Saturday, April 20, 2019

Extreme altruism

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends (Jn 15:13).
There can be a gray area between suicide and altruism. Suppose a father has a teenager son with liver disease. The son needs a liver transplant. Suppose the father contracts a type of cancer that's almost uniformly fatal. However, the cancer hasn't spread to the liver, and the father is a compatible donor. Would it be morally permissible, before metastasis kicks in, for the father to donate his liver to his ailing son? This will shorten the father's life. He has terminal cancer, but without a liver he will die in a few days.  

What really caused Notre Dame fire?

Jesus in Christianity and Islam

"Why I became Muslim"

I don't know if this is worth responding to:

So First Things, basically a Catholic outfit, is hosting a conversion story about an atheist who became a Muslim. A revealing example of the identity crisis that besets post-Vatican II Catholicism. 

I chose a different course and embarked on a search for God. Where could a lost soul go? Nowhere in college or country offered an answer. What the campus Conservative Party outlined was absurd: We can pick up the fragments of our culture by putting on three-piece suits, getting riotously drunk, and reviving the divine right of kings. I had plenty of opportunities to engage with orthodox Christians, and I sincerely wanted Christianity to be true. It was clear to me that what the authorities in my world celebrated—the collapse of family life, the slaughter of the unborn, the deterioration of high culture—were, in truth, social evils that followed from the decline of the Church. Christianity seemed the natural alternative to secularity. But when I entered the chapels and listened to the ministers, the regeneration I sought didn’t happen. Christian voices sounded all too agreeable and compromising. I wanted something stronger, something that didn’t ­bargain with secularism. I found it in Islam.

That's naive. There are traditional Christians as well as modernist Christians, traditional Muslims as well as modernist Muslims. 

The first part of the Islamic ­shahada, or testimony of faith, is la ilaha il’Allah, “there is no god but God”—an uncompromising statement of pure mono­theism. Islam puts the One God front and center, a simple and commanding being. Philosophy had persuaded me that God was an intellectual and moral necessity. I did not know whether his existence could strictly be proven, but I recognized the dishonesty and intellectual contortions atheism required. Without an absolute, transcendent Lord, I could see no way to objective morality and to a purpose and order in the cosmos that could overcome the transience of this world. I doubted that we could justify even belief in causal regularities without a constantly acting Creator to guarantee them. If I were to embrace God, then God would need to be an ­unmediated, undifferentiated, and decisive Omnipotence, whom I might ­willingly obey.

i) It's unclear what that means. If Allah is unmediated, does that mean Jacob Williams subscribes to occasionalism or theistic idealism? Does he deny the existence of the external world? 

What about the Koran. That's in Arabic. So Allah's communication is mediated through human language. Likewise, an angel supposedly appeared to Muhammad. Once again, that's mediated communication. 

ii) Why is an "undifferentiated" God (whatever that means) required to ground morality and rationality? 

My problem with Christianity arose from the contrast between the abstract Divinity who answers such questions and the all-too-human majesty of Jesus (peace be upon him). Surely God, if he was God, had to be a perfectly simple being, absolutely distinct from his creation. If his separation was questioned, then he wasn’t really the infinite Creator I sought. How could this transcendent being be identical with the fleshy Messiah portrayed in church, complete with his bloody stigmata? The mystery of the Trinity seemed to me a dark glass that made God’s majesty dimmer, not brighter. Rather than puzzling indefinitely, I sided with simplicity and affirmed the Islamic doctrine of tawhid: God’s absolute oneness.

i) What's the relationship between "a perfectly simple being" and "absolutely distinct from his creation"? Is he claiming that in order for God to be absolutely distinct from his creation, he must be a perfectly simple being? If so, how does that follow? How can the source of complexity be absolutely simple or undifferentiated? 

ii) There's a sense in which the Creator must be distinct or separate from the world. He must preexist or exist apart from the world in order to make it. He must have a mode of subsistence independent of the world he made. 

iii) On the other hand, if God is the source of the world, then in some respect the world must mirror God. The world must be conceptually contained in God's imagination. The world begins as a divine idea. God objectifies his idea in space and time. Analogous to a musical composition that originates in the composer's mind. In that respect, the world must correspond to something in God. 

iv) It's not clear that Williams understands the Incarnation. Identity can operate at more than one level. It's not that God becomes identical with a human soul and body. Rather, the Incarnation involves a relation–a contingent relation–between the divine Son and a human body and soul. To take a comparison, a living human individual is a composite being: an embodied soul. We might say that's what he is, but that allows for distinctions. The pairing of a particular body with a particular soul. These remain distinct and even separable. 

v) There's an a priori character to how Williams evaluates the options. But how does he know what God is like apart from divine self-revelation? He operates with preemptive criteria, as though he knows in advance what God must be like. What's the justification for that procedure? How can the Trinity be discounted merely because it's mysterious? What if reality is mysterious? Indeed, shouldn't we expect God to be mysterious in some degree, given God's surpassing greatness and our intellectual limitations? Can we simply intuit what God is like, or is that an act of discovery? 

So goes the first shahada. The second declares Muhammadun rasool’Allah: “Muhammad is the Messenger of God.” This is a matter of Scripture. In the Qur’an’s claims to be the direct speech of God, Islam again seemed a simpler and more compelling story. One God, one final Message.

Once again, he has this odd prejudice about simplicity. But how is one man's uncorroborated, self-serving report better than multiple-attestation? 

C. S. Lewis argued that a man claiming to be God must be either a lunatic, a liar, or truly the Lord. Likewise, a man claiming to be a Messenger of God must be either insane, dishonest, or just what he says he is. I judged, based on my reading of history, that Muhammad (peace be upon him) could not have been either of the former two. The facts of his life and ministry reveal an honest man in full possession of his rational faculties. 

The Koran reveals Muhammed to be someone who changes his message because he makes shortsighted claims that fail to anticipate unforeseen eventualities. Hence the face-saving theory of abrogation. 

By contrast, it wasn’t hard for me to avoid Lewis’s trilemma, because Muslims simply do not believe that Jesus (peace be upon him) ever claimed to be God. Rather, we hold him to have been another prophet like Moses, Abraham, and Isaac (peace be upon them all). 

Yes, the Koranic Jesus is a different Jesus than the NT Jesus. But what makes the Koranic Jesus the standard of comparison? Muhammad didn't know Jesus or know anyone who knew Jesus. What makes his belated account–written centuries after the fact–more accurate than 1C witnesses? 

The final piece of the puzzle fell into place upon my learning of the long process of redaction and recomposition that produced the canon that became the Bible. 

i) That's hard to respond to because it's so vague. Is Williams alluding to the formation of the canon? Or is he alleging that the books of the Bible were repeatedly edited? If so, what's his evidence? Or is he making a claim about the textual transmission of the Bible? Or is he making a claim about fluid oral tradition before the Gospels were committed to writing? What's his source of information? Is he channeling Bart Ehrman?

ii) What about the murky editorial history of the Koran? 

This was consistent with the Islamic narrative of an earlier revelation that, though true, was imperfectly preserved. The Qur’an was the unification and confirmation of what the Bible merely tried to assemble.

To the contrary, Muhammad treats the Bible in his own time and place as accurate. He challenges those who doubt his message to compare his message to the Bible. He makes copies of the Bible, in the possession of 7C Jews and Christians in Arabia, the litmus test for the veracity of his own purported revelations. 

Easter Oratorio

Papal mixed signals

Friday, April 19, 2019

Agnus Dei

Bach St. John Passion

Bach St. Matthew Passion

Old School Presbyterians

Adoration of the lamb

Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God

WTS theology/systematics prof. Scott Oliphint is facing a heresy trial:

A few brief observations:

i) I lack in-depth knowledge of Oliphint's theology. It's one of those situations where you read enough of somebody to make a preliminary judgment about whether it's worthwhile to read more of their stuff. From what I've read of him, Oliphint doesn't strike me as a high-level thinker, so I haven't bothered to deepen and broaden my familiarity with his writings. It's my impression, from what I've read, that he's out of his depth. So my knowledge of his theology is admittedly cursory. Life is short, so we make investment decisions about where to put our time. He has a son (Jared Oliphint) who strikes me as having a sharper mind than his old man. 

ii) Ironically, WTS has made it very impractical to have a detailed knowledge of Oliphint's position by withdrawing his controversial book from circulation, which makes remaining copies prohibitively expensive. Not that I don't buy expensive books, but for the price of that one book I could buy several different books that actually interest me. 

Parenthetically, I question the ethics of WTS buying the rights to the book from the publisher, like a product recall. Is that an appropriate use of seminary funds? Likewise, is it appropriate to conceal his position from public view and scrutiny by making the evidence inaccessible? 

iii) Here's an excerpt from his controversial book:

When Scripture says that God changes his mind, or that he is moved, or angered by our behavior, we should see that as literal. It refers us to God and to his dealings with us. It is as literal or as real as God being the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Scott Oliphiint, God with Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God (Crossway 2011), 123-24.

In a way this seems to be readjudicating the Clark controversy. To judge by the excerpt, Oliphint is adopting Murray's position, but taking it to a logical extreme. It becomes similar to open theist hermeneutics. Assuming that's a representative sample, he's staking out a position more characteristic of freewill theism than Calvinism. Calvinism and freewill theism are competing theological paradigms. A position that rejects divine aseity, immutability, and impassibility is on the opposing side of the spectrum.  

Now Oliphint tries to nuance that, but the question is whether he's attempting to have it both ways. Can you have it both ways? I don't think so. 

iv) In fairness to Oliphint, this goes back to perennial debates about the relationship between exegetical theology and philosophical theology. The role of anthropomorphism and all that. Certainly there's a danger, and not just a hypothetical danger, of filtering biblical theism through an extraneous interpretive grid. Take debates over divine simplicity, or the way Aquinas glosses Exod 3:14. 

v) This becomes, in part, an issue of theological method. Do we interpret narrative theology in terms of what Scripture says about the divine attributes in more didactic genres? If there are passages which teach divine aseity, omnipotence, omniscience, and impassibility, then those are logically and literally irreconcilable with narrative or poetic passages that depict God as shortsighted, short-tempered, blindsided, reactionary, &c. Take passages about absolute predestination. Well, that can't be true if God is surprised by the turn of events or angered by the outcome.    

By the same token, the OT indictment of pagan polytheism loses most of its force if Yahweh is typical of the high gods in the pagan pantheon, the primary difference being that there's just one deity of that kind rather than many–who happens to be the God of Israel. 

To be the absolute Creator, God had to exist apart from time and space if time and space are modes of creation. If everything unfolds according to a master plan, then there's an asymmetrical relation between God and creation, where the world has no effect on God. The influence goes one way. That's not philosophical theology. Rather, that's exegetical theology. That's biblical creation, predestination, and providence. Of course, freewill theists demur, but that illustrates the competition between two incompatible approaches. Different reading strategies, divergent theological paradigms. 

The alternative is to say that Scripture is inconsistent. But if we affirm inerrancy, then it's necessary to make allowance for anthropomorphism. And if, indeed, the God of classical theism is approximately correct, then we'd expect God to relate to us on our level. That's not special pleading. Admittedly, appeals to anthropomorphism can be too facile and reflexive. We need to be circumspect about that principle. But it's not imported from philosophical theology. 

vi) That said, the resurgence of Reformed Thomism and Nicene subordination is animated by tribal loyalties and crowd psychology rather than fidelity to the witness of Scripture. Perfunctory profession of sola Scriptura while chauvinistic tradition carries the day. There's blame to go around in this controversy. It's not one-sided. 

Philosophers can't be friends

In this post I'm going to discuss some related issues. One concerns the nature of biblical inerrancy. A way in which inerrancy is defended is to distinguish truth from pedantic precision. You didn't miss a target you didn't aim for. I'd like to put that distinction in a larger framework.

Another issue is whether it's ever justifiable to lie. I'm actually not going to discuss that. Rather, I'm going to discuss an issue that lies behind it. 

Let's take an example. Many hymns have some theological inaccuracies. That may reflect the defective theology of the hymnodist. Or it may simply be a concession due to the ambiguous nature of poetic imagery, or the restrictive verbal choices imposed by meter and rhyme. 

Under such circumstances, is it permissible to sing a theologically inaccurate clause of a hymn? Is it morally permissible for the singer to exercise mental reservations when singing a clause that's theologically inaccurate? 

A Puritan might say that's a good argument for exclusive psalmody. This is what happens when you sing uninspired music in public worship.

However, that doesn't get us out of the woods. Exclusive psalmodists don't normally sing psalms in the original Hebrew. Rather, they sing them in translation. In addition, they often sing metrical versions of the Psalter. So that's two steps removed from the original. And there's a certain amount of fudging that's necessary to squeeze the translation into a metrical straightjacket. What they sing only loosely corresponds to the original. 

To take another example, suppose you had a roommate who's a scrupulous philosopher. Whenever you ask him a question, he demands that you define your terms. Whenever you answer him, he demands that you define your terms. Moreover, he demands that you provide corroborative evidence for all your claims. That you justify all your operating assumptions. 

Even though you might admire his scrupulosity, it's impossible to be friends with someone like that. Indeed, it wouldn't last a day. If that's what it means to be a consistent philosopher, then philosophers can't be friends, because they are incapable of making the minor practical compromises that are necessary for social life. 

Another example is Clifford's infamous dictum that it's wrong, always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. A problem with that dictum is the failure to prioritize. It isn't even possible to have sufficient evidence for everything be believe. And it isn't necessary. Not all beliefs are equally important. Many beliefs are trivial. So we should focus on the justification of truly important beliefs. 

Human communication routinely involves or even requires abundant resort to approximations. Studied imprecision, where we deliberately say less than we mean or more than we mean. Where we intentionally make statements that are strictly false. 

And yet, for two reasons, that's not dishonest:

i) There's no intention to deceive. And ordinarily, there's no deceptive effect. 

ii) The common function of communication is to facilitate a transaction. Questions are asked or answered to perform certain tasks. Even though the statements may be ambiguous or imprecise, the listener understands what was meant. 

In that context, pedantic precision would lead to social gridlock. It would frustrate a basic function of communication, as the exchange got bogged down in gratuitous caveats. Honesty doesn't obligate us to foment social paralysis. 

Take references to colored objects. Does honestly require a speaker to specify the exact shade? 

Take references to "tall" or "short". Does honesty require the speaker to resolve the sorites paradox?  

This goes to distinction between practical and moral compromise. By its constant resort to approximations, human communication is rife with practical compromises, but that isn't  equivalent to moral compromise inasmuch as there's no intention to mislead the listener, the listener was not misled, and it successfully discharges the purpose of the communication, which is transactional or performative rather than narrowly propositional. 

Finally, this goes to the obligation to practice interpretive charity. It's not reducible to what the statement means, but the purpose of the statement. 

This is an issue in biblical hermeneutics. Exegesis aims to ascertain what the writer meant. That's fine up to a point, but it can break down if we fail to make allowance for the nature of communication. Take the allegation that Jesus was wrong to say the mustard seed is the smallest seed there is. 

Our scrupulous philosopher is mistaken about the ethics of communication. His preconception is too narrow. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Who is vandalizing French churches?

There's been extremely widespread vandalism of French churches in the past year or so. Who are the culprits? Who'd be motivated to vandalize French churches?

I have no inside information. I'll just offer some conjectures. Perhaps the most obvious candidates are Muslim immigrants. And just in terms of statistical probabilities, it seems likely that Muslims account for many cases of vandalism. 

Over and above that group, who else is motivated to do that? Another obvious candidate might be militant atheists. To begin with, France is a largely secularized country. There's increasing intolerance towards traditional Christianity, or what atheists perceive to be Christian. Often they have no firsthand knowledge of Christianity. The Catholic church is their default symbol for Christianity. More so in a historically Catholic nation like France. 

In addition, the ongoing abuse scandal has done irreparable damage to the reputation of the Catholic church. So I'm guessing, and this is just a hunch, that most of the vandalism of French churches is a combination of Muslim immigrants and militant atheists. 

It would be interesting to have comparative data from other European countries–as well as Great Britain. 

Cathedrals and mosques

I've seen some pundits complain that the Notre Dame fire got far more attention than China bulldozing the Keriya mosque. A few quick observations:

i) Different people have different reasons for what they value. Many people who aren't Catholic or Christian love Notre Dame as an architectural masterpiece. Many people love Paris. 

ii) At the risk of stating the obvious, there's nothing hypocritical about a Christian feeling greater attachment to Christian art than Muslim art or Buddhist art or Hindu art. As Christians, we naturally have more affinity with Christian art. 

iii) For that matter, we can also make discriminations within Christian art and architecture. If First Baptist Dallas burned to the ground, that would bother me far less than if York, Reims, Amiens, or Vézelay burned to the ground. 

iv) In addition, many westerners are naturally more familiar with western art than Muslim art. 

v) Then there's the question of whether it's wrong to destroy the art of a religion you disapprove of. That's separate from (ii). As a rule, I don't support the destruction of non-Christian art and architecture. But that doesn't mean I'd feel the same sense of loss. 

These are just elementary distinctions. But progressives can't keep more than one idea in their head at a time. 

Church architecture

The fire at Notre Dame raises theological questions about the value of Christian art. At one end of the spectrum is the Puritan position. I disagree with that. It's a principled position, and I respect the Puritans, but it's reactionary. Nevertheless, it merits a respectful hearing. 

A sketchy Christian argument for high art might go like this: We should save the best for the best. We should reserve the best art, music, architecture, poetry, &c. for what's most important. That's a way to remind ourselves of what is truly significant. Insofar as religion is intrinsically the most important thing in life, and the thing that lends value to everything else, insofar as religion is the good that makes everything else good that is good, we should lavish some of our greatest talent on Christian expression. 

Now, I don't necessarily mean in the narrow sense of worship or God directly. The principle includes that, but is broader. Insofar as religion consecrates life in general, we are warranted in lavishing some of our best our talent on other things as well. Take a Christian filmmaker whose movies reflect a Christian worldview. They aren't generally set in church, although there might be scenes of worship. He can bring a Christian touch to everyday life. As a rule, we experience God through the medium of what he has made. 

But to treat everything alike flattens and trivializes what is most important. Many things are ephemeral or inconsequential. 

There's still a place for the plain style. There's a beauty and nobility distinctive to simplicity as well as a beauty and nobility distinctive to complexity. 

Too much high art runs the risk of artificiality, where it becomes too far removed from normal experience. Likewise, there's the danger–often a reality–of substituting aesthetics for sanctity. Moreover, great art (or good art) shouldn't be confused with ostentation. But it's needful to have something higher for mind and heart to aspire to, which lifts us out of the drudgery and humdrum–not to mention ugliness–of ordinary life. So it's a question of balance. Like climbing a mountain for the view. Not necessarily the best place to live year round, but life needs peaks as well as plains. 

Sleuthing the Notre Dame fire

Gary Habermas on grief

Well, my wife, it was over pretty quickly, but my wife had been sick for a few months. We had no idea what it was, and when they finally sent us for testing, they had already sent us for other tests, but when they sent us for the final testing, they discovered it. Turned out she had stage four stomach cancer and she died four months later. That’s all she lived. But, before she got sick I had done some publishing on the subject of doubt and in one of those publications I was reflecting on Job. And Job is talking with God in Job 38 and I made this make believe scenario, what my Job 38 would be if I got to ask Job my questions. What would it look like? And I had published that. And three years later she got sick.

And so I thought, “Oh my, for crying out loud. I can’t believe this. Now, I have to see. Does the advice I give in this earlier document really work when I’m going through the fire?” And so we had gotten back from the hospital where they told us there was nothing they could do for her and she was terminal. And the kids were in school. It was the first week in May of 1995. She was upstairs sleeping because she was given medicine for stomach cancer that made her sleep 17-18 hours a day. And I put a child monitor up there and went out and sat on the front porch. It was starting to get warm and I had my Job 38 and I literally sat there and thought, “Wow. This is my day in the sun. I can think like Job 38.” And I had this make believe conversation. It was the same one I had three years earlier with the resurrection, but now it was spiced in a way by my wife’s obvious dying. And she didn’t live too much longer.

But as I sat there on the porch imagining what God would say to me, I would start by saying, “Lord. Why is Debbie upstairs dying? I mean she’s 43-years-old and she’s the mother of our four children and I thought you called me to ministry. But how can I minister, and how can I teach, and how can I publish if my kids need breakfast, lunch, and dinner? And they need their clothes washed.” We had four children. And if they had to have their homework done at night, how can I get anything done? And so I said, “Why her? Why now? Why this? And she’s my best friend.

And my Job 38, the way I saw that is the Lord would have said to me, “Gary I appreciate this. I appreciate your laying this out, but I’ve got a question for you. What kind of world is this? Now, I notice that’s howJob 38 starts too, “Where were you when I created the foundation of the world?” And I pictured the version for me would be, “What kind of a world is this?” And I didn’t know what to say and she’s dying and I didn’t want to play theology. And I said, “Well, Lord I don’t know. I’ll tell you in terms of my own studies. It’s a world where your son came to earth, died for our sins, was raised from the dead, and we can have a lot to hope for because of this.

And he said to me in my imagination, “Well, it’s a good start. It’s a good place to start. And I know what you’re going through.” Well, I had read a lot of literature and later wrote a book on grief and I knew that’s the last thing you say to somebody who is dying, “I know what you’re going through,” even if you did go through what they went through. The problem is they can look at you and say, “Yeah, but you’re over it. I’m not. I’m in the middle of it. So don’t talk to me about this.” Well, I pictured God saying to me, “I know what you’re going through.” And I thought, “All right. How so?” And he said, “Well I watched my son die.” And I said, “I had already been told it was terminal but I had hoped there was a way out for her.” And so I was shocked when he said that. And I said, “Wait a minute are you telling me that as you watched your son die I’m going to have to watch Debbie die?”

And I pictured him saying to me, “Son you’re going to go through some deep water, but some day you will be –” as the last card I put away after she passed away said, “How are you going to feel some day when you talk about the Yellow Brick Road finally issuing into the Emerald City?” The card said, “How are you going to feel walking down the streets of heaven hand in hand with your wife?” And I’m telling you guys, when I read that card I thought I was going to die. When I opened that card up I couldn’t repeat those words for a year. “You’ll be able to walk down the streets of heaven hand and hand with your wife.” And so I pictured God saying to me in the words of that card, I pictured him saying, “Gary, you’ve got some deep waters to go through, but one day you and Debbie will be in the kingdom together with us and it will be a glorious time. But I can’t explain it all right now, but just keep that truth ever before you.”

And basically that was the shortened version of the conversation. Later, I told the story again. That was the three-year earlier story that I published with her death put into it. So I interpreted her death as my sending my greatest gift home to heaven. And it would have been the other way around if it would have been me that died. But I sent my greatest gift home where she couldn’t be touched. And the words of 1 Pet 1:3 and following there, “Nobody can take this away from me.” She can’t be hurt anymore. Nobody can steal this. It’s garrisoned in the halls of heaven. Yes, it’s horrible. But, yes she’s safe. And, yes it’s forever. And, yes it’s about reunion. And metaphorically, because the conversation never took place with the Lord, but metaphorically, yeah that’s what the resurrection meant to me. So it symbolized, “It’s not great right now,” but this is as philosophers have said down through the ages, “This is not the best of all possible worlds, but it’s the best way to achieve the best of all possible worlds.” And I knew I was going to have to get on with the achieving part.

Mass and movie theaters

1. Catholic apologists like to poke fun at Protestant sacraments. When Protestants take communion, "they are just eating bread"–unlike the Mass. When they undergo baptism, they "just get wet". 

i) Now, there's a sense in which that's true. From a metaphysical standpoint, the bread is just bread, the wine is just wine. And guess what–Catholics are just eating bread like the rest of us. When people make the sacraments more than they are, it's a necessary corrective to explain that the bread is just bread, the wine is just wine. 

ii) But at another level that's simplistic and misleading. It's like saying the famous bust of Nefertiti is just a rock. That's true at a metaphysical level. The bust is composed of stone.

But in another respect, a statue isn't just a rock. A statue is representational. The bust of Nefertiti has a referential dimension. It stands for Nefertiti. It resembles Nefertiti. A symbol involves a relation that points beyond itself. 

Take people who have family pictures on their work desk or fireplace mantle or on their Smartphone. To a stranger, those pictures are just pictures. But if those are your family members, then looking at the pictures has an emotional resonance and recognition that's lacking in the case of strangers. 

2. Many of us have seen houses with a wall-length mirror in the living room or bathroom. It creates the illusion of space. It apparently doubles the size of the room. It looks like two halves of the same room. 

From a certain angle, it doesn't seem to be a mirror. Rather, it looks like you could walk right through the mirror into the room beyond the mirror. 

A related example is a wall-length flatscreen TV or a projector screen. The image has field depth. So it looks like the viewer could step right into that scene. Step right into that world–beyond the screen.

But, of course, that's an optical illusion. A 3D illusion. In each case, there's nothing in back of the image. It's just a projection. A one-dimensional image. Surface without depth or reality. 

To take another example: from time to time I experience migraine auras. At that point the best thing to do is lie down in a dark room until the aura dissipates. I can't read or write because the image is in front of what I'm trying to look at. The image is between me and what I'm trying to look at. I can't see through it or around it. 

3. Let's list some examples of Catholic theology:

• Purgatory

• Transubstantiation

• The Immaculate Conception

• The Assumption of Mary

• The Beatific Vision

• The intercession of the saints

• Baptismal regeneration

• Holy orders confer indelible mark on soul

• Blessing water and holy oil (sacramentals)

Now, what do these share in common? The common denominator is that Catholic believers posit something indetectable. Something behind-the-scenes. It isn't based on empirical knowledge. It isn't based on intuitive knowledge. There's no direct evidence that there is in fact anything in back of what they see or believe. Like a mirror, TV screen, or migraine aura, that's something they project onto reality. Something they imagine to be the case. It's not in the object but in their mind. A reflection of their own faith. Not behind the sensible world, but in front of the viewer, in his mind's eye. Between the believer, between the viewer, and the object. 

I'm not saying imperceptible things don't exist. I'm not saying we can't have indirect evidence for imperceptible things. But that's the rub with Catholic dogmas. There is no evidence. That's why they fall back on sheer ecclesiastical fiat. The raw authority of the church to arbitrarily promulgate dogma. 

Catholics are sitting in front of a mirror or projector screen. The sanctuary is their movie theater. An exercise in sheer belief and wishful-thinking that superimposes itself on the object. In reality, there's nothing above and beyond the object or their pious imagination.  

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

What caused the Notre Dame fire?

I don't have a firm opinion on what caused the Notre Dame fire. I'll be skeptical of an official investigation/report by the French gov't since the French gov't is motivated to cover for Muslims. For the same reason, I'm skeptical of reportage by the mainstream media. Here's some interesting things I've run across, for what it's worth:

Hope, truth, and Resurrection

Has complete transcript

Co-opting Christianity

Kirsten Powers recently did a puff piece on Democrat presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg:

I don't know if this is worth commenting on. I don't know if he will be the nominee of his party. If so, I don't know if he will be the next president. 

It's possible that the 2018 midterms marked the highpoint of the anti-Trump backlash. There was all that pent-up rage at Trump, and this was their first major chance to strike back. It's possible that to some extent the "Resistance" will be a spent force by 2020. But maybe not.

There's the question of whether politicians like Buttigieg and their allies in the media and big business will promote progressive Christianity as a way to co-opt biblical Christianity. That's something we need to be alert to. 

In the interview, Powers plays the role of sob sister. It's unclear how much of this is her summarizing his positions, or offering her own interpretation. 

The beginning

Where it [arche] is used in the temporal sense of the point at which something begins, this point can be thought of as included in the temporal process or as prior, external to, and unaffected by it, i.e., as the origin or principium. In the former case the arche corresponds to the telos (Heb 3:14; 7:3); in the latter case, arche carries the sense of pre-temporality and eternity

This leads us to a series of primarily Johannine texts in which arche is used with reference to the essence and existence of Jesus in the sense of before all time and creation, first of all John 1:1,2 (en arche); 1 John 1:1)…The context formed by the chronological hymn of Col 1:15-20 clearly shows that ho esetin (he) arche (v18) does not intend to incorporate Christ into the cosmos and the creation, but rather to designate him as the principle standing outside all time, as the origin of the cosmos and creation. The same is true of the self designation of Jesus as he arch kai to telos in Rev 22:13 with the parallel statement to Alpha kai to Omega, ho protos kai ho eschatos (cf. 2:8). These epithets apply equally to God (1:8; 21:6) and signify not a temporal and worldly being, but rather the One existing before all time and into eternity. (On this formula [he arch kai to telos], which has a prehistory in Deutero-Isaiah, the Greeks, Philo, and the rabbis. Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (T&T Clark 1990), 1:161-162.

Saving the Blessed Sacrament

Etienne Loraillère, an editor at France's KTO Catholic Television, reported that “Fr. Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Firefighters, went with the firefighters into Notre-Dame cathedral to save the crown of thorns and the Blessed Sacrament.”

If the Blessed Sacrament just is Jesus Christ (a la transubstantiation), can't he protect himself from fire? 

Monday, April 15, 2019

Notre Dame fire

I'll use the Notre Dame fire as a launchpad to reflect on some related issues. Why do many people become attached to handsome historic buildings?

One reason is that when you step into a building like Notre Dame, you step into the past. It's like a time machine. Not as good as a time machine, but since they only exist in science fiction, it's the next best thing. 

Humans take an interest in the past. We're born into an ongoing story, and many of us are curious about other times and places. So ancient buildings connect us to the past. And that has a certain counterfactual appeal. It appeals to our imagination: what if I lived back then? What was it like to be around back then? 

On a related note, it reminds us that human life is fleeting. People pass through the lifecycle but the building remains, It was there before you were born and it will still be there after you die. Walking through a Redwood forest can have a similar effect.

Depending on your worldview, that can be good or bad. If you deny the afterlife, then ancient buildings accentuate the insignificance of individual human lives. We're replaceable. Our absence, in death, is barely noticed. 

On another related note, many people have visited sites like Notre Dame. They have fond memories. And these are shared memories. It's like popular movies. A common frame of reference.

So buildings like Notre Dame connect us to other people across time and space. Finally, many people find Gothic church architecture edifying. 

At the time of writing I don't know the extent of the damage. Suppose the stained glass windows are intact. Then the damage should be reparable. It's a case of restoring the cathedral.

But suppose some of stained glass were destroyed. Then it can't be repaired or restored. At best, it can be rebuilt or replicated. Every square inch of the church has been studied and photographed. Of course, it would lose of the charm walking into a medieval cathedral. You wouldn't be stepping into the past, but stepping into a modern simulation of the past.

Why do a I mention this comparison? Because it parallels different models of the resurrection of the body. I don't mean the resurrection of Christ, where there's an intact body with minimal necrosis. 

If a human body has disintegrated, then it can't be repaired or restored, in a straightforward sense. And it's hard to see how the original parts can be reassembled. The atoms recycled into other things. They are now constituents of other things. They can't be removed and reallocated without destroying what they currently constitute. 

Mind you, even in the case of a living body, there's a turnover in the atoms, organic molecules, and cells that compose the body. A body is a dynamic system in flux. It's just that "solid" objects vibrate at a slower pace than fluid objects (as it were). The difference between solid and fluid is a difference in degree rather than kind. 

So it may be necessary to replace the old mortal body with a duplicate. Not even a strict duplicate. It will have some enhancements or improvements.  

French churches vandalized

I don't have an opinion as of yet on how the fire started at Notre Dame. I'll wait for more information. That said:

Is it time to end the seal of the confessional?

I'll comment on Michael Bird's recent article:

I've discussed this before:

Despite my relentless opposition to Roman Catholicism, I can't get on the bandwagon of this particular movement:

However, even an advocate for religious freedom like myself understands and accepts the arguments for requiring Catholic clergy to break the seal of confession and to provide mandatory reporting of child sex abuse. Religious freedom is an intrinsic human right, a key index for gauging freedom in any state, but it is not absolute and can be limited in instances of public safety.

There are several distinct issues:

i) Should a priest be free to break the seal of the confessional without fear of excommunication, under extreme circumstances? In a sense, I agree with that. However, passing a law won't change Roman Catholic policy. That's governed by canon law, not civil/criminal law. 

In addition, I reject the whole paradigm of auricular confession and absolution. So this is a solution within a flawed paradigm. The "sacrament" of penance needs to be scrapped. 

ii) Over and above the case of Catholic clergy, there's the issue of confidential information generally. And there's a crucial distinction between freedom to divulge confidential information and mandatory reporting laws. I don't concede that the state has the right to make private citizens agents of the state who are required to spy on each other and report back to the authorities. I don't think there should be an exception for clergy. Rather, I think private citizens in general should be exempt from mandatory reporting laws. Just think of totalitarian regimes, past and present, which enjoin citizens to rat out their neighbors. Bird's solution creates a different problem. 

Thus, within the New Testament, there is dominical tradition and apostolic precedent for prioritizing the safety of congregational members from sexual abuse and exploitation.

Second, there is an ethical argument that protecting children from sexual abuse is the greater good to be pursued. Most ethical dilemmas are usually on account of two valid ethical imperatives coming into conflict. For instance, one should not lie, but lying to the Gestapo to save a Jewish family hiding in your basement is the greater good. Similarly, protecting the penitent in confession is good. If a woman confesses to a priest her adultery and seeks absolution, then the priest shouldn’t blab to her husband or gossip to her friends since it would cause her harm and make her the subject of punishment after she has already shown contrition. So, protection of the penitent is a genuine good … but a greater good still is protecting children from harmful and repeated abuse. 

I agree with Bird that there's a prima facie duty not to violate information shared in confidence, but there are situations where that can be overridden by a higher obligation. That isn't unique to the confession of sin, but applies to information shared in confidence generally: say, between close friends. 

This is particularly persuasive if we consider that the degree of harm done to the victims by a penitent abuser is greater than the harm that would be done to the penitent abuser if he or she were reported to authorities. What is more, reporting a penitent abuser might actually be a form of protection for the abuser, protecting them from committing further crimes (dehumanizing themselves further), protecting them from suicide (which is common among sexual abusers), and from vigilante justice (also, not unheard of). The greater good of protecting vulnerable children exceeds the good of protecting the penitent from judicial punishment in this particular instance. It can also be regarded as being in the interest of the penitent to be prevented from committing further sexual abuse and beginning the journey towards psychological and pastoral treatment.

You have to wonder how Bird can be so blind to the obvious. The primary source of the problem isn't lay Catholic abusers confessing to a priest, but abusive priests (bishops, and cardinals). An abusive priest isn't going to volunteer incriminating information about himself. Breaking the seal of the confessional is beside the point, since the source of the problem is the confessor, not the penitent. An abusive priest isn't going to turn himself into the authorities. The solution is to have a screening process that filters out homosexual applicants to the priesthood (and their evangelical counterparts). 

Third, Catholic faith requires both organic development of its doctrine and resourcement of its ancient tradition to effectively address the problem of abusive priests. The origins of penance and the seal of the confession are developments from the medieval and counter-reformation periods. Just as the seal of the confessional was a necessary development to ensure the confidentiality of the confessional and to prevent the exploitation of the contrite, so too is it now necessary to develop a theology and practice to protect the victims of the penitent in the case of sexual violence.

Actually, I suspect the justification is mainly pragmatic: few Catholics will confess their sins to a priest if they think that will be become a topic of gossip or be used against them. 

Fourth, there is a valid legal argument for government interfering in the sanctity of the confessional. According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights § 18.3, concerning religious freedom: “Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” Religious freedom is invaluable in a secular and pluralistic democracy, but it is not absolute. A person’s religious freedom can be curtailed if it burdens the rights of other persons, like the right to life and the right to safety from harm. That is why governments can limit religious freedom when and only when it is necessary to ensure someone’s safety. One could sensibly argue that the seal of the confessional, insofar that it protects abusers and perpetuates abuse; causes harm to members of the public and therefore can be legitimately curtailed. Now, the limitation of religious freedom should not be deployed in illegitimate circumstances (see the Siracusa principles on the limitation and derogation of provisions), and nothing here illegitimates the seal of the confessional in normal circumstances. However, international law on religious freedom provides legal grounds for limiting religious freedom in order to defend the rights and lives of others.

i) One problem is with the generic category of "religion". I agree that religious freedom isn't absolute, but all religions weren't created equal. There's a problem when, for instance, you chain the fortunes of Christianity to Islam when it comes to religious freedom. 

ii) And, once again, the seal of the confessional doesn't usually protect abusers since the abusers were usually homosexual priests rather than laymen. Why can't Bird make that elementary connection? 

Fifth, Catholics may also wish to consider a missional reason for changing their practice of confession and the seal of the confessional. The sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church all over the world have tarnished, perhaps irreparably, the reputation of the church for a whole generation. 

The abuse, its cover up, the refusal to address its underlying causes, the failure to listen to victims, and the unwillingness to make reporting mandatory, has led to an exodus of people from the church, and represents an insurmountable barrier for the Catholic church to connect with the unchurched public. I fear that a haemorrhaging of the laity will continue for Catholics and their mission to make Christ known will prove ineffective until a comprehensive pastoral review of its clerical standards and sacramental theology is undertaken.

i) It's a good thing that the Catholic church is hemorrhaging members. It's a good thing that this represents an insurmountable barrier for the Catholic church to connect with the unchurched public. It's a good thing that this scandal has brought the Catholic church into disrepute.

ii) But the problem runs deeper than the clerical seduction of boys. Consensual homosexual conduct by members of the Catholic clergy is also discreditable, from the standpoint of Christian ethics. Homosexual activity is the fundamental problem, of which pederasty is just one expression and symptom.