Saturday, September 25, 2021

Theological Controversy

With the publication of William Lane Craig’s new book In Quest of the Historical Adam: A Biblical and Scientific Exploration, fresh volleys of theological cannon fire are making their way across the pitch. Discussions about the age of the earth and interpretation of Genesis 1-11 tend to create fierce battles among many Christians in the west. The fight is most intense in the Evangelical Protestant sector. That disputation should occur amongst the faithful is not particularly surprising considering church history and practical realities. However, the level of intensity and vitriol often accompanying disputations about Adam and Genesis 1-11 is something that still catches me off guard and leads to fits of despair.

Like many important issues of late, the Adam/Genesis dialogue reminds us how far charity can be subverted for the sake of dogma. Exasperating habits from the social media-fueled civic-political sphere threaten to corrupt inter-Christian dialogue on theological matters. For example, the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mindset is on full display. The idea is that any position contrary to your own is an existential threat. That ‘giving an inch will always yield a mile taken’. That the person on the other side of the argument is to be despised because their opposition to your position consists in their diminishment of your humanity. And so forth. Christians should be wary in borrowing the mudslinging, straw-manning techniques so frequently used in the secular sphere. 

The standard line here is that we should not lose our public witness for the faith, the saving grace of God in Christ must be at the forefront of our words and deeds. Unbelievers and those seeking truth and looking for answers are watching how we conduct ourselves. It is not good enough to simply ask the person intrigued but not yet committed to Christ to suspend their current observations of Christians as they traverse the marketplace of ideas. Now, I certainly believe that the reason people should come into the faith is, ultimately, because it is true. The church is full of redeemed sinners who are not yet perfected. The non-Christian should not look for an artificial standard of perfection. Nonetheless, to become a Christian is to enter a new family. It is adoption. And we can make this new prospective family very unattractive to those who are not yet members.  

For some very odd reason, Christians of certain theological persuasion tend to come across as being continuously threatened. There is a chip on their shoulder. As Christians, we must strive to present ourselves as a non-threatened people. After all, this is who we truly are if we are in Christ. Not even death has hold of us. If an atheist brings an argument against the existence of God, the reaction should not be anger, frustration, or annoyance. If the person down the street plants a flag supporting LGBTQ rights and if the entire news media and popular entertainment are saturated with such messaging, it is not an existential threat to us. Standing for truth and our beliefs and doing so in a way that is not threatened is both a logical and practical possibility. Reacting to disagreements from inside and outside the faith can be done in a Christ-like way. There should be no lowering of standards. Our first reaction, when confronted with disagreement, should not be denunciation as heresy. When heresies are in fact encountered, we should address them in the spirit of grace with reconciliatory goals.

We could do a great deal of psychologizing about why some Christians, even if a vocal minority, act out in such ways as to rashly condemn those in the faith with whom they disagree on certain issues. I don’t think that would be a fun or fruitful exercise. One of the most difficult apologetic tasks is trying to explain why Christianity is seemingly so scattered and suffering from disunity. One can only get so much mileage out of “mere Christianity”. Certainly, Christians are united in affirmations of the Apostles or Nicene Creed. Or perhaps even Chalcedon. But when we tear each other apart in uncharitable ways, the “mere Christianity” car starts sputtering. 

I suggest that a path forward will require a deeper commitment at the local church, university, and ecclesial levels to more education and dialogue with other Christians. It will require local pastors to recognize the ultimately self-defeating nature of having a chip on our shoulder and teach this to their congregations from the pulpit and other teaching sessions. If our beliefs are so easily threatened, then how much do we know or strongly affirm them? If your local church is young-earth creationist, it will not help the cause to simply plug your ears and denounce other churches or members that hold contrary views. And vice versa for churches that do not hold young-earth creationism. It is far too easy to paint caricatures and pretends to know the strongest points from the other side. I think if we can commit to deepening our knowledge of contrary positions, we will be forced in most cases to respect them more. As someone who is not a young-earth creationist, I have benefitted greatly from professors, pastors, and friends, not to mention the voluminous literature, that argue carefully and respectfully on the exegetical principles and applications leading to such a conclusion. 

It has been said, “I have seen the enemy, and he is me.” May this be the case for repentance and faith in Christ and not representative of interfaith dialogue, even on ‘hot button' issues. 

Friday, September 24, 2021

God and Verification

Looking back at the philosophy of religion in the 20th century, I cannot help but be intrigued by the large amount of literature published on verificationism and positivism. It seems to me that the philosophy of language was a powerful and prevalent factor that permeated most of the discourse on religious epistemology and theistic proofs/demonstrations. The reasons for this are interesting, but far beyond my scope here. Presently, my attention has been channeled on the verificationist principle(s) such as elucidated by A.J. Ayer and the logical positivists. What can or cannot be spoken about and how was a major topic for decades.

From the Davies anthology, this excerpt is taken from Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic (is it a form of British humor that no Oxford comma is in the book title?): 

"...there can be no way of proving that the existence of a god, such as the God of Christianity, is even probable...For if the existence of such a god were probable, then the proposition that he existed would be an empirical hypothesis." 

One thing I find compelling about this claim is that it still, nearly 90 years later, captures the core basis of why many people deny the existence of God. It is a good reminder that the ideas we encounter today are, in most cases, not really new or novel. Ayer notably wrote for many years on the subject after Language, Truth and Logic, but the core of the claim seemed to remain intact. 

What I believe Ayer so nicely summarizes in his verificationist ideal is the standard scientistic/reductionist view of the world. This position holds everything that exists or has meaning is, in principle, ultimately expressible or can be investigated and either proved or disproved by the physical sciences (physics, chemistry, biology). Essentially, all that exists is matter in motion; nothing can be that is not eventually quantifiable or accessible to the senses in some way (or reduced to intelligibility by mathematical description). Certainly, there are many open questions, but the scientistic view affirms nothing in the grand scheme can be outside the purview of empirical investigation. 

Scientism is the default view so often that Christian thinkers and other theists often spend a meaningful deal of time taking it apart before proceeding to arguments for the existence of God or the attending preliminary metaphysics. For example, Edward Feser's writings in Scholastic Metaphysics and Aristotle's Revenge and David Bentley Hard in The Experience of God. 

It is very difficult to see how Ayer's way of framing the conversation does not beg the question against theists. The theistic argues God exists and means by 'God' that which is not a locatable object in the world. The verificationist denies the 'term' God (or 'Creator' or whatever) has any meaning because it is not a physical object. So, the verificationist effectively says "God cannot exist, therefore God does not exist." Before any theistic argument can be made it is dismissed out of hand as improper use of language or the expression of a psychological state (emotive). 

Certainly, God is not the only object in the verificationist's gunsight. Any metaphysical utterance is purportedly nonsense on the same idea. Yet, I wonder why it would not be open to the theist (or other non-reductionist metaphysicians) to simply state the same thing back to the verificationist. For what the verificationist seems to be offering is a blunt assertion or presupposition. To argue in favor it would be to borrow premises from ideas or propositions outside the verificationist scope. For instance, one could say "verificationism is true because ___". And filling in the blank seems to be either circular or not verifiable. 

Sometimes the verificationist will say something like "we can prove that physical things are real by simply reaching out and touching them. We cannot prove God or angels or demons are real. So, we are justified in thinking that physical things are real and the theist must show us how in some way non-physical things are real." In one sense, there is a certain very basic intuition captured here. Surely this seems straightforward to the man on the street. But a closer look shows this way of thinking is the very same problem as above dressed in different clothes. A major issue is that it oddly asks the theist to show that non-physical things are real in the same way physical things are. So, it begs the same question. This is like saying "walk with both feet in the air." The interlocutor in this case simply dismisses a priori that any non-physical thing can exist. He cannot even hear the theists (or non-metaphysical reductionist) case. And, like Ayer's claim, it imports a very dubious notion of 'proof' that is laden with reductionist assumptions. It would be incumbent on the one asserting this to demonstrate its veracity. 

I sometimes wonder how far 'Ayer-esque' verificationism (along with Carnap and others), and its scientistic offspring, moved the dialogue on religion onto unfruitful ground. There is not much gameplay when the rules are constantly being changed and the goalposts moved. To my mind, this was the primary outcome of the verificationist movement. The influence of this thought is still felt in contemporary debates. Hopefully, the verificationist ideal will eventually fade into the oblivion it so vehemently denies.