Thursday, May 31, 2012

Am I not a Christian?

Ma Yuan: Visiting Plum
Blossoms by Moonlight
The confusion began, or reached a noticable level, in my last year of high school.  The ruling potentates at West Seattle High allowed me to take two classes at the same time during the last period of the day -- second year Russian, and writing for the school newspaper, the Chinook, across the hall and down a door or two.  Plus our Russian teacher was actually German.  The initial phase of a life-long identity crisis peaked in my last year of college, when I read Kak Mui Porteem Ruskii Yazik, "How We Ruin Russian," which combined language and politics in an indictment of communism. 

Nor was Russian the only language that had apparently gone bad: George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" demonstrated that sloppy wording threatened clarity of thought and human freedom in the Angloshere as well.  If everything relates to everything else, as apparently it did, why stick to one field for my BA?  So I mixed religion, philosophy, history and anthropology, and got a BA in "The Russian and Chinese Languages and Marxism."  That didn't get me a job, so I studied Chinese religions in Taiwan, then got an MA in "China Studies," which tempted me to pretend to know something about Chinese art -- about as much as the information content as one can find in the empty corners of "One Corner Ma's" paintings from the Song Dynasty.  Use the empty spaces on the edge of the page to evoke more truth than you actually possess -- was Ma Yuan the world's first blogger?

Friday, May 25, 2012

Why is God Ignoring Me?

I was recently asked this question, in a slightly different form, by a gentleman named Charles.  The title of this post is from Gary Habermas' book of the same name.  Gary was one of the people I asked for suggestions on how to answer Charles. 

Here, we begin with the original series of questions from Charles.  I then post an answer someone else offered on another site.  Finally, I'll add a few thoughts of my own. 

A couple of things. You mentioned you might not be the best person to answer my question - can you get me in touch with someone who can? I've tried to post, call, etc to get in touch with William Lane Craig (who uses personal experience as an evidence of God), but to no avail. I'm currently hoping to get in touch with Jim Dennison, but we'll see how that goes. Do you have someone better suited to answer?

(Note: Dr. Habermas responded by e-mailing me two chapters from his book. I'll be happy to pass them along, if you (or, presumably, other readers) give me an address.)

As for your answer - I can't help, but feel as though it is unsatisfactory. You first mention that you do feel God's presence. I would argue that is exactly the problem -YOU (meaning other people who ask for it and search for it don't) and Feel (is it really god you feel? Can you be sure? etc....) So you feel (or give God credit) for something you feel. I have always had trouble talking to God as though he were in the room. Would anyone take me seriously if I talked to my dead biological father, an imaginary friend, or even someone I knew was living, but wasn't "there"? I can't imagine they would (or at best one wouldn't believe they could hear me and respond).

Why would you suggest this tension is good for us? In what way? I don't think it is good for me. It has stopped me from going to church. (Although there are other reasons for that other than this one.)

You say that a few times you seen "objective" reasons to believe God hears you and cares about you. I'd be interested to know what they things were (and the possibility that it wasn't God at all), and would also ask is this a special privilege he gives to some and not all?

You mentioned that you think God does speak to us all the ways that I mention, but I think my whole argument was that he doesn't. As for your friend, did he really hear God and have to leave his homeland? Was it God that he heard? Did he have to leave? And if that is true, then why is it that God would only choose to talk to us and then make that the punishment? Is he punishing us for having to make himself heard? Seems a bit sadistic or unreasonable to me (assuming that is the case).

Finally, you mentioned that we do "walk by faith." What does that mean? At this point, I'm willing to say that most modern American Christianity is wrong and that it doesn't mean a "personal" relationship with God. So then, what does it mean? Does it mean simply trying to learn more about God by reading the bible, and also trying to follow the best you can while always just kinda waiting for heaven?

One last thought - I hope you don't read me as hostile or antagonistic. This is a serious problem for me. i recognize it isn't for everyone (or even most people), but at this point I am trying to find answers and trying to make sense of it all.

Lauren Kimball: Heavy question . . .  I'm touched by his plight and sincerity.

I notice that your friend tries to discredit reading the Bible as having anything to do with hearing God's voice. His knowing an author vrs. knowing their work is an interesting analogy, but woefully off the mark.

Christ said that His sheep would know His voice. How do the sheep come to know His voice? How do the sheep filter all the static noise in their heads and determine what is from God and what is from self or worse? That, I believe, is where the Bible comes in.

Rather than using the analogy of, "knowing a book is not the same thing as knowing the author," I would look at the Bible as a manual that helps bridge the gap between man and God, not a book that simply describes God.

For example, you can't see radiation, but with the right text book you can learn how to recognize and detect when radiation is present. God is similar in that respect. We've lost touch with how to talk to God, so God's given us a tool so that we can bridge that gap. Don't know if what you're hearing is God? Filter it.

I can empathize with his frustration, I really can. Yet just because God does not speak to us in a way that we would like Him to does not discredit his existence. Not only do I think he has a problem in listening, I think he has a problem understanding the enormity of God.

A long while back I had prayed to God to hear His voice. I wanted to talk to God and was similarly frustrated at his perceived silence. Later that same night, I was awoken by one of the biggest thunderstorms I'd ever experienced. The storm was so tremendous and so violent, that it literally shook the ground and my house when the lightning sounded. In my half-sleep daze I was utterly terrified. I actually found myself on the brink of tears, feeling like a frightened child. I was so certain for a few moments that I might actually ACTUALLY hear God's voice, and all I wanted was for it to stop. Did I hear God's voice? Not necessarily. Was I reminded who it was I was talking to? Quite.

I don't think your friend would want to hear God's actual voice. He does us a favor by speaking softly. I don't know that there's really any other way.

DM: I think Lauren makes some good points, here, and I hope you'll read Gary's chapters, and see if they're helpful.  Let me add a few points, and answer the questions you directed at me. 

No, I don't think my post-Muslim friend took it as a "punishment" that he heard God's voice, and then was forced to leave his home.  His experience reminds me of Jesus' story of the Pearl of Great Price.  Having found one great treasure, the hero of Jesus' tale sells all he has, to purchase that treasure.  What hearing from God directly did for this imam, was confirm to him that what he chose to purchase, at such a high price, was indeed most valuable.  

How did he know it was God?  All I can say is, he was in a better position than us to figure that out.  He was there.  It was his neck he was risking.  As a legal scholar, now getting his PhD at one of the top universities in the world, he's no dummy. 

But no one promises that the life of faith is without risk.  Read Hebrews 11.  Walking by faith doesn't mean believing without reason, but believing for good reason, and then acting on your belief, "stepping out" (often literally, as Abraham did, as my friend did) in faith. 

CS Lewis points out that miracles and martyrdoms tend to cluster around the same periods of history.  This may be because God doesn't want to overwhelm us with evidence (as Lauren put it, he usually speaks in a still, small voice), but sometimes we might need more encouragement. 

If you need reason for faith, and you look for it, I think you'll find a good deal of it.  If you look for certainty, I don't think you'll ever find that, at least not in this world, if you're constituted at all like I am.  I don't think life is supposed to be easy, and I'm not sure it would be a good thing if it were.

Monday, May 21, 2012

PZ Myers vs. Women

If there are two things Gnu blog-mogul PZ Myers can't stand, it's Christians, and bigots. 

Dr. Octopus, before he acquired
the extra arms.
PZ's hatred of Christians is one of the mainstays of the biologist's popular Pharyngula web site, along with florid descriptions of underwater fauna, and sometimes fawning descriptions of underwater flora.  Christians are stupid, venile, pestilential, and all the attributes Dawkins ascribed to God, incarnate here on Earth. When a Christian shows up on his blog, as I did for a few exciting months last year, PZ leads the high-tech lynching in person, not of course with rational argument, but with crude name-calling, obscenities, and a "throw everything up and see what sticks" litany of accusations.  Sooner or later, he finds some excuse to get rid of the Christian, and the highly-educated denizens of Pharyngula breath a collective sigh of relief, like a mob that has had fun burning its witch of whom it is secretly afraid.  Besides, it's late and the mob has work the next day, when it goes back to its regular occupation of more low-key scoffing, denigrating, and dehumanizing those outside the True Faith. 

At the same time, PZ also passionately crusades against bigotry -- directed at women.  He often attacks fellow male atheists for real or imagined sins of mysogeny, with ferocity of an intensity not unlike that he directs at Christians. 

Recently, PZ tried to combine his two prejudices, by claiming that the chief moral problem with religion is how it encourages us to treat women:

Whenever I hear that tripe about the beneficial effects of religion on human cultural evolution, it’s useful to note that the world’s dominant faiths all hardcode directly into their core beliefs the idea that women are unclean, inferior, weak, and responsible for the failings of mankind…that even their omnipotent, all-loving god regards women as lesser creatures not fit to be intermediaries with him, and that their cosmic fate is to be subservient slaves to men, just as men are to be subservient slaves to capital-H Him.

David Sloan Wilson can argue all he wants that religion helped promote group survival in our evolutionary history, or that his group selectionist models somehow explain its origins, but it doesn’t matter. Here and now, everywhere, those with eyes to see can see for themselves that religion has for thousands of years perpetuated the oppression of half our species. Half of the great minds our peoples have produced have lived and died unknown and forgotten, their educations neglected, their lives spent doing laundry and other menial tasks for men — their merits unrecognized and buried under lies promulgated by religion, in cultures soaked in the destructive myths of faith which codify misogyny and give it a godly blessing.

Isn’t that reason enough to tear down the cathedrals — that with this one far-reaching, difficult change to our cultures, we double human potential?

Like the octopus that is his totem, PZ Myers looks fearsome, but is actually a timid creature, in my experience.  Were it not so, I might merely reply to all of this:


In fact, I think I'll e-mail this challenge to PZ.  But I doubt he'll will be willing to debate me publicly -- or even allow me to take him, and his thousands of disciples, on, in his own forum, with all the odds stacked in his favor.  I'll tell what happened last time, another day. 

But PZ's comments above bring up several initial observations to mind.

First, by "religion" PZ clearly has Christianity largely in mind.  Thus, the evil that religion does to women is reason to tear down "cathedrals," not (per example) gudwaras, ashrams, synagogues, temples, or Earth God shrines in the fields of Guang Xi Province.  This is also implied by the term "the world's dominant religions," of which Christianity is of course the most demographically prominent. 

Second, it is a physical fact that women are, generally, weaker than men, in the most concrete sense of muscular power.  Less literally, women are stronger in the sense that they usually live longer. Biology knows nothing of equality: this is a human construct, which generally arises from religious or metaphysical beliefs. It would be strange if a biologist, of all people, were to take strict gender-equality, or the idea that gender roles should be identical, for granted, as if it were some sort of a biological given.   

Third, I'm sure PZ is very good at doing laundry.  He's fond of water, familiar with sponges, at least scientifically, and has long practice in white-washing the absurdities and contradictions of his own on-line sect.  So I'm sure he knows where the washer and dryer are at home, however often he uses them. 

But if it were not for religion, does PZ seriously maintain that men and women would be domestically interchangeable?  Does he imagine that, say, in the Soviet Union, after all religion was driven underground, and no macho man in the whole Evil Empire would admit to believing in God like the babushkas, that suddenly men started doing the laundry?  Or how about Japan, where men are very irreligious -- do they do half the domestic chores?  (Pause for extended, in some cases bitter laughter from those who, like myself, have lived in Japanese and Soviet societies.)

Again, my claim is that the Gospel has liberated women more than anything else.  I argue this from personal experience, from sociology, from history, and from the gospels themselves.  

If all that is true -- and it is -- then PZ's attacks on Christianity, are in effect also attacks on women. 

I dare PZ Myers to debate me on this issue.  I challenge him to carry out that debate in a fair, equitable, and open forum.   (They say he can be civil in person -- I'm not sure I'm ready for that, but what the hey.) 

I'll e-mail this challenge to PZ.  The response I most expect will be silence, or else another unified chorus of vitriol and insults.  But people grow, and perhaps we may hope that even PZ Myers may some day grow up and begin dealing maturely with the real world, and the genuine role the Gospel of Jesus has played in it.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Is Dr. H a fish? Is Thomas a Gospel?

A biologist checked the species
and sex of fish brought on board the
Russian trawler on which I worked
in the 1980s.  If he'd found an anarchist
philosopher in the nets, how
would he know it wasn't a fish? 
In The Truth About Jesus and the "Lost Gospels," I argue that no new "Gospels" have ever been found.  In particular, the documents frequently described as "Gospels" by people like Bart Erhman, Elaine Pagels, the Jesus Seminar, and various and sundry "New Atheists," are in fact not Gospels at all.  The word "Gospel" here is used as a shell game, to fool the eye of the reader into conflating books that have almost nothing to do with one another, aside from the fact that they use the word "Jesus," and that in vastly different ways.

I concentrate most of my fire on the so-called "Gospel of Thomas," because it is given greater pretensions by secular humanist scholars.  (For instance, the Jesus Seminar's most famous book, The Five Gospels, is predicated on the conceit that Thomas should be treated as at least as good a source for Jesus' life, and as intrinsically valuable, as the"other Gospels.")

This is a charade, I argue, for six or so reasons:

(1) Most dictionaries define Gospel, in its literary sense, in relation to the four canonical stories of Jesus. 

(2) They do so because that is the earliest and most common use of the term, in its literary sense. 

(3) Some dictionaries allow one to extend the term to other texts, provided that those texts resemble the original four Gospels. 

(4) As I show in detail, even more in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, but also in The Truth About Jesus and the "Lost Gospels," Thomas does not resemble the real Gospels in the slightest.  In fact, many ancient books totally unrelated to the Gospels, like Confucius' Analects, Tacitus' Agricola, Homer's Iliad, or even the kung fu epic, Journey to the West, resemble the Gospels in more ways than even this, the "best" Gnostic text.  There is, therefore, no sensible reason to call Thomas a Gospel.  Doing so is more likely to obscure than to enlighten the issues. 

(5) One can also define "Gospel" etymologically, by the root meaning of the word, or at least tie its meaning to that root.  Euangelion is the Greek word, and it means "good news."  This makes sense in relation to the canonical Gospels, because they all offer purportedly and apparently historical tidings about hopeful events that had recently happened in this world.  It makes perfect sense to call them "good news." 

(6) This same logic does not make a lick of sense with any Gnostic text, including Thomas.  Thomas does not contain "news" at all, still less "good news."  It is a grab-bag collection of 114 supposedly wise sayings, some clever, some tedious, and none sounding at all like Jesus, except for those that were borrowed (as most scholars seem to agree) from the real Gospels. 

My friend and long-time sparing partner, Dr. H, begs to differ.  He thinks my definition of "gospel" is circular, and that the four in the Bible should be given no special consideration.   

Hiawatha, or "Dr. H," is a man of many gifts. He has studied or worked in marine biology, philosophy, and social science (don't know which the "Dr." comes from). He's a musician, has read a lot of political theory, has a good sense of humor, and can talk amusingly on dozens of topics. But like many people with extraordinary talents, Dr. H is also capable of making extraordinarily bad arguments.

But (with some minor editing) I'll let the reader judge for himself or herself. 

Dr. H: Your grand circular argument that defines "gospel" exclusively by the characteristics of the four canonical Gospels, and then uses that definition to "prove" that only those four Gospels fit the definition.

DM: There's nothing "circular" about it. The standard dictionary definition of "gospel" does, in fact, begin with the canonical four . . . I also explain etymological reasons why that standard is sensible, and offer analogies from zoology, where the same practice that I use for defining "gospel" -- begin with characteristics shared by admitted members of a class, then see if disputed members share those characteristics -- is followed. All three procedures -- dictionary, etymology, characteristics -- ensure that I am not "arguing in a circle" -- in fact, any one would. It is not arguing in a circle just to say, "The dictionary defines gospels this way, so Thomas is not a gospel" . . .  If you begin with an accepted class of objects, and want to know whether a newly discovered or disputed object belongs to that class, (this method) is the method you ought to follow.

Dr. H: LOL. If you make the circle big enough, I suppose that makes it harder to notice. The canonical gospels are an /example/ of the definition, not the definition itself:

"gospel : (n) 1) the message concerning Christ, the kindom of God, and salvation; 2) an interpretation of the Christian message; 3) a book telling of the life, death, resurrection, and sayings of Jesus Christ /as/ one of the first four New Testament books /or/ a similar apocryphal book; 4) the message or teachings of a religious leader; 5)something accepted as infallible truth or as a guiding principle; 6) gospel music. 

-- Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition (emphasis in the original)

If there are 100 items in a class, the class is defined by the characteristics which the /most/ items have in common. To define the entire class by a minor subset is like saying "only trout are -real fish".

DM: You seem to have an incredible mental block on this subject. Your own quote affirms my position:

"gospel : (n) 3) a book telling of the life, death, resurrection, and sayings of Jesus Christ /as/ one of the first four New Testament books /or/ a similar apocryphal book; -- Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition (emphasis in the original)

A gospel, in the sense we are using the word, means a book.  Containing what? The life, death, resurrection, and sayings of Jesus.  The first three of which, most of the Gnostic "gospels" do not do!

That enough, by itself, is sufficient to demonstrate (that) the Gnostics are not "gospels" at all, the word "gospel" is just attached to them, to make them sell better. And yet for some reason, this is the authority you want us to go by! Fine! Let's go on:

"As one of the first 4 NT books OR a similiar apocryphal book."

That is precisely the methodology I use in The Truth About Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels," and . . . describe above! Begin with those four books, whose character define the genre, as wolves, foxes, coyotes, and dingos define "dog." Then see if some other book is "similiar," shares the same family of traits . . .

There is no "news" in Thomas at all. That's the etymological definition, I mentioned above, which combined with the other two ways of defining "gospel," all exclude Thomas and the other gospels.  (Calling Thomas a gospel is a) kind of shell game . . . It's like saying, "Dr. H, like other fish, is poor at logic."

Dr. H: Wrong, David. Begin with /all/ the books collected under the label and define the genre. /Then/ examine whether some of them may be outliers, or refine the definition.

What you suggest is akin to taking _only_ Finnegan's Wake, Joyce's Ulysses, and Trout Fishing in America, and using them to define "the novel". Then of course you're free to claim that "Moby Dick," "Huckleberry Finn," and "Anna Karenina" aren't "real" novels.

It's like saying, "Dr H, Martin Luther King, Charles Manson, and Dizzy Gillespie define the extremes of humanity; since David Marshall isn't like any of these, therefore David Marshall isn't human . . . "

I gave you a dictionary definition -- since you interduced the dictionary in your argument. That dictionary definition clearly shows that "gospel" is much broader in scope that "the four canonical gospels." It uses the canonicals as /one example/, NOT as the defintion. It uses the apocryphal books (which includes Thomas) as another /example/ of the definition.

DM: (That definition) clearly says the term MAY be extended from the canonical gospels to other books inasmuch as they resemble the canonical gospels:

"gospel : (n) 3) a book telling of the life, death, resurrection, and sayings of Jesus Christ /as/ one of the first four New Testament books /or/ A SIMILIAR apocryphal book." (emphasis added)

Crystal clear. The four canonical gospels are the standard for what the word means, and that can be extended if an apocryphal book is found to be  . . .  similiar to them.  If it is not similiar to the canonical gospels, by this definition, it is NOT a Gospel.

Come on, Dr. H. I know you hate to admit error. But nothing could be plainer.

And that is as far as the conversation has taken us, thus far. 

Am I missing something?  Or is the word "gospel" applied to books like Thomas for the same reason that one nation at war with another may counterfeit the currency of its enemy, in an attempt to devalue that currency?  No serious scholar really claims that any Gnostic book tells us much of anything new about the historical Jesus, though some skeptical scholars try to make it sound that way, as I also show in The Truth About Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels.'  So it seems to me calling Thomas and later Gnostic writings "gospels" is quite a poker bluff . . . One that Christians have generally played along with a lot of the time, for the sake of courtesy, perhaps.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Eighth Best Review: Martin, The Case Against Christianity

Michael Martin, The Case Against Christianity

"Nice Try, No Cigar" (***) 80 + / 55 -

This book is a well-written and systematic argument against the Christian faith, mostly from the point of view of Biblical criticism and philosophy.  Dr. Martin's writing is disciplined and readable, though not as lyrical as, say, that of Bertrand Russell. Unlike some skeptical writers, he has done a bit of homework, quoting Plantinga, Habermas, and Kierkegaard, for example. (Though he seems to have missed others that he really should have read.) His tone is fairly genial.

Martin's argumentative method is to throw lots of arguments up and see what sticks. (Could the resurrection be caused by the indetermidacy principle of quantum physics? Or by Resurrecting Finite Miracle Workers [RFMW]?   I'm sure the little buggers are glad to finally get an acronym!) The more you know about the subjects he covers, however, the less seems to stick. And the more slides off, the more you wonder if Martin has got some of the mud in his own eyes.

Martin's first main argument, against the historicity of Jesus, is so weak, and Martin appears so unconscious of that weakness, that it undermines his credibility. He'll start an argument with, "Some scholars believe. . . " and end it (same sentence) "clearly, then. . ." What kind of argument is that? An argument is not as strong as the sum of its dependant clauses! A piece of speculation (often very wild) by an unnamed "scholar" seems to set up like concrete in Martin's mind in the space of a few clauses into fact. If my father built houses that way, he would have gotten into a lot of trouble during the last earthquake in Seattle!

Argument from silence is another of Martin's favorite weapons. "Surely if X believed or knew Y he would have said so." Generally, though, such arguments are fallacious, because you can only with great caution infer that an event did not happen because someone failed to mention it.  Also, the epistles to which Martin appeals in this regard, are short and on other subjects. (Such as Christian living.)  One fact most such arguments seem to overlook, is that we have a book in the New Testament -- Acts -- which tells the story of the early Christian church, while saying almost nothing about Jesus' life -- even though its author had just written the Gospel of Luke!  And most of the rest of the New Testament is written by Luke's main protagonist in Acts, St Paul, who would probably have had most of the eyewitness contacts Luke relied upon, and more.  So this sort of Argument from Silence really means nothing at all.  It is evident that early Christians could know a lot about the life of Jesus, without referring to it all the time, when they're talking about something else.  (As, indeed, can we.)

In any case, the Gospels do relate Jesus' life. Many wise Christian scholars, and even many non-Christians, have repeatedly pointed out the characteristics of the Gospels that mark them as historical. (See my Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus for one approach, citing many anti-Christian scholars to make some key points, and Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses for a very different, but also legitimate, approach.)  But Martin does not seem very aware of long-standing historical arguments for the Gospels, or of the qualities in the Gospels that make them credible.

Martin believes that the differences among Gospel accounts of the resurrection are a strong argument against it. What do you think skeptics would say if they agreed on all points? "Conspiracy!" And rightly so. As prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi said of the Manson case, when the killers prepared beforehand what to say, "The stories tallied perfectly," But when you have honest witnesses, "There will always be left over evidence that just doesn't fit." And the prosecutor in the Columbine case said, "Any time you have a tramautic situation, even if only one person is killed, every testimony is different." So it appears to many that the superficial differences, but underlying agreement, of the NT records, are very impressive evidence for the truth of the resurrection. But Martin does not even consider this perspective.

Martin's argument against Paul's testimony that 500 witnesses to the resurrection were mostly still alive, is breathtaking. "The fact that 500 people reported seeing a resurrected man would surely have attracted wide attention and come to the attention of. . . historians."  Therefore, since we didn't have any clear secular references to that, this report must be false, and Paul an unreliable witness!

This is only a touch less ludicrous than Jesus Mysteries, that argues against the existence of Jesus since Roman historians don't mention him much, and then turns around and notes that they don't say much about Christians at all until 250 AD! But if the community itself was ignored when it had hundreds of thousands of members, why should a single incident within that community be recorded when the membership was still just a few thousand? In fact, from my studies in China I know that remarkable things can happen among a disfavored group (Christians, again) with little or no mention of those events in the  press.  One would never know the story of how tens of millions of Chinese have become Christians in China, from casually following the Chinese press, still less if one were only given a small sample of politically-conscious contemporary Chinese historians during the Deng era.  From many such specious arguments, Martin proves to his own satisfaction that the Gospels are unreliable, but to mine that (at least) he is out of the loop when it comes to historical evidences.

If you want philosophy, Martin might help a bit more, but even here I find some of his arguments rather
contrived. For example, I guess the tension Martin describes between Scripture and theory of salvation arises because he is concerned with philosophizing about salvation for others, rather than gaining it for himself. But the Bible explicitly limits itself to aiding in the latter, not the former, enterprise. And Martin has overlooked other Scriptural principles on this topic, such as that we are judged by the light given us, and that God, not man, is the judge. Martin might have come to a better understanding of the issue by reading C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce. Its too bad that he nowhere mentions the most influential Christian thinker of the 20th Century, and unfortunate for his argument.

So if you're in the market for arguments against Christianity, what you get here for the most part is quality in terms of style, but quantity as to substance.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Eighth Worst Review: Rescuing the Bible from Spong

Spong: as clerical as
you could get,
without being
Has Skepticism come to this? 

Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism, John Spong (29 + / 54-  votes: - 100 points)

John Spong is a man with an unusual combination of jobs. During the day, he is a bishop in the Anglican church. At night he writes polemics against Christianity. Thus his books satisfy a certain Jeckyl & Hyde or man-bites-dog itch for the abnormal. There are skeptics who write better, and there are Anglicans who write a whole lot better; but Spong appears to have cornered the market for fervent, best-selling skeptics who get a paycheck from the Anglican church at present.

Generally I enjoy reading books written by skeptics and people of other religions who want to disprove Christianity. I usually learn something, and I find the experience enhances my faith. As Churchill said, it is exhilerating to be shot at without effect. From that point of view, the problem with this book is, Spong's argument is so far off, I hardly got the feeling he was shooting at me to begin with. I felt like a bungy jumper forced to jump off a coffee table.

A great deal of Spong's argument is based on very simple philosophical and historical mistakes. For example, it never seems to occur to him that one cannot refute a doctrine by refuting the imagery in which it is (inevitably) couched. This distinction is as true of modern physics as of First Century religion. One does not refute the existence of subatomic particles by poking fun at styrofoam balls. But that is the level on which Spong lives, moves, and usually maintains his rhetorical being.

A clue to the biggest problem with this book can be found in the index. I could not find a single reference to any intelligent modern Christian. Spong doesn't appear to have the slightest idea what educated Christians think, or why. It is hard for me to take seriously the argument of a man who has not even troubled himself to read what the other side has to say, still less to respond. Skeptics like Spong, Russell, Armstrong and much of the Gnu crowd almost seem too angry to think clearly, or to listen to contrary arguments.

If you're looking for arguments against Christianity, there are books that pack a wallop. Elie Wiesel's Night, for example, The Plague by Camus or Silence by Endo trouble my faith more deeply, (though Camus' caricature of Christianity was almost as bad as Spongs, and Endo was a Christian). Those books get to the heart of my own doubts, without embarrassing me by so many contrived arguments and so much shoddy reasoning.

If what you're looking for is truth, however, then I suggest you consider the argument for Christianity as presented by intelligent Christians . . . C. S.Lewis' essay "Fernseed and Elephants," for example, ravages the whole foundation of Spong's approach to Scripture in four pages. (Spong rather resembles two comic characters in Lewis: the Cockney skeptic in That Hideous Strength, and the hymn-humming clergyman on the bus from hell in The Great Divorce.)

Besides refuting many of Spong's errors, a whole range of credentialed modern Christian writers -- philosophers, historians, scientists -- present positive evidence for the faith that Spong appears never to have noticed. They show that, in many ways, the case for Christianity has become stronger in the modern era.

But Spong is not writing for people who have read, or want to read, opposing arguments, nor does it seem that he has done so himself.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

First Review: Faith Seeking Understanding

The most impressive thing about Faith Seeking Understanding is the enormous wealth of material contained within such a relatively narrow space. David Marshall has gathered a really distinguished array of contributors, who have all thought deeply about faith in its global context, and the different essays work wonderfully well together. The book makes a splendid memorial to two truly great individuals, Paul Brand and Ralph Winter.

Philip Jenkins, Emeritus Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Humanities,
Pennsylvania State University

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Creation Ex Nihilo? Moses vs. Lawrence Krauss

COBE on faith.
In a small land on the eastern fringe of the Roman Empire, an unknown late 1st Century Jew wrote about the origin of the universe:

By faith we understand that the universe was created at God's command, so that what we now see was made out of what cannot be seen.

Much has changed about how we understand the cosmos, since then.  We now know that the ancient Greeks were right in surmising that Earth is roughly spherical, and about 24,000 miles in circumference.  We also know it is one of eight (not five, not nine) planets that circle the sun.  We know the sun itself is one of perhaps 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, and that the larget quantity of mass in our galaxy is made up of things "not seen," but that can be deduced.  We know that the Milky Way is one of perhaps 200 billion galaxies in the visible universe alone, and that much more may be permanently out of our sight, because light travels at a fixed velocity, and it even if more galaxies are out there, the light from them can't have gotten here yet.  We know that the universe is some 13.7 billion years old. 

And we also now "know," that indeed, the universe was made of things that cannot be seen -- a singularity, or something like a singularity, first, then a universe expanding for some 300,000 years in an invisible plasmic state before photons were released, some of which (now stretched out into the microwave region of the spectrum) still cross our television screens as static when we flip to the wrong channel.    

How do we "know" these things?  Has the epistemological basis of our "knowledge" much changed, since the ancient author of Hebrews penned these words? 

I think the change is less than one might suppose.  We still know these things -- by faith, "the conviction of unseen realities," as our anonymous author put it. 

First, of course, we believe the scientists who tell us these things.  How did they find them out?  By reading measurements from a radiometer, then telescopes on board Soviet and American satellites.  But they didn't build those instruments themselves, so they needed to trust other people, in large part, for their results.  In fact  Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson, made a key discovery by accident, studying the stars, when they noticed their antenna was heating up more than it should have.  They then consulted Princeton cosmologists including Robert Dicke, who explained the data they had discovered as being caused by background radiation from the Big Bang. 

All that involved a lot of faith in other professionals.  It also depended on the researchers' faith in their own eyes and sense of touch, and in their own rationality and memory, which is of course is fallible as well. 

In other words, all three mundane levels of faith, by which we navigate the world around us, were involved in reaffirming the truth, long since announced in the Bible, and believed by faith all these years, that the universe began in a definite point of origination. 

Recently, physicist Lawrence Krauss wrote a popular and controversial book (which I have not read yet), arguing in effect that the universe created itself.  Theologians and other believers in God have lost their last excuse: stuff comes from nothing, end of story.  This kicked off quite a bit of commentary, including from Richard Dawkins, with his usual magniloquence:

Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?,’ shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages. If ‘On the Origin of Species’ was biology’s deadliest blow to super­naturalism, we may come to see ‘A Universe From Nothing’ as the equivalent from cosmology. The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is ­devastating.

Don Page, an eminent physicist who is contributing to our new book, posted a review on Amazon taking eloquent issue with such appraisals of Krauss' book. 

And, in the New York Times of all places, from philosopher David Albert (no wonder these guys don't like philosophers!), these wonderful lines:

But all there is to say about this, as far as I can see, is that Krauss is dead wrong and his religious and philosophical critics are absolutely right. Who cares what we would or would not have made a peep about a hundred years ago? We were wrong a hundred years ago. We know more now. And if what we formerly took for nothing turns out, on closer examination, to have the makings of protons and neutrons and tables and chairs and planets and solar systems and galaxies and universes in it, then it wasn’t nothing, and it couldn’t have been nothing, in the first place.

Both men are right, no doubt.  But notice, not 100 years ago, but 2000 years ago, the author of Hebrews didn't quite say God made all things out of nothing, but:

By faith we understand that the universe was created at God's command, so that what we now see was made out of what cannot be seen.

A fact that Krauss, in his usual, shoot-from-the-hip way, is echoing, too.  Whatever God's role in creation -- still, as ever, controversial -- reasoned faith has now again confirmed what reasoned faith taught that ancient Roman Jew: that all we now see, what made out of what cannot be seen. 

And we still add, now as then:


Wednesday, May 09, 2012

The Devil Beats John Loftus to the Punch, Again.

(Taking a short break from our Shroud series, to be continued.) 

Our friend John Loftus recently posted the following "novel argument" against Christianity on his web site:

1) If Christianity is true then the Christian faith will probably not die out if Christians stop proselytizing.

(2) The Christian faith will probably die out if Christians stop proselytizing.

(3) Therefore Christianity is [probably] false.

I hate to pop your bubble, John -- and I knew you would pride yourself on its supposed originality -- but this argument actually is at least 2,000 years old, possibly several billion years in formulation:

Then the devil took Him to the holy city and had Him stand on the highest point of the temple. ”If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

‘He will commend His angels concerning you and they shall lift you up in their hands, So that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

In other words, If Christianity is true, then Jesus would not get hurt if he threw himself down. But Jesus (John, and maybe the devil, suppose) would die. Therefore Christianity is falsified, in John's mind (and maybe that of the devil, too).

Nice try, John, but the fallen angels beat you to it, again. You have to get up pretty early in the morning to get the inside track on Scratch, when it comes to bad ideas.  (If science is defined as "thinking God's thoughts after him," what is this?)

And, of course, Jesus did not throw himself down, but did rise from the dead, achieving his own goals in his own way.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Shroud III: Cognitive Dissonance for Skeptics

Bonk Relativity: not all insights
under apple trees are
One of things one has to appreciate about Thomas De Wesselow is the honesty, even naivite, with which he tells his story.  (Or expounds his theory -- The Sign is argument composed of interwoven threads of personal, scientific, and religious narrative -- a bit like the Shroud itself.) 

At the beginning of Part IV, Seeing Through the Shroud, DW tells us about the distress he felt upon realizing, as a secular person, that the Shroud seemed to be the actual burial cloth of Jesus.  His account reads like a classic conversion tale:

One hot, bright morning in the early summer of 2004 I ambled out into the orchard behind my house in Cambridge, lay down on the grass and immersed myself in The Turin Shroud by Ian Wilson.  Overhead, white blossoms clustered along the sparse branches of the apple tree in whose shade I settled . . .

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Shroud History II: extraordinary evidence.

Thomas De Wesselow has set himself a mighty task.  Recognizing that two hundred years of searching for a plausible skeptical solution to the Easter Enigma has run dry (which is why the likes of Richard Carrier and PZ Myers toss all the evidence in the bonfire and declare Jesus a non-person, one might add), the art historian thinks he has found the solution that has eluded everyone.  That solution, he promises, will involve the Shroud of Turin, the true burial cloth of Jesus, and the origin of this myth called the Resurrection.