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Nice Try

OrigenWell, this made me laugh:

In authoring scripture, Origen [an early theologian] argues, God has deliberately planted all sorts of interpretive obstacles: problems, difficulties, mistakes, morally objectionable stories, and so forth. These manifold obstacles lead us to press beneath the surface of the text and to search more deeply for its spiritual meaning. Such spiritual exegesis isn’t just a scholarly technique. It requires ascetic purification, the spiritual transformation of the reader. So the problems in scripture – the same problems which Marcion takes as proof of divine wickedness – are planted there by God to lead us into the depths of spiritual life, just as a wise teacher might plant mistakes in a class discussion in order to lead the class, gently and unobtrusively, towards the truth.

H/t: Andrew Sullivan




Theology and belatedness

Anyone who has not read evolutionary theorist Jerry Coyne’s essay on science and religion in the New Republic is missing a tour de force.  Under review are two books attacking creationism and intelligent design.  Their authors–a physicist at Eastern Nazarene College and a cell biologist at Brown University—then try to reconcile their Christian faith with evolution and physics.  This, Coyne concludes, authors Karl Giberson and Kenneth Miller fail to do, however masterful their demolition of creationism:

It would appear, then, that one cannot be coherently religious and scientific at the same time. That alleged synthesis requires that with one part of your brain you accept only those things that are tested and supported by agreed-upon evidence, logic, and reason, while with the other part of your brain you accept things that are unsupportable or even falsified. In other words, the price of philosophical harmony is cognitive dissonance. Accepting both science and conventional faith leaves you with a double standard: rational on the origin of blood clotting, irrational on the Resurrection; rational on dinosaurs, irrational on virgin births.

Coyne touches on several topics already discussed on this site, such as the unwillingness of certain high-minded apologists to discuss what Coyne calls “religion as it is lived and practiced by real people.” But what struck me most while reading the review is how post hoc theological reasoning has become.  It has been reduced to forever playing catch-up to science.  Whatever new insights about the universe science establishes, religious divines will immediately conclude that that is exactly the way God would have done things and what they had meant to say about him all along.  Did it take 14 billion years before God’s intent to create a species that would worship him reached fruition, 14 billion years of laborious preliminaries before anything even remotely resembling human beings could have been glimpsed on the scene?  Well, of course!  It makes perfect sense; that’s exactly what any omnipotent God would have done.  If scientists tomorrow found powerful evidence that in fact species came into existence whenever a giant sling-shot fired a wad of  chewing gum at the earth, we would learn that the sling-shot is the divine instrument par excellence.  (more…)

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Somewhat related to Heather’s post, God’s Problem, see this fascinating New York Times Magazine piece on neo-Calvinism, Who Would Jesus Smack Down?:

Mars Hill — with its conservative social teachings embedded in guitar solos and drum riffs, its megachurch presence in the heart of bohemian skepticism — thrives on paradox. Critics on the left and right alike predict that this delicate balance of opposites cannot last. Some are skeptical of a church so bent on staying perpetually “hip”: members have only recently begun to marry and have children, but surely those children will grow up, grow too cool for their cool church and rebel. Others say that Driscoll’s ego and taste for controversy will be Mars Hill’s Achilles’ heel. Lately he has made a concerted effort to tone down his language, and he insists that he has delegated much authority, but the heart of his message has not changed. Driscoll is still the one who gazes down upon Mars Hill’s seven congregations most Sundays, his sermons broadcast from the main campus to jumbo-size projection screens around the city. At one suburban campus that I visited, a huge yellow cross dominated center stage — until the projection screen unfurled and Driscoll’s face blocked the cross from view. Driscoll’s New Calvinism underscores a curious fact: the doctrine of total human depravity has always had a funny way of emboldening, rather than humbling, its adherents.

The author here points to the strange outcomes of the doctrine of Predestination. For a psychological explanation for why Calvinism can seem counterintuitive, read Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t.

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America and Hell

A Pew religion survey  supports the hypothesis that American tolerance influences theology.

“We are a multicultural society, and people expect this American life to continue the same way in heaven,”    [Alan Segal, a professor of religion at Barnard College, commented to to the New York Times.]   [I]n our society, we meet so many good people of different faiths that it’s hard for us to imagine God letting them go to hell.

Perhaps it’s not just a “poverty of imagination” that posits a potential tension between secular experience and traditional religious teaching.

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How Much Religious Falsehood Is Acceptable?

 I am returning to the Ed Feser exchange because it relates to a question I have been pondering about sophisticated Catholics and other Christians.  

 I had asked Mr. Feser if he could suggest an experimental design to test the efficacy of petitionary prayer, in light of his claim that religion is “scientific.”  He pointed me to his book, where I will find sophisticated arguments for the existence of God as the “uncaused first cause,” he says.  

The answer was nonresponsive, and not only for the “courtier’s reply” problems so ably set out by Bradlaugh and several readers.  I’m not asking for a logical proof of God, but simply for a way to verify an oft-praised sign of his love for mankind: his response to believers’ prayers.   “Rational arguments” for God’s existence answer the question of how to test the efficacy of prayer only if answering prayers is a necessary attribute of God’s existence as the “uncaused first cause.”  That assertion strikes me as an even more imaginative leap of theology than usual. 

Mr. Feser displays an impatience with the practice of religion, so I will remind him of one of the most frequent topoi of Christians: If someone recovers from a devastating heart attack, say, it’s because God answered the prayers of friends and family (we won’t ask why the cardiac patient in the next hospital bed, equally prayed-over and–we should surely assume–equally worthy, died).  After nine miners were pulled from a collapsed mine in Pennsylvania in 2002, believers posted a sign:  “Thank you God, 9 for 9. (Either God was busy or the prayers were defective in 2006 when twelve miners died in a West Virginia mine explosion). 
 I was not asking for an empirical test of God’s existence, but just of his effects in the world, which are claimed to be real.  The Templeton experiment, while crude in its details, was at least a start.


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Ilana Counterblogs

Ilana Mercer counterblogs (read down a bit) to my post on “Theology Outside the Tribe.”

To her points:

Yes, indeed, Islamic theology is interesting to a lot of people, as the excellent sales of Robert
Spencer’s books
show. That is a clinical interest, though — a hostile one, in fact.  Psychiatrists are interested in insanity, but they don’t want to be insane. 

When I said that “Any given theology is of zero interest to anyone outside the tribe,” I meant of interest in the way that a real intellectual discipline — math, biology, history — is of general interest. From the fact that a person wants to study microbiology, I can deduce nothing about his tribe or fictive tribe (e.g. religion). From the fact that a person wants to make a serious, engaged, non-hostile study of Islamic theology, I can deduce with high probability that he is a Muslim.

Talmudic study “involves logic and law.” Sure it does. As I said, it is intellectually formidable, as are the other high and ancient theologies. However, my space-program analogy applies:  If you want non-stick frying pans, go develop them — the Saturn V rocket is not a necessary piece of equipment. If you want to train kids in law and logic, go train ’em. The Gods and the Afterlives aren’t necessary parts of it.

(You can make a case that they might once have been.  Perhaps you can’t, in the historical development of a culture, get to law and logic without going through theology.  I think that’s possible.  As an argument for persisting with theology, though, it falls to the midwife counter-argument.  You need a midwife to deliver a baby, but she’s no use to you thereafter, and just gets in the way.  Pay her off gratefully and send her home.)

Now, a conservative might say to that:  “Well, the religious-based teaching is our customary approach. It’s worked well for us in the past, and we can’t see why we should change it.” I’m sympathetic to that. I’ll only note that properly theological study is founded on supernatural precepts — on fantastic and miraculous things that are supposed to have happened in the remote past. That has to subtract something from a student’s appreciation of logic and natural science.

(Though from what Ilana says, the Talmud she studied seems to have had the supernatural stuff taken out, like Jefferson’s Bible. That doesn’t remove the tribal element — nobody not Jewish is going to learn logic and law in just that way — but it makes it pretty innocuous.)

Ilana quotes Paul Johnson: “The Bible is essentially a historical work from start to finish.”

If that were true, every Jewish and Christian theology course would really be a history course. Which is not the case. The Bible is a religious document, with lots of history (and some really good stories, beautiful verse and prose, and first-rate expositions of ethics.) Paul Johnson is a committed old-school RC:  see his book of apologetics. His opinions about the Bible are correspondingly colored. If you think that Christianity is all true, then of course the Bible will, for you, be as factual as an auto-repair handbook. And if not, not. 

“The central error of anti-religion crusaders is that they consider the Jewish and Christian traditions systems of ideas, denuded of historical context, to be accepted or rejected on the strength or weakness of their intrinsic logic (or lack thereof). Judaism and Christianity, however, are who we are historically (the same is true, unfortunately, of followers of Islam). One can no sooner denounce them than one can disavow history itself.”

Ilana loses me here. From the point of view I was applying — i.e. casting a critical eye on the claims of theologians to have anything useful to tell us about non-theological topics — the Jewish and Christian traditions are systems of ideas. What else are they?

“What we are historically” is a mess of stuff:  Jewish and Christian religion, Greek philosophy, Roman law, Enlightenment science, and all sorts of lesser tribal threads — the moots and parliaments of the Teutonic forests, their religion (I am at this moment listening to Das Rheingold ), Arabic numerals, and so on. No thoughtful person accepts the whole shebang uncritically. Probably I’d find Wagner more thrilling if I actually believed in Wotan and Fricka. Alas, I don’t. You can cast a wistful, even loving, eye back on the traditions of
humanity while rejecting some of them as untenable in light of later understanding.  You may even “denounce” aspects of our tradition without having “disavowed history.”

I must say, though, I think Ilana would make a splendid Rheinmaiden; and if she mocked me, I’d be just as upset as the Nibelung dude.



Theology Outside the Tribe

The ravishing and brilliant Ilana Mercer has a column on input from Judaism to economic principles.

In line with its efforts to educate about Judaism’s philosophical affinity with the free market, the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies has inaugurated the Center for the Study of Judaism and Economics …

This got me thinking about theology.  What’s it for ?  It’s obviously tribal in essence, though you have to extend the meaning of “tribal” to include “fictive tribes” like Christianity and Islam. (Well, I think you do.)  Any given theology is of zero interest to anyone outside the tribe.  If someone tells you he’s making a deep study of Rabbinic Literature, you can be 99 percent sure he’s Orthodox-Jewish; if deep in Thomism, he’s Roman Catholic; etc.

And yet the intellectual effort that’s applied is tremendous.  Think of an Orthodox-Jewish shul, those rows of earnest young men rocking and chanting as they memorize vast chunks of material.  The material is difficult.  Rabbinic literature is a colossal edifice of intellection, by some very smart people indeed.  It’s not just memorization; there’s a strong tradition of debate and textual analysis, with great respect awarded to those who can most subtly elucidate what Rabbi So-and-so meant back in the 13th century.  And yet, for all that intellection, the material is of no interest to anyone who isn’t an Orthodox Jew.  Similar things apply to Roman Catholic theology, which RC readers keep urging me to explore.  Why would I — as opposed to picking up the Talmud?  It’s all just tribal chanting.

When, as in Ilana’s piece, theologians apply their lucubrations to topics of universal interest, I find myself thinking of the early space program, when billion-dollar projects to put men in orbit were justified on the grounds that we would get non-stick frying pans out of it.  If it’s a non-stick frying pan you want, get some materials scientists together in a lab and let them work the problem.  You don’t need a Saturn 5 rocket. Similarly, if it’s rational, maximum-benefit economics, you want, how does it help to know what that rabbi said back in A.D. 1250?  Get some economists, historians, sociologists, and business people together and let them thrash it out.

I don’t see how theology helps.  And I’m sure that if your theologians can come up with theological justification for free markets, his theologians could offer just as robust a defense of state socialism.  Where is the informed guidance here?

Perhaps I just don’t— well, obviously I don’t — see the appeal of theological study.  It doesn’t seem to make anything happen.  It’s just a waste of good brain power, in a tribal cause. 

Ilana’s piece, in any case, disabused me of one of my consolations.  I’ve always assumed, based on occasional and casual encounters, and a priori assumptions about Ashkenazi intelligence, that Rabbinic theology is intellectually head and shoulders above any other, a sort of gold standard for theology; but that it is very intensely tribal, so that the scholars of it don’t bother the rest of us with it.  RC theology, by contrast (what happened to Protestant theology, by the way?  is it still around?) is much more at ease with going out of the tribe and trying to make things happen in the larger world; and Islamic theology of course even more so.

I don’t really have a conclusion here.  I’m just thinking out loud.  And trying to get Ilana’s attention.

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