Tag Archives: Theology

“Shoot the Messenger” in Reverse

e7d6shoot_the_messengerAs we’ve already seen, many of the attacks on Christian theology are centered around terrible understandings of what it is that Christians actually believe. And none of them justify atheism.

In his “Top Ten Reasons Why I’m an Athiest”, Smalley continues to make these mistakes:

6. If the Christian god[sic] created humans as sinners, how could it rightfully expect us to believe the corrupt messengers it[sic] has sent to teach us the way of life?

On the one hand, I don’t doubt Smalley’s sincerity. On the other, it is very hard for me to imagine how he could have made even a half-hearted attempt to find the answer to this question without finding it. This seems more like something that occurred to him as he was writing, rather than something he’s actually asked of a person educated on the subject.

Most obviously is the fact that I don’t know what believer in God actually claims that humans were created as sinners. Rather, God created humans with the choice to sin or not. But, as far as who is to “teach us the way of life”, Smalley doesn’t even consider the idea that a Christian might think that Jesus Christ and God’s spirit would help with that. He can argue that such things don’t exist, but this isn’t a reason to disbelieve in them.

Yes, Christians are often corrupt, immature, and hypocritical. But the personal life of a corrupt scientist, counselor, philosopher, or inspirational speaker doesn’t keep people from realizing it when their words are correct, even if their actions don’t fit with them.

Jesus himself spent quite a lot of time criticizing the religious leaders of his day. He instructed his followers to do just as the Pharisees said, but not as they did. This is necessary advice in any generation.

So, again, we see why someone ought to understand a topic before presuming to pronounce wholesale judgment on it.

But many do seem to have trouble differentiating between “I don’t like how you’re living” and “Your claim is false”. This is why so many have listed bad things done by Christians as if that were evidence that God doesn’t exist.

But Smalley isn’t exactly doing this. Rather, he seems to be blaming God for the fact that people often commit this logical fallacy. Somehow, he thinks it is God’s fault if people don’t realize that a statement isn’t untrue simply because the speaker isn’t perfect.

Personally, I find “God doesn’t exist because people reject him for irrational reasons” a little hard to swallow.

But, if this is a terrible objection to theism, the next is much better. I’ll get to that soon.

Beyond Materialism

thThus far, we’ve seen several things that either cannot be explained by materialism or positively contradict it. Contingent objects, the beginning of the universe, moral truth, the foundations of science, and conscious thought are among them.

Assuming one has followed the argument this far, we’re left with a timeless, immaterial, immensely powerful, moral, and personal being. At least, this concept explains those things on the table which need explanation. This, I would argue, simply follows from the facts of reality as we experience it.

This much has been said, meaning that we have reached a being which, most would agree, could reasonably be called God. Setting aside the objections that might be made up until this point, we have yet to address an oft-heard objection:

But which God is it?

Many have pointed out, rightly, that simply stopping with the conclusion of “God” isn’t enough. We need a more specific answer than that. Though I’ve underlined that this question isn’t remotely a reason to reject belief in all forms of theism, it is a good question. And it is much more answerable than many realize.

It has already been shown that we are dealing with an entity which transcends time and matter. This being the case, we can throw out the overwhelming majority of gods proposed in human history. Almost all gods are material, not transcendent.

In fact, both the transcendent nature of this being and Ockham’s Razor give us reason to think that we’re only dealing with a single entity. Polytheism, after all, requires finite gods who typically serve specific functions in nature. One may concoct some metaphysical alternative, of course, but (as this isn’t a serious option in our culture) I’ll let that alone.

The deists, on the other hand, would accept monotheism, but question whether God is still active in the world–or even continues to exist. But there is no reason to think that God has ceased to exist, of course, and every reason to think that God is active in the world.

In fact, several of the things to be explained, such as consciousness and moral truth, require that, today, there is more than the physical. There simply having been so in the past is not enough.

Really, when we look at these facts, we clearly see a being that fits nicely into the vision of the great western monotheist faiths, and doesn’t mix well with much of anything else.

Though it is often claimed that the arguments for God’s existence shows little on the grounds that there are so many gods to consider, we see that the number of gods supported by these arguments is razor thin.

But the thoughtful reader, of course, will be very interested in which of the few concepts of God mentioned here is the most likely to be true. But, for the answers to that, we’ll have to turn to the Bible.

As such, I’ll be visiting the New Testament in the near future.

Divine Simplicity and Simpletons

simpleton-universityRichard Dawkins abandoned Christianity at the age of nine. And, by all accounts, he hasn’t learned anything new about what Christians believe since then.

This is to say that his “Boeing 747 Gambit” is an excellent case study in why one should read on a topic before making vast declarations on it in print.

What is the Boeing 747 Gambit? For those that don’t already know, it could be summarized as follows:

1. Because God has control over the universe, he would have to be an extremely complex being.

2. Complex beings always evolve from simpler beings.

3. The probability that something this complex could evolve is vanishingly small.

4. Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist.

I first picked up “The God Delusion” looking for a real challenge to my faith, and was very disappointed to find, among other things, this being presented as the book’s central argument. Not only are these claims dubious at best, but I had to rewrite it just to make it coherent. Dawkins’ own summary was, demonstrably, logically invalid. If this was the best the New Atheists could present, it is no wonder theologians didn’t feel that books like this one were worth attention.

But theologians should pay attention, and not only because a post-graduate student could write a doctoral thesis on everything that is wrong with this argument. By stirring up controversy, Dawkins has given theologians the perfect excuse to discuss, say, divine simplicity.

That is the problem with Dawkins’ first statement here. God has traditionally understood as a simple being (not as in “easy to understand” but as in “not composed of parts”). As spirit, this is rather straight-forward. Dawkins misses this point, presumably because he believes that God has successive thoughts like we do (rather than holding all knowledge simultaneously), and otherwise thinks that a mind’s knowledge counts has adding to its physical complexity.

But this is nonsense. The only way to say that a mind’s thoughts make it more physically complex is to assume that there can’t be a mind without a brain. But this is, of course, the very thing Dawkins should be trying to prove. To assume it here would be to argue in a circle.

This is one of many reasons why experts don’t take the argument seriously. The real debate among theologians is whether God has metaphysical “parts” (as many Protestant theologians claim) or not (as Catholic and Orthodox theologians claim).

I think many would be interested in reading “Personalists” and “Classical Theists” defend their respective concepts of God. Why think God would be simple? How is the concept of the trinity explained if God is simple? How is God’s unity described without simplicity? This is a great way to deepen one’s own understanding of the divine.

But Dawkins simply isn’t interested. He “knows” this thing called “God” doesn’t exist, so he doesn’t have to bother learning what the word “God” actually means. But, if he had bothered, he would have noticed that his argument doesn’t disprove the God that monotheists believe in, but only the sort of God’s believed in by the ancient Pagans.

I’d say that Dawkins is a bit late to be proving that Zeus doesn’t exist (and there are far better arguments, even then). Really, his “central argument” has nothing to say about a God who is above nature, rather than part of it.

In the words of Stephen Barr, “Paley finds a watch and asks how such a thing could have come to be there by chance. Dawkins finds an immense automated factory that blindly constructs watches, and feels that he has completely answered Paley’s point.”

Science is Theistic

HandOfGodThe earliest proposers of the “laws” of science meant the term more literally than most today realize. Contemporary people, when we think about the issue at all, tend to think of them simply as the way that nature happens to behave (with no more explanation than that–no wonder Hume was baffled). The developers of science, however, literally considered these laws to be something like divine fiat–God telling the world how it was to behave.

This is one of several reasons why, until very recently in history, the success of science was taken to be a point in favor of theism, rather than opposed to it.

Materialists (like many theists, for reasons I’lll get to) tend to scoff at this idea of divine fiat. But the trouble with this (for materialists) is twofold:

First, that materialism offers no alternative explanation. The regularity of the universe is simply a brute fact, according to this view–”brute fact” here being, as in most instances, something of a euphemism for “magic”.

Second, and more significantly, this perspective is not required by theism. In fact, it is not the traditional view. Rather, many theists have long held that God created the universe with a particular nature, it’s contents having specific tendencies that, under similar conditions, will behave similarly.

But, if this explanation works, why can’t the non-theist simply borrow it from the theist, strip it of any reference to God or the non-physical, and use it as a materialist explanation? Because it is the reference to the non-physical in general, and God in particular, that make this explanation work.

To claim that the contents of the universe have specific tendencies is to embrace teleology (aka final causation). It is a rejection of David Hume’s critique of causation (so beloved of materialists), and is the key premise in one of the traditional arguments for God’s existence. We’ll get to this last at some point in the future.

Beyond that, it is simply another “brute fact” in the hands of the materialists, as opposed to being based on a necessary being, argued for on independent grounds, as the theist’s position would have it.

I tend to be suspicious of views that dismiss vast parts of perceived reality as illusory. It generally seems like an ad hoc way of ridding one’s self of anything for which the view in question cannot account. That is, it is the provence of inadequate views trying to maintain respectability.

The telltale sign, however, is the need to postulate brute facts. Contingent things (that is, things that logically could not have existed, but do) that apparently exist for no reason at all.

Anything that simply pops into our view of reality (such as the patterns of the universe, or even the universe itself), without any explanation, is a sign that we’ve dismissed the actual explanation as illusory.

All this is to say that the only explanation materialism, or naturalism, or empiricism, or positivism has advanced for the fact that science works is, essentially, the old Apple Jacks argument that “it just does”. The moment one suggests that a complete philosophy needs to take the fact that science works into account, these secular philosophies are in mortal danger.

Theism, on the other hand, lives quite comfortably with the idea that the universe has such regularities. All the talk of secular philosophies being, in some unspecified sense, the “scientific” ones is excellent PR. But the reality turns out to be quite the opposite.

Why Think When You Already ‘Know’?

little-girl-wearing-big-round-glasses-14230209Quite a few of the objections I hear to theism are based in a particular understanding of theology. It amazes me how many of them come from people who insist ardently that we shouldn’t engage in theology. Alex Rosenberg is a good example; after arguing that all knowledge is scientific (and, consequently, that theology should be ignored as a source of knowledge), he writes this:

A version of theism worth believing must at a minimum attribute to God the intention to produce us and not just some intelligent creature or other (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 88)

I have no idea how, without undertaking some theology, Rosenberg can reasonably claim to know this. Is it really crucial the teaching of every religion, and even the concept of God, that God meant to produce humans specifically? Is it completely unbelievable that he’d be willing to create (or even did create) different species elsewhere in the universe? Whether one answers ‘yes’ or ‘no’, one has gotten into theology.

This is a common problem. In fact, it is not unlike the oft-heard complaints about the idea that God would have created the whole universe “just for us”. It wasn’t until I heard this complaint that I’d ever even considered the idea that humans are God’s only reason for creating the universe. I’d always assumed that there were many things about creation which God intended. Again, we’re discussing theology whether or not I’m correct.

It is also worth mention that, even if we accept Rosenberg’s position, this is no discredit to theism. He goes on to claim that God couldn’t have seriously intended create us because our coming into being was so improbable. Of course, one would think that doing the improbable would be within the capacity of an omniscient and omnipotent God.

But Rosenberg doesn’t stop to consider such an objection. Doing so would be to partake of the forbidden fruit of studying theology. Never mind that his own position is every bit as theological–the only difference is that it is terrible theology.

This is the reason why so many have argued that an understanding of theology is needed in order to refute God’s existence. It is the only way to know whether or not God, as he is actually defined, is even being addressed by one’s argument.

Handing Out my Game Plan

thIn arguing against the assumptions of modern materialism, I tend to get a lot of people wondering why my statements don’t directly, simply, and unambiguously show that God exists. It often feels as if such people want a one or two sentence argument that encompasses the entire chain of reasoning.

It tends to be hard to explain that some of the background discussions that frustrate many readers (such as the issue of the Verification Principle) are the key points of difference between the theist and the non-theist.

So, all things considered, I thought it would help to put up an outline of the general chain of reasoning from a very common atheist stance to Christianity:

1. The idea that the physical is all that exists is completely unsupported.

2. There are, in fact, good reasons to think that there is more to reality than the physical.

3. The explanation for the entirety of physical reality (i.e. the universe/multiverse) would itself have to be a non-physical entity.

4. Minds cannot be fully reduced to the physical.

5. It is most plausible, given the existence and nature of the universe, that the explanation for physical reality has or is something like a mind.

6. There is no more reason to reject moral truth than physical or mental truth.

7. It is most plausible to think that the explanation for physical reality also explains moral truth.

8. The historical validity of early Christian writings is much better than its opponents tend to claim.

9. The best explanation of certain historical facts is the resurrection, as early Christians claimed.

10. It is most plausible that the explanation for physical reality and moral truth also explains the resurrection.

These are simply statements, of course, not arguments. For those who are interested, I’ll get to all of them (not necessarily in order). But the point for now is that it isn’t really possible to argue clearly for, say, point nine and ten until point one and two has been addressed.

Almost all of the objections to Christianity I’ve heard rest on the idea that points one and two are false. So long as one feels it is an established fact that all reality is physical, there is no point in moving on to the question of what sort of non-physical realities exist.

Giving an Explanation

contingency planAn important thing to note about the cosmological arguments for God’s existence is that most of them don’t require a beginning of the universe. In one such argument, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz famously offered God as an explanation for contingent reality.

He, in essence, posed the question “Why is there something, rather than nothing?”.

This has nothing to do with a beginning to the universe. It has to do with the fact that physical things are contingent. That is, it is logically possible for them not to have existed.

The trouble with this is that something which might not have existed, but does, needs an explanation for its existence. This is, among other things, a fundamental principle of science: that we can’t simply acquiesce to “just because”.

But, if we explain the contingent things in the universe with more contingent things, we’re still left with more explaining to do. The only way to avoid an infinite regress (and all the logical contradictions that would create) is if there were a necessary object which was the explanation of contingent reality.

That is, if there were something for which non-existence is logically impossible.

Whatever is great enough to both fully explain the vast network of physical objects that comprise the universe and exist of logical necessity would, at the very least, bear an uncanny resemblance to God. But, someone may argue, a key element of God is a certain amount of will. Could it not be that such a thing, great as it is, has no mind or will?

The short answer is “No, it could not”.

The long answer would reach far beyond the scope of this post, but a good summary would be the fact that a will, an ability to choose, is the most reasonable explanation for why a necessary object could produce a contingent universe.

After all, for the universe to simply emanate automatically out of its necessary cause (as Plato envisioned), would make the universe, and every particle in it, a necessary object.

So, while there is much more to be said, I think it is clearly more likely that God exists than that it is a logical contradiction for this universe to have one fewer quark than it has.

At the very least, the Platonist would owe us an argument in defense of that idea. And there are, indeed, other good arguments for God’s existence.

Shredding the Paper Maché God

Kid Hitting PinataWhen I first read Bertrand Russell’s speech “Why I’m not a Christian“, I was surprised that his arguments bore so much similarity to the New Atheists’. Of course, he  doesn’t fall into most of the more obvious fallacies one will spot in books like “The God Delusion”. Still, he makes the same fundamental error:

He doesn’t understand the thing he’s criticizing.

That is not to say that he doesn’t understand some particular denomination’s theology, or that he doesn’t address my personal interpretation of specific scripture. That is to say that he fundamentally misses the point of any talk at all about God and religion.

Russell, like the New Atheists, seems to think that religion is some sort of pre-science. Most obviously, he thinks scientific theories, rather than secular philosophies, are the alternatives to theological beliefs. That is, he never seems to realize which questions religion is meant to answer. In rebuking Christianity, he never tries to offer a source of morality, explain spirituality, address the possibility of an afterlife, consider the need for grace, discuss transcendence, or ponder the meaning of life.

Rather, he spends several pages explaining to us that anachronistic readings of the Bible make for terrible scientific theory, then falsely asserts that religious belief causes harm to society. He rips apart notions of an “ally in the sky” that no Christian thinker has ever endorsed, dutifully informs us that Christianity would be silly if it were to teach that God were a created being, reinterprets Jesus’ teachings in strange ways to make insulting him easier, and insists both that we are too good to need saving and that people are too evil to for Christianity to be true.

All of this is less like hunting down the real animal than putting on a blindfold and whacking at a piñata. 

Not that there aren’t interesting points in the speech (mostly in the first half). But, as glad as I am to have gone through it, I am left at the end with a very simple question:

When will he get around to talking about Christianity?

Missing a Target as Big as God

ignorance3After (erroneously) insisting that science vindicates atheism, Bertrand Russell goes on to rally his troops for a strike against a strange vision of Christian despotism:

Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a better place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it.

This is the sort of statement that could easily have been lifted from a communist propaganda pamphlet. There is a form of science-worship going on here, where technology will save us from all the problems of the world. At this point in history, it shouldn’t be necessary to argue that it is human nature, and not belief in God, that is the source of these problems.

But, apparently it is necessary. And that so many are eager to ignore lessons which cost more than a hundred million lives is, at best, deeply tragic.

This is at least partially because neither Russell nor the New Atheists can envision God as anything more than an “ally in the sky”. They seem oblivious to the fact that the entire concept of classical theism, of transcendence, or the metaphysical concept of pure actuality are completely beyond their objections. Consequently, they seem to think that they need only argue that there is no bearded man floating through the physical cosmos in order to refute Christianity.

That is roughly on par with claiming that all one needs to do to disprove atheism is to show that a kindergartener’s understanding of Richard Dawkins is silly.

We can’t find test for God’s presence with science any more than Hamlet can find Shakespeare by looking into a telescope. Simply demanding that naturalism is true, and therefore all propositions (including God) can be investigated with science, is simply arrogant dogmatism.

This should be obvious to anyone willing to listen to theologians, but Dawkins and others have spilled a fair amount of ink arguing that they don’t need to understand theology in order to reject belief in (what they think of as) God.

And the white-knuckled grip that many from this group keep on their own ignorance can’t be called anything other than prejudice.

Virtue Flows from Gratitude

good-samaritanFor years, something about Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan puzzled me:

Why is it about a Samaritan?

Like most modern people, I appreciate that Jesus casts a hated minority as the hero of the story. It is a wonderful statement about tolerance, equality, and care for the oppressed. Still, it seemed like an unexpected twist in that particular moment–making me wonder if I was missing a more fundamental reason for its being there.

More recently, something has been pointed out to me:

Though the things listed above probably are part of the reason Jesus chose a Samaritan as his hero, I think there is a more basic reason which has to do with the framing story. We often forget that the parable is told in response to a question from a theological scholar.

When he is told by Jesus to “love your neighbor as yourself”, he begins to realize what kind of radical life this would require of him–one that not even the best of us, let alone most of us, can manage. Hoping to get out from under the guilt and judgment of this, he asks “who is my neighbor?”.

It would have made perfect sense for Jesus to then tell a story where a man just like him came across a wounded Samaritan and saved him. That would have answered the question, but failed to have taught him (or us) about grace. It would have been a simple “do it”, a command to be good–just like all commands.

Instead, Jesus has the man bleeding on the road, and his enemy (the Samaritan) up in the saddle. He’s essentially asking him “What if your only hope of survival was an act of kindness from someone who owes you nothing but contempt?”. In framing the issue this way, Jesus shows that he understands the dilemma we each face: no one can radically love others simply by being told that we should. First, we need to know that we’ve been radically loved ourselves.

In this way, he’s getting to the gospel. This, I think, is a call to be grateful for the God who, like the Samaritan, chose to love us when he owed us nothing but wrath. If we can begin to see Jesus Christ as our own personal Good Samaritan, that he radically loved us when we didn’t deserve it, we can begin to do the same for others.