Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Should Catholics Recommend Writings of Anti-Catholic Apologists On Topics Other Than Catholicism? (James White as a Prime Example)


[retrieved at: Monergism.com]

The following exchange with fellow Catholic Jonathan Prejean took place on his blog, underneath the post, James White paws at my sleeve for more attention. His words will be in green; "Anonymous" in blue; "Acolyte4236" in purple.

* * * * *

Our point is exactly the opposite of what White thinks it is: we are saying that it is HARD to write a good article, and that people who can't do the necessary work don't need to be writing articles at all. By contrast, it is easy to write a BAD article. Anyone who has had to read college papers knows how little effort it takes to produce bad work. What's hard is writing a GOOD one that is a valuable and worthwhile addition to the knowledge on the subject. The entire point of Fr. Barbour's diatribe was that White should have done what it takes to write a good article. Even if it's just popularizing for the layperson, it should meet basic standards of quality and accuracy. White couldn't even manage that, and ironically, Fr. Barbour's article, which was almost exactly the same length, was a perfect example of what a good popular-level article should be.

Regarding Catholic responses to the Jesus Tomb story, that's another example of laughable scholarship, so the most common Catholic response has been to laugh it off. Jimmy Akin gives several reasons why no one should believe it, as did Amy Welborn, debunker of the Da Vinci Code, here and here. I don't know what more needs to be said, although I do appreciate Ben Witherington's work at the forefront of collecting all this information, which made it a lot easier for the rest of us to disseminate.

As far as the pseudo-scientific use of mitochondrial DNA, unless people are simply dazzled by the use of scientific terminology (and alas, many are), a cursory survey of evolutionary studies of mDNA would have cleared the matter up (the original "Eve" article is here. Of course, if you weren't taught evolutionary biology, you might not learn the science, but that's just a commentary on the woeful state of scientific education generally. At any rate, I certainly endorse better science education so that people don't get sucked in by these deceptions as a general matter, but as usual, I presume that people aren't THAT gullible that they need to have their hand held every time the latest pseudo-science comes up.

Well, I think the appropriate answer to the Lost Tomb stuff is either,

1. Its good that JW did write something. I suppose someone has to do that kind of "work."

2. Mockery is a better answer, as Irenaeus did. Its the same Gnostic myth spinning to undermine belief that they engaged in. By taking them seriously, JW is simply engaging them on their own playing field.

I actually think both responses are needed (it's just like how anti-Catholics ought to be approached).

#1 is necessary for the gullible and folks whose faith is so weak that it can actually be harmed or threatened by this "empty tomb" nonsense. In that sense I would actually direct people to James White's stuff on this because it is something on a popular level to counter the idiocies of the skeptics. When White gets off the subject of Catholicism he is actually capable of some educational, helpful apologetics. He's not stupid; he is simply subject to the usual false premises and bias of anti-Catholicism.

I concur. If he's willing to do the work to come up with a quality rebuttal, then there is no reason not to do so.

At the same time, I don't think the rebuke by more serious students in the form of ridicule lacks value. And Aristotle emphasizes that at times, it can even be immoral to answer someone on his own terms. This is the case, for example, where someone breaches the standards of rational argument, because it would give the impression that the position actually deserved an answer. It's a fine line, of course, but sometimes one ought not answer an opponent in order to avoid lending legitimacy to his position, particularly when one is in a position of authority.

#2 is more appropriate for those who have any acquaintance with apologetics and archaeology, etc. (which is, we must remember, always a small minority in any case). This stuff is so ridiculous and incredible that it is quite appropriate to laugh it off.

But both responses are necessary because the audience out there reading and taking in this hogwash is not monolithic. The same exact dynamic applies to our response to anti-Catholics. It accounts for my own radically-mixed feelings as to whether to respond to people like White.

If I were just writing for myself, I wouldn't have given him the time of day or read a word of his stuff since his nuclear blast against me in a snail mail letter in 1995.

But as an apologist (and this would apply to anyone writing apologetics at all), I don't just write for myself. I am trying to help the weak in faith have more confidence and intellectual justification for their beliefs. It's not about me or White or Jonathan or personality clashes or the pride of winning a debate; it's about truth: Christian truth.

St. Paul would say "I have become all things to all people." Or to put it in more common terms: "different strokes for different folks."

* * *

I should clarify that I don't think apologetics is only for the "weak in faith." One could have a quite strong faith, but we all still need to harmonize faith and reason. That is the bottom line of the function of apologetics. It applies more so, however, in a practical sense to one who is weak in faith, because apologetics strengthens faith, but not only to them.

In this instance, if people are unacquainted with the general evidences of biblical archaeology, then it is good for them to read such a refutation, so that they are not led astray by the opportunistic, irrational skepticism.

* * *

I think White has made a good point, that is consistent with the same one I made above:
This is a very common means of responding to the Talpiot Theory. I call it the Ostrich Defense. Just stick your head in the sand and laugh about how "silly" the argument is. . . . It surely does not help those who are confused by such attacks, and it does not help the saints to grow in grace and knowledge. You do not become deeply rooted in truth with your head stuck in the sand.

Let's say the scholarship in The Lost Tomb of Jesus is laughable. So what? Do you respond to laughable scholarship with...laughter? Or do you respond with sober, sound examination that demonstrates the inconsistencies of the argumentation? The Ostrich Defense has led to the situation we face in education today. We raise our children in the church, send them off to the local college or university, and there they find themselves unarmed and ill prepared to deal with the gun-slinging professor of philosophy and world religions who has The Lost Tomb of Jesus on constant reruns in his classroom and whose bookshelf is filled with the works of John Shelby Spong and The Jesus Seminar. Many find Mormonism as a religion laughable, too. That does not mean you do not prepare yourself to give a reasoned response to their claims.
He's right. I agree completely. That's why I have commended him for this work and would even recommend it to others, despite the fact that he continues to mock and insult me.

I do disagree quite strongly with one point White raised:
The Ostrich Defense has led to the situation we face in education today. We raise our children in the church, send them off to the local college or university, and there they find themselves unarmed and ill prepared to deal with the gun-slinging professor of philosophy and world religions who has The Lost Tomb of Jesus on constant reruns in his classroom and whose bookshelf is filled with the works of John Shelby Spong and The Jesus Seminar.
I think White has identified exactly the OPPOSITE of the problem, which is that people today are taught to rely on others rather than doing the work themselves, which encourages demagoguery. The reason they are, by and large, unarmed is that they have always had their parents, their pastors, their teachers, or whoever else spoon-feeding them answers that they can't handle it. Moreover, because they are in the habit of simply trusting what people say, they believe too easily what people say to them.

The only way people really get knowledge is to get into the library, crack some books, and do their own research. That's the only thing that lets you develop judgment about when you CAN laugh. I recognize that not everyone is going to be at that level, which is why people might take seriously things that they probably shouldn't. But the goal is to teach them to develop their own judgment, and the only way to do that ultimately to do the work themselves. I can't help but think that White actually wants to encourage dependence on him, which is natural for a demagogue, but I want people to think for themselves.

Very true; however, you still can't rule out the reality that some people will be more studied up on certain things than others.

Apologists devote themselves to defense of the faith. The very fact that they are apologists (the full-time types) demonstrates my point here: they are specializing in apologetics in order to provide a service to those who don't do that (who don't have time and/or ability or desire to do so).

They put in the hours, devoting themselves to the task, so that others can (hopefully) get some benefit without having to do all that laborious research themselves. It becomes a matter of time management. Does everyone have time to do their own research on every single topic that comes up? Of course not.

Hence the need for experts in various areas who do the specific grunt work and research, and then others can go to them as a resource. That's not a pass on developing one's own judgments, but a function of (in a busy world with many demands) a necessary intellectual compartmentalization. Not everyone can do everything. Why should they, anyway?

Of course, then the issue becomes how to use one's critical judgment to know what expert to turn to. I'm saying that if the topic is Catholicism, White is the wrong choice for anyone, because of his hostility and ignorance and refusal to be corrected in his errors.

But on the empty tomb stuff, everything I've seen so far from his blog posts shows me that he is on the side of the angels, and that his book is probably a decent (though hyper-rushed) lay-level treatment.

I can't really disagree with anything that Dave said, and I personally don't have any objection to writing a book to address the Jesus Tomb. I'm simply saying that there are many good reasons why one might not even feel the need to do so, one of them being that the critically trained mind would not find them convincing even prima facie. Thus, if one is concerned with primarily what the critically trained mind will find persuasive, then one might well laugh it off as an indication that this is not worth the time of those who share this primary concern.

That certainly isn't a case of "ostrich mentality," because an exhaustive refutation could be written with sufficient time and effort, but the time in writing such a refutation would be wasted for the critically minded audience. The message to other like-minded individuals is more or less "Don't bother, because we as a scholarly community don't need it, and there are better uses of your time." That's not to say that it couldn't be a useful pedagogical example, but in terms of there being an actual
need, in the sense of an objective need that requires additional research and synthesis beyond what is ordinarily available to someone motivated to dig out the truth of the matter, there isn't one.

In most such cases, it simply suffices to point out that the person making the outrageous claim has not given adequate support for the claim and to indicate the existence of scholarly opinion to the contrary. If someone is inclined to dig further, you have at least let them know that there is something out there to find. It's nice to have it all pieced together in an easily digestible form. But it's important to remember that even in that case, unless a reader actually follows up all the footnotes and does the reading himself, he is still just taking someone else's word for it.

And if he is going to take someone else's word for doing the work, then it is really no worse for him to simply take the person's word that it isn't a problem in the first place. In either case, the reader is really taking a claim on authority, and it doesn't much matter whether the authority claim is based on the person reading a bunch of footnotes he will never actually check or whether it's simply the acceptance of someone's expert opinion blindly.


What really matters is that people ought to be discerning about the sources on which they rely. One good proxy for that reliability is success within the discipline of a scholarly community. In that respect, I completely disagree with White's work having much value, as he has more or less compromised whatever reliability he might have as a popularizer of scholarship by his mishandling of Catholic and patristic scholarship. If he can't even handle these subjects with honesty and competence, why would I trust him to get others right?

I suppose one could make the argument that he has demonstrated himself competent in these other areas and that he has a form of "topical insanity" with respect to Catholicism. But frankly, I find that many of his arguments against Mormons or Muslims suffer from the same analytical deficiencies, and even if he is on the right side, he isn't presenting good arguments for being so. My criticism of White, like Perry's, goes to his capacity for critical thinking generally, and while a popularizer need not himself be a scholar, he does have to cultivate sufficient proficiency in critical thinking to allow him to follow arguments and to accurately report the scholarly opinion. That tends to make everything he writes questionable, even general apologetics, because he is so untrustworthy that you can't tell when he is and isn't accurately reporting what his sources say.


Incidentally, I would also point out that it isn't a good idea to attempt to resolve at the popular level issues of legitimate scholarly dispute; the popular level should not attempt to offer answers where there is not real and definite knowledge. And part of the concern in what I have laid out above is in identifying where there is and is not real scholarly dispute. To laugh something off essentially requires that there be no real scholarly dispute on the falsity of the thesis. That is legitimately the case with the Jesus Tomb or with Athanasius believing sola scriptura, so there is no question of it being an "ostrich defense" to simply report that no scholar takes the outrageous thesis seriously.

I think that has been a cause of several unfortunate disputes within the Catholic community, as people have too quickly jumped to the conclusion that the other side's position is entirely untenable without sufficient examination. In that respect, White is correct; you shouldn't laugh something off unless it really is ridiculous. But on the other hand, if a position really does have legs, then it should have support in the scholarly community as well, so it should always be legitimate to ask "What qualified scholars in the area have reached the same conclusion as you?" If you can't find even one expert who agrees with your thesis in its entirety, then your position probably is ridiculous.

This is exactly why I am rather skeptical and, actually, bewildered why Dave would actually go as far as advocating one of his works.

If White can't be honest and competent in one area, what of the others he has engaged in?

Well, there are different levels to this. You see that Jonathan pretty much agreed with what I wrote. It depends on goals and target audiences, and those can differ.

Apologetics is not about writing to other academics and all the "smart" people (and White is right about this; he is about as far from being an elitist as he can be, and that's good). It is about teaching the masses and helping them to incorporate reason into their religious belief-system and their faith.

I think the second paragraph above is, technically, a fallacy. Sure, if someone is grossly incompetent such that their research is persistently shown to be atrocious (with basic errors), then one could reasonably assume these poor skills would carry over to anything else.

With anti-Catholics, however, I've often noticed that they can be terrible when examining the Church, but quite rational and sensible in other areas. R.C. Sproul immediately comes to mind as one clear example.

Steve Hays' reasoning is filled with fallacies in dealing with Catholicism, but when I see him writing against atheists, he is very sharp and effective (aside from incessant smart-ass tendencies).

The reason for this is the emotional hostility, the sad history of Catholic-Protestant conflict (including notions of "traitor" and "apostasy" and so forth, that don't help things), and the presence of false premises. As with most things in life, the causation is complex.

I don't see why an intelligent man like White can't do good work refuting the cults or the liberals or the homosexual activists. Truth is truth wherever it is found. Vatican II stresses this a great deal. We can "side with" White when he tells the truth because he is doing a good thing, and we ought to rejoice wherever truth is being promoted.

I don't see the purpose of demonizing people as idiots and incompetent stooges who can't do any good thing at all, even if the anti-Catholics are doing that to us (White certainly does that to me, as do many anti-Catholics, and increasingly so with Jonathan now, too). We should not use anything like those tactics, or have that attitude. It's wrong and sinful, and there is no need to do it anyway. We sort of start going down that same road if we dismiss everything a man does because he does a lousy job examining Catholicism.

That reminds me too much of what I myself am constantly subjected to by the anti-Catholics. They can't stand it when I critique their nonsense, and so they pretend that I do nothing whatsoever of any worth, even if it is defending the Holy Trinity, or biblical inspiration, or the Resurrection, or opposing Arians and Mormons and liberals and sexual sin, abortion . . . anything and everything. The way they do that is to collapse everything I do into idiocy, with various smear tactics and poisoning the well methods. Examples are legion.

For this reason and others I don't like talk whereby someone like White is seen as having nothing good to offer, even if we substantially agree with what he is doing, as in the Empty Tomb business.

I think it's a great discussion to have. My own views flow from my ecumenism and desire to extend charity to all, even my stated bitter enemies, and to see the good things that they do, and try to better understand why they spread falsehoods as well (in all sincerity). Truth is truth.

Jonathan wrote:

If he can't even handle these subjects with honesty and competence, why would I trust him to get others right?

Well, the premise here must be examined. Is White deliberately fudging facts and being dishonest? I don't believe so. I think he is sincere, and simply has false premises he brings to the table vis-a-vis Catholicism. He then operates consistently based on those erroneous premises, and so he comes to false conclusions, which the Catholic will tend to judge as his being "dishonest."

But being mistaken or ignorant and being dishonest are two different things. I think he is a sophist, but even that is often only borderline dishonesty. It's an immensely complex psychological-intellectual matter. I would, far sooner, attribute some of his arguments to stubbornness, pride, or intransigence, than to dishonesty.

True, it is a fine line, but we all struggle with pride. It's only a matter of degree. We think our opinions are right, and think that we have arrived at them honestly, with proper consideration of the facts and reasons involved. White and anti-Catholics are no different. We need not attribute dishonesty or nefarious motives to them. We don't have to go down that path.

Jonathan seems to take a far lower view of White and anti-Catholics in general than I do. I understand how frustrating interactions with these guys can bring about negative statements of this type, but it is still not good to go too far in returning fire with fire.

I think the anti-Catholic view itself is intellectual suicide, so I am little different in that regard than Jonathan, but I also am extremely reluctant to make accusations having to do with dishonesty and basic competence. It's too easy to do, most often unwarranted, and only makes a very difficult task (trying to relate to and communicate with these guys) even more difficult.

White is not always trying to be a "scholar" in his apologetics, anymore than I am (even though he has a Masters' degree and claims to have a "doctorate"). He is writing popular-level stuff. So it isn't quite fair to accuse him of not being a scholar in, say, the archaeological area (relating to his latest book) when he isn't claiming to be that, but rather, simply a Christian apologist defending Christianity against this silly and sensationalistic nonsense.

That's why he keeps coming back with, "hey, I'm writing against these guys who are running down the Christian faith. What are you doing with your time?" The insinuation is, of course, "even you [unregenerate, papist idolatrous] guys agree with this, so why are you running me down for doing it?"

Of course he is not consistent because he doesn't recognize when we Catholics do general apologetics, too, but that is another issue. His hypocrisy can be endlessly documented, but even that doesn't necessarily prove dishonesty; only tunnel vision and a certain blindness caused by the severe bias against Catholics, etc., etc.

I agree with you in general, Dave, so we then need to think a bit more closely about when we can and can't rely on someone like White. Personally, I think he is only reliable on extremely basic notions of natural law, like abortion, homosexuality, and the existence of God at an extremely basic level, which are by their nature the most easily understood and the most straightforward to grasp from Scripture. But on practically any matter of revealed theology, he's off the range: Trinity, Incarnation, atonement, etc.

I won't go so far as to say that he doesn't believe in Christ, but it's clear to me that he doesn't believe in Christ coherently. Since you yourself have pointed out implicit Nestorian tendencies in Protestantism, particularly regarding the concept of sin and atonement, you know what I mean. In those cases, the mistakes are so fundamental that I almost consider it necessary to break them down and start over.

That's not to say that if a JW or Mormon were persuaded and baptized even for such imperfect reasons that it would be a bad thing, but we can't make that the normative guideline for what we do, and that's why I'd be reluctant to direct anyone to White for anything beyond basic matters of natural morality.

No comments: