Sunday, January 11, 2009

Personal notes and links of interest

There has been a precipitous decline in Christians commenting on this site. While a number of atheists join in the discussion, it seems that Christians are either 1) offended by my manner (e.g. my rejection of many standard Christian answers to the problem of evil may offend some) or 2) fail to see that the problem of evil has never been adequately answered, or 3) just don't care. (And some readers simply do not engage in posting comments.) Since my primary purpose here is to engage believers in considering the impact scientific discoveries have upon Christian theology (though atheists are welcome and helpful in the process!), the almost total lack of engagement by believers has been a source of discouragement for me. So, a few weeks ago I posted this comment and chose to take a break from posting.

Since that time, I have been encouraged to continue to write. My monitoring of the site tells me that many of you are still coming by to read. Some fellow believers have assured me that they read the posts with interest, but have for various reasons chosen not to offer comments. So, very soon I will resume this series, and continue to develop my thoughts in this venue. I may at some point chose to disable comments if they prove to be unhelpful. 

Blogging takes a toll. Two of my blogging friends
Tom and Steve are taking indefinite breaks from blogging, and perhaps trying a different approach. Tom offers very insightful posts and comments from his perspective as a former YEC Christian, and now an atheist/evolutionist, and I hope he finds time to continue blogging in some form. Steve has developed what may be the premier site on the web discussing the theological implications of evolution for evangelical believers. I hope his hiatus is short-lived.

Two additional notes on the more positive side: Beyond the Firmament author, 
Gordon Glover continues to post his excellent video series on Christian education, evolution and folk science. Earlier today he released Lesson 10. I highly recommend this video series to believers who still question the validity of evolution and common descent. And another blogging friend, Mike Beidler, recently appeared in a BBC radio broadcast, Beyond Belief, in which he recounts his own personal pilgrimage from a staunch YEC special creationist to a Christian who accepts evolution. Follow the links to the program, and give it a listen.

Stay tuned. In my next post, I will tackle this question: Does the universe offer any evidence indicating whether this Creation was ever pristine, edenic, unspoiled? and does this matter?

16 comments:

Tom said...

Cool!

Anonymous said...

write on!

tim

Anonymous said...

Heya Cliff.

Decided to check in today after a period of absence. Two things.

1) You had no need to apologize to me. I was never offended - indeed, I was worried that my presence was distracting you from your goals in your posts. I hope you didn't take my parting comment as some kind of odd passive-aggressive complaint in the form of an apology. Said apology was sincere, as was my interest in your posts.

2) If you do decide to close comments for your posts, I wouldn't blame you. Let me stress this: You offer a unique perspective, and some powerful observations. Naturally I'm sure I'd disagree with some aspects, but you'll find I disagree with everyone.

But too often, comments sections become the real focus of a site. The fights therein, the egos, the need to put on a good show - while actually commenting about and engaging the original post becomes a distant second concern, if that. Some people want to promote that sort of engagement. Personally, I think your viewpoint is unique enough to warrant avoiding that. Close off or strongly screen comments for being actual comments on what you've posted. There are ways to get feedback (email, etc) while keeping your blog properly focused on what should be the star attraction - your input.

Anyway, that's just my two cents. Hope you had a Merry Christmas/Happy New Year, and I look forward to more.

-- Nullasalus

Anonymous said...

HEAR HEAR

tim

Pete said...

Cliff,

I am very sporadic with comments if I write them at all and my presence on different forums, blogs, and ESPN tends to oscillate in phases. However it this particular case I can offer why this Christian had little to offer in these discussions of the problem of evil.

Its certainly not because I think Christians solved it, and I find our standard Christian answers lacking just as you do. Its just at this point I really don't think I'm going to find a answer that is satisfying for me, nor is it high on my list of things that will change my actions in life. I do interact often with issues dealing with modern science and the local church as this affects many things, most importantly relationships within the church and to church authority. Once we back off and get more into philosophy my eyes start to glaze a bit.

Anyway, just my two cents. I know blogging is difficult. It takes a long time to write comments much less write whole posts. I have yet to start a blog and probably won't as I would never keep up with it.

Cliff Martin said...

Pete,

Thank you for your comments. I do understand. I am well aware of how the paradigm shift which must come for the church on the science of origins can tax relationships. As most of my circle of Christian friends are fundamentalists, my relationships are mostly in shambles right now.

However, these issues are all intertwined from my perspective. Most fundamentalists reject science prima facie because the consequences of accepting evolution and big bang are too frightening. One of my purposes here is to dispel that fear. And one of my approaches for doing that is to demonstrate (or at least try to!) how big bang and evolutionary sciences help to solve the riddle of evil. If Christians can come to terms with the implications of evolution and big bang, this may be a step toward actually considering the evidence with an open mind.

So, like you, my primary concern is how the church deals with science, and how this impacts relationships. In this regard, discussing the implications of science upon apologetics is hardly a "stepping back into philosophy" for me. It is at the core of how science is impacting both the credibility of and the survivability of the church in our culture.

Pete said...

In this regard, discussing the implications of science upon apologetics is hardly a "stepping back into philosophy" for me. It is at the core of how science is impacting both the credibility of and the survivability of the church in our culture.

You convinced me. By all means keep going!

Anonymous said...

I just stumbled in here, and while not in the mood for lengthy reading, I did stop to read most of this post.

As a fellow Christian, I, too, find most of my brothers and sisters to hold shallow, poorly thought-out positions on "Suffering", "Evil" and many other topics. Not saying they are wrong, just that t hey cannot intellectually defend (or even define) what they believe.

I think that central to this PoE is the very definition of "Evil". Everyone seems to know what it is, but no one can adequately define it. This is not only (as I see it) the crux of the issue, but it alsoo carries over into political, economic, medical and environmental debates. Who can step back adequately to say what exactly constitutes "Harm" or "Suffering"? Does a shrimp suffer when being eaten by a salmon? Does a honeybee experience pain when in battle with a wasp? Does a jellyfish consider that its stings may kill either a small fish or a skindiver? Who's too say any of these are "Evil"?

I'm drawn to a concept partially developed by Charles Finney: That evil (and sin) are only meaningful among moral agents - that is beings capable of making rational and moral decisions. All other acts and events carry none of the moral baggage that we humans attach to them. The earthquake or tornado simply happen. The lion is only hungry. Malformed babies sometimes just die in the womb. We think these are evil, but mostly they just are.

What becomes truly evil are the thoughts and intents "of the heart"

Rich G.

Cliff Martin said...

Rich,

Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate your comments. Clearly, you have given these issues some serious thought.

Your definition (and Finney's) is what most refer to as moral evil. I have attempted here to develop some understandings relating both to moral evil and natural evil, the two distinct kinds of "evil" which are typically raised by skeptics as the problem of evil. In my opinion, moral evil is much more easily dealt with. Natural evil (having no intermediary source) must be laid at the feet of God. Finney can say "they just happen", but the fact remains that the Creator ordered the cosmos such that babies and other innocents are subject to unimaginable suffering from natural calamity. Thus the need to address theodicy. You may not call it evil. But that does not chase away the objections of the skeptics.

Anonymous said...

It would seem to me that even te phrase "natural evil" is a moral judgment (and often an arrogant one). Is a volcanic eruption "natural evil" or is it a necessary part of the whole process of plate tectonics that as given us (and is maintaining) a life-giving atmosphere? Who are we to pass judgment on this marvelous creation, that is so infinitely well-tuned from the subatomic scale to the vast reaches of space and time, seemingly just for us? And within this there is an insignificant little planet that happens to have precisely the right balance of elements, time and temperature to support creatures who can ask these questions. I would suggest the book 'The Elegant Universe' as a jumping off point to explore just how finely tuned to support life this universe really is.

BTW, I live up the road a piece from you, where the big cheese resides. And I believe we share a common friend or two.

Rich G.

Cliff Martin said...

Rich,

It seems the problem here is semantics. One of the definitions of "evil" in my dictionary is "harmful or tending to harm." For example, to speak of the "evil effects of high taxes" is hardly passing a moral judgment. And to note that millions of innocent animals and humans have suffered harm from natural events (earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, floods) is not in itself making a moral judgment. It is merely a statement of fact. If you think this is not a theological problem, I won't argue that point. However, many non-believers do consider it a theological problem. Call it evil. Call it harm. It is a problem to the claim that God is loving and good. To merely say that our planet and cosmos is remarkably fine tuned (and yes, I have Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe on my shelf and I love it!) does not get the Creator off the hook for designing a cosmos that results in so much suffering. I believe there are answers. But I do not see how a fine-tuned universe answers the problem. Have you tried that line of reasoning on an atheist lately?

Anonymous said...

Cliff:

Admittedly, much of the problem stems from the definitions of 'evil', 'harm', suffering', as well as who is doing the defining. And it is often the skeptics demanding ironclad proofs who posit the problems, not really wanting answers, just attempting to put believers on the defensive. I was over at UTI, but got tired of the bitter sniping from the 'True Nonbelievers'.

Sliding to a different application - I have attempted to use some of these arguments against the global-warming people. I have had enough background in science and mathematics to be skeptical. This planet has been through far wider and more extreme climatological swings than anything the global warming alarmists are projecting. The planet, and the life on it has survived. We are not about to 'destroy the planet' as they say.

The whole 'precautionary principle' is based on a fallacious 'no harm' idea, when we cannot even define objectively what exactly constitutes harm. For every action (and non-action) some organism reaps personal benefit, while some other does not. And who can determine which is preferable. We try to restore salmon runs, while also protecting the cormorants and seals that eat them. We protect the spotted owls by restricting logging, thereby reducing habitat for deer and elk, and the spotteds become out-competed by barred owls. We try to preserve the environment at its current condition as if that is its ideal equilibrium, while the geologic history of the earth shows there is no equilibrium point.

And even with all this, we think we can 'put God in the dock' and make him answer to us.

Rich G.

Rich G. said...

Please don't read my comments as discouraging honest debate or searching for answers to gnarly questions. I think this is good for us.

But like the writer of Ecclesiastes may put it: The search for answers may lead to simple answers, but if we take a shortcut, we are being lazy, like the high school kid studying algebra who says "Why do I need to know this stuff? I'll never use it" For the beginner to say it and drop out is lazy, but for the one who spends a lifetime studying and effort...

Like Karl Barth reaching his simple conclusion, or Thomas Aquinas' last words on knowledge, in the end it becomes quite simple for the one who spends a lifetime searching.

Rich G.

Rich G. said...

Cliff:

I'm interested in seeing where you would go with the PoE idea. I read some of the theodicy posts and didn't see a description of another alternative viewpoint:

That only 'moral evil' is evil, 'natural evil' is not evil - it just is.

Your thoughts about entropy and death miss one thing, well more than one. So often the YEC arguments about death and the fall are only applied to higher-order organisms. There is no concession to the 'death' of lower forms of life, such as plants or micro-organisms, not to mention simple cellular processes. The final nail in my YEC viewpoint (after considering geology and atomic- and astrophysics) was a thing called 'programmed cell death'. That is where temporary embryonic structures and tissues die off after they have served their developmental purposes. The most obvious would be the placental tissues, but also occurs in so many other places, like hair, fingernails, skin, etc. Then there is consumption and digestion of nutrients. Virtually every living organism kills something in order to survive. So, whence comes "death"?

It seems to me that the whole 'problem' of natural evil is a form of anthropomorphizing creation - ascribing to 'lower' forms of life similar emotions and fears to ours, and our passing some form of moral judgment on them.

A cheetah chases an impala, which is afraid of being eaten, and does suffer physical pain when caught but this carries no moral weight whatsoever. The cheetah is not deliberately inflicting suffering, it is simply following its natural instincts in order to eat.

The distinction in my book is the person who deliberately inflicts undue suffering needlessly. I hunt and fish, but at one time I would pull the legs off of grasshoppers and fry ants with a magnifying glass. I would admit these latter would cross the line into moral evil, while I accept the former as a part of life. This is an issue that says more about our character than about the 'morality' of creation or its Creator.

Cliff Martin said...

Rich,

I'm not attempting to lay moral significance to the sufferings of animals (though I would add to your examples the "evil" cats I watched as a young person who terrorized and tortured their mice victims in my grandfather's feed store ... sometimes the needless game went on for 10 minutes or longer). Rather, it is the fact that such suffering occurs at all. I know you feel no need to defend or explain the actions of the Creator. Neither do I, on one level. But I know two things:

1) God created a cosmos full of death, decay and suffering. And,

2) It is not his ultimate will that his creation be subject to death, decay and suffering.

So the question I am trying to answer here (and which is not even addressed in traditional Christian theology) is, "Why did God make things this way in the first place? Why this cosmos with death as its driving force? Why the provisional, temporary subjection of Creation to suffering, death, decay?"

I do intend to continue the present series of posts on the PoE, and I will get more specific about my ideas, and what I see in Scripture.

But alas! Sometimes I feel that I am posing possible answers to questions that no one is asking, except myself! And I frankly do not understand why this is not troubling to more believers.

I'd like very much to meet you. Are you ever down in Lincoln County? My work used to take me to Tillamook from time to time, but I now have employees who do that work.

Rich G. said...

Cliff:

I wish more believers would wrestle with these questions. Ten the faith would be more robust.

I was perusing the Stanford University's Encyclopedia of Philosophy under this heading (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/evil/) and came across this line: The argument from evil focuses upon the fact that the world appears to contain states of affairs that are bad, or undesirable, or that should have been prevented by any being that could have done so... which is a premise that I reject out of hand. The terms "bad", "undesirable" and especially "should have been prevented" are all terms that are so subjective (always being subject to *my* opinion) as to become meaningless on a universal scale.

F'rinstance: a volcanic eruption kills herds of deer, elk, dozens of people and thousands of acres of trees. For those killed it is unfortunate, but that very eruption is part of the planet's atmospheric recycling system, thereby making all life possible.

I know this is not deep theology, but I am reminded of a line from Babylon 5: "Some must be sacrificed if all are to be saved"

I once led our chruch's adult Bible study verse-by-verse through Job & Ecclesiastes. One of the "old guys" said that in 35 years of being a Christian, no one ad taught Ecclesiastes. I think that if more took seriously these two books, the whole PoE would not be such a stumbling block. There would be fewer Pollyanna Christians and apostates.

BTW, I do get to LC from time to time. I may get a sewer pump station inspection project this summer. I will know in about a month.

Were you friends with Lance?

Rich G.