Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Why Do The New Atheists Attack Philosophy?

Okay so we all know that the new atheists aren't great fans of religion. But it's curious that their colourful criticism extends to philosophy as well. Richard Dawkins thinks philosophy gives you “special training in obscurantism”, Peter Atkins has called it “a complete waste of time” and Lawrence Krauss says the field reminds him of that old Woody Allen joke, “those that can't do, teach, and those that can't teach, teach gym."1 But hasn't philosophy been the den of atheists, at least in the modern period? Some church-folk still advise extreme caution in exploring philosophy, claiming to have heard of once faithful students letting go of Christianity through their studies. Actual names and details may not be known; it's simply one of those lingering, archetypal narratives that has so much cultural resonance that everyone “just knows” that it happens. The image of the philosopher has for a while been of hard, irreligious scepticism. But are these new, popular, unbelieving spokespersons in the process of changing this image – of making atheism appear at odds with philosophy? Well who knows but it's sure curious as to what's motivating this lash-out against what we'd got used to thinking was atheism's amicable buddy. Why the animosity here?

I have a couple hunches. For one, I think these folk have bought heavily into a crude narrative of how our civilisation has made the scientific progress that is has. This story paints philosophy with negative moral tones and orients its adherents' very sense of what is noble and courageous away from it. The story is more familiar in its anti-religious form which goes something this like; “before, we, in our hubris, used to explain the world superstitiously by appealing to spirits, ghosts and all sorts of things that had anthropocentric concerns, but now we know that the world does not revolve around us and that we need to humble ourselves by carefully studying nature, letting our observations of her inform our ways.” This story can get broadened to encompass philosophy too; “before, we, in our hubris, used to think that we could figure things out by sitting in our chairs and just thinking, but now we know that we need to actually get out into the world, observe it, and let nature teach us how things are.” Philosophy, then, gets branded as prideful (for it assumes that the world is so much like us that by using our ordinary, intuitive concepts we can simply think our way to answers), and lazy (it is unwilling to step out into the world and wrestle with it). Science, on the other hand, is contrite and courageous. The scientist has learnt, perhaps the hard way, that the world is strange and cannot be properly explained using “common sense”. She is thus humbled and thirsty to learn. She is brave too, willing to get messy through actually exploring and observing nature. Her humility carries over also into her openness to correction. Nature can show her theories wrong and the scientist must bow before the data.

For a person persuaded of this narrative, their entire sense of where we've come from (who we are, therefore), and even themselves individually as a part of this, is pitched with philosophy valenced as undignified and unworthy. Science is exalted as a higher way of being and the two are at odds; philosophy was part of the problem holding science back. It is interesting how the new atheists display such reverence for science (beyond, I think, typical respect for its achievements). It is possible, in having this sense of things, to feel deep admiration for science and awe at the world it's revealed and the technological feats it's delivered, while painting philosophy as stagnant, sad, old-world and crusty - archaic and even threatening when it continues to assert its relevance. The integrity and progress of science thus requires, according to the new atheists, the retreat of philosophy.

Secondly, it seems to me that the new atheists think that their position is blatantly, obviously true. Consider a contrast case. You can be an atheist but think that, actually, the question of whether God exists or not is a profoundly difficult one. You may have reached the conclusion of atheism, but it took you a lot of hard work and thought, and you can see how, somewhere down this difficult path, someone could veer off and go in a theistic direction. In other words, you think it's conceivable that other, equally intelligent and rational people can, without forfeiting that rationality and intelligence, disagree with you on God's existence. You may think they're wrong, “but hey”, you think, “this is an important and difficult question where intelligent people disagree.”

Well Dawkins are co and not that kind of atheist. To believe in God, in their eyes, just is to step into irrationality and delusion (watch Dawkins' current show on Sex, Death and the Meaning of Life, and see how often a “religious” view is contrasted with what he calls “the rational” view). But this sort of exasperation-come-disparagement flows most naturally when you are convinced of the plain-as-day, transparent, obviousness of your beliefs. If somebody, say, doubted that the sky is typically blue, you could only reason with them so much without them agreeing, before you start to write them off as irrational. That the sky is typically blue is just obviously true for anyone able to see it. To fail to believe it is to have something seriously wrong with you cognitively. From the language of the new atheists, it's clear that they feel similarly about the non-existence of God. God's non-existence is seen as so obvious (to a modern, scientifically educated person anyway), that to not accept it is to show that you're intellectually impaired.

It's no wonder, then, that these guys have a hard time with philosophers. With Socrates as the paradigm example, through history philosophers have been annoying people by pointing out that life is a lot more bloomin' difficult to figure out than you might think. Although I reject the view that “there are no answers in philosophy, only questions” philosophy does show you that reaching those answers can be hard, difficult work. A philosopher will slow you down and show you that, even if you're ultimately right, there's a lot more nuance and subtlety you have to consider before you can really say that you've successfully made your case. This is something you will have absolutely no appreciation for - indeed mostly frustration and incredulity with - if you think that your views are already blindingly obvious. You'll want to see people believe them and take action on them, not debate some (to you) irrelevant, besides-the-point, minor detail. You'll fear that people will miss or avoid the obvious bigger picture and you'll get angry when they appear to be doing so. If your views are clearly correct then it's just obfuscating, obscurantist sophistry to try and undermine them with some clever-sounding logic-chopping. Dawkins wants to steam-roll ahead with his cause, not be told that the central argument of his book confuses two senses of the word “simplicity”. Here, then, is another source of new atheist contempt for philosophy.

1Richard Dawkins is actually directing this insult at philosopher Anthony Kenny but it's clear that he's using the fact that Kenny is a philosopher as the insult itself. At any rate, the full post is available here. Peter Atkins' comment comes from his debate last year with William Lane Craig in the Q&A (full debate here). Laurence Krauss gave that comment in an interview here.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Is it Right for Science to Motivate Someone's Reading of the Bible?

I would have mentioned in the Relay update entries I did over a year ago that I spent some time on that programme reading around origins. That is, reading about the debate surrounding evolution, the age of the earth, and how to read Genesis (amongst other parts of the Bible). I'm sure I promised some sort of report of my findings. Yeah, well... anyway... here's some thoughts on just one related issue.

You can roughly divide Christians into two camps: those who think that there is a contradiction between what the Bible teaches and some important theory of modern science, and those who think the Bible is basically harmonious with mainstream modern science. I say roughly because there are all sorts of subdivisions to be found. There are Christians who think that the Bible can't accommodate evolution but can accommodate an old earth. There are Christians who agree that the Bible is compatible with both, but disagree on how exactly to interpret the text. But for the sake of avoiding endless qualifications, let's stick with the rough sorting-out and call one camp the Concord group and the other camp the Discord group. Obviously enough, the Discord group thinks Biblical teaching clashes with some orthodox scientific theory whereas the Concord group thinks they are really in agreement. 

I'm not, in this post, going to make a case for which group ultimately has it right. It's not my interest here to make a case for whether or not the Bible is compatible with evolutionary/old earth science (E/OES from here on). I am, however, going to criticise a particular argument/attitude put forward by some in the Discord camp. I could make criticisms of some Concord habits too but, as it happens, it's the Discord folk I want to interact with today.

Some Discord-ers are a bit suspicious of how Concord-ers approach the Bible. They observe that Concord-ers are interested in seeing the Bible as compatible with E/OES and it's thought that this “interest” makes for a spiritually or rationally dubious agenda. They think their pro-E/OES motivation, regardless of the conclusion reached, is dubious in principle. It's thought that it disrespects the Bible's integrity or authority, that it fails to treat it as Christian ought to. Describing Concord-ers, you might hear some Discord-ers say things like, “they do not start from the Bible alone, instead they take man's ideas and try to squeeze Scripture around it.” This critical attitude does, I think, have a proper target. But that target is often missed.

If you believe in something like inerrancy – that the Bible does not err but is wholly truthful in its teachings – then it's important to remember that, even if the Bible is always right, it doesn't mean that our understanding of it is. In other words, we can make a distinction between what the Bible in fact teaches, and our beliefs about what it teaches. Sometimes our beliefs about what the Bible teaches are right. Sometimes they're wrong. So while the Bible might be “infallible”, our interpretations of it have no such guarantee, even if on the whole they're broadly reasonable.

Bear that in mind and imagine a person – Rufus we'll call him – who's in the following scenario. Rufus is an honest-to-goodness, Bible-believing Christian. He's been doing some reading and thinking recently about science and how it relates to his faith and he's come to a tricky impasse. Rufus has always believed that the Bible teaches a young earth, mostly because that's what his church has taught him. But he's come to believe there's really compelling, perhaps unavoidable evidence that the earth is old. He really does trust that the Bible teaches truth though. In fact, after having what he thought were contradictions in the Bible satisfyingly ironed out a few months earlier, he's more convinced of inerrancy than ever.

He's in a bind. Unless he wants to embrace flat-out contradiction, his beliefs need some modifying. Recognising the distinction between his belief in the truth of the Bible's content and his belief about what that content is helps us to see that there are three beliefs he's juggling between and they can't all stay. He can't believe 1) that the earth is actually old, 2) that the Bible teaches it's young, and 3) that the Bible teaches truth. For if the earth is old and the Bible teaches truth, then the Bible can't teach that the earth is young. And if the Bible teaches a young earth and the Bible teaches truth, then the earth can't be old. And if the earth is old and the Bible teaches it's young, then the Bible can't always teach truth. You can accept two of the three beliefs together but not all of them. Each combo of two of ends up logically excluding the third. Rufus must give up one of those beliefs.

Naturally, it makes sense to keep the two beliefs one has strongest evidence, grounds, or assurance for. You keep the strongest two and, on their basis, conclude that the third, weaker belief is probably false. Say that in our scenario - and the details that were given make this sound likely - Rufus is very convinced of both the old age of the earth and the inerrancy of the Bible but less convinced that the Bible teaches a young earth (he trusts the teaching of his home-church overall but he's had differences with them before). If this is the case, then he is perfectly entitled to hold onto his belief that the Bible teaches truth and that the earth is old, and to conclude from both of these that the Bible does not teach a young earth. In fact, that would just be good practise for keeping his beliefs in some sensible condition.

In other words, it would be perfectly legitimate for Rufus to seek an alternate reading of the Bible's teaching – one that doesn't entail a young earth – out of the joint motivation of his belief in inerrancy and his belief in the old age of the earth. There is nothing arbitrary, unrighteous or otherwise improper about Rufus' practise here. He is perfectly entitled to try and find an interpretation of the Bible which accommodates the scientific theories he's convinced of.

Of course Rufus might have a friend – we'll call her Molly – who is a Discord-er observing his journey. And she might find the new readings of key passages, say Genesis chapter one, that Rufus brings to the table thoroughly unconvincing. Molly might think that Rufus is, frankly, butchering the text and clearly going against the grain of its intended meaning. She might find his interpretations strained and clumsy, and tell him so. Fine. There's nothing wrong with that. Rufus may have done the best he could have faced with three mutually incompatible beliefs but that doesn't guarantee that he chose to abandon the one that actually was false. Rufus might, through further study, find the evidence for a young-earth reading of the Bible stronger than he thought, warranting a re-examination of which beliefs he held on to. Though he was rationally motivated to read the Bible differently, that doesn't necessarily mean he'll find an E/OES interpretation that fits, and perhaps Concord-ers do run into trouble there.

The point being, it is okay to think, if you are that way convinced, that Concord readings of the Bible are awkward. That they do not do justice to the text. That they quite obviously fail to allow harmony between the Bible and E/OES. You can legitimately target that and point out where you find the interpretations weak. But do not think that in seeking a harmonious reading, the Concord-er is being irrational, or poorly motivated. As I have hopefully demonstrated, it is perfectly proper, in some circumstances – those that Rufus found himself in for instance - to allow your scientific beliefs to motivate a change in your reading of Scripture.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Can We Do Without Gender Identities?

Here's a quick one. Can we do without gender identities? Could our biological sex be irrelevant to our self-understanding? Could my sense of who I am not take my sex into account? I don't think so and below are some Taylor-inspired thoughts as to why.

Taylor argues that our identity is in large part our sense of where we fall in relation to matters of human significance. It is about where we locate ourselves in moral/evaluative space. Here's how he puts it in The Ethics of Authenticity;

"When we understand what it is to define ourselves ... we see that we have to take as background some sense of what is significant. Defining myself means finding what is significant in my difference from others. I may be the only person with exactly 3,732 hairs on my head, or be exactly the same height as some tree on the Siberian plain, but so what? If I begin to say that I define myself by my ability to articulate important truths, or play the Hammerklavier like no one else, or revive the tradition of my ancestors, then we are in the domain of recognizable self-definitions.

The difference is plain. We understand right way that the latter properties have human significance, or can easily be seen by people to have this, whereas the former do not..." [Emphasis added]1

So then, it is understandable that peoples' identities include things like being good at football, or being a conservative, or knowing a lot about the Bible, or being born in a city famous for its musical culture, or whatever. These relate to things of human significance. But how about gender identities? Do these relate to things of human significance?

Being a woman or a man is clearly not just a mere physical fact that one should get over. It's not comparable to, say, just having a strong big toe, or having a mole on your back. These are trivial things. But being a man or being a woman is hugely relevant to important human endeavours, namely the whole package of mating; the attraction, the sex, and (at some point) childbirth and child-rearing. It is humanly important that there are men and there are women – that there isn't just one sort of human. The kind of beings that we are makes this important.

By applying Taylor's insight we can see that gender identities exist (at least partly) because of the significance that is found in biological sex. So as child grows up, he or she learns that social space consists of men and women. As the child's self-awareness grows he/she gradually become more conscious of which part of social space he/she is in. The child learns, “I am a girl” or “I am a boy”. More than that, he/she learns that it is significant which he/she is. That it's not a throw-away fact about them. It is a fundamental part of their identity – of who they are.

Gender identities will be around as long as biological sex carries human significance. And you should be careful about forecasting the demise of that any time soon. We can rightfully challenge the kinds of gender identities our culture has developed but it's unlikely that we can do without them.

1Taylor, Charles. The Ethics of Authenticity. Harvard, 1991, pg35-36.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Apologizing for Christianity

Activity here has been a little slow lately. I assure you I'm working on some things but hey, why not use this quiet period to check out something new?

My good friend Rolo from the states (you may remember him from his guest series) has started his own blog on Christian thought and apologetics. Definitely keep your eyes on it. He has some truly worthwhile and unique thoughts to share, plus the blog will be a decent spot for discussion on questions within Biblical scholarship (did the Biblical events really happen? Has the text been changed? Who wrote the Bible? What does it mean? etc) which I tend to leave aside given my more philosophical focus. Rolo's pretty handy on that stuff so go see what he has to say.


Saturday, 14 July 2012

The Philosophy of e-Reading

E-Readers are the newest devices to be welcomed into an ensemble of familiar portable friends: the mobile, laptop, mp3-player. It is no longer novel to spy one in the hands of the commuter a few seats forward. But just what are we to think of them? Will they revolutionise the way we read? And if so, for good or bad? Technology is an important enough aspect of our lives to warrant philosophical reflection. Below are some of my thoughts/experiences and much is inspired (or simply taken) from discussion with fellow book-lovers on just how this technology is shaping our lives - what excites us about it and what's more worrying. I got my Kindle (there are other e-readers but Amazon's has “lead the way”) last Christmas so I've had a few months to observe how it's shaped my experience as a reader. I'll start first of all with the loss; what valuable goods does ordinary reading have that e-reading does not?

A friend of mine brought this point out for me and I think they're on to something big. E-reading surrenders some of the physicality of engaging with a book. When you read To Kill A Mockingbird in the traditional way, you have the feel of paper on your fingertips. This is different to the feel of a button (or touch screen) not just in the trivial way in which they are different surfaces. It's different in that this paper just is my copy of To Kill A Mockingbird. The story is “embodied” in real concrete material. By contrast, the Kindle's screen and features are no particular story but all stories, or anything at all that happens to be loaded on to it. When you hold the Kindle you are not holding To Kill A Mockingbird in the same way even if that story appears. The experience is much less concrete.

Physicality is important to us as bodily beings. Something feels more real if we can touch it. Consider an animal that you've only read about or seen on TV. When you go to the zoo the animal seems more real to you now that you've seen it in the flesh. But it becomes even more real when you touch it, feel its fur on your skin. The digital age is an abstract age and our reading too is abstracted when it enters that realm. The sense of concrete realness though, is important for our ability to make the fullest meaningful attachments. The pages of a real book have creases, bends, marks where they've come into contact with our living. “Oh that little tear happened when I was travelling to visit Soph for the first time.” Our particular, individual book gets linked with these sorts of significances. An e-book, however, is “perfect”, identical to everyone else's. It can bear no particular mark of meaning.

A point more simply put is that it is harder to love an abstraction than something concretely “there”. It is harder to “love” To Kill A Mockingbird when one has no concrete object to direct the love. I have felt the same about music's march into the digital. Mp3s satisfy me if I'm a casual fan of the artist, but if I love an album, I must physically own it. Having the CD or vinyl along with the artwork tangibly in your hands cannot be rivalled by a digital booklet. The sense of loss can probably be felt more strongly with reading given that a book is constantly held, whereas vinyl or a CD is only touched briefly before being put it into the player.

I am tempted to say that this loss is more a concern for the avid reader of fiction, where emotional connection tends to be strongest. Most of my own reading is much more geared toward the pillaging of information in non-fictional, sometimes dry, academic sources. The line of course is sometimes blurred. There are those few books of, say, philosophy, which manage to get so close to the heart of my lived experience that they are cherished, not just intellectually admired. I would not be satisfied with solely having a digital copy for those. Generally though, music is a more emotionally connective experience for me and I have been more embracing of digital reading than listening. 

There is another loss I've felt with music that I haven't with reading. I hope a resistance to this loss is widespread. Mp3 players and programs like iTunes and Spotify enable you to quickly switch between songs, whereas a CD player (a bog-standard one anyway) or a vinyl player essentially committed you to the one record you put on. These older forms of listening to music encouraged attention to an entire album. You were trained to digest it as a whole and have patience with songs that you didn't immediately like but which you often grew to. Newer ways of listening to music enable you to flit between tracks at a whim. There is talk of the “death of the album” and a music industry that will grow to be more and more focussed on short releases, perhaps single songs at a time. E-readers also have this potential to enable “flitting”. You only have room for one or two physical books in your bag when you travel. On the journey you are committed to those and you may progress through them even if they're not always thrilling. You must hold your attention even if you're not very stimulated. With a Kindle, you can have hundreds of books on you at a time. If you're bored of one you can effortlessly switch to another. There's no pain barrier you need to put up with and you need never learn (or you may eventually unlearn) the habit to persevere with a difficult (but worthwhile) read.

Losing such valuable habits would be a great loss. I am thankful that I haven't noticed such an effect on myself from using a Kindle. Perhaps it's too soon to tell. Even though I am a passionate defender of “the album”, I can now see that newer ways of listening to music have decreased even my patience. Maybe, though, books just don't lend themselves to flitting so easily. Albums were always able to be understood as a whole consisting of smaller individual parts: songs. The album is able to be sensibly divided, chopped down. It's not so easy with books. Sure you have chapters, but chapters can't stand alone like songs can. You can flit between the opening tracks of Lungs and Origin Of Symmetry but you can't just flit between the opening chapters of Moby Dick and Oliver Twist. Again though, the future is too uncertain at this stage. Perhaps the influence of the technology will force the shape of books to change in order to accommodate the new breed of reader, as Nicholar Carr nervously predicts in The Shallows.

It is an open question as to where the developing industry and culture will take us, but as things stand I believe e-reading can bring great goods if well and wisely incorporated into our existing literary lives. Aside from the obvious advantage of e-readers in the realm of simple convenience (mass storage of books in a tiny space), they bring great goods for “informational” kinds of reading in particular. E-books are cheaper than (new) physical books and while they probably should be a lot cheaper than they are, these savings quickly mount up and make it more affordable for independent researchers to get hold of important works. It is also a relief to be able to upload academic papers to the device. Even though the digitising of journal articles and their release on the internet increased their accessibility, the actual experience of reading them digitally wasn't always pleasant. Back-lit computer screens don't easily permit long periods of concentrating on text and even laptops, despite being mobile, don't always make it easy to read when “on the go”. Now academic papers can be “easy on the eyes” and thoroughly mobile. Having a Kindle has allowed me to incorporate more papers into my regular reading. The ability to highlight text and easily makes notes in it also increases the academic worth of the technology. E-readers could be valuable for intellectual gains. There are also environmental benefits in dispensing with so much paper.

Overall, I think e-readers are excellent complements to our existing personal libraries. My immediate experience has left me feeling positive. One should be aware of their ability to de-humanise certain experiences, but this shouldn't overshadow the gains in informational reading and, yes, convenience. I've learnt though, that technology is no submissive play-thing, and we need to keep critical eyes on how these devices change our culture and ourselves in the years to come.

Those are my thoughts anyway. What's your experience with e-readers? What promise or threat do you see in them for our future?

Sunday, 8 July 2012

A Reading On "What Does It Mean To Say We Live In A Secular Age?"

For something slightly different, I decided to record a reading of the introduction to Charles Taylor's wonderful book, A Secular Age. It is a challenging read, yes, but it soars above the dry, academic voice too often consulted to deliver intellect sans life. I hope you'll be able to enjoy its richness, once you forgive me for any mispronunciations of exotic and foreign words. It's the kind of book you could write hundreds more about, filling in each insight that hums the intuitive notes you long to see transcribed into explicit symphony. 

Saturday, 30 June 2012

What Can Suffering Do For Belief In God? (3)

In part 1 and 2 I tried to show that when a life-narrative built around immanent goods collapses, a Grand-Story or an Anti-Story can appear compelling, even obviously true. I think that there are some important implications that a Christian can draw from this.

Firstly, we need to complicate the picture a bit. Up until now I've pretty much equated belief in God with belief in a Grand-Story, but actually you can believe in God and not believe in a Grand-Story. Belief in God is compatible with a story focussed on immanent goods, or even an Anti-Story. You might think, for instance, that although God exists he is in fact concerned with providing you with immanent goods. God, so conceived, yearns mostly to provide you with a spouse, getting you a good career, maybe even making you wealthy. On such a view, God is concerned with making you happy – giving you a fulfilling life in the here and now. This is not a Grand-Story. A Grand-Story claims that life is about matters higher than immanent goods, but this view of God forms a narrative whereby immanent goods are still the focus. As for an Anti-Story, you might think that God exists but that he is unconcerned with the world, aloof, distant. Or if not with the world as a whole, then with you. You might see yourself as damned, exiled, removed from God's favour and care.

From a Christian point of view, an Anti-Story which maintains God's existence can be destructive but it at least leaves one open to an experience of grace. You might think that God has cast you aside only to then experience forgiveness before the cross of Christ. But I want to concentrate on God-belief which maintains a focus on immanent goods. This is because I think this kind of narrative is both quite popular and also spiritually dangerous.

The danger lies in the fact that such a story can look, to the person who believes it, to be a Grand-Story even though it isn't. After all if you believe in God it sure seems like you're believing in something higher, something transcendent and“beyond”. It certainly seems like you believe in some grand purpose and meaning. After all, you believe in God for pity's sake! Here, then, is the risk. You believe that God ultimately wants you, say, to be happily married. But it doesn't happen. You never marry. Or you do marry but it ends in divorce, or your spouse dies all too young. Or you remain married but miserable. Your life-narrative is shattered. You thought your life was all about finding romance. You thought everything was heading in that glorious direction. But it hasn't been. Where do you go now? What narrative do you adopt? Do you go to a Grand-Story and read your life as having had some deeper sense behind it, or do you go to an Anti-Story and find yourself not believing in meaning at all? Well, if you think a Grand-Story is what you had been believing all along, then it will seem obvious to you, when this collapses, that the only way to go is an Anti-Story. It will seem to you that you've tried believing in God, you've tried putting your faith in some ultimate purpose, and it's come up empty. It will seem obvious to you that God doesn't exist. Even though your faith was never in a Grand-Story, the illusion that it was set you up for atheism.

The lesson is obvious. Christians need to be very careful regarding what sort of God-narrative they preach. One that proclaims a God concerned first of all with providing us immanent goods will set people up for disillusion and unbelief. Our message cannot be that God is concerned just with making ourselves happy in the here and now. Such a message actually shuts people off from the chance to experience a deeper narrative to their lives when immanent goods are taken from them. A story of loss can become a story about hearing the call of God. Disappointment can become the chance to find some more worthy calling. A mature Christianity allows people to experience their lives as rich in meaning even when life takes away treasured goods. The ability for Christianity to provide such a higher narrative is one of the reasons why it can resonate so strongly with deep human longings. To reduce it to immanent concerns trivialises it and robs it of this power.

Evangelistically, taking heed of the existential side of suffering can open up dialogue with those pained over why God would allow bad things. An existential approach allows us to read the question in a different way. On the received diagnosis of the problem of suffering outlined in part 1, you can only really converse with someone about suffering if you're dealing purely with the intellectual problem; you then have an argument to look at and you can challenge its premises or what's inferred from them. But you can't really say anything to the person struggling with the emotional issue. What can you say to a bunch of irrational feelings? You are perhaps better off saying nothing at all. Offer a hug if it's appropriate. But if we recognise that the “emotional” problem is often an existential one, we once more have the power to speak to the person.

Why does God allow suffering?” need not be read as a blind outcry of pain but instead as the question “what sense can I make of the suffering in my life? What story can run through it preserved?” We have the possibility of articulating an alternative to the Anti-Story – the possibility of providing a better reading of their situation. Of course this isn't straight forward to do. It's not a matter of just picking premises and going after them. And there will still be times where silence and a hug are the right moves. But even if difficult, even if requiring spades of wisdom and sympathy, there is the hope that over time a person might come to see their life-narrative within the wider narrative of the gospel.

What Can Suffering Do For Belief In God? (2)

In part 1 we started to examine what the connection might be between experiencing suffering and believing (or not) in transcendence. I tried to argue that human beings have a deep existential or “narrative” side to their being, not just a cold intellectual or a blind emotional side. We make sense of our lives and of who we are by the stories we tell ourselves. We see our lives as being about certain things like love, or self-acceptance, or the striving for success etc. These stories enable us to experience our lives as having sense and meaning. What I want to do now is explain how the vulnerability of these stories can lead to us to either be open to God (the “beyond”), or closed.

Suffering can call our stories into question. That's putting it mildly; suffering can brutally puncture the plot we'd assumed for our lives. A person sees their life as being about finding love, then their lover dies. Another thinks it's about career success and then they're laid off. Someone else knows its about sporting achievement but an injury robs them of the chance to ever compete. When this happens your old narrative fails to make satisfying sense of your life. It feels like a film that builds up an intriguing plot only to suddenly end with arbitrary, unexplained and unresolved tragedy. When the narrative of your own life suddenly ends that way, the sense of loss, betrayal and disorientation can be very strong. Your life now feels broken, incomplete, wrong in some sense.

What we sometimes fail to see is that we do not abandon life-narratives at this point. What we do, knowingly or not, is adopt a new narrative, one that can still make sense of our lives and the new suffering episode within it. And I'd like to contend that there are two particularly tempting story types that people move toward when this sort of deeply existential suffering occurs. There is the “Grand-Story” kind and the “Anti-Story” kind. I'll explain what these are by describing what they actually share in common.

Both agree that reality is not fundamentally concerned with – not fundamentally about - what we might call “immanent goods”. These are the goods of so-called “ordinary life”, or “earthly” goods if you will. Things like human love, family, labour, good food. Contrast to goods (or supposed goods) that necessarily make reference to something transcendent, e.g. salvation and the knowledge of God, reflection on the divine Forms, union with the Supreme Being. Grand-Stories claim that reality is not ultimately about immanent, earthly goods, it is about transcendent goods - something higher. Immanent goods need not be seen as worthless, but they are not the point of it all; the universe doesn't flow with those goods as its primary goal. The main plot can go on even if immanent goods aren't always protected. As for Anti-Stories, these claim that reality isn't really about anything. There simply is no goal, good, or grand conclusion that the cosmos moves around.
There is no overall meaning to anything. You might be fortunate enough to enjoy some immanent goods but you might not be. You are dealt the hand you're dealt.

Someone who's gone through suffering can find that one of these story types makes massive sense of their situation...

I spent my whole life searching for love. I went through countless relationships. Then I finally found someone I truly adored. We married and though it wasn't perfect it was still wonderful. But my lover died. And I was broken. But I thank God, in some way, because I really started to see that I'd made my life all about the wrong thing. It's clear to me now that God had been trying to call me my whole life but I was always distracted, chasing after someone else. But he has my attention now. And though I miss my partner, I want to spend the rest of my life serving God, knowing him better, and loving all the people he loves so much.”

I spent my whole life searching for love. I went through countless relationships. Then I finally found someone I truly adored. We married and though it wasn't perfect it was still wonderful. But my lover died. And I was broken. It was then that I realised that I'd had a pretty childish view of the world. I thought things would all work out for me, but they didn't and for most people they don't. No-one out there isn't going to help us out, it's down to us. I don't expect a cosmic helping hand, but I do want to live my life in a way that helps people get whatever small slice of happiness they can.”

When a life-narrative centred around some immanent good breaks, you see that a story which focusses on immanent goods cannot make sense of the world you experience. So you either feel drawn to a story which claims there is a higher meaning, or a story which claims there is no meaning at all. Both agree that immanent goods aren't the focus of reality, either by asserting that there is a deeper focus, or no focus at all. Both Grand-Story kinds and Anti-Story kinds, by denying the focus on immanent goods, have the power to make great sense out of someone's suffering. Of course one person generally won't feel an equally powerful draw to both story kinds. A person's prior life experience, values, beliefs etc. will make one story kind appear more powerful than the other (being equally pulled by both is probably very rare). But the point is that both story kinds can appear to people as being obviously affirmed by the experience of suffering. As we observed in part 1, suffering can foster either belief or unbelief. For the person who goes towards belief, it will seem obvious that going through suffering ought to produce faith in God. For the person who goes toward unbelief, it will seem obvious that suffering ought to produce atheism. Suffering can produce powerful conversion/conviction moments in both religious and secular outlooks.

It does not follow from the above, however, that both story kinds are equally true, or equally good readings of life. I only pointed out that, from a certain perspective, one could experience either story powerfully. Nor do I want to claim that such stories are merely projections that we throw on to the world because of our human need. The question of the truth of these stories and their rational merit is beyond the scope of this little exploration. What we can claim here, or at least what I will claim, is that it is more existentially consistent to adopt one of these story kinds than the other.

It seems clear to me that when a person adopts an Anti-Story, they do so with a certain lack of self-awareness. A person who comes to find an Anti-Story persuasive comes to explain their lives by way of it, e.g. “I used to think that there was some higher power looking after me but now I've taken an adult perspective on things and I see there really is no sense to the world.” The problem, of course, is that they come to tell a story of their lives which is all about their rejection of such stories. The rejection becomes itself transfused into a story. They still live within a life-narrative, even though the “official story”, as it were, denies this. Again, I am here leaving aside certain questions of truth. It may very well be, as far as I'm concerned here, that there is no meaning to the world – nothing that makes sense of life. But what I'm claiming here is that many people who accept that sort of claim do so, ironically, because they feel that it makes sense of their experience. They don't adopt it consistently even if it's true (and I have my doubts that anyone ever could.) A Grand-Story type, in contrast, does not deny the existence of meaning and sense. So a person who adopts such a story because of its sense-making ability does so without contradiction. It is a more existentially transparent position. More “honest” in a way. What follows from this must be left aside for now.

In the final part I'll quickly consider some Christian pastoral implications that emerge from the above.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

What Can Suffering Do For Belief In God? (1)

What does the experience of suffering do for belief in God? Is it easier to believe in a higher power when grieving, or harder? Is it natural for belief in the transcendent to flourish when loss arises, or does it instead become more difficult to grasp?

No simple answer captures the experience of all. Some people respond to terrible suffering with an increased conviction in their faith, or even a conversion from unbelief into belief. A pastor loses his spouse but the next Sunday preaches with more vigour than he's had since seminary. A parent loses their child and, while broken-hearted, develops a yearning to step into church for the first time since that dreary Easter service attended as a teen. Others experience loss and find faith in God hard to register. It appears empty, intangible, perhaps childish. One finds their atheism confirmed or their prior faith shattered. A marriage of forty years ends and now any hope in prayer feels feeble. In the same week one loses their career and best friend and the universe seems even more a-anthropic than it did before.

What accounts for this difference in reaction? What it is about suffering, or what happens within it, that pulls some people toward the spiritual and pushes others away?

Regarding moving away, Christian apologists typically identify two distinct forces that can challenge belief in God. One is intellectual, the other is emotional. On this received diagnosis, a person is in the grip of the intellectual challenge if he/she is grappling with a particular argument in a philosophically reflective manner. He/she wonders whether the co-existence of suffering and an all-powerful, all-loving God might be as confused as the idea of a married bachelor. Or if the worry isn't about a straight-up logical contradiction, it's about whether suffering might nonetheless provide some pretty good evidence against God's existence. But a person struggling with the emotional challenge of suffering, so the story goes, is simply dealing with the pain of loss. He/she hates what has happened in their lives and all this hatred, pain and sorrow twists into incredulity at the very notion of God, and ultimately hardened unbelief.

No doubt there are powerful and important philosophical arguments regarding the compatibility or probability of God's existence given the facts of suffering, though I'm not going to comment on those here. No doubt as well the simple pain of loss can, somehow or other, twist into an aversion to God. But the so-called "emotional" side of the problem shouldn't just be left at that sort of analysis. As it stands it misses something rather important. It suggests that, if you're not struggling ultimately with some premise-by-premise dispassionate argument, then you're really only grappling with a sort of dumb feeling. You are the victim of your mindless emotional whims which have carried you along the treacherous road of irrationality. You need to calm down and come to your senses. What is missing is the existential aspect of coming to terms with loss.1

One unique feature of human beings is our capacity to tell stories. Sometimes this is done with much deliberative effort through novels, films, and music, but all of us, artistically talented or not, do it in our day-to-day lives as well. “So yesterday, I was on the train and...”, “You'll never believe what she said to the boss over the phone this morning; she...”, “... we legged it! That bouncer was after us but we just blended into the crowd.” Our conversations are full of tiny narratives. And we also have stories about the progression of our own lives. Even if we don't share these stories with others, we tell them to ourselves...

I was always really shy and lacking confidence, but then at college I learnt to accept myself for who I am, since then...”, “I've moved from relationship to relationship and never really felt happy. I was always just sort of getting involved with people because I thought that's what normal people did. But I stopped that for a while and now I've met the one I'm learning even more that...”, “I was always told that I couldn't make it but through every business venture I've learn more and more about what it takes to succeed. The next step will realise my potential and I'll finally prove that...”  

We hold these sorts of stories in our own minds and use them to understand what our life has been all about and where it's going. We understand our life as having been all about the struggle to accept ourself, or the search for love, or the quest to show that though we weren't as talented as our siblings we still have much to offer the world. These narratives run right through the heart of who we understand ourselves to be. It is these narratives that provide our life with meaning – the existential aspect of our lives. They are precious. They are also vulnerable.

My experience of real suffering is limited. Be that as it may, it is experience nonetheless. And what came with it was a sense that reality was going in the wrong direction. It was like the flow of things was all messed up. Although the event of loss was more real than anything it also had a dreamlike quality. It passed through consciousness but was almost instinctively rejected by it. My mind had got used to expecting the story to go one way and now the plot was violently jerked in another direction. The experience was disorientating.

Suffering has the power to interfere and even wreck our self-story. It is this cruelty of suffering that I want to comment on in the next part. I think that within it we find a crucial key to what inspires the journey to or away from transcendence. They are two different responses to the rupturing of your life-narrative...

You understand your life as having been about the search for the person who will truly love you for who you are. You run through several promising relationships that all end in pain. You finally find the man or woman of your dreams. You marry. You are gloriously happy. Your partner dies of cancer one year into the marriage.

There is a reason we call some deaths senseless.

How do you go on from there?


1 Actually, some apologists do label the emotional problem as “existential” but their description of it doesn't seem much different as a result. All that said, I've hardly taken a scientific survey of apologist's attitudes here. These are just my intuitive impressions of the current apologetics “scene” as I see it (on the online world anyway). This isn't a serious scholarly assessment of current attitudes in apologetics.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Why My Personal Problems Are The Same As My Philosophical Problems

We're big on separating our lives into different arenas. "Keep your work life and your personal life separate," we say, not always unwisely. We worry when our relationship problems affect our studies, or when, going the other direction, exam stress affects our relationships. We'd rather keep things in their proper place. Mostly there isn't much of a problem with that. But some things really are too tangled up to be easily wrenched apart and not just because we've carelessly let ourselves becomes consumed by one particular thing, but because sometimes there isn't a sensible separation to be made. Consider the issue of health. If you suddenly fall ill, that's not just going to effect you in one closed off segment of your life labelled "health". No, it will affect your whole life; it may be a strain on your marriage or other relationships, it'll effect your daily routine, your work capabilities, your mood, and so on. Even if you aren't "ill" per se, your diet and lifestyle still affect your whole life across the board. You don't have your "personal life" and then your "health life" as something totally distinct. The same is true for my "personal life" and my "philosophical life". They can't be rigidly distinguished.

I say my personal and philosophical life, but really I want to argue that the same is true for all of us. In reflecting upon my own experience I want to suggest that none of us can escape having a "philosophical dimension" to our lives. We can be unaware of it, or neglect giving it proper attention, but nonetheless it will be there. I also want to illustrate something of what philosophy actually is. My hairdresser felt a little embarrassed recently when, after enquiring as to what I wanted to study for a Masters, she apologetically confessed to not knowing what philosophy was. At the risk of projecting my own attitudes on to her, she seemed a little excited when I explained a bit about it. I hope that I can excite you too.

Many of us, at one point or another, come to ask the "big questions" like "is there a God?" and "what's the meaning of life?" But maybe not all of us do. Maybe those aren't questions you yourself are much concerned with. Probably though, you've thought about questions like "how can I be happy?", "how can I make my relationships work?", "how should I navigate through this particular life problem?" While I confess that I'm someone who has been deeply concerned with the traditional big questions, I am also deeply involved in those other questions. In virtue of being human, I want to know how I can be happy; I want to know how to have good meaningful relationships, and I want to know how to deal with the difficulties of life. I want to know how to work through tensions in relationships. Politics in the work place. My own character flaws. These are bread and butter issues of our lives. And they are all loaded with philosophical significance. I'll offer you the most recent significant example from my life of a philosophical "quest" that's intrinsically bound up with personal concerns. 

Like of lot of young twenty-somethings, I've grown up placing a large emphasis on authenticity and "being true to yourself", where importance is given to not hiding what you're really feeling. You need to express yourself or else you're being dishonest to others and you're lying to yourself. Indeed for me (as it is for many other people) this has just been the "default" common sense stance rather than a particular position I've consciously adopted. But encountering certain difficulties within my life has made me question this outlook. I've suffered (and inflicted suffering upon others) because of the great trouble I've had actually discerning what I'm "really" feeling. I've found that when I look inwards to try and discover my genuine sentiments on a matter, I find my emotions confused and even altered by my very attempts to describe and express them."Being authentic" has left me sort of stuck. If I can't determine what I "really" feel, how am I to "be true" to those feelings? The only feelings I've been sure of as a result are frustration and despair.

Naturally enough this is all the more crippling when combined with the "common sense" expectation of romance. If, by Western wisdom, you are suppose to be with the person you are "truly" in love with, then how are you to proceed when you can't make any sense of what it is that you "truly" feel? Cue once more the frustration and despair. But through engaging with philosophical material I've come to learn that the "common sense" understanding that I'd adopted of both authenticity and love is not a universal feature of human common sense, but is instead a framework that's emerged very recently in history, and only in the West. This has opened up space for me to ask, "are these correct frameworks?" Perhaps the popular understanding of these notions is simply wrong and it isn't just that I suck at them. Indeed my reading around this area has more and more convinced me that the received Western view is deeply problematic, as hard to initially imagine as that is. William Reddy draws upon psychological, anthropological, and philosophical scholarship to make the case that emotions are altered by our own attempts to understand them, just as I'd experienced, and that as a result, we need to alter our understanding of what sincerity is really about. Dror Wahrman shows how historically peculiar the idea of having a unique, core, and "true" self is, and Charles Taylor subjects the idea to a damning critique.1

Pursuing this examination of authenticity has led me into deep intellectual waters: to the philosophical exploration of what "the self" actually is, and also of what happened in some of the great cultural revolutions of the last 500 years. But as academic at this pursuit has been, and as interesting-for-its-own-sake as this stuff is, it has never just been some disengaged flight of intellectual fancy. At its core I just want to know how to understand myself, what emotions are and what to do with them, how to love, how to be happy, and how to help others with the same. It is an effort to do life better. The pursuit of happiness, the navigation of emotional experience; these aren't things that I can separate from my "personal life"; these thing are my personal life. I wasn't doing life very well with the old received frameworks and so I hope to replace them with better frameworks.

None of us do life very well if we're operating with a distorted view of reality. Imagine driving down the road falsely believing that there are cars where there aren't and there aren't cars where there are. You'd be very lucky to get through in one piece. If we navigate the "road of our lives" while misjudging the direction of the road and the amount of traffic, we're going to get hurt. That's what I believe I was doing when I lived through the "authenticity framework" (which was just one personal example of many). Philosophy (and I include theology under this umbrella) is about making sure we have a well drawn map of life's terrain, and a good compass to get us through it. It's about thinking hard about the direction we're going in and the tools we're using, and seeing whether we could stand to realign ourselves and tweak our co-ordinates. 

Philosophy, then, is not some abstract game played by a few intellectuals to pass the time (or it shouldn't be). Rather it is at the heart of life itself. All our deepest concerns are ultimately philosophical concerns. We all have maps/frameworks that we're following to get us through life and unless we stop and reflect on these maps, we are going to simply take it for granted that they are correct, even if they are causing us harm. Indeed our eyes may be so fixated on a route drawn for us that we mistake our map for the road itself; we are unaware that the framework we're using is even open to question - that there might be other, better ones available. Unless we think about the maps we're using and where they're unclear, mistaken, or missing some features, we will blindly run ahead along an ill-planned journey. A wise person is someone who travels life well, and it isn't by coincidence that the Greek word philosophia literally translates as "love of wisdom". 

Of course, we can't spend our whole time just thinking about our maps. We must put our feet to the road too. Doing so will in turn help our thinking. The two go hand-in-hand. As much as critiquing the authenticity framework will hopefully help me live better, the living helped me get a handle on the critique. Would I ever have found its problems without also living them? To be wise one must neither burn her books nor never look up from behind them. A good life requires philosophy, and good philosophy requires living.

You need not plunge into lengthy technical treaties to get started. Just ask questions about life and ask them to and with other people. Step into dialogue. Consider also reading some religious material. Jesus of Nazareth, the figure who claimed to be Wisdom incarnate - the figure who's poured more wisdom into my life than any other, spoke about the deepest of humans affairs, and he mainly communicated with story. Start your own quest. Bring both boots and books. 


1I'm referring here to Reddy's The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotion, Wahrman's The Making of the Modern Self, and Taylor's Sources of the Self. Obviously as this post isn't actually about their arguments, I haven't explicated any of them. I hope to do so in the future. Until then, if you're curious, consult the texts themselves.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

A Poem

Each day's prayers press to God's ears
A request for the faith to make the same leap tomorrow
To reach out of unbelief
To brush transcendence
And know once more that every beat of heart and fist to skull
Tells tales of life's embedded intention

A sentimentality no man's austerity should ever entertain!”
Your voices are strong;
A child would always wish a Father to the throne
But a shout shot through with back-turned balking
At the flower you only ever half-bloomed
And even less understood.
What phantom hymns still prick a refugee
When excarnation casts heaven with the shade of the earthly?

Perhaps it is a child
Who finds cracks in the very soil
(The Teacher always said so)
The immature, then, know aesthetic awe
The cowardly, our “there must be something more”s
And I can't live without that air for no lung
That bread for no nourishment or dance on tongue
That breaking light for no temporal day
That myth that swallows truth whole
And breathes a person shaped frame

So maybe into illusion I am swept away
But the further I write
The more the doubts seem emptied, hollowed
And no power remains

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Believe All The Bible Or None Of It? (6)

We're at the end of the series that begun here. I've been arguing that there is no theologically compelling reason for thinking that you have to believe all of the Bible or none of it. Still, it being theologically open for Christians to disbelieve non-crucial parts of the Bible doesn't make it so that every Christian will necessarily have rationally or spiritually sound motivations for taking that opening. Indeed I think there are positively terrible reasons for rejecting inerrancy that can be spiritually disastrous for a Christian (which we'll get into further down). So why did I even open this can of worms?

I'm willing to bet that there are a few Christian readers who have been a little concerned about the fact that I've put so much effort into arguing that the Bible might (and only might, I remind you) contain errors of some sort. It perhaps sounds like I'm out simply to justify an entrance into the road of theological liberalism, wherein God's message isn't taken seriously and as much of the Christian worldview is surrendered to contemporary secular wisdom as possible. Well I very much hope that's not what I'm doing. Here's the good that I can see in approaching this topic:

First of all, I think that what I'm saying is true. I think that the Christian should take it as as theologically plausible that there are non-crucial errors in the Bible. And if that's true then there's no point in running away from it. The facts remain no matter how spiritually indignant we may feel about them.

But also, if it's true that God could have allowed errors into the Bible then it's potentially destructive for us to deny that. What if Benny, through serious and honest study, comes to believe that the Bible has erred, such that he just cannot bring himself to believe inerrancy? If you tell Benny that he cannot properly believe Christianity without holding inerrancy, then you'll basically be telling him that he needs to abandon his faith, even if God did allow an error in! How dangerous for us to rule that out the possibility of error if that's a possible way God may have done things; we could potentially wreck a fellow Christian's faith.

Even if it doesn't destroy someone's faith, the idea that you have to believe all of the Bible or none of it puts unnecessary stress on the believer who is intellectually engaging in their faith. I have often been told that when it comes to apologetics (the defence of the faith), you need to concentrate on the essential matters like the resurrection of Jesus and the existence of God. And I agree. But if you have to believe all of the Bible or none of it, then EVERY point in the Bible is EQUALLY crucial for the faith. It doesn't make sense to pick apologetic priorities if Christianity would be as equally falsified from a mistake with Ahaziah's reign as it would be if the resurrection were bogus. On this view, the truth of Christianity is up for grabs on every single debate, such that if you were to concede even a small bit of ground, Christianity would be done for. I myself have felt the burden of believing that a single error, in any part of the Bible, would bring Christianity down. So if you think it makes sense that there can indeed be apologetic priorities (and it seems to me that the Bible supports such a view), then you should also concede the point that errors in the Bible wouldn't end Christianity.

And there is a flip side to this too. Promoting the view that you have to believe all of the Bible or none of it makes it easy for lazy sceptics to give Christians grief for their faith, or for them to feel like they've done a good enough job debunking it. If every point in the Bible is equally crucial then the sceptic can bring up something petty like Ahaziah's reign and claim to have put the smack-down on Christianity, without ever having done any serious thinking on the resurrection, or arguments for God's existence etc.. Christians who likewise believe the equal importance of every Biblical teaching are easy prey for this more disingenuous breed of sceptic, who can control the flow of debate by bringing up any smattering of trivial points; all the while, the matters at the heart of the Christian faith aren't being discussed. This is all the more tragic if a real peek into the central stuff would have brought about an increased openness in the debater.

In fact we potentially place barriers in the way of those seeking God if we say that the Bible's truth in all matters must be accepted if Christianity is true, or if it is to be sensibly believed. If, through honest and serious study, the seeker has found non-trivial error in the Bible, but is still open to its central claims, then we could discourage them by claiming that Christianity doesn't allow for even minor errors.

Not only are there good reasons for taking the view I've defending, it also isn't one that's found only amongst theologically liberal Christians (if that's important). Through this series I have myself pointed to three competent apologists of conservative Christianity - all inerrantists - who don't believe in the strict necessity of inerrancy: J.P. Holding, William Lane Craig, and Glenn Miller. Craig is one of the top names in Christian apologetics, and JP and Miller are some of the cream of the crop when it comes to wholly internet-based apologetics. This is not a fringe position that I'm advocating.

So by my lights it is wholly appropriate to raise this topic and show that inerrancy isn't the crux of Christianity. I really hope that it's been helpful to people, though I appreciate that it may have raised previously unconsidered questions (but then what's wrong with that?)

Of course as mentioned above, I don't deny that Christians could have poor motivations for rejecting inerrancy, such as a dislike of tough Biblical teachings, or a desire to accommodate the trends of secular culture, or through laziness and a failure to treat objections to the Bible with the required depth and appreciation of the complexities involved (such as considerations over the translation of the original languages, textual variants, and the social/literary/theological contexts at work etc.). To drop inerrancy for any of these reasons would be for the Christian to adopt an attitude of disregard for God, placing oneself carelessly in a position of judge over him. To continue in this attitude would wreak havoc on one's spiritual life.

Certainly these are spiritual pitfalls one could fall into. But, if God has allowed error into the Bible, why should we rule out the possibility of a Christian coming to that conclusion out of honest, serious, and prayerful study? Benny would be wrong to just drop inerrancy at Jimbo's word on the matter, but if, after an appropriate time of careful reflection the problem seems intractable, should he not be able to drop inerrancy and have the support of his Christian friends? It seems to me that he should. Moreover, treating him as having gone spiritually astray might serve to push Benny away from the faith (“why do they insist on misdiagnosing my intellectual honesty as a moral defect?”)

We can say, then, that the expression “you have to believe all of the Bible or none of it” is useful in as much as it's taken non-literally as a sort of proverb about the wisdom of taking Scripture seriously. But when approached more straightforwardly, there is not much to commend it. In fact it is itself attended by spiritual dangers. It can put unnecessary intellectual stress on Christians and burdens on seekers. Although Christians should treat the Bible seriously, it should be recognised that the person of Christ is the true centre of Christian commitment from which all other doctrines submit.

That's the end of this series. And by the way, here's an answer to the Ahaziah problem.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Believe All The Bible Or None Of It? (5)

We're continuing the series that started here. We've thus far seen that if there are non-crucial errors in the Bible, the essential contents of Christianity can still be true and knowable. But here we might start to wonder how we can reliably tell the difference between the contents of the Bible that make up the core claims of Christianity, and the contents that don't. Perhaps we have no choice but to just take the Bible in its entirety as what God's given us to believe, and not arrogantly presume to judge which parts are more important than which. If the Bible doesn't give us clues itself as to what's really key, then surely we can't arbitrarily rank its contents in order of priority? But in that case, surely, we can't afford to concede any error at all in the Bible?

It's actually very hard to scrounge together a cogent objection from these worries. For one, the Bible does explicitly indicate things that are more important than other things. Paul is able to speak of what is of first importance to the church in Corinth (1 Cor. 15:3-11), included in which is the resurrection of Jesus, without which, Paul later argues, Christianity collapses. Would Paul say the same about the age Ahaziah came to reign? Seems unlikely. Jesus is also quite prepared to declare which moral commandment of God's is most important (Matt. 22:34-40). And really, any time the gospel is summarised, the author is making a claim about what the essential contents of the gospel message are. Indeed, Christians have been sorting out what's centrally important since Christianity begun. Through the centuries they've written creeds expressing what the heart of the Christian faith is, or to put it another way, what minimally counts as Christianity, and there's broad agreement as to what constitutes this 'mere Christianity' (to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis).

The fact that we are able to do this is really not surprising, after all, working out the central themes, characters, and events in a book is just what we naturally do as a result of reading it and making sense of it. Consider the Harry Potter books. Imagine you had to re-tell the story of all seven books in a short amount of time. You'd have to keep it brief, but you'd also have to keep it from becoming so vague and abstract that its could be nearly any story. For instance, you couldn't just summarise it as “good versus evil” because that's true of many stories, not just Harry Potter. So it would have to keep its distinctive features. Now you'd keep characters like Voldemort and Harry (obviously), but there's a few you could afford to loose. How about Peeves the poltergeist? He doesn't really have all that central a role. As for events, how about ditching the moment when Harry and co. meet Neville's parents in the hospital? As emotionally stirring as that scene is, you could tell Harry's tale without it. Indeed, if you've only seen the films but not read the books (shame on you!) then you might be wondering what on earth I'm talking about. Who's Peeves? And what hospital scene?

You're wondering that because somebody's already reduced the story to a more essential re-telling: those responsible for translating the book into film. Peeves was dropped and so was the hospital scene (and those are just two examples). What's very interesting to note as well is that JK Rowling herself was involved in the production of the films and was able to agree that some bits were not essential to a proper re-telling of her story! That is, you still get Harry Potter even if you remove Peeves, and the hospital scene, and more else besides. Do you still get Christianity if you drop Ahaziah? Any sensible reading of the Christian narrative would have to affirm that you can.

So you can reasonably approach the Bible and discern what is essentially being taught and what isn't. Doing so may not be an exact science, but it isn't arbitrary guess-work either. But at any rate, who's to say that a person who's adopted the “moderate” view of the Bible (as we called it last time) needs to, from the out-set, go through the Bible and mark with a red pen anything non-essential?

If Benny holds the moderate view, he stills thinks that everything affirmed in the Bible is potentially something that God has proposed for our belief. As such, he should not carelessly cross out anything non-essential, as if knowing right away that those things are false, or not something God cares about us knowing. We should recognise that the division isn't between essential and trivial. There can be non-essential things that are nonetheless valuable. For instance, the hospital scene in The Order of the Phoenix is not essential to the Potter narrative but the author did see it as valuable, providing a touching insight into the background of one the main characters. It would be wiser and more reverent to God for Benny to start always with the benefit of the doubt, granting the assumption that the contents of the Bible are true. Of course it might be that for certain non-essential Biblical affirmations, this assumption is over-turned, but that's fine, in which case Benny would come to know that X isn't part of the message God wants to give us through the Bible, but that says nothing about the rest of its contents. 
It seems, then, that what the moderate view must concede is that there is no way to tell a priori (a fancy word meaning “from the out-set/from the get-go/prior to investigation”) which non-essential Biblical teachings are not a part of God's message to us. That is, we can't learn that just from reading the Bible; the Bible doesn't tell us things like “don't believe that part in Jeremiah, or that little bit in Numbers!” Is this a problem? Well I'd claim that if it is, it isn't a problem unique to the moderate view.

Let's bring to mind again the “strong” view; the view of the Bible as the word-of-God, entailing a full-blown across-the-board inerrancy. According to this view, everything the Bible affirms as true is true. Great. But there is a question you must settle before you get to that stage and that is, “what properly belongs inside the Bible?” In other words, which books should properly be taken as Holy Scripture? The Bible itself doesn't answer this. Glenn Miller (himself an inerrantist) puts it this way in the innocuous looking letter on his site that first got me thinking about these issues differently;

Some items, such as the extent of the canon, can never be settled by an appeal to scripture (at least as we have it). Although the undergirding teaching that supports and predicts a 'canon-occurrence' is VERY strong in my opinion, such teaching does not specify the contents of that 'beforehand'. Since the last book of the bible does NOT contain a definitive list of what books are in the canon, we are forced to deal with the issue historically--NOT biblically. [The same argument applies to many of the 'recursive' biblical statements. That is, the bible 'itself' cannot tell us which textual variants are the originals--no text can do that.]” (brackets in original.)1

So you see there is no passage in the Bible which says “the books to be included in the collection of Holy Scripture are “Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans...” Any investigation of which books belong thus necessarily take you outside of the Bible. Thus neither the strong view nor the moderate view are wholly “Biblically self-contained.” If the critic wants to claim there is a problem for the moderate view, he/she needs to explain why that same problem doesn't apply to the strong view.

Well we've done a lot of work in the last few posts and writing it has certainly helped clarify my own thoughts. I hope that the discussion hasn't been too hard to follow and remember that I'll happily dialogue about these matters further in the comments section.

Here's a quick summary of where we've been:

We saw that Georgie and Jimbo were both in agreement that “you have to believe all of the Bible or none of it”, despite their vast ideological differences. We saw, then, that what you believe about the truth of its inerrancy is separate from what you believe about it's importance. We then began to examine whether inerrancy does actually have the importance Georgie and Jimbo grant it. We saw that inerrancy isn't necessary for salvation first of all. Then we saw that isn't necessary because of either the direct or indirect logical relations between different Biblical teachings. We then assessed whether it was necessary for reliable knowledge of Christian essentials, and found that hypothesis wanting too. Last of all we examined here the possibility of distinguishing the essential from the inessential and saw no problem in doing so. As a result we can safely conclude that Benny does not have to believe all of the Bible or none of it.

But Benny's being able to reject inerrancy doesn't mean that any reason for doing so would be a good or virtuous one. With the bulk of the philosophical work behind us, we can look next time in the final article at why we've even addressed this topic and what not to take from it.