Sunday, November 22, 2009

Our Default Setting? (Part Two)

“The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!” It’s all many Young Earth Creationists, and other Fundamentalists need to know! They are completely satisfied with the simple statement of faith. I am not.

Michael Spencer keeper of the popular webblog, Internet Monk, recently entered a post on the meaning of “post-evangelical”. In describing his own post-evangelical approach to belief, Michael writes,

“I reject any notions that Christian belief falls from the sky as a magic book that exists apart from other components of human experience.”

I’ll leave it the reader to decide whether or not I qualify as “post-evangelical”, but I do resonate with with Michael on this point. For many believers, the Bible is the starting point and the ending point for their belief in God; I find it necessary to consult those “other components of human experience.”

Thus, when I ask the ultimate questions about whether there is a God, my starting point is the evidence in creation, that place where the Apostle Paul declares that the invisible things of God can be clearly seen (Romans 1:20).

But if anything is clear, it is that not all see those “invisible things of God” with equal clarity. Hence, the question of my previous post about whether we are intrinsically theists or atheists, or whether any such default setting exists. The responses were mixed, as I expected, and made for some fascinating reading for me. Thank you to all who participated.

No one denies that God-consciousness is wide-spread in humankind. But the explanations for religious belief vary.

Commenting on the previous post, Psi suggests that a tendency to see purpose and intention in our world was a survival tool, perhaps necessary in the early development of our species. Thus, religious belief is a product of evolution, though less genetic than memetic. He cites Lewis Wolpert's Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief in which Wolpert traces religious belief, like many such superstitions, to our tendency to assign causation to phenomena.

Isaac points us to the work of British psychologist Bruce Hood who believes that humans are hard-wired for religious belief:

“Humans are born with brains designed to make sense of the world and that sometimes leads to beliefs that go beyond any natural explanation.... We are inclined from the start to think that there are unseen patterns, forces and essences inhabiting the world ...”

This intrinsic human inclination lead to superstitions of all kinds, including (in Hood’s view) belief in God.

Of course, in order to be evolutionarily explained, the human tendency to believe in God must have adaptive value, and those evolutionary scientists who doubt God’s existence have gone to great pains to explain how fanciful notions about gods could have helped our species in its evolutionary struggle. We hear about things like hope and purpose, necessary to drive us forward, even if they were false to the core! “Belief in a supernatural Being served the species well (it must have!)” they tell us, “but of course now we have outgrown its usefulness.”

But when the dust settles around the skeptics’ evolutionary explanations for religious belief, what emerges is this salient observation: religious belief is so universal that it demands an explanation. And of course, the skeptic rejects out of hand any suggestion that this ubiquitous inborn belief in the supernatural might be borne out of supernatural reality.

But the Hebrews had a simpler way of viewing things. The Creator himself, Koheleth instructs us, has “set eternity in the hearts of men”. I cannot say that I’ve never experienced doubt about God. But neither can I deny the reality of Ecclesiates 3:11 in my own experience: eternity is solidly set in my heart, and it is unshakable.

These two competing ideas, 1) the contention of the Bible, that God-consciousness is inborn, irrepressibly written upon the human soul, and 2) the notion that religious belief is merely an adaptive step in our evolutionary history are not mutually exclusive constructs. When we understand evolution as the Creator’s chosen mechanism, it ought not surprise us that an awareness of God would arise developmentally. RBH points us to evolutionary anthropologist Justin L. Barrett, who traces belief in God through its evolutionary stages, finding “adaptive value” in our own evolutionary history along the way. And Oxford researcher Barrett is a professing Christian, one with whom I think I would get on quite well. Together with others, he has helped to establish “the Cognitive Science of Religion” which seeks to study and explain the phenomenon of near ubiquitous religious belief. He writes, “CSR is often associated with evolutionary science and anti-religious rhetoric but neither is intrinsic nor necessary to the field.” Evolution provides little shelter for the atheist in his contention that belief is passé.

Pervasive religious belief remains for me evidence of a default human setting. It appears to me that people widely believe in supernatural causation based upon the witness of nature, and the witness of their own heart and mind. To be sure, many of the forms of this belief, and the early rationales, appear quaint and strange to us today. For me, this is no justification to abandon the implications of God-consciousness. Rather, it compels us to allow our understandings to be refined. Early beliefs were often based upon mysteries in nature (weather, astronomy, etc.) now more fully understood. But the witness of nature today is no less compelling.

And thus the starting point for my personal theology, the launching pad for my exploration of God, is this inner witness, this deep inclination formed by observation of nature and listening to my own heart. I find belief in God to be natural and irrepressible. I experience its renewal every time I step out on my front porch and breath in the fir scented air, and gaze upon the Oregon sky, and the dazzling array of living things that greet me. Yes, eternity is indeed set upon my heart.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Our Default Setting? (Part One)

This is a reader participation post, please weigh in. I've been thinking about the following question for the last few weeks. And now I want to hear what my readers think. So ...

The default human setting:
is it theist or atheist?

... or does any such default setting exist?

Regular contributors here are about half atheist, and half theist. But that may or may not dictate your answer. Offer an opinion only, or support your answer from psychology, history, evolutionary science, sociology, logic or experience.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Genesis 2-3 ... Literally?

Was Adam an historical person? Is the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden intended to be understood literally, or allegorically? (see this earlier post on Adam in which I explore various possibilities.)

When a 21st Century Christian reads early Genesis, it is difficult to do so without bringing along baggage, preconceptions. Christians who accept the evolutionary framework will generally conclude that the story as written is allegory. Anti-evolutionists, perhaps in fear of giving space to evolution, will generally conclude that the story is literal.

Many fundamentalists cite their tried and tested principle of hermeneutics which says we ought always assume a literal meaning unless there is overriding evidence within the text itself compelling us to do otherwise. Despite the obvious logical flaw in that principle, someone please explain why we are not so compelled by the text to understand Genesis 2-3 allegorically. When I read a story that includes talking snakes, magic trees, a human being formed from the rib of another human being, I see many not-so-subtle hints that we are reading an allegory. Yet, what seems patently obvious to me is vehemently denied by anti-evolutionists and fundamentalists, who are utterly convinced this is a literal bit of history and that there is no reason to read it otherwise. Perhaps we are all guilty of superimposing our preconceptions upon the text.

It may be impossible for any of us to approach this story with an open mind, uncluttered by personal bias. I am coming to believe that genuine, unbiased exegesis is actually impossible for human beings to do. In the case of the story in Genesis 2-3, wouldn’t it be great if we could erase from our minds all the contemporary squabbles over the science of origins, and simply let the story speak for itself?

Ah! but we needn’t do that. It has already been done. We can journey back to an earlier time when evolution did not color a reader’s response. In a recent comment here, frequent contributor Isaac offered the following quote from Origen. When Origen, the respected 3rd Century church father, read Genesis, he did so without the baggage we moderns carry; and he asks ...

"Who is found so ignorant as to suppose that God, as if He had been a husbandman, planted trees in paradise, in Eden towards the east, and a tree of life in it, i.e., a visible and palpable tree of wood, so that anyone eating of it with bodily teeth should obtain life, and, eating again of another tree, should come to the knowledge of good and evil? No one, I think, can doubt that the statement that God walked in the afternoon in paradise, and that Adam lay hid under a tree, is related figuratively in Scripture, that some mystical meaning may be indicated by it." (Origen de Principiis, Volume 4)

It is true, not all early theologians shared Origen’s view (although Augustine, at the very least, maintained a quite flexible view regarding the literalness of the Garden of Eden story [see this comment by Rich]). There have always been some perceived theological reasons to favor a literal reading of this story — a discussion for another time. But my point here is simply this: the great early theologian and Bible student, Origen, unencumbered by issues of science that haunt our minds, when he read Genesis 2-3 in his Hebrew Bible came away unequivocally asserting that the text is patently allegorical.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Friendly Discussion about Evolution ...

... which is, of course, most often an oxymoron.

C. Michael Patton recently opened a discussion on evolution at his website with a quote from John MacArthur (see my earlier post John MacArthur: "The evolutionary lie ..."). The last three posts here at OutsideTheBox grew out of that discussion. I quit reading and interacting in the thread of comments when they numbered 530. By that time, the discussion had become heated, at times, with the traditionalist/anti-evolutionists demanding answers to many questions which, quite frankly, underscored how poorly they understand evolution. They kept demanding that evolutionists make every aspect of evolution fit into traditional evangelical theology, reveling in their “aha” moments each time they found our answers less than satisfying.

Fellow Evolutionary-Creationist Greg (who is still going strong as the comment thread nears 600), at one point (comment 509 and 511) became, shall we say, slightly agitated, and waxed eloquent! Because his comment so profoundly reflected my own thoughts and feelings, I asked Greg if I could repost his comment here; he consented, and it follows:

My Father in Heaven has blessed me with an unquenchable desire to know. To seek out and understand, to teach the glories of his Word and world to those less fortunate than I. Ignorance is bliss, maybe, but in the wonderful wisdom of His will, I have been denied this common curse.

I cannot unsee what I have seen. I do not have the luxury of ignorance to guide me in my life anymore. The church is the greatest sustainer of ignorance I have yet to encounter. As I walk through it I am struck by the childishness of the people, the simplicity they exhibit. At times I long to have again what they have now! Only to fit in, to be of a simple mind again, and not walk this road alone. But in the end, that would be like a man who can now see preferring instead his blindness. I prefer the color of the empty road.

The world is an amazing and complicated place. The Word of God is an amazing and complicated book. Both will confuse you to death. Those who do not see burn one in favor of another. That is not an option for me. Who am I to condemn a work of God to the fire? As God is the author of both, I have to hold one in my right hand and one in the other. I have to accept both no matter how confusing it may seem or how much guessing I may have to do. I am sure in my heart that my God is faithful and true, not one prone to duplicity, as those who do not see will have me believe.

The Word and the world are complicated. I embrace the challenge. I will glory in the magnificent creation my Father has put me in and pity those who do not see what wonders my God has created. Any who wish to see I will gladly help them. Those who refuse, I, ever praying, will leave them to their unrealized misery.

If you are an anti-evolutionary Christian, please, please do not take offense. Wear the shoe only if it fits. And ensure that you understand evolution before you criticize those of us who have become convinced that it must fit into revealed truth, because it is revealed truth.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Inerrancy: some further thoughts ...

I have two simple questions for my Inerrantist friends. I have posed them on numerous occasions. So far, no one has even attempted a response. If inerrancy is important, there simply must be a meaningful answer to these questions. They are based upon the following premise:

No one holds an inerrant Bible today.

... that is, unless you subscribe to the King-James-Only concept. King-James-Onlyism declares that God directed not only the original authors, but also the transcribers of the New Testament Greek Textus Receptus and the Masoretic Text of the Old Testament, and the translators of the King James Version. This view is ridiculous, easily refuted, and the only way Inerrancy can make any practical sense today! Putting it aside, we are back to the premise:

No one holds an inerrant Bible today.

Rather, we have thousands of original language manuscripts with thousands of variant readings. In fact, no two manuscripts agree! And we do not possess a single original manuscript. When I open my Greek New Testament to any page, the footnote section is filled with variant readings, which are graded according to manuscript evidence. But the simple fact is, we do not know what Paul, or Luke, or John actually wrote. Some of our Bibles contain verses, even entire sections, which are of questionable origin.

As a Bible teacher who understands textual criticism, I have always downplayed these textual variants. They actually have minimal impact upon the teachings of the Bible. Nevertheless, it is the contention of most Inerrantists that the Bible was carefully inspired by God word for word. This is known as “verbal (word for word) plenary (absolute and extending to all) inspiration.” In the view of those who espouse inerrancy, it was important that the Biblical authors get it right down to each and every word. I have two questions to ask of this view, based upon our premise:

No one holds an inerrant Bible today.

1) Why, if God deemed it important to supernaturally inspire this written revelation, if it was vital that the authors get every word right ... why is it that within 100 years of the original penning of the New Testament the texts were corrupted with innumerable copyists’ errors, omissions, and additions? If God could ensure a word-perfect revelation, and such a revelation mattered, why would he not superintend the transmission of that revelation? Wouldn’t safeguarding the revelation be equally important as giving it in the first place? And wouldn’t such safeguarding be just as easy to accomplish as the inspiration of the original authors?

2) Perhaps more to the point, since no one holds an inerrant Bible today, how important is the doctrine of Inerrancy really? If the Inerrantist must rely upon tools of textual criticism, and if he must allow for doubt about what was contained in the original manuscripts, and if he must therefore exercise intellectual judgments upon the text, how is his reading of the Bible different from the non-inerrantist? None of us holds an inerrant Bible. So what practical difference does a doctrine about some original manuscripts now thousands of years old and which no one today possesses—what practical difference does it make in how we approach the Bible?

When an Inerrantist reads the Bible, 1) he/she makes thoughtful judgments about what the text actually says, 2) he/she makes thoughtful judgments about what the text means, and 3) he/she might ask for Holy Spirit illumination as he reads.

When a non-inerrantist reads the Bible, 1) he/she makes thoughtful judgments about what the text actually says, 2) he/she makes thoughtful judgments about what the text means, and 3) he/she might ask for Holy Spirit illumination as he reads.

What is the difference? In short, what practical difference does a doctrine of an inerrant Bible make if nobody, in fact, possesses an inerrant Bible?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

An Orthodox View of the Bible

Over the last several years, I have frequently found myself on the defensive, apologizing for or attempting to explain my view of the Bible, Inspiration, Inerrancy, etc.

[My views are expressed in the following posts: My original post on Progressive Revelation; a later post responding to Richard Dawkins’ caricature of God; and a recent post detailing my view of Inspiration.]

Whether on evangelical web blogs, or within my own local circle of friends and comrades in the faith, my take on the Bible is seen by many as liberal, as “compromised”, and certainly as inferior to the fundamentalist stance of inerrancy. My friends who read the Bible as if it were the very inspired words of God see themselves as standing on the solid high ground of Fundamentalism, and see me as skidding down the slippery slope of that dreaded disease of Liberalism.

My detractors consider their beliefs to be orthodox, and mine to be aberrant. They are correct, of course, if by orthodox, they mean “traditionally accepted”. But orthodox (ortho = right, doxa = opinion) simply means “the correct view.” To claim that only a verbally inspired–inerrant–infallible–literalist view of Scripture is orthodox involves a good deal of presupposition. That is, it must be correct before it can be truly orthodox.

What if the correct view of Scripture is that it is not the inerrant, verbally inspired “Word of God”. What if the orthodox, correct view, is that it is an accurate journal of an historic people of faith, written by human beings, subject to their errors and misconceptions, but recording for our benefit their quest to know the Living God? If that is the case, then we should expect to find within its pages a rich heritage of growing, developing understandings about God; but we should also expect to find mistakes, discrepancies, contradictions, and a variety of other inaccuracies. And this is exactly what we do find!

Perhaps it is time for those of us with a less rigid view of the Bible to boldly declare our view to be orthodox! If my view is, in fact, more orthodox (as I believe it is!) then the less orthodox view of Inerrancy is both dangerous and misleading. This, I believe, is the case.

Inerrancy leads to distortions of the character of God. Sometimes, horrendous distortions. A few examples should suffice: In an inerrant Bible, God becomes one who endorses the practice of selling one’s daughters as sex-slaves (Exodus 21:7-11). The God of the Inerrantist commands that children who sass or stubbornly disobey their parents are to be killed for their transgressions (Leviticus 20:9, Deuteronomy 21:18-21). If God were speaking through Moses in the pages of Numbers 31:9-18, then God followed the pattern of many military conquerors, rewarding soldiers with virgins for their sexual indulgence (or please, Inerrantist, explain what else is going on in these verses!). The God of the Inerrantist was, on occasion, confused about biology, as when he identified rabbits as ruminants in Deuteronomy 14:7. Furthermore, an Inerrantist must view God as sometimes raging out-of-control, one who had to be talked out of venting his rage upon the Israelite nation by the cooler-headed Moses (Exodus 32:7-14). This list could be expanded. We haven’t even ventured beyond the first five books! But my point should be clear by now. Inerrancy is dangerous to a healthy view of God and his character. It leads to theological confusion and distortion.

On the other hand, if we understand these stories to be of human origin, expressing the views of Moses and his contemporaries, we understand these misconceptions to reflect an understanding of God in its infancy; we can excuse Moses as a human being who was in the process of getting to know his Creator, and who was inspired to record what he was learning, complete with theological misconceptions and factual errors. Of course, this requires that we actually think about what we read. And this, according to some, is dangerous because we become arbiters of what is true, and what is not, in the Bible.

But even the most ardent defenders of Inerrancy, such as John Piper, readily admit that errors and misconceptions abound in the Bible. Piper acknowledges “hundreds and hundreds” of apparent “disparities”. This admission is addressed to fellow preachers; one wonders how often Inerrantist preachers say such things from the pulpit; or if they secretly hope that few of the folks in the pews discover blatant contradictions such as the two descriptions of the death of Judas in Matthew and Acts. When the mantra is repeated over and over that the Bible is flawless, the perfect inerrant revealed Word of God, what happens when a young believer discovers these disparities. Sadly, the dissonance can unsettle the faith of young believers. James McGrath recently commented on the blog, Exploring our Matrix:

My strongest reason for opposing these misleading claims about Biblical literalism and inerrancy is that they are a fast track to atheism. Many preachers say one must choose: "Either the Bible is the perfect, inerrant word of God, or it is a load of garbage and should be thrown out". This sets up anyone who decides to study the Bible seriously and has been told this to either pretend the problems aren't there, and thus compromise on honesty, or to do what they were told and throw out the Bible. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So Inerrancy is not only dangerous because it leads to distorted views of God, it can potentially lead to apostasy among believers who seriously study the Bible.

Thus is was that James Orr warned that the teaching of Inerrancy would be suicidal for Christianity. Orr was a leader of the budding Fundamentalist movement in the early years of the 20th Century. He took exception to Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, and others who were contending that Fundamentalism must include an unwavering belief in inerrancy:

It is urged...that unless we can demonstrate what is called the inerrancy of the biblical record down even to its minutest details, the whole edifice of belief in revealed religion falls to the ground. This, on the face of it, is the most suicidal position for any defender of revelation to take up.

Suicidal, in Orr’s opinion, because he viewed inerrancy as impossible to defend. And thus, the Inerrantist inevitably paints himself into a corner.

A correct view of the Scriptures – that it is something less than literal, verbally inspired and inerrant – does not mean that we must hopelessly abandon the Bible. I have appreciated the following statement on the Bible contained in an early version of the Mars Hill Narrative Theology:

We believe the Bible to be the voices of many who have come before us, inspired by God to pass along their poems, stories, accounts, and letters of response and relationship with each other and the living God. These words have been used to describe God and his character for thousands of years, and we call this theology. Theology is one of the best ways we can come to know and love God; it is also how we understand who God calls us to be and what he calls us to do. Theology comes from the Greek words "theos" and "logos." Theos means God, and logos means word. Words about God.

We believe God inspired the authors of Scripture by his Spirit to speak to all generations of believers, including us today. God calls us to immerse ourselves in this authoritative narrative communally and individually to faithfully interpret and live out that story today as we are led by the Spirit of God.

While I might use slightly different verbiage, I can endorse this statement which carefully avoids fundamentalist buzzwords such as Verbal, Literal, Inerrancy, and Infallibility.

Questions for my readers:

1) What constitutes an “orthodox” view of Scripture?

2) What is your opinion of the Mars Hill statement on the Bible?

3) Should non-inerrantist evangelicals, like me, point out the errors in the Bible? or is it too unsettling for some believers?

Friday, October 23, 2009

John MacArthur: "The evolutionary lie ..."

An interesting discussion at C. Michael Patton’s website, Reclaiming the Mind has ensued from the following citation. The words are those of John MacArthur from his book, The Battle for the Beginning:
“The evolutionary lie is so pointedly antithetical to Christian truth that it would seem unthinkable for evangelical Christians to compromise with evolutionary science in any degree. But during the past century and a half of evolutionary propaganda, evolutionists have had remarkable success in getting evangelicals to meet them halfway. Remarkably, many modern evangelicals . . . have already been convinced that the Genesis account of creation is not a true historical record. Thus they have not only capitulated to evolutionary doctrine at its starting point, but they have also embraced a view that undermines the authority of Scripture at its starting point.”
Wow! If MacArthur represents a broad swath of evangelicalism, it is no wonder my views on evolution have garnered for me rejection from so many of my friends. On the other hand, I am encouraged that MacArthur has apparently discovered “many” evangelicals who are convinced of evolution. I wish he would introduce us to each other. I find such evangelicals to be quite rare!

Well, Dr. John, count me among those evangelicals who have “been convinced that the Genesis account of creation is not a true historical record” (more on that later ...). But I absolutely repudiate your misguided contention that I have “compromised with evolutionary science” any more than the Christians of an earlier age “compromised” with Copernican cosmology. (But of course, they were also accused of heresy and compromise by the Fundamentalists of their day, and even excommunicated.) When one is confronted with irrefutable evidence for some bit of reality, his acceptance of that reality is hardly a “compromise”. My acceptance of evolutionary science is based firmly upon hard evidence, the likes of which, I’m confident, Christian’s like you have never encountered. Do you wish to win me back to the fold, Dr. John? Then try presenting a bit of evidence that I am mistaken, rather than clobbering me over the head with insinuations that I have “capitulated” to “propaganda”. If you are looking for a perfect example of propaganda (which is unsubstantiated, highly biased misinformation), try reading your own book. The writings of evangelical scientists like Francis Collins, Kenneth Miller, Owen Gingerich, et. al. hardly fall under your “propaganda” category. Have you even read them?

The likely answer is that MacArthur, along with the countless evangelicals who stand with him, have not read such authors. Are they so filled with fear that evolutionary science may prove to be factual, and thus trap them in a new set of baffling dilemmas? Or do they genuinely mistrust science in the first place, and avoid it like the plague?

That would be sad! MacArthur, and some of the commenters to the Parchment and Pen post who defend him, believe that 1) Biblical revelation trumps all other sources of information, and 2) Biblical revelation must be understood literally (unless there is, as they would say, strong internal reasons to understand it allegorically). Thus, their theology is impoverished by their ideology. They reject volumes of natural revelation which science has uncovered in the last few centuries. How valuable is this natural revelation? Paul, in Romans 1:20, makes the case that we can know and understand much about God, including his “invisible qualities” (NIV) without ever cracking open a holy book, but merely by examining the work of his creative hand. Science, good science, is nothing more nor less than the close examination of the handiwork of the Creator! Christians, of all people, should embrace science with heart and mind! and when then do, they will discover that evolution is the most likely framework for the history of life. And they will find, as I have, that our vistas upon the mysteries of theology are expanded, and that Biblical theology is not “undermined”, but greatly enhanced.

And what of MacArthur’s lament that "many modern evangelicals . . . have already been convinced that the Genesis account of creation is not a true historical record." I wish MacArthur were more specific about which "true historical record" in Genesis is important to believe: the one in chapter 1, or the one in chapter 2. Both, of course, cannot be "true historical record[s]" since they give irreconcilably contradictory accounts. But if we read them as allegorical literature (as they were surely intended), the result is that both accounts are “true” in the sense that they convey truths. Far from “undermining the authority of Scripture”, a proper view of the Bible sets us free to understand its profound truths unencumbered by some felt need to defend the indefensible notion that it is literally “true” scientifically and historically. A proper view of the Bible, coupled with a healthy view of scientific discovery, will set us free to explore our Creator in ways earlier believers could never do. What an adventure! It is sad that so many intelligent minds, such as that which John MacArthur possesses, refuse to set out upon this adventure.

So what is your view? Is MacArthur correct? Am I a compromised Christian?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Atheistic Fundamentalism: Ridicule Them into Unbelief!

Anyone who doubts the evangelistic nature of certain fundamentalist atheists ought to pay attention to the musings of Richard Dawkins on his own website. This from a comment (comment #16) he wrote to a Jerry Coyne post at earlier this year:

Michael Shermer, Michael Ruse, Eugenie Scott and others are probably right that contemptuous ridicule is not an expedient way to change the minds of those who are deeply religious. But I think we should probably abandon the irremediably religious precisely because that is what they are – irremediable. I am more interested in the fence-sitters who haven’t really considered the question very long or very carefully. And I think that they are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt.

And so Dawkins advocates the use of ridicule and belittlement. How is this unlike a political party, fearing defeat on some policy debate, issuing a talking-points bulletin encouraging members to just make fun of the other side. Would anyone take such an approach seriously? Where I come from, such tactics are considered clear indicators of a lack of meaningful persuasive argument: “If I can’t rationally convince you, I’ll bludgeon you into agreeing with me using mockery and derision.”

Maybe he is right. When I read his book, expecting to encounter some meaningful challenges to my faith, I was utterly disappointed. I found no such arguments. Maybe he can shame me into apostasy with ridicule. Ah, but, if I find his arguments less than compelling, and I am also unmoved by his wisecracks, then of course he has a handy category for me: I’m just one of the “irremediable”. Nice.

Hey. Maybe it works the other way, too ...

Dr. Dawkins, wherever you are, look at this cartoon.

Listen to the masses of Christians laughing at you. Are you starting to believe yet? Keep looking; feel all that shame and embarrassment washing your atheism into oblivion. Is it working? No? Oh, I see — you're irremediable, too.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Book Review: Atheist Delusions, The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies

Following is my review of Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, by David Bentley Hart (Yale University Press, April 2009). Hart (who also wrote The Doors of the Sea which I reviewed here) is an Eastern Orthodox theologian and philosopher who is currently a professor at Providence College. Those who read into the subtitle a dismissive tone (“its fashionable enemies”) do so correctly. Hart sets out to dismantle the underpinnings of today’s “New Atheist” authors, showing how their works rest less upon rigorous scholarship, and more upon the ethos of our age.

The Dismantling of New Atheism

In Atheist Delusions, Hart raises a powerful polemic against contemporary unbelief popularized by the so-called “New Atheists”. It is also, perhaps, the most formidable defense of Christian faith I have ever read.

I am a Christian skeptic. I tend not to believe things because someone told me it is so. I prefer to test everything, weigh everything in the balance of reason and evidence. I believe that God gave us minds to use! The result of all this is that I sometimes call much of what passes for Christianity into question. When I read what atheist skeptics are saying (as I often do), I find them to be correct in many of their assessments of belief.

Within this context, I found in Hart's book a powerful force drawing me into a much deeper appreciation for the place of Christianity in history, and the uniqueness of the Christian message. It also opened my mind (frighteningly!) to what a truly post-Christian era will look like. It is this flow of history, both in retrospect and in prospect, as seen through Hart's analysis, that greatly strengthens my assurance in the truth and viability of the essential message of Jesus.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once remarked that “history has to be rewritten because history is the selection of those threads of causes or antecedents that we are interested in.” And so the rewriting of history will always reflect prevailing current thought. This phenomenon is nowhere more blatant than in the selective retelling of history presently in vogue among the New Atheists. Hart’s book offers a scholarly retort to the history of Christianity in the West being offered up by Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennet, and Harris. I suppose that the Holmes observation might apply equally to Hart’s work. I will leave that case for others to make. But having read from the New Atheists, and having read Hart, I found Hart’s retelling of Christianity’s story to be the far more compelling.

Much of this book draws a contrast between the paganism predominate in the pre-Christian era, and the Christian “revolution” which supplanted it. It is popular in some quarters today to cast a nostalgic eye upon the supposed virtues of paganism, and to lament its overthrow. Hart demonstrates conclusively how preposterous these notions are. He does not gloss over, nor deny the sad history of injustices and crimes which have been committed in the name of Christianity, a litany of offenses which seems to completely engross the enemies of belief. Notwithstanding these blemishes, and with great skill and scholarship, Hart takes us on an enlightening stroll though history; he reveals how Christianity has advanced the sciences, social morality, and in particular, humanitarianism, far beyond the highest prospects of paganism. It is the Christian understanding of humanity, the elevation of what it means to be human, that is, in Hart’s view, Christianity’s most significant contribution. Against this backdrop, Hart paints the horrific prospects of inhumanity which lay before us in a post-Christian era. Here he finds an ally in Nietzsche's more thoughtful atheism. Hart deeply respects the intellectually honest unbelief of Nietzsche who clearly saw the frightening nihilistic consequences of the “death of God.”

In contrast to his respect for Nietzsche, Hart laments the shallowness of today’s trendy unbelief. “ ... the tribe of the New Atheists is something of a disappointment. It probably says more than it is comfortable to know about the relative vapidity of our culture that we have lost the capacity to produce profound unbelief” (page 220). This “tribe of New Atheists” has published a spate of atheistic titles over the last decade. Hart has offered a persuasive rebuttal. The gauntlet has been dropped. I anxiously await a scholarly response from the halls of unbelief. I doubt that one will be written.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Personal: Vacation!

Where the dense vegetation of the wet Cascade Mountains meets the dry Central Oregon High Desert, there lies a remarkable, verdant stretch of glory known as the Metolius River Basin. From the northern foot of Black Butte, the Metolius emerges as a full-fledged river at its celebrated head. The image below is looking downstream near these headwaters, the springs being located immediately to the left of the picture. Above the river, in the distance, stands Mt. Jefferson.

It is in the delights and raw beauty of this piece of God's marvelous Creation that I shall enjoy the company of my wife, children and grandchildren for the next seven days. I will once more test those claims that frequent the pages of my Bible: the glory of God, even his attributes, are observable in the work of his hands. I'm sure I will not be disappointed!

If you find I am less responsive to your comments, you'll understand why. Blessings to you all, my readers!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

David Hume and the Argument from Design

The 18th Century Scottish philosopher David Hume was a leader of the Enlightenment. He was a renowned empiricist who is often credited with destroying the argument from design. But this characterization may not be entirely accurate. Did Hume accept the argument from design for God’s existence? Did he believe that the order we observe in the universe “proves” an omnipotent mind behind it all?

Larry Arnhart, a conservative blogger, includes the following in a post from earlier this year:

... the common assumption that Hume was an atheist is, I think, mistaken. While criticizing "false religion," Hume defended the "true religion" of "philosophical theism." Although he criticized many of the extravagant claims made for the argument from design--the same argument that is today made for "intelligent design theory"--Hume did accept a qualified version of the design argument.

Near the end of his Treatise of Human Nature, Hume wrote: "The order of the universe proves an omnipotent mind; that is, a mind whose will is constantly attended with the obedience of every creature and being. Nothing more is requisite to give a foundation to all the articles of religion, nor is it necessary we should form a distinct idea of the force and energy of the supreme Being."

At the end of his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume sketches his philosophical theism in the language of his character Philo: "If the whole of Natural Theology, as some people seem to maintain, resolves itself into one simple, though somewhat ambiguous, at least undefined proposition, That the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence ...

This assumes, of course, that his fictional character, Philo, fairly represents Hume’s own ideas. It is also true that he goes on to state that any intelligent being inferred from Natural Theology would have no bearing upon human beings. Nevertheless, Hume, often represented as the atheist who destroyed the argument from design, apparently saw some legitimacy in the argument from design.

A tip of the hat to Bradford at Telic Thoughts.