Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Bultmann and miracles

Randy: Seems to me he is saying that anyone who understands the principles of electricity, the electromagnetic spectrum and biology would not believe in demons and spirits in the same way that people in the New Testament did. I see no fallacy or snobbery here. One could, still believe in a demon or a spirit, but I doubt they would be like the demons/spirits they imagined back in the first century C.E.
You argue for critics to read Lewis with a generous spirit, yet you are so miserly with thinkers you disagree with.

VR: But why? Why does nonbelief about spirits and miracles follow from scientific truth? In fact, in order for there to be miracles, there has to be a lawful nature in order for there to be a contrast between the expectations generated by the laws of nature and God's (or whatever other supernatural being's) direct activity.

There are real arguments to the effect that people who accept science and miracles are being inconsistent; Hume's argument against miracles and other arguments that have been spun off of that. It's possible that Bultmann just figured that one or more of those arguments worked, and his comment was a cryptic reference to those arguments. But he never says so. I have analyzed those arguments, once in a peer-review paper, and once in a paper on the Secular Web, and find all those arguments to be bad arguments. And it's not just me, the Univeristy of Pittsburgh philosopher of science John Earman agrees.

What it does is offer people a sort of satisfaction that goes with having up-to-date ideas without going to the bother of defending the up-to-date view with any real arguments. I think it betrays the fact that Bultmann has an insufficiently examined presupposition.


Anonymous said...

But why? Why does nonbelief about spirits and miracles follow from scientific truth?

Because the more we understand about the laws of nature then the more difficult it is to believe they were suspended, violated, reversed, or over-ruled.

For in today's world the believer has a double-burden, according to Mackie. She must first show, at a minimum, that an event is highly unlikely, before it can be called a miracle in the first place. Then she must show how this highly unlikely event took place, going against what we know about nature's laws. Such a procedure probably cannot be done without first believeing in a miracle working God, so the evidence of a miracle cannot show God exists, either.

In the ancient past, before they had a firm conviction about the laws of nature, most anything could take place. They didn't have the same double-burden, so it was easier to believe in such events.

“The Biblical view of miracles is something different from our conception of miracle as a disruption of natural law. As a matter of fact, the Biblical writers had no conception of ‘nature’ as a realm for which God has ordained laws. Rather, God himself sustains his creation, and his will is expressed in natural events, whether it be the coming of the spring rains or the birth of a child....God is constantly active. His will is discernible in every event.” [Bernard W. Anderson in Understanding the Old Testament (Prentice-Hall, 1957), (p. 43)].

Anonymous said...

"Why does nonbelief about spirits and miracles follow from scientific truth?"
I didn't say it did. I'm not trying to argue against the existence of spirits or demons, it would be a waste of time.
I said that a person who understands how nature works based on modern science is not going to believe in demons or spirits in the same way that someone back in the first century C.E. did.
For example, I'd suggest that a lot of people back then thought of demons causing diseases in much the same way that moderns think of viruses or bacteria causing diseases.
In other words, based on their knowledge of the natural world, it was much more reasonable for an ancient to attribute something like epilepsy to the workings of a demon. It is not so reasonable for a modern: she can point to known natural causes.

I see John Loftus responded while I was typing this response. I think he makes some very good points.

Victor Reppert said...

I wrote a detailed critique of Mackie on Miracles in my first published paper, "Miracles and the Case for Theism," in the International Journal for Philosophy of Religion (Feb. 1989).

Christian Prophet said...

I stumbled here where I probably don't belong. But those here might be interested in messages from the Holy Spirit on the Christian Prophet blog which talk about a "science of miracles." Usually the Holy Spirit refers to mankind's science as very primitive, offering very little understanding of what is REALLY going on. But I thought it interesting that the Holy Spirit would say there is a science which explains miracles.

Jason Pratt said...

I'm willing to go so far with John, as to allow (as Lewis also did) that it is unreasonable to ask someone to take seriously a claim of a miracle, if that person does not believe such things are possible. (This is why Lewis entitled his most philosophical apologetic work _Miracles: A Preliminary Study_.)

However, while I'm also willing to agree that people in the ancient past may have had an easier time believing in miracles, I think this is less because of a lack of firm convictions about nature's laws (per se), than because they believed that laws depended on sovereigns.

At least, it should be obvious that it is certainly _not_ true that the Biblical writers (including of the Old Testament--i.e. the 'ancient people' we're really talking about here) "had no conception of ‘nature’ as a realm for which God has ordained laws" (to quote John's quotation of Anderson). The mere fact that the first five (and most important) books of the Jewish canon were named "THE LAW" ought to be a hint that _this_ view is incorrect! Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine a religious group which became so infatuated with the notion of God's law, _especially enacted in history_. Is it not a common occurence, even today, to find people complaining about the 'laws' of the OT? For the Jews (as for others), a king makes decrees; those decrees are laws, and so are boundaries beyond which something either cannot cross (like the sea on a shore) or should not cross (like a man on a point of ethics). When this king is the creator of everything, and has created _by_ decree, then merely as a face-value consequent it should follow that the 'everything' created holds together and operates by those decrees. Not surprisingly then, when poetically praising God, we find the Jews comparing the Law of God (in the Torah) to the statutes He enacts in Nature, which were firm, trustworthy, reliable, 'emeth', _true_.

Also, of course, truly dependent on Him, and which He could supercede--the unmoving mountain, there forever (from their perspectives), might just as easily skip like a ram or dissolve like water, at the word of its Creator. Anderson _is_ correct about their belief of _that_ notion: "God himself sustains his creation, and his will is expressed in natural events, whether it be the coming of the spring rains or the birth of a child....God is constantly active. His will is discernible in every event."

For Anderson, perhaps, this is incommensurate with ordained laws of nature; for the Jews (and many other people--along with many people today, including for instance myself {g}) this is not incommensurate. I myself have a strong appreciation for (I would also say some decent understanding of) the laws of Nature; and I have no problem in the least with the notion that God is not dependent on those laws, or on anything aside from His own active self-existence.

Perhaps this is because I grew up using computers and _creating_ with them. Consider whether a functionally flawless World of Warcraft server would, of its perfection as a system, _necessarily_ mean that of course no one existing outside the system of the server (even the ones upon which the server system depends) would be able to introduce effects into it.

Or perhaps this is because I enjoy writing stories. Let us suppose I have created a story, 36 books long (and not short ones either!), intricately designed to the tiniest submicroscopic detail (i.e. drastically moreso than any I could really be writing... {g}) Even in this case, am I not allowed to introduce further effects into it?--if not, then on what grounds?? I had the ability to do all that to begin with; I retain the ability to disavow it (if I chose) and start again elsewhere, perhaps even to burn its constituent paper and ink to ash, do I not? I can easily imagine myself enjoying not _having to_ drive everything around in it 'myself'; but would I _necessarily_ not want to continue acting within my story, contributing to it? Would this, moreover, be some kind of intrinsic impossibility for me?

We are, after all, considering the _creativity_ of omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence; of an entity which, according to the implicative claim of trinitarian theism, actively self-exists in an eternal action of self-begetting. Action-to-existence is what this entity primarily _does_. Does it make the least amount of sense to suppose that such an entity (beyond a merely derivative entity such as myself) would find it _impossible_ to affect any created subordinate system, which still exists only because the entity continually wills (even loves) it into existence?

I am a creative man. I love my creation; and while I am pleased to see it 'behaving' of its own 'nature', I also love interacting with it. Certainly I, even as limited and derivative as I am, have the power to do so. If it _could_ be possible for the Ultimate Creator upon Whom all else depends, to create an entity which no longer dependend on Him for its existence, on what principle shall we insist that He would _not_ leave a way for Himself to interact with it? (And if we allow that this system does continue to exist _dependent_ on His continual action, then it would seem any notion of its invulnerability to Him must be rejected altogether as being a mutually exclusive proposition.)

In short: the notion that Nature (as a creation of God) must be invulnerable to God, even if God exists (and even if Nature continues its own existence dependent on God's enaction), seems to me to be highly _un_-philosophical.

(Which the Jews did, in their own ways, agree with me about. {s})


Jason Pratt said...

I agree, with Randy, that Bultmann _could_ have meant, by his remark, (only) that a modern person with access to modern phenomena may have a different way of believing in demons in spirits than people in earlier times. (Bultmann says it would be _impossible_ for moderns to do this, but I'm willing to allow this might only be rhetorical overkill.)

However, very many people have taken Bultmann to have been meaning exactly what Victor has taken him to mean. What he said _could_ also be read that way.

Must we read it that way? Granted, maybe that would be uncharitable to Bultmann--but it might not be either.

It seems to me the question can possibly (even probably) be answered by looking at the context of the work in which Bultmann made the quote, and in the larger context of how he treats such questions during this part of his life. The point being that if we find Bultmann believing in demons and spirits during this general time (just not picturing them the same way, or having a different notion of how they 'work'), or even better in the particular work Victor sited--then we have our answer. And Victor is being uncharitable (and/or ignorant) to Bultmann.

If, on the other hand, we find him denying supernatural effects altogether, and describing stories of such things as being mythological (with the attendent implication that these are not just poetically written but unhistorical), and this sort of thing, especially in the work Victor cited--then we also will have our answer: Victor will have read Bultmann's intended meaning correctly, either very probably or certainly.

So: what do we find? When Bultmann discusses accounts purporting to be historical, concerning ostensible effects of supernatural entities in the natural world (and thus in natural history), how does he treat them? Does he have no problem believing these things occur in our natural history, although he has a problem picturing them the way he sees the ancients doing? (e.g., is he like Lewis in discussing the operations of devils distinct from the poetic imagery of devils?)

Or, does he deny the historicity of such reports on the ground that the supernatural cannot induce natural effects, including in history?

I think what the enquirer will find, is that Bultmann insists on interrogating and judging the historicity of texts based on a "closed continuum" understanding of Nature. He doesn't deny God exists (on the contrary he affirms it), but if a claim involves supernatural entities (including God) effecting (and so affecting) events in Nature (and thus in the history of our Nature), then he judges the claim to be unhistorical on this philosophical ground. He isn't a philosophical naturalist exactly, but he might as well be: in practice he's a nominal (even minimal?) deist.

Somewhat inconsistently, he allows that the relevance of the Christian proclamation, and even of the NT texts, is that these direct "man to the fact that he is... brought before God, that God stands before him." He even describes this as the "call of God".

This is hard to square with his insistence on a closed continuum of natural history--in effect, he makes an exception for the natural history that a particular person may be living in right that moment, including persons in the 'modern' world. But as Lewis warned (and as numerous naturalists would similarly warn), once one admits that God has acted in Nature in one way, then one cannot consistently deny the claim of miracle on the ground of some kind of absolute prohibition against them (due to the character and/or characteristics of God or of Nature.)

Does Bultmann insist on such an invulnerable Nature on the ground Victor has given, the ground of 'modernity'? Not primarily in the way Victor's quote would imply, but I think it's only putting roughly what Bultmann otherwise would put more sophisticatedly: his rejection of supernatural action and judgment of nonhistoricity based on this rejection, is aimed specifically at finding a way of rescuing the 'relevance' of the texts for 'modern' people--ones who, as moderns, do not believe in supernatural events. (Possibly on grounds as crude as Bultmann put it, in the famous quote Victor has cited.)

While the more proper ground for Bultmann's rejection may be identified as an acceptance of nominal deism (and its constraints), and while it's possible that he himself would not have rejected their reality on grounds of simply being 'old' beliefs, the people he was preaching toward (in his own way) _did_ commonly draw such conclusions on such spurious grounds. (Lewis certainly found them to be doing it; and once upon a time had done it himself! I run into such people occasionally still.)

So, it may (perhaps--and I would like to hope so) be less a case of chronological snobbery on Bultmann's part, than an attempt to cater to chronological snobbery on others' parts; because he believed that this was the only way they would accept what he still believed was important to accept. His "call to authenticity" can be read (as he may well have intended it) to be equivalent to Christian self-criticism and repentence; a call to be _true_ men, as Lewis might put it. It may not be strictly Bultmann's fault that subsequent generations of his followers (and their followers) have gone the further step of rejecting the kernel as well as the shell, and of understanding "authenticity" to mean only a purified form of self-expression. (If I go appreciate the pleasures of a porn site, I'm being the authentic me! I have a _right_ to be the real me, don't I?--and to express this to the extent of my power, too. So long as no one is hurt by it, granted, but otherwise, as the modern Wiccans would put it: hurt none, and do what I like... If I was such a person, the notion that I am morally responsible to a higher authority, who has an equally authoritative say in what I _should_ and _should not_ be doing, would only be oppressive.)

So, yes, I'm willing to agree with Victor that there was chronological snobbery involved in the way Bultmann operated; but I would also be willing to agree with Randy, that the snobbery may not have been Bultmann's (exactly). I can easily see that the snobbery might only have been a feature of Bultmann's intended audience; whom he was catering to thereby (along the lines of Niehbur's culture collaborators), in an attempt to really be of help to them.


Anonymous said...

It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless [radio] and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of demons and spirits.

I think everyone here is in agreement that Bultmann exaggerated in the above statement. Is exaggeration chronological snobbery? I don't think so.

He predicates the changed belief in demons and spirits on information that wasn't available to those in the 1st century C.E. So if one changes her beliefs because of the acquisition of new information, is she being a chronological snob? I don't think so.

If the answer to the second question is yes, then it looks like Christianity itself is based on chronological snobbery.

Victor Reppert said...

John W. Loftus quotes Bernhard Anderson:
“The Biblical view of miracles is something different from our conception of miracle as a disruption of natural law. As a matter of fact, the Biblical writers had no conception of ‘nature’ as a realm for which God has ordained laws. Rather, God himself sustains his creation, and his will is expressed in natural events, whether it be the coming of the spring rains or the birth of a child....God is constantly active. His will is discernible in every event.” [Bernard W. Anderson in Understanding the Old Testament (Prentice-Hall, 1957), (p. 43)].

What???? So why in the world did Joseph try to put his wife away quietly if he had no belief that in nature humans don't get pregnant except by having sex?

Lewis makes an excellent and indisputable point when he says that our knowledge of the laws of nature tells us nothing about whether miracles are possible. The laws of nature tell us what happens when nothing outside the system interferes. We know that dead people stay dead, unless something outside the realm of natural causation causes them to rise from the dead. A person scheduled for execution will be executed, unless the governor grants a stay of execution.

Anonymous said...

"The laws of nature tell us what happens when nothing outside the system interferes."

How do you know that? Why are you assuming there is something outside of the world that can interfere with it? And even if that assumption should be correct, why are you then assuming that this interference wouldn't have to act in accordance with natural laws?

The laws of nature help to explain the phenomena we experience in the world. I see no justification for adding the qualifier "when nothing outside the system interferes".

Jimmy Licon said...

One could argue that the qualifier 'when nothing outside the system interfere' simply acknowledges the unactualized/actualized possibility of divine intervention (i.e. you could put it in modal language).

One this account it would make sense both from a naturalistic and theistic perspective, even if one didn't believe in miracles.

Additionally, it seems that the naturalist is making a number of assumptions about the nature of causation within the material world that were not shared by thinkers in the Middle Ages. But who is right? One cannot appeal to science, since science presupposes a certain view of 'material causation.' So why should the Christian hold a naturalistic view of causation (a la Plantinga) ?