I have been in the mood lately to do some Christian-skeptic discussion (my first love in apologetics, going back to the early 80s). I've selected one of Ed's shorter papers (he has written some huge, meticulously- and massively-researched ones, which are -- false conclusions entirely aside -- quite impressive), because restricted subject matter works better in terms of a systematic working-through of the issues (one can't sensibly, constructively deal with 1000 things at once -- or even 100; or even 10).
The following is my reply, then, to his short essay, "The Problem of Pain and the Egomania of the Psalms". There is plenty enough here to deal with, as readers will see. I have notified Ed of this paper, and presumably he will be willing to come and interact a bit (past responses of his indicated this). I urge everyone to treat him with kindness and charity if he does, and to do our best to provide him with a good Christian example of discourse, politeness, and defense of the faith.
* * * * *
Rebecca Anne Reed, whom I knew as "Becca," was a co-worker and friend with a good sense of humor. She died recently from a blood clot that moved from her lung to her heart. She was only 27 years old, engaged to be married, a lover of dogs and children, and working on writing a romance novel.
Such is the tragedy of life. Christians believe, however, that there is a purpose to everything. We may never discover it in this life, but that makes it no less likely for a loving God to have some inscrutable reason for difficult-to-understand things like this.
I attended her funeral, which was held in a Catholic church. One of the songs sung was based on Psalm 91, which declares,
Surely He will deliver you...from the deadly pestilence...You will not be afraid of...the arrow that flies by day; or of the pestilence that stalks in darkness; or of the destruction that lays waste at noon. A thousand may fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand; but it will not come near you...Because you have made the Lord your refuge...no evil will befall you, nor will any plague come near your dwelling. For He will give his angels charge concerning you, to guard you in all your ways...They will bear you up in their hands, lest you strike your foot against a stone. You shall tread upon the lion and cobra; the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot...Because you have set your love upon Me [Yahweh], therefore I will deliver you...with long life I will satisfy you.Ed's skeptical take on this is clear already: God's promises are null and void, and obviously vacant: just look at this poor woman; she was a Christian, and trusted God, but did that help her? No! Quite the contrary. God didn't do a darned thing to save her . . . Etc. I will comment on the wrongheadedness of Ed's analysis in this regard as we proceed.
Becca was beginning to attend church after having shunned it for a while. It was then that she was struck down at home ["no evil will befall you, nor will any plague come near your dwelling"] by an embolism ["Surely He will deliver you...from the deadly pestilence"], and died at age 27 ["with long life I will satisfy you"]. The irony of the words of that psalm being sung at Becca's funeral was apparent to me though no one else there seemed to notice, maybe because the psalm was matched with a pretty melody.
The basic Christian answer to this is to point out what sort of literature is being discussed. The Psalms are poetry, or what is known in Hebrew, biblical culture as wisdom literature. As such, by nature the sentiments and proclamations are not to be understood as absolutely applying in every particular, in a literal fashion. That's not how poetry works. Proverbs (a similar type of literature) works in the same way: a general statement is made, expressing a general (or, proverbial) truth.
It is not intended literally, but rather, as a broadly true observation of actual "sociological" reality. So. e.g., ". . . fools die for lack of sense" (Proverbs 10:21; RSV) or "He who trusts in his riches will wither" (Prov 11:28), or "He who walks with wise men becomes wise" (Prov 13:20). These are but a few examples, chosen at random as I opened this book. Clearly, proverbs and maxims and "wise, pithy sayings" or poetry are not literal expressions (as some biblical prophecies are intended to be) -- not in the particularistic way that Ed is making out that they ought to be interpreted. He has a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of this kind of literature, and how it was understood by the Jews at the time.
The same thing applies in certain statements in the New Testament, from Jesus and others (Jesus Himself often spoke in very proverbial, poetic, metaphorical, and hyperbolic terms):
Much of 1st John, as the Gospel of John, is written in a sort of proverbial, or idealized language. For example, 1 John 5:18: "We know that anyone born of God does not sin . . ." (cf. 3:6,8-9). Of course, believers sin all the time. In proverbial literature, the intention is not absolute and all-encompassing, without exception, but rather, common-sense observation of what usually accompanies a certain state or condition. Thus, John is saying that "those in Christ do not sin," or, more accurately, "the essence of the person in Christ is righteousness; sin is contrary to the essence of a Christian."
And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away . . . (Matthew 5:30)
. . . even if you say to this mountain, 'Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,' it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive. (Matthew 21:21-22)
[but note how this seeming "absolute" is qualified in 1 John 5:14: "if we ask anything according to his will he hears us". Prayers can always be nullified or vetoed by God if they are not in our best interest. He knows a bit more than we do]
Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God's seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. (1 John 3:9)
Thus, also, he also expresses the thought, "those who believe in Christ will be saved and will have eternal life; those who do not will not be saved." (cf. 1 John 5:13). Those are general truths, but it is much more difficult to apply them to individuals, and this is expressing something different from absolute subjective assurance of an individual. In fact, John "contradicts" 1 Jn 5:18 (above) in 1 Jn 1:8: "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us."
But in fact it is no contradiction, because proverbial literature is not meant to be interpreted in such absolute, airtight terms. In the book of Proverbs the classic example (26:4-5) is where it says "answer not a fool" in one verse, and in the very next it says, "answer a fool" (i.e., different situations dictate a different response, in prudence).
Now, in the context of Psalm 91, the idea is that "God can be trusted to be faithful to His followers. He is loving and merciful." The way to illustrate that in a poetic form, to poor farmers or shepherds in ancient Israel, is to put it in very concrete terms (the Hebrews were not a philosophical society, by Greek standards; they were very pragmatic and practical-minded and ritualistic; as Judaism is to this day).
The Jews weren't philosophical, but it doesn't follow that they were stupid. They were not. Along with the promises of the Psalms and maxims of Proverbs were also the sober teachings of the book of Job: perhaps the most famous expression of the perplexities of suffering ever written. Job was also part of the wisdom literature of the Bible. Jews were quite familiar with it. And Job is much more like "real life," isn't it (Ecclesiastes offers a similar perspective also)? People suffer, and agonize over why that is, if God exists, is good, and can be trusted to bless the "righteous," or those who place their trust in Him, follow Him as disciples, and accept the free gift of His enabling grace and mercy.
The moral of the story at the end of Job (after the righteous Job had endured incredible suffering, which seemed counter to the proverbs of the righteous having an easy go of it), was that God is God: He is far above us, and ultimately inscrutable:
God: "Can you, like him, spread out the skies?" (Job 37:18)
"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" (38:4)
"Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it." (40:2)
Job: ". . . I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know." (42:3)
English professor Leland Ryken, in his book, The Literature of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1974, 123-124), writes about how we should approach the Psalms as poetic literature:
[W]e should come to the Psalms with the expectation of finding there the expression of religious feelings. We should not expect to find an account of historical events, since ordinarily a lyric poem will make use only of so much history or narrative as necessary to make clear the nature and source of the emotion being presented. Nor should we expect to find an exposition of theological doctrine. Theological doctrine can be deduced from the Psalms, but that is not their main business. The Psalms, being lyric poetry, exist primarily to give expression to the emotional side of religious experience.Referring particularly to the sort of statements that Ed objected to above (since he mistakenly wants to interpret each of them hyper-literally), Ryken observes:
An example of antithetic parallelism is the statement "the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish" (vs. [1:]6). The function of such parallelism is artistic; it presents a pleasing pattern without asking that every statement add to the logical content.Ryken's point about type of literature and how this relates to interpretation of the Psalms is made even more clear in his commentary on the famous Psalm 23 ("The Lord is my shepherd . . . "). The Jews were well aware (being human beings) that life involved suffering, and that belief in God did not wipe this out. They were not the simpletons and ignoramuses that Ed's commentary would imply (as if they had some namby-pamby, fantasy world, head-in-the-sand, pie-in-the-sky notion of the reality of life and inevitable suffering):
Here are a few more examples of such "realism" and awareness of the reality of suffering, even for the "righteous," in the Psalms:
"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, / I fear no evil." Centuries of Christian experience have fixed the meaning of the phrase, "the valley of the shadow of death" as a reference to human death. While this is one of the figurative meanings of the verse, a literal rendition of the text would be "the valley of deep darkness" (RSV footnote). The literal image is that of a very dark valley, where the fear of sheep would be at its greatest. The valley and darkness are both archetypal images of evil and danger . . . It is part of the realism of the poem that the speaker implicitly acknowledges the inevitability of adverse experiences. What the poet claims is freedom from fear, not freedom from evil. He bases his assurance on the abiding presence of God, as evidenced by the clause "for thou art with me."
For further examples throughout the Bible, see my paper: Reasons for Suffering and Encouragement and Hope in the Midst of It: A Biblical Compendium.
Psalm 46:1-3: . . . God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; 3 though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
Psalm 71:20: Thou who hast made me see many sore troubles wilt revive me again; from the depths of the earth thou wilt bring me up again.
Psalm 73:26: My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever.
Psalm 94:19: When the cares of my heart are many, thy consolations cheer my soul.
50 This is my comfort in my affliction that thy promise gives me life.
67 Before I was afflicted I went astray; but now I keep thy word.
71 It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn thy statutes.
75 I know, O LORD, that thy judgments are right, and that in faithfulness thou hast afflicted me.
93 I will never forget thy precepts; for by them thou hast given me life.
Psalm 138:7: Though I walk in the midst of trouble, thou dost preserve my life; thou dost stretch out thy hand against the wrath of my enemies, and thy right hand delivers me.
Religious services are not designed to make you think more rationally, they are designed to "move" you.
Well, here is the attraction of the critical, garden variety skeptical remark at the expense of those sterotypical "ignorant, irrational" Christians. Let's look more closely at this for a moment and see who is really being unreasonable. First of all, there is nothing wrong with not always thinking "rationally", if by this we mean that there is, therefore, no place for (strictly speaking, non-rational) moving, emotional discourse, thoughts, reflections, and so forth. Rationality or left-brained, logical thinking is not all of life (and thank God that this is the case).
Imagine if a man approached his wife (particularly at romantic moments) with all logic and no heart and feeling: "well, Mrs. So-and-So, we have a marriage license, and part of the normal development of marriage is to engage in . . . and this is because of evolutionary-induced physical and chemical desire, so it's only logical that we set aside a bit of time once in a while to . . . since it is mutually-beneficial and happiness-inducing, so how about an appointment at 10:00 tonight?" -- well, you get my drift.
Secondly, to be non-rational is not to be immediately irrational. I have shown through painstaking literary and biblical analysis above that the Psalms are simply not the type of literature that Ed falsely assumed them to be. He approached the text (even apart from the theological framework, which is secondary to our immediate concerns) in a woodenly-literal (what might be called) "hyper-rationalistic" fashion which completely bypassed the need to understand the nature and purpose of the literature under consideration. This is a very common occurrence in skeptical, agnostic, and atheist circles, I must regretfully inform my readers, from long, sad personal experience. See my papers:
Refutation of Atheists' Alleged Biblical "Contradictions" Concerning Salvation and Supposed Annihilationism and Universalism
Examination of Atheist Bible Scholarship and Exegesis
Thirdly, there is nothing wrong with being moved on appropriate occasions; nor is this intrinsically contrary to "rational thought," as the grammatical construction of Ed's sentence above falsely implies. I should hope to be moved at a funeral or a wedding. Those are precisely the times when reflection on marriage and death and what they mean and signify, should take place. At such ceremonial or ritualistic occasions, a citation of the Psalms is precisely apt because it expresses the deepest meanings and emotions of life. Does Ed want Mr. Spock to perform these services, for heaven's sake?
That's not to discount the importance also of thinking about these issues rationally as well. Hopefully, men and women will think seriously about their potential mate and life-partner. And it is altogether rational to think deeply about death and where we will go or not go when we die. I am only objecting to the cynical, patronizing disdain for the emotional, "moving" aspects of such ceremonies and "rites of passage," as if there is something wrong, or "irrational" about this.
How much meaning one can pack into one cynical sentence! I think if Ed were questioned about what he meant here, we would find much or all of what I have complained about. Even if he himself did not mean this, then certainly many other skeptics, atheists, and agnostics would think in these ways, so my point would still have general application and relevance to the discussion.
What I find quite humorous, comical, and ironic (sorry, Ed, I can never resist this), is the fact that, in the very act of looking down their "intellectual, rational, logical ('hard') noses" at the supposed gullibility and irrationality of Christians and their alleged naive view of reality, the skeptic is usually found to be far more irrational and gullible. I think I have amply demonstrated this above, in the present case.
The "more rational than thou" skeptic becomes more wrongheaded and illogical (and too often, downright silly and foolish) in proportion to how much of an ax he has to grind (sometimes also based on their own past). Ed's a sharp guy; he could have easily done a bit of study about wisdom literature and how it is and was interpreted by the Jews at the time and Christians throughout the centuries, and thus prevented his flatly-wrong conclusions about the Psalms. But he did not do so. That's a shame, but at least it provides us a classic example of the folly of much of skeptical "biblical hermeneutics" (we should call it "anti-hermeneutics" or "Bible butchery," as far as I am concerned).
Upon reading Psalm 91 later, after the service, I noticed how it consists of a list of outrageous "promises" of earthly security, stringing absurdity after absurdity, until the author wound up with "angels" not allowing him to stub his toe.
What is absurd is not the passage itself (which is not absurd at all, when understood as poetry and an emotional affirmation of trust in God), but Ed's seeming inability to interpret it sensibly, according to the rules of literature, interpretation, and (hopefully) some semblance of other biblical books which cast a great deal of light on this passage, as I have tried to demonstrate throughout this response. Ed assumes that the ancient Jews were gullible, naive idiots who had a sort of fairy-tale vision of the world (hence, "outrageous" and filled with "absurdity") which would cause them to interpret such poetic utterances as foolishly as Ed does, in his rush to condemn and patronize the biblical and Christian ethos.
That judgment applies far more to folks like Marxists, or the Enlightenment philosophes, who showed themselves incredibly stupid and naive with regard to human nature (since most of them didn't believe in God) and the nature of society, but not to the biblical, Hebraic-Christian theistic tradition in its best forms. There are all sorts of ironies here, but I'll let readers ponder them on their own. This is a fairly simple matter. But Ed doesn't see it, because his overwhelming bias against the Bible and Christianity will not allow him to. I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite writers: Malcolm Muggeridge:
Our twentieth century, far from being notable for scientific scepticism, is one of the most credulous eras in all history. It is not that people believe in nothing - which would be bad enough -- but that they believe in anything -- which is really terrible. Recoiling, as they do, from accepting the validity of miracles, and priding themselves on seeing the Incarnation as a transcendental con-trick, they will accept at its face value any proposition, however nonsensical, that is presented in scientific or sociological jargon -- for instance, the existence of a population explosion, which has been so expertly and decisively demolished by Professor Colin Clark of Monash University. Could any mediaeval schoolman, I ask myself, sit through a universally applauded television series like Bronowski's Ascent of Man without a smile of derision at such infantile acceptance of unproven and unprovable assertions?Trust in Yahweh and your life will be like Superman's (or like that of another "well nigh invulnerable" comic book character, The Tick!) You'll be invulnerable to "arrows" [a modern day version of this Psalm would probably add that "bullets shall not harm you, and atomic bomb radiation shall not burn you even though thousands around you melt into puddles of ooze" - which reminds me...Pat Robertson, in the late 1970s gave a rousing speech about how "machine gun bullets" wouldn't be able to hurt true believers]. So, like Superman (or The Tick), you need not worry about any disease, deadly animal, poisonous snake [even if you walk upon it], or even worry about jamming your pinky toe! That's what the psalmist promises will happen to those who "trust in Yahweh."
(Vintage Muggeridge, edited by Geoffrey Barlow, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985, 74-75, "The Bible Today," from a lecture delivered on 7 October 1976)
In light of all of the above clarification, one can readily see how truly ridiculous this analysis is. Rather than proving that the Psalms are "absurd" and to be mocked, Ed only proves his own ignorance of the literature and the culture which produced it. Presumably, this was a lack of his former fundamentalist environment, and remaining baggage from that period of his intellectual odyssey, but I can assure him and anyone else that not all of us Christians were so stunted in our rudimentary education in our religion.
To round out the amusing irony, Ed has to cite an example of the obligatory "foolish Christian character" and include the usual mockery of silly distortions of Christianity, rather than dealing with the best, most respectable examples. What's the point? I could see it if his purpose was strictly an examination of fundamentalist know-nothing excess and folly, but his purpose is ostensibly a critique of the Psalms and the supposedly infantile view of the world and suffering found therein. To do that right requires a lot more than he has provided us. The attempt to subtly imply that all or virtually all Christians are idiots and simpletones will not help his case, because people know better than that. There are too many Christians around. Granted, many of us have a long way to go in many respects spiritual and intellectual, but we're not that stupid.
Compare Psalm 37:25, where, at the end of a long life the psalmist sings that he has "never seen the righteous forsaken, or his descendants begging bread." Most people do not go through life so blind to reality and accident statistics as the psalmists apparently did.
Case in point . . . it's poetry, Ed . . . and it needs to be interpreted correctly, not with the goal of proving that the writers and readers were idiots and silly fools.
What's even more ironic is how other portions of the Bible deny the "inspired lessons of the psalmists." Jesus "trusted in Yahweh" but look what happened to him (Ouch)! Or look at the "mystery of the suffering of the righteous" according to the book of Job. Job (if such a person ever existed) would probably have beaten the author of Psalm 91 over the head in disgust at his naivete (as it was, some of Job's friends argued like the Psalmist that "none of this would have happened to you, Job, if you trusted in Yahweh and were righteous," and Job of course, proved such a view naive to say the least).
Well, this is a little better. I am replying as I read, so I didn't know that Ed mentioned Job, before I did so myself. The fallacy here is that he makes no attempt to try and harmonize the Psalms and Job, in a unified Hebrew vision of the world. He assumes that Job is "realist" and that the Psalms are infantile and reality-denying (so that they blatantly contradict). But this is simply not required. One only has to understand the nature of the literature and the given purpose of any particular passage. Ed's problem is literary and hermeneutical (and logical [inconsistency] ). The problem is not massive, weird, amazing hyper-contradictions in the Bible that he and other skeptics think they see all over the place (usually due to almost immediately-evident fallacies that a student of the Bible can point out with ease).
And what about folks who were never members of "God's chosen people" yet who lived long loving happy healthy creative and prosperous lives? The psalmists were blind to that reality also.
Not quite. Ecclesiastes, which is in the same general category of what the Jews called "the writings" or what we know as "wisdom literature," speaks quite a bit to this "problem" in the Jewish and Christian worldview (which really isn't one, if fully thought-through, and when the entire context of biblical thought is known). For example: ". . . a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them; this is vanity; it is a sore affliction" (Eccl 6:2; cf. 4:1, 7:15, 9:2, many others).
The prophets are also full of accounts of the rich but wicked rulers oppressing the common man. This presupposes that in these instances the "wicked" man or "fool" (which biblical literature, of course, regards as ones who do not follow God or believe in Him) is prospering while the "righteous" man or community of same is not, by the very fact that they are being oppressed. If Ed has missed all this in the Bible, then he either has not read the prophets at all, or has forgotten a very major theme in them (see, e.g., Amos 4:1, 6:1-6, Mic 2:1-2, Zech 7;10, Mak 3:5, Is 5:12). The psalmists also wrote on this theme, contrary to Ed's misinformed assertion otherwise (49:16-18, 52:7, 73:3-16).
Besides an egomania of blessings tied to their earthly existence, the psalmists sung about cursings, or "perfect hatred," toward any non-Hebrew people whose egos dared to affront their own. About such people the psalmists' wrath knew no bounds:
Let his days be few...his children fatherless...his wife be a widow...wandering about begging...seeking food far from their ruined homes...let a creditor seize all he has...strangers steal from him...none to extend a hand...nor to his orphaned children...may he be cut off from the memory of the earth...But Thou, Oh Yahweh, deal kindly with me...Do I not loath those who rise up against Thee, Yahweh? I hate them with perfect [utmost] hatred...The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance, he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked...That your foot may be dipped in the blood of your enemies and the tongue of your dogs may be dipped in their blood...Blessed [or happy] will he be who dashes your little ones against the rock.Any ethical Supreme Being must puke at the sound of such passages being sung to him. (Not to forget equally grotesque passages found in less "sing-able" portions of the Hebrew Bible, like Exodus 32:27-28; Deut. 5:9; 6:13,15; 7:2,4; 13:6-9; 20:16,17; 28:45,47,53; 32:42; Lev. 27:28-29; Num. 31:8-9,15-18; Joshua 7:26; 11:20; Judges 11; 1 Sam. 15:3; Jer. 19:9; 51:20,22; Hosea 13:16.)
[Ps. 58:10; 68:23; 137:9; 139:21-22 & 109]
This very common atheist / skeptical critical theme gets into different territory, having to do with God's perfect prerogative to judge wicked persons among His creation. If a self-existent Supreme Being has the power to create sentient, conscious beings with a soul, then He also has the right to judge them when they rebel and go astray, away from their Creator, in Whose image they are made, and to Whom they owe allegiance. There is nothing contradictory or "unethical" in any of that. It is entirely self-consistent. So the Psalmist often speaks from a poetic perspective of God's justice and wrath. The problem is when people take it upon themselves to judge wrongly.
The problem here (apart from the unnecessary condescension) is the ultimate circularity of the viewpoint of the judge of these things: in this case, Ed. He has to persuade folks that he knows what is right and wrong, and that there can be no argument against his conception. In the atheist worldview, these beliefs are ultimately groundless, arbitrary, or reduced to (at least a potential, if not actual) nihilism. So Ed can come round and contend that God is evil because of x, y, and z passages in the Bible. He assumes a certain ethical standpoint (that arguably usually goes back to biblical ethics, when all is said and done), and then applies it to God, seemingly never thinking that God as Creator is in a different category than we are, and that He has the prerogative to judge His own creation. It's a criticism of supposed internal inconsistency in Christianity, so it must necessarily grant our own categories of thought, for the sake of argument.
This is where it gets very tricky, because basically one has to adopt theistically grounded ethical conceptions and constructs in order to judge the God of that system, because God is the ground and essence of Christian morality. "God is love," so it says in the Bible. And then Ed has to envision a Christian believer standing in judgment of God and saying, "my morality is superior to His." The believer (which is what we are dealing with at the moment) won't do that, because he recognizes his limitations and dependence on God, and God's transcendence and all His other attributes, as a fundamental lesser, or subject of that same God. The non-believer can do it, of course, but it is arbitrary and grounded in merely his own opinion, which carries no particular weight in the overall scheme of things.
One may quibble with difficulties in the Christian position; the "problem of evil" and so forth (and these are real and serious issues; I readily agree), but at the same time, if they reject the Christian worldview and start disbelieving in God or taking an agnostic position towards the question of His existence, then they have to come up with some superior alternative ethical system which isn't either arbitrary or unworkable in practice. I maintain that it cannot be done. For much more treatment of that subject, see the debate which I consider was with one of the most worthy opponents I have ever encountered:
Dialogue With an Atheist on the "Problem of Good" and the Nature of Meaningfulness in Atheism (+ Part Two) (The Flip Side of the Problem of Evil Argument Against Christianity)
(vs. Mike Hardie)
Thanks to Ed for a stimulating discussion, and I eagerly look forward to his subsequent comments.