Saturday, December 30, 2006

Now Reading...

Linda and I went to Borders in Ann Arbor, which is just 30 minutes from our house, on Thursday. I was packing some Christmas gifts - Borders gift cards. I picked up three very good books on Jesus, and started reading them all today!

The first is Amy-Jill Levine's The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. I showed it to Dan and his fiance Allie today - Allie picked it up and read for a while. Levine is a professor at Vanderbilt and is friends with Ben Witherington, who gives her book very high marks.

A second book I got is Ben Witherington's What Have They Done with Jesus?: Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History--Why We Can Trust the Bible. This book gets high marks from a lot of great New Testament scholars, to include Craig Keener and Craig Blomberg. Witherington identifies the eyewitnesses to Jesus' life and devotes chapters to each of them.

The third book I picked up is Richard Baukham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. N. T. Wright, Martin Hengel, James Dunn, and John Dominic Crossan all provide laudatory blurbs. As I began reading it I found it very hard to put down. Among other things, it shows flaws in in the Form-Critical method and argues strongly for ancient historiography as "testimony." I have always felt that - appropriate cautions taken - persons immersed in the life of another person or immersed and engaged in a movement provide a witness, a testimony, that "detached observors" cannot. Baukham explains this, both as a historical thing and as a hermeneutical methodological thing. Really cool stuff, and helpful already!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

God Delusion #23: Dawkins as Bible Scholar: Part 2

Here are some of my thoughts on Dawkins' section "The Argument from Scripture."

1. Dawkins writes: "The historical evidence that Jesus claimed any sort of divine status is minimal... There is no good historical evidence that he ever thought he was divine."

But says who... Richard Dawkins? Dawkins provides not support for this. He should either engage the scholarship on this or say nothing. As H. Allen Orr says, this is "just Dawkins talking." And talking about things he knows next to nothing about. Why should we listen when he speaks on the divinity of Jesus?

For examples of scholars who argue that there is historical evidence that Jesus thought he was divine, see here. See some excellent essays by N. T. Wright on Jesus here. See especially "Jesus and the Identity of God."

2. Dawkins writes: "The fact that something is written down is persuasive to people not used to asking questions like: 'Who wrote it, and when?' 'How did they know what to write?' 'Did they, in their time, really mean what we, in our time, understand them to be saying?' Were they unbiased observers, or did they have an agenda that coloured their 'writing?'

Dawkins needs to study contemporary hermeneutical theory. There are NO "unbiased observers," anywhere, any time. There is a very big world of hermeneutical theory out there that seeks to understand the "problem of intepretation" as due to the bias, or "prejudice" (pre-judgment; see Gadamer) of the interpreter. So to want, e.g., Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to be "unbiased observers" is fundamentally misguided.

Dawkins himself is a biased observer, as we all are.

3. "Ever since the nineteenth century, scholarly theologians have made an overwhelming case that the gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world."

It is true that certain nineteenth century theologians "demythologized" the Bible. But these theologians, Bultmann being one of them, were themselves under the spell of an Enlghtenment philosophical worldview. This strikes me as mostly the preconscious paradigm Dawkins dwells in.

4. Dawkins writes that biblical scholar Bart Ehrman "unfolds the huge uncertainty befogging the New Testament texts."

Please note that not all agree with Ehrman's work. For one very good example see here.

See the debate between Ehrman and William Lane Craig here.

The point is that there is a serious scholarly discussion going on, which Dawkins gives only one side of, and that very briefly.

5. "It is possible to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never lived at all." Dawkins goes on to say that "Jesus probably existed." Some thoughts:

Why are we listening to anything Richard Dawkins has to say on the historical existence of Jesus?

Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy have just written the forthcoming book The Jesus Legend:
A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (Baker, 2007). From Greg's newsletter we read: "This massive scholarly work (its close to 500 pages) explores, and ultimately refutes, every possible academic argument that attempts to show Jesus as a legendary figure. The most groundbreaking aspect of this book is the extensive use Greg and Paul make of recent anthropological discoveries concerning the reliability of oral traditions in non-literate cultures. They use this material to
argue that the oral traditions that preceded the writings of the Gospels would have resisted legendary accretions. Look for it this coming August. It will be followed several months later by another work titled Jesus: Lord or Legend? (Baker, 2007), also published by Greg and Paul. This book will in essence be a much shorter and less academic version of The Jesus Legend."

6. Dawkins main example which, he thinks, debunks the biblical story of Jesus, is the differing gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus. My next GD post will directly address Dawkins' argument about this.

God Delusion #22: Dawkins as Bible Scholar: Part 1

In The God Delusion PP. 92 ff. is a section Dawkins calls "The Argument From Scripture." Now before I comment on this, I think it will be interesting to reveal something Dawkins-supporters say in response to the justified criticisms Dawkins is receiving from this section.

Look at these responses defending Dawkins, in response to P.Z. Myers fable-ic attempt to "defend" Dawkins.

One person writes: "The overwhelming majority of churchgoers are grossly ignorant of theology and philosophy. They will find Dawkins' simplistic arguments compelling. The same audience would be put to sleep by the sophisticated arguments these whining myriad reviewers imagine. Dawkins wrote for the majority - not for the snobby reviewers. That is to say, Dawkins' use of simplistic arguments is strategically sound. This, I think, is why the philosophically or theologically sophisticated cringe."

NOTE: A number Dawkins' arguments are not "simplistic," they are just incorrect. They set up a straw man and knock it down. They do not actually engage with the arguments themselves. Dawkins displays no knowledge of the real, "sophisticated" arguments.

Another person writes: "Dawkins makes simple arguments that are difficult if not impossible to adequately answer. The 'understanding' of professionals in this case amounts to no more than the crude understanding of the target audience. There is no point in addressing all the 'professionals' points as they have no more substance than the crude versions."

NOTE: A number of Dawkins' arguments are not "difficult," they are just incorrect. They certainly are not "impossible to adequately answer." But note this "defense" of Dawkins: Dawkins refuses to address the scholarly arguments because they have no more substance than the crude versions. Two things can be said here:

1. Dawkins incorrectly states, e.g., the Ontological Argument.
2. His version is not a "crude" version, just an incorrect version. This would be like setting up a straw version of eveolutionary theory and then knocking it down.

And: "the point is that it's always possible for theologians (or sophists of any stripe) to construct a religion that can't be disproved and that has no empirical consequences. Dawkins doesn't directly address those religious constructs because they're not very interesting. One, they're sophistry. Two, hardly anyone believes in them. Dawkins is entirely upfront about what he's trying to do. He's addressing precisely the people who believe in a non-theological, personal, creator God, yet who haven't thought about their belief as much as a theologian or indeed a committed atheist has. He directs people who want a challenge to the theologian's God elsewhere. Now you can, like Orr, complain that that's not fair, but you'll be missing the point. There are hundreds of millions if not billions of people who fall into that category - far, far more than believe in a theologian's God - and those are the people at whom he is aiming his arguments."

NOTE: What has really happened is that Dawkins claims to address "those religious constructs" but misrepresents them. Thus he is addressing the wrong things. This is like claiming to be addressing the President but actually addressing the gardener.

If Dawkins is actually aiming his "arguments" at the "billions" of people who "haven't thought about their belief as much as a theologian," then shame on him, for he is deliberately offering them his straw men to persuade them to disbelieve in God.

In his section "The Argument from Scripture" Dawkins makes many mistakes that betray his ignorance of such things. It will do no good to defend Dawkins by saying that he's really not interested in theology anyway. Of course he isn't. But he raises the issue. His defenders should not fear should some biblical scholars choose to respond.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

God Delusion #21: P.Z. Myers' Tries to Save Dawkins By Telling a Fable

P.Z. Myers joins what is sure to be one of many atheistic attempts to defend Dawkins's God Delusion. On his blog Myers creates a fable he calls "The Courtier's Reply" which begins with the sentence "I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship." {12/24/06) Dawkins, says Myers, accuses the Emperor of wearing no clothes. But Dawkins, a good deal of the time, not only engages in no serious scholarship but this failure leads to conclusions that only follow from the straw men he has set up.

GD is, much of the time if not most of the time, a poorly written book. And all this from someone who champions human reason. Dawkins has no understanding, e.g., of the proofs of God he finds faulty. So... the Emperor has no clothes? This might be interesting if Dawkins could actually identify the Emperor in the first place. Such incoherence should lead scholarly atheists to beat a path away from Dawkins as one of their own.

Myers especially dislikes the H. Allen Orr essay. (See link in my previous post.) I think Orr's essay is well-written and, while Orr states his respect for Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, he writes, e.g., re. GD: "none of Dawkins's loud pronouncements on God follows from any experiment or piece of data. It's just Dawkins talking." Or, I cannot help but think as I read GD, it's just Dawkins cutting and pasting from the internet.

The various atheistic attempts to save Dawkins, their champion, will prove interesting. Myers decides to write a fable. Why not just admit that Dawkins has failed and let it go? There are serious atheistic responses that theists must take into account and the Dawkins failure takes nothing away from them, except to make a theist like myself tremble at the thought of Dawkins'-type atheists ruling the world.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

God Delusion #20: Scot McKnight on Dawkins

New Testament theologian Scot McKnight has been commenting on Dawkins's God Delusion. See here.

God Delusion #19: H. Allen Orr Finds Dawkins's GD Horrific

Evolutionary geneticist H. Allen Orr has written a devastating critique of Dawkins's God Delusion in the new issue of New York Review of Books. Read it for yourself. I'm going to read it again. It is so complete a negative review of Dawkins that I wonder why I should add more posts of my own. (I go into more depth re. Dawkins's embarrassing attempts to debunk philosophical arguments for God's existence.)

Here's just one quote - read the rest for yourself: "Part of Dawkins's difficulty is that his worldview is thoroughly Victorian. He is, as many have noted, a kind of latter-day T.H. Huxley. The problem is that these latter days have witnessed blood-curdling experiments in institutional atheism. Dawkins tends to wave away the resulting crimes."

Friday, December 22, 2006

God Delusion #18: All Psychologists Doubt Religious Experience?

[FYI: This is the 18th entry re. my reading of Richard Dawkins's book The God Delusion. See posts 1-17 below.]

Dawkins writes (p. 88): "Many people believe in God because they believe they have seen a vision of him... with their own eyes. Or he speaks to them inside their heads. This argument from personal experience is the one that is most convincing to those who claim to have had one. But it is the least convincing to anyone else, and anyone knowledgeable about psychology."

Here's some thoughts.

1) Dawkins is literally wrong when he says the argument from personal experience is not convincing to "anyone knowledgeable about psychology." I have friends who have Ph.Ds in psychology and psychiatry who believe they personally have had God speak to them. And, I have read a number of books written by psychologists and psychiatrists who believe they have heard God speak to them. One of them is Henri Nouwen, who worked at the Menninger Clinic and taught at Yale. Another is Gerald May. May's book Addiction and Grace is excellent. Now I could begin to list personal acquaintances and other psychologists who affirm religious experiences. Thus it is not true when Dawkins uses "anyone." He exaggerates. Why?

2) Personal experience will not be necessarily convincing to "anyone else." But of course it will possibly be convincing to one's own self. Dawkins writes: "You say you have experienced God directly? Well, some people have experienced a pink elephant, but that probably doesn't impress you." Correct. Precisely because one's own personal experiences tend mostly and sometimes only to impress oneself. That's the nature of personal experience. Likewise an atheist who claims to have no experience of God will perhaps themselves be impressed by this. I would not doubt an atheist's lack of experience of anything supernatural. But I would not be personally impressed by this. That is, someone else's experiences may not and I think need not "impress" me such that I would change my personal beliefs on the basis of their experiences or lack thereof.

3. Dawkins writes: "If you've had such an experience, you may well find yourself believing firmly that it was real. But don't expect the rest of us to take your word for it, especially if we have the slightest familiarity with the brain and its powerful workings." I don't expect anyone to "take the word" of someone who has had any experience. It's simply not true and an example of fundamentalist hyperbole to infer that anyone with the "slightest familiarity with the brain" will therefore not affirm the possibility of, e.g., hearing the voice of God. See again May's Addiciton and Grace, and his chapter on the brain and the biology of addiction. Then see his chapter on what he calls the grace of God as he writes of personal clinical cases where persons are freed from addiction.

4. Dawkins gives a few pages to describing what he calls "the formidable power of the brain's simulation software." But a description of what happens in the physical brain when someone claims to have had God speak to them is not logically antithetical to God actually speaking to them. OF COURSE something happens neurophysiologically. Dawkins thinks this somehow shows there is no God. But that's a metaphysical claim, and one cannot - as Hume and Kant showed - derive noumenal reality from the study of phenomenal reality. Minimally, difficult philosophical problems are raised re. phenomenal experience.

Further, if we reduce experiences to neurophysiology, then all experiences can be so reduced. Including those of Dawkins. Dawkins's outrage at religion then gets explained in terms of the odd firings happening in his brain. And one's lack of religious experiencing becomes simply a lack in one's personal simulation software.

5. Finally, for something more substantial on the issue of religious experience, begin with Syracuse University philosophy professor William P. Alston's work on the epistemology of religious experience. Read the work of Alston and then follow the rabbit trail into the real discussion re. the issues surrounding religious experience.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Corcoran on the Problem of the Soul

For a very interesting article on "the problem of the soul" see Calvin College philosophy professor Kevin Corcoran's "A New Way to Be Human" in Books and Culture.

Today there is a philosophical and scientific battle going on over the nature of humanity, or the nature of "persons." Atheists such as Steven Pinker, Owen Flanagan, and Daniel Dennett deny the existence of a "soul" and reduce all human behavior to neurophysiological determinism and/or indeterminism.

The philosophical legacy of Descartes divided the person into two metaphysically unrelated "substances," which he called res extensa (extended substance) and res cogitans (thinking substance). Thus, for Cartesians, the "soul" is ontologically unrelated to the physical body. The theological problem with Cartesian mind-body dualism is that it is non-Hebraic.

Corcoran proposes another "materialistic alternative to dualism."

Corcoran writes: "We are animals in the sense that we are wholly constituted by our bodies; every material part of me is a part of the biological body that constitutes me and I have no immaterial parts—just like the statue and the copper. We human beings are wholly physical creatures constituted by our bodies without being identical with them. To borrow words U2's Bono used for more poetic ends, "We are one, but we're not the same."

The materialist view of human persons I am proposing is compatible with every important Christian belief related to human nature, including beliefs about the afterlife and the claim that human beings have been created in the image of God. Indeed the Christian doctrines of creation and incarnation are actually more hospitable to a materialist view of human nature than they are to the more extreme versions of dualism.

For example, since dualism identifies us with immaterial souls capable of disembodied existence (or attributes to us such souls as parts), dualism is quite obviously compatible with belief in an afterlife. But for Christians it is important to recognize that the relevant Christian doctrine with respect to an afterlife is that of resurrection of the body. None of the ecumenical creeds of the Church confesses belief in a doctrine of soul survival. It is curious, then, that contemporary dualists seem to have forgotten this in a way that our Christian ancestors did not. While most, if not all, orthodox Christian theologians of the early church were anthropological dualists, they nevertheless struggled in systematic ways to make sense of the Christian doctrine of bodily resurrection."

The statement "we are wholly physical creatures constituted by our bodies without being identical with them" is, or course, the point. But this is just a statement, and must be argued for. I think it has greater biblical/theological consistency than does Cartesian dualism. Note: it's one thing, and a good thing, for Christian theologians to define personhood in relation to Christian scriptures. It's another thing to argue scientifically and philosophically for the nature of humans.

And, for me, when Pinker et. al. try to explain free will on their sheer materialism it is awkward and, to me, ultimately nonsensical. (See my thoughts on this in the archives.)

Finally, I am sure Corcoran, should he continue to develop his proposal, will be challenged by J.P.Moreland's substance and property dualism. For an excellent introduction to the "mind-body problem" see Moreland and Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, chapters 11 and 12.