Category Archives: theology

Abandoning Friends

It is with great regret that I have had to abandon some of my Christian friends. I have been a believer for most of my life, and have striven to make my faith in Christ and God central to my living even as many forces in our environment and in my own self have plotted and schemed against that. One tool I have found compellingly necessary is learning to decide what is reality and what is not. I call it discernment, but you may call it something else. All it implies is that when I have to make a choice between two seemingly equal propositions, the one that adheres to the real world is the one I choose. I choose it even though my softer self often struggles to follow along. Weakness both mentally and physically constantly pressure against the facts to force ignorance and non-compliance. Habits, both good and bad distract me from following what I know to be true. I am thoroughly embedded in the world I seek to clarify, that I may see the real world, myself, and others in it.

What that means in most of my experience is very little. Even the most tainted and broken minds can drive between the lines painted on the street. I can get along with most people on the road because my interactions with them are based simply on physics and the real world which we are all viscerally attached to. If I’m going too fast, I feel it in my guts even as my neighbors do. If I took that turn too fast, I slow down the next time. Experience and practice are usually enough to make my way on the road. But when it comes to finer judgments, like whether the world is flat or not, or whether some ancient cosmology is true or not, there is more mental work that needs to be done.

Many of my old friends are not capable of the flexibility to choose which belief is of greatest value, which belief must be true, which belief must be adhered to. In the case of a cosmology, the factors that help make a decision are at a much higher level of abstraction than some people are capable of. Some people don’t have the resources (I’m being generous here) to evaluate the propositions laid out before them. And when it comes to independent thinking, they struggle to be responsible about abandoning beliefs and values that have long ago become moribund. On some account this is a struggle between loyalty and reality.

Reality is harsh and unforgiving, incapable of sympathy, requiring nothing so soft as belief but impinging on beliefs where they are incorrect, breaking values where they are mistaken, slicing through loyalties when they are misplaced. Loyalties, on the other hand, offer a comforting solidarity, a connection with like-minded persons, surcease in the face of a turbulent society. But there is no guarantee the views held in solidarity are true or real. And at threat, tests for truth and reality are shunned in a worldview that depends on solidarity.

Though the tests for truth and reality are not entirely friendly to my continuity and comfort, I am not ready to abandon them. I am assured that when the test and the resolution to my queries are fully undertaken, I will be vindicated, even though I may also be exhausted. The project of changing oneself is full of effort and sometimes incomplete. Like gravity, habit seeks to keep us on the same path we have always taken, but habit cares nothing for truth or reality. Making good habits, at best, means that we can escape the worst effects of our ignorance and carelessness.

So, why have I abandoned my friends? Why have I cut ties with people I was perfectly happy to associate with before. From within the turmoil I call my brain, I have to say that retaining truth is more important to me than retaining friends. I am happier to leave friends than I am to leave the truths they would denigrate by association. Their dismissal of the importance of facts means that they neither care for me as I am or the truths that make up my best self. Their adoption of “alternative facts” is a miserable ploy to undermine the very reality on which I live, on which I depend. I even wonder whether their inability to live in the real world extends to their faith in the very real God I hold to. I can little countenance that disruption to my faith.

Could these people for whom reality is a nuisance countenance the living God whom I worship? I’m not sure. I am glad I am not the one who will judge people in the final day. I hope always that their inability to discern their environment and their mistaken loyalties as such, will not exclude them in the final judgment from the very salvation they assure themselves about. I am in no position to judge them, but when I judge my capacity to live with the mental distortions they advance I have to leave their company. It is weakness, not strength that makes this decision for me. I just can’t live with them. I can’t pretend they are on my side. I can’t whitewash their foibles because I can’t see any innocence in them even as I can’t see innocence in myself. I see what they have done and are doing as a purposive and momentous decision, not entirely the result of an accident of birth, position, or habitual trajectory. I give up my friends because I can’t merge with their solidarities, their loyalties, their unfounded beliefs, even though they may in appearance look like mine.

That is not to say that I have not gained a wide variety of new acquaintances and friends with whom I am in solidarity with, but the scientific proposal in this cabal, that every thesis is testable, and new evidence should adjust old beliefs is alive and well. This is fresh air, not constrained by old ignorance, religious or not. Also, the effort, tempting though it might be for some, to toss out the old signposts (true by their endurance in humanity like the Golden Rule) is without interest. My people now wish for and hope for the endurance of all true value, the values of Jesus, and Socrates alike, Aristotle and Heraclitus, St. John and Voltaire*, St Paul and Francis Collins. (*Lois made a fair criticism, that Voltaire wrote anti-Semitic things, and so he should not be included. I am not here justifying all of the things my small sample of actors have said or done, but the breadth of possibly useful information and argument these actors have made. To refine my examples to faultless persons would only allow Jesus. Antisemitism, whether in Henry Ford, Luther, or Voltaire is a breach of truth and good value on par with the worst behavior of humans whether their disvalue is in service to capitalism, Christianity, or freethinking.)

This calls into question the value of the Bible. Let me state without much elaboration what the Bible is to me to avoid endless wranglings and disputes. It is not the direct dictated words of God. We do not have the original texts, so let’s not be so obtuse as to say that it’s infallible. It is not a scientific text. It is data on the reports of interaction of ancient people with God and other people. My argument is not with the Bible, but with the skewed and mistaken interpretations of it that neither square with the Bible itself (in literalism) or the real world as exposed by science. Nobody believes precisely what has been written. We all believe an interpretation of what was written. So I argue for a broader base of interpretation of the data than merely the text itself. Every science should have its say. Every theology should have its say. Every political theory should have its say. And when everybody has had their say, evaluate to discover the ones that must or might be true. Continue the query, even when it is unlikely that we should come to the end of it. Reject out of hand those views that contradict what we already know (the earth is ancient, not flat, not the center of the universe, etc). There is not a minute to waste on failed theories or interpretations. Those opinions are of no value in forwarding knowledge or the truth because they rely on ideas that have long been abandoned because they are false.

I am asking not for a new dogma but a new human and humane rationality to guide our interpretation of any and all the texts we have produced. I am sorry if some people miss me as a companion, I can’t survive their worldview, either what it implies or the travesty they wish to impose on the rest of us.

New Atheists and the Culture War

To conclude, let me bring things full circle: At least some studies have shown that, to quote Phil Zuckerman, secular people are “markedly less nationalistic, less prejudiced, less anti-Semitic, less racist, less dogmatic, less ethnocentric, less close-minded, and less authoritarian” than religious people. It’s a real shame that New Atheism, now swallowed up by the IDW [Intellectual Dark Web] and the far right, turned out to be just as prejudiced, racist, dogmatic, ethnocentric, closed-minded and authoritarian as many of the religious groups they initially deplored.

Godless grifters: How the New Atheists merged with the far right

I have followed some of the new atheists with interest for the last 20 years or so. I can also acknowledge that some of them have produced well-accepted academic work in the past. They have also found themselves justifiably ensconced in popular culture (Richard Dawkins’ Memes). I have even used some of their criticisms of Evangelicalism in my work, because I thought it prudent to include voices unlike our own. And some of their criticisms were, unfortunately, warranted. But I think Phil Torres’ critique of this crowd exposes a wide variety of their mendacious behavior, and their association with the worst elements of our society, make this read essential for those who would want to hear opinions from more than their insular compatriots.

left to right: Jeffrey Epstein, Lawrence Krauss, Steven Pinker

Am I disappointed in the bad behavior of these who wanted to think of themselves as the guardians of truth and defenders of the real world? No, not really. I never placed “faith” in them as if they were pure-minded and honest dispensers of the truth railing against the stupidity of religious people. Already they had made of themselves a degenerate subset of humankind by prejudicially exorcising every version of morality and spirituality (irony intended). Curiously but not unexpectedly, they have made common cause with those evangelicals, the majority of Congressional Republicans, and others who have denounced honesty, morality, science, intellectual integrity, and education as routes to human improvement. The new atheists and culture warriors have produced in themselves mirror images of degenerate humanity, the former by truncating spirituality, the latter by truncating the real world and the intellectual integrity of a scientific worldview. Both modalities are betrayals of personhood as made in the image of God. Both lead to precipitous and unwarranted certainties that eventually lead to the loss of personhood.

Now, let’s get the obvious critique over with now. Am I faultless in my accusation of my contemporaries? Not at all. I see the loss of my memory, narrowing of my focus, encroaching senility, and physical decrepitude as persistent companions. I am not making any claims to being above the fray. And I am not suggesting some particular version of human perfectibility. No, I am rather suggesting a return to humility about the weakness of any supposed absolute apprehension of our purpose in life as a ground for future action. I am suggesting a return to humility in the face of vast unknowns in a universe wider than any one person’s comprehension.

I am also not suggesting that humans cannot master some aspects of reality, or that mastery of reality is an error. I am asking for well corroborated humility in our assertions because of the incredibly hard slog required for even modest growth as individuals and collectively as the human race.

I believe there are absolutes, though I am fairly certain that humans can not annunciate them with any sense of perfect scientific clarity. Absolutes are the domain of metaphor, poetry, art, and prayer, and are part of a well developed sense of place in the unimaginably large cosmos. Absolutes declared with intellectual honesty must always be paired with the caveats of our incomplete and incompletable knowledge.

Because of the threat posed by knowledge, the evangelical culture warriors have abandoned the proposition that education is useful. Doubling down on indoctrination, they model the same authoritarian pose taken by the Russian and Chinese communists. This irony is lost on them who haven’t taken the time to explore why they are doing what they are doing. They think that protecting the borders of their enclave by shutting out the other is an effective strategy for protecting their purity. Attempting to take political control of their environment they can’t see that in their fear of reality they have partnered with a wide variety of people who easily, and laughingly take advantage of them. They unwittingly commit themselves in these alliances to courses of action that betray the essential principles of their lives and faith. Attempting to keep their hands clean from the political fray, they close their eyes to the inequities perpetrated in their names, and shut out any criticism of their allies. But in doing so, they find out that their views and activities are poorly thought of by reasonable people. And yes, the term “reasonable” unspecifically refers to people who can reason through to a conclusion without damaging people or reality, a delicate walk through the garden of God. “Does not the ear test words as the tongue tastes food? (Job 12:11 NIV)”

To conclude, I implore those who have ears to hear, to listen to the Spirit. I am not speaking about religion or any particular version of religion, but to the Spirit of God, the voice that transcends and comprehends our grubby existence completely and offers a hand up to those who want it. I implore those who are engaged in the culture war to abandon the blindness that reacts out of fear and find a better explanation for what you see. Search a little harder. Go beyond your boundaries to the world ignited by love and care, wisdom and knowledge, to see God’s gracious reality fully featured before you. Permit yourself to be judged in the loving hands of God, to make amends where needed, to adjust your course toward all life, to abandon prejudices cradled to your breast when they come to light. Do not be afraid to explore, to test out the voice of God and see redemption begin to make your life flourish in the garden of God.

The New Republicans

As deeply disturbing as it might appear, the New Republicans are emerging from the wasteland of Trumpism with a new look. They want to appear to be the rational ones making sure we look at “both sides” of the issues that we face right now. This is not just an ideological position, they really want the world to think that they are back to their conservative roots with good justifications for their beliefs, well documented and reported in the news. But this is a thinly veiled attempt to push the same varieties of madness that proliferated during the Trump presidency. They are worse than tiresome, using the language of reasonableness to push the same conspiracies that marked Trump’s last year in office. They want you to forget January 6, 2021 and the events that led up to it by muddying the waters with more than a sprinkling of lies and obfuscations.

The Insurrection

We know that Donald Trump is responsible for fomenting the attack on the Capitol. We have all watched the videos, heard the testimonies of waffling Republican congresspersons who were terrorized on that day. Now they are back to support lies that came out as a response to what everybody saw and heard.

The first lie, Antifa and BLM supporters dressed up like MAGA supporters are responsible for the attacks on police and breaking and entering the Capitol. The Insider is keeping track of the arrests of people who have been charged in the insurrection. As of June 12th, 521 people have been charged with offenses related to their activities on that day. Not one of those people are members of BLM or Antifa, but ardent supporters of the ex-president. Do they really want us to think that all the Antifa and BLM supporters who were there have escaped the sight of millions of people who watched the videos? Roughly 42 gigabytes of 972 videos were extracted from Parler accounts before it was shut down by Amazon.1 Here’s a collection of over 500 videos compiled along the January 6th timeline by ProPublica. See for yourself. Faces of the Riot compiled a collection of around 6,000 faces extracted from some 200,000 images from the videos.

In the Insider page linked above, Jonathan Gennaro Mellis, arrested for “Forcibly assault, resist, oppose, impede, intimidate, or interfere officers and aiding and abetting; civil disorder; restricted building or grounds; violent entry or disorderly conduct, obstruct, or impede passage, and engage in physical violence on Capitol grounds; obstruction of justice/Congress … wrote on his personal Facebook account: ‘Don’t you dare try to tell me that people are blaming this on antics [Antifa?] and BLM. We proudly take responsibility for storming the Castle.’” David Blair of Maryland, who was arrested for assault on a police officer is recorded by the DOJ as having said that “he was scared of Antifa.” But Antifa was not at the Capitol on January 6th.

The New Republicans are not taking this as an answer. They cancel their own MAGA cohort to blame people that did not storm the Capitol. I love the way New Republicans are embracing cancel culture and denying it at the same time. They are obviously too unsophisticated to see the irony here. After muddying the waters with distracting and obvious lies, the New Republicans want you to forget that any of this happened, rewriting history to say that nothing happened on that day, that is, nothing more than a tour of the Capitol building by inquisitive citizens.

Election Fraud

The New Republicans also want us to think that there is some very real problem with the election where Joe Biden won in a landslide over Donald Trump for the office of President of the United States in 2020. What they are really doing here is undermining the credibility of their own and other election officials’ procedures which are watched over in a long-standing bipartisan fashion. The election procedure in the United States is not broken, but the New Republican wants you to think it is. The numerous stories of Republican election officials disputing the claims of the ex-President have been all over the news, that is, the news that is interested in publishing facts about reality, not conspiracies and lies in support of the ex-president’s lies.

The actual number of voting fraud cases is extremely low, and dealt with by mechanisms already in place by both Republican and Democratic election authorities. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank reports a mere 1285 cases of voter fraud for the 2020 presidential election. They also provide a list of precautions that election officials must take to avoid voter fraud. A total of 158,590,503 votes were cast for all presidential candidates in the 2020 election. That means that 8/10,000 of a percent of votes were fraudulent, that is 0.00081% of votes were cast illegally. Now, I accept the list of caveats the Heritage Foundation adds to this number that means a variety of fraud cases have not been compiled in their number, but a total of probable cases of voter fraud is nowhere near statistically relevant for the final tally where Joe Biden won handily over Donald Trump by 4.46%, a total of 7,060,519 votes difference between the candidates. I do not accept the idea that absentee ballots pose a large risk of fraud as the Heritage Foundation does. There are plenty of reasons to believe that absentee voters, vetted by their respective states are as legitimate as those voters who went to a polling place to cast their votes. But the Heritage Foundation does list probable cases where fraud may occur, not, by their own admission, that it did occur in the 2020 race. I can have a conversation with these conservatives, but not with those still adhering to Mr Trump’s conspiracies and lies. I do not count the Heritage Foundation with the New Republicans, though their arguments for worry about voter fraud are fodder for those who would call the election into question and those in our nation who are currently putting up more barriers to voting.

For our own household in Missouri, three of us filled out the absentee forms because of Covid-19. Two of them were returned because they contained errors which were subsequently corrected then resubmitted. When the ballots arrived, we filled them out and handed them in to the election authorities before election day in accord with clear rules specified by Missouri, Greene County, and Springfield. We are confident all of our votes were counted. And we didn’t all vote the same way. We believe the election process is fair and equitable in Missouri, even though MAGA supporters far outnumber their opponents.

Curiously, of the lawsuits that the Trump campaign and others waged in a variety of states to contest the election fairness, only one of 86 suits was won. The rest were dropped due to lack of evidence. Many of the judges in these suits were appointed by the Trump White House. The single case that was won, was later overturned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. This means that no election fraud case brought by the Trump campaign or others was won. Why do the New Republicans insist that there was fraud then? Why are they subverting the election results to recount votes in Arizona? Because they refuse to take the answer that they don’t want. They insist on a lie, a lie started and promoted by one man, ex-president Donald Trump, that there was serious voter fraud that overturned his election to a second term as president. The glamor that holds the New Republicans enslaved to Mr Trump’s lies will eventually be broken, but at what personal cost will those same New Republicans reengage in the political life besmirched by their association with arguably the worst president in the history of the United States.

Rather, they would have us forget the behavior of the man who is rightly accused of a variety of anti-democratic acts, resuming their former positions as respected members of their society, not as part of the MAGA cohort who perpetrated the January 6th Insurrection. But the nation will remember the bad faith in Donald Trump as something that the MAGA supporters chose instead of democracy. It will be remembered that they betrayed their own conservative principles and the country to align themselves with a man without principles. The New Republican is not even a shadow of their party’s originator, Abe Lincoln. They partner with Aaron Burr and other traitors to democracy and the ideals under which our nation was formed. And, just because they didn’t personally get their hands dirty on January 6th doesn’t absolve them of their participation in the Insurrection. They are as much to blame for parroting Trump’s lies as the MAGAs who broke in to the Capitol. I hold them responsible and history will do the same.

So, when a New Republican tries to ply you with reasonableness, remember that they are still participating in the Insurrection. When they ask you to look at both sides of the arguments, they want you to deny the truth that is in front of us all and sully yourself with their unverifiable and culpable filth. Remember that they do this as patriots, but not of America, rather of loyalty to the presidential failure, Donald Trump.

Why did I write this?

I wrote this after I posted an article where radcliffe.harvard.edu supported the assertion that the BLM protests were largely peaceful, and a MAGA supporter, a New Republican private messaged me to say the research was bunk, that Antifa and BLM are violent groups out to undermine democracy, that they were present on January 6th in large numbers dressed as MAGAs.

I carried on a conversation for half a day before the absolute idiocy being pushed as fact got to me. I felt ill from the interaction, and I unfriended that person, destroyed the conversation. This person, supposedly a Christian, proposed a topsy-turvy world that is so far from reality that I was shaken by it. And these people want us to forget January 6th. I realize that there may be true conservatives out there, but for the most part I think they’re trying to ride the insanity out and begin speaking when the dust settles, again as if none of this happened. The Republican party is now without recognizable conservative values, instead inhabited by lies, conspiracies, and demagoguery, railing against cancel culture and the “socialists” in our midst.

GOP ex-Congressman Mickey Edwards said that Republicans attending the CPAC conference were living in an ”alternate reality in which facts don’t matter.” Even Pat Robertson, an ardent supporter of Mr Trump during his presidency, says that Trump is living in an alternate reality, and that he should move on from his loss in the 2020 election.

But evangelical Christians, oblivious to what’s at stake here are doubling down on Trump’s side. They’re not calling it Trump’s side, but have absorbed the idiocy as if it were reality. They bluster on, confident in their powers, not cognizant of their error. Where does this leave Christ? I would first venture to say that Christ Jesus loves every single human, and all of his creation. We are all God’s children. We have often committed errors, and made mistakes, yet he still loves us. But Christ in this instance must weep at the impropriety of those who call themselves Christian and adhere to the Trumpist fantasy. They used to say “Trump defends life, so I voted for him.” But he didn’t defend life when he minimized the importance of the pandemic in 2020, even though he attended a rally of pro-life Christians. He didn’t defend life when he became the president with more executions on his hands than any prior president. But these Christians are oblivious to these facts, are distracted by his glamor, and can’t see their way to change their minds even when all their political aspirations are turning to dust. They have been poisoned by Trump’s lies, by their own political ambitions, and by their failure to understand how to research objectively. Besides Pat Robertson, I am only hearing a few fringe personalities repent of their mistakes here. The false prophets are doubling down, or changing the story to distract us from the disaster that was their false prophesy of Trump’s win in 2020. Charisma magazine put up a story that was a thinly veiled attempt to change the story line from Trump to “we accept black people.” But Charisma is complicit in the idiocy. Have any of them repented? I don’t know. It is hard to tolerate such lack of introspection, reflection, and self care. They think they are serving Christ, but it really looks like they are living the fantasy.

Believe without evidence

One of the sharpest criticisms brought by the old and new atheists in the modern dialog is that Christians believe without evidence. I don’t think that’s true, of course, but the atheists do not take the personal testimony of interaction with God as evidence at all because it is not physical, or scientifically reproducible. I do. But Christians have given ample evidence that they really do believe without evidence. They take the Bible as true, infallible, and without error, but they interpret it with a clumsy casualness that belies the strength of their faith. They have not advanced beyond reader-response interpretations to a much wider and well corroborated interpretation. They don’t recognize the history of interpretation, or the wide variety of schools of interpretation, nor can they wrestle with the varied implications of those interpretations. They never even get as far as the ancient rabbis who wrote the Talmud. In deference to the Christians in this amniotic state, the atheists don’t get it right either when they take the facile theology of these believers as compelling reasons to reject Christianity. It’s as if this brand of Christian and the atheists are all vying for points in a scholarly contest that has not been introduced to St. Augustine, St. Thomas, Barth, or McGrath, as if they read the Scriptures with the lazy inattention of a rebellious schoolboy. They do not acknowledge the great strides in human culture that emerge from the Judeo/Christian Scriptures, nor do they understand the particulars of ancient culture, so that they may understand the Scriptures as written in a place and a time different from our own. Anachronisms rising from this are built into their interpretations, and provide no insight for living or understanding of reality.

Conclusion

Following this line to the political conflict exacerbated by the New Republicans, the lazy inattention of their chosen commentators is full of self contradiction, and misguided anger. They don’t understand what they reject, nor do they have good reason to adopt what they believe. They have simply fallen into obvious traps prepared for the unaware. As the proverb says: It is futile to lay a snare in the sight of any bird. The birds are smarter than to fall prey to obvious traps. But these people, well forewarned by Jesus and the prophets, have fallen headlong into the obvious traps. Can they be rescued? Yes, of course, but they, like the dwarves in C. S. Lewis’s Last Battle after having entered in through the stable door to the afterlife, are infinitely suspicious of anyone or anything that would try to persuade them that they are safe and can go higher up and further in to God’s great forever, rejecting reality, as the New Republicans have done. They will proceed no further. The rest of us will move on with the blot on our nation’s record accounted for, mourned, and taught as a cautionary tale for the enduring future. Hopefully then, the New Republicans, will fade in luster, importance, and public visibility. We can go about our business without the scare tactics and the bluster.

Have all the problems disappeared with a Biden Presidency? No, of course not, but patient effort, even with the obstructive efforts of the New Republicans, will win out. And though all the problems Americans face will not disappear, it is time to vote with a wider awareness of what that vote implies, where it will lead us. It is time to abandon loyalty that has no good ground, to avoid being swindled by profit-takers, carnival barkers, and mountebanks; to demand the truth in our relations, in politics, and the news, to check assiduously for errors, to avoid the movement toward tyranny, and advance all people equally in their role as citizens.

1 Wired Magazine, accessed 6/12/2021, https://www.wired.com/story/faces-of-the-riot-capitol-insurrection-facial-recognition/

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.