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April 02, 2008

Comments

Redlefty

That's exactly why I never bought C.S. Lewis' whole "liar, Lord or lunatic" argument for the divinity of Jesus. Amazing how such obviously intelligent people can draw such harsh lines on issues. When lines aren't needed at all, and we're totally guessing on where to draw them anyway.

Good post.

Harry Celine

Imbeciles? Nah.

We just have a different epistemology.

Personally, I suspect that persons like yourself are what are called "philosophical zombies", persons who act just like regular people but are "all dark inside", i.e. not really conscious.

Its no use arguing otherwise, zombies are programmed to claim they are conscious.

I am usually more discreet about this suspicion, but you started the name calling first.

D. C. Toedt III

Harry @ 3:37 pm, you say it's name-calling, I say it's facing the facts. See the section in the main posting entitled "The proof is in the results," along with Deut. 18.21-22.

In that regard, let me note that there's about as much evidence to support the notion that I'm a p-zombie as there is for much of The Faith Once Delivered, which in a way goes to prove my point.

Your suspicion does lead to an interesting epistemological question: If we conclude that PZs are likely to exist, then what test can we use to distinguish them from "real" humans? How can I be sure that, say, my wife isn't one? That way lies solipsism. Cf. the Turing test, which asks a similar question about computers.

Thanks for stopping by.

Harry Celine

Your welcome.

What evidence do you have for your notion that a God created this world? And where is the evidence that we are workers in an ongoing project of creation.

What evidence do you have that you are not, in fact, a brain in a vat?

Your criteria, if you followed them rigorously would demand you become a nihilist, which is inded a popular choice these days.

D. C. Toedt III

Harry @ 6:32pm: On the notion that a God created the world, see the various posts listed in the right-hand column under the heading "Building a Universe."

On rigorous following of criteria: I've never claimed that we have to turn perfectly-square corners all the time, that we cannot do anything in life except on the basis of mathematical certainty. That'd be just as ridiculous as the reasserter arguments I criticize. We muddle along as best we can, with "appropriate" degrees of rigor depending on the circumstances. (See generally the posting How to judge claims of testimony.)

Harry Celine

We muddle along as best we can, with "appropriate" degrees of rigor depending on the circumstances.

That is certainly one philosophy of life. I can understand it. But i don't happen to subscribe to it.

Your sort of philosophy is mini-max: you attempt to minimize the maximum loss.

Me, I'm a maxi-max kind of guy, I want to maximize the maximum gain. When I finally came to understand what Christianity is all about, I thought:

If this is true, it is the most important, and wonderful thing in the world, and if it is not true, it ought to be true.

I am betting that the world is much more wonderful than it appears to the naked eye.

You want to hedge your bets.

If you find that imbecilic, well, sign me up. I can't go back to the button-downed mind of the man in the gray flannel suit.

D. C. Toedt III

Harry @7:59pm writes: If this is true, it is the most important, and wonderful thing in the world, and if it is not true, it ought to be true.

I appreciate the honest explanation of your motives. It's certainly admirable to try to bridge the gap between "is" and "ought"; doing so has been the engine of all human progress.

(Personally, I wonder whether God acts in the world in part by inspiring us to understand "is" and to imagine "ought," imperfectly as we do both of those things.)

But imagining that "ought" equals "is" has been the source of much evil. Moreover, faithfulness to God, and putting him first always, requires facing the facts of the reality he wrought, not trying to live in a false reality we conjure in our imaginations.

I agree with physicist-theologian the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne's comment:

I have great sympathy with David Pailin when he says that 'Attempts to defend theism [or any belief—DCT] by ignoring the question of truth ... are fundamentally atheistic. They worship human wishes rather than ultimate reality.'

The Faith of a Physicist, Fortress Press paperback ed., ch. 2, p. 30 (bold-faced emphasis added).

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Harry writes: I am betting that the world is much more wonderful than it appears to the naked eye.

So am I. But I'm expressly labeling it as a bet; articulating my reasons for making it; and recognizing that the bet could go wrong. That's rather different than talking one's self into believing that that the emperor is splendidly attired, then labeling anyone who disagrees as lacking in faith; that's a Stalinist or Maoist approach to reality.

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Please be sure you understand what it is I labeled as "imbecilic" in the main posting. I was very careful in my choice of words; what I scorn is the particular variety of syllogism that I described (which is certainly not unique to reasserters).

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These exchanges are useful, I think, Harry; they certainly help me to analyze and articulate my own thinking. Thanks again.

bls

But D.C.: How can you (or anyone else) declare something to be a "false reality," when it comes to God, and the nature of God?

I would say that Harry is making his own rational judgement; he looks at Christian faith and recognizes truth in it, using his own reason. That's what his statement says, in fact, exactly. And he does say: "If this is true...."; surely that's a reasonable way to go about things. That's how I think of it, myself.

And I don't think think "ought to be" necessarily implies "a false reality we conjure in our imaginations," either. It could instead imply the very process that anybody who wants to make the a better place must use: a vision of how things could be, or how people could act. Even if, for example, none of the things in the Christian Gospel were literally and factually true - still, anybody could take meaning from them, and conform their lives to the ideas expressed there.

"Reality" is not limited to things tangible, after all; did you read my blog post about what Einstein said about the Gospels?

"As a child I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene....No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life. Jesus is too colossal for the pen of phrase-mongers, however artful. No man can dispose of Christianity with a bon mot."

from "What Life Means to Einstein," The Saturday Evening Post, October 26, 1929

Harry Celine

D.C.

I'm glad you find this discussion useful. I do too.

First, let me say I am a bit flabbergasted by your invocation of Polkinghorne. He, of course, is an utterly orthodox believer in the virgin birth, the empty tomb, etc. Where do you think he went wrong?

Now, I can only speak authoritatively for myself, but I don't think many persons come to a Christian faith through any sort of syllogism, imbecilic or not.

After I realized that the Gospel ought to be true, that was just the beginning. I started praying, "Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief." I started going to church, etc. I studied the way to lead a Christian life, and followed the recommendations to the best of my ability.

My life began to change, things that seemed important before, and unimportant things became more important. I came to see how God maintained the existence of the whole Universe from moment to moment, I came to understand how the Fall caused the brokeness of the world, and how the Incarnation was necessary to redeem the world.

In short, Christian Dogma is not a theorem, or a theory, but a worldview. It all makes sense, it works, it is complete. It is different than your worldview, and is incommesurable with your worldview.

From where I am now, you are blundering around in darkness. I can't go back there.

Harry @1:32pm, Polkinghorne is exceptionally good in his defense of basic theism. If you read his Faith of a Physicist book, however (which I cited above), you'll get the distinct impression that he's not exactly bowled over by the case for, say, the virgin birth (see pp. 143-145).

Polkinghorne is on far weaker ground in his defense of the traditional Christian narrative. He explicitly adopts what he describes as Richard Swinburne's principle of testimony, viz., that "other things being equal, probably things are as they are reported" (p. 31). The problem is that this principle ignores thousands of years of hard-won experience that stories get distorted, because (among other reasons):

  • people misperceive;
  • they misunderstand;
  • they misremember;
  • they misspeak, for reasons innocuous and malign;
  • they are especially likely to do some or all of the above when they have biases such as —
    • an ax to grind;
    • an agenda to advance;
    • a score to settle; or
    • a reputation to enhance — or to try to protect.

We see glimpses of all of these potential biases in various places in the New Testament narratives.

My main concern here is not with the immaterial discrepancies in the gospel narratives. It's rightly said that such discrepancies arise almost any time different people are telling a story.

My primary concern is that many material portions of the narrative are simply incoherent with other things of whose truth we are fairly confident. I would be genuinely interested in your response to the specific questions I pose here and especially here.

Harry Celine

D.C.

Let me respond to a couple of your complaints.

First about the silence about Jesus' friends.

While the NT may be silent about their fate, Christian tradition certainly is not. First we note that the early Christians were persecuted and that many apparently fled Jerusalem. So they were simply not around for Luke to write about in Acts.

St. Joseph of Arimathea is reported to have brought Christianity to England.

St. Nicodemus retired to the country house of St. Galamiel (the Jewish teacher of St. Paul) outside of Jerusalem.

St. Lazarus of Bethany, fearing assassination, escaped to Cyprus where he was installed as Bishop of Kiton.

--------------------------------

As to the reliability of hearsay testimony, I don't believe it was hearsay. The Gospel of Mark was written by St. Mark, St. Peter's secretary, from the reminiscences of St. Peter. It is Mark who reports Peter's denial of Christ, for instance.

The Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Aramaic, not Greek. No doubt it was compared with Mark when translated into Greek.

Even if we accept scholars dating of Luke, it was written early enough for living witnesses of Christ to still be alive, and could certainly be based, in part, on eyewitness testimony.

St. John lived to be over 90 years old, and so could well be the author of the Gospel of John. It claims to be written by a disciple of Jesus and there is apparently some internal evidence that this is true.

I know of no evidence to disbelieve the Church's claim that the Gospels are, or are based on, eyewitness testimony. The scholarly estimates of the dates are within the lifetimes of eyewitnesses.

I have never even seen the claim that the Gospels are compiled from an oral tradition even argued. It is simply assumed. I think this assumption comes from earlier scholarship which assigned much later dates to the Gospels. When the Gospels were believed to have been written 100+ years after the Crucifixion, they would have to have been compiled from oral tradition.

Harry @7:29pm, it sounds like you accept Swinburne's principle: that, other things being equal, things probably are as they are reported.

OK; so be it — your inherent biases (we all have them) and life experiences have persuaded you that Swinburne's is the proper approach.

Keep in mind, though, that humanity's two greatest engines for searching out the truth — namely, science and the law — take a different approach, nicely summed up in Ronald Reagan's purported translation of a Russian proverb: Trust, but verify. This hermeunetic of skepticism is based on millennia of hard experience with human frailty.

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I'm familiar with the legend of Joseph of Arimathea's traveling to Britain; the ones about Nicodemus and Lazarus are new to me. (In all my years I've never seen Gamaliel the Pharisee referred to by the title of "St."!)

My immediate question is, not surprisingly, my Favorite Theological Question: How, exactly, do we know this is true; why should we be confident it isn't just a product of vivid imagination?

By the way, you still haven't addressed my question about why Luke's account in Acts, which claims to be thorough, says zero about either Lazarus or Nicodemus having participated in the early church.

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It wouldn't surprise me if parts of the gospels were, as you say, based on eyewitness testimony recounted directly to the relevant gospel author(s). The problem is, we simply don't know, and never will, which parts (if any) those were.

Sure, the church had a tradition that Mark's gospel was taken from Peter's reminiscences. But we have no idea where that tradition originated, nor whether the originator knew what s/he was talking about.

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Even if eyewitness testimony were involved, psychologists have demonstrated, beyond a shadow of a doubt, something that lawyers have known for years: Perception and memory can be materially unreliable, and therefore must be approached with extreme caution.

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Bottom line: Reasserters claim that people should radically reshape their lives because of the events recounted in the New Testament narratives. The evidence may well be sufficient to support a conclusion that such a reshaping is a good idea. But standing alone, the NT accounts have enough holes in them that they fall a good deal short of providing the necessary support.

Harry Celine

Bottom Line:

You're a mini-max kind of guy, I'm a maxi-max.

Chris Hairel

DC the Enlightenment failed about 60 years ago. Post-modernism is a direct and convincing challenge to that failure. Modernism didn't live up to it's own ideals and in fact made the divisions between humans worse. We have greater disparity in living conditions around the globe today than we did 300 years ago and we've seen more people killed as a result of wars at a faster rate than at any time in human history - 55M in Europe alone in WWII.

Regarding a selective reading of the NT - I would argue you're the one in error. The NT clearly makes the truth claims about its own authenticity and the ordering of life you want to reject. But despite this, you've ordered your life on many of the NT's truth claims you selectively accede to.

On can not honestly argue Jesus didn't make claims about God, Himself and us and then call others to follow the moral example Jesus teaches. How do we know Jesus actually said these things? I've never heard a reasserter make "imbecilic" claim like that.

For argument sake, let's assume the accuracy of the NT since BOTH our faiths would appear to rest on that presupposition.

Finally, on the resurrection, Jesus claimed His own uniqueness as the path to salvation (John 14:6). He also claims that His death and resurrection are the laying of that path. If He hasn't been resurrected He's made Himself out to be a liar and the whole Christian exercise is a waste. Remember, orthodox Christianity is not a works based faith, so if what we believe is false, then our faith IS meaningless. You might have a point if Jesus said we could achieve our own righteousness through works, but that's just not the case.

The Christian faith resting on the resurrection is not just because we "like it." There's actually a great deal of logic and reasoning that goes behind that claim and beginning with Jesus and Paul it's been a central tenet of the faith long before reappraiser and reasserts came around.

I would encourage you to study and understand this logic before resorting to middle school name calling.

D. C. Toedt III

Chris Hairel @2:42pm writes: "... despite this, you've ordered your life on many of the NT's truth claims you selectively accede to."

The NT documents are human creations; like any such, they have both good and bad points.

And of course I'm going to be selective about the truth claims around which I order my life.

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Chris writes: "On[e] can not honestly argue Jesus didn't make claims about God, Himself and us and then call others to follow the moral example Jesus teaches."

Why not? I don't think John McCain has made claims about God, himself, and us; but few Americans would deny that his courage and faithfulness in the Hanoi Hilton were a splendid moral example.

Chris, your argument is just a variation of the false-dichotomy thinking that I criticize in the main post. You seem to be saying that if I don't believe Jesus claimed to be God, then I shouldn't accept anything he reportedly said as being of value. If what Jesus taught seems to make sense, independent of the fact that it was he who said it, it'd be foolish to toss it out just because it doesn't measure up to some artificial standard of perfection.

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Chris writes: ... "the Enlightenment failed about 60 years ago. Post-modernism is a direct and convincing challenge to that failure. Modernism didn't live up to it's own ideals and in fact made the divisions between humans worse."

We obviously have very, very different views about whether the world is better off today than it was 300 years ago, or for that matter 60 years ago (I think you mean 70 years, by the way).

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I stand by my remarks about imbecilic logic. I suspect that those who take offense at the word "imbecilic" either (i) didn't read more of the sentence than just that one word, or (ii) are angry that their praise of the emperor's new clothes has been found out for what it is.

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Thanks for a thoughtful post; I disagree with much of it, but I appreciate your having taken the time to comment.

Chris Hairel

DC said:
"Chris, your argument is just a variation of the false-dichotomy thinking that I criticize in the main post. You seem to be saying that if I don't believe Jesus claimed to be God, then I shouldn't accept anything he reportedly said as being of value."

Actually my point is more far subtle than an all-or-nothing argument; allow me to sharpen the picture.

You are not consistent in your questioning to the point of intellectual dishonesty. You allow your presuppositions to blind you to the very errors you accuse others of making.

Jesus says, "be good," and DC affirms the teaching. Jesus says, "I am the Way the Truth and the Light," and DC questions the reliability of the manuscript.

If the manuscript is faulty with respect to Jesus's claims of divinity and salvation, what assurance do we have about His moral teaching? Maybe Monty Python was right and the cheese makers really are blessed.

I also question the emphasis on Jesus. Stripping away the theological claims renders Him fairly generic among moralists through the ages. Besides, if you want results you can do a lot better. He had a public career of less than three years and was executed. I'd suggest someone like Bill Gates or Mother Teresa would be a better role model - longer career, more lives touched, more relevant to our time, no theological baggage.

Why claim the name "Christian" when "Deist" is so much more accurate?

D. C. Toedt

Chris Hairel @12:47am (a fellow parishioner whom I saw about an hour ago) writes:

Jesus says, "be good," and DC affirms the teaching. Jesus says, "I am the Way the Truth and the Light," and DC questions the reliability of the manuscript.

If the manuscript is faulty with respect to Jesus's claims of divinity and salvation, what assurance do we have about His moral teaching? ....

Entirely apart from the manuscript, we can easily get some first-order assurance about the soundness of Jesus' "be good" message: We have thousands of years of experience showing that, on average and over the long term, the most successful cultures tend to be those whose members, on the whole:

  • face the facts (which incidentally goes hand in hand trusting God about the future, which in turn entails putting him first); and
  • collaborate in getting through life, ideally seeking the best for others as they do for themselves.
This, of course, is just the Summary of the Law, phrased a little differently.

We can argue about what constitutes a successful culture. One plausible definition is purely pragmatic: A successful culture is one that is both enduring and scalable (the latter term meaning that the culture can accommodate ever-increasing numbers of people). It turns out that, on the whole and over time, how well a culture follows the Summary of the Law (as rephrased above) is not a bad predictor of its likelihood of success by this definition.

Chris, for a more detailed version of this argument, you might take a look at some of my other postings, listed in the right-hand column under the category "What it's all about."

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Chris writes:

I also question the emphasis on Jesus. Stripping away the theological claims renders Him fairly generic among moralists through the ages. Besides, if you want results you can do a lot better. He had a public career of less than three years and was executed. I'd suggest someone like Bill Gates or Mother Teresa would be a better role model - longer career, more lives touched, more relevant to our time, no theological baggage.

Personally, I don't emphasize Jesus all that much. He was a prophet with unusual insight and charisma; he was faithful to God and to his perceived calling even unto death. His message and example came at the right place and time to catalyze a lot of human progress (and not a little evil) over the millennia. Jesus' life was not unlike the action of the cue ball in a pool-hall trick shot. The shot triggers a cascade of ricochets that puts lots of balls into the pockets. It's hard to see, however, how we can justify giving all the credit to the cue ball per se.

(The analogy I first thought of was that of a single neutron triggering a chain reaction in a critical mass of U-235, but the pool-hall trick shot seemed like a more everyday kind of image.)

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Chris writes:

Why claim the name "Christian" when "Deist" is so much more accurate?

First, it's not clear to me that Deist would be accurate.

Second, if we define Christian as one who tries to follow Jesus' command to obey the Summary of the Law (Luke 10.25-37), then the title can be merited by deists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc.

Finally, I'm a Christian by accident of birth and marriage — see my essay from a few years ago, Why I Still Call Myself a Christian and an Episcopalian.

padremambo

my head hurts after reading the comments.

Good post!

Paul Goings

In other words, if we were to discover compelling evidence that Jesus stayed dead, then (supposedly) nothing he said or did during his lifetime would be of any value to us.

And this is, as you say, a false dichotomy. But what I often wonder is whether I'd have much regard for Jesus' values if I knew that his teachings about, say, what happened to one after death were false. I can't say for sure that I'd behave differently, but I tend to suspect that I would.

One can argue that certain patterns of behavior are societally good, and evolutionarily favorable, but as a personal animal, I'm not sure why they'd matter to me as an individual, at least in the abstract. So yes, if I knew that Jesus died 1900-some years ago, and stayed dead, there's not much of a reason for me to be interested in what he said or did. And I think that this is what most reasserters are trying to convey with that rather ambiguous statement.

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