Friday, August 28, 2009

Charles Marsh on the irony of the "conservative" Christian elite in America...

"There is a remarkable... irony in the theological habits of the Christian right, which is entirely lost on the secular and religious media, but which I wish to note here: Every time we hear the voice of the Christian nationalist, or the claims, implicit or direct, that God is on our side, or such boasts as... 'America is a Christian nation,' we are in fact hearing the voice (unwittingly, perhaps, but unmistakably) of the Protestant liberal tradition...

The story of Protestant liberalism begins with this momentous adaptation: Metaphysical reality, the doctrines and beliefs of the church, are meaningful only as lessons that help organize human experience... As for being descriptions of the triune God, the one who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who on the third day raised Jesus Christ from the dead, and all the rest -- the doctrines and beliefs of the church are empty of objective meaning.

Thus, the liberal Protestant tradition, inasmuch as it claims that the knowledge of God must be based on some mode or dimension of human experience, leads to a theological dead end. Indeed, it leads to the conclusion that God is but an extension of human experience, a projection of human need and longing... The liberal theologians tried so hard to accommodate the gospel to the modern world that they ended up surrendering the faith 'to the patterns, forces, and movements of human history and civilization...' (Karl Barth quote)

When the conservative religious elites speak of the Christian nation, Christian principles, Christian values, or Christian prosperity in quasi-theological language, they are standing firmly in the tradition of Protestant liberalism. In this way, the conservative Christian elites have become the new Protestant liberals: Christ is the projection and guarantor of our values, ambitions, and power..."

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Another reason why everyone should CITE SOURCES!

I don't care if you're an internet blogger or a big-name academic, please cite your sources. Otherwise people start believing all sorts of ridiculous crap. Here's an example:

Today, during a Google search, I came across this item posted on July 29 on someone's myspace blog (ok, not exactly reliable to begin with, I know):

Worlds oldest Bible found, and it contradicts modern bibles
Category: Religion and Philosophy

Read it for yourself, it's true. Just look around the internet with the word "Codex." It is now considered to be the worlds oldest written text of the Christian religion. Even though it is believed to be written in the mid 4th century, after the death of Jesus, there seems to be no mention of this Jesus person. Not just him, not his resurrection, not his "miracles", nothing. The text also contradicts scriptures in modern Bibles. On the parchment, which is derived from animal hide, there seem to be numerous corrections, including line outs among the original text. I am not a religious scholar, or Sherlock Holmes, but I am going to say that it sounds like the Christian religion had better start basing their beliefs on something else, besides the Bible.

Now, unless this person has access to some secret information, here are a couple of the examples I found that are most likely what they are talking about:

Nothing at all like what the blogger describes. It's a description of Codex Sinaiticus being transferred online. Jesus is mentioned all over the place in that. It's online now, read it (learn Greek first!) What's more, anyone with a bit of knowledge about biblical history already knows about the "contradictions" and "numerous corrections" found in the many variant sections of text that have been recovered over the centuries.

My point isn't really to argue whether the Bible is reliable or not. It's simply to say that this person, and his/her blogging friends, now believe something that is patently NOT TRUE, unless they took the time to look up the sources for themselves (which some people certainly do - and kudos to them!). But PLEASE, bloggers/writers/thinkers/etc... cite your sources! Don't make us have to do your work for you. And don't make us waste our time looking for something that isn't there.

Paul Janz on Christ's command...

" in Christ, and in the 'call of his grace' (Gal. 1:6) which is enabled through what he accomplishes in the historically enacted innocence of his mortal life into resurrection, we are offered a new command... This new command is the definitive gospel summons of Jesus: 'follow me.' ...[T]he call 'follow me' is a divine injunction and thus a revealed one, and for this reason it is not first and foremost a summons to an 'imitation'... the call... is rather at one and the same time a summons to faith and simultaneously a summons to obedience. That is, it is a summons to make real 'the righteousness which comes by faith' - i.e. to become in our bodies instruments of his resurrection-righteousness (Rom. 6:13)..."

(from The Command of Grace)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation, Pt. 6...

Ok, so let's keep going here... I am going to be summarizing more information in these last few posts on William Abraham's book, so they won't be quite as in-depth... but I don't think anyone will mind that. :-)

As we discussed, Abraham's central thesis in "Crossing the Threshold..." is that divine revelation, in the "special" sense (that is, not the natural revelation which is available to everyone, such as the beauty of creation, etc), is an event in one's life that is a "world-constituting experience" (p. 95) that can be described as crossing a threshold into an entirely new way of seeing, experiencing, and knowing. This statement, as an epistemological presupposition, has just as much a priori rational grounding as any other epistemological statement. So, the question then becomes: Once we consider this possibility, what happens? The rest of the book is, to some degree, Abraham's answer to that question.

In chapter six, he evaluates the relationship between divine revelation and "canonical doctrine." Again, by revelation, Abraham is referring to what he calls a "rich vision of divine action." (p. 96) In other words, revelation is multifaceted. Abraham describes doctrine as that which guides the Church as a whole. The canonical doctrine of the Church provides certain boundaries or guidelines within which revelation might be properly assessed. It is most clearly articulated in the creeds (he references the Nicene creed specifically).

Abraham distinguishes his approach from those like Alvin Plantinga who, though providing a great deal of valuable ideas to theological epistemology, do not need to rely on a specific theory of divine revelation. Rather, Plantinga relies upon the implicit trust in the Holy Spirit to reveal what is true in the teaching of the Church. Where we "hear" the Spirit rightly, God reveals truth to us, including doctrine.

While Abraham is quite sympathetic to this view, and indeed finds in invaluable in many ways, he does not think it can extend far enough to cover all claims to revelation. In other words, philosophical analysis can only be as extensive as the initial claim to divine revelation which it presupposes. If one is going to use Plantinga's approach to defend Christianity, one has to presuppose already that the doctrines of Christianity are properly revealed to us. So, what does this mean?

Abraham begins by noting the perplexing nature of standard answers to this question. First, there is the common notion that simply appealing to the Scriptures (and/or tradition) will give us viable reasons for our claims to revelation as doctrine. But which view of scripture? Abraham lists a variety of approaches; the point being that they are all more or less applicable, and each one has adherents who claim their interpretation is the proper one. But this is just begging the question - why this or that interpretation? It's a never-ending "battle for the Bible."

As Abraham points out, such an approach results in the primary function of the Bible becoming "a foundation and test of the church's teaching. To secure this end, some theory of divine revelation has been indispensable." (p. 102) So, scripture itself, although it is claimed to be the foundation, is dependent upon an epistemological theory -- which has the reverse effect of making the Bible subject to a particular philosophical theory. And this, of course, is a problem, because that would mean the theory is more important to us than divine revelation!

This is why Abraham actually asserts that the notion of sola scriptura is actually a theory "that has outlived its usefulness." (p. 103) In his estimation, the doctrine of "Scripture alone" has actually become a Protestant imitation of the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility, inasmuch as it ascribes inerrancy in a broad sense to a source of divine revelation, without considering the epistemological assumptions required for such a view.

As a solution to this dilemma, Abraham proposes an approach that, not surprisingly, begins with the understanding that revelation is a "world-constituting event." (p. 104) This is, for the believer, an understanding that is brought to light as we reflect upon the history of the actions of God, in Israel and in the Church. Once we have decided that the new reality resulting from crossing the threshold into divine revelation is viable, everything else begins to fit together in a way that provides us with the epistemological background needed to trust in the Bible as a source of revelation.

So, with regard to, for example, the doctrine of the Trinity, Abraham states: "[T]he doctrine of the Trinity arose over time out of the deep interaction of the special revelation of God in Israel, the extraspecial revelation of God in Jesus Christ, experience of God in the Holy Spirit, and sanctified creative imagination and reason. It is radically incomplete and inadequate to trace the kind of revolutionary change in the doctrine of God represented by the Nicene Creed merely to the divine revelation enshrined in scripture. We must also take into account the place of religious experience, imagination, and reason." (p. 106)

[note: of course, in using the word 'imagination' he is not saying the belief is imaginary!]

Of course, one rejoinder might be that none of this makes any sense without the prior assumption that the Bible is true, since that's the source of our stories about God, Israel, Jesus and the Church. But Abraham would point out that even though the Bible is the "source", so to speak, to limit our understanding of doctrine to 'what the Bible says' is to discount the work of the Spirit in the Church, which is what enabled believers to first write down their stories, and then to develop their beliefs in light of what their experiences with God had revealed to them. God's revelation is bigger than the "book," even though the book is its central locus of written material.

I think I'll stop here for now... I was going to include chapter seven (on Conversion) here too, but I'll save that for next time.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

David Law on Scripture, subjectivity, and "ciphers"...

Not exactly sure what I think about all this yet, but it's an intriguing approach to contemplating biblical authority...

[Note: "Cipher" is a philosophical term used by Karl Jaspers to describe terms in human language that are not signs or symbols but terms that open up human beings to the reality of the "Transcendent" (aka God).]

"[T]he inspiration of the Bible is situated in three areas. Inspiration is a feature of human being... the opening up of human being to Transcendence and the (trans)formation of human existence in the light of Transcendence... But this 'existential inspiration' and grounding of human being in Transcendence is not self-produced. It comes about through engagement with the ciphers of Transcendence communicated by the Bible. Insofar as the existential coherence of the human being is dependent on the ciphers, the source of these ciphers, namely the Bible, can be said to be inspired. Finally, inspiration is situated in Transcendence-itself... These three factors and the dialectical relationship that exists between them constitute the complex phenomenon that is inspiration.

The knowledge the Bible provides is not 'objective' in the normal sense, for the knowledge which it provides is first and foremost existential knowledge. This does not mean, however, that the epistemological content of the Bible has no objective dimension or cannot be objectively expressed... However, the crucial thing is that this objectivity is not central, but secondary to, and dependent on, the existential impact and content of these statements... [however], the believer comes to realize that this existential development is possible only if God is prior to this development."

(from "Inspiration" by David Law)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation, Pt. 5...

Ok, back to the series...

In Pt. 4 we examined Abraham's claim that divine revelation deserves to be given centrality in relation to the epistemological warrants for canonical theism (or, indeed, any theistic epistemology). Now we look at his argument for why this is so. Essentially, as we will see, his argument revolves around the assertion that revelation has the effect of constituting an entirely new world of epistemological reality.

Abraham's central thesis begins with his recognition that the God of canonical theism is understood to be a personal God; that is, God is an agent who acts. Therefore, it follows that we can become acquainted with God by becoming acquainted with God's actions in the world. But how does one begin to establish God's actions in the world? Abraham returns to his previous point concerning knowledge: We have no reason to doubt our initial interpretation of our experience a priori. Given this, we can have some confidence that our experience of God's action in the world follows a similar line -- if we have an innate capacity to perceive God, then we should also grant the possibility that this capacity is, in fact, leading us to perceive God.

This, as we have mentioned previously, sounds circular, and Abraham concedes as much. But, he argues, this is not unexpected, nor is it an insurmountable obstacle. But it does offer him a direction in which to develop his own theory: It is reasonable that if there is a God, and if we have a capacity to know that God, and if God is acting in the world, then we can come to know God as we interpret our perceptions of God's actions. But, we must note, that is a lot of 'if's'!

So, how does revelation assist Abraham's endeavor? Intriguingly, he appeals to Soren Kierkegaard at this point, which is notable if only because Abraham appears to find SK's epistemology generally unhelpful, being as it falls under the category of the "fideist approach." (see Pt. 1 of this series) Of course, I am fairly certain that I am oversimplifying Abraham's view on this point, and I think that Abraham himself might admit to finding more value in the 'fideist' approach than he seems to indicate in this book.

At any rate, Abraham calls upon SK's category of "prophet" as having a particular epistemological advantage - one which has the effect of drastically changing the playing field of knowledge. In SK, the prophet differs from the genius as such: One is a person of extraordinary ability who is able to develop new ideas or systems (think of Einstein as an example). The prophet, on the other hand, need not be a genius, for their new idea comes directly from divine revelation. In other words, there is an epistemological separation between the genius and the prophet that is grounded in different sources.

(Side note: I question Abraham's point here, not because of his use of SK, but because of his conclusion. I would need to research this more, but is SK saying that there is an epistemological or ontological difference between the genius and the prophet? Abraham [footnote 3, p. 82] states that SK never makes a claim one way or the other. If it is epistemological, then Abraham's point holds. But if it is even somewhat ontological, that would appear to pose a problem for Abraham's view. I guess we need to re-examine Abraham's understanding of the relationship between epistemology and ontology...)

At any rate, if the prophet has access to a separate epistemological source, then there is an entirely new framework for what counts as "evidence" for theistic epistemology.

As Abraham is quick to point out, the typical philosopher or theologian rejects this for a variety of reasons: Revelation is subjective and arbitrary; revelation is divisive and upsets our reasonable assumptions; revelation cuts us off from further reasoning; revelation is often used by authority as a way to gain power. (p. 82-83) Abraham responds to these criticisms by asserting that revelation is what he calls a "threshold concept," a concept that is as viable a foundation as reason, experience, intuition, etc. (p. 85)

Although revelation is not necessarily immediate or direct (like experience), it nevertheless can be employed as a term with similar value. Why? Because revelation is an epistemological category. Just as one has to assume the reliability of reason to trust it as an epistemological category, so one has to assume the reliability of revelation. To distrust tells us nothing about the category, it only tells us about our preconceptions regarding any theistic belief.

Now, it may seem as though Abraham has just confirmed the aforementioned criticisms - hasn't he just effectively cut off conversation by subjectively cutting off further reflection upon revelation? But, if we say this, then we have to also ask why we intuitively trust reason? Why do we assume that our rational approaches to epistemology are reliable? The non-theist would, presumably, argue that centuries of clinical and experimental study have shown us which concepts are reliable and which are not - and theistic concepts would fall into the 'unreliable' category.

But, this is only a viable opinion if one already trusts, for example, the scientific method and rational inquiry. The reality is that such trust develops alongside that inquiry, in tandem, as it were. But this leaves open the possibility that theistic revelation is also a viable category, inasmuch as it too develops in tandem with inquiry into its validity. This is because the theist has been taken into an epistemological reality which privileges the category of revelation. Abraham explains it this way:

"[O]nce the term 'revelation' is deployed, it is simply and totally applicable; and once revelation is accepted, one enters a whole new world where everything is liable to be seen in a whole new light." (p. 85-86) He compares it to reaching the summit of a mountain, where suddenly everything can be seen from a new light, and new angles, which create a new field of vision. So, unlike other epistemological categories, which are naturally occurring in all self-reflective persons, revelation is a category in which we may or may not partake, depending on the situation. It means we have to re-think everything.

Now, we are still left with the accusations of circular reasoning, but it is no longer the only possibility. In fact, Abraham seems to indicate that circularity is a false argument against theism, though he doesn't elaborate. (see p. 88) But he does concede that outside the setting of revelation as a threshold concept, all of the notions that follow from revelation will appear as question begging. However, he is adamant that the question begging disappears once we have crossed the threshold, and further asserts that this alleviates the criticisms of revelation, since seeing revelation as a new epistemological reality offers more than it eliminates.

It is an ingenious application of revelation as an epistemological category. But, there is still a problem: Abraham admits it is only possible to see this new reality, even to be open to it, on the far side of its recognition in our lives. This, he must surely see, has actually repositioned the criticism of narrowing options in a different setting! Abraham states that revelation is a new world that "calls for the straining of every intellectual nerve and muscle in order to fathom the treasures made available." (p. 89) But since this only applies to those who have crossed the 'threshold', it automatically cuts off anyone who hasn't received revelation from having a valuable epistemological dialogue with one who has.

So, Abraham's subsequent claims that revelation can be a source of unity between varying epistemologies would, I assume, ring hollow for the unbeliever or skeptic: It is one thing to be excited about studying the varying approaches to knowledge stemming from an agreed upon set of grounding principles, it is another to not even agree on those grounding principles. In spite of Abraham's prescient call to humility when responding epistemologically to revelation, it seems somewhat naive to think that non-theists would be excited to work together with someone who thinks that they just haven't 'crossed the threshold' yet to true knowledge. So, unfortunately, it seems, the criticism of revelation still stands.

To be fair, Abraham points out the importance of critical appraisal of claims to divine revelation. He is right to note that there is a distinction between critically assessing the reality of revelation, and accepting revelation which we then seek to rationally resolve. In the latter case, we are effectively placing reason above revelation, and undermining the entire process. But, to ask whether the "crossing the threshold" has actually occurred is a viable use of reason in relation to revelation.

To say this another way, Abraham recognizes that claims to revelation have been often abusive and manipulative. Besides, if God and God's revelation are indeed trustworthy, then they are able to withstand scrutiny. God, Abraham points out, "dares to trust himself to us, knowing that his identity and action on our behalf can withstand our intellectual inquiry as much as our wickedness and folly." (p. 93) So, we can continue to hold onto our conviction that we have experienced the world-altering transition into the world of revelation, even as we honestly seek to evaluate whether our experiences are valid.

Of course, this is not as easy to do as it is to write. Honestly and critically examining our beliefs can be quite unsettling. Hopefully, as we do so, we will not only grow in our knowledge, but in our faith as well. In the remainder of the series, we will examine how Abraham applies the central concept of revelation as a threshold to various areas. I will also cover the remaining chapters a bit more briefly: I will take on two chapters for each post (6-7, 8-9, 10-11). We'll see how that works out!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Anyone else think...

... this whole health care "discussion" our nation is having is ridiculous? No one, it seems, from the bottom to the top, knows what they're talking about. Before anyone makes any statements about anything related to health care, they should all start with some actual facts:

Sunday, August 2, 2009

a bit of a delay...

Well, I won't get to my next installment in the responses to William Abraham's "Crossing the Threshold..." for a few days, because I'm busy preparing for a lecture I'll be giving this Wed. night at Bethany Community Church on Bonhoeffer and Violence. Should be fun... it will definitely be the largest group I've ever spoken in front of, for any reason! So, pray for me! :-) If you're in Seattle, feel free to come... should be fun!