Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Yet more in answer to Presentism

After a discussion on Facebook (c'mon, guys, put these great comments here and give my poor little personal blog a bit o' traffic), I've decided to say a bit more about the "Jesus is forever hanging on the cross" criticism of the B theory of time.

William Lane Craig's discussion of this alleged problem is worded very strongly indeed. Here is the most pertinent passage:
[T]he idea that God and creation tenselessly co-exist seems to negate God's triumph over evil. On the static theory of time, evil is never really vanquished from the world: It exists just as sturdily as ever at its various locations in space-time, even if those locations are all earlier than some point in cosmic time (for example, Judgement Day). Creation is never really purged of evil on this view; at most it can be said that evil only infects those parts of creation which are earlier than certain other events. But the stain is indelible. What this implies for events such as the crucifixion and the resurrection of Christ is very troubling. In a sense Christ hangs permanently on the cross, for the dreadful events of A.D. 30 never fade away or transpire. The victory of the resurrection becomes a hollow triumph, for the spatio-temporal parts of Jesus that were crucified and buried remain dying and dead and are never raised to new life. It is unclear how we can say with Paul, “Death is swallowed up in victory!” (I Cor. 15:54) when, on a static theory of time, death is never really done away with. Time and Eternity, p. 214.
I already discussed in the previous entry the fact that the language here seems to suggest, erroneously, that the B theorist holds all times to be present tense. Evil "exists just as sturdily as ever at its various locations in space-time." That is a misunderstanding of the B theory. To say that there are tenseless truths about the past is not to say that the events those truths describe are happening now.

Another possible interpretation of the passage is that Craig is treating the B series block as if it exists within some higher-order time. If that were the case, then one might accuse the B theorist of holding that our B series is eternal (endures infinitely in both the past and the future) within this higher-order time. But that, of course, is not what the B theory says at all. An event on the B series that takes one hour takes one hour. The fact that the event does not become strictly unreal and nonexistent as some reality-creating Now moves past it (a concept that is extraordinarily hard to give meaning to, as I argued in the previous post) does not mean that the event takes more than one hour. There is no sense in which the B theory says that Jesus literally endures his sufferings through an eternity of time. The whole point about tenseless truths is that they are tenseless, not that they make the things they describe go on forever! Temporary events do not "last forever" on the B theory. That would be a complete misunderstanding of the B series.

Further: Ponder for a minute what Craig is asserting here about the alleged superiority of his own presentist view. He is saying that evil is really "vanquished from the world" on his view, but not on the B theory, why? Because evil events, such as the crucifixion, "fade away or transpire" on his view but do not "fade away or transpire" in the sense he wishes to assert (whatever exactly his sense means) on a different theory of time such as the B theory. But that is not victory anyway! The alleged superiority of presentism suggested here is that evil is annihilated from the world by the mere passage of time. The presentism Craig is promoting here would make Jesus' crucifixion just as much gone, done away with, no longer part of reality, even if Jesus had never risen from the dead! Pace Craig's Biblical language about death swallowed up in victory and evil purged and vanquished, presentism as a position in the philosophy of time tells us nothing whatsoever about such triumphal goings on.

Consider: Suppose that an evil man tortures a child for one hour, grows bored, stops, and never does it again. Now suppose, instead, that a good man comes along after an hour, finds the evil man torturing the child, and fights and kills him. In the latter case we could rightly say that evil has been vanquished. In the former case, not. But presentism tells us that the evil of the torture passes into unreality as it becomes past just the same in both cases. Presentism doesn't give us a glorious rescue any more than any other theory of time. Glorious rescues either happen or don't happen contingently within history. On presentism, the events of that hour "fade away or transpire" in some strong metaphysical sense whether evil is vanquished or not.

Given that sort of "victory," evil could be just as surely "vanquished" if evil men went on doing evil unopposed throughout human history, the sun went nova, and (if we are the only intelligent life in the universe) all intelligent life ceased to exist (except for God). The end. Maybe all souls are annihilated in this scenario, or maybe they go on existing in some vague and boring mental state throughout all eternity. Whatever. But no more actual evil acts occur. And the evil acts that have already occurred, according to presentism, have become utterly nonexistent in virtue of being past.

Given that notion of "victory," God could be "victorious" over evil simply by deliberately killing all rational beings, good and evil alike. Salvation of souls, redemption, and heaven, which is what Christians usually have in mind when they talk about God's ultimate victory over evil, need not enter the picture at all.

Craig seems to be confusing the unreality of the past, given presentism, which is not in itself what anyone means by "victory over evil," with actual victory over evil, which comes from victorious events themselves and their causal effects. But of course the B theorist can affirm the reality of such victorious events and of their effects just as strongly as the presentist. If anything, the B theorist can affirm the reality of victorious events and their effects even more strongly, since many wonderful and victorious events (such as Jesus' resurrection) are now in our own past, and the B theorist does not have to say that those events, along with the evils they overcame, have passed into unreality as the Now moves inexorably onward.

This criticism, worded eloquently as Craig words it, may seem to have some rhetorical pull, but it simply does not stand up upon philosophical scrutiny.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

How do I rebut Presentism? Let me count the ways.

This post is a spin-off, to use an old TV metaphor, of a paper I have been working on, hopefully to appear in The Christendom Review. I found that I had more to say about some of the issues than fit easily into an article that was already getting long. Hence, this post.

Since one of my complaints will be that I find it difficult to give a meaning to the position that I am attacking, it would perhaps be unfair for me to try to summarize it. I will therefore let William Lane Craig, who advocates the view, explain it:
Sharp-sighted critics of McTaggart...have insisted almost from the beginning that a dynamic or tensed theory of time implies a commitment to presentism, the doctrine that the only temporal entities that exist are present entities. According to presentism, past and future entities do not exist. Thus, there really are no past or future events, except in the sense that there have been certain events and there will be certain others; the only real events are present events...Temporal becoming is not the exchange of tense on the part of tenselessly existing events but the coming into and going out of existence of the entities themselves. (Time and Eternity, p. 148)
For reasons that mostly elude me, quite a few great Christian philosophy graduate students I hang out with (cheers, gentlemen!), both in person and on-line, find this position in the philosophy of time intuitively plausible. I find it utterly unattractive--in fact, almost self-evidently false. But it would be more useful for me to spell out some of the problems that occur to me. I make no claim that this is an exhaustive list. In fact, one reason I'm writing this post is because more kept occurring to me, and I didn't want to clutter the paper with too many endnotes mentioning them.

The first question I have about this position is simply: What does it mean? Let me be clear. I have some idea of what people mean (they are sometimes called "openists" or "open futurists") who say that future entities do not exist. What they mean is that statements about the future have no truth value. The statement that it will rain tomorrow, or even a tenseless version of this ("It [tenselessly] rains on April 11, 2014") simply is neither true nor false when uttered before April 11, 2014. Often one motive for openism is related to human freedom, the idea being that it blocks human free will if statements about what I will do tomorrow are already true today. However, I've never heard of an openist about the past! On the contrary, the whole concern regarding freedom is to make the future unlike the past, to assert a strong asymmetry between them; the past, on openism, is fixed and unchangeable, but the future is still unmade.

But that can't be what the presentist means, and especially not what Craig means, by saying that past and future entities do not exist. The presentist is asserting that both past and future entities are strictly non-existent. On this point, he is asserting a symmetry rather than an asymmetry between the past and the future. Moreover, Craig isn't an openist! He has written at length against open theism, the position in the philosophy of religion that goes hand in hand with openism in the philosophy of time and that postulates limitations on the concept of divine foreknowledge.

Craig clearly believes that statements about the past and the future are true. But if the tenseless proposition "Socrates exists in 405 B.C." is true, then what does it mean to say that Socrates doesn't exist in any sense? Can we not say that Socrates exists just in the sense that to assert his existence relative to 405 B.C. is to make a true statement? Similarly, to assert my existence relative to A.D. 2014 is also to make a true statement. Thus we can explain a fairly simple and straightforward sense in which both Socrates and I exist in the grand scheme of things, each of us existing relative to particular points in time. We can explain this in terms of the truth of propositions about the existence of me and Socrates.

At this point I can hear all the frustrated temporal A theorists jumping up and down and telling me why there has to be a Real Now and why the B theory of time, which denies the existence of an objective and Real Now, must be wrong.

But just at this point in the post I am objecting to presentism, not to all A theories of time. (I'll get later to some considerations that tell against all A theories of time.) According to the B theory of time (to give a wildly and irresponsibly brief version), all points in time have an equal claim to be "now," except relative to the experiences of conscious beings. There is no objective or Real Now that lies in 2014 rather than in 405 B.C. Relative to some of Lydia's conscious experiences, 2014 is now. Relative to some of Socrates' conscious experiences, 405 B.C. can be thought of as now, but neither of these perspectives is "more right" than the other. There is no Real Now that has kept moving and has now "gotten" to 2014. But I am asking what presentism means, specifically. I am asking about presentism as opposed not only to the B theory of time but also as opposed to what is known as a "growing block" view, according to which past entities and events are real but future ones are not. Or an "illuminated present" view according to which past and future events are real but only one slice of time is "now." Both of these, along with presentism, have a Real Now, but not all of them are presentism. What does presentism mean, especially in denying the existence of past entities?

There is one way that I can think of to give presentism meaning, but it involves paying a pretty steep price, and it is not a position that Craig argues for anywhere that I have seen: One could deny that there are any tenseless propositions. All A theorists are committed to arguing that there are irreducible tensed  facts, such as "It is now 3 p.m." I disagree with them, and I discuss how a B theorist can reduce such facts to tenseless truths in the paper. But my point here is this: While an A theorist like Craig will argue, and Craig does argue, that there are irreducible tensed facts, it is a much stronger position that there are no tenseless facts. Craig argues that a proposition like "The meeting is [tenseless] at 3 p.m. on April 14, 2014" does not fully give the content of a belief like, "The meeting is now" or "The meeting is today." But he never denies the possibility of tenseless propositions. If he did do so, this could give "cash value" to his denial of the existence of any past or future entities. In that case, "Socrates exists in 405 B.C." would simply be false if uttered now, because it is not now 405 B.C. and because there literally is no way to use verbs tenselessly.

Such a view would not be ipso facto openist, because one could still say that "I will mow the lawn tomorrow" has a truth value. But such a view would deny that there is any tenseless proposition, "Lydia mows the lawn on April 12, 2014" that is true or false. Everything has to be tensed.

Tenseless propositions are pretty standard fare for philosophers. They explain the way in which two people at different times, or the same person at different times, can believe the same content. There is some sense in which, if my historical beliefs are correct, I believe the same thing about Napoleon's losing the Battle of Waterloo as someone living twenty-five years ago or even someone living at the time of the battle. It is generally considered quite useful, philosophically, to be able to translate "Napoleon lost the Battle of Waterloo in 1815" into a tenseless proposition that can be the same proposition and be believed at different times. I think it would be a big mistake for presentists to reject tenseless propositions just in order to give their presentism meaning. It would be better for them to cease to be presentists and become, at least, growing block theorists. (I am not denying that growing block theories can be criticized as well--from both the presentist perspective and the B theory perspective.)

Craig would have even more difficulty accepting into his system the view that there are no tenseless propositions, or that tenseless propositions are meaningless, or anything of that kind, because he holds that God is "outside of time sans creation." So what would God know sans creation? Presumably, for God to be omniscient about Napoleon at the "stage" (for want of a better word) of God's life in which God "was" (for want of a better word) not in time, God would have to know tenseless facts about Napoleon and the Battle of Waterloo. So a further epicycle would have to be added to the effect that tenseless propositions became meaningless at the first moment of creation.

I doubt that this is a direction that most presentists will want to go, and I stress again that Craig never attacks tenseless propositions uberhaupt. I bring it up only as a possible way to give meaning to the presentist's denial of existence to past and future entities and events.

Consider, too, the fact that what Craig is saying in advocating presentism gives the distinct impression that past entities are unreal. After all, he says that they don't exist, apparently not in any sense at all. But past entities, including ourselves at past moments, leave causal traces. The "me" of an hour ago must have some place in the schema of reality, taken as a whole, because there are bar cookies sitting on the counter right now that were made by the "me" of an hour ago! To say that the past is strictly unreal makes no sense of the causal relationship between present entities and past entities.

Another consideration: Craig alleges that there are special theological problems with the B theory of time. One of the most common of these, and the kind of thing that seems to resonate with those influenced by Craig's view, is the "Jesus is still on the cross" accusation. Craig says that, on a B theory of time, God can never be victorious over sin, because the B theorist refuses to postulate a Real Now and the strict and absolute nonexistence of past entities and events. Craig says that it follows from this that "Christ hangs permanently on the cross" on a B theory of time and God never triumphs over evil. (Time and Eternity, p. 214)

First of all, this is not true, because the word "still" is a tensed term as is the word "permanently." The B theorist can give a perfectly good account of the sense in which Jesus is not still on the cross now, which is to say, simultaneous with Lydia's existence in history, with Lydia's mental experience, and with April 11, 2014. Once we are dealing with tensed terms like "still" and "permanently," the B theorist has no problem explaining that some events have already happened on the B series line and are over prior to such-and-such a moment (which is the moment of a certain experience of mine) on the B timeline, the moment at which I am speaking. So, no, Jesus is not still on the cross.

Beyond that, if we are just going to try to use ordinary language and toss around alleged theological problems, two can play at that game: If there is no timeless truth that Jesus dies, tenseless, on the cross for our sins, how does God save us? If the past is nonexistent, then Jesus' death on the cross is nonexistent. So on what basis are our sins forgiven?

And then there's that pesky verse (Revelation 13:8) about the "Lamb slain from the foundation of the world." To put it mildly, such a statement is far more consonant with a view on which there really are tenseless truths that are always true and that these include truths about Jesus' death.

Probably it would be better for neither side to try to allege such theological problems, though I think the biblical reference to Revelation 13:8 is a prima facie conundrum for either the presentist or the openist. In general, though, it would be better for the presentist to acknowledge that the B theorist does not hold that "Jesus is permanently on the cross" or that "I am both five years old and my present age forever" or anything else of the kind, and for the B theorist to grant that the presentist can have God forgiving us on the grounds that Jesus did die for our sins, even though the past is, according to the presentist, nonexistent. My point here is that, once we get going, there are as many things that the B theorist can say with some plausibility about alleged "theological problems" with presentism as vice versa.

One other point about the "Jesus is still on the cross" allegation, or, as one philosophy student put it to me, criticizing the B theory, "According to your view, I'm still five years old": In bringing that criticism, the presentist attacks the growing block theorist and the illuminated block theorist as well as the B theorist. This is because, even though both of those theories do hold that there is an absolute Now, they do not say, like the presentist, that the past is strictly and absolutely non-existent. Hence, perhaps the presentist should ask other A theorists why they don't think that "Jesus is still on the cross," since they do hold that the past is part of reality.

More problems for presentism: This one is a problem for all A theories, including openism. All theories with an Absolute Now are forced to take a view of the meaning of physics and relativity theory that is anti-Einsteinian. If you have one Absolute Now, you must deny relativity theory as usually construed and hold that there is absolute time which yields a preferred frame of reference. Now, I'm not going to press this as an insuperable problem. I myself am a realist in the face of quantum mechanics and hence deny the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics as meaning that reality is merely probabilistic at bottom, so I'm in no position to throw stones about non-standard metaphysical interpretations of physics. But is it really a bullet that the A theorist or openist wants to bite to say that there is one absolute, preferred, inertial frame of reference?

Craig does bite this bullet. He has quite a few pages on the subject. He actually accepts that measuring instruments extend and contract in the direction of motion relative to the absolute frame of reference. (Time and Eternity, p. 54.) Craig implies repeatedly that the only reason for rejecting this Lorenzian perspective is verificationism, because the Lorenz solution is empirically equivalent to the Einsteinian interpretation. But it is by no means true in the philosophy of science that only verificationism can lead us to prefer what seems to be the simpler explanation to save the phenomena! Whether the long-standing interpretation of relativity theory as meaning that there is no preferred space-time frame of reference is indeed simpler than the idea that measuring instruments lengthen and contract relative to a preferred frame of reference is not a question on which I am going to make dogmatic pronouncements. I merely point out that saying "verificationism" does not settle the matter. Indeed, if scientists always got stuck as between empirically equivalent theories, science could not proceed at all. The use of simplicity considerations, leading a scientist to accept only such entities as he has empirical evidence for, should not be taken to be equivalent to verificationist philosophy.


Another drawback both to presentism and to the growing block view is that they unreasonably limit our options in responding to the problem of induction by limiting reality either to the present only or to the past and present only. Readers will find my husband's and my response to the problem of induction in Chapter 7 of our book on metaepistemology. The connection to the philosophy of time, briefly, is this: We can apply certain mathematical theorems about sampling and representativeness to solve the problem of induction, but only if we take ourselves to be sampling out of a set of entities with particular statistical properties. So, for example, if I have eaten watermelon many times and found it sweet, this can be rationally connected to the proposition that the next piece of watermelon I eat will be sweet. But the connection runs through a proposition about the proportion of sweet watermelons to all the watermelons. This set should be thought of as existing not only across space but also across time. In fact, if this set could not include either past or future entities, the whole notion of sampling from a set (of watermelons) as part of making a rational induction about what will happen in the future based on the past becomes meaningless. Even if we restrict the set just to "watermelons sold at such-and-such a store" rather than all watermelons throughout the history of the universe, the set still must include both past and future watermelons, or else I cannot relate watermelons I have eaten in the past to the watermelon I will eat tomorrow. The B theory, which denies that reality literally "grows" as a Real Now moves along, has no problem at all with the idea of sampling reality across time. The B theorist takes me to be sampling from a set of watermelons that are part of reality taken as a whole, and this includes both past and future watermelons. As seen above, this does not mean that watermelons that will grow in 2015 "exist now," simultaneous on the timeline with April, 2014. They are 2015 watermelons. But the B theory denies that either the past or the future (or both, per presentism) are literally not part of reality in any sense whatsoever. The presentist position would seem to mean that past and future watermelons cannot in any sense be thought of as part of the same set which I am sampling when I eat a watermelon.

Last but not least, I want to hit what seems to me a gigantic problem for presentism: What is the duration of the Real Now? It should be clear right away that this question is a vital one for the presentist, because his entire ontology depends on the present moment. The presentist's entire theory of time depends on the insistence that there really is a Real Now. And only what exists in that present moment is real at all!

Craig admits quite candidly that this is a difficult issue for presentism. He considers and rejects two views: First, he rejects the view that the present moment has zero measure, that it is durationless. He points out that it seems quite impossible to "make up" temporal duration out of strictly durationless moments--the temporal equivalent of geometric points (which take up no space). And on presentism, that is exactly what the present moment has to do: The Now has to be the constituent entity from which all of time is made, because only what is real in the present is real at all. Second, he rejects the view that time can be quantized into smallest possible units--temporal atoms known in the philosophy of time as chronons. Craig explains that the chronon view has hugely problematic consequences. One such consequence would be that motion itself would be discontinuous! The idea that things move in a smooth and continuous fashion through space would have to be an illusion. Everything would have to jump. Your blood would jump jerkily through your veins, cars would really be jumping down the road in discontinuous spatial frames. Here, too (though Craig does not bring it up), I want to mention that the chronon idea would seem to revive the famous Zeno's paradox that it is impossible ever to cross a room. The solution to that paradox depends on there being no smallest unit of time. So Craig rightly rejects the idea that the Real Now has a duration of a single smallest "time atom." But what is left? Any larger, technically divisible, unit of time chosen for the Real Now would be chosen arbitrarily. Why make it a second when it could be a half-second?

What Craig decides, in the face of these difficulties, is that the duration of the present moment is not an objective matter but is relative to the universe of discourse!
On this view, to ask, "What is the extent of the present?" is a malformed question. In order for the question to be meaningful, one must stipulate what it is we are talking about: the present vibration of an atomic clock, the present session of Congress, the present war, or what have you? There is no such metric interval as "the present," period; we must speak of "the present _____," where the blank is filled by a reference to some event or thing....Such a view is admittedly strange because it implies that there is no such thing as the present time. Rather what is present depends on the the universe of discourse: Are we talking about seconds, or minutes, or hours, or what? (Time and Eternity, pp. 159-160)
This easy-going view of the meaning of "the present" would be all very well for a B theorist. In fact, it seems quite sensible to me. It is a kind of nominalism about the phrase "the present." What Craig is saying here implies that there is no essence of "the present" but that we can use the phrase in various ways depending on what we want to talk about. Well and good, but it seems to me flatly impossible for a presentist to accept this view. To quote, again, from Craig's summary, presentism is

the doctrine that the only temporal entities that exist are present entities. According to presentism, past and future entities do not exist. Thus, there really are no past or future events, except in the sense that there have been certain events and there will be certain others; the only real events are present events.
Craig's nominalist view about the duration of the present would imply that, if I choose to make "sessions of Congress" or "wars" my universe of discourse, the entirety of a session of Congress or of a war, with all the events that entails, over a period of years, can be in existence (for me?), can be the Real Now. Then again, someone else (e.g., a presentist insisting staunchly in philosophical conversation that entities of two years ago do not exist) may make his universe of discourse range only over individual seconds. For him, most of the events of the present session of Congress are excluded from the Now, and therefore the vast majority of those entities and events are non-existent.

This makes no sense whatsoever. This view could not be right if presentism were true. If one is a presentist, one cannot simply punt like this on the duration of the Real Now. Unless, perhaps, one wants to be a postmodernist, which I am quite sure Craig does not want to be!

The trouble for the presentist is that there is really no good solution to the question of the duration of the Real Now. It has been invested with enormous metaphysical importance but left undefined. Craig does a good and careful job surveying the options for defining it, and my conclusion is that his discussion shows the problem to be insoluble, though of course that is not the conclusion he draws.

I think that presentism is simply untenable as a position in the philosophy of time. To some degree, this should make people more friendly to the B theory, depending on what one thinks of the objections (which I don't have time to go into) to other A theories. Moreover, it should clear away certain obstacles to accepting God's timelessness. Craig himself places an enormous amount of weight in the case for putting God in time on the philosophy of time itself and, specifically, on the alleged superiority of presentism as a theory in the philosophy of time. In fact, he seems to imply that divine timelessness would be an attractive position if it were not for the fact that (he holds) the B theory is wrong and presentism is right. (Time and Eternity, pp. 111-112.) By that reckoning, if presentism is wrong, perhaps it isn't such a great idea to regard God as in time after all.

That, however, is a subject for another day.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The loneliness at the heart

I have become convinced of late that there is one major driver for social media and many other uses of the Internet: Loneliness.

That isn't necessarily a bad thing. When I am old, perhaps physically infirm, and many of my nearest and dearest have passed away or moved away, I earnestly hope that I have Internet access, because it will leave me less isolated than I otherwise would be. If my children are married and living far away, perhaps I can see my grandchildren's pictures electronically, or talk to them on Skype or whatever equivalent has sprung into being by then. I've actually tried to do a little research to see if nursing homes are getting with the program and getting Internet for their residents. (Answer: Not very widely yet, but some are. Hopefully the practice will spread.)

There is nothing wrong with using the Internet to keep in touch with family and friends who are far away, to read up on what is happening in the world, to participate in discussions with people you would otherwise never meet. This can actually be a healthy thing.

But it isn't enough. Since man left the Garden, he has essentially been a lonely creature. Those of us blessed enough to be happily married have communion with our best beloved, but that only mitigates the essential human loneliness. It does not entirely take it away. This may well be the phenomenon that Augustine describes when he says, to God, "Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in thee." But what it feels like is something more ordinary and human, less mystical.

The Internet simultaneously (partially) relieves human loneliness and exacerbates it. If one spends a lot of time on blogs or on Facebook, one gets used to an extremely high level of interaction. At any time one can get on-line and agree or disagree with someone, somewhere in the world. One doesn't have to stop and face a sense of loss or of lack, a sense that nothing else will fill. One doesn't have to listen to the clock tick. If one never stops to listen, if one always turns to the Internet so as not to hear the silence, then that is a bad thing. That is an addiction. And it is well known that addictions do not satisfy; they only produce more craving. In this case, the craving is for communication, especially with people who agree and are kind, for happiness and a sense of friendliness and community, even if only a virtual community. Therein lies part of the problem. A virtual community neither makes the demands nor offers the satisfactions of hands-on friendship. And, while it may seem that virtual friendships are easier to lose (because we get so many more opportunities to annoy one another and to disagree on the Internet), there are other ways in which virtual friendships are easier to keep. We can put our best foot forward, not be annoyed by each others' in-person habits, and nobody moves away from Facebook. Thus we think (at least for a moment) that we are being satisfied by something that is, at best, a shadow of the incarnate, in-person presence of those we love.

Loss--by death, by moving, or by a falling out--forces us to realize that nothing and no one can take the place of those who are gone. Loss is a fact of reality. The Internet encourages us to forget or ignore that reality.

In the end, in this life, we each go on alone. At some level, despite the dearness of our dear ones, despite friendship, despite the fellowship of Christian love, despite the Communion of the Saints, and, God knows, despite Facebook, we live alone. Even more: We die alone. There is only One, whom we love without having seen, who is with us always, even unto the ends of the earth. That promise, however, gives less comfort for human loss than one might think.

People talk as if grief were just a feeling--as if it weren't the continually renewed shock of setting out again and again on familiar roads and being brought up short by the grim frontier post that now blocks them. I, to be sure, believe there is something beyond it: but the moment one tries to use that as a consolation (that is not its function) the belief crumbles. It is quite useless knocking at the door of Heaven for earthly comfort: it's not the sort of comfort they supply there. (Letters of C.S. Lewis, 3 December, 1959)

We await a day when there will be no more loneliness and no more loss, when we will be forever with Christ and with those others whom we love in heaven. We cannot have it now, and to try to mimic it is almost certainly a mistake. Listen, then, to the ticking clock, listen to the silence, submit with patience and without bitterness to Time and Change, the reapers, and live in quiet hope of the day when death itself shall die, when we ourselves shall be changed, and when we will be alone no more.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

John C. Wright has done it again

As regular readers know, I occasionally find that, when my own wellsprings of inspiration are at low ebb, the sci-fi writer and blogger John C. Wright has a post that is better than anything I could possibly write under the circumstances, so I link that instead. So it is this week. I am in the midst of researching a paper on God and time (a fascinating subject) and am trying not to get involved in much on-line controversy. I'm also not forcing myself to write new blog posts filled with my own material. So head on over and read this polemical gem on the leftist worldview from Wright. As always with Wright, it's long, not to say wordy, but it's really a beautiful thing. Here are a few quotes. (If you don't find that the first quotes I give "do it for you," skip to the last one. It's the best.)



By their theory, no fact and no conclusions of common sense are neutral. All are tainted by the original sin of bias and bigotry. The act of bringing up a fact is never, never an act done in the impersonal pursuit of truth. For them there is no truth, and even if there were, there is no impartiality. The act of bringing up a fact is always an act of aggression, an imposition, if not an attack.
This explains our first paradox. They are decent and honest people. Their motive for avoiding reason is compassion, because they wish not to be tempted by hate, bigotry, or thought crime. However, once reason is forbidden, facts, common sense, and evidence, likewise are as meaningless to them as to a Buddhist to whom all the world is illusion.
[snip] 
A man who claims to be a faster runner can be put to the race; a man who claims to be the greater poet can be asked to read his sonnet; but a man who claims only superiority in an invisible and imponderable spiritual realm can be put to no human test.
In short, because Leftism is the theory that truth is impossible, and reason is a hate-crime, it requires self deception. Because self deception provokes guilt and humiliation, the self esteem of the Leftist is continually uncertain. Because it is uncertain, it must be uplifted. The only emotion loud and broad enough to smother the powerful emotions of guilt and humiliation is the uplift of sanctimonious pride, pride in one’s own perfect righteousness.
[snip]


At this point, you may be wondering why, if they only judge by intentions and not by results, the Liberals are not sometimes helpful to those they wish to help? Surely raising the minimum wage sometimes produces a raise in real wages instead of producing more unemployment? At least once? Surely sometimes putting honey and water in the gas tank instead of petrol will create good gas mileage? At least once? Surely sometimes, by accident, they get it right? Even a stopped clock is right at least twice a day.
So the fact that they judge by intentions and not by results is not a satisfactory explanation. Why are they predictably, inevitably, and always wrong?
They are always wrong because their theory of morality springs out of their theory of epistemology. Their theory of epistemology is that there is no truth. Hence, their theory of morality is that there is no right and wrong.

[snip]


All rules by definition are crooked, part of a con game. Any attempt to excuse, explain or defend the rules is either misguided or malign.
The only success under crooked and malign rule is by definition a crooked and malign success. It is a successful crime. 
Hence the Leftist must punish success.
This means not just monetary success but imponderable success. The Leftist must not only take money from the rich, he must take fame from the famous and glory from the glorious. Just as he must give money to the poor out of restitution for the crooked roulette wheel of life, so too he must give fame to the infamous and glory to the shameful.

[snip]



If the rich and powerful tilting the wheel of life is the only explanation for life’s miseries and sorrows and failures, they are always to blame for everything. Everything. These days, the rich men and rich nations are blamed for warm weather.
Here is the explanation of the third paradox: If life is a game of pure chance, then the winners of life, the happy people, the rich, the famous, the saintly, all of them must have somehow rigged or twisted the institutions, laws and customs, and all the rules of life to their own advantage. Since all property is theft, all property owners are thieves.
Hence, all life’s winners, heroes and captains of industry and saints and famous artists, everyone worthy of admiration for any reason, all of them, all the winners, the theory demands they be nothing but outrageous cheats.
Also, they must be outrageous liars for denying that they are cheats. Worse, they are all con men for deceiving their victims into playing.
The logic applies to wealth as well as to power and virtue, including such things as applause and glory and dignity. Hence, combined with the pathological and neurotic smug self-sanctimony, the Leftist, as long as he be true his theory, must demean whatever is worthy, true, successful, and good, and reward and praise whatever is unworthy, untrue, unsuccessful, and bad.
Let us call this the Principle of Inversion. The Principle of Inversion says that whatever or whoever Reason calls good and decent is in fact bad and wretched, and whatever Reason calls bad is in fact good.

[snip]


The Leftist theory of economics produces poverty.
This is the precise and diametric opposite of the prediction made by the theory. A more fair and even distribution of the winning numbers of life’s spinning wheel should have produced more wealth for everyone. The super-genius five-year central economical planning of the Soviet Union should have outproduced the gross inefficiencies of unplanned capitalists America by an order of magnitude. Instead the Soviets ended up eating each others’ heads in starvation, and the Americans grew overweight. The theory not only failed, it failed in a remarkable, spectacular, astounding, astronomical way.
The same result obtains for the application of their theory wherever it is applied.
The Welfare State should not have abolished the family structure among inner city blacks and, even if it did, the loss of the family should not have malign side effects on child rearing.
Turning all the inmates of insane asylums loose on the streets for some reason not named should not have lead to an increase of the number of insane street people. Being lenient on criminals should not produce an increase in violent crime. Disarming the victims should not encourage attackers. Surrendering a war should produce victory, not defeat. Rewarding Jihadist violence by praising and funding them should decrease Jihadist violence. Socializing the student loan industry will lower costs. Socializing the medical insurance industry will not only allow you to keep your plan and your doctor, your premiums will actually go down. and more people, rather then less, will be covered by health care the moment less health care is available to them. Goods can be rationed without rationing. And so on and so on and so on. 
In each case, the theory fails in the most remarkable and jaw-droppingly spectacular fashion possible.

The Leftist has only two choices here: accept reality, in which case he is no longer a Leftist, or deny reality, in which case his loyalty to the ideals of Leftism becomes rarefied and refined, and he become of their Cathari, the Pure Ones, an arhat of enlightenment.

[snip]

And here is the best of all, a handful of sentences which could have come from Chesterton:

Anything that reminds them of innocence or truth is abhorrent to them. It makes them uneasy, lest their master raise his whip of iron and punish them. Therefore the very people and things the addicts of self righteousness hate the most are saints, women like Mother Theresa, and heroes, figures like George Washington, and captains of industry, men like Henry Ford. The things they hate most are ideals like Justice and Mercy. And they despise and hate the innocent most of all: the greatest part of their fury and destructiveness is turned against those two figures which, for all times past, were the symbols and embodiments of purity and innocence: the virgin and the child.

Wright continues,
If the reader doubts that Leftist hate virgins, let him inspect any dozen Hollywood movies taken at random, or visit any dozen college campus dorms at random after hours, or read any two dozen essays by feminists. If the reader doubt that the Left hates children, let him read the account of what goes on in an abortion mill, or read how the British Health Service disposes of the tiny corpses.
Indeed, and if anyone doubts that the leftists hate virgins, let him read perverse postmodern theory with its glorification of every sort of perversion. Or let him contemplate the cesspool of sex education in the schools, which attacks children and virginity at one and the same time, destroying the mental innocence of the young and moving them toward destroying their own physical innocence.

We wrestle against great evils. Polemics like Wrights can assure those who find themselves isolated and fighting on the side of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful that it is indeed the world that is insane, having accepted an insane philosophy. This can, in turn, hearten us not to compromise with this evil but to fight it consistently wherever we are called upon to do so.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Why might pastors preach about...this thing rather than something else?

I saw somebody griping on the Internet the other day. What's new?

But, especially since I've been neglecting this blog a bit recently, I decided to post something about it. The specific gripe was that pastors seem to preach more about p--- (I'm going to use this typography through this post so as not to attract bots, creeps, and spam) more than about adultery. I haven't run into this in my own experience, but I'll take it as read that this particular person has seen a trend in which pastors preach more against the former than the latter.

Why is this foolish, bad, or inexplicable?

Here, just off the top of my head, are reasons why a pastor might reasonably have that emphasis in his preaching:

1) The pastor might easily have more reason to believe that the members of his congregation are using p--- than are engaging in physical adulterous relationships. In fact, he might have reason to believe that a far larger number of his members are sinning in the former way than in the latter.

2) The pastor might have reason to believe that members of his congregation think that p--- isn't really so bad because it isn't "real sex." He might well think he needs to try to dispel this dangerous confusion.

3) The pastor might reasonably believe that physical adultery, being connected with a particular person, is less likely to lead to lifelong addiction. If a person involved in an adulterous affair repents and forsakes that sin with that person, he is less likely to have a lifelong, destructive habit thereafter that he cannot break than a person who repents but has developed a p--- addiction. Hence the greater need to warn against getting involved in p--- and the greater need to warn parents so that their children do not fall into this evil and greatly harm their entire lives. (Children are not going to be literally accidentally getting involved in even physical fornication, much less adultery with a married person, though of course they may be abused by an adult, which is a different matter. But children have literally accidentally viewed p--- on the Internet and then found themselves sucked in and damaged for life.)

4) Relatedly, it is often true that one can break off contact with the other member of an adulterous affair, whereas p--- is constantly available.

5) Since a person in an adulterous affair has to deal with the willingness or unwillingness of another specific person, he cannot readily move, in the course of that affair, into every possible form of abominable perversion conceived in the dark depths of the fallen human psyche, but there are no similar limits to what is available for consumption in the world of p---. Thus a person involved in (heterosexual) adultery is less likely to be adding all manner of vile perversion and unnaturalness to the sin against chastity itself, and in the process developing a taste for such darkness, thus confusing his own sexual nature possibly for life. (See #3.) (Readers, please notice my deliberately vague language at this point. Similarly vague language will be expected in comments, or they will not be published.)

6) At risk of being thought to be excusing adultery, which I emphatically am not, or of applying touchy-feely criteria, I'm willing to add that a relationship that involves a real other person is in one sense and just to that extent less spiritually and psychologically unhealthy than a non-relationship that involves the deliberate objectification of other persons. This is all the more true when the media form is deliberately and aggressively degrading of those other persons.

A counterweight to these considerations is the fact that, precisely because of the real personal bonding, a person engaged in an adulterous affair is more likely to break up his marriage as a result, because he believes that he is in love with the woman he is having an affair with. (Or, in the case of a woman, believes she is in love with the man.) That's no doubt true, and it is serious. But I think in terms of how much a pastor preaches, it is probably outweighed by considerations 1 and 2, above. Of course, we also have to ask what counts as "preaching about" something. If a pastor mentions adultery in a list, does that count? But if we are talking about preaching at some length, it seems perfectly understandable that a pastor would concentrate on those extremely serious sins which he has more reason to suspect his congregants are actually engaging in and, worse, excusing.

The sort of gripe that prompted this post is, I'm afraid, likely to come from those who feel that somehow men get a bad rap in today's Christian world. I fear that the idea is that the pastors are being "too hard" on men by preaching disproportionately about p---. To be honest, my greater concern about a pastor preaching about p--- is that I think children of all ages should be welcome in the church service, and I wouldn't want to have to explain to my little child what Pastor Smith was talking about this morning. But I'm entirely unsympathetic to the idea that pastors should preach less about p--- because that's "taking it out on" the men in the congregation. If either men or women are hurting and degrading themselves and their marriages (present marriages or future marriages) in this fashion, they need to be told not only that it is sin but that it is dark, dangerous, and harmful. There is no need for some sort of "affirmative action" in preaching topics so that no one group feels "preached at" more than any other. And if a pastor thinks his members are involved in this, he is showing right perspective if he recognizes the urgency of trying to stop it.

What is so bad about unifying your worldview and your self-selected groups?

I was recently conversing with a young woman who is now Catholic but was raised fundamentalist Baptist. It sounds like her fundamentalist Baptist upbringing was even more strict than mine, so I don't want to lean too heavily on the fact that my experience has been different than hers. What I do want to talk about a little is this: She repeatedly said, as if this were definitely a bad thing, that the church groups of her youth were "white, middle-class, and Republican" and that they made one feel that this entire worldview, including economic ideas, was bound up with their Christianity. When pressed, she came down rather heavily on the alleged badness of uniting "right-wing" economic views with Christianity.

Had I been quicker on the uptake (I was too busy trying to think about how to give some pushback while remaining tactful) I would have pointed out that bishops of her own Church repeatedly tie up economics and immigration, neither of which are actually doctrinally essential, with Christianity. Indeed, it is considered to be something of the glory of Catholicism that it has economic views and economic encyclicals, some of which are a bit of an embarrassment to any free-market economists who also happen to be Catholic. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Is it really a baaaad exclusionary tendency for "Bob Jones Baptists" to think of free-market economics, with a strong emphasis on human fallenness, human responsibility, and the dangers of centralized government as, in some sense or other, part of their Christian worldview but inclusive, loving, and not at all an overreach or "tying the gospel up with politics" for the Pope and bishops to think of anti-market economics and "immigration reform" as part of their Christian worldview?

But more: Any particular church or parish is going to be to no small extent a self-selected group, because there are always other places for people to go. It is perfectly normal human behavior to want to be able to talk about a variety of issues with one's friends at church, and it is perfectly normal human sociology for a tightly knit church to come to be to some degree homogenous across a variety of ideological issues. This is no doubt just as true of left-leaning local churches as of right-leaning local churches, especially when they are not "megachurches" and therefore actually have some sort of definite cohesion. Just how comfortable is a "white, middle-class Republican" going to feel in some of the evangelical churches presently catering to hipsters and seekers? How about at a Catholic church where the priest's sermons are often left-leaning in character?

It's important to remember too that to some degree the natural gravitation of like toward like is bound up with the idea that local churches should provide a sense of community. Perhaps one will get more diversity both of ideological and of sociological background if one's church is merely a place for the weekly meeting (e.g. the Mass) itself and is in no sense a larger community. If people scarcely know one another a church's de facto membership may be more diverse, but is that really what we want? Is it something we have a right to demand in the name of encouraging diversity?

Let me make it clear at this point that I actually do see both a tension in the church's goals, whether Protestant or Catholic, and also a distinctive way in which Catholicism is likely to be more diverse. As to the first of these, all churches are indeed trying to evangelize the lost. That evangelistic goal is going to have to mean a willingness to be friendly and welcoming towards those who come to one's church who don't fit in a purely social sense with those who are already there. It may well even mean explicit outreaches to all manner of people. Let me add here that one of the fundamentalist Baptist churches of my own upbringing has a regular outreach to the gospel mission and is by no means exclusionary of those "not like us" who show up at church. It is one of the most diverse churches I know, in economic, social, and racial terms.

As regards Catholicism, the emphasis on the Sacraments is in some ways orthogonal to the emphasis on community. Community is good, but if one is a real sacramentalist one goes to church in no small part to get the Sacraments, not to get together with other members of a club. I suspect that the "here comes everybody" character of Catholicism, of which many Catholics are rather proud, arises from the Sacraments. And that is not a bad thing.

Still, Catholics need community as well. I hear my traditionalist Catholic friends on the Internet talking about this all the time. Especially now, social conservatives are pretty lonely, and if your church (Catholic or Protestant) can be a community to encourage you rather than a place where you have to grit your teeth through left-wing platitudes in the sermon, so much the better.

So color me unimpressed with the complaint that the church of one's upbringing was too full of white, middle-class Republicans who were most comfortable with others like themselves. White, middle-class Republicans need Jesus too, and if they form church groups that look like themselves, they shouldn't be blamed any more than any other identifiable social group that forms church groups that look like themselves. Yes, as Christians we always have the tension created by the Great Commission, and we need to be aware of that. But if the upshot is still that a given church is mostly full of white, middle-class Republicans, it is not clear to me that this is per se cause for scorn or criticism. Yep, even if most of them believe in the free market.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

The Drama of Divine Logic: "O What a Savior" and the Four Daughters of God

Ernie Haase's signature song is "O, What a Savior," below.

One line that bothers some theological purists is "But they searched through heaven, and they found a Savior to save a poor, lost soul like me." They searched? But the Incarnation and death of Jesus were part of God's plan from all eternity past. Whaddaya mean, they searched through heaven?

I'm glad to be able to cast a little historical light on the pedigree of the search through heaven. A trope in Medieval morality plays was a scene now known as "The Debate of the Four Daughters of God," derived from Bernard of Clairvaux. The four daughters of God are Truth, Justice, Mercy, and Peace. (See Psalm 85:10, "Mercy and truth are met together. Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.") After Adam and Eve sin, the four daughters have a falling out, with some saying that man should be simply punished and others saying that he should be given mercy. To reconcile the four daughters, God decrees the Incarnation and death of the Son. In a version which occurs in a mystery cycle known as the N-town plays or Coventry Cycle (circa 1450-1500), we find that "The Daughters put their unresolved problem to God the Son and he orders a search in heaven and earth for one who will die for Man. When this fails the Son accepts the role himself as [G]od and man concurrently."

An ancient pedigree indeed for the lyrics to a Southern gospel song, and one not lightly to be tossed away.

But still, it may be replied, ancient or not, it's all rubbish. Nobody had to search for the Son. God was never in any doubt about what He would do. This is all just an allegory, even if it was originally a medieval allegory.

Indeed. But an allegory for what?

God of His free choice decided to redeem man. Had it not been for that choice of God, mankind would have been lost. The search through heaven dramatizes that yawning chasm between what is and what might have been, that irrepressible drama of Divine freedom and human lostness. By stretching it out in the allegorical form of a search, we see just what it meant: The Son, willing but one will with the Father, eternally says "yes" to Incarnation, to suffering, to death. Without that...a blank. Dismay, disappointment, and death. A failed search, if you will. The eternal will of God has a strict internal logic, and bound up in that logic are all the "what ifs," all the drama of both Divine and human freedom. Enough drama to fill a few human allegorical plays, easily.

They searched through heaven, and they found a Savior, to save a poor, lost soul like me.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Testing God

We have it on high authority that we should not tempt (aka test) God. (Matthew 4:7)

It might seem that this means that we shouldn't seek evidence for the existence of God or the claims of Christianity, but any of my long-time or even short-time readers will know that that is the last use I would make of Jesus' injunction. The Bible also tells us that God has provided much evidence. Jesus emphasized his works as evidence of his being sent from the Father.

But there is a certain model of evidence that depends upon experiment and repeatability. In fact, some people have no other model for hard evidence, so when they think of "evidence for God," they immediately look around for some kind of test they can do to find out whether God is really there. The prosperity hacks and the verses they rip out of the context of the Bible as a whole and present as "divine promises" provide plenty of fodder for this. God promises, they say, to "pour down blessings" on those who give, so therefore, if you give, God will make you rich. Then, of course, we find out that plenty of such people don't get rich, so there y'go! God failed the test, the experimentum crucis has been done and has yielded a negative result. Christianity has been falsified!

This entire model of evidence for Christianity is flat wrong. God is not a physical law nor a physical process but a personal being. He gives evidence of his existence through many avenues, the most dramatic of which are miracles. Miracles are mighty acts of power that occur at a particular time and place and are thereafter available to historical inquiry. This does not make them subjective; it doesn't mean that they can be known only "by the eyes of faith." But it does mean that they are not something you can repeat in your back yard as a test.

All of this is related to some questions that I was recently asked about a couple of posts at an atheist site. The posts urged Christians to test God by praying sincerely for good things and then seeing how the alleged "promises" in the Bible of answered prayer are falsified. I'm reluctant to link the atheist site, because quite frankly, I think it's a mistake for Christians to get involved in lengthy, public, on-line debates with Internet atheists. Sincere inquirers are one thing, but even then it is better to communicate with them privately than in the form of a kind of gladiatorial contest surrounded by an often trollish and un-serious audience. At the same time, I'm afraid that, "God didn't answer my prayer" has probably led more than one soul to damnation. (I know of one case among my own acquaintances in which I later learned that the person excused his deconversion in this way.) So it is probably worth looking at some of these questions and at the verses that prompt them. I beg the reader's indulgence for some absence of organization in what follows, as it is a somewhat edited version of what was originally a personal e-mail.

Notice how [our atheist blogger] lumps things together. He lumps the fact that Jesus did miracles or that Paul was not killed when bitten by a snake together with verses that appear to promise answers to prayer and treats all of these as though they are part of some “Christians will have success” pattern of biblical promises. But this is ridiculous. Jesus was God! The apostles were showing signs and wonders as part of kicking off Christianity. It simply isn't true that the fact that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead means that all of us are supposed to be able to raise people from the dead.

Inconsistently, he also faults Christians for taking seriously all those places where the New Testament, especially, tells us to expect earthly troubles and persecution. He argues that this makes Jesus' promise never to leave us meaningless. But why so? If Jesus' promise never to leave us is a spiritual promise of His presence through our trials, a promise of spiritual strengthening, and a promise of carrying our souls through to everlasting life, how does the existence of those earthly trials make that promise meaningless? On the contrary, the expectation of trouble and persecution is far more deeply woven into the warp and woof of Christian theology than the relatively far fewer passages that appear in isolation to promise an earthly answer to prayer. That very fact should cause us to think twice (on the principle of comparing Scripture with Scripture) about taking those passages to be promises of earthly success. But the atheist wants to have it both ways. He wants to chide Christians for taking Jesus' promise of being with them spiritually through unpleasant trials as though that makes Jesus' promise meaningless, and he wants to fault some of them (Pentecostal snake handlers and prosperity preachers) for believing that Christianity promises earthly success. It's heads he wins, tales we lose. Christians are just wrong whether they look at the whole sweep of New Testament teaching and don't expect earthly success as a promise or whether they look at isolated passages and do expect earthly success as a promise.

Here follows a short digression on the long ending of Mark, in which we find Jesus predicting that Christians (or his apostles) will be able to pick up serpents and drink deadly poison without harm: This ending is considered not to have been part of the original manuscript of Mark entirely for textual reasons. The oldest manuscripts do not have this ending, and it appears that the original ending of Mark was lost. It happens to be the case that this obviates the need to deal with the “snake handling” verse, but that is not why the ending is rejected. Certainly the gospel would end very abruptly without the long ending, but that is a reason for believing that the original ending has been lost, not for insisting that the added ending is authentic. Note that this does not in any way call into question the genuineness of post-resurrection accounts in the other four gospels, even though treating the long ending of Mark as inauthentic involves cutting out the post-resurrection account in Mark itself. Whether or not Mark is in fact the oldest gospel (patristic evidence is that some version of Matthew was the oldest), we have no reason to accept the shallow, higher-critical evolutionary view that only what is in the oldest gospel is true and that everything else evolved in a legendary fashion from there. *All* of the gospels, including very strongly the *latest* gospel, John, show clear internal signs of eyewitness testimony and also of having an important degree of independence in their accounts. Nothing heavy rides on whether we have an authentic ending to Mark including a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus.

Now, back to the “promises” criticism: Any attempt to press Christians into adopting a prosperity gospel is monumentally unconvincing. One verse used for this purpose is 2 Cor. 9:6ff, in which the Apostle Paul urges the Christians to give generously to a collection he was gathering for the Christians at Jerusalem. Paul says that he who “sows generously” will also “reap generously.” These words have a strongly proverbial ring and are pretty clearly an allusion to a proverb. In fact, they sound much like Proverbs 11:24-25. Now, Proverbs are notoriously overstated, just because they are proverbs. Think of the English proverb, “What goes around comes around.” We can all think of counterexamples to this. Nobody takes it as an exceptionless truth. Nonetheless, we've seen enough examples to think it worth embodying in a proverb. A stitch in time doesn't always save nine, etc. Proverbs 11:24-25 is not giving some kind of divine promise but rather worldly wisdom. It is warning against stinginess and pointing out that sometimes being stingy causes you to end up literally poorer than you were before. (There's a whole Victorian novel in that picture right there!) Paul is citing this proverbial wisdom as part of urging the Corinthians to give, but for that very reason he should not be taken to be making a revealed promise of wealth as a result of giving. Moreover, below in the same passage, vs. 11, when Paul uses the phrase “enriched in everything...” he seems to be echoing I Corinthians 1:5 which says that the Corinthians are “enriched in everything” by God and clearly refers to spiritual gifts.

Once we clear away the fog, what we are left with is not a consistent pattern of actual divine promises of prosperity or of positive answers to prayer. What we find rather is a handful of verses that, taken in isolation, appear to be sweeping promises of answers to any prayers or at least to any serious and good prayers. There is, however, so much in Jesus' own teaching and in the apostles' teaching and practice that stands in opposition to the “promise of success” interpretation that that sweeping interpretation seems ruled out. The same Jesus who said, “Ask and ye shall receive,” “You shall do greater works than these,” and “Anything you ask, believing, you shall receive,” also said, “In this world you will have trouble,” “They will cast you out of the synagogue and kill you,” “Happy are you, when men persecute you,” and “Take up your cross and follow me.” If the “ask and receive” verses were really supposed to mean that we could ask for anything, or even anything serious and good, and receive it, then all the prophecies of persecution, all the calls to come and die with Jesus, would be meaningless. For it is in an obvious sense a serious and good thing, not a frivolous or wicked thing, to ask that God would rescue a Christian in danger of death or being persecuted for his faith or that God would heal the sick. And again, since the themes of suffering for Christ and growing through suffering are absolutely pervasive in Christianity, to the point of being of the essence of the Christian commitment, the handful of “ask and you shall receive” verses ought to be interpreted in a way that is consistent with these overwhelming and pervasive themes.

The same point applies to the book of James. It is James who says that “the prayer of faith will heal the sick,” but at the beginning of the book James says, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.” It seems clear that illness is an example of a trial that could be used by God to produce patience, which leads one to conclude that James didn't really think that all sick Christians would be healed by prayer.

Or again: The Apostle Paul did sometimes heal sick people miraculously, but in Philippians 2:27, Paul talks about the sickness of his friend and fellow-worker, Epaphroditus. He says that Epaphroditus was near to death but was healed and that God “had mercy on” Paul because of the sorrow Paul would have had if Epaphroditus had died. Paley says in the Horae Paulinae, and I agree with him, that the whole tenor of the passage implies that Epaphroditus was healed by secondary causes–that is to say, that he got better naturally. Otherwise, Paul presumably wouldn't have let him get so close to death before miraculously healing him. Apparently Paul's ability to heal by miracle was not a “sure thing,” nor does Paul say that the elders of the nearest church prayed over Epaphroditus, and, voila, he was immediately healed. His sickness was serious, it was a near thing, he almost died, but eventually got better. We can assume that Paul did pray for him, and in that sense Paul's prayers were answered, but evidently not in any dramatic or obviously miraculous fashion. Again, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:7 that he himself had some sort of physical ailment, prayed for healing, and did not receive it.

And let us not forget that Our Lord Himself, the perfect petitioner, asked in the garden that the cup might pass from Him, but then added, “Nevertheless, thy will be done,” and of course did not receive His own petition.

So Christian teaching and practice seems to indicate that we should not expect any good prayer to be answered, nor should we expect to be able to engage willy-nilly in “faith healing.” We as Christians are responsible to take all of this Scriptural data into account, not to grab a few verses, take them at their most literal, and then insist on “holding God to” those as promises.

What, then, is the meaning of the problem passages? First, let me list what I right now (of course, I might be forgetting a couple) consider to be the remaining prima facie difficult verses.

Matthew 21:21-22, which includes “All things, whatsoever you shall ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive.” The parallel passage in Mark (11:24) says, “believe that you receive, and you shall have them.”

John 14:12-13, which includes the promise that “he that believeth on me” will do “the works” that Jesus has done–“the works” being a phrase which refers clearly to miracles in vs. 11. In vs. 13 we have, “Whatsoever you shall ask in my name, that will I do...”

Matthew 18:19 “If two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.”

James 5:14-15, apparently promising that “the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up...”

I think a number of options are open to us, and we shouldn't be dogmatic. C.S. Lewis discusses this in Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly On Prayer, on pp. 59-61. There he conjectures that the apparent promises of receiving whatever one asks in faith may be intended to apply to people who are, or at least are at that time, in a special state such that they have special insight into what God intends to do and therefore ask for it.  In the Protestant tradition we hear stories about a man named George Mueller who ran an orphanage and may have been one of these people. (Of course, we don't hear of any cases where Mueller prayed and didn't get what he asked for, so we may have a case of cherry picking.) The stories are rather striking and always show Mueller as calmly confident in the result and then some event, natural in itself but a remarkable coincidence, which brings about the result. So perhaps Lewis's conjecture is correct, in which case most of us should just keep following the “thy will be done” model, which was good enough for Jesus Christ Himself at one point in His life.

There are other options for specific passages. For example, the James passage specifically says that the sick person should confess his sins and that, if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven. Paul in I Corinthians 11 says that many were sick and some had actually died among the Corinthians because of their disrespect for the Holy Communion. Perhaps James had in mind situations where the sickness was a punishment for sin. That shouldn't be taken to mean that all sickness is a punishment for sin; far from it. Merely that this might have been the sort of situation James was thinking of when he says that the prayer of faith would save the sick person and that the Lord would heal him.

John 14, where Jesus says that those who believe in him will do “greater” works, immediately says that this is “because I go unto my Father.” He strongly emphasizes the coming of the Holy Ghost, which he said could not happen until after the Ascension (going to his Father). He may therefore be referring both to the special gifts (such as the miraculous gift of speaking in tongues) given to the disciples as a sign and special aid from the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and also to their (in one sense) miraculous success in spreading the Gospel with the power of the Holy Spirit.

Matthew 18:19, which Lewis lists in an essay in Christian Reflections as particularly problematic, comes (at least in the discourse as we have it) immediately after the promise of the power of binding and loosing committed to the disciples in vs. 18. “Whatsoever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This verse apparently alluded to a Jewish tradition that the “right” rabbinical rulings concerning the keeping of Judaic law had special status with God, so that those rulings were ratified in heaven. Here Jesus appears to be giving that sort of power as his “council of rabbis” to make rulings to his Apostles, a power that they have to exercise later, in Acts, when questions arise about whether the Gentiles have to keep the Jewish law. Verse 19 which says that “if any two” agree it will be “done for them” by the Father may be a reiteration, specifically to the Apostles, of their special authority.

You can take or leave any of these interpretations as you find them more or less plausible. The more important take-home lesson is how few of them there are and the necessity, in the light of a much larger biblical consensus suggesting the good of suffering, of not interpreting them as a blank check from God promising earthly answers to prayer for any Christians who asks with confidence and sincerity.

Let us by all means look for the truth and follow the evidence. But let us not create “crucial tests” for Christianity where they do not exist. We have to take our evidence as it comes and give it its due weight, not manufacture an artificial set of requirements that embody the form in which we would prefer to receive evidence. If one is locked into a test-tube model of evidence, even empirical evidence, one will miss much that is genuinely and objectively evidential in nature while simultaneously thinking that Christianity has somehow "failed." That such a mistake could have eternal consequences is a good reason for being careful not to fall into it.