Friday, June 09, 2023

PJ Media, Dan Philips, Team Pyro, and Google

 Errr, just thought I would link this story here on my Blogger Blog.

Oh, heck, here, while we're at it, here's Dan Philips' letter:

Dear CBC parents, 

We all wish we could shelter our children from the harmful and corrupt elements of our God-hating culture. Apart from living under a rock, this is becoming increasingly impossible. The homosexual-and-much-more agenda has increasingly intruded itself into every area of American life, from the media to sports to department stores to fast food restaurants and coffee shops.

I am writing to try to help you talk to your children. I’ll write it as one side of a conversation. Use any part that helps you address matters that arise in your children’s world.

You asked me what “gay” and “homosexual” and “trans” means, and why you suddenly see the word “Pride” everywhere. I’m glad you asked me! Let me try to explain it to you.

We’ve read Genesis together. You know that God created the world as a perfect, wondrous place. And you know in Genesis 1 He created Adam and Eve without sin, or any of the awful things sin does when it gets inside someone. Adam and Eve loved God and were happy with themselves, with each other, and with their world.

But then Satan came along in Genesis 3, and he got them to be dissatisfied with what God gave them. He tried to make God look like He didn’t care, and like He didn’t really want what was best for Adam and Eve. Satan tried to convince them that they knew better than God what was right and good, and what was best for them. Now you know, that is pride. Pride blows us up like balloons — all big and impressive looking, but with nothing but air inside. So in their pride, Adam and Eve rebelled against God.

When they did, they died inside. The happiness and wholeness they had were gone. They weren’t happy with themselves, or each other, or their world — or God. So they had to find ways to try to make themselves feel happy, and to hide the guilt they had inside. They felt guilty, because they were guilty. They had sinned against God, their Maker.

All those words you asked me about come out of this. They are all about people dead and broken by sin, still trying to find happiness by defiantly shaking their fist in God’s face and pretending they’re smarter than God.

You remember that God made Adam and Eve, a man and a woman. That’s what sex means — it means being a man, or being a woman. People say “gender” today, but gender is really a grammar-term, about words, not people. “Sex” is the better word here. How many sexes did God make? That’s right: two. And when God saw it wasn’t good for the man Adam to be alone, what did God make for him, in Genesis 2? That’s right, a woman, named Eve. So God invented marriage, when a man wants to be with a woman in a special way, and a woman wants to be with a man — only the two of them, with each other.

But all of us children of Adam are sinners, and sin ruins all our good desires and feelings that God gave us. Sin makes us want what we shouldn’t want, and it makes us not want what we should want.

So some poor sad men don’t want to have a woman as their wife. They want another man. And some poor sad women don’t want a man, they want another woman. They are ashamed to want these things, they feel guilty. When we feel guilty, we can only do one of two things. We can go to God, confessing our sins and finding His forgiveness and help. Or we can pretend that we’re okay, and just keep holding to our sin. When people want to pretend these broken, wrong desires are okay, they call it being “gay,” pretending to be truly happy. But they don’t have peace with God, and they won’t be happy when God’s patience comes to an end and He judges them.

And then there are other people so broken by sin that they aren’t willing to be what God made them. God made them a man or a woman — remember, He only made two sexes — but they want to pretend to be something else. Men want to pretend to be women, and women want to pretend to be men. Of course, we are what God made us, and no one can really become the opposite sex. They may try very hard, and even hurt themselves, but it just can’t be done. Still, sometimes we keep pretending, even though it really harms and shames us to do so. And when men or women pretend to be the opposite sex, they call it being “trans.”

So they took the whole month of June to pretend together that all these wrong and harmful things are good, and they call June “Pride” month. Like the Bible says, their “glory is in their shame” (Philippians 3:19).

But things are what God calls them, aren’t they? Not what we call them. So men are always just men, women are always just women, and we can only really marry someone of the opposite sex from us. A man marries a woman, a woman marries a man. Anything else can never really be marriage.

Isn’t it sad to think about people so badly wanting things that are bad for them? Isn’t it awful that what people think will be good for them is really bad for them? But that’s what sin does. It does that to all of us! It’s why children want to disobey their parents. It’s why parents sometimes fight each other, or don’t do such a great job being parents. Sin is behind everything bad that we do or feel.

But remember, God so loved sinful men and women that He sent Jesus to save sinners. Jesus can save any sinner! There is no sin too big for Jesus. He shed His blood so that His people could be forgiven and freed from every last sin of every size! When we turn from our sin and believe in Jesus, we can know that all our sins are forgiven. Isn’t that just the most wonderful news there is?

Even more, Jesus died so that His people could be given new hearts, and so that God’s Holy Spirit could live in our hearts. So God removes our old heart that wanted awful and bad things and hated God, and He gives us a new heart. That new heart wants to love God, and believe Him, and walk in His ways. So all of us, whatever our sins were, can be made new people, children of God, learning to love what God loves and hate what God hates.

So we don’t hate people who want bad things. We would be exactly the same if it weren’t for Jesus. We love people who don’t know Jesus, we pray for them, we want to help them, we want to tell them about Jesus. And when they believe, we accept them and love them and help them to learn to walk with Jesus, just like we’re doing.

Thank you for asking me. Always feel free to ask me any questions you have!

I pray this is helpful to you.

Pastor Dan

Saturday, September 10, 2022

A maximalist use of the conversion of Paul

It's well-known that I'm highly critical of the Minimal Facts Argument for Jesus' resurrection. I consider it quite weak and therefore vastly oversold, due to its insistence on relying only on facts that are granted by a wide and diverse scholarly consensus. I've discussed this often and am preparing even as I write these words for a livestream in response to an alleged response from Drs. Habermas and Licona. Unfortunately, their "response" video was strikingly non-responsive. Indeed, it was pretty clear that neither of them understood the criticisms I've leveled, and it was unclear whether they were even familiar with those concerns.

The minimalist approach, whether in its MFA incarnation or in other versions, tends to rely heavily on the Apostle Paul as an alternative to relying on the Gospel accounts. The "creed" in I Corinthians 15 is especially prominent in all minimalist-type arguments. And when arguing for the bodily resurrection, it is quite common for minimalists to emphasize strongly that Paul had a bodily concept of the resurrection and that he stated that he and the Jerusalem apostles were preaching the same message. Hence, the reasoning goes, in all probability the Jerusalem apostles were preaching a bodily resurrection.

This may be a legitimate inference as far as it goes, but the problem is that it doesn't go very far. People believe all kinds of things, and the mere fact that the Jerusalem apostles and Paul believed that Jesus was raised bodily and had appeared to them bodily doesn't tell us whether they were reasonable to think so. Without further information as to the details of their claims, it is deeply unclear whether they jumped to conclusions, or, to put it in a more jargony form, interpreted some sort of (insufficient) experiences in the light of their theological expectations. (Compare the fact that you wouldn't be very impressed even if you were 100% sure that twelve people sincerely believed that they had conversations with aliens, in the absence of further details about why they believed this.)

On the other hand, in Tim's and my article on Jesus' resurrection published in 2009, we did give the conversion of Paul independent force for the resurrection of Jesus, by which we meant the bodily resurrection. In fact, we gave it a hefty-ish Bayes factor of 103. While I would note that even that Bayes factor needs to be part of a more robust cumulative case in order to overcome even a modestly low prior probability (in other words, impressive as it sounds, that Bayes factor all by itself isn't going to support strong, justified confidence in a miracle), and while I admit to some ambivalence now as to whether that factor may have been overly optimistic, it is still worth revisiting the conversion of Paul to ask this: Do I still grant the conversion of Paul any significant independent force in favor of the bodily resurrection of Jesus? And if so, how does this differ from the minimalist reliance on Paul?

The issue of independence is at the heart of my critique of the minimalist use of Paul in favor of Jesus' bodily resurrection. As I've discussed, by using Paul's conversion and concept of resurrection to support the idea that "the disciples believed" that Jesus was physically risen, the minimalist runs into the problem that I've called the bottleneck issue. Briefly, if the probability that Jesus was risen bodily given only that the disciples believed that he was, based on some unspecified experiences, is not very high (or, to put it a little differently, if their mere belief based on largely unspecified experiences provides only a weak Bayes factor in favor of the truth of their belief), then merely piling on more and more evidence that they had this belief cannot possibly rectify the problem, since it provides no independent evidence for the truth of the belief. My criticism has already assumed that we are "given" that they had that belief. I'm arguing that even if we are "given" it, it doesn't provide much evidence (when details of their reasons and experiences are excluded) for the truth. If we're "given" it, we're given it at probability 1, so making its probability approach 1 more and more can't help us to get beyond the criticism. Hence the minimalist use of Paul to support the proposition, "The disciples believed that Jesus was risen bodily from the dead" provides no independent evidence for the truth of their belief aside from that proposition itself.

A maximalist approach, however, does allow us to make use of Paul's conversion in a different way that doesn't run into this bottleneck problem. The maximalist is prepared to argue for the reliability of the book of Acts. This provides a great many advantages, including access to the serious risks that provided the context in which the disciples made their proclamation and, in the early chapters of Acts, direct evidence that they were preaching the bodily resurrection of Jesus from early on, with no need to infer this indirectly from Paul's letters and his relationship to the Jerusalem apostles as attested in his letters.

Even more importantly, the defense of the reliability of Acts and of the proposition that it comes from a companion of Paul who didn't mess around with the facts means that we can argue with confidence that Paul claimed what we find in the conversion accounts in Acts 9, 22, and 26. These include several very salient points relevant to the evidential force in favor of Jesus' bodily resurrection. Among others, 1) Paul was wide awake, walking down a road at about midday, when the conversion experience abruptly happened. So this couldn't have been a dream. (Contrast any sort of visionary experience stories that begin, "I was reading my Bible alone in my study..." where the person might have dozed off.) 2) Paul was with other people, who presumably could attest to his abrupt, completely unexpected, odd behavior. 3) These other people allegedly saw the light and would have been able to attest that Paul had to be led afterwards because he was temporarily blind. (In the interests of time and space, I'm not going into detail on the question of what they heard. I take the view that they heard a voice but that it was a voice-like sound to them without comprehensible words. This would be another intersubjective element, but I'm not giving it much weight here because of the alleged contradiction concerning it.) 4) Very important: Paul claimed that Jesus not only identified himself but also explicitly endorsed the teaching of the very sect Paul was persecuting by saying, "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting." This gives content to Paul's experience which, combined with our independent evidence (e.g., from the Gospels and from the early chapters of Acts) that the Christian sect Paul was persecuting taught that Jesus rose bodily, serves as independent evidence for that content, since the best explanation of Paul's conversion and of his account of what occasioned it is that his experience was veridical. 

The point is a little subtle, but I hope that it is clear. Paul's conversion provides independent, significant evidence for Jesus' bodily resurrection only insofar as it does something more and quite different from providing evidence that the disciples and Paul believed that Jesus was physically risen. In a maximalist use of Paul, we take it that, via the reliability of the Gospels and Acts, we have more than enough evidence already that they were teaching that Jesus was physically risen. Then we take it that the detailed accounts in Acts of the circumstances and content of Paul's abrupt conversion really come from Paul. They weren't embellished by the author of Acts. Then we argue that it is quite difficult to explain this abrupt conversion with these detailed aspects on the basis of a non-veridical category (that is, some category according to which Paul was mistaken and did not actually have communication with Jesus). But if Jesus himself said, in a supernatural communication with Paul, that he was to be identified with the group that was preaching that he was physically risen, then this is evidence that he was, indeed, physically risen.

Now whether this gives us an independent Bayes factor as high as 10or not, my point here is that it avoids the bottleneck issue, because it isn't just piling on more and more evidence for what the disciples thought, when a very salient question at issue (in the absence of details of their experiences) is whether they were rational to think that. Moreover, if (given the reliability of Acts) the accounts in Acts really do tell us what Paul claimed, then we understand further why Paul himself was rational in thinking that he had a supernatural communication from Jesus on the road to Damascus. His conviction is quite understandable given the details of the experience.

In contrast, the minimalist approach even to Paul's conversion is extremely tentative, a point that is especially notable given the great importance of Paul to the minimalist approach itself. In The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, Michael Licona is quite explicit that he treats the conversion accounts in Acts merely as "possible" sources concerning the nature of Paul's conversion, sources of "limited historical value," and that the reason for this is because there is no scholarly consensus concerning how much liberty Luke felt free to take in writing Acts (pp. 382, 394). (Licona is surely right about this absence of scholarly consensus. Bart Ehrman, for example, absolutely insists that we evaluate Paul's conversion based only on the epistles, and only on a subset of those, and must exclude the accounts in Acts as likely elaborated by the author. Ehrman then, with unintentional humor, complains about the maddening, frustrating limitation of our information about such a historically important event as Paul's conversion!) 

As I have pointed out before, the presence of a large and diverse scholarly consensus, whatever minimalists at times say to the contrary notwithstanding, is undeniably given epistemological weight in their methodology. They treat it as a limiting factor and a necessary condition for our being historically highly confident (confident "as historians") about specific propositions.

Cutting oneself off from the details of the Pauline conversion claims found in Acts cuts one off from the very factors that give significant, independent epistemic force to Paul's conversion. At that point we no longer know what exactly Paul claimed that Jesus said to him on that occasion and how clearly it endorsed what the apostles were already preaching. We don't know whether Paul was alone or with others when it happened, whether there was anything intersubjective about his experience, or whether he could possibly have been asleep at the time. We don't know (without Acts) whether his experience at the time of his conversion had (even to him) clear verbal content as opposed to feelings or impressions.

Another contrast between the maximalist case and the minimalist use of Paul's conversion is worth mentioning: On Paul's own account, unlike the disciples, he had no opportunity to touch Jesus. He wasn't invited to do so. He did not see Jesus eat or have a long conversation with him over a meal, and others were not aware of the various modalities of Jesus' presence in the same way that he was. For example, the others on the road didn't see Jesus. (Unlike in the Gospel accounts, where an entire group is conversing with Jesus at once.) I have found that it is very unpopular for me to say that in very notable respects, Paul's experience was more vision-like (though arguably objective) than the reported experiences in the Gospels. I have received a lot of pushback on this from some fellow believers, but I think it's important. The argument that Paul's experience was veridical and that it confirms Jesus' bodily resurrection is thus different in kind from the argument that the disciples really had bodily experiences of a bodily risen Jesus. Say what you will, Jesus did not seem even to Paul to be standing right there in the dust of the Damascus Road along with everybody else, plainly visible to everyone, plainly tangible, etc. And there is a reason for that: Jesus had, according to Acts, already ascended into heaven. After that the Bible accounts afford no indication that he ever walked around in his body on earth again, and indeed the biblical accounts would lead us to think that he didn't do so (Acts 1:11) and won't do so until his eschatological return. So he probably didn't do so with Paul. 

In contrast, the minimalist approach elides this distinction by referring to Paul as "an eyewitness" of the resurrection and treating him as being like the disciples in this respect, without qualification. This elision is a gift to the skeptic, or to someone like Dale Allison who thinks that the disciples had only visionary-type experiences of the risen Jesus. Evidentially, it is important to emphasize the differences between Paul's experience and the disciples' experiences. They were rational in believing that Jesus was physically risen because they had experiences both individually and in varying groups in which Jesus presented himself in a fully polymodal fashion, just as we present ourselves to one another in ordinary physical meetings. They had every reason to believe (given that they experienced what they reported) that anyone who walked into that room could have seen Jesus, and anyone who bumped into him could have touched him, just as with any other physically present person. 

Paul was rational in believing that Jesus was physically risen for a more indirect reason: He already knew the tenets of the sect he was persecuting and that (per the earlier chapters of Acts) they included the physical resurrection of this man Jesus. Paul then (according to his report, as recounted in Acts) had an experience of being struck down abruptly in the middle of the day, out of nowhere, while accompanied by others, by a light from heaven (which the others saw). He then heard a voice and saw something (perhaps Jesus as a human figure above him), and the voice explicitly stated that it was the voice of Jesus as preached by the group he was persecuting. When their brief dialogue was over and the light receded, he found that he was blind. Given the overwhelming and explicit nature of this experience, its partial intersubjectivity, and its occurrence while he was wide awake (as his companions could attest), it was quite understandable that he concluded that it was veridical and hence that Jesus really had risen from the dead, as preached by the Christians. But this was not because he personally had the opportunity to verify the nature of Jesus' body by interacting with it as the disciples did. The arguments are different. The disanalogy can and must be emphasized, while at the same time we can acknowledge that Paul's detailed claims have independent force in favor of the physical resurrection.

I hope that this has been a useful fuller explanation of how a maximalist "does" the argument from the conversion of Paul for the resurrection. 

Monday, August 22, 2022

Old post re-posted: "Does The Evidentialist Have to Endorse Apostasy?"

 Originally posted at What's Wrong With the World on December 10, 2015.

Long-time readers know that I call myself an evidentialist in Christian apologetics. (See also here and here.) This means that I think that Christian faith both should be and can be based solidly on available evidence. I'm eclectic in this regard. I think St. Thomas Aquinas was an evidentialist as well. While my own special area of interest and focus has been on historical arguments for Christianity (e.g., for the reliability of the Gospels and the occurrence of the resurrection), and while I am not convinced by all of the purely philosophical arguments for the existence of God that are sometimes proposed, I am by no means hostile or opposed to a priori, metaphysical arguments. To the extent that they work, they are evidence as well. The more the merrier.

But lurking in the background of the evidentialist position is the following consideration: Is there some sense in which a person should not believe something beyond its support by the evidence that he has? Do we say that a person should apportion the strength of his credence to the strength of the evidence?

Let me hasten to add that a "yes" answer to this does not preclude a) the possession of maximal, foundational evidence for some particular proposition which is not inferred from anything else (such as his own existence) or b) the possession of and reliance on evidence that is, strictly speaking, available only to oneself (such as one's sensory experiences).

Strictly speaking, stating that in some sense Christian faith "should" be based on evidence does not commit oneself to this more global statement about apportioning one's strength of belief to the strength of the evidence, but they go rather naturally together. In that case, one's opposition to all forms of fideism or belief beyond evidence in the area of religion is an instance of a broader principle.

It gets tricky to define the precise sense of this "should," and that is partly why I have used the phrase "in some sense." After all, not all belief is voluntary, and even irrational belief sometimes seems morally excusable if it has been deliberately encouraged by one's teachers from one's youth upwards. Not everyone thinks explicitly about whether he is believing things reasonably or unreasonably, and it doesn't seem like everyone ought to do so or is even capable of doing so. But there certainly seems to be something suboptimal about irrational belief.

Suppose that I water down the "should" here and, at least for now, defend only the following proposition:

If you are sufficiently reflective to realize that you have been holding some belief irrationally or arationally, with a strength of conviction beyond what is warranted by any evidence that you actually have, you ought to change your credence level for that belief.

This immediately raises the following disturbing consideration: Suppose that a person--call him Joe--has been raised in a fideistic form of Christianity. Suppose for the sake of the argument that Joe has been deliberately taught that he should believe in God "just because," that he should trust the Bible "just because it's the Bible," that he should not look for any further argument, and indeed that to do so is to show himself weak in faith. Suppose that Joe has been taught to rely on the fact that he thinks he can feel Jesus living in his heart, rather as Mormons are taught to rely upon the "burning in the bosom." Needless to say, Joe has been given no apologetics teaching whatsoever in his church or by his parents.

Now suppose that Joe wakes up one fine morning and says to himself, "This is ridiculous. I have no more reason to believe that Christianity is true than any adherent of any religion incompatible with Christianity has to believe his religion. I've been hanging on to my Christianity just because it is part of my individual identity and the identity of the community I am a part of. And I'm even willing to lay down my life for this set of theological beliefs! Why am I thinking this way, when I don't even know if any of this is true?"

Joe is having a crisis of faith, and he's having it after a lifetime (though perhaps a rather young lifetime) of being entirely unprepared for it. Indeed, one might say that he has been anti-prepared. When he goes to his pastor, let's suppose that he is told that he just needs to accept that the Bible is the Word of God, just needs to cling to Jesus more closely, and that his doubts come from Satan.

Not only is that unlikely, psychologically, to help Joe in this crisis, it is questionable as to whether it should help Joe in this crisis. His questions are reasonable, given the absence of any defense he has ever been given for belief in his community's holy book and theological commitments.

But what am I saying? It sounds for a moment here like I'm saying that Joe should apostasize!

Considering that I am, after all, a Christian, that I want Joe (which is to say, all the real-life people like Joe) to go to heaven, and that I seriously doubt that he's going to go to heaven if he just becomes an agnostic or an atheist and goes through the rest of his life explicitly rejecting belief in the existence of God and/or the tenets of Christianity, that would seem to be a pretty shocking position to take.

My answer, however, is no. I do not recommend that Joe apostasize, and I certainly don't say that he should do so.

The first reason for this is that Joe should consider that he may have more reason than he realizes, and upon reflection, I think he will find that he does. The fact that those in his background have taught him to disregard evidence and to believe on subjective grounds does not mean that he does not have evidence. If a man were taught from childhood that he ought to believe that his father is loving and good without evidence, it would not mean that he would have no evidence if he stopped to think about the matter.

So it is for the existence of God. Joe knows of the existence of the world around him, and probably knows at least something of its appearance of orderliness and design. He knows of the existence of his own mind. To be sure, naturalism has its own attempts to account for the existence of these things, but perhaps Joe can see (even if only dimly as yet) for himself that these are unsatisfactory. He knows of the existence of morality and the appearance of meaning in life, which gives him a reason to think, at least, that there must be more to life than atoms bumping against each other in the void. All of these considerations tend strongly against either atheism or agnosticism concerning the existence of God himself, though they certainly (as I am envisaging it) need to be refined and strengthened in Joe's understanding.

As for the more specific doctrines of Christianity and of the monotheism of Judaism on which it was founded, the existence of the books of the Bible is, at a minimum, a datum. Without considering them at the outset as holy books, one still can ask where they came from and what the best explanation is for their contents.

At this point, things become a bit delicate, for Joe's own background, as I imagine it, has taught him nothing about how to evaluate the plausibility of such works.

But here I want to bring in the second point: Joe should not apostasize even from Christianity (much less from theism), because the evidence for Christianity is available, and Joe himself can find it.

If Joe were kept locked up on an island without access to the wider world by his pastor and parents, then he might have to pray desperately to a God about whose attributes he is now (perhaps against his own will) uncertain to help him get out and find more information. And, to be clear, I believe that God does send light to those who sincerely seek it and who, God knows, will accept that light if given it. Jeremiah 29:13 applies here, I believe: "You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart." Meanwhile, even Joe-locked-on-an-island can keep reading the Bible and can, hopefully, notice for himself some of the internal evidences that give the Gospels, for example, verisimilitude.

But things are not that dire in the real world. Joe has access to books and, presumably, to the Internet. To be sure, he could just as easily wander onto a "myther" web site on the Internet as onto William Lane Craig's Reasonable Faith site or Apologetics315, but the fact remains that information is out there on questions like, "Why should I believe that the events in the Gospels took place?" and "How is the Bible different from other putatively holy books?"

Moreover, it's a pretty safe bet that, despite his fideistic upbringing, Joe has some friends or friends-of-friends who will recommend some good evidential material to him (perhaps, e.g., Lee Strobel's popular apologetics books) if he makes his doubts known, not only to his own immediate community but to the Christian community more widely.

This brings me to the importance of the inquiry. C.S. Lewis argues,

Here is a door, behind which, according to some people, the secret of the universe is waiting for you. Either that’s true, or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, then what the door really conceals is simply the greatest fraud, the most colossal “sell” on record. Isn’t it obviously the job of every man to try to find out which, and then to devote his full energies either to serving this tremendous secret or to exposing and destroying this gigantic humbug? (“Man or Rabbit?,” in God in the Dock, 111–112. HT to John DePoe for this reference.)

Since the question of whether Christianity is true or false is of such great moment, any light abandonment of the claims of Christianity, without doing due diligence, is epistemically irresponsible. The commitment to truth itself (an important part of the evidentialist position) means that we are bound to pursue truth and, indeed, that it can be a test of character for a man to be expected to make such an investigation rather than settling for a shallow and easy agnosticism.

The evidentialist is (I believe) bound to disagree with the Pascalian recommendation that one induce oneself to believe Christianity purely for reasons of utility. But it is crucially different to say that one should vigorously seek to discover whether there is good evidence for Christianity, and that one should do so because the stakes of missing out on the knowledge of God are so high. And, since I believe that there is such evidence, and that it is not hidden, a person who (like Joe) comes to have doubts upon reflection but who then engages in such a search can be rewarded with a Christian faith that is confidently based on fact.

In the end, those of us who watch struggles of faith from the other side--that is, from within Christianity--must have independent reason to have confidence in the justice of God. That is true whether or not one is an evidentialist. Indeed, if one is not, one must nonetheless account for the fact that God apparently "gives" some people a non-evidential confidence in Christianity but does not "give" this to others, since atheists and agnostics, after all, do exist. No position on evidence and apologetics offers a "get out of questions free" card concerning divine justice and salvation, since there will always be those who, it appears, never had a "real chance," whether one construes that chance in terms of receiving the best available evidence, the right upbringing, religious experiences, or firm feelings of confidence and assurance induced by the Holy Spirit.

For the evidentialist Christian, the confidence in the ultimate justice of God comes from the reasons that we do have to believe that God, who is by definition absolutely just and good, exists, loves us, and has revealed himself to us. It is, moreover, useful to see that the position does not create an actual contradiction--for example, it does not mean that a person in Joe's position both should and should not believe in God--and does not lead us to recommend apostasy to those who have been Christians and are now in the throes of mental crisis.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

The connections between "literary device" views of the Gospels and the Minimal Facts Argument for the resurrection

I’ve decided to write something clarifying exactly what connection I see between the minimal facts argument (along with other broadly minimalist types of arguments for Jesus’ resurrection) and the literary device views of the Gospels. My plan is to post this content both here and (perhaps in two parts) on Facebook. (If you read this on Facebook, please go to the blog post version to get all the links in their correct place where I say "see here.")

I’m not going to say “don’t comment” on this post, but I will say this: If you and I have already had lengthy back-and-forth arguments about this very topic elsewhere on social media, or on the value of the minimal facts argument, please don’t try to start the very same argument again on this post. I think if you and I have already done that elsewhere it will just cause frustration for both of us to start making the same arguments yet again on another thread. This seems like a fair request. 

It also seems like a fair request to ask that you read carefully before commenting, especially in disagreement. For example, if you find yourself saying, “Habermas can’t be giving epistemological weight to the consensus of scholarship, because he says the minimal facts also have to have good arguments for them,” you didn’t read carefully. That comment would be confusing treating consensus as the whole story with treating it as having some type of important, valuable, positive epistemic weight. Broadly speaking, this is the difference between its being a sufficient condition and its being a necessary condition for a particular kind of positive epistemic status. Please, I beseech you of your courtesy, take your time in reading before commenting that I'm just misunderstanding, much less misrepresenting.

An indirect epistemological connection between the MFA and literary device views

There are two types of connections between minimalist approaches, including the classic MFA, and the literary device approach to the Gospels. The first type of connection is epistemological and has to do with the matter of scholarly consensus. Having a high percentage and a broad spectrum (“across the scholarly spectrum,” or at least across the scholarly label spectrum) of consensus on a proposition is taken, not only by Dr. Licona but also by Dr. Habermas, to have positive epistemic weight. The type of positive epistemic weight that it supposed to have concerns guarding against bias

Notice here that I am not just saying that Dr. Habermas has endorsed Dr. Licona’s book on the resurrection. I’m not even just saying that he’s endorsed a particular statement in that book. I’m saying that he’s endorsed the idea that broad-spectrum consensus guards against bias as part of the minimal facts approach. He has explicitly, closely linked the MFA with the historiographical approach in Licona’s resurrection book and has explicitly endorsed the epistemological value of consensus as part of that approach. Here are several clear quotations from a detailed review essay (not just a brief endorsement) which is actually entitled “The Minimal Facts Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus: The Role of Methodology as a Crucial Component in Establishing Historicity.” (Link will be in the first comment of the FB version.) 

First, the connection between "historical bedrock" and "minimal facts." Early on, Habermas says, “The heart of Michael Licona’s astounding and excellent PhD dissertation of some 700 pages is an application of the Minimal Facts argument to several scholars and their research on the resurrection of Jesus, in order to ascertain how these authors fare against the known historical data.” Toward the end, Habermas says, “In this essay, I have attempted to provide some elucidation of the Minimal Facts approach as a methodology for studying the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. This included unpacking several of the relevant aspects, as well as interacting with Michael Licona’s lengthy and rewarding treatment of this approach.” (Emphasis added)

In other words, there is not the faintest doubt that Habermas is saying that the “historical bedrock” methodology described and applied at length in Dr. Licona's book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, is the same approach as the minimal facts argument. This is not to say that he and Licona agree on every point, but Habermas is quite clear that methodologically he regards the 2010 resurrection book as a further spelling-out of his own minimal facts approach. I note the title and these quotations in order to address a recent and very strange attempt to protect the MFA from criticisms that might be leveled against the historical bedrock approach by claiming that they are quite different things and that references to Licona’s resurrection argument methodology are off limits in any critique of the “essence” of the MFA.

Second, the special epistemological importance of consensus: Avoiding our own “horizons” (biases) is extremely important to Licona in his book, and Habermas enthusiastically echoes this concern and connects it expressly with the minimal facts method: 

In keeping with the theme of this essay, Licona’s treatment of these matters surrounding the establishing and explicating of the Minimal Facts will most occupy us here. Very early in his discussion of historiography, Licona addresses the absolutely vital matter of the scholar’s horizons (chapter 1.2.2), the glasses that everyone wears when we view the world around us, and which can color severely and restrict our conclusions. And the more central the issues at hand, the more our prejudices and other views may rear their heads. To use Licona’s very helpful example, whether or not the runner was safe at second base depends largely on whether our son is the one stealing the base or the one who tagged him (p. 38)!

Habermas further quotes a passage from Licona in which L. says that the heterogeneity of consensus is something that “we desire” because it “gives us confidence that our horizons will not lead us completely astray.” Habermas then comments: 

Licona makes an insightful comment here regarding guarding against our own horizons. We must beware of our own imported biases, as well. When discussing the Minimal Facts, I have always purposely included notes at each juncture that list representative numbers of skeptics of various stripes who still affirm the data in question. This is a significant methodological procedure that serves more than one purpose. Among others, it assures the readers that they are not being asked to accept something that only conservatives believe, or that is only recognized by those who believe in the veracity of the New Testament text, and so on. After all, this sort of widespread recognition and approval is the very thing that our stated method requires.

Notice that he refers to this search for heterogenous consensus as important for “our stated method” and says that this has the effect, among other things, of helping to guard against our own biases.

Even when Habermas comments in the article on how he himself goes back and forth on whether or not to include this or that in the minimal facts, and even when he lists "second-order" facts, such as the conversion of Jesus' brother James or the nearness in time of the disciples' proclamation of the resurrection after Jesus' death, these are evaluated and discussed in terms of consensus: How large of a consensus? How many scholars address the matter? And the like. At no point does Habermas ever so much as approach the outer edge of suggesting that it would or could be a good method for arguing for the resurrection to go all-out against scholarly consensus, to say "damn the torpedoes," and to argue for something not granted by any significant scholarly consensus as a crucial part of a resurrection argument. 

I anticipate that immediately someone will say, "That's just because it wouldn't work rhetorically." No, that is not the only reason. As the above quotations show, both Licona and Habermas regard it as important to the MFA to have some substantial and heterogenous consensus for the premises for an epistemological reason--namely, to guard against our own biases. Whether we widen our facts in the argument to include the empty tomb (which neither Habermas nor Licona chooses to do) and the conversion of James or other propositions, or whether we stick only to a more minimal set, this is evaluated in terms of a condition that there be some degree of significant scholarly consensus. For example, the empty tomb supposedly had a 75% consensus among scholars, though Habermas and Licona don't think this is enough to treat it as a minimal fact or "historical bedrock." (Even the 75% is questionable, as I argued in a recent video.) Again: Yes, I know that these facts are also supposed to have good arguments for them as another necessary condition. (Though I should add that in some discussions of historical bedrock Licona seems a little confused on whether we need independent access to those good arguments or whether we assume that strong arguments must exist simply because of the consensus. See the discussion here on "Historical Bedrock as a Category that is too loose. But waive that, since I'm sticking to what Habermas has endorsed.) There is more than one way to give epistemological weight to consensus. One way is by considering it both sufficient and necessary for some sort of positive epistemic status. Another way is by considering it sufficient but not necessary. And another way is by considering it necessary but not sufficient. Since the minimal facts premises must have a certain degree and kind of consensus, and since this is said to be important for guarding against our own biases, I conclude that for this status (well-justified by publicly available evidence, and something for which we can be highly confident that we aren't being driven by our own biases) consensus is being treated as a necessary condition, though supposedly not sufficient.

Now, what is the connection here to the literary device views about which I've written so much?

In order to reject the idea that the Gospel authors deliberately changed the facts (whether or not you call those "devices"), and in order to be confident in that judgement, you have to be very ready to go up against scholarly consensus. But more: One needs to be ready to do that not just "as a Christian" (a concept used by both Craig Keener and William Lane Craig) but as a thinking person. In other words, you likely won't have enough confidence that the Gospel authors didn't change the facts if you just say, "I reject that idea because I'm a Christian and that wouldn't fit with my view of inspiration." Rather, you should think they didn't change the facts because that's the way the evidence points. You need to be willing to say that the scholars out there who think they did do so are seeing the evidence wrong. 

More: Did someone say something about heterogenous agreement? Well, if we're just talking about labels, it is sadly the case nowadays that we have scholars who both have the "mainstream" or "skeptical" label and some who have the "evangelical" or "conservative" label who have capitulated to the idea that the Gospel authors deliberately changed the facts. I emphasize "label" because time was that endorsing such a thing would have meant by definition that you weren't an evangelical! Times change. The actual consensus can get narrower while the so-called spectrum of labels remains wide.

So the proposition, "The Gospel authors never deliberately changed the facts" is not only not granted by a heterogenous majority of NT scholars, it's denied and its contadiction is asserted by a majority of scholars, including some examples across the scholarly spectrum!

And here are you: Likely a Christian, likely a conservative Christian, maybe a devout Catholic, Baptist, or evangelical. And darn it, you may not even have a credential in the field. If you are going to disagree with this consensus, how do you know that you aren't just being driven by your biases?

Now my answer to that is robustly anti-bandwagon, anti-credentialist, and evidential. I say that you go into the arguments that are being used by the scholars who are saying these things, whatever their labels, and you find out for yourself (yes, you can tell this even if you aren't a credentialed expert) that the arguments are terrible! And you find out all the great arguments that the Gospel authors were habitually truthful.

But if you accept what Habermas and Licona see as an important epistemological value--the use of consensus to guard against your own biases--it's going to be a lot harder to take this path and a lot harder to justify doing so to yourself. A lot harder. And believe me, I've seen this time and again: There is huge credentialist and consensus-based pressure placed on those who take a supposedly "too conservative" position, which is sometimes labeled as "fundamentalism."

Now, at this point, you may say something like this: "I never knew that Habermas said that about the importance of wide and large consensus for guarding against personal bias, nor that he connected it with the minimal facts method. I disagree with him on that. I use the MFA really, really, really just as a rhetorical way of arguing for the resurrection while using only facts that my non-Christian opponent will be likely to grant because they are so widely granted. I don't buy into that idea of the need for wide consensus to guard against bias, and I don't have to in order to use the MFA in this way. I'm totally willing to go up against consensus if it's wrong." (If you say this, though, please don't try to claim that Habermas didn't say this or that he doesn't connect it with the MFA, because I've documented that clearly.)

You're right, you don't have to agree with that reason for the need for consensus in order to use the MFA. I do not say, and I've never said, that the mere use of the MFA logically requires you to adopt this epistemological view about the value/importance of consensus in NT scholarship concerning the premises of arguments, even though the originators of the method do take that view and do connect it with their method. (And as I've documented here, Dr. William Lane Craig who has a somewhat similar "core facts" approach also conflates sociology and epistemology in his statements about how we know things about Jesus and what arguments are outdated.)

The first thing I would say if you make that response is that in that case you need to move on to something even more important--namely, my argument that the MFA is a weak argument for the resurrection! It actually doesn't provide a strong argument for the resurrection, once you recognize how limited the "appearance experience" fact/premise really is. See here for more. You need to consider that very carefully. We shouldn't be making weak arguments and implying that they are strong arguments. That's not good, and it certainly is no argument for doing so to say that it "works." We aren't just salesmen. We need to have intellectual integrity.

But hey, if you're really just using the MFA because you think it's easier rhetorically, you should be willing to give that up, right? It shouldn't be too hard for you to reconsider, right? Especially since I've shown again and again that a more "maximalist" type of argument, a Paleyan argument, can be given at various lengths and levels of detail. See here and here for examples.

That brings me to another point if you insist that you, unlike Habermas and Licona, are not giving epistemological value to consensus: Do a very serious thought experiment. Try to be as honest and self-aware as possible. Ask yourself seriously what you would do if you became convinced that the MFA doesn't provide a good, strong argument for the resurrection. What would you do? Would you regroup and be willing to say, "Oh, well, in that case, the heck with consensus, I'll make the argument in a different way"? Are you even willing right now to listen carefully to the arguments that the MFA isn't very strong? Or are you shying away from that because you're so wedded to it? Because if so, just how sure are you that you're willing to damn the torpedoes and go up against consensus, that you aren't at all dependent on a feeling of epistemological security from the supposed consensus?

Or as an alternative, ask yourself: What would you do if, in your own lifetime, the consensus shifted radically so that even those minimal facts were no longer widely granted? Would you keep harking back to an artificially circumscribed earlier consensus? Would you be in denial? Or would you say, "Okay, I'll stop saying this about consensus in the present tense, and I'll make an argument without that rhetorical motif"? 

You see, I hear people all the time absolutely insist, in an almost angry way, that no, no, no this is just rhetorical. They don't even want to admit what I've documented above about what Habermas and Licona have said epistemologically about their methodology. And yet. They also don't want to pay attention to my criticisms of the strength of the argument. Sometimes it isn't even just that they don't agree with them. In many cases they don't even want to hear it! (See this post for a summary of my criticisms of the strength of the argument.) And to my mind, that casts doubt upon the "it's just rhetorical" claim in the case of that person, even though the epistemological point discussed in this section is in principle separable from the use of the argument. 

So, too, does the promotion of literary device theories without due consideration. More about that in the next section.

Sociological/psychological connections between literary device view and the MFA

People get offended when I say what I'm going to say in this section. They also mishear it. They hear it as, "Lydia is saying that if you use the MFA you don't think that the Gospels are historically reliable, just because you're not using that in the argument for the resurrection." I'm not saying that. Nothing in this section is saying that. The point I'm making here is more nuanced than that, so again, please read carefully.

It is undeniable that if the MFA or some other argument that doesn't rely on Gospel reliability (like William Lane Craig's "core facts" approach) were a strong argument for the resurrection, this would make the stakes for Gospel reliability comparatively lower than the stakes would be if Gospel reliability were needed to undergird the argument for the resurrection. Thus far, this is just a comparative point. All else being equal, if we need Gospel reliability to have a strong argument for the central miracle of Christianity, the stakes for Gospel reliability are higher than they are if we don't need that for that argument. But in principle the stakes could still be very high, and some given person who uses the MFA could still recognize that they are very high. For example, you might think that you need a good, publicly available argument (not just the "internal witness of the Holy Spirit") for high Gospel reliability to make a good case for Jesus' teaching that he was God. (As an interesting sociological point, however, Dr. Craig doesn't think this. He uses a criteriological, passage-by-passage approach, to argue for Jesus' self-conception, and he doesn't use John 8:58 or John 10:30 in the argument.) Or you might think that you need such a publicly available argument for Gospel reliability in order to have a wide variety of Jesus' teachings for a well-taught personal relationship with God.

Now, if that's your position, and if you recognize further that the notion that the Gospel authors changed facts is incompatible with high Gospel reliability, even if the changes are labeled as "devices," and if you recognize that there are strong arguments against that notion, then you might use the MFA without being susceptible to the literary device views.

There are other possibilities. Maybe you recognize that there are high stakes to Gospel reliability but you have been confused by the obfuscating statements of evangelical literary device theories into thinking that these in no way undermine Gospel reliability. The obfuscation that occurs is highly, highly unfortunate, but if you are still unaware, let me say to pique your interest that when these folks use the term "paraphrase" and soothingly tell you that they aren't saying that the Gospel authors made anything up, this is highly misleading. One view that is spoken of as "paraphrase" is that John the evangelist was, shall we say, inspired by the saying, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" to make Jesus in his own Gospel say, "I thirst," which Jesus did not historically, recognizably utter. That probably isn't what you thought was going on if you considered these views uncontroversial, am I right? Another idea is that either John invented the scene between Jesus and Mary Magdalene at the tomb, because she really met Jesus under quite different circumstances when she was running from the tomb with joy, or that Matthew deliberately made her meet Jesus in those circumstances, while knowing that she really met him alone as recorded in John. Again, this is a matter of altering facts, but that isn't what the Christian advocates of these views normally bring up (even if they believe it) when assuring fellow Christians that this is all very trivial and there is nothing for them to worry about. So, if you do recognize the high stakes of Gospel reliability, and this is all new to you, I encourage you to get hold of The Mirror or the Mask rather than passing along the ideas uncritically.

But once again, as with the problems with the cogency of the MFA, it's rather odd to find that folks who supposedly think the stakes are high for Gospel reliability often seem curiously un-curious about whether or not reliability is being undermined by the literary device views. If the stakes really are high, shouldn't you find out more before telling everybody who watches your Youtube channel (or listens to your presentations) that "Scholars like Michael Licona have found that the Gospel authors used special compositional devices and that these explain most of the apparent contradictions in the Gospels"? 

Here I think there is a major sociological/psychological effect coming from the combination of the MFA with a certain meme or saying: "If the resurrection happened, then Christianity is true, period." Hmmm. the word "period" there does tend to convey the idea that this is meant to be taken literally, though I know that some people use the saying unwarily while meaning it as hyperbole. But the more you say it, and the more you listen to some high-profile apologists, the more likely you are to mean it literally. Literally, it's false. Plenty of heretics believe that Jesus rose from the dead. Biblical unitarians, Socinians, as far as I know even Mormons. It's entirely possible logically to believe in the resurrection of Jesus and to have non-Christian doctrine.

But the constant urging from the MFA camp is, "Use this, it works. Use this, the resurrection is everything. If it's true, Christianity is true, period. We can work out all those other little details later. Use this, it will bring people to Christ." I'm sorry to say that this sort of rhetoric--the very urging one often hears from people who insist that this has no connection to anything else--encourages carelessness. It encourages intellectual laziness. It encourages putting off indefinitely that nitty-gritty examination of alleged contradictions, which are spoken of over and over and over again as unimportant, irrelevant, something we can grant for the sake of the argument. We can get to them later, always later. Somehow, though, the time never comes. The time for worrying about them or dealing with them is put off indefinitely while their importance is downplayed. How does this not give the impression that the skeptical insistence that the Gospels are full of contradictions and deliberate factual changes is no big deal and wouldn't matter much even if it were true? 

Here's another thought experiment: How many presently living, high-profile Christian leaders do you know of who both a) use the MFA regularly in public presentations and b) consciously, unashamedly, and publicly reject the fact-changing literary device views? People who combine all of these characteristics are as rare as hens' teeth. I have encountered a huge amount of behind-the-scenes stonewalling when it comes to these matters. Some don't want to hear. Some don't want to take the time. Some don't want to speak out.

For the most part, the people who have public platforms, are well-known, and make heavy use of the MFA or "core facts" approaches are the very people who don't apparently think the matter of fact-changing literary devices is important enough to be a) investigated carefully and b) publicly and unashamedly rejected after investigation. Some, like (unfortunately) William Lane Craig and Gary Habermas, have decided to endorse the literary device work of Licona, at least in general terms, though without always spelling out in detail which specific examples they endorse.

I do not think that social fact is an accident, though it's not a matter of logical entailment from the MFA. Rather, it's a matter of being so focused in one's thinking and one's ministry for so many years, on "not worrying about" skeptical claims that the Gospels are full of inventions and embellishments (ostensibly granting this just "for the sake of the argument"), in order to make an argument whose premises will be acceptable to the scholarly establishment. The strong psychological temptation is then to think that anything that one has set aside like this isn't really all that important. After all, what does it really matter if John made up "I thirst" and "It is finished"? If the resurrection happened, then Christianity is true, period! What does it really matter if John made up the sub-scene where Jesus breathes on his disciples and says, "Receive the Holy Spirit"? That doesn't change "the gist" for some meanings of "gist." ("The gist" gets broader and broader, doesn't it?) And if the resurrection happened, then Christianity is true, period! What does it really matter if Matthew created a "doublet" of two blind men healed early in Jesus' ministry, plus the two blind men healed near the end? If the resurrection happened, then Christianity is true, period! How much does it matter if the Gospel authors thought that they were licensed to make all kinds of invisible factual changes, due to the "standards of their time"? After all, if the resurrection happened, Christianity is true, period!

The MFA does tell us that we have a strong argument that the resurrection happened that would still work even if the Gospels were unreliable. That much is an undeniable part of the MFA. So, if the literary device views call in that promissory note by hypothesizing that the authors did indeed change things, perhaps we shouldn't worry too much about it.

The issue of inerrancy plays an interesting role here: The stakes if the doctrine of inerrancy is false may be different (I think they are very different) from the stakes if the Gospels are not robustly, literally, historically reliable. But in articles like this one we see these issues conflated. If you think (rightly, I would say) that we have an excellent case for Christianity even if traditional inerrancy is false, it does not follow that we have an excellent case even if literal Gospel reliability is false. The rhetoric surrounding minimalist approaches unfortunately encourages the conflation between inerrancy and robust, literal reliability, which in turn helps to convey the notion that robust reliability is a fairly low-stakes issue.

This is the sociological/psychological connection between the MFA and acceptance of the literary device views: If you think that robust, unredefined, literal Gospel reliability is a fairly low-stakes issue, you are tempted to accept too readily, without due investigation, theories that undermine it such as the view that the evangelists sometimes deliberately changed facts. And the MFA, especially taken in conjunction with the idea that if the resurrection is true, that's all that is necessary for Christianity, makes it psychologically easy to conclude that literal Gospel reliability is a fairly low-stakes issue, since it is part of the MFA to say that you can have a strong argument for the resurrection using only a small number of premises granted by a large consensus of scholars across the spectrum.

Again, I cannot repeat too often, the point in this section is not a necessary, logical connection. You can consistently be an MFA user and a fierce, intelligent defender of unredefined Gospel reliability. But I wish we saw more of those, and all the more so if they were also willing to listen to concerns about the cogency of the MFA. 

But if you're deeply invested in the kind of rhetoric and talk that constantly goes around in certain evangelical apologetic circles, you will find that enthusiastic adoption of the MFA (and even angry defense thereof) tends to go hand-in-hand with downplaying the stakes for robust Gospel reliability and also with very great openness to, if not outright advocacy of, the literary device views. And all of these positions unfortunately tend to be held with a disturbing level of closed-mindedness in which critics such as myself are constantly rebuked for daring to criticize other Christians or other Christians' arguments. "Misrepresentation" is constantly alleged even where it cannot be shown to be true, and the shallow, lazy characterizations of my own criticisms are, ironically, instances of misrepresentation! For my own part, I think it's fairly obvious that both the above epistemic issue (about consensus) and the sociological/psychological issues discussed in this section are at work, along with the sheer popularity of the MFA. Criticizing a popular position has never been popular.


So where does that leave us? Especially, where does it leave you if you've been using either the MFA or Dr. Craig's "core facts" approach and the idea of a problem with it is relatively new to you?

I would say that if that's where you're coming from, you should dive into other things I've produced on this, especially on the "appearance experience" claim. Consider that what is granted by a huge majority of scholars across the spectrum is not that the disciples had experiences of the kind described in the Gospels but merely that they had experiences of some kind. These could have been vague or ghostly. They could have been vision-like. They needn't have had physical aspects involving touch, or eating, or lengthy conversations. They could have even had experiences that were evidence that they were not seeing a physically risen person--for example, if Jesus appeared transparent. Perhaps they didn't even have a clear sensory experience as a group. Mainstream scholars typically think that the physical details of the Gospel accounts are later embellishments and therefore typically think that the disciples, if they had appearance experiences, had experiences of a type that could be explained in some non-physical manner. Therefore, to include these scholars in a consensus that the disciples really had appearance experiences that are best explained by the literal, physical resurrection is to gerrymander a consensus. Well, I'll leave it there for now, since I've written and talked about it quite a bit in other places. But check it out. If this is just a rhetorical matter for you, if you're really not epistemologically dependent on the comfort of using only premises granted by a large, heterogenous majority of scholars, then you should be willing to change your rhetorical strategy. And if you are epistemologically dependent on consensus, you should reconsider that!

Now, suppose that you do think that Gospel reliability is a high-stakes issue. If you are unaware or only vaguely aware of what the literary device views are that I've been talking about, or (especially) if you've already committed yourself somewhere to the idea that lots of alleged discrepancies in the Gospels are best dealt with by specialized knowledge about "compositional devices of the time," then I would strongly suggest you delve into that. I've dealt with these issues in many places, most especially in The Mirror or the Mask, in a video series , and in many other videos and blog posts.

I'd especially suggest this: If you feel unpleasantly surprised or even annoyed by my making any sort of connection (either epistemic or social) between those views and the MFA as discussed in this post, it would be a good thing for you to ask yourself as honestly as possible whether you yourself are a case in point of the too-ready acceptance of the literary device views or apathy about them. Are you spending way more time and energy arguing on social media that there is absolutely nothing wrong in the slightest with the MFA, that it is a strong argument and that its use has no ill effects, that anyone who criticizes it in any way must be misrepresenting it, than you are willing to spend understanding the literary device views and their spreading influence in the evangelical world? Is that a reasonable set of priorities? If you do investigate them, and you realize that the compositional device perspective is problematic, please say so. Please say so publicly. I would say that publicly saying there appears to be a problem is especially incumbent on you if you have previously publicly endorsed the compositional device views, even in broad outline and even without knowing what you were endorsing or giving a positive platform to. Wagon circling and silence when something is seriously wrong do not create a good social dynamic. 

In closing, let me say loud and clear that I fully realize that there are lay apologists all over the U.S. and probably all over the world who are sincere Christians, have picked up minimal facts or generally minimalist arguments for the resurrection, and are using them enthusiastically, who have not the slightest intention of saying that the Gospel authors knowingly changed facts. Many laymen using minimalist approaches would be opposed to the literary device views if they knew of them and (sans euphemisms) understood what those views really are. I know that. I get that. I'm not saying that you're being inconsistent if you're one of those laymen. But I also believe that the MFA is oversold as far as what it can do. And I know that some of the same high-profile people promoting generally minimalist arguments are also promoting the constant deferral of questions about robust reliability and alleged contradictions. Some are also promoting downplaying statements about what is at stake in such questions and/or promoting the unqualified slogan, "If the resurrection happened, then Christianity is true, period," or something much like it. Some are also promoting the compositional device views. No doubt the leaders saying these things have the good intention of helping people and winning people to Christ, but I think they've made some serious mistakes. 

Even though one of these perspectives doesn't follow logically from another, they fit together quite well in a meta-apologetic worldview. So those lay-level apologists who are innocently using the MFA are often in a social and intellectual position where they are potentially vulnerable to eventually follow a line of thought from minimalism in resurrection arguments to assuming pretty low stakes for robust, literal Gospel reliability to uncritical promotion of literary device views. I want to raise a warning about that.

And if you consider it important to assume good intentions whenever possible, I ask you to assume my good intentions, as well, and my sincere desire to be of help to the church and the world, to the glory of God. 

Thursday, May 05, 2022

The Rascal Flatts response to Divine Hiddenness

This is a more explicitly philosophical expansion on some remarks in my previous post. This post is intended more for those interested in philosophy of religion. I want to stress that what I say here belongs to the realm of speculative theology, though some aspects of it (such as the proposition that God is not obligated to give the beatific vision to everyone from conception) seem intuitively obvious.

I had a recent conversation in which I brought out the ideas contained here and was asked if I'd ever written anything on them. I said no, except for the post "Pain and the Silence of Man," which is more "existential" in nature. Asked if anyone else has done so, I said that I'm not aware of any article or book in the philosophy of religion that has done so, though it seems that there must be someone who has written something much like this, since these topics have been written about so much over years and indeed centuries.

The objection I'm answering here goes approximately like this: 

If God is perfectly good, then communion and a relationship with him is the highest good for rational creatures. If God is perfectly good, then he would desire that greatest good at all times for such creatures. Yet there are people who would not resist God if he were revealed to them, who live in ignorance of him. And there are people who already know God somewhat who are left without experiences that would draw them still closer to him, at times when they could benefit from those experiences. This absence of further, personal, individualized divine revelation is evidence against the goodness of God.

I am not footnoting this objection, since I don't claim to have researched the literature, but those who are into philosophy of religion will recognize it as a version of the argument against theism (or against the existence of a good God) from divine hiddenness.

The fact that some people live and die in contexts where they never hear of the true God is an illustration of the issue. The fact that some Christians (me, for example) suffer during "dark nights" when we could be encouraged by some direct experience of God such as an audible voice, but don't receive it, is also an illustration.

Some version of "soft" inclusivism (without the necessity for universalism) or even Molinism is the beginning of an answer to "what about those who have never heard." If we are otherwise evidentially convinced of the justice of God, we can have reasonable hope that God reveals himself, possibly at death, to those who have had no other access to knowledge of him and who, God knows, will respond positively to that revelation and accept the true God and Jesus Christ. The occurrence of Christian dreams as an apparent praeparatio evangelica is even some evidence for the proposition that God uses extraordinary means to bring salvation to those who have not naturally heard of him.

But the person pressing the divine hiddenness argument may respond by saying that his concern rather is that God left that person for years without the knowledge of himself, maybe even for the person's whole lifetime, so that the person "missed out" on the good of the knowledge of God during those years, and that this is incompatible with the goodness of God, since he should want a relationship with his creatures at all times. (All of their times, that is, if God himself is outside of time, which I believe to be the case.)

It seems to me that, taken to its logical conclusion, this objection would require that God not defer in any way to the natural circumstances, the chances and changes, of anyone's life, since these lead to differential levels of knowledge of himself at different stages, but should give everyone the beatific vision from the earliest moment of existence. One might protest that the objection can be qualified so that it concerns only those rational beings at times when they are "capable" of a relationship with God, but that seems a dubious qualification. Suppose that some mentally disabled people lack that capacity through no fault of their own all their lives? If we are saying that a good God "would" give a miraculous revelation of himself to the isolated person who has never heard of him, so that that person could know him and have a relationship with him, and that a good God "would" provide more sensible revelations of himself to non-resistant believers such as myself, then why not demand that a good God work a miracle so that those who are otherwise mentally incapacitated become capable of the knowledge of himself, throughout their earthly lives? Or if one wants to qualify it (though this seems rather arbitrary), the objection would still seem to mean that from, say, age 4 or 5 onward, God should grant everyone immediate knowledge and experience of himself by supernatural means.

Let us suppose that a specific virtuous pagan who (God knows) will accept a revelation of God does receive that special revelation at death, accepts it, and thus enters into eternal bliss and the beatific vision--perfect sinlessness, knowledge of God, and communion with God. The ultimate "personal relationship." That eternity with God makes the years of that person's life seem very short in comparison. If we nonetheless hold as an objection to God's goodness that he did not make such a revelation sooner, then it seems that we are saying that even this comparatively short mortal life is somehow "too long" for a good God to leave anyone without a strong, experiential relationship with himself.

In Romans 1 Paul says that even the heathen have some knowledge of God as Creator, but this objection would say that that knowledge is too little to demonstrate divine goodness. And if it is extended to include the absence of personal experience on the part of Christians such as myself (e.g., the lack of a reassuring voice or "sense of presence" in times of pain), then apparently the claim is that a good God would give a great deal of self-revelation to all non-resistant people at any times in their lives when they could benefit from it. It is hard to see how one could consistently stop short of saying that God must give something akin to the beatific vision, at the very least a mystical, even theologically accurate and contentful, sense of his presence, to everyone whom he knows will be non-resistant, from a very early point in their lives.

Someone pressing the objection might say that this attempted reductio is unsuccessful and that all that he is asking by intuition is something far less than that, though I would say that at that point we are impugning the love of God on the basis of some fairly shaky line-drawing about what God would do if he were truly good. To name some degree of personal relationship that God is obligated to give everyone who won't resist it, in this life, seems to me (to put it mildly) not evidentially strong as an anti-theistic argument.

(It should go without saying, but I will say it in case it doesn't go without saying: I'm assuming throughout this discussion that there is a crucial difference between God's not intervening, using extraordinary means, to bring about a personal relationship with himself by extraordinary means and his intervening, using extraordinary means, to prevent a relationship with himself. Similarly, there is a crucial difference between God's permitting one man to murder another, and sovereignly bringing some greater good out of that permitted sin, and his forcing one man to murder another, in order to bring about some higher good. I am not claiming or granting that God deliberately, miraculously blocks non-resistant people from being in a relationship with him, nor as far as I know do we have any evidence whatsoever that he does so. Verses in Scripture about God's hardening someone's heart, as in the case of Pharaoh, seem to refer to those who were previously resistant.)

But let's come at this whole thing from a different angle, suggested in the title of this post. There is a song by Rascal Flatts called "Bless the Broken Road." The idea of it is that the speaker is in a sense thankful even for the strange and convoluted ways by which he came to union with his earthly beloved: "God blessed the broken road that led me straight to you."

The previous post mused on the venerable Christian teaching that suffering is used by God in some mysterious way for the greater good of the one who suffers. I emphasized there the difficulty of expressing what that "greater good" is and the importance of not being glib about it, and I sincerely hope that this more philosophical post is not in any way violating that caution. But in addition to several biblical verses mentioned there asserting the soul-making value of suffering, consider the statement in Ephesians 2:10 that we are God's workmanship.

To answer to the objection I'm considering here, we should ponder the value of individual diversity in the overall divine economy--the "whole thing" that is all of history and creation, which God is making here in time. (While being, I would argue, outside of time himself.) Each one of us undergoes a certain life, which includes joys and sorrows, our own choices as to how to respond, human interactions, including those by which some of us come to know theological truths and to desire consciously to have a relationship with God. These diverse means include proclamation of the gospel by friends, parents, missionaries, preachers, etc., down to the smallest moments when we are struck, in those things that come our way, with a sense of beauty or the transcendent. Clearly God uses the "chances and changes of this mortal life" to bring souls to himself. In some cases the way is longer than others, and more years of this little life pass before one hears of God. Or perhaps the person is sinfully resistant at first and later softens. There are as many ways of God with man as there are individual men.

Now suppose just for a moment that the specificity of your own life contributes, if you ultimately accept God, love him, and acquiesce in his sovereignty, to your specific niche in the glory of creation, which you will understand and enjoy as perfectly as it is in your nature to do, in heaven. This specific "way of getting there" includes the panoply of joys and sorrows, the fact that you learned of Christ in this way rather than that way, the years when you wandered in exile, physical suffering and physical bliss, agony and the forgiveness of sins, friendships and betrayals, the specifics of your culture, and more. All of these things that contribute to the "total you," that four-dimensional space-time being, God sees whole, all at once, and he turns them to his own glory and also, if you are saved and not damned, to your joy and glory as a finite being. 

The demand that God be "in personal relationship" fully with everyone at all times in all lives on this earth flattens this diversity and would (arguably) prevent us from becoming those unique beings with whom the various niches of rational creation, praising God, are filled. For our differences are not only differences of essence but also of historical contingency. As the angelic beings say in the long vision scene at the end of Perelandra, each one is in a sense the center--the humans are the center, the Perelandrans are the center, the cherubim are the center. Each one has its infinite worth; let no man say it nay. So the adult convert who wandered long in the land of the prodigals and ate of the husks until he came to himself has his unique place in the heavenly choir, where he continually praises God for what God forgave, as does the little child who loved Jesus early and died young. So too does the pagan, if there be any such, to whom the true God reveals himself in a flash of knowledge after a life groping in the darkness of animism. So does the Christian who begged God for a miraculous sign, or for healing, or for a voice in the night, and did not receive it. That "not receiving," in the wisdom of God, becomes a part of what makes that person who he ultimately is, to the glory of God. 

If we reject that process and are damned, hell (I suspect) is a great leveler. You demanded equality? Be careful what you ask for. Heaven is full of shining differences and special glories. God works individually with each one, through the true story that is history, in which we freely, causally participate, until he closes the book.

It is possible that I am wrong in some part of what I have said here, but this theodicy, or  part of a theodicy, has for a long time seemed to me importantly true as far as it goes. It is, at a minimum, conceivable that it should be true. It is a "greater good" on which we can get some sort of grasp, of which we can catch a glimmer. And that, I tend to think, is quite sufficient to answer the objection in question, especially when combined with the evidence for the Christian metaphysics and the Christian revelation that teaches us, explicitly, that God is the great Potter, the great Author, and that eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard, all the things that God is now preparing for those who love him. It seems to me entirely plausible that those who see him face to face live forever to bless the broken road that led them to that end.

Wednesday, February 02, 2022

Pain and the silence of man, or Trust is not a skill

Several months ago I put up a video called "Pain and the Silence of God" about my abrupt descent from robust good health into agonizing and apparently incurable bad health. That video has garnered a lot of views, and I hope it's been helpful to someone.

Not to beat around the bush: I am not getting better, even gradually. Symptom severity simply goes round and round, one day to the next, with no positive trajectory. The medical establishment has no solutions and isn't even very good at managing pain as a symptom. I have recently started taking a new pain medication that is having some slight effect, and I'm grateful for that, but the effects shouldn't be exaggerated. 

In passing, I always swore if I ever were chronically ill I wouldn't be one of those people who tell other people what not to say, we are: When talking with a chronically ill person, it's not the best idea to say, "You're not better yet?" or, a recent favorite, to sign off of a phone call where you were discussing other topics with a chipper, "Glad you're feeling better [click]," leaving the person on the other end saying to himself, "Wait, what? Did I say that?" (Apparently the ability to discuss topics other than one's illness without using an agonized voice means that one is "feeling better.")

In the course of recent days and nights I've been reflecting on the extreme difficulty of expressing the soul-making theodicy in a way that is going to make sense to a person, perhaps especially a Christian, living with long-term, significant pain. The soul-making theodicy, as readers probably know, is the idea that God allows suffering to make us holier and more spiritually mature than we would be otherwise. It has ample Scriptural warrant. (James 1:2-4, I Peter 1:6-7, I Peter 5:10, Romans 5:1-5, II Corinthians 4:16-18, and more.)

But that theodicy can be surprisingly difficult to spell out in more detail, and more and more as I live through this (and perhaps I have decades more of it to live through), I begin to think that almost any way of expressing it, though true as far as it goes, will be inadequate. In other words, I'm beginning to think that perhaps there is something incommunicable and mysterious, something that we'll understand only in heaven (if then) about what suffering does for us and to us that is valuable.

Take any expression that "suffering teaches us that..." A good example would be, "Suffering teaches us that this world is not our home and that we shouldn't be too comfortable and at home here." Let me tell  you right now: For any serious Christian who already believed that in theory, it would take only a few weeks at most of severe daily, even hourly physical pain to have him recognizing fully in every pore of his body that heaven is a much better place than this and that he is not at home here on this earth. Indeed, the far greater temptation is to long for death. Yes, certainly--to depart and be with Christ is far better. Amen. I've got that lesson down, Lord!

Or "God sends suffering to teach us that our blessings shouldn't be taken for granted." Yep, got that one too! When you've suffered significant pain even for a while, you definitely learn to appreciate things you never appreciated fully before. The ability to sit, stand, and walk without discomfort and without thinking about your body, just for starters. The ability to concentrate fully on something other than your own body, and to enjoy concentrating. The ability to lie down in bed and relax all your muscles, to slip from thoughts into dreams, to drift into sleep slowly, deliciously, rather than knocking yourself out abruptly with drugs, going from pain to oblivion. Far too many blessings to list. And there are blessings that I still have: My wonderful husband, for example, whom I appreciate more now than ever before. You promise God, yourself, your spouse, your family, your ancestors, the sky, stars, moon, and sun, the saints, the people on the Internet: If I ever get better, I will never again take x, y, or z, p, d, q, r, or s for granted! I'll be grateful for them all the livelong day! Please give me the chance to prove it!

Don't misunderstand me: I'm not saying that these statements about what God teaches us through suffering are false. I'm just saying they are inadequate.

The idea that God sends, or allows, suffering to teach us how to do something (rather than to teach us a propositional truth) is a little less inadequate, but still...

"God allows suffering to teach us to take one day at a time." Well, yes, that's true. Jesus said it, "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." You certainly get plenty of opportunities to practice putting away worries and even not worrying at all about certain things that used to seem big but now seem small next to The Big Thing. (The Big Thing is, will it be like this until I die?) You learn, a little anyway, to look no farther ahead than an hour, perhaps a half hour, perhaps five minutes, just to take from the Lord the grace given, moment by moment. But one is sometimes moved to reflect that the means used seem disproportionate. It feels rather like putting weights on the feet of a toddler who hasn't yet learned to walk and telling concerned strangers, "This is strength training. Just think what a strong walker she'll be if she can walk with those things on her feet!" Hmm, yes, if she ever learns to walk at all. 

Until you've actually lived with severe chronic pain, you have no idea how impossible it seems to put away the obsessive thoughts: "Am I getting better? Is this ever going to go away? Oh, hey, it was better there for about an hour this afternoon. When is it going to come back? Here it comes! What is it going to be like tonight and tomorrow? Lord, please make it stop!" "Take no thought for the morrow" starts to sound like a cruel impossibility, and no matter how often one reminds oneself that strength is given only for now, not for tomorrow, that sounds somewhat academic in the trenches. So in a way you learn to take one day at a time, but in a way you "learn" just the opposite.

One of the best of the "to teach us to..." explanations is "to teach us to trust." It's just here, though, that language fails. For that formulation makes trust sound like a skill. And I'm here to tell you: When you are suffering, trust is not a skill. Like most apophatic utterances, that statement is a negation that doesn't communicate much. I'm well aware of that. Perhaps I can be a little clearer. Trust is not a skill because when you most need to trust, you have no strength to exercise any skill. So it follows that you have no skill. When you most need to trust you have nothing. "Where then is boasting?" says St. Paul on another topic. "It is excluded." Right. Precisely. To trust in those hours and minutes is not a skill but a mental and spiritual necessity, like breathing, in and out. Only it's like breathing when breathing is hard. "Help me. Hold onto me. Don't let me hate you. Help thou mine unbelief. Help so-and-so. Help that woman, I can't remember her name." And so forth, and so on. Childish prayers, incoherent prayers, weird prayers, trivial prayers, the mind confused at times and just trying to find a place to rest. Not a skill. But you can't say what it is. It's something you do because you have to survive. 

Here's a pretty good "to learn to..." You learn to take one joy at a time. If there is anything good, anything beautiful, anything true or straight or lovely, and for even one endless, timeless minute you are given leave, given the privilege, to focus on that thing, not feeling your pain or discomfort, by God, you do it. You learn to say, "Shut up!" and make it stick (at least briefly) to that internal trivial chatterer that accompanied you almost constantly before The Great Change and that ruined so many moments when your body used to let you contemplate beauty at will. So many hours and days that used to be wasted on nothing at all. So that's something. When you get a respite and there is something good that you are permitted to see, hear, smell, taste, or contemplate, without distraction, you learn, or start to learn, or take a first step to learn, not to waste the opportunity.

How well can that be expressed? Suppose I'm having a relatively-less-bad Sunday morning, or even five minutes of a Sunday morning, and something leaps out at me from the hymnal. How can I tell you what it was on a recent Sunday about the words, "Doubt and terror are withdrawn" from the hymn "Watchman, tell us of the night" that nearly had me in tears? I can say only that they were good tears, that it is a great gift to tear up in a fashion momentarily untinged by bitterness or self-pity, filled with a faint, imperfect perception of something solid and beautiful beyond the world, beyond the conceiving of man. But what exactly it was in that phrase that brought that sense? That, I cannot tell you. Nor can I communicate to you clearly what I saw or thought I saw, however briefly.

You might say that I have had such epiphanies before, when I had not suffered this much, and that surely it is not necessary for me to go on suffering so much (or even more) in order to have them. Is it? It can't be, can it? Right, it seems that way to me, too. I don't claim to understand. 

Perhaps the only final answer one can give to the question of what God is doing in each of us (and in a different way in each of us), using both joy and pain, intellect and emotion and will, is that he's making us into something else. (See here for a great preacher's approach to that truth, assuring us that none of our suffering is meaningless.) He is making us into citizens of the Country from which that epiphany came. Which is not quite "teaching us that...." nor "teaching us to..." though it has elements of both. It is something else as well. Something we cannot express. 

If one day we find ourselves together in that Country, we will look at each other and point, and we will say, "There! That! That's what it was all about!" And we will laugh.