Saturday, September 17, 2016

From Krishna to Christ

Basil Mitchell was a distinguished Christian philosopher who went in the opposite direction of Michael Sudduth. Mitchell was originally a Hindu adherent, via Sufi religious pluralism, but that changed:

In early 1940, still very uncertain of my attitude toward fighting, I was registered as a conscientious objector and waited to be called up for ambulance service…In May of that year, as the German tanks rolled through the Low Countries and then through France, the question became ever more insistent. In that crisis it would need a very sure conviction to justify my refraining from doing what I could toward stopping this palpable evil…I turned to the Gita and searched it earnestly for guidance…but found to my distress that it had no message for me–or rather than it had a message, but none that I could not accept…What, then, was Arjuna to do? How was he to find the duty appropriate to himself? The answer was that he was a Kshatriya, a member of the warrior caste, and the duty of such a man is to fight…I found that I just could not view the matter in these terms. Not only was the concept of duty deriving from one's social status totally irrelevant to my situation, but the underlying philosophy was one I could not accept. I felt profoundly that what was at stake in Europe was (when all the necessary qualification had been made) a fight of good against evil and that the outcome was of momentous importance.  
From that time on, although I did not clearly perceive it, the Sufi influence began to lose its hold on me. I had been compelled to deny, under the pressure of a practical decision, that the same truth was to be found in all religions. The Gita, impressive though it was, represented a view of the world and of our place in it that was not only different from but incompatible with any that I could bring myself to believe or live by. 
What had increasingly led me to be dissatisfied with the essentially monistic philosophy of my Sufi mentors was its failure, as I now saw it, to attach enduring importance to individual persons…My native cast of thought was idealistic, and left to myself, I was liable to rest satisfied with abstractions. But I had been compelled by circumstances to attend to particulars–in the Navy to the needs of particular individuals acting out a particle role in a particular historical situation through the involvement of a particular institution; and, in my personal life, in responding to the demands of a person of very acute observation who had a sharp sense of truth in respect of feelings and their expression. Hence what initially, in my Sufi days,  repelled me in Christianity–its insistence upon the embodiment of the divine in a particular figure who had entered the world at a particular time and place–now seemed to me congruous with what I had learned about the nature and development of human beings. Basil Mitchell, "War and Friendship," K. Clark, ed. Philosophers Who Believe: The Spiritual Journeys of 11 Leading Thinkers (IVP, 1993), 29-30, 36-37.

Journeys of faith

At Harvard I encountered serious non-Christian thought for the first time–for the first time in the flesh, that is; I had read animadversions on Christianity and theism by Bertrand Russell (Why I am Not a Christian) and others. I was struck by the enormous variety of intellectual and spiritual opinion at Harvard, and spent a great deal of time arguing about whether there was such a person as God, whether Christianity as opposed to Judaism (my roommate Herbert Jacobs was the son of a St. Louis rabbi) was right and so on. I began to wonder whether what I had always believed could really be true. At Harvard, after all, there was such an enormous diversity of opinions about these matters, some of them held by highly intelligent and accomplished people who had little but contempt for what I believed. On the one hand I began to think it questionable that what I had been taught and had always believed could be right, given that there were all these others who thought so differently (and were so much more intellectually accomplished than I). On the other hand, I thought to myself, what really is so great about these people? Why should I believe them? True, they know much more than I and have though much longer: but what, precisely, is the substance of their objections to Christianity? Or to theism? Do these objections really have much by way of substance? And if, as I strongly suspected, not, why should their taking the views they did be relevant to what I thought. The doubts (in that form anyway) didn't last long, but something like the bravado, I suppose, has remained.

The two events that resolved these doubts and ambivalences for me occurred during my second semester. One gloomy evening (in January, perhaps) I was returning from dinner, walking past Widenar Library to my fifth-floor room in Thayer (there weren't any elevators, and scholarship boys occupied the cheaper rooms at the top of the building). It was dark, windy, raining, nasty. But suddenly it was as if the heavens opened; I heard, so it seemed, music of overwhelming power and grandeur and sweetness; there was light of unimaginable splendor and beauty; it seemed I could see into heaven itself; and I suddenly saw or perhaps felt with great clarity and persuasion and conviction that the Lord was really there and was all I had thought. The effects of this experience lingered for a long time; I was still caught up in arguments about the existence of God, but they often seemed to me merely academic, of little existential concern, as if one were to argue about whether there has really been a past, for example, or whether there really were other people, as opposed to cleverly constructed robots.

Such events have not been common subsequently, and there has been only one other occasion on which I felt the presence of God with as much immediacy and strength. That was then I once foolishly went hiking alone off-trail in really rugged country south of Mt. Shuksan in the North Cascades, getting lost when rain, snow and fog obscured all the peaks and landmarks. That night, while shivering under a stunted tree in a cold mixture of snow and rain, I felt as close to God as I ever have, before or since. Alvin Plantinga, "A Christian Life Partly Lived," K. Clark, ed. Philosophers Who Believe: The Spiritual Journeys of 11 Leading Thinkers (IVP, 1993), 50-52.

I don’t have a radically different assessment of all that in my revivified state than I did when I was wandering in the wilderness. The main bar to faith was rather the Freudian idea that religious faith is a wish fulfillment–more specifically, an attempt to cling to childish modes of relating to the world, with the omnipotent daddy there presiding over everything. A powerful case can be made for the view, which is not necessarily tied to the complete Freudian package, that the most important psychological root of religious belief is the need that everyone has for such a childish relationship with a father figure. Be that as it may, I had been psyched into feeling that I was chickening out, was betraying my adult status, if I sought God in Christ, or sought to relate myself to an ultimate source and disposer of things in any way whatever. The crucial moment in my return to the faith came quite early in that year’s leave, before I had reexposed myself to the church or the Bible, or even thought seriously about the possibility of becoming a Christian. I was walking one afternoon in the country outside Oxford, wrestling with the problem, when I suddenly said to myself, "Why should I allow myself to be cribbed, cabined, and confined by these Freudian ghosts? Why should I be so afraid of not being adult? What am I trying to prove? Whom am I trying to impress? Whose approval am I trying to secure? What is more important: to struggle to conform my life to the tenets of some highly speculative system of psychology or to recognize and come to terms with my own real needs? Why should I hold back from opening myself to a transcendent dimension of reality, if such there be, just from fear of being branded as childish in some quarters?" (Or words to that effect.) These questions answered themselves as soon as they were squarely posed. I had, by the grace of God, finally found the courage to look the specter in the face and tell him to go away. I had been given the courage to face the human situation, with its radical need for a proper relation to the source of all being. William Alston, "A Philosopher's Way Back to Faith," T. Morris, ed. God and the Philosophers: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason (Oxford, 1996), 22. 

A Response To Annette Merz On The Infancy Narratives (Part 3)

(Part 1 is here, and part 2 can be found here.)

Merz raises a common objection to the infancy narratives, one that's frequently cited against other parts of the Bible as well. Supposedly, the accounts are too similar to what we find in other sources:

The whole infancy story bears numerous traces of legendary retelling of scripture, especially using elements of the Moses haggadah and texts dealing with messianic expectations of a renewed Davidic kingship….

Mark D. Smith has rightly emphasized that Herod the Great is an indispensable asset to the typological parallel between Jesus and Moses, which is the central theological theme of Matthew's infancy narrative. (470, 479)

Neither fish nor fowl

So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens” (Gen 6:7).

A common objection to the flood account is that Noah's ark wasn't big enough to house all the animals, and even if it was big enough, eight passengers are hardly enough to care for them. A dilemma. 

That's not an issue for old-earthers, who espouse the local flood theory. From their standpoint, the ark only contained a representative sample of regional species. 

For young-earthers, it's more complicated. Of course, young-earthers have standard answers to standard objections. 

One issue concerns the scope of Gen 6:7. The wording seems to describe land animals. It's a shorthand for classifications in Gen 1, although it tellingly omits to include aquatic creatures. 

Whether insects were included is a tricky question. But let's skip that for now.

One question is where to draw the line between land animals and aquatic creatures. That's because we have borderline cases. In terms of their degree of adaptation to an aquatic or terrestrial environment, animals range along a continuum. A shark, dolphin, orca, and octopus (to name a few) is totally adapted to an aquatic environment. 

However, a sea krait is more adapted to an aquatic environment than a water moccasin or anaconda, but less adapted to an aquatic environment than a sea snake, while a horned viper is a land animal, although it can swim in a pinch (I assume). 

A seal or crocodile is more adapted to an aquatic environment than the beaver, otter, or hippopotamus, but less adapted than a shark, dolphin, orca, or octopus, while a mink or raccoon is less adapted to an aquatic environment than a beaver, otter, or hippopotamus, but better adapted than a marten. 

The tortoise is a land animal while a turtle is aquatic. Most crabs are aquatic, yet there are land crabs. Some frogs are primarily aquatic while other frogs are primarily terrestrial or even arboreal. 

For the young-earther, it's an interesting question which animals would be included or excluded from the ark when it comes to borderline cases. Of course, young-earthers deny a one-to-once correspondence between prediluvian and postdiluvian species. I'm using modern-day examples to illustrate a point. Presumably, there'd be prediluvian analogues (i.e. borderline cases).

Rather than a taxonomic distinction, a young-earther could draw a pragmatic distinction. Which animals made the cut would be a question of which animals could survive (or not) outside the ark. 

Friday, September 16, 2016

Pagans with Christian morals

Tidal waves

Having recently fielded some objections to the local flood interpretation, I'll be evenhanded and field an objection to the global flood interpretation. A staple objection to the global flood interpretation is that it poses a double whammy: where did all the extra water come from, and where did it go?

Of course, flood geologists have devised theories about that. In the past, I've mentioned that if God reversed the process in Gen 1:9 (orogeny), that would flood the earth. Now I'd like to suggest a different mechanism.

Suppose God gradually made the moon pass closer to the earth. Not only would that produce higher tides, but based on the inverse square law, it could generate supertides. And if, after that peaked, God made the moon recess, that would lower the tides. A single mechanism could account for both rising and lowering sea levels. You'd have the same amount of water throughout, but its distribution would vary depending on which part of the earth was facing the moon at any given time. Now let's consider some objections to my hypothetical:

1. Would the gravitational force of the moon be too destructive? Likewise, would altering the lunar orbit have any disruptive effects on the solar system overall? For instance, would a shift in the lunar orbit have any appreciable effect on Mars? If so, would a shift in the Martian orbit have an appreciable effect on the Venusian orbit?

I lack the expertise to address that question. However, from what I've read, conventional astronomy believes the moon used to be nearer to the earth. Yet that didn't have a cataclysmic effect on the earth or the solar system. Even if you reject conventional astronomy in that regard, I'm discussing the theoretical consequences of the moon drawing closer to the earth. 

2. On my hypothetical, the whole globe would never be submerged all at once. Isn't that a problem?

Not really. In the course of a solar day, the whole globe would be submerged as the moon orbits the earth and the earth rotates on its axis. Every day, land masses would be inundated by the supertides. That cycle would continue day after day for the duration of the flood. A serial deluge rather than a simultaneous deluge. 

I don't think the language of Genesis rules that out. Moreover, that would drown all the land animals. So that would have the same effect as a simultaneous deluge. 

3. This epitomizes all that's wrong with creation science. Young-earthers postulate ad hoc theories to rationalize Scripture. There's no direct evidence for their theories. They are only propounded to prop up the Bible. 

To that objection I'd say several things:

i) There is indeed a temptation in creation science to resort to ad hoc theories. However, that's hardly unique to creation science. The theory of evolution is riddled with stopgap explanations. Consider how Richard Dawkins conjectures evolutionary pathways. Nine parts interpolation to one part evidence. Likewise, evolutionary psychology is notorious for imaginative explanations to account for various adaptations. Or Richard Lewontin's brazen admission that "We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs…in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories."

ii) But let's consider a few comparisons. Take a homicide detective who reopens a cold case. Suppose all he has to go on is the police report and coroner's report. He develops a theory of the crime. He doesn't have direct access to the crime scene or the body. That's long gone. Rather, his evidence is documentary. 

Likewise, some medical scientists diagnose famous men from the past. What was wrong with Isaac Newton, Jonathan Swift, John Ruskin, and Abraham Lincoln (to name a few)? 

They don't have a living body to examine, or a dead body to autopsy. They can't take blood samples or scan the patient. All they have to go by are biographical reports describing the symptoms of the individual.

By the same token, historians use ancient astronomical notices to construct a chronology. 

It isn't necessarily special pleading to devise a scientific hypothesis based on documentary evidence rather than direct evidence. That is, in fact, a common practice. 

iii) If God wanted to produce a global flood, why use the moon? It isn't quite natural and it isn't quite supernatural. 

But as a matter of fact, some miracles are preternatural rather than supernatural. Coincidence miracles are case in point. They don't circumvent the natural laws, yet they are more discriminating than natural laws. God employs a variety of causes. 

iv) My hypothetical fails to explain the constancy and duration of the flood. 

I disagree. According to the account, the flood waters gradually rise until they crest, remain at that level for a time, then recede. 

And that's what would happen of God caused the moon to gradually pass closer to the earth, stay at that distance for a time, then gradually recess to its original position. The approaching moon would result in higher tides, while receding moon would result in lower tides.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The rainbow sign

When unbelievers attack Noah's flood, they typically target flood geology and the global flood interpretation. As a result, the local flood interpretation has been neglected. In the past I've discussed how I think both the local and global flood interpretations are broadly defensible on scientific and exegetical grounds. In this post I'd like to revisit a few objections to the local flood interpretation. 

There are some objections to the local flood interpretation that I won't cover in this post because I've discussed them before, and I having nothing new to say in that regard. For instance:

I. A local flood makes Noah's ark a pointless waste of time. 

The underlying assumption here is that Noah's ark had a utilitarian purpose. However, let's consider a comparison. Take the Mosaic cultus. You had the tabernacle and its furnishings. Later you had the Solomonic temple. An entire tribe was reserved for the priesthood. You had a system of offerings and animal sacrifice. That represents a tremendous outlay of human and material resources. Just consider the sheer number of sacrificial animals that were slaughtered over the centuries. Not to mention the construction of Solomon's temple. 

Yet all that was strictly unnecessary. God never forgave a single Jew on the basis of animal sacrifice. The death of an animal cannot atone for human sin.

So the whole Mosaic cultus is a humongous object lesson. Its value is symbolic or pedagogical rather than utilitarian. Teaching by showing. In graphic, picturesque terms, it depicted God's holiness, human sin, guilt, remission, and vicarious atonement. 

By the same token, the value of Noah's ark could be symbolic or pedagogical rather than utilitarian. It illustrates the principle of a godly remnant. Divine judgment and deliverance. The ark is a microcosm of the cosmic temple. It represents sacred space. It foreshadows the tabernacle: 

The ark was a temple structure. It was designed to be a copy of the cosmic temple made by the Creator. Its three stories correspond to the cosmos conceptualized as divided into the three levels of the heavens, earth, and the sphere under the earth. Its window corresponded to the window of heaven and its door to the door of the deep (cf. Gen. 7:11).26 The ark's temple identity is corroborated by the reflection of its architecture in the Mosaic tabernacle and the Solomonic temple. Their structure too reproduced the three story pattern of the cosmos both in their horizontal floor plan and in their vertical sectioning.27 Note also the three-storied side chambers of the temple. In addition, the temple had the features of the door and upper window, and it shared the ark's vertical dimension of thirty cubits.

That's no more or less a wasteful than the Mosaic cultus. I'd say the outlay for the Mosaic cultus, including the Solmonic temple, is at least comparable to Noah's ark.

II. The rainbow sign makes no sense if the flood was local.

2. If an old-earther subscribes to an anthropologically universal flood, then he can easily account for the rainbow sign. It's a promise that God will never again destroy the entire human race in a flood. 

3. In addition, what's the scope of the rainbow? Does Gen 9:12-17 mean that's the first time a rainbow ever appeared on earth? A problem with that interpretation is the fact that the rainbow in Gen 9 hearkens back to the rainless state in Gen 2:

5 When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, 6 and streams came up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground (Gen 2:5-6). 
13 I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh (Gen 9:13-15).

So we'd expect the scope of the rainbow to be roughly conterminous with the scope of the rainless state. That, in turn, raises the question of how extensive the rainless state was in Gen 2:5-6. There are different proposals.

i) John Collins thinks it's a seasonal reference. It refers to the dry season, in contrast to the rainy season. Cf. Genesis 1-4 (P&R, 2006), 111.

ii) On another interpretation, the scope is limited in space rather than time. On this view, Gen 2 is referring, not to the condition of the earth in general, but to the condition of Eden in particular. The land of Eden was rainless. That interpretation has two things going for it:

a) It's a simple way to harmonize the chronology of Gen 1 with the chronology of Gen 2. 

b) The dry climate of Eden stands in contrast to a terrestrial source of irrigation: river water. Eden is arid in reference to rain, but moist in reference to fluvial irrigation or flooding. 

Although scholars don't know what ed means in 2:6, I think the river system in vv10-14 supplies a broad contextual clue. Eden lies in a river basin. It is watered by a tributary of that river system. Possibly a subterranean river that surfaces in the garden. 

In that event the novelty of the rainbow is not a general phenomenon, but geographically localized.

III. An anthropologically universal flood creates a chronological problem by pushing the date of the flood back to an unrealistically distant point in the past. For instance, according to conventional dating techniques, Aborigines have inhabited Australia for 40,000 years. 

There are two possible ways an old-earther might respond:

1. He could borrow a page from young-earthers and challenge conventional dating techniques. Although that might seem ironic, old-earth and young-earth positions are sets of independent tenets with independent supporting arguments. There's nothing inherently incongruous about taking these apart and recombining them. 

2. Consider what might be a more controversial move: suppose he denies an anthropologically universal flood? 

i) Perhaps a young-earther will object that denying an anthropologically universal flood does violence to the "all flesh" quantifier:

11 Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12 And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. 13 And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth.

However, young-earthers drastically restrict the scope of "all flesh" to birds, bats, and land animals. They exclude aquatic animals, which is hardly a measly exception. They exclude insects, which is hardly a measly exception. Technically, it might be said that insects don't have "flesh," but that's a bit of modern scientific precisionism. 

Even in Gen 6:12-13, "all flesh" has a different scope in v13 than it has in v12. In v12 it refers to humans, but in v13, to organisms in general. And the scope is specified in v7:

So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” 

So "all flesh" is something of a cipher. What it denotes or refers is variable. The phrase itself doesn't indicate how much that includes or covers. 

ii) More to the point, what was the purpose of the flood? What did it accomplish? In one respect, Gen 6:5-13 tells the reader why God sent the flood. Yet the flood didn't solve the underlying problem. Indeed, in Gen 8:21, the cycle repeats itself (cf. Gen 6:5).

iii) Here's a suggestion: what if the flood has the same purpose of holy war? In the Pentateuch, God commands the Israelites to evict the Canaanites when they take possession of the Promised Land. The purpose is to give God's people some breathing room. His people can't survive and thrive in a world that's completely overrun by the godless. There's no room for God's people in places like Ur, Sodom, and Gomorrah. 

By the same token, evil had become so pervasive by the eve of the flood that it would strangle the godly remnant, strangle the seed of promise, strangle the messianic line. So the flood resets the chess board. Although the cycle of evil reboots after the flood, it will take a while to reach the peak of depravity before the flood. Even though the aftermath of the flood gives evildoers a fresh start, it also gives the remnant a fresh start. It buys the remnant some time. 

iv) On that interpretation, the flood needn't be anthropologically universal to achieve its aim. It wouldn't matter if there were Australian Aborigines untouched by the flood, because they were too far away to pose an existential threat to the God's people in the Fertile Crescent. 

v) As a bonus point, if the flood wasn't anthropologically universal, then that disarms objections to the flood based on a population bottleneck in the event that all postdiluvian humans descend from the eight passengers on the ark. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Which pope is correct?

Which pope is correct.

John Paul II, from “Familiaris Consortio” (1981)?

the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: ***if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.

or Pope Francis?

The guidelines say that some civilly remarried couples who can’t adhere to the Church’s teaching of “living like brothers and sisters,” who have complex circumstances, and who can’t obtain a declaration of nullity for their first marriage, might undertake a “journey of discernment,” and arrive at the recognition that in their particular case, there are limitations that “diminish responsibility and culpability.”

For these exceptional cases, the bishops wrote, “Amoris Laetitia opens up the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.”

The guidelines, dated Sept. 5, reached Francis, who answered on the same day, writing: “The document is very good and completely explains the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia. There are no other interpretations.”

The Civil Rights Commission

One of the clear and present threats to American democracy is the proliferation of extralegal civil rights or human rights commissions, elected by no one, answerable to no one, who dictate social policy:

Weeping Madonnas

And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain (Rev 13:15).

I'm going to comment on this article:

O'Connell raises some good objections to the mass hallucinatory interpretation of the Resurrection accounts:

i) Even assuming that his examples are best construed as mass hallucinations, these usually involve a religious expectation. So that introduces an autosuggestive dynamic. But the resurrection of Jesus was contrary to the expectation of the disciples. 

ii) He also makes the point that in the cited cases, the vision never carries on a conversation with the recipient. 

However, his case against the hallucinatory interpretation of the Resurrection accounts is far weaker than it could be, due to many dubious assumptions in his analysis.

i) As he himself admits, some reported Marian sightings could be optical illusions. That's different from a hallucination.

ii) There's no a priori reason to treat visions of Jesus (or Mary) as hallucinations. That's a prejudicial classification. There's no reason to assume that Jesus would never appear to someone in a vision. At least, I don't think there is, and O'Connell never offers a supporting argument for his assumption. He just takes it for granted. 

iii) A possible objection is that no one knows what Jesus looks like. So modern-day visions of Jesus (or medieval visions) necessarily mimic customary iconography. However, I don't think that, of itself, is a strong objection. Precisely because no one knows what Jesus looks like, if Jesus did appear to someone, he'd have to assume a recognizable appearance based on cultural expectations.

iii) The very fact that ancient Jews (and Gentile) believed in ghosts and visions means they'd distinguish ghosts and visions from a resurrection. When the Gospels record Jesus predicting his resurrection from the dead, it must mean something other than returning from the grave as a ghost or vision, since there'd be nothing special about a postmortem appearance in that respect. Rather, it has to stand in contrast to ghosts and visions. And that's already the case in Matthew and Mark, even before we get to the accounts in Luke, John, and 1 Corinthians which explicitly stress the physicality of his resurrection.

iv) I'd add that this undercuts O'Connell's angelic interpretation of some Resurrection appearances. Moreover, his angelic interpretation suffers from parallelomania. In addition, the luminosity of Christ in Acts 9 is no more angelic than his luminosity at the Transfiguration. 

v) It's a mistake to assume that sightings of Jesus and sightings of Mary must have the same explanation. To begin with, I'm automatically dubious about weeping or bleeding madonnas where the statue or icon is in the custody of a church or monastery. That's not subject to round the clock public surveillance. Rather, that provides after hours opportunities for monks and priests to touch up the statue or icon. In other words, it's easy to stage. 

vi) However, I don't necessarily assume that all Marian sightings must either be hoaxes or hallucinations. Before getting to my own explanation, let's consider another alternative. Is is possible that Mary sometimes does appear to people? It might be argued that this would be an encouragement to faith. It might also be argued that this would be a divine accommodation to culture. If that's the only religious culture which some people are in a position to know, and if God wishes to contact them, then it will be through their cultural categories. Or so goes the argument. 

vii) Having said that, I don't think it's theologically tenable in the case of Marian sightings. If some reportedly weeping or bleeding or animated madonnas are genuine, that would inevitably foster the kind of superstitious idolatry and totemism which the Bible constantly condemns. So we'd have conflicting revelations. Biblical revelations which condemn the veneration of images, and revelatory images of Mary. These don't mesh. 

viii) In addition, this fosters a Mary-centered piety that makes her a rival to Jesus in pious devotion. Indeed, the theological interpretation of weeping or bleeding madonnas is that Mary shares in the Passion of Christ. But that's wholly unacceptable from a Biblical standpoint. 

I realize that Catholic apologists rationalize Marian devotion on the grounds that this supposedly redounds to devotion to Jesus. But other issues aside, if Jesus is the ultimate object of devotion, why not more reports of weeping, bleeding, or animated icons and statues of Jesus rather than Mary? Why not cut to the chase? 

ix) Furthermore, you have reports of weeping or bleeding madonnas in both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox settings. Yet these can't very well attest both theological traditions, inasmuch as these represent competing theological traditions.

x) In principle, there's a difference between a miracle that happens to Catholics, and a miracle that's inseparable from a Catholic theological paradigm. A reported miracle that, if authentic, inevitably lends credence to the theological tradition which sponsors it. 

A Catholic or Orthodox apologist might object that my interpretation of Scripture begs the question. They might accuse me of special pleading. But that won't work.

For one thing, we have to compare some religious claims to Biblical criteria. That's what the Biblical criteria is for. Take the classic criteria for a false prophet (Deut 13). And notice that this makes allowance for a bona fide miracle. 

Moreover, Catholics (and Orthodox) don't have a monopoly on reported miracles. You have Protestant parallels. So these can't be cited to uniquely evidence the claims of Rome. 

xi) In addition, we have an example of an animated statue in Rev 13:15. A statue that promotes veneration. Yet that's occultic. So there's biblical precedent for the possibility of phenomena analogous to weeping and bleeding madonnas, yet this doesn't imply that God caused the miracle. 

xii) It might be objected that attributing such phenomena to the dark side, if mistaken, borders on the unpardonable sin. However, we're not talking about Jesus, but Mary. Moreover, passages like Deut 13 and Gal 1:8 require us to make allowance for that explanation. And given conflicting evidence, we have no choice but to take sides. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

When the future is a fait accompli

I'd like to expand on something I recently said regarding Molinism. Molinism attempts to harmonize freewill with determinism. A possible world has a complete history. Even if that history is, in part, the result of choices made by libertarian agents, a possible world is a completed totality. The history of everything that happened in that world. A static, abstract object. 

Let's say God instantiates a possible world. Let's say the A-theory is true. Let's say that in the actual world, the future is open. There is nothing in the actual world that causes the future to unfold in a particular direction. 

Yet what is future vis-a-vis the actual world is past vis-a-vis the possible world. In effect, the future is past, because everything that will happen in the actual world exactly corresponds to everything that happened in the possible world. For God instantiates that particular history. What happened in that possible world. 

Even though the future is open, future outcomes are equivalent to the accidental necessity of the past. Nothing can happen in the actual world that didn't happen in the possible world which it exemplifies. Nothing can happen in the actual world contrary to the possible world it exemplifies. As the mirror image of a possible world, nothing can turn out otherwise. So the future might as well lie in the past. 

As I said before, if a possible world is indeterministic, an actual world is deterministic–like instant replay. Even if the original outcome was indeterminate, the playback is determinate. 

Now, as a Calvinist, I don't think possible world histories are even partly the product of libertarian agents. But supposing we grant that contention for the sake of argument, if the actual world exemplifies the plot of a possible world, then it must mirror everything that happened in the possible world. It can never deviate from that blueprint.

Reading the Word of God in the Presence of God

Free (pdf): Reading the Word of God in the Presence of God by Vern Poythress.

Also, Poythress' The Lordship of Christ: Serving Our Savior All of the Time, in All of Life, with All of Our Heart is currently $2.99 on Kindle.

Another attack on the First Amendment

Serrated theodicy

Calvinism sounds bad...until you compare it to the alternatives.

On Facebook, Jerry Walls recently plugged a NYT oped attacking Calvinism: "Teaching Calvin in California". 

Jerry fancies himself a Wesleyan Arminian, but just imagine teaching Charles Wesley in California. How do you think his sermon on earthquakes as divine judgment would go over in that seismically active part of the world:

Jerry is an Arminian propagandist first and a philosopher second. Always in that order. Jerry is a corruptor of critical discourse. A good philosopher practices critical thinking skills, and cultivates critical thinking skills in his students and listeners. Part of being a good philosopher is to mentally argue both sides of the issue so that you can defend your position in the face of the best the competition has to offer. You anticipate objections. You anticipate counterexamples. In fact, good philosophers will even improve on the arguments of the opposing position, in order to respond to the strongest possible objections to their own position.

Jerry never does that. He always gives a one-sided presentation. He picks on weak opponents. He submits to softball questions by sympathetic interviewers. 

I'll be the first to admit that Calvinism has an uncomfortably severe aspect. But I don't think that's a damaging concession. The Bible often has a severe aspect. Take "offensive" passages in the OT. Or the "offensive" doctrine of hell. Or graphic and horrific imagery in the Book of Revelation.

For that matter, extrabiblical historical has an uncomfortably severe aspect. All the horrific events that happen in the world at large, on a regular basis. 

It's unintelligent to assess Calvinism merely on its own terms. You need to put Calvinism in context. You need to make a comparative judgment. Comparing and contrasting Calvinism with the alternatives. I'm going to briefly review traditional religious strategies in response to the problem of evil. 

I. Indian philosophy

i) The law of karma is a traditional Hindu and Buddhist explanation for the problem of suffering. Why do the innocent suffer? Hinduism and Buddhism cut the knot by denying the premise. According to Hinduism and Buddhism, there is no such thing as innocent suffering. If a 5-year-old girl is run over by a drunk driver, she's being punished for something she did in a past life. 

ii) In one strand of Hinduism, evil exists because good and evil exist in the divine, and every possibility must be realized. In that respect, Hinduism is like Neoplatonism, Manichean or Zoroastrian dualism, the multiverse, and the principle of plenitude. 

On that view, evil is just as ultimate as good. Evil is an ineluctable aspect of bedrock reality. On that view, evil is not a declension from the way things are supposed to be. Not a temporary side-effect of something more primary. 

iii) Apropos (ii), the solution to the problem of evil is twofold:

a) Cultivate detachement

b) Annihilation. The only escape is to break the vicious cycle of karmic reincarnation by passing into oblivion. 

iv) Apropos (iii), detachment has different aspects:

a) In Buddhism, we suffer because we lose what we love. Everything is fleeting. The solution is renunciation of human affections. Of course, one could argue that the cure is worse than the disease. But there are no good options.

b) On a related note, both Hinduism and Buddhism have a doctrine of maya, although the interpretation varies. In general, this involves a distinction between appearance and reality. Between the divine and the world or the self and the world.

In one strand of Hinduism, what is ultimately real is the immutable, eternal, preexistent soul. The world of time and space is illusory. But since that's the world in which evil occurs, evil is illusory. You need to practice meditation to withdraw psychologically from the bewitchment of the phenomenal world. 

In Buddhism, maya is a delusion that masks the void. In Hinduism, you practice mediation to realize that your real inner self is untouched by phenomenal evil. In Buddhism, you practice mediation to realize that you have no real inner self to be touched by phenomenal evil. 

These are very bleak philosophies. 

II. Atheism

Atheism has some affinities with Buddhism. Indeed, Schopenhauer's nihilistic outlook is similar to Buddhism.

i) Technically, atheism can't have a theodicy, but it must address the problem of evil. One intractable difficulty with atheism is that if you're cheated in this life, you don't get a second chance. In a godless universe, many people suffer irredeemable loss. There are no eschatological compensations. No reversal of fortunes. 

ii) In addition, there are no objective goods. We value certain things because our evolutionary conditioning has brainwashed us into believing some things are worthwhile, but when you rip away the mask, there's nothing behind the mask. Just a dumb, pitiless, amoral process–much like the Buddhist void. 

III. Universalism

On the face of it, universalism has the most appealing theodicy. But on closer examination it has some bloody jagged edges. 

i) If God is going to save everybody, why put so many people through a hell on earth in the first place? It's like splashing acid in someone's face, then paying for her skin grafts and reconstructive surgery. Does universalism really require God to stand by as Nazis perform human experimentation on Jewish children?

ii) By the same token, the price of universalism is for victims of horrendous evil to share eternity with their tormenters. Mengele and his victims will be neighbors in paradise. 

There's a sense in which the purest form of punishment, pure retribution, is to be denied a second chance. You crossed a line of no return. Your burned your return ticket. Despair is the truest form of just deserts. The damned have no hope. That's what makes hell hellish. If there's no injustice so heinous that it's unforgivable, then is there any ultimate justice? 

IV. Molinism

i) Molinism attempts to harmonize freewill with determinism. Possible worlds contain moral evils caused by human agents with libertarian freedom. 

If, however, God instantiates a possible world, that's a package deal. Everything that happens in the actual world is bound to happen. Even though alternative courses of action are viable options, those only happen in possible worlds that God did not instantiate. If a possible world is indeterministic, an actual world is deterministic. By instantiating that particular world history, every event must unfold accordingly and inexorably. 

It's like a library of DVDs. Some DVDs are unplayable (infeasible). But of the subset of playable DVDs, God chooses which DVD to play. And the plot is predetermined. From start to finish, everything happens according to script. 

Compare it to instant replay. Even if the original outcome was indeterminate, the replay is determinate. If we think of possible worlds as abstract objects, then (according to Molinism), the human agents were free, but these aren't real people. In the ensemble of possible worlds, they can do otherwise. Indeed, there are possible world where they do otherwise. But in the real world, where they are real people, with consciousness and feelings, they can't rewrite the plot. Each possible world has a single history. It can't combine two or more alternate histories from different possible worlds. 

ii) In addition, human agents don't get to choose which possible world will be instantiated. Suppose there's a feasible world in which Judas is heavenbound. In that world, he doesn't betray Jesus. That would clearly be a better world for Judas to find himself within, but he gets stuck in the world where he's hellbound. He is fated to betray Jesus the moment God instantiates that particular timeline rather than some alternate timeline. Trapped in a world where he is doomed. 

V. Arminianism

Superficially, this seems kinder and gentler than Calvinism. But on closer examination, you will cut yourself on razor wire.

Arminianism has two basic commitments: God's love and man's freedom. These two principles tug in opposing directions. The claim is that for love to be genuine, humans must be at liberty to refrain from reciprocating God's love.

But even if, for the sake of argument, we grant that contention, it's only plausible at an individual level. Problem is, humans are social creatures who interact with fellow humans. As a result, God must respect the freedom of Nazi scientists to experiment on human guinea pigs (to take one example). Protecting the innocent from horrendous harm is less important than creating a theater in which "true love" is possible. 

VI. Open theism

According to open theism, God is in a situation of diminish responsibility for evil inasmuch as God is ignorant of the long-term consequences of his creative actions. But there are problems with that theodicy:

i) If you don't know whether you're inserting innocent people into a dangerous situation, shouldn't you play it safe? When it doubt, is it not morally incumbent on you to avoid exposing people to an unforeseeable, but potentially catastrophic risk? 

ii) Moreover, even if God can't foresee the outcome a year in advance or a month in advance, surely he can foresee the outcome a day in advance or an hour in advance. As events come to a head, the future becomes increasingly predictable, even if the outcome is not a dead certainty. 

In addition, we don't generally think the bare possibility that something might not be harmful is an excuse to insert innocent people into what is, in all likelihood, a hazardous situation. 

VII. Calvinism

According to Calvinism, God predestines every event, including evil events. Although that's a sobering claim, an implication of that claim is that everything happens for a reason. Indeed, there's a good reason for whatever God ordains.

Especially in cases of evil, we typically demand that there better be a good reason to justify it. And that's precisely what Calvinism claims.

Compare that to the candid admission of sophisticated freewill theism:

According to the story I have told, there is generally no explanation of why this evil happened to that person…It means being the playthings of chance. It means living in a world in which innocent children die horribly, and it means something worse than that: it means living in a world in which innocent children die horribly for no reason at all. It means living in a world in which the wicked,through sheer luck, often prosper.  
But whether a particular horror is connected with human choices or not, it is evident, at least in many cases, that God could have prevented the horror without sacrificing any great good or allowing some even greater horror.  
No appeal to considerations in any way involving human free will or future benefits to human beings can possibly be relevant to the problem with which this case [Auschwitz] confronts.   
There are many horrors, vastly many, from which no discernible good results–and certainly no good, discernible or not, that an omnipotent being couldn't have achieved without the horror; in fact, without any suffering at all. P. van Inwagen, The Problem of Evil (Oxford, 2006), 89,95,97.

Is that clearly preferable to Calvinism? What's disturbing isn't so much the idea that God predestines horrendous evils, but the fact of horrendous evils. The world has exactly the same horrendous evils regardless of your theodicy. 

It's just immature, as well as deceptive, for Arminians like Walls to constantly attack Calvinism based on the disagreeable implications of Calvinism while constantly refusing to compare it with the disagreeable implications of every other theodicy. In our fallen world, there are no nice theodices. Every theodicy has serrated edges. There's no escaping that.

Does Molinism avoid making God the author of sin?

Monday, September 12, 2016

What's your worldview?

A secular society will self-destruct

For the record

I'd like to take the occasion to debunk a baseless rumor. Recently, it was brought to my attention that I allegedly said JP Holding was homosexual. But that's fanciful.

That's a wild misinterpretation based on something I said in an ancient post, way back in 2005. I haven't thought about that post for many years. 

The statement I made in that post, which has given rise to this rumor, was sarcastic and satirical. To impute a serious import to the statement is fallacious. 

I don't have any inside information about Holding, so I'd be in no position to opine about his orientation in the first place. Hence, it wasn't even possible for me to intend that statement seriously. I never had access to any public or private evidence to render an informed opinion. 

Moreover, homosexuals are a minuscule fraction of the population, so there's a strong standing presumption that someone is straight unless we have evidence to the contrary. Which I don't. I didn't at the time. 

So in several respects, the interpretation foisted my statement is groundless. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

An atonement that saves (from beginning to end)

A mathematician dismantles Carrier

Philosophical objections to omniscience

There are some very recondite objections to divine omniscience based on indexical reference as well as the liar paradox and set theory. I'm going to quote some sections from Graham Oppy's Describing Gods: An Investigation of the Divine Attributes (Cambridge, 2014). Although Oppy is an aggressive atheist, he proceeds to debunk these particular objections to divine omniscience. The quoted material begins right after the break: