On the Plurality of Words

In a student-run Bible study at my campus Christian group today, we had a short discussion of one feature of the text. Discussing features of particular biblical passages is generally what we do at the two bible studies we run each week (currently going through Hebrews), so this may not seem newsworthy.

However, on reflection, I think it has a teaching point to go with it. It’s this: sometimes the details matter. The question of whether the “you” (reading from the ESV) is plural or singular in the original Greek of the 12th verse of the 3rd chapter of Hebrews may seem an abstruse waste of time. But without asking questions like this, we are at risk of inventing rather than interpreting, of inserting our own beliefs into the text rather than taking out what the twin authors (human and divine) intended.

We’re at a university. It’s appropriate to apply our minds to God’s word with the effort we apply them to His world. To many people, the question of precisely which order the proteins act in a particular phosphorylation cascade in cell signalling following the binding of a specific ligand to one receptor out of many may seem hopelessly complex and abstracted away from real life, but in reality this is the stuff that life is made of and we haven’t really understood biological function until we’ve taken these remarkable processes into account. Similarly, the meaning, the message, the function, of the biblical text cannot be fully abstracted away from the mundane questions of what it says in words. It is a mystery of revelation that God condescends to use human language to tell us His otherwise inscrutable will, but given that He is done so, surely we ought read these words carefully!

If you came to one of our Bible studies, I think the rigour and seriousness and passion for the meaning of the text which as a group we reach (in our peak moments) may surprise you, I hope pleasantly. The Bible gives serious answers – if we ask the serious questions of it, in my experience it will prove true and will edify.

Yes, a function of a bear can be discerned by looking at its claws, but I think the full story will be missing if we miss all of the depth and complexity in the way the bear is made (maybe I’ll come up with a better analogy later..) – similarly, the main flow of arguments in Scripture (yes – Scripture uses arguments! But perhaps that’s fuel for another post), can be grasped without attention to all the grammatical details; this is largely because many of the details we can grasp intuitively with a good translation – and the essentials in Scripture are indeed perspicuous or clear. But if you want to teach from the Scriptures rather than repeating your own culture back at itself, or to help others understand what God’s word says, please pay attention to small stuff; the iotas, and even the plurality of words!


Reason to Re-think?

Apparently attendance at the ‘Reason Rally’ for atheists and agnostics and secular people in Washington DC numbered about 8-10,000 people this weekend that’s just been. [Update: other sources say 30,000 – hard to count as people popped in and out. My point remains more or less worth making; but I’ll let you decide.]

Attendance at the Christian Parachute music festival in Hamilton is approx 20k each year.

In Hamilton.

A quick google search suggests attendance at the annual ‘march for life’ prolife rally in Washington DC has likely exceeded 250,000 people in recent years.

Given the size of other well-publicized rallies in Washington, I was naively expecting over 100,000 (or at least a few tens of thousands!) for the Reason Rally. What did I miss? I mean, sure it was raining – but it’s not like atheists melt in water …

.. is it?

The Great Divorce

Church and State – distinct and never the twain shall meet; or so runs the standard line.

However, the broadly accepted conceptual resources underpinning liberal democracies are more flexible in this area than might be expected; cries for ‘fairness’ and ‘rights’ and critical assessment of arguments may be found in the stables of the Church as well as her ascendant opponents.  A helpful account is found at the SEP, but here’s how I interacted with it in my small postgrad philosophy class today, in summary:

Robert Audi (The Separation of Church and State and the Obligations of Citizenship – Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Summer, 1989), pp. 259-296) advocates the separation doctrine; firstly, that the State should in a free and democratic society, neither establish a church nor impair religious liberty. Fair enough and jolly good.

This separation of Church and state may be limited in order to protect important human rights, e.g. in prohibiting some religious practices. What counts as a compelling reason for such a limitation is of course contentious, but this is also fair enough in principle.

Audi (who, it might be noted, is himself actually a Christian) advocates three principles in expounding the separation doctrine – the ‘libertarian’, ‘equalitarian’ and ‘neutrality’ principles; briefly, that people should be free to practice any religion (within some limits, as above), that different religions should be treated equally by the state and that religious groups should not be favoured in any way by the State simply for being religious (the State ought not promote religion).

While these are hardly the axioms they are often assumed to be in the modern discussion, it is what Audi takes to follow from them that I will challenge – in some ways, these principles may need to consequently be adjusted for a coherent theory, but I leave that project up to political philosophers.

It is taken to be true that just as the State ought not interfere with Religion, the converse also holds true and as such, for instance, preaching ought not take on a political spin. This is a difficult line to run, for Audi recognises that “a Hitler” ought be opposed from the pulpit as well as from the benches of parliament. But if it is true of the moral evils of the Nazis, why not lesser evils of other regimes; and why can the virtues of some politicians not be extolled in sermons? In morality there is surely not a simple dichotomy between “Hitler bad – oppose him; others not that evil, so don’t say anything!” While I will not rehearse the arguments given for the standard line, they are I think found wanting.

Audi proposes the concept of “secular reason” with such things being approximately: reasons, the normative force of which, do not depend on the claims of religion. In espousing secular reasons, he advocates ‘the principle of secular rationale’ – that policies should be promoted according to secular (non-religious) reasons. While people may support policies for religious reasons too, what is said in the public sphere should be secular. The policies Audi is concerned with are those which restrict human freedom, but this is quite broadly conceived, such that these are quite a wide range of policies!

Further, the even more restrictive ‘principle of secular motivation’ is proposed – that one should not advocate conduct-restricting policies unless sufficiently motivated by purely secular reasons. Religious motivation may be involved in some way, but the motivation provided by secular reasons should be enough, we are told to justify advocating the policy and to do the work of convincing others.

There are serious difficulties with this line, now in various related forms the standard one in liberal (i.e. mainstream) political philosophy.

*If I must, for the purpose of public policy, divest myself of religious beliefs, I will as a religious believer end up being morally required to advocate and support policies that I disagree with on a fundamental level.

*There is no guarantee that a bare secular reason will be satisfactory for a religious person assessing policy proposals. Why this asymmetry in who is guaranteed satisfaction in policy discourse?

*Philip Quinn (Political Liberalisms and their Exclusions of the Religious, Presidential Address to the Central Division of the APA 1995), notes that verbal conflict in a democracy (within some limits) is a mark of health, rather than necessarily to be avoided – we shouldn’t articificially attempt to create harmony at the cost of some contributions to the discussion.

Audi’s position regarding the role of religious reasons is subtle, but seems to be rather restrictive and not the best fit for a modern liberal pluralistic society. In conclusion, I’d like to see a good argument for why some controversial   contributions to political discourse (i.e. religiously motivated and/or argued ones) should be excluded while others (‘secular’ ones) are not!

Thanks to http://www.mandm.org.nz/ and http://www.beretta-online.com/ for ideas which sparked off some of the things mentioned here, particularly Matt Flannagan for recommending resources on the topic.

apologia discordia

How ought one to defend and promote the Christian faith?

Wish I knew.

Some thoughts are found here: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/03/12/questioning-presuppositionalism/

People who I am inclined to respect on theological issues are inclined (some quite strongly) to think that the answer lies with presuppositionalism – or as one of the links above now describes it, “covenantal apologetics”.

I like a number of the insights which are broadly tied to presuppositional apologetics. I think, for instance, that the modern secular worldview (however one may wish to flesh that out precisely) contains some fairly significant internal tensions – to put it irenically!

However, I find the common concomitant  dismissal of evidentialism rather frustrating, because I am convinced that there is good evidence that one ought to trust in Christ. Battering someone with evidence alone is not sufficient for their salvation and battering is of course not often a helpful term, but nonetheless I suspect there is a place for rational discussion of these things which starts on fairly neutral ground. I don’t need someone to be willing to assume (even hypothetically) the truth of Christianity in order to have a fruitful discussion about the truth of Christianity. But I wonder if presuppositionalism amounts to this, in a fundamental way (once one bypasses the window dressing of the specifics of the conversational flow)…

I think there are  good reasons to investigate Christianity carefully – and in this investigation, many will choose to follow Christ. There is at least potentially a distinction between the reasons that I offer someone for why they should take the claims of Jesus seriously and the warrant for my own belief that he is the Son of God. Not of course that there is no connection, just that my own belief is guaranteed warrant, if Christianity is indeed true, by the operation of the Holy Spirit. This operation is (as I currently conceive it) a necessary cause for my own belief being justifiably certain – and probably a sufficient one too; but it doesn’t follow from this that the non-believer is in the same situation. K Scott Oliphint defends presuppositionalism by suggesting that on the alternatives, “Wouldn’t we be forced to argue that God probably exists, that Jesus probably rose from the dead, and so our faith is probably not in vain?” But it seems to me that this misses the different epistemic conditions of the believer and the unbeliever.

The Holy Spirit may well make use of evidential argument in convincing people that one ought to trust in Christ; the certainty of God-given faith can perhaps be explained with reference to categories that the presuppositionalist is fond of, while also recognising that the unbeliever too has some grasp of the things of God and this should be encouraged in terms of assessing both the internal consistency of worldviews and the evidence for them which all people are able to grasp. While we will all as fallible human beings interpret evidence imperfectly, we can trust that as there is a God who wants us to know the truth and commands our search for it, careful assessment of the evidence in humility and with reference to God’s revelation will not go to waste for lack of starting with ‘the right worldview’.

This post was originally meant to be a sentence to this effect: there is a difference between any evidential arguments I have for why the gospel is true (and brilliantly, excitingly so!) and the certainty (rather than ‘probability’) of faith – quite why this is so is not entirely clear to me I must admit, but what Alvin Plantinga says about the fact that if Christianity is true it is warranted makes quite a lot of sense. In a similar way to which I can offer small pieces of evidence towards something for which there is overwhelming evidence when the whole scheme of things is taken into account, I can offer small pieces of evidence for the Christian faith, which when ‘everything that is’ is taken into account is much more probably true than any piece of evidence itself suggests; my own attainment of certainty is a product the work of the Holy Spirit in my life, but there is enough evidence for a non-believer to work with and we shouldn’t limit the Holy Spirit in suggesting that we ought not be inclined to give evidence for the truth of the Christian faith or that the only truly ‘biblical’ approach is through assessing presuppositions. The Christian faith provides a good framework for life and thought, indeed the only one that is true and ultimately fulfilling; but I’m pretty sure that there is evidence for it accessible to all as well, both as little pieces and larger thought-systems.

But perhaps I am just a pragmatist at heart?

middling humour concerning serious stuff

I find militant atheists almost funny in their passion for their cause. Come on guys; why bother?

It seems to me that the internal chatter in super-atheist world goes something like: “There is no point to life, just blind pitiless indifference – we must tell everyone! We must stop people believing stuff we believe to be false, because we have The Truth! Join Our Cause; there’s really no point but we believe in it and find it fulfilling (or some of us do – some of us are just hardcore truth seekers and actually don’t like atheism at all)! We are superior to most of the world and won’t stop til most of the world acknowledge it.”

Maybe it actually all makes sense or is really a matter of self-interest or just an elaborate attempt at the protection of one’s possible future progeny from religious indoctrination or something, but I am dropping off to sleep here so shall cease my ramblings for the time being.

My final question for the evening shall be this: is militant atheism predominantly the domain of failed scientists? Perhaps real ones have better things to do and perhaps often more humility too?  I dunno.  Some decent scientists are keen atheists/antitheists, but most are probably fairly agnostic on whether there is some kind of God.  Maybe.

Peace out.