Saturday, March 28, 2020

French Calvinist Philosopher Responds to Critics

Staying Connected While Staying In

For the second time I got this Facebook notification:

Staying Connected While Staying In
People on Facebook are showing how they're helping to slow the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). Add a frame to your profile picture to increase awareness.
As a nonconformist who rejects the policy, the propaganda, and the social coercion, I decline. 

Philosophical survey

Questions from a survey of philosophers:

I'll give my own answers. I don't have considered opinions on every question. I'm not equally interested in every philosophical issue. I find metaphysics more interesting than epistemology, while theology is my paramount interest. 

The dominion of death and the devil

14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery (Heb 2:14-15).

Fear of death exerts enormous coercive power over unbelievers. It's a key weapon in the Devil's arsenal. The coronavirus has illustrated the coercive power of death. 

Part of that lies in the element of uncertainly. The virus is like a stalker. You don't know when, where, or how hard it will hit a particular region. 

Fear of death can easily cause normally friendly, trustworthy people to turn on each other if they feel that you pose a threat to their safety. Competitive survival dissolves the glue of civilization.

The coronavirus generates a dilemma. On the one hand, it may be the kind of pathogen you need to get ahead of. You may need to take preemptive measures, even drastic measures, to contain it and control it. If you procrastinate, it's too late to undo the damage. One side blames the other side for dragging its heals. 

On the other hand, we don't know enough about the coronavirus to know the scale of the threat or what's most effective. As a result, public officials are enacting uninformed policies. Policies that are wrecking the economy. So there's the perceived need to act early, combined with the danger of acting prematurely. 

There's a comparison between knows and unknowns. The dire projections might be accurate or widely exaggerated. But we do know the damage it's wreaking on the economy. That has lethal consequences, too. 

Moreover, it's not clear that preemptive measures are what's required. One proposed solution is based on social isolation, but another proposed solution is based on herd immunity. Let it naturally spread to stimulate the immune system and trigger the development of antibodies in the population (while we feverishly work on next-generation vaccines). Don't these two solutions tug in opposite directions? 

What if you can't afford to be wrong, but you don't know what's the right thing to do and the wrong thing to do? What if one cup contains the antidote while the other cup contains poison? You can't tell which is which. 

It's striking how the fear of death causes so many humans not only to surrender basic freedoms, but their livelihood. Their current and future financial security. 

Christians should take reasonable precautions against gratuitous harm–assuming we know what precautions are reasonable. But we're not paralyzed by the prospect of death. The devil can't usage that as leverage to make us follow his orders. Betray each other. The devil is like an SS officer who gives you a choice: you can shoot one of your comrades to save the life of another comrade; if you refuse, he will shoot both. Christianity frees us from that morally corrupting coercion. 

The role of atheism in the pandemic

1. What does atheism have to do with the pandemic? I thought you'd never ask!

The regime in Red China takes the lion's share of the blame for the pandemic. It has systematically bungled the crisis. Part of this is due to a fanatical, paranoid concern to maintain total social control. 

2 But there's a theological element has well. It cuts against the grain of human nature to admit error, much less wrongdoing. You lose face when you do that. In fact, it can be hard for people to admit to themselves that they are morally flawed and guilty of moral failure, much less admit that to others. 

As I've noted in the past, one of the liberating side-effects of Christianity is that it free us to admit error and wrongdoing. If everyone is a sinner, if Christ redeemed you, if God forgave you, then it's safe to admit error and wrongdoing. That lowers our natural defensiveness. We have nothing much to lose by coming clean. 

But atheists in the Communist regime don't have that insulation. Saving face is all-important, no matter the harm to others.

3. There's also the fact that if you're a consistent atheist, life is cheap. You may value your own life, but other human beings are disposable. What does the death toll amount to in a nation with a population the size of China? Unless you have reason to believe each human life is important, why should the regime care about the death of so many Chinese? Individual lives are so expendable and replaceable. Like weeds. 

Tomorrow never comes

For three years, with increasing alarm, astronomers had been tracking an astroid. From far out in space, the trajectory was indeterminate: would it be a near miss or direct hit? But as it got closer it became clear that this would be a cataclysmic event. Human life would become extinct.

Most folks planned to die with their families. But Xavier had an ace up his sleeve. That's because Xavier had a time machine. He could elude doomsday by escaping into the past. 

But that was complicated. For one thing, you couldn't travel back to a time before you existed. Your conception was the terminus ad quo for time travel. So the timeframe was limited to the span between your present and you personal past. 

Another problem was keeping the time machine a secret. Who could he trust to tell? People would kill for the time machine. If the authorities found out about it, the government would confiscate the machine. How could Xavier use the time machine to save himself and his loved ones from encroaching oblivion? 

If he told his parents or his brother Damien or his best friend, they'd tell their other loved ones, so that knowledge of the time machine would become widely known. But there was only one time machine. It had to be a closely-guarded secret for Xavier to use it. 

The question was who to leave behind to. They had no future. Only a past. And some of them didn't have much of a past to retreat into. His older brother Damien had little kids. Damien couldn't take them with him if he went too far back into his own past. His kids didn't exist when he was young. Xavier knew that Damien would rather die with them than leave them behind.

When you traveled from the present to the past, you aged down. Your age corresponded when you were alive. So you had to decide where you wanted to reset the lifecycle. Xavier didn't wish to be a little boy again. It would have to be when he was a teenager, maybe in junior high or high school.  

The machine could be programmed to repeat one day from the past, or the same week, or the same month, or the same year. When it came to the end of programmed interval, it would repeat the process. Xavier had a happy childhood. He was raised on a ranch in Montana. He loved the out of doors. The seasons, fields and streams, mountain views, and horseback riding. That was his preference. It also gave him a chance to be reunited with his late grandparents. 

In a sense, his loved ones didn't have to use the time machine to avert the future. They'd die in the near-future, but exist in the past. If he didn't tell them, he wasn't really leaving them behind. He hadn't abandoned them. Because he'd find them in the past, as if they were waiting for him. They'd still be there, just like before. 

If you traveled from the present to the past, you remembered the future you came from. But if you didn't reenter the past from the future, you didn't know the future, since you hadn't experienced the future as of yet. Living in the past, you didn't exist in that future. 

In a way, Xavier couldn't save his loved ones from the future.  They had no future. It was sufficient for him alone to use the time machine. To program it for a particular period. To be repeated. That way they'd be reunited in the past. And only he'd remember the ill-fated future. He was conferring immortality on his loved ones through a temporal loop. And they wouldn't know the difference. Every time it reached the end, it would revert to the beginning. A process that reset their memories. Only Xavier would recollect the whole story. Not just the timeloop but the impact event. 

Yet there were tradeoffs. For his loved ones, it was always like experiencing that year for the very first time, no matter how often it repeated. But Xavier's memory transcended the temporal loop. He was consciously revisiting the same year every time, day after day. To stave off tedium, he didn't simply relive his past. He did different things. It gave him a chance to do a lot of reading and thinking. To explore. To spend more time with Damien and their grandparents. 

Xavier had never been very religious, but with so much time on his hands, and the need to do something new to stave off the deadening repetition, he began to read the Bible. That opened up a whole new world for him. A future beyond the future cataclysm. An afterlife beyond extinction. 

He began to wonder if, by delaying death indefinitely, he wasn't cheating death. Was he missing out on something better? Were his loved ones missing out on something better?

At first there was no sense of urgency. He was safe in the past. He couldn't die in the past. 

Or could he? Did the fact that he survived right up to the brink of doosmday mean he was immortal so long as he remained in the past? The fact that he originally made it that far meant he hadn't died in the past. 

But as he thought more about it, maybe he could die in the past. Originally, he lived to a certain age because he did certain things. He avoided fatal accidents. 

But by consciously returning to the past, over and over again, he wasn't simply retracing his steps. For the sake of variety, he was doing different things in the past than the first time around. He wasn't reliving his past, but revisiting an particular time and place. And he was free to vary his routine, to avoid tedium. Indeed, it became increasingly hard even to remember what his original past was like. It became a blur with each new iteration of the time-loop. 

So perhaps he could die in the past by doing something different. Suffer a fatal accident. Snakebite. Breaking his neck falling off a horse. Shot to death in a barroom brawl. His current past wasn't the same past that led up to his original future. Every time he did something different, that was a pathway to an alternate future–a future in which he didn't originally exist. That raised time-travel paradoxes, and he wasn't sure how seriously to take it. Too much to lose by finding out the hard way.

It's not as if he couldn't die no matter how recklessly he behaved. He wasn't indestructible. Not that he was reckless, but the prospect spooked him. Traveling back into the past, he initially lost his fear of death. But it now occurred to him that his confidence might be misplaced, because he was changing variables. 

And there were worse things than death. Damnation was incomparably worse than death. Of course, death was often portal to hell, but in his case that was self-fulfilling. He hadn't prepared himself for death. He thought he could keep it at bay indefinitely. So there was no pressing need to repent, to think about God, to be worshipful or engage in spiritual examination. Yet maybe he was just lucky up to this point, and his luck might run out. 

And not just for himself, but for his loved ones. Could he actually protect them by keeping them sequestered in the past? Because he did different things, they did different things in response. So maybe they, too, were now at risk. Were they heavenbound or hellbound? Having read the Bible so often during the timeloops, and attending church, he began to share the Gospel with his parents, grandparents, and brother. 

He then decided if he should destroy the time machine. If he did that, it would restore the status quo ante. They'd all die in the impact event. But maybe the solution was to move forward, not backward. Not hide in the past, but accept death as a portal to heaven and the world to come.   

Friday, March 27, 2020

Chinese Christian fiction

From a 2004 article. It would be interested to see an up-to-date list:

Among writers in China, whose Marxist grand narrative has also stuttered to a stop, many contemporary novelists have identified openly with religious story, now not only Confucian or Buddhist but also the Christian grand narrative. (Among the prominent Christian novelists are Lao She, Xu Dishan, Bing Xing, and Mu Dan.) There is even a new literary style called sheng jing ti ("biblical"), whose characteristics are described as "objective, truthful, terse" (Aikman 254).

Muslim etiquette

A Muslim objection to Christianity is that it means God Incarnate has an excretory system. That offends their sense of divine etiquette. 

But in Christian theology, matter isn't evil. The body isn't evil. The body processes energy. And waste products are a byproduct of energy processing. That's true for energy processing in general. Like burning wood produces smoke and ash. Is that bad manners? The body is like a machine.

Muslims have peculiar notions about etiquette. For instance, many Muslim couples practice anal sex. Why do they have dainty hangups about the Incarnation but their delicate sensibilities aren't offended by anal sex? 

Noah's Flood: Global or Regional?

first installment of 6-part series:

Is it always wrong to violate a confidence?

A friend asked me whether it's always wrong to violate a confidence. Sharing a confidence involves a two-way trust. It carries the implicit condition that the individual sharing a confidence not abuse the trust or take advantage of the person he confides in. 

There's a prima facie obligation not to divulge information shared in confidence. But that's not absolute. For one thing, you don't know in advance what someone will confide in you, so you can't render informed consent to keep it secret. A person can't unilaterally obligate you to keep their secret. They don't have that coercive moral authority over you. You can't reasonably be expected to make a commitment when you're in the dark. Indeed, open-ended commitments can be unethical. 

There may be other the concerned parties who also have rights. Keeping a secret may unjustly harm them. So we have to balance competing duties. In case of conflict, some duties override other duties. 

To take a hypothetical case, suppose I know the pastor's son is a closet homosexual. I suspect that, and at some point he confides in me.

Normally I'd protect his identity. I'd cover for him (without lying), because he has a struggle, and he needs a straight friend to talk to, where he's free to let down his guard. To out him would be gratuitously harmful to his reputation and his faith. 

If, however, he decides to follow his dad's career path by going into the family business, as a youth pastor (say), that changes things. Now he's inserting himself into a situation which will, at the very least, expose him to unnecessary temptation, and at the worst he's deliberately exploiting the situation to seduce vulnerable young men. At that point, all bets are off. 

Minimally, I'd warn him to stay clear of Christian ministry and other venues where he works with other young men. I'll also tell him that if he doesn't heed the warning, I will be obligated to out him for the protection of the innocent. At that point he forced my hand. 

Just to clarify, there are situations in which I'd lie for someone to cover for them, but in the hypothetical situation I raised, I don't owe him that. All other things being equal, I'm prepared to cover for him short of lying for him. There's a difference between concealing and deceiving. Sometimes both are justified, but sometimes concealing is justified while deceiving is not. 

Suppose I know a classmate cheated on an exam. Suppose he knows I know. But he's now remorseful about his action. 

I'm not going to rat him out, in part because I'm not personally responsible for what he did, and he's contrite about his wrongdoing. At this stage it would be more harmful to rat him out. In that sense I'll cover for him. I'd keep it between us. 

If, however, his action was exposed by someone else, I'm not going to lie for him. He did wrong. It's not my duty to lie to coverup his wrongdoing. He can't reasonable expect that from me. Having taken a risk, he must be prepared to face the consequences. 

Don't sacrifice your prejudice to defend the Bible

Your visceral response is telling you that that kind of action is wrong, intrinsically wrong.

That's hardly a reliable guide. Amputating a gangrenous limb evokes a visceral response, but it's not telling me that this kind of action is intrinsically wrong. To the contrary, it's intrinsically right. 

It just means an observer can imagine what it would be like to have that done to him. That's a basis for compassion. 

If you agree with Pickett that capital punishment is a brutalizing practice…

There's nothing essentially brutalizing about the practice, although it can be conducted in gratuitously brutal ways.

…and if you agree with that daughter that it just gives you one more dead person

That equivalence is amoral. It obliterates the distinction between innocent death and just deserts. 

Rauser then inveighs about stoning, juvenile delinquents, concluding that:

That suggestion offends me to my core. I hope it does for you as well.

What passes for Rauser's moral core isn't my arbiter for right and wrong. Rauser is oblivious to his progressive social conditioning.

Mr. Merrill is here defending honor killing. It’s the same logic by which a Muslim father will kill his daughter after she defies him by going out with her western boyfriend. In short, it’s the same twisted logic to which blood-spattered murderers appeal when they are led away in handcuffs.

That's a malicious and scurrilous misrepresentation of Merrill's position. An honor killing is where a relative is executed because, in the eyes of the community, what happened to them brought shame on the family or clan. It's not based on anything the relative did wrong. To the contrary, they may be the innocent party. They were wronged. A classic example in Islam is the treatment of rape victims. 

The OT doesn't have honor killings in that sense. Rauser's antipathy towards Biblical revelation is so truculent that he can't bring himself to honestly represent what it says. 

Don’t be like Mr. Merrill. Don’t sacrifice your conscience in your reading of the Bible. Instead, recognize the gift of your God-given moral intuitions and let them offer chastening guides as you wrestle with the Biblical text.

Rauser never allows biblical revelation to form or inform his conscience. Problem is, he has no criterion to distinguish his conscience from social conditioning and cultural relativism. 

As I've said on more than one occasion, it's possible to be both a moral realist and a moral skeptic. We can believe in moral facts, objective moral norms, but be skeptical about our ability to isolate these from the power of social conditioning and cultural relativism. For Christians, divine revelation helps to sort them out. But Rauser doesn't have that winnowing process. It's just his seat-of-the-pants reaction, which just so happens to echo his education and peer group. 

He sacrifices divine revelation to his prejudice rather than sacrificing his prejudice to divine revelation. Rauser constantly labors to strike a balance between atheism and Christianity, and his center of gravity is secular humanism. His position is an unstable compromise between secularism and residual Christianity. It isn't consistently one or the other, which is why it's so hard for him to get others to take his position seriously. He's the atheist's favorite "Christian" because he's a useful tool.  His position is no threat to atheism, but he can be counted on to attack evangelical theology. The contrast between his sympathy for atheism and antipathy towards evangelicalism is striking and stark. 

Thursday, March 26, 2020


Nolan and Jordan were childhood friends. Best friends from preschool upwards. Came of age together. Now on the verge of high school graduation.

Nolan's dad as a highly successful, hard-driving businessman. Very competitive with his son. Nolan could never please his dad. It's like every day was a performance evaluation. Every day he had to prove himself to his father. And he never measured up. This instilled in him a deep sense of self-loathing. 

Nolan was an only-child, and his mother walked out on the marriage, after she got fed up with a philandering husband. All the affection and attention came from Jordan. Their friendship was the only thing that kept Jordan from sliding into suicidal depression and drug addiction. But when he was at his dad's house he used to get drunk.

Indeed, their friendship is what probably kept him straight. With a dad like that he was a higher risk of becoming gay, but Jordan offset that risk factor.

Nolan's dad envied and resented their friendship. Resented the amount of time Nolan spent with Jordan. And the resentment showed. The more he resented the friendship, the more time Nolan spent with Jordan. He virtually moved in with Jordan.

But Nolan was always torn between his indispensable friendship with Jordan and his instinctive hunger for his father's approval. Nolan's dad sensed that and used that as a wedge. He plotted to break up the friendship.

Nolan's dad arranged to have Jordan framed for a crime he didn't commit. He offered to make Nolan a junior partner in his business–on condition that Noland testify against Jordan. At first, Nolan's dad treated his son the way Noland always longed to be treated. Praise. Demonstrative affection. Gone was the usual judgmentalism. He manipulated Nolan's vulnerability. And it worked. Nolan testified against Jordan. But he hated himself for doing it. It made him nauseous. And afterwards he was plagued by guilt. It plunged him into suicidal depression.

In addition, the charm offensive wore thin as the natural impatience of Nolan's dad resurfaced. He reverted to berating his son as a loser who could never do anything right. In his father's eye, Noland would always be a failure.

Nolan was in despair. He contemplated suicide. He lost his one indispensable friend through an unforgivable act of betrayal, and got nothing in return. What was he to do? The thought crossed his mind to recant his perjury, but he couldn't afford to lose both of them. He burned his bridges with Jordan when he falsely accused him on the stand. If he recanted his testimony, that would burn his bridges with his dad. And he had no guarantee that Jordan would take him back. A gamble he couldn't afford to lose.

He finally decided to do the right thing. He recanted his testimony. Jordan's expression was inscrutable.

Jordan understood the extenuating circumstances of the original perjury, but that didn't excuse it. Recanting his testimony was a mitigating factor. He redeemed himself on the stand. Jordan knew Nolan better than anyone. Knew how hard it was for Noland to do that. Knew the cost. It was the bravest thing Noland had ever done. Indeed, it was the only brave thing Nolan had ever done.

By contrast, the expression on the face of Nolan's dad was anything but inscrutable. A sentence of banishment.

Jordan's lawyer motioned to have the charges dismissed. The judge agreed.

Nolan was still in unbearable suspense. But Jordan took him back. They never talked about the trial.

After high school graduation, they moved out of state together. Married girlfriends a few years later, and remained best of friends until Nolan died of liver cancer at 33. Nolan's dad always blamed Jordan. After Nolan died, his father shot himself.

A vine with two branches

Zach first met Jeremy during Zach's freshman year of junior high. Jeremy was a year ahead of him. They were complete strangers–or so it seemed. But they took a liking to each other and began to hang out a lot. There was a certain affinity that drew them to each other, even though they couldn't quite put their finger on it. It went deeper than natural rapport between best friends. The more time they spent together, the stronger the sense of affinity. They could anticipate each other's thoughts. They could anticipate what the other was going to say next. It was uncanny, as if they had overlapping minds. 

Zach always suspected that he was adopted, but he never asked his parents. A part of him didn't want to know that his own parents rejected him. 

But the dynamic with Jeremy made him wonder if they might be related. What were the odds? Under what circumstances could they have been separated? It seemed so far-fetched. And yet they appeared to have built-in bond. 

So Zach asked Jeremy if he thought they might be related. Jeremy didn't think that was possible. Still, when he got home, he posed the question. 

The expression on his mother's face was a dead giveaway. Turns out she had Zach and Jeremy out-of-wedlock by the same boyfriend, but at the time she couldn't afford to raise both as a single mom, so she put Zach up for adoption. They were too young to remember each other.

Jeremy was shocked. All these years he had a brother he never knew about. Never suspected the existence of a younger brother. He felt betrayed. All the lost years. 

So that explained it. Their minds were indeed linked. A part of each other, not just genetically but psychologically, like two branches of the same vine. 

It took Jeremy months to forgive his mother, and even then a part of him held it against her. As for Zach, when the situation was explained, he understood his mother's motivations. She was in a desperate situation at the time. It wasn't malicious. It wasn't intentional rejection. 

But he just couldn't get over it. He couldn't bring himself to meet her. It cut too deep. It was too awkward. How as he supposed to act? She both was and wasn't his mother. She hadn't raised him, so he didn't know how to act around her. 

He did track down his biological father, but out of curiosity, not reconciliation. After meeting his father, he could tell he didn't miss out on not having a father like that. 

However, Zach and Jeremy now had each other, and made up for lost time. 

Criminalizing church attendance


In the modern west, coming-of-age is generally associated with adolescence. The physiological transition from childhood to adulthood. Sexual maturation, greater emotional independence from parents, developing alternative social relationships with age-mates (friends, boyfriends, girlfriends). Coming-of-age involves the assumption of adult risks and responsibilities, adult moral responsibility, and life-choices. 

The coming-of-age story is a stock genre, going back to the Epic of Gilgamesh (friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu) and the Odyssey (Telemachus). It's a topic of endless novels, short stories, movies, and teen dramas.  

There's distinction between chronological/physiological coming-of-age and moral/psychological/sociological coming-of-age. Some adults suffer from arrested development because they never experienced challenges that forced them to mature morally, emotionally, or socially. 

In his monograph on A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible, Leland Ryken's has an entry under coming-of-age story (p47), where he lists the following examples:

• Jacob fleeing from his ancestral home and going to Haran (Gen 28)

• Joseph sold into slavery (Gen 37)

• David and Goliath(1 Sam 17)

• Daniel going into exile (Dan 1:1-3)

• Esther as a harem girl

One preliminary question this raises is the age of the individuals when they came of age. Roughly what would have been their ages at the time? I asked an OT scholar who gave the following ages or estimates:

Jacob: 76
Joseph: 17 (Gen 37:2)
David: about 20
Daniel: unknown–probably late teens/early 20s???
Esther: unknown–perhaps late teens???

In some cases these are somewhat beyond the chronological range we associate with coming-of-age in the modern west. Most dramatically in the case of Jacob. The larger point is that all of them underwent a maturing experience. In a sense, they were forced to grow up fast, thrust into a situation where they had to make momentous decisions beyond their years inasmuch as that they didn't have the wisdom of seasoned experience. Jacob is something of an anomaly in this group.  

In distinction to chronological coming-of-age, marriage and children or the death of a parent are social and psychological coming-of-age experiences. Other examples include adolescents or even preadolescents who are forced to leave home and make it on their own. Take the dislocations of war. Or forced to assume a parental role if a mother or father dies. They must step into their place to take up the slack, raising younger siblings and helping out the surviving parent. 

Christian conversion is a coming-of-age experience, at whatever age. A maturing experience. 

Are there silver bullets for the coronavirus?

I've been critical of the official policies to address the pandemic, but I haven't offered an alternative. That's in part because I'm not an expert, and even the experts disagree. But here's my general impression:

These seem to be the basic strategies. And in some respects these present conflicting strategies:

i) Mass isolation. Impose curfews/lockdowns to bend the growth curve/transmission rate. Social distancing is key.

ii) Mass testing. Test the population to find out who's infected. Quarantine the infected. Treat the infected with promising preexisting drugs while developing new antivirals. Let the uninfected continue business as usual (more or less).

iii) Let the virus naturally spread to cultivate herd immunity in the population. While the virus is highly contagious, it isn't life-threatening to humans in general. High-risk groups are vulnerable, and the virus will kill some healthy individuals in the prime of life, but most folks develop mild symptoms and have the natural ability to recover. 

I may have oversimplified the options. There may be no silver bullet. 

Is baptism necessary for salvation?

From a Facebook exchange:

What's the symbolism in Mark 16:15-16, Acts 2:38, John 3:5, and Acts 8:36-39?

i) The long ending of Mark is probably a scribal interpolation, so it doesn't even figure in the discussion. 

ii) It's unlikely that Jn 3:5 even refers to the Christian rite of baptism. For one thing, that's anachronistic. It would be incomprehensible to Nicodemus, since Christian baptism hadn't be instituted at that point. The imagery evokes OT passages about water as a spiritual metaphor, and it's an emblem for the renewal by the Spirit. Jn 4 & 7 provide other examples where water is a spiritual metaphor. 

iii) Regarding the passages in Acts, I think you failed to grasp my point. If A is a symbol of B, then what is said of B can be said of A, even though it's not literally the case.

A classic example is how the NT talks about salvation through the cross of Christ. But literally speaking, the cross is just a piece of wood. It doesn't actually save anyone. Rather, to say people are saved by the cross is shorthand for people are saved by the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross. The cross is being used as a verbal substitute.

Oh yeah, let's just discredit entire parts of the scriptures because we don't like them.
John 3 being anachronistic does not change that it is very explicitly about baptism. Very explicitly.
No one is claiming that baptism saves. Grace saves, through faith. True Faith always leads to baptism. The apostles believed and practiced this, Paul believed and practiced this, and the early church believed and practiced this. You think you understand the commands of Jesus better than they did?

i) Your first statement is nonsense. Have you studied textual criticism in reference to the long ending of Mark? 

ii) The fact that the baptismal interpretation is anachronistic is quite germane to the correct interpretation. Jesus upbraids Nicodemus for failing to understand what he's referring to, but if he's referring to the Christian rite of baptism, then it's impossible for Nicodemus to catch the reference since that would depend on knowledge of the future, which Nicodemus isn't privy to.

I gave reasons why it's not about baptism. You did nothing to refute my reason. You just reasserted your indefensible claim.

iii) Your third statement ignores the OP. The question raised by the OP is whether or not baptism is necessary for salvation. 

You then change the issue by talking about the command/practice of baptism. But that wasn't the question.

iv) Christians can't just shrug off textual criticism. The Bible you use, the translation you use, is based on a critical edition of the Hebrew text and the Greek text. Scholars make text-critical decisions for you. The Bible you hold in your had is the product of decisions they made regarding the best MSS and variant readings. So you're trusting in their scholarly judgment calls. The edition/translation you use didn't just come straight from Bible writers, but from scribes. And there are different critical editions, based on different MSS and different textual variants. Absolutizing the edition that comes down to you, one which, say, contains the long ending of Mark, is an arbitrary sample.

That doesn't require sheer trust in scholarship. A Christian can learn the rudiments of textual criticism, so that he knows the general lay of the land, and how these decisions are arrived at.

We're not shooting in the dark

1. On the one hand, the coronavirus (i.e. SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 or simply COVID-19) is a novel virus. That poses many challenges for us. For example, take the fact that it's constantly mutating. Indeed, there are at present approximately two different groups of the coronavirus - i.e. L and S haplotypes. As such, its virulence and transmission can shift over time in unpredictable ways. In fairness, the coronavirus seems to be reaching some genetic stability now. Hopefully it won't significantly change before we can find a vaccine. (By the way, if anyone wishes to see the mapping of the various strains of the coronavirus' genomic evolution, this website is a good resource.)

2. On the other hand, the leading disease that's killing people from coronavirus is acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Yet ARDS is an utterly familiar disease to physicians today. In other words, yes, we have to wait for therapies like antivirals and vaccines for the coronavirus. However, it's not as if we're wildly shooting in the dark. We know how to treat ARDS. We know how to protect the lungs. We know how to intubate patients. We know how to put patients on mechanical ventilation. We know how to prone people early to help increase their survival chances. We know how to use empiric antibiotics. We know how to use inhaled prostacyclins and neuromuscular blockers. We know the seven Ps for the care of ARDS patients. Indeed all these (and other) strategies work very well for ARDS.

3. It's just that, even absent the coronavirus, ARDS has high mortality rates:

ARDS is associated with appreciable mortality, with the best estimates from a multicenter, international cohort study of 3022 patients with ARDS, suggesting an overall rate of death in the hospital of approximately 40 percent [1-4]. Mortality increases with disease severity; unadjusted hospital mortality was reported to be 35 percent among those with mild ARDS, 40 percent for those with moderate disease, and 46 percent for patients with severe ARDS [4].

Ted Cruz asks some pointed questions

Y'all know who Ted Cruz is. And it's true, he admits at the end that there are more important things than asking these questions (such as making sure that we check the spread of the coronavirus), but these are questions that need to be asked, and answered, sooner rather than later.

Detailed Resurrection Accounts From The Start

It's often alleged that the sort of detailed resurrection accounts we find in Matthew, Luke, John, and Acts didn't develop until decades after Jesus' death. We're often told, for example, that the gospel of Mark doesn't have any resurrection appearances, which supposedly implies that the author of the gospel was unaware of such accounts or rejected any he was aware of.

But we find accounts of resurrection appearances as early as the material Paul cites in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, which probably dates to the 30s. And while Mark's gospel doesn't narrate any resurrection appearances, it does anticipate them (14:28, 16:7), and it does so in such a way that they were considered past events at the time the gospel was written. The author wasn't agnostic or skeptical about whether what Jesus anticipated in 14:28 and what the angel anticipated in 16:7 occurred. From the author's perspective, what was anticipated would and did happen. So, while Mark's gospel doesn't narrate resurrection appearances, it does refer to one or more appearances as a historical fact.

And the appearances in 1 Corinthians 15 and Mark are of a significantly detailed nature. 1 Corinthians 15 gives us information about who was and wasn't involved in the appearances, individual and group names, and the chronological order of the events, for example. In some ways, 1 Corinthians 15 is more detailed than what we get in Matthew, Luke, John, and Acts. Mark specifies who Jesus will appear to, with an emphasis on Peter, that the appearance(s) will happen soon, and where.

There's no reason to expect sources like 1 Corinthians 15 and Mark's gospel to provide the sort of lengthy narratives we find in Matthew, Luke, John, and Acts. Paul is citing a brief, summarizing creed in 1 Corinthians 15, without much added to it, and Mark is citing anticipations of the resurrection appearances on the part of Jesus and an angel. Why should we expect contexts of such a non-narrative nature to provide the sort of lengthy narratives we find elsewhere?

It would be absurd to suggest that Paul doesn't say more in his letters about his experience with the risen Christ because he was ignorant of the details or uninterested in them. Rather, there are contextual reasons why he doesn't say more. He was writing letters, not autobiographies, and he was largely writing to people who already had some familiarity with his background. When he wanted to mention his background for one reason or another, he did it in brief, summarizing form. It doesn't follow that the brief, summarizing form was all he knew or all he was concerned about. Similarly, how much he says about resurrection issues varies from one letter to another. He says more about resurrection issues to the Corinthians than he does to the Thessalonians, since matters pertaining to the resurrection were more relevant to what he was writing to the Corinthians about and his correspondence with them was lengthier.

Not only do we see earlier sources, like Paul, saying less than they knew and less than they were concerned about regarding Jesus' resurrection, but we see the same with later sources. See here.

And I've argued, such as in the recent post here, that there's good evidence for the historicity of the appearance narratives in Matthew, Luke, John, and Acts. See here regarding how well those accounts align with 1 Corinthians 15. See here concerning the consistencies among the resurrection accounts more broadly.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Baptism and the thief on the cross

An understandable weakness some Christians have (especially among the laity) is to rely on a one-shot prooftext for or against something. But this frequently leads to putting too much weight on a particular verse, and leaves them defenseless if their prooftext is challenged.

A case in point is using the thief on the cross to demonstrate that baptism is unnecessary for salvation. But that's rather anachronistic. Christian baptism doesn't really take off until after the Ascension. The situation of the thief on the cross is more like an OT Jew. At the very least, it's a transitional phase in redemptive history.

A better way to argue against the necessity of baptism is to point out that because baptism symbolizes certain facets of salvation, there are NT passages which sound like baptism is necessary for salvation, but that fails to take into consideration the nature of symbolism, where A stands for B. It confuses the illustration with the principle it illustrates. That's a deeper argument. 

Of course, that won't put an end to the argument. What I just said will be contested. But it's a stronger position to argue from, so that's where the argument should be engaged. 

I'd add that very few modern-day denominations or faith-traditions regard baptism as an absolute prerequisite for salvation. Nearly all of them make exceptions. 

It's become a fringe position, represented by the Churches of Christ and some KJV-onlyists. 

Is heaven like death?

The father I had once known and loved was now vaporized, leaving behind a few pounds of ashen remains. Resurrection means that these few pounds of ash are not the final chapter. On the contrary, they merely conclude the prologue of a never-ending story. 

Does this mean Rauser denies the intermediate state? Is he a physicalist who believes we pass into oblivion at the moment of death?                                                                                            
There is not much more to the story though. Perpetual bliss in Heaven, with no needs/wants/aspirations/dreams/sense of time/etc, is not much different than being dead, dead.

1. I wonder how representative that is what unbelievers think the doctrine of heaven amounts to. To begin with, it fails to distinguish between the intermediate state (heaven) and the final state (new earth). 

2. But for now let's focus on heaven. Of course, what we think heaven is like is bound to be somewhat speculative, but we can piece together some things from Scripture along with analogies in human experience.  

i) I have no reason to think we have no sense of time in heaven, although the sense of time's passage might be different. There's a difference between physical time and psychological time. Time seems to operate at a different rate when we dream. Likewise, when we're bored, time drags. On other occasions, time flies. Mountain climbers who've survived falling say they saw their entire life pass before their eyes in a matter of moments. 

ii) I don't know if he means "dreams" in the literal sense or a metaphor for goals. If we dream because the body needs to sleep, then we won't dream in heaven. But I view heaven itself as a kind of inspired collective dream. As if God is the dreamer and we're conscious dream characters who interact with each other. And like a dream, it isn't subject to what's physically possible, so heaven might be liberating in the surreal sense that you can experience things in heaven that you can't experience in a corporeal, earthly existence. 

iii) To say we have no wants in heaven is ambiguous. You can have no wants in the sense that you can have whatever you want. That doesn't mean you have no wants. It means that if you want something, it's available. 

Likewise, we can still need things. The point is that our needs will be supplied. We won't go without. 

To take a mundane example, an icy drink is more enjoyable if you're thirsty. A hot shower is more enjoyable if you're feeling chilly. 

A lot of pleasures involve a temporary gap between desire and the satisfaction of desire. Some kinds of happiness have that paradoxical aspect. Not having it initially is what makes it enjoyable. 

iv) There's no reason to think we can't or won't have aspirations in heaven. Indeed, heaven is where many frustrated aspirations will finally realized. A chance to make up for lost opportunities in this life. A chance to explore things we missed out on in this life. Endless adventure. A chance to revisit favorite moments from the past.     

Of course, these will be holy aspirations. In heaven we'll realize that some of our aspirations in life were unworthy. In heaven we will want what we ought to want. And that will be more fulfilling.   

Economic Costs Are Human Costs

Crashing the economy

I wonder if Democrat officials are prepared to crash the economy under the pretext of flattening the curve as their last best chance to defeat Trump in November, figuring that Trump will be blamed, voters will oust him and he will take the rest of the GOP down with him. Thus far Trump's approval ratings are actually up, but the situation is volatile. 

Recognition scenes

1. Christian apologists typically try to make the evidence of Christianity as explicit as possible. (Likewise, they try to make the objections to non-Christian rival as explicit as possible.)

That's a very useful exercise. Christians sometimes need backup arguments to sustain their faith during some crisis or ordeal. It may tide them over during dry seasons of faith. And it's important in witnessing to unbelievers.

But despite the necessity of that approach, it can neglect another dimension of Christian faith, and even be discouraging. Even cerebral Christians don't necessarily live there. Much of Christian faith operates at a more subtle and subliminal level. 

2. Let's begin with an illustration. Take two brothers, a year or two apart, who are separated when they are too young to remember each other. Maybe their mother had both of them out-of-wedlock by the same boyfriend, and she can't afford to raised them both, so she puts one up for adoption. They grow up not knowing about each other's existence. 

Let's say that providentially they wind up at the same junior high school. That's when they first encounter each other. Initially they are complete strangers to each other–or so it seems. But they like each other and begin to hang out. There's a certain affinity that draws them to each other. The more time they spend together, they stronger the sense of affinity. A built-in bond. 

It runs deeper than the natural rapport between close friends. They find they can anticipate each other's thoughts or what they are going to say next, as if they have overlapping minds. As though they're psychologically linked, like two branches of the same vine. They gradually discover each other. 

Finally it occurs to one of them to ask if they're related to each other. Awkward questions are asked at home which disclose the fact that they are indeed blood brothers. They're a part of each other, not just genetically, but psychologically. 

We could vary the illustration. Peter Hitchens describes the horrible maternity wards in Russia under Communism. I'm sure some babies were mixed up. Returned to the wrong parents.

So you might have brothers or sisters raised apart to bump into each other later in life. Only a DNA test would establish their biological affinity.

Sometimes families are separated by war. In this case they may be old enough to remember that they have a long-lost brother or sister out there, but no way to track them down. 

3. Another comparison might be watching a movie for the first time. Maybe you hate it, but then you see it again years later and this time around it speaks to you. The movie hasn't changed, you have. You find something in the movie that was always there, but you missed it the first time around because you weren't ready for it.

Or may be you see the movie, form your own opinion, then years later read a review which offers an interpretation that never occurred to you. An interpretation that makes a lot of sense. Again, the movie hasn't changed, but it's like you're watching a different movie. 

4. Now this intuitive sense of recognition operates at different levels in Christian experience. For instance, as Christians read the Bible, they find people and situations in the Bible that resonate with their own experience. 

5. By the same token, Christians can sense in instant affinity with fellow Christians. I don't mean just any churchgoer, but genuine believers. We give off the same vibe. We're on the same wavelength. 

It's like vampire and werewolf lore, where they look human on the outside, but they're not human, yet they have the ability to instantly discern members of their own kind, distinguishing them from humans. 

6. A young Christian convert may bone up on systematic theology, then use theology as a filter to interpret his experience, or movies, or the world around him. That's a good exercise.

But as he becomes more settled in the faith, that process may become more internalized. He doesn't have to consciously interpret things from a Christian perspective. It's become ingrained. Second nature. 

7. I think part of Christian sanctification is a realignment in our outlook where there's increasing recognition of God's reality. Where it becomes natural to perceive the world from a God's-eye perspective. We're now viewing it from the other side, because we're on the other side. Not just in a detached, doctrinal sense, but a kind of gestalt shift. 

Bias Is Just One Factor Among Others

The issue of bias came up in a recent thread. Being biased and being unreliable are different things. A biased source isn't equivalent to an unreliable source. We get a lot of our information about the Roman empire from Roman sources, Jewish history from Jewish sources, American history from American sources, etc. We do that sort of thing in many contexts, even the most ordinary contexts of our everyday lives. We trust what relatives tell us concerning subjects they're biased about, trust doctors who have various biases, trust banks who have financial biases, and so on. If somebody wants to sell us something, we don't just take his bias in favor of getting money into account. We also consider a lot of other factors: his conscience, his moral standards, his religious views, the history of his behavior in relevant contexts, the potential legal problems he would face if he defrauded us in some way, what would happen to his reputation, etc. There are checks and balances in life, and we take those into account. You can't just isolate the factors that would move a source in the direction of unreliability and ignore the factors that would move him in the other direction.

I doubt there are any skeptics who never believe what a skeptic tells them about issues closely related to Christianity, since skeptics are biased. Rather, atheists frequently trust what other atheists tell them in those contexts, Muslims frequently trust Muslims, etc. It's simplistic to isolate bias from every other factor and act as if we should decide whether to believe a source based solely on whether the source is biased.

Earlier this year, I wrote a post about the credibility of the witnesses in the Enfield Poltergeist case. The opening paragraphs address issues related to assessing witnesses in general, and much of what's said there is applicable here.

Though we don't need to cite non-Christian sources to substantiate conclusions that are favorable to Christianity, there are many non-Christian sources that can be cited. Here's a post I put together several years ago about non-Christian corroboration of the claims of the early Christians.

Much of the information we have on the relevant non-Christian sources is currently extant only in Christian sources (e.g., what Celsus wrote is extant in Origen's response to Celsus), but we have the same kind of situation in other historical contexts. Statements made by Roman emperors are currently extant only in sources other than the writings of those emperors, something said by Tacitus is only extant in another source who preserved what he said, something a murder victim said prior to his death is preserved by a court witness who heard him say it, etc. Even when the source who preserved the material in question is biased in some relevant way, we don't dismiss what he's reported just because he's biased, for the reasons I've explained above.

Christians aren't the only people who follow the reasoning I'm outlining here. Rather, these are principles widely accepted by historians, scientists, atheists, Muslims, Hindus, etc., not just Christians.

Is Redaction Usually the Better Hypothesis? Responding to Richard Carrier (Part 4)

Under mass house arrest

I have seen a few troubling comments online where Christian leaders are saying that the civil government doesn’t have the right to cancel meetings of the church. They certainly don’t have the the right to do that if their objection is that you are preaching the crown rights of King Jesus. In such a case, continue to meet. But if the fire chief told all the good Christians to get out now because the roof of the sanctuary was on fire, this is something he has the right and obligation to do…Following the mandates of the civil authority on quarantines and the closing of public meetings and such during a time of epidemic is not one of them.

So to be clear, if the governor of Idaho shuts down all public meetings because of COVID-19, churches included, then Christ Church would comply. Even if it happened to be the wrong decision, or a decision with which I differed, we would still happily comply. This is one of things that is well within their realm of jurisdiction. It is their call to make. This is their job.

In ancient Israel, the authorities had the right to tear down someone’s house if it was afflicted with the creeping crud (Lev. 14:33-53). They had the right to make someone with a contagious disease into a permanent exile, having to live outside the camp (Lev. 13:45-46. This kind of thing, however unfortunate, is not a violation of anybody’s rights.

In historic Presbyterian polity (all rise!), the civil magistrate had no authority in sacred things (in sacris), but he had definite authority surrounding sacred things (circa sacra). Put simply, the magistrate has no right to tell the church what to preach, how to pray, how to administer the sacraments, who to discipline, etc. That is not their assigned task. They need to stay in their lane.

But when it comes to questions of public safety (which is exactly what this is), preachers need to stay in their lane. It would be different if we were talking about a monastery with a bunch of recluse hermit monks, and the magistrate told them they couldn’t gather in their own chapel for prayers. That would be none of the magistrate’s business. But if great herds of Baptists head out to the Golden Corral after services, and they do this during the time of an epidemic, the magistrate has full authority and obligation to tell all of them “not so fast.” This is circa sacra…There are so many areas where the church should be resisting statism, it would be shame to waste our powder on any issue where the state is acting well within its rights.

Several problems with Wilson's analysis:

i) This isn't primarily a question of Christians standing up for their rights, as if we're only asserting our rights because we have them. Rights for the sake of rights. Rather, this is about religious rights in the service of the religious good. 

ii) There's a point of tension in Wilson's position. If he thinks this is a public safety issue, then why wait for the authorities to shut down church meetings? If it justifies social distancing and quarantines, churches should do their part by taking the initiative. If it's analogous to a building on fire, you self-evacuate the building; you don't just sit there waiting to be ordered to leave. 

iii) A problem with his example is that if you find yourself in a burning building, the risk assessment is clearcut. The cost/benefit analysis is clearcut. Everything to lose and nothing to gain by staying there. But the pandemic is far more ambiguous. The projections are uncertain. The solutions are uncertain. There are severe tradeoffs.

iv) His analysis is too compartmentalized. It's not as if the state shutting down church meetings is just a public safety issue rather than a religious issue. Take the Governor of California's list of "authorized necessary activities." That demotes public worship to a nonessential activity which requires civil authorization. Is that a principle that Christians should concede? Or is that the state co-opting our lane? 

v) There are some parallels between involuntary commitment and quarantine measures during a pandemic. The problem is the slide from unambiguous cases to ambiguous cases. Symptomatic carriers through asymptomatic carriers to the uninfected. Do you round up everybody indiscriminately and throw them into quarantine because some of them might be infected? 

It's like involuntary commitment of someone who might be dangerous to himself or others because there's a family history of mental illness, even though he himself hasn't manifested any signs of mental illness–yet. But if you wait, it might be too late. So it's safer to lock him up just in case, for the common good, even if he never suffers from mental illness. 

We're not quite at that point, and testing may help to sort things out, although we can't test 300 million Americans, and even if we could, some of them might become infected a week after they passed the test. But if politicians become desperate, don't count out preemptive measures like 28 Weeks Later. Governors have already put whole populations under mass house arrest. 

vi) Is this just a public health and safety issue? That's so this-worldly and lacking in a Godward outlook. Why do they go to church at all, even during normal times? Wilson acts like it's balancing one natural event against another natural event. Does he think the fellowship of God's people in corporate worship has no supernatural dimension that offsets what happens in the world? 

I don't mean "supernatural" in a sensational signs-and-wonders sense, but just that God blesses faithful corporate worship. Does Wilson think churchgoers are just pew warmers? Does it makes a difference, other than at the level of social psychology and emotional uplift? If the ban goes on for months, with electronic worship as the alternative, will many parishioners return if and when the ban is lifted? And why should they?  

I say this from the standpoint of faith rather than experience. It's not that I consciously experience the supernatural when I attend church. And I don't expect to since I think the supernatural usually operates at a subliminal level in public worship. My point is that if Christianity is true, then certain kinds of supernatural blessings are conditional on communal Christian experience.