Tuesday, August 31, 2010

McGrew on Drange: The Argument from Biblical Defects

The problems with ABD are similar to those in the AC. Premise A depends, I think, on how narrowly one draws the boundaries of evangelicalism; I suspect that C. S. Lewis would not have made the cut on a narrow definition. Drange gives a hat tip to the economist Niclas Berggren, whose 1996 essay “The Errancy of Fundamentalism” is posted on the Internet Infidels site. But Berggren’s argument works only with respect to a dictation theory of inspiration, and Berggren expressly claims that “as a matter of logical consistency ... if it can be shown that any translation of the Bible contains just one error, the Christian god cannot exist.” This is absurd.

But even assuming that a fairly narrow definition is meant, premise B does not follow from A and is not supported by any cogent line of argument; though some hapless evangelicals may fall into it by accident, it is certainly not a claim that would be endorsed by the vast majority of self-described evangelical scholars. Claims C1 - C3 are notoriously disputed; if Drange thinks he has the better of the argument with evangelicals here, he should simply make those arguments rather than assuming them as premises.

I note in passing that he would need far better weapons to establish C1 than those he chooses to employ. Drange understandably chooses the question of what is required for salvation as a point where serious doubt would create a problem. But utterly fails to show that such matters are in doubt. His attempt to pit Luke 13:3 against John 3:16, John 5:29, and Matthew 25:46 is execrable exegesis, amounting to the claim that since the latter three verses do not mention repentance, they teach a doctrine of salvation without repentance. This argument is too poor to deserve a response. And it is his only argument for contradictory biblical teaching on a point of importance.

Even granting arguendo that each of the claims C1 - C3 is correct, Drange’s argument will still miss C. S. Lewis—and that is a very significant target to miss. C4 and C5 are pertinent only to an extremely narrow reading of B that is so far out of the mainstream evangelical view as to render the term “evangelical” in this argument positively misleading. C6 is in part trivially true (there have been disputes about the canon) and in part misleading (the criteria for settling these disputes are well known and not arbitrary). C7 is a canard; the absence of the original manuscripts does not render disputes about the original text impossible to resolve.

Drange also makes some very strange errors. His claim that “the Q document is lost” not only presupposes that there was such a document—itself a point of contention among contemporary biblical scholars—but also displays his ignorance of the fact that, among those who believe that there is such a document, it is taken for granted that we have enough information in the overlapping portions of Matthew and Luke to reconstruct its contents, indeed, to write commentaries on Q. But none of this matters; the canon of scripture is not defined by anyone as the set of all of the things we might have liked to include if we had them.


Jason Pratt begins a series at Cadre on the Problem of Luke and Josephus

This is just the first post, but it promises to be interesting.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Talbott's Original Reply to Beversluis on the Problem of Evil

Originally published in Christian Scholar's Review in 1987. One of the first replies to Beversluis's book to be published after the first edition was published, and one that connects Lewis's The Problem of Pain to more recent developments (as of the time the paper was written), with respect to the argument from evil.

From Triablogue: Hume's Essay on Snowglobes

Friday, August 27, 2010

Stephen Law on Miracles and Prior Commitments

This is an interesting discussion.

Thomas Talbott replies to John Beversluis

Tom Talbott wrote one of the critiques of John Beversluis's critique of Lewis shortly after Beversluis's book came out in 1985. Beversluis responded in his revised edition, but Talbott thinks Beversluis missed his central points. Here is his response.

Ridicule is not an argument: responding to Loftus

May I simply note the complete absence of argument in your response. Yes, God could have eliminated the pretext that was used to justify religious war by Christians. And what other massacres might have happened in a world where those pretexts were missing? I don't know, and neither do you. This is one side of the argument from evil.

Christians who have had the power to use force to promote their doctrines have done so, with bad consequences. Christians, however, are the ones who eventually learned their lesson and separated church and state. If atheists become sufficiently powerful politically to force their nonbelief on others, will they do so? The only examples we have of governments where atheists had sufficient power to impose atheism do not give us much cause for optimism. Oh, maybe there won't be burnings at the stake. Maybe just insane asylums for the incurably religious. After all, they were brainwashed to begin with, so what could possibly be wrong with brainwashing them into being right-thinking folks? I don't think atheists have cause for self-righteousness about such things. It is human nature that leads us to kill one another, and we will use anything we care deeply about as a pretext. Including atheism.

Your arguments raise serious questions for Christians. But the rhetorical noise level in what you write doesn't help us discuss those questions.

I mean, I do not have a specific answer for why God didn't make certain issues that became points of contention in the wars of religion clearer. And for that I am to abandon my beliefs and accept what? A world where the very pains that form the basis for the problem of evil are difficult to explain? A world where there are no objective moral values, and therefore the value of tolerating people you think caught in a delusion is also not objective? A world which is at its core irrational, but produced rational beings smart enough to do the math and science necessary to put a man on the moon? A world where a great religion grows which, all told, does more good than any other movement in the history of mankind, (and I do believe this, in spite of all the problems), but which is based, in the last analysis, on hallucination and legendary distortion? A world where those who inflict unjust suffering get the same fate as those who suffer it? A world where getting all of this right just puts you in the same kind of grave as those who fell into the great Christian delusion? A world that is, in the last analysis, completely without hope?

I alluded to the complete lack of argument in your response. As passionate as you are about your unbelief, your noisy rhetoric will increasingly play only in the echo chamber of convinced atheists, the mutual admiration society you call Debunking Christianity. The questions you ask are good ones, but you don't support your work by fostering real dialogue, the kind of dialogue that goes on every day at Dangerous Idea.  People on the other side who try to post and generate real discussion on your site are ridiculed and shouted down. Even atheists who question the way you go about defending your views are banned. Your constant self-promotion is tiresome, as is your incessant repetition of The Emperor's New Clothes. (I'm partial to Danny Kaye's version, myself). You tell people they are ignorant if they haven't read this or that book of yours, when your ideas are all out there for everyone to see on your website.

You think you understand Christians perfectly because you were once one. Sorry, but understanding positions you disagree with takes constant effort. Atheism, all too often, is defended with a large dose of intellectual pretentiousness, with ad hominems and proof surrogates where the argument is supposed to be.

You think that you are suddenly liberated from confirmation bias and sociological pressure by deconverting. Sorry, but it doesn't work that way. People play follow the leader in the atheist community, too, as is evidenced by the popularity of the Jesus Myth.

It is interesting how much ideological passion today's atheists have. I think I have seen it somewhere before. Oh, now I remember. At meetings of Campus Crusade for Christ.

William Ramsay's book on Acts

A lot of the archaeological confirmations of Acts come from archaeologist Sir William Ramsay. Here is a link to his book, St. Paul the Traveler and Roman Citizen.

Sometimes I think there should be an outsider test for Bible scholars. Would anyone consider for two seconds a next-generation date for a book that has been this heavily supported by archaeological evidence, if that book didn't have to be in the Bible? It is as if the claim that Luke was a companion of Paul is an extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Roger Pearse on how not to evaluate evidence

Among other things, on the abuse of the slogan "Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence."

The Arguments from Confusion and Biblical Defects

Given the great similarity between the thesis of John Loftus's essay "What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate," and the thesis of this essay by Theodore Drange, I am a little surprised that John didn't help himself to this essay, especially since Drange provides a numbered-premise argument.

This is the Argument from Confusion (AC). 

(A) If the God of evangelical Christianity were to exist, then:
  1. He would love all Christians and want a personal relationship with them.
  2. People would need to have G-beliefs (among other things) in order to have the sort of relationship with God that he would want them to have.
(B) Therefore, if the God of evangelical Christianity were to exist, then he would want all Christians to have G-beliefs.
(C) Thus, if the God of evangelical Christianity were to exist, then he would probably prevent Christians from becoming confused or conflicted about matters that are the subject of G-beliefs.
(D) But some Christians are confused about such matters.
(E) And many Christians disagree with one another about such matters.
(F) Therefore [from D & E], Christians have not been prevented from becoming confused or conflicted about matters that are the subject of G-beliefs.
(G) Hence [from C & F], probably the God of evangelical Christianity does not exist.

The Argument from Biblical Defects (ABD)  is as follows:

(A) If the God of evangelical Christianity were to exist, then the Bible would be God's only written revelation.
(B) Thus, if that deity were to exist, then he would probably see to it that the Bible is perfectly clear and authoritative, and lack the appearance of merely human authorship.
(C) Some facts about the Bible are the following:
  1. It contradicts itself or is very unclear in many places.
  2. It contains factual errors, including unfulfilled prophecies.
  3. It contains ethical defects (such as God committing or ordering atrocities).
  4. It contains interpolations (later insertions to the text).
  5. Different copies of the same biblical manuscripts say conflicting things.
  6. The biblical canon involves disputes and is apparently arbitrary.
  7. There is no objective procedure for settling any of the various disputes, especially since the original manuscripts of the Bible have been lost and there has been no declaration from God that would help resolve any of the disputes.
(D) Therefore [from C], the Bible is not perfectly clear and authoritative, and has the appearance of merely human authorship.
(E) Hence [from B & D], probably the God of evangelical Christianity does not exist.

What do you guys think of these arguments? I suspect that Catholics (who comprise the majority of professed Christians in the world) would recognize these arguments, not as arguments against Christianity or theism, but against Protestantism. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tim McGrew on Carrier's treatment of Luke and Josephus

Tim's comments are italicized. The Carrier essay is linked.

The list of “generic parallels” between Luke and Josephus is so generic that I was surprised he left out “Both Luke and Josephus mention the existence of Rome.” The list of “story parallels” is even worse, since in many cases it involves torturing the notion of a parallel. Just run through the list and note some of the (non)parallels that he either vastly overrates or twists ’round:

* In Josephus, the census under Quirinius is the beginning of something bad. In Luke, it isn’t. Therefore, this is a parallel where Luke “transvalues” the message of the census, changing “bad” into “good.”

(Um, ... standards ...?)

* Josephus says that there were many men who led revolts, and he names three prominent ones. Luke has passing references to three persons with the same names, though it is not clear that Luke’s “Theudas” is the same as Josephus’s. One of the men is called “the Egyptian” by both Josephus and Luke; Luke links him with the sicarii, whereas Josephus does not. Therefore, Luke was copying from Josephus.

(The argument that this must be copying because there were thousands of Egyptians in Palestine at the time is beyond ridiculous. It would work equally well against two independent references to Jimmy the Greek. (“How many millions of Greeks,” etc.))

* Luke and Josephus both recount the death of Agrippa I in some detail, speaking of his brilliant robe, his acceptance of adulation as a God, and his immediate demise. There are also some details that differ in the two stories. Therefore, Luke must have borrowed it from Josephus.

(It couldn’t just be a notorious fact? Why not?)

* Josephus mentions a rumor that there was an incestuous relationship between Agrippa II and Bernice; Luke does not. Therefore, Luke is inspired by Josephus and intends the entire scene in Acts 25 as comic sarcasm.

(Does it seem like sarcasm? Can it by any legitimate stretch of the imagination be read that way?)

* Josephus reports that Drusilla abandoned her husband for Felix. Luke (Acts 24) portrays Paul as speaking to Felix about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come, Felix becomes uncomfortable. Therefore, Luke must be using Josephus.

(It isn’t enough of an explanation that Drusilla’s obvious abandonment of her husband for Felix was notorious?)

* Josephus portrays Felix as sending priests, “excellent men,” to Rome for trial on petty charges. Luke portrays Paul as demanding to be sent to Rome. So perhaps Luke was using Josephus as a model.


* Luke and Josephus both mention Lysanius, tetrarch of Abilene.

* Luke records a parable about a hated king who is really a good guy; Josephus talks about Herod, an actual hated king who was really a bad guy.

* Luke contains a prophecy involving the slaughter of children in a siege of Jerusalem; Josephus talks about a mother who cannibalizes her own infant during the actual siege of Jerusalem.

* Both Luke and Josephus mention a famine in the reign of Claudius.

* Luke reports an attack by Pilate on some Gailieans; Josephus reports an attack by Pilate on some Samaritans.

Forgive me, but as I read through this I am irresistibly reminded of an exchange from Sleeper:
Luna: “Do you know that ‘god’ spelled backwards is ‘dog’?”
Miles: “So?”
Luna: “Makes you think!”

The obvious point, which I made in a previous thread, is that Josephus's area of concern seems to have been Judeo-Roman relations. So he's not going to explain the kind of rich, detailed knowledge of Asia Minor, Greece, Cyprus, and Malta that Luke demonstrates, information that would have been difficult to come by in the second century. See Tim's discussion here

It is completely unclear to me why it should be assumed that some similarity between Luke and Josephus has to be explained in terms of Luke using Josephus.

The most detailed defense in recent times of Luke's accuracy is, to my knowledge, Colin Hemer's The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, reviewed here.  That would be the book to set up against Pervo. Price, not surprisingly, declares Pervo to be the winner.

It is refreshing to see Pervo spill the insides of apologists Ben Witherington III and Colin Hemer, who otherwise manage to receive way too much serious regard. When Pervo is done with them, they sag like empty piƱatas, only his blows reveal that neither donkey ever possessed any candy inside. Just one example: Pervo shows the gross inconsistency between believing on the one hand that Acts’ author knew Paul personally and on the other that he was not familiar with Paul’s letters.

I'd like to see that argued. No one that I know, even in my immediate family, is familiar with all my letters, except, of course, for those addressed to them. Why should Paul be any different?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Searchable Josephus


Jesus was a false prophet--So What!

According to C. S. Lewis in The World's Last Night. Apparently he read one of Loftus' chapters in the Christian Delusion, and prepared this response decades in advance.

I'm not necessarily endorsing this move. But it is worthy of consideration.

ex-apologist: On a Common Apologetic Strategy

This piece, by exapologist, is one that I have been meaning to answer for some time, as one of the primary defenders of an anti-naturalistic apologetic argument. I should point out, first, that C. S. Lewis never took his argument as an immediate inference from an argument against what he calls naturalism (which might be identified as some conservative form of naturalism) to the conclusion that God exists. Lewis bought the argument in the course of discussion with the anthroposophist Owen Barfield, and it was the springboard for his conversion, not to theism, but to absolute idealism. So, in my most recent treatments of the Argument from Reason, I start by asking a fundamental question: are the basic causes of the universe mentalistic or non-mentalistic. There are surely other possible mentalistic world-views that are mentalistic but not traditionally theistic, but we are going to have to see what thsoe are.

Next, I identify four features of the mental: intentionality, purpose, subjectivity and normativity. Admission of any of these into the basic building blocks of the universe (as opposed to system by-products at the level of, say, brains), has to be excluded on any view that can be reasonably called naturalistic.

In fact there are three doctrines of what I would call a minimal naturalism: mechanism at the basic level, which means exclusion of the four features of the mental, the causal closure of the basic level, and the supervenience of at least anything in causal connection upon what is on the basic level.

What this does with abstract objects is interesting. It doesn't rule them out by definition. However, since the physical has to be causally closed, they can't have anything to do with anything that goes on in the world or, in particular, what goes on in the mind or brain. Otherwise, either the basic level isn't mechanistic, or the basic level isn't causally closed. If this minimal naturalism is true, then it seems like, even if there are abstract objects, I couldn't know that they exist.

Now, why should naturalistic accept this kind of picture? Well, think about it. The world began, if it did, with a big bang. Nothing mental was going on. Matter moved around and obeyed the laws of matter. Then "the mental" emerged. Now, a traditional naturalist will just say that the mental is a system by-product of the physical. I maintain that, if that were so, there would be some logical entailment from the non-mental to the mental. But, as I have argued at some length, there isn't. All the non-mental information, in however much detail it is given, has to leave the mental, at best, indeterminate. And yet there have to be determinate truths about what we mean when we say things.

If we now put the "mental" into the basic building-blocks, what happens? If Mind really is behind everything, you can avoid the notion of the personal God of theism, but you have knocked out some pretty significant options, and theism, among other doctrines, at the very least, gets to pick up some of the probabilistic slack.

ex-apologist: On a Common Apologetic Strategy

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Selling the Farm, or the Price is Right

Walter: I love your Robert Price quote:

For what can it profit a man if he gets all the local titles and offices right, if what he is trying to prove is that people in these locations healed the sick with their snot rags, survived the bites of poisonous serpents, brushed themselves off unhurt following fatal stonings, resurrected teenagers their sermons had bored to death, blinded some and killed others merely by a word of power?

I'm afraid that getting an 'A' on an ancient civics test is of no real help in vindicating these wonder stories.

First of all, what this doesn't give us is an explanation as to how Luke got an A on his ancient civics test.  He didn't have a civics textbook. He didn't have a library with all that information in it. He couldn't have looked it up in the Encyclopedia Romanica. He didn't have the benefit of modern archaeology, which is how I know that he got so many things right. Steven, (and notice that Price is admitting that he does merit an A in ancient civics). He couldn't look up the information on the internet. Everyone who studies the Book of Acts in Sunday School knows that it's the book that's all over the map. Luke has to know civics and geography from Jerusalem to Malta, and it's the civics of the time, not of 50 years later. So, how'd he do it? He either was an actual companion of Paul, or he had a lot of contact with Paul later, or he got it through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, which is what you're stuck with if you, like Pervo, Price and Carrier, want to put Acts in the second century.

I have yet to see any of these people explain this evidence. You say Bruce is dated. That's chronological snobbery, a rampant disease in modern biblical studies. Well, evidence is not dated. How do they deal with the evidence? How do they explain how all this accurate information got into Acts? Disparaging comments like this don't explain anything.

And why does Price think "passing a civics test" does not profit? Because he can't believe what Luke reports. Why can't he believe what Luke reports? Because Miracles Do Not Happen. Hume, not the inductive evidence, is wagging the dog. I have already admitted that people have different priors. What is sufficient evidence for some is not sufficient evidence for others. But Price has virtually admitted that he would reject any ancient evidence in favor of the miraculous, even if it bit him in the nose.

Bruce says "accuracy is a habit of mind." You don't "ace the civics test" without being a) being very interested in accuracy, and b) having access to the necessary information. Compare Luke's score on a civics test with that of Philostratus in his account of Appollonius of Tyana, who has Appollonius doing his thing in Nineveh centuries after it was destroyed. You don't find ancient annals riddled with supernatural wonders on the one hand, and accurate geography and civics on the other. If Christianity, at its founding, was attended with miracles, then we should expect the books recording its founding to be of just the character. If it all happened naturalistically, if miracles do not and did not happen, then how do we get work laden with miracle reports with so much accurate information about so many things?

In short, I think the character of Luke's work gives us very strong inductive evidence that Luke was "on board" with Paul. It also provides significant evidence in support of Luke's claims concerning the miraculous. Whether you think this evidence is sufficient depends on the prior probabilities you bring to the discussion.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Shipwreck and the Amityville Horror

One element of the biblical record that I have paid some attention to is the accuracy of, in particular, the Book of Acts. Let me review the claim I want to defend on behalf of the Gospels, which I would certainly also want to defend on behalf of Acts of the Apostles:

Well, I would argue that in the Gospels we have four books written by people who at worst were in a position to talk to those who had seen and known Jesus, and who claimed to have seen him resurrected. They may have had theological aims, but they did their work with a concern to correctly preserve the facts  concerning the life, death and resurrection of Christ. There are, of course, four such records, and as such if they agree with one another that something happened, that is at least some evidence that it indeed did happen. Evidence, mind you, that we might end up having to reject, but evidence nonetheless. Of course, the idea that the Gospels represented an attempt to get things right, as opposed to being a record of some out-of-control legends, will have to be argued for, but it is a conclusion I think is supported by the evidence.  

In short, I am interested in what I would call general reliability, as opposed to inerrancy. Let's look at the evidence first, and let those who are concerned about inerrancy sort it out later.

Now, what relevance is it that aspects of Bible can be shown to be factual. That which can be shown to be reliable in the New Testament is not typically the supernatural element. Luke, for instance, seems to know the titles of various officials in the cities where Paul is supposed to have gone on his missionary journeys. In this book, which was featured in the Library of  Historical Apologetics site, James Smith shows that, indeed, the Maltese Shipwreck story in Acts had to have been factual, based on real a real experience of sailing and being shipwrecked.

But should these facts impress us? Chris Hallquist thinks not.

He writes:

The "amazing accuracy"line of apologetics involves compiliing long lists of details of the gospels confirmed in outside sources: John the Baptist existed, the book of Acts uses terminology correctly, et cetera, finding as many examples as they can (a recent Norman Geisler book boasts 140 allegedly confirmed details). Now, there's an obvious (well, not to the apologists) point that needs to be made here: just because some details of an account are correct does not mean that the entire thing is correct. Case in point: when I read The Amityville Horror I had not trouble identifying some somewhat obscure factual points: there really was a parapsychologist named J. B. Rhine, there really are a pair of ghost hunters named Ed and Lorraine Warren. Further reading revealed that the hoax was built around a real murder case in a real house which a family named the Lutzes really moved into, only to leave a month later. The Warrens really participated in a seance at the house, and the character of Father Mancuso was based on a real priest in the Rockville Center Diocese (the name was not real, though he was one of those people whose name was "changed to protect their privacyas per a statement in the original book). The fact that some of the details in The Amityville Horror are true did not keep its fantastic supernatural claims from being false. 

Chris Hallquist, UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God, (Reasonable Press, 2008). p. 34,

But there are some problems with using this parallel. First, this is was a hoax, as Hallquist indicates on p. 28 of his book. His theory of how Christianity arose doesn't involve a hoax, it involves hallucinations and legend. So while the creators of the hoax could have put the fact and the fiction together, it has to happen rather differently through hallucination and legend.

Second, it is easy to understand how the people who wrote The Amityville Horror came by their information. Someone familiar with the world of the paranormal would know the factual information necessary to put the hoax together. And if not, a trip to the library would have given the hoaxters all the information they needed. On the other hand, I see no way that Luke could possibly have known what he knew without actually having been a companion of Paul. When we take a close look at what Luke had to know to write his book, I don't see how he could have gotten that knowledge third hand. It's not as if he could have found all the information he needed to know by going to the local library and reading the Encyclopedia Romanica. It seems evident to me that he had access to people involved in the founding of Christianity, that he was there for the missionary journeys, (and by the way those stories do include miracles). It simply boggles my mind that people like Richard Carrier and Robert Price keep putting the date of Acts into the second century. And, if you can't date Acts late, you can't date the Synoptics late, either.

Thom Stark's Critique of Copan: Deceptive Apologetics?

Thom Stark offers a criticism of Paul Copan's defense of the Old Testament. Copan rightly notes that Susan Niditch, on her book on war in the Old Testament, claims that the dominant voice of the Old Testament is against the idea that killing enemies is a sacrifice to God. However, Niditch says there is an earlier, less dominant voice that accepts the idea that killing enemies in war is a sacrifice to God. Copan tells you about the dominant voice, apparently implying that it is the only voice, though I don't see how why the phrase "dominant voice" which he does quote, could fail to imply a not-so-dominant voice. But he doesn't tell you about the less dominant voice, which Niditch also presents. This, Stark says, is deceptive apologetics.

The picture Niditch presents fits rather well along the lines of the idea of an evolving moral consciousness in the Old Testament, an idea I have no problem with. It might be embarrassing to the understanding of inerrancy that Copan endorses. I'm not an expert on applied inerrancy.

I'd like to see what others think about this. I am also going to e-mail Paul for his reaction.

This is an essay by Copan in which he quotes Niditch.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Anybody Who Is Anybody Fallacy

Academics have a bad habit of acting as if there is a consensus of scholarship because there is consensus within their own in-group. People will say "everybody is a materialist," and then when you point out people who aren't, it is assumed that those people are somehow marginal. It's the Anybody Who Is Anybody Fallacy. There's no principled way of deciding who to marginalize.

The same thing seems to happen amongst biblical scholars, but it doesn't mean much of anything. I asked a question in my response to John earlier which he didn't answer. If you marginalize all the evangelicals, who else are you going to marginalize? Brown? Fitzmeyer? Metzger? Wright? Bauckham? C. H. Dodd? Joachim Jeremias? Eta Linneamann? Luke Timothy Johnson? Why them and not Robert Price, who seems as marginal on the left as conservative scholars are on the right?

Further, if being a credentialed Bible scholar is so important, why are you and Richard Carrier speaking about these subjects at all? Neither of you are credentialed Bible scholars.

Many of the issues in biblical scholarship are philosophical, and not simply matters of biblical study. The problem of the antecedent probability of the miraculous is an important issue for scholarship, and yet I attended a conference of philosophers and biblical scholars in which one biblical scholar confessed complete ignorance of the debate on the subject, and who admitted that he had followed Bultmann blindly on the subject. (Bultmann's electric light argument against miracles is one of the worst arguments I have ever heard). Craig's debate with Ehrman did show that Ehrman had no understanding of the relevant philosophical issues either.

A bump in the road

Let me get back to my central thesis here. I am trying to argue a couple of things. One I am simply assuming, which is that there is no good argument that everyone ought to have strongly naturalistic priors about miracles. That doesn't mean that there's something wrong if you do have strongly naturalistic priors, only that there is no good argument, a la Hume, to suppose that I ought to have strongly naturalistic priors.

My second central thesis is that there is something very puzzling about the founding of Christianity, which makes all naturalistic accounts of its founding unbelievable. This is centered around the Resurrection as the central miracle, but really it's the whole story that just doesn't fit together very well unless the miraculous character of the whole thing is presupposed. My claim is that if you try, in a serious way, to put the historical jigsaw puzzle together without a resurrection, the pieces don't fit. You end up having to strain the facts to make them fit the theory. Now if you have strongly naturalistic priors, I suppose that is what you must do, or you can even say "I don't know what happened, but whatever it was, it wasn't a resurrection." On the other hand, it seems absurd to say that there is something self-contradictory about the idea of an omnipotent being who can resurrect someone from the dead. But your priors are what they are.

C. S. Lewis, in his autobiographical Surprised by Joy, encountered an atheist who reached just such a conclusion, who, nevertheless, remained an atheist. He wrote:

“Then I read Chesterton’s Everlasting Man and for the first time saw the whole outline of Christian history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense. Somehow I contrived not to be too badly shaken. You will remember I already thought Chesterton the most sensible man alive “apart from his Christianity.” Now, I veritably believe, I thought-I didn’t of course say; words that would have revealed the nonsense-that Christianity itself was very sensible “apart from its Christianity.” But I hardly remember, for I had not long finished The Everlasting Man when something far more alarming happened to me. Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. “Rum thing,” he went on. “All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it really happened once. “… Was there no escape?”

by C. S. Lewis Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1942), pp. 223-224

For this atheist, this hardest boiled of all atheists, the evidence for the miraculous nature of the founding of Christianity was a bump in the road. For Lewis, it helped to push him toward conversion. What I have been trying to show, is that the bump is there.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Wagging the dog once again

JL: And we know this because the Bible says this is real testimony of a real event? Would someone PLEASE help me understand why this is not viciously circular?
VR: All I need is that it is testimony. It looks as if it is claiming to be about a real event. The historical argument does not assume any special authority for events recorded in Scripture, as opposed to events recorded by Tacitus or Josephus. However, the testimony is evidence for the occurrence of the event testified to. Maybe not good enough, people have to decide that. However, if Jesus was resurrected, the likelihood that Peter would testify to it is pretty good. If Jesus was not resurrected, we have to wonder why he would testify to it. So Peter's testimony is more likely given the resurrection than given no resurrection. It is, therefore evidence for the resurrection. Bayes' theorem at work.

Of course, the same argument can be applied to alien abductions. Just because we have evidence doesn't mean we have sufficient evidence. We can have independent reasons for rejecting testimony. You clearly think we do. However, to deny the existence of the evidence with the Yellow Brick Road argument is ridiculous. It also makes it clear what is wagging the dog here, it is not the evidence in the texts themselves, it is the antecedent improbability, on your view, of what they claim.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Two boats and a helicopter

The idea in some people's minds seems to be that even if there is good evidence for the NT, God should have provided more, and that he did not provide more is evidence that the evidence he provided isn't any good. Reminds me of this old joke:

A farmer is in Iowa during a flood. The river is overflowing, with water surrounding the farmer's home up to his front porch. As he is standing there, a boat comes up, The man in the boat says "Jump in, I'll take you to safety."
The farmer crosses his arms and says stubbornly, "Nope, I put my trust in God."
The boat goes away. The water rises to the second floor. Another boat comes up, the man says to the farmer who is now in the second story window, "Jump in, I'll save you."
The farmer again says, "Nope, I put my trust in God."
The boat goes away. Now the water is up to the roof. As The farmer stands on the roof, a helicopter comes over, and drops a ladder. The pilot yells down to the farmer "I'll save you, climb the ladder."
The farmer says "Nope, I put my trust in God."
The helicopter goes away. The water comtinues to rise and sweeps the farmer off the roof. He drowns.
The farmer goes to heaven. God sees him and says "What are you doing here?"
The farmer says "I put my trust in you and you let me down."
God says, "What do you mean, let you down? I sent you two boats and a helicopter!!!"

Reply to Loftus on my historical evidence project

Vic, you've got it wrong here and you don't realize what you're doing.

On the one hand you find the philosophical arguments against the probability of miracles to be weak (note, probability not possibility).

Yes, of course Hume's argument is an argument against the probability, not the possibility of miracles, though he slips at one point in the essay and talks about the absolute impossibility of miracles. My claim is that we cannot normatively establish that all rational persons must begin their investigations of the miraculous presuming the probability of the miraculous to be vanishingly low. There is no objective, non-objectionable method that can establish that it must be vanishingly low. That is the conclusion of my work on Bayes' theorem and miracles, which was done under the direction of atheist philosopher of science Patrick Maher, and it is also the conclusion of University of Pittsburgh philosopher of science John Earman, also an atheist.

What I do not claim to have shown is that no one should have vanishing priors for miracles. In my posts recently, I have been bracketing the question of prior probabilities. I have been trying to show that there is a surprising amount of evidence in support of miracles like the Resurrection. Whether you find it sufficient or insufficient will depend on your priors.

On the other hand you dive right into the arguments for the resurrection without first looking at the Bible as a whole. Once you look at what biblical scholarship as a whole you will learn not to trust the Bible just because something is stated in the Bible.

For the sake of debate concerning Christian origins, I don't need modern scholarship to keep me from doing that. The simple logic of not begging the question will do that. If I could argue "It says in the Bible that Christ was resurrected, therefore he was resurrected," then there wouldn't even be a debate, would there? No, what the Bible provides is preserved testimony to certain events. We have to talk about how close to the events the testimony is, whether it comes from eyewitnesses or people who spoke to eyewitnesses, etc.

I mean, what is "biblical scholarship as a whole?" It includes, I should think the Bible faculties of evangelical seminaries like Talbot and Trinity. But suppose your marginalize them. Are you going to marginalize Roman Catholics like Fitzmeyer and Brown and Luke Timothy Johnson? There's a considerable group of moderates like Joachim Jeremias and Oscar Cullman, Richard Bauckham and Anthony Thistleton. Are they marginal? And N. T. Wright, where does he fit in? Is he too "evangelical" to be a real biblical scholar? Was F. F. Bruce a real biblical scholar? Are they all people who haven't looked at biblical scholarship as a whole, while you, John Loftus, have looked at it as a whole? I smell the "no true Scotsman" fallacy once again.

Apart from my own WIBA I highly recommend you read Thom Stark's book when it comes out (I don't know when). In my opinion when it comes to understanding biblical scholarship the phrase "educated evangelical" is an oxymoron.

Yeah, if those danged evangelicals would just read the right books they'd come out with their hands up waving a white flag. Sounds like the young evangelicals who think that if their skeptical friends will just read Josh McDowell, Francis Schaeffer, and C. S. Lewis, they'll all get down on their knees forthwith and pray the sinner's prayer.

If Tim McGrew is right, skeptics need to read some books of 18th and 19th Century apologists, who in some ways defend the reliability of the NT with greater sophistication even than those from the 20th and 21st Centuries. So maybe the McGrew Challenge can be a response to the Debunking Christianity challenge. I mean, we can go on with dueling challenges all day long until somebody gets tired.

Until then what Bob Price said applies to what you're attempting to do lately.

Well, here's what Bob Price said.

"What evangelical apologists are still trying to show...is that their version of the resurrection was the most compatible with accepting all the details of the gospel Easter narratives as true and non-negotiable...[D]efenders of the resurrection assume that their opponents agree with them that all the details are true, that only the punch line is in question. What they somehow do not see is that to argue thus is like arguing that the Emerald City of Oz must actually exist since, otherwise, where would the Yellow Brick Road lead?....We simply have no reason to assume that anything an ancient narrative tells us is true." The Case Against the Case for Christ, (pp. 209-210).

Nonsense on stilts. Of course these people agree that you have to start from the presupposition that what we have is ancient human testimony to miraculous (and non-miraculous) events. Apologists sometimes slip and presume something like inerrancy, but the proper method is to look at these texts as ancient evidence. How good? Well, I would argue that in the Gospels we have four books written by people who at worst were in a position to talk to those who had seen and known Jesus, and who claimed to have seen him resurrected. They may have had theological aims, but they did their work with a concern to correctly preserve the facts  concerning the life, death and resurrection of Christ. There are, of course, four such records, and as such if they agree with one another that something happened, that is at least some evidence that it indeed did happen. Evidence, mind you, that we might end up having to reject, but evidence nonetheless. Of course, the idea that the Gospels represented an attempt to get things right, as opposed to being a record of some out-of-control legends, will have to be argued for, but it is a conclusion I think is supported by the evidence.

The idea a piece of testimony becomes worthless once it becomes part of Scripture strikes me as just bizarre. Unless this is the Kooks and Quacks argument all over again, where you dismiss everything because of the time period it comes from. (As if there are no kooks and quacks today). Testimony to an event, all things being equal, is more likely to occur if the event occurred than if the event didn't occur. Therefore, by Bayes' theorem, it is evidence for the event. It may not be good enough evidence, but it is evidence. The claim that there is no evidence for the Resurrection strikes me as nonsense, and based on a misunderstanding of the very idea of evidence. And yes, I do think there is evidence for alien abductions. That doesn't mean I believe that anyone was abducted by aliens, I would not use the "no evidence" mantra for alien abductions either.

These founding events of Christianity brought about a massive change in the religious landscape of the Roman Empire, a change that resulted in Christianity becoming the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. For this to happen, a lot of people have to do a lot of surprising things. How do we explain it. My claim is that the founding of Christianity involves a set of events that are strange and difficult to explain unless Christ rose from the dead. What you do with that conclusion once I get you to draw it is up to you.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Space Trilogy and the AFR

Jim Slagle points out some passages in Perelandra and That Hideous Strength in which the Argument from Reason plays a role.

Friday, August 13, 2010

What did Josephus Really Say about Jesus

A redated post. 

Well, most people are sure that he didn't say everything that the Testimonium Flavium says that he did. The passage was at least doctored. But for years it was thought that the passage was just made up, but more recent scholars think there is a historical core to Josephus' account.

Another account of the issue is to be found here

What would evidence look like if we had it?

Before entering, however, on this examination of the incidental allusions or secondary facts in the New Testament narrative, it is important to notice two things with regard to the main facts; in the first place, that some of them (as the miracles, the resurrection, and the ascension) are of such a nature that no testimony to them from profane sources was to be expected, since those who believed them naturally and almost necessarily became Christians; and secondly, that with regard to such as are not of this character, there does exist profane testimony of the first order.

George Rawlinson, The Historical Evidences of the Truth of the Scripture Records (Boston: Gould & Lincoln, 1860), p. 180.

HT: Tim McGrew

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Come on, let's have some real evidence!

The New Testament is propaganda, not evidence. Didn't you know that? The writers believed that Jesus was resurrected. They also wanted others to believe it. If we want real evidence, we need reports of the resurrection from people who didn't believe Jesus was resurrected. Now that would be real evidence, the kind we need in order to believe.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Blue Devil Knight on the historical argument debate

A lot of the discussion of historical apologetics has gotten off-track. I prefer not to ban people, but this means that you have to learn what to ignore. I am familiar with Steven Carr's methods of argumentation, and I don't happen to take his comments very seriously. The presence of people in the Gospels who are not mentioned elsewhere in history doesn't strike me as particularly a problem, since Jesus's life didn't primarily revolve around the big history-makers of the time. The disanalogy between these un-accounted for people, and the Angel Moroni or the final battle at the Hill of Cumorah, should be obvious. So I am happy to ignore him in favor of other commenters who make more serious points. But if in failing to give serious consideration to his argument I have somehow overlooked a strong case against Christianity, so be it.

Blue Devil Knight, on the other hand, has given some arguments that I think do deserve some serious attention. His comments are in blue, mine in black.

Back to the martyr arguments.

Giordano Bruno's weird philosophy isn't confirmed by his martyrdom, but as Victor points out the fact that he believed in something strongly is probably established (I say 'probably' because he could have been suicidal or had a mental disorder). 

Yes. Of course, Bruno is not claiming to be a witness to anything. That's Jenkin's point.

I agree that this consideration might block a small subset of skeptical views of the origins of Christianity that say they didn't truly believe the consequences of believing what they were saying were important. I say 'consequences of believing', rather than 'believing' because it is possible to martyr oneself for a cause even while saying things you are not sure are factually true, but the consequences are worth dying for (e.g., I would gladly lie, and (frankly not gladly) die if it meant preventing another 9/11).
I think we have to remember the context of my discussion here. Hallquist's book brings in UFOs and paranormal claims in order to help his case against the resurrection. However, the cases he talks about in his chapter on the history of debunking have to do with exposing deliberate fraud. My point was that the martyrdom risk behavior on the part of apostles like Peter undercuts deliberate fraud hypotheses. Peter goes from denying Christ before the crucifixion to declaring to the very people who crucified Jesus that God had raised him (thus vindicating Jesus and un-vindicating Caiaphas and company in the strongest possible terms). Now, either this transformation never happened, or it certainly needs explaining, and the explanation has to be different from the explanation that can be given in most of the UFO/paranormal cases, since those involve deliberate fraud. 

At any rate, clearly martyrdom implies strong belief in something. Jim Jones' followers believed something strongly. Not sure what, but many were willing to die for it. They also witnessed miracles that he putatively performed and I'm sure they really believed it. The followers of Benny Hinn have witnessed his miracles, healing the blind, the crippled, etc.. I bet if he wanted, he could convince many of his followers to die.

The Benny Hinn case is a little bit different, because while I suppose conceivably you could get people to die for the claim that they saw people come up to the stage with health problems they appeared to lack when they went back, it's not the facts, but the explanation of these events that is at issue between supporters and critics of Hinn. In the case of a resurrection, if you thought you saw someone on Sunday whom you had seen die on Friday, it doesn't seem open to the skeptic to say, "Yes, Jesus was dead on Friday, but you saw him walking around on Sunday. But there's a good naturalistic explanation for this." Opponents of the Resurrection either say he didn't die on Friday or say he was still dead on Sunday.

The Robert Jenkin quote Tim offers is fun historically, but doesn't actually offer anything new to the discussion. He points out that the existence of false zealots doesn't imply all those with zeal are wrong. Fine. But that puts the burden back on resources independent of the existence of zealots. The existence of strong believers establishes nothing, as it is orthogonal to truth. It is not evidence for anything except strong belief.

However, a sharp belief and behavior change, such as Peter appears to have experienced, still needs to be explained  unless, of course, you want to deny that it happened.

In sum I take it that the existence of martyrs blocks a very small subset of stories of the origins of Christianity: those in which people actively tried to deceive others, didn't believe any of it, and also importantly didn't believe strongly in the consequences of having people believe. 

You'd have to believe in the consequences strongly enough to want to die for it. Paul, at least seems to be betting everything on Christ's resurrection, and this attitude seems to be reflected in the actions of people like Peter as well. 

12But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.  

It's hard for me to read passages like this, written by someone whose martyrdom risk behavior is off the charts, and take seriously the possibility that he didn't really believe that Christ was raised from the dead.  

Does that describe any real skeptic? Does it describe Hallq or Carrier? Has anyone argued that the early founders were making a casual lie with little to nothing to gain from people accepting the lie? 

Hallquist, interestingly enough, accepts the hallucination theory, and Carrier thinks Jesus never existed. My point in relation to Hallquist, which was the main point of the original post, was that Hallquist brought in UFO cases and paranormal cases which have been debunked by people like James Randi today and by Houdini in a previous era. However, those cases were deliberate fraud cases, which means that they are largely irrelevant to the Resurrection, unless it is supposed that belief in the Resurrection arose as a result of deliberate fraud. However, martyrdom arguments, which are not direct proofs of the resurrection, are nevertheless undercutting defeaters for deliberate fraud theories. Interestingly enough, I think UFO-type cases are irrelevant to Hallquist's own theory, which is a form of the hallucination/legend theory.

Finally, priors play such a huge role here, it is clear that these arguments from the apologists are for those with nonnegligible priors about miracles and gods. For instance, Tim calls the 'twin brother' theory of Jesus 'bizarre' (p 32 of the cited bit). Which is more bizarre, someone coming back from the dead or someone having a twin?

I know that Tim would say that the twin theory is bizarre because of the complete lack of evidence, but it does betray a lack of appreciation of just how incredible and unbelievable it is for people with the naturalist's priors that someone was resurrected. They need really good evidence. 

I don't think Tim is arguing that anybody with strongly naturalistic priors ought to be convinced by the case for the Resurrection. I know Tim does believe in objective priors, but all either of us have claimed is that there is no normative argument proving, a la Hume, that every reasonable person must begin from strong naturalistic priors. My claims are as follows: 

1) There is no normative argument based on probability theory showing that we must begin from strong naturalistic priors. Instead, people will consult their own credence functions and ask themselves how much evidence is sufficient. I think this is the overall upshot of Earman's critique of Hume in Hume's Abject Failurem and it is certainly the upshot of my papers on the subject, the one in International Journal for Philosophy of Religion (Feb. 1989), and the one that appears online. The evidence will at best confirm theism and Christianity, but all we will get out of it is a cumulative case role-player. I am arguing that some reasonable persons can believe in the Resurrection, not that all reasonable persons must believe in it.

2) The evidence for the Resurrection is going to prove surprisingly strong when we start exploring, in detail, the alternative naturalistic hypotheses. What sounds good at first ends up looking severely problematic when we get done. Different pieces of the historical jigsaw puzzle will undercut different counter-hypotheses.

3) The case supporting the resurrection is cumulative, with several important elements. Martyrdoms are one piece of the puzzle. Archaeological confirmations are another. The claims of Christ and the moral character of Christ are still other pieces. The miracle stories in Acts are other pieces of the puzzle.

Basically, I'll need to see it with my own eyes. More than once. The person will need to live for a week or so, we'll do the DNA test, I'll get others to confirm that I am not hallucinating. I'd need a whole lot of evidence to believe it now, much less as recorded from sources almost 2000 years old with much weaker standards for belief.

Maybe that is what you would require. If I just show that there is something naturalistically mysterious about the history surrounding the founding of Christianity, that's all I could hope for in an argument on the subject.

There is an insurmountable wall here that logic will not cross. That is a weakness of the Christian view, as if logic could cross it, I would cross. I would be a Christian. If the evidence compelled it, I would be a Christian.

I don't believe that there's a slam dunk. 

Clearly there is more to becoming a Christian than logic and evidence. I'm not sure what that implies about trying to use the available evidence and logic to convert people. I think it implies that such things are only part of the equation. My hunch is, they are a rather trivial part of most people's conversion experience, that conversion is much more a matter of inspiration, an opening of the heart to the light and glory of God, an undeniable experience of His presence and Goodness, than to picayune historical and logical points.

Of course there's more to it than argumentation. But faith can't prosper if a person thinks he or she is believing against their best intellectual judgment. And Christian converts do testify to the fact that reason and evidence DID play a significant role in their conversions, even if the conversion was not exclusively intellectual.One makes a judgment call doing the best one can with the evidence. But a Christian who really thinks that the evidence looks like what Dawkins or Loftus says it is is going to have a hard time being a Christian. The historical and logical points are not trivial, even if they are a very incomplete cause for conversion.
Finally, it is strange that people act as if a 'hallucination' theory is the only plausible explanation of people incorrectly believing they observed something. We know there are many ways to acquire a false belief that you observed something in the past. Eyewitnesses are often earnestly wrong, but rarely is the explanation that they hallucinated. Much more likely is retroactive memory distortion.

This is an extremely important point for my strategy, which is to push the naturalist (about the resurrection) into relying on hallucination theory, and then showing the problems with that. I really do think the hallucination argument, allowing for a significant amount of legendary accretions in the story, is the best shot the skeptics have in explaining the founding of Christianity. While I can see memory distortion being the cause of thinking a cab was blue when it was really green, I have trouble with the idea of retroactive memory distortion accounting for someone thinking they saw someone whom they had seen executed two days earlier, if they didn't hallucinate and there was no resurrection. 

Let me take a personal example. Bob Prokop, a frequent commentator here, was a friend of mine my days as an undergraduate at ASU in 1973-1974. We both had a close friend by the name of Joe Sheffer, who, tragically, passed away in 1989 at the age of 36. Now, I can imagine, in a crowd, seeing someone at a distance whom I thought looked just like Joe. But no amount of memory distortion could possible convince me that I had lunch with Joe in 2006, getting his take on the argument from reason, the state of contemporary Thomist philosophy, Thomist models of artificial intelligence, modern physics, the flaws of the Bush administration, and the latest debates on Dangerous Idea. No, if I really thought I had lunch with Joe in 2006, I would have to have been "appeared to Joe-ly," I would have to have had some Joe-experience, which, on the assumption that Joe didn't come back to life in 2006, would have to be a hallucination.  

Note this assumes that putative eyewitnesses did actually martyr themselves, that this is a historical fact. I'm not a historian of Christianity, so am willing to play along with such assumptions.

What is required isn't strictly speaking martyrdom, but martyrdom risk behavior. Peter wasn't killed as a result of what he said outside the gate in Jerusalem, but what he said was inflammatory enough to the people who were responsible for the death of Jesus to expose him to the likelihood that he would be killed, and Peter knew it. 

Sunday, August 08, 2010

The Library of Historical Apologetics

is up and running, directed by Tim McGrew.

One observation Tim has made to me is that the anti-apologetic arguments that we see from skeptics today are not at all new, and were answered by apologists long ago. But since their work is largely forgotten, apologists today sometimes find themselves re-inventing the wheel.

Hume's essay on miracles is in every philosophy of religion anthology under the sun. But how many of these anthologies also include contemporary rebuttals to Hume, by people like Campbell? Or Richard Price, who introduced Bayes' theorem into the discussion? Or Richard Whately's Historical Doubts Relative to Napoleon Buonaparte, from the early 19th Century?

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Bob Prokop on Religious Experience and Personal Revelation


by Bob Prokop (who asked me to publish it here).

So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,

Along the empty alley, into the box circle,

To look down into the drained pool.

Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,

And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,

And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,

The surface glittered out of heart of light,

And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.

Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.

T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

Perhaps Eliot was wise in limiting his account of what must have been an overwhelming moment in his life to a handful of bare lines, utterly devoid of poetic artifact or detail. He most likely knew quite well that it would take a new Dante to adequately put into words a direct experience of the world that lies outside the everyday universe we live in, indeed of the “real” world, from which all that we see and hear and come into contact by whatever means we have was made. Only Dante could stretch out into 100 cantos a vision so blinding that even he says of it at the end:

Twenty-five centuries since Neptune saw the Argo's keel have not moved all mankind, recalling that adventure, to such awe as I felt in an instant. (Paradiso)

Well, something like that happens to all of us at the critical junctures in our own lives. And like Eliot, we may find ourselves attempting to describe the indescribable. In that spirit, allow me to at least try to convey the essence of what just may have been among the most significant moments of my time here on Earth, and how what I experienced has never left me, despite the long passage of time and events since then. So throwing all caution to the winds, I now recklessly match my pathetic powers against the likes of Eliot and Dante.

The event itself could not have been more insignificant. In the spring of 1976, Diane and I were returning to Monterey from a trip to San Francisco to pick out our wedding rings. We stopped on the way at a coffee shop perched atop a cliff overlooking the Pacific. I recall the day being unusually hot, with the sun bathing everything in sight in brilliant light out of a cloudless sky. Absolutely nothing unusual happened on this stop - at least nothing that could be seen. But I remember with absolute clarity a definitely mystical experience that overwhelmed me from out of nowhere on that stop, while looking out at the cliffs and the road snaking along the coastline - a vision of my life unfolding before me - a vista of unfolding horizons, of adventures and possibilities - a sense of grand optimism and potential unmatched in any other moment of my life before or since. It was over in an instant, and that’s all there was to it - no outward sign of anything having occurred. In fact, I can’t even recall saying anything about it at the time to Diane, who was after all standing right next to me. But nevertheless, that ultimately timeless moment has never left me, even after more than 30 years. It was a turning point in my life, and nothing was ever the same again.

“So what?” you might want to say, reading no further. “What you’re recounting here is something totally appropriate for a 24 year old man in the best physical condition of his life (only a few months out from Army basic training), fresh out of college, about to get married, just starting out in his professional career, with his whole life ahead of him. All you’re describing is someone feeling really good about himself on a really good day”.

But that is exactly what I am NOT describing. We’ve all had countless episodes over the years of feeling “on top of the world”. But this was different - not just in scale, but in kind. Again leaning on Eliot, he refers (in “The Dry Salvages”) to:

The moments of happiness—not the sense of well-being,

Fruition, fulfillment, security or affection,

Or even a very good dinner, but the sudden illumination—

Or, as he writes in another place, “the intense moment / Isolated, with no before and after”.

That is as nearly as perfect a description of the event as I could wish for.

After all, what exactly occurred to Eliot, that day in the dilapidated gardens of Burnt Norton? He comes upon a drained pool, a thing of no great beauty, and the sunlight at his back creates for an instant the illusion of its being filled with water. But as soon as he sees this, a cloud covers the sun, and the moment passes. That is all. Yet this vision - this mirage, as it were - became the inspiration for what is arguably the greatest poetic work in English of the last century. The “Four Quartets”.

And Dante’s “instant” is even more lacking in any outward significance whatsoever. He himself describes the event in the most pedestrian manner possible:

At about the beginning of Beatrice’s ninth year she appeared to me, and I near the end of my ninth year saw her. She appeared to me clothed in a most noble color, a modest and becoming crimson, and she was girt and adorned in such wise as befitted her very youthful age. (La Vita Nova, The New Life)

That’s it? This is what the poet, who years later at the height of his powers, would claim had “not moved all mankind, recalling that adventure, to such awe as I felt in an instant”? It is scarcely credible. Yet the poet goes out of his way to paint the moment in the plainest style at his command, ruthlessly spurning any faintest decoration or elaboration.

But it is this very plainness, I believe, that brings us close to the truly essential nature of genuine “mystical Experience”. Being a glimpse of what lies beyond our everyday physical reality, the event, when it occurs, seems to have no use for the trappings of that reality - indeed, it positively flees from them. Witness Jeremiah, at the beginning of his prophetic career:

And the word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Jeremiah, what do you see? And I said, “I see the branch of an almond tree.” Then the Lord said to me, “You have seen well” … Then the word of the Lord came to me a second time, saying, “What do you see?” And I said, “I see a boiling pot, facing away from the north.” (Jer 1:11-13)

And in such manner, the great prophet has come face to face with the Lord God Himself. What could be simpler, indeed what could be duller, than Jeremiah’s own account of that tremendous experience: the branch of a tree waving in the wind, a pot boiling over?

And we find this same emphasis on the stark ordinariness of such moments throughout the Old and New Testaments. When Elijah has his own encounter with the Infinite, he does not perceive God in the whirlwind, the earthquake, or the fire (all of which he must first endure), but rather in a “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-12).

Indeed for the prophet Habakkuk there was even less - his own encounter with God was through absence: “The fig tree does not blossom, nor is there fruit on the vines, the produce of the olive oil and the fields yield no food, the flock is cut off from the folds, and there is no herd in the stalls” (Hab 3:17). Yet this bleak ledger of famine and want is immediately followed by the prophet’s ecstatic vision of the glory of God. In a blaze of comprehension, the whole universe quite literally sings with joy amidst deprivation. Habakkuk even goes so far as to provide stage directions! “To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments” (Hab 3:19).

These moments of connection between ourselves and the greater reality that enfolds our universe of the senses, the world constrained by matter and energy and bound fast by time and space, are defined precisely by elements not of this world, and so we despair of finding words to convey their meaning to others. When the attempt is made, by throwing in sound and light, angelic choirs and wondrous sights, the result is generally a failure. The most unreadable book in The Bible has got to be Ezekiel, in which the prophet goes to great length to portray a phantasmagoria of bizarre visions: wheels within wheels, whose rims are filled with eyes, and strange creatures and mechanisms that to the modern mind resemble nothing so much as aliens landing in a flying saucer! In the end the entire description falls flat - there is no hint of mystery, of the infinite, no sense of the divine. Far more approachable (and readable) is Abraham’s visit by three quite ordinary men, who turn out to be nothing less than Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, sharing a meal with the patriarch at the door of his tent. Or perhaps even more amazingly, the very first appearance of the risen Christ to Mary Magdalene, so lacking in “bells and whistles” that she mistakes her Lord for a gardener! (John 20:11-18)

In my own case, that moment of connection was a somewhat hot afternoon at a roadside stop, with a cup of coffee in my hand. But in the more than three decades since that instant, I was ever after aware of a Guiding Hand on my shoulder, assuring me that when, like Habakkuk, all I could see was disaster, I wasn’t alone; Someone had been there before me, blazing the trail.

So if we are awaiting a sign from Heaven, we would be well advised to not expect lightning from a clear sky, or the moon turning to blood, or anything at all like that. We should rather pay attention to the pot boiling over on the stove - it may just turn out to be “the word of the Lord”.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Frauds, UFOs and the Gospels

Chris Hallquist's book, UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God, is a nice compendium of skeptical responses to Christian historical apologetics. One of its central general theses is that if we were to use the methods people use today to discover the legitimacy of anything from UFO claims, to paranormal claims such as levitation, spoonbending or Mesmerism, to false prophets like Nostradamus, Jean Dixon, or Edgar Cayce, we would find the Christian claims severely wanting.

In his first chapter called "A Brief History of (de)Bunk(ing), Hallquist gives a number of accounts of debunked claims, but I notice that all of them involve some kind of deliberate fraud or other. He talks about the prophet Alexander, from ancient times, who was exposed as a fraud, and Mesmer, and the Fox sisters, etc.  In the case of the Resurrection, however, Hallquist appeals to deliberate fraud on the part of the early Christians, at most, as a possibility. With respect to the premortem miracles of Jesus, Hallquist claims that Jesus was scientifically ignorant, and sincerely thought he was healing people, even though his healings were in fact psychosomatic. (Can you cure blindness psychosomatically?)

There are two reasons, I think, why skeptics in general have mostly avoided deliberate fraud hypotheses. The first has to do with the moral character of Christ. It is not that the moral character of Christ is above possible criticism, and there are "hard sayings" which on the face of things can be objected to on moral grounds, and yet there seems to be a fundamental difference in character between Christ and the leaders of the Heaven's Gate community, Warren Jeffs, David Koresh, Jim Jones, and even Joseph Smith. I think Christ's parable of the Good Samaritan is the most brilliant piece of moral philosophy in the history of the world, but then I suppose that reflects my Christian bias.

The second is that not only Jesus, but other founding figures of the Christian church. particularly James, are known to have been martyred. We should expect people involved in a hoax or fraud to head for the exits if the continuation of the fraud were to be a threat to their own life.

The skeptical responses Hallquist does provide are, of course, hallucinations for the appearances, and he thinks the empty tomb stories were probably legendary. Indeed, his general strategy is remarkably similar to the one mapped out by Keith Parsons in his 1998 debate with William Lane Craig. The audio is linked to here, and Jeff Lowder's summary is here. Parsons also brings up UFOs and alien abductions.

If the founding of Christianity could be dismissed as some kind of deliberate fraud, the skeptic's case would be a good deal easier than it is. Further, while we are farther removed from the events than we are from, say, the frauds of, say, Peter Popoff/Steve Martin (see the movie Leap of Faith), the impact of these events on history is undeniable.

In the case of Christianity, we seem to have several people who put their own lives at severe risk and even who were in fact martyred, as a result of their refusal to renounce their belief that they had seen the resurrected Jesus. Now, as Jenkin was quoted as pointing out on p.32 of the McGrews' essay on the argument from miracles, while the mere fact of martyrdoms doesn't prove anything more than sincere belief, the martyrdom of witnesses is another matter entirely.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Rethinking Christian Historical Apologetics

I have been thinking about historical apologetics recently. I remember reading Evidence that Demands a Verdict as a young Christian, and then seeing Josh McDowell at a Campus Crusade retreat in 1973. I remember a friend of mine at the time simply exultant after the retreat about the force of McDowell's arguments, saying "I dare people to come here and try to PROVE US WRONG." That Christian friend was Timothy Grogan, whose deconversion story was recorded in the volume Ed Babinski edited, Leaving the Fold. I soon became disaffected with Campus Crusade, and always thought that the McDowell book had serious problems, mostly that it piled on quotations from evangelical sources and assumed the Bible's inerrancy in order to prove points at issue between Bible believers and their opponents.  I remember writing a paper about it in seminary in which I said that McDowell uses the shotgun method, as if arguments were forceful as a result of their sheer numbers. The book, as we all know, was compiled by a committee evangelical seminary students. I certainly don't consider it worthless, but the case certainly needed to be put together more judiciously.

At the same time, there was nothing in there about Hume's essay on miracles, thought there was a second volume that had a brief rebuttal to Hume including one paragraph from Lewis's rebuttal in Miracles. Many philosophers I knew were simply willing to dismiss the whole thing out of hand on Humean grounds. At the same time, I remained convinced that there was something right about the historical argument which would have real force if it were done right.

Since that time, the historical argument has been deployed by William Lane Craig and others. When I first encountered Internet Infidels, their flagship project was an actual rebuttal or criticism of ETDAV, entitled The Jury is In, and J. P. Holding was firing back with A Jury In Need of Dismissal.

I think a few responses to how this all ought to go are in order. First, while I think that there is an overall consensus amongst philosophers that Hume's essay doesn't destroy the possibility of rational belief in miracles, it is true that the miraculous character of the events that the Historical Argument tries to defend are not ordinary events, and the evidence required to make them believable is bound to vary from person to person. The believability of the Christian miracles is going to depend, in the minds of different people, on the overall plausibility of Christianity in general, and many people are going to hold world-views that are sufficiently hostile to miracles to make just about any evidence coming out of the ancient world insufficient for belief. So, I don't think we can attribute all resistance to the case for the resurrection to pride, ignorance (usually self-imposed), or a moral problem. Extraordinary claims, we are told, require extraordinary evidence, but the inherent improbability of the miraculous can be mitigated by the plausibility of Christianity in other respects. Or not, as the case might be. I don't think antecedent improbability arguments are sufficient to show that a case for historical miracles can't be persuasive.

Second, for the purposes of a discussion historical apologetics, one needs to employ a conception of general reliability which is distinct from an inerrancy claim. The relevant texts need to be broadly reliable, as reliable as we should expect ancient documents to be which are serious attempts to discover the truth through contact with eyewitnesses. In fact, a certain amount of "errancy" actually helps the case for the Gospels by undercutting the idea that everyone was in collusion.

What I think I can argue is that no really sensible account of the events surrounding the life, claims, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the events involved in the founding of the Christian church, can be given in naturalistically acceptable terms. Even if we think whatever happened wasn't a resurrection, it is at least difficult to tell a story consistent with the facts which is also consistent with naturalism. 

More on this later.

Monday, August 02, 2010