Thursday, July 15, 2010

"Satanic Verses: Moral Chaos in Holy Writ"

There were a series of papers presented at a conference hosted by Notre Dame's Philosophy of Religion Dept. Here you will find one by Fales with a response by Plantiga. The paper addresses the events in scripture Fales finds morally reprehensible and how he understands God within these events. At the end, he says these events can only be justified by divine command theory, but that this comes with a price. "We are forced to sacrifice to it (scripture) our deepest moral knowledge and intuitions." At the end of his response, Plantiga says Fales' moral objections come from thinking of God as some type of superhuman instead of as divine. Further, he objects that our moral intuitions aren't always correct and can't be relied on to make moral judgements about God.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Review of "The Reason for God" Chapter 1 on One True Religion

Keeler admits that religion is one of the main barriers to world peace. He says leaders have addressed this in one of 3 ways: outlaw religion, condemn religion, or privatize religion. He believes these are all ineffective strategies. His primary response is to affirm Christianity's exclusive message and to contend that the fundamentals of Christianity, if followed, will lead better than any other religion to "humble, peace-loving behavior".

As a believer, I am troubled by the rise of fundamentalism and violent behavior we have seen around the world. As we have become a global community, there are more opportunities for bumping up against others with different belief systems. I'm not sure that the only answer to increasing peace is to assert Christianity's superiority in creating it. The truth is that it is difficult for human beings to maintain peace as long as there is "us" and "them". It is even more difficult when we don't really know "them". The truth is that there is a long history, extending from the Old Testament through the New Testament, where there are marked distinctions between "us" and "them", leading to genocide in the Old Testament and disfellowship in the New Testament.

I respect the fact that Keller doesn't apologize for claiming that Christian beliefs are different and superior to others. I think it is dishonest to claim belief in Jesus as the only way to salvation while affirming that every other religion also has it right. However, I do think some humility is in order when evaluating our own beliefs. The truth is that we are more critical of others' belief systems than we are of our own. If our belief system is true, then it should withstand the scrutiny that we apply to other religions.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Review of "the Reason for God" Chapter 6 on Science

Keller takes the stance that the science/religion dichotomy is a false one. He spends a fair amount of time pointing out that significant numbers of scientists, in fact, believe in God. To counter claims that science has disproven the miraculous he makes the point that science, which is based on methodological naturalism, can only address the natural. Therefore, science cannot be used to disprove the supernatural, whether that be God or miracles. He asserts that God cannot be proven or disproven. While I agree with this last statement, the Intelligent Design (ID) movement would counter that science can be used to detect design in nature, providing some support for a creator (think fine-tuning arguments).

Keller addresses evolution, admitting that he believes in some type of God-directed process of natural selection. He does not view evolution as contradicting the Biblical account of creation, unless it is accepted as an "All-Encompassing Theory". I certainly agree with him here. It is important to understand the genre of the Biblical literature we are reading as well as the ancient near east (ANE) worldview in which it was written. Christendom has a history of interpreting scripture in ways which inevitably bump up against new scientific discoveries, leading to reinterpretation of the Biblical text in ways that do not conflict with them (think geocentric vs. heliocentric view of the universe).

In a bookclub meeting I attended tonight at church, we discussed this very issue of Christianity reinterpreting scripture and readjusting its view of the world as science has progressed. An important question was raised about how to prevent ourselves from taking stances based on scripture which turn out later to be wrong. I don't know for sure that we can avoid it. However, humbly being willing to hold our beliefs with some tentativeness and to revisit our positions based on new evidence would certainly go a long way. Hopefully, we are allowing our faith and science to inform each other, instead of compartmentalizing them.

Friday, July 9, 2010

An Atheist Meets God

I include this cartoon because it brings up some of my concerns about the traditional concept of hell, not to mention inerrancy of scripture. I hope it doesn't offend, it's certainly irreverant, but sometimes cartoons convey messages more succinctly and humorously.

Review of "The Reason for God" Chapter 2 on Suffering

Keller dismisses the idea that pointless suffering is evidence against God by giving the standard Christian reply that we don't know the suffering to be pointless. God has His ways, and we are not privy to all of them. In the end, we just don't know. I reply that there may be good reasons for all the suffering in the world, but there also may not be. I think that line of reasoning ends in a stalemate.

He also brings up the point that often good comes from suffering. I agree with this statement. In fact, some pain seems necessary for learning, growth, and safety. For example, if children felt no pain when they touched hot objects, they might touch them long enough to be severely burned. We empathize with others more deeply when we have experienced similar suffering, such as the loss of a loved one. There is no doubt that suffering and pain are an integral part of the human experience and that good comes from them.

However, what about suffering and pain caused by God that is not for the inflicted one's greater good? Looking at the Bible we see a prime example: Job. He appears to have been physically tormented, grief stricken, poverty stricken, and reviled by friends all so God could win a bet with Satan. I suppose this gets justified by saying that it was all for the purpose of glorifying God. It wasn't really for Job's benefit as he was already a righteous man. I can't see how Satan would benefit, he seems incorrigible to me. Certainly God has no need to prove himself to Satan or any of us. There is a way in which Job feels like an object to be used by God rather than someone in relationship with God. (Of course, the example of Job assumes a literal reading, which may or may not be the case. Either way, there are other examples in scripture where the reason for suffering is given, though it is not one most of us would deem to be good, if given by the person next door). It's not always the case that we are in the dark about the reasons and motivations of God for causing or allowing suffering.

Next, Keller turns the tables and states that suffering may in fact be evidence for God. This is because declaring something to be evil or wrong assumes there is some objective moral standard upon which to base the judgement. There is a sense in which atheists try to have their cake and eat it too when they deny the existence of God based on evil in the world, making moral judgements based on objective standards which would not exist if there is no God. However, there are those who believe moral standards do exist apart from God, and disagree with Keller's assertion that moral behavior couldn't have evolved. They point to behavior in primates which indicates a sense of fair play, compassion, empathy, and care giving.

Next, Keller addresses the suffering of Jesus at the cross. He points to that moment to affirm his belief that whatever the state of the world, God loves us and suffered for us. Even though Keller doesn't pretend to have all the answers to the suffering in life, he views it all through the eyes of one who knows he is loved and is confident that his best interests are within the heart of God. He also takes heart in the resurrection, calling it a "restoration" of all things. He says it gives us hope, healing all things, and an "infinitely more glorious world" than our present one. For believers, these messages are comforting and one can rest in them, leaving the question of suffering for a chat with God "when we all get to heaven." However, for those who do not believe these things, the matter of suffering still looms large.

Review of "The Reason for God" Chapter 4 on Injustice

Keller addresses 3 questions regarding injustice and the church: Why are so many non-Christians living better lives than the Christians? Why has the institutional church supported war, injustice, and violence? Why would we want to associate with religious fanatics?

Keller responds to the charge that Christians are no better than non-Christians by pointing out that broken people are often the ones drawn to Christianity. He asserts that we should evaluate the progress of individuals over time instead of comparing
one group to another. While I understand where he is coming from, I am not certain he can support with facts his statement that overall Christians come from worse backgrounds than non-believers. I wonder what we would find if we compared only believers from stable backgrounds with non-believers with stable backgrounds. Or believers with bad backgrounds from non-believers with bad backgrounds. I think there is more support for his belief at the beginning of Christianity when perhaps a more disproportionate number of Christians were poor and uneducated. If the Holy Spirit is at work within us and our faith is producing good works and fruit of the Spirit, shouldn't there be a difference between the groups? Didn't Jesus say something like, they'll know you're my disciples if you love one another?

Keller addresses the support of violence by the church by pointing out violence caused by non theistic belief systems (Communist Russia, Nazis, Cambodia and Chinese regimes). He frames the problem as not stemming from Christianity but from the human tendency to be violent. I agree that people use any belief system to support their need for power, control, superiority, etc. It is interesting to me the way atheists and Christians toss Hitler back and forth like a hot potato. No one wants him landing on their side! I don't know what primarily fueled his violence and psychopathy. I do think it's unfair to blame Christianity for every perverse practice that is carried out in its name. However, we do need to examine whether any violent and unjust practices are natural extensions of living out the religion. It's also important to examine what just and loving practices are natural extensions as well. He references a book, For the Glory of God, by Rodney Stark that does the latter. The Old Testament would appear to command and support many violent practices, for example, genocide. The New Testament is much more palatable in this regard. I am personally interested in the treatment of women and the role the church has played in it. Keller's book asserts that Christianity improved the role of women in the early days, but I haven't examined this myself. I do believe women are oppressed within fundamentalist churches today compared with women outside fundamentalist churches in America. The NT no longer improves the lot of women in our modern culture.

Finally, Keller addresses the issue of fanatics. Keller dismisses them as being "not Christian enough" in that they behave in overbearing, harsh and self righteous ways. I do agree that there is a sense in which they obey the letter but not the spirit
of the law. However, we again need to read scripture and examine whether any fanatical behavior is a direct extension of it. There are passages where Jesus says we need to "hate" our family for Jesus. We are commanded to put people outside of our fellowship and not associate with them. In the OT, people were stoned for any number of sins. We are to avoid sin at all costs, even cutting off our hand and plucking out our eye if necessary. For people serious about avoiding hell and working out their salvation "with fear and trembling", drastic measures may be what is required.

Review of "The Reason for God" Chapter 5 on Hell

In my Bible class, we've been studying Timothy Keller's book, The Reason for God. I'm going to write a critique of each chapter, though the critiques will be out of order. I'm starting with the chapter on hell:

Although this chapter brought up many important objections and made a sincere effort to address them, I continue to have many concerns about our traditional church of Christ concept of hell. Here are my concerns:

1. The punishment doesn't fit the crime. Even in our legal system we sentence people according to the severity of their crime. We don't imprison speeders for a life sentence. Why? It would be unjust. As a thought experiment, What if we could extend the lives of inmates so they could be tortured (see, we don't even officially torture here in the US prisons) with fire for an amount of time that fits their crime. How long would the worst offenders get? Would anyone be given an eternal sentence? What about someone who ran a stop sign they didn't see because it was hidden by foliage (happened to my dad)? What if he were given an eternal sentence? Would any appeals be made?

2. Some people have no way to know what the standards are for avoiding hell or are unlikely to meet the standards for avoiding hell given any number of social, cultural, biological factors. Many have just never heard the gospel and never will. Many, even if they hear it, won't be predisposed to believe it given the religion and/or culture they grew up in. How many of us leave our childhood religion even in the US where there is religious tolerance and a fair amount of religious diversity? We may switch from one protestant denomination to another, but how many of us even study and seriously consider other world religions? How many of us have read a holy book other than the Bible? There are also many individuals who are parented in such a way that they will not be open to the gospel. Being chronically abused and neglected significantly alters our brain chemistry. We are much less capable of forming meaningful relationships and being empathic. We are more likely to be abusive, mistrusting, violent. Not exactly Christian virtues. And what about children abused by religious caretakers and religious leaders who grow up wanting nothing to do with church and God? I see that problem regularly in my counseling office.

Scripture also indicates that some people may be predetermined to go there out of no choice of their own. There are examples of people in scripture who have their hearts hardened or do evil deeds, at the will of God. Pharaoh is a notable example. Though their eternal fate is not spelled out, it makes one wonder.

3. Hell seems to be a human construct developed during the intertestamental period.
If hell were part of God's plan, it seems that He would have revealed it in scripture instead of leaving it to the Greeks. What should we conclude? Why wasn't it clearly explained in the Old Testament? And why does it look so much like the pagan concept of the afterlife?

4. This concept of hell being "one's freely chosen identity apart from God", a psychological torment of one's own creation, seems to be a way of glossing over the horrors of hell, despite protests to the contrary. Keller's support comes mainly from quoting Lewis, not the Bible. Additionally, the Biblical support comes from a parable, which may not have the intent of imparting literal knowledge of hell. What's more, I think Keller is wrong in stating that the Rich man wanted to be there as he never asked to leave. I think the Rich man (if he existed) safely assumed there was no return. He didn't want his brothers there and wanted relief from his agony, so I don't think it follows that he preferred to be there himself.

The only point Keller makes that I would like to consider more fully is the one about the concept of a loving God coming from Christianity and not from any other religion. He makes the point that you can't reject hell out of hand, pointing to scripture which states that God is loving, while ignoring scripture which talks of God's justice and wrath. You have to be willing to reject the idea that God is loving to be consistent. If you are unwilling to reject that idea, you will be hard pressed to find that idea supported by any other major religion. Cherry picking is a problem for many a doctrine.Of course, if we throw out both the concept of omnibenevolence and hell, we don't have a contradiction with which to wrestle. End of problem. However, we don't have much left of Christianity do we?

Which brings me to my concern over what to do with the whole of Christianity if we throw out hell. If there is no hell, then why did Jesus need to come redeem us? Redeem us from what then? Would the contrast be between heaven and annihilation or does the fate of Christianity depend on their being a hell from which to be rescued?

Why Am I Doing This?

I've never been someone who enjoys writing. The only part of my job I don't enjoy involves writing progress notes or psychological assessments. I never anticipated having a blog. I also never really had anything to write about. However, that is beginning to change. I've finally found the courage to have a crisis of faith, and for the past year-and-a-half I have been reading, discussing, thinking, and praying my way through it. I wish I could say that this emotional struggle and pursuit of the truth has led me to the answers. Instead,I have found more questions. But, I have found a joyful freedom in exploring, questioning, and searching. I feel more alive because I am not surpressing doubts and ignoring my anxiety. I am growing. Becoming. What my spiritual life will look like in the future I can't say with certainty. But at least I will be a more authentic version of me. I am ready to express my questions and thoughts on this journey in writing. And I am eager to do it.