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.

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