Saturday, December 04, 2004

Second Reply to Agnostic Ed Babinski on the Supposed Irrationality and Immorality of the Psalms and the Christian Worldview

I critiqued a paper by Ed Babinski in my post, "Reply to 'The Problem of Pain and the Egomania of the Psalms'". Ed responded with an extremely lengthy e-mail (137K), which, unfortunately, launched into several quite-lengthy digressions. Our dialogue styles are obviously very different. I prefer a straight-line, particularistic, Socratic approach, where small issues and premises are worked-through before moving on to larger pictures. Ed seems to want to cover every base in a general way, all at once. I don't see how that accomplishes much, myself. You can only do so much at any given time, so topics must be limited. Every college course inherently recognizes this.

For my part, presently, I will respond to those portions which I believe had directly to do with my post, so this dialogue can move forward without being bogged down and dying the death of a thousand rabbit trails. Ed's words will be in blue:

You have an enormous BLOG page. Took a while to load. My reply below,which, I am afraid consists of a few extremely lengthy sections, will only make your BLOG page take even longer to load. smile

Naw; I solved that problem by the above method. :-)


. . . You say that "Christians believe there is a purpose to everything."Probably no Christian believed that more firmly than John Calvin, . . .

No; all Christians (Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants) believe in what is known as Divine Providence. Calvin had a particular conception of that which, I believe, went too far, and came perilously close in some ways to making God the author of evil and a capricious tyrant (though Calvinist predestination has often been greatly misrepresented; Zwingli and Bucer went even further than Calvin). It's not that Calvin believed in Providence more than the rest of us; rather, that he emphasized it in his system, and made it the centerpiece. His problem was that it was insufficiently harmonized with other parts of his system, so that it is ultimately incoherent. He fell victim to unnecessary "either/or" dichotomies.

. . . who believed that if a tree branch broke off and killed a young child, or an infant died so soon after being born that there was not enough time to baptize it, it was all part of God's purpose, His heavenly decrees, and as Calvin further admitted, such decrees were "horrible," but since God is God we had no right to question His "purposes" behind decreeing such things.

This is where he is off (if this -- your scenario, in specifics -- is an accurate portrayal of what he held; I have strong doubts without direct citation showing that he held this). Most Christians have believed that God didn't decree evil things; but that He permitted them and brought good out of a bad thing, in His Providence. If someone goes to hell, it is ultimately because of their choice to reject God, not because of an eternal decree that the person was powerless to overcome (even with the help of God's grace).

Personally, I am not a Calvinist and I hear, neither are you. smile

Correct. I never was when I was a Protestant (I was what's called an Arminian; close to an "eternal security" position), and I am a Molinist as a Catholic (a view which emphasizes human free will and God's "middle knowledge," while not denying in the least His Providence).

In fact I am of the opinion that Christians who take time to consider their beliefs "as" "beliefs," also have doubts. If you scratch the surface of any thoughtful feeling Christian, a bit of an agnostic would emerge --"Lord I believe, but help mine unbelief" they might put it, taking a cue from a verse in the New Testament.

Sure; we have doubts like anyone else, and a lack of faith, and lack of belief; particularly when we are struggling through one of life's trials and tribulations. Christians are human beings, after all. :-) There was a reason "Doubting Thomas" was one of the twelve disciples. Jesus acknowledged the validity (in a certain "human" sense) of his doubts by appearing specifically to show him that He was indeed risen from the dead. But at the same time He said "Blessed are those who have not seen [ i.e. "direct evidences such as what I am providing right now"] and yet still believe." Thus, Christianity can provide rational proofs and evidences of its truthfulness, but they will never convince a skeptic who is predisposed against it; furthermore, faith will always be required, and one cannot always question everything. We all have to believe something.

Like you, I also believe there may be a purpose to the Big Bang (or even to multiple Big Bangs in parallel cosmoses, whatever it took to create what we see), that is my hope, but I also acknowledge my doubts. Call me a "torn agnostic" if you will.

Very interesting. I'm delighted to hear that, and to me it means we might be able to persuade you of the Christian worldview one day. It looks like you either possess now or could move into, without too much difficulty or movement, a position on "teleology" similar to that of Einstein, who saw something in the universe beyond sheer materialism and random chance and meaninglessness.

But I think there's a bit of an "agnostic" in every believer, and perhaps a bit of a hopeful theist in everyone too, though I am not necessarily speaking of Christian theism.

I think that is a fair and reasonable statement.

Also, if a person tries to believe without a doubt that even the most dreadful occurrences have a "purpose," how is that different from say, a battered wife believing without a doubt that her husband beats her becausehe "loves" her?

Because that husband is clearly a severely troubled individual, who has no good motive or moral justification to do what he does. Secondly, to have an ultimate purpose does not require an acceptance of the bad things, as stated above. God merely has the power in His Providence and omnipotence to bring good out of evil. Thirdly, an ultimate goal and purpose of eternal salvation casts quite a different perspective on all the sufferings of this life. If one can attain salvation by God's grace, through the redemption of Jesus Christ on the cross, that lasts eternally. So what is 70-odd years compared to a never-ending life in heaven? Can you do the math on that? This changes everything.

I can see that if this life was all there was, then it would ultimately be meaningless, but that leads us into the "problem of good," for the atheist and agnostic (a far more thorny difficulty), not the problem of evil (which Christians have to explain somehow). We, at least, can offer some coherent, sensible answers in our view (though we can't explain everything, by any means). The Godless universe can scarcely conjure up a purpose to life and the universe, with all the suffering and evil we see in it. Imagine, for example, your hypothetical wife who was beaten her whole life and otherwise abused, then dies and ceases to exist? That is a frightening, terrible, depressing, sad, tragic situation indeed, and surely seems ultimately meaningless and futile. But if the same woman dies and goes to heaven; well, then everything is different. She made it through terrible circumstances (as many in this world; many due to the evil of other human beings) to eternal bliss with God her creator. God didn't cause what happened to her. But He provided a way out and a "happy ending" that the non-theistic worldview can't duplicate in any way, shape, or form.

Or how is that different from the Stockholm Syndrome, i.e., growing to love one's jailer, the one person with whom you have contact in your darkest most painful place, and who brings you both gruel and pain?

By understanding that God does not will the evil and provides a way to endure it by His strength and grace, and an ultimate reward for those who do. None of these analogies of yours remotely grasp the Christian conception of the relationship of God to evil.

Such "love" and "beliefs" happen to coincide, unfortunately.It would seem that religion is not the only "belief system" that involves a person's attempts to justify and feel at peace with the pains they may be feeling.

One doesn't have to say that a bad thing is a good thing; only that there is a deeper purpose and that God is not evil simply because I am going through some terrible thing. There are all sorts of other factors.

One other example also comes to mind, snake-handling Christians . . . Note, I am not asking you to criticize the snake-handler's use ofScripture, nor their doctrine and practices, just note their certainty of belief that even getting injured by snakes, even being killed by them, is believed firmly to be a sign of God's loving providence.

Of course, you will always find examples of people who distort and misapply somewhat complicated and not immediately-understood thoughts and thought-systems. But what does that prove? Exactly nothing . . . it's a skeptical tactic as old as the hills but it is simply the improper exploitation of a corruption of a good thing, tending to equate the good thing (genuine, thoughtful Christianity) with the corruption of same, or implying that the corruption is a reductio ad absurdum of it, following from the premise. It is not, and does not. All it is, is some Christians who take one statement in the Bible too far and get ridiculous.

Actually, you have done the same thing, in a way, in interpreting the Psalms. You distorted them by interpreting them hyper-literally. Thus, you made them ridiculous, and implied that Christians who accept them are steeped in folly. So you fell into the exact same error that the snake-handlers do: excessive and quite-unnecessary and unrequired literalism in interpreting the Bible. You did this before, when you believed in a young earth, etc. So it seems to be a long-running problem in your own thinking. Not all of us fell into that trap. I never believed in a young earth. And I wasn't alone in that belief, by any means, when I was an evangelical Protestant.

So to me the question revolves around the capacity of the human mind to justify any type of suffering as part of a loving plan, be it the battered wife syndrome, the Stockholm syndrome, or snake-handlers who get bit.

Again, this can be distorted, but a thoughtful Christian understanding doesn't lead to the reductio ad absurdum you wrongly try to portray. Of course human beings and human minds are capable of distorting anything. I freely grant that. Your mistake is to equate the dirty bathwater with the baby, and to throw out the baby, too.

So, I have my doubts about those who believe without a doubt that "everything is for a purpose."

Well, then argue it as an internal inconsistency in a standard, thoughtful Christian view of Providence. Make it a matter of sophisticated theological and philosophical discussion, rather than foolishly reduce it to comparisons of snake handlers and wife-beaters. If there is a God, then I think you would probably agree that this gives a lot of things more purpose than they have now, due to the nature of God (in theism; particular Christian theism) and His status as Creator.

. . . [Or as C. S. Lewis wrote in the year of his death: "The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not 'so there's no God after all,' but 'So this is what God is really like. Deceive yourself no longer.'"]

Without context, I can't examine this (I'm too lazy right now to try to find it; that was your job), but I do know that Lewis (my favorite writer) went through a temporary crisis of faith as a result of losing his wife to cancer, and the grief process. He wrote verey honestly about that in A Grief Observed, but he did not lose his faith. He regained it through the natural process of grieving and a steady longstanding faith that could withstand a personal tragedy and not blame God for it.

[passing over long discussion of Muggeridge citations, which are off the immediate topic . . . ]

Dave, you say the Psalms that promise seemingly miraculous instances of divine preservation of a person's life in the face of an army of foes, are nothing more than wise observations.

Strictly speaking, I don't think they are "nothing more than" that, but I was making a point primarily about the type of poetic, largely non-literal literature we are talking about (you seemed not to grasp that distinction, judging from what you concluded of various Psalms).

I admit they represent typical exagerrations such as the language of the ancient world was prone to.

Thank you. That's nine-tenths of the argument conceded already . . .

But I must also add that there are theologians who quite agree that the Psalmists in this case represented a certain strain of Hebrew thought which taught and emphasized that trusting in Yahweh and following the path of Yahweh's righteous laws would assure Yahweh's miraculous blessings and long life in the temporal realm.

Possibly some interpreted them literally in that sense. These are true general observations. But the Christian interprets the Psalms as part of the larger Wisdom Literature and the larger Bible: all of which we believe to be a divine revelation. One can't merely interpret a book with little or no consideration of internal and self-understanding considerations. You don't believe it is revelation; granted, but the Bible remains literature, and as such, ought to be interpreted according to the standard conventions of interpretation according to style, intention of the writer, purpose, goal, historical and literary context, the rules of grammar, definitions of words (also in their historical contexts), cross-referencing, archaeological and historical cultural information, etc.

This was an especially favored expectation since in early Hebrew thought the predominant idea was that everyone died and went down to Sheol, everyone. So blessings in this life, and especially a long life, meant relatively more to the ancient Hebrews than to the later Hebrews.

That's correct. But as the thought developed, there was a differential of blessings in Sheol, between the righteous and the evil persons. All theological ideas develop, so this is to be fully expected. Meanwhile, you have basically tried to do an end run around my entire textual argument regarding the Psalms, so nothing has been accomplished by way of getting to the bottom of this: are people who accept the Psalms ridiculous or not? You made comments in your paper such as:
Religious services are not designed to make you think more rationally, they are designed to "move" you.

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.

Trust in Yahweh and your life will be like Superman's . . . 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."

Most people do not go through life so blind to reality and accident statistics as the psalmists apparently did.

Challenged to back up your contentions in light of my painstaking refutation, you have done virtually nothing besides almost entirely extraneous LONG diversions into snake-handling and Malcolm Muggeridge's remarks that I cited (and Sheol), and a one-line acknowledgment of the obvious: that poetry exaggerates and is not intended to be taken literally. But then, that rather undercuts your entire initial point about the funeral and Psalms 91, doesn't it? You may have hoped that readers missed that, but I have done the service of reminding them what has happened here. :-)

That particular strain of thought appears to have been in tension with another strain of Hebrew thought that only gained in prominence and finally gained the upper hand later in Hebrew theological history, which was the idea that blessings would accrue in the next life.

A development is not in "tension" with a more primitive understanding, nor a contradiction.This is what you don't seem to be grasping with regard to biblical literature and developing Hebrew theology throughout the OT period. As so often in agnostic critiques of Christianity and the Bible, you see contradictions where there are none.

(Yet even as late as Jesus' day, the Sadducees were still preaching the "old time Hebrew religious view" of literally everyone going down to Sheol. That's why they were so "Sad-u-cee.")

There are always folks who don't develop along with the mainstream community. The Saducees, therefore, disappeared from influence and history. It was Pharisaical Judaism that was incorporated into Christianity. I have written about this particular subject: "The Development of Old Testament and Jewish Views of Sheol, the Afterlife, and Eternal Punishment." But this was not our subject. A study of the Jewish notion of the afterlife through the centuries B.C. is rather far removed from a claim that the Psalms are quite ridiculous and absurd prima facie.

[omitted lengthy excursions into the afterlife, Sheol, etc. -- off-topic]


Not "assuming," rather, "arguing" that your view is the best one, if one really believes that, unless and until someone shows one a better, superior way . . . isn't that what the rational thinker who is seeking truth does?

Anyone who cannot see that the imprecatory psalms are cries of the most sorrowful human pain mixed with an equally brutal thirst for revenge, even to the point of projecting such vengeful hunger onto God, simply does not see what a lot of people with a bit less "faith" see in them. C. S. Lewis could see such things when he wrote about such psalms in his book on the Psalms, as all-too-human cries from the heart of man, not God.

Absolutely. I don't see that anything I wrote denies any of this. Of course . . . Emotion is not always rational, and it doesn't always reflect what the same individual thinks, if asked about it in more calm, "rational" moments.

. . . I guess it’s all right for some Christians to “curse” people so long as they use a “Biblically sound” method.

Not according to Christianity, which has developed a bit since 1000 B.C. when a lot of the Psalms were written. Here we go again with gross distortions held up as supposedly some "evidence" against Christianity.

Of course, don’t these Christians read the New Testament and realize that Jesus commanded his disciples, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?” Sheesh, how'd they miss that verse?

Exactly. If you know this, then why do you assume that many or most Christians don't? You clearly can see that these things are distortions. So, then write about "Christian fringe wackos" if you must (if that is some sort of hobby of yours, or something, as with many agnostics and skeptics I have known). But don't try to imply that they represent mainstream, historic Christianity, or that the same reduces down to this. That's what I don't buy, and will expose every time, because it is shoddy thinking, and most uncharitable to boot.

[Actually I know how they missed that verse, so did Calvin and Luther, and even Medieval Popes, but it's a long theological tale involving the command to "serve God rather than man," and to invoke the first tablet of the Law as well, "law." Though I tell parts of that tale in chapters one and two of Leaving the Fold.]

Case in point: this is most unfair, as a gross generalization of all the parties involved.

Or take the following two verses on the joys of vengeance:
Or take the following two verses on the joys of vengeance:
The Lord will rejoice over you to destroy you. (Deut. 28:63)

The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance, he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked. (Ps. 58:10)

And compare such verses with:
Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles... If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink... He who rejoices at calamity shall not go unpunished. (Prov. 17:5; 24:17 & 25:21)
Do you note a teensy difference between the verses in Deut. and Ps., and the one in Prov.?

Sure; there is a huge difference: "vengeance" and judgment belong properly to God (first two passages), in the sense that he is the judge of mankind, since He is the Creator of mankind. That's vastly different from men judging each other, since men are not God, and they don't see everything as God does. Psalm 58:10 in context is clearly one of God's judgment (the very next verse reads: ". . . surely there is a God who judges on earth" -- RSV, as throughout). Ps 58:1-2 notes precisely this distinction in condemning unjust judgments of man toward man; not doing so "uprightly," as God does. Thus, it is not wrong for men to rejoice in the righteous judgments of God, because it is His doing, not theirs. Since He does it, the faithful follower of Yahweh has confidence that it is a just and good decision. Is that too subtle of a distinction for you to grasp, Ed, without resorting to the tired false accusation of supposed biblical contradiction?

Deuteronomy 28 is, of course, the passage where God predicts that the Jews will be judged if they disobey Him. The choice was theirs. In Deut 28:1 God says, "And if you obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all his commandments which I command you this day, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth." 28:2-14 recounts a host of blessings that would accrue in that eventuality. But the rest of the chapter details the horrifying consequences of disobedience. I don't see that this is rocket science, either.

If indeed God exists, and He is the Creator, and to be obeyed, then it seems to me there must be consequences to disobeying Him, just as in human society there are consequences for disobeying necessary man-made laws (which exist for the purpose of order and harmony among people). If you murder someone, then you pay the consequence by going to jail for life or getting the death penalty. If you steal or assault someone, or commit perjury, there are consequences of fines and/or jail time, loss of reputation, etc. if that applies in human society, then how can it be denied as a principle on a grander cosmic scale, from God's and the theistic perspective? I don't see how it can. You don't believe in God, but you are claiming that the theistic, biblical view of God is absurd, incoherent, and ultimately involves hypocrisy, double standards, and insuperable problems. What you have brought to the table, however, in the effort to make that case, has abysmally failed because you miss crucial distinctions and factors that cannot be overlooked.

Now, you wish to make hay over a supposedly contradictory use of "rejoicing." This gets back to the matter of biblical language, and in this case, of common anthropomorphism when God is being described. The notion here is not that God is giddy or happy about judging His own chosen people, but that He is in control, and that there is a parallelism between obedience and disobedience in the sense that God acts in both cases according to human response. So in the RSV the passage (Deut 28:63) reads:
And as the LORD God took delight in doing you good and multiplying you, so the LORD will take delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you . . .
In other words, God is in effect, saying, "hey, I have all power. Never forget that. If you want to obey Me, you will receive tremendous blessing, but if you want to go your own way and disobey, I am just as willing and able to punish you, as well."

The "rejoice" or "delight" part is simply the usual pungent Hebrew expression and parallelism. We know from many many passages that such judgments do not literally make God happy or cause Him to "rejoice", and how much love He had for His people and for all men (for example: Deut 23:5, 32:9-12, Ps 81:8-16, 89:33, Is 66:13, Jer 25:3-6, 31:3, 35:15, Hosea 11:1-4, Matthew 23:37-38).

Your other contention, above, was how "ultimately groundless" everyone else's views were. But I wish to ask you just how much more "grounded" is a morality based merely on authoritarian pronouncements?

It is not based simply on "authoritarian pronouncements" (as, e.g., much doctrinaire, dogmatic scientific materialism, which lacks any scientific proof, and has a million holes in it, and so must be flatly asserted, sans evidence), but on a host of cumulative rational proofs (historical, philosophical, revelational, experiential, etc.), all considered together. It's not blind faith, but rather, a rational faith. That's what we believe, and that's how Christian apologists argue it. I understand that you disagree, but it isn't fair to caricature what our view is. At least present it as we understand our own belief-system to be.

In any philosophy course you soon learn that authoritarian explanations, such as claiming that "God made the rules," explains one unquestionable premise (namely, "the rules") by invoking an even more unquestionable and more mysterious premise (namely, "God").

No kidding. I'm quite familiar with philosophy, thank you. I took quite a bit of it in college, and have read a lot more on my own. You need to distinguish between:
1) A critique of your critique of our system, on the grounds that you
misrepresent the very system that you purport to be "refuting" and construct straw men (which is not a particularly compelling philosophical method), and engage in fallacious arguments and comparisons, illegitimate, wrongheaded biblical exegesis, etc.

2) A simple statement of some aspect or other of the Christian belief-system or biblical / theological viewpoint, as opposed to the evidences and reasons for believing same. These are not intended to be "arguments' per se (that is a different discussion), but rather, declarative statements of what Christians believe.

By confusing these two propositions (and discussions), you arrive at a fallacious conclusion: that somehow Christianity is a sheer blind faith, based solely on irrational dogmatism and "authoritarian pronouncements and explanations". But this is standard atheist / agnostic boilerplate rhetoric and polemics, so we have come to be well-acquainted with it. That doesn't make it right, or intellectually-respectable, however, and so I continue to respond to the errors involved in this line of thinking.

[omitted "Zondar the Monkey King from Uranus" so-called comparison of good Christian thinking. Nice try . . . ]

. . . In short, [C.S.] Lewis came close to saying that the Supreme Might must live up to moral standards if he is to be regarded as God and not as some cosmic sadist unworthy of worship.

That's right. We would expect that our moral thinking would be (broadly-speaking) harmonious with his, since we are His creatures. A God Who is entirely remote from our innate moral conceptions is probably not the real God. On the other hand, we would also expect there to be some things that seem inexplicable to us, on the same grounds: God being God and far above us in every way, and we being fallen, limited human beings. This is one reason (apart from biblical considerations) that I don't fully accept the Calvinist conception of God as decreeing people to hell, etc. It's not consistent in my mind with a God of love (nor with Scripture, when all the relevant passages are considered).

In his letter to the philosopher, Lewis expresses the realization that he could not wholly relativize and trivialize the concept of goodness for the Supreme Being he envisioned:

"To this some will reply 'ah, but we are fallen and don't recognize good when we see it.' But God Himself does not say that we are as fallen as all that. He constantly, in Scripture, appeals to our conscience: 'Why do ye not of yourselves judge what is right?' -- 'What fault hath my people found in me?' And so on. Socrates' answer to Euthyphro is used in Christian form by Hooker. Things are not good because God commands them; God commands certain things because he sees them to be good. (In other words, the Divine Will is the obedient servant to the Divine Reason.) The opposite view (Ockham's, Paley's) leads to an absurdity. If 'good' means 'what God wills' then to say 'God is good' can mean only 'God wills what he wills.' Which is equally true of you or me or Judas or Satan."

I couldn't agree more. This is right on. And it is the mainstream Christian view throughout history.

. . . Judging by C. S. Lewis' last statement above, he might have even given a thumbs up to the following saying by Voltaire,"The silly fanatic repeatsto me that it is not for us to judge what is reasonable and just in the divine Being. That His reason is not like our reason, that His justice is not like our justice. Eh? How, you mad demoniac, shall we judge justice and reason otherwise than by the notions we have of them? Do you want usto walk otherwise than with our feet, and speak otherwise than with our mouths?"

That's right. I agree again. The main difference is that the Christian accepts what is revealed to Him as revelation, as God's self-disclosure. Voltaire (though a theist) does not do so. So he is ultimately left to depend on his own subjective opinions about God. It is the revelation and the internal moral witness together which are much more compelling.

Of course philosophers are continually debating what does "explain"things, to little satisfaction of other philosophers, even when the philosophers in question are all theists and/or Christians, . . .

This is one problem with philosophy (i.e., in isolation, regarded as the be-all and end-all of knowledge). It is insufficient to answer many of the most important questions. It has to be accompanied by faith and revelation for a fuller knowledge of metaphysical reality.

[omitted further material on the nature of ethics in society, and lots of other citations, as extraneous to the main subject. C.S. Lewis freely regarded universal ethical precepts -- what he called the "Tao"; see his book The Abolition of Man, as completely consistent with what we would expect from a Christian worldview]

Thanks for the interaction, Ed. It was my pleasure.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Döllinger's and Liberal and Old Catholics' "Semi- Historical Positivism" and Rejection of Papal Infallibility / Cardinal Newman's Critique

By Dave Armstrong (11-28-04)

Many Protestants particularly offended and scandalized by the Vatican I declaration of papal infallibility in 1870. I thought it would be interesting to note the striking similarity between remarks of Protestant critics today and those of the schismatic, ultimately liberal Old Catholic movement, post-1870, led (as a figurehead with quite ambivalent personal feelings) by the German Church historian Johann Joseph Ignaz von Dollinger (1799-1890), who was eventually excommunicated.

These strains of thought were also picked up by the anti-Catholics (on the principle of "my enemy's enemy is my friend"); notably George Salmon (1819-1904): an Anglican controversialist whose big axe to grind against Catholicism was infallibility (exemplified in his book, Infallibility of the Church, 1888, which takes many wrongheaded, fallacious swipes at Newman).

Current anti-Catholic argumentation (whether those making them are consciously aware of this or not) shows great similarity to both of these men (Dollinger, the so-called "traditionalist" Catholic who opposed the latest ecumenical council, and the anti-Catholic Salmon: both opposing the latest Catholic ex cathedra dogma).

I shall document below what Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman thought about this type of thinking (which might be called, somewhat cynically, "historical positivism"), by chronicling his remarks about Dollinger, the Old Catholics, and the rejection of the decree of Vatican I concerning the infallibility of the pope.

"Historical positivism" is not a merely polemical term, coined by myself or other Catholic apologists. It is a real thing, which is discussed by historians. 

And now on to Cardinal Newman (words in blue), in response to Dollinger and the Old Catholics, who rejected papal infallibility, as fully defined by the First Vatican Council (1870). Newman biographer Ian Ker (words in green) recounts some of Newman's diary entries:

[H]e continued to think Dollinger 'wrong in making the worst of the definition instead of making the best'. It was simply playing into the hands of the extremists to exaggerate the terms of the definition, which in fact had been a 'defeat' for the Ultramontanes.

(John Henry Newman: A Biography, Oxford University Press, 1988, 665; citing Letters and Diaries, edited by Charles Stephen Dessain et al, Oxford: 1977, Vol. XXV, 438)

Ker continues:

Towards Dollinger, whose quarrel with the Council had become a quarrel with the Church, Newman was still sympathetic, but critical. Characteristically, he diagnosed Dollinger's crisis as fundamentally a failure of imagination. Dollinger was not a 'philosophical historian', in the sense that 'He does not throw himself into the state of things which he reads about -- he does not enter into the position of Honorius, or of the Council 40 years afterwards. He ties you down like Shylock to the letter of the bond, instead of realizing what took place as a scene.' Newman could not understand how Dollinger could accept the council of Ephesus, for example, which was notorious for intrigue and violence, and not the recent one. Perhaps, he shrewdly guessed, 'by this time the very force of logic, to say nothing of philosophy, has obliged him to give up Councils altogether'. (Ker, ibid., citing Letters and Diaries, Vol. XXVI, 120)

As regards the relation between history and theology, Newman is unequivocal in his criticism of Dollinger and his followers . . . 'I think them utterly wrong in what they have done and are doing; and, moreover, I agree as little in their view of history as in their acts.' It is not a matter of questioning the accuracy of their historical knowledge, but 'their use of the facts they report' and 'that special stand-point from which they view the relations existing between the records of History and the communications of Popes and Councils'. Newman sums up the essence of the problem: 'They seem to me to expect from History more than History can furnish.' The opposite was true of the Ultramontanes, who simply found history an embarrassing inconvenience.
As the Church is a sacred and divine creation, so in like manner her history, with its wonderful evolution of events, the throng of great actors who have a part in it, and its multiform literature, stained though its annals are with human sin and error, and recorded on no system, and by uninspired authors, still is a sacred work also; and those who make light of it, or distrust its lessons, incur a grave responsibility.
But he wondered why 'private judgment' should 'be unlawful in interpreting Scripture against the voice of authority, and yet be lawful in the interpretation of history?' The Church certainly made use of history, as she also used Scripture, tradition, and human reason; but her doctrines could not be 'proved' by any of these 'informants', individually or in combination. No Catholic doctrine could be fully proved (or, for that matter, disproved) by historical evidence -- 'in all cases there is a margin left for the exercise of faith in the word of the Church.' Indeed, anyone 'who believes the dogmas of the Church only because he has reasoned them out of History, is scarcely a Catholic'. (Ker, ibid., 684, citing Difficulties of Anglicans, II [Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, 1875], 309, 311-312)

Newman continues in the latter work:

In beginning to speak of the Vatican Council, I am obliged from circumstances to begin by speaking of myself. The most unfounded and erroneous assertions have publicly been made about my sentiments towards it, and as confidently as they are unfounded. Only a few weeks ago it was stated categorically by some anonymous correspondent of a Liverpool paper, with reference to the prospect of my undertaking the task on which I am now employed, that it was, "in fact understood that at one time Dr. Newman was on the point of uniting with Dr. Dollinger and his party, and that it required the earnest persuasion of several members of the Roman Catholic Episcopate to prevent him from taking that step,"—an unmitigated and most ridiculous untruth in every word of it, . . .

On July 24, 1870, I wrote as follows:—
I saw the new Definition yesterday, and am pleased at its moderation—that is, if the doctrine in question is to be defined at all. The terms are vague and comprehensive; and, personally, I have no difficulty in admitting it. The question is, does it come to me with the authority of an Ecumenical Council?

Now the primâ facie argument is in favour of its having that authority. The Council was legitimately called; it was more largely attended than any Council before it; and innumerable prayers from the whole of Christendom, have preceded and attended it, and merited a happy issue of its proceedings.

Were it not then for certain circumstances, under which the Council made the definition, I should receive that definition at once. Even as it is, if I were called upon to profess it, I should be unable, considering it came from the Holy Father and the competent local authorities, at once to refuse to do so. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that there are reasons for a Catholic, till better informed, to suspend his judgment on its validity.
. . . Also I wrote as follows to a friend, who was troubled at the way in which the dogma was passed, in order to place before him in various points of view the duty of receiving it:—
July 27, 1870.
. . . Or again, if nothing definitely sufficient from Scripture or Tradition can be brought to contradict a definition, the fact of a legitimate Superior having defined it, may be an obligation in conscience to receive it with an internal assent. For myself, ever since I was a Catholic, I have held the Pope's infallibility as a matter of theological opinion; at least, I see nothing in the Definition which necessarily contradicts Scripture, Tradition, or History; and the "Doctor Ecclesiæ" (as the Pope is styled by the Council of Florence) bids me accept it. In this case, I do not receive it on the word of the Council, but on the Pope's self-assertion.

And I confess, the fact that all along for so many centuries the Head of the Church and Teacher of the faithful and Vicar of Christ has been allowed by God to assert virtually his own infallibility, is a great argument in favour of the validity of his claim.
. . . The other main objection made to the Council is founded upon its supposed neglect of history in the decision which its Definition embodies. This objection is touched upon by Mr. Gladstone in the beginning of his Pamphlet, where he speaks of its "repudiation of ancient history," . . .

But it is not every one that can read its pages rightly; and certainly I cannot follow Mr. Gladstone's reading of it. He is too well informed indeed, too large in his knowledge, too acute and comprehensive in his views, not to have an acquaintance with history, far beyond the run of even highly educated men; still when he accuses us of deficient attention to history, one cannot help asking, whether he does not, as a matter of course, take for granted as true the principles for using it familiar with Protestant divines, and denied by our own, and in consequence whether his impeachment of us does not resolve itself into the fact that he is Protestant and we are Catholics. Nay, has it occurred to him that perhaps it is the fact, that we have views on the relation of History to Dogma different from those which Protestants maintain? And is he so certain of the facts of History in detail, of their relevancy, and of their drift, as to have a right, I do not say to have an opinion of his own, but to publish to the world, on his own warrant, that we have "repudiated ancient history"? He publicly charges us, not merely with having "neglected" it, or "garbled" its evidence, or with having contradicted certain ancient usages or doctrines to which it bears witness, but he says "repudiated." He could not have used a stronger term, supposing the Vatican Council had, by a formal act, cut itself off from early times, instead of professing, as it does (hypocritically, if you will, but still professing) to speak, "supported by Holy Scripture and the decrees both of preceding Popes and General Councils," and "faithfully adhering to the aboriginal tradition of the Church." Ought any one but an oculatus testis, a man whose profession was to acquaint himself with the details of history, to claim to himself the right of bringing, on his own authority, so extreme a charge against so august a power, so inflexible and rooted in its traditions through the long past, as Mr. Gladstone would admit the Roman Church to be?

. . . [referring to the Old Catholics] Extensive as may be their historical knowledge, I have no reason to think that they, more than Mr. Gladstone, would accept the position which History holds among the Loci Theologici as Catholic theologians determine it; and I am denying not their report of facts, but their use of the facts they report, and that, because of that special stand-point from which they view the relations existing between the records of History and the enunciations of Popes and Councils. They seem to me to expect from History more than History can furnish, and to have too little confidence in the Divine Promise and Providence as guiding and determining those enunciations.

Why should Ecclesiastical History, any more than the text of Scripture, contain in it "the whole counsel of God"? Why should private judgment be unlawful in interpreting Scripture against the voice of authority, and yet be lawful in the interpretation of history? There are those who make short work of questions such as these by denying authoritative interpretation altogether; that is their private concern, and no one has a right to inquire into their reason for so doing; but the case would be different were one of them to come forward publicly, and to arraign others, without first confuting their theological præambula, for repudiating history, or for repudiating the Bible.

. . . Historical evidence reaches a certain way, more or less, towards a proof of the Catholic doctrines; often nearly the whole way; sometimes it goes only as far as to point in their direction; sometimes there is only an absence of evidence for a conclusion contrary to them; nay, sometimes there is an apparent leaning of the evidence to a contrary conclusion, which has to be explained;. . . There is nothing of bondage or "renunciation of mental freedom" in this view, any more than in the converts of the Apostles believing what the Apostles might preach to them or teach them out of Scripture.

What has been said of History in relation to the formal Definitions of the Church, applies also to the exercise of Ratiocination. Our logical powers, too, being a gift from God, may claim to have their informations respected; and Protestants sometimes accuse our theologians, for instance, the medieval schoolmen, of having used them in divine matters a little too freely. Still it has ever been our teaching and our protest that, as there are doctrines which lie beyond the direct evidence of history, so there are doctrines which transcend the discoveries of reason; and, after all, whether they are more or less recommended to us by the one informant or the other, in all cases the immediate motive in the mind of a Catholic for his reception of them is, not that they are proved to him by Reason or by History, but because Revelation has declared them by means of that high ecclesiastical Magisterium which is their legitimate exponent.

What has been said applies also to those other truths, with which Ratiocination has more to do than History, which are sometimes called developments of Christian doctrine, truths which are not upon the surface of the Apostolic depositum—that is, the legacy of Revelation,—but which from time to time are brought into form by theologians, and sometimes have been proposed to the faithful by the Church, as direct objects of faith. No Catholic would hold that they ought to be logically deduced in their fulness and exactness from the belief of the first centuries, but only this,—that, on the assumption of the Infallibility of the Church (which will overcome every objection except a contradiction in thought), there is nothing greatly to try the reason in such difficulties as occur in reconciling those evolved doctrines with the teaching of the ancient Fathers; such development being evidently the new form, explanation, transformation, or carrying out of what in substance was held from the first, what the Apostles said, but have not recorded in writing, or would necessarily have said under our circumstances, or if they had been asked, or in view of certain uprisings of error, and in that sense being really portions of the legacy of truth, of which the Church, in all her members, but especially in her hierarchy, is the divinely appointed trustee.

Such an evolution of doctrine has been, as I would maintain, a law of the Church's teaching from the earliest times, and in nothing is her title of "semper eadem" more remarkably illustrated than in the correspondence of her ancient and modern exhibition of it. As to the ecclesiastical Acts of 1854 and 1870, I think with Mr. Gladstone that the principle of doctrinal development, and that of authority, have never in the proceedings of the Church been so freely and largely used as in the Definitions then promulgated to the faithful; but I deny that at either time the testimony of history was repudiated or perverted. The utmost that can be fairly said by an opponent against the theological decisions of those years is, that antecedently to the event, it might appear that there were no sufficient historical grounds in behalf of either of them—I do not mean for a personal belief in either, but—for the purpose of converting a doctrine long existing in the Church into a dogma, and making it a portion of the Catholic Creed. This adverse anticipation was proved to be a mistake by the fact of the definition being made.

. . . I end with an extract from the Pastoral of the Swiss Bishops, a Pastoral which has received the Pope's approbation.
It in no way depends upon the caprice of the Pope, or upon his good pleasure, to make such and such a doctrine, the object of a dogmatic definition. He is tied up and limited to the divine revelation, and to the truths which that revelation contains. He is tied up and limited by the Creeds, already in existence, and by the preceding definitions of the Church. He is tied up and limited by the divine law, and by the constitution of the Church. Lastly, he is tied up and limited by that doctrine, divinely revealed, which affirms that alongside religious society there is civil society, that alongside the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy there is the power of temporal Magistrates, invested in their own domain with a full sovereignty, and to whom we owe in conscience obedience and respect in all things morally permitted, and belonging to the domain of civil society.

(A Letter Addressed to the Duke of Norfolk on Occasion of Mr. Gladstone's Recent Expostulation [Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching] --online; Chapter 8: "The Vatican Council", {book and chapter both linked to the left}, Volume 2, 1874; reprinted by Longmans, Green, and Co., London, 1900, 299, 301-305, 308-315, 339-340; see also Chapter 9, "The Vatican Definition," for an excellent discussion of many epistemological and ecclesiological aspects of infallibility)

Those who follow this erroneous line of thought start with this false notion (or reasonable facsimile thereof) that historical fact is somehow sufficient in and of itself to constitute orthodoxy or some sort of "norm." Even if this were true (which it isn't — since theology is not sociology or anthropology), the papacy far outweighs radical conciliarism as a matter of how things actually operated throughout the history of the Church.

Such proponents have to elaborate upon how they see the relationship of the bald facts of history to orthodoxy, and further, how orthodoxy is determined (historically, and in their theological opinion of how it should be done), and why we should accept their criteria for this rather than some criteria established by councils and popes (or some other authority). So they not only have to provide a sensible, plausible criterion, but also a reason why their opinion carries force (i.e., a plausible argument for authority with regard to their claims).

. . . Whether history substantiates something is a different claim from whether it is orthodox or not. We are also dealing with religion and faith here, not simply brute historical facts. Christianity no more reduces to history than it reduces to philosophy.


Sunday, November 21, 2004

Reply to "The Problem of Pain and the Egomania of the Psalms" (by Agnostic Ed Babinski)

Ed Babinski is an agnostic, and "one of the leading contributors of skeptical propaganda to the Talk.Origins Archive." He was formerly an evangelical Protestant and young-earth creationist (see his "testimony": "From Young Earth Creationist to Evolutionist"). Among other accomplishments, he has experienced the distinct honor of being nominated for the Antichrist for a Day Award (apparently someone else was appropriately more wicked, and/or a better "campaigner" LOL).

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 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):

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)

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."

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, Michigan: 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.

(Ibid., 127)
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):
"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."
(Ibid., 131-132)
Here are a few more examples of such "realism" and awareness of the reality of suffering, even for the "righteous," in the Psalms:
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.
Psalm 119:
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.
For further examples throughout the Bible, see my paper: "Reasons for Suffering and Encouragement and Hope in the Midst of It: A Biblical Compendium."

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.

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?

(Vintage Muggeridge, edited by Geoffrey Barlow, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985, 74-75, "The Bible Today," from a lecture delivered on 7 October 1976)
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."

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 simpletons 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.

[Ps. 58:10; 68:23; 137:9; 139:21-22 & 109]
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.)

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.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

On the Objectionable Use of the Terms "Romanist" and "Papist"

By Dave Armstrong (11-20-04)

I think proper, accepted terminology is very important. People have a perfect right to be called whatever they want to be called. This is understood in our humdrum daily lives, where we will ask a stranger what their name is, how to pronounce their name (if necessary), etc. We would never think of deliberately calling them names which are offensive to them (unless we are self-centered bigots).

Yet in religious matters, all of this is too often reversed. Not only are folks called names that they object to (and have for sometimes hundreds of years), but the people who do it try to justify it on absurd grounds. Examples of this are the derogatory, pejorative terms for Catholics, such as papist and Romanist.

I've never heard a Methodist object to that name. Often, Calvinists like "Reformed" better as a title, but I've never really heard one object to being called a Calvinist (and that word is used in many many of their own books). There are commonly accepted terms for groups, and they ought to be used. It is simple courtesy and charity.

We may call people a sort of alternate nickname (I do it myself) -- and this may be in a critical sense, or with an "edge" to it -- but it is important to note that such a nickname is not understood as their primary name or the one they themselves prefer to be called. Such alternate titles or nicknames shouldn't be routinely applied to large, historically and sociologically significant groups. Everyone knows what their real titles are. And that's the whole point about titles: they are based on common, accepted usage (much like dictionary definitions of words which are ultimately dependent on real-life usage.

It's true that sometimes we can legitimately war against a title, because a principle is at stake. Hence, I refuse to acknowledge the terms Enlightenment or the abuse of the term Dark Ages (when it includes even the late Middle Ages) because those are prejudiced, deliberately hostile terms which arose from secularist, anti-Christian schools of thought. I vigorously deny that the so-called Enlightenment was some great advance of civilization. It was quite the contrary.

But the terms Catholic or Reformed or Lutheran or Methodist are not such that they can be overthrown by the whim of personal opinion. I deny that Reformed are truly "reformed" from my perspective (which has to do with how Catholics define reform from within their own paradigm and ecclesiology -- the term is already inherently weighted against Catholic Tradition), but I accept the title because a title is a title. For that matter, I deny that Jewish Orthodox are orthodox (which means "correct belief"). But I use the term because that is what they call themselves.

Likewise, some Protestants may resent calling us Catholics because to them this implies that other Christians aren't "catholic" (in the sense of the Nicene Creed); yet this is our chosen title. We believe that our Church is uniquely universal, just as you believe that yours is truly, uniquely "reformed" -- even over against Arminian fellow Protestants -- (whereas ours is supposedly not, in fundamental ways). Both schools claim unique characteristics for themselves which exclude others in some sense.

It's unavoidable. We all have beliefs, and someone else is bound to be excluded (or offended) by them. A different belief-system shouldn't, however, be immediately offensive (unless it involves hatred or some other sin). On the other hand, deliberate use of offensive terminology (based on the stated preference of a group so-called) is a different story. It is far more a matter of respect and politeness and diplomacy than of theology.

The use of terms like Romanist, papist, and (to a somewhat lesser extent), papalist, and the deliberate refusal to use the commonly-accepted and preferred Catholic, or to always (and for a particular polemical purpose) qualify it with the preceding "Roman" (which actually excludes some 21 non-Latin rites in the Church, and was originally derived from polemical Anglican usage in the 16th century -- in the attempt to be "catholic" without the pope) is, therefore, a condescending, uncharitable, impolite act, which offends the great majority of Catholics.

Why is it that Catholics are so often singled out by being referred to in ways that we have repeatedly objected to? To me, that is a dead giveaway that prejudice and some sort of strong hostility is in play, either consciously or unconsciously. No doubt many people do this out of force of habit, since it has been going on so long in their circles. But that makes it no less obnoxious for those of us who have to put up with this unnecessary, childish, and rather silly annoyance.