Friday, July 30, 2010

How Much Theological Consistency Is Too Much?

Ken Pulliam has an interesting post at Why I De-Converted from Evangelical Christianity discussing the question of infant salvation/damnation.  Evangelical Christians believe everyone is born in a state of original sin that can only been erased by being born again.   This should mean that an infant who dies is separated from God and condemned to hell for eternity with all other unbelievers.  Of course this doesn't sit too well with anyone who has ever lost a child, so most evangelicals also subscribe to some notion of an "age of accountability" prior to which a child who dies gets to go to heaven rather than hell.  Under this view, the child starts saved, becomes lost as soon as they figure out what is going out in the world, and the perhaps gets saved again.

The point in Ken's post that generated the most comments was his assertion that he admired the consistency and honesty of evangelical theologian R.C.Sproul who refused to distinguish between infants and any other unbelievers who die without coming to faith in Christs.  On the one hand, it is hard to admire someone who who embraces the doctrine that infants who die in the crib spend eternity in the flames of hell.  On the other hand, is it any more admirable to fudge the beliefs one doesn't like rather than acknowledging that there is something wrong with a system of theology that requires infant damnation?

I think this kind of question comes up time and again for anyone who wants to treat the Bible as a magic book.  Does one acknowledge the ability of science to explain the world around us while clinging to some role for God by advocating "intelligent design" or do you put all your chips on the Bible and embrace young earth creationism?   Is it better to admit that the texts of the New Testament were corrupted somewhat in transmission while arguing that the essential doctrines have been preserved or is it better to insist that God worked some sort of miracle of preservation with the King James translation?  Some bible-believers argue that the resurrection of Jesus can be established by objective historical methodology while others go in for "presuppositional apologetics" which (as I understand it) argue that only believers are capable of applying logic and reason to the evidence.

In can't say that I really admire someone who embraces ideas like young earth creation or infant damnation, but I suppose I can respect the sense of intellectual integrity that compels them to follow their theological beliefs to their logical conclusions.  

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Science or Supernatural?

For all the Bible believing bloggers who insist that belief in miracles can be based on evidence, I would like to suggest the following hypothetical:

Imagine sitting on a jury in a murder case.  Three witnesses testify that they saw the defendant shoot the victim three times in the chest.  These witnesses testified at great personal risk because the defendant is a powerful man in the community.  They also testify that there were twenty other people in the room who saw the shooting.  (For this last point we have to assume that the judge doesn't understand the rules of evidence.)  On the other side of the coin, an expert testifies that ballistic testing shows that the bullets in the victim's body could not have come from the defendant's gun.  The bullets in fact match a gun belonging to another person who was at the scene and gun powder residue from that gun was found on the other person's hand. 

If I were sitting on that jury, I would vote to acquit.  Ballistics experts are highly confident in the techniques that are used to establish whether a particular bullet came from a particular gun (at least they always are on TV).  I might not be able to explain why all three witnesses identified the wrong man as the shooter, but I believe that the witness is much more likely to be wrong than the science.

If, on the other hand, I were a Bible believing Christian, I suppose I would have to vote to convict.  As convincing as the science might be there could have been some supernatural agent that altered the bullets so that when they were tested they appeared not to come from the defendant's gun.  After all, if I am convinced that the laws of nature were suspended two thousand years ago based on stories recorded decades after the fact just because I believe that the ultimate source of those stories was eyewitness testimony, how can I doubt the testimony of eyewitnesses that I have heard directly?  Wouldn't it just be anti-supernatural bias that would cause me to prefer the science of the ballistics test to the testimony of the eye witnesses?

It seems like every week or two I hear some story about a man being released from prison because DNA testing that was not available at the time of his conviction now shows that he could not have committed the crime.  Often the man had been convicted on the basis of eyewitness testimony.  I wonder how many Bible believers read these stories and worry that naturalistic presuppositions which favor science over eyewitness accounts might be putting dangerous criminals back on the street. 

Saturday, July 17, 2010

"Common Sense" from the WSJ and the AEI

Today's Wall Street Journal features an article on the history of post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) by Sally Satel, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a right wing think tank.  While Satel concedes that PTSD is a legitimate psychiatric diagnosis, she carefully crafts the impression that there is something fishy going on and that liberals are to blame.

Veterans with unrelenting PTSD can receive disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. As retired Army Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, secretary of Veterans Affairs, said last week, the mental injuries of war "can be as debilitating as any physical battlefield trauma." The occasion for his remark was a new VA rule allowing veterans to receive disability benefits for PTSD if, as non-combatants, they had good reason to fear hostile activity, such as firefights or explosions. In other words, veterans can now file a benefits claim for being traumatized by events they did not actually experience.

The very notion that one can sustain an enduring mental disorder based on anxious anticipation of a traumatic event that never materializes is a radical departure from the clinical—and common-sense—understanding that disabling stress disorders are caused by traumatic events that actually do happen to people. This is not the first time that controversy has swirled around the diagnosis of PTSD.
My common sense would tell me that multiple extended rotations in a high risk environment where every pile of rubble potentially hides an improvised explosive device has the potential to cause harmful levels of stress.  However, I would question whether it even makes any sense for a psychiatrist to talk about about "common-sense" understandings of "disabling stress disorders."  Would Satel appeal to "common- sense understandings" of autism or schizophrenia or bipolar disorder?  Sometimes unusual problems defy common sense.

Interestingly, the article seems to concede that common sense got things wrong for a long time.  According to Satel, during World War I, the common-sense understanding was that soldiers suffering from "shell shock" had some personal mental shortcoming.  "Otherwise well-adjusted individuals were believed to be at small risk of suffering more than a transient stress reaction once they were removed from the front."  As time went by, however, psychiatrists came to the conclusion that that every soldier had a breaking point.

By the end of the article, Satel article even seems to concede that the common sense to which she appeals may be wrong:  "For some non-combat servicemen and women, anticipatory fear of being in harm's way can turn into a crippling stress reaction."   If this is so, why does she characterize this as a "radical departure"?   As is usual when you find the Wall Street Journal and the American Enterprise Institute appealing to common sense, there is some eggheaded liberals to be bashed. In this case it is the opponents of the Vietnam War who pushed the legitimacy of PTSD as a psychiatric diagonsis.  Satel doesn't dispute that legitimacy.  She just wants us all to know that there is a political agenda at work.

She Just Sounds Like a Nut

Today's Wall Street Journal features Stephen Moore's interview with the Republican challenger to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle:  Writes Moore:
Liberal groups and Mr. Reid are gleeful that a "right wing extremist" has won the GOP nomination. At a recent fund raising dinner for the majority leader in Las Vegas, President Barack Obama labeled her "extreme, even for a Republican." Some Republicans privately grumble that she may be unelectable because of her staunchly conservative stands. And to be sure, some of her positions, such as banning fluoridated water or providing massages to rehabilitate convicts, seem a bit, well, odd.

But is she the kook Mr. Reid portrays her as in his TV ads?

I met with Mrs. Angle twice, first in Washington, D.C., late last month, then again during the Freedomfest conference last week in Las Vegas. In person, she seems anything but a threat to the American way of life. She is petite, has Irish red hair with and a pretty round face. She's friendly, but businesslike, and unlike most politicians, comes across as sincere in her convictions. Her husband, Ted, a 35 year veteran of the Bureau of Land Management (he explains that he's a conservative who worked to protect property rights, not violate them), stands constantly by her side as a confidant and de facto campaign manager.
There never seems to be any shortage of conservative pundits ready assure voters that these candidates from the far right only sound like shrill ignorant nut jobs when they speak in public.  If everyone could just sit down for a one-on-one chat with Sarah Palin or Sharon Angle or Michelle Bachman or George Bush as the pundit has, they would see that they ooze common sense and sincerity.  Pay no attention to candidate Angle who expects doctors to take a chicken in place of a co-pay, Moore and the WSJ are here to assure us once again that irrationality is no disqualifier when it comes to a candidate who will pursue a pro-business agenda.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Why I am Agnostic About a Historical Jesus (9)

Dr. James McGrath of Butler University has once again trotted out his mythicist-creationist analogy at Exploring our Matrix, stirring up the usual response from those who doubt and/or deny the existence of the historical Jesus.  In a recent comment he wrote the following:
In the case of Jesus, we have someone writing about him as a human being, born of a woman, born as a Jew ("under the Law"), descended from David according to the flesh (one mythicist I spoke to recently resorted to calling that "allegory" in order to avoid Paul's obvious meaning), and crucified. And the last point is crucial, since the idea that someone would invent Jesus and proclaim that he was the Davidic anointed one, expected to restore the kingship to David, but was crucified by the Romans and yet you should believe in him anyway boggles the imagination. Could someone have done it nevertheless. Of course - anything is possible. Is it more likely than not that someone did this, rather than the early Christians engaging in post facto theologizing to try to make sense of why the person they believed was the Messiah was crucified? No, definitely not.

All of this has been discussed here before, hence my tendency to get somewhat frustrated when asked to cover the same ground for the umpteenth time. :)

I can appreciate Dr. McGrath's frustration because I still can't figure out how Paul helps the historicists' case.

Suppose that our earliest source for the Sioux chief Sitting Bull did not know when or where Sitting Bull lived, did not know much of anything that Sitting Bull said or did during his life, claimed that what he did know he learned from Sitting Bull's ghost, and claimed to know others who had encountered this ghost.  Suppose that he never claimed that anyone he knew had ever met Sitting Bull during his life, but did refer to certain people as Sitting Bull's brothers.   Suppose that this source's interest in Sitting Bull is limited to the activities of his ghost and the only importance he attaches to Sitting Bull is the influence that his ghost has upon the living.  Would we consider this source particularly good evidence that Sitting Bull was a historical person rather than merely legendary?

I think this pretty well captures the problems that Paul poses for historicists.  His letters don't prove that Jesus didn't exist, but most of what Paul has to say about Jesus sounds much more mythical than historical.  When he does describe something about Jesus that can be characterized as historical,  Paul does not indicate any source for the information that can be characterized as historical.

Historicists often claim that Paul would have learned about the historical stuff about Jesus from Peter and James or from the cult that he persecuted prior to his conversion.  However, this is only true if we have already concluded that Jesus was a real historical person.  If Peter and James did not know an actual person, Paul would have learned that.  If the cult that he persecuted had worshiped a mythical Messiah, Paul would have learned that.  We can't use the assumption that Paul knew whether Jesus was historical as evidence that he was historical.

Perhaps the most frequently cited proof that Paul considered Jesus historical is his reference to James as "the brother of the Lord."  In my Sitting Bull example, this probably wouldn't carry any weight at all since the Sioux used "brother" to describe many relationships other than biological ones.  Given the rest of the information, we might well conclude that "brother" referred to a relationship with Sitting Bull's ghost. I am not aware of such an expansive use among first century Jews, but Paul does use "brother" frequently enough in referring to spiritual relationships that I think the possibility has to be allowed.

What I think I find most puzzling is the argument that the invention of a crucified Messiah is so mind boggling that a real historical Jesus who was really crucified is definitely more likely.  Is their anything more mind boggling than the claims of Joseph Smith or L. Ron Hubbard? History provides plenty of examples of people making mind boggling claims which they attribute to supernatural sources.  Sometimes these claims are believed by large numbers of people.   In each and every case where it has happened, we would have to assess the likelihood of inventing such a story and having it believed as small a priori, but it happens often enough that I don't see how we can assess the probability that it happened with Paul as definitely less than that of any other scenario. If this is really a crucial point in the case against mythicism, I think Dr. McGrath is going to be frustrated for a long time.

Historians may have perfectly valid reasons for thinking that Jesus was a historical person.  I just don't see that Paul helps their case.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Great Courses

I am a big fan of The Great Courses from The Teaching Company which I can borrow from my local library.  The one I am listening to now may be the best yet.  It is  Philosophy and Religion in the West taught by Phillip Cary of Eastern University.

I have listened to about half the course so far:

1.Introduction—Philosophy and Religion as Traditions
2.Plato's Inquiries—The Gods and the Good
3.Plato's Spirituality—The Immortal Soul and the Other World
4.Aristotle and Plato—Cosmos, Contemplation, and Happiness
5.Plotinus—Neoplatonism and the Ultimate Unity of All
6.The Jewish Scriptures—Life With the God of Israel
7.Platonist Philosophy and Scriptural Religion
8.The New Testament—Life in Christ
9.Rabbinic Judaism—Israel and the Torah
10.Church Fathers—The Logos Made Flesh
11.The Development of Christian Platonism
12.Jewish Rationalism and Mysticism—Maimonides and Kabbalah
13.Classical Theism—Proofs and Attributes of God
14.Medieval Christian Theology—Nature and Grace
15.Late-Medieval Nominalism and Christian Mysticism
16.Protestantism—Problems of Grace
17.Descartes, Locke, and the Crisis of Modernity
18.Leibniz and Theodicy
19.Hume's Critique of Religion
20.Kant—Reason Limited to Experience
21.Kant—Morality as the Basis of Religion
22.Schleiermacher—Feeling as the Basis of Religion
23.Hegel—A Philosophical History of Religion
24.Marx and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion
25.Kierkegaard—Existentialism and the Leap of Faith
26.Nietzsche—Critic of Christian Morality
27.Neo-orthodoxy—The Subject and Object of Faith
28.Encountering the Biblical Other—Buber and Levinas
29.Process Philosophy—God in Time
30.Logical Empiricism and the Meaning of Religion
31.Reformed Epistemology and the Rationality of Belief
32.Conclusion—Philosophy and Religion Today

I have come across most of these topics before, but I have never had the chronology and interaction of the various traditions laid out so well and so clearly.