Saturday, June 25, 2005

The Interpretive Animal

Aristotle famously said of Homo Sapiens that its definition is this: it is animal by genus, rational by specific difference. We are, he said, the rational animals.

I suggest another definition. It is that we are the interpretive animals. We are the animals that interpret.

This is nowhere more evident than in Christianity. The Christian has a text, and a tradition, and each new generation takes and interprets them in a way characteristic of its time.

But curiously Homo sapiens often denies that it interprets. Rather it often speaks as if its mind is a perfect mirror of God's will as expressed in revelation. It speaks as if it merely reflects that divine will and so knows it perfectly, without possibility of error.

It holds that revelation is crystaline in its clarity and that a mind unfettered by prejudice can perceive precisely, without error and without omission, what is there.

But this cannot be. The human mind, at least in its present state, cannot have any such perfect access to the divine will. For consider each of those sects that proclaims the inerrancy of the Bible. Do they all speak with a single voice about God's will? Of course not. Some hold that the laws of the Old Testament, unless explicitly rescinded in the New, are still in force. Others reject this. Some hold that the power to work miracles ended with the disciples died. Others reject this. Some hold that signs now visible point to the fulfillment of divine prophecy of the end-times. Others reject this and say that we can never know when the end-times will come. Examples could be multiplied.

So, then, we have many versions of the Bible, each produced by a group that declares the inerracy of the Bible. Of course if one is within one of these groups and has given one's loyality to it, it might seem quite clear that one's own verison is true. (Indeed one is likely to deny that it is a version of the Bible. One is likely to say that it just is the Bible.) But how will it seem to one who is not within any such group? It will seem that all are unjustified and that their differences as it were nullify one another. They cancel each other out and leave is unable to determine just where the truth lies on matters of dispute.

One cannot, it seems, reject the version of one or another of these groups because its adherents lack critical acumen, are morally corrupt, etc. Each group has its own scholars, extraordinarily learned, morally upright and with the requisite knowledge to have the right to render a judgment about what is meant by Scripture. Thus if they differ about what Scripture says, it must be that we humans cannot be certain about what it says. To say otherwise and insist on the truth of one's own version thus seems hubristic, for it is to insist that one is somehow elevated over others who are no less intelligent than you, and no less and serious in their adherence to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy.

The situation is the same within science. When do we, scientific non-specialists, take a certain scientific result as proven? When the scientific community reaches concensus. But when we apply this same standard to the question of what is meant by Scripture, we must conclude that we do not know that this or that version is the true one.

What if one were to say at this point that, though one cannot perhaps know where the truth lies when the community of Biblical scholars who hew to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy disagree, one can know the truth when they agree? Perhaps this standard is right, but its likely to be little consolation to my opponents here. For they wish to say that no part of Scripture is in shadow. It is all clear, they wish to say.

My diagnosis of the situation is this. When we have before us a text as difficult and as complex as the Bible, a text that deals with matters moral and spiritual, it is quite inevitable that those who make a serious study of it will disagree about what is means. For when one interprets, one fills in. But when the question arises of how best to fill in, one must always rely upon background beliefs about what is plausible and what is implausible. But always and everywhere people will not share the same background beliefs. Thus they will fill in differently.

Thus it seems to me that when someone produces an intepretation of Scripture and insists that it is complete and without possibility of error (and many do this) they have in effect said that they are incapable of error, for much of them is in that interpretation. Claim that the Bible is inerrant if you like. (Perhaps in some sense it is.) But do not write a book in which you give your interpretation and then demand that I believe it because the Bible is inerrant. I will dismiss the claim out of hand. Indeed I will take it as a prideful claim. I will take it as the insistence that one cannot be guilty of error.

If, on the other hand, you recommend the book for consideration, I will quite happily do so.

A Child's Questions

I do four things. I raise my children. I teach and write philosophy. I cook.

This is my little boy, Curtis.

He and his twin sister Katie often engage in theological disputes. They're quite interested in the relation of Christ to God. I truly don't know what to tell them. I suppose that one has no choice when they are young but to mislead them, if only a bit. My wife and I tell them that Jesus is God's son. But this cannot be the literal truth, for son is a biological concept. But it does point to an important truth.

My twins are also quite interested in the so-called problem of evil. My daughter firmly believes that one prays so that God will protect you. But she well knows that some people die, some suffer horribly. When she ask us whether they prayed, we can't simply lie to her. We tell her that some who come to harm do pray. But of course she then asks why God didn't protect them. I know the outlines of the most important kinds of theodicy. But I don't think she yet is able to fully comprehend what I say about them.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Wifely Subordination

Here we have an argument, an argument that assumes the perfect inerrancy of Scripture on all matters moral, for wifely subordination to her husband. I've explained why I have little patience for Biblical inerrantism. My reasons were of a general sort and had to do with the nature of interpretation of texts and justification of belief. But before us is an example of its pernicious consequences.

Wives, we are to assume, are to defer to their husbands on all matters that pertain to the family. If husband and wife disagree on such a matter, the husband has the authority to make the decision he thinks best and enforce this decision upon is wife (and his children).

This is a divine right, it is said, a right bestowed upon the man by God.

Now, I wish to ask, what is the reason that God would make the man ruler over his wife? A reason must exist, for God does nothing without reason.

I assume that it is not a greater competence, a greater ability to rule the family well. For plain experience teaches that some wives excel in this ability over their husbands. Do husbands perhaps in general excel their wives in this ability? I can think of perhaps two dozen families that I know well enough to form some judgment about the respective leadership abilities of husband and wife; and it seems to me in each that the husband does not excel the wife. Indeed I'd give the women the edge here. Now of course this kind of antedoctal evidence cannot prove a thesis that concerns many billions of people. But I do find it curious that in my experience I can find no evidence at all of the putative leadership superiority of men.

Moreover, if men are in general better able to lead their families, they are better able as well to lead outside the family; and if women should defer to them in the home, they should defer to them outside the home as well. But this seems to me to mean that women never should have been given the vote. For if they fall so far short of men in matters of political discernment (and this, after all, is what has been said) that they should defer to men if ever they disagree with them, they cannot be allowed an independent voice that can possibly serve to counteract to male wishes. But this is precisely what is allowed when women are enfranchised. In sum: if women should defer to men in the home, they shouldn't have the vote.

But this is pernicious sexism. Women should most certainly have the vote, and thus should defer to men neither in the public nor the private sphere.

I have heard said that women must bow to men's leadership for the simple reason that a family must have a leader. I have two replies. (i) Even if we assume that a family must have a leader, what gives us reason to hold that it must be the man in all cases? Why not give that role to the one best suited to play it? In some cases, this is the woman. (ii) Why should we believe that the family must have a leader, a leader with a kind of absolute veto power over all others within it? Why not have co-leaders who negotiate all matters of contention and reach, either by compromise or change of mind, consensus about what must be done? Certain political entities work in this way. Why not the family? Indeed it seems to me that this is the ideal after which we should strive.

Conclusion: women should not defer to men; and the bit of Scriptural exegesis that purports to show that they should serves only to undermine a dogged adherence to Biblical inerrancy.

Monday, June 20, 2005

The Dilemma of the Fall

Recently Tom Gilson of Thinking Christian made a comment to me about human freedom. I wish to follow up on it now. I'll pose my response as a dilemma.

First let me make my assumptions explicit. They are quite explicity Christian and thus the dilemma, if real, is a worry for Christians only.

1. We human beings were created by a God in a state of perfection, for all that God makes, all that God does, He makes or does perfectly.
2. We human beings were created free. Indeed our freedom was essential to that perfection we enjoyed before the Fall, i.e. a creature not free that is yet as much like us it can be is not as good as we.
3. We human beings brought about the Fall through a misuse of that freedom God bestowed upon us. So, then, responsibility for the Fall lies with us, not God. God acted as perfectly as He might, but we rebelled and brought evil into the world.
4. God, through Christ, will heal the breach created in the Fall. Through Christ He will raise we human beings to a state of perfection. (Whether it will be some or all that are perfected is irrelevant.)

Now, the dilemma is this. Human perfection, i.e. the greatest good that we human beings can exemplify, requires that we be free. But the possibility of the Fall was entailed by our freedom. Thus when the breach is healed, a new Fall is possible, for the perfected ones then alive will no less free than the ones who first fell.

Why then should we not expect that the history of the world will be a repetition of the sequence Fall, Incarnation and Redemption repeated ad infinitum?

Of course something must have gone wrong here. The saints in Heaven cannot fall again.

But why can't they? What virtue do they have that the pre-Fall human beings did not have? Why couldn't God have bestowed this virtue upon those who lived before the Fall? Surely He would have had to do so if that virtue is necessary to human perfection.

Again, if the saints in Heaven are not free, how can they be perfect? Do they merely have a certain measure of freedom but have been so transformed by God that they cannot rebel as did the first humans? But surely such partial freedom is an imperfection, for the highest expression of our freedom is to love God. How can a freedom be perfect that is free to choose only the small things but cannot help but choose the large, i.e. to love God? Musn't it be the case then that the saints in heaven have a complete freedom and so can both freely choose to love God and freely chose to rebel? But if this is so, the Fall can happen again.

At present I see only dimly a way out of this. It is to say that the first human beings could not have been created in a state of full perfection. Rather they had to first be as children. The world, then, is their school, and heaven is their full maturity.

But why couldn't God have created humans fully mature? Surely this does not lie outside His power. Perhaps, but might it be better to ourselves reach after perfection than to have it simply bestowed upon is?

One consequence of this line of thought it likely to disturb my Christian readers. It is this. On this line, 'The Fall' refers not to a certain event wherein we rebeled against God. Rather it refers to the moral and spiritual infancy of humanity. Moreover, on this line of thought Christ and Christ's death have a pedagogical role, not a redemptive one. Christ did not come so that sins might be forgiven. (Sin is an inevitable outgrowth of spiritual immaturity and thus is not to be condemned but corrected.) He did not come so that He might balance the scales of justice by His death. Rather He came so that He might provide a perfect example and so lead us to perfection.

Samuel's Argument

I believe that many in the United States are quite convinced of their own moral rectitude. I doubt that this belief is justified.Of course many exemplify a measure of virtue. They love their families and try to do what is best for them. They take their professions with at least a measure of seriousness. They think their communities important and, at times, help them to flourish. These and the other common virtues are commendable. But they mask, I think, a deep moral flaw that mars the souls of most.

I was convinced of this some time ago by a student of mine. He name is 'Samuel' and I call his argument 'Samuel's argument'. (The idea is his. The details are mine.)

Assume that you and I sit for a cup of coffee and a bite to eat.
A small child wonders into the room in which we sit. She is obviously malnourished. Indeed such is her plight that it seems she will soon die if we do not help her now.
What is our obligation? Assume that we have more than enough money to feed her both today and months into the future. Assume as well that we know that, very likely, if we do not help her, no one will and she will die.
Our obligation is clear. We must feed her. If we were to simply turn away from her and continue our conversation, we'd be, for lack of a better term, moral monsters. We would be as depraved as a human being can be.
Now let us assume that the child did not wonder into our room but simply wondered by it, and we saw her and recognized her plight.
Again our obligation is clear. We must feed her.
Assume now that we did not see the girl but were simply told that she had collapsed on a sidewalk outside.
Our obligation has not changed. We must feed her.
What if she were not near to us but in the next town? We must feed her. In the next state? We must feed her. Half a world away? We must feed her.
The point of this is clear. Mere physical distance by itself cannot diminish strength of moral obligation.
Thus this conclusion seems unavoidable: if (i) we know of someone anywhere who is in such dire straits that, if we do not step in to help them, they will likely die, (ii) we have the ability to give the help that is needed, and yet (iii) we choose not to give that help, we are deeply morally depraved.
But we all do know that some people are now in such great need that if help is not given to them they will die. Starvation is very much a reality in some places. Moreover, the need is so great that almost certainly it will not be met; thus we can be certain that if we do not help, some of those in need will die.
Of course almost all of us have the resources to help; and we know of NGOs that have the ability to funnel money quite quickly to those places where it is needed most. Thus we really do have the ability to help.
And yet many of us do not help; and of those who do, most give much less help than they might.

Thus I say that most of us are wicked. We are wealthy and yet knowingly let others starve or otherwise die needlessly. We are, from the moral point of view, no better than the monster who momentarily pauses to stare at the starving girl and then turns and goes back to his meal.

What follows are the responses to Samuel's argument that I've encountered.

I. Do you mean to say then that we should give until we ourselves are impoverished and so end up no better off than those we wish to help?

I do not mean to say this. Rather I mean to say that almost all of us can give much more and suffer little hardship as a result. This is surely true.

II. But if we simply feed those who are hungry, they will be hungry tomorrow and will have to be fed again; and they will likely propogate and create more mouths to feed. Thus to simply feed them is no real solution to the problem.

I did not say that to merely feed those who are hungry is itself a complete solution to the problem of hunger. Of course it is not. We must find a way for help those who are hungry find a way to feed themselves. But this insight in no way undermines the claim that we have an obligation to those who will starve today, or tomorrow, to make sure they are fed. Part at least of our resources must be devoted to this.

III. Those who are hungry are so through some fault of their own and thus we have no obligation to help them.

Many who are hungry are children and they bear no responsibility for their plight. Moreover, even if the adults around them are at fault (a claim that in general is surely false) still we must help, for if the adults in a place die the children there will inevitably suffer horribly.

IV. Where starvation is epidemic, so too is overpopulation. Harsh though it might seem, starvation is the natural way in which populations are kept in check. We should not attempt to step in and change this process by which balance in achieved.

Here is introduced a certain kind of holistic ethic. It elevates the community over the individual, and says of the individual that she can be treated in any way so long as this is necessary for the community of which she is part to flourish.

One form of this ethic, the form on which the primary community is the nation-state, is fascism. (I am quite aware of that fallacy wherein one simply labels a view and thereby takes it as refuted. I have no intent to do such a thing. Rather all I mean to do is give the view its proper name. English has a name for this kind of ethic, and it is 'fascism'.) Another form, the form on which the primary community is this or that ecosystem, or perhaps the whole of the biosphere, is what Tom Regan has called 'ecological fascism'.

I do not think that I can covince the commited fascist that he is wrong. But I still think it an impossible view. Would you let your child starve to advance some community ideal? Would you let her be tortured? Would you let her be killed? If not, you are not really a fascist.

Friday, June 17, 2005

On Interpretation, or Why I Am Not a Biblical Inerrantist

I'm afraid that I must begin with two apologies. First, some of what I say below will seem autobiographical and thus perhaps will not seem applicable to others. If this is so, I am sorry. I am sorry as well about the length of the post. But I thought it important to at least sketch what I believe should be said about this issue, and when I was done with this task the post was quite long.

First I need a rough definition. By 'biblical inerrantism' (BI) I mean the view that the Bible, in its canonical form, is, if interpreted at each point as intended by its authors, in all cases true.

My intent is to show that the purpose BI is meant to attain, the hope that it is meant to fulfill, must remain out of our reach. BI presents a false hope, an impossible purpose.

What is the purpose of BI? What hope is it meant to fulfill? A sure and complete knowledge of God's will for us. (Call this hope 'S'.) BI hopes to make scripture into a kind of guide for life. But the intent is that the guide be not merely partial. It is meant rather to guide us in all matters that pertain to our moral and spiritual welfare. Moreover, it is meant to be a guide that cannot lead us astray. If we will but follow it, do as it says to do, we will have achieved that degree of moral and spiritual health, of moral and spiritual maturity that is possible for us to attain in this world.

Thus my intent is to show that BI is no route to S.

One way that to do this is argue directly that this or that Biblical command is, in fact, immoral or, if not immoral, at least not obligatory. (Perhaps one ought to lie in certain cases.) I will not argue in this way. (Arguments of this sort tend to get bogged down in questions about the proper interpretation of texts and I am a novice Biblical exegete.) Rather I will argue that certain truths to do with the nature of interpretation and of justification shows us that BI cannot be a route to S.

I. Let me first dispose of one little argument that purports to prove that BI
is a route to S. The argument is this:

Scripture says of itself that it is the perfect (i.e. complete and without error) guide that we seek.
For this reason it is the perfect guide we seek.

The premise does seem true. Claims of this sort can be found in Scripture. But is the conclusion proven by the premise? It is only if we assume that those passages in which Scripture attests to its own moral and spiritual virtues are true. But to assume this is to assume, at least in part, that the conclusion of the argument is true. Thus the conclusion of the argument is proven only if we assume that its conclusion is true. Arguments of this sort never prove the truths of their conclusions. They are viciously circular and thus prove nothing.

I do not mean to say that I reject either the premise or the conclusion. Nor do I mean to say that the conclusion does not follow from the premise. (If I did mean this, I would have assumed that which I wish to show.) All that I mean to say is this: even if both the premise is true and the conclusion follows from that premise, the argument yet does not amount to a proof of its conclusion. For again its conclusion is proven only if its conclusion is assumed and thus it is viciously circular.

II. A second little argument that BI is a route S is like the first:

Scripture says of itself that it is a perfect life-guide.
Scripture is the word of God and thus, if interpreted rightly, is true at every point.
Thus Scripture really is a perfect life-guide.

Note that BI is asserted in the second premise and S in the conclusion.

As before I do not dispute the first premise.

But what of the second premise? Is it true? Let me here simply register the complaint that many deny it. They hold that scripture is the word of God but deny its inerrancy, for they do not mean the same by 'word of God' as is meant by the inerrantist. They hold that it is the word of God in that it is God-inspired. But they deny that the authors of Scripture were, as it were, human stenographers who simply recorded what was said to them by God. Rather they will say some such thing as this: God made use of the whole man when He inspired the Biblical authors, and much of their personality and much of their world-view is retained in what they wrote.

But I will not take up this line of argument. I do not have the requisite historical, exegetical or theological expertise.

My objection to the second premise begins with the question, What reason do we have to believe that Scripture is the word of God? I can think of three possible answers. (i) God has directly revealed himself to someone and has imparted to her the knowledge that Scripture is the word of God. (ii) Scripture is the word of God, for it itself says that it is the word of God. (iii) We human beings have discovered certain truths, moral, spiritual and otherwise. These truths accord with what we find in Scripture. Thus we have proof that Scripture is the word of God.

I will consider each of the three answers in turn.

(i) Here is broached the quite extraordinarily difficult issue of the way to discern the truth of what is conveyed in mystical experience, for direct divine revelation is a variety of mystical experience. This issue divides into two sub-issues, viz. (a) if I have an experience that seems mystical to me, how do I know that it is really such and how do I know what seems to have been conveyed in that experience is really true?, and (b) if another reports a mystical experience, how do I know that it is really such and how do I know that their report of what was thereby conveyed to them is true? I have little idea how to answer these questions. But mystical experience seems rare to me; and the sort of mystical experience in which what seems imparted is an assurance that Scripture is through and through the word of God even rarer. Thus I doubt that we have here what might serve as a justification open to more than a precious few of the claim that the Bible is the word of God.

Will you say to me that when you read Scripture, you feel certain that it is the word of God and that this certainty has its source in God and thus cannot lead you astray? I am uncertain how to reply. I do not feel any such thing as this and am far from sure that you have interpreted properly what you have felt. What will you say in response to these questions? Can anyone ever feel certain about a thing and yet be mistaken? (The answer must be 'Yes', must it not?) Has anyone ever felt certain that God had instilled in them a certainty of belief and of purpose and yet been mistaken? (Again it seems that the answer must be 'Yes'.) Can you then be absolutely certain that what you feel is from God and God thereby intends to impart to you the quite specific message that Scripture is, through and through, the word of God? If you cannot, S is our of your reach.

(ii) The claim that we can know that the Bible is the word of God because it says that it is seems to render the argument of II victim to vicious circularity. For we have reason to believe this claim only if we have reason to believe that the Bible speaks truly when it says that it's the word of God. But why believe that it speaks truly when it says this? I can think of no reason but this: the Bible is the world of God and thus is true throughout. Thus the claim 'We can know that the Bible is the word of God because it says that it is' presupposes that the Bible is the word of God. But we were to conclude that the Bible is the word of God, not presuppose it. Thus we have a very tight circle. Nothing has been proven.

(iii) Here we presuppose that we human beings have an access to important moral and spiritual truths that does not come by way of simple belief in Scripture. (I will call that human power of moral and spiritual discernment ‘the moral sense’.) But if this is so, the inerrantists' hope that BI is a route to S seems undermined. Even if we assume that the moral sense gives some evidence in favor of the inerrantist thesis, it does not prove that thesis beyond a shadow of a doubt. But if it does not, we cannot have an absolute assurance that Scripture is a perfect life-guide. Simply put, if the possibility of error infects BI and we are to derive S from BI, the possibility of error infects S as well. Will someone reply that the moral sense can give a complete confirmation of Scripture? I think that this cannot be the case. The moral sense does not operate so as to deliver up such a wealth of moral dictums that Scripture contains. Nor is the moral sense such that it is itself is immune from error. So the confirmation it gives to Scripture is partial and, to a degree, unsure. The moral sense is not the tie that will bind BI and S.

III. Let me now dispose of a third little argument for the claim that BI is a route to S. It is this:

If we admit that the Bible, if interpreted rightly, will at any point lead us astray, we have no choice but to reject it is a life-guide. If it goes wrong anywhere, it is reliable nowhere.

This seems much too harsh, much too stringent a standard for any text. We do not reject a book of actuarial tables as unreliable because it contains error. Rather, if current, it is quite likely highly useful. It does of course follow that, if a text has shown itself in error at some point, we cannot place absolute trust in it anywhere. But that we cannot does not imply that we cannot
trust it at all. Rather it can still be a quite useful, perhaps even irreplaceable guide.

Will someone say here that either the Bible is divinely inspired throughout or it is human
creation throughout; and that, if it contains any error it is surely of the latter sort and thus plagued with the same sorts of errors that seems to run through all purely human moral and spiritual texts? But surely this is a false dichotomy. The Bible can be a bit of both. Moreover, as noted above, the fact that it is divinely inspired does not by itself prove that it is without error.

What now of the complaint that if we admit that the Bible is partly human and partly divine, we cannot possibly know which part is which and thus must reject the whole of it? Here I answer that the moral sense is our guide. Not of course an immature or corrupted moral sense but rather one that is mature and uncorrupt. Nor a moral sense that has ignored Scripture as it has grown, for Scripture is not only vouchsafed by the moral sense but educates it. The mature and uncorrupt moral sense, raised up in the meditation on Scripture, is that guide whereby we determine what in Scripture is of God and what is of man.

IV. So far, I have attempted to undermine various attempts to begin in BI and end in S. This of course leaves open the possibility that another attempt might succeed.

Let me explain why I think that this will not happen. The negative moment in my
argument is done. I now begin the positive.

Perhaps when we are young, we don't choose our religious beliefs but rather find them bequeathed upon us by the adults who have a hand in our education. But a time comes when we make our religious beliefs truly our own. We either deliberately reject them or deliberately accept them. When we do this, it is not any God who makes the choice but rather we, and like any human choice to believe a thing about not this world but another, it is perilous. It might lead to error small or great. The hope of course is that we will seize upon the true religion, and no doubt if we do we will receive guidance both human and divine. Perhaps this guidance will serve to further entrench, further confirm our belief. But this will never remove all possibility of error. For our religious belief is human religious belief and thus is never immune from error.

Will the inerrantist say that, though human belief is fallible, divine belief is not? Will she take this as reason to place absolute trust in Scripture? No doubt some will. But this does not answer my point. For our decision to trust Scripture absolutely is a human decision and thus can be in error. God knows all. We do not, and when we say of this or that text that it contains a complete and wholly true account of God's will for us, our finitude makes the possibility of error unavoidable.

Let me put the point in this way. There are many voices, many texts that claim to speak the most important religious truths. We must decide which among these to trust. It is not God who makes the decision for us, for if He did we would but be puppets on a string, neither praiseworthy for a right decision nor blameworthy for a wrong one. Rather it is we and the possibility always exists that we will have chosen wrongly.

All religious belief, since it concerns matters that are not seen, begins with a leap into the unknown, a leap that outstrips evidence of the senses and of reason. Perhaps after the leap is made a path will begin to appear under our feet. But at least in this world, the path will never provide the certainty that its destination exists; it will always remains at least partly obscured,
partly in shadow. Perhaps in the next world we will be given the gift of a continual beatific vision that will render doubt impossible. But few if any are given given that gift in this world. I have not, and I expect that my readers have not.

Doubt can never be eradicated in this world. It is our constant companion. It fades, no doubt, as we grow in the spirit; it does not grip the mind as perhaps it did in our youth. But it never leaves us.

Thus Biblical inerrantism cannot give us a sure guarantee against moral/spiritual error. But this is its purpose. This is what gives it life. This is what attracts its defenders to it. I conclude then that biblical inerrantism is pointless and should be abandoned.

I do not conclude, mind you, that the Bible is anywhere false. That was not my purpose. Rather it was to show that we cannot possibly have a perfect assurance of its truth and thus cannot think it the perfect life-guide that the Biblical inerrantist wishes it to be. The Bible may be wholly true (or at least it may be for all I've said or assumed); yet this would make no difference to my argument.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Why I Hope

I cannot easily say what I believe about myself and my relation to God. I am familiar with many of the Confessions and cannot with conviction state any of which I know. But I do find that when I am in church and recite one or another I stirs something within me. I hope that what I say is true.

For if what I say is true, I and those I love will in the next life achieve a perfect security that cannot be had in this world. I, my wife and children can now be hurt. We can now be killed. We can now fail to achieve that which we set out to do. We can now live well for a time and yet have what measure of peace and security we have achieved taken from us either by sin or by accident.

I sometimes feel that I'm always on edge in this world. I never really let go. I am never fully calm, fully at peace.

I don't believe that I can ever feel at ease in such a world. But I hope that another exists, a world in which a being both all-powerful and all-good will shelter us from all harm.

Of course a defender of naturalism will say that this angst is simply the animal in me aware of the potential dangers that surround it; and that of course evolution favors this ever-present fear of a hostile, or indifferent world. I have no sure refutation of such a view. But I hope that it is false, and I hope that there is a God.


By 'materialism' I mean the view that all that exists exists within space and time (or if we adopt an Einstienian idiom, 'space-time'.) Thus materialism denies the God of orthodox Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It perhaps leaves room for a heterodox God. For all that I know, Spinoza's pantheistic God was simply space-time and its inhabitants. But of course most materialists deny even this heterodox God, and it is to them that I wish to speak. This atheistic materialism I will call 'modern materialism', or 'mm' for short.

mm relies upon a certain assumption that is not often remarked upon. The assumption is this: space and time, and the matter within it, have within themselves the power to maintain themselves in existence, i.e. they have what we might call 'existential interia'. It should be clear that mm does make this assumption. Matter, and the space and time that contain it, are all contigent beings. (By 'contingent' is meant 'able both to exist and not to exist'.) To this even the defender of mm must assent, for modern cosmological theory tells us that matter and space-time came into existence, and a thing that comes into existence is of course able not to exist.

Is this assumption of existential inertia reasonable for a defender of mm to make? I for one can think of no reason why it is. (As a matter of fact, I think that it is false. But the reason that I think it is false derives from my theism, and since I wish to undermine a variety of materialism that denies God's existence I am not free to simply introduce any theistic assmuptions.) When I think myself into the materialist point of view (a feat that I sometimes can carry out), I can think of no reason to hold that space-time and its contents could not easily 'wink' out of existence at any point in time.

Thus mm is not simply beset by its inability to explain the origins of the cosmos. It is beset as well by its inability to explain why it is that the cosmos continues to exist.

At one time I thought it not implausible for a materialist to deny that the principle of sufficient reason fails to hold at the origin of the cosmos but holds for all time thereafter. (This principle says that for every fact there is a sufficient reason or cause for its being as it is and not some other way.) But now I think that the situation is much worse for mm than this. For it seems to me now that the materialist has no reason to deny that the principle of sufficient reason fails at every moment the cosmos exists. This would be a continually ongoing violation of the principle of sufficient reason. That hardly seems reasonable to me.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Freedom and Evil

In 'Why be Free?' I concluded that freedom, genuine freedom, should not be desired and indeed is not real.

But if this is so, I think it likely that theodicy becomes impossible. Theodicy is the attempt to explain why a God that is both all-good and all-powerful allows evil to exist. One such attempt begins with the claim that we human beings (and perhaps other kinds of being too) are free and have moreover misused that freedom in such a way as to introduce evil into a world that before was perfect. This has seemed to me for some time the best kind of theodicy to pursue. But if freedom is an illusion, any free-will theodicy is doomed to failure. Indeed, if freedom is an illusion, God could have made a world with the perfect assurance that none of its inhabitants would ever sin.

But if the best of the theodicy strategies fails, belief in God becomes impossible, for His existence will come to seem plainly incompatible with the existence of evil.

So, then, we have this dilemma. We should not wish that we are free. But we should wish that we are free, for we should not wish to be forced to deny God's existence. I do not at present see a sure way out of this dilemma.

Should we say that our freedom is temporary, and that it comes about as a result of sin? This has promise. To be free is to be able to sin. But to be able to sin is to fall short of perfection. Thus we should not expect that humans were free before the Fall, when they existed in the full perfection bestowed on them by God, and that their Fall made them free.

But this response flounders. How do we explain the Fall if we do not presuppose that humans before the Fall were free? It seems we cannot. Thus we must presuppose that pre-Fall humans were free. But this is to assume that they were created in a state far short of perfect. But how can we say such a thing of God? How can we say that God brought a thing into existence in an imperfect state?

One last thought: perhaps we should say that God created us not in an imperfect state but in an immature state and that He will, in time, bring us to perfection. This does not seem absurd to me. If this can be made to work, freedom is a sign of, or perhaps constitutive of, immaturity. Do I have reason, then, to accept that freedom is real?