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Problem or Mystery?A problem is something which I meet, which I find completely before me, but which I can therefore lay siege to and reduce. But a mystery is something in which I am myself involved, and it can therefore only be thought of as a sphere where the distinction between what is in me and what is before me loses its meaning and initial validity. -- Gabriel Marcel
Our Ways of Understanding"Our ways of understanding have been collective, beginning with the stories that we told each other around the fire when we lived in caves. Our ways today are still collective, including literature, history, art, music, religion, and science." - Freeman Dyson
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"Referee won't blow the whistle / God is good but will he listen?" -- U2
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- "When someone opposes me, he arouses my attention, not my anger. I go to meet a man who contradicts me, who instructs me. The cause of truth should be the common cause of both." -- Montaigne
- "If your anger decreases with time, you did injustice; if it increases, you suffered injustice." -- Nassim Nicholas Taleb
- "And the missionaries, they tell us we will be left behind. / Been left behind a thousand times, a thousand times." -- Arcade Fire
Incapable of doubt, incapable of faithThe majority of mankind is lazy-minded, incurious, absorbed in vanities, and tepid in emotion, and is therefore incapable of either much doubt or much faith. -- T.S. Eliot, Introduction (1931), Pascal's "Pensees"
Wittgenstein on Kierkegaard
"Kierkegaard was by far the most profound thinker of the[nineteenth] century. Kierkegaard was a saint." - Ludwig Wittgenstein, to his friend Maurice Drury.
Read Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard: Religion, Individuality, and Philosophical Method by Charles L. Creegan free online.
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- Poem of the Day: April April 21, 2018The optimists among ustaking heart because it is springskip alongattending their meetingssigning their e-mail petitionsmarching with their satiric signssinging their we shall overcome songsposting their pungent twitters and blogsbelieving in a better worldfor no good reasonI envy themsaid the old womanThe seasons go round theygo round and aroundsaid the tuli […]Alicia Ostriker
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- Contractualism April 20, 2018[Revised entry by Elizabeth Ashford and Tim Mulgan on April 20, 2018. Changes to: Main text, Bibliography] The term 'contractualism' can be used in a broad sense - to indicate the view that morality is based on contract or agreement - or in a narrow sense - to refer to a particular view developed in recent years by the Harvard philosopher T. M. Sca […]Elizabeth Ashford and Tim Mulgan
- George Boole April 19, 2018[Revised entry by Stanley Burris on April 18, 2018. Changes to: Main text, Bibliography, examples.html] George Boole (1815 - 1864) was an English mathematician and a founder of the algebraic tradition in logic. He worked as a schoolmaster in England and from 1849 until his death as professor of mathematics at Queen's University, Cork, Ireland. He revolu […]Stanley Burris
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- Natural Kinds April 20, 2018Natural Kinds A large part of our exploration of the world consists in categorizing or classifying the objects and processes we encounter, both in scientific and everyday contexts. There are various, perhaps innumerable, ways to sort objects into different kinds or categories, but it is commonly assumed that, among the countless possible types of classificat […]
- Machiavelli, Niccolò March 11, 2018Niccolò Machiavelli (1469—1527) Machiavelli was a 16th century Florentine philosopher known primarily for his political ideas. His two most famous philosophical books, The Prince and the Discourses on Livy, were published after his death. His philosophical legacy remains enigmatic, but that result should not be surprising for a thinker who understood the nec […]
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- Intensity is hard to explain. April 21, 2018
Liturgy For The PeopleThe liturgy is essentially not the religion of the cultured, but the religion of the people. If the people are rightly instructed, and the liturgy is properly carried out, they display a simple and profound understanding of it. For the people do not analyze concepts, but contemplate. The people possess that inner integrity of being which corresponds perfectly with the symbolism of the liturgical language, imagery, action and ornaments. The cultured man has first of all to accustom himself to this attitude; but to the people it has always been inconceivable that religion should express itself by abstract ideas and logical developments, and not by being and action, by imagery and ritual. --Romano Guardini, "The Awakening of the Church in the Soul"
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Arts and humansArt is the signature of man. -G.K. Chesterton
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The Anguished QuestionIf you really enquire about God, not with mere curiosity, not, as it were, like a spiritual stamp collector, but as an anxious seeker, distressed in heart, anguished by the possibility that God might not exist and hence all life be vanity and one great madness -- if you ask in such a mood as the man who asks the doctor, "Tell me, will my wife live or will she die?"-- if you ask thus about God, then you know already that God exists; the anguished question bears witness that you know. -- Emil Brunner, "Our Faith"
Tag Archives: apologetics
“Religious apologists today might mumble about the power of faith and the limits of reason, yet they are the first to protest when it is suggested that faith and reason might be in tension. Far from seeing religious faith as a special, bold kind of trust, religious apologists are now more likely to see atheism as requiring as much faith as religion. Kierkegaard saw clearly that that faith is not a kind of epistemic Polyfilla that closes the small cracks left by reason, but a mad leap across a chasm devoid of all reason.
“That is not because Kierkegaard was guilty of an anarchic irrationalism or relativistic subjectivism. It is only because he was so rigorous with his application of reason that he was able to push it to its limits. He went beyond reason only when reason could go no further, leaving logic behind only when logic refused to go on.”
— Julian Baggini, in “I Still Love Kierkegaard“
This is a little dense, but read closely. The underlying point should intrigue anyone who tries to persuade others of unseen realities.
“Metaphysical questions and beliefs are technologically barren and are therefore neither part of the analytical effort nor an element of science. As an organ of culture they are an extension of the mythical core….
“Metaphyiscal questions and beliefs reveal an aspect of human existence not revealed by scientific questions and beliefs… The idea of proof, introduced into metaphysics, arises from a confusion of two different sources of energy active in man’s conscious relation to the world: the technological and the mythical….
“Myth cannot be reached by persuasion; persuasion belongs to a different area of interpersonal communication, that is, to an area in which the criteria of technological resilience of judgments have their force….
“The sense of continuity in relation to tradition may, but need not, help mythical consciousness. There is always a reason which needs to be revealed in the permanence of myths and the inertia of conservatism. Values are transmitted only through social inheritance, that is, thanks to a radiation of authoritative tradition. The inheritance of myths is the inheritance of values which myths impose….”
— Leszek Kolakowski, in The Presence of Myth
A healthy understanding of the limits of knowledge should not be a license to ignore or degrade knowledge.
When Blaise Pascal said, “Reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it,” he said so with strong, well-demonstrated successes in his appropriation of reason. In other words, he successfully used and synthesized knowledge.
I appreciate Tim Keller’s exhortation (in his blog comments) to read Bruce Metzger. I’ll also point out the availability of Ben Witherington’s critique of Jesus, Interrupted by Bart Ehrman and the Evangelical Textual Criticism forum so I won’t be accused of an unqualified endorsement of Ehrman.
I know I’m not trained in exegesis, theology, or textual criticism, but I am a guy who has been in a variety of churches and Christian schools during my 42 years, and I know Christianity goes wrong in numerous ways. When something I love is going wrong, I want to say something about it. Historically, few of the people who implimented real change were the scholars and experts, but rather those who stood up and screamed.
I understand some personal pleas to leave the past behind, but I don’t understand the naive beliefs that institutions — and indeed books — cause each mistake only once. A great way to avoid making a mistake a second or third or tenth or hundredth time is to analyze what went wrong. You remember the quotation: Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it (Santayana).
Meanwhile, as a brief follow up to my last post, I dislike this contrast between evangelical apologetics and evangelical teaching:
Evangelical apologetics tends to say textual criticism, history, and reason are adequate to endorse the central message of the New Testament. As historical documents, the New Testament books testify, reliably, about Jesus. This is not an endorsement of historical-grammatical exegesis, nor is it a statement about the inspiration of each word in the family Bible. In apologetics, the historical reliability of the New Testament manuscripts is put forward, not the doctrine of inerrancy.
Evangelical teaching, however, doesn’t stop there. It takes the further step of claiming “inerrancy,” a word with too many operating definitions amongst U.S. believers, and a word that suggests a kind of accuracy that close scrutiny of some biblical texts renders impossible.
I understand why some people will say that apologetics must offer broader brushstrokes than exegetical teaching, but I don’t necessarily agree with their perspective. The problems conceded in apologetics ought to be part of the believer’s sober-minded approach to the texts. On these matters, we have an enormous number of irresponsible pastors and ministers in the U.S. Not many of them are as smart — or wise — as someone like Keller! And that’s an ongoing problem — to be a good Christian, it seems like you must not only be redeemed, but you also must be smart enough.
Why factual discrepencies in the Bible are a barrier to faith: lower-order and higher-order concerns
As this Ex-Fundamentalist-now-Reformed-Anglican-Anglo-Catholic-Episcopalian Mutt struggles with factual discrepencies in Scripture, I think I finally realized why evangelical and Reformed claims about the Bible have fallen on hard times.
And in part, this is a different thought to add to Ross Douthat’s analysis of why American became a nation of heretics, as described by Tim Keller.
The factual discrepencies within Scripture are nothing new, but what they mean, and why they mean what they mean, should be the puzzles addressed by Douthat, Keller, and many others who occupy influential positions in Christianity.
Otherwise, any Christian is on unstable intellectual ground: Making rational arguments based on a self-contradictory book is non-rational. If your starting point is non-rational, then ultimately, your rational arguments are unsupported.
To me, the challenge of defending the Bible in our time is understanding that people automatically, intuitively, common-sensically organize information according to “lower-order concerns” and “higher-order concerns.”
What do I mean by those phrases? Well, sometimes, when talking about how to grade an academic paper, my colleagues and I refer to “lower-order concerns” and “higher-order concerns.”
Lower-order concerns might be (in some cases) correct use of commas, while high-order concerns might be (in some cases) having a real argument and supporting it. Missing a couple of commas isn’t as bad as a thesis statement that argues nothing or an unsupported argument.
Considering claims about the Bible, people will be more likely to believe higher-order claims when lower-order claims are correct.
Basic factual information could be considered a lower-order concern. As a former newspaper section editor, I can assure you that, all kidding and warranted insults about journalists aside, a cub reporter can get the time and date and basic facts of a city council meeting — and get them right most of the time.
What that cub reporter (usually) cannot do is understand the political philosophies at work. The political philosophy, the ideas, behind a city-council decision might be a higher-order concern. (Granted, city councils don’t always appear to be populated by philosopher kings, but stick with me a few more seconds.)
Indeed, those journalists who leave newspapers and broadcast journalism to work for National Review or The New Republic are those journalists who, early on, excelled at getting the facts right — and then progressively moved into higher-order thinking. You worked hard at the lower-order concerns to earn the right to write about the higher-order concerns.
Now, in the Bible, what we see are numerous discrepencies in lower-order arenas. For whatever reasons, the Biblical texts we have today do not always give a consistent picture of the facts of important events — events important enough, evangelicals and Reformed folks assume, to be part of God’s revelation.
I think many, many people are not willing to believe the higher-order, theological and doctrinal, claims of the Bible because the lower-order issues are problematic.
Again, many people will say, “If you can’t get your facts right, why should I listen to you about anything else?”
Wouldn’t you think a similar thought if a salesperson or a politician couldn’t get his or her facts straight?
Isn’t that a normal, shrewd reaction backed by the Proverbs?
God hates dishonest scales, right? Let your yes be yes and your no be no, right? Truthfulness, right?
Of course, it’s not that simple — but simplistic thinking is exactly what evangelical and Reformed churches have offered on this topic. Sure, you can say there are non-simplistic answers by pointing to the big guns at the seminaries and all the Gospel Coalition folks, fine, but they’re not leading the vast majority of churches.
Here’s my current, tentative, in-progress solution.
I think believing in the Nicene Creed, based on the testimony of Scripture, makes sense. As ancient testimony, the Scriptures reasonably could support the Creed. I’m not sure the Scriptures reasonably can support the Bible-study industry that keeps Christian bookstores open.
I think believing in the atonement, based on the general thematic trajectory of the Scriptures, makes sense.
What doesn’t make sense are the Bible studies that try to unpack every little verse and turn each one into grand statements about humanity or morality or whatever.
The available text criticism simply does not render a Bible that reliable. Furthermore, I don’t think the common use of the terms “inerrant” and “infallible” can possibly be relevant when glaring factual discrepencies exist. Maybe the problem is our post-Enlightenment, rationalistic way of considering something “inerrant” — without error — but more about that later.
Of course, text criticism is a very high-order matter. Someone might counter my arguments by elevating a side issue and saying that not many people know about the Bible anymore, at all, never mind text criticism. Not that many go to church anymore. Not that many people read anything anymore, so reading in and of itself, and the Bible, actually aren’t even the issues. The culture is the issue. Social change is the issue. Et cetera.
Maybe, but maybe not. Ex-evangelical and popular author Bart Ehrman teaches classes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill each semester. I don’t know how large his classes are, but you can bet he’s taught hundreds by this point in his career.
And Ehrman is not the only one at a univeristy with his point of view. College for the middle class has almost become a political right, and kids have to take classes outside their fields to fulfill curriculum requirements. I imagine Ehrman’s perspective, and indeed his books, are presented positively in numerous universities to tens of thousands of students each academic year. (Although, as Ehrman himself has said, many people in New Testament text criticism remain believers.)
So consider the likelihood that many college-educated people have been forced to assess the higher-order claims of the Bible — its theology, its doctrine, its history, its claims about Jesus Christ — in light of the lower-order problems.
A significant portion of the college-educated middle class dismissed higher-order claims due to problems with lower-order claims.
When the lower-order claims fall apart, the higher-order claims do not seem legitimate.
Now, I also want briefly to note that we have to ask hard questions about why, if the Holy Spirit guided this canon down through history, God allowed us to wind up with a text that doesn’t offer the kind of testimony a cub reporter could get right.
And, if those discrepencies can be explained away legitimately and truthfully, then how can this Book truly be a book for all people, when it requires a specialist’s academic knowledge and historical and liguistic understanding to keep straight?
Could it be, simply, that certain understandings about “inerrant” and “infallible” render the Bible’s testimony unreliable at best, ridiculous at worst?
Maybe, just maybe, the task is to undo post-Enlightenment rationality. Maybe, as Stephen Toulmin tried to do late in his career, the task is to replace “rationality” with “reasonableness.” In other words, I don’t think we can advocate a self-contradictory text on the micro level, on the verse-by-verse level, unless we radically recreate everyone’s daily, default epistemology.
We could, however, begin understanding the Bible texts as historical testimony.
Please comment, correct, rebuke as you have time.
- Bible study in light of textual criticism (liturgical.wordpress.com)
- Footnote on the reliability of the Bible: Let’s say we met 30 minutes ago (liturgical.wordpress.com)
- Not an infallible Bible, but an infallible interpretation (liturgical.wordpress.com)
- Be A Berean (answersfromthebook.org)
- How to Read the Bible (ldstalk.wordpress.com)
- The Dangers of “Higher Criticism”* (captivatedbychrist.org)
- Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism: Introduction (vridar.wordpress.com)
- William Lane Craig on historical reliability of the gospels (winteryknight.wordpress.com)
- Sola Scriptura: The Sufficiency of Scripture (pjcockrell.wordpress.com)
- Ehrman explains: Doherty could be right after all (vridar.wordpress.com)
- Applying the Traditional Logic of the Categorical Proposition (1): The Several Scripturalisms and the Theories Directly Opposed to Them (whilewantingwisdom.net)
- More on the Patristic Use of the Septuagint (timothymichaellaw.com)
“I have long had the custom of lending a copy of Mere Christianity to non-Christian friends and acquaintances who seem to have little clue about what orthodox Christianity is all about…. The book, if I can get my unbelieving friends to read it, has always provoked some interesting reactions and conversations and has functioned as serious evangelistic proclamation,” writes Gene Edward Veith in “A Vision, Within a Dream, Within the Truth,” which he contributed to the book C.S. Lewis: Lightbearer in the Shadowlands.
However, Veith reports, Mere Christianity does not always have the traction it used to.
“One young man, one of my students, liked the book very much and was greatly impressed with Lewis and his faith. And yet he seemed unable to conceive of the possibility that what Lewis was saying might have some relevance to his own life, that what Lewis found to be true would also be true for him. He stated no disagreements and had nothing to say against any of Lewis’s arguments. The gist of my student’s response was that Lewis had developed a strong belief system, but he, the student, had to develop his own. Lewis’s whole argument — that Christianity is objectively true, that Jesus is either the Son of God or He is something worse — rolled off my student’s mind like water on vinyl.”
Ouch. This is an urgent problem: rational arguments are now seen as optional points of engagement in our culture.
What’s interesting to me — as I told the adult forum at Trinity this morning, temporary technical difficulties aside (!) — is that Lewis, who led so many to consider the Christian faith through his public debates with the Oxford Socratic Club and his book Mere Christianity, said the first step to his conversion occurred through his imagination.
While his heart and his mind were still set against God, Lewis picked up a dense Victorian fantasy novel by Scottish preacher George MacDonald. The book was called Phantastes. Lewis wrote, “What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptize … my imagination.”
Lewis entered the kingdom of God, imagination first.
If rational arguments are optional points of engagement in our culture at this time, maybe imaginative works will have more success in engaging the readers of books and the viewers of films.