Saturday, July 11, 2009

Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal's Pensees, Edited, Outlined & Explained, by Peter Kreeft and Blaise Pascal

This book feels like two books in one since it is essentially Pascal illuminated by Peter Kreeft. Both are profoundly insightful writers. What is attractive about Pascal’s Christian apologetic is that he gets down to the existential issues facing us as human beings rather than just offering arguments for the existence of God and evidences for the Christian faith. He does do some of the latter but his main contribution is a unique approach to the human plight.

What is the ‘human plight‘? It is that we are both wretched and glorious. Man is a mere reed , but he is a thinking reed and though the universe can swallow him up, he alone can wonder and comprehend the universe. This wonderful ability to reason, create and wonder can be lost by the presence of a mere fly or something as terrible as malice or pride. We have infinite potential as well as infinite means by which we can squander our potential.

One cannot speak of the human plight and not mention death, which is our foremost plight other than sin. We do not die like the other animals die. Animals try to avoid death and struggle against it, but they are not scandalized by it like humans are. Stoics and pop psychologists tell us to accept death as a natural part of life but the inner prophet in us screams “Do not go gentile into that good night/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (Dylan Thomas).

Pascal goes on to delineate two contradictory parts of our nature: our metaphysical greatness and our wretchedness. Any religion that claims to truly diagnosis the human condition has to deal with these two realities.

I could go on and summarize all of Pascal’s (and Kreeft’s) insights but that would take far too long. The greatness of this book is that it contains Pascal’s best notes from the Pensees and good exposition/commentary by Kreeft. Pascal was the first thinker to really bring apologetics down to the nitty-gritty practical level by speaking on the human condition and the need to find a solution to our plight. His talk about human vanity, the pseudo-solutions of diversion and indifference, along with his proposal on how to find the real solution, is stellar. In the past, I could only make limited sense of Pascal’s wager but now that I’ve read him more I can see how it rationally fits into his whole apologetic approach. The only regrettable thing about this book is that Pascal never got to use his Pensees or ‘Thoughts’ in writing an actual book himself.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Reasonable Faith, by William Lane Craig

This was an excellent book on Christian apologetics. By far, it is the best book on the subject by a contemporary author. In this book, Craig argues for the Christian faith using what has been called the “classical” method of apologetics. That is, he argues first for the existence of God (theism) and then for the truth of the Christian faith.

The first chapter deals with religious epistemology, or how we know that our religious knowledge is true. Here, Craig makes a distinction between showing that Christianity is true and knowing that Christianity is true. The Holy Spirit testifies to us of our sin before God, God’s judgment on us and the world, and the forgiveness offered in Christ. In contrast we can show that Christianity is true by arguing for the existence of God, the historical claims to divinity made by Jesus and ultimately Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Notice that none of these by themselves or even taken together necessarily leads to Christian faith. It is the inner witness of the Spirit that convicts us of our sins, tells us that we are accountable to God, and that Christ died for us to forgive us. Apologetics can help someone come to faith but it is ultimately God who brings that person to saving faith. Craig correctly states that apologetics is a servant of the gospel and as such it is the gospel that deserves ultimate priority in our discourse with nonbelievers.

The second chapter departs from the broad classical outline a bit, veering in an existential direction by arguing that life is meaningless/absurd without God and immortality. Basically, this apologetic is designed to get the nonbeliever to care about the question of God’s existence and possible revelation. One thing that is interesting about reading Craig is that he gives historical overviews of his present topic. In this chapter he discusses Pascal, Dostoyevsky, and Kierkegaard who are the greatest existentialist (in Pascal’s case proto-existentialist) thinkers. For those who have not read any of these men, Craig’s short discourses on their thoughts definitely provides an impetus for that endeavor. The main weakness I can see with this chapter is that it posits a choice is between Christianity and atheism only. In the West, this may largely be true but it does not encompass all the metaphysical options such as Buddhism, Islam or the other religions/philosophies. This apologetic doesn’t by any means get one to Christianity but it at very least it gets one to ask the right questions and be sincerely interested in the things of God. That is, it outlines the human predicament and argues that without God there is an utter absence of ultimate meaning, value and purpose.

Now we get to the first chapter on the existence of God. In this chapter Craig gives an interesting historical overview of the various key figures behind the traditional theistic arguments along with an elaborate defense of the kalam cosmological argument. This is a very simple argument: 1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause. 2) The universe began to exist. 2) Therefore, the universe had a cause. With Craig, I believe that this is a sound argument from both philosophical and scientific perspectives. Craig goes into much detail defending the Big Bang theory which lends to the interpretation that the cause of the universe was timeless, immaterial and personal. He also gives two philosophical arguments for why the universe could not be eternal. Of them I find the first argument persuasive but I think that the second argument fails on its own because it is dependent on the first for the reasons given by the philosopher Wes Morriston.

The second chapter on the existence of God begins with an excellent exposition of the fine-tuning design argument. Before reading this I admit to being more skeptical of the argument than I am currently. Next, Craig gets to the moral argument which he does a decent job of defending, although I much prefer C.S. Lewis’ formulation of the argument. Craig does little to argue against the modern skeptic who denies the objectivity of moral values. Again, Lewis did a better job of challenging the moral relativist there. The last part of the chapter is really the only silly part of the book. Here Craig drops the ontological argument but is both too brief and not very convincing, even if you agree with all his points. As with the Leibnizian cosmological argument, Craig refers to other theistic arguments to bolster the case for the ontological argument which basically renders it less convicting on its own. Also, he did not devote near enough space to defend the argument as he should have if he was going to bring it up. Craig ought to have cut out the discussion of this argument and focused more on the others.

Chapters 5 and 6 are really good defenses of historical realism and the possibility of miracles. Craig does a service by getting at the historical roots of the modern bias against miracles and argues persuasively that this philosophical predilection is without merit. Chapter 7 is a decent portrayal of Jesus’ divine self-understanding. I wished that Craig spent some time countering a widespread notion is scholarship that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet as evidenced by him allegedly predicting the imminent end of the world, at least according to some New Testament critics. I know of one scholar who takes this route in arguing against the proposition that, “God raised Jesus from the dead,” and I admit that this is the best objection to the faith that I’ve come across.

The last chapter deals with Craig’s favorite topic, the resurrection of Jesus. Craig does a good job here and mentions other scholars like N.T. Wright and Gary Habermas that have done great work on the topic. Craig weaves into the chapter a reasonable criterion of historicity that he expounded earlier in chapter 5. The only complaint I have about the chapter is that Craig sometimes gets so excited making his points that he fails to fully explain some things that he brings up. I genuinely value depth more than breadth which is probably why I objected to his use of the ontological argument earlier. That being said, this was an awesome book which I recommend to anyone interested in learning more about the rational warrant for Christian belief.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Critique of Richard Carrier’s Essay “Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story”

Carrier opens up the essay describing an account of the life of St. Genevieve in which she is reported to have done many Chris-like miracles by a monk writing ten years afterward. He then asks Hume’s question “Why don’t such things happen now?” Right off the bat, I’d like to challenge the notion that miracles occurred in the distant past but do not occur today. Throughout Christian history up to the present day, there have been many reports of miracles. Now, they could all be mistaken or all be created by liars, but that is different from the claim that they are not reported to happen anymore. The heart of it is that Hume and Carrier haven’t seen miracles. That is far different from them not being claimed to happen.

Carrier also claims that the gospels are in the same genre of literature as the likely tall tales about St. Genevieve, hagiography. This is clearly mistaken. The gospels are hard to classify easily, but as the 20th century literary critic, C. S. Lewis said, the gospels read like historical accounts, not fiction. Lewis’ sentiment seems to be backed up by the closeness the gospels come to the Greco-Roman genre of bios, which we get our word ‘biography.’ Luke even says in the beginning of his gospel that he sought out all the sources available to write a well-researched account. What Are the Gospels?, by Richard Burridge aims at proving this point.

Next, Carrier criticizes the fact that only a few pro-Christian sources report the resurrection. Since Jesus appeared first to his disciples and to two people who were not his followers (James and Paul), it makes sense that it would come from Christian sources. To expect non-Christian sources to report it at the same time would be like claiming that a football game didn’t happen because no one who didn’t watch it ended up reporting on it. Also, few documents survive from that era. Survival of written records was sporadic and in general people assumed that oral tradition was more reliable. Young Jews would learn how to memorize oral traditions accurately in school. Very few people were literate.

Carrier notes a Christian apologist who claimed that Jesus’ resurrection is as well attested as Caesar crossing the Rubicon. The first thing Carrier notes is that we have written evidence from Caesar himself about this while we lack this about Jesus. I suppose Jesus should have written something down to satisfy people like Carrier before he ascended! Something tells me that even if Jesus did exactly this, Carrier would still have reason to doubt since dating 1st century documents is no easy task. It is true that we do not know who the authors of the gospels were, but we do know someone who was an eyewitness to the resurrection, spoke with the original apostles and received from them an early Church creed confessing the resurrection belief. His name was Paul.

Secondly, Carrier notes that Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon was noted by his enemies, namely Cicero. Carrier states that we have no hostile or neutral records “of the resurrection until over a hundred years afterward.” This is an odd statement since belief in the resurrection of Jesus would preclude one by definition from being an enemy, or neutral. Anyone who believed in that event would be drastically changed, as Paul was. But, if we won’t count Paul can we count James? James was a leader of the early church as stated by Paul and Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. According to two or possibly three sources, James was not an early follower of Jesus (Mark13:21, 32; 6:3-4; John 7:5; arguably implied by Matthew). The veracity of this is attested by multiple sources and by the criterion of embarrassment. Since James was very powerful in the early church, it is doubtful that such a terrible lie about him would be produced and sustained in and by the early church. In other words, Mark and John reported it because it was probably true. It should also be noted that there is a sufficient condition for the resurrection claim that is admitted by those hostile to Christianity; namely the empty tomb. In Matthew 28:12-13, the high priests claim that Jesus’ disciples stole the body. This is an indirect admission that the tomb was empty by critics of Christianity. As N.T. Wright said, it is unlikely that the early Christians would just make this up whole cloth without rumors circulating. If the empty tomb were a late legend, it is also difficult to see why such rumors about body-stealing would arise in the first place. Depending on one’s position on Paul and James, we may or may not have enemy attestation of the appearances of Jesus, but we do have enemy attestation for a precondition for the resurrection belief; the empty tomb.

Next, Carrier states that we have inscriptions and coins about the Rubicon crossing from the time period while we have no such evidence for the resurrection. Here, Carrier is absolutely right. We have no physical evidence for the resurrection. However, neither Jesus nor his disciples had a physical empire, which Caesar did. Though there are legends about Peter’s digital camera. ;)

Next, he mentions that all the historians of the period covered the Rubicon crossing. Nothing like that exists for the resurrection. As far as this goes, this is true. However, Tacitus, Josephus and others mention Jesus and the existence of Christians. It was known that Jesus was a miracle-worker. The crossing of the Rubicon was a more public event of the resurrection. Jesus didn’t appear to the historians, he appeared to the Eleven, James, Paul and the 500. This is what the Christians claimed caused their faith. This is the reason why the historians noted the rise of this new religious movement. They didn’t see the resurrection but they did very much see the effects of it.

Now, we get to the last point. Caesar needed to take his army across the Rubicon to control Rome and its empire. He couldn’t have just made up a belief that he did that would have the same effect. He needed it to actually happen. For the rise of Christianity all that is needed is the resurrection belief, not the actual event, according to Carrier. This is puzzling. The historian ought to ask, where did this belief come from? Why would the disciples believe it in the first place?

After talking a lot about the differences between that superstitious age and our advanced scientific civilization, Carrier attacks the claim that the disciples were willing and did die for their belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection. He is right to claim that Stephen didn’t die for this explicitly but for the claim that Jesus was the Messiah. The obvious question is, why did Stephen think that a dead man was the Messiah? Why did James, who in 62AD was martyred believe that Jesus was the Messiah? It is splitting hairs to say that these people died for the messianic belief rather than the resurrection belief because the later was the only reason backing up the former.
The next more serious claim is that perhaps the first Christians believed only in a spiritual resurrection, not a physical one and if they did for their belief in Jesus it was for this belief. As happens now, people back then did have visions of dead people. The question is, would they have used the term “resurrection”? The answer is that they would not. That word was reserved for bodily rising. This was understood both by both Jews and pagans of the time, as N.T. Wright documents well in his The Resurrection of the Son of God. If they saw visions of Jesus, they would have stayed Second Temple Jews, just with the belief in a new prophet and martyr. Claiming that Jesus really was the Messiah who ushered in the kingdom of God wouldn’t have made any sense. As did happen with messianic pretenders before and after Jesus, the movement would have either faded away or tried to find another messiah. Being Messiah meant rescuing Israel from their pagan overlords in a very political way, not dying ignominiously at the hands of them.

It is interesting that Carrier claims that the belief in spiritual resurrection was the earliest belief and that the gospels show signs of this along with a corrupt bodily resurrection view. Since Carrier also believes that the gospels were written to combat proto-Gnosticism, it is odd that they’d include both features. Unless of course, Jesus was bodily raised but had a different sort of body then we do. Walking through walls, disappearing, etc. are hardly something you’d want in your gospel if you are writing a polemic against a more spiritualized view of Jesus’ resurrection. Wright argues forcefully that Paul’s experience was considered by himself to be a subjective vision, but in order to avoid the whole rabbit hole of the exact nature of Jesus’ resurrection body, it is enough to say that the tomb was empty and everyone knew that was a necessary condition for any resurrection claim.

Amazingly, Carrier thinks that Mark supports the theory of a spiritual resurrection because his gospel ends at 16:8 with the empty tomb and the angel who tells the women that Jesus has been raised and is not in the tomb. It is debatable whether Mark really ends at 16:8 or if he wrote more but it was later lost. The longer endings seemed to show that scribes thought there was more to it and since it was lost they had to improvise. The foreshadowing in the gospel seems to indicate that Mark intended to write more. Let’s ignore this for now and assume that Carrier is right. Mark ends with 16:8. What we have here are women visiting an empty tomb. Since women were not considered reliable witnesses in the first century, it is likely that this story was not just made up. Nor was it just a symbol like in the Greek myths. Mark strongly foreshadows Jesus’ bodily resurrection throughout the gospel. For example, in Mark 9:9 Jesus tells his disciples not to tell anyone about the Transfiguration until after he is raised from the dead. It should be noted that Carrier doesn’t come up with any examples of a wholly ‘spiritual’ resurrection claimed in history. That is the case because the concept was never used in that way.

Carrier finally lays out what he thought actually happened. Jesus died and was buried. One of his disciples saw a vision of him ascended to heaven and that started a the Christian sect though in time the idea became confused with bodily resurrection. The gospels and later literature attempt to lend credence to this developed belief. The problems with this are numerous as I’ve mentioned above. Paul and James would still have no reason to convert and if one postulates that they had visions (really hallucinations or delusions) then it becomes more improbable. Also, it wasn’t just one disciple but the Eleven and even 500, according to the creed Paul gives in 1st Corinthians in which he says some are still alive. In addition, there is the empty tomb. Gary Habermas did an in depth study finding that 75% of critical scholars believe that the tomb was empty and counted twenty-three arguments for it propounded since 1975. This does not make it true but it should convince one that it is at least worth considering. Women were the first to see the empty tomb. An invented story would have put the male disciples there. According the Acts, the faith was preached in Jerusalem fifty days after the crucifixion. Without an empty tomb, the preaching would have been shown false by the facts (which the authorities wouldn’t hesitate to bring up).

Richard Carrier ends the essay on a silly note. He thinks God should have made the evidence better. When he gets to how God would do this he mentions science. This is silly because God acting in history is not a repeatable event. All events in history are one time events. Since god acts in history though, it is implicit that he acts now and our faith in Him is not solely based on what happened long ago but on the agency of the Holy Spirit in our lives today. True faith takes risk. It takes seeking and not sitting safe in on some atheist internet community. As Kierkegaard said, “The objections to Christianity may be dismissed with one single comment: Do these objections come from someone who has carried out the commands of Christ? If not, all his objections are nonsense. Christ continually declares that we must do what he says - and then we will know it is the truth.”