Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Problem of Evil: The Structure of the Debate

Evil, many have said, is incompatible with God's existence. This is the notorious problem of evil.

There are many attempts to articulate this objection to theism. Some, like J.L. Mackie, think that the incompatibility is a logical sort: any evil at all, no matter how small, renders God's existence a logical impossibility. Others, like William Rowe, think that the incompatibility is rather evidential: evil of the sorts, quantity and distribution that we find in our world renders God's existence not impossible but rather unlikely.

I have encountered a certain clever response to this objection. It would have us consider whether the atheist can in consistency admit that there is such a thing as evil.

The dialogue format seems appropriate here. "T" is our theist, and "A" our atheist. A has just finished with her rendition of the argument from evil, and T is about to begin her response.

T: So you say that God and evil cannot both exist?
A: Yes, that's right.
T: But you say that evil does in fact exist?
A: Again, that's right. Indeed I think it obvious that there is evil in the world. Examples are legion.
T: But then must you not say that there is some standard of good and evil?
A: Yes, I suppose I must. There is such a standard, and the things we call evil fall short of it.
T: When you say that, you've opened the door to theism.

T will now attempt to prove that a standard by which we distinguish good from evil of necessity leads back to theism. Lewis seems to have had just such a strategy in mind when, in Mere Christiantity, he said this:
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? ... Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying that it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too--for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist--in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless--I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality--namely my idea of justice--was full of sense.
I do not doubt that some who press the problem of evil would admit to the existence of evil and thus to a standard of good and evil. But they need not do so. One can reformulate the argument from evil so that it no longer assumes that evil exists. This may seem paradoxical at first, but let me show you how it's done. The dialogue begins as it did before.

T: So you say that God and evil cannot both exist?
A: Yes, that's right.
T: But you say that evil does in fact exist?
A: No, you've misunderstood. All that I've said is that the theist must say that evil does in fact exist.
T: But don't you have an opinion on the matter?
A: I do, but my opinion is irrelevant to my objection. Here, let me map out the argument for you. (A stands up and walks over to a nearby chalkboard.) I'll write out the objection to make sure it's clear. (A numbers his propositions like a good analytic.)

1. There are such things as murder, rape, cancer, hydrocephaly, etc.
2. The theist must say that these things are evil, or to put it in conditional form: if theism is true, murder, rape and all the rest are evil.
3. But if murder is evil, then given that murder is all too real, there is such a thing as evil.
4. If evil exists, God cannot exist. (After he writes 4, A turns to T and asks him to recall the argument he gave for 4. He reminds A that it has to do with the impossibility that a perfect God would allow evil to exist.)
5. Collect together 2, 3 and 4 and we reach this sub-conclusion: if theism is true, God cannot exist.
6. But this leads us straight into logical paradox. For surely we must say that if theism is true, God must exist. Indeed theism just is the claim that there exists a God.
7. Thus if theism is true, we must say both that God exists and that God does not exist.
8. We find, then, that theism entails a contradiction - the contradiction that there both is and is not a God.
9. Hence we must say that theism cannot be true.

(A returns to his seat and begins to talk about what he's just written.)
A: So you see, then, that in my argument I do not say that there's such a thing as evil. Rather all that I say is that there are such things as murder and cancer and that the theist must say that these things are evil. In short, it is not I who say that there's evil. Rather it's you who says that there's evil, and in my argument all that I do is report that belief of yours. After I report it, I attempt to isolate an inconsistency in your belief-set.

I'll break off the dialogue at this point. I can think of nothing for T to say but to grant A's point. The upshot, of course, is that, when the atheist presses the problem of evil, she needn't leave the door open to theism (at least not in the way Lewis thought). In particular, she need not herself assume that there's any such thing as evil. She reports a belief in evil. She does not assent to it. Moreover, let us be careful about what T has attemtped to do. She has not attempted to show that there's no God. Rather she has attempted to show that there's deep inconsistency in the Christian world-view. The Christian's assent to God's existence and to the existence of evil, says T, shows that the Christian's world-view is deeply inconsistent. In this context, A offers no suggestions about how to remove that inconsistency.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Anonymous Christians

In a previous post, I concluded this:
The dispute over UR [the doctrine of universal reconciliation] is not unique in this regard. One can gather both Pro and Con lists [of Biblical verses] for each of the five Solas, for instance. The conclusion that I would draw about each is the same as I drew about UR: there is ample room for disagreement, and one ought not simply dismiss one's opponents out of hand. It might well turn out that you are wrong.
I wish now to draw a certain inference from this conclusion. It is this:
If, as is the case with UR and the five Solas, Scripture provides ample room for disagreement, one's salvation cannot in all cases depend upon knowledge of what in fact is true.
How do we reach this conclusion? We say that if non-culpable error about a certain matter is a real possibility for us, our salvation cannot require that we have true belief about it. By "non-culpable", I mean an act for which we cannot be held responsible, and we cannot be held responsible for an act, I assume, when it was done with as much care as we could muster. An example will make what I mean clear. We heat our home with natural gas. Every year when the weather begins to turn, I have our unit inspected. What if (God forbid) it were to malfunction and explode? I would not be responsible, for I had exercised proper care in the matter. (If I had not had it inspected, then possibly I am responsible. I need not be - an inspection might not have been able to identity the risk of explosion - but if I'd failed to have it inspected, we must at least consider the possibility that I was responsible.)

Now, the argument of the previous post was intended to establish the claim that, in the case of UR (and the five Solas too), error is a very real possibility, even for those who exercise proper care in the interpretation of the relevant texts. If that argument succeeds, we must conclude that a mistake to do with UR (and the Solas) cannot by itself be a reason to deny salvation. For if error persists even though proper interpretative care was taken, it is not culpable error; and if it is not culpable error one cannot be held responsible for it.

Arguments such as this make a certain kind of religious non-cognitivism attractive to me. By this I mean that our salvation cannot depend upon the beliefs that we have about religious matters. I am attracted to this view because I've come to think it clear (because of - among other reasons - arguments like the above) that non-culpable error about religious matters is a very real possibility.

Think of it this way. God is merciful, and so cuts us slack wherever appropriate. But as regards religious belief, there is much non-culpable error, and thus God does not (indeed cannot if he is perfectly merciful) hold that against us.

Arguments such as this also point in the direction of what before I called "practical Christianity". The purpose of the Christian life is not to hold certain beliefs (though I do not doubt that these can be helpful). Rather it is to act in a certain way, and if you act as you ought, the rewards promised to Christians, though you may never have heard the name "Jesus", are yours too.

I know that this will strike many today as absurd, but I think it a view entailed by what Christ told us of the law. The law does not command belief. Rather it commands action. We are told that the essence of the law is the command to love God with heart, mind and soul, and to love the neighbor as the self; and the love Christ here means is not mere emotion, but is rather essentially action. What do we say, then, of those who act as Christ commands but do not believe as Christians believe? We must say that they have grasped the essence of the law. They are, to use Rahner's term, "anonymous Christians". They live the law, but do not know Christ for who he was. They are saved.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Chief End of Man

For God so wished to righteously judge the world that he sent his only begotten son? No!

For God so wished for his own glorification that he sent his only begotten son? No!

For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son!

What then is the chief end of man? Is he the material on which God's judgment is exercised? Was he made so that he might glorify God? No! The chief end of man is to love, and to be loved by, God.

Universal Reconciliation

What is better, that a sinner be saved or that he not? That he be saved.
Does God wish that the better or the worse occur? The better.
What then does God wish for me? That I be saved.
Is it possible that I be saved? Yes, of course. Each is such that he might be saved.
Might God lay a path before me that will convince me of the need of my salvation? Yes, this is possible. The path might be long. It might be arduous. But it is possible.
Will God put my feet on that path? Yes, he must. For it is what he wishes, and it is possible for him to do. Indeed I am on that path now, as are you.
Will I reach the path's end? Sin is misery. Salvation is bliss. All wish bliss, and will, if given sufficient time, choose it.

The "Silver Bullet" School of Scriptural Interpretation

There is a school of Scriptural interpretation that I will call the "Silver Bullet" school. It is committed, either explicitly or implicitly by its practices, to this interpretative principle:

If one wishes to establish that proposition P is a view expressed in Scripture, all that one needs to do is find a single passage which seems to say, or to entail, that P.

The Silver Bullet school is quite common among Evangelicals. I often hear it in their radio sermons (and where I live the radio waves are saturated with Evangelical radio). I have heard a "proof" of the doctrine of Sola Fide of this sort, for instance. A single passage was named, and on this basis alone the truth of Sola Fide was derived.

The Silver Bullet school is hopelessly naive. If we consider for a moment what Scripture tells us about universal reconciliation, we can easily show that this is so.

By "universal reconciliation" (UR) I mean that view that, in the end, all will be saved. UR thus entails that no one will spend an eternity in hell, however we might conceive of it. Of course UR does not imply that we do no suffer for our sins. We do. Nor does it entail that there is no place where sinners are sent to suffer for their sins. There might be such a place on UR, but if there is, none remain there for eternity.

Two sorts of arguments might be offered for UR, one Scriptural and the other philosophical. Let us consider the Scriptural for a moment. Collected below are verses which seem support UR and verses which seem to reject it.

Verses that seem to embrace universal reconciliation:

  • John 12:32: "And I [Jesus Christ], when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself."

  • 1 John 2:1-2 "My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for[a] the sins of the whole world."

  • Acts 3:21: [Jesus] "must remain in heaven until the time for the final restoration of all things, as God promised long ago through the prophets."

  • Ephesians 1:9-10 "And he (God) made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ."

  • Romans 5:18-19 "Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous."

  • Romans 8: 18-19 "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God."

  • Romans 11:32: For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all

  • 1 Timothy 4:10: "We have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe."

  • Revelation 5:13 And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honor, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb forever and ever.

Verse that seems to entail a rejection of universal reconciliation:

  • Matthew 7:13-14 "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. 14"For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it."
  • Matthew 22:14 "For many are called, but few are chosen"
  • Matthew 12:32: "And whoever shall speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age, or in the age to come."
  • Matthew 25:46 "And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life"
  • Mark 16:16 "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned."
  • 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 "Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God."
  • Matthew 10:23 "And ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved"
  • Hebrews 10:39 But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul.
  • Revelation 21:6-8 And He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts. He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son. But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.

(The list of passages is taken from the Wikipedia article on universal reconciliation.)

Each verse in the first list seems clearly to entail UR. Each verse in the second seems to clearly entail the denial of UR. (Let us here put emphasis upon "seems". We might well find that our considered judgment will diverge from what seemed to us true as first. More on this in a moment.) What then are we to do if we wish to know what Scripture tells us about UR? We might of course pick one passage from either list and simply say that it's decisive. But that would be arbitrary. Why choose one passage instead of another? In particular, why choose a passage from the Pro List instead of a passage from the Con List? Surely one cannot provide good Scriptural support for a thing by arbitrary choice of passage. This alone is sufficient to undermine the Silver Bullet school. But let us press on. The water here is deep and we've barely broken the surface.

If we do not pick one verse and render our judgment by it alone, there is but one strategy left: in their context, and in the context of the remainder of Scripture and the theology that seems most concordant with it, weigh the passages against one another and thus (hopefully) come to a judgment about which seem decisive.

Now, I will not argue here that the proper judgment favors Pro UR or that it favors Con UR. Instead let me make what seems an obvious point: the arguments that one will marshal in support of one's view will likely be subtle, difficult and long, and since this is so, there is ample room for disagreement. My plea is thus as follows: let the parties to the dispute about UR recognize that there is room for disagreement, and let them not dogmatically assert that their view is certain. Hold to your view (I hold to mine), but do not dismiss out of hand the views of those who oppose you. They have some measure of Scriptural support, and some measure of reason too; and if your view should prevail, it is not because it was the obvious victor from the start, but rather it because it came out on top after a lengthy, subtle and difficult dispute.

The dispute over UR is not unique in this regard. One can gather both Pro and Con lists for each of the five Solas, for instance. The conclusion that I would draw about each is the same as I drew about UR: there is ample room for disagreement, and one ought not simply dismiss one's opponents out of hand. It might well turn out that you are wrong.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Still an Analytic: Does Present Duty Reflect Future Loyalty?

I'm an analytic philosopher both by education and by inclination. I love to map out arguments and pick at them until I find their weak spot. Indeed I love the succinct but decisive refutation.

Joe Carter of the Evangelical Outpost says this:

I contend that certain obligations that are recognized after we marry are binding on us even before we meet our future spouses. Although we are separated “relative to temporal perspective” this person exists now and is not in any morally relevant respect different from the person we will wed. The duties of a husband, therefore, would extend not just from the present (when we marry our spouse) and future (throughout our marriage) but also backward into the past (the time prior to our marriage, or even before we meet).

I believe that this admits of a succinct, decisive refutation. Here it is:

Joe assumes that I have a duty of loyalty now to those to whom I will at a later time pledge my loyalty. In particular, he assumes that unmarried adults who will later marry have a duty now to their future mate to have sex with no one else.

This principle (call it Fides) is open to refutation by counter-example.

Let us say that Curtis will marry twice in the future. First he will marry Margaret, and next he will marry Peggy.
Let us assume, moreover, that both marriages are, from the moral point of view, permissible for him. Perhaps Margaret will die and a year later Curtis will marry Peggy.
On Fides, at present and while still single, Curtis has a duty to Margaret to have sex with no one else and he has a duty to Peggy to have sex with no one else.
Moreover, once he marries Margaret (and before she dies), Fides has the consequence that he has a duty to Peggy not to have sex with Margaret.
But this is clearly absurd. The pleasures of the marriage bed are not closed to Curtis and Margaret simply because, at a later time, she will die and Curtis will marry another.

What Joe's principle seems not to take into account is that one can have different loyalties at different times.

Now perhaps Fides can be fixed up. I don't know. But it seems to me more likely that, with all loyalties, the duties entailed by that loyalty do not begin until the loyalty is pledged. Do I have a duty of loyalty to the Marine Corps before I join up? Surely it would be strange to say Yes. (Indeed if the answer were Yes, it seems the Corps could come and haul me away before I signed up. But surely that's absurd.)

This of course is perfectly consistent with the assertion that, before marriage, it might well be wise to remain celibate. (Perhaps if I intend to marry, I have a general duty - a duty not to a particular person - to make of myself a good match; and perhaps sex before marriage will for some reason make me less of a good match.) But the argument seems not to show that.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Brown Replies

My goodness. Brown replied to my criticism of her argument to do with IVF and child-objectification. She seems to me, though, to simply reiterate the points she'd made before and makes no real attempt to counter the objections I offer. But she is gracious; if you're curious, it's worth a look.

I sent Brown this reply:

Thank you for the response.

My objection at bottom comes to this: the reason you wish IVF banned concerns at most certain abuses of the practice, abuses which need not occur. Why isn't the appropriate response to the abuses not to call for an end to all IVF but instead to call for its reform?

You think it wrong to test embryos for genetic abnormality. Well, then, let us not do it. But that by itself does not imply that we should put an end to IVF.

You think it wrong to destroy embryos so that we might experiment upon them. Well, then, let us not do it. But as before this does not by itself imply that IVF should be banned. All that it implies instead is that it should be regulated.

Of course you do offer another sort of argument, one religious in nature. You say that infertile couples were chosen by God for a task other than to raise their own children. But does this not imply that, no matter what physical abnormality we find ourselves afflicted with, we should simply accept it as God's will and not attempt to correct or overcome it? Let us say that my daughter's legs are not the same length. It seems that you would have us say that this is something desired by God and thus that we should let her limp. I disagree. We live in a world marred by the Fall, and much in it does not go in accordance with God's design. Disease of all kinds is like this - and this includes the disease of infertility. Unless you would require us to simply accept all disease, I do not see how you can ask infertile couples to simply accept their infertility.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Matter and Spirit

God is spirit. The body is matter.

We often assume that spirit and matter are fundamentally different in nature. Matter is spatial. Spirit is not. Matter is divisible. Spirit is not. Matter is governed by blind physical law that takes no account of purpose. Spirit is not. Rather in all that it does it takes purpose into account. Matter is finite. (Perhaps there is an infinite amount of matter, but any bit of matter that we might consider is finite is extent. Moreover, whatever characteristic of matter we might care to consider - weight, size, momentum, etc. - is always finite in quantity.) Spirit is infinite. (It is not infinite in extent, for it is not spatial. But those qualities that it possess it possess infinitely. Its power, knowledge and goodness and all the rest are infinite.) Matter is quantifiable in a myriad of ways - it is of so much weight, such and such size, etc. Spirit is not quantifiable in this way.

Thus there's little wonder that we think matter and spirit fundamentally different. But let us pause for a moment and consider what's been said in the light of the Incarnation. Christ is both spirit and matter. He is the two joined. Thus we must say that at bottom there can be no opposition between them. Matter is such that it take house spirit. Spirit is such that it can take up residence in matter.

How is this possible? How can the spatial and the non-spatial (the divisible and the indivisible, the finite and the infinite, etc.) be joined so that they form a genuine unity? I do not know. It is a mystery to me.

Let me sharpen the question. Christ is both matter and spirit. But should we say that he is infinite as spirit is infinite or finite as matter is finite? He must be one, and he cannot be both. But if he is merely finite, it seems that spirit has within him lost an aspect of its essential character; and if he is infinite, it seems that he cannot be matter, for the finitude of matter is essential to it.

Do we say that, qua spirit, Christ is infinite, and, qua matter, he is finite? Perhaps. But then we are left to explain what's meant by this 'qua' in such a way that the unity of spirit and matter in Christ is preserved. I am at a loss about how to do so.

Are We Lovable in God's Eyes?

We must be, else he would not love us.

Some say that God loves us though we are not lovable. We are not lovable, they say, because we, all and one, are sinners. But does our sin make us unlovable? Of course not. Your child sins. Do you love her any less? You do not. You make clear her sin to her because you love her. She remains lovable though she has sinned, and if you ceased to love her because she had sinned, your sin would be greater than hers.

Do not believe, then, that God's love for you is arbitrary and baseless. He could not but love you, for no matter how sinful you are, you are yet lovable.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Does IVF Render Children Mere Objects?

Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, makes a quite extraordinary claim about IVF.
No one has a right to a child . . .. IVF turns children into commodities. When a couple undergoes IVF, they say,“We want a child, no matter what,” and the child becomes an object.
Let's examine her three claims in order.

No one has a right to a child.

Brown must mean that no one has a right to bring a child into the world. I most surely do have a right to my three children, but they are, as it were, already here. What then of the claim that no one has a right to bring a child into the world? It's obviously false. One of the basic rights of a couple is the right to attempt to conceive. But what is the attempt to conceive but the attempt to create a child? Thus couples must have the right to attempt to create a child.

Would Mrs. Brown attempt to deny them this right? Would she have us monitor bedrooms? Would she endorse forced sterilizations? If not - and one must assume that she would not - she thereby admits, even if only implicitly, that there is a right to conceive.

Couples who undergo IVF express an unqualified desire for a child.

This is false too. My twins are a product of IVF, but my wife and I did not have an unqualified desire for children. If it had been unqualified, we would have pursued it, as Brown says, no matter what. But we would not have pursued it no matter what. If we had discovered that my wife was likely die in pregnancy, we would not have undergone IVF. If we had discovered that there was a high probability that one or more of our children would suffer from severe genetic abnormality, we would not have undergone IVF.

Other examples could be generated quite easily.

No doubt almost all couples who pursue IVF are the same. They do have a great desire for children, but it is not unqualified. Indeed I can think of no reason to suppose parents who pursue IVF have a desire for children that, in general, is greater or less qualified than that of parents who have been unable to conceive but continue to pursue a child in the usual way. Parents of both types very much want children and often work quite hard (though in different ways) to conceive.

IVF turns children into commodities, i.e. into mere objects.

I suspect that Brown intends us to infer this from the claim that couples who undergo IVF have an unqualified desire for children. But does it follow? It does not. Why should an unqualified desire for a thing imply that the thing is thought of as an object. I suspect that many religious folk have an unqualified desire to enjoy the bliss of the beatific vision. This is something they want, no matter what. But does this mean that they think of God or their enjoyment of him as a mere commodity? Of course not.

What now of couples who undergo IVF. Is the child they desire, the child they attempt to create, a mere commodity for them? I do not know what to say except that this need not be so. It was not the case for me and my wife. It is not the case for many other couples who've undergone IVF.

Perhaps Brown objects that the embryos created by IVF are not treated with due respect and thus become like objects to the parents. Again I do not know what to say except that this need not be so. What if every embryo is implanted? If so, each embryo is given no less of a chance to develop than is an embryo created in the usual way. (Implanted embryos are sometimes donated embryos. My wife and I donated our leftover embryos to an agency that makes them available to infertile couples. Does this not imply respect?)

A few minutes at the American Life League makes clear that Brown believes IVF a great evil. But throughout she seems guilty of a certain fallacy. She points to abuses of the procedure and concludes that the procedure itself must be wrong in all cases. But the mere fact that a thing can be improperly done does not imply that it may never be done. It only implies that one must be careful when one does it.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Turn or Burn

"Turn or burn" nicely sums up one of the foundational beliefs of most evangelicals. (I recently encountered it here, but it is nearly ubiquitous.) Turn to Christ, or you'll be banished to hell where you will suffer for an eternity.

I well understand the motive for Turn-or-Burn. It seems Biblical to many, and it seems just. But let us see about the second. Is it just?

Let us conjoin to Turn-or-Burn a second doctrine admitted by all orthodox Christians. It is that we come into the world ruined creatures for whom sin is not merely likely but is inevitable. Let us follow Augustine and call this doctrine Original Sin.

Consider now Turn-or-Burn + Original Sin in light of the empirical fact that, through no fault of their own, that many have died with no knowledge of Christ. I contend that here we have an absurdity. For consider one who died with no knowledge of Christ. On Turn-or-Burn, she now roasts in hell. But she was not responsible for her sin-nature, nor was she responsible for her lack of knowledge of Christ and thus was not responsible for the lack of that knowledge that might have saved her. This is absurd. How would you feel if you were punished for a thing you could not help but do? What if I were to add that there was a way to save yourself, and that, though you could not be expected to know anything of it, we will punish you anyway. You would of course feel that you'd been treated unfairly, and you would be right.

Turn-or-Burn thus has no place in the Christian faith. It violates the basic principle of fairness that if one cannot help one's sinful state, and one cannot be expected to know how to put it right, one may not be punished for it. (Indeed it seems strange to even call it sin in such a case. Sin is a moral failure for which one can be rightly held responsible and thus sin must be free.)

Let the Argument Speak

It's curious how those on both Right and Left say of themselves that they, and they alone, are in touch with reality. The others suffer from some (usually self-inflicted) illusion indicative of deep moral and intellectual failure. Let your argument speak, say I. Do not speculate about the others' irrationality, for that borders on ad hominem. Treat them with the respect they deserve and leave them out of it.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Like Lock and Key

Gregory E. Ganssle argues that God, if conceived in the traditional way, likely would wish to communicate with humanity, and that the most likely form of communication would be the written word. (What is the traditional conception? God is the all-good, all-powerful, all-wise creator and sustainer of the world who so loves his creation that he acts within it to insure its redemption. Orthodox Muslims, Jews and Christians all assent to this.)

I accept the claim but think that the view stands in need of extension.

1. God's message to us would be of value only if we believed that it was from God.
2. But in all matters to do with belief about such things, we ought carefully to weigh the reasons to believe that the message really does come from God.
3. To weigh the reasons, we must have already have in our possession some knowledge of the characteristics that must be possessed by divine communication.
4. These characteristics, presumably, would derive from God's perfect nature - the divine message would reflect God's goodness, God's love for us, God's justice, God's knowledge, God's power, etc.
5. So, then, for God's message to find its mark, we must already possess (even if only implicitly) knowledge to do with God's nature.
6. This seems a kind of knowledge that cannot be derived empirically. Rather it must be, in some sense, innate.

The most obvious of the lacunae in the argument is found in 6. Why think that our knowledge of God's nature cannot be of empirical origin? That is a difficult question to answer, and let me here say only this. (I will limit myself to the attribute of goodness.) There is nothing that we observe by means of the senses that possesses the perfection of omnibenevolence. Indeed it seems that by the senses we do not so observe even imperfect goodness. We do of course observe things that are imperfectly good. But though the thing is observed, its goodness is not. Thus if we have some notion of goodness (and we do), it cannot be derived empirically; and if it is not

The upshot is that God must have made us such that we have within ourselves the means to verify that God's message does truly originate in God. An analogy: if God's message is the key, within us there must be a lock that precisely fits that key.

(A hat-tip to Jeremy at the Parableman. His discussion of Ganssle is quite good.)

Do We Feel God?

Today when I put his bowl of Cheerios down in front of him, Gabriel - my youngest - asked me a curious question. "My heart is medium-sized, and God is huge. How can God be in my heart?"

I attempted to explain that, when we say God is in our hearts, we mean that we don't see, hear, or taste him but rather feel him.

How good an answer is this? Do we really feel God?

Well, what are the sorts of things we feel? Love, hate, disgust, elation, etc. It seems a strange thing to add God to this list. Take the example of love. It seems to be something purely relational - it concerns how a person feels about a thing. Love, as it were, reaches out beyond the lover and finds its object in a second thing. The same seems true of the other things we feel.

Is God, then, something purely relational? This seems wrong. Relations depend for their existence upon the things related - if one or the other were to cease to exist, the relation would cease as well. Thus if God were relational, he would be a dependent being. But he is not.

What, then, is the source of our experiential knowledge of God? If we cannot perceive him via the senses and cannot feel him, what is the matter of our contact with him?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


It occurred to me that there might me those here who would not understand the historical reference in the title of the blog. It comes from Plato's description of the philosophical labor of Socrates.

My [i.e. Socrates'] art of midwifery is in most respects like theirs; but differs, in that I attend men and not women; and look after their souls when they are in labor, and not after their bodies: and the triumph of my art is in thoroughly examining whether the thought which the mind of the young man brings forth is a false idol or a noble and true birth. Like the mid-wives, I am barren, and the reproach which is often made against me, that I ask questions of others and have not the wit to answer them myself, is very just-the reason is, that the god compels me to be a midwife, but does not allow me to bring forth. Therefore I am not myself at all wise, nor have I anything to show which is the invention or birth of my own soul, but those who converse with me profit. Some of them appear dull enough at first, but afterwards, as our acquaintance ripens, if the god is gracious to them, they all make astonishing progress; and this in the opinion of others as well as in their own. It is quite dear that they never learned anything from me; the many fine discoveries to which they cling are of their own making. But to me and the god they owe their delivery.
(Theaetetus 150 b-151d)

I make no such grand claims for myself as Socrates does. I cannot claim to have "delivered" in anyone any worthwhile idea. Nor do I say of myself that I am completely barren of ideas. I am not (nor, of course, was Socrates). Nonetheless, I very much like the metaphor. I do hope to think along with others, to help them and myself too to think a bit more deeply and clearly about the matters I take up. Midwifery seems a not completely inappropriate metaphor for this.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

God's Love

For God so loved the world? Absurd! A thing loved is a thing desired, and a thing desired is a thing not possessed. But God cannot desire that which is not good, and thus if he desires a thing, there is some good that he lacks. A god that lacks some good? Such a being cannot be God!

Monday, January 01, 2007

On Righteousness and the Fate of the Soul

What do we mean when we speak of "righteousness"? First we must say that "righteousness" means something like action in accordance with divine command. But once we probe deeper, we will find that opinion on how precisely to articulate the relation of righteousness to God's commands divides into two sorts.

On the first, when we wish to explain what we mean by "righteousness", the primary explanatory entity is God and His will. We begin with that, and explain righteousness in terms of it. What does this mean? God does not command a thing because it is righteous. Rather he commands a thing and then it thereby becomes righteous. (This, presumably, is not the "and then" of temporal succession. Rather it is the "and then" of explanatory inference.) Thus on this opinion, God is not constrained in His choice of what to make righteous. Rather that choice is perfectly free, or as is sometimes said, it is arbitrary. In sum: on the first opinion, righteousness is, at bottom, conformity of action to arbitrary divine command.

On the second, the primary explanatory entity is humans and their welfare. We first articulate that in which their welfare consists, and then we explain righteousness in terms of it. How is this done? We assume that God wishes us to live well. Indeed we assume that when he commands us to do a thing, he does so because he knows that, if we follow the command, we thereby become more likely to live well. Thus on this opinion, God's choice of what to make righteous is not free. Indeed it is constrained by his knowledge of that in which our welfare consists conjoined to his desire that we live well. Note that this does not imply that God's commands are absolutely necessary. God was of course free not to create us. But once he did, he was no longer free in his choice of what to make righteous for us. For in the very act of our creation, our welfare was thereby defined. (Indeed one might say that the idea of Homo sapiens - an idea that God perfectly grasped before he created us - already contains within it a definition of human welfare. Thus the definition of human welfare is at it were "there" before Homo sapiens was created.)

One might reasonably conclude from Matthew that Christ's opinion was of the second sort. He tells us that the law is for us and not we for the law. What can this mean except that God commanded as he did so that, if we but follow his commands, we will do better than we would have done otherwise? Christ subordinates the commands of God to human welfare, and he pleads with us not to reverse the proper order of the two.

Note that, on the second opinion, human welfare need not be defined in independence of God. Rather it's entirely possible that human welfare in some way involves God. Perhaps humans live well only if they love, and are loved by, God. But this does not require that we alter the relation of explanatory precedence between human welfare and God's commands. God commands as he does so that we might live well, though he perhaps commands us to love him.

(One cannot defend a third sort of view on which righteousness concerns not human but rather divine welfare. God's welfare does not wait upon his choices. Rather it is already in place, perfect, before any choice that he makes. God is of necessity complete in himself, and nothing that anyone can do - not even God - can make him any better off. Nor can one defend a third sort of view on which God commands as he does simply because it is right. For then we must ask what is the relation of God's commands to the right. If we say in response that the right is the right because God commands it, we are back to the first of our opinions above. If on the contrary we say in response that God commands what he does because it is right, then we are forced to inquire into the nature of the right, in particular of the right for human beings. What are we to say here expect that, if the right for human beings is not to be defined in terms of God's commands, it is to be defined in terms of human welfare? But once that is said, we are back to the second of the two opinions above.)

Let us now consider the relation of these two views of righteousness to the fate of the soul. On the first opinion of the relation of righteousness to God's commands, eternal retribution for human sin makes at least prima facie sense. On the first, God's commands are prior to righteousness and serve to define it. Thus they would seem to define as well what the retribution for disobedience must be. Perhaps the severity of the retribution must, as it were, match the distance between the perfection of God and the imperfection of the sin, and thus sin might perhaps merit eternal retribution. But on the second opinion of the relation of righteousness to God's commands, eternal retribution for human sin makes no sense at all. To punish eternally diminishes human welfare. Indeed it diminishes it to an infinite degree. Thus to suppose both that God commands as he does so as to maximize human welfare and yet that God punishes eternally those who break his commands seems a flat contradiction.

Conclusion. If one thinks sinners are punished eternally, one must think that the righteous is made righteous by God's arbitrary commands. But if one thinks that God commands as he does so as to maximize human welfare, one must also reject that doctrine of hell on which sinners are cast there to suffer eternally.

If There is a Being Who Would Condemn

If there is a being who would condemn my wife and children to hell, I stand against him. If there is a being who would condemn any to hell, I stand against him. He is my enemy, and I will not worship him. He is not good. He is not wise. He is not God.