Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What I'm Currently Reading

If it actually interests anyone, I don't know, but I like to post my current reading projects.  I figure it may help readers trackback through my posts and understand the formation of my queries, meanderings, and doctrinal re-alignments.  So without further ado, here is my current reading list (and yes, I have finished the books I've listed previously).

I've had to pick Dawkins's book up for the 3rd time.  I'm bound and determined to finish it, but I find Dawkins to be such a ponderously "crappy philosopher" (David Berlinski, from Expelled by Ben Stein) that reading Dawkins's manifesto for atheism is -- what I imagine -- melting lozenges in one's eyes must feel like.

I'm hoping for a bit more of a rigorous read from Stenger, and by all accounts I've read about, Stenger goes the distance Dawkins can't seem to articulate.

Fairly soon, I'll have a review of Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, as promised to Ed of "Pilgrim. Not. Wanderer".

Monday, April 27, 2009

On Women In Ministry

Gregory Boyd. He's a man of great learning, insight, and dedication. A former atheist, he became a Christian in 1974, and eventually gratuated from Princeton Theological Seminary with a Ph. D. He's a formidable philosopher, a top-notch theologian, author of many scholarly and popular books, a former professor of theology, and currently a pastor at Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Lately, I've been reading through some of the material on his site, Christus Victor Ministries, and came across a very important article I think every Christian should read. It concerns women in ministry. It's a hot-topic, to say the least, and has been for quite some time.

Now, given my background in conservative Lutheranism, I was once a staunch supporter of the 'men only' policy toward ministry positions. Women, I believed, were wonderful, beautiful, and spiritually gifted individuals who -- for reasons that were suspicious to me then -- were disallowed any ecclesial teaching office. Since I was ordained a Rev. Deacon, and was training in seminary to become a pastor, I wasn't prepared at the time to challenge the status quo. Most especially because it would mean expulsion from seminary, and a definite case for church discipline where I was serving.

On a more personal note, I am married to a tremendously erudite, and sagacious woman (Sarah, co-author on this blog) who, despite her many and profound giftings, was prevented from using those giftings (which extend beyond her natural ability to nurture our children, and cook food) because of her status as a woman. To Sarah's credit, I probably wouldn't have done as well as I did at seminary were it not for her incisiveness, natural knack for making theology practical, and her superior ability to converge disparate, abstract pieces of information. In many ways, any success I have ever had as a teacher, church servant, and communicator is due to Sarah's ministrations to me, and our family.

Given what I've just written -- that I was always suspicious of the 'men only' dogma, and that Sarah has many extra-domestic talents and giftings -- it became a matter not just of curiosity, but of necessity for me to start asking important questions like: why shouldn't my wife, who is a more capable teacher than me, have the opportunity to teach? What biblical warrant is there for Sarah to have to suppress her God-given abilities? And wouldn't that be contradictory? Or, as Sarah once put it, "why would God give me these gifts and then make it so that I'm disallowed using them?" These kinds of questions apply across the board, really: why would God create women to have the same spiritual and intellectual gifts as men, declare their total equality to men (Gal. 3:28), and then proscribe their use of those gifts? Is God capricious? Is He fixed on torturing women's psyches? What's the deal here?

As I said earlier, it became a matter of necessity to have these questions answered. And the answers didn't come fast, or easy. In fact, I agonized over this issue for many years. I was torn between wanting to keep my loyalties to those men of God that I loved (Rev. R.A. Ballenthin, and Dr. William Mundt), the Scriptural declarations that seemed so precise and clear (esp. 1 Tim. 2:11-15, and 1 Cor. 14:34-35), and the fantastically gifted woman I married. All of this came to a head when I took two years away from church (a wonderful catharsis for my wife and I, but not something I would necessarily prescribe as a common course of action).

During those two years in absentia, I grew more sensitive to the arguments proposed by my wife, and other scholars that certain passages of Scripture were more culturally relevant, or contextually skewed due to lack of appropriate cultural references in our present day. I didn't want to bite this bullet, as it were, because it seemed so hackneyed, so oft-parrotted that I didn't want to re-visit the philosophical implications it presented; I had already dismissed such ideas in my seminary days. God's Word was God's Word, and it contains no errors. And in this case, I still believe that God's Word contains no errors: it says what it means about women in ministry. The problem was that I wasn't understanding what Scripture meant by what it said. So, because of that, I was forced to chew back my (then) cynicism on the issue of 'cultural relevance', and re-visit the issue.

Fortunately, my wife and I came into contact with a house-church couple who invited us to participate with them in worship from the home. Eager to have fellowship, we accepted the invitation. But it quickly became apparent to us that this couple was living out to a much greater, and to a much more shameful level, the same 'men only' policy that I was struggling with. As I observed them and asked some questions, their understanding of Scriptural warrant for silencing women reflected the extreme logical end of the same understanding I had ruefully carried about for years: women were out-of-place teaching in church. For them, however, the extreme expressed itself in complete and utter disallowance of women to speak at all during times of worship. In fact, the one time I witnessed this couple's teenage daughter speak, both her mother and father quickly turned on her and launched Scriptural condemnations at her as if they were taking target practice with a handgun. She was shamed, the father was red-faced with anger, and her lively eyes dimmed into sadness.

So how was that experience 'fortunate'? Simple: it put a bold-faced stamp on the absurdity of over-extending ancient cultural imperatives into present-day scenarios. To put it differently, I learned that day that it is of paramount importance to re-examine our cultural differences now that we're 2000 years removed from the ancient biblical world. Sometimes there will be consonance. Sometimes there will be startling, and important differences. Seems like a simple, even obvious fact, doesn't it? But try learning that from the position of a pastor-in-training, who wants nothing more than to do God's will, and take care of his family. It isn't easy. And it took a total break from the pursuit of that vocation, that lifestyle, to even begin to have the opportunity to freely explore such an issue.

But I did. And here is where I now stand: I find it absurd that women are excluded from ministry positions. Not only that, I find the notion of religious 'authority' to be so illusory, and filled with shoddy, unbiblical reasoning that I can no longer justify the typical dyed-in-the-wool treatment of "no woman should have authority over a man" (1 Tim. 2:11). That pericope was an imperative leveled by Paul to a particular church, in a particular locale, at a particular time experiencing difficulties with certain rebellious tendencies. Paul, being the educated, and highly intelligent man that he was, I am quite certain of it, would have made a universal statement to all believers if it truly were God's will that no woman at any point in time, anywhere, and for any reason was to have a voice in the assemblies of God. It would be the height of imbecility and insanity to suggest that Paul intended a universal application of the 'men-only' policy when he quite consistently breaks his own policy in several other places in Scripture! It would also be egregious to state that Paul attempted a universal silencing of women when he wrote such passages as 1 Tim. 2:11 and 1 Cor. 14:34-35 when he was intimately aware of the ministry of women to Christ, Christ's elevation of women, and other Scriptural writings that showcase the importance of women in ministering capacities.

No. Paul intended to be particular in his application of the passages I've noted. To say otherwise, would be to misrepresent one of Christianity's greatest figures, and declare God a liar. Are you willing to go that distance? I'm not. I'm also not willing to make arbitrary, unbiblical distinctions the likes of which allow for women to minister in churches but only in nursaries, or to female 'tweens'. If you've agreed with me so far -- that women are equally ministers with men -- then such a cockeyed distinction is just another way to subvert the potential capacities of women in the church.

For some extra, more clearly explained material on this subject, let me refer you to Gregory Boyd's article "The Case for Women in Ministry". It's an excellent read with a lot of fantastic points, and straight-up exegesis.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Authority and the Church P. IV

And once again, we turn to Authority and the Church. Tim's comments will be in red and mine in black. Also, on the issue of authority and the church, I will be having a formal debate with a Roman Catholic lay apologist in the near future. We will be debating the relevance and validity of the papacy. I'm sure you can figure out what side of the debate I'll be taking up. For now, enjoy this series, and the series on Coyne.

"It is the church that makes the decisions collectively. Church discipline is done by the whole church not the group of leaders. Matt.18:17 Authority lies with the whole church, not left to its leaders exclusively."

Agreed. And some congregations understand how to go about church discipline. Others do not. So my question to you on this issue is: are you willing to spearhead a greater understanding amongst churches (house churches, and otherwise) that teaches a proper view of church discipline instead of condemning them for being ignorant?

"In asking for a king God’s people where rejecting the king that was all ready in place YHWH him self. 1 Sam.11:12 In asking for a king Samuel said that their wickedness was great in asking for a king. 1 Sam.12:17. He pointed out their sin which they acknowledged (vs 19) but also that if they continue to do wickedly they shall be consumed, both the people and their king. 1 Sam12:25 The lesson is this you reap what you sow!! Gal.6:7,8"

Again we turn to this point. I think this is probably your strongest argument, Tim. However, I do want to point something out: God allowed for a king over Israel, even though He desired otherwise. That king was a representative of God's authority. So saying, when Israel had a bad king, stuff went really, really wrong for them. Why? Because that king was not representing God's authority according to God's character. When Israel had a good king, Israel prospered, sometimes beyond our fanciest understandings. Why? Because those kings represented God's authority according to God's character.

Given the above, is there anything stopping conventional church leaders from being in the same place as the kings of old? That is, when the church has a bad leader, bad stuff happens. But when it has a good one, lots of really laudable, and praise-worthy things happen. I don't particularly see anything wrong with that.

But more poignantly, is the argument for the overthrowing of church leadership, as it seems to mirror Israel's asking for a king, an attempt to turn back time? The reason I ask is that God actually gave Israel what they asked for, even though it upset Him. If you follow that line of reasoning, why not take it all the way back to before the Fall and simply declare ourselves sinless, and demand that God come and walk amongst us?

Nevertheless, I don't want to give the impression that I'm trying to dismiss the idea of meeting in homes. I think it's perfectly valid to do so, though perhaps for different reasons. Namely, God gave us the model of the family as the most conducive to secure, and loving relationships; therefore it's ideal to welcome fellow believers into our homes, the sanctuaries of our family life. And if this satisfies the needs of a person's faith -- to meet in other Christians' homes -- then by all means, do that!

By the same token, if it satisfies the needs of other Christians' faith to meet in larger, public buildings and have a structured/liturgical/non-liturgical meeting, then again, by all means! However, it does seem somewhat foolish to exclude the family, homestyle fellowship from the faith-life of the Christian given that it is the more likely to engender the community and loving relationships that Christ desired for His people. Hence "all things are permissable, but not necessarily beneficial." But the last thing we are to do as Christians is determine out-of-hand that a given format by which our brothers and sisters worship is simply not beneficial because we can find this-that-or-the-other fault with it. We're not given licence to be presumptuous about others' faith lives because we have a different way of expressing our love for Christ.


It came to my attention today as I was watching The Root of All Evil -- a documentary by famed atheist biologist Richard Dawkins -- that religious fanaticism in America is indeed a sick and grotesque parody of the message of love, and non-judgmentalism that Christ demonstrated. Dawkins brought to light the oppressive, fear-based tactics of a particular group of fundamentalist evangelicals who caper about under the name Hell House Outreach. This particular brew of insanity purposefully sets out to frighten people -- children in particular -- into belief in God.

Really, it's not unlike the equally distorted, and fear-mongering tactics of Canada's Heaven's Gates Hell's Flames. A shameless, base production that feeds off of people's confusion, ignorance, and (like has been said already) fears.
I do have to wonder what drives a person to the point where they find it morally acceptable to make a circus display out of separation from God? And why is it permissable to promote hellfire and the cruelties of the demonic world to particular target audiences -- more specifically, children 12 and up? Are they mature enough at 12, suddenly, that depictions of callous hatred, malevolence, torture, and brutality are reasonable psychological tools to win their minds over to Christ? Is that what Christ said would display the love of God the Father? Are we looking to fashion the theater after the Inquisitions? And why do these kinds of productions always present good and evil, God and the devil, heaven and hell in such simpleminded, hackneyed ways? Haven't we exhausted the market on binary notions of good and bad, light and dark, God and the devil, etc.?
I put this kind of stuff on level with Fred Phelps and his band of bigoted butt-holes.

Kenneth R. Miller Comments On Jerry Coyne's "Seeing And Believing"

As promised, here is Kenneth R. Miller's reflections on Jerry Coyne's Seeing And Believing, an essay that posits science and religion will never be reconciled.
"An Exclusionist View of Science
My colleague and friend Jerry Coyne is a brilliant scientist, an excellent writer, and a thoughtful, outspoken atheist. He believes that God does not exist, and that any reasonable person should think as he does, rejecting the elixir of faith as pointless delusion. In taking that position, even though it is one with which I disagree, he places himself in distinguished company, no question. If Dr. Coyne's review of recent books by Karl Giberson and myself (Only a Theory, and Saving Darwin, respectively) sought only to make that argument, thereby to distance himself from a couple of deluded Christians, I wouldn't have much to complain about. On the issue of faith, there's plenty of distance between us, even if I think Coyne is on the wrong side of the question.

But Coyne did something quite different from that.

In addition to making the usual claims about the lack of evidence for God, Coyne flatly states that faith and science are not compatible, arguing that the empirical nature of science contradicts the revelatory nature of faith. What about the tens of thousands of scientists, now and in the past who were people of faith (including roughly 40% of all working scientists in the US, members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science)? Coyne waves them away with scorn, literally comparing them to "adulterers" who have subverted their vows to be true to science—or at least to Coyne's view of science. More on that later.

Coyne claims that "theistic evolutionists" like me exhibit three of the four hallmarks of creationism, making me really no different from the folks I opposed at the Kitzmiller trial. He couldn't be more wrong about that. I share exactly one thing in common with creationists, which is my belief in God. The other points of supposed agreement are figments of Coyne's imagination—or of his overwrought efforts to slander any believer by placing them in the "creationist" camp.

He seems to argue that a person of faith who accepts evolution must also believe God "micro-edited DNA" to guide evolution. While it's certainly true that a Divine author of nature could intervene in his world at any time, I have never argued for the sort of divine tinkering that Coyne finds so disturbing. In fact, I have argued exactly the opposite. Evolution is not rigged, and religious belief does not require one to postulate a God who fixes the game, bribes the referees, or tricks natural selection. Unfortunately, Coyne does not seem to appreciate this point.
And, just to quibble, he claims that only 25% of Americans believe we evolved from apelike ancestors. The actual figure (unlike Coyne, I will cite a reference) is 40% (Miller, Scott, and Okamoto. Science 313: 765, August 2006).

Coyne's eagerness to close out any possibility that there is an author to the natural world leads him into a curious position of self-contradiction on the appearance of the human species on our planet. As I pointed out in Only a Theory, evolution did indeed produce the grand and beautiful fabric of life that covers our planet, including our own species. Therefore, we are not a "mistake" of nature, but a full-fledged product of the natural world. If God is the creator of that world, including the laws of chemistry and physics and even the unpredictable events of the quantum universe, then it would be perfectly reasonable for a religious person to see our emergence, through the process of evolution, as part of God's plan for that universe. This doesn't mean, as I took care to point out in my book, that nature is rigged to produce big-brained, hairless, bipedal primates who would invent football, canned beer, and reality television. Rather, it means that the universe in which we live is sufficiently hospitable to life that on this one planet, at the very least, it has supported an evolutionary process that gave rise to intelligent, self-aware, reflective organisms, who would then be capable of arguing about the meaning, purpose, and nature of existence.

I made no argument that this happy confluence of natural events and physical constants proves the existence of God in any way—only that it could be understood or interpreted as consistent with the Divine by a person of faith.

To Coyne, however, even the mere possibility that someone might understand nature in a Divine context is absolute heresy. As a result, while he strictly rules out anything but natural causes in the evolutionary process (as would I), he then must argue that the same process could never, ever happen again. Why? Because if conditions in our universe are such that they make the emergence of intelligent life, sooner or later, pretty much a sure thing, then people might wonder why. And if they were to come to the conclusion this might mean that there was a Creator who intended that as part of his work, they would be guilty of the very thoughts that Coyne finds so outrageous that he wishes to banish them from the scientific establishment.

So, despite his frank admission that "convergences are striking features of evolution," he rules any possibility that human-like intelligence could also be a convergent feature. His only reason for so doing seems to be that such intelligence evolved "only once, in Africa." Apparently, to satisfy his standards, it should have evolved many times. Actually, of course, if an observer had checked as recently as 5 million years ago, it wouldn't have evolved at all. Nonetheless Coyne has absolutely no empirical reason for claiming that what happened once could not happen again—and he surely knows that. But, to borrow a phrase, he is "forced" into that conclusion by his own anti-theist views.

For someone so insistent on empirical evidence, Coyne is remarkably quick to invoke faith when it suits his purposes. Realizing that the anthropic principle could indeed be seen as friendly to religion, he knows he just doesn't have enough evidence to reject it. So Coyne dreams that "perhaps some day, when we have a 'theory of everything' that unifies all the forces of physics, we will see that this theory requires our universe to have the physical constants that we observe." Indeed. Perhaps we will. But even if we achieve that theory, we will still have to ask where the laws and principles of that theory come from, something that even Coyne at his speculative and hopeful best does not seem to appreciate.

Finally, what of his central criticism—the claim that science and religion are not only different, but incompatible and mutually contradictory?

He's right on one score, obviously. That is that certain religious claims, including the age of the earth, a global worldwide flood, and the simultaneous creation of all living things are empirical in nature. As such, they can be tested scientifically, and these particular claims are clearly false. Claims of demonstrative miracles in the past, such as the virgin birth or the resurrection cannot be tested empirically, because there are no data from which to work. On such claims, science has nothing to say one way or the other. Coyne's complaint on such things, paradoxically, is that they must not have happened because there is no scientific explanation for them. That amounts, in essence, to saying that these things could not have happened because they would be miracles. Well, that's exactly what most Christians take them for, so Coyne's only real argument is an a priori assumption that miracles cannot happen. Make that assumption, and miracles are nonsense. But it is an assumption nonetheless, something that Coyne fails to see.

How, then, should we take his claim that scientists who profess religious faith are akin to adulterers? An adulterer, of course, is one who has taken the marriage vow of faithfulness and exclusivity, and then broken that vow to have sex with another. Have scientists who profess faith broken some vow of philosophical naturalism that is implicit in the profession?

I, for one, don't remember any such vow in my training, my PhD exam, or my tenure review—although perhaps things work a little differently at the University of Chicago.

What science does require is methodological naturalism. We live in a material world, and we use the materials of nature to study the way nature works. By definition, that confines science to purely naturalistic explanations, because only those are testable, and only those have validity as science. I agree, and would defy Dr. Coyne to point to any claim made in the books he has reviewed that defines science in any other way. He cannot do that, of course, because there are no such claims. I would also ask that he point out scientific flaws in the work of biologists such as Theodosius Dobzhansky, Francisco Ayala, or Francis Collins that may have derived from their personal religious faith. He won't be able to do that, either, of course. Every scientist makes mistakes—and I've made plenty in my career. But the real issue is whether a scientist's view on the question of God is incompatible with their scientific work. Clearly, it is not.

Coyne's entire critique, then, is based upon an unspoken assumption he expects his readers to share, namely, that science is the only legitimate form of knowledge. To Coyne, any deviation from that view is an adulterous contradiction of the sacred scientific vow to exclude any possibility of the spiritual, not just from one's scientific work, but from the entirety of one's philosophical world view.

With all due respect to my distinguished colleague, that is nonsense. One can indeed embrace science in every respect, and still ask a deeper question, one in which Coyne seems to have no interest. Why does science work? Why is the world around us organized in a way that makes itself accessible to our powers of logic and intellect? The true vow of a scientist is to practice honest and open empiricism in every aspect of his scientific work. That vow does not preclude the scientist from stepping back, acknowledging the limitations of scientific knowledge, and asking the deeper questions of why we are here, and if existence has a purpose. Those questions are genuine and important, even if they are not scientific ones, and I believe they are worth answering.

To Jerry Coyne, a person of faith like the Belgian priest Georges Lemaître, could not possibly have been a true scientist because of his faith in a loving and provident God. That would make Father Lemaître, in Coyne's eyes, nothing more than a creationist. Too bad, because as I'm sure Jerry knows, it was Georges Lemaître who provided the first detailed mathematical arguments for cosmic expansion, which today we call the "big bang." Remarkable how Lemaître rose above his adulterous tendencies, isn't it?

The genuine tragedy of Coyne's argument is the way in which it seeks to enlist science in a frankly ideological crusade—a campaign to purge science of religionists in the name of doctrinal purity. That campaign will surely fail, but in so doing it may divert those of us who cherish science from a far more urgent task, especially in America today. That is the task of defending scientific rationalism from those who, in the name of religion would subvert it beyond all recognition. In that critical struggle, Jerry, scientists who are also people of faith are critical allies, and you would do well not to turn them away."
Again, by way of

Karl W. Giberson Comments On Jerry Coyne's "Seeing And Believing"

I have posted two articles (with more to come) that offer critical reflections on Jerry Coyne's article Seeing And Believing. In that article, Coyne deals most specifically with two "Darwinian churchgoers": Karl W. Giberson, and Kenneth R. Miller. The following two articles will be critical reflections from both Giberson and Miller themselves in response to Coyne.

I hope you enjoy!

"I enter this conversation feeling vaguely like a wishbone being stretched. On the one hand, I believe that the world is the creation of transcendent God that I perceive dimly behind the almost opaque curtain of my experience; but I also believe in the extraordinary power of science to unfold the nature of that world with astonishing clarity and conviction. I have one foot in each of Gould's non-overlapping magisteria and the space between them seems, at least in this conversation, uncomfortably large.
Discussions like this that juxtapose "empirical science" with "revealed religion" rarely seem like appropriately balanced encounters to me. When Ken Ham and his merry band of biblical literalists talk disparagingly about science, I can barely recognize it. But I had the same problem with Dawkins's send-up of believers in The God Delusion.

Coyne, who affirms Dawkins's approach, speaks of "theologians with a deistic bent" who inappropriately presume to "speak for all the faithful." The implication is that the "faithful" are the more authentically religious and the theologians are an aberration. This seems unfair to me. The great unwashed masses of these "faithful" should be juxtaposed with the great masses of people who "believe" in science but are not professionals. Most Americans -- and the rest of the world, for that matter -- are attached to both iPods and a belief that medical science is their best hope when they are sick. They "believe" in science. What do you suppose "science" would look like, were it defined by these "believers"? The physics would be Aristotelian; astrology and aliens would accepted as real; General Relativity would be unknown; quantum mechanics would be perceived as a way to influence the world with your mind. And yet all of these people would have had far more education in science than the typical religious believer has in theology. Science as "lived and practiced by real people" is quite different than the science promoted by the intellectuals in this conversation.

Empirical science does indeed trump revealed truth about the world as Galileo and Darwin showed only too clearly. But empirical science also trumps other empirical science. Einstein's dethronement of Newton was not the wholesale undermining of the scientific enterprise, even though it showed that science was clearly in error. It was, rather, a glorious and appropriately celebrated advance for science, albeit one not understood by most people. Why is this different than modern theology's near universal rejection of the tyrannical anthropomorphic deity of the Old Testament, so eloquently skewered by Dawkins? How is it that "science" is allowed to toss its historical baggage overboard when its best informed leaders decide to do so, even though the ideas continue to circulate on main street, but religion must forever be defined by the ancient baggage carried by its least informed?

The world disclosed by science is rich and marvelous, but most people think there is more to it. Our religious traditions embody our fitful and imperfect reflections on this mysterious and transcendent intuition -- an intuition that, as articulated by some of our most profound thinkers, seeks an understanding of the world that is goes beyond the empirical.

Coyne is correct that books like those he reviewed—Ken Miller's Only a Theory and my Saving Darwin—have not been particularly successful in securing a peaceful overlap for the magisteria, at least not for most people. Coyne would say there is no such peaceful overlap. But there are many well-informed believers who have come to peace with science, and who live happily on the rich, but thinly populated, turf where the magisteria overlap.

I think we can all agree though that, wherever we stand, there is a great need for a discussion of how America's conversation on origins should proceed. We need to wake up to the reality that current strategies have been an abysmal failure and ask some tough questions about why that is. There is a widespread fear on America's main streets that evolution is destroying a cherished belief in God. As a consequence, anti-evolution has assumed the proportions of a military-industrial complex but the battle is a proxy war, aimed not at evolution, but at materialism. I wonder what would happen if, in the name of pluralism and diplomacy, we could all agree that it was OK for people to believe that evolution was a part of God's plan. I suspect that cultural changes would be inaugurated that would eventually make both Eugenie Scott and Ken Ham irrelevant."

By way of

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

How Hitchens Poisons Logic

Christopher Hitchens's international bestseller god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything is a poignant but embittered look at the effects and influence of religion in history, and the modern world.  I commented briefly about the book a while ago in an article called "The Muppets and Christopher Hitchens".  Still, I think Eric Reitan gives voice to one of the major flaws of Hitchens's work in the following quote:
But to say these things requires an account of what I mean by "religion." Instead of offering his own account, Hitchens' strategy seems to be this: if it is good, noble, or tends to inspire compassion, then it isn't "religion." It is "humanism" or something of the sort. With no clear definition to guide him, Hitchens is free to locate only what is cruel, callous, insipid, or banal in the camp of religion, while excluding anything that could reliably motivate the heroic moral action exemplified by Bonhoeffer and King. When "religion" is never defined, but in practice is treated so that only what is poisonous qualifies, it becomes trivially easy to conclude that "religion poisons everything."
Essentially, if you set out to state a thing is bad, and then remove all the good from it, you're left with the bad.  Hitchens's logic on this count is rancorous and amounts to nothing more than affirming the consequent; that is, if religion poisons everything then religion is bad; religion poisons everything, therefore religion is bad.  Hitchens does nothing to either define religion, or allow for any of the good that religion provides (that fellow atheists like Dennett and Dawkins freely admit) to be part of his definition of 'religion'.  He simply removes everything that stands in the way of his assumed conclusion that 'religion is poisonous' and works from there.  A very disingenuous move to say the least.

Thanks to for this one.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


Protestants reject out-of-hand the notion of 'purgatory'.  Purgatory is said to be a Roman Catholic conjuring having nothing to do with the economy of God. With the advent of Luther's Reformation (AD 1517 --->), a theological tradition that considers the refining fires believers go through before entrance into heaven was summarily trashed.  In its place was drafted what I call a 'punctuated sanctification'.  That is, the notion that salvation through Christ instantaneously absolves one of all one's sins, that they are 'new creatures' (II Cor. 5:17-18) already fit for eternity in heaven with God.

To be clear, salvation does instantaneously absolve a person of his/her sins.  However, the fact that we continue to experience character challenges, persecutions, tests of faith, temptations, habitual sins, and the need to regularly ask Christ to quicken His forgiveness in our lives speaks against a completed, or 'punctuated' sanctification upon salvation.  Our characters are not fully reformed when we receive Christ's salvation.  We still have to "work out our salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12); we still have to "purify ourselves" from everything in us that expresses itself against God (2 Cor. 7:1).  

And given that we presently live imperfect lives, what makes us think that at the close of our lives, when we see dusk settling over our life-force and the darkness draws near, that we will have somehow suddenly perfected ourselves and worked out our salvation (i.e., completed our sanctification)?  Could it be that classical Roman Catholic theology has been right about purgatory?  That is, perhaps Protestants reacted too quickly to reject the doctrine of purgatory since it was too close to the blasphemy of selling indulgences (a papal device that essentially states you can buy time out of purgatory).  The association was too much like rubbing sandpaper over a fresh wound.  On reflection, almost 600 years later, however, purgatory does seem to make some sense.

Gregory A. Boyd makes a few interesting observations about this issue here, on his blog.

What are your thoughts?

Authority and the Church P. III

It's been a while, but I thought I'd revisit the issue of authority and the church. The first two installments of this debate I entertained are here, and here. My comments will be in black, and TJG's will be in red.

Having said that, I have to ask a few questions in return: what makes you think that doing Church as a House Church will avoid any of the partitioning, and pandering that accompanies conventional churches? And just to keep in focus with your question a little more, why do you think a house church model will avoid the pitfalls and downswings of churches as they've been through the centuries?

"Meeting in our homes doesn’t ensure anything will be what it is suppose to be. Meeting in the home is not a guard against a Diotrephes but it his the wisdom of God to gather as a family in ones home"

Absolutely it is the 'wisdom of God' to gather in one's home. I have no quarrel with you there. My concern is that you've written off a large portion of history, and thousands of years (2000, that is) of people meeting in larger houses affectionately known as the 'house of God' all for a change in location. If I can venture a bit of sarcasm without it being taken as hostility, you've exchanged mitigation for mortgages. In other words, you've exchanged a bigger building for a smaller building. But practically speaking, meeting in the home is valid, for sure. But not meeting in the home, and opting for a larger place to gather in not invalidated by other Christians meeting in their homes.

But more to the point, the necessity of meeting in homes was a fact of Roman persecution. The apostles and the early Christians met in homes because the influence of the Hellenic Jewish community around them was oppressive, and the Romans were obliged to apply the law to Christians since they were viewed as upstarts, rebels, and a disturbance to the peace. It didn't take 50 years after Christ's death before Jerusalem was burnt to the ground and the Christians were blamed (AD 70)! If they didn't all want to get nailed shut into their public buildings and burnt alive, or worse, they had to meet in secret. Thus the origin of the icthus (the symbol of the fish, or the first letter of the Greek alphabet, alpha): it was a symbol used in secret to identify without speaking who was a Christian. One person would etch the first arch of the symbol into the ground with a walking stick, or their foot, and the one passing by would intersect the arch with the completing arch. Then the two passers-by knew each other as Christians.

Oppression and persecution drove people into their homes, caves, catacombs, and tombs until roughly AD 313; why don't we meet in caves, or tombs then, if we want to be biblically and historically pure, Tim? The fact that the apostles started meeting with people in their homes was not only a Jewish custom at the time, it was also a matter of being a seed community. That is, a fledgling group of believers with no financial clout, and no ability or influence to gain a public building of their choice. Given all that, I'm concerned that 'house church' is simply a different format for doing church and is no more right, or wrong than church as it presently is. God isn't stopped, or slowed by methodology, or location. Geography isn't a barrier to our Lord.

"it is how the apostles brought the body to relate and function together with out any kind of dedicated edifice for that function."

Because it was their only option. I mean, aside from the caves, catacombs, and tombs I mentioned earlier.
"Leadership is to be understood as a servant not a lord.(1Pet.5:3 Luke 22:26) Leaders lead the church but are not lords’ of the church."

Yes, you're right. I think that is an established, almost universal understanding, if not a doctrine (i.e., established teaching) amongst conventional churches. The fact that some people take advantage of a leadership position is not an argument for the illegitimacy of present-day church leadership. It is an argument for the immorality of some people, but it does nothing to debunk the presence, or even necessity of leadership in present-day churches.

Friday, April 17, 2009

A Critical Response to Jerry Coyne, P. II: Having Our Cake and Eating It, Too

It is the nature of fundamentalists to bottom-line their thinking as far as they are able. There is emotional security in holding to what one perceives as an inviolable interpretation of reality. So when an equal opposing claim to reality makes itself known, it is inevitable that philosophical claims to reality will clash. It is just this phenomenon that Coyne has identified when he notes the bipolar culture of evangelicals and the 'new atheists'. Says Chris Hedges in When Atheism Becomes Religion,

"Fundamentalism is a mind-set. The iconography and language it employs can be either religious or secular or both, but because it dismisses all alternative viewpoints as inferior and unworthy of consideration it is anti-thought. This is part of its attraction. It fills a human desire for self-importance, for hope and the dream of finally attaining paradise. It creates a binary world of absolutes, of good and evil. It provides a comforting emotional certitude."1

With two opposing streams of fundamentalism equally certain that their views of reality are the only reliable views, the atmosphere for dialogue is squelched, and reconciliation is necessarily impossible. The same idea is borne out in common conversation: if two people are unwilling to lay aside their differences in order to establish effective, meaningful communication – communication that both parties can benefit from – then reconciliation is not possible.

However, Coyne goes on to make the point that there are liberal theologians and religious scientists hoping to effect a harmony between the two perspectives. That is, some theologians and scientists are setting their differences aside to bring about mutually beneficial communication. We can reasonably assume then, that those scientists are seeing enough convergence to make a possible reconciliation. For Coyne, though, this is too easy. In fact, he states that “there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind.”

Noting that people are working on reconciliation implies the possibility of that end. Those who hold to a congenial view of both science and religion – that is, those who hold to “both attitudes... simultaneously” – manage a cognitive dissonance not uncommon to daily living; for example, being enslaved to the workforce in order to gain a future freedom that one values now. Whether or not anyone agrees with my stated example, the contrasts between what people believe and what they have to 'work with,' or value can often run into conflict despite the fact that both 'attitudes' must be conjoined in a persons mind. So while it is that religious folk insist on a divinely curated reality, and the scientific community insists on a chance naturalistic reality, the fact remains that dissonance between the two fields does not logically imply a total divorce.

Embracing competing claims is in no way a “trivial” occupation, as Coyne states. It is, as I've already noted, a reality we all face. In fact, it is one of the foundational layers of being a human being, of recognizing that for all our linear equations, reality is often relentlessly bisected to the point where traveling along a straight line becomes impossible. Too much of who we are as human beings, as participants in this nebulous cosmos, is presently beyond our reach or comprehension. Given that fact, we can all benefit from the sciences that quantify perceptible reality, and we can all benefit from the philosophical, or metaphysical quandries that religions attempt to address. And we can have both of those things simultaneously. We can have our cake and eat it, too. Not because doing so is 'trivial' and therefore easy, but because not doing so is dishonest and therefore makes living that much harder. Hopefully, Coyne can see the cognitive dissonance in that, and embrace it without seeing himself as “trivial”.

Still, Coyne raises important questions we would be remiss to pass by:

...some of the tensions disappear when the literal reading of the Bible is renounced, as it is by all but the most primitive of JudeoChristian sensibilities. But the tension remains. The real question is whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science. Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith? Are the gaps between them so great that the two institutions must be considered essentially antagonistic? The incessant stream of books dealing with this question suggests that the answer is not straightforward.
Coyne is quite right to note that some tensions between science and religion disappear when Christians give up a face-value rendering of Scripture. Believers would be foolish, for example, not to question the intention behind injunctions that encourage us to pluck out our eye, or cut off our hands for sinning (Mt. 5:29-30). And given the current findings of science, a face-value interpretation of the creation story seems implausible. That is, believing that everything that ever existed, and presently exists simply popped into existence 6000 – 10000 years ago, and has experienced no variation in form or function is, quite literally, naive.

The crux of the issue, Coyne notes, is a philosophical question. It is a question of epistemology. That is, if there is a disagreement between science and religion (and there is), that disagreement is the tension produced between empiricism and revelatory faith. The two systems of 'knowing' differ in many ways. By way of example, empiricism relies on what is actively observable and measureable. Faith relies on passive reception and hermeneutical reflection. Empiricism stakes claims on testable, repeatable experiments. Faith hammers down claims via profession, and systematic indoctrination. Even so, behind both of these epistemologies, and despite their competing tensions, enough of a similarity remains that not taking it into account would render the whole conversation between science and religion meaningless. That similarity is the fact that all knowledge has a fiduciary basis. In other words, what we say we know, what we claim to know, what we have measured and consider known all hinges on the fact that we believe that knowledge is accurate, binding, and correspondant to reality.

This is not a plug for the overstated case of postmodernity. Conversation on the 'relativity of truth' is often a comedy of errors wherein the actors have mistaken what they take to be true with what they hold to be valuable. No, behind all of these crossed monologues on the compatibility of science and religion, both institutions value what they think they know, and ergo believe it to be true. In science it is of paramount value to test observable data, and once the results are in the conclusions are taken to be 'true'. In religion, it is of chief importance (value) to ensure that faith claims correspond with what is agreed was divinely revealed. In either case, both parties are taking the same leap: what they conclude, based on what they interpret from their observations, is concluded in faith. The philosopher David Hume spoke to this epistemological perspective when he asserted that limitless finite observations cannot be used to draft an unrestricted general conclusion and still be logically defensible.2 Thus what science can value as a 'law' is moreso a testable faith-claim, but not necessarily an inviolable truth. As Dinesh D'Souza points out in What's So Great About Christianity:

"If I say all swans are white and posit that as a scientific hypothesis, how would I go about verifying it? By checking out swans. A million swans. Or ten million. Based on this I can say confidently that all swans are white. Hume's point is that I really don't know this. Tomorrow I might see a black swan, and there goes my scientific law."3

Or, to put it another way, there is no way to prove a connection between cause and effect, that B was caused by A. It is a correlation that is assumed but not universally fixed, as Hume was keen to note. Thus empirical science and religion both hinge on faith-based assumptions. Accordingly, if both factions are willing to admit that particular bridge between their respective gaps, reconciliation is not only possible, but already exists and awaits our recognition.

1 Hedges, Chris When Atheism Becomes Religion New York, NY, Freepress, 2008, p. 69
2 D'Souza, Dinesh What's So Great About Christianity United States of America: Tyndale House Publishers, 2007, p. 188.
3 Ibid.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Critical Response to Jerry Coyne, P. I

Jerry Coyne is a professor at the University of Chicago in the Department of Ecology and Evolution. He is the author of the recent book Why Evolution Is True. On February 9, 2009, Coyne published a paper through The New Republic called Seeing and Believing. In this paper, Coyne defends the thesis that science and religion will never reconcile despite on-going efforts toward that end. In particular, he relies on the work of two prominent scientists – who also happen to be Christians – Karl W. Giberson (Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution) and Kenneth R. Miller (Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul), who have made concerted efforts at establishing harmony between science and religion.

Coyne takes a fair stab at the conflict science and faith have entrenched themselves in since the early 1900's. However, his personal summary of his paper makes it clear that he sees no present or future amelioration between the two realities. In fact, he goes so far as to state that the attempt to reconcile science and religion “is doomed to fail.” But in hastening to such a conclusion, Coyne has overlooked the fact that modern Western science was birthed in Christian and Islamic cultures. And if the maxim “those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it” holds any water, there is hope for a reconciliation despite Coyne's prognostications. Having not looked back on the history of the field he practices, Coyne's thesis inversely admits a tacit probability for history to repeat itself: that is, experience re-birth in the arms of religious perspectives.

Be that as it may, Coyne notes that the religious population in America repels the notion of Darwinian natural selection because it implies that “far from having a divinely scripted role in the drama of life, our species is the accidental and contingent result of a purely natural process.” As a bit of an armchair philosopher, I have to ask the question, how does one move from the suggestion that our species evolved to the notion that that evolution was 'accidental'? Even the best of scientists admit to not knowing what is aback of evolution that would set the whole process in motion, so how can anyone determine that it was 'accidental'? Here Coyne has put himself at sixes and sevens: he has confused the observed effects with what he assumes the cause might be, and that that cause is purely 'accidental'.

Such reasoning, while it may be sincere, shuts-up the steps between evangelical America's repulsion toward Darwin's theory and what evolutionary theory actually professes: namely, that we are here, and that we know some of the mechanisms of how that is so, but we remain utterly clueless as to the actual causal factors that conceived us. So saying, any declamation of God's creative demi-urge, or any decrying of the evolutionary model both end in the same place: the necessary admission that we don't know how the first cause actually motivated anything into being.

Coyne's use of the word 'accidental' betrays just as much of a faith-based understanding of reality as any one of the evangelicals Coyne disagrees with. He has no way of knowing that evolutionary processes were 'accidental', so to profess that to be so is simply a profession of faith, and not a scientific given. Coyne has, despite the fatalistic pronouncement of his original thesis, unwittingly started a reconciliation between scientific endeavour and religious/faith-based reasoning.

Coyne notes,

The cultural polarization of America has been aggravated by attacks on religion from the “new atheists,” writers such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who are die-hard Darwinists. Outraged religious leaders, associating evolutionary biology with atheism, counterattacked. This schism has distressed liberal theologians and religious scientists, who have renewed their efforts to reconcile religion and science.

What is wonderfully interesting about Coyne's admission that the 'new atheists' have vexed America's evangelical community is that he has identified not only a cultural polarization in America between those who hold religious beliefs and those who espouse naturalistic theory, but that he has identified opposite and extreme ends of current political, and philosophical views. It is not enough to suggest that there is a cultural 'polarization' because science and religion can disagree. Coyne's use of the term 'new atheists' helps us identify more closely the extreme ends of the divide that are not being reconciled. The evangelical community of America (often outspoken, extreme right-wingers) is divided from the opposite and opposing 'new atheist' advocates (often outspoken, extreme left-wingers). Effectively, Coyne has spotted out two groups of fundamentalists. It should come as no surprise to anyone, if we take Coyne's point seriously, that unless either ends of the philosophical spectrum are drawn closer to the centre, the distance between the fundamentalist extremes will always be obvious and unreconciled.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Dawkins-ism

Feel free to add corrective where it's needed. And, man! Is it ever needed!

"If we want to postulate a deity capable of engineering all the organized complexity in the world, either instantaneously or by guiding evolution, that deity must already have been vastly complex in the first place. The creationist, whether a naive Bible-thumper or an educated bishop, simply postulates an already existing being of prodigious intelligence and complexity. If we are going to allow ourselves the luxury of postulating organized complexity without offering an explanation, we might as well make a job of it and simply postulate the existence of life as we know it!"

Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: W.W. Norton, 1986), p. 316.

Friday, April 10, 2009


No, it's not Orwell's masterpiece, but it was memorable. Go here to find out what it is. Oh, and I apologize for being frivolous with your time.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


There used to be a time when education was for its own sake.  People desired education because they wanted to know, to understand, to gain wisdom, and to have something to pass on to those they know and love.  Times change -- an obvious fact to any who have breath, intellect, and the privilege to live to a semi-aware stage of the I; that is, the self in relation to things, and others.

Now, people educate for the purpose of getting a career.  Preferably, a high-paying career.  Education is a marketable product meant to yield worker drones in a culture of conflicting hive queens.  People pay hand-over-fist to have some committee elected 'expert' plug in the puzzle pieces for a job that will round out a well-to-do wallet, and prefabricate an otherwise flexible mind.

That's not education.  It's the machinations of a kleptocratic system filching the vibrancy, and potential from innocent minds.

Monday, April 6, 2009