. 93] may look forward only to death. Eliot's proclivity to purity puts him in a long strand of Christian thinkers like Maximus the Confessor (580-662) who like Eliot, emphasised asceticism ; and St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), who, in the words of St. Bonaventure (1221-1274), stressed to "preserve the white robe of purity from the flames of sensual pleasure".
Eliot was known to be a reserved man but after his conversion he turned more radical as he urged Anglicans for a stricter theology, discipline and asceticism, "not watered down and robbed of the severity of it demands." Of the three, correct theology was of utmost importance for Eliot because "In accepting the Christian position, he willed to believe that there really is a Centre, a shared Centre," which perhaps he was cautious of other people misunderstanding. It is not known if he was certain that his Anglican theology was the correct one but he seemed to act as if it were the only truth in terms of Christian understanding, and was not afraid to remind those who he though did not possess similar understanding. Eliot knew the St. Louisian author, and literary critic Paul Elmer More (1864-1937) who was one of "the two wisest men" (emphasis Eliot) in his life, the other being the Harvard professor, Irving Babbitt. More was raised a Presbyterian, but converted Anglicanism. Though Eliot praised More for actively seeking the "the concentrated mind of God", he was however critical of More's failure to recognize the continuity of the Church and the importance of mysticism and mystics like Julian of Norwich. In advancing his idea of Christian theology, he even criticized his former teacher, Babbit, in a 1937 essay titled 'Revelation'. Eliot criticizes his former teacher for having failed to discern the inherent truths of Christianity, truths which, Eliot suggests, place it above all other religions and philosophies." Along with his theology, Eliot's sense of community strengthened too after 1927. This is evident from three lines of 'Choruses from The Rock' (1934): "What life have you if you have not life together? There is no life that is not in community, And no community not lived in praise of God." (II, lines 38-40, SP, p. 104) Alan Marshall understands that "what Eliot seems to be saying here is that all communities are Christian in tendency." This view perhaps did not persist during his time writing The Waste Land and other poems as there is no sense of a community in The Waste Land, only fragments of situations and conversations witnessed by the narrator. To some extent this shows that Eliot's sense of community was formed after his conversion which Marshall agrees with. However, Timothy Materer clarifies that though Eliot admires Christianity, it is solely a Christian community that he speaks of: "In After Strange Gods, as well as The Idea of a Christian Society (1940) and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1949), a unified religious background means Christianity alone, since Eliot believes that for Western civilization the only alternative to a Christian society or culture is a pagan one." In keeping with this view, Eliot joined a Christian discussion group, the Moot, established by the Scottish missionary J.H. Oldham (1879-1969) in 1939, to bring together leading Christian thinkers from London and surrounding areas. The aim of the group was to discuss possible Christian solutions to the failure of democracy as seen in the World War II. Hobson states that, "although he was never quite convinced, either by the Moot's message or by its methods, Eliot was in accord with the idea that Christianity was the solution to an urgent problem.

Rauser's chicanery

I'll comment on Rauser's reply:

Two days ago I posted a short video summarizing a thought experiment that I present in my book You’re Not as Crazy as I Think, pp. 137-140. The video elicited an online rebuttal from Steve Hays of Triablogue. He begins in his first sentence by poisoning the well as he describes the thought experiment as me posing a “trick question” to serve as a “wedge tactic.”

i) It's just a fact that some people pose trick questions. Take lawyers who pose trick questions: "It's a simple question–yes or no?" Only it may be actually be complex question, and a yes or no answer is misleading. And the lawyer wants to elicit a misleading answer.

In confirmation hearings, Senators often pose trick questions to trip up a nominee. "That's not what I asked! Just answer the question!" 

Some questions don't have good answers because there's something wrong with the question, and it's necessary to reformulate the question. Rauser is smart enough to know that but he pretends not to. 

ii) Likewise, it's just a fact that some people use wedge tactics. And there's nothing necessary wrong with wedge tactics. It depends on the cause. 

Here's a recent example of Rauser's wedge tactics:

Rauser uses that to instill disbelief in the binding of Isaac (Gen 22). 

Bona fide offer

A snippet from Facebook

They also face the problems of explaining why it is coherent to say that God loves everyone…

Calvinists don't necessarily say God loves everyone.

…and that the Gospel is genuinely offered to all people if divine determinism is true and universal salvation is false.

The offer of the gospel is conditional: if you repent of your sins and have faith in Jesus, you will be saved. It's a genuine offer if it's true. If you get what's offered by compliance with the terms of the offer, that's what makes it a genuine offer.

Unless you're an open theist, how is the Gospel genuinely offered to people whom God foreknows will reject the offer?

Your language suggests that you are open to humans having LFW; “compliance with the terms” suggests the ability to accept or reject.

No, I'm referring to a logical if-then relation. 

In my view, for a genuine offer to be “true,” as you say, it must be such that those to whom the offer applies have LFW. I.e., one must have the categorical ability to either freely accept or freely decline the offer w/o being determined by prior conditions. The decision must be categorically up to the agent. I don’t believe a genuine offer can be given to one who has compatibilist freedom, since such a person can only choose according to a desire that has been causally determined by prior conditions over which he has no control. 

The truth of a conditional offer doesn't depend on whether everyone can respond, but whether they will get what is offered in they do meet the terms of the offer. 

Suppose a mansion is put on the market for $10 million. That's beyond my pay grade. That doesn't mean it's not a genuine offer. 

Friday, January 25, 2019

Belated homecoming

Are specific claims improbable?

One atheist objection I've run across goes like this: the more specific a claim, the more antecedently improbable the claim. There's an inverse relation between specificity and probability. So, for instance, Christian theism is more antecedently improbable than mere theism. 

To which I'd respond:

i) For anything to exist, there must be a minimum threshold of complexity. So it's artificial to speak in the abstract about the prior probability of specific claims, as if something simpler is more likely to exist or occur than something more complex. Reality isn't incrementally reducible to zero. 

By that logic, it's more antecedently probable that nothing whatsoever exists. But if nonexistence is the default assumption, why does anything exist? For that matter, probability theory is quite complex. Does that make it antecedently improbable that probability theory exists? But it takes probability theory to probabilify anything. So it can't be self-referential.  

ii) Even assuming for argument's sake that the principle is true, it's misleading inasmuch as a more specific claim may have more specific evidence than a less specific claim. Christian theism may have a lot more evidence than mere theism. 

Hallmark card heaven

Based in part on golden age passages in Isaiah (11:6-7; 35:9; 65:25), young-earth creationists think the world to come won't have predation. They regard the new Eden as a reversion to the "very good" state of prelapsarian Eden. 

There are some exegetical problems with that extrapolation. The passages in Isaiah are poetic. The prosaic description of Eden in Gen 2-3 doesn't say that. 

But I'd like to approach it from another angle. Many boys (myself included) take an avid interest in wildlife. An interest they don't outgrow. As adults, they retain their interest in animals.

In addition, many men and boys have a particular fascination with dangerous animals. Venomous snakes. Anacondas. Reticulating pythons. Crocodiles. Komodo dragons. Leopards, lions, and tigers. Grizzly bears. Kodiak bears. Sharks. Sea leopards. Wolves. Wolverines. Mandrils. And so on and so forth. 

Some men become herpetologists. Some men move to Africa to study the wildlife or hunt big game.

If wildlife in the world to come is confined to fawns, bunny rabbits, and Kola bears, is that the average man's idea of paradise? In addition, many guys like to do things with an element of risk, like skiing, whitewater rafting, horseback riding, race cars, and contact sports. Admittedly, metrosexuals have a different point of view. 

My point is not that the world to come will automatically be an extension of whatever we like to do in the here-and-now. But that cuts both ways. When we make projections about what the world to come will be like, some Christians are conditioned to envision a parklike landscape garden with nothing more menacing than chipmunks and pink flamingos. But as long as we're going to speculate about the world to come, is that really your idea of paradise? 

Again, I'm not suggesting that the world to come will be dangerous for the saints. Yet the world to come will still have natural hazards. It's not as if there won't be cliffs. If you went hiking in the mountains, that doesn't mean stone turns into sponge. It would be more a case of providential protection from harm than the absence of harmful things. 

Stolen valor

Evangelical elite mobbery

Compartmentalized Catholicism

How often have we read indignant statements about what the hierarchy "must" do, then nothing ever happens–because there's nothing the hierarchy must do, which is why it does nothing. It has the faithful in its pocket. 

Remember all the outcry when the Cardinal McCarrick story broke last summer? But that came and went. Nothing changes.

In the blowup over the Covington Catholic students, it was Catholic clergy condemning the students while lay Catholics were defending the students. Notice how often the Catholic clergy are on one side of an issue while the faithful are on the other side. How can you be in submission to people you regard as your religious superiors when you constantly oppose their policies? Don't Catholic apologists suffer whiplash as they chronically alternate between defending and opposing institutional Catholicism? If you can't look up to your leaders, if you can't follow their lead, what makes them your leaders? You entrust your salvation to fools. You put your immortal soul in the hands of men you think are fools. How long can that conflicted attitude last? 

Would you rather be a Muslim who acts like Jesus?

Arminian theologian Randal Rauser likes to pose trick questions as a wedge tactic:

i) He rigs the debate by stipulating a false dichotomy, then requires the respondent to pick one horn of the dilemma. But in this illustration, it's not a choice between a Muslim who happens to do the right thing in contrast to a Christian who fails to do the right thing or does the wrong thing. For in this illustration, the SDA pastor wasn't a Christian in the first place. He was a nominal Christian whose fundamental loyalty was to his ethnic group rather than God. His ethnic identity was his core identity rather than his religious identity. 

You can't split Christian identity into faith and works, where some have faith without works while others have works without faith. Both faith and works are the outworking of grace. No faith without grace or works without grace. 

ii) To say that faith in Jesus is normally a prerequisite for salvation is standard Bible teaching. But Rauser doesn't care about that. He brazenly embraces salvation by works alone. 

iii) From a Reformed standpoint, the Muslim who did the right thing exemplifies common grace. He did the right thing despite his Muslim faith. His virtue on this occasion isn't something inherent in himself, but a residual virtue that God preserved. 

iv) Finally, Rauser's comparison is self-defeating. What does it mean to act like Jesus during the Rwandan genocide? How did Jesus act during the Rwandan genocide? What did he do to prevent it? Nothing. What did he do to stop it once it was underway? Nothing. 

If we're supposed to follow his example, then his example is nonintervention. Do nothing to prevent the genocide–or, if you couldn't see it coming, do nothing to stop genocide in progress. 

Rauser acts as though Jesus was a moralistic guru like Buddha. An inspirational figure from the past. Because he's dead, he can't do anything to help. 

But according to orthodox Christology, Jesus is God Incarnate. He didn't intervene in the Rwandan genocide, not because he was unable to do so, but because he was unwilling to do so.

If that's the standard of comparison, then inaction is how to act like Jesus in that situation. Watch it unfold while you do nothing. 

I'm not saying Christians never have a duty to get involved. I'm just responding to Rauser's blinkered comparison on his own grounds. His argument backfires. 

The church of Sodom and Gomorrah

The epistemological boat

In one respect I agree with most of this:

However, I have several points of disagreement:

i) I don't think the various arguments from evil cast reasonable doubt on Christian theism. I've given my reasons on multiple occasions.

ii) As far as losing faith in God, I suspect what most folks in that situation really doubt isn't God's existence but God's benevolence. And there's a practical link between the two: if you doubt God's benevolence, then the question of his existence is secondary. You just don't care any more whether or not God exists. Where's the relevant point of contrast between an indifferent God and a nonexistent God? An indifferent God isn't looking out for you and a nonexistent God isn't looking out for you.

In terms of religious disillusionment, I don't think God's existence is the primary issue. If you can no longer bring yourself to believe in a God who cares about you, that moots the relevance of whether he exists. The question ceases to be of any interest once you cut the nerve of self-interest.

iii) There's a sense in which God is dubitable in a way that belief in other minds, the past, the external world is not. That, however, is the wrong way to cast the issue. Dubitability or indubitability are psychological states. The criterion shouldn't be psychology but reason, evidence, and justification. What's the explanatory power of naturalism compared to Christian theism? What is necessary to ground your beliefs? 

The important question at issue isn't whether people can and do doubt God's existence, but whether they ought to. Not whether it's possible but whether it's rational. 

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Escape from time

I think Buddhism makes a certain amount of sense in its original setting. It arose in a pre-Christian culture, so the available options were awful. From a pre-Christian standpoint, life is characterized by irredeemable suffering. For some people, it's suffering from the get-go. Others get off to a better start, but incrementally, sometimes dramatically, and inevitably, lose more and more of what little makes life worthwhile. In Buddhism, time is your enemy, so the only solution is a radical solution: to escape time by ceasing to be. 

The outlook of Buddhism reflects existential nihilism. Logically speaking, consistent Buddhists ought to be antinatalists. In practice, that's what celibate Buddhist monks are–although I'm sure that behind-the-scenes, many Buddhist monks are sexually active. 

In a sense, both Buddhism and Christianity are future-oriented, but they have radically different views of the future. Christianity has a more positive view of the present, but acknowledges that for many people, this life is grim. Even in a fallen world, there are many natural goods, but these aren't evenly distributed. 

From a Christian standpoint, time is your friend–at least in reference to the afterlife (assuming you die in the faith). The best is yet to come. In Christianity, you escape suffering, not by oblivion, not by escaping time, but by escaping into a better time. A bit like those time-travel scenarios where the present is hellacious, but with your time-machine you can go backward or forward to a time of your choosing, when things were better (or got better). 

God in the flesh

Unitarians labor to challenge the standard interpretation of John's Prologue. They offer different, conflicting interpretations. In light of that I'll sketch how I read it. A few preliminary points:

1. Because this is such a familiar text, it's easy to miss details. We're so used to it that it bounces right off of us. So we should try to read it as if we're encountering this text for the very first time. 

2. Likewise, we should try to read it through Jewish eyes. How would it strike a 1C Jewish reader who's not a Christian? 

3. Some commentaries filter it through a Wisdom Christology. There are several problems with that approach:

i) Nowhere in John's Gospel or 1 John is wisdom terminology used. 

ii) The personification of wisdom occurs in a conspicuously allegorical context (e.g. Prov 8), whereas the prologue belongs to a different genre–historical narrative.

iii) When personified, wisdom is feminine. Lady Wisdom or God's daughter. That's incongruous for a male figure.

iv) Scholars who take this approach quickly shift from the unmistakable Genesis background to a speculative Wisdom background. The postulated Wisdom Christology then bears the primary weight of interpretation. That becomes an exercise in misdirection. I agree with scholars like Ridderbos and Bauckham that a Wisdom paradigm is the wrong frame of reference. 

Is John 8:58 about predestination rather than preexistence?

In his debate with Michael Brown:

Around the 2:26 mark, Dale Tuggy takes Jn 8:58 to be an example of Jews characterizing predestined events as having always been. 

But a basic problem with his interpretation from Tuggy's own perspective is that Tuggy is an open theist. For instance:

According to open theism, the future is indeterminate. There are multiple potential futures in play, any one of which might become the actual future. There is no one future until the dust settles. So how does Dale's God predestine an indeterminate future? 

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

No Buddhist science

One atheist objection to Christianity goes like this: there is no Muslim science, Hindu science, Buddhist science–there's just science. Science isn't sectarian. It's the same everywhere. The transcultural nature of science is due to the fact that science, unlike religion, is grounded in objective, detectable, verifiable reality. I believe Richard Dawkins has popularized this claim, although I don't have a quote at my fingertips.  

Up-to-a-point that's true, but deceptive. Scientific agreement depends on taking many metaphysical and epistemological positions for granted. Given the rules of the game, there's a lot more agreement than in religion. But when you shift from scientific practice to the philosophy of science, agreement disappears. 

Moreover, there are different kinds of science. Some are more abstract than others. When we get into theoretical physics and quantum mechanics, science and philosophy of science blend.  And that's not confined to philosophers of science. For some major scientists like Mach, Poincaré, Einstein, Bohr, Penrose, and Hawking, science and the philosophy of science are interwoven, and fundamental fault-lines surface. To take another example, consider Russell's famous thought-experiment:
There is no logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world sprang into being five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that "remembered" a wholly unreal past. There is no logically necessary connection between events at different times; therefore nothing that is happening now or will happen in the future can disprove the hypothesis that the world began five minutes ago.

And here's a formal argument for Last Thursdayism:

Pruss doesn't subscribe to Last Thursdayism, but his formulation quickly exposes the specious contrast between science and religion. You only need to peel back a few layers to show how theory-laden science really is. 

Cartesian demons and evolutionary psychology

Responding to some questions I was asked. 

Broadly, I’m a presuppositionalist (though I make adjustments, as does everyone). 

That's intelligent. Good to be discriminating. 

Often I have read modern proponents like Anderson and Oliphint defend the essentially Christian nature of God that must be in place for knowledge to even be possible against other theisms like Islam by pointing to problems in those worldviews. For example, in Islamic sources Allah is capricious. 

That's ambiguous. In presuppositionalism, knowledge is possible without belief in God, but the justification of knowledge is impossible without the Christian God. My questioner may intend that, but was speaking laconically. 

1) Can a skeptic assert that the Christian is in no better epistemic place than a Muslim as in the Bible God allows people to be deceived (indeed sends deceiving spirits) and, in the case of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel, robs a man of his reasoning? Can the skeptic take this further and argue the Christian is no better place than he is because just as we assert he can’t trust his reasoning faculties because they were formed by random, unthinking processes, we can’t trust our because it’s always possible we’re deceived?

i) The thought-experiment is incoherent. The appeal to biblical passages about divine deception presumes that Scripture is true and we know what it means (at least the passages under consideration). If, however, God deceives the reader, then that nullifies the appeal to biblical passages about divine deception, which the thought-experiment requires. If God deceives the reader, then he can't trust what the text appears to say about divine deception. So the argument never gets started. It can't be delusion all the way down. 

ii) Biblical passages about divine deception refer to a subset of wicked human beings rather than human beings generally. They don't refer to the epistemic situation of Christians. 

iii) The comparison is disanalogous. The allegation is not the abstract possibility that reasoning faculties formed by random thinking processes may render reason untrustworthy. Rather, that's taken to be an implication of naturalistic evolution. An actual defeater rather than a hypothetical defeater. 

2) What if someone decided that all they need is a God who is trustworthy, but not necessarily the Biblical God. I would say those attributes can’t be separated from the Biblical God, but what if they countered that perhaps Christianity is the best we have right now, but we might have a better candidate in the future?

Is a God trustworthy who hasn't revealed himself in any recognizable religion, who hides in the shadows while false religions proliferate with no corrective? 

Are Evangelical “leaders” used as “useful idiots” by the political left?

Are Evangelical “leaders” used as “useful idiots” by the political left? Or do they take that role on without any prompting at all?

By one definition, “useful idiot is a pejorative term used to describe people perceived as propagandists for a cause whose goals they do not understand, who are used cynically by the leaders of the cause”.

The “twitterati” mob, with its characteristic speed and verbal violence, shows in a microcosm how such a thing happens, and Stephen Wolfe makes the case that Evangelical “thought leaders” certainly have been corrupted in this way:

A video that surfaced last weekend, showing teenage white boys in MAGA hats seemingly taunting an American Indian, set off a frenzy of vitriolic tweets condemning them for bigotry and even demanding that they’re punched in the face …

It was entirely unsurprising to me that evangelical leaders joined the mob. Thabiti Anyabwile, for example, tweeted that the boys demonstrated “racist incivility.” He retweeted (along with Alan Noble) a tweet implying that the boys’ actions manifested “white supremacy” and a video of Nathan Phillips lying that the boys chanted “build the wall.” Beth Moore tweeted, “To glee in dehumanizing any person is so utterly antichrist it reeks of the vomit of hell.” Karen Swallow Prior tweeted, “I’m sick to my stomach. Lord, help.” J. D. Greear, affirming with “Truly!” retweeted a now deleted tweet (though Greear’s remains visible) saying, “This is hate.” Duke Kwon called the incident “disturbing but not surprising.” I’d praise some for their silence, but it’s not clear at this point who has and hasn’t deleted tweets. Ed Stetzer, for example, suggests that he tweeted on the incident but later deleted them.

Later, more comprehensive videos showed “not only that the Indian, Nathan Phillips, lied about what occurred, but also that the boys were subjected to demeaning racial harassment from black supremacists for an hour prior to Phillips intentionally and without provocation walking up to the boys while beating a drum.”

After new videos surfaced, some of these evangelicals expressed regret. Greear tweeted that he’s “frustrated.” Karen Swallow Prior tweets that there are “lots of lessons in this whole mess.” Anyabwile seems to have doubled-down and then, with a tu quoque, claimed that “all” responses were ill-informed. I haven’t seen any hint of remorse from Beth Moore whose tweet was the most vilifying of them all.


the evangelical elite use the same tactics as the world, rely on the same popular sentiment in rhetoric, and have arisen in relevance among evangelicals largely for two reasons: an engagement technique suitable for the new mediums of discourse (especially Twitter) and because they’ve merely Christianized the moral sentiments and ends of the Western ruling class. … they are the evangelical face of the upper-class interest. Being the court evangelicals to the ruling class, they take their cues from the world, and the world cued them on Saturday to join a mob of personal destruction. Their hasty reaction to the initial video was entirely predictable.

This response has harmful consequences for the rest of Christianity, which will tend to view these individuals as a kind of Christian “collective moral authority”. “[N]o collective failure can dislodge them from their eminent status as evangelicalism’s moral thought leaders. It’s quite remarkable, and since we’re all accustomed to elite dismal failures doing nothing to harm elite credibility, it’s almost imperceptible.”

“The Left” has gotten to where it is via a “long march through the institutions”. President Trump, in his own way, became God’s “useful idiot” insofar as he has espoused a largely conservative agenda, much of which serves as both a foil and an obstacle for these leftist elites. But Trump cannot last forever.

Here is the way out of this particular political mess:

The rest of us must realize that the resistance to the evangelical elite is a matter of deconstructing their rhetorical tricks and disclosing their delusions … we must challenge the rhetoric and deconstruct the sentiments and thereby point them to the true nature of things.

Core theology

One objection some atheists lob against Christianity goes like this: since Christians can't agree about what the Bible means, why should an atheist take it seriously? On a related note is the Catholic trope that Protestants can't agree on anything. 

1. As I've noted in the past, that's a duplicitous objection. Most atheists are, if anything, supremely overconfident about their grasp of Scripture. They are sure that Scripture is riddled with moral errors, factual errors, and contradictions. Well, you can't say that and simultaneously say you don't know what it means. But consistency has never been an intellectual virtue for atheists. 

2. However, I'd like to make a different point. The number of denominations doesn't tell you what Christians believe. The fact that a Christian may belong to a Baptist church, Presbyterian church, Lutheran church, Anglican church, &c., doesn't carry the implication that his theology coincides with the church he happens to belong to.  

It's my impression that many or most evangelicals have a core theology. For better or wore, that represents their essential theological commitments. 

They will attend or join a church that shares their core theology. The official theology of the denomination may go well beyond that, with a number of doctrinal distinctives. However, many evangelicals select a church not because their theology coincides with the whole theological package of the denomination, but because it dovetails with a common core. We can see the disconnect in at least two respects:

i) The standard for ordination is typically much more specific and detailed than the standard for membership. To be a church officer makes you an official representative of the denomination, so you must adhere to the whole theological package of the denomination. By contrast, laymen don't have that role. In addition, lots of churches don't wish to drive away prospective members by raising the doctrinal bar too high.

ii) I think it's not uncommon for evangelical couples to marry a spouse from a different denomination. To take a striking example, Billy Graham was the world's most famous Southern Baptist minister, yet his wife was Presbyterian. In that respect he as a man first and a Baptist second! 

It's then a question of whose church to attend: the husband's or the wife's. And it's not a big deal. If that was a deal-breaker, they wouldn't get married in the first place. After marriage, one spouse switches denominational attendance. But that doesn't mean he or she changed their theology.

Now, I'm not a sociologist of religion, so I don't claim to be an expert, but that's my impression. Point being: there's no reliable correlation between doctrinal affiliation and denominational affiliation.

Of course, that's not to deny that in however many cases, there is a matchup between a layman's theology and the whole package of the denomination they belong to. I'm just making the observation it's misleading to imagine there's generally a one-to-one correspondence. So appearances are misleading if you think church membership is pegged to denominational theology. 

Is Paul begging the question?

I'll make a few comments about this post:

1. It's anachronistic to read Paul through the prism of Hume. Viewed from a post-Enlightenment context, it may seem like Paul is begging the question, but the thought-world of the 1C Roman Empire was generally very different from the Enlightenment and its secular progeny. (There was, to be sure, the occasional skeptic or atheist.)

2. In addition, Paul is writing to and for Christians. Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity. The argument from authority is not fallacious if your target audience shares the same paradigm. The implied reader of Paul's letter acknowledged the dim view of pagan idolatry and immorality in OT Judaism. 

3. There's a circular quality to Vallicella's complaint. He doesn't identify as a Christian. He's merely a theist who's "sympathetic" to Christianity. Given his outlook, he naturally rejects Paul's classically Jewish characterization of pagan infidelity. In part, Vallicella is giving us his autobiographical reaction. He doesn't see it the same way as Paul because he's on the other side of the issue. But that carries no presumption that Paul is wrong. Whatever your position, by definition you will disagree with the opposing position. 

Needless to say, Paul's indictment will be unconvincing to someone who doesn't share that outlook. It wasn't meant to be independently persuasive. Rather, it plays an explanatory role in Paul's overall presentation. There's an inner logic to the argument in Romans. So the hermeneutical issue is the role that Rom 1 plays in the larger flow of argument. If God is just but humans are unjust, then that has implications for the nature of salvation. The hermeneutical question is the logical relationship between Rom 1 and the remainder of Romans. How Rom 1 functions in Paul's argumentative strategy, given the task he set for himself. Given the target audience.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Autonomous reason

William Vallicella has been commenting on Van Til's The Defense of the Faith. It's nice to have a philosopher of Vallicella's stature interact with Van Til: 

Why am I bothering to read Van Til?

I have been told that I am wasting my time with Van Til.  One, but not the only, reason I am ploughing through The Defense of the Faith (4th ed.) is because his striking formulations help me focus certain questions that concern me deeply.   One of these questions concerns the tension between Athens and Jerusalem, the tension between the autonomy of reason and the heteronomy of obedient faith. (Leo Strauss is very good on the is tension.) Here is a Van Til passage that turns my crank:

So we cannot subject the authoritative pronouncements of Scripture about reality to the scrutiny of reason because it is reason itself that learns of its proper function from Scripture." (130) 

The Bible, then, is an absolutely infallible and finally authoritative source of truth which man cannot question and to which he must submit.  But what exactly does the Bible say? Does it say that God is triune? Yes, says Van Till. But now it should be clear that it is his Bible that he speaks of, the Bible as interpreted by him, using his finite, fallible, and indeed totally depraved reason, which somehow is not so totally depraved as to prevent him from discerning the truths that God reveals to us.

What if the gov't shut down and nobody could tell the difference?

The Possessed

There are arresting and alarming parallels between the cultural elite in 19C Russia and the pop culture in contemporary America. An incongruous amalgam of moral nihilism, existential nihilism, and utopian totalitarianism. 

From what I've read, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great opened Russian high society to the French Enlightenment (e.g. Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot). This, in turn, dovetailed with the restless decadence of the idle rich. Something Tolstoy knew firsthand and memorized in novels like War and PeaceIn his Confession, he documents nihilism among the Russian upper class. And nihilism is a recurring theme in the novels of Dostoyevsky. 

Up-to-a-point I think European anti-clericalism was warranted. The venality of the Roman Catholic church was glaring. Both Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky became deeply religious, albeit eccentric. Russian Orthodoxy was a flawed paradigm, so they had to fumble for something more satisfying. The novels of Dostoyevsky, as well as The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Tolstoy), are a quest for meaning. Notice the parallels between 19C Russia and the liberal establishment in 21C America:

From then onwards he realised that human life was not a movement from a backward past to a better future, as he had believed or half-believed when he shared the ideas of the radical intelligentsia. Instead, every human being stood at each moment on the edge of eternity. As a result of this revelation, Dostoyevsky became increasingly mistrustful of the progressive ideology to which he had been drawn as a young man.
He was particularly scornful of the ideas he found in St Petersburg when he returned from his decade of Siberian exile. The new generation of Russian intellectuals was gripped by European theories and philosophies. French materialism, German humanism and English utilitarianism were melded together into a peculiarly Russian combination that came to be called "nihilism".

We tend to think of a nihilist as someone who believes in nothing, but the Russian nihilists of the 1860s were very different. They were fervent believers in science, who wanted to destroy the religious and moral traditions that had guided humankind in the past in order that a new and better world could come into being. 

Dostoyevsky's indictment of nihilism is presented in his great novel Demons. Published in 1872, the book has been criticised for being didactic in tone, and there can be no doubt that he wanted to show that the dominant ideas of his generation were harmful. But the story Dostoyevsky tells is also a dark comedy, cruelly funny in its depiction of high-minded intellectuals toying with revolutionary notions without understanding anything of what revolution means in practice.

The plot is a version of actual events that unfolded as Dostoyevsky was writing the book. A former teacher of divinity turned terrorist, Sergei Nechaev, was arrested and convicted of complicity in the killing of a student. Nechaev had authored a pamphlet, The Catechism of a Revolutionary, which argued that any means (including blackmail and murder) could be used to advance the cause of revolution. The student had questioned Nechaev's policies, and so had to be eliminated.

Dostoyevsky suggests that the result of abandoning morality for the sake of an idea of freedom will be a type of tyranny more extreme than any in the past. As one of the characters in Demons confesses: "I got entangled in my own data, and my conclusion directly contradicts the original idea from which I start. From unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism."

Monday, January 21, 2019

Is natural evil postlapsarian?

Although Dr. Welty discusses various objections to his theodicy, he regrettably omits any mention its greatest challenge: the widespread conviction that it has been decisively disproven by science.

Mainstream science has no place for the Biblical Adam & Eve in an idyllic Garden of Eden. Allegedly, humans evolved, via a cruel quest for survival, in a group of at least several thousand; there never were two humans from whom all other humans descend.

Even worse, fossils indicating natural evil (animal suffering from predation, disease, etc.) are allegedly dated millions of years older than the earliest humans, in blatant contrast with the notion that natural evil was caused by Adam's Fall.

Clearly, the view that natural evil comes only after Adam's Fall entails rejecting mainstream fossil dates, and thus essentially embracing Young Earth Creationism (YEC).

Unhappily,  the bulk of Christian Academia has largely accepted mainstream science, and hence disdains YEC. Some Christian scholars do uphold the traditional natural evil theodicy, while at the same time explicitly rejecting YEC, seemingly unaware of any inconsistency (e.g., Wayne Grudem, Douglas Groothuis). Most, however, embrace alternative theodicies that are more in tune with mainstream science.

That raises a number of issues:

1. In historical theology, what phenomena did Reformed theologians classify as natural evils? Natural evil is a very broad category, with many examples. 

i) Wildfires are a natural evil, caused by lightning. Does Byl think there was no lightning or fire before the Fall? 

Campfires can start a wildfire. Was everything fireproof before the Fall? 

ii) Flooding is classified as a natural evil. Does that mean the Nile river couldn't/didn't flood before the Fall? The annual flooding of the Nile river is beneficial to Egyptian farmers.

iii) If a tsunami sweeps over an island that has no fauna, is that a natural evil? It doesn't kill anything. Is a tsunami intrinsically a natural evil, or only in conjunction with other factors?

iv) An avalanche is classified as a natural disaster. Were avalanches impossible before the Fall? If you have mountains and precipitation, that produces snowpacks that produce avalanches. 

2. This all goes to the ambiguity of "natural evil". "Natural evil" is a term of art. Many natural evils are natural goods. They are necessary to maintain the balance of nature. They are only evil if a human being is in the wrong place at the wrong time.

3. It's not as if the Bible has a list of labeled natural evils. Is it a biblical presupposition that animal death is evil? Was the sacrificial system evil? 

4. I've always thought the YEC claim that natural evil must be a result of the Fall is philosophically and exegetically naive:

i) YECs assume that natural evil is incompatible with the creation as originally "good" or "very good". That, however, is not an exegetical conclusion. Gen 1 doesn't define the goodness of creation in contrast to so-called natural evil. It doesn't speak to that issue one way or the other.

ii) The standard objection to animal suffering is not that it happened before the Fall. What atheist frames the objection that way? If we say animal suffering is a postlapsarian development, that's irrelevant to the argument from animal suffering. Atheists will say animal suffering is incompatible with divine benevolence or wisdom regardless of whether that is deemed to be a prelapsarian or postlapsarian phenomenon. God is still complicit in predation, parasitism, and disease even if that's indexed to the Fall. So it's a failed theodicy. 

iii) In addition, Byl is a Calvinist, so he believes that God predestined all natural (and moral evils) and implements his blueprint via meticulous providence. 

iv) Even within an Edenic setting, it doesn't follow that there was no predation or animal death. Although the animals are tame in relation to Adam and Eve, that carries no presumption that they are nonviolent in relation to other animals. 

v) Apropos (iv), Gen 2-3 implies animal mortality, for the tree of life is reserved for humans. And it only existed in the garden, not outside the garden.

5. YEC, if true, entails the falsity of the evolutionary narrative. However, the converse doesn't follow. The falsity of YEC doesn't entail the evolutionary narrative. 

6. Allowing for natural evils before the Fall doesn't mean innocent Adam and Eve were exposed to natural evils. God could providentially shield them from natural evils. 

7. Byl is both a geocentrist as well as a young-earth creationist. From his viewpoint, they share a common hermeneutic. The same hermeneutic yields young-earth creationism and geocentrism.

The dilemma that generates is that I don't see how he can draw a hermeneutical line between geocentrism and flat-earthism. He's scornful of Enns doe arguing that Scripture teaches a three-story universe, but it sure looks to me like the same hermeneutic that yields a geocentric cosmography yields a flat-earth cosmography as well. And the reasoning is reversible. They rise and fall together.