Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Faith Seeking Understanding now on Amazon!

Hallelujah! Our newest book, Faith Seeking Understanding: Essays in Memory of Paul Brand and Ralph D. Winter, is finally available on Amazon!
It might be presumptuous to ask, "Spread the word!"  But I hope you will.  (Including by reviews on Amazon.) 
This is a wonderful book, I do believe. It includes thought-provoking essays by the likes of Philip Yancey, quantum physicist Don Page, Oxford historian of science Allan Chapman, missiologist Miriam Adeney, astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, and Chinese reformer Yuan Zhiming. (Though some of my favorites are by lesser-known writers.) My own essay is called "The Fingerprints of Jesus."  The book also contains conversations with pioneering Christian thinkers Alvin Plantinga, Rodney Stark, and Don Richardson.
The book provides a gentle, personal, and thoughtful introduction to tough questions about life and our world in light of the Gospel. 

 Here are reviews by Penn State historian Philip Jenkins

"David Marshall has gathered a really distinguished array of contributors, who have all thought deeply about faith in its global context, and the different essays work wonderfully well together. The book makes a splendid memorial to two truly great individuals, Paul Brand and Ralph Winter."

And Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff

"What makes the collection especially fascinating and valuable is the individuality and particularity of the stories -- a concrete testimony to the fact that the Christian intellectual life takes many forms."

If you haven't read the book yet, whoever you are, you'll almost certainly enjoy it. (That's the first time I've made that claim about one of my books to a general audience.)  
If you have read it, reviews on Amazon are very welcome, even if they are critical at some points.  
Please tell people what you honestly think!
Faith Seeking Understanding is a great book to give away to non-Christian or Christian friends.  It'd also make a very meaty, but enjoyable, study book for an adult Bible study, or for a college group.
Honestly, I think there is more food for thought packed into this one volume, than almost any other book I know. 
I'll be on the road next month, sharing some of the themes from this book: in Missouri, Ohio, Michigan, and Wyoming, at least.  More on that, later. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Aslan vs. the Lion of Judah

I received a hot new bestseller in the mail from Amazon yesterday afternoon, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan.  This book, which is ranked near the top on Amazon, attacks the credibility of the Christian story.  This puts me in happy warrior mode. ("I love the smell of napalm in the afternoon.")  Having read 30 pages of Aslan's expose so far, let's blog through it, like General Sherman through Georgia. 

The book's introduction is quite different from its prologue and first two chapters.  In the introduction, Aslan makes a series of dogmatic claims that are either assumptions, conclusions, or some combination of the two.  (It is not clear yet which of them he will provide an argument for.)  After that, Aslan settles down to describe the geo-political scenery of ancient Israel in the Roman Empire and tell his imaginatively reconstructed story, beginning with an assassination at the temple in Jerusalem in 56 AD. 

Aslan's introduction is so full of what seem to me daft claims -- less densely packed in the rest of the book, apparently -- that scrutinizing those claims will occupy us for the rest of this post. 

* In an Author's Note to begin the book -- that's three prefaces, total -- Aslan tells his own story of fleeing Iran after the Iranian Revolution, accepting Jesus at a camp in northern California, then losing his Christian faith under the pressure of scholarly study.  Rather than "burden" the reader with arguments on both sides, Aslan promises to feed his little chickadees, I mean offer his readers, only "what I believe to be the most accurate and reasonable argument, based on my two decades of scholarly research into the New Testament and early Christian history."

So we are asked to trust Aslan's authority about what is accurate and reasonable in New Testament scholarship.  But what is that authority?  It turns out that while Aslan has read some scholarly books on the subject, this alleged "two decades of scholarly research" rather exaggerates his credentials.  And of course, even people with four decades of scholar research AND publications -- which Aslan does not have, having written very little on the subject previously -- often offer crackpot theories, with which those who follow the field are painfully familiar.  So on what basis does Aslan ask his readers to just trust him?  Why should we?

In fact, Aslan offers attentive readers many reasons not to trust him, in this introduction. 

* It is almost unanimously agreed that, with the possible exception of Luke-Acts, the gospels were not written by the people for whom they are named . . .

This underlines the probable limits of Aslan's scholarship.  Many scholars in fact argue that the Gospel of John probably was written by a disciple named John, with the aid of a secretary or student.  Quite a few scholars also believe that Mark was written by a disciple of Peter's named Mark.  So apparently Aslan has mostly been reading scholars who agree with his orientation.  Indeed, the bibliography at the back of the book cites more than one book by sixteen scholars: Rudolf Bultmann, Delbert Burkett, James Charlesworth, Bruce Chilton, John Crossan, Oscar Cullman, Leon Festinger, Martin Goodman, Adolf Harnack, Martin Hengel, Richard Horsey, Werner Kelber, Gerd Ludemann, Norman Perrin, Stanley Porter, and Geza Vermes.   These are mostly respectable scholars (I have my doubts about Chilton -- his Rabbi Jesus was ghastly).  But they lean strongly in the skeptical direction.  None seem to argue strongly for an orthodox interpretation of the gospel data, as do eminent scholars whose work Aslan does not seem to read, or whose work he apparently reads much less (like Craig Evans or N. T. Wright).

So one should probably put an asterisk besides any claim Aslan makes about "scholarly consensus." 

* The itinerant preacher wandering from village to village clamoring about the end of the world, a band of ragged followers trailing behind, was a common sight in Jesus' time. 

In support of this claim, Aslan cites Celsus, who is in turn quoted by the Christian father Origen in chapters  9-11 of his Contra Celsus.   But as Origen points out, Celsus does not name the person or persons who allegedly said these things -- Origen believes Celsus is making the story up, and imagining what the ancient prophets sounded like.  Maybe so, maybe not.  In any case, can any sensible person read the gospels, and find Celsus' description a fair parallel to Jesus?

To these grand promises are added strange, fanatical, and quite unintelligible words, of which no rational person can find the meaning; for so dark are they as to have no meaning at all; but they give occasion to every fool or imposter to apply them so as to suit his own purposes.

The gospels, by contrast, are filled with unique and beautiful sayings, laden with sense, intelligence, meaning and reason that astound even humanists like Jefferson, Tolstoy, Renan, and Lin Yutang.  Are we supposed to believe that later disciples just invented the Sermon on the Mount, and other great sayings, just to disguise the fanaticism of some tin hat wandering Unabomber?  That seems to be the direction Aslan is heading. 

(Jesus) was a man of profound contradictions . . . sometimes calling for unconditional peace ("Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the sons of God": Matthew 5:9), sometimes promoting violence and conflict ("If you do not have a sword, go sell your cloak and buy one;" Luke 22:36)

A book's introduction is where its author warns his readers what is to come.  These comments do indeed tip the cautious reader off to the kinds of exegetical games we might expect further on. 

Why does Aslan add the adjective "unconditional" before "peace," here?  Jesus did not say, "Blessed are those who make peace regardless of all conditions or states of affairs," which would warrant that adjective.  Neither, of course, does one "promote violence and conflict" by telling people to buy a sword: as most people understand, weapons are often used to PREVENT violence.  This is why the ancient Chinese sage Mozi, who was known for his teaching on love because God is love, was also known (as a military strategist) for arming towns against invaders. 

So Aslan is enlarging mere paradox into contradiction, here.  He seems to want his readers to think the gospels are confused about the character of Jesus, or perhaps suggest that it is arbitrary (so far as gospel texts go) whether we see Jesus as a violent revolutionary or a prophet of love.  We have dealt with those kinds of games from Hector Avalos, before.  ("Jesus Commands Hate!")  The short answer is, one should beware of exegetes who can't see a redwood forest for a single rolling tumbleweed.

The trouble with Paul, however, is that he displays an extraordinary lack of interest in the historical Jesus.

This is unwarranted.  Paul wrote letters of advice about how to live, and about church governance, to young churches.  He did not mention many facts about Jesus' life in those letters, but what is extraordinary about that?  If all we had to go on from Paul's companion, Luke, was his Acts of the Apostles, we might say the same thing about him -- Luke had an extraordinary disinterest in the life of Jesus.  John's letters and Revelations also yield precious little in terms of Jesus' baby pictures or literary reminiscences of Jesus' fishing trips with friends on the Sea of Galilee.  Yet both men also wrote gospels elsewhere, in which they do tell Jesus' life story.  The fact that an author is capable of sticking to a subject, cannot reasonably be taken as evidence that he is disinterested in other subjects.  Besides which, Paul does seem to echo Jesus' ethical teachings, along with reflecting on the account of the Last Supper, Crucifixion and Resurrection. 

With the possible exception of the gospel of Luke, none of the gospels we have were written by the person after whom they are named.

Again, to this point at least, Aslan simply asks us to believe his dogmatic statement.  Early Christians, who were closer to the facts than we are, ought I think to know better.  I check Aslan's bibliography, and find no mention of Richard Bauckham's ground-breaking Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.  Until he interacts with the arguments in that book, I frankly don't think his opinion on the subject is worth a whole lot. 

The gospels are not, nor were they ever meant to be, a historical documentation of Jesus' life.

Both statements are flatly and palpably untrue.  On the latter, consider for instance Luke's prologue:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.  Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

What would Luke have to say to make it any plainer that he intends to offer an historical account of Jesus' life?  (And John makes a similar statement.) 

As for whether those accounts actually ARE historical, I imagine Aslan is going to try to debunk that notion later in the book.  Well, fine.  That is an anvil that has worn out many hammers, as the saying goes.  I've had my say, in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could.  I see Aslan cites a few of our old friends from that book, like Marcus Borg and John Crossan. 

They are testimonies of faith composed by communities of faith and written many years after the events they describe.  Simply put, the gospels tell us about Jesus the Christ, not Jesus the man.

Another dogma Aslan is apparently going to try to defend.  (Or will he?  Or is this another fact for which he asks us to simply trust him?)  This is going to be a tough one, though.  We are going to have to forget the palpable, unforgettable humanity of the man we have encountered in the gospels, so vivid and real that even great humanists, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists cannot help but be amazed and deeply affected.  Making us fail to see Jesus the man is going to take some powerful, bewitching magic. 

The most widely accepted theory on the formation of the gospels, the "Two-Source Theory," holds that Mark's account was written first sometime after 70 C. E. . . .

Depends on whom you let yourself read.  Many would place Mark much, much earlier. 

Mark had at his disposal a collection of oral and perhaps a handful of written traditions that had been passed around by Jesus' earliest followers for years.

The word "tradition" here always sticks in my throat.  Even if Mark wrote in 75 BC, if the disciples were younger than Jesus -- as most of them probably would have been, that's the nature of revolutionary movements -- many would still be only in their early 60s by this time.  Does one call the testimony of someone that age a "tradition," or a "report?"  The word "tradition," while "traditional" in scholarly circles, seems designed to fool readers into assuming the gap in reporting time was wider than it really was. 

Two decades after Mark, between 90 and 100 CE, the authors of Matthew and Luke, working independently of each other . . . 

That late?  Maybe Aslan is following Crossan's chronology in The Historical Jesus.  We'll see if he attempts to back up "working independently."  (Also for Aslan's casual acceptance of Q, that comes in the same paragraph.)  He does not do so in the notes to his introduction, at the end of the book.

The Synoptics . . . greatly at odds with the fourth gospel, John, which was likely written soon after the close of the first century, between 100 and 120 CE.

Again, Aslan appears to follow Crossan in this extraordinarily late dating.  But the first extant copy of a portion of John, the Rylands Library Papyrus P52, comes to us probably from just a few years past this end date.  And John is cited by Christians and Gnostics already early in the 2nd Century, at the latest.  Ignatius of Antioch, who died in 107, appears to draw from the Gospel of John.  There is even better evidence that Justin Martyr cited the Gospel of John.  Are we to imagine early Christians finding a brand new text, with the smell of fresh papyrus still on it, and saying, "Hello!  Didn't see this before!  John wrote a book?  Wonderful, let's make it the heart of the self-expression of our Christianity!" 

Greatly at odds?  Well, certainly Jesus' language is often quite different in John than in the Synoptics.  But his personality, teachings, miracles, death and resurrection are the same.  In fact, I found that John shares almost all 50 characteristics that define the canonical gospels.   Many of those traits would not have been purposely designed, but are like fingerprints or DNA left at a crime scene, showing that a unique person had been there.  (See "The Fingerprints of Jesus" in Faith Seeking Understanding.)

These, then, are the canonical gospels.  But they are not the only gospels.

Yes, they are, as I show in The Truth About Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels.'  The word "gospel" is attached to certain Gnostic texts not for descriptive purposes, but to fool people by making radically different texts sound as if they were the same kinds of thing.

I compared the "Gospel of Thomas," which is supposed to be the closest such parallel in the Gnostic canon, to the four gospels across those 50 characteristics.  Thomas shares five to seven of their traits.  I found that Thomas shared LESS in common with the gospels than even such works as China's Journey to the West or Tacitus' Agricola -- in ways relevant to the etymological meaning of the word "gospel."  Thomas is no gospel (it does not even contain "news," still less "good news"), even less are any other works in the Nag Hammadi corpus.  One might say that ship has sailed, but actually, it has been underwater for 2000 years. 

In the end, there are only two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely: the first is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century CE; the second is that Rome crucified him for doing so.

By my count, that's nine facts, not two.

By themselves these two facts cannot provide a complete portrait of the life of a man who lived two thousand years ago. But when combined with all we know about the tumultuous era in which Jesus lived . . . these two facts can help paint a picture of Jesus of Nazareth that may be more historically accurate than the one painted by the gospels.

We can infer, from the times, that
Ben Franklin was a semi-literate
religious revolutionary, and that
stories of his extraordinary deeds
are legendary. 
What do we need biographies for, when we have history?  The full life and works of Ben Franklin can be inferred from the fact that he helped lead a popular American movement in the 18th Century, that he died in Philadelphia, and from the tumultuous times in which he lived.

Warning: Imaginations-Run-Wild Crossing.   

A zealous revolutionary swept up, as all Jews of the era were, in the religious and political turmoil of first-century Palestine . . .

Hardly.  Most Jews of the era didn't even live in Palestine.  And many who did, were farmers or herders or fisherman, and lived their lives and died without being "swept up" in anything.  (And to be really precise, most Jews of the time didn't live past the age of five.)  So this is just empty chatter. 

Crucifixion was a punishment that Rome reserved almost exclusively for the crime of sedition.

Apparently not. 

Three rebels on a hill covered in crosses, each cross bearing the racked and bloodied body of a man who dared defy the will of Rome.  That image alone should cast doubt upon the gospels' portrait of Jesus as a man of unconditional peace almost wholly insulated from the political upheavals of his time.

Again, we get this false dichotomy, by which Aslan attempts to force his readers like sheep into a pen to be fleeced.  Aslan begin with language that begs the question.   Of course if Jesus really was a "rebel" who "defied the will of Rome," that truly would undermine any claim that he was "wholly insulated from political upheavals."  Just as if Mr. Aslan really were a lion, that would render any picture of him without fur or a tail suspicious.  But that is a question to be established, not begged.   

And (by such sharp contrast) do the gospels really portray Jesus as "a man of unconditional peace?"  Of course not.  Jesus told us that if someone strikes us on one cheek, we should turn the other cheek.  He told us to love our enemies, and pray for those who despitefully use us.  He did not instruct soldiers he met to go AWOL.  Aslan has himself already cited two gospel passages in which Jesus tells his disciples to buy swords, and saying that he did NOT come to bring peace.  Does Aslan imagine that that authors of the gospels left those sayings in by accident? 

As for "wholly insulated from the political upheavals," that is flaming nonsense.  30 AD is not 66 AD, and the gospel writers do not present Palestine at quite such an advanced stage of ferment.  But Jesus is shown as interacting with both radicals and collaborators, and is, in the end, crucified by Romans.  He was not a political rebel, but if Aslan had read more NT Wright, or the gospels themselves more attentively, he ought to realize how absurd it is to pretend his life is hermetically sealed from the great events occurring around him, or that he expressed no interest in them.  (What was that about a vineyard and unjust tenants, again?)   

Thus began the long process of transforming Jesus from a revolutionary Jewish nationalist into a peaceful spiritual leader with no interest in any earthly matter.

Again, notice that Aslan gives us only two diametrically opposed options, one of which is plainly, palpably absurd, so as to force us into the other. 

Jesus was peaceful, yes.  But only a blind man (of whom Jesus cured several, though Aslan is still waiting) could claim that Jesus therefore had "no interest in any earthly matter."  I don't need to beat this dead horse, since anyone can read the gospels for themselves and see that Jesus talked a lot about money, for instance.   

We have not even finished the introduction, and I already find myself growing tired of this man's conceits and deceits.  Let me throw the rest in a stew and cook it in one mass, so we can move on:

The task is somewhat akin to putting together a massive puzzle with only a few of the pieces in hand; one has no choice but to fill in the rest of the puzzle based on the best, most educated guess of what the completed image should look like  . . . If we expose the claims of the gospels to the heat of historical analysis, we can purge the scriptures of their literary and theological flourishes and forge a far more accurate picture of the Jesus of history.  Indeed, if we commit to placing Jesus firmly within the social, religious, and political context of the era in which he lived . . . in some ways, his biography writes itself . . . the only Jesus that we can access by historical means.  Everything else is a matter of faith.

So apparently the proper method for writing a biography of an ancient sage consists of throwing out all the earliest historical records, reasons unspecified.  Snatch a few facts out first that relate to the times, framing the rest of the story -- the parts you threw out -- in simplistic and silly terms, so your readers won't be tempted to go back to those accounts.  Read up on ancient politics and pull out a story line that, 2000 years after the fact, you find important to your two or nine (don't bother counting carefully) chosen facts.  Use whatever tidbits of history catch your fancy, to deconstruct the ancient biographies.  (Ignoring most scholarship that supports the truth of what you have dumped.) 

Then if any readers persist in believing the early records, rather than your "reconstruction," they, not you, are incorrigible faith-heads. 

Can't say we haven't been warned. 

If the Introduction is a tornado of tendentiousness, the main body of this work builds into turpitude more slowly, but with potentially more power, like a hurricane.  So storm-watchers, let's go on to the first half of the book itself. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Darwin's Doubt: A Pox on Both Houses!

(Not the people inside!)
Steven Meyer, Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (*** first draft)
As you can see from reviews on Amazon so far, bias goes a long ways to determining how many stars reviews of this book will get.  If you hate ID, this book is one-star trash.  If you love ID, it's a 5-star masterpiece.  There doesn't seem to be much room in between, and the subject seems to make a lot of people testy. 

The best review for a reader who wants to get at the truth of the matter might be one from someone who is balanced between prejudices.  I'm kind of in that state.  On the one hand, I'm an historian (not scientist, some people even use the word "apologist") and a Christian who believes there is plenty of evidence that God works in history through things called miracles.  So it's no skin off my nose if He also monkeyed with prehistory.   On the other hand, this business of God tweaking genes and proteins and even sugars billions of times so some luckless also-ran in the Race of Life could wiggle across a Cambrian bed, die, and leave no descendants, seems like an odd theodicy, to put it mildly.  God is not obliged to explain Himself to me, but on the face of it, I would almost more expect Him to design laws by which matter creates than to do all this constant, dead-end fiddling on the micro-level. 

So those are my biases -- as in Warring States China, or the city-states of Greece, opposing forces might one hopes allow for occasional balance. 

This book is better than Meyer's last book, I think, because it is more cogent and to the point.  Rather than wasting hundreds of pages on remedial biology and personal anecdotes as he did in Signature in the Cell, this time Meyer gets mostly to the point, and stays focused almost all the way through.  It's a tougher scramble, therefore, with more elevation gain. 

His arguments, you will see explained elsewhere.   He argues from paleontology that the Cambrian critters appeared quite quickly, in numerous body forms, from few obvious predecessors, where there ought to be many, he claims.  Most of the rest of the book argues from cell biology, genetics, and related fields that life cannot really adapt, on ordinary evolutionary mechanisms, so quickly and creatively.  He rebuts contrary arguments, then explains why he finds Intelligent Design a viable option. 

You will have no trouble finding dismissive reviews.  The most prominent here is by Dr. Donald Prothero: you can also find rebuttals to Prothero's arguments from the Discovery Institute folks.  To my mind, Prothero's review is overly blustering, and he makes many sloppy errors, even getting Meyer's academic field wrong.  Nicholas Matzke's off-site review seems calmer and more reasonable, and also more substantive.  Casey Luskin shows that Matzke is extremely sloppy in many of his accusations against this book, getting quite a bit just wrong, but it seems to me Luskin focuses mostly on minor errors, rather than major criticisms.    

So are the critics right? 

Along with much chaff, it seems to me that some of their points may constitute harvestable grain:

(1) Meyer should have mentioned the "small shellies," creatures of various phyla that have been found in pre-Cambrian rocks, more prominently, and discussed them in more detail.  His failure to do so is a major, but by no means fatal lapse. (Yes, he does mention the worms.) 

(2) Clearer visual representations of the pre-Cambrian "tree of life" as depicted by Meyer's opponents should have been provided.  The graphics seem a little weak to me; but then again, so are my eyes. 

(3) More emphasis on the general tendency, in that tree, of life to increase in complexity, from pre-Cambrian to Cambrian, would not have been amiss.

(4) Nitzke's main complaint seems to be that Meyer has slighted many early forms that can and should be viewed as transitional.  I see little in Luskin or Berlinski so far to undermine that complaint. 

(5) I agree that "what exactly is supposed to have happened" is a weak point in the ID position -- more than a point, a whole continent of obscurity.  One of my favorite sayings, however, is Confucius' "To know what you know, and know what you don't know, this is knowledge."  So this, too, does not really wreck Meyer's argument for me.  

(6) Meyer seemed to pussy-foot around the issue of common ancestry, unless I missed a clear statement and argument, somehow.  I know this is a "wedge" issue for ID supporters, but really, there is a time for politics and a time for clarity, and this is the time for the latter. 

On the other hand:
(7) After reading Meyer's book, plus the back-and-forth, the Cambrian Explosion remains striking to me, and "explosion" seems to fit just fine. 

(8) For Meyer, paleontology seems primarily to act as a set-up to the really crucial issues he discusses later, such as the difficulty of either evolution by slow steps, or some sort of "hopeful monster" that will transform basic body types quickly and dramatically.  That's always seemed like a weak point in Neo-Darwinism to me (I wrote about it six years ago in The Truth Behind the New Atheism), and I think Meyer is effective in pounding that point home. 

(9) Another chapter deal with cellular information not carried by the genome: I didn't know much about this, and found it interesting.  (Though it is not clear to me yet that this precludes evolutionary mechanisms.) 

(10) The chapters on alternative quasi-Darwinian proposals seemed of less importance to me: Kaufman's approach seems obviously marginal.  Contrary to Prothero, Meyer does not at all deny that Steven Jay Gould was a firm believer in evolution. 

This is a bold and sweeping work.  It is definitely worth reading.  But let me encourage readers, whatever they think of ID, to do so skeptically about their own position as well as opposing views.  Have no patience for vitriol and social appeals that warp reason, or for "I don't know anything about science but Meyer really kicked Evolution into the next county" type commentary.  The fossils are what they are, the genome is what it is, and the more I read, the less I am sure that I know, or that any mortal really knows, quite what happened to bring about life in all its glory on this pale blue planet.  "It is the glory of God to hide a matter, and the glory of kings to seek it out," as Solomon said, a passage Francis Bacon quoted to help kick-start the scientific enterprise. 

Suggested reentry: read EO Wilson's Naturalist, and GK Chesterton's Orthodoxy, and relax a little.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Dalai Lama on How Religions Relate.

"I'm afraid I'm going to have to sit between
the two of you until you stop pulling each
other's robes!" 
I've just finished listening to the Dalai Lama's Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World's Religions Can Come Together, read in a suitably understated manner by Richard Gere.  Aside from his autobiography, for me this has so far been his most interesting book.  Of course that is largely because the subject of the book is in my field. 

In this little review, I'll describe the strengths and weaknesses of the Dalai Lama's approach to world religions.  (Without any quotes -- one of the problems with listening to books on tape!)  Then in response, I'll offer twenty suggestions for how Christians should understand and deal with "competing faiths" or "our brother religions."

How Should Religions Relate?

The Dalai Lama assumes the standard typology of models for how religions relate to one another: exclusivism, inclusivism, pluralism.  He has practically nothing to say about the second, and almost nothing good to say about the first.  (Which is ironic, since as I will explain below, he reveals himself to be an exclusivist.)  However the brand of "pluralism" he espouses is less narrow than some: he does not run roughshod over genuine differences in religions, and does not want the world's faiths to become One (probably not just because he would lose his job!)  He never mentions John Hick, who posits the "Real" as the ineffable reality behind objects of faith (God, Allah, the Dao, etc).  But he does refer to his "friend" the eminent scholar of religions Huston Smith, and takes a similar approach to "the world's religions" (as Smith's best-known book is called).

The best part of this book is probably the stories and quotations.  The Dalai Lama is not one to give us the dirt on his fellows, or even offer interesting sketches of their personalities, as E. O. Wilson does in his Naturalist.  But his comments on other religious leaders, including obscure traditions he has befriended. like Jainism and Sikhism, are still interesting.  And of course it is always interesting when he talks about his own remarkable life. 

When it comes to other religions, the Dalai Lama seems to follow St. Paul's admonition (to take it out of context) that love "hopes all things, believes all things."  When writing about Christianity, he does not mention the Inquisition, and doesn't say much about the Crusades.  (I consider this fortunate, but not for the reason you might suppose -- people say such foolish things about the Crusades, and I don't want to lose respect for the DL!)  The Dalai Lama "accentuates the positive" in all traditions, like Smith, and treats the sins of those who belong to competing faiths as unfortunate failures to live up to their truest ideals.

Like Hick, and Confucius, the DL has an interpretive key by which to understand the world's faiths.  That key is compassion.  He moves his spotlight from religion to religion with what seems to me genuine charity of spirit, picking out beautiful sayings, customs and teachings in Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism, and yes secular democracy.  (He mentions "totalitarian communism" once, without saying anything good about it, however!)   This does not feel cloying, because he recognizes differences, and often singles out particular teachers for admiration on particular points, which seems genuine to me.  He is editing the world's religions, but does not seem to be disassembling. 

Catholic theologian Gavin D'Costa has persuasively argued that there really is no such thing as pluralism.  Everyone has some fundamental beliefs or concepts or maps by which we understand the world, the truth of which necessarily excludes beliefs that do not agree with it.  Even if I say, "All religions are equally true!"  That excludes any religion that claims some are grossly in error.  D'Costa especially takes John Hick to task for what the former scholar describes as "Enlightenment Exclusivism," which he considers more narrow-minded than many other forms.  But in the same book, D'Costa also argues effectively that the Dalai Lama is an exclusivist, too. 

I think this book supports that analysis, both the Dalai Lama's theory, and his concrete examples.  While recognizing differences in ontology, the DL focuses on morality, in effect subjecting all other traditions to his own ultimate moral value of "compassion." 

Does compassion really unite the world's religions?  The New Testament refers some 300 times to "love."  Is love the same thing as Buddhist compassion?  I am not sure that it is, exactly -- especially in schools of Buddhism that deny the reality of the Other, or lack the concept of a bodhisattva.  (Oddly, the DL never directly mentions Theraveda Buddhism.)  But let's say those two concepts are pretty close.  Let's also admit that for Confucius, the idea of Ren (仁), love or humanity, was also vitally important, and that long before St. John, the Chinese philosopher Mo Zi said that since Heaven was love, we, too, should love one another. (In part by helping them build defensive weapons against attacks from enemy states!) 

What about Aztec religion?  What should a Buddhist say about a religion whose most pious annual display involved cutting out the hearts of thousands of enemies on the top of a pyramid, for Heaven and Earth to see?  Or was that a perversion of genuine Aztec faith, which was really at its "heart" all about holding hands and whispering sweet nothings and working for Habitat for Humanity?   What about the shaman in Amazonia who said, "All we shamans know the spirits are happiest when we kill?" 

What about the Nazis?  Hitler said he "loved" the German nation.  Not a religion?  Then what about Jim Jones' Peoples' Temple?

The DL never mentions these guys.  Hick avoids them like the plague, too. 

All right, they weren't "great religions."  (Apparently by "great" we mean "big?")  So was compassion really the heart and soul of Mohammed's ethics?  Well let's be compassionate towards Brian Barrington, if he happens to be reading this, and skip that one, this time. 

Some will say, in response, "What about Joshua?"  Sure, but my point isn't to defend the Bible right now, but to check the Dalai Lama's alleged "pluralism" for signs of exclusivism.  And indeed, he builds his Procrustean Bed, and pads it with compassion.  His dialogue buddies in various-colored robes who affirm the blend of philosophical Tibetan Buddhism and liberalism that he preaches in public forums, paste nice sayings and photo ops from religious dialogue conferences above that bed.

So we're all nice and cozy.  But compassion is not a full description of the world's religious ethical systems.  The Dalai Lama seems to be projecting his kindly views on everyone else, and maybe engaging in wishful thinking. 

As a Christian, of course I think the DL is right in thinking that we should treat one another kindly and look for the good in one another.  At times, he provides a good model of what that should mean.  As a practical program, he's a little vague about what precisely should be done, but most of us can agree that we should "Love our neighbors as ourselves." When details come up (global warming, missions or no missions, how to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict), difficulties emerge with them.  The DL thinks missions are unloving: I think they are the soul of compassion, when done right.  (I also notice that this is the second book in which the DL talks about Christian missions in Tibet, without mentioning how Christians were persecuted.)  So there are differences when it comes to applying compassion.  There are other moral values besides compassion, which may compete with it.  And even on the level of theory, let's not just assume everyone does in fact begin with "love your neighbor as yourself" -- for many of us, "Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength" comes first, and gives number two meaning. 

The Dalai Lama is a man of great experience, and I think noble spirit.  Having read his mother's autobiography, I second his suggestion that he probably that partly from her.  His call to compassion is worthy of great respect.  May God bless him for many good works he has done, of which this book I think represents one -- the attempt to encourage people of all religions to, as Rodney King put it, "Get along."  It may sound jejune, but it is hardly uncalled for. 

But intellectually, I don't think he takes us too much further than that.  Nor could he: speaking on behalf of all the world's "great" faiths, almost any direction he pushed that envelope, and it would likely break. 

So based on my own study, let me suggest a series of twenty guidelines that may help Christians better understand and deal with non-Christian faiths.  These formulations will be concise, if not terse: I have gone into greater detail elsewhere (here, for instance) on most of them.  .

Twenty Guidelines on the World's Religions

(1) Love God, and "love your neighbor as yourself."  God comes first.  By "neighbor," it is highly unlikely that Jesus meant Ganesha or Poseidon or Dialectical Materialism.  He meant the people who worship these shibboleths.  And by love he meant seeking the true good of the beloved. 

(2) Be mule-like, when it comes to telling the truth.  "Speak the truth in love" balances these first two principles. 

(3) There is both good and bad in all traditions: if you want to be honest, you cannot ignore either.   If you do ignore one or the other, you will become an exclusivist or a pluralist as the words are commonly used, and not fully connect to the people you are called to love. 

(4) "Religion" is best understood (for comparative purposes) as what Paul Tillich called an "ultimate concern."  By that definition, everyone has a religion.  Some worship God, others worship money, evolution, their own minds, sex, Kali, or Apollo. 

(5) Be honest (at least in your mind, there is also a time for tact) about religious founders.  Some seem to have been highly admirable people, in the ordinary way of speaking (of course Jesus went deeper, when he said no one is truly good): Confucius, Lao Zi, Epictetus, and Socrates among others.  Some are hard to know, historically, like Siddhartha Buddha himself.  Most of what we are told about him seems shrouded in mystery, coming from much later texts, and while I believe Siddhartha was an historical figure, I am unsure what he was like.  Other religious founders are, frankly, creeps and psychopaths. 

Which, of course, doesn't mean you have to call them that, when dialoguing with their followers.  But also don't lie. 

(6) Religions are defined in one of three ways: (a) by the personality, acts, and teachings of their founders, (b) by their canonical Scriptures or teachings, and (c) by their developed traditions.  Conservatives concentrate on the first or especially the second.  Liberals concentrate on the third.  Then these two groups argue past one another.  So if you are a liberal and want to talk about religion with a conservative, make sure you're both defining it the same way, first -- and vice versa.

(7) Sometimes (a) is greater than (c), in terms of its influence on a given "believer."   Sometimes (c) predominates over (a).  So calling someone a "Muslim" or a "Buddhist" does not by itself tell you what that person believes: to know that, you need to ask questions.  (Most people are happy to answer such questions.) 

(8) As Adam Smith recognized, and the Dalai Lama seems to agree, a free market in faiths is like an economic free market.  Freedom accomplishes two goods: it prevents monopolies that oppress, and it tends to lead to greater flourishing.  For both of these reasons, a free market of faiths -- many churches competing freely for members -- is the optimal situation.  Not only does it allow people to weigh claims and choose for themselves, it also encourages more general piety than an oppressive religious monopoly.  (See the works of Rodney Stark for copious examples.) 

(9) Jesus said he came to "fulfill" (πληρου) the Law and the Prophets.  This means he consummated and deepened the central truths of the Jewish tradition.  It also means God "set Israel up" for Christ's coming.  It follows that it is untrue to say that for Christians, "Christianity is the only true faith."  Christianity recognizes Judaism, in some form at least, as also being true, though not as full a truth as the Gospel.

(10) Jesus also fulfills the deepest truths in other traditions around the world, often in remarkable ways.  (A topic I have written extensively on.)  This does not mean he "fulfills world religions," because truth within a tradition is not the same as the whole religion.   

(11)  God transcends individual cultures.  Awareness of God shows up in traditions on every continent, as St. Paul and Augustine forecast. 

(12) One should also look to traditions around the world for the symbol of the tree, and of sacrifice, sometimes upon that tree.   This often serves as divine preparation for the Gospel, as it did in Greek, Germanic, and Indian cultures, for examples. 

(13) One also sometimes finds prophecies that the greatest sage or son of God would die and then rise again from the dead.  These have also pointed many "pagans" to Christ. 

(14) The Gospel unites the story of humanity.  It also often unites the stories of individual civilizations, as is show in Hebrews, Augustine's City of God, Dream of the Rood, Farquhar's Crown of Hinduism, Richardson's Peace Child, and Yuan Zhiming's China's Confession, among others. 

(15) The Gospel is, however, dialectical in its relation to religious traditions.  Yes, Jesus fulfills.  But he also judges, sifts, and critiques harmful elements.  Then he brings what has superficially died to a fuller life, like a seed in the ground that grows into a fruitful tree. 

(16)  Often, one finds in "pagan" religious traditions, beliefs and customs and legends that point to Jesus in such a clear way, that one suspects God has planted them there for that very purpose.

(17) It is reasonable to argue from those artifacts, to the truth of the Gospel -- as does the Bible, as did the early Christians, and as did many great missionaries. 

(18) The Gospel also brings reform to every tradition, when it is accepted even in part.  The Dalai Lama should read the history of missions in Asia, to appreciate how deeply his own part of the world has been transformed by Christ's influence.  Of course, much more remains to be changed, including in western cultures. 

(19) Christ also synthesizes disparate truths within each culture, and in human traditions generally.  In the metaphor of Clement of Alexandria, the body of truth has been dismembered, with each school grabbing a part, but Jesus brings many truths into one in his resurrected body. 

(20) Missions is therefore justified, is commanded by Jesus himself, and should be an act of compassion.  The proof of that compassion, and the effectiveness of missions, depends on genuinely befriending other traditions from one's heart.  People of Asian cultures in particular, will almost never listen to a missionary who does not first demonstrate that he comes as a friend to their culture as well as to them individually.   

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Chesterton: The Rolling English Road.

Here's a poem I used to read to my Japanese students.  It's one of my favorites.  It was maybe a little over their heads, but delightful for alliteration, wit, for its subtle seriousness married to fun, and of course because English roads really do look like that.  And the last lines are Tolkien's eucatastrophe, wedded to the romance of ordinary life, and ultimate Christian hope. 

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;
But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made,
Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands,
The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands.

His sins they were forgiven him; or why do flowers run
Behind him; and the hedges all strengthening in the sun?
The wild thing went from left to right and knew not which was which,
But the wild rose was above him when they found him in the ditch.
God pardon us, nor harden us; we did not see so clear
The night we went to Bannockburn by way of Brighton Pier.

My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.
OK, they have a few straight ones, too. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

PHLAP! PHilosophy of Lazy APologetics.

Sometimes the question of why interact with pop Gnus with strange arguments, like John Loftus or Richard Carrier, comes up.  I noticed this morning that I'd explained my thinking on this on an obscure forum at this already obscure blog a few months ago pretty succinctly.

Sam: You really need to ignore John Loftus. He's nothing but a pseudo intellectual crackpot borderline narcissist.

David: We're all borderline narcissists, Sam. If I ignore the narcissists, I'll have to go join the nihilists, if they'll have me.

I think John raises interesting questions. I think those questions, properly understood, can help point people to the truth. I don't rebut Loftus because his arguments are terrifying, I rebut him because they are promising.

And the same, I think, should go for rebutting Avalos, Carrier, Dawkins, Dennett, Ehrman, Harris, Pagels, Price, etc.  Sometimes they represent challenges -- and let's be honest enough to admit those challenges -- but nineteen times out of twenty, they represent opportunities.  That's because the truth usually consists not of just saying, "You're wrong," but "You're right as well as wrong, and you haven't yet seen the quarter of it." 

In other words, low-hanging fruit often tastes sweet, and one can gather a lot of it quickly.

Call that, my Philosophy of Lazy Apologetics.  (PHLAP) 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Hector Avalos debunks all historical knowledge.

Sergeant Avalos: "We know nu-theeng!" 
Perhaps the phrase "cut off your nose to spite your face" was coined with atheists of a logical positivist mindset in mind.  Logical positivism, or scientism, is the doctrine that the only really useful way of finding truth is through science, or through direct sensual testing of physical objects. 

The unstudied contempt Richard Dawkins sometimes seems to express towards disciplines like history, philosophy, and theology, may make him our generation's patron saint of scientism.  But some scholars who are not themselves scientists, who in fact spend years studying and writing about history, in effect deny the very history from which they gain a living.

Some seem to do this in order to deny that miracles really happen.  By definition, miracles are historical reports, unrepeatable because God does them when He wants to, not because we add 200 grams of the right reactant to a test tube, or pray loudly in Jesus' name, facing Mecca and standing on one leg in a graveyard.  So the reasoning seems to be (whether conscious or not): deny that history can furnish us with real knowledge at all, and you can deny miracles, and God, with a clean conscience and perfect logical consistency. 

At any rate, once one gets beyond petty personal attacks, that seemed to be Hector Avalos' strategy in his response earlier this year to me, "Alexander the Great, Jesus, and David Marshall: A Simpleton's Approach to History."  (I bring it up now, because an historian-in-training named Matthew Ferguson -- Celsus on Amazon, who I think has visited these pages before, to I hope his immense embarrassment -- cited this article recently, in a discussion that some friends pointed out.) 

I actually think the subtitle of Avalos' article here is catchy, and deadly accurate.  What Avalos betrays, not so much in the article itself (which is pettifogging and irrelevant, more on that later), but in the comments section below it, after some interrogation, is indeed a "simpleton's approach to history."  The simplest thing one can do to history, is deny it.  "History is bunk!"  Which, while foolish, also rather impressive, coming from someone who makes his living teaching history.

Your nose may hurt for a while.  But will this ever embarrass your face! 

Back Story

Dr. Avalos and I have traded arguments, and sometimes barbs, for three years, now.  Four months ago, in a discussion about the resurrection of Jesus by Avalos, a former debate partner also of William Lane Craig, I came across the following intriguing line of reasoning:

Of course, we have no “existing knowledge” that there was an empty tomb, or that Jesus resurrected.  These are simply claims made by ancient authors. We have no existing knowledge that people resurrect, but that does not stop (William Lane) Craig from positing something that is not “existing knowledge.”
On the other hand, people lying, having hallucinations, and not dying after severe  injuries are part of our existing knowledge, and so can be used as explanations where the evidence fits.
By that standard, we also have no "existing knowledge" that Alexander the Great faced elephants on the battlefield in India, or that Confucius climbed Mount Tai in the state of Lu.  These, too, are "simply claims made by ancient authors."

But again, the question is not "whether people resurrect," but whether God (an all-powerful, benevolent being) may have resurrected one or more people.  One needs to be careful not to phrase this to make a miracle sound like spontaneous combustion, or some other arbitrary, inexplicable event. 

Craig Keener argues, in effect, that miracles may also be taken as part of our existing knowledge.  Certainly I have met far more people who have experienced miracles, than who have hallucinated on the scale required to explain the resurrection appearances, or who have survived crucifixion and then been well enough to walk through walls to tell the story afterwards.

Avalos responded not by answering the main substance of my argument (of which this was a part) but by turning the full force of his scholarly apparatus on a casual phrase here that he found vulnerable.  He wrote a long article for Deconstructing Christianity in "response" entitled, "Alexander the Great, Jesus, and David Marshall: A Simpleton's Approach to History," focusing almost entirely on my fairly off-the-cuff example of Alexander's visit to India. (Which no, did not occur to me because of Josh McDowell.) 

Let us suppose, for the sake of the argument, that I really am a simpleton.  In my simple way, let me point out that the real question is not about Marshall, Craig, Alexander the Great, or elephants in India, but whether we have reason to believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead -- and whether we know anything about history, in general. 

So I pressed Avalos.  After going down many tangents, I extracted the following confession:

But, if you wish a more direct answer, then I am saying that claims by ancient authors “or human witnesses generally” DO NOT constitute “KNOWLEDGE” unless corroborated by independent empirico-rationalist evidence.

So what does constitute "knowledge?"  What, if anything, can we "know?" Avalos explained:

I use the word KNOW only for the highest types of available certainty, which would be conclusions that I can directly verify with one or more of my five senses and/or logic on the presupposition that those faculties can provide reliable data.

Now this opens quite a can of worms. 

Does that mean no school child "knows" that Washington, D. C. is America's capital, because that knowledge depends entirely on other witnesses?   Or does any adult though that, even the president at the White House?  Obama cannot verify that he lives in Washington by logic or senses alone, without human testimony.  His aides are human as were his teachers.  Look at a map, and people put those names on the map.  I don't "know" that I have lungs, since I rely on authority and human testimony for that "pseudo-knowledge."  Practically none of us "knows" that Mars has two small moons, or that Uranus exists at all.

In fact, it appears that Avalos is thus limiting "knowledge" to things he has himself touched, smelled, tasted, heard, or seen.  But even there, does he mean only those things he senses at this exact moment?  Or is he including things he merely remembers seeing, etc, as "knowledge?"

Note that this definition also undermines his other claim:

On the other hand, people lying, having hallucinations, and not dying after severe  injuries are part of our existing knowledge, and so can be used as explanations where the evidence fits.

But how do I know anyone ever has hallucinations?  I've never had one.  I believe they happen, because other people report them, not because I have witnessed them myself.  In fact on Avalos' premises, the very term "our existing knowledge" is rendered null and void.  There is no "we," since reports from others are no longer genuine "knowledge," which is why Avalos uses the pronoun "I"  above. 

And if we exclude memory, even I "know" about ten things right now, if I attend to them.  (Which I cannot do all at once -- so I can only "know" one thing at a time?)  If Avalos accepts his own memory as providing genuine knowledge, then on what basis does he trust it in addition to his senses?  We all know how fallible that is -- extending Elizabeth Loftus' research on auto accidents to support general skepticism being a familiar plank in the skeptical platform for some time, now.  (I recall arguing about this matter more than a decade ago, when we lived in Japan.) 

In any case, what gives Avalos the right to impose his special definition of "knowledge" on William Lane Craig?  Avalos is using a very special definition of "knowledge."  He has no right to assume everyone else, including myself, Bill Craig, or the readers of DC,  assume that vocabulary. 

For instance, Samuel Johnson said, "Why, Madam, the greater part of our knowledge is implicit faith."  (Life of Johnson, 1917, 382)  As author of a renowned English dictionary, Dr. Johnson ranks higher as an authority on word use than Hector Avalos, and I think higher also as an epistemologist. 

Put bluntly (and here's the logical problem), why should Avalos privilege his own brain processes, over those of other people? Maybe his logically faculties are defective. (Read our previous debates and tell me that is so incredible!) Why should he assume that his own faculties, sensory and cognitive, should be preferred over those of billions of other people?

And is it not true, in practice, that sometimes our senses and reason are less dependable than the authority of another person?   Isn't that why people with bad eyes sometimes ask their children for help making out a prescription? 
So I'm glad for Avalos' attempted rebuttal, however far afield he took the discussion. Eventually we come to a serious problem in his understanding of science, an arbitrary and narrowly-focused skepticism that comports neither with normal word use, nor with reasonable epistemology, nor with common sense, nor hardly even with itself.   One might even describe it as a "simplistic" philosophy.  In embracing this kind of positivism, Avalos may indeed cast doubt on the gospels -- but at the steep price of 99.9% or more of what human beings used to call knowledge.

Indeed, in order to debunk the Resurrection, Hector Avalos seems to have justified the saying of that great German philosopher, Sergeant Shultz:

I know nu-thing! 
Now that's what I call dedication.

(Next, I respond to some of the ankle-biting.)

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Was C. S. Lewis a chicken atheist?

Recently I came across this criticism of C. S. Lewis by secular humanist Patrick Inniss, first published by the Secular Humanist Press.  Boy, does he get a lot wrong: 

You can't delve too deeply into modern Christian apologetics without coming across the name C.S. Lewis.  A few years ago, an evangelical Christian friend presented me with one of Lewis's books, remarking in his inscription that Lewis was "himself once an atheist." Tales of atheists who suffer religious conversions are a staple of true believers. I always listen to such reports attentively because they reveal the level of understanding believers have of atheism.

So let's begin by poisoning the well in a mild way!  Atheists don't convert, they "suffer conversions."  (Lewis might have agreed with that.)  Christians who tell such stories aren't "believers," but "true believers," a nod to the conceit that Christian faith is irrational.   

To my disappointment, I discovered that Lewis doesn't really spend much time talking about atheism in this book.

What book?  This article is being published by the Secular Humanist Press.  Why would they publish an expose of the greatest Christian writer of modern times, and not name the book that is being exposed?  That seems coy. 

If the book is Mere Christianity, as appears likely, why should Lewis spend a lot of time talking about atheism there?  (Or, really, any of his other books.  He talks about his own views as an atheist in Surprised by Joy, and also about the deep respect and affection he had for his tutor, who was an atheist.  But I don't think that's the book Inniss is reading.) 

Despite his claim to have been one himself, his characterizations of atheism are to true atheism what a Tarzan movie is to Africa.  Unfortunately, to millions of Christians who read his works, Lewis's interpretation is the closest they will ever come to a discussion of this topic.

"True Atheism?"  As opposed to what, fake atheism?  My right ear is still tingling from all the sermons by atheists telling me that atheists are not a church, do not have doctrines, disagree about everything except their rejection of God, and cannot be judged by what some wing-nut calling himself an atheist says or does.  Now my left ear has to hear news of a Church of True Atheism, from which C. S. Lewis has, now, apparently been posthumously evicted. 

And how does Inniss know readers of Lewis depend entirely on Lewis for their knowledge of atheism?  This seems improbable -- Mormons make up a similar percentage of the American population, and most of us have talked to a few Mormons in our lives.  And some of the best-selling books of our time are by atheists.  Lewis readers are typically pretty intellectual, and are pretty likely to run into atheists.  How can one not? 

If it is true that Lewis at one time considered himself an atheist, his ignorance of the subject is a glaring indictment of atheism's failure to educate even its own adherents about the true merits of our position. For instance, in Lewis's The Case for Christianity, he makes this ludicrous statement: "When I was an Atheist, I had to persuade myself that the whole human race was pretty good fools until about one hundred years ago."  Perhaps C.S. Lewis, the naïve but skeptical student, could labor under the fantasy that there had been no unbelievers until the nineteenth century, but how could the mature, academician Lewis, expert on the subject of religious philosophy, fail to recognize the history of non-belief, which probably stretches back as far as religion itself?

Of course Lewis was aware of ancient atheists: he had been reading them for years, and often refers to them in his writings. (Mentioning Lucretius, for instance, in a letter to his father in 1916, at the age of 18.) In 1944, he writes in another letter, "Atheism is as old as Epicurus."

 "The whole human race" here, obviously, means "the vast majority of humanity."  That is, to those of us who are not anal, or feel some desperate need to discredit Lewis' testimony. 

But why did the Council for Secular Humanism publish an article on C. S. Lewis by a man who has apparently read so little of his work -- or at any rate, certainly does not know what he thinks about the matter at hand? 

Whom other than atheists did Lewis suppose his Bible was referring to in Psalms 14:1: "The fool hath said in his heart there is no God?" And did he not consider the possibly chilling effect such pronouncements may have had upon expressions along these lines? Did he not draw any conclusion from the fact that the Christian predilection for murdering anyone critical of their faith waned at about the same time he recognizes the appearance of atheism?

Since Lewis "recognized the appearance of atheism" before Christianity, these are all meaningless questions, as regards Lewis.  And again, if Inniss were to bother to get to know the famous writer he is critiquing, he would know that Lewis expresses sorrow over such persecutions, and it is obvious (get to know the man) that that sorrow is sincere. 

Meanwhile, there were millions of Christians in communist countries that practiced much harsher persecution of believers than probably ever occurred towards atheists in pre-modern Europe.

And of course, calling someone a "fool" is not the same as telling you to murder that person.  If insulting people were tantamount to murder, the prison population would have a much higher percentage of atheists in it that secular humanists claim to be the case at present.  (Definition of a "good day" on Pharyngula for a Christian: one only gets called a fool.)  Nor has the murder of atheists has been the norm among Christians, anymore than the murder of Christians has been the norm among atheists with power -- though the latter has, I think, been far more common. 

Lewis must have been one really chicken-* atheist. He certainly didn't bear himself with the confidence I have observed in every atheist I have ever met.

Confidence?  Or unwarranted cockiness? 

Inniss has given no warrant whatsoever for his vague slurs, yet.  But if "confidence" is now suddenly to be ascribed the status of a paramount virtue, I think Lewis' friends would be a little bemused at this criticism, as well.  C. S. Lewis, the most popular lecturer at Oxford University, was hardly a wall flower. 

In Surprised by Joy (now there's a Christian title for you), Lewis characterizes his and others' atheism as follows: "I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Anti-theists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry at God for not existing. I was equally angry at Him for creating a world." This is kind of like having a dog, but hating it for not barking at prowlers—a dilemma no atheist would recognize.

I think Inniss must mean "not" having a dog. 

But of course, human beings are complicated creatures.  Lewis is simply recognizing that complexity, that what we may deny with one part of our minds, we may recognize with another.  St. Paul says the same thing in Romans 1-2.  Jay Budziszewski nurses this insight to great psychological effect in his works, beginning with himself, as yes, a former atheist who he now acknowledges was telling himself fibs.  If "no" atheist is capable of understanding internal moral conflicts, then so much the worse for atheist psychology. 

Though of course Freud was an atheist, and did I believe at least understand this.  Or maybe Freud was a fake atheist, too? 

Any atheist will tell you that she or he could more easily become angry at Bugs Bunny than at God.  Lewis's description defies logic and, of course, logic is what atheism is all about . . .

Lewis taught philosophy at Oxford University, and could run rings around Mr. Inniss when it comes to logic. 

But of course, God is not Bugs Bunny, and that is the point.  No one claims, as Paul did of God, that "we are without excuse" if we do not believe in lisping rabbits.  Lewis was a Christian, and recognized that human beings are in conflict with themselves, including over the source of our being.

As for "logic is what atheism is all about," in years of dialoguing with atheists, I honestly hadn't noticed.  If I were to be reductionistic about it, and ignore some welcome exceptions, I might have guessed that anger was what atheism was all about.  Or pride.  Or perhaps libido. 

But actually, what atheism is really all about, is the denial that God exists.  Some atheists are logical in their thinking about God, even if mistaken -- trained philosophers tend to be logical even when they are wrong, and lots of philosophers are in fact atheists.  But many, in my experience, could hardly reason their way out of a wet paper bag, and his puerile arguments in this article so far suggest that Inniss probably belongs to that category.   

In trying to justify Christian beliefs with reason, Lewis rends huge gaps in the fabric of religious "logic," permitting all sorts of queer potential consequences. For example, Lewis defends the morality of witch-burners by saying that they merely made a "mistake of fact." In their mistaken belief that these witches were evil incarnate, they were acting quite morally in executing them. I will not dwell on all the faults of that logic, but will mention just one point.  If Lewis is willing to accept that witches do not exist, and that, while believing in them, it was right to put them to death, what other "ungodly" transgressions can we forgive as mere "mistakes of fact? . . . "

Here Inniss is just misrepresenting Lewis, and his criticism is therefore especially tedious.  Lewis' point is not that witch-burners were moral.  It is that one cannot reasonably cite the fact that we no longer put witches to death, as proof that morality has changed.

But such distinctions are, perhaps, the pedantic ornamentation of logic-chopping philosophers.   

Lewis haplessly paints himself into a corner on page 32 of The Case for Christianity when he proposes one of many "proofs" for God's existence:

(Note: this is a section in Mere Christianity, so Inniss is finally telling us what book he's writing about -- sort of!)

"Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It's like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London. But if I can't trust my own thinking, of course I can't trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God."

Lewis's premise here - that if minds were not designed by God, they must be unreliable for thinking - is almost laughable in view of the sadly over-abundant evidence that, designed by God or not, brains are obviously unreliable instruments. It is only with the utmost care that humans can hope to arrive at the correct answer to even the most rudimentary problems.

Care which Inniss, needless to say, is again not showing to the needed degree.

I have argued against the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, as Alvin Plantinga calls it, so essentially I agree that Lewis is probably mistaken, here.  But Inniss' critique is, as one might expect by now, remarkably shallow.  He does not notice that he himself is making an argument that begs the question, on Lewis' premises.  If Lewis is right, then what Inniss has observed, or deduced from those observations, is also not to be trusted, and his conclusions also unlikely to be true.  Simply stating the fact that he has come to them, does nothing by itself to undermine Lewis' argument.

And, of course, this criticism does nothing to support Inniss' claim that Lewis was never a real atheist -- that is, assuming Inniss has a main point, besides, "Christians respect Lewis, so if I disrespect Lewis, that will show the world what a smart man I am and how stupid Christianity is!" 

Ultimately, Lewis's appeal to Christians lies in his defense of Christianity through the use of rational arguments. By not appealing to faith or the divine word of the Bible, Lewis strives to put Christianity, and therefore Christians, on the same intellectual levels with science and rationalists.

This is, of course, absurd.  C. S. Lewis was a great scholar of European tradition, and knew that Christians invented modern science (largely at his own university).  He also knew that Christian philosophers had been reasoning brilliantly (and that faith was almost never construed as blind or divorced from the evidence) for centuries before that.  (Again, many of the most brilliant within walking distance of Lewis' quarters at Magdalene College.) 

Inniss' patronizing comments are embarrassing.  He clearly does not understand the Christian tradition.     

This approach is soothing to believers suffering from feelings of inferiority, who rarely note that Lewis's logic immediately collapses under even the most cursory critique. Consequently, Lewis has become one of the most widely read Christian writers. He attempts to provide reason for faith. But in reality, his reason will be accepted by few if any who do not already possess faith.

Again, the purpose of this article appears to be not to demonstrate anything about C. S. Lewis as an atheist, but rather to make Lewis "safe" for atheists.  So Inniss makes amateurish faints at philosophy, at history, and now at psychology, hoping his highly rational, critically-thinking skeptic readers will buy the bluff. 

And apparently many of them did -- at least, he got this childishly silly article published, somehow.  And I found it cited, so many years later. 

In reality, many intelligent people have come to faith through reading C. S. Lewis.  I also once argued, tongue slightly in cheek, that he played a role in overthrowing communism

Monday, July 08, 2013

Jeff Jacoby vs. the Prophet Mohammed.

Mohammed's interpretation of Islam.
Jeff Jacoby, of the Boston Globe, is confused about religion in general, and Islam in particular, as demonstrated in an article that appeared on Townhall today.  Let's try to straighten him out. 

For years, terrible and violent crimes have been committed in the name of Islam. Does that mean Islam is inherently a religion of terrible violence?

That depends on how many years, and what you mean by "Islam."

The scholar Daniel Pipes has long argued that it is a mistake to attribute the evils committed by Muslim supremacists and jihadist killers to Islam itself, or to the text of the Koran and the hadith, the religion’s sacred scriptures. Like every great faith, Islam is what its adherents make of it. Today, many of those adherents are influenced by Islamism, the militant totalitarian version of Islam that emerged in the 20th century. The Islamist ascendancy is reflected in the savageries of Al Qaeda, the brutal misogyny of the Taliban, the apocalyptic hostility of the regime in Iran.

There are several deep confusions here. 

First, what is a "Muslim supremacist?"  Someone who thinks Islam should be supreme, one presumes.  But that obviously included Mohammed. 

Second, who is a "jihadist killer?"  Again, Mohammed started numerous wars, enslaved numerous neighbors, assassinated his critics (including a mother holding her baby in bed), and was guilty of torture and mass murder. 

So how can one speak of such activities "emerging in the 20th Century," when in fact they emerged almost as soon as Mohammed started preaching? 

As I said, one needs to pay attention to the number of years that attend the problem Jacoby writes about. 

Third, Jacoby is confused between two positions: (a) "Every great faith is what its adherents make it," and (b) the Koran and hadith are innocent of what Muslims "have made" of their religion.  But if religions are all purely a matter of developed tradition, why do scriptures matter at all?  So why bother to say they are innocent?   

The deeper problem here is Jacoby is being overly dogmatic about how to define religions.  He wants us to define religions according to their developed traditions, and just ignore other definitions.  That's a typically liberal way of defining religions.  But a typically conservative approach (similar to debate over the Constitution) is to define religions according to their sacred scriptures.  A third is to define religions by the person, character, teachings and example of their founders, in this case Mohammed. 

These other definitions are obviously much more important to most Muslims than the "living tradition" version Jacoby wants us to emphasize.  He makes it sound as if all religions were entirely malleable, as if scriptures made no difference at all.  Of course traditions do evolve: Buddhists who ought to believe in compassion conduct inquisitions, and communists who ought to conduct violent revolution turn into Lei Feng, the gentle Chinese soldier-hero of Cultural Revolution legend.  Both phenomena are going on at the same time, as Forrest Gump put it. 

If we define Islam by its founder or by the Koran, then two things follow: (a) Islam will be different from religions defined by different founders or scriptures, and (b) there will be limits to how malleable to faith will prove.  And I think modern history demonstrates both of these facts - as indeed, did Medieval history, already. 

But just as the nightmare of the Third Reich was far from the totality of German culture and character, so Islam’s 1,400-year history is not encapsulated by the violent ugliness of the present moment.

Why is Jacoby comparing a culture to a religion?  Wouldn't it be more reasonable to compare religions to one another -- Islam to Nazism, or if that is too harsh, German culture to Arab culture?  Nazism at its core is bad, I think most of us agree.  What, then, is to stop Islam, at least in theory, from having some similar, if lesser, defect at its core?  To assert that Islam (defined by Mohammed or by the Koran) is flawed in some serious way, would not at all be like blanketly dismissing Arab or German cultures.  Because there are core beliefs, and how faith expresses itself is not all just a random walk of social evolution.

Were Jacoby to compare like to like, though, he might realize that it is not racism or bigotry to evaluate belief systems according to what they teach or the fruit they yield, and that religions can at their cores be better or worse -- fearful thoughts, apparently. 

In other eras, Muslim society was known for its learning, tolerance, and moderation. “If things can get worse, they can also get better,” Pipes writes in the current issue of Commentary. As recently as 1969, when he began his career in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, Islamist extremism was all but unknown in world affairs. “If Islamism can thus grow, it can also decline.”

But those eras of tolerance were relative, as Bernard Lewis, Bat Ye'or, and others have shown.  They were also periods after Islam had expanded, which tends to make a culture more confident, an expansion that came at the violent expense over several centuries of all Islam's neighbors.   

In fact, Islamic extremism was quite common well before 1969, whether or not Jeff Jacoby was paying attention to it.  After all, Jews had been almost all driven out of Muslim countries twenty years before that.  And almost 200 years before that, Muslim pirates explained to John Adams (I believe it was) that of course they pillaged and killed infidels, that was part of their religion.  Which indeed it had been, for much longer still, going back to the sacred example of the prophet. 

But let's let Jacoby develop his argument at more length now, before poking any more pins in it:

Since 9/11, Pipes has summarized his approach to the threat from Islamist terror and oppression with the maxim “Radical Islam is the problem; moderate Islam is the solution.” Not everyone accepts such a distinction. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been widely held out as a model of moderate political Islam, has insisted that “Islam is Islam, and that’s it.

Many non-Muslims disagree with Pipes, too. The prominent Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who says the Koran should be banned in Holland, maintains that Islam and Islamism are “exactly the same” and that moderate Islam is “totally nonexistent.” Islam is not a religion like Christianity or Judaism, Wilders told me in a 2009 interview. “It’s an ideology that wants to dominate every aspect of society.”

It’s what Muslims make it.

To those who hold Wilders’s essentialist view, Islam’s teachings are immutable; the values promoted by the Koran and other Islamic scriptures are today what they have always been and always will be. By this argument, the backwardness, repression, and violent incitement against non-Muslims that hold sway in much of the contemporary Muslim world don’t reflect a particularly harsh and unenlightened interpretation of Islam — they are Islam.

Not true, asserts Pipes. “Only . . . by ignoring more than a millennium of actual changes in the Koran’s interpretation” — on topics ranging from jihad to the role of women to slavery — “can one claim that the Koran has been understood identically over time.”

Jacoby's criticism here seems directly, if not against a straw man, against a very simplistic opposing position.  Of course no text is "understood identically" by any two people at any one time, still less over 1300 years. 

Surely we should seek a balance between supposing the Koran determines what all Muslims will think and feel and do as if they were programmed robots, and supposing that the Koran and hadith have nothing at all to do with the nastiness of modern (and earlier) Islam, and Muslims just willy-nilly make it up as they go along, no doubt after carefully reading the Boston Globe and New York Times editorials. 

Bernard Lewis states unequivocally that while there were reform movements in Islam, none of them ever challenged the inferior status of women and slaves and non-Muslims. 

Take the Koran’s famous injunction (2:256) that “there be no compulsion in religion.” Is that a call for universal religious tolerance? Does it apply only to the various denominations within Islam? Was it limited only to non-Muslims in seventh-century Arabia? Is it to be understood as purely symbolic? Does it protect only non-Muslims who agree to live under Muslim rule? Was it overridden by a subsequent Koranic verse?

Of course, Mohammed was anticipating the present Dalai Lama and his pluralist western friends!  It would be grossly unfair to read this comment in light of how Mohammed actually treated unbelievers! 

As Pipes and other scholars have shown, the correct elucidation of that phrase is: All of the above. There is no monolithic reading of that seemingly straightforward passage. Muslim authorities have variously given it completely incompatible interpretations.
Like all religions, Islam changes. And like all scripture, the meaning of the Koran’s text depends on its expounders. The words may be enduring, but the lessons drawn from them need not be. The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament also contain passages whose normative meanings changed as the faiths based on them evolved. Do Jesus’ words in Matthew — “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword” — mean that Christianity is not a religion of peace? The answer to that question is not the same today as it would have been during the Crusades or Europe’s wars of religion.

Jacoby is playing a popular but ignoble game, here.  Jesus himself referred to it in terms of beams and splinters.  One can also talk about trees and forests.

There are almost 400 references to "love" in the New Testament.  There are 14 references to hate, only one of which can be twisted and misinterpreted (by someone like Hector Avalos) to mean we should really hate anyone.   Mohammed killed, tortured, enslaved, raped, and started wars.  Jesus healed, fed the hungry, and forgave his enemies from the cross.

Of course that one isolated saying, taken out of context and misunderstood, does not mean Christianity is an inherently warlike religion.  I won't say it is a "religion of peace," so simply, either: there is a time for war, and a time for peace.  But only a fool (of which, true, Christian history has furnished many, some of them rather famous) could miss where the emphasis lies in the New Testament.

It is only fanatics who believe that they alone are in possession of the only correct answer to every important question, and that their beliefs must be enforced through power and persecution. The credo of the Muslim Brotherhood, which until a coup last week was Egypt’s ruling party, declares emphatically that “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Koran is our law. Jihad is our way.” That authoritarian, supremacist line — the Islamists’ line — is only one understanding of Islam, and as millions of Egyptian citizens have made clear in recent days, it is by no means a universal one.

Of course no thoughtful person claims one interpretation of Islam has been "universal."  Reasonable people know that religious creeds are only one of many influences on the human soul.  Reasonable people also know that they are deeply important influences. 

As for what the coup in Egypt establishes, or will bring next, shouldn't we pass on making prophecies about Egypt, for a while? 

Radical Islam — not Islam itself — is the menace that must be defeated. In that struggle we have no more invaluable allies than moderate Muslims. Pretending they don’t exist helps no one but the Islamists.

Who's pretending they don't exist?  I just don't see Mohammed as one of them.  And I do see that as a serious problem.