Saturday, June 26, 2010


Well, here's a tid-bit to get you thinking about some of the common slang slung about in religious-speak. It turns out that the etymology of the word "testimony" comes from the Latin word, testis, which means "witness". The same word, testis, provides the root for what we commonly call "testicles".

The original meaning of the word 'testis' referred to the credibility of a man due to his evident virility. Thus a man who had 12 children was more credible than a man who had, say, 3. So, if man with more children were called upon to present a case for something-or-another, he would testify. That is, he would speak out knowing that because his balls work well, people would believe him.

I suppose Christians have something else to consider now when they give their testimonies.

Pascal's Wager: Rejected

Pascal's Wager. The notion of wagering on God's existence occurs at note 233 of Pascal's Pensées (literally, 'Thoughts').

And as one reader noted last year, the idea is that "It is better to believe in God and find out that he doesn't exist, than to not believe and find out he does." That is not a direct quote from Pascal, but it is the best summation of his famous Wager that I have heard, to date.

I'm not a fan of the Wager, personally, for a number of reasons, one of which is that citing the options of polar opposites (belief and unbelief) is not a reasonable premise for me to choose either of those polarities. I already know as much.

On top of that, however, I question the relevance of determining whether this-or-that thing is 'better' than another without having any real content to demonstrate such a claim. For example, simply stating that cheese is better than non-cheese tells me nothing about cheese that I should consider it 'better'. Similarly, telling me belief is better than unbelief tells me nothing about the content of 'belief' or 'unbelief' that I would consider one or the other 'better'.

As a conclusion to a well defined argument, the Wager can have its place. Still, Pascal's Wager is wholly dependent on having a rational, well-placed argument to render any meaning or purpose to wagering at all. And, incidentally, Pascal was not attempting an argument when he penned his famous wager, nor did he consider his Wager to be a sufficient premise to bring about salvific understanding. Pascal simply intended the Wager as an observation of the fact that people ultimately make choices; and the existence of God is just another choice about which someone can be right or wrong. Thus it is a wager, and not an apologetic.

Unfortunately, the Wager has been used as an apologetic in and of itself to coerce people into making a decision for or against Christ. Sadly, the few times I've seen this tactic used one of two results occur:
  1. The person feels anxious and afraid that they may choose wrong and suffer some terrible consequence -- hell, or some other uncertainty about death and after-death.
  2. The person becomes riled and considers Christians to be a batch of noisy idiots.
So, as a tool for evangelism, I've yet to see Pascal's Wager have a postitive net effect. It's simply too confrontational on a deeply instinctual level, and people feel deeply insulted to find themselves in the position where they have to gamble on eternity without any real understanding of why they're gambling. As a finishing pen-stroke for a well-honed apologetic, it can be used, but it does beg certain philosophical questions that weaken its seeming strength.


Semantics assures we're up to the same antics.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


The photograph below was taken 162 years ago, in 1848.

It's a picture of New York.

My, how times have changed...

I like the old New York much better.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Work, Pray, and Lager

On one of the chat-boards I participate on, a member was concerned that his job was in danger. The situation is simply that his two bosses -- one an evangelical Christian, the other an orthodox Jew -- were requiring that each work-day start in prayer. To add, the employees were informed that they would be required to lead prayer.

Being as the concerned board-member is an atheist, he wanted to seek out advice for how to handle the situation.

The most creative response so far has been the following:
Recite this prayer:

"Our lager, Which art in barrels, Hallowed be thy drink. Thy will be drunk, I will be drunk, At home as it is in the tavern. Give us this day our foamy head, And forgive us our spillages, As we forgive those who spill against us. And lead us not to incarceration, But deliver us from hangovers. For thine is the beer, The bitter, The lager.

My abdomen now hurts from laughing too hard.

What would you suggest this atheist do?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Yeah. Okay.

Don't you wish we could have some more 80's spandex-metal bands again? Don't you miss them?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Martin Luther King Jr. on Science and Religion

"Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary. Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism. Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism."

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Mary and Nepotism

I participate on a theology board on occasion. Tonight, a concerned question was raised by a poster named Nightingale. What follows below is Nightingale's question, and my tendency to be cheeky while attempting a playful point.
In researching the development of Marian dogma, I've found that most of the first Protestants held a very high opinion of Mary. Both Luther and Calvin believed in her perpetual virginity and divine maternity, Luther believed in her immaculate conception, and Oecolampadius even taught that she was the Mediatrix of all graces! Why has this switched around to the point where I've heard many Protestants discourage even talking about Mary?
Remember the context of the time: Luther and Calvin were both Catholic priests before they reacted against Rome. Those things that were relevant to worship, they kept. Those things that they deemed hinderances, they tossed.

That same tradition continued post-Luther, post-Calvin. Even more than the Reformers, however, were the Radicals (sometimes known as the Anabaptists) and their maniacal fervour to reduce Christianity to some basic sediments, and dispense with the froth and foam. They considered Luther heroic, yes; but they also thought he didn't go far enough. Hence they set in motion a type of puritanism that acted as a distilate to anything beyond the pale of scripture, preaching, and symbolic sacraments. Thus Mary, while respectable, really was only instrumental insofar as she birthed Jesus. After that, she's little more than a biblical after-thought.

Carry that same creeping puritanism forward to the present day, and you have some memetic tendencies in Protestant circles to dispense with Mary altogether because she seems to get in the way of Jesus by being part of a grammar people are afraid will lead to Catholicism.

Despite my hearty agreeance that Catholicism is a frightening thing, for most Prostestants it is an evil thing. And if Mary is going to have the dogmatic fortitude to be mediating between Jesus and the rest of the world, then the misgivings of Protestants will no doubt exculpate her from such a nepotistic scheme, and set her where she belongs: in a manger, and at the foot of the cross, and no more.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Christendom: A House Divided

In Christian theology there are three main theories of the atonement:
  1. Jesus's crucifixion was to appease the wrath of God. God cannot countenance sin, and in his holiness must obliterate sin. Therefore Jesus, as a representative of the human race, was nailed to the cross as a sacrifice for all of humanity's sins -- past, present, and future. That is, Christ voluntarily assumed the sins of humanity on himself and died in place of the rest of humanity. This theory, crudely summarised as it is, is known as the penal substitutionary atonement.
  2. Christ came to conquer death by dying on the cross. Effectively, Christ acted as 'bait' to draw the devil away from humanity, and in so doing removed the devil's hold on humanity. It's a compliment to the words Christ uttered early in his ministry, "I have called you to be fishers of men." This theory is known as the "Ransom theory", or more recently the Christus Victor atonement.
  3. Jesus acted as the ultimate exemplar, and when we take heed of his sacrificial love our moral intentions are influenced christward. In short, Christ's life and sacrifice inclines our morals godward, thereby sanctifying us to be in his presence. This is known as the moral influence theory of atonement.
In the past few years, there has been a re-visitation of these theories. Theologians from different loyalties have bandied about their prefered vision of Christ's soteriological efforts. One book in particular has risen to the top of the academic list, Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ (2007). The book explores the various reasons for the necessity of certain theories, why the authors believe the theories they do, and how those theories are applied to everyday life.

It's editor and contributing author, Brad Jersak, admits his preference for the penal substitution theory. Nevertheless, in this article, professor and author Hans Boersma cautions against placing all one's philosophical capital in a single theory of the atonement. "The problem, said Boersma, is to take any one of these approaches and insist it is right and the others are wrong." This is sensible because prizing one theory exclusively excludes the beneficial points of the other theories.

The same holds true in other Christian academic applications. The novice theologian will place great import on a certain 'proof' of the existence of God. I had a fondness for the Ontological Argument back in my college days, but turned a snooty nose up at Kalam's version of the Cosmological Argument, for example. It wasn't until a good friend of mine, the late Hugh Hill (1958 - 2007) turned my head to the notion of a cumulative case for God's existence that I recognised it wasn't necessary to remain beholden to this-or-that particular 'proof' for the existence of God.

It's in that respect that I think it inane to cite a particular view of the atonement as the exclusively right view of Christ's death: it is the place of a novice or dilettante to throw one's lot in with a singular theory of the atonement.

To press this point a little further, it is instructive to note Boersma's final contribution to the article noted above:
Therefore, it is important to "bring humility to the table" and try to understand each other. We can "never say we have explained it all," said Boersma, since human language is "always inadequate to fully define the divine mystery."
True: human language cannot adequately define either the 'divine' or 'mystery'. Which is why I think Boersma would've done well to admit more by saying less. If Boersma had said in regards to the atonement that we can "never say we have explained it" and that human language is "always inadequate" we may have had a better rendering of the case. We would also have cause to graduate beyond the useless amateur quibblings of exclusivist atonement theory loyalties.

On a much grander scale, this is the same issue I have with Christian communities as a whole, if I can say that and make any sense. Let me explain. No-one is surprised when presented with the fact that Christianity is divided into many houses: Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Anabaptists, Congregationalists, Pentecostals, Anglicans, the Emergent Church, the Eastern Orthodox, the Oriental Orthodox, ad-seemingly-infinitum.

Each grouping considers itself the model of unvarnished and inviolate orthodoxy alive today. I like to call this peculiarity of Christendom "local orthodoxy by attrition". That is, if it's said long enough and loud enough, eventually everyone will concede that "that's what so-and-so thinks about itself, so just let them have their illusions; we know that we're really the true orthodoxy." The same psychology, quite interestingly, holds true for liars, too: if they repeat their falsehoods long enough, they eventually believe them to be true.

Such self-exculpating tactics only reinforce what they're trying to avoid. That is, by denying the notion of orthodoxy to other Christian communities while remaining loyal to another one, a person can only be left with patronising concessions to faith-traditions not their own. This means that one believes their own particular faith-community to be the purest expression of biblical community above and beyond all others. This is a mark of superficiality, specious reasoning, and religious snobbery adopted by most Christians very quickly after conversion. Catholics and Lutherans, especially with their notion that they are the "one true church", are quite masterful at perpetuating such insidious sophistries.

It is much more sensible to regard the Christian communities of the world as part of a cumulative culture for Christ than a "house divided against itself", to borrow Christ's portentous words. But as long as Christians bark and bellow over which atonement theory is better and more right, which 'proof' is more accurate, which faith-tradition is purer, more orthodox, and therefore more fully in the faith -- as long as the house of Christianity remains divided against itself, we can reasonably speculate on Christ's conclusion that that house "will surely fall".

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

High On Jesus

Well, here's an interesting one. Enjoy.

(Via Unreasonable Faith)