Easter 2014

For Easter, I went to Catholic mass with my Mom and step-Dad last night, and I went to my Presbyterian church this morning.  I am not sure what to get out of these services as someone who is not entirely sure what he believes.  I will say, though, that I enjoyed the music at the Catholic service last night—-both the powerful Catholic songs, and also the evangelical (as far as I know) song, “As the Deer.”

This morning’s service was interesting.  The Pastor Emeritus’ grandkids were there, and they livened up the children’s part of the service with their comments.  It was like an episode of “Kids Say the Darndest Things” (remember that show?).  The pastor’s sermon was all right.  It reminded me of how death is an inevitability, and that is why people desire an afterlife.  I am a fairly young man, so I have not yet experienced seeing my parents, siblings, cousins, and peers dying around me.  My grandparents are still alive.  Death seems to me to be a long way off, but it will someday be a reality to me.  I can somewhat understand why there are people who celebrate the resurrection of Jesus as a sign that death is defeated and there will be an afterlife.  I do not think that one has to have a conservative Christian perspective to believe in an afterlife, however, for there are other afterlife beliefs out there: ghosts, reincarnation, etc.

During the prayer part of the service, someone expressed concern about atheists’ attacks on Christians.  She said that there are more Christians than atheists, yet atheists somehow manage to wage their attacks.  The pastor responded in agreement, saying that there is a creationist radio program that he likes to listen to, and an atheist web site is responding to that program with “inaccurate things about creation” (my pastor’s words, according to my memory).  The pastor prayed that Christians might be able to drown out the atheists’ voices with the message that Christ lives.

I had a hard time identifying with any of this.  It is not because I like atheist trolls—-I don’t, and I will not publish their comments here (as I will not publish comments from fundamentalist Christian trolls).  But I can identify with atheist arguments.  I think that they have the upper hand on the creation/evolution debate.  On the Bible, however, I find them to be a mixed bag.  They make a decent case that the Bible is not inerrant and perfect, and they also raise interesting questions and notice a lot of weird details that few others notice or mention.  But a good number of them believe that Jesus did not exist, contrary to what the vast majority of biblical scholars say, and these atheists are such know-it-alls about it.

In any case, I think that a better approach is to listen to people’s cases, not to drown them out with louder, zealous voices.

I rarely pray that people might change their beliefs.  I used to do that as a conservative Christian, but I don’t anymore.  One reason is that I cannot picture a lot of people I know changing their beliefs.  For example, I cannot picture my Mom becoming a conservative Christian.  I cannot picture my Dad voting.  They are who they are.  They hold their ideas for the reasons that they do.  They’ve held the same ideas for years.

But I can picture certain people becoming open to change, given the right settings.  My impression is that my pastor does not read too many books—-he does research for his sermons and uses the Internet and commentaries, but he said to me that he does not read many books, whereas his wife does.  But he does interact with other pastors (some of whom are rather liberal) and is close friends with an academic who has written books about theology.  My pastor participates in interfaith dialogue.  If I were to tell him why I tend to agree with atheists rather than fundamentalists on evolution and the Bible’s errancy, I am not sure if he would be that receptive.  My communication skills are not always the best, and I can easily come across as a bitter village atheist with an ax to grind about religion.  But if my pastor were to discuss these questions with people who are thoughtful and gentle, and who have managed to keep their faith and live lives of spirituality amidst the challenges and ambiguities, that would make a world of difference, I think.

Anyway, those are my musings for the day.

Published in: on April 20, 2014 at 4:25 pm  Comments (4)  
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Book Write-Up: A Reasonable Response

William Lane Craig and Joseph E. Gorra.  A Reasonable Response: Answers to Tough Questions on God, Christianity and the Bible.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2013.

I would like to thank Moody Publishers for my review copy of this book.  See here for Moody’s page about it.

I liked this book a lot more than I thought I would.  I was expecting a book in which questioners would ask the same stock questions about God, Christianity, and the Bible, and William Lane Craig would give the usual stock Christian apologetic answers.  But, overall, I was impressed by both the questions and the answers, whether I agreed with them or not.  Many of the questioners had thought about William Lane Craig’s arguments, and there were times when the questions were as lengthy and philosophical as some of Dr. Craig’s answers!  And William Lane Craig in his answers impressed me as one who is well-read and has a grasp of nuance.

As one who is more on the liberal side of the religious spectrum, I appreciated that Dr. Craig appeared open-minded, accepting, or at least tolerant on such issues as biblical inerrancy, different conceptualizations of the atonement, the use of methodological naturalism in science, the question of whether the biblical Conquest historically happened, and historical criticism of the Bible.  I also learned new things from the book, such as the philosophical debate about whether or not time is tenseless (i.e., the past, present, and future exist simultaneously).  Moreover, Dr. Craig offered valuable insights on Christian and practical living, and I appreciated the times when he shared details about himself as a person (i.e., his Christian testimony, his struggle with a neuromuscular disorder, his marriage, the times when he was picked last for athletic teams as a child, etc.).  Moreover, Dr. Craig had beautiful things to say about humility in learning.

In terms of what I did not like about his responses, I thought that there were times when he could have been more tactful rather than putting down questioners’ statements or arguments, and I also did not care for his advice to a Christian struggling with doubt that he not read atheistic websites and that he let people more competent do so.  That struck me as a promotion of closed-mindedness.  I also did not like Dr. Craig’s sentiment that a number of atheists do not believe in God on account of spiritual or moral problems rather than (primarily) for intellectual reasons.  But Dr. Craig may think that he has to believe that way, since Romans 1 says that everyone knows that God exists, but people choose to repress that knowledge.

If there was one issue in the book that especially stood out me, it was that of not knowing.  The first question in the book was about skepticism: How can we be certain of anything (i.e., that the universe has a cause), when there is so much that we do not know, and thus we are unaware of so many possibilities?  I got annoyed with how Dr. Craig often argued against skepticism by saying that it is self-refuting: that, if we cannot know anything, then that means that we cannot trust the claim that we cannot know anything.  That is a fairly decent point, but it does not mean that all of the skeptics’ arguments are without merit, on some level.  It was interesting to me how Dr. Craig interacted with the topic of not knowing throughout the book.  Before he tried to reconcile Gospel contradictions regarding Jesus’ crucifixion, he said that there are things about history that we do not know, perhaps as a way to warn skeptics of the Bible not to be too hasty when they claim that the Bible is historically inaccurate.  Dr. Craig explained why he believes that an intelligent being caused the universe, rather than accepting the argument that there are other possible causes that we may not know about.  And Dr. Craig affirmed that the inner witness of the Holy Spirit is a better foundation for faith than resting it on the latest issue of The Philosophical Issue or the most recent archeological discoveries.  These discussions highlighted to me how not knowing can be used as an argument for and against Christianity, as well as the limits of classical apologetics.

Joseph E. Gorra was the other author of this book.  His contributions included thoughtful essays about how study should have a goal beyond satisfying curiosity; ways to bring apologetics into the family, home, and workplace; and how to interact in online discussions.  Although Gorra did not say so explicitly, my impression was that he was responding to popular criticisms of classical apologetics: that it focuses on winning arguments, that it leads to pride, etc.  Gorra was promoting humility, a willingness to learn from others, wisdom and prudence in interactions, and loving those with whom one disagrees.  Gorra also contributed little blurbs inside of a number of Dr. Craig’s answers to questions, highlighting what one can learn from Dr. Craig’s approach.

Finally, I appreciated the numerous references in the book to sources.  A number of the articles and debates that the book mentions can be accessed online and for free, and the book provides readers with web addresses.  The book also refers to books on certain subjects, labeling them according to their level of difficulty.  This will be valuable for those who want to learn more.

Published in: on March 20, 2014 at 4:27 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Book Write-Up: All In, by Mike Guzzardo

Mike Guzzardo.  All In: Finding True Life on the Path to Total Surrender.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2011.

I would like to thank Moody Publishers for my review copy of this book.  See here for Moody’s page about it.

How can a person accept Christ as his or her personal savior, and not experience God?  I have wondered this a lot, but the question especially comes to my mind when I read about Christians who become atheists.  There are evangelicals who would say that Christians who become atheists must not have been true Christians to begin with, or that they must not have truly experienced God within a life-changing relationship.  How, after all, could one experience God, then conclude that God is not real?  I find that analysis to be rather judgmental, and yet I still wonder: Why is God more real to some Christians than God is to others?

Mike Guzzardo’s All In: Finding True Life on the Path to Total Surrender attempts to address this question.  According to Guzzardo, God wants to have an intimate relationship with all Christians, and yet a number of Christians are holding themselves back from this through their disobedience.  They do not completely trust in God’s love for them, and thus they doubt that God’s commands—-in God’s word and also in the leading of the Holy Spirit—-are truly for their well-being.  Or they may be trying to obey God’s commands and are unsuccessful, and they need to connect more intimately with their loving God.

The parts of this book that I found most compelling were Guzzardo’s stories about his own experiences.  I could identify with Guzzardo’s desire for acceptance, and I appreciated his story about how God led him past his personal insecurities.  Guzzardo also has stories about times when he believed that God was speaking to him, and how his obedience to God in those cases turned out to be for his good: God may have wanted him to remove distractions that were hindering him from his ministry, for example.  Guzzardo portrays God as one who is like a teacher, who is sensitive to what people need at particular stages of their journeys.  This God also helps those who seek him in prayer to get better a perspective on how to see and to live life.

If I have any reservations, it is that I doubt that a conservative evangelical road fits everyone.  Guzzardo would probably argue that it should: after all, if God has our best interests at heart, does that not mean that our obedience to God’s commands results in good for us?  Not everyone testifies that it does, however: I think of homosexuals who try to overcome their homosexuality yet finally feel peace when they stop struggling and accept who they are.  Conversely, there are people who may not live in a manner that Guzzardo would consider obedient to God, yet they still claim to have had spiritual experiences.

Moreover, some may have difficulty believing that God is as loving as Guzzardo thinks, on account of passages in Scripture in which God does not appear particularly fair.  While I did not expect for Guzzardo to wrestle with this issue in this book, I do believe it is one factor behind why many may not feel deep-down that God loves them.

Despite my reservations, I do appreciate Guzzardo’s insights.  I do not envision myself becoming dogmatic about when God speaks to me, but I do believe that I am on a journey, and that there may be times when God wants me to let something go because it is holding me back from experiencing a full life, which includes service to others.  In my opinion, God does want to lead us in the direction of health.

Published in: on February 8, 2014 at 5:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Ends of Power 11

On page 367 of The Ends of Power, H.R. Haldeman (with Joseph DiMona) refers to President Richard Nixon’s exhortation to Haldeman to read Nixon’s book, Six Crises, especially the part of the book’s introduction in which Nixon talks about the agony of trying to make a decision, and the peace that comes after the decision is made.

Do I feel fine after I have made a decision?  Overall, I’d say yes.  We’re often presented with imperfect options in life, and we find that we have to choose one of them.  When I resolve to pick one of them, notwithstanding the problems in my choice, I feel all right.

One area in which this is a challenge, however, is religious faith.  I don’t feel good waffling among belief in God, agnosticism, and atheism, but I also don’t feel good within any of those options.  Within atheism, I feel hopeless.  Within theism, I feel as if I’m turning off my mind for the sake of naivety and embracing a God who doesn’t fully accept me because I fall short of his standards.  Within agnosticism, I feel rudderless and without a solid foundation.  There are times when I feel good just ignoring religious issues altogether.  “Why fret?” I wonder.  “Just enjoy life right now.”  But there are times when I think that I need a solid foundation, or a divine friend to lean on.  I’m just not sure if I can find answers in evangelical Christianity, or even the mainline versions of Christianity.

NOTE: I’m not saying that everyone who believes in God is naive, shuts off his or her mind, or embraces a God who conditions his acceptance on people’s obedience to his commandments.  I’m talking more about where I am right now, and how I read the Bible, than I am about other people’s faith. 

Published in: on January 2, 2014 at 5:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Book Write-Up: Warranted Christian Belief, by Alvin Plantinga

Alvin Plantinga.  Warranted Christian Belief.  New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Alvin Plantinga is a renowned Christian philosopher.  I first heard of him when I was a student at Harvard Divinity School.  I was taking William Abraham’s class on “Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation,” and Professor Abraham may have mentioned to us that Plantinga was speaking at Boston College.  And so some friends and I went to Boston College to hear Alvin Plantinga.  To be honest, I did not quite know what to make of Plantinga’s lecture.  Plantinga seemed to me to be assuming the truth of Christianity, without attempting to provide it with any foundation of evidence.  My friends and I wondered if there was more to Plantinga’s ideas that we were not getting.

The next morning, I asked Professor Abraham what he thought of Plantinga’s lecture, and Professor Abraham responded that he was up late at night, taking notes, trying to unpack what Plantinga had said.  Later on in the class, Abraham gave a lecture that summarized Plantinga’s thought.  From what I remember of that lecture, Plantinga believed that Christianity was a coherent belief system, and that humans had something within them that allowed them to sense the divine.  I was later talking with a fellow student about presuppositional apologetics.  The concept did not make much sense to me, to tell you the truth: what, you just presuppose that Christianity is true?  The student replied to me that there’s more to it than that, that some of the issue relates to Christianity being a coherent belief system.  That reminded me of what Professor Abraham had said about Plantinga, and I began to suspect that Plantinga might not be the sort of apologist who seeks to rest Christianity on the foundation of evidence; rather, he might be a presuppositional apologist.

I would hear Plantinga speak again, this time at Harvard Divinity School.  To be honest, I did not understand his lecture because it was loaded with logical equations.  Years later, after I checked out Warranted Christian Belief from the library, I decided to listen to the episode of the radio program Unbelievable on which Plantinga was a guest (see here to access the link to that).  Plantinga seemed to be arguing that naturalism (a belief that excludes the supernatural) and evolution are mutually contradictory.  If there is no God, Plantinga appeared to be arguing, how can we trust our minds, which lead us to the conclusion that evolution is true?  Plantinga doubted that naturalism was sufficient to explain how we arrived at the ability to make determinations about what is true and what is false.  My impression, from reading wikipedia’s article on Plantinga’s argument and also Plantinga’s discussion of this topic in Warranted Christian Belief, is that Plantinga does not believe that fully knowing what is true is always necessary for human survival, and so he doubts that natural selection by itself can account for how we got that skill.  (My question is “Why not?”  The skill helps us to survive, even if there are things that we know that are unrelated to our survival.) 

All of that said, what are some of my thoughts about Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief?  Well, as with that second lecture of Plantinga’s that I heard, there were parts of the book that I did not understand, on account of the logical equations.  Moreover, I was not always paying close, intense attention to Plantinga’s analogies.  But there were many parts of the book that I did understand, and so I will comment on those.  I apologize for any misunderstandings on my part.

One topic that stood out to me in reading Plantinga’s book was foundationalism: Is there a foundation for truth-claims, particularly a foundation of evidence or logical argument?  When it comes to Christianity, does a person have warrant to accept it, or should Christianity be rejected because it appears to lack the support of logic and evidence?  Plantinga’s response seems to be that one can have warrant to accept Christianity.  According to Plantinga, Christianity, when understood properly, is a coherent and internally consistent belief system.  We have within us the ability to sense the divine, since there are times when we feel guilty or when we marvel at the majesty of God’s handiwork, and yet that ability has been clouded by our sinfulness and selfishness.  But God confirms to certain people’s hearts that Christianity is true, allowing them to see the beauty of God’s character.  This work of the Holy Spirit in people’s hearts, Plantinga argues, is what makes their belief in Christianity warranted.

But isn’t this rather subjective?  Couldn’t there be some objective evidence out there that Christianity is true, evidence that can is available to everyone, not just those God privileges to receive the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit?  Well, Plantinga does not appear to accept a lot of classical apologetic arguments, such as the one that says that we know Christianity is true because of the alleged evidence that Jesus rose from the dead.  Plantinga does not believe that argument is iron-clad.  And, against the charge that believing in God is simply accepting something that has no logical or evidentiary foundation, Plantinga appeals to philosophical skepticism.  How do we know anything is true?  Is there any solid evidence that our memories are reliable, or that the world outside of us is real?  I’m somewhat doubtful that Plantinga takes this skepticism overly seriously: after all, he says that skepticism about the reality of the outside world will not help us after we leave our study.  I’m not sure if he has some way to get us back to believing that there is a world out there that we can rationally and reliably discern: he mentions Descartes’ view that God’s existence is what assures us of this, but I could not tell if Plantinga was agreeing with Descartes here.  I should also note that Plantinga more than once challenges other views because he says that they lack evidence or logical support: he asks, for example, what the evidence is that Christians believe in God due to wish-fulfillment or insecurity.  Does Plantinga require other views to have evidence, while exempting Christianity from that requirement?

Plantinga’s belief in the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit proves to be significant in some of his other arguments.  The existence of different religious beliefs undercuts the truth of Christianity?  Hey, just because not everyone accepts Christianity, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true, Plantinga responds (albeit with sophistication).  Suffering and evil call into question the existence of a loving God?  Hey, why should a Christian disregard the illumination he or she has personally received on account of the existence of suffering and evil, as if it’s obvious that God has no reason for God’s ways of running the world?  Plantinga’s arguments here are not bad, I guess, but they strike me as rather diversionary.  For example, on pluralism, I wouldn’t say that the existence of different religions means that it’s arrogant to accept one of those religions, or by itself entails that Christianity is false.  I would, however, ask whether a loving God would judge people with eternal damnation in hell for not accepting Christianity, when it’s not obvious to them that Christianity is true, with all of the religions out there for them to choose from.  

One chapter in Plantinga’s book that I found rather disappointing was the one about the historical-critical method of interpreting the Bible.  Plantinga was attempting to show that it is not strong enough to undermine the truth of Christianity.  The chapter was all right in that it discussed the different schools of historical-criticism, but it did not seem to address one of historical-criticism’s most significant challenges: that it highlights the theological diversity of the biblical writings.  That has the potential to undermine the idea that Christianity or the Bible represent a coherent, internally-consistent belief system.  I wonder how Plantinga would address that.  Would he try to harmonize and flatten out the biblical contradictions?  Would he say that God has a purpose behind them?  Or would he say that they’re not important, since they don’t detract from the big picture, which is God’s act of salvation in Jesus Christ?

There were some cases in which the footnotes provided the most interesting discussions in the book.  For example, one question that I have when people say that God reveals his truth to people’s hearts is why there are so many Christians out there with incomplete understanding, if God is revealing the truth to them.  Why do Christians disagree with each other over doctrine, if God is revealing the truth to all of their hearts?  In one footnote, Plantinga says that we don’t entirely know what numbers are, yet we can still know that mathematics works.  For Plantinga, God is somehow at work in the hearts of Christians, revealing to them the truth, even if their understanding is incomplete and they disagree with one another.

Probably the biggest reason that I found this book valuable was its interaction with theological and philosophical thought: Kant, John Hick, Gordon Kaufman, David Hume, and the list goes on.  I learned that there are different ways that Kant has been interpreted, and that some argue that David Hume was a theist.  There were many times when I agreed with Plantinga’s evaluation of certain thinkers’ thought: for example, I have long been confused by the concept of negative theology, the notion that we can only know what God is not, not what God is.  As Plantinga notes, we cannot really escape making positive statements about God.  I also appreciated Plantinga’s argument that God can have emotions: that this does not mean that God is a passive recipient of emotional stimuli, but rather that God acts in a way that demonstrates God’s love.  I have long questioned whether theists should be so committed to a Greek philosophical conception of the divine.

But I wonder: Is Plantinga’s interaction with philosophical thought even necessary, if what is truly important is the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit?  Plantinga interacts with Kant, Hick, and Kaufman because he is trying to dispute any notion that they have shown successfully that humans cannot know anything about God.  But why care about what they think?  If a person knows God after being illuminated by the Holy Spirit, is it really important what Kant, Hick, and Kaufman say?  The person knows God, and no one can take that away from her.  Or is Plantinga interacting with these philosophers because, notwithstanding his rejection of foundationalism, he still wants to show that Christianity is a coherent belief system—-that, even if it has no evidence backing it up, it is still consistent with reason?

I’ll close this already long post by speaking briefly about the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit.  I recently listened to a sermon in which a pastor was incredulous that there were Christians who were becoming atheists.  He was skeptical that they truly knew God over the many years that they were in church, if they could simply wake up one day and conclude that God did not exist.  The thing is, there are many people who have said the sinner’s prayer, who go to church, and who try to believe in the Bible, and yet they do not know that Christianity is true.  And there are some who think that they know, but that’s only because they’ve never been exposed to sources that question it.  My hunch is that these are the sorts of Christians who become atheists.  And is that their fault?  They did what Christianity presents as the right things: accepting Jesus, going to church, reading the Bible.  If God does not come through and reveal himself to their hearts, which Plantinga says God does for certain people, is it their fault that they left Christianity and became atheists?

And does God revealing himself to people’s hearts enable them to know that God exists?  Plantinga’s argument appears to be that it does, and yet in one place he refers to John Calvin’s statement that a Christian may find himself doubting God’s love.  Doesn’t that call into question the idea that God truly reveals himself to people’s hearts?  Or maybe God does so, and yet that does not presto-chango make us perfect?

In any case, this is a good book.  It’s actually the third volume of a series that Plantinga did on warrant, so, in a sense, I jumped in at the third act of the play!  But Plantinga did mention some resources that I may want to check out, such as William Alson’s Perceiving God.

Wisdom from Josh McDowell on Unbelievable

As of late, I haven’t been able to get enough of the radio program Unbelievable?, a Christian British program that is hosted by Justin Brierley.  Brierley has on prominent Christian apologists, scholars, and thinkers, as well as non-believing writers and scholars.  Among some of the guests who have appeared on the program are William Lane Craig, Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, Bart Erhman, atheist John Loftus, John Hick, and the list goes on.  (I’ve also enjoyed listening to guests whose names I did not know previously, but who have interesting things to say: I think of Holly Ordway, an academic, who wrote a book about her conversion from atheism to Christianity, and who is updating that book because of her later conversion to Catholicism.)  The program has also had episodes about world religions, in which Christians discuss (say) Islam or Buddhism with a Muslim or a Buddhist.

What particularly impresses me is that the discussions are generally respectful.  Yesterday, for example, I was listening to an episode about the religious right, which had on a British Christian who was a socialist, a British gentleman who was part of a political party that is socially conservative yet economically progressive, the emergent Christian Brian McLaren, and someone from the right-wing American Family Association.  You would expect for sparks to fly on that episode, and, on some level, they did!  But each of the guests made reasonable, albeit different, points, and, overall, they seemed to me to be respectful to one another.  It was an intelligent conversation, not a shouting match!

I was listening to one of the programs, and it had on the Christian apologist Josh McDowell, as well as a skeptic.  I was rolling my eyes at a lot of McDowell’s arguments (especially the one about Jesus fulfilling a bunch of prophecies), but I had to admire his skill as a debater.  He knows his spiel and how to articulate it!  Anyway, after experiencing the ordeal of listening to him mop up the floor with the skeptic (who asked valid questions, but who I wished had manifested more familiarity with the relevant issues, while making his points in a crisper manner), I suddenly heard McDowell say something that changed my outlook on life for the rest of the day.  He was saying that it’s his responsibility to tell people about Jesus, but that it is up to them what to do in response to that.  And, he went on, even if a person chooses not to believe in Jesus, that will not affect how he treats that person, for that person is created in the image of God and deserves respect and love.

That really ministered to me.  I am the sort of person who cannot stand a lot of people, especially people who see things differently from me.  But McDowell was sharing another way of seeing the situation: I should respect people’s right to make their own decisions, and how I treat them should not be conditional on whether they do or see things my way.  Revolutionary, isn’t it?  Well, right now, I think I can do that, but who knows if that sentiment will last!

Published in: on October 4, 2013 at 7:00 am  Comments (2)  

Gabriel Vahanian’s The Death of God

I’ve decided to get back into reading about religious studies and theology.  It’s not that I ever stopped doing that, per se, but I’ve been reading materials for my dissertation.  I’d like to expand my knowledge about religious studies and theology because I may sometime be teaching them some day.  Plus, as I travel through the religious studies blogosphere, I realize that there are so many books that I have not read.

I was in a library recently, looking for books to check out.  I came across a book published in 1961, Gabriel Vahanian’s The Death of God: The Culture of Our Post-Christian Era.  The book looked interesting to me for a variety of reasons.  First, it was about how many in that time were considering Christianity to be inadequate, and that is a topic of interest to me: the search for an adequate belief system.  Moreover, Vahanian, rather than completely discarding the Bible, seemed to make use of its categories to describe people’s predicament.  Second, the book got into the thoughts of various theologians, and I figured that I could beef up my knowledge on that.

The book ended up being way over my head, to tell you the truth.  It’s not that Vahanian used difficult words that I had to look up in the dictionary.  Rather, he was putting together fairly simple words into sentences that I did not understand, and I had a hard time following his train of thought.  I can easily find myself despairing as a result of this, telling myself that I’m just not smart or sophisticated enough for academia!  But I try to resist those kinds of thoughts.  Ayn Rand said that even those who are simple can practice reasoning, on some level, and so I will attempt to learn and to read.  We all have to start somewhere.  We were all at one time in a position where we did not know something and had to learn it—-we’re all still in that position, for that matter, for none of us knows everything.  And there are plenty of good books that I can read that are easier for me to understand.

I felt as if I was reading a book in a different language and had to draw from here and there to understand what Vahanian was saying.  Vahanian’s main point seems to be that many in his time deemed the Christian God to be irrelevant to their situation.  Vahanian says that one problem is that the Christian God is too transcendent, when many are focused on the here and now; for some reason, however, Vahanian does not seem to be particularly keen on going to the opposite extreme and saying that God is very imminent.  Vahanian says on page 231 that “The dilemma of radical immanentism is that it offers no resolution to man’s predicament because, although it attempts to define man in terms of his relatedness to others, it can only project man as a god or a wolf to his fellow man.”  Huh?  You can hopefully see what I mean when I say that I understand the words that Vahanian uses, but not the sentence or the thought that Vahanian is trying to convey.

In critiquing the social Gospel, Vahanian appears to be arguing that people wonder what role Christianity will play, when all the social problems are solved.  I can’t envision all of humanity’s problems being solved, to be honest, and I seriously doubt that Vahanian himself envisions that.  But even if people have arrived at a level of comfort and do not feel that they need God to be fulfilled, they may still have spiritual needs.  The thing is, Vahanian appears to acknowledge that people have spiritual needs.  He just doesn’t believe that Christianity is adequately meeting them, for some reason.

In reading about why people become atheists, I come across a variety of reasons: encountering historical-criticism of the Bible shakes people’s faith in biblical inerrancy; science continues to shrink what is seen as God’s role in the cosmos; people throughout the world have different religions and cultures, making one wonder what makes one religion correct; the problem of evil and suffering calling into question the existence of a just and loving God.  Vahanian gets into some of these issues—-these topics that influence some to question that theism is factually accurate.  But these issues do not loom as large in Vahanian’s book as one might expect.  Rather, Vahanian’s point seems to be that Christianity (or theism) is not resonating with people.

One can legitimately ask: Does this matter?  Just because a belief-system does not resonate with people, does that mean it’s not true?  A fundamentalist could say that God still judges sinners, even if people don’t believe in God, or even if the truth that they are sinners does not resonate with them.

The thing is, God is also love, and many might think that a loving God would try to meet people where they are.  Within the Bible, arguably, God is reaching out to people within their own cultures, using categories that they understand.  In light of this, would God respond to people’s failure to see the relevance of theism with, “Well, who cares?  It’s the truth anyway, regardless of what you might think?”

I’ll be moving on to an easier book: Scientists Confront Creationism.  If you’re interested, here is the wikipedia article about Vahanian, and here is the wikipedia article on the death of God, which discusses Vahanian’s contribution to the discussion.

Published in: on September 24, 2013 at 4:22 pm  Comments (2)  
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Review of the Apologetics of West and Littleton (and Rogers)

I’ve said a couple of times that I would do a write-up about the Christian apologetic works of Gilbert West and George Littleton (see my posts here and here).  Gilbert West was an eighteenth century thinker who attempted to disprove Jesus’ resurrection, and he ended up believing in it and becoming a Christian.  George Littleton lived at the same time and sought to disprove the miraculous conversion of Saul of Tarsus, who became the apostle Paul, but Littleton came to accept it and himself converted to Christianity.  My pastor told the stories of these two men, and I have read their stories on Christian sites on the Internet.  What I did not see, however, was a summary of these men’s arguments.  But I did find these men’s writings online, I read them, and now I will write about them.  First, I’ll write about West’s argument for Jesus’ resurrection. Then, I’ll discuss Littleton’s book about the conversion of Saul of Tarsus.  Finally, I’ll offer my own evaluation of their work.  I did not take notes on these books, so I’m writing largely from memory.  But I’ve linked to the books here so that you can read them for yourself, if you so choose.

1.  Let’s start with West’s book.  For a long time, I was getting really frustrated in reading it.  It just seemed to me that West was assuming the historicity of the biblical text, without actually defending that historicity.  He made a case that the resurrection stories in the Gospels are not contradictory but can be harmonized, but that, in my opinion, did not prove their historicity, only that one can harmonize all sorts of things if one works hard enough.  Then West was arguing on the basis of the text that Mary could not have been hallucinating the risen Jesus, since the Gospel story does not present her as someone who was in a hallucinatory sort of condition.  I was ready to throw my hands up into the air!  How could West defend Jesus’ resurrection by just assuming the Gospels’ historicity?  Isn’t that begging the question?

But West eventually did start to mount a defense of the Gospels’ historicity.  I’ll list a sample of arguments that West made.  First, West said that the differences in the accounts about Jesus’ resurrection demonstrate that there was no collusion, and thus we can trust them.  Second, against those who claimed that there were writings in the New Testament that were not written by the authors to whom they are attributed, West essentially argues that such a fraud could not have been pulled off.  Usually, West argues, the person delivering the letter was someone who knew the author, and the church receiving the letter was aware that he knew the author.  Moreover, West wonders how a congregation would accept a pseudonymous letter years after the alleged author has died.  For West, the authors to whom the New Testament books are attributed actually wrote those books, and they were eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus.

Third, against those who say that the story of Jesus’ resurrection was invented years after the lifetime of Jesus and was not based on the testimony of eyewitnesses, West inquires why anyone would invent that kind of story.  West notes that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was unpopular—-for it was a stumblingblock to many Jews and foolishness to many Greeks (I Corinthians 1:23).  For West, it’s more likely that Jesus rose from the dead, and that Jesus’ resurrection inspired early eyewitnesses to proclaim the Gospel amidst opposition.  West also notes that early Christianity was discontinuous with the Jewish heritage of the apostles, as the Gospels and Acts narrate, and West’s point here may be that the resurrection of Jesus was what contributed to the dramatic change in their mindset.

Fourth, West appeals to what non-Christians said about Jesus in ancient times.  He notes that Celsus and the Talmud acknowledged that Jesus performed miracles.  Why West thinks that means that Jesus did perform miracles, I am not entirely certain.  Perhaps West thinks that Jesus performed miracles, people told stories about those miracles for years, and these stories got passed down to Celsus and the rabbis whose views are recorded in the Talmud, such that even they could not deny the miracles’ historicity.  West also appeals to Matthew 28:11-15, which states that the chief priests of Jesus’ day and Jews of Matthew’s day explained away the empty tomb by claiming that the apostles stole Jesus’ body while the Roman guards at the tomb were asleep.  For West, this shows that even non-Christians accepted that Jesus’ tomb was empty.  But couldn’t Matthew have made up that story?  West does not think so, for West says that, had Matthew made that up, chief priests and Jews could have simply come forward and denied that they were claiming that Jesus’ body was stolen, thereby stopping Matthew’s story in its tracks.  West may think that Matthew would not have written the story if Matthew realized it could be easily refuted.  Fifth, West makes a big deal about Old Testament prophecy being fulfilled in Jesus.

West also addresses the question of why the risen Jesus only appeared to his followers, when he could have appeared to non-believing Jews and thereby convinced them that he was who he said he was.  My impression is that West’s answer is that Jesus chose to appear only to his disciples so that people would believe on the basis of their transformed lives, not his flashy appearance.  But West does believe that God confirmed the testimony of the early witnesses to Jesus through signs and wonders, so those early Christian witnesses were not simply offering their unsubstantiated accounts.

2.  We’ll turn now to Littleton’s book on the conversion of Paul.  A man named Henry Rogers wrote an interesting introductory essay to Littleton’s book (and Littleton’s book was also a letter to West, I should add), and I want to highlight two things about it.  For one, Rogers says that Littleton did a lot of things, including writing poetry, and yet all Littleton is remembered for is his treatise on the conversion of Paul.  Rogers says that this demonstrates the relevance of the topic from generation to generation.  Second, Rogers criticizes such scholars as Paulus and Renan, who (according to him) dismissed what the Bible said about Paul’s conversion and substituted their own rationalistic attempts to explain what happened to Paul.  One such idea was that Paul converted to Christ out of a sense of guilt.  Rogers counters, however, that there is no basis for this explanation, and also that it contradicts what the Bible itself indicates: that Saul of Tarsus was not feeling guilty when Jesus appeared to him, but thought himself blameless and was prosecuting his mission against the Christians with great zeal.

Going on to Littleton’s treatise, I’d like to highlight four arguments that Littleton makes.  First of all, Littleton argues that the miracles that Paul performed attested to the truth of his conversion and his Gospel.  These miracles appear in Acts, and Paul refers to them in some of his letters.  Against the charge that the world was pretty gullible back then, Littleton responds that Paul was performing his miracles before those who opposed his message, people who were not particularly gullible or easily fooled by any trick Paul may perform (not that Littleton thinks Paul wanted to perform any tricks), and also that some of the miracles Paul did could not be simulated through trickery.  Littleton acknowledges that there were people who performed fake miracles in the ancient world, but he does not think that Paul was one of them.  That brings me to another point that Littleton makes: Second, Littleton says that Paul was not the sort of person who would claim to have had a miraculous conversion to augment his own power and influence.  Paul did not exercise authoritarian power over churches, Littleton argues, and (if I recall correctly) Littleton may have said that Christianity was a fairly marginalized movement.  For Littleton, we can deduce from Paul’s character that he had a genuine religious experience that changed him, that the risen Christ really did appear to him.

Third, Littleton says that, if Paul’s story about seeing the risen Christ had been fraudulent, his companions on the road to Damascus (who were non-Christians) would have stepped forward to dispute Paul’s claim.  This is similar to West’s argument that we can know that Matthew was telling the truth about the chief priests’ acknowledgment of Jesus’ empty tomb because the chief priests were not publicly disputing Matthew’s story, thereby stopping it in its tracks.  Fourth, Littleton maintains that Paul could only have done the spectacular things that he did—-the conversion of so many Gentiles to Christianity, amidst opposition—-through the assistance of God.

3.  Okay, these are the arguments of West and Littleton (and also Rogers), as I remember them.  What, now, is my assessment of them?

I respect that West, Littleton, and Rogers are moved by certain biblical stories.  But do they prove that these stories happened in history?  Here are some points that I want to make, and these points include questions that I have.

—-I can see Rogers’ point that there are scholars who reject what the Bible says about an event, only to substitute their own unsubstantiated narratives.  I would say that the narratives of the scholars Rogers criticizes may have some merit, however: Paul may very well have converted out of some sense of guilt, for Acts 9:5 says it was hard for Saul to kick against the goads.  But my point is that I’m not for dismissing the biblical narratives wholesale and substituting something that is foreign to what the biblical narratives say.  At the same time, I believe that Littleton goes to the other extreme and accepts biblical narratives uncritically, more so than does West (who makes more of an attempt to substantiate them).  For example, whereas there are many scholars today who would point to discrepancies between Paul’s account and what we see in Acts, Littleton does not have any sensitivity to that issue, sensitivity enough at least to try to refute it.

—-I believe that Paul had a religious experience that changed his life.  I doubt that he was making it up so he could attain money and power, for he did have a hard life after his conversion.  I wouldn’t say that Paul refused to exercise power, however, for he did appeal to his own authority a couple of times in his letters to the Corinthians.  But would I say that Paul was power-hungry, or faked his conversion out of a desire for power, money, and influence?  No.  The thing is, though, all sorts of people, inside and outside of the Christian religion, have religious or mystical experiences.  Littleton may come back and say that these were people who were looking for such an experience, but we can know that Saul’s experience was truly miraculous and from Christ because he was not looking for it—-Christ had to strike Saul with blindness to get Saul’s attention!  Perhaps.  I don’t know.  There are many people who talk about having conversions, and I doubt that all of these conversions were to religions that would meet the approval of conservative Christians.  Moreover, I do recall reading as an undergraduate at least one tale about someone converting to Islam after opposing it.

—-West seems to dispute that pseudonymous letters could have been pulled off.  While I believe that he asks good questions about this, the fact is that they were pulled off.  We know about them.  I’m not saying that every, or even most, of the New Testament books are forgeries, for I accept the authenticity of many of the letters attributed to Paul.  But I don’t think that West was sensitive enough to the existence of forgery in the ancient world, whereas Rogers actually was sensitive to this.

—-Why would the early Christians invent an unpopular Gospel, which brought them persecution (or prosecution, if you accept Candida Moss’ thesis)?  That’s a good question.  I doubt that they were consciously lying, but I also don’t think that our only choice is either to see them as liars or to accept their beliefs as unvarnished historical truth.  There are many scholars who say that the empty tomb stories came later, but that the earlier Christians believed Jesus was still alive for other reasons (i.e., visions).  Moreover, I doubt that Christianity is the only unpopular, revolutionary religion that emerged throughout history.  Muhammad encountered his share of resistance.  So did Joseph Smith.

—-While Littleton asks how Paul could have had his spectacular missionary success without God’s backing, I ask if a similar question could be asked of Muhammad, who conquered a lot of lands and subordinated them to Islam.  Couldn’t one argue that Muhammad had divine backing?  And, if a Christian wants to attribute Muhammad’s success to naturalistic causes, I ask why the same can’t be done with Paul’s success as a missionary.  There were many Gentiles in ancient times who were attracted to Judaism, but they did not want to undergo circumcision.  Would it be so out of the ordinary that they would accept Christianity, a religion that was like Judaism, yet lacked the circumcision requirement?

—-I’m not sure what to make of the argument that, if certain Christian accounts were not true, non-Christians at the events discussed in the accounts would have come forward to refute them, stopping them in their tracks.  I recently read a largely negative review of Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ, and its argument was that detractors wouldn’t have tried to refute early Christians’ claims for the simple reason that Christianity was too marginal for anyone to address its claims.  Maybe.  I think that we can tell from the Gospels and Paul’s letters that there were disputes between believers in Jesus and Jewish communities, and thus that Christians were at some point considered a force to be reckoned with, but this was decades after the time of the historical Jesus.  I guess that my problem with the argument is that it presumes that life was neater than it probably was.  Even today, people spread things that are not true, and this happens even though detractors can refute those things on the web—-in a public form, where anybody with internet access can see it.  And even these refuttals don’t always stop the ideas in their tracks, for there are people who go on believing them.  Why should we presume that detractors in ancient days would have had an easier time in stopping ideas in their tracks?

—-Why would non-Christians acknowledge that Jesus did miracles?  That’s a good question, but I don’t think that fact proves the truth of Christianity.  Maybe non-Christians thought that Jesus performed miracles because they knew of others who did miracles, and so why would they dismiss the possibility that Jesus did them, too?  Moreover, just because there may have been Jews who sought to explain away the stories about Jesus’ empty tomb, or there were rabbis who accepted that Jesus did miracles but attributed them to sorcery, that doesn’t mean there was an empty tomb or that Jesus did miracles, does it?  I suppose that Jewish detractors could have simply claimed that the empty tomb story lacked proof, but I don’t think it’s too extraordinary that they went another route in their polemics.

Anyway, some of you may think that West, Littleton, and Rogers offer good arguments, whereas my responses are merely stretches.  I respect your opinion, for, even if I may not regard their arguments as air-tight, I think that I can see why one would find them powerful and convincing.  Some of you may be agnostics and atheists and think that my responses are not adequate.  That’s fine, too.  I’m writing based on what I think and know, and I’m open to learning.  Whichever perspective you hold, feel free to comment, but please refrain from any put-downs.  We’re all on a journey. 

They Should Be Bigger Challenges Than They Are!

Biblical scholar Pete Enns had a post this morning entitled 5 Main Challenges to Staying Christian, and moving forward anyway (part 1).  He was basing his list on responses he got to a blog post that he wrote.  The five challenges to staying Christian are:

1.  Problems with the idea that the Bible is inerrant.

2.  The conflict between the Bible and science.

3.  God’s apparent absence in the midst of suffering.

4.  Christians being jerks.

5.  Christian exclusivism.

One could take issue with how I conceptualized or phrased these challenges in summarizing them, but you can read Enns’ post for yourself to see how he defines the challenges.

Someone who read the article told me that she thought that number 3 was the biggest challenge for Christians, and that a number of Christians could reconcile the other challenges in their own minds.  I found this intriguing, since 1-2 and 4-5 have been huge challenges to me in my own Christian faith.  But I think that she’s right—-there are many Christians who are not particularly phased by 1-2 and 4-5.

Let’s look at the challenges:

1.  The Bible is inerrant.  I’m surprised that this is not a bigger challenge for Christians than it is.  After all, there are plenty of television documentaries that poke holes at a conservative Christian conception of Scripture, while highlighting the views of critical scholars.  The Internet can bring people of different persuasions together into dialogue and debate, such that a conservative Christian can be exposed to the views of an atheist or a non-Christian religious Jew.  Heck, even reading the Bible itself can expose one to its different tellings of the same stories, its contradictions, and its passages that offend today’s moral sensibilities.

Why, then, is biblical inerrancy not a problem for a number of Christians?  I think there are a variety of reasons.  For one, not every Christian is aware of every challenge to biblical inerrancy.  In some cases, that’s because they are busy living their lives, but there are also cases in which they’re reading or listening to people who don’t talk much about these challenges.  I know Christians who believe that the Old Testament’s prophecies have a solid record of coming to pass, and that Jesus fulfilled a number of Old Testament prophecies.  They are not aware that there are scholars who argue that Ezekiel’s prophecies about Tyre and Egypt did not come to pass, or that the Old Testament “prophecies” (supposedly) about Jesus mean something different in their original contexts than how Christians in the New Testament (and thereafter) applied them.  Come to think of it, I wasn’t aware of these issues, either, until they were thrown in my face, and I was one who went to church and read the Bible.

Second, on the television documentaries, you have to admit that sometimes they posit scenarios that can easily strike a person as speculative or even ridiculous!  Even seminarians and scholars make fun of many of these documentaries about the Bible.  A conservative Christian can easily watch them and conclude that the challenges to Christianity must not be particularly strong.

Third, conservative Christians have their own set of experts.  You think the Bible contradicts itself or has errors?  Check out Gleason Archer’s Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, or read commentaries online that seek to reconcile biblical contradictions.  In a number of cases, conservative Christians go on believing because they think that their experts have come up with good answers to the objections against the Bible.  Many decide to go deeper and follow the debate further; many do not.  I wish, though, that more conservative Christians who place their faith in their experts would realize that a number of people who have problems with biblical inerrancy are well aware of what the conservative Christian experts argue and have found the arguments lacking.  I know of one conservative Christian student who was surprised to see Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict on his liberal professor’s bookshelf.  So one can read Josh McDowell and walk away unconvinced?  Apparently so!

2.  The conflict between the Bible and science.  I think that much of what I said for 1 applies here.  There are a number of conservative Christians who believe that creationists have answered the challenges of evolutionists while upholding Genesis 1.  Some choose to go deeper in researching the topic; some don’t.

3.  God’s apparent absence in the midst of suffering.  This challenges the faith of many Christians, but I think that a number of Christians find ways to help them to deal with suffering: to chalk it up to God’s will or God’s plan.  The problem is that, sometimes, the burdens get to be too great, and the usual ways of dealing with suffering become less helpful.  While a number of Christians may be able to find some way to cope with (or avoid) intellectual challenges to their faith, coping with suffering is much more difficult.

4.  Christians being jerks.  Conservative Christians can just say that Christians aren’t perfect, only forgiven, or that being around jerks is a refining process that makes us more Christ-like.  Maybe they have a point, but number 4 is still a challenge to me.  For one, I wonder why many Christians are so smug about how right they are and how everyone else is wrong, when they themselves have the same flaws as others.  And, second, there are cases in which I believe that the content of Christian dogma itself encourages people to become jerks.  It’s easy to get an us vs. them mindset when reading the Bible!

5.  Christian exclusivism.  I’m surprised that this isn’t a bigger challenge than it is, since many Christians know and love non-Christians, even if they may live in an area that does not have too many people from other religions.  How can they make peace with the notion that these non-Christians will go to hell?  I think there are a variety of ways.  Some are satisfied with the idea that God is just to condemn them to hell.  Some hold out hope that their non-Christian family members, friends, and neighbors will accept Christ before they die.  Some may even adopt more inclusivistic versions of Christianity—-and these are becoming more popular (or such is my impression).

God, the Bible, and Meaning

I started Herman Wouk’s The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion.  Here, I’ll feature something that Wouk says on pages 10-11:

“…the Bible has long been waning as the core of religious upbringing, a way of life once handed from father to son down the millennia, rooted in an epic history and an encyclopedic literature; a practical guide to the insoluble mysteries, brief joys, harsh blows, and everyday workings of a human existence.  That upbringing survives here and there among our people, but most Jewish babies—-in Israel, in America, in all the diaspora—-are born today into the world view of Feynman and Gell-Mann; and a Nobel colleague of theirs, the physicist Steven Weinberg, has written lucid books in which the insoluble mysteries loom especially large, most of all the old agnostic paradox of an orderly universe without seeming purpose.”

Of course, a number of atheists will say that people can endow life with purpose, whether there is a God or not.  Perhaps the Bible reflects one attempt to provide life with purpose—-to give people a sense of mission beyond themselves, to guide them through the ups and downs of life, and to entertain them with stories with which they can identify.

Is the Bible “a practical guide to insoluble mysteries”?  I think that it contains a lot of insights that can instruct and edify people.  I wouldn’t exactly look to it for natural scientific knowledge, for my impression is that it reflects ancient Near Eastern cosmology rather than the cosmos as current scientists understand it.  But can the Bible surprise us by addressing things that some may not expect it to address, such as what’s going on in our lives, or insights of psychology?  I think so.  I like the rabbinic statement that we can turn the Torah and turn it again and be surprised when we find something new.  Texts are complex, as are readers.

If (or, according to most scientists, since) evolution is the way things are, is life without purpose?  I don’t think so.  Of course, as I said, there are atheists who believe that we can come up with our own meaning to life, even without a God.  But I don’t believe that evolution precludes God’s existence.  Perhaps God started the whole process and has watched it unfold for many years, as complex organisms have developed and as humanoids have learned and grown, and this God desires a relationship with us.

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