Friday, June 30, 2006

Intellectual Myopia: THE killer plague

Many are familiar with the Bubonic plague which devastated and claimed countless lives in the Middle Ages. What we are not as familiar with is a plague of a different sort. It is one that has crippled and destroyed an equal amount of lives, perhaps even more than the Bubonic plague, though in a different sense. It is the plague of Intellectual Myopia. Myopia can be defined as: -my⋅o⋅pi⋅a n 1 : a condition in which the visual images come to a focus in front of the retina of the eye resulting especially in defective vision of distant objects 2 : a lack of foresight or discernment : a narrow view of something - my·o·pic /-'O-pik, -'ä-/ adjective - my·o·pi·cal·ly /-pi-k(&-)lE/ adverb Let us focus on the latter of these two descriptions. Therefore, the symptoms of intellectual myopia consist of: 1) a failure to think critically (understanding the implication of one’s beliefs and to engage in healthy scrutinizing) 2) a lack of desire towards intellectual exposure (More symptoms could be listed, but for now these will do. Feel free to add to the list of symptoms.) Now it seems that nobody is exempt from this plague in some sense. Despite my best efforts there are times when I act on or accept a certain belief that I have not considered in a critical manner. We commonly accept beliefs without clearly thinking through their logical implications. A mind, like a muscle, is something to be trained, worked out and stretched. Whether this is done in a routine fashion or a random fashion, it needs to be done with diligence. One means to this end would be the intentional exposure to new ideas on a regular basis (heaven forbid). Unfortunately, this plague has infiltrated the Church in large measure. Take for instance the literature that abounds in Religious bookstores. George Barna “noted that the religious books of greatest influence in the past several years have not addressed people’s fundamental theological views. ‘Most of the bestsellers have focused on meaning, purpose, security and the end times,’ the researcher pointed out. ‘While there have been theological views expressed in those books, very few popular books have helped people to think clearly and comprehensively about their core theology. Consequently, most born again Christians hold a confusing and inherently contradictory set of religious beliefs that go unchecked by the leaders and teachers of their faith community.’” If it is the case that the religious community is not suffering from Intellectual myopia, then why does it seem that there are so few who have been administered the proper vaccination?

The Books the Church Suppressed

The Books the Church Suppressed: Fiction and Truth in The Da Vinci Code. By Dr. Michael Green. Oxford, UK and Grand Rapids, MI: Monarch Books, 2005; 192 pages. No doubt we’ve all seen the film version of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and (hopefully) most Christians have familiarized themselves with the novel itself. Whether either of these is true or not, we have all, knowingly or unknowingly, encountered some form of the claims contained therein. Dr. Michael Green, prolific writer and currently Canon Missioner of Holy Trinity Church (Raleigh, NC), has ably and accessibly responded to these claims. In the first of fourteen chapters, Green identifies the novel’s main assumptions against Christianity (e.g., that Jesus was not considered divine until 325 AD, when the Council of Nicaea —by vote—pronounced him so). Such views, springing largely from Gnostic texts such as The Gospel of Thomas, clearly contradict the testimony of the four NT Gospels. So, “Why our four Gospels and no others” (p. 17)? Chapter two is concerned with explaining where the idea of a canon of sacred books came from. As Dr. Green observes, it is “important to understand… that nobody decided, ‘Let’s have a new list of authoritative books.’” After establishing that the Jews regarded the OT as an inspired, authoritative canon long before Jesus’ day, Green describes the principle by which additional texts came to be accepted: Jesus’ followers were convinced of his deity (p. 22f). The third chapter is a brief analysis of the reliability of the NT texts, focusing especially on the Gospels. Their genre, authorship, dates, testimony, and manuscript data are considered. Chapters four through seven return to the formation of the NT canon. Green first tackles Jesus’ authoritative view of the OT (p. 41f), and then examines the authority (Hebrew shaliach) and subsequent impact of the Apostles. Chapter five discusses the collection and recognition of specific NT manuscripts. Green demonstrates his thorough familiarity with the history of various fixed collections of texts, and argues that “by and large the NT canon was recognised early in the second century…” Chapter six begins by noting two key tendencies of 2nd century churchmen: A function of inclusion in the canon, and a function of exclusion (p. 71f). Remember, the official list is largely established, but “the edges of the collection are somewhat blurred.” Green traces the gradual recognition by the early church of the 27 books comprising the NT from among the surplus of Gnostic and other books. Chapter seven identifies the main principles used to determine a book’s acceptance (or rejection) into the canon: apostolicity, orthodoxy, and catholicity. Perhaps the most important point thus far is that no individual or council announced the canon, it was, rather, recognized. Switching gears slightly, Green moves in chapter eight to examine the Gnostics. “[They] appeared as a movement within broadly Christian parameters, and [were] a perversion of the Christian faith in the direction of speculative theology. It is really weird stuff” (p. 93). After providing several samples of Gnostic writing, Green summarizes the Gnostic’s beliefs, which segues right to chapter nine. The Nag Hammadi library (the discovery story of which opens the chapter) contains many non-canonical books, the most controversial being the infamous Gospel of Thomas. Green astutely evaluates this and several other Gnostic texts, all of which deny an orthodox Christology. As Green observes, these texts have influenced more than mere novelists; they have affected contemporary scholarship as well (p. 117f). Chapter ten is a more in depth examination of Gnosticism. While laying out their beliefs, Green carefully explains the apostolic response to Gnosticism. Obviously, the movement was not stamped out (it surrounds us today). The sub-apostolic response is reviewed, and the chapter ends with a helpful breakdown of precisely “what’s wrong with Gnosticism” (p. 136). Chapter eleven is incidental to the book; it offers a brief survey of various other books rejected by the Church. The twelfth chapter is entitled, “Why does all this matter?” In response, Green identifies four reasons: for integrity, for society, for the church, and for the individual. In the course of elaborating on each of these, Green perceptively addresses many related attacks on orthodoxy (e.g., claims by Elaine Pagels, Karen King, the Jesus Seminar, et. al.). Included as well is a helpful chart laying modern Gnosticism alongside orthodox Christianity. There can be no doubt that these matter a great deal. In chapter thirteen Green takes on the “sacred feminine” motif of The Da Vinci Code (and its various manifestations in contemporary thought). The final chapter is a terrific recap of an insightful and widely accessible work. The sort of worldview that Brown (and so many others) embraces has been exposed for what it is: empty, and based on errors. Following the final chapter is a useful glossary and a short bibliography, for those interested in further study.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Hick's Ineffability Argument

I have been inspired by Xavier to post some stuff on John Hick that I haven't thought about in a while. Here is Hick's argument for the ineffability of God on which I spoke to a youth group one time. 1) God’s being transcends the categories of human thought. 2) Any being which transcends the categories of human thought cannot be accurately described. 3) Therefore, any description of God will be inaccurate. Is this a good argument? Premise 2 seems unproblematic and true. Premise 1 has at least 2 problems: a. Self-defeating—one cannot know that God transcends the categories of human thought without knowing something about God that doesn’t transcend the category of human thought……… b. If it is true then it is false. But are there any more problems? a. Hick adopts a Hindu conception of God—that God is beyond any human conception. He is neither personal or impersonal, good nor evil. “Theologically, the Hindu distinction b/t Nirguna Brahman and Saguna Brahman is important and should be adopted into western religious thought” (Hick, “Religious Pluralism and Ultimate Reality,” 513). 1. The problem here, of course, is that no religion is supposed to be more valid than another, but Hick has elevated Hinduism to being closer to the truth!!! 2. If he is elevating this view of Ultimate Reality is he then excluding other different or contradictory views? I hope this spurs some good dialogue. Please share your thoughts, whether positive or negative.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Hick On the Nature of the Real

A while back I had a post on John Hick's religious pluralism. According to Hick, all the major religions are in ‘contact’ with the same divine reality. The differing religious traditions are simply mankinds historically and culturally conditioned responses to this ultimate Reality. Thus, "…we always perceive the transcendent through the lens of a particular religious culture with its distinctive set of concepts, myths, historical exemplars and devotional or meditational techniques." Taking Immanuel Kant's epistemological distinction between the noumenon and the phenomenon, Hick affirms a distinction between the Real in itself and the Real as it is percieved. The Real is never the direct object of experience. Rather, the Real is the "divine noumenon" that is experienced within the various religious traditions as the range of 'divine phenomena. That is, the Real in itself is never what is perceived. What is perceived is its cultural and historical manifestations. These manifestations can be personal, like Yahweh, Allah, Krishna etc.; or impersonal, like Brahman, Nirvana, etc. But there is a certain ambiguity in Hick's discussion of the Real and how it relates to its various manifestations (its personae and impersonae) that his reader will find quite frustrating, and serves (I think) to undermine his view. How exactly should we understand the nature of the Real and its manifestations? Could Hick be a polytheist, for instance? When George Mavrodes charged him with polytheism, Hick insisted that he was nothing of the sort. Upon reading Hick's Interpretation of Religion Mavrodes had suggested that Hick believed the various manifestations of the Real had real objective existence so that Allah, Jehovah, Brahman, Nirvana, Krishna etc. all somehow existed in some metaphysical realm simultaneously. But Hick contended that this was not precisely what he meant and that he was "at one level a poly-something, though not precisely a poly-theist, and at another level a mono-something, though not precisely a mono-theist." But what does that mean? Mavrodes points out that in Kant's system the noumenon as well as the phenomenon have real existence. That is, for Kant, the “thing in itself” has real objective existence, and so is the thing as it is experienced or perceived. But Hick seems to want to have it both ways. For on the one hand, he wants to employ Kant's epistemological distinction, but then he cannot accept the metaphysics that it implies.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Aquinas on the Essence of Composite Substances

Just when I think I'm getting a basic grasp on Aquinas I have to stop and rethink what I had once supposed to be true of his views. I finally picked up his Being and Essence where he comments:

Form and matter are found in composite substances, as for example soul and body in man. But it cannot be said that either one of these alone is called the essence. That the matter alone of a thing is not its essence is evident, for through its essence a thing is knowable and fixed in its species and genus. But matter is not a principle of knowledge, and a thing is not placed in a genus or species through it but through that by which a thing is actual.

And he continues:
Neither can the form alone of a composite substance be called its essence, though some want to assert this. It is evident from what has been said that the essence is what is signified through the definition of a thing. Now the definition of natural substances includes not only form but also matter...It is evident, therefore, that essence embraces both matter and form.
I found this illuminating. I had previously labored under the mistaken impression that Aquinas identifed the essence of a composite substance with its form, since the form is that by which a thing is what it is. But this, evidently, is not the case.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

William Craig / Bart Ehrman Debate Jesus' Resurrection

Here is the transcript of the debate. This material will probably remain unpublished, so if you missed the debate this is your only access. Enjoy and be blessed!