Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Why do bad doubts happen to good people?

I've been thinking lately about deconversion stories. If one hangs around on the Internet long enough, one certainly runs across them. A theme that sometimes crops up is that the person did not want to deconvert. Looking over the deconvert's shoulder at the flimsiness of the arguments that led him away from Christianity, one is permitted to wonder about that, but it is what a deconvert will sometimes say, and presumably he believes it when he says it: "I didn't want to deconvert. I struggled. I asked God to help me keep my faith, to speak to me, to reach out to me. God didn't help, or didn't help enough, and now here I am--I'm not a Christian anymore."

That's rather convenient, because it blames God for the deconversion. It's an insurance policy. You can see the wheels turning: "If I turn out to be wrong, and God exists after all, or Christianity is true after all, I will be able to say to God's face, in the immortal words of Bertrand Russell, 'Not enough evidence, God.'"

So you're covered. You asked God to help you not to deconvert, you tried hard not to, and after that it was up to God to come through. He had his chance.

All snark aside, I have to admit, as a person who tends to feel responsible for others who are struggling with doubts or on the cusp of deconverting, I find this sort of thing bothersome. I feel like tugging on God's sleeve to get his attention: "Uh, Lord, if you could spare a minute, there's someone over here who is doubting your existence or doubting that you sent Jesus to die for us, but it's not too late, because right now he still believes in you and loves you and is crying out to you, so, could you please do something about this? Just send him a sign or nudge him in the right direction or something. I would if I were you. Right about now would be a good time, Lord."

And sometimes, or so it seems to the person going through the crisis, God doesn't. The potential deconvert doesn't feel anything and doesn't even have any moment of great, shining, intellectual enlightenment. The things that bothered him about Christianity continue to bother him. Perhaps he finds answers that should be intellectually satisfying, but he doesn't find them emotionally satisfying, and those two things are very easy to conflate.

Why does God let this happen? It's one thing to acknowledge that God lets people who are indifferent to him go to hell, people who don't care, don't try, don't seek. But we're talking about someone who at least seems to himself to be seeking. This person is, at least to begin with, one of the good guys.

Well, I don't have all the answers. I believe that the evidence shows that God exists and is all-loving and all-just, but the precise how of the divine justice is something I don't claim to be able to follow through its infinite windings.

But I do have a thought to offer, and it is this: All of us who have been Christians for a while have major gaps in our understanding of God. That's inevitable, even for the most advanced saint, since God is beyond our comprehension. But it is especially true, I think, of two classes: First, those who have grown up Christians, and second, recent converts. For differing reasons, members of both of these groups are in danger of having a radically simplistic and insufficient view of the nature and character of God. This may take many forms. Perhaps the person thinks of God as harsh and vindictive, and it just takes a while for that to start to bother him. Or perhaps he demands that God must do things exactly as he would do them. One of the most common over-simplifications that I have run into is a misguided view of heaven. Heaven is seen as a kind of Happy Hunting Ground to which God (more or less arbitrarily) lets some people go while (more or less arbitrarily) blocking other people from going there, plopping them down in hell instead. Heaven is not intimately connected with the presence of God and with our own highest good through union with God. While they may mouth the idea that hell is separation from God, too many Christians don't really believe the corollary that heaven is union with God. Thus they will say things like, "I don't want to be in heaven with a God who would send my best friend to hell." As if they can have any good without God. As if they can casually pick and choose, shrugging off heaven and God while still holding onto truth, beauty, friendship, and human love. Or, "Why would we have a sense of perfect union with God in heaven, when we don't need it, rather than in the trials on earth, when we need it more?" Because "needing it" is entirely beside the point. Heaven is perfect union with God. You can't "be in heaven" without that perfect union with God.

Again and again, the angry things that deconverts say show just how shallow their concepts of God's character, of eternal life, and of Christianity really were and still are, because they never grew past them.

It's all very well to start out with sketchy ideas. But when you become a man, it is time to put away childish things. If you started out thinking that God owes you something, including a special revelation of himself in your time of doubt, you need to get over that. If you started out thinking that you can have any good thing without God, you need to learn what the beatific vision is.

God lets bad doubts happen to good people to give them a chance to move up, to deepen their understanding. C.S. Lewis portrays Tor and Tinidril, the characters in Perelandra who are like Adam and Eve, in much the same way. God allows a representative of Satan to come to their planet and tempt them in order for them to mature. One of the angelic characters says as much. "Today for the first time two creatures of the low worlds, two images of [God] that breathe and breed like the beasts, step up that step at which your parents fell, and sit in the throne of what they were meant to be."

In Perelandra, when the lady is being tempted, Maleldil (God) is silent. Previously she has always sensed him guiding her, but now she does not. If you know the book you may protest that God sends Ransom to (eventually) fight the un-Man after Tinidril has resisted temptation for a long time. That is true. But if I may say so, I never knew a former Christian deconvert yet who had no resources. Those resources may have been web sites, wise friends, or other people to whom he could take his questions. The resources might even have included very good answers, answers that were rejected. These "sendings," however, are rather mundane. We would prefer to have God zap people out of their doubts, not just send along some friend, perhaps some awkward or tactless friend, and then to leave the doubter to accept or reject the response given.

This all may sound rather harsh, but I think it is true nonetheless. God's intolerable love wants to make saints out of us while we would much prefer to be left alone to be happy, ordinary people. Happy, ordinary people are likely to have happy, ordinary ideas about God. Which is all very well and good for starters but isn't where God wants us to be in the long run. Any lover of detective fiction knows that the very fact that doesn't seem to fit in, the fact that gives you the most trouble, is a clue to the whole mystery. So it is in theology, and so it is inevitable that anyone given the opportunity to know God better will start to notice inconvenient facts that do not fit with his preconceived ideas.

So if you are that doubter, consider the possibility that God is deliberately not making this easy for you because there is something he wants you to understand, and you will learn it only by passing through this time without visible sign from him. Then ask what that something might be.

I would be remiss if I did not mention evidence again in closing out this post. I am not recommending fideism or even mysticism. On the contrary, I am always asking the doubter to examine the positive evidence for Christianity and take his stand on it. Indeed, one of the most curious things I find about recent deconverts is how difficult it is to get them to come back to the subject of the evidence for Christianity. A recent deconvert is like a man whose mind is always wandering from the point.

So my point is not to recommend that anyone believe against evidence or without evidence. Rather my point here is just this: If you are watching someone struggling, or you are struggling yourself, with questions and doubts about Christianity, and if you wonder why God lets this go on, take a hard look at the doubter's theological concepts (especially if the doubter is you) and ask where they need to be deepened and how such a deepening might serve to allay the doubts. If Christianity is true, then it is entirely possible that there is a step up that God wants you to take. You cannot stay comfortably where you were before. Whether or not you take that step is a matter of more than passing interest to us all.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Undesigned Coincidence in John 1

Up at W4: A post on a new undesigned coincidence in John 1.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

New post on Licona, genre, reliability, and apologetics

I have a new post up at What's Wrong with the World on the theories of New Testament scholar Michael Licona. One of the things that surprised me as I went back through his older book on the resurrection was that there was so much controversy when that book came out about some things but not others. For example, though I don't claim to have read all of the back-and-forth about the book, I never saw anyone emphasize the fact that Licona states that it is unknown how much liberty the gospel authors took with the resurrection accounts and that this is part of why they are of "uncertain" historical value concerning the resurrection. Or the fact that he rates as merely "possible" the claim that the speeches in Acts represent apostolic teaching. I actually do understand why the claim that Matthew may have added the raising of the saints as a "poetical device" raised alarm bells, but that is of a piece with these other claims, which are much broader and fully bear out the concerns I have raised about the implications of these "poetical" theories for apologetics. In fact, in some ways the potential harm of the claim about Matthew was more limited, since it was said to be added "apocalyptic material," which perhaps we could recognize when we see it. But Licona admits forthrightly that, due to his ideas about the genre of the gospels, it is literally unknown how much liberty the gospel authors took with the details of their accounts! This means, just as I said before, that there are not supposed to be some sort of tip-offs or clues in the text in general when the authors are using these so-called literary devices. They might be making stuff up and changing things without leaving a trace. This is a very big deal, and I'm actually rather surprised that it wasn't noted about the book at the time, including by those who were very concerned about where Licona's approach was headed. But as I say, I wasn't reading such articles religiously, and perhaps it was noted and I just didn't hear about it.

Another matter that I consider very important to discuss is that of genre. It seems that Licona is making a big deal about the genre of the gospels as "being" that of "Greco-Roman bioi" and using this to defend his idea that the gospel authors would have thought they had freedom to invent speeches and dialogue, to make events happen when they didn't really happen, and the like. He is piggy-backing off of the fact that something of a bandwagon has gotten rolling in the last several years for saying that the gospels "are Greco-Roman bioi" and implying that every statement in scholarship to that effect supports his thesis about the gospel authors as using "literary devices." Now, this is particularly ironic, because originally it was thought that classicist Richard Burridge's work arguing that the gospels are Greco-Roman bioi actually supported the historicity of the gospels by showing that they aren't myth or some very tenuously historical, sui generis genre. This probably explains the haste with which evangelical scholars have accepted Burridge's thesis.

My response is two-fold: First, though I spend little time on this in the post, Burridge doesn't really argue convincingly in my view that the gospels are anything so specific as a Greco-Roman genre of "lives." He argues from a broad family resemblance, and the family resemblance can, I believe, be easily explained and more simply explained without invoking any specifically Greco-Roman influences on the gospels. It simply is a stronger thesis than required. But second, and perhaps more importantly (especially since as a sociological matter everybody seems to think "the scholarship is settled" on the former point), Burridge never (that I can see) supports Licona's idea that anyone who wrote "in" this genre would have automatically thought himself "licensed" to take liberties with the details of what he was writing. Rather, Burridge argues that the genre was very broad and could include books that took liberties. But that is not the same thing at all! Licona argues as though the genre wouldn't include books that took no liberties, whose authors would have been totally opposed to such liberties, and whose audiences would not have expected them. That is to turn Burridge's argument on its head: Instead of supporting the historicity of the gospels, this genre designation is then used to put a limit on the extent of their historical accuracy! That's just incorrect. It's a misuse of the scholarship surrounding genre, even if one accepts the conclusions of that scholarship.

This is extremely important, because at this point I see people starting to just follow Licona by implying that it's anachronistic to expect that the gospel authors didn't make stuff up! No, no, they will say, all the ancients thought it was fine to make these kinds of alterations. And these "are Greco-Roman bioi," so that "offered" license to do so, and you have to "take genre into account" in interpretation, etc. It needs to be said: That sort of conclusion is not supported by the claim that the gospels were "in" this genre. The genre as described could include both works that would never take liberties and those that included fictional elements. That's kinda the point of a broad and flexible genre!

There's an important confusion here, and people need to stop thinking that Licona or anybody else has supported the idea that we should just expect the so-called "literary devices" that Licona has claimed in the gospels to be there because genre. It isn't true. This is a confusion and a misuse of this whole genre concept. I challenge anybody to find in Burridge or anybody else good support for a claim such as, "Because the gospels were in the genre of Greco-Roman bioi, they would have been expected to transfer events to times when they didn't really happen, to make up speeches, or to change dialogue deliberately." And no, it doesn't count as good support for that thesis (which is simultaneously rigid and sweeping) if you believe that you've found some Greco-Roman author changing stuff. It doesn't follow that in general this was some kind of expectation or "standard" or even that these were recognized "devices." (Moreover, from what I've seen, sometimes when Licona thinks he's found Plutarch "using these devices" it could just be that Plutarch changed his mind about what happened--again, a much simpler hypothesis than the literary one.)

I also discuss the ways in which the so-called "literary devices" are over-interpretations of the passages in question--far more complex hypotheses than anything required.

So I want to stand athwart the course of evangelical history shouting, "Stop!" here, because people are just running after these ideas like they've been proven and are so wonderful because they enable us to sleep easy at night, knowing that we've been defended by "literary devices" from the Big Bad Wolf of alleged contradictions in the gospels. A) If true, these theories wouldn't be wonderful but rather fairly disastrous and B) They haven't been proved, nor even supported well.

See the post for more detail.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

The one gleam of silver lining

The news last night that not only had D.T. won the Republican primary in Indiana but also that Ted Cruz had suspended his campaign came as a shock. That is to say, the latter part of that came as a shock. I can only assume that Cruz's backers told him they would no longer fund his campaign.

The whole thing is incredibly sad. This year's field of Republican primary runners, of course with the exception of the now-presumptive nominee, were so promising. There were so many for whom I could have happily voted in good conscience. Not all, but quite a few. Including, especially, Cruz the outsider who represented both the opposition to "business as usual" in the Republican party and principled, constitutional, knowledgeable conservatism. That this charlatan should have come along and poisoned and co-opted the process is sickening. That voters let him get away with it and even supported him enthusiastically is worse. That many of these voters think of themselves as conservative is the worst of all.

There is no way to make this out good. This is the death throes of the Republic, which I believed in and, in a real sense, still believe in. The destruction of a good thing is not a judgement on that good thing. Unlike some silly fools who think they are making a profound point against democracy by pointing out that democracy has been destroyed, I am (I trust) able to tell the difference between something that self-destructs because it is inherently wrong-headed and something that is destroyed by the malice and sin of man attacking it outright.

Yes, there are still good and beautiful things in the world, and we must now cling to those. But in the political world, the prospects are very bleak indeed.

There is one, and only one, gleam of silver lining in the dark, dark clouds that hover over us, and that is the NeverTrump movement itself. Matt Walsh has been a wonderfully articulate spokesman of it and remains defiant after last night, speaking for all of us. Last night on his public Facebook wall Walsh posted:

I will have more tomorrow, but let me assure you that when I said never Trump, I meant never Trump. That has not changed and never will. The disaster ahead will not be on my conscience. I wash my hands of it. I will not acquiesce to a tyrant. I do not care what letter he has beside his name. A lot of "Never Trump" people will surrender in the coming days, but I promise you I won't. I've chosen this path and I will stick to it.
Our country is headed to a dark place. Pray tonight, everyone.
Exactly. The idea that one would say "never" and then, like D.T. himself, blandly turn around and say the opposite, is deeply insulting. Never always meant never and was always set up in explicit anticipation of the possibility that he might be the Republican nominee.

Why do I call the NeverTrump movement the one gleam of a silver lining? Because for all of my adult politics-watching life two errors of thought have dominated conservative thinking: Error 1: It is an a priori truth that there is always a "lesser evil" in American politics. Error 2: It is an a priori truth that it is morally required that one vote for the lesser evil once one figures out what it is to the best of one's ability.

In the last two presidential elections I didn't vote for the candidate of either major political party. I had reasons for this. I thought that both McCain and (though to a lesser extent) Romney were too compromised on pro-life issues, and I also sensed strongly that Romney was no culture warrior and that his commitment to social conservatism was weak. I was able to articulate these reasons and discuss them, but Error 1 and Error 2 made it impossible to reason with most people. I would say again and again, "Look, maybe this candidate hasn't crossed your line, and I get that, but surely you realize that there must be a line, right? You wouldn't vote for just anybody just because he happened to have the Republican label and you think that that is always less bad than the person with the Democrat label, right?"

And again and again, they answered, in essence, "Wrong. There shouldn't be a line. There is no line. There is always a lesser evil. You always have to find out what it is and vote for that. Voting for the President of the United States for one of the candidates of the two major parties is a moral imperative."

I couldn't understand it. I would try reductios, but they were impervious. And some still are.

Well, what I'm realizing in 2016 is that people talking politics don't do very well with abstract reductios. It works better when you have an actual, blatant, moral cretin, right in front of our eyes, who is the presumptive Republican nominee for the august office of the President of the United States of America. Then, thank God, at least some good people start to realize that Error 1 and Error 2 are errors. And thus the nevertrump movement was born.

To my mind, this is an important development. I have never considered the stranglehold of the two-party system in the United States to be a politically healthy thing. We need to mix it up a little. We need more options. And conscience can help a lot in that mixing up process. But not if conscience is misdirected by Error 1 and Error 2. Those errors co-opt conscience. They draft the power of conscience into perpetuating the two-party system and the Imperative To Vote as some kind of holy relics.

Now, I have no crystal ball about what is going to happen. It's not that I expect some viable third party to rise from the ashes of the Republican Party. I suspect we're not that lucky, and to be frank, third parties tend to be the breeding ground of precisely the kinds of kooks and conspiracy theorists who are now enthusiastically following D.T. over the edge of the abyss.

But for decades now I have realized that the final battle in this country is going to be the guerilla warfare for individual human minds, hearts, and ultimately, souls. And in that battle, the NeverTrump movement is an extremely positive and important development. Americans, conservatives, at least some of them, have at last found the place where they will stand, where they will say, "No, never, not gonna go there.That's a bridge too far."

If you don't have a "never" place, a place to stand, a place where you draw the line and will not move, you are constantly giving away pieces of yourself, and that's a dangerous thing to do. To quote Robert Bolt's Thomas More:

And what would you do with a water spaniel that was afraid of water? You'd hang it! Well, as a spaniel is to water, so is a man to his own self. I will not give in because I oppose it--I do--not my pride, not my spleen, nor any other of my appetites but I do--I....Is there no single sinew in the midst of this that serves no appetite of Norfolk's but is just Norfolk? There is! Give that some exercise, my lord...Because as you stand, you'll go before your Maker in a very ill condition! And he'll have to conclude that somewhere back along your pedigree--a bitch got over the wall!
And now, with NeverTrump, maybe some people are discovering that they have something within themselves that is not just a voter, not just an agonized political pawn, but a man, a person, with real moral limits, and they are ready to say, "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me." Now there will be, we may hope, some who will bow neither to the image of Baal nor to the Golden Calf.

For that, we may always hope. There are always these individual victories to be won, whatever happens to the nation. For the probing and testing of God does not cease until the end of time, when history is truly ended and the books are opened.

May He find us faithful.