Category Archives: theology

i knew this, but here it is again

Today, I received an email from the Reasons to Believe ministry. Hugh Ross, Fazale “Fuz” Rana, Jeff Zweerink, and Kenneth Samples lead American Christians to trust both the Scriptures and the voice of science, historically the two books of God, the Bible and Nature. So, I decided to quote the Equipping Message from Hugh for 10/6/2015 because this issue is at the heart of many disputes highlighted in a mean-spirited way by the new atheists, but with generosity and wisdom by Hugh and Fuz. Here it is (some emphasis, and all apostrophes are mine.)

This month, Hugh and Fuz are speaking at the National Conference on Christian Apologetics (NCCA). The theme for this year’s conference is Ideas Have Consequences, and we saw the truth of that in a letter Hugh received recently. A pastor named Paul had started believing that God’s Word and the book of nature couldn’t be reconciled, and the consequences spread throughout his life. He wrote:

“I never questioned whether God was real but lost hope that my love of science could merit as anything other than entertainment. I assumed true answers could not be known until heaven. As a result, my faith and life suffered severely. I quit the church as a pastor and stopped dreaming.

“Then I read your book Why the Universe Is the Way It Is and instantly my imagination started coming to life again. I was surprised when I recognized that my faith had grown exponentially as a result. I look forward to sharing that book with my 22-month-old son as he grows, since he already loves space so much.

“Dr. Ross, this is the answer to reaching the lost in society today. I literally thank God for you and your team daily. I’m more excited about my faith than I ever have been. You’re leading us through the greatest possible uncertainty when the entire world is changing and secular views grow louder in hatred for faith each week. We need your work. Please never give up.”

The new hope Paul found is a direct result of the prayers and gifts of RTB ministry partners like you. We’re not giving up, and we know you aren’t either. Thank you for your commitment to fighting the false ideas that can destroy faith!

The Reasons to Believe website is found at http://reasons.org. I don’t copy this message to encourage you to give money to this ministry, but if you do give, it certainly will help.

in response to a remark

A friend of mine said something yesterday that piqued my interest. I paraphrase: “Students in my Modern/Postmodern class will need to pray for help because the writers of the essays in our text do not give any hope of resolving a crisis of faith.” This paraphrase also contains some of what I understood him to mean, I apologize for my failure to grasp the exact thought.

He is correct when he worries for the Christian students in his class. Postmodernism does not try to sew up the cracks in our perception of reality. The reality his students have, and the reality they have constructed is largely deficient in the critical faculties necessary for the raw critique found in postmoderns, post structuralists, and literary critics like Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Fish, Gadamer, or even Nietzsche. That is because they have little training in classical philosophy, or the philosophes of the Age of Reason. Most of these believers have been brought up in the certainties of early twentieth-century conservative theologies.

There is nothing in particular wrong with these certainties, except when they face the much longer and more difficult philosophical conversation of the critical schools. The critical schools have little to do with conservative Christianity, and their remarks are aimed at a much broader set of issues in society. Conservative Christianity is the child of a narrow branch of conservatives, perhaps the Scottish plain language school of theology where the sentence in question just means what it says: a form of literalism. Literalism is fine for a small community that doesn’t interact with the wider world. It is too fragile for contact with uninterpreted reality, say, the truths of experience that are only found outside the covenant community. It is part of a closed system that not unlike natural systems, suffer continuing entropy for lack of a persistent source of energy.

Alongside these certainties is the vigor of youth, that turns their certainty into a weapon for defense of their knowledge citadel. This is all, at times, that their elders expect. What their elders do not expect, because they have no acquaintance, is that the knowledge they have imparted, is at best naïve, and subject to the critiques made famous in the postmoderns. In fact, the sidelong attack of the postmoderns on the knowledge of the modern era (from the Enlightenment) is particularly apt at stressing the unexamined presuppositions of the conservative Christian. This is why my friend’s request for prayer is appropriate.

Part of what has always been the character of the conservatives version of education is indoctrination. That is, flatly, “you should confess what I have told you to believe.” This works perfectly well for doctrinaire scientism as it does for conservative Christianity. Their models of knowledge are similar. Happily the attack of the postmoderns work as well on both crowds. The problem the Christian faces is the failure of their worldview, while the adept at scientism finds a new indoctrination that they naïvely see as truth in the same way as the predecessor scientism. Both reactions are incorrect.

Before we get started, let me suggest as an aside, that the initial mistake many Christians make with postmodernism is that they take it as a replacement for what they call knowledge. This is a failure to recognize the difference between theory and critique, between knowledge and skepticism. When the postmoderns speak they do so not as an authority, but as pointing out flaws in their subject’s perception of knowledge. They are not building an alternative worldview, but suggesting that the current worldview is a cobbled together piece of excrement. Some, like Foucault do this early in their careers, but after tearing down get around to building something later on. Others, like Derrida, never construct anything. They are always and forever deconstructing the precious objects. That is perhaps a bit unfair, but I have found few instances of construction in his writings. His puzzling rhetoric annoys, teases, and rejects the foundationalist certainties of an early twentieth-century worldview.

Problems in the Church with postmodernism (I am most familiar with these) range from outright rejection to reassertion of the fundamentals as a response to the critique. But the range of reactions rises from a lack of acquaintance with the material the postmoderns are critiquing in the first place. Some rail against the postmoderns, not realizing that postmodernism is unhappy with all foundationalist pretensions, not just those evidenced by conservative Christianity. But the Christians I know who reject postmodernism out of hand, don’t realize that they themselves have foundationalist pretensions. They want to say that the Bible is a reliable foundation for Christianity. OK, let them say that. They are wrong. Jesus said himself “You search the scriptures because in them you think you have eternal life, but they are the ones that testify of me.” Christ, and the revelation of Christ is the foundation of the Church and Christianity, not the Bible, (or Peter for that matter,) which by the way, the early believers only had a part of what we call the Old Testament in the Hebrew TENAK and the Greek Septuagint. So Jesus couldn’t have been speaking of the New Testament at all.

So, if Christ is the foundation for the Church, then there is no need to defend the logic of the Bible. (That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know what it says, or understand history, context, organization, and theology.) These critics of postmodernism rightly believe that postmodernism is an attack on Christianity when Christianity has become an adherent to the text instead of an adherent to Christ. Or these believers think that they are defending Christ when they are defending a culturally inept interpretation of God’s intention, mistaking their theology for reality, they have missed Christ altogether and placed a terrible burden on reality to prove their theology. The postmoderns are correct to critique that miscegenation.

The proper view of the postmodern critique is to treat it as a skeptical instrument to call into question foundationalist assertions, that is, assertions of knowledge that rely on the annunciation and exact correspondence of our knowledge with absolutes. Any study of science or theology will reveal how terribly wrong humans have gotten it at times. The critique of the postmodern is just another instance of calling us to account for some of those errors.

What does the believer have to fear from postmodernism? Well, in my estimation, nothing. All that’s required is the kind of reading and research that is required for any other dense and often inscrutable set of texts: a healthy ego, a wry sense of humor, some fair historical awareness of the subjects of their critique, and an acquaintance with the larger conversation. If somebody mentions a writer, say Foucault mentioning Nietzsche, it would be worth your while to discover what Nietzsche was doing that Foucault critiques. If a writer mentions an essay or a book, as Foucault does when he mentions Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” you will notice that he also mentions Dr. Paul Rée who is one subject Nietzsche critiques in his book. Rée is known as the subject of Nietzsche’s critique by any who have read the Genealogy, and so wouldn’t necessarily require a citation by Foucault. But for the uninformed reading Foucault’s essay, Rée is a piece of the puzzle unknowable outside of Foucault’s reference to his ideas. But this scholarly concern of mine is meant only to hint at the many ramifications possible in tracing out the meaning of any reference. Any casual dismissal of Foucault because he “attacks” conservative Christianity, has no idea what Foucault has said and so does a disservice to the hearers, in fact performs the office of lying and misleading.

I haven’t told you what Paul Rée actually said, or what Foucault or Nietzsche said. But a student who wishes to be counted, should be able to enter that conversation fairly as an observer, and later, a participant. A reader worth their salt will be able to evaluate what they say without spitting or cursing. Comprehending any writing is partly a skill that requires being able to ground the conversation in some space, taking one side or another (one of many possible sides). The tendency to see any conversation as black and white is one of the unfortunate characteristics of foundationalism. Every statement is judged to be right or wrong, fitting or perverse. One must be willing to try to see an alternative worldview. You should even try swapping out your worldview for somebody else’s. That takes strength of character, so you may have to work out for a while in simpler tasks before trying it.

Does the postmodern critique give us relativism? No, it doesn’t. Remember that postmodernism is not giving us anything but a critique of failed beliefs, systems, and ideas. You might conclude that relativism is an appropriate response to their critique, but it would be your choosing that, instead of their critique resulting in that. According to Hughes LeBlanc, probabilistic logics function as well as binary ones. And Joe Margolis suggests that a robust relativism does not preclude truth. Thinking in black and white terms is probably wrong. Just because Jesus speaks the truth does not preclude Kongzi or Plato from also speaking the truth. Just because Aristotle is wrong about one thing (actually more than that) doesn’t mean he was wrong about all the things he said. Just because you have made mistakes in the past doesn’t mean you always make mistakes, etc.

Cheer up! The postmodern conversation is a fruitful one, when you can flex like a palm tree in the wind. The practice of shoring up your defenses against a possible attack can give you insight into your form of life, and help you to be transformed and not destroyed by this contact.

a journey with ryan bell

A Year Without God by Ryan Bell

My Response:

As a critical realist, I understand the purifications you have gone through, and the difficulties of this transition. I faced the prospect of the same sort of transition early in my life of faith, say, 15 years after my conversion to Christianity. I realized as a philosopher, that the route I was taking would lead me inevitably to the project you have found yourself in. But I also realized with the passage of time, what having grown up in a scientific household made me recognize, that is, the perfect blindness of that path as well.

Thinking that people can’t change, that we are predictable, that we are the subject of deterministic forces we can’t extricate ourselves from is as good a picture as the Calvinist gives us, and is from the same source — an overconfidence in our own logical apprehension of reality.

Gödel’s and Heisenberg’s thinking should have disabused us of notions like that, but in general it is comforting for people to imagine there is a destiny and we are responsible for it only in some peripheral sense. However, the humanist has to realize as the Christian must that our freedom (a surd in any sense) allows us to construct a reality that only partially resembles the reality we are given. And that construction is often at odds with reality though it may be internally consistent. The non- or anti-scientific theist and the non- or anti-religious atheist are not consistent with reality, though their consistent logics tell them they are.

Aristotle’s law of non-contradiction is a tool for the logic of sentences, not a test of reality. Reality is full of (for the moment) unresolved paradoxes, but the mistake many of us make is to ignore the paradox, leave it unexplored. But in those paradoxes lie, like a region of Mandelbrot’s fractal, unexplored depths of knowledge. Some paradoxes can be dissolved, and some can’t. That is a tale for time to tell. But some hold the riches of knowledge we hunger for. The paradoxes of quantum reality were like that. Now we’ve explored some of those regions, but our exploration is not finished. The paradox of reality still calls for resolution. As many like John Donne, the Catholic thinker suggested, we are on a journey.

Don’t let the determinists of the agnostic sort capture you as the determinists in the church did for a time. They may provide some material comfort, but fail to fill the promise of lasting knowledge. Allow this journey to be unrestricted on top as it is on the bottom. Don’t be content to settle for less than the truth, even if that truth disallows the resolution of your dilemma. The libraries are littered with minds that can’t conceive anything greater than their own conception. Let your exploration be freed from the constraints of your own logics, though minding the consistency with reality.

Cheers for the new year!

a conversation with ken smith

This began with a birthday greeting Ken gave me on Facebook Monday, 5/5/14. I discovered that he was no longer teaching at Trinity Bible College, but that his vigorous mind was still active. I obtained his permission to include a few of his remarks. The flavor of these remarks is polemical, worrying the glib orthodoxies of the Scientific community and the Young Earth Creationist (YEC) community. I hope you enjoy these remarks as much as I do.

First I’ll post the thread from mucholderthen I found on Tumblr.com, then Ken’s remarks. My part of the conversation seems more like minimal encouragers than substantive so I will not expand on them unnecessarily.

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mucholderthen:

NEW POLL shows that a Surprising Number of Americans Distrust Science
For a change, evolution squeaked by at 55% [including 24% at “sort of confident”]
CBS News

[Many] Americans still question some of the basic concepts of modern science, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll with a representative sample of 1,012 U.S. adults age 18 or older.

Overall, Americans show more skepticism than confidence in the scientific concept that a Big Bang created the universe 13.8 billion years ago.
There was also considerable doubt about the science behind global warming and the age of the Earth.
“It is enormously distressing that science, which is our most powerful means for gaining insight into the world, insight into truth, is so mistrusted by so many people,” Brian Greene, a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, told CBS News.

Greene, who co-founded the World Science Festival and World Science U. to help educate and excite the public about science, says understanding scientific ideas is not just academic — it’s essential to a vital democracy. “Issues like climate change or nanoscience or genetically modified foods — I mean all of these issues, and a thousand others, are scientific at their core,” he said.

We chatted for a bit after that. Ken sent an article he wrote to Jim Bradford of the Assemblies of God (AG) about the problems posed by the YEC in the AG. In the article he said that he had seen the Nye/Ham debate and wasn’t impressed with either Nye or Ham. Nothing new there. I agreed with Smith, but suggested that Nye’s rational was not to argue for a proof from science that Ham was wrong, but rather to treat the debate as a conversation. So the substantive issues that the scientific community holds against the YECs were not exposed in a way that would make a slam dunk case against YEC. In response to my remarks, Ken sent the following rejoinder to the science poll from mucholderthen.

From Ken Smith:

I took a look at the confidence in science poll. Thanks for the link. My take on it might be different from yours. I hope you don’t mind a lengthy explanation. Having not been able to stand in front of a class and pontificate for a year or so, I will do so right here.

In one sense our problem with science in America (and maybe the West generally) is far far worse than is understood by the people who devised and conducted the poll and those who tweeted out laments concerning its results. That is because the nature of the poll itself—including every single question, measures nothing more than adherence to the pronouncements of authorities who claim to represent science, and has no real reference to what science actually is, which is a method and not a result. One way of saying it is that the poll reflects a naively fundamentalist conception of science that is not markedly different from the fundamentalist conception of religion. If you check the right boxes, say the right confessions, you’re considered saved.

Maybe this sounds radical but in fact it’s not radical at all. An elementary working understanding of philosophy (which is rare nowadays and alarmingly rare among people who actually work in scientific fields) would reveal deep problems with every single statement in the poll.

Take the first one, for example, “smoking causes cancer.” For anyone adequately familiar with Hume’s inquiry about cause and effect relationship, red flags go up immediately. If the statement read “there is a high correlation between smoking and various forms of cancer” or even “smoking creates physical conditions that are highly conducive to the initiation and growth of cancer” then the poller would be on safer ground. But the three word slogan “smoking causes cancer” is, I believe, quite misleading and unscientific. It may be a socially useful statement but that is not the same as being scientific.

The first five statements all have serious problems with causality and/or ontology and require clarification to be meaningful in any true scientific sense. The one about vaccines is too overbroad to be meaningful. The first red one, the one about rising temperatures, is just plain misleading. Before one can possibly answer it, one must know what time period one is talking about when one says “the average temperature of the world is rising.” If the question were delimited to, say, 1850 to 2014, the empirically accurate answer would be clearly yes, the global temperature did rise (leaving aside, for now, the vital question of whether the concept of “average global temperature” is a scientifically meaningful statement. If delimited to, say, 1930 to 2000, the empirically accurate question would be “not sure.” If one delimited the question to 1998 to 2014, the empirically true answer would be clearly, “no, it is not rising.” If one delimits the question to a period in the future, (say, 2014 to 2050, or even 2000 to 2100, one is then dealing in speculation informed by certain assumptions that may or may not be correct. One who either does not understand that this is speculation, or fails to inform his audience that this is speculation, is simply not dealing scientifically.

So the answer to the question depends first on the definition of the terms, and then one can move to the empirical evidence, which is sometimes fairly plain, sometimes quite complex, and sometimes contradictory. When people claim that the average global temperature “is” rising, but do not explain their terms, they are either deceiving themselves or trying to deceive other people.

This is not really hard to understand. Or it would not be, if people were only educated to think scientifically as opposed to trained to respond in a certain way to slogans that are backed by the force of allegedly scientific cultural authority. The trouble with Bill Nye and unfortunately with most science educators is I think that they lack the background to really go much beyond the level of parroting authorities that happen to be established at one particular time period (and they often they parrot the views established at a time period that has already slipped into the past).

When we get to the last three questions, I have no particular problem with the plausibility of any of the statements. I’m not the slightest bit phased by the reality of deep time or deep space, but the preciseness of these numbers seems to convey a sense of arrogance. But they are the “right” answers and that is apparently enough for the people who made this poll and who take it as a measure of whether people possess adequate respect for [allegedly] scientific authority. If I were examining a person for scientific literacy, I would want them to not tell me the “right” answer, but explain some of the evidence that has led to the understanding that this is, given the current state of knowledge, the most plausible answer available.

The last one, about the big bang, is deeply problematic. I have no particular problem with the big bang theory, and it may well be true as described, but I don’t think it deserves the slavish reverence that it usually gets. There are plenty of empirically solid thinkers (I prefer to use “empirically solid thinkers” instead of “scientists”) who reject it and prefer the “older” steady state theory that Thomas Gold advocated. That doesn’t mean they reject stellar expansion rates, etc., but that they interpret their significance in different ways. In relation to faith, I think it’s a mistake to marry theology with a particular theory like this, although I do think it’s fine for theology and such theories to go out on a casual date once in awhile. When I hear William Lane Craig (for example) rant on about how the big bang proves the creator of the Bible, I think “I like you, Will, I like you, but hey, you are taking this way too literally.”

Ultimately the problem with philosophy, and why it is dangerous, is that by its nature it simply can’t help but undercut the dominant assumptions of any given age or social space that it confronts. And philosophy that does not confront does not to me seem to be real philosophy. I entirely understand that there are many “scientific” circles in which a person who practices any sort of rigorous philosophical thinking–and does so out loud–will be unable to function easily within that circle. Much the same is true in religious circles.

I’m probably as disgusted as you are by the awful science and theology and philosophy that supports the YEC movement. So my criticisms aren’t the same ones that somebody like Ken Ham would launch. At the same time, I have a bit of sympathy for my YEC friends who get ragged on so much by people whose actual understandings are every bit as primitive as those of the YEC’ers themselves.

I take Ken’s point seriously. His critique of the poll is trenchant. His critique of YEC, not included here is also a well considered characterization along parallel lines with my critique. Though I have some acquaintance with the histories of the YEC position, Ken’s is more well developed. My critiques are with the poor rational skills displayed by the YECs. The Ark is too small, the flood’s probably local, literalism is unsupportable in Genesis 1-11 if the Scripture is to be considered true: logical contradictions in a literal interpretation come to the surface, etc. But Ken’s point about the poll is deeper than any supposed support of science or religion. He reminds me of the necessity for critique of the presuppositions of polls like that. His philosophical critique cuts to the issue. The poll assumes certain prejudices.

One prejudice I would like to needle a bit is the one about global warming. I think Ken made a good point with the temperature averages over time, but only obliquely. He attacks the fuzzy nature of the declaration, not the question about whether global warning is a danger.

First, it is obvious that humans are damaging the ecosystem. But to say on that account as the poll does, that “The average temperature of the world is rising, mostly because of man made heat-trapping greenhouse gasses,” goes beyond the evidence we have. Those who are convinced that humans are primarily responsible for this effect do not happily admit evidence of naturally-occurring cyclical temperature shifts. But to even suggest that temperature rising can also be natural, and that some of the rising temperature today is natural, has become the language of science deniers. Rubbish! We know we are damaging the environment and we also know that private citizens, small business, corporations, and government are all complicit in this. But to say that humans are either solely or mostly responsible for the current global rise in temperature (acknowledging Ken Smith’s critique) is irresponsible rhetorical politically correct crap. It is said in an alarmist way to generate anger against our bad behavior and get us to change. Should we change? Of course! Will we? Maybe not in time to save the planet for future generations. But if we kill ourselves off, the planet will perhaps restore itself. It might not either, but that is too fatalistic for my temper. I’m doing my part to comply with the 4 Rs and ride my bicycle, replace incandescent lights with LEDs and CFLs, maintain and drive my car as long as I can drive, etc.

More from Ken Smith:

I have been reading articles about what seems to be another change in scientific orthodoxy, as the fixation on saturated fats as causes of heart attacks is very rapidly going by the way side. But for decades informed people accepted the direct connection as an indisputable fact, and anyone who challenged the notion was regarded as a crank or a tool.

Of course I am well aware that promoting the idea of challenging orthodoxies has its own pitfalls, because it’s quite easy to challenge orthodoxies from an ignorant, knee-jerk sort of approach that doesn’t involve any real digging or critical thought. This has always bothered me about YEC’ers—sometimes they will make a valid criticism of the dominant paradigm, but it’s almost always opportunitist criticism, and not criticism that is tied to a real rational framework that could itself hold up against basic criticism. They are like a stopped clock that is bound to be right for a short time twice a day. On the other hand, sometimes their opponents come across as constantly adjusting their clocks but doing so in secret, so that nobody notices that their clocks aren’t really running quite as well as they like to claim.

This is probably enough fun for now. I need to go mow the lawn . . . I’m back and editing. I need to work. Bye.

theological posts

I think it is remarkable how divided the Christian world is. So much of what we believe has become important above and beyond any recognizable justifications.

This is less so for philosophy. Though in some places there is hot contention over some issues. In the USA the analytic school feels an obligation to destroy pragmatism. This is irritating to me, not because I am a doctrinaire pragmatist but because the attack is so wrongheaded and uncritical of the limits of its own views.

Religions have some of the same troubles, that is, if Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, Shinto, or Buddhism etc. are true then on some account the others may not be. Some state that exclusive claim outright.

Politicians have the same difficulty. To win against an opponent, or other party, one must often go on the offensive even when the differences between views look like the differences between squabbling children, basically meaningless. If the differences were something between tyranny and anarchy, not that we would aim at either of those, we could tell the difference. Yes, there are differences in how an election will turn out, but nobody knows what will happen in the long run, Nobody knows whether a single bit of legislation will turn out to be valuable or destructive of social bonds. We are guessing with our best sense, but it is still a guess. If nothing else, we must follow Immanuel Kant’s advice not to make rules to bind future generations so that they could not make improvements.

universal flood??

With the Ken Ham and Bill Nye debate thoroughly over, but left with an unsettling taste, I had to say something.

OK I have some questions about the flood that I needed answered. An old student Trevor Cartwright brought up the Genesis account once more. Long ago I dismissed the possibility that Genesis was giving us a literal account of events in ancient history. But lingering questions remain. I am firmly convinced that God does not intend to deceive people by plain observation, and that human senses are generally reliable, especially with so many eyes on the same objects. Science does not give us absolute truth, but it does give us good probability, and human logic, though incomplete, does not deceive us as far as it goes.

So here it goes: The contention is about whether the flood is universal or local. I abandoned the prospect that it was global a long time ago because of the large number of species and the variety of species on different continents that did not seem to have known each other, and certainly not a mere 6000 years ago.

I don’t have a problem with thinking that the flood is local, and that the ancients thought the world to be very small. Here’s a rather recent map of Ptolemy’s from 105 AD, thousands of years after the supposed universal flood.
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Ptolemy’s world was much tinier than ours, and I can imagine the sort of thinking that went into his worldview. I don’t suppose that he would have found universal assent for what he included or what he left out though, the proportions or topology. A universal flood for Ptolemy, a far more educated and knowledgable person than Moses or the scribes who compiled the text of scriptures in 550 BC, would have been possible, since the world was so small.

I got to thinking though, if as Genesis 7:20 says, “The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits” (NIV) then a universal flood would have covered Mt. Everest by more than 23 feet. A note by the translators suggests that this passage could be translated “rose more than fifteen cubits, and the mountains were covered” does not suggest more than a local phenomena, a common occurrence for the Mesopotamian river basin. Many readers who trust the veracity of the Jewish scriptures breathe a sigh of relief.

But, enter the moderns, like Ken Ham, and you have a universal flood, implying that Everest was covered by more than 23 feet of water. Everest is 8,848 meters above sea level. That implies that in 40 days and nights, it rained about 221 meters a day, ~9.21 meters an hour, (for the non-scientific among us ~30.21 feet per hour or an inch every 2 minutes) over the whole earth. I admit, speaking as a modern, that Everest is growing ~4 millimeters a year, but this amounts to only about 24 meters in 6000 years, shortly after the “creation event” for Hammites and Ussherites. This wouldn’t change the calculation much.
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Give space for another passage of Genesis, 7:11 where the “Springs of the deep” burst forth and maybe that figure for daily rain is a little high. Now scientifically speaking, when we look for springs of the deep, underground reservoirs of such magnitude, we do not find them. But according to the US Geological Survey, in a page that answers the question “How much water is in the earth?”, it turns out that there isn’t much at all compared to the 8,848 meters of water deep required to cover Everest. In fact rough calculations of the average volume of the earth a radius of 6371 km = 1.08 x10^12 or 1,080,000,000,000 km^3 and the additional volume of water needed to get the water up to that height, would constitute approximately 10x10^9 or 10 billion km^3 about 7.22 times the amount of water on the earth at this time, 1,386,000,000 km^3. So some terrible questions come up.

(I was so happy to find that note on the alternate reading of that passage in Genesis 7:20. It sort of solves the whole puzzle Ham puts up as a matter of fact. Translations may not be as reliable as Ham wants them to be.)

The greatest difficulties come for the literalists who want a universal flood. It’s too much water, where did it come from? There are no large (4-8 kilometer deep) caverns in the earth, and there never were, if the laws of physics obtained back then, and there was never a dome of water in the sky. After getting all that water here in an impossible downpour, where did it go? All the Bible says is that the waters began to recede until later in the year when the ark set down on the land. In total, about a year’s time had transpired before the inhabitants got off the ark.

What we have in the necessity of a universal flood is a miraculous event, (that means God going against the laws of nature (though I don’t think God does that)) implying God couldn’t see the bad behavior of people beforehand, and had to come up with an ad hoc resolution to the problem. If there is a God, this version of God that the literalists have cooked up is almost laughably puny, certainly not worthy of worship. And if that’s all God is, then the new Athiests are correct to dispose of him.

I think God is wiser than that. To be consistent, the literalists have a terribly contradictory text on their hands. How they have managed to fool themselves into believing their interpretation true is beyond me. I think the Bible is much more human and subtle. The writers were not robots copying down texts dictated to them by an angel, or God himself. They understood the complexities of human nature and even divine providence. We do them a terrible disservice to treat these texts as a logical puzzle without even considering how human these stories are.

Here’s the latest from Reasons.org. Reasons to Believe just published a paper on the universal flood. They have better numbers and research than my speculation above, but conclude generally the same thing I did. Here it is: The Universal Flood.

will the real adam and eve please stand up?

Adam, Eve, and the Gospel

by Richard Davis, and Paul Franks

Here is the link to the original article in Enrichment, a journal for ministers in the Assemblies of God.

Here are a few notes about “Adam, Eve and the Gospel” and a few assumptions where it falters. One can happily deny the “literal” existence of Adam and Eve, without denying the actual existence of Adam and Eve, just as one can deny, like Augustine did, that the creation story is literal without denying that God created the universe and everything in it according to Genesis one and two.

If the essay above is meant to offer some comfort to those who believe in a literal Adam and Eve, we first have to ask what “literal” means with a bit more precision. I’m not going to do that here but note that when we use the word “literally,” we most often use it metaphorically. See this article in The Economist from November, 2013. I quote, “…if ‘tree’ and ‘rock’ aren’t metaphors, nearly everything else in our vocabulary seems to be.” When we talk of a literal Adam and Eve we mean the people “The Book” says, who are probably not a whole lot like the real people we imagine they are. Literarily, they serve a function that is contested among different groups, and the authority card seems especially inappropriate here.

Now before going down that rabbit hole, of what the “real” Adam and Eve were like, I would like to note a logical gaff that leapt out to me immediately. In the sixth paragraph, “Although not specifically named, anyone with a passing familiarity of the Creation story knows whom Jesus is talking about [in Mark 10:2-9]. The ‘them’ are Adam and Eve (Genesis 1.27).” I would like to give Davis and Franks a pass here, but is that really true? They are the ones making claims to being literal, yet don’t they realize the possibilities of that little statement of Christ? Easily, and most generally, the statement could refer to the first of our kind, but was Christ referring to Adam and Eve? That is a leap of faith, an interpretation, not a literal reading of the Scriptures. Christ was obviously referring to those of our race for whom marriage was based on fidelity. But are those people necessarily Adam and Eve? If as the Scripture allows, Jesus wasn’t speaking specifically about Adam and Eve, then the quandary Davis and Franks cook up disappears.

Davis and Franks then take us to the logic of the “Fall,” a fall, by the way which isn’t a literal reading of the Scripture because the Scripture nowhere states there is a fall. The Fall is, like the Trinity, a second-order theological object. The Trinity has a good history, and solid corroboration in the Scriptures, but the Fall is an object imposed on the Scriptures because of the concept of causation. First let’s look at the passage Davis and Franks give us, then at the problem of causation. They give us Romans 5:12, usually the go-to passage for those who wish to pronounce the blame on Adam. But logically it breaks down differently.

The passage is a conclusion to a previous argument that we’re not going to trace: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—“ ESV. Davis and Franks build the case through this scripture that Adam is the cause for our sin. But they stray in order to make the case for this. The translations are fairly literal, and all revolve around two clauses. The first clause, “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin” states that Adam was the first. Okay, fine. The second clause contradicts Davis and Franks by stating that “so death spread to all men because all sinned.” Rewrite that in better English, and it becomes “so, because all sinned, death spread to all men.” The causal link is broken between Adam’s sin and ours in the very passage Davis and Franks wish to use to prove that there is a causal link. Adam is the first, and when Paul follows in verse 14a with “Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam.” If the transgression was not like that of Adam, did they cook it up on their own? There seems to be a disconnect that prevents any causal link. Adam was first in sin, while Christ is first in redemption. That is the context of the passage in Romans 5. The problem is with defining why we sin.

Paul does make a causal argument in 5:15, and that seems to contradict my conclusion above. But, let’s keep both these suppositions in our mind at once and try to see what comes of it. If we are literalists, we need to read 5:12 through 5:15, but that does damage to 5:12 if we think that it is the sin itself that is transmitted. This brings up the problem of inheritance.

We know more about inheritance, especially genetic inheritance, than our predecessors. Nothing material science tells us allows the transmission of sin. But this is the weakest argument. That doesn’t answer the question for us, but it sets a form of groundwork. With it, and the Scripture, I will argue that transmission of sin by genetic inheritance is unreasonable, a break with God’s intent, and contrary to plain statements of Scripture.

Keeping 5:12 and 5:15 in mind, let’s look at Ezekiel 18. This chapter is the most thorough compendium on the inheritance of sin available in the scriptures. Its conclusion is blisteringly clear. There is no inheritance of sin, or of righteousness either. In support of Rom. 5:12 each man dies for his own sin, not the sin of his father or his son. So according to Ezekiel, sin is not part of the inheritance of Adam.

There is a passage that seems to contradict Ezekiel 18 in Numbers 14:18 “The LORD is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

But he is not punishing the children, children’s children or, grandchildren for their own sins, which if Ezekiel is correct they are not at fault for, but for the sins of the fathers. Even this case would not require any transmission of sin, only residual punishment. This is an easy sociological question to suggest an answer for. The answer is that the destruction to social well being done by the father may take generations to ameliorate. They inherit the consequences of the sin, not the sin itself. Ezekiel is intact. The children’s sin is not the cause of the punishment laid on their father, though the sin of the father is the cause of the punishment of his progeny. Even though they are bearing the punishment of the father’s sin, the children to four generations who sin will also suffer the consequences of their own sin.

The results of sin can be passed on, but I see no reason to think that the cause for sin passes on, except of course the possibility that sin has something to do with being human equivalent to the capacity Adam had when he sinned. For those who wish to break this debate into its tried and worn categories, that is that people are born evil, neutral, or good; I think those categories should be abandoned. Even now we know so little of what it means to be human, those categories have nothing to do with what people are in some essential nature. It is rather a view of human behavior that is looking for an explanation. In other words, those categories are subsequent to the debate at hand serving as conclusions, not data we are looking at that will help us decide why we sin. In a circular fashion, if those conclusions are true, then, at least, people born evil explains why they sin.

But that leaves us in a moral dilemma. Even common human reason recognizes injustice when it sees it. Here’s the proposition that the determinists recognize perfectly well, but ignore. If we inherit the predilection to sin, and we sin because of that inheritance, then we are not at fault for that sin. If we are not at fault then we cannot be justly punished.

So looking for causality for sin harking back to Adam, we are left free of the burden of sinfulness and its subsequent effects, and God can’t justly hold us accountable. But God does hold us accountable for our sin, so there must be an element of free will, pure libertarian choice involved in the sin, so that we can be held accountable for it.

So the causality argument that Davis and Franks appeal to in order to secure the “literal” Adam and Eve, turns out to be a theological debacle that solves no riddles.

Happily, we do have something Adam had that we inherited. We have our humanity. If we sin because we have free will and the imagination to think more of our judgment than we ought to thereby straying from God’s path, then we, like Adam and Eve, will suffer the consequences of that sin. Thank God for Jesus who redeems us and gives us everything necessary for life and godliness.

But I know the determinists, neo-Calvinists and amateur logicians in our ranks will rankle at this argument. They will rehearse the worn out phrases that are supposed to make me happy with God’s injustice which is the result of their broken theology. I am free of that, responsible for my actions freely chosen.

The determinists, and partners to the fatalists of Buddhism, those who wish to cheat the study of human nature by accusing their progenitors for their own sins; those who wish to find a cause for every effect, have become deists. For them there is no God who is doing a new thing in the earth. There is no new life emerging from the ashes, there is no redemption, because God has already predetermined beforehand by a fixed causality, who is to be saved and who is to be lost. Ezekiel kicked them off that wagon, but many have hopped back on because of the feeling that their logic has abandoned them. Uncertainty and unresolved angst are too difficult to bear, and so they retreat to the certainties of their predecessors, remaining orthodox and wrong at the same time.

But like the thinkers in the Age of Reason, many of these folks do not know how to hold in tension the true things they have evidence for, and reduce the world to simple probably wrong formula. In the Age of Reason thinkers like Galileo Galilei aimed to destroy the authority of Aristotle because Aristotle had outlived his usefulness. His theories were no longer instructive, like the debate today between Calvin and Arminius. Why should we stick to the categories so ancient that they bear no resemblance to the modern ones? Are the modern ones better? Certainly, where they take into account data that were unavailable to our predecessors. For example, those who fight Darwinian evolution tooth and nail, are still fighting with tools developed in the nineteenth century and before; they use literalism, pre-atomic, and pre-geological sciences.

To finish my response to Davis and Franks’s waving of their arms, I say that the real Adam and Eve are, even in scientific circles, our progenitors, and that we have good evidence in materialist terms that whenever they lived, they were probably greatly unlike the people we imagine Genesis is telling us about but suffered the same malady we do, and that is, reason, the desire for knowledge, a robust sense of their own importance, and freedom to make mistakes. I would say to Davis and Franks keep puzzling this issue and don’t stop short of the truth. The puzzle of what in the scripture should be read word for word as truth, and what is metaphor is unresolved in your facile attachment to worn out theological objects. Your results should not drive the interpretation of your data.

why i still read the bible

As with any good book, though I’ve read it before, the hermeneutic circle of life learning and interpretation assures that I will learn something new each time I read it. Literature, because of the human condition does not remain static. The letters on the page do, the books themselves, whether paper or pixels do, but the meaning unfolds in perpetuity with every rereading.

I am not simply saying with the reader response crowd that the meaning resides only in me the reader. Rather, the symbiotic relationship between the static book, myself and the world, assures the persistence of change and development, even improvement and growth. I am not also simply saying with the propositional crowd that the text forces a single meaning on the words, or that we can understand the intent of the writer purely by arranging the words in a logical matrix. Neither myself nor the world are static. There are subtleties that cannot be detected in the interpretative matrices of these extremes. They force damage on the real world, sending us farther away from that reality, mystifying their adherents, preventing contact with reality.

So, the same drama between Heraclitus and Parmenides plays out in the modern world of hermeneutics. Because most of the people I associate with are of the logical sort with respect to the Bible, I am forced to play to the reader response side of the equation to balance out the debate. But I have every reason to believe that both extremes are faulty.

I am having some fun in my classes with the logical crowd, because they seem so certain and trot out their arguments to once-and-for-all fix the problem. But I am also assured that though they trust their reason in such a fashion, they are wrong to do so. There are a few who get the debate without another word, but most are not up to speed. A few are knowledgeably on the Heraclitean side of things, but seem harried, and not up to the argument. It is a much harder argument to grasp, of course, but I am inclined to side with them against the facile certainty of the Parmenideans.

I have more books than I will finish reading in my lifetime. I have purchased them because I believed they might hold some helpful remarks. I have read the introductions to most of them, but the majority have not kept my attention. I have found most useful the fictions I read at nighttime. They are unpretentious narratives that are not weighed down with the necessity of teaching some lesson, or wrestling the reader into a certain form of belief. In that sense they have gained my trust. And, as it turns out, the best of them actually do have a moral lesson. Their best heroes, though they can be faulted for ordinary human frailties, are both capable of learning and taking hits from their enemies. They falter, they fail and often, but not always rise to a better temper. But as with the best of literature, they are affected by their experiences and affect those around them. In a word, they are believable.

The Bible is like that. Like a good narrative, nothing of the foibles of its characters is hidden. They act happily or unhappily as we do. None seem superhuman, even Jesus, but they are all capable of learning and either get up after a fall or not. Peter gets up, Judas Iscariot does not. David gets up, and while learning some things, never learns others. As an example, David is great for some things but poor for others. Nevertheless, reading the narrative, you get which part of the man is to be valued, and which to be avoided. But not all of us avoid the undesirable elements of the biblical characters, and in this lies a secret. We can be confident that though we are weak and misguided, even damaged, that God is both aware of all of it and capable of managing whatever in our lives is redeemable. That’s a pretty good deal. At least that’s the promise of the Scriptures, and one that is not hidden too deeply under the skin of the cultures it is wrapped in.

So I keep reading, hoping that the features of my own life that puzzle me so deeply will find redemptive value in the narrative. That doesn’t mean that I have squared away the narrative, as if I could grasp the entirety by means of a propositional logic, or that life is so chaotic that I couldn’t recognize myself in the confluence of these words and my life, but somewhere in contact with the real world and the real world of others, the layers of my culture and the mystifications of the contemporary narratives would not prevent the redemption of my best parts in contact with the ineffable reality that lies beyond the world.

perfection is a process

Christ was not yet perfect as a child. At least that’s what Hebrews 2:10 says, “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.” (ESV) (pathéma Strong’s: (a) suffering, affliction, (b) passion, emotion, (c) an undergoing, an enduring). The mystery that God would require that Jesus suffer as a means of training is not lost on us who suffer.

But, let’s be clear, suffering for doing wrong is not the same as suffering as training. It is similar in that suffering for doing wrong can teach us a lesson, but it brings us no closer to perfection, since, in some brutish fashion punishment brings us to ground zero in the scheme of things, purifies us to begin again. Tho wounds we sustain, however, debilitate us from achieving possible heights. On some account, pleasures have to be paid back. As John Stuart Mill suggests, the abuse of lower pleasures makes one unfit for higher ones.

The movement toward perfection comes from suffering that comes to humans as strong emotion in conflict, suffering for doing good. As trite as it sounds, we have a saying for that, “No good deed goes unpunished.” But to ennoble the phrase, it is an ordinary experience for humans to be misunderstood, and to be treated badly for good deeds.

Up until the point where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, he mostly tells people whom he performs miracles on not to spread the news. Why does he do that? It’s obvious he’s not successful, people tell stories and he becomes famous for doing these things. But there’s a moment of strong emotion before he raises Lazarus from the dead. He raises Lazarus in front of people who will initiate his crucifixion in response. One must wonder at his sense of timing, his knowledge of what must lie ahead. He is not stoic. He must recognize the price he must pay for the designed perfection. In the garden of Gethsemane we are told the emotion was crushing, enough so that he dripped with sweat. Is this the press that brought Christ to perfection? I think so, and I also think that something like this is the thing that brings us to perfection as well. But I think, most of us dodge the necessity of it, not filling our role as humans in the design of God. At least, we do not drink the full cup of it.

Hebrews 6:1 tells us to move on to maturity, to perfection (teleiotés) not going over the axioms of faith again, but moving to their logical conclusion in the action faith requires. The reason why people refuse to grow up is that it requires suffering. The Greek word is one that is part of a constellation of ideas surrounding the belief that there is a future destined for individuals, and in the Bible that is in God, especially in the Church, and only in exceptional cases, outside of it. In general it is to become like Christ in full Christian character. For a person in Christ, in the Church, a further destiny must discovered by each individual. That particular path must be taken in cooperation with God through, again, suffering of strong emotion and perhaps physical stress, harm, or death. However, for Christians in the USA, the suffering does not often lead to death.

The conclusion is that Christ suffered, we will too if we are following him. The puzzle is to sort out whether we deserve the suffering as a consequence of our misuse of the world’s goods, or as a consequence of being a person who is following Christ. And then there is suffering for others, the task that perfection must carry out. It is in this that there is reward for eternity, and not without it.

my friend spencer

My friend Spencer commented on my previous post in Facebook. I quote it here because it is important to address this sort of objection to my dismissal of Calvinism.

Spencer Griffin: Isaac Watts Hymn, “How Sweet and awefull is this place, with Christ within the doors” in its entirety, as an expression of the best of evangelical Calvinism… enjoying the mystery of prayer, which is, after all, where God’s sovereignty and our participation in His Work somehow mix. “People should be converted though our prayers”……and the victorious word of the Gospel!!!! I have been praying to understand how God’s sovereignty infused Edwards and Whitfield to compel men to come to Christ…..The use of people to reach people, what a weak plan Lord! I do not understand God’s ways, its like asking why he let men fall— “there is none that seeks for God” Romans 3:11, and yet the Son of Man came… “in the fullness of time” to seek and to save the lost….through you and me??? how does that work….Good griief!!!! even St. Paul says what appear to be contradictory things on the same page!!!! A world in which contingency surrounds God leaves no room for the wonder of the Gospel any more than does a missapplied Calvinisim that does not pray. But why pray if ultimate contingency surrounds even Jesus…….we need an omnipotent Savior! And scripture says we have one!

I applaud the actions of our brothers and sisters who, inconsistent with TULIP make an effort to seek and save the lost. I have no argument with those who at first (theologically) refusing to do the master’s bidding at last go to do it. I have an argument with those who insincerely preach the love of God to those who they believe are lost by the determination of an almighty God. God to the TULIP is impassable, incapable of any movement in response to our prayers. Yet we know he does respond to prayer, and the best of us prays like they mean it.

I never suggested nor will I that God in Christ is surrounded with contingency. That is a straw man used to argue against any possibility of free will. It is a set of false alternatives: TULIP or absolute contingency. We know more today about the things of our lives that are materially out of our control, yet we are responsible for our behavior implying legitimate freedom. But that freedom is only partial. Jesus suggested we cannot change the color of our hair by willing it. So, being unable to choose in this fashion was never in our hands. TULIP denies that any expression of freedom will change the mind of God.

As I state here and elsewhere, I am not arguing with Calvin or any of his followers’ devotion, or obedience, but the theory he and his followers espoused is just a form of philosophical determinism. Sovereignty does not imply determinism. What a pitiful unqualified god that would have to make people be as he wanted them, and punish others to prove his power. That’s not what we understand as being human, or understand as the loving God.

The point of this exercise is to recognize that God’s purpose in hardening Pharaoh’s heart had everything to do with proving his power to national Israel,(and yes to Pharaoh and the Egyptians) and nothing to do with Pharaoh’s eternal destiny, which, by the way, is never mentioned in scriptures anywhere, even Roman’s 9, though it is assumed he is on his way or already is in hell.

But it wouldn’t even matter if God were surrounded with contingency. Can you imagine him wringing his hands at the infinite possibilities that are out of his control? Nonsense. The God I choose who manages the entire creation, (which, by the way is unimaginably larger than any tiny cosmology our forbears imagined) is capable of managing a few puny humans whom he gave freedom to reject him with. He also gave them freedom to accept, worship, love, and fellowship with him, even though we can’t do the simple magic of changing the color of our hair by our will alone. (Some people really look good in shocking pink or green hair.)

I think the argument about Calvinism as opposed to Arminianism is so over and done with, that some of us hold on to it like some hold to a young earth cosmology. There is better theology, better science, better philosophy available than Calvin or any of his modern cronies have imagined. I would be happy to abandon the project of proving or disproving TULIP as a shibboleth of our allegiance to the living God. But some are so convinced that preserving the debate ensures conservatism, that they fail to challenge the ugly presuppositions that hold it together.

Spencer suggested that the mystery of God using men to bring the good news to a lost and dying world is equal to the mystery of God letting men fall. Look at the assumptions that back this remark. First, God could have prevented us from the “fall.” OK, then we would not be the humans we are today. We would be smart animals, guiltless, cunning, capable. But I answer that the mystery lies in why we are convinced that God had no idea what we would do when he set us on the earth this way. The answer to that is that TULIP wants a vengeful God, a God who made Adam sin so he could punish him. That would be consistent.

The only other answer is that God knew all along that his creation would stray, and that, as Hebrews tells us, provided the savior from the foundation of the world not as a contingency, but as the preparation for salvation that would be required. Why would it be required if God set us up so we would sin? We would be blameless on that account. However, the acts in the garden were freely chosen, (even as ours are) irrespective of the lack of foresight they reveal, so Adam and Eve become morally culpable, and responsible, cannot pay for their sin, and require a savior, which God provides.

Either, the God of the Calvinist could not stop men from falling, making him less than omnipotent. Or, God, as Augustine suggests, gives people freedom as a legitimate, active cause in the world, for which each is responsible.

One of the reasons I reject Calvinism, which I mentioned above, is that the theoretical underpinnings of Calvin’s theology are medieval, scholastic, universalizing, absolute, and mistaken. We have more to work with today, better theology, better philosophy, better science.

We can get more by obeying what Jesus commanded us, than what results from a theologically sophisticated Calvinism. In fact, I argue that we could get the participation of a devoted Edwards or Whitfield without the screwy theology which renders their actions futile attempts at saving people God had already determined were going to hell.