Saturday, August 31, 2019

The authority conundrum

There are Catholics who love love love love ecclesiastical authority…until they find themselves on the wrong end of the authority whip they profess to love. They taunt evangelicals with formulaic questions like, "What's your authority for that interpretation? and "What's your authority for the canon?" (BTW, there's nothing wrong with asking how Protestants justify the canon or justify their theology, but casting the issue in terms of ecclesiastical authority begs the question.)

So long as ecclesiastical authority is on their side, they can never speak too highly of the pope's authority or "the Church's" authority. When, however, the ground shifts under their feet and they find themselves on the losing side of ecclesiastical authority, their love affair with papal authority or the Magisterium cools to temperatures approaching absolute zero. 

Watching RadTrads and avant-garde Catholics duke it out is kinda like watching the fight between fundamentalist Mormon polygamists and mainstream Mormons. Within the Mormon paradigm, both sides are right and both sides are wrong. Outside the Mormon paradigm, both sides are hopelessly wrong.

With pardonable hyperbole, we might say that for RadTrads, tradition ends with Pius X, but for avant-garde Catholics, tradition begins with Pius XII. RadTrads have the past while their adversaries have the future. But the team with a lock on the future is unbeatable. Living leaders have a decisive advantage over dead leaders. The living can overrule the dead while the dead are poorly positioned to overrule the living. 

It's especially ironic to see converts to Rome attempt to school cradle Catholics and even bishops, cardinals, and popes on true Catholicism. They're like slumlords who buy an apartment complex, then discover that they bought a dog. It's falling apart. The roof needs to be replaced. The plumbing needs to be replaced. The electrical wiring needs to be replaced. The complex is infested with rats and termites.

1960s Mississippi

Between roughly minutes 4-9, Baptist church historian Tom Nettles has a personal testimony about race relations in his youth:

Ravi in the dock

Accusations swirl around Ravi. These are usually from critics with an ax to grind. Here's a list of allegations from a more reputable source:

That said, I don't know if Virtue has any independent knowledge, or if he relies on the sources he cites at the end of the article.

Flood traditions

1. One argument for the Noah's flood, in particular for the global scope of the flood, is appeal to flood traditions scattered worldwide. While that's a tantalizing line of evidence, what's been lacking in my experience is primary source documentation. I haven't seen young-earth creationists point reader to collections of flood traditions from around the world. Instead, there's just a vague reference to their existence. But that's a poor substitute for reading actual accounts.

I recently read Bernhard Lang “Non-Semitic Deluge Stories and the Book of Genesis a Bibliographical and Critical Survey.” Anthropos, vol. 80, no. 4/6, 1985, pp605–616.

Over the decades, anthropologists have collected flood traditions. Lang reviews a large number of collections. He himself regards Noah's flood as a myth, so his survey reflects that bias. It is, however, useful in sifting many collections, some in foreign languages.

2. There are multiple complications in attempting to correlate an extrabiblical flood tradition with Noah's flood. The best-known examples are Mesopotamian flood traditions. And these have some unmistakable parallels. If Noah's flood was a regional flood, centered in the Middle East, then it's not surprising that there are independent traditions of that catastrophe from the same area. And I do think those count as extrabiblical corroboration for Noah's flood.

3. What about other traditions? Lang mentions "some patristic references relating to Armenian flood stories." It would be interesting to read those.

4. In addition, he says that "when the New World was discovered, Christian missionaries and travelers reported that natives had their own stories of the flood." Again, it would be interesting to read the accounts of missionaries who first made contact with indigenous peoples and recorded their flood traditions.

5. One difficulty with correlating extrabiblical flood traditions with Noah's flood is that many examples come from oral cultures. That makes it hard to determine the antiquity of the flood traditions. In the case of the Mesopotamian traditions, we know that these were committed to writing thousands of years ago. But in the case of oral cultures, one issue is how long authentic flood traditions could be transmitted orally. Even on a young-earth creationist timeline, Noah's flood happened thousands of years ago.

6. Another issue is the interval between the time missionaries make contact and anthropologists collect flood traditions. There's the danger of cultural "contamination," where the flood tradition the anthropologist records from some indigenous people-group is not in fact an independent flood tradition, but something they absorbed from Christian missionaries long before the anthropologist arrived on the scene. Lang mentions:
A map of the world indicates where the author was able to locate elaborate flood stories, traces of them, and versions which refer to the rainbow. According to his map, flood traditions are most common in Asia and on the islands immediately south of Asia, and on the North American continent. Though found in Africa, they are not nearly as common as on other continents (cf. map 1).
One issue is whether those cultures were deeply impacted by Christian missionaries. If Christian contact was superficial or negligible, then I assume that indicates the independence of their flood traditions.

7. In addition to missionary diffusion, it's necessary to rule out other factors. One theory is that some flood traditions are etiologies to explain petrified seashells on mountaintops.

However, I have questions about that theory. Did observers have a penchant for inventing tales to provide a backstory for that phenomenon? And even if individual observers did that, would it catch on and become part of the canonical lore of that people-group?

8. Another consideration is whether the area from which the flood tradition is found is subject to disastrous coastal or fluvial flooding. If so, then while it may be an independent flood tradition, it probably memorializes an indigenous deluge.

9. Here's a further question: suppose some of Noah's descendants carry the flood tradition with them as they migrate to another part of the world. But in the absence of written records, and separated from the original landmarks (e.g. the landing zone for Noah's ark), would the original setting of the flood tradition begin to blend with the fauna, flora, landscape, and climate of the new environment? The description might reflect the local conditions of the new environment. At this distance in time, is it possible to untangle the two and recover the underlying original?

10. A final question is whether it's possible to distinguish a local flood tradition from a global flood tradition. Consider two scenarios:

i) The flood was universal. Descendants of Noah who migrated to far-flung corners of the world carried flood traditions with them.

ii) The flood was regional, centered in the Middle East. Descendants of Noah who migrated to far-flung corners of the world carried flood traditions with them.

Are these distinguishable? Can someone on the ground gauge the scale of the disaster? It's not like they have a bird's-eye view. They only take in as much as they can see, from their limited vantage-point.

Suppose you're living in a village. You know about the existence of other tribes or villages. But those are the only other humans you know about. You have no idea how many human beings there are in general. Suppose a flood devastates your homeland. For you, that's the known world. From an outsider perspective, it's a local flood, but from your perspective, it's worldwide.

When we see news reports of massive flooding, the natural disaster is put on a map. We have an aerial view. Satellite photography. And we place it in the context of world geography. But a ground-based observer lacks that larger frame of reference.

11. Even if the narrator was shown the deluge in a vision, would he be in a position to tell if it was regional or global in scope? What was his geographical frame of reference? Would he recognize the Rockies, Andes, or Hindu Kush if he saw them in a vision? Modern people are able recognize landmarks from parts of the world they never visited. But prescientific observers on the ground lack that context, and even direct revelation doesn't automatically provide it.

Red New Deal

1. Good to see the Democrats are going with full-blown socialism. That'll definitely go over well for them in the crucial Midwest swing states. /s

2. Democrats alleged Trump has been in cahoots with Russia. Of course that turned out to be false. However, I wouldn't be surprised if communist China is truly funding our social progressives via various middlemen and avenues difficult to trace back to the CCP. At least that seems far more realistic than Putin and Trump.

3. Victor Davis Hanson has a good article: "Why are so many young people calling themselves socialists?".

Friday, August 30, 2019

Wrestling with God

24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answered.

28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”

But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
(Gen 32:24-30). 

One of the striking features of this encounter is how the Angel of the Lord lets Jacob imagine that the patriarch has a winning chance. And even if he can't win, he can hold his own against the stranger. The Angel of the Lord strings Jacob along until daybreak, then defeats him with a sudden show of overwhelming force, thereby revealing that Jacob was no match for his enigmatic opponent. The opponent effortlessly subdues  him. It was never close. 

The ruse might shed some light on God's providence in our lives. Things are not always what they seem. Preliminary impressions may be misleading. There's a plot twist at the end

Freewill theism and evil

The problem of evil is often locked into two-sided debate between Calvinists and freewill theists. The freewill theists are confident that evil is a particular, indeed intractable problem for Calvinism–from which freewill theism is luckily exempt. There are, however, outside observers who think freewill theism operates within the same flawed framework:

One thing I noticed that many of the contributors had in common is a dissatisfaction with the very structure of typical defenses or theodicies, because (the thought goes) the very idea that God allows evil for the sake of some good (even one, as the skeptical theists might say, that we should not expect to be able to identify) would put God into an immoral relationship with those who suffer, because he'd be trading off their suffering for some other good, which would be an immoral way to treat someone. Those who endorsed some version of this line of thought reacted to it in a variety of ways: some wanted to rethink the personality of God in order to deny that he is part of our moral community, while others wanted to rethink the perfection of God so that we can think of him as an imperfect parent. I do think that this line of thought reflects a general turn in the literature on the problem of evil, from arguing about whether we can identify goods that outweigh and require evils, to discussing the ethical principles that would apply to God himself. I myself have most often encountered this turn in some critiques leveled by Abrahamic theists against other Abrahamic theists: the common argument against theological determinism, namely, that it entails that God bears some morally objectionable relation to evil and suffering, even if there is a great good that requires him to allow the evil.[3] The fact that so many in this volume see the problem as applying not just to theological determinists but to any standard theist is striking, and seems to me correct: everyone needs to address the question of God's own ethics. Unfortunately, none of the contribution addresses that question in any real depth, certainly not coming even close to the depth of Mark Murphy's God's Own Ethics.[4] So one useful lesson of this book is that we should try to explore the issue of what ethical principles should apply to God. However, we'll need to look elsewhere for a deep and thorough exploration of that subject.

Evil is a problem for atheism

The problem of evil is usually treated as a problem for Christianity. But is it actually a greater problem for atheism?

Nagasawa gives an argument from evil against atheism -- or, more precisely, against what he calls "existentially optimistic" atheism, the sort of atheism which regards the world as a place worth being happy and grateful to be alive in. He argues that the fact that the world's evil and suffering seems embedded in basic systems (like evolution) is a problem for these existentially optimistic atheists, and so in a sense the problem of evil applies just as much to (existentially optimistic) atheism as to theism. Theists actually have an advantage in replying to the problem of evil, because of their view that there is so much more to the world than material reality that might factor into the balance of evil and good in the world.

Puppets and pink unicorns

Freewill theists who compare Calvinism to puppets and robots are the intellectual counterpart to village atheists who compare the Christian faith to sky fairies, invisible pink unicorns, bronze age goatherds, the flying spaghetti monster, cosmic zombie Jesus, &c. It isn't possible to have a rational conversation with either group. They're incapable of moving beyond childish, simpleminded metaphors and caricatures. They don't seek understanding. 

Ad uxorem

1. Psychologically speaking, it seems women tend to be more flexible in shaping themselves into what the men whom they love and respect in their lives want. In fact, women are often more than happy to please the men they love and respect.

As an aside, maybe this is part of what it means for the woman to have been a "helper" fit for Adam, to have been taken from his "rib", to have been his "bone" and his "flesh". It's as if wives naturally wish to mold themselves into their husbands' vision in life.

2. However, it wouldn't seem quite right if the husband shapes himself into what his wife wants. In fact, whenever that happens, it seems to me both husband and wife end up miserable.

Most girlfriends or wives don't respect a boyfriend or husband who does whatever she wants him to do, who looks to her for guidance, who looks to her to make the big decisions in life, who looks to her to lead the family.

They may say they do, but they don't. Their attitudes and behavior put the lie to that.

At best, a wife might enjoy wielding that kind of power over her husband, but she won't respect him. She may wear the pants in the family, but she'll begrudge it - and him.

3. Today many women seem inflexible. They don't wish to change or adapt to the men in their lives. They don't wish to follow any man. Rather they expect men to change to accommodate them. They expect men to heed them.

At the same time, these women don't typically respect men who follow their lead all the time. Not when it comes to the men in their own lives.

Of course, they're fine with getting men in general to support what they want. Such as hyperfeminism, the #MeToo movement, abortion. But I'm primarily referring to a wife and her husband.

In any case, these women are caught in a catch-22 of their own making. On the one hand, they refuse to follow their man, but expect him to follow her. On the other hand, they don't respect men who are wrapped around their finger. As such, these women make themselves miserable.

4. Sadly, there seem to be ever more women like this in our society and culture. I suppose that's largely owing to second and third wave feminism.

5. Of course, none of this is to deny men or husbands have problems. That's a separate topic.

At the same time, even this needs to be kept in context. For one thing, there's an ongoing war against men and masculinity in our culture.

6. By contrast, there's Christian marriage. For instance, perhaps we can draw some inspiration from Tertullian, even if it's too idealistic and idealized:

How shall we ever be able adequately to describe the happiness of that marriage which the church arranges, the sacrifice strengthens, upon which the blessing sets a seal, at which angels are present as witnesses, and to which the Father gives his consent? For not even on earth do children marry properly and legally without their fathers' permission.

How beautiful, then, the marriage of two Christians, two who are one in hope, one in desire, one in the way of life they follow, one in the religion they practice. They are as brother and sister, both servants of the same Master. Nothing divides them, either in flesh or in spirit. They are, in very truth, two in one flesh; and where there is but one flesh there is also but one spirit. They pray together, they worship together, they fast together; instructing one another, encouraging one another, strengthening one another. Side by side they visit God's church and partake of God's banquet; side by side they face difficulties and persecution, share their consolations. They have no secrets from one another; they never shun each other's company; they never bring sorrow to each other's hearts. Unembarrassed they visit the sick and assist the needy. They give alms without anxiety; they attend the sacrifice without difficulty; they perform their daily exercises of piety without hindrance. They need not be furtive about making the sign of the cross, nor timorous in greeting the brethren, nor silent in asking a blessing of God. Psalms and hymns they sing to one another, striving to see which one of them will chant more beautifully the praises of their Lord. Hearing and seeing this, Christ rejoices. To such as these he gives his peace. Where there are two together, there also he is present; and where he is, there evil is not.

These, then, are the thoughts which the apostle in that brief expression of his has left for our consideration. Recall them to your mind, if ever there should be need to do so. Use them to strengthen yourself against the bad example which certain women give you. In no other way than this are Christians permitted to marry - and, even if they were, it would not be the prudent thing to do.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

The moods of faith

1. Sometimes the question is asked, How sure are you that Christianity is true? Are you 100% certain? 90%? Above 50%? Below 50%?

i) That's not altogether wrong. There are lifelong churchgoers, yet the message never takes.

Or consider the cliche question of the revivalist: "If you died tonight, are you absolutely sure that you'd go straight to heaven?"

Although that suffers from a mechanical view of conversion (the altar call), it poses the question: are you ready to die? And there's no more important question than that.

ii) There's also a sense in which there are degrees of certainty. We are more confident about some beliefs than others. I'm 100% certain that I exist. I suppose it's possible to doubt your own existence if you're mentally ill. But insanity is a poor yardstick.

For that matter, I'm 100% certain that my late grandmother existed. Yes, we can float thought-experiments about how that might be a simulated experience, but imaginary conjectures like that don't lower my confidence in the slightest.

2. Having said all that, we might question whether assigning percentiles is the best framework to understand faith. Is a quantitative model the best model?

Isn't it artificial to assign numbers to faith? Why suppose a mathematical model is the right way to model faith? Where does that even come from?

I wonder if it doesn't go back to gambling. What are the odds that the next card dealt will give the player a full-house? And laying odds in gambling is then extended to other things. What are the odds that a particular candidate will win? And by how many percentage points? What are the odds that it will rain tomorrow? What are the odds that a hurricane will make landfall at a particular location? What are the odds that it will be a category 4 (or whatever)? What are the odds that if you undergo cancer treatment, you will be cured? What are the odds that if you undergo cancer treatment, you will live another 5 years?

What these examples share in common is the attempt to quantify future outcomes. But is that the right way to model faith?

3. The basic challenge to Christian faith is twofold:

i) As a rule, God is distant. Normally, we don't experience God directly in our lives. We don't normally have two-way conversations with God. Jesus doesn't appear to us once a week. Faith is about not seeing.

ii) Combine that with the aggravations of life. The frustrations, disappointments, setbacks, betrayals, and failures. The daily grind. Dashed hopes. Tedium.

4. A danger of the mathematical model is how the model in itself can be a source of doubt. If you use the wrong model, if you think faith should be quantified, then that may lead to uncertainty or doubt if faith can't hit 100%. But is that due to inadequate faith, or to filtering faith through the wrong kind of grid?

5. Instead of viewing faith in mathematical terms, suppose we view it in qualitative terms. But what does that mean?

i) Take the metaphor of seasons, and apply it to friendship. There's springtime friendship and summertime friendship.

But sometimes friends, even best friends, having a falling out. That's the wintertide of friendship. It seems to be dead. Like denuded trees. The warmth is gone. The color is gone.

Yet they may renew the friendship later on. But at that stage of life it's too late to revert to the springtime or summertime friendship. Instead, it's autumnal friendship. Maturer. More self-conscious. An undertone of sadness-along with gratitude for small blessings.

Sometimes, at the end of summer, you can go outside and just feel the season turning. There's something in the air. A certain kind of breeze. A hint of rain. Different from a summer breeze or summer rain. You can physically sense that summer is behind you. That won't come around again until the next cycle. Not until next year.

Or take the related metaphor of a dry season. Friendships may pass through dry seasons. So faith is akin to the seasons of friendship.

ii) Consider a different metaphor: faith is like music. Faith in a major key. Faith in a minor key. Fast music and slow music. Dance music or a dirge.

We generally like fast music, but sometimes we're just not in the mood for fast music. Sometimes we want to hear music that changes our mood, and sometimes we want to hear music that matches our mood. Sometimes faith is like hearing the patter of light raindrops on a window. Or trees twisting in the wind. Faith has musical variations.

iii) Or we might compare faith to light and color. Sometimes faith is bright, like golden sunshine. Sometimes faith is like a gray day. Sometimes faith is like sunrise. Sometimes faith is like sunset or dusk. Sometimes faith is like nightfall. Pitch black. Clouds curtain the stars. The moon lies hidden below the horizon.

Sometimes fine weather mocks our mood. There's a mismatch between how we feel in the inside and what we see on the outside.

6. We can foster artificial doubt by simplistic, abstract models of faith. Reducing it to percentiles, as if faith ranges along a mathematical continuum. But faith is a living thing that expands and contacts. We should enrich and replenish our concept of faith with suitable analogies.

7. Finally, it's quite possible to exaggerate the importance of certainty or certitude. Take a grown child who's the caregiver for an elderly parent. The parent is becoming feebleminded. Suppose paranoia is a symptom of the parent's dementia. The parent is suspicious of the caregiver's benevolence.

But while that may make it harder to care for the parent, because the parent is uncooperative, what's ultimately important is not whether the parent trusts the caregiver, but whether the caregiver is trustworthy, regardless of the parent's misgivings. The child continues to care for the parent, acting in their best interests, despite the parent's paranoia. It's because the parent is growing senile that he (or she) requires the caregiver to protect and look out for an increasingly helpless father or mother. By the same token, what ultimately matters is not how much we trust God, but whether God is trustworthy.

Free Will and Sovereignty: Responding to a Facebook Analogy

A friend of mine on Facebook posted a conundrum that had been shared with him (note: he disagreed with what the original poster was trying to imply, but was interested in my opinion too).  The post was simple: 
There are no tracks. There are no people. There is no trolley.
The Conductor lays the tracks, builds the trolley, and creates six androids.
He ties five of the androids to one track and one to other.
He drives the trolley and runs over the five.
He unties to sixth and says "I saved you from being run over!"
The sixth one is grateful, as he was programmed to be.
(Calvinist trolley problem)
Of course, my first reaction to this was “Great, another tired puppet metaphor dragged out by those who don’t understand anything about Calvinism.”  And it’s true.  Calvinists have been hearing variations of this for centuries.  It’s nothing but an analogy absent an argument, all intended to make you ignore what the Bible has actually said.

Furthermore, the above analogy does not represent Calvinist beliefs at all.  Calvinism does not argue that men are puppets, robots, androids, or marionettes, because the Bible does not say that.  Calvinists do say that God is sovereign over all things, because the Bible does say that.  Calvinists also typically are compatibilists (I know I am, as are most Calvinists I dialogue with), which means that we stipulate that there is compatibility between sovereignty and free will—again, because that’s what the Bible says.

Now it would be trivially easy to respond to the Arminian with another analogy.  Just take the fact that Colossians 1:16 - 17 tells us that “all things were created through” Christ, and furthermore that in Him “all things hold together.”  With that in mind: 
There are no tracks.  There are no people.  There is no trolley.
The Conductor lays the tracks, builds the trolley, and creates the people, giving them Libertarian Free Will.
One person the Conductor is holding together gets onto the trolley that the Conductor is holding together and runs it over the rails that the Conductor is holding together and runs over the other five that the Conductor longer holding together.
The sixth one is happy that his will was not challenged.
(Arminian trolley problem)
So much for the persuasive power of analogies.  But again, that would just be an analogy minus an argument and I would never leave it at that.

The fact of the matter is that if we can show just one occurrence of God overriding the freedom of an individual without there being any moral qualms, then Libertarian Free Will has no leg to stand on.  So let me show two just from the book of Genesis. 

Look at Genesis 20, specifically verses 3-6, when Abraham lied about Sarah saying she wasn’t his wife but his sister so Abimelech took her to be his wife: 
But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man's wife.” Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.”
Notice that Abimelech’s actions are described as being from “the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands.”  And furthermore, God concurred by saying “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart.”  This is Abimelech’s genuine mental disposition, his genuine decision—this is what he chose to do.  And yet: “It was I who kept you from sinning against me” says the LORD.  “Therefore I did not let you touch her.”

God did not let Abimelech touch Sarah.  Yet Abimelech also says he did not touch her from his own integrity, and God agreed with that assessment.  Libertarian Free Will can make no sense of this statement without concluding God is simply lying.

And what of the second illustration? Later on we read Joseph’s own declaration that he was sold into slavery because of the evil of his brothers, and yet also because God intended it.  “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20).

Even as clear as that statement is, there is a lot packed into it that may be unobserved.  Consider what “it” was in the statement “God meant it for good.”  This is Joseph’s being sold into slavery.  Why did the brothers hate Joseph enough to sell him into slavery?  Genesis 37 tells us that too.  Joseph had a dream that his father and brothers would bow down to him, and Genesis 37:19 tells us what they had in mind: “Here comes this dreamer.”

And we know the rest of the story: The brothers sold him into slavery, and he was brought to Egypt.  Joseph worked for Potipher.  His wife then claimed Joseph had attacked her, and Joseph was thrown into jail.  And then, Joseph interpreted the dreams for two criminals, one who was killed and the other who was restored.  Then Pharaoh had dreams and the cup-bearer who was restored told him about Joseph.  And Joseph interpreted those dreams, such that when the famine came they had plenty of food, so that Joseph’s father and brothers were forced to visit Egypt and, seeing Joseph but not recognizing him, they bowed down to him exactly as Joseph’s original dream had foretold.

But wait, there’s even more.  Why was the famine coming?  When Pharaoh had his dream, he had two dreams.  Joseph interprets it by saying: “God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. … God has shown to Pharaoh what he is about to do. …And the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about” (Genesis 41:25, 28, 32).

The famine itself is something that God did.  It is not a random famine that came out of nowhere.  It was God’s intention to bring about a famine.

One could obviously ask the question, then: if God sent it, then He was in control the whole time. He could decide who it would affect, when, and why. So, why did God go through the rather convoluted process of giving Joseph dreams that would cause his brothers to hate him so much that they would sell him into slavery where he would then be falsely accused of attempted rape and thrown in jail, so that he would be in the place where two officials of Egypt would be sent in order for Joseph to interpret their dreams, so that years later when Pharaoh had a dream Joseph would be brought out of prison, become the second in command of Egypt, save countless people, and finally to have his brothers and father bow down to him just as his dream had predicted at the very beginning?  I mean, have you thought about this yet?  If any single one of those items doesn't go exactly as it did, the whole thing collapses.

Yet even given all that, Joseph concludes that while his brothers meant it for evil, God meant it for good.  His brothers still intended evil—they chose to do evil.  And they knew it.  For instance, before this we read:
Then they said to one another, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.” And Reuben answered them, “Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.” They did not know that Joseph understood them, for there was an interpreter between them (Genesis 42:21-23).
They admit they are guilty of what they did, and Reuben goes so far as to acknowledge what they did was a sin.  They knew they were responsible for all they had done and yet Joseph would still say: 
And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt (Genesis 45:5-8).
What they did in sending Joseph to Egypt was evil; yet God sent him to Egypt.  “It was not you who sent me here, but God.”  How is this possible if Libertarian Free Will is correct?  But it makes perfect sense if one is a compatibilist and recognizes that men are morally responsible for their choices even when God is sovereign over them.

The passages could be increased exponentially throughout the rest of the Bible too, from the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart to God’s actions during the trials of Job, to the statements of Paul outright saying in Romans 9:16 “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” illustrating that with the previously mentioned example of Pharaoh too.  The Bible is consistent and clear throughout that God is sovereign and does as He pleases even in circumstances where those who God uses for His own good purposes face moral judgment for the evil they have committed.

You might not like that that’s what the Bible says, but you’re not going to overturn those clear passages with a simplistic, inaccurate analogy.

Ecclesiastical coverup

The task [Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster] Heenan gave me, however, was an embarrassing one. He had heard that the Nazis in Germany had ransacked the archives of dioceses to find papers that could be published to discredit the Church. He was anxious to prevent anything of the kind happening in England, so he asked me to go through the records and get rid of any stories of clerical misdeed that were capable of being used for propaganda purposes. I could not refuse point blank an order from my archbishop, but it seemed to me wrong for an archivist to destroy, on such a partisan basis, material of historical interest. I compromised by separating embarrassing material into a special section which could, in the unlikely event of a hostile raid on the archives by some anti-clerical group, easily be destroyed.

The Second Vatican Council was a turning point in Heenan's life. Forever loyal to successive popes, he found uncongenial the direction in which many of the Council fathers wished to take the Church. His distaste for academic theology found expression in speeches attacking the experts, or periti, who came from monasteries, seminaries or universities: he saw them as ignorant of "the real world". For him, theology consisted in an unquestioning acceptance of Vatican dictates, even if that meant–as in the case of the morality of contraception–a reversal of his own considered opinion on the topic. And for him, the worst sin was "giving scandal"–that meant doing anything that showed the Church in a bad light, even if it was a true light. A. Kenny, Brief Encounters (SPCI 2018), 30, 32.

The "deep into history" trope

Somehow a Catholic propaganda site (Reformation Apologetics @HolyCatholicFaith) wormed itself into my Facebook feed. I could unfollow it but for now I'm using it for target practice. The latest exchange:

Protestant patrologists and Protestant church historians are just as deep into church history as their Catholic academic counterparts. They see the same evidence, but draw a contrary conclusion. For that matter, modern-day Catholic church historians concede that the traditional narrative of the papacy is a historical fiction.

You mean different people have different opinions on the truth? What exactly does that prove other than people have different opinions? And as for your claim about catholic scholars, I hope you make the same claim about “Protestant scholars” and the deity of Christ, etc.

It proves that the maxim "to be deep into church history" doesn't select for Catholicism. Next question?

As for making the same claim about Protestant scholars, you fail to grasp the dialectic. I'm simply responding to the Newmanesque appeal on its own grounds. That doesn't mean I share his assumptions. So your attempted parallel fails.

Newman’s appeal was simply a claim couched in rhetorical flourish. It is either true or false on the basis of its claims, not anything else. If you really think his claim was that “once you read a lot of history books you automatically become Roman Catholic” then you’re certainly more obtuse than you let on. His point was that it’s a deeper look into the historical data that makes it obvious that Protestantism is false. That there are so called catholic scholars that deny the historicity of the papacy is both irrelevant to Newman’s point and irrelevant to whether or not Protestantism is reasonable once delving deeply into history.

Quoting Newman is a Catholic convert trope. "I used to be a Protestant who knew nothing about the church fathers, but once I began go read them the scales fell from my eyes"–as if that automatically validates the traditional claims of Rome. That's the point of the comparison with Protestant patrologists and church historians. 

And I'm always amused by lay nobodies and one-man magisteria who presume to say mainstream Catholic scholars aren't real Catholics. The hierarchy doesn't share your assessment. You don't count. You don't have a vote. Get over yourself. Submit to your bishop and shut up.

Risk and reality

The problem of natural evil is a perennial issue in theodicy. There are stock responses. I think some of them are good. But I'd like to approach it from a different angle. 

A fringe benefit of living in a physically dangerous world is that it forces you to take reality seriously. A hazardous environment weeds out inattentive people. 

When life becomes too safe, when people lose their sense of danger because they're used to having buffers that protect them from harm, it's easy to lose touch with reality. It's easy to indulge in make-believe and wishful thinking when you don't have the electric shock of reality to jolt you out of your beautiful delusions and playacting. Take a few examples in our own time and place:

Into the Wild. The movie about a young idealist who imagines it would be a swell idea to spend a winter in the Alaska outback. He goes there unprepared and dies.

• Egotists who die in accidents by taking selfies in dangerous settings. Precariously preached on a cliff or mountain peak. Or with a rhino, grizzly bear, bison, or bull moose in the background–as if wild animals are stuffed animals.

• Progressives who insist that "transwomen" have a right to access shelters for battered women and rape victims.

• Adults who imagine they are animals. And they demand that everyone accommodate their fantasy.

• The antivaxxer movement

• Open border polices that admit people into the country who haven't been screed for infectious diseases.

• Replacing solid waste disposal with composting leftover food, which is a magnet for rats, which, in turn, invites an outbreak of bubonic plague.

• Hikers who only take a cellphone with them. They don't have extra water or overnight gear. If they get into trouble, they assume they can always call for help and somebody in a chopper will rescue them. 

• Hikers who venture into bear country without a high-powered rifle.

• Private pet collectors with dangerous exotic animals that sometimes kill them.

• Immigration policies that induct Muslims into the country, thereby introducing domestic terrorism, honor killings, a gang-rape culture &c. into the host country. 

• People who get too close to dangerous animals in zoos and animal parks. 

• Gun bans/confiscation that leave civilians defenseless against the criminal class. 

A false sense of security fosters moral and spiritual insanity. Living in a dangerous world, where there are no buffers, forces you to be realistic if you expect to survive–much less to thrive. There's no margin for error.

People who become too insulated from danger are apt to be cocky, arrogant, presumptuous, and foolhardy. Paradoxically, natural evil can be a corrective to moral evil. Having beliefs that defy reality is willful lunacy. Real life isn't composed of downy pillows that cushion your fall. False beliefs can hurt you. That's a disincentive to cultivating false beliefs. 

To become increasingly detached from reality is a form of moral and intellectual derangement. Natural evil motivates people to take truth seriously. The pain of flouting reality motivates people to take truth seriously. 

In Scripture, idolatry is a paradigm-case of those who've lost contact with reality and replace it with imaginary constructs. Although the deterrent value of natural evil is limited–insofar as some people are willfully reckless–it prevents other people from plunging off the deep end. Without that objective stinger, subjectivity takes over.   

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Driving a wedge between reason and authority

A convert to Catholic attempted to rebut my post:

He calls his site Triablogue, for optimistic reasons known to him alone. 

I didn't name the blog. Ryan MacReyolds did. 

His latest screed is entitled “Catholic apologetics is self-destructive”which must explain why it’s been around since Justin Martyr.

News flash: Justin Martyr wasn't Roman Catholic. 

At this point I am curious. Have Protestant apologists given up on sola scriptura? Maybe I’ve been otherwise engaged in recent years and missed the news. But I thought that the authority of Bibleand just the Bible, that’s it, sirwas one of the pillars of the Protestant Reformation. We judge everything by the authority of those seventy-three sixty-six books. Every doctrine must be found there or it’s just a vile tradition of men. Have Protestants given this up now? I only ask questions.

Mr. Hays goes on: “Notice how often a Catholic apologist reframes an issue in terms of authority … Human reason is so untrustworthy that we need the pope to play referee.”

Well, yes and no. I don’t really need to pull out Proverbs 14:12 here. If Mr. Hays and I are in an argument about sola scriptura, it’s fair for me to point out that the Bible must be interpreted and how does he know his interpretation is right? The meaning is not just there; the Bible does not interpret itself, Westminster notwithstanding. After all, Protestants differ even among themselves about many key verses. If that were not so, Arminians and Calvinists could not both be Protestant. That’s how unreliable “the Bible alone” is.

But that does not mean that Catholics have abandoned, or even given small importance to, “human reason.”...Does Mr. Hays have reason to believe that the Orthodox behave like Calvinist bloggers and make stuff up as they go?

Mr. Hays has a lot to explain when he cites Aquinas’s appeal to reason on the Real Presence. Aquinas was Catholic, sir.

All these objections suffer from the same confusion. I don't erect a dichotomy between reason and authority. Rather, that's what Catholic apologists typically do. Catholic apologists have resorted to skepticism since the Counter-Reformation:

And it remains a fixture of Catholic apologetics right up to our own day. Take my recent exchange with Michael Liccione:

Or take Ed Feser's essay, "The God of a Philosopher," in the recent Faith and Reason anthology, edited by Besong and Fuqua. Unlike Catholic apologists, I don't impugn the general competence of reason. Likewise, I'm not the one who says communication is so ambiguous that we require the pope to play referee. 

The strategy of Catholic apologists generates a dilemma. They can't tear down reason to attack the Protestant faith, then turn right around and appeal to the same untrustworthy faculty to defend Catholicism. 

And it’s a caricature to say that the pope plays referee all the time between warring Catholics. Not in my experience. First of all, Catholics don’t have that kind of hotline to the Vatican. Half the time, we can’t even get the local bishop to pay us any mind. Second, too many Catholics these days are full of pride and hiss like feral cats at anything the pope says. Pope Francis Derangement Syndrome is a real problem. But Catholics don’t send the pope an email every time Boodle and Coodle get in an argument about Luke 22:36 and the second amendment. The pope’s role as teacher of the whole Church is more about preserving the unity of the faith than answering every question that comes up.

I appreciate Alt's frank admission regarding the general uselessness of a living teaching office. I wish him success in persuading his fellow Catholics to share his dim view regarding the general uselessness of a living teaching office. 

And here, dear reader, is where the false dichotomy emerges. To give evidence at all means that the evidence has some authority, in your view.

Now he's resorting to his own homespun redefinitions. 

Apart from not knowing the meaning of “hiatus”—incongruity is closer to Mr. Hays’ meaning...

I'm using "hiatus" the same way dictionaries do: "a rift, break, gap, hole, discontinuity, where something is missing". An apt descriptor for how the dogma of transubstantiation drives a wedge between appearance and reality. 

no Catholic apologist I know defends, say, the Marian dogmas by telling us that the Church teaches the Marian dogmas and stopping there…In a similar way, when Pope St. John Paul II wrote in defense of the teaching that the priesthood is restricted to men (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis), he didn’t say “the Church has always taught this” and stop there. He explained why the Church has always taught it…And when Pope St. Paul VI reiterated the ban on artificial contraception (Humanae Vitae), he gave several arguments from reason, including an appeal to natural law.

i) He has yet to wrap his head around what the actual argument is. Catholic apologists constantly assert that human reason is so unreliable, interpretation is so unreliable, that we need the pope to play referee. They deploy Pyrrhonian skepticism to create an opening for the argument from authority (i.e. the magisterium) as the necessary backup. When, however, they do an about-face and appeal to the same discredited reason to prop up Catholic dogmas, the contradiction is blatant. 

ii) Yes, popes attempt to defend their dogmas by appeal to reason, but that's a throwaway maneuver because when it fails to persuade, they fall back on the fideism of naked ecclesiastical authority. 

…and simply use logic, you are appealing to the authority of some logical formula…One can not possibly argue anything at all if there weren’t first an agreement about what counts as proof. That’s what authority is.

Once again, we're treated to Alt's idiosyncratic redefinition of standard terms and concepts. 

A math teacher

Francis and Edith Schaeffer, founders of the unique Christian community in Switzerland, L’Abri, had a daughter who was struggling with mathematics at her school. Priscilla had complained that she could never get through her algebra without a tutor. The Schaeffers could not afford one, so they prayed about it. The next day a Czech refugee came to visit and to ask the Schaeffers' advice about his wife’s spiritual needs. The man was very grateful. What could he do? He happened to be a math teacher! (William Edgar. Does Christianity Really Work?)

Pop Catholicism

Around the 26 min. mark:

Bishop Barron throws lay Catholic pop apologists under the bus:
Everyone and his brother can hang out a shingle and say "Hey, I'm a Catholic [whatever]." Well, are you–and what's your background and what's your formation and your education and your credentials, and does your bishop know what you're doing and what you're saying? 


Alex Kendrick
I’ll give you one of my favorite stories. There was a couple who came to our church. As soon as they met us in the atrium – this is after Fireproof came out – and they were weeping, gave us a hug, and they said, “We had to tell you our story.”
So, we said, “Okay.”
And in a very brief amount of time, they said, “We were married as 19-year-olds.” And then, after that first year of marriage – ’cause marriage is hard –
Mikel Del Rosario
Alex Kendrick
– they divorced. One of them went to the Carolinas, and the other one went to the West Coast. And for 26 years, they never saw each other. When the movie Fireproof came out, both of them happened to see it in the theater and were both convicted. Neither one of them had remarried.
And so, the husband reached out and found her and sent her a letter saying, “I owe you an apology. I never knew how to love you. I saw this movie Fireproof, and I realized that I didn’t know what I was doing. Please forgive me for the way I hurt you.”
She responded back to him and said, “I saw that same movie, and I agree with you. I didn’t know how to love you. Would you also forgive me?”
Mikel Del Rosario
Alex Kendrick
They ended up meeting in person – this is 26 years later – and they struck up a friendship that blossomed into love, and they got remarried, this time as Christians. And to celebrate the one-year anniversary of their remarriage, they came to our church to tell us their story.

Into the cave

Religious pluralists and universalists (the distinction is cosmetic) think all roads lead to God–whatever "God" is. Is there a face behind the mask, or is it nothing but masks? 

Perhaps the standard metaphor is mountain trails. Different trails on different sides of the mountain all converge on the summit. A winsome if rather banal metaphor.

By contrast, here's a different metaphor. There's only one tunnel out of the cave. There are ever so many tunnels that entice you further into the cave. Tunnels with no outlet. Or branching tunnels. One wrong turn takes you to the next wrong turn. A network of tunnels leading nowhere. Well, not exactly nowhere. Rather, penetrating ever deeper into the cave. Putting the outside world further behind with every fateful step. A trap.  


I think it's very hard for moderns to appreciate the fear of being lost. In the age of maps and street signs and GPS and smartphones, it's well-nigh impossible to be really and truly lost. You have to go hiking in a remote wilderness or travel to a Third World backwater. Nowadays it takes a real effort to be utterly lost. You can almost always get directions or call for help. 

But in the ancient world, it was terrifyingly easy to be utterly lost. Have no clue how to get back to where you were before you lost your way or or how to find your destination from where you now are. 

And that's a problem because lostness is a major theological metaphor (e.g. Ps 119:176; Jer 50:6; Ezk 34:4; Zech 11:16; Mt 10:6; Lk 15:4; 19:10). Modernday Christian readers need to exercise their imagination to feel those passages.

i) A person can be physically lost or psychologically lost. In his autobiography, Mark Twain recounts a personal anecdote of the former: 

A bat is beautifully soft and silky; I do not know any creature that is pleasanter to the touch or is more grateful for caressings, if offered in the right spirit. I know all about these coleoptera, because our great cave, three miles below Hannibal, was multitudinously stocked with them…I think she [his mother] was never in the cave in her life; but everybody else went there. Many excursion parties came from considerable distances up and down the river to visit the cave. It was miles in extent and was a tangled wilderness of narrow and lofty clefts and passages. It was an easy place to get lost in; anybody could do it--including the bats. I got lost in it myself, along with a lady, and our last candle burned down to almost nothing before we glimpsed the search party's lights winding about in the distance.

ii) Perhaps more terrifying than physical lostness is psychological lostness. In some cases that has both a physical and psychological dimension. Take someone scooped off the street and carted off to a KGB prison. The prisoner knows where he is. So he's not lost in that sense.

But he's out of contact with his friends and family. No one knows where to find him. No one knows if he's dead or alive. He may spend the rest of his life in the claustrophobic recesses of a KGB prison. No one on the outside will ever hear from him again. 

He may never go home. Or he may be released so many years later that there's no home to go back to. 

iii) Or take a war orphan. He knows where he is. But he's lost in the sense that he's cut off from his relatives. He's no longer a part of anyone. He no longer has a sense of belonging. He's socially and emotionally adrift. Without relatives to love and protect him, the world suddenly becomes a very indifferent, uncaring place. 

iv) From there we shift to examples of sheer psychological lostness. Take someone who's mind is slipping away due to dementia or mental illness. A temporary example is drug-induced psychosis. Losing your mind is more terrifying than physical lostness. That's not about your surroundings; not about being in the wrong place. Rather, that's you. That's the essence of who you are. You are disappearing. You are ceasing to be, bit by bit. Or so it seems. 

Virginia Woolf was prone to bouts of insanity. During a lucid period she committed suicide because she couldn't face the prospect of being sucked into yet another bout of insanity. 

v) Or take a bad dream in which you're trying to get home. But you take the wrong bus. You keep going in the wrong direction. The distance between you and home increases. You keep moving ever further from your desired destination. You become more and more lost as the dream takes you down strange streets and alleyways into a heart of darkness. Inescapably lost–until you awaken. But the damned never wake up. Circling forever deeper into the infinite labyrinth of hell. 

When we read about the lost condition of unbelievers, we should visualize examples like these, to help regain the elemental fear that gripped our forebears.