Karl Barth’s 3 Aphorisms on Doubt

barthBarth devoted one of his lectures that formed the basis of his little work Evangelical Theology to the subject of doubt as an obstacle to theology. Having given some thought to the subject doubt recently, I pulled it off the shelf and I found it worth briefly outlining.

Two Types

Barth begins by noting two types of doubt that might arise for the theologian. First, there is the very “natural” doubt that comes with the territory, which is “susceptible to treatment” (pg. 121). When you’re doing theology, you’re asking questions about the nature of the faith. You’re taking things apart in order to put them back together again in a rational, coherent fashion. It is inevitable that in the process of taking things apart, you struggle or question as to whether the original shape made any sense. This is the doubt that comes with working everything through as thoroughly as possible because we do not possess God’s own knowledge of himself. Even though we work from revelation, we must eat “by the sweat of our brow”. The danger here is being a “sluggard” that fails to put things back together.

There is a second form of doubt, however. Barth says this one is far more dangerous, which is troublesome because his long-winded explanation of it makes it hard to pin down exactly. It seems to be an uneasiness that there is even any point to the enterprise of theology at all. It is the introduction of a note of embarrassment at the outset that renders the whole conversation suspect. It is the swaying between Yes and No as to whether there is anything to even discuss, or whether we’re not simply engaging in an exercise of trying to describe our own “pious emotions” (pg. 124). It’s not the honest doubting that comes naturally with the asking of questions, but the doubting that asks, “Did God really say?” (Gen. 3:1) It doubts the connection between God’s works and words to the task of theology itself. It is the kind of doubt that isn’t dealt with in answers, but must be “healed.”

Three Sources

Barth then “briefly” notes three reasons this latter form of doubt might arise. (As if Barth could ever “briefly” do anything.) First, it might rise in the face of “the powers and principalities” of the world. In looking about at the worlds of economics, politics, art, the newspapers–the world of “real life”–the theologian might be tempted to doubt the relevance or reality of the message he preaches. What can the Gospel really say to that world conflict? Who has time for theology in the face of the truly pressing issues of the day? Could it ever really have said anything in the first place?

The Church itself is another source of doubt in theology. Theologians and preachers have to look at the church, its history, with all of the disunity, ugliness, and petty weakness on a regular basis. Unsurprisingly they may come away jaded at times. In the face of ecclesiastical horrors, wars, heresy trials, and nonsensical squabbles, it might seem perverse to labor at theology.

Saving the deepest root for last, Barth points out that it might not be that “the world impresses him so much or that the Church impresses him so little” (pg. 128), but that his own innate flaws as an individual might be the chink in the armor of his faith.  Complicating things, yet again, Barth subdivides this into two possible iterations.

The first is that of a theologian whose public theology does not match his private practice. He has a very solid public theology that is ordered under the word of God, but his practical life  is ordered by any passing whim or principle. In this sense, he has put himself in the place of a wounded conscience.  Of course, this source of doubt is not unique to theologians, but is the common provenance of all Christians.

The inverse possibility is that he has so engulfed himself in theology, he’s failed to have a normal life. His interests do not extend into the normal range of human affairs, to the point where theology or church-life all but consumes him. At that point, he is but a step away from burnout or boredom, which can lead to doubt.

Three Aphorisms on Doubt

At the end of these meditations Barth gives three “aphorisms” on doubt for theologians worth quoting in full:

  1. No theologian, whether young or old, pious or less pious, tested or untested, should have any doubt that for some reason or other and in some way or other he is also a doubter. To be exact, he is a doubter of the second unnatural species, and he should not doubt that his doubt is by no means conquered. He might just as well–although this would certainly not be “well”–doubt that he is likewise a poor sinner who at the very best has been saved like a brand from the burning.
  2. He should not also deny that his doubt, in this second form, is altogether a pernicious companion which has its origin not in the good creation of God but in the Nihilthe power of destruction–where not only the foxes and rabbits but also the most varied kinds of demons bid one another “Good night.” There is certainly a justification for the doubter. But there is no justification for doubt itself (and I wish someone would whisper that in Paul Tillich’s ear). No one, therefore, should account himself particularly truthful, deep, fine, and elegant because of his doubt. No one should flirt with his unbelief or with his doubt. The theologian should only be sincerely  ashamed of it.
  3. But in the face of his doubt, even if it be the most radical, the theologian should not despair. Doubt indeed has its time and place. In the present period no one, not even the theologian, can escape it. But the theologian should not despair, because this age has a boundary beyond which again and again he may obtain a glimpse when he begs God, “Thy Kingdom Come!” Even within this boundary, without being able simply to do away with doubt, he can still offer resistance, at least like the Huguenot woman who scratched Resistes! on the windowpane. Endure and bear it!

-Evangelical Theology, pp. 131-132

As I mentioned, I’ve been giving some thought to the problem of doubt. There is a natural place for the first kind of doubt in the Christian life, as Barth notes. It’s fine to pick things apart and re-examine what you’ve learned–in a sense, doubting in order to believe. At the same time, I’ve also found that our culture, and recently certain wings of Evangelicalism, have taken to valorizing nearly all doubt to an unhealthy degree. Doubt is never to be talked about as something to be resisted, endured, struggled through, but is rather celebrated and romanticized as a sort of rite of passage into relevance and authenticity. It is either subtly or openly commended as a pathway to a “particularly truthful, deep, fine, and elegant” form of faith, brave enough to doubt even God himself.

The problem is, I don’t see scripture anywhere commending doubt in God. It allows for it. It acknowledges it. It forgives it. Much as Barth teaches us, there is room for it–there is a justification for the doubter. And yet, the state of doubt is not the end for which we strive. It is not a good place to be or even to praise. This is why I found Barth’s aphorisms to be filled with much biblical good sense. For those struggling or looking to counsel those who struggle, we find here a pastoral, humble note that acknowledges our frailty and sin, yet still exhorts us onward in hope and faith for that coming day when doubt will be overwhelmed by the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Morality of the Story (Mere-Orthodoxy Guest Piece)

So, I wrote a piece a while back on the way looking at our lives in the narrative key shapes the way we understand our moral situation. After some tuning up and heavy editing, Matthew Lee Anderson was kind enough to give me the honor of publishing it over at Mere Orthodoxy. You can read it HERE.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Love Song of Immanuel Kant

The man, the myth, the father of needlessly obscure German philosophers.

The man, the myth, the father of needlessly obscure German philosophers.

So one day when I was really bored in my modern philosophy class, a not infrequent occurrence, I wrote a poem using only Kantian terminology which I found, and still find, to be ridiculous. I presented it as a token of my affection to my TA at the time. She said I used all the terms properly, which I took as a victory. I present it to you now because it’s my blog and why not? Depending on the response, more ridiculous poetry might follow. I have a classic one about neutering a dog and another about ties. My college years were fecund with creative rapture. Also, I had an intro to poetry writing class.

The Love Song of Immanuel Kant

The a priori concepts

which allow

Intuitions of your

Beauty

to be given to me

through sensibility

are more precious to me

than all

Other conceptions

of Metaphysical Reality.

I (taken as the thinking self)

would give up all other

a posteriori intuitions

for the possibility

of

a mere empirical

apperception of

You.

Just Because You Can’t See It, Doesn’t Mean It’s Not There – O’Donovan on Ethics

moral orderA great joy of mine is finding out that I’m not dumb. By that I mean, I love running across sections in works by legitimately brilliant people articulating something that I’ve been thinking for a while, but haven’t taken the time to write out anywhere, or I haven’t seen laid out clearly before. Reading Oliver O’Donovan’s brilliant piece of Christian moral theory Resurrection and the Moral Order has afforded me a number of those experiences. (Note: that wasn’t an intentional humble-brag, just an accidental one.) For instance, in one exceptionally helpful passage, he highlights the importance in separating out the epistemological questions involved in knowledge of the moral order and the ontological question of its existence.

What am I talking about? Well, in a nutshell, some moral thinkers, particularly in the Natural Law tradition, have made the point that if a rational God has created the world, he must have done so with a certain order to it, particularly a moral one consistent with his own nature, that ought to be intelligible (readable) to human agents within it. Indeed, there seem to be some self-evident truths about morality and life that transcend culture which give testimony to this indelibly-written law on the heart of humanity.

Others have pointed out that moving from culture to culture, and even within the same culture, there are large areas of dispute as to the moral character of the universe. Much of the content of our moral judgments that are “self-evident” to us in the West are largely rejected throughout the world and therefore seem merely cultural values, or perhaps, adaptively-advantageous norms, such that a real skepticism about framing any sort of moral judgments based on the natural order is a chimera. Indeed, on this basis many of them doubt that there even exists some order of this sort.

Into the confusion steps O’Donovan. While he argues quite forcibly for the necessity of grounding any ethical system in the created order, he acknowledges and explains the theological root of the non-obviousness of that moral order:

There is, however, another side to the matter which has to be asserted equally strongly. In speaking of man’s fallenness we point not only to his persistent rejection of the created order, but also to an inescapable confusion in his perceptions of it. This does not permit us to follow the Stoic recipe for ‘life in accord with nature’ without a measure of epistemological guardedness. The very societies which impress us by their reverence for some important moral principle will appal us by their neglect of some other. Together with man’s essential involvement in created order and his rebellious discontent with it, we must reckon also upon the opacity and obscurity of that order to the human mind which has rejected the knowledge of its Creator. We say that man’s rebellion has not succeeded in destroying the natural order to which he belongs; but that is something which we could not say with theological authority except on the basis of God’s revelation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We say that this, that or the other cultural demand or prohibition (the prohibition of incest, for example, or of racial discrimination) reflects the created order of God faithfully, but that too is something which we can know only by taking our place within the revelation of that order afforded us in Christ. It is not, as the sceptics and relativists correctly reminds us, self-evident what is nature and what is convection. How can we be sure that the prohibition of incest is not yet another primitive superstition? How can we assert confidently that Bantu and Caucasian races belong equally to one human kind that renders cultural and biological differentiation between them morally irrelevant? The epistemological programme for an ethic that is ‘natural’, in the sense that its contents are simply known to all, has to face dauntingly high barriers. But we are not to conclude from this that there is no ontological ground for an ‘ethic of nature’, no objective order to which the moral life can respond. We may only conclude that any certainty we may have about the order which God has made depends on God’s own disclosure of himself and of his works.

-Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and the Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics, pg 19

O’Donovan insists that keeping our epistemological judgments and our ontological judgments straight is imperative if we’re going to understand the nature of our moral situation. Admitting that the moral order isn’t obvious should not betray us into concluding it isn’t there. To do so would constitute a gross denial of the doctrine of creation and the moral character of God.

Instead, an acknowledgement of the Fall’s distorting effect upon our moral knowledge leads us to be humble in our judgments, and seek the truth of the universe as it is revealed in Jesus Christ. Not because Jesus points us to a moral order that was never there prior to his advent, although his coming does bring about a new moral situation, but because he points us to and renews the one that has been there since the beginning. Also because repentance (metanoia) must form part of our quest for moral truth. In repentance we reconsider our relationship to God’s created order which, in sin, we have rejected and misunderstood. Jesus Christ is the one who grants repentance by the power of the Holy Spirit to confused sinners whose moral judgments stand condemned alongside of them. Once again, even our knowledge of the moral reality we have violated comes down to the grace of the one who instituted it and redeemed it.

Soli Deo Gloria

4 Reasons God Isn’t Obvious — Some Kierkegaardian Observations

kierkegaard 2At some point in life, most of us have wondered why God isn’t more obvious. Why doesn’t he clearly reveal himself to all people in a clear and distinct manner? Why all this business about an incarnation, and a book, or an internal word of the Holy Spirit? Why doesn’t he just make it so everybody gets it?

In a brilliant article on Kierkegaard’s (K) conception of God, Paul Moser and Mark L. McCreary draw our attention to 4 Kierkegaardian considerations on the elusiveness of God. Note though I have numbered, labeled, and removed footnotes, what follows is a direct quote:

  1. Merely Objective Knowledge Isn’t Enough First, K maintains that those who seek God merely by means of objective information will be frustrated. Although K does not disapprove of objective knowledge as such, he strongly warns against approaching God as an impersonal object to be studied. In his words, ‘God is not like something one buys in a shop, or like a piece of property’. Instead, God is a personal agent, a subject with definite redemptive purposes for humans. Human knowledge of God, therefore, ought to be characterized by subjectivity and relationality, not by impersonal or detached forms of objective knowledge. Merely objective knowledge about God does not entail personally knowing God via a God-relationship. Moreover, obtaining merely objective knowledge may also promote complacency or a false sense of superiority. As K puts it, the ‘most terrible thing of all is’ to be ‘deceived by much knowledge’. In the end, some people who pursue only objective knowledge or evidence of God miss the fact that God is a subject and they therefore fail to encounter God as a personal agent, as person to person in an ‘I-Thou’ relationship. In this respect, knowledge of God is not available in a purely objective approach
  2. Presumptuous Approaches Are Inappropriate Second, K expects that God will remain hidden from presumptuous individuals. In Christian Discourses, K devotes an entire discourse to the theme of presumptuousness. Presumptuousness might manifest itself when someone ignores God, explicitly denies God’s existence, or demands particular services from God. All of these manifestations stem from a position of selfishness and cognitive arrogance wherein one desires to live ‘as if he were his own master, himself the architect of his fortune’. However, a presumptuous stance demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of who human beings are and who God is. Human beings are not ultimately their own masters, just as God is not a genie in a lamp who exists to cater to their wishes. As K points out elsewhere, an attitude of presumptuousness begins and ends in despair. Therefore, such an approach is likely to leave one without illumination regarding God’s existence and character.
  3. Denial of Sin The third reason why God may remain hidden from many people brings us back to the crucial issue of self-knowledge. According to K, to know and relate to God properly (as a morally perfect agent), one must break through to a consciousness of one’s sin. Sin and moral imperfection separate, or alienate, human beings from the holy and morally perfect God. To lead people to such an awareness, according to K, God creates each human being with an inner conscience, i.e., a personal ‘preacher of repentance’. However, the truth of one’s sinfulness is difficult to confront for a human. Many humans are afraid of this truth and prefer to retain a posture of self-sufficiency and an attitude of selfishness. Therefore, owing to selfish choices, actions, or fears, God’s call to many humans via conscience is ignored or avoided. As a result, such people fail to hear God’s voice.
  4. The Offense Finally, K explains that Jesus’ life is the possibility of offense and, as such, prevents many people from enjoying a God-relationship. K emphasizes sin to discuss forgiveness. After one’s confession of sin, the claims of Jesus should be of interest to one. K notes that Jesus offers rest to each individual through reconciliation with God and the forgiveness of sins. However, many people do not accept this offer because Jesus is also the possibility of offense. First of all, it is potentially offensive that Jesus, a human being, claims to have divine authority. Next, it is highly offensive that Jesus ‘declared himself to be God’. K describes in detail the various ways in which this claim can be offensive. The very concept of the ‘God–man’ is also problematic for some. K describes this ‘composite’ as the absolute paradox, as a ‘sign of contradiction’, and as something that brings the understanding to a standstill. There is no irrationalism here, but rather an insistence that profane reason and profane history can never directly demonstrate (i.e., deductively prove) that Jesus is also God. K maintains that this situation is the result of Jesus’ free choice to hide his divinity in what he calls ‘the most profound incognito’. The significance of the incognito is that it forces the issue of needed human faith to the forefront. K likens the possibility of offense to ‘standing at the crossroad’, where ‘one turns either to offense or to faith’. Those who are offended at Jesus turn away from faith and hence also from forgiveness and a personal God-relationship.

So why is God elusive according to Kierkegaard? Once again Moser and McCreary:

All of the aforementioned issues are inseparable from K’s conception of God. When individuals think or act in ways that prevent them from recognizing God, it is often because of a misunderstanding of the character of God. To search for or demand merely objective knowledge of God is to miss the fact that God is a subject, a personal agent with definite redemptive purposes for humans. To approach God presumptuously ignores that the fact that God, if God exists, has the wisdom, power, and authority to be God, that is, one who is worthy of worship. Those who drown out their conscience sometimes deny a contrast between God’s moral perfection and their selfishness and moral deficiencies. In addition, those who are offended at Jesus might misunderstand God’s humble, compassionate, and self-sacrificing love for God’s lost and dying creatures.

In other words, God doesn’t want to meet you as anyone other than himself. He wants you to know the real God—to reveal himself in ways that are consistent with his own character.

Would we want anything less?

Soli Deo Gloria

Book Review- A Shot of Faith (to the Head): Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists by Mitch Stokes

Mitch Stokes. A Shot of Faith (to the Head): Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012. 252 pp. $16.99. ($11.35 on Amazon)

In the last few years, with the rise of the New Atheism, authors like Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens have made popular Christian apologetics popular again. A veritable cottage industry of “responses” and rejoinders have been churned out by top-notch scholars (and some hacks too) either presenting arguments for Christianity or attempting to dismantle the claims of the New Atheists. While a number of these books are well-written and quite valuable, none of them quite accomplish what Mitch Stokes’ has in his recent work, A Shot of Faith to the Head: Be A Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists.  

He Knows What He’s Doing

What makes this book different? The key is that Stokes knows what he’s doing and, more importantly, what he isn’t. So often works of apologetics try to cover everything and don’t end up adequately covering anything.  Stokes knows better. He’s narrowed his focus, honed in on the key issues, and goes to work on them in a humorous, engaging, and readable fashion. What are those issues? The relationship between faith and reason, science, and the problem of evil.

Stokes is particularly qualified to tackle these. Before taking up his position as the Senior Fellow of Philosophy at New St. Andrews in Moscow, Idaho he got his MA in religion at Yale under Nicholas Wolterstorff, then went on to get his Ph.D. at Notre Dame under Alvin Plantinga and Peter Van Inwagen. No big deal–just three of the foremost philosophers of religion alive. And, if that weren’t enough,  prior to entering the philosophy game, he got an MS in mechanical engineering. The man knows what he’s talking about.

Introducing Reformed Epistemology–You’re Welcome

One way of describing Stokes’ project is translating Alvin Plantinga for everybody. Plantinga, while being, in my opinion, the most brilliant Christian philosopher working in the analytic tradition today, has not gone out of his way to make his philosophical genius widely accessible to the general reader. Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s hilarious and pretty clear as far as analytic philosophers go. Let’s be honest though, the average layman or pastor won’t take the time to read all 500 pages of Warranted Christian Belief  even if it’s worth it (which it is). Stokes takes the best of the Reformed epistemological approach developed by Plantinga and Wolterstorff (don’t worry, you don’t have to be a Calvinist to buy into it) applied to various issues in philosophy over the last 40 years and condenses it into short, winsome, witty, and clearly laid-out chapters uncluttered with small print or symbolic logic.  He also includes helpful “For Your Arsenal” summary points at the back of each chapter for easy recall of the information.

This isn’t to say that he merely repeats Plantinga, or offers nothing new–he does, especially the way he frames the discussion historically, concretely grounding these ideas in conversation with Hume and Locke on down to W.V.O. Quine. Still, even if translating Plantinga were all he did, this would be crucial because in engaging with both believers and unbelievers with the Gospel over the last couple of years, I’ve come to realize that the issue of epistemology is one that is too often ignored, or simply botched in most popular works on apologetics even though it lies at the root of so many of these discussions. By focusing his sights on the epistemological questions, Stokes really is aiming to give readers a “shot of faith to the head.”

So how does he actually do it? Stokes starts out by explaining and debunking the evidentialist objection to belief in God, that there isn’t sufficient evidence to “prove” he exists. He shows that, in fact, evidentialism is self-defeating–some beliefs must be basic, taken without reasons or evidence, otherwise reasoning itself cannot get off the ground. In fact, he pushes on to show that a demand for arguments and “reasons” for all of our beliefs, actually leads us to the conclusion that atheism itself is self-defeating. In place of the rationalism and evidentialism so commonly assumed by skeptics, Stokes proposes an alternative definition for what it means for a belief to be rational, that it is the product of “properly-functioning cognitive faculty operating in the appropriate environment” (read as good thinking equipment), like sense-perception, memory, and reason; this is a Reidian, reliabilist approach to epistemology as recovered and retooled by Plantinga and others. Stokes goes on to show that belief by way of testimony, or faith, is actually another valid way of coming by our beliefs, and that it is perfectly rational to believe in God by way faith, testimony, or “taking God at his word.”  Pressing a bit further, Stokes makes the very Plantingan point that if the “Christian epistemic story” is true, then the Christian can believe in God in a way that is basic and rational. Basically, in order to show that faith is irrational, you have to prove Christianity false first.

Now, none of these considerations means that he discounts reason or even the arguments for the existence of God–he actually has a very helpful “intermission” section dealing with the nature of the arguments and the problem of the burden of proof. Instead, Stokes shows that these arguments are helpful in supplementing faith and in dealing with “defeater” beliefs.

Defeaters and Highlights

What’s a “defeater”? A defeater is basically a reason to ditch a belief we gained previously in light of new evidence to the contrary, or that casts suspicion on the way we arrived at our belief. This is why Stokes moves on from his general discussion on faith and reason to consider the two main defeater beliefs for God out there today: science and the problem of evil.

I won’t review these two sections extensively, but some highlights include:

  • Helpful corrections of the historical record when it comes to the “history of the warfare between science and religion.” (Stokes has written short biographies of both Galileo and Newton so he’s well-equipped to handle this.)
  • A good discussion of the difference between the unnecessary “god of the Gaps” who intervenes from time to time to fix things that science can’t figure out and the God of the Bible who supervenes over and upholds the created order.
  • A much-needed guide to distinguishing between methodological naturalism, philosophical naturalism, and the scientific provincialism that convinces so many that accepting the former is predicated by the latter.
  • A fascinating historical and philosophical analysis of the rise of science, the way science actually proceeds, and how theism gives us confidence to engage in scientific study given belief in the Image of God and the rationality of a universe created by God.
  • Numbers. Stokes has an absorbing discussion on the nature of numbers that made even a math-hater like me wonder at the beauty of a mathematically-ordered universe–and how bizarre the existence of such a one truly is unless the world was created by a rational God.
  • A clean introduction into the “problem of evil” discussion that’s been going on in academic philosophy since the 1960s.
  • Short, but clear, Plantingan responses to both the logical and the probabilistic versions of the problem of evil, using both the Free Will Defense with respect to the logical, and a sober reflection on the epistemological limitations of finite thinkers in relation to the probabilistic.
  • A theistic turning of the tables, using the insights of the moral argument to point out that, without God, there is no absolute, moral standard, in which case the objection from evil can’t even get off the ground.
  • A bold statement of the uncommon yet undeniably appealing O Felix Culpa (Happy Fault) theodicy. (I won’t blow the surprise for you.)

Conclusions 

To sum up: Mitch Stokes has done the church a great service with this book.  By making available some of the best insights of the Christian community’s academic philosophers, believers who read this can be humbly confident that their faith in the Gospel is not blind, irrational, or illegitimate. Rather, it is in fact capable of standing up to the fiercest intellectual objections. I highly recommend this book to doubting believers, inquisitive skeptics, and especially pastors who want to be able to lovingly and persuasively commend the Gospel to the both groups.

Soli Deo Gloria

Quick-Blog #3: How Do We Come to Know About God?

If God exists, then coming to know what he’s like is surely the most important task we could set ourselves. Not only would we be studying the deepest reality of the universe, but the source of all other reality–in which case, learning about him would seem crucial for knowing the deepest truth about everything else. How then do we come to know about God? William Placher helpfully points us to the simple but profound answer that Christians have been giving for centuries:

In sum, Christians say, if you want to know about God, you need to know about Jesus, and if you want to know about Jesus, you need to read some Bible stories: first stories about Jesus himself, then stories about God’s covenant history with Israel and about the early church. The stories about Jesus provide a kind of center around which we can interpret the other stories we find in the Bible, and the whole collection of biblical stories helps us understand all the other stories in the world.

-William C. Placher, The Triune God, pg. 46

It really doesn’t get more simple than that. God has come to his world in the Word, Jesus Christ. (John 1:9, 14) The word of God, the testimony of the Holy Spirit in the scriptures is where we read about him, especially in the Gospels. To understand those properly, you have to read those as the fulfillment of the long history of God’s dealings in the world with his chosen people, Israel. When you begin to immerse yourself in those stories, understand yourself in light of that grand drama, the sweep of history, the deep moments in every other story, every movie, every fable, every play that rings true, every episode in your life freighted with meaning, begins to take on its proper sense in light of the wonder of God come among us.

So, how do you come to know about God? Go read your Bible. Look for Jesus.

Soli Deo Gloria

I’m an Unbeliever

Atheist biologist Richard Dawkins is fond of pointing out that Christians are all atheists of sorts. We are atheists with respect to Zeus, Thor, Marduk, and a whole host of other gods. At that point he likes to quote Stephen Roberts to the effect that he just believes in one less god than we do. One of the main points of this observation is that once you realize how silly believing in Zeus is, you’ll realize the silliness of believing in Jesus. Cute.

The other point I see being made is that the atheism/theism debate is about belief in a certain proposition: does God exist. The theist does and the atheist just doesn’t. There’s just a proposition’s difference between them and the theist is the one who has to justify his acceptance of said proposition. The problem is that this picture is too simple. Rarely do we simply “disbelieve” in something. Atheist’s minds do not have a blank space where the “theism” belief supposedly resides in the mind of the believer. No, it is filled–with something else. It’s not just believing in Christianity or disbelieving it. It’s believing something else instead.

See, in a sense, we all live by creeds.  A creed is a summary statement that encapsulates our deepest-held, foundational beliefs about reality and the world. We all have them, even if we’ve never made them explicit. Put another way, sociologists tell us that we tell ourselves stories, understand ourselves at very deep levels as actors in some drama, starting with the small, personal ones like “I am Derek, son of Arliett and Tino, born such and such, grew up in so and so, now married, living in Orange, and working towards future X”.  This is a short narrative understanding of myself. We usually fit these into broader narrative understandings such as Buddhism, Islam, Marxism, or Christianity that tell us big-picture stories about who we are, how we got here, and where were going. It’s inevitable.

Because of this, we are all living according to alternative creeds. The Christian recites the Apostles’ Creed, but she doesn’t do so in a vacuum. Rather, she does so in contrast with the other creeds on offer. It is those creeds which I find incredible and in particular, the dominant, competing creed that has been offered up as a substitute–that of the Enlightenment.

A Unbelievable Creed

Philosopher Peter Van Inwagen’s delightful essay outlining his journey from atheism to Christianity, Quam Dilecta has a very helpful description of the creed of the Enlightenment.

There is, I believe, an identifiable and cohesive historical phenomenon that named itself the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, and which, although it long ago abandoned the name, still exists. Like the Church, it does not speak with one voice. Like the Church, it has no central government. Like the Church, it is made up of many groups some of which heartily detest many of the others–some of which, indeed, regard themselves as its sole true representatives and all others who claim to be its representatives as wolves in sheep’s clothing. Like the Church, it has a creed, although, unlike the Church’s creeds, its creed has never received an official formulation. But that is a minor point. Its creed can be written down, and here it is:

There is no God. There is, in fact, nothing besides the physical cosmos that science investigates. Human beings, since they are a part of this cosmos, are physical things and therefore do not survive death. Human beings are, in fact, animals among other animals, and differ from other animals only in being more complex. Like other animals, they are a product of uncaring and unconscious physical processes that did not have them, or anything else, in mind. There is, therefore, nothing external to humanity that is capable of conferring meaning or purpose on human existence. In the end, the only evil is pain and the only good is pleasure. The only purpose of morality and politics is the minimization of pain and the maximization of pleasure. Human beings, however, have an unfortunate tendency to wish to deny these facts and to believe comforting myths according to which they have an eternal purpose. This irrational component in the psyches of most human beings–it is the great good fortune of the species that there are a few strong-minded progressives who can see through the comforting myths–encourages the confidence-game called religion. Religions invent complicated and arbitrary moral codes and fantastic future rewards and punishments in order to consolidate their own power. Fortunately, they are gradually but steadily being exposed as frauds by the progress of science (which was invented by strong-minded progressives), and they will gradually disappear through the agency of scientific education and enlightened journalism.”

Van Inwagen goes on to concede that there are various Enlightenment denominations (Marxist, Positivist, New Atheist) who would object that he’s left something crucial out. At its core though, this complex is central to all of them.

It is this creed that I find myself unable to subscribe to for a number of reasons too large to expound here. I will simply point out that any sort of optimism about the human condition in light of the history of the 20th Century has always struck me as farcical. The idea that science and reason (whatever that last term actually means) can actually deliver anything close to a utopia, or even a decent place to live is a fairy tale. Studying almost entirely secular moral philosophy in college had the interesting effect of convincing me that prospects of finding any sort of viable, normative moral system connected with naturalism, (ie. absent the divine, or a transcendent order), is similarly risible. Once again, I commend Van Inwagen’s essay, the second half of which is devoted to showing why he finds this creed untenable.

Where am I going with this? 

I’d be lying if I were to tell you that I never find Christianity difficult and hard to accept. It has moral codes that are uncomfortable, both because they are personally hard to follow, as well as because they are socially unacceptable. Reading the Bible is weird sometimes. I mean, really? Bears? (2 Kings 2:23-25) I look out at the world filled with evil and horror, and even though I’ve read a lot of good answers on the subject, it’s still hard to stomach that God is good while he allows these things. I could go on for a while listing the difficulties. I’m sure you have a number of your own.

Still, when I look to the alternatives I find that while Christianity is tough sometimes, the competing options on offer are just impossible to swallow. At those times, I feel like Winston Churchill when speaking of democracy in the House of Commons:

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Please don’t misunderstand me–I think there are good, positive reasons to believe in Jesus. I have to admit though, one of the main ones is the fact I find the other options simply unbelievable.

Update and clarification: There apparently has been some confusion as to the point of his post. Please do not take this as a denigration of either reason or science. As a Christian I believe as humans made in the Image of the Creator God have been endowed with reason and given an impulse towards the exploration and study of nature. Rather, it is a rejection of a rationalism and scientism. Those are two different things. I have a healthy respect for and appreciation of the deliverances of reason and the advances of science while recognizing their limits and the dangers of misunderstanding their role and function in human life.

No Such Thing as a Dumb Question?

I must confess that I’ve always thought the phrase, “There’s no such thing as a dumb or bad question” to be a bit silly.  Admittedly, patience with ignorance has not historically been a strength of mine. In high school I was that guy who would groan audibly at silly answers given by my classmates at times.  I blame this almost entirely on my arrogance.  (Occasionally it was probably merited, but that’s no excuse.) Still, arrogance aside, I always could think of a number of questions that were foolish to ask given any situation.

Now, I’ve mellowed a bit since my high school days, become more aware of my own intellectual failings, and expanded my definition of what counts as a good question, especially in a teaching situation where I myself have come to use the phrase to encourage those shy students. And yet, I still find myself wincing a bit when I hear that phrase uttered or when I come across a  particularly silly question.

Which brings me to Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins is a Big Silly

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been trekking through the New Atheist canon in preparation for an upcoming teaching series. First it was Harris, then it was Hitchens, and now I’ve finally made it to Dawkins. I was unsurprisingly unimpressed by the first two given that there really wasn’t much in the way of an actual refutation of Christianity or even theistic belief forthcoming. Well, unless you count some unhelpful platitudes about reason and faith. I came to Dawkins’ God Delusion though, expecting a bit more since he, among the 4 Horsemen, has the reputation of being most interested in giving serious arguments against God’s existence. I can’t say I was expecting much in light of some criticisms I’d read beforehand. Still, looking at the table of contents and noting that it includes a decent-length chapter on the traditional proofs for the existence of God, I allowed myself to be somewhat hopeful.  “Maybe it’s not all that bad. Maybe it’s not as painful as they say.”

I won’t bore you with all of the details of that 35-page train wreck except to say that my forehead was a nice bright pink at the end of the ordeal given the frequent face-palming I was doing. There were many delightful turns of phrases, misleading but amusing analogies, arrogant snark enough to last for months, and questions on par with “Could God make a martini so big that even HE couldn’t drink it? Ha! He’s not omnipotent!”

It was beautiful.

The one piece that irked me most was what he touted as the most damning response possible to the argument from design. The design argument is something like:

  1. Where there is design, there must be a designer.
  2. The universe exhibits unmistakable signs of complexity and design. (Insert various examples from physics, biology, the existence of salsa)
  3. The conclusion is that there must be a universal designer.

Now, what is Dawkins’ grand damning response to this? “Who made God?” (109, a question which apparently occurs to all “thinking people”) and “Who designed the designer?” (158) I swear, I am not making this up.

This, as you can tell, is what got me thinking about silly questions. For a 5-year old or even a 15-year old to ask, “Well, who made God?” is fine; nothing dumb or illegitimate about that. For an Oxford professor to trumpet this as his damning argument against God’s existence is just sad.

Now, some of you might be thinking, “Hey, wait a minute. There’s got to be more to it than that.” And, in a sense, you’d be right. Dawkins has an argument here. In fact, this is his grand argument against God’s existence. As he puts it, “However statistically improbable the entity you seek to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least as improbable.” His point is that a being that can create something complex like the universe, would have to be incredibly complex: at least as complex as the universe itself. The more complex something is, the less likely it is. In which case, whatever created the universe would have to be extraordinarily complex, and therefore even more improbable which is why God probably doesn’t exist.

If that weren’t bad enough, apparently, the whole exercise is silly because in any case, since the whole point of the argument from design is to explain complexity or statistical improbability, introducing a statistically improbable, complex being to explain complexity explains nothing. (158)

This can sound convincing at the surface level. To explain why this actually isn’t, I’d like to call in an expert witness: Alvin Plantinga.

Plantinga lays the Hammer down

You’ll be hearing about Alvin Plantinga from time to time on this blog. Suffice it to say for now that he is probably THE SINGLE-MOST BRILLIANT ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHER ALIVE. In his very humorous and instructive review of Dawkins’ book, he points out a number of problems with this argument. I’m only going to excerpt a couple, but you’ll want to go read the whole thing.

First, Plantinga points out that Dawkins is confused as to what it means to speak about complexity with regards to God:

Now suppose we return to Dawkins’ argument for the claim that theism is monumentally improbable. As you recall, the reason Dawkins gives is that God would have to be enormously complex, and hence enormously improbable (“God, or any intelligent, decision-making calculating agent, is complex, which is another way of saying improbable”). What can be said for this argument?

Not much. First, is God complex? According to much classical theology (Thomas Aquinas, for example) God is simple, and simple in a very strong sense, so that in him there is no distinction of thing and property, actuality and potentiality, essence and existence, and the like. Some of the discussions of divine simplicity get pretty complicated, not to say arcane. (It isn’t only Catholic theology that declares God simple; according to the Belgic Confession, a splendid expression of Reformed Christianity, God is “a single and simple spiritual being.”) So first, according to classical theology, God is simple, not complex.  More remarkable, perhaps, is that according to Dawkins’ own definition of complexity, God is not complex. According to his definition (set out in The Blind Watchmaker), something is complex if it has parts that are “arranged in a way that is unlikely to have arisen by chance alone.” But of course God is a spirit, not a material object at all, and hence has no parts. A fortiori (as philosophers like to say) God doesn’t have parts arranged in ways unlikely to have arisen by chance. Therefore, given the definition of complexity Dawkins himself proposes, God is not complex.

Translation: First, by definition, both those of classical theology and Dawkins’ own definition as laid out elsewhere, God is not a complex being. Given that God is a simple, spiritual being God does not demonstrate physical complexity or design in a way that allows Dawkins’ question to even make sense. Therefore, Dawkins’ argument fails.

The next part is where he shows how Dawkins’ question completely misses the point and responds to his idea that introducing God as an explanation for complexity explains nothing:

In The Blind Watchmaker, he considers the claim that since the self-replicating machinery of life is required for natural selection to work, God must have jump-started the whole evolutionary process by specially creating life in the first place—by specially creating the original replicating machinery of DNA and protein that makes natural selection possible. Dawkins retorts as follows:

“This is a transparently feeble argument, indeed it is obviously self-defeating. Organized complexity is the thing that we are having difficulty in explaining. Once we are allowed simply to postulate organized complexity, if only the organized complexity of the DNA/protein replicating machine, it is relatively easy to invoke it as a generator of yet more organized complexity… . But of course any God capable of intelligently designing something as complex as the DNA/protein machine must have been at least as complex and organized as that machine itself… . To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer…”

Here there is much to say, but I’ll say only a bit of it. First, suppose we land on an alien planet orbiting a distant star and discover machine-like objects that look and work just like tractors; our leader says “there must be intelligent beings on this planet who built those tractors.” A first-year philosophy student on our expedition objects: “Hey, hold on a minute! You have explained nothing at all! Any intelligent life that designed those tractors would have to be at least as complex as they are.” No doubt we’d tell him that a little learning is a dangerous thing and advise him to take the next rocket ship home and enroll in another philosophy course or two. For of course it is perfectly sensible, in that context, to explain the existence of those tractors in terms of intelligent life, even though (as we can concede for the moment) that intelligent life would have to be at least as complex as the tractors. The point is we aren’t trying to give an ultimate explanation of organized complexity, and we aren’t trying to explain organized complexity in general; we are only trying to explain one particular manifestation of it (those tractors). And (unless you are trying to give an ultimate explanation of organized complexity) it is perfectly proper to explain one manifestation of organized complexity in terms of another. Similarly, in invoking God as the original creator of life, we aren’t trying to explain organized complexity in general, but only a particular kind of it, i.e., terrestrial life. So even if (contrary to fact, as I see it) God himself displays organized complexity, we would be perfectly sensible in explaining the existence of terrestrial life in terms of divine activity.

Translation: We are not trying to explain organized complexity in general. The argument from design is dealing with one instance of complexity: the universe. As an explanation for that, a universal mind like God’s works even when granting complexity, (which we’ve already seen is unnecessary).

Conclusion

Now, we’ve seen why this question “Who designed the designer?” and Dawkins’ further elaboration of it into an argument against God’s existence is confused and a bit silly. The thing that makes it truly silly though, is the arrogance with which he wields it. In the mouth of a truly inquiring child, teenager, or even adult, it is perfectly legitimate question that can be answered honestly and without any condescension or arrogance. In fact, most answers should be given that way. In the mouth of a snarky professor who should know better, it becomes very silly indeed, and is safely ignored as a serious threat to belief in God.

To wrap up here are a few things to keep clear:

  1. Apparently a Ph.D. in biology doesn’t do much for your philosophical chops. So, next time you hear a biologist or a chemist pronouncing confidently on philosophic and theological issues beyond the remit of their chosen discipline, remember: they’re only scientists, not philosophers. That doesn’t mean you should listen and weigh what they say, but it also means you should take it with a grain of salt.
  2. None of this necessarily proves that the design argument “works.” It just means that Dawkins’ response to it doesn’t. Nobody needs to get freaked out by the question, “Who designed the designer?”
  3. At the same time, if you’re a believer, realize that there are legitimately thoughtful atheists who have good questions and serious doubts who should be taken seriously and lovingly answered. Pointing out the silly things that one of them has written should not cause us to think they’re all that silly and smug.

Disclaimer- I’d just like to point out that even though I’ve called attention to some intellectual problems with Mr. Dawkins’ arguments, this in no way denies his prodigious abilities as a biologist or is meant to imply that I consider myself smarter than him. Consider it an exercise in God using the foolish to shame the wise. (1 Cor 1:27) Or rather, God using the foolish (me), using the wise (Plantinga), to shame the wise (Dawkins.)

Recommended resources:

1. Go read the whole review by Plantinga that I linked above.
2. Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism by Alvin Plantinga is his definitive work on the problem of theistic belief, science, and naturalism. I highly recommend this work.
3. A Shot of Faith to the Head: How to Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists by Mitch Stokes is Plantinga’s awesomeness written for everybody. I’ll be reviewing this book soon.

Progressive God-Talk, Reformed Theological Method, The Doctrine of Analogy, and God’s Grace in our Knowledge

(Warning: this is a mildly dense one. If you haven’t had coffee yet, you might want to grab some, then come back. Also, it might seem dry at first, but there’s a punch-line you don’t want to miss.)

Progressive God-Talk

A few days ago, progressive author and blogger, Tony Jones threw down a challenge to his fellow progressive bloggers to start actually saying something substantive about God, “Not about Jesus, not about the Bible, but about God”, because they seem to  “have a God-talk problem. That is, progressives write lots of books and blog posts about social issues, the church, culture, and society. But we don’t write that much about God. That is, we don’t say substantive things about who God is, what God does, etc.”

I don’t have a lot to say on the subject of liberal God-talk at this point, except that its been interesting to watch as it unfolds (or the way it doesn’t.) My hope is that more liberal/progressives do post substantive pieces of theology so that a real discussion of the nature and character of God can ensue.

One thing I do have something to say about is the topic of Reformed God-talk, and the attitude that those of us who engage in theology out of the Reformed tradition should take towards the conversation that’s happening right now amongst the progressives. To do that, though, I’m gonna call in a little help.

Reformed Theological Method (Or how Reformedish people go about thinking about God)

A while back I read a great article by Michael Horton on the Reformed theological method in conversation with Open Theism that will be helpful to our conversation. In it he deals with the common charge made that the Reformed scholastics were too dependent on “Hellenistic” thought or Greek speculative, systematizing which distorted the true, “dynamic”, biblical portrait of God. Leaving aside the problem that many who lodge this charge are guilty of the genetic fallacy, Horton shows that, in fact, “Contrary to popular caricature, Reformed scholasticism championed an anti-speculative and anti-rationalistic theological method based on the Creator-creature distinction.” He quotes Francis Turretin as representative of the tradition when he says,

But when God is set forth as the object of theology, he is not to be regarded
simply as God in himself . . . , but as revealed . . . Nor is he to be considered
exclusively under the relation of deity (according to the opinion of Thomas
Aquinas and many Scholastics after him, for in this manner the knowledge of
him could not be saving but deadly to sinners), but as he is our God 
(i.e.,
covenanted in Christ as he has revealed himself to us in his word) . . .

Thus although theology treats of the same things with metaphysics, physics
and ethics, yet the mode of considering them is far different. It treats of God
not like metaphysics as a being or as he can be known from the light of nature; but as the Creator and Redeemer made known by revelation . . . For theology treats of God and his infinite perfections, not as knowing them in an infinite but in a finite manner; nor absolutely as much as they can be known in themselves, but as much as he has been pleased to reveal them.

So, theology treats, not of God in general, but of God as he has given himself to us in Christ and in the history of Israel as attested to in the Scriptures. This straight from the mouth of Turretin, the Reformed Aquinas and the grand-daddy of all post-Reformation dogmaticians.

Horton then outlines then expands on 4 important distinctions that flow from the Creator/creature distinction that give Reformed theology its particular shape (transcendence and immanence, hidden/revealed , eternal decree/temporal execution, and archetypal/ectypal knowledge). We don’t have space to go into all of them here, but the final one, the archetypal/ectypal knowledge distinction is important for us. This distinction teaches that God’s knowledge is archetypal and primary, while our knowledge is ectypal and dependent on God’s. Horton writes that:

It is the epistemological corollary of the ontological Creator-creature distinction. Although it had been a category in medieval system, Protestant dogmatics gave particular attention to this distinction and made it essential to their method. Just as God is not merely greater in degree (“supreme being”), but in a class by himself (“life in himself,” John 5:26), his knowledge of himself and everything else is not just quantitatively but qualitatively different from that of creatures…affirmation of this distinction is essential if we are to maintain with Scripture that no one has ever known the mind of the Lord (Rom 11:34, where the context is predestination), that his thoughts are far above our thoughts (Isa 55:8), and that he is “above” and we are “below” (Eccl 5:2)—if, in other words, we are to truly affirm the Creator-creature distinction.”

So, the idea is that because there is a radical gap in reality between God and ourselves–he is necessary, infinite, transcendent, etc. and we are contingent, finite, bound–there is also a radical gap in our knowledge. In the same way that God’s reality is at a higher level than ours and sustains ours, the same is true of our knowledge. It’s not just that we know less stuff, but that we know the stuff we do in a lesser way than God does.  This is not to say that we don’t have true knowledge, any more than to say that we are not real, simply because we’re not on the same ontological playing field as God, but that our knowledge is at a lower level than God does and is.

The Doctrine of Analogy (“God is…”)

With this distinction in hand, our discussion brings us to the doctrine of analogy, which has a long history both in Catholic and Protestant theology. I’d explain it, but here’s Horton again:

All of this leads us, finally, to the doctrine of analogy. When we assert certain predicates of God, based on God’s own self-revelation, we use them in one of three senses: univocally, analogically or equivocally. If we say that the predicate “gracious” means exactly the same thing, whether in God or in a creature, we are using “gracious” univocally. At the other end of the spectrum, if we say that by using that predicate we are ascribing something to God whose appropriateness is unknown to us, we are using it equivocally. If, however, God is said to be “gracious” in a way that is both similar and dissimilar to creatures, we say it is analogical. For instance, when we acknowledge that God is a “person,” do we really mean to say that he is a person in exactly the same sense as we are? When we follow Scripture in using male pronouns to refer to God, do we really believe that he is male? Unless we are willing to ascribe to God (in an univocal sense) all attributes of human personhood, predications must be analogical. Human language cannot transcend its finitude, so when God reveals himself in human language, he draws on human analogies to lead us by the hand to himself. It is correct description, but not univocal description.

This is a useful doctrine for many reasons, but as Horton points out, it both acknowledges human finitude unlike rationalistic, univocal approaches to God-talk, as well as gives a place for real knowledge of God unlike modern, skeptical, equivocal approaches God.

Calvin’s Lisp, or God’s Grace in our Knowledge

Why do I bring all of this up? Well, aside from the fact that it’s just important for theology as a discipline, it’s important for our own theology as a part of life. It’s very easy for theology types to get really puffed up when it comes to their “knowledge” of God and his ways. Paul had to administer many a 1st Century beat-down over this in the church in Corinth. (cf. 1 Cor 1-4) What all of this points to is that this should not be so for Christians, especially for those who claim to be Reformed. Listen to Horton again:

“Thus, Calvin and the Reformed do not use analogy as a fall-back strategy when they find something that does not fit their system. Rather, it is the warp and woof of their covenantal approach, a necessary implication of the Creator-creature relationship as they understand it. All of God’s self-revelation is analogical, not just some of it. This is why Calvin speaks, for instance, of God’s “lisping” or speaking “baby-talk” in his condescending mercy. Just as God comes down to us in the incarnation in order to save us who could not ascend to him, he meets us in Scripture by descending to our weakness. Thus, not only is God’s transcendence affirmed, but his radical immanence as well. Transcendence and immanence become inextricably bound up with the divine drama of redemption. Revelation no less than redemption is an act of condescension and grace.”

All of our knowledge of God is had by God’s grace. It’s not just that we find out about a gracious God when we hear the Gospel, but that our hearing the Gospel at all is an act of grace! Our very knowledge of God is God’s kindness, God’s condescension to take up our feeble language and use it in powerful ways to speak to us of his great love. For the Reformed, it should be grace all the way down to your epistemology.

This is why it makes no sense at all for us to boast, or pride ourselves as better than others because of our ability to say and believe true things of God or on our theological systems and tradition. These are good things; they’re great. They’re a rich resource. They can be a great blessing. They can be all of these things, but the one thing they cannot be, must not be, is a source of arrogance or pride. Instead  every truth we utter or find in one of our dogmatics should be a reminder of God’s grace, not our own awesomeness.

So, if you’re cruising around the blogosphere, or just in life, reading people or hearing people talk about God in what you find to be silly fumbling, or inadequate ways, your first instinct should not be to look on condescendingly or pridefully, but remember God’s condescension that made your knowledge possible. When you get that point, maybe, just maybe you can engage in a loving, humble conversation about God and his truth with those whom you disagree.