Friday, December 25, 2015

Behold the face of God: Christmas and the scandal of particularity

In a debate with John Lennox several years ago, in which Lennox emphasizes the historical evidence for Christianity, Richard Dawkins scornfully gives us a textbook example of what Christian theologians call the scandal of particularity.

Dawkins is offended by the localism of Christianity and by the way that the evidences of Christianity tie in with its localism.

From the transcript of closing remarks, written out here: (I have silently altered some punctuation and capitalization.)

John Lennox:
I would remind you that the world Richard Dawkins wishes to bring us to is no paradise except for the few. It denies the existence of good and evil. It even denies justice. But ladies and gentlemen, our hearts cry out for justice. And centuries ago, the apostle Paul spoke to the philosophers of Athens and pointed out that there would be a day on which God would judge the world by the man that he had appointed, Jesus Christ, and that he’d given assurance to all people by raising him from the dead. And the resurrection of Jesus Christ, a miracle, something supernatural, for me constitutes the central evidence upon which I base my faith, not only that atheism is a delusion, but that justice is real and our sense of morality does not mock us.

Richard Dawkins:
Yes, well that concluding bit rather gives the game away, doesn’t it? All that stuff about science and physics, and the complications of physics and things, what it really comes down to is the resurrection of Jesus. There is a fundamental incompatibility between the sophisticated scientist which we hear part of the time from John Lennox – and it’s impressive and we are interested in the argument about multiverses and things, and then having produced some sort of a case for a deistic god perhaps, some god that the great physicist who adjusted the laws and constants of the universe – that’s all very grand and wonderful, and then suddenly we come down to the resurrection of Jesus. It’s so petty, it’s so trivial, it’s so local, it’s so earth-bound, it’s so unworthy of the universe.
Watch Dawkins saying this on Youtube here. You can hear the scorn in his voice.

If anything "gives the game away," it is Dawkins's derisive and purely subjective rejection of anything other than (in his words) a "deistic god perhaps."

There is no argument there. It just offends Dawkins's taste that God should reveal himself through a miracle, at a particular place and time, within a particular cultural context, to a particular people. To Dawkins, such divine condescension, in order to reveal particular doctrines and to save mankind, is "unworthy of the universe." (Whatever, precisely, it means for something to be unworthy of the universe.)

Thanks be to God, the true God, we do not worship Dawkins's Universe. We worship the personal God, the God who said, "When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and out of Egypt have I called my son." We worship a God who has always had a chosen people and who has deigned to speak to man at sundry times and in diverse manners, and in these last days has spoken unto us through His Son.

His Son, whom he sent down from heaven, and who was made man for us and for our salvation.

For man could not have been saved in any other way. The deistic god about whom Dawkins will grudgingly hear tell is not a God who saves. He is a god who won't interfere once things are set going. He is a god who lets man go his own way.

But we are sinners, and we need a Savior. And so the true God did not abhor the womb of a virgin. Notice that whoever wrote the Te Deum already understood the Richard Dawkinses of the world very well, hundreds of years ago. Those of us who take our Christianity for granted at times might wonder, "Why even bring that up? Why would Jesus abhor the womb of the virgin?"

Because it was "so unworthy of the universe." Because it was so petty, so local, so earth-bound. That the Eternal Son, the one who made all things, who, yes, set the constants of the universe, the Great Physicist, the Eternal God who is above and beyond all things, should come down from heaven and be Incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the virgin Mary, and be made man.

Richard Dawkins looks at that and says, "Ewww, yuck." He will not bow his stiff neck to worship a God like that, a God who would do that, a God who would come down. He cannot even do so when the whole point made by Lennox was that it is precisely such a God who gives us evidence that He exists and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him. Yet should not the scientific mind be interested in truth, and in evidence of the truth?

It is not only because we needed a Savior that Jesus came. It is also because we needed to know more about God. God had already revealed himself in a number of those local ways that so offend Dawkins--by choosing the Jews, by signs and wonders throughout the Old Testament. But mankind needed to know more. We needed to know that He is Triune, that He loves us as individuals, that He wants us to be united with Him forever. We needed to know that He is our Father--not just the heavenly Father of a chosen group (which God had already revealed), but of us as individuals.

And so, the Gospel of John tells us, though "No man hath seen God at any time," nonetheless "the only-begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him."

Moses could not look upon the face of God, and so God hid him in the hollow of the rock while He passed by and showed Moses His glory indirectly.

But God wanted to show us His face. And the only way to do that, to show the face of God to man, was to come down into the creation and to have a face--a real face, a literal face that could be seen and touched.

So God was born as a Jewish baby in a petty, local venue, and the face of the God who redeems was revealed to man.

Today, let us not stumble at that stumbling stone. Let us not be offended by the scandal of particularity. Let us come and adore the One in whom alone we behold the face of God.

O that birth forever blessed,
When the virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
Bear the Savior of our race,
And the babe, the world's Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face,
Evermore and evermore.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Way of the Wandering Star at W4

In the next day I hope to put up some Christmas thoughts of my own. After all, this evening is only the beginning of the Christmas season. But in the meanwhile, nothing I can say individually is as good as what my editor, Paul Cella, has posted at What's Wrong With the World--a Christmas sermon from 1951 by his maternal grandfather. It is based on the following couplet from G. K. Chesterton:

To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and are....

A merry, holy, and blessed Christmas to all.

Friday, December 18, 2015

A brief note on "do Muslims and Christians worship the same God"

I almost put this on my Facebook wall but decided it fits here better:

It is important to recognize the difference between the way that the "newer" religion looks at its concept of God and the way that the "older" religion looks at the "newer" religion's concept of God. Just as it is understandable that a Jew who has not converted to Christianity believes that the Christian and he do not worship the same God, and this does follow from his premises, so it is with Christianity and Islam. The Muslim, whose religion changes the concept of God in important ways from that of the Judeo-Christian tradition, claims that there is an essential continuity, but the Christian, as long as he remains a Christian and not a Muslim, should reject this.

In the same way, the Christian insists that the Trinity is not a change in the concept of God and is consistent with Judaism, but unless a Jewish person converts, he believes this to be false. As soon as a modern Jew decides that the Trinity is not that big of a deal as compared to his previous concept of God, he to some extent has accepted Christian ideas. This fundamental asymmetry between the way of viewing the question from the perspective of older and newer religion must be understood and maintained.

That is why, recognizing the important innovations in Islam, we as Christians should hold that we and Muslims do not worship the same God. That Muslims say that we do is not the determining factor, because we aren't Muslims.

No theories in philosophy of language get around the need to decide how important the differences are between the Muslim and Christian concept of God. And if they are sufficiently crucial, then we should not say that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

Update: Some have tried to make an analogy to cases of what is called "opacity of reference." For example, Clark Kent and Superman are the same person even though Clark Kent's co-workers don't know this. The morning star and the evening star are the same heavenly body, and this is true even if someone thinks that they are different. But this analogy, if anything, tells us that the Christian definitely should disbelieve that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, though Christians can believe that the God of Abraham is the same God that he (the Christian) worships. In the latter case, Christians believe (though modern, non-messianic Jews deny) that the same Being caused the origins of Judaism--the promises to Abraham, the Exodus, etc.--and the origins of Christianity--the resurrection of Jesus, etc. In that sense, the Christian says that the God of Abraham is the same entity as the God we worship, just as the morning star really is the evening star. But no Christian should believe that the God whom Jesus represented is the same entity who caused the origins of Islam! On the contrary, we as Christians should emphatically deny this. That point alone puts paid to any attempted analogies of the problem to that of the morning star and the evening star. It also distinguishes what the Christian claims about the relationship of Christianity to Judaism from what the Christian believes about the relationship of Christianity to Islam. The point is not that only a Trinitarian can be in some sense worshiping the true God. Abraham was not a Trinitarian but was worshiping the true God. But Abraham, we believe, really was in touch with the true God. The true God really was the source of Abraham's revelations. The true God was not the source of Mohammad's.

Monday, December 14, 2015

How Bright Appears the Morning Star

I was moved to reflect this past Sunday how incredibly fortunate I am to attend a church that uses an older hymnal. My continuing Anglican church uses the 1940 hymnal. No tuneless "praise songs," no ear-splitting performances. No modernized words. It's a gift.

Advent has some great hymns, many of which were unknown to me in my Baptist upbringing. This is one place where the Anglican tradition has hymns to teach to the Baptists, though hymn-teaching so often goes the other way.

One of my greatest favorites in this category is "How Bright Appears the Morning Star," the translation of Wie Shön Leuchtet der Morgenstern, by Philip Nicolai, but best known in its harmonization by J.S. Bach.

Here are the words:

How bright appears the Morning Star,
with mercy beaming from afar;
the host of heaven rejoices.
O Righteous Branch, O Jesse’s Rod,
thou Son of Man and Son of God!
We too will lift our voices:
Jesus, Jesus, holy, holy, yet most lowly,
draw thou near us; great Emmanuel, come and hear us.

Though circled by the hosts on high,
he deigned to cast a pitying eye
upon his helpless creature.
The whole creation’s head and Lord,
by highest seraphim adored,
assumed our very nature;
Jesus, grant us, through thy merit, to inherit
thy salvation. Hear, O hear our supplication.

Rejoice, ye heavens, thou earth, reply;
with praise, ye sinners, fill the sky
for this, his incarnation.
Incarnate God, put forth thy power;
ride on, ride on, great Conqueror,
till all know thy salvation.
Amen, amen! Alleluia, alleluia!
Praise be given, evermore by earth and heaven.

Here is my earlier post on it. I want to say again what I said there: I defy anyone to be gloomy while belting out, "Incarnate God, put forth thy power. Ride on, ride on great Conqueror, till all know thy salvation."

In the years since 2009 I still have not found a high-quality choral version of this on-line. Someone needs to get together a really good choir and put out a collection of Anglican hymns. But here is a nice organ version:

Friday, December 11, 2015

Giving content to complementarianism without giving in to the creeps [updated]

I recently learned of the existence of this video concerning complementarianism. As I said here, while it is pretty clear that Mary Kassian (the woman in red in the video) is trying to water down complementarianism, and while the very title of the post in which she embeds it ("Kissing Traditionalism Goodbye") makes it clear that she is trying to make complementarianism more like feminism, the video itself could be a lot worse. You'd have to be a pretty bitter anti-evangelical with a (probably manospherian) chip on your shoulder to classify this video with what I was discussing in the post itself--namely, a pamphlet by Focus on the Family that took a pretty morally neutral stance towards RU486 abortion.

On the other hand, I do find the video and Kassian's approach interesting and unfortunate, because I do see (e.g., reading my friends' comments on Facebook) an attempt in evangelical circles to take complementarianism regarding men and women and put it into some kind of box: We don't ordain women, and we agree that women and men ought to be different in the areas of reproduction and sexual intercourse (so we're against the homosexual agenda and the gender-bending agenda), but beyond that...meh. Who knows? This was most strikingly exemplified by a Facebook friend who acted completely clueless when I stated what seemed absolutely obvious--that if you think men and women are importantly different you should think that having women beat each other up as a spectator sport is especially disgusting and unnatural, even more so than having men beat each other up as a spectator sport. Oh, no, why should "women's mixed martial arts" be unfeminine in any way, shape, or form? To call such an approach "complementarianism" (e.g., because the person doesn't support women's ordination) is pretty absurd, in my opinion.

On the other hand, the question of giving concrete content to complementarianism in the world outside the church and the bedroom is not going to be cut and dried. It would be overly rigid to say, "Men and women are different. Therefore, their roles should be different. Therefore, the husband should not be getting up with a baby in the night and should not be changing diapers." Even John Piper's recent apparent implication that women in secular positions should never be in authority over men seemed too strong, as it would rule out a female college professor with male students in any field. On the other hand, his statement that a woman should not be a drill sergeant seems obviously correct.

The problem that I see with the video of Mary Kassian and Nancy de Vos [Correction: De Moss--see Anonymous's comment below] being interviewed on the subject of complementarianism is that they were too disinclined to give any principles with concrete implications at all. For example, here would be a few ideas that I suspect Mary Kassian, in particular, would be uncomfortable with:

--Although there are exceptions, and families should not insist on starving rather than having the mother work if this ideal cannot be maintained, as a general rule the ideal in a family is that the mother is able to be at home with her children and that the father is the breadwinner.

--Women have a special connection to children as a result of their being constructed by God to bear and nurture children.

--Women should not cancel their own femininity by entering distinctively, physically masculine fields such as the military and being cops on the beat.

--Women should be physically protected, especially when they are pregnant. Therefore, women in physically demanding areas such as sports need to rethink how this is consonant with their femininity when they get married and are or might be pregnant. In short, no pregnant racehorse jockeys.

--If a woman is in a position of authority over a man, especially a man of her own approximate age, she should recognize that this situation carries unique difficulties precisely because she is female and he is male. This does not necessarily render such situations unacceptable, but it does mean that the woman in question needs to think about how to carry out her administrative duties while retaining her femininity. In particular, she should be careful not to try to overcome any sense of insecurity in the position by being deliberately harsh and unfeminine, by using bad language, ridicule, or other "employee management tactics" that she perceives as "masculine." Needless to say, these tactics are also inappropriate for male authority figures, but there are particular temptations for women to use them, just as there are particular temptations for men to use them, and the use of them by a woman to a man creates unique tensions in the workplace.

These are the types of statements and advice that, it seems to me, we need to be willing to go out on a limb and give both to women and to men. After all, if men don't hear that there is anything particularly un-ideal about two-career families, why should they even try to shoulder the burden of supporting a family? But I didn't hear anything like this from de Vos and/or Kassian in the interview, though de Vos [DeMoss] was sounding more "traditional" than Kassian, who provocatively heads her post "Kissing Traditionalism Goodbye." In the interview, Kassian implied that ditching all differences between men and women is extreme, unbiblical, and wrong, but she was quite evidently unwilling to make any statements like those above that would imply that men and women should take on concretely different roles in society, even to some extent. Indeed, her repeated (cliched, silly) dismissive allusions to "June Cleaver" made it pretty clear that she was trying to get away from all of that.

I suspect, though they do not say so, that these complementarians may be wary of seeming to give aid and comfort to groups such as Vision Forum and ATI (Bill Gothard's group). The male heads of both of these organizations have been credibly accused of abusing their positions to obtain romantic and some degree of sexual gratification from much younger women whom they were employing. Moreover, the organizations teach an extreme form of patriarchalism, including theses such as that unmarried women should not have careers outside the home but should live with their parents indefinitely, that women should not go to college, and the like.

The fact is, unfortunately, that there are creepy hyper-patriarchalists out there in the Christian world, and it's understandable that complementarians want to distance themselves from them.

But it doesn't follow that complementarianism has virtually no concrete content, beyond an extremely generic idea that "God made male and female," opposition to the homosexual agenda, and a refusal to accept women's ordination.

One problem with such a vague complementarianism is that young people have absolutely no idea how to live out complementary male and female roles. And I really mean no idea. The very idea that the man ought to ask the woman out on a date rather than vice versa is considered positively revolutionary. And that he should offer to pay? Shocking.

Talk of how complementary male-female interaction is "like a dance" (as in the video) is nice and poetic, and I don't really mean to scorn it, but in real life terms young people don't just intuit what that means when the rubber meets the road. They are watching aggressively feminist movies all the time full of women who beat up men. How in the world are they supposed to know what that "dance" looks like? Maybe if they were lucky enough to have parents who modeled it, they will know. Otherwise, it has to be taught, and that means talking about questions like, "Should women be in the military?" "Are there special problems about women and men working together in an office environment, and how can Christians deal with them?"

It ought to be possible, and it is possible, to give sensible complementarian answers to these questions without endorsing the likes of Bill Gothard and Doug Phillips, or their extreme ideas.

I think, in fact, that when the young interviewer asked Nancy de Vos [DeMoss] and Mary Kassian, "What does that look like?" concerning complementarianism, she was thinking perhaps they would give answers like what I listed above. I don't know if she would have liked those answers, but I suspect she was trying to elicit something a little bit more definite than what they gave. I can't help thinking (based on her way of talking) that Nancy de Vos [DeMoss] thinks people already know what male-female complementarity looks like in society and that her job is just to reassure women that this doesn't mean that they are oppressed. If I'm right about that, she needs to discover that millennials often don't know. Mary Kassian, I'm guessing, wouldn't agree with most or perhaps with any of the statements I made above and really does want complementarianism to amount in practice to men and women doing nearly all the same things in society but doing them with a somewhat different oeuvre. In my opinion, that is inherently unstable. A complementarianism watered down that much, a complementarianism that is allergic to saying, "Women shouldn't be warriors. Women shouldn't be beat cops. Women shouldn't be beating each other up" eventually has so little to show in the way of real differences it is willing to state between men and women that it has little defense against full-bore egalitarianism.

If we don't want the world to divide up between the feminists and the creepy hyper-patriarchalists, we need to articulate a reasonable, but more definite, complementarianism. I consider the CBMW to be rather well-placed to do so. But in that case, I think they need someone other than Mary Kassian to do the job.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Anti-Israel Derangement Syndrome

In an earlier post I wrote, concerning Israel, "So my fundamental sense of fair play is moved to note these things and take the side that I think is most aligned with truth and accuracy."

There is something eerily fascinating about the sheer amount of irrational venom directed at the nation of Israel for even existing as a nation. Once you notice the venom, it's hard to stop noticing it. It's a bit like the virulent anti-white racism that is excused or even directly encouraged by the leftists in America and Europe. Once you notice it, you can't un-see it. And it's so manifestly unfair and weird that it's interesting, in its own bizarre way.

The most recent incident of this type concerns an Israel-hating retired Jewish academic (British), who refused to answer a child's questions about, of all things, the domestication of the horse. Nor did she merely hit the delete key on the inquiry e-mail. She wrote back a spiteful little note saying that she would answer the questions only when there is "justice for Palestinians in Palestine." Why would she do such a thing? Because she (the retired professor) is part of a Boycott Israel group and thinks refusing to answer questions about horses from an Israeli 13-year-old is a part of her boycott commitment. Really. I'm not making this up. You can't make it up. In fact, in this story Dr. Marsha Levine doubles down and defends her actions, proudly telling the UK Telegraph that she would answer similar questions from a child from another country.

Dr Levine, who completed her PhD at the University of Cambridge's Department of Archaeology before taking up research posts at Columbia University and Syracuse University in New York, told The Telegraph that if a school student from a different country had got in touch with her to ask about horses, she would have responded differently.
“Kids have questions, I usually answer their questions,” she said. “But I have agreed to BDS [the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel], and I do want to see justice for Palestine.
“In Israel the majority of Israelis support the policies of the government which abuses the rights of Palestinians, so the fact is I don’t want to help Israelis, and if you don't start with children where do you start?
“And she is not that young anyway, her English is pretty good. If people don’t stand up for justice, the world is going to come to an end.”
Yes, folks, you read that right. Dr. Marsha Levine is doing her small part to prevent the end of the world by refusing to answer an Israeli child about archaeology and the history of the domestic horse. Makes sense to me! What a hero!

I have never heard of such a mean, petty, spiteful, unprofessional action by an individual professor in relation to a person asking academic questions from any other country, ever. Not even South Africa in the heyday of that boycott movement. Knowing leftists, I suppose it's possible that it happened if and when some unwitting South African schoolgirl with a Dutch name wrote to a lefty professor in, say, 1990. There was no Internet then (to speak of) to shame a professor who did such a thing, so we might not have heard of it. But my guess is that politics has hardened since then and has more greatly overwhelmed such outdated notions as professionalism and courtesy. After all, if Levine wanted to pontificate against Israel, why couldn't she have done that in addition to answering questions about the domestication of the horse? My guess (though it's only a guess) is that this would have been the response of a leftist professor thirty years ago. Yes, that would be silly, pompous, and even somewhat unprofessional, injecting an unrelated political sermon into a discussion about one's academic specialty. But it would not be blatantly mean-spirited.

I note, too, the creepiness of Levine's emphasis on the age of Shachar Rabinovitch, her young correspondent: "She is not that young anyway."

Hmmm, is it just me, or is there something rather chilling about that? It is thus that people speak who are justifying much darker actions than a snarky e-mail. Let's not forget that "Palestinian" terrorists will sometimes justify killing Israeli civilians on the grounds that, given Israel's requirement of civil or military service for all young adults, there are no real Israeli civilians over a certain age. Levine is making a judgement of responsibility--what Christians sometimes call a judgement that the child has reached the "age of accountability" when she is capable of sin. The sin in question, here, is the sin of being a non-self-hating Israeli. Shachar is, apparently, considered old enough by Levine that she must either repudiate her country or be held to share in its corporate guilt. Am I saying that Levine thinks Shachar deserves to die in a terrorist attack if she doesn't share Levine's politics? Not quite. But I am saying that people exactly like Levine are often extremely quick to make excuses for "Palestinian" terror attacks, and I am also saying that Levine's haste to try to impute some kind of guilt or responsibility to Shachar, and her desire to emphasize the allegedly widespread wrong-thought among Israelis, bodes ill for her ability to condemn acts of terrorism wholeheartedly.

When people are just plain mean-spirited and vindictive toward the innocent, one starts to wonder why. When one starts to wonder why, one starts to see all kinds of facts about the poisonous nature of certain ideologies. When it comes to Israel hatred, Dr. Levine is an opportunity to gain wisdom about both the nasty fruit and the nasty root of that ideology.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Exchange on doctors killing jihadis and Himmler

Over at Triablogue I'm having an interesting back-and-forth with Steve Hays, who has proposed that it would be moral for doctors actively to kill jihadis who are injured and to harvest their organs to help their victims. He also appears to think that it would be moral for a fireman who knows that Himmler will grow up to commit genocide to refrain deliberately from rescuing Himmler from a fire as a young child in order to prevent his later evil actions.

That is the general context of the debate. It's gone through several posts. Links, starting with Steve's post to which I responded and going in order from there, are here, here, here, and here. I think that's all of them. Readers may want to follow along. That's been much of my blogging time lately.