Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Sunday, December 25, 2011
It is time that this ill-supported murmur of all thoughtful men against the famine of our churches... should be heard through the sleep of indolence, and over the din of routine...
The stationariness of religion: the assumption that the age of inspiration is past, that the Bible is closed; the fear of degrading the character of Jesus by representing him as a man; indicate with sufficient clearness the falsehood of our theology. It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that He speaketh, not spake. The true Christianity - a faith like Christs' in the infinitude of man, - is lost...
Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those most sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil...
Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, - cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity... Look to it first and only... that fashion custom, authority, pleasure, and money are nothing to you, - are not bandages over your eyes, that you cannot see, - but live with the privilege of the immeasurable mind.
Thursday, December 22, 2011
It is a made up story where a student outsmarts a professor, but I would like to cover what would most likely happen in real life. This may be elementary for some, but hopefully a good exercise for others. I’ll even skip the part about the professor taking an attitude that he knows everything and his students are just empty vessels that need his wisdom. Certainly there are professors like that, just as there are priests like that. Fortunately, either one of them leaning into a student’s face and challenging them is becoming more and more rare.
The first argument that silences the professor and the class would not stump even the most elementary of philosophers. Terms such as “cold” are abstractions. If you want to get scientific about it, hot and cold are properties that are expressions of temperature. The OTHER STUDENT is right, “cold” is not really a scientific term. Temperature is relative. Cold to a person is hot to a polar bear. None of that matters. If the student has demonstrated anything, it is that some words are abstractions. I’m sure the philosopher would agree that “god” is a word that expresses something that is difficult to express. The same goes for the terms “light” and “dark”.
The next argument is at least two arguments meshed together and that mixing of arguments continues from here on. The OTHER STUDENT claims the professor is working on the premise of duality. What he then describes is actually a logical fallacy called a false dichotomy. The professor is somewhat guilty of that. A false dichotomy presents two options, God exists or he doesn’t, demonstrates one of those is false, or can’t be proven, and concludes the other must be true. This leaves out the possibility of any other options or of either option being partially true. Philosophy professors love playing with these possibilities, so it is unlikely one would act like the one in this story.
Before discussing any of this, the OTHER STUDENT has already moved on to using a lack of scientific knowledge as proof. Specifically, science has yet to map a thought, or even understand exactly what one is. That only proves that we don’t know everything. To leap from there to believing that there is a powerful being behind creation is no argument at all. That form of argument is called “the argument from ignorance”, when faced with a lack of knowledge, make something up that is simple and easy to digest and claim that it is true. He then tries another abstraction about “life” and “death”.
Without taking a breath, he moves on to immorality and fires a couple more abstractions. In the story this puts the PROFESSOR on his heels, in reality the PROFESSOR would be thinking, “abstraction, abstraction, abstraction”. He would also be thinking about how “good” and “evil” can’t be used as properties in the same way that “hot” and “cold” are. But thinking he has the PROFESSOR in a corner, he pulls out the Bible. He needs it, because he is entering another area that science has not figured out, free will. He will need an authority to support anything he says about that and Biblical teaching relies on free will extensively. The OTHER STUDENT tries to use his “some things only exist as the absence of some other thing” argument and say the existence of immorality proves God’s existence, but this is so unbelievably flawed, that he needs to throw in a new question before the PROFESSOR can respond. In a classroom, or just about anywhere, that would be addressed.
Instead, the OTHER STUDENT is allowed to go on with more questions about whether or not evolution has ever been observed. It of course has been observed. One of the first accounts is by Aristotle who noticed hair color being passed on from one generation to the next. Darwin used the long observed practice of breeding dogs for desired traits as part of his research. Since Darwin, more and more transitional species have been observed in the fossil record. Darwin could not explain a mechanism, but Watson and Crick did. Since then observations of DNA have demonstrated how evolution occurs. High School students breed fruit flies in test tubes and observe the traits being passed on from generation to generation. The OTHER STUDENT apparently requires seeing something like a monkey begin to talk, as in the latest installment of the Planet of Apes series, as the only possible evidence for evolution. This discussion never happens in the story because the PROFESSOR is turning red and making sucking sounds through his teeth.
As an aside, humans did not evolve from the monkeys that we see in zoos today. Both of us evolved from a common ancestor a few hundred million years ago, some little furry butted thing that might have looked like a lemur. It is actually worse than monkeys. Before the lemur, we were fish and before that we were vegetables.
This leads to the crescendo, where the OTHER STUDENT proclaims, “SCIENCE IS FLAWED”. His final proof, a good joke that a 4th grade boy might be able to pull off on his little brother, but would never get past a PROFESSOR. The idea that the PROFESSOR has no brain because no one has ever observed it. Instead of teaching children that these kinds of jokes can be used as serious arguments in a university setting, we should be teaching them how we know things. It is this very flaw in arguing that leads to millions of dollars being invested in museums that show people in robes and sandals running around with dinosaurs.
We begin with our five senses, but we need a lot more than that to fully understand the universe. When Galileo extended our ability to see, he figured out that some of the lights in the sky were planets and we could finally fully understand why they moved the way they did. When we figured that things fit patterns that could be explained with formulas, we also figured out that those formulas could help explain things that we couldn’t observe directly. Epistemology is really pretty interesting, something you might learn at a university. Or just look it up.
Just as a simple example, here’s how we know the PROFESSOR has a brain. First we rely somewhat on the authorities. Just a few hundred years ago, people still accepted that Aristotle was right, and the brain was there to cool the blood. Emotions came from the heart or the gut, thoughts came from the soul. Now we point to our heads when we say “think” and little children pick this up and never question that it is the center of our nervous system. We accept that everyone needs a brain to remain an upright, walking, talking person. The PROFESSOR does not appear to be a robot, a hologram, a figment of our imagination or anything other than a real person. We accept that the university had some sort of process to determine that he was intelligent enough to teach the class. All of this would require a brain. So, barring any far fetched notions and implausible scenarios, he has one. If as a philosophy student, you want to argue that is not 100% positive proof, that’s fine, and exactly what philosophy is all about. As a proof that science is flawed, it is a misunderstanding of science.
Even if all of the other arguments of the OTHER STUDENT were accepted as sound, in the end, he has only proved that the existence of God cannot be disproved. Some scientists would argue that when enough evidence has been examined, a lack of evidence constitutes proof. We don’t really need to go there. We can at least say that there is not enough evidence to constitute a valid theory of God. Assuming we agree on the understanding of what a valid theory is. I’ll leave that for later.
Sunday, December 18, 2011
Why would an all-knowing God begin the process of creation knowing that it would be corrupted by evil and lead to so much heartache?
Joshua Einshon tells a story of hearing the answer to this question in 9th grade. I can understand why the answer worked for him at that young age, but not as an adult. The answer is “free-will”. That is, God could have made a bunch of “wind up dolls”, but he didn’t. This answer is quite a bit more sick if you realize that this also means that God created us in a way that leaves us unsure if we should choose Him. It just leads you right back to the original question. Joshua restates the choice, saying it is between being loving to each other or not, which is really irrelevant to God’s existence. We do have that choice and that would seem to me to make the case that there is no God and we have to figure this out for ourselves.
This question contains within it a few theological questions that anyone who believes that they believe should consider. Is God all-knowing? What is time to God? Did he know the consequences of his creation? Why would he do it if knew it would turn out as it has? If He could give us more information to make an informed choice about Him, why wouldn’t He? What purpose could be served by leaving that choice up to His creation?
Why are there so many completely different interpretations?
This question goes unanswered in my opinion. I suppose because the obvious answer is that people throughout history have used the Bible to mean whatever it serves them to mean. The Bible does not provide answers that can be tested, or provide logical explanations. It chronicles a history of changing norms. Interpretations change depending on your knowledge of the author or the time of the writing. Leaving out some of that context, or making some up can easily alter what the text seems to mean.
This quote is typical, “The result of these multiple interpretations of passages is precisely why there is so much division among Christians and Jews – all of whom base their faith on the same text.” It is a logical fallacy, in that it states the reason as the explanation. It is similar to saying, “Ronald Reagan was the great communicator because he gave great speeches.”
Why are (or were) the Jewish people God’s chosen people? Why not someone else? Are Christians now God’s chosen people?
This is just a silly question and I only comment on it for comic relief. The Bible or any religion is about justifying yourself and your friends as the chosen ones. I’ll give Brandon Gilvin a little credit for having a discussion of the changing theism throughout the Bible, from Elohim to YHWH and the eventual switch to monotheism. But the more humorous statement comes from Christian Piatt,
“It’s no real surprise that those who wrote these scriptures down also are the ones chosen by God in the stories. The fact that men wrote the texts down probably had a similar effect in placing males at the top of the social pyramid.”
There is nothing in the surrounding text that gave me the sense that this was tongue-in-cheek. I know it doesn’t help, but the only response I have to this is, “Ya think!!?”
Thursday, December 8, 2011
My continuation of comments and additional answers to the questions in “Banned Questions about the Bible”, a book by Christian Piatt.
I skipped this one earlier but then thought it worth addressing:
In the Old Testament, God seems to be actively involved in world events. In the New Testament, God is portrayed as less interventionist but still directly involved. Now, it seems God is much more abstract. What happened, and is this a good or a bad thing?
Gary Peluos-Verdend completely confuses you with “it is important that we understand the interaction of god’s agency with human agency”. Jarrod McKenna goes quite a bit further, suggesting the question is easy. He dismisses any theology that would say god is elsewhere or that god is everything. He says God is the redeemer. I won’t try to explain that, but he tries by using a series of other words that theologians pretend have meaning like “web of creation”, Trinity, Incarnation, “heal the brokenness” and grace. This is all almost completely useless.
In an earlier time, a “banned question” would get you a smack on the back of the head, or time cleaning the pews. Now, it gets you a string of words that sound like they are important, and will keep busy if you want to find out what a bunch of people think they mean. In the end, you will find out that someone a long time ago started using these words, and since then, people have argued about what they might have meant.
Where are all the miracles?
This question has one of the stranger quotes in one of the answers. There is a brief discussion about televangelists and faith healers, then, “Perhaps we don’t see or hear about more miracles because too many Christians have made us too cynical. When we put God to the test in prayer, it may put undue pressure on everybody. “
This is really twisted. It avoids the question and tries to deflect the reader into loosening up their rational thought process. What pressure does it put on anybody to test whether or not prayer works? Since when is praying a test for God?
Christian Piatt has some nice words about the miracle of birth and the little, everyday miracles, but he also says, “There may have been a time when people miraculously received sight, walked on water, or came back from the dead.”
This is dangerous thinking. Either we can demonstrate that miracles happen or not. If we can demonstrate that they are currently not possible, then they were not possible in the past. By some definitions, miracles go against what we can prove to be possible, so if one was claimed to have happened in the past, the only way to disprove it is to have been there and have collected evidence. This sets up non-falisifiability and is as worthless as my claiming that there is a pink dragon in my garage, unless you go look, because he goes away when you look.
Modern Christians attempt to reconcile the modern world with the worlds of Jesus and Moses by creating a world that has physical laws that have changed over time. If that were true, science would not work.
Are there any mistakes in the Bible?
This question has been central to the de-conversion of many since the Enlightenment. Many people still focus on this. If you come from a community that claims there are no mistakes, but then you find some, I can understand that it would be important. Many sects have dealt with this by modernizing the notions of God’s word and revelation, as does this book. Finding books or websites that discuss the known discrepancies is not too difficult these days but unfortunately many people will still not find these until later in life and continue to be surprised by them.
David J. Lose starts out with an important distinction that anyone looking to the Bible for truth should consider. That people didn’t think in terms of facts the same way we do now. In a Marcus Borg’s Heart of Christianity, he says, “ “the pre-modern meanings of English words believe and believing and Latin word credo very different from what believing has come to mean in our time.” Credo “does not mean ‘I hereby agree to the literal-factual truth of the following statements.’ Rather its Latin roots combine to mean ‘I give my heart to.” The word itself is possibly related to French term cri de couer (cry of my heart)- meaning "a passionate belief that comes from the heart...Given the pre-modern meaning of ‘believe,’ to believe in God is to belove God.” (39-41)
They don’t include Borg’s book in their references, but in this brief answer, David does gives you a decent way of approaching the Bible. The rest is pretty much repeats of earlier commentary about the Bible being “inspired” instead of inerrant. Great for discussion with a fundamentalist, but elementary to someone who has already dealt with that question.
In some cases, Paul (the purported author of many New Testament books) seems to support women in leadership roles in church, and in others, he says, they have no place. Which is it? Any why the seeming contradiction?
Becky Garrison scores big again with this answer. Although others in this book have given passing references to translation problems, changing doctrine, unknown authorship and understanding historical context, Becky applies that knowledge skillfully to this answer. She addresses women covering their heads and suggests this was done because others in the Roman Empire were doing it, and a small persecuted religious sect probably should be pragmatic and not draw attention to itself. The stronger statement about women being submissive in Ephesians, was probably edited in later, according to scholars, says Becky. She ends with this whopper:
“As the church became more closely aligned with empire, it began to tone down some its more radical teachings, such as the full equality of all in Christ.”
I wish she had more time to develop that thesis.
David J. Lose reiterates some of what Becky says, and makes an interesting comment about how the New Testament chronicles the splits that may have been occurring in the early leaders. The Letter to Timothy, sometimes attribute to Paul but more likely came later, constrains gender equality. This pattern of splitting of doctrines soon after the death of the original authors can be seen in other major religions, such as the Sunni/Shia split for Muslims and the North/South split of Buddhism. Rather than diminish religion and expose it as a farce, these patterns of cultures dealing with values bring color to history and give us an opportunity to reopen the conversations. I find it much more interesting than trying to guess how Paul would have voted on the Equal Rights Amendment.
All 4 answers take a strong stand that Paul was following an egalitarian message of Jesus and the statements that clearly state otherwise were probably added later by a male dominated world. This is the clearest stand like this that I have seen in this book so far.
Who gets to decide which laws in the Bible are irrefutable, which laws are out of date, and which laws should be applied only in certain situations?
This is the essence of the problem with religion. People who think they know the answer to this question and ignore any actual laws of their government when they enforce what they believe is God’s law. Or more often, just tell you what they think you are doing wrong. Fortunately, the answers are light hearted and admit that no one should be deciding this, only attempting to understand it. Nadia Bolz-Weber sums it up best. She says she would like to just know the rules and then follow them, but, “To do this is to effectively leave Jesus idling in his van on the corner as though to say to him, ‘If we know what to do to be saved, we’ll just do that rather than rely on you’.”