Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Conversion of John C. Wright

One of my newly favorite science fiction authors is a man by the name of John C. Wright. Wright was once an atheist but has converted to Christ through a combination of philosophical discovery and religious experience. His conversion story has profoundly touched me. Here it is:

“My conversion was in two parts: a natural part and a supernatural part.

Here is the natural part: first, over a period of two years my hatred toward Christianity eroded due to my philosophical inquiries.

Rest assured, I take the logical process of philosophy very seriously, and I am impatient with anyone who is not a rigorous and trained thinker. Reason is the tool men use to determine if their statements about reality are valid: there is no other. Those who do not or cannot reason are little better than slaves, because their lives are controlled by the ideas of other men, ideas they have not examined.

To my surprise and alarm, I found that, step by step, logic drove me to conclusions no modern philosophy shared, but only this ancient and (as I saw it then) corrupt and superstitious foolery called the Church. Each time I followed the argument fearlessly where it lead, it kept leading me, one remorseless rational step at a time, to a position the Church had been maintaining for more than a thousand years. That haunted me.

Second, I began to notice how shallow, either simply optimistic or simply pessimistic, other philosophies and views of life were.

The public conduct of my fellow atheists was so lacking in sobriety and gravity that I began to wonder why, if we atheists had a hammerlock on truth, so much of what we said was pointless or naive. I remember listening to a fellow atheist telling me how wonderful the world would be once religion was swept into the dustbin of history, and I realized the chap knew nothing about history. If atheism solved all human woe, then the Soviet Union would have been an empire of joy and dancing bunnies, instead of the land of corpses.

I would listen to my fellow atheists, and they would sound as innocent of any notion of what real human life was like as the Man from Mars who has never met human beings or even heard clear rumors of them. Then I would read something written by Christian men of letters, Tolkien, Lewis, or G.K. Chesterton, and see a solid understanding of the joys and woes of human life. They were mature men.

I would look at the rigorous logic of St. Thomas Aquinas, the complexity and thoroughness of his reasoning, and compare that to the scattered and mentally incoherent sentimentality of some poseur like Nietzsche or Sartre. I can tell the difference between a rigorous argument and shrill psychological flatulence. I can see the difference between a dwarf and a giant.

My wife is a Christian and is extraordinary patient, logical, and philosophical. For years I would challenge and condemn her beliefs, battering the structure of her conclusions with every argument, analogy, and evidence I could bring to bear. I am a very argumentative man, and I am as fell and subtle as a serpent in debate. All my arts failed against her. At last I was forced to conclude that, like non-Euclidian geometry, her world-view logically followed from its axioms (although the axioms were radically mystical, and I rejected them with contempt). Her persistence compared favorably to the behavior of my fellow atheists, most of whom cannot utter any argument more mentally alert than a silly ad Hominem attack. Once again, I saw that I was confronting a mature and serious world-view, not merely a tissue of fables and superstitions.

Third, a friend of mine asked me what evidence, if any, would be sufficient to convince me that the supernatural existed. This question stumped me. My philosophy at the time excluded the contemplation of the supernatural axiomatically: by definition (my definition) even the word "super-natural" was a contradiction in terms. Logic then said that, if my conclusions were definitional, they were circular. I was assuming the conclusion of the subject matter in dispute.
Now, my philosophy at the time was as rigorous and exact as 35 years of study could make it (I started philosophy when I was seven). This meant there was no point for reasonable doubt in the foundational structure of my axioms, definitions, and common notions. This meant that, logically, even if God existed, and manifested Himself to me, my philosophy would force me to reject the evidence of my senses, and dismiss any manifestations as a coincidence, hallucination, or dream. Under this hypothetical, my philosophy would force me to an exactly wrong conclusion due to structural errors of assumption.

A philosopher (and I mean a serious and manly philosopher, not a sophomoric boy) does not use philosophy to flinch away from truth or hide from it. A philosophy composed of structural false-to-facts assumptions is insupportable.

A philosopher goes where the truth leads, and has no patience with mere emotion.
But it was impossible, logically impossible, that I should ever believe in such nonsense as to believe in the supernatural. It would be a miracle to get me to believe in miracles.
So I prayed. "Dear God, I know (because I can prove it with the certainty that a geometer can prove opposite angles are equal) that you do not exist. Nonetheless, as a scholar, I am forced to entertain the hypothetical possibility that I am mistaken. So just in case I am mistaken, please reveal yourself to me in some fashion that will prove your case. If you do not answer, I can safely assume that either you do not care whether I believe in you, or that you have no power to produce evidence to persuade me. The former argues you not beneficent, the latter not omnipotent: in either case unworthy of worship. If you do not exist, this prayer is merely words in the air, and I lose nothing but a bit of my dignity. Thanking you in advance for your kind cooperation in this matter, John Wright."

I had a heart attack two days later. God obviously has a sense of humor as well as a sense of timing.

Now for the supernatural part.

My wife called someone from her Church, which is a denomination that practices healing through prayer. My wife read a passage from their writings, and the pain vanished. If this was a coincidence, then, by God, I could use more coincidences like that in my life.
Feeling fit, I nonetheless went to the hospital, so find out what had happened to me. The diagnosis was grave, and a quintuple bypass heart surgery was ordered. So I was in the hospital for a few days.

Those were the happiest days of my life. A sense of peace and confidence, a peace that passes all understanding, like a field of energy entered my body. I grew aware of a spiritual dimension of reality of which I had hitherto been unaware. It was like a man born blind suddenly receiving sight.

The Truth to which my lifetime as a philosopher had been devoted turned out to be a living thing. It turned and looked at me. Something from beyond the reach of time and space, more fundamental than reality, reached across the universe and broke into my soul and changed me. This was not a case of defense and prosecution laying out evidence for my reason to pick through: I was altered down to the root of my being.

It was like falling in love. If you have not been in love, I cannot explain it. If you have, you will raise a glass with me in toast.

Naturally, I was overjoyed. First, I discovered that the death sentence under which all life suffers no longer applied to me. The governor, so to speak, had phoned. Second, imagine how puffed up with pride you'd be to find out you were the son of Caesar, and all the empire would be yours. How much more, then, to find out you were the child of God?

I was also able to perform, for the first time in my life, the act which I had studied philosophy all my life to perform, which is, to put aside all fear of death. The Roman Stoics, whom I so admire, speak volumes about this philosophical fortitude. But their lessons could not teach me this virtue. The blessing of the Holy Spirit could and did impart it to me, as a gift. So the thing I've been seeking my whole life was now mine.

Then, just to make sure I was flooded with evidence, I received three visions like Scrooge being visited by three ghosts. I was not drugged or semiconscious, I was perfectly alert and in my right wits.

It was not a dream. I have had dreams every night of my life. I know what a dream is. It was not a hallucination. I know someone who suffers from hallucinations, and I know the signs. Those signs were not present here.

Then, just to make even more sure that I was flooded with overwhelming evidence, I had a religious experience. This is separate from the visions, and took place several days after my release from the hospital, when my health was moderately well. I was not taking any pain-killers, by the way, because I found that prayer could banish pain in moments.

During this experience, I became aware of the origin of all thought, the underlying oneness of the universe, the nature of time: the paradox of determinism and free will was resolved for me. I saw and experienced part of the workings of a mind infinitely superior to mine, a mind able to count every atom in the universe, filled with paternal love and jovial good humor. The cosmos created by the thought of this mind was as intricate as a symphony, with themes and reflections repeating themselves forward and backward through time: prophecy is the awareness that a current theme is the foreshadowing of the same theme destined to emerge with greater clarity later. A prophet is one who is in tune, so to speak, with the music of the cosmos.

The illusionary nature of pain, and the logical impossibility of death, were part of the things I was shown.

Now, as far as these experiences go, they are not unique. They are not even unusual. More people have had religious experiences than have seen the far side of the moon. Dogmas disagree, but mystics are strangely (I am tempted to say mystically) in agreement.

The things I was shown have echoes both in pagan and Christian tradition, both Eastern and Western (although, with apologies to my pagan friends, I see that Christianity is the clearest expression of these themes, and also has a logical and ethical character other religions expressions lack).

Further, the world view implied by taking this vision seriously (1) gives supernatural sanction to conclusions only painfully reached by logic (2) supports and justifies a mature rather than simplistic world-view (3) fits in with the majority traditions not merely of the West, but also, in a limited way, with the East.

As a side issue, the solution of various philosophical conundrums, like the problem of the one and the many, mind-body duality, determinism and indeterminism, and so on, is an added benefit. If you are familiar with such things, I follow the panentheist idealism of Bishop Berkeley; and, no, Mr. Johnson does not refute him merely by kicking a stone.

From that time to this, I have had prayers answered and seen miracles: each individually could be explained away as a coincidence by a skeptic, but not taken as a whole. From that time to this, I continue to be aware of the Holy Spirit within me, like feeling a heartbeat. It is a primary impression coming not through the medium of the senses: an intuitive axiom, like the knowledge of one's own self-being.

This, then, is the final answer to your question: it would not be rational for me to doubt something of which I am aware on a primary and fundamental level.

Occam's razor cuts out hallucination or dream as a likely explanation for my experiences. In order to fit these experiences into an atheist framework, I would have to resort to endless ad hoc explanations: this lacks the elegance of geometers and parsimony of philosophers.

I would also have to assume all the great thinkers of history were fools. While I was perfectly content to support this belief back in my atheist days, this is a flattering conceit difficult to maintain seriously.

On a pragmatic level, I am somewhat more useful to my fellow man than before, and certainly more charitable. If it is a daydream, why wake me up? My neighbors will not thank you if I stop believing in the mystical brotherhood of man.

Besides, the atheist non-god is not going to send me to non-hell for my lapse of non-faith if it should turn out that I am mistaken.”

Posted by John C. Wright on Catholic Answers Forums on Wednesday November 23, 2005 at 11:21 AM. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Minimal Fact Argument for the Resurrection of Jesus

Below is an email I sent to my friend. It is an argument for the Resurrection of Jesus that summarizes what I have just read in The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona. I also have in there other information from other things that I have read. Please feel free to critique or comment on any of this.

I've read the first part of that book that covers Habermas's basic argument for the Resurrection of Jesus. He describes it as the "minimal fact" approach which lays out the facts which the vast majority of scholarship are agreed upon. This way we don't have to get into inspiration doctrines and all that. Let me lay them all out for you and then you can ask me questions about them.

1. Jesus died by crucifixion.

When I listed this one in my email to my father a while back he gave the most profound "duh" answer. He told me that I hardly needed to state this one. Nevertheless, it is important to state. If Jesus didn't die, then he couldn't have risen. This is attested to by the Gospels, Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian, Mara Bar-Serapion and that Talmud. John Dominic Crossan wrote, "That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be."

2. Jesus' disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them.

Remember the acronym POW which means Paul, Oral Testimony, Written Testimony. The more detailed version of this is Paul's testimony about the disciples, the oral tradition passed through the early church, and the written works of the early church. About 20 years after the crucifixion Paul wrote 1st Corinthians in which he recited a creedal statement that he received from the early church. In 15:3-5 he said, "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve." It is uncertain exactly when Paul picked this up from the early church. Many scholars think that it was when he visited Jerusalem three years after his conversion and saw Peter and James. If that's true then he got the creed within five years after the crucifixion and from the disciples themselves. Other scholars think he got it later than that. In any case, he obtained it before he wrote the first letter to the Corinthians in 55 A.D.

Another source that contains oral testimony from the early church is the Book of Acts. In it are sermons that bear the markings of short summaries early church teachings that can be traced to the earliest teachings of the church and possibly to the disciples themselves. Thus, we have stuff contemporaneous with the apostles, attributed to the apostles, and in agreement with Paul's eyewitness testimony that this is what the church was preaching.

There are also the Gospels. Nearly every scholar agrees that they were written in the first century, meaning that at the latest they were written within 70 years of Jesus's death and alleged resurrection.

Next are the apostolic fathers. Clement of Rome (30-100 A.D.) attests to the proclamation of the resurrection by the apostles. Irenaeus and Tertullian later on confirm this. Clement notes that the resurrection was the central teaching of the church. Polycarp also emphasizes the centrality of the resurrection in his writings.

The skeptical New Testament critic who did not believe in the resurrection, Norman Perrin wrote, "The more we study the tradition with regard to the appearances, the firmer the rock begins to appear upon which they are based."

I remember reading an atheist NT scholar who believed in the appearances. By that I mean that he thought that the disciples believed that they saw the risen Christ. People throughout history up to now have believed many false things so this does not show that the appearances were real but that the disciples thought that what they experienced was true.

Not only did they claim this but they believed it. By this I mean that they were willing to suffer to the death for it. A contemporary of the apostles, Clement of Rome attested to this. The book of Acts does as well. So did Polycarp, Ignatius, Tertullian, and Origen.

Thus, we can conclude from this that the disciples regarded their belief as true. Even Bultmann granted this. The atheist New Testament scholar Gerd Ludemann said, "It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus' death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ."

3. The church persecutor Saul of Tarsus (later Paul) was suddenly changed.

This is well attested to and I don't think I need to go into great detail about it. Many of the same people I mentioned above attested to this as well as Paul himself. It should be noted though that this is independent of the other disciples since Paul wasn't converted by them but by a vision of the risen Christ. Of all the stuff I've heard disputed, this is not one of them.

4. The skeptic James, the brother of Jesus, was suddenly changed.

The Gospels state that James along with Jesus' other siblings did not believe during his ministry.
That ancient creed (1st Cor. 15:3-7) states, "then He appeared to James"

In Acts as well as Paul's letter to the Galatians, James is identified as a leader of the Jerusalem church.

James was martyred for his belief in Jesus. This is attested by Josephus, Hegesippus, and Clement of Alexandria. I put more weight on the Josephus reference because the the two others were reported by Eusebius who I have some legitimate doubts about. But heck, the fact that Eusebius screwed up on some things doesn't mean that he screwed up here. Anyway, despite some doubts about the martyrdom, I think we have good evidence that he did see the risen Christ, convert, and become a leader in the early church. That alone is good enough.

5. The tomb was empty.

Unlike the other four claims, this one is not agreed upon by nearly all scholars. Habermas did a study on this and found that in our early 21st century period the ratio of scholars who believe this compared with those who reject it is about 3:1.

After the crucifixion and alleged resurrection, the disciples proclaimed the faith first in Jerusalem. If the tomb was not empty all the Jewish priests and Roman authorities would have had to do was to take the body out of the tomb as show it to the people. Skeptics have said that after fifty days (which was when the preaching started) the body would have been unrecognizable due to decomposition. Habermas argues that the dryness and heat of the region would have prevented this. (He cites a medical examiner in Virginia who said that even in Virginia summer weather that level of decomposition would not have happened.) The second problem with this is that the enemies of the faith would still have gotten an advantage out of showing a decayed corpse to the masses. The Christians would have disputed it but it may have caused a mass exodus of believers which would have presumably been mentioned by Justin, Tertullian and Origen later, assuming that none of these also lose (or never gain) faith because of this. Celsus would have wanted to say something about it if this happened as well since it would have given him ammunition.

Not only did Christians believe that the tomb was empty but their enemies did too. In Matthew's gospel the early critics claimed that the disciples stole the body. The presumption of these critics was that the tomb was empty. Justin Martyr and Tertullian also demonstrate this in their writings.

The testimony of the women is also very important since if one were to invent this story back then, they would have had men discover it first since both Jewish and Roman culture of that period ran very much against the reliability of female witnesses.

The acronym JET is a good one to remember about the arguments for the empty tomb. It stands for Jerusalem Factor, Enemy Attested, and Testimony of Women.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Abolition of Man, by C.S. Lewis

It has been a long time I've posted here. I am going to try and post regularly every weekend from now on (until I run out of books to review). Perhaps I will be able to resurrect this blog.

Like Mere Christianity, this book is based on things he said orally, in this case a lecture. Lewis argued that the danger we face in society is a reductionistic Scientism which ends up turning Man himself into just another object of Nature and thus totally subsumed by it. Basicallly, the paradox is that as humanity increases in technological and scientific knowledge in order to gain mastery over Nature, it also gives up a little bit of its humanity as well until human beings themselves are considered only products of Nature to be shaped at the will of their Molders. He sees a Brave New World-type situation emerging if things don't turn around.

All this stems from reducing objective statements like, "This flower is majestically beautiful," to "He merely gets a happy feeling when he looks at the flower." In other words, it is taking what is an objective statement about the reality of the flower and turning it to just a subjective feeling. This gets worse when applied to moral statements. The Moral Law or the Tao that all societies have known (but of course none has fully followed) is completely denied by the above debunkers of aesthetic statements. Certainly not compeletely denied since the debunkers have values themselves that they believe are exempt from the debunking process. But if reductionism has its way, it will be more difficult for these debunkers to protect the pieces of the Tao that they do believe in from the onslaught.

This is a very short book but a very important one given our current state of conflict between various worldviews.