Monday, February 16, 2004

Postscript to Dialogue With Agnostic Ed Babinski on the Psalms, Etc.: Ed's Attempt to Enlist an Ancient Near East Scholar in Support Backfires

Dr. James Roger Black vs. Ed Babinski

Dr. Black earned a Ph.D. in "Ancient Religions of the Eastern Mediterranean" from the University of Wisconsin - Madison (2002). His dissertation (linked), concerned The Instruction of Amenemope: A Critical Edition and Commentary–Prolegomenon and Prologue. His M.A. was in "Religions and Cultures of the Ancient Near East" (1999, same school). His M.A. thesis was: "A First Time for Everything: Ancient Egypt Through an Eliadean Lens". Dr. Black's e-mail address is: Dr. Black wrote in his dissertation (Introduction):

One of the premier products of Egyptian wisdom was the Instruction of Amenemope. In fact, of all the works of ancient Egyptian literature which have come to light in the past two centuries, Amenemope may be second only to the Book of the Dead in popularity and significance. Since its discovery in 1888 and its first publication in the early 1920s by E. A. Wallis Budge, Amenemope has become justly famous—not only for its intrinsic value as one of the great instructional texts of ancient Egypt, but also for its indisputable role in the formation of the biblical Book of Proverbs.
The relevance to our present topic of debate is clear: Ed and I differ with regard to interpretation of Hebrew poetry (Proverbs being a book of poetry, like the Psalms). Ed Babinski (having read some of Dr. Black's material online) apparently thought that Dr. Black would bolster his case against Christian incoherence in interpreting the Psalms (and my own supposed lack in the same area). The subsequent e-mail exchange -- which Ed was kind and fair-minded enough to forward to me -- makes for very interesting reading indeed. Note particularly how Dr. Black contended that Ed retains an insufficient, flawed methodology of biblical interpretation, left over from his own fundamentalist past. I made the same exact point some time ago. It was most heartening to see a biblical scholar confirm my strong impressions (especially since Ed himself sought this man out, thinking that he would confute my earlier argument).

Dr. Black's words will be in black (no pun intended!), Ed's in blue, and mine (minimal in this exchange) in green. I received Dr. Black's permission to post this (as can be seen at the end). I assume I have Ed's permission also, since he initially forwarded me the e-mails, and since this is how our dialogue has proceeded in the past. I just checked Ed's Dave Armstrong Correspondence Web Page, which has chronicled our dialogue. It does not contain the correspondence with Dr. Black (perhaps, however, Ed has a Dr. Black Correspondence Page too). I'm sure Ed will want to link to this present paper, so as to wrap up this long discussion once and for all. Ed's first letter to Dr. Black, sent sometime shortly before 29 December 2004, was entitled, "Dear Dr. Black, thank you for putting your dissertation and articles on the web!" Here it is, with Dr. Black's responses, and then Ed's counter-response:

Dave Armstrong went after an article of mine about the psalms and seems hell bent on defending everything said in every psalm as divinely inspired. I cited that C. S. Lewis did not think so. But Dave was not amused. As a Catholic apologist, Dave is someone who wishes to build up the Bible and defend it, every verse, in one way or another, while you seem agreeable with the idea of questioning particular verses. Or am I misreading either you or Dave's views?

I believe that the Bible is "true in all it intends to teach". The question then is, what exactly does it "intend" to teach, as opposed to mere incidentals. This is not always easy to discern, and people of good will can disagree.

As for your disagreements with Dave Armstrong, I have not read the entire exchange; but in what I did read, I think he made some good points, especially about the need (which the Catholic Church strongly emphasizes) to read biblical texts in their cultural context and according to the original author's intent.

I gather that you yourself emerged from a background which was not only Protestant but also "fundamentalist". In my own dealings with fundamentalists over the years, I have come to believe that the fundamentalist mindset remains the same regardless of what content is poured
into it. As a result, fundamentalist Protestants who convert to Catholicism tend to become fundamentalist Catholics; and fundamentalist Christians who become disillusioned with Christianity often end up as fundamentalist atheists.

Hence the trick for someone in your position is to make sure you have shucked off the old thought patterns from your fundamentalist past so that you do not carry them as unnecessary baggage into your future. In the case of your discussion with Dave Armstrong, I suspect that some of your difficulty in communicating with him may derive from the fact that you are continuing to think about the Bible in much the same way as you did before, except now from the other side of the fence; and as a result you are trying, without even realizing it, to conduct the discussion according to fundamentalist definitions and rules of procedure. But Dave is almost certainly not a fundamentalist, and putting him into that box is a sure way to guarantee that the two of you will not be able to communicate with each other.

Since Dave is a Roman Catholic, you might find it helpful to take a look at the Catholic Church's official statements on the proper approach to biblical studies, especially Pius XII's Divino Afflante Spiritu and the Pontifical Biblical Commission's statement on the interpretation of the Bible in the Church. Both of these exhibit a good balance between the Church's legitimate spiritual concerns and the demands of objective biblical scholarship. My guess is that what Dave has been trying to say to you is largely in agreement with these two documents. Perhaps reading a more systematic exposition of the Church's position, and one which is outside the context of a one-on-one personal argument, will make it easier to understand where he is coming from, and hence make the whole discussion more fruitful for both of you.

Thank you for your insights Dr. Black,

Though I wish perhaps that you would send them to Dave as well,

I generally don't forward other people's email to third parties without permission. Now that I have your permission to do so, I will copy this reply
to him as well.

and that Dave would read your excellent online monograph on the Egyptian origin of several wise sayings that Jews and Christians later wrongly attributed to "King Solomon." smile

This isn't quite what the dissertation says. It is true that a number of Egyptian sayings ended up more or less intact in chapters 22-24 of the biblical Book of Proverbs. However, these were not "wrongly attributed to King Solomon"; in fact, the text quite clearly begins that section with the heading, "The sayings of the wise." [Proverbs 22:17] This is to distinguish them from the earlier collection of "the proverbs of Solomon" [10:1] and the later collection of "more proverbs of Solomon transcribed by the men of Hezekiah". [25:1] But even if they had all been ascribed to Solomon, that would not necessarily make the text "wrong". Since Solomon was obviously more than a little influenced by Egyptian culture (he did, after all, marry an Egyptian princess), he might well have incorporated some good foreign wisdom quotes into his own collection. This is, in fact, a common practice among "the wise" of almost every culture, who are always on the lookout for a choice turn of phrase and are generally quite eclectic and even cosmopolitan about their sources.

In point of fact, in my original article that Dave took exception to, I said not much more than C. S. Lewis once did, concerning the doubtful "holy" nature of the Psalms (and the lack of appropriateness of singing one psalm in particular at a friend's funeral).

In his Reflections on the Psalms Lewis wrote:

At one point I had to explain how I differed on a certain point from both Catholics and Fundamentalists: I hope I shall not for this forfeit the goodwill or the prayers of either. Nor do I much fear it.
Lewis characterized at least some of the psalmists as "ferocious, self-pitying, barbaric men." [Reflections on the Psalms, 24]

Well, yes. He also notes in the same paragraph that "we are all, of course, blood-brothers" to them. If being a sinful human disqualifies one from writing scripture, then no scripture could be written at all.

Adding, "But of course the fatal confusion between being in the right and being righteous soon falls upon them [the Psalmists].... There is also in many of the Psalms a still more fatal confusion--that between the desire for justice and the desire for revenge.... Even more devilish [than Psalm 109] in one verse is the, otherwise beautiful, [Psalm] 137.... This [Psalm 23:5] may not be so diabolical as the passages I have quoted above; but the pettiness and vulgarity of it... are hard to endure.... One way of dealing with these terrible or (dare we say?) contemptible Psalms is simply to leave them alone." [Reflections on the Psalms, 18-22]

Yes, Lewis says all these things. But he also adds a great deal of qualification and explanation to these statements--all of which you have omitted. This is precisely the sort of thing I had in mind when I said in my last note that I suspect you are attempting to "conduct the discussion according to fundamentalist definitions and rules of procedure". What you are doing here is not presenting a balanced view of what Lewis believed; you are "prooftexting", which means quoting snippets of text which appear to support your position without placing those snippets into their larger conceptual context. For example, Lewis points out that the psalmists' venomous reaction to injustice is rooted in something quite virtuous: a sense of indignation at evil. "If the Jews cursed more bitterly than the pagans," he says, it was "at least in part because they took right and wrong more seriously. ... The Jews sinned in this matter worse than the Pagans not because they were further from God but because they were nearer to Him." [pp. 30-31] To quote Lewis' distaste for the "diabolical" aspect of the psalms without also noting his evaluation of its cause is to misrepresent Lewis' position rather seriously. And once you understand what his position really was, it becomes clear that it was quite a bit more nuanced (and more affirming of conventional ideas of "inspiration") than the position you seem to be taking.

"Naivety, error, contradiction, even (as in the cursing Psalms) wickedness, are not removed [from the Bible]. [Reflections on the Psalms, 94]

I cannot find this quote on p. 94 of my copy.

You, Dave, and I all agree that the chief difficulty of any discussion of the Bible involves matters of perception and interpretation. Psalm 91 that I heard at Becca's funeral and that Dave has chided me for "questioning" is exactly one of the psalms that struck Lewis himself as less than "holy."

Where does he say this? The index in the back of the book has only one reference to Psalm 91 (i.e., p. 118) and there Lewis says nothing about that psalm being "less than holy"--in fact, he applies it to Jesus himself, and claims Jesus' own authority for doing so, which implies a very high view of it indeed.

Neither have any of Dave's attempts at "interpreting it" made it appear any more "inspired" either to my eyes, or to Lewis's,

Again, please give a page number for Lewis' alleged claim that Psalm 91 is not inspired.

though I admit Lewis's eyes are no longer around to gaze with wonder at all of Dave's denials of the all-too-human nature of the psalmists' ethno-centric, "ferocious, self-pitying and barbaric" (to cite Lewis) hyperbole.

Hyperbole: "an exaggeration or extravagant statement used as a figure of speech; for example, I could sleep for a year. This book weighs a ton." [American Heritage Dictionary]

Here you have stumbled onto the perfect solution for your dilemma: At least in its application to the average believer, Psalm 91 is hyperbole"--i.e., an exaggerated or extravagant statement, not intended to be taken literally in every case. There are times when it may indeed be literally true, as many people can attest. But there are other times when it just ain't so--as, again, many people can attest. Why do you think the Books of Job and Ecclesiastes are part of the canon along with Proverbs and Psalms? The former are a necessary corrective to the latter. Neither the Jews nor the early Christians were so silly as to think that every believer can "claim the promises" of Psalm 91 in every circumstance. It is only modern fundamentalists who insist on the literal application of every text of Scripture to every true believer. If they are fundamentalist Christians, they insist that the failure of the believer's experience to accord with the hyperbole of Psalm 91 is the fault of the believer, who must not have enough faith to make it come true; if they are fundamentalist anti-Christians, they insist that this failure is the fault of the Bible, which therefore must not be "inspired" after all. In either case the real problem is that the fundamentalist is attempting to use the text in a way in which it was never intended to be used.

Dave's response began with no sympathy or understanding of my plain humane commonsense perceptions, nor Lewis', but aimed first and foremost to picture me as daring to "question" "God." Then he completely ignored the words of psalm 91 in favor of an exposition about an afterlife (not mentioned anywhere in psalm 91), as well as vain attempts to try and reconcile far less fantastic "wisdom" sayings with the fantastic hyperbolic promises in psalm 91, which included overcoming armies of foes and diseases, right down to angels ensuring that one did not even stub one's toe. I found Dave's entire "response" to my original piece to be completely beside the point of psalm 91, none of whose verses Dave even touched upon in his original reply.

Perhaps that is because he was trying to move you out of the fundamentalist box you're still trapped in, and force you to deal with the larger issues.

If that is what Dave calls a "dialogue," and demonstrates Dave's mastery of Scripture and of the Holy Spirit guiding him into all truth,

Has Dave actually claimed that the Holy Spirit is guiding him personally into all truth in this discussion? If so, I'd like to see the quote. What Dave has said, on his web site, is this:

We apply the passages in John 14-16 about the Spirit's leading believers into all truth primarily to the Church as a whole. They can apply to individuals as well, but not as a norm for the faith.
This is a good example of what I meant when I said in my previous note that it would be unfruitful for you to try to put Dave into a fundamentalist box. If (as I suspect) he has never claimed that he is fronting for the Holy Spirit in all this, then for you to attribute that position to him is unfair
and unproductive.

then he can apologize to Satan for all the effect it is going to have on psalm-doubters such as C. S. Lewis and I.

And if you are mistaken about all this? Who will be doing the apologizing then?

Psalm 91 promised continued life and blessings, even promises of deliverance from an army of foes, from disease, even from stubbing one's toe, in one's earthly lifetime here and now.

That is one way of reading it--but it is a way of reading it which guarantees that it can't possibly be true. Most texts, inspired or otherwise, can be reduced to meaninglessness if approached with that kind of hermeneutic. Person A says, "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse." Person B, who hates A's guts, then says, "That's ridiculous. No one can literally eat an entire horse. How much more proof do you need that A is deranged, or at least a pathological liar?" It's an easy way of scoring cheap points, and it may play well to the gallery, but it's not even close to an honest exploration of the author's intended meaning.

Whether or not this was meant as a corporate promise instead of an individual one is not nearly as important as the fact that the proposed promises referred to this life, not an afterlife. And Biblical historians recognize that psalmist's concerns as most likely arising out of an early strain of Hebrew thought that took for granted that all souls simply sunk down into Sheol after death.

"Biblical historians" have "recognized" all sorts of things in recent centuries, many of which have turned out on closer inspection not to be true at all. The old canard that ancient Israel knew nothing about life after death has been seriously questioned (I would say "disproven") by more recent scholarship.

Hence, blessings of a long Yahweh-protected life were of paramount importance to such a psalmist.

Realistically, blessings in this life are pretty much paramount to most human beings; it takes a real saint to utterly disdain what happens to us in this life and focus entirely on what may (or may not) happen to us in the next. One does not have to disdain or disbelieve in an afterlife to be primarily concerned with what is happening to ourselves (and others) in the here-and-now.

As for the two Catholic statements regarding the Bible that you cited below, Catholics have been making statements regarding how to understand the Bible for millennia, but have arrived at different theological teachings, different emphases and different opinions:

The Wisdom of the Popes: A Collection of Statements of the Popes Since Peter on a Variety of Religious and Social Issues by Thomas J. Craughwell

Rome Has Spoken: A Guide to Forgotten Papal Statements, and How They Have Changed Through the Centuries by Maureen Fiedler, Linda Rabben

So what? If you want to know what the Church says on this subject today, then you need to read what it teaches today. And in fact there is a lot of good insight in those documents, if you will only take the trouble to read them.

I am of course happy that the Catholic church is capable of change. So am I, so is every human being on earth, Catholic or not. I have chosen to live with my own changes just as Catholics and their church have chosen to live with theirs. smile

As for myself, I have changed considerably in consequence of my growing knowledge of the diversity of religious figures (both major and minor) and their experiences and teachings throughout human history, figures in both Western and Eastern and New World traditions. With such increasing knowledge I have found the "stalwarts" of both Catholic and Protestant faiths--from the popes to Martin Luther and John Calvin--to be human beings whose teachings and actions appear to me today to have been less admirable than many of the lesser known figures, including in some cases, members of repressed or despised sects (Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhardt, Castellio, Quakers, Unitarians, and Deists, to name just a few).

This may be a new discovery to you, but it has been common knowledge among Catholics for as long as there have been Catholics. Dante's Inferno has some juicy passages about dead popes burning in hell. In fact, it has long been a commonplace in Catholic teaching that some of the greatest saints are those who are the least known, while many of the princes of the Church are (at best) going to be "least" in the kingdom of heaven. The Church has never claimed that its popes or bishops were always moral paragons, nor has it claimed that they were incapable of errors in what is termed "prudential judgment". It has only claimed that the Church itself, with Popes and Councils as its occasional instrument, is divinely protected from certain kinds of errors in its teaching on faith and morals--and even then only under certain circumstances.

Which reminds me, you can google up oodles of "ex-Catholic" or "former Catholic" testimonies on the web including ex-priests and ex-nuns, some of whom left the Christian fold entirely (after growing older and wiser, like Karen Armstrong, ex-nun and best selling author of A History of God; or Joseph McCabe, another writer, who was a priest for 30 years before leaving the fold) while others have left Catholicism for Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestantism, or even non-Christian religions. I have even read on the web about the occasional Catholic priest who has converted to Hinduism or even Islam. And all such ex-Catholics have their own criticisms of Catholicism.

Again, so what? Ex-Catholics are critical of the Catholic Church; ex-Protestants are critical of the Protestant churches; ex-Communists are critical of Communism; ex-Mormons are critical of Mormonism; ex-atheists are critical of atheism; and so on and so forth, ad infinitum. It's almost definitional that anyone who is "ex" anything is going to have some kind of beef with whatever it is they left; otherwise, they probably wouldn't have left in the first place. None of this proves that any of their complaints are even remotely justified, nor do any "justified" complaints always have anything to do with the truth or falsehood of what they left, or the rightness of their decision to leave.

Even many who did not leave Catholicism have yet had their horizons widened immensely by interacting with people of other religious faiths and cultures, people such as Dom Bede Griffiths (close life-long friend of C. S. Lewis and fellow convert at Oxford, but who became a Catholic and opened a Hindu-Christian ashram in India); Thomas Merton (who read much eastern wisdom and visited the east as well); and, William Johnson (who studied meditation with Buddhists in Japan), all of whom who have written wonderful books about the universality and overlapping aspects of their faith and practices with those of other religions.

Well, yes. That was partly the point of my own dissertation, after all. I happen to have a B.A., an M.A., and a Ph.D. in Religious Studies, and a major part of all three degrees was "comparative religions". I've studied not only Christianity and Judaism, but also Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism,

Islam, Greco-Roman paganism, the religions of Ancient Egypt, shamanism, neo-paganism, and some forms of indigenous American Indian religions.

I am well aware of the "universality and overlapping aspects of their faith and practices". But none of this makes me any less Catholic, or any less committed to the teaching authority of the magisterium of the Church. In fact, it was my thirty years of study in all these areas which led me into the Catholic Church.

And of course, the Catholic church has had to continue to employ coercion every year she has been in existence, to maintain the unity of the church and maintain her particular teachings

There is nothing new in this. Every religion has doctrinal and moral standards, and it must "employ coercion" against those who violate those standards or they will quickly cease to be standards at all, and the religion will dissolve into some sort of "cosmic tapioca" country club like the Unitarians.

(whichever teachings they were in each generation), making hypocrites out of a lot of priests and theologians who gave themselves to the church for years, but whose minds eventually broadened to a point where they wished to question or challenge some teachings, which, by the way, has proven to be an ongoing process throughout Catholicism's history. Instead of inviting and opening such discussions and process, the church tells such priests and theologians to keep quiet or leave.

Open discussion is possible on open questions; but on those matters which have already been discussed to death and on which the teaching authority of the Church has already made a definitive determination, further discussion is pointless. No one would expect Buddhists to tolerate within their ranks someone who believed (as some Hindus do) that the Buddha was an avatar of Vishnu sent to mislead the reprobate to destruction. No one would expect the Muslims to tolerate someone within their ranks who considered Mohammed to be a false prophet. No one would expect the International Society for Krishna Consciousness to tolerate within their ranks someone who considered the Bhagavad-Gita to be a silly fairy tale. So why is it that people expect Christians to tolerate within their ranks "Christians" who don't believe that Jesus is the Son of God, or real Catholics to tolerate within their ranks "Catholics" who don't accept the authority of the Pope?

In the end the church will change no doubt, but just not in those particular theologian's lifetimes. smile

On the other hand, other Catholics are more Catholic than the Pope, like the church to which Mel Gibson belongs, that broke away from the post-Vatican II papacy, and claims the present pope and church is illegitimate or at the very least, a sorry substitute for Mel's "true" Catholic faith and practice.

Notice, it's not even the major dogmas that Christians split with other Christians over! (I suppose that making absolutely sure one is going to heaven--and not the other place--can drive people mad with feeling they must make just the right fine distinctions between themselves and others.)

Neither do I imagine that "the church" is as "unanimous" nor as "triumphant" as converts like Dave Armstrong, or, Scott Hahn (the author of Rome Sweet Rome), imagine it to be. There are obviously liberals and moderates aplenty in modern day Catholic churches and seminaries, not just conservatives.

And if God truly cared about the Catholic church and kept a watchful eye, and answered prayers, then I doubt the Vatican would have simply lost its billions, (perhaps a trillion dollars, who knows? which God could have used to spread charity), lost it to Vatican Bank embezzlers a couple decades ago.

Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future by Seraphim Father Rose (Orthodox priest who isn't impressed with Catholicism)

[I wrote a paper about Fr. Rose, who is an anti-Catholic: "Dialogues on Orthodox Anti-Catholicism, Fr. Seraphim Rose, and Ecumenism"]


Dear Dr. Black,

Thank you for your very interesting and illuminating remarks in your two replies to Ed, and also for your gracious defense of me in cases where he has engaged in ad hominem fallacies or misrepresented what my position was.

My pleasure.

I thought Ed and I could engage in constructive discourse, as he is a friendly fellow. But if you followed the overall trajectory of our dialogue at all, you readily saw, I think that it has degenerated into non sequitur and many rabbit trails.

Unfortunately, this seems to be the norm for these sorts of discussions. In the several years I spent defending the Church in Usenet News, I found to my sorrow that the people who are the most "passionate" about these things are often the least informed and the least able to engage in any kind of critical thinking.

I was interested strictly in the subject matter raised by Ed's initial paper that I critiqued (the Psalms, Psalm 91 in particular, and supposed severe logical and moral difficulties in Christian -- and historic Jewish -- interpretation and application of them).

Straying from the subject seems to be a general human failing. :-) Currently, a Protestant anti-Catholic opponent of mine (James White), who is supposedly "critiquing" my latest book, is doing exactly the same thing: routinely changing the subject and launching all sorts of ridiculous personal attacks. I think it is a shame.

You hit the nail on the head, in suspecting that Ed's former fundamentalism is tripping him up to the present day. I made the same exact point in our dialogue. You may have noticed that. I was never a fundamentalist. I was a nominal (very ignorant) Methodist as a child, then nothing at all (dabbler in the occult), then an evangelical Protestant for 13 years, and finally, a convert to Catholicism in 1990. At no point did I pass through some "fundamentalist" phase, with all that that entails (though I did unknowingly read some writers -- particularly Hal Lindsey in the late 70s -- who could certainly be classified in such a way).

This is pretty much my own story, although in my case I was an evangelical for approximately thirty years instead of thirteen, and I was received into the Church in 2000.

Again, thank you for your valuable insights on this (especially the defenses of Lewis, who is my favorite writer). Would it be okay to reproduce the entirety of your two letters to Ed and his responses on my blog and website?

Of course. I would consider it an honor.

I assume he will grant permission for his part, as I have been posting his letters on my blog already, as part of our dialogue, and he forwarded this exchange to me. I think that doing so would be a fitting end to this dialogue, and really put things into perspective. I learned a lot, reading your replies, and I know many others would, too.

I thank Ed, too, for providing much evidence of what I have been contending about atheist / agnostic exegesis/hermeneutic of Scripture for years now. :-) I think he has some worthwhile critiques against true fundamentalists, but against orthodox Catholics like you and I, his general approach misses the mark by quite a bit.

Wishing you and yours (both you and Ed) a most blessed new year,



Ed Babinski's Remarks of 11 January 2005

Considering that you ignored my initial concerns in my original discussion of specific psalms and specific passages in them, and instead drifted off right at the beginning into "eternal life" and me being a "God questioner," I don't think your initial reply even began to engage in a debate. If anyone began with "ad hom" it was you since you began the opening paragraphs of your very first criticism not by addressing my concerns but by asking what right I had to question "God," and by asserting that "eternal life" had something to do with the questions I had raised, neither of which were my concerns in my original piece. Even C. S. Lewis recognized the difficulties that people have with the psalms I cited, and Lewis admitted having difficulties with them himself. Did you even notice the original context of the psalms I cited, i.e., hyperbolic overblown supernatural divine protection in the face of an army of foes and diseases. Did you even notice that such protection was viewed as a
great blessing precisely because one major strain of ancient Hebrew thought believed this life was all there was? You displayed no such knowledge in your original criticisms, nor even an acknowledgement of my (and Lewis') concerns.

Secondly, reading the responses at your blog and noticing that Catholicism is the single biggest Christian church on earth, I dare say it is like the pot calling the kettle black when you criticize me for engaging in "ad populum" and my own mini-blog with friends whose discussions I opened up
to you, exactly as you had opened up your blog to me. I also privately emailed over 50 friends to respond to our conversation and write on your blog concerning our initial exchange, but they declined for lack of time or interest. But you concentrated on me and my few friends, and whatever ulterior motives you dreamed us guilty of, rather than dealing with arguments. You are addicted to ad hom, ad populum and hypocrisy, Dave. I saw that in your first reply.

Lastly, you are boring and lack Chesterton's wit, lightness, or the way he engaged even his atheist Catholicism-hating friend, H.G. Wells . . .

Correspondence of 16 January 2005

(my words in black)

Hi Ed,

Hope you are well.

Below is the email message I told you about, which I sent to about 50 e-friends of mine on Dec. 17th, 2004, to try and drum up interest at your blog site. I did it all for us and your blog site. As we both know, few were even interested in the topic enough to read and respond to what you
had written.

[Catholic convert and web-pologist Dave Armstrong has produced a massive
pro-Catholic website over the years. The story of his conversion to
Catholicism appears in a bestselling book of similar converts (mostly
former Protestantism I think), and he has published numerous books of
Catholic apologetics, all available at, that strive to make
Catholicism and its various unique doctrines and practices appear in as
rational a light as possible, as well as having published in-depth
counters to both Protestantism and Modernism. Dave recently composed a
long web piece at his blog-site criticizing one of my shorter pieces on
the psalms. He continues to write in a pretty friendly fashion and invite
my response, as well as the responses of any readers of the debate, and he
publishes them all at his blog-site. Most folks who read Dave's blog are
Christians and respond in kind. His blog could probably use just a few
non-Christian responses or even moderate Christian responses from moderate
Christian university profs, to balance matters out a tad: ]
I was aware of that and have no problem with it. Your webmaster was the one who apparently started down the path of poisoning the well, with her potshots at my supposed motives and shortcomings. This was unnecessary and unhelpful. I'm not the "bad guy" for simply objecting to that "hijacking" of what had the potential to be a fruitful discussion.

What exactly were you seeking or hoping to accomplish in responding to my psalms piece?

To show that your reasoning and conclusions did not follow. Frankly, I should think that was obvious, but hey, I'm always glad to clarify, and so I appreciate the opportunity.

And why begin with that piece?

It was short and to the point. I didn't have the time (or the desire) to take on one of your epics (I had to constantly point out that your ever-present lengthy diversions were non sequiturs, as it was). One has to start somewhere. I remembered that you had written some friendly letters, and so I decided to take on one of your papers and see what happened. You struck me as a guy who would be willing to dialogue and I am always on the lookout for that.

Technically speaking, I don't see how you were ever going to help me reason my way to agreeing with you that every last verse in the Psalms is inspired by God

But that wasn't my goal at all. You confuse defeating a fallacious argument with making a positive argument. My project was the former. You simply projected the latter project onto my argument and supposed goals, when it was never there. It was second-guessing, and you guessed wrong.

anymore than I can imagine other types of cursing-imprecatory literature found outside the Bible to be "inspired."

Furthermore there are plenty of non cursing-non imprecatory verses and literature, both in the Bible and in non-Christian literature, that strike me as being more "inspired" if that's the right word.

I'm well aware that skeptics have a problem with these verses, but that gets back to the nature of the literature which is vastly misunderstood (a major theme of my replies). I bypassed a complex subject in and of itself (imprecatory psalms), only commenting on it briefly, and went to the large backdrop issue of interpretation of Hebrew poetry. You say that was irrelevant and off-topic (and perhaps evasive). I say it was exactly on-topic and crucial in order for the discussion to progress. One must examine premises. You had your hidden premises, and I was questioning them. This is my Socratic method.

You may not always follow my reasoning, but I am what I am and don't attempt to change like some sort of chameleon, in my discussions. I try to "be all things to all people," as St. Paul urged, but I don't fundamentally change my philosophical methodology. I challenge premises and try to get people to (1) be aware of theirs, and (2) defend them from critique. I think you have a ways to go on both counts, with regard to this particular argument of yours (insofar as it can be called an "argument" at all and not simply an emotional, essentially non-rational objection precipitated by a sad and troubling event -- the funeral of a friend).

If you can't grasp what I have said above, then I suppose we truly are of entirely different minds concerning the Bible, but then, C. S. Lewis also appears to be of his own mind concerning such the Bible and the psalms, and he was a Christian.

You are the one who clearly hasn't grasped my argument. I have shown this over and over. You assume I am being simplistic and ignorant. That's a big mistake.

In the end, I also think it more important what type of person someone is, rather than placing a person's beliefs before getting to know them.

I completely agree that there are nice, wonderful people in all belief-systems. That's not my beef. Never was . . . I am dealing with comparative belief-systems and trying to show the weaknesses of the non-Christian and non-Catholic ones and the strengths of my own. I assume the good will and decency of folks unless and until I am provided incontrovertible evidence otherwise. :-)

I have friends of different beliefs,

As do I. I have a good atheist friend who regularly attended my group discussion meetings. I have a Baptist friend who is a Marxist or socialist (or however he would class himself). He has been a friend of mine for almost 20 years. I saw both at a new years' party.

and even within Catholicism there are far right wing and far left wing believers, members of various lay groups, who hardly see eye to eye on many different matters, even breakaway Catholic groups (like pre-Vatican 2 Catholics churches that kept the Latin Mass), and rent-a-priests (married former priests whom you can phone and they will come and do mass for you).

Of course.

Here is the email I had sent out to 50 people I knew, including about ten Christians, but who apparently did not have either the time or interest in our debate: [posted above]

Well, that's not unusual, as I'm sure you know. Very few people are interested in true debate. How well I know that. And this trait crosses all lines of party affiliation, believe me. The people who drive me the most nuts are other Christians. I have two prominent anti-Catholic apologists calling me a liar and deceiver as I write (see the recent blog entry where I protested this abominable [public] treatment). You just said I was boring and off-subject (and, perhaps implied: intolerant). LOLOLOL That's small change!

If you weren't aware of it, I posted your exchange with James Roger Black that you (and he) forwarded to me. I think your attempt there to make me look like a simplistic would-be fundamentalist hyper-literal Bible interpreter, backfired, to put it mildly. You should learn from this, Ed. I don't fit into the box that you have tried to put me in. Nor do, I think, many Christians you cite, not the least of whom, C.S. Lewis, as Dr. Black illustrated. We all need to get over stereotypical thinking, and that includes most assuredly, many Christians and their wild misconceptions of atheists and agnostics such as yourself. Both sides (I'm speaking now very broadly) have lied about and misrepresented the other to scandalous proportions, and it is time for true thinkers to get beyond that. We can unite on many commonly-held grounds and have good discussion without the personal elements and suspicions that destroy discussion every time.

I shall add this exchange to that paper also, unless you have some objection. I like free speech. Let both sides express themselves and let onlookers decide who makes more sense . . .

Take care,


Ed's (Often Inaccurate) Comments At My Expense In Another Venue: 21 February 2005

(see: "Boar's Head Tavern")

[it's fascinating how folks like Ed who seem quite "nice" and "tolerant" at first will quickly take off the velvet gloves and bare their fangs, when refuted or confuted enough times]

. . . As for Christianity in particular, I have grown to find it increasingly less believable Recently I ad some blog exchanges with a Catholic apologist on the web, Dave Armstrong (who has an extremely large website and who has written several books in a series on Christian and Catholic apologetics). He critiqued a small article of mine on the web concerning the psalms, and invited me response more than once before I decided to respond. In my exchanges with Armstrong or others who cling to their faith like a veritable rock of "inscrutable reasons," I fully admit their faith in their particular holy book or denomination brings them comfort and certainty and also allows them to politely damn even people like me. But about having a dialogue with such folks, I have this to say...

1) I could question Dave's Catholic Bible, all 1000 pages of the Catholic Bible (which includes the Apocrypha), even focus on the creation myths with which it begins. But Dave believes there is nothing questionable about God starting the Bible off with myths and speaking in mythical language. That's as "sure" a start as any holy book needs apparently.

2) Or I could point to the most ludicrous passages in the Apocrypha.

3) Or I could cite the ludicrous belief of the author of the apocryphal "letter of Jude" in the N.T. that adds a verse from another apocryphal book, i.e., "Jude" says that "Enoch the seventh from Adam" "prophesied" "such and such." ("Jude" cites a passage directly from the apocryphal flat-earth book of Enoch and says that passage was a "prophecy" about what was happening to the church in "Jude's" day, viz., an apocryphal author citing an apocryphal author!). But again that's as good a way to convey "truth" as any to true believers like Armstrong. His answer to all such questions is that "The Bible needs proper interpretation, and that is provided by the church."

4) I could then critique the 600+ pages of the official Catechism of the Catholic Church, which of course is a changeable document that keeps evolving, and Dave can always agree with some misgivings and hope for future changes, or he can denounce such criticisms as nitpicking. "Look at the Big Picture" he'll say. (But of course he doesn't mean the picture of Christians persecuting pagans and their fellows throughout the millennia, nor the history of doctrinal differences too numerous to mention, nor of today's internal differences among Catholics.)

5) In the end I could respond to Dave with, "I don't think I need a changing, evolving Catechism, I am capable of changing my own mind, citing my own inspirational bits of wisdom from a variety of sources, some religious, some not. I am capable of making my own decisions and living life and evolving as everyone else on this planet does each day. Neither do I claim to know as much as you do, Dave, about 'God' and the 'afterlife' and what you must believe and practice. Have you considered that I live with greater mystery than the 'Catholic Church' does about such matters? And why not? Neither do I wish to become a Catholic or anything else and have to defend 'the church.' Nor am I eager to defend any particular side within today's internal church controversies of which I read each week in the American publication, the 'National Catholic Reporter.' I am frankly sick of religion, and it's middle men, and polite attempts to suggest everyone else is in eternal error by them and their beliefs . . .

Uploaded on 9 January 2005 by Dave Armstrong.

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